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Awe, awareness, and astronomy – or why I look at the night sky

I am inspired by what Einstein said many years ago:

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Sadly, many of the people I meet appear dead – they go busily about their lives with their eyes closed and they will go to their graves having never lived. They either have no idea of what Einstein was talking about, or they think they do when really all they have is a superficial concept of what it means to “stand rapt in awe.” Similarly, someone who has driven deeper into these mysteries may view my concept as trivial. And I won’t argue with either person, for here is where words frequently fail us. All I’m sure I can do is keep seeking experiential knowledge of the sort to which Einstein referred. Enter the night sky.

The night sky is not the only path to such knowledge. It’s just one of the easiest and happens to be my path of choice. I say "easy" because the objects are so stunning it's hard not to be awed - and yet this very ease presents a special challenge that fascinates me. It's just so easy to be awed at first, and then slip into an emotional tupor where you kid yourself about what you "know." Besides, as a friend remarked recently, this activity allows me to turn the “lemons” of my persistent insomnia into “lemonade.” ;-)

I have been involved in amateur astronomy on and off since I was a teenager. A couple of years ago I started an "off" period, vowing that I wouldn't study the stars again until I understood a candle flame. I won't say I now understand a candle flame, but I feel I've made enough progress in that direction to resume my love affair with the night sky.

My goal is simple: to experience the mysterious – to become aware of our universe.

Awareness is another way of expressing what I think Einstein meant. If you're familiar with Zen and meditation - or Tony DeMello's book entitled “Awareness” - you will know that "awareness" is another one of those concepts that runs very deep - and highlights the real difficulty in communicating what we experience. Let me apply this to astronomy.

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I can say I am "aware" of the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy, for example, and so might you. We both might agree that the exact figure is still debated by the professional astronomers, but it's something in the order of 2.9 million light years. But this is where our "awareness" starts to get fuzzy. What's a light year?

Again, we may know the math. We may know that it is the distance that light travels in a year. We may be aware that light travels very fast - 186,200 miles in a second. (That would take it around the earth more than seven times.) The problem is, we are just manipulating symbols. Symbol manipulation – math and language - is a very useful activity, but in terms of true awareness it can be a smoke screen. Why? Because when we manipulate most symbols we have an experiential grasp of that which they symbolize. If we say “chair” or “dog” or 10 times 10 equals 100, we have an intuitive – experiential – understanding of what lies behind the symbols because we have experienced chair, dog, 10, and 100.

But we have no intuitive – no gut level - grasp of a speed such as 186,200 miles a second. Most of us have not moved faster than 500 miles an hour (about 700 feet in a second) and that in a passenger jet where we are quite isolated from the sensation of speed. So we have no experience to which we can relate this incredible speed – and there is just too large a gap between our actual experience and the speed to which we refer for us to merely project from our experience. Similarly, we have no experience that allows us to imagine the incredible distance represented by a single light year. We do have an intuitive grasp of a mile. We probably have an intuitive grasp of 3,000 miles because there's a good chance we've traveled that distance more than once. But in a year light travels 5.9 million million miles, and that, I suggest, is way beyond our gut understanding. Certainly way beyond mine.

I can get a handle on one million. I know that if I could count one grain of sand every second and if I keep counting grains of sands every second of every minute of every hour of the day and I do this for about 11 days, I'll have counted to a million - of course I'll probably be dead from some combination of thirst, starvation and exhaustion before then, but . . . it is imaginable. That is, it’s an abstract idea that is still close enough to actual experience to get some grasp of it. However, one million is a long way from 5.9 million million – or 5.9 trillion, which is a light year. (A billion grains of sand I can at least think about without my brain exploding – where a million took me 11 days to count, a billion would take about 32 years. But a trillion? I guess that would take 32,000 years to count, assuming you live in the US where it defined differently than in England – whatever, it's another meaningless number. ) And then we talk blithely about millions of light years! We let ideas, such as the Andromeda Galaxy being 2.9 million light years away, just roll off our tongues as if we really knew what we were saying. But to me, in terms of any real grasp of what we are saying, it borders on the silly. Oh, I know it’s useful, and I know in what way it is useful – but I also know it helps build a huge gap between us and reality.

I can play other number games, and I love to do so. I love similes and models and I think they help. Bren and I, for example, have built a garden we call the “solar system garden” because it models the solar system on two scales. One scale models the relative size of the major objects – the sun and planets. The other models the distances between them. We had to use two scales because if you used the distance scale and applied it not simply to the space between objects, but the size of the objects themselves, the earth would be far too small to see. And if we used the scale we used for the diameters of the planets and applied it to the distances between them, then we wouldn’t even have room for both the sun and Earth in our yard! In fact,we would need to place our croquet ball “Earth” about nearly 3,000 feet away and the marble that is Pluto would be nearly 22 miles from our 27-foot diameter sun! Hardly manageable in our half-acre ;-) Our nearest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.3 light years away. On this scale that would come out to about 150,920 miles - that is, more than half way to the moon!

But remember, we started by talking about the Andromeda Galaxy which in the real world – not our minature model - is 2.9 million light years away. So the bottom line is my "awareness" of the real distance to the Andromeda Galaxy is quite superficial. It's all at the symbol manipulation level, but the symbols have no intuitive meaning. They are pure abstracts.

Because of this I never expect to be aware of the objects in the night sky at the same level of awareness I may have of a candle flame, or a pebble, or even a bird. But I want to move in that direction and to do so I intend to use three tools:

1. Books and the Web. Before I look at something I want a reasonable grasp of what science says I am looking at. So my first task is pretty easy - study what has been written about an object and study the pictures taken of it through large telescopes.

2. Observe the object - a star, a galaxy, a planet - whatever. Use a progression that moves from naked eye to binoculars, to telescopes of varying size and power to do this. Such a progression helps build a sense of context. You see how the object relates to other objects in the same field of view before focusing on it alone.

3. Combine my observation with meditation. That's the tricky part, but I've had some success with it. The reasoning here is simple. The goal of meditation, as I practice it, is to heighten awareness. (Sadly, some folks seem to think you meditate to put yourself to sleep - or move into a sort of hypnotic state. Not so. I meditate to become more aware, more alert, more awake.) So some of my time at the telescope is spent with my eyes closed. And some of my observation is done (with my eyes open, of course) in a state of heightened awareness.

Now here's the rub. All that symbol manipulation - that study of scientific knowledge prior to observing, and especially the study of photographic images - can prejudice your mind to see what you expect to see. So in some subtle way I'd like this information to slip into the background when I am at the telescope and not come rushing in and dominate the experience.

It is at this stage things get fuzzy, I admit - nearly mystical. For what fascinates me most about observing these objects with my naked eye or telescope, is that there is a genuine physical connection between the object and me. The light - the energy - from an object travels incredible distances over unimaginable lengths of time and eventually ends up interacting with nerves and chemicals in my body and pinging my brain. This physical interaction; this actual involvement with what - particles? photons? pure energy? - from a distant object with my body should bring something extra to the equation, though I'm not sure what.

It really shouldn't be all that mysterious. It is simply experience. Is there anyone out there who really thinks that looking at a picture is the same as seeing the real thing? Is there anyone who believes that hitting a baseball is the same as reading about hitting a baseball? Or making love? Or seeing your child do something well? Abstract descriptions have their place and are useful - but it seems to me experience always trumps second-hand information, no matter how good the information.

The problem is, the experience, in terms of viewing an astronomical object, is subtle and scant. That is, few of us really dwell on the fact that energy, released through a nuclear reaction inside a star millions of years ago, is actually interacting with our brain. That’s rather subtle, but that's what seeing a star is all about. And when I say "scant" - well, there just isn't a whole heck of a lot of information in the typical view we get of the stars and other astronomical objects. Astronomical objects seldom look like their pictures. In fact, having been deluged with stunning photographs, our view through a telescope can be quite disappointing, even though it is the real thing.

And this is where all that abstract scientific knowledge enters. I feel I need to meld my abstract knowledge with my real experience to get a more complete awareness - a deeper awareness - of what I am seeing. And the tool for accomplishing this meld is meditation.

So that's it – I want to be rapt in awe. I am seeking a greater awareness of the reality of the universe we inhabit through study, observation, and meditation. This blog is a record of that goal – dealing with everything from simplistic mechanics of observation and the tools ( or toys) we use, to those moments when awe seems to come home, and I find some words, no matter how inadequate, to express the experience.

Am I always in this rapt with awe mode? Hardly. If you ask me why I look at the stars, I might simply answer: because they are there. And yes, I am fascinated with the technology – the toys we have built to help us see better and more. And the vast menagerie of different celestial objects intrigues me. And yes, I like the solitude - and I like being a creature of the night, someone who is comfortable in the dark which really isn’t all that dark. I like watching Orion rise in the fall, or greeting Cygnus in the summer. The rhythms of the night sky are as familiar to me as the other rhythms of the year - as pastel buds in the spring and colored leaves in the fall – as daffodils and the arrival of the first hummingbird, or the departure of the broadwing hawks and Monarch butterflies on their long journeys south.

And finally, I like sharing what I know – showing visitors to Driftway Observatory the stars and planets and globular clusters and galaxies and nebulae and seeing and hearing their reactions.

As for this blog and anyone who reads it, be certain that at all times your thoughts, reactions, and related experiences are welcome. Please don’t hesitate to send me email and share – gstone@umassd,edu,

Oh - and that first awesome photograph? That's today's Astronomy Picture of the Day (May 7, 2005.) What is special here is the way the dark dust lanes in one galaxy are brought out because that galaxy overlaps - from our perspective - another spiral galaxy. If it wasn't for this, the dark dust lanes would not be nearly so prominent. The designation for this object is NGC 3314 and the photos were taken through Hubble, of course. Here it is again. Of course, knowing all this do you really KNOW what your are seeing? We are looking at several hundred thousand million stars, some of which might include solar systems like our own and harbor some form of intelligent life, perhaps far more advanced than our own. But having said that, can you really imagine the possibilities? the probabilities? the reality?

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Posted by Greg Stone at May 7, 2005 05:10 AM Comments? Please email me: gstone@umassd.edu

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