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From Andromeda: Welcome back!

Putting on my watch cap - now that's a weird experience in August, but I noticed the temperature was 65 degrees and while any reasonable person would call that warm, most "reasonable" persons don't roll out of bed and head straight for the observatory at 2:45 am. But oh what a morning! Wish there was an icon for that most satisfying of Buddhist smiles - the one that comes unbidden to your face as the rapture of deep realization sets in ;-)

That's what I felt this morning and it's been a long time -maybe a year, maybe never- since I had such an experience - felt quite this way. The trigger was the Great Andromeda Galaxy and its roadshow groupies, M32 and M110. Never can I remember seeing them quite so well. Oh I had all the right tools! Luckily my Meade LX-90 had blown a gasket again and was awaiting repair. That means I was going the minimalists route in the Observatory - well, minimalists in dimensions, not in quality. I had mounted the new Orion 80mm Eon refractor there, a sleek piece of mechanics holding beautiful optics - and it rode on the head from the AstroTech Voyager, my favorite alt-az mount - smooth as butter (when the cliche fits, use it! ) - and with those large, easy-to-find-in-the-dark, slow motion knobs. For eyepices I was going from 22mm to 13mm to 7mm Naglers, with the real crown jewel, the 13mm Televue Ethos, as the dominant centerpiece.

What this gave me was an ideal set of tools to reach across a couple million lights years and pull in a few hundred billion stars. All I needed was the soul to grab and hold them and miracle of miracles, it was there! I kid you not. The tools are nothing, unless you also bring to the show a modicum of experience and skills, and huge helpings of spirit. What spirit? I don't know. The spirit I seek in my "Silence Under the Stars" sessions - the spirit I don't know how to teach because I don't know how to summon it myself. But i know it when it's there.

I know it grows - for me - out of meditative practices, with the emphasis on the word "practice. "It's not that viewing a distant galaxy requires meditation - meditation is about practicing - it's about exercising those parts of your brain so the paths are there, open, and easy to slide down when you need them - like when you're working in the yard on a blue-sky, friendly-cumulus-cloud day, and you look up to see a pair of ruby-throated humming birds, working the feathery blossom of the mimosa tree and you know there's no proper response but to drop your rake, fold your hands together before you, and bow silently with the deepest respect.

And that's how it was at Driftway Observatory this morning as I carefully set my tea on the small ladder I use to open the the shutter in the dome, arranged the observing chair to the right height, and took my place behind the Eon with the 22mm Nagler showing me a huge swatch of universe and there, despite my lack of dark adaption, was not simply the familiar blur of the Andromeda galaxy, but the tiny fuzziness of it's companion galaxy, M32 and the elusive puff of smoke that is yet another companion galaxy, M110 - and I could trace the ghostly spiral arms of M31 - the main show - out to the extremes provided by this gorgeous, wide-angle eyepiece and I was there . . .

Where? I don't know. Out at M31. On my chair. Looking into a crisp sky that barely eight hours before had held a gorgeous double rainbow Bren and I had admired from the upper deck. Astronomers would give the transparency of theis morning sky "5"- with my mind set of the moment it was off the scale. Can I show you these things if you've never seen them before? I hope so. But it's not only chance that favors the prepared mind - the universe demands it. You prepare and nothing happens. You prepar emore and nothing happens. you have faith and keep preparing - and one day - one night , you get taken by suprise . . . Oh I hadn't done any specific preparation this morning. I had gotten up, nuked a cup of Earl Grey tea in the microwave, found a light jacket -my flashlight and keys - and headed out for the observatory. See, as I rolled out of bed I could see blackness out the door to the deck - a good sign, and as I walked over there, there were the Pleiades, glistening like Tennyson's "swarm of fireflies," and north of them my old friend, Capella. That's what had beckoned me out.

Having no distractions in setting up helps. Close the observatory door behind you, turn on the red light, take the lens cover off the scope - climb the small ladder and open the shutter - maybe three minutes - maybe five, and I was observing. No computers. No video. No hassle - none, well, a bit of pain. Andromeda was high overhead and my shoulder, back, and right arm have been under attack lately from muscle strain, or arthritis, or maybe just being 67. . . anyway, it's rather painful to look straight up and try to sight along the scope, but that's a small price to pay for the results. I think I spent an hour with Andromeda. I don't know for sure - it flew by. I knew we were getting into astronomical twilight and before I lost such a dark sky, I took a quick look at M33 - easily visible in the finder and perhaps to the naked eye - as well as the double cluster in Perseus and, of course, the Pleiades.

I experimented a little. I determined that there wasn't much difference between the the 82-degree apparent field of the old 13mm Nagler and the 100-degree apparent field of the new Ethos - not much except one costs around $300 and the other about $600. Was I an idiot to pay $600 for an eyepiece that gives just a modicum of improvement? Of course not. It's an improvement and at my age I need every edge I can get. "Need" - no - I'm sorry. That's not the right word. I hedge my bets by using the best I can afford. I don't think any of this was necessary for the experience I sought and had - not the fancy eyepiece, nor the fancy telescope, nor the observatory. Those aren't the crucial ingredients. The crucial ingredients are in you - or in this case, me. You're pinging your synapses with light that's two million years old - or maybe three. Your're looking at a galaxy that fills your eyepiece and the light reaching one edge of that eyepiece took 150,000 more years to reach you than thel ight that fills the other edge. You need to knw these things - or I do. There's an element of linear thinking here that's important. But it's not the crucial part of the dynamic.

The crucial part emerges for me from the meditation. It's missing when I have been too busy. It' s missing when I'm starting my day by reading the latest salvos on 'the campaign," or turning over in my mind the weird "facts" in the case of the anthrax killer - or suspect - or whatever. In short, the monkey brain has to know stuff, but it has to know the right stuff - and then it has to be put on hold and it has to let the galaxy rush in and it can't be messing with the details of a computer control, or even the fine difference between the 13mm Nagler and the 13mm Ethos and isn't it amazing that you can see all this wth a telescope no longer than your arm, and a lens the size of the saucer under your tea cup?

No - the mechanics aren't important - the image and gestalt is - and that's what stays with you and if you're lucky you end up, as i have, with indelible images burned on your brain and spirit. I once knew the distance to Andromeda. I knew it on just such an early morning as this, half a lifetime ago, standing on a small hill, using another small telescope, and being scared out of my wits as some neighbor's dog howled - and me with my head a few million light years away!

This wasn't a repeat performance - life doesn't repeat itself. We have one-time experiences. But on a scale of 1-10, this was a 25 - a resounding "welcome back" from Andromeda. I don't know where I've been lately, but I know where I am and it's where I want to be.

Posted by Greg Stone at August 4, 2008 04:47 AM Comments? Please email me: gstone@umassd.edu

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