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Silence under the Stars: Connecting with the Universe

"Silence under the Stars:Connecting with the Universe" is a new program of free, public observing at Driftway Observatory introduces two changes in the way we approach the universe. First, we will start each observing period with a period of silent meditation. Second, as we observe and learn about objects, we will strive to understand how these objects we observe relate to our past, present, and future.

  • Who is this for? Anyone wishing to learn more about the night sky. (An adult must accompany each child.)
  • What will we do? Observe the stars and other objects in the night sky using our eyes, binoculars, and the various telescopes at Driftway Observatory, including the 15-inch Obsession. Typical session will last from one-to-two hours.
  • Where will this be? Driftway Observatory is a private, backyard observatory, located at 41:33:16 N, 71:04:15 W, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy, Virgo Super Cluster, this Universe (On some occasions we will observe from Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary – which except for slightly different coordinates, has the same address.)
  • When: On most clear nights beginning as soon after sunset as practical – usually about one hour.
  • How do we learn of these sessions: Observing is dependent on weather and email notifications go out about 12 hours in advance of a session. So your first step is to join our email notification list by sending email to gstone@umassd.edu requesting to be put on the “Silence under the Stars” notification list. When invited by email to an observing session that night, reply ASAP indicating your intention to attend. Attendance will be limited to a first-come, first-served basis. Specific directions will follow by email.
  • How often can I join these sessions? – As frequently as you like. There is an inexhaustible supply of universe to discover ;-)

I call these programs “silence under the stars” because each program will begin with all participants sitting under the stars in meditative silence for 10 minutes. What follows will include observing where the subject matter will be driven simply by what’s available on that particular night and at that particular time. This will be something more than a guided tour, however, for the universe isn't something simply "out there." It is something intimately related to the formation of life on earth and we will examine these objects with those connections in mind. While this will be something less than a systematic observing class, if participants strive to make one program each month, at the end of a year they should be well-versed in the night sky. The observing at the telescopes will not be silent. But, a portion of the Observing Green will be set aside as a silent sanctuary - an area where participants can retreat to if they would like to resume the silent, meditative approach.

During each program we will observe a variety of astronomical objects, near and far. But what is critical is the frame of mind in which we approach these observing opportunities. That’s the reason for beginning in meditative silence. That's the reason for exploring the connection of these objects to us.

The silence begins by everyone taking a seat on the Observing Green. Our objective is simple: Quiet our “monkey brain” – which means for each of us to pause and let all the normal cares of the day from political to personal – seep away, and focus on the cosmos – the universe above and around us.

If this feels a little bit like going to church, so be it. But my aim is not to promote any particular religious ideas. It's merely for us to be focused so we can see the story that nature tells. I take my cue from one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, Albert Einstein, who said so eloquently: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed."

I want to be alive, with eyes wide open, when I go to the telescope – and I want live people with eyes wide open sharing the telescopes with me, and that means we all must be able to “pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe.” That is what this opening 10 minutes of silence is about. It is a time to tune ourselves - to prepare ourselves to experience the mysterious. And while on one level what we will experience – the planets, the stars, nebulae and galaxies – is no longer mysterious, on a much deeper level it remains well beyond our common reach. Yet, here we are, connecting directly with it. Look at the tiniest speck of light in the sky – the dimmest of stars – and you are directly experiencing forces that defy our wildest imagination – incredible nuclear explosions, contained by the gentle, yet all pervasive force of gravity. And those forces are essential to our very existence.

You also are stepping back in time, looking not merely at dots of lights, but at a distant timescape where each dot represents a different point in history, for those very real photons – that energy from those continuous nuclear explosions – has been traveling our way for years, sometimes centuries – and some of the things we can see, even with simple backyard telescopes, sent their light on its journey to us at a time when dinosaurs walked on the very spot where we now sit.

We cannot begin to understand all that, except in the most superficial way. But we can talk about it, we can observe it, and we can experience it. It is this last – the actual, real-time experience – that these observing programs at Driftway Observatory are all about. This is why I do them, this is why I invite you to participate, and this is why I ask that we all do our best to approach them in silence and in awe – awe for the universe itself where all of us can connect. We all are made of star dust – the stars above us, still reaching out to us with their photons, are also our heritage. In these skies, in stars such as these, every atom that fills our body and makes us so special, so different from anything else we know in the universe - was forged.

Like gravity, the weakest of the four fundamental forces of nature, as individuals we are very weak. But like gravity, in our collective wisdom spread over time, we may well be one of the most significant forces in the universe, for we are the universe becoming aware of itself – we are the conscious universe.

So please – when you come here at night – make a special effort to reconnect with your most distant ancestors, your birthright, and your future – the stars. And please, begin that effort in meditative silence, bringing your mind and entire being to a sharper focus.

While I have half a century experience of looking at the stars and so can serve as a sort of guide and coach, I am not an astronomer. Vincent van Gogh summed up my feelings when he said:

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream."

Greg Stone
Driftway Observatory
Julian Day: 2454650.58358

Posted by Greg Stone at April 10, 2008 08:41 AM Comments? Please email me: gstone@umassd.edu

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