Our Connection with the Universe

I read something recently that really made me think. If you lived on the sunshine side of a tidal locked planet (one in which one side of its sphere always faces the body it orbits around), over the generations you might completely lose sight of the fact that there’s a universe out there, because you’d never see the stars.

How tragic that would be. For centuries, Man has been looking skyward and wondering what is out there. We imagine constellations of stars as being part of a group even though they are nowhere near each other. We give them names. We wonder if we are alone.

Personally, I find it extremely comforting that there’s something so much larger than myself that it practically renders me insignificant. It makes me feel that any concerns I may be having are insignificant, too.

There is so much beauty in the night sky. It calms me. It embraces me. I’d hate to lose that sense of awe.

Our moon is tidally locked to us, which is why we always see the same face. But we are not tidally locked to it, nor is it tidally locked to the sun, which is why we see different phases of it as it continues to face us. If you lived on the far side of the moon, you wouldn’t know earth existed. That’s a profound view of reality, because the earth is comparatively huge, and would be rather hard to ignore in other circumstances.

Tidal locking would mean you’d only get to see one version of reality. And over time that reality would be reinforced to such a degree that it would be hard to leave room for any other beliefs. (In fact, one’s very concept of the passage of time would probably be so different that it might render one incapable of imagination.)

It just goes to show that your reality has a great deal to do with where you are looking. That’s why I love to travel so much. I think it’s important to experience other points of view. And by that I don’t just mean the opinions of others. I mean the points from which I get to view the world and the heavens.

I hope you take time to look about you, dear reader. There are many things to see. And those sights will enhance your connection to the universe.

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Spotting the International Space Station

You will often see me looking skyward. I’m fascinated by all things just out of reach. (That’s also why I love to travel.)

“The moon is a stone and the sky is full of deadly hardware, but oh God, how beautiful anyway.” -Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

In my opinion, there are very few things that are as beautiful as the night sky. That notion has become all the more precious to me now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, where that sky is often obscured by clouds. I will never take the heavens for granted again. When they’re visible, I want to be out there, looking at them.

It amazes me that so few of us have seen the third brightest object in our sky. (The sun and the moon being, of course, the first and second.) But the International Space Station moves pretty darned fast, orbiting the earth several times a day. (Explain that, you flat earthers!)

My husband saw it once just after sunset. He says it was high enough that the sun was still hitting it, even though it was dark out. (It’s 248 miles up, after all.) And then, as it headed toward the horizon and got in the earth’s shadow, it blinked out, as if someone had turned out a light. Now, how cool is that?

I must confess that I have yet to see it myself. But I keep trying. And now I have hope. Now you can head on over to the NASA website and sign up for e-mail notifications when the space station will be visible in your location. (Sadly, they don’t account for clouds.)

It is kind of exciting, getting that e-mail, setting my alarm and then rushing out to look up in hope and anticipation. That, and the idea that little ol’ me with my horrible eyesight might be able to see something that is 248 miles away from me… what a concept.

If you haven’t seen the space station yet, I encourage you to give it a try. I guarantee you it will remind you that humans can do amazing things when we set our minds to it, and actually cooperate. That’s a wonderful mindset to have in this era of division and anxiety.

International Space Station Star Trails
“My star trail images are made by taking a time exposure of about 10 to 15 minutes. However, with modern digital cameras, 30 seconds is about the longest exposure possible, due to electronic detector noise effectively snowing out the image. To achieve the longer exposures I do what many amateur astronomers do. I take multiple 30-second exposures, then ‘stack’ them using imaging software, thus producing the longer exposure.” -NASA/Don Pettit

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The Sky is Falling

I’ve been feeling a bit claustrophobic of late. Due to all the wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, I went about a week without seeing the sky. The sun and the moon both looked blood red from the pollution, and the smoke seemed to be pressing down upon us. I lost my mountain views at work, and in the little valley where I live, it seemed like a grey pot lid was sitting on the hills, closing us off from the rest of the universe.

Every day I’d come out to find my car coated in a blanket of ash. And at work, when I’d do my sweaty maintenance and then walk through these cinder showers, I’d wind up looking like a coal miner. Nothing quite like being coated with gunk to make your work day feel like it’s going that much slower.

I hate it when my horizons shrink. It’s bad enough that winter is approaching, which here in the Seattle area means cloudy skies for months on end. (Time to break out my SAD light in order to avoid a deep, dark depression.) I’m starting to look at it as the price I have to pay for amazing springs and summers.

But as global warming advances, I suspect I can look forward to a lot more smoky skies in the summer, and either killing droughts or torrential downpours. I’m not sure if I can adapt to this new world. I worry for my grandnephews, who will have no memory of how things used to be. I worry for my friends in Florida, who will be chewed up and spit out by one hurricane after another until the whole state disappears.

This does not feel like the planet I was born on. And we’ve brought it on ourselves. Something has got to give.

Moon
The moon feels like it’s getting closer every day.

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Things Get Cloudier

The following sentence makes me feel really old: Things were a whole lot simpler when I was a child. I remember running home to proudly tell my mother that I now knew the names of all the clouds. Cirrus. Cumulus. Stratus. Nimbus. And the various combinations thereof, such as cumulostratus and cirronimbus.  I took a great deal of comfort from the fact that now I’d be able to look skyward and always have a name for what I saw.

Those days are gone. According to this article on the Nat Geo site, for the first time in 30 years, the International Cloud Atlas has named 11 new cloud types. Eleven. That’s a lot. I wonder if I’ve seen them all. Among this pantheon are cool names such as asperitas, fluctus and cavum.

The article goes on to say that these new designations came about mainly because so many of us have cell phone cameras these days, and odd cloud photos kept popping up that did not fit neatly into the 4 cloud system of yore. That’s the cool thing about science. The more you observe, the more you have to describe, and the more you learn.

And I have no doubt that I could add these 11 new cloud types to my knowledge base if I took the time. But will I? Probably not. I already feel pretty overwhelmed as a general rule.

That leaves me with very mixed emotions about this new development. I really liked it when the sky made sense to me. Oh, it’s still wondrous and beautiful, but now it’s… dare I say it? Over my head.

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Fluctus clouds. Nope. I definitely haven’t seen these yet.

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Maybe If…

So I decided to go camping in British Columbia during the Perseids meteor showers. I love astronomical events of all kinds, but the Persaids is one of my favorites. And it was supposed to be particularly spectacular this time around.

I had been planning this trip for nearly a year. I had no idea that half the province would be on fire. Fortunately, the worst of it was far from our campsites, but the smoke… that was everywhere. I could tell we were driving through some spectacular views… but it was like I was looking at them through a shower curtain covered with lime deposits. Oh well. My imagination is nothing if not fertile.

Needless to say, though, this was cause for concern in terms of meteor viewing. Would we even be able to see the stars? I was having a hard time hiding my dismay from my camping buddy. He seemed unconcerned. When I asked him about it, he said, “You don’t have to experience everything, you know.”

Wow. I love it when a new perspective leaves me speechless. I sat there for a long time, thinking about that. I wish someone had said this to me years ago. Because it occurs to me that I spend quite a bit of energy trying to soak up experiences like a sponge. When I travel, especially, I try to do everything there is to do, because I might not pass this way again. Maybe if I push through this bit of exhaustion I can squeeze in one more thing. Maybe if I keep looking up, I’ll see those meteors. Must. Look. Up. This hypervigilance means that I have very few regrets, but it also means I experience more than my fair share of stress.

Martin has a point. What happens if I miss the meteor showers? Will I die? No. Still, I did spend quite a lot of time staring skyward that night and the two nights to follow. Turns out I could see the stars after all. And I think, but am not sure, that I saw some shooting stars out of the corner of my eye. I wasn’t sure enough to wake Martin up, though. So he slept on, peacefully, while I monitored the heavens for some spectacular sign.

And that pretty much says it all.

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Five Planets at Once

Between now and February 20th, about 80 minutes before dawn, you should be able to see Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in the sky with your naked eye. That is, of course, unless you live in the Pacific Northwest like I do. Then you’re lucky to even see the sky at this time of the year. To read about the best way to view this phenomenon, check out the EarthSky website.

Whenever any kind of stellar (or in this case, planetary) event occurs, I get butterflies in my stomach. It’s not that I think it’s going to bring about the apocalypse, or that there’s some need to sacrifice a virgin. It’s just that when things happen on such a grand scale, I get to realize how small I am in the overall scheme of things. Oddly enough, I find this comforting.

It’s nice to know that there’s really no need to get worked up about stuff. The planets are going to do their thing whether or not I get the dishes washed. Nothing I do or don’t do will impact their orbits one bit. It’s really quite liberating to know that.

There’s no perspective quite like the universal perspective.

Happy stargazing!

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Darkness Revealed

When I drive to work at night it’s a completely different experience than when I work a day shift. Even the nuclear power plant, normally a blight upon the landscape, looks beautiful. It is all lit up and floating in a sea of blackness like a nighttime cruise heading for the Bahamas.

The traffic flow is different as well. There’s less of it, and although it seems like a more lawless group of drivers, and definitely a more alcohol-soaked one, it feels safer. This is a dangerous illusion that requires one to be on the alert.

Criminals rule the night, or at least that is what Hollywood would have us believe. So there’s also this underlying sense of excitement and danger. Most people who are out at night are there either because they have no choice or they like the thrill and the atmosphere or they don’t have the sense to be vigilant. Or they are predators who are up to no good. And since these people can’t be told apart, you have to assume the worst.

What I like about the dark hours is the sense of isolation. Even though there are still the same number of humans on the planet, somehow at night you can often feel as if you have it all to yourself. What a luxury. I look up at the sky and revel in the quiet and imagine that all those stars are a part of me. We are star stuff, after all. I seem to breathe easier at night. I feel embraced by it. I’m where I’m supposed to be.

It takes a certain amount of faith to feel safe at night. You are, after all, being deprived of one of your senses. Anything could be in the darkness. Anything at all. You can’t really be sure. There’s so much out there that you can’t see. Everything is hidden from you, and there’s quite a lot of it.

Indeed, that feeling of abundance can overtake our senses. At night we become more. More romantic, more fearful, more uninhibited, more exuberant, or more lonely and depressed. People hate to be alone on a Friday night. You never hear them complain about being alone on a Friday afternoon.

The nighttime feels like an grand entity that the daytime can never even hope to become. It takes a special effort to overcome that prehistoric desire to hide, to hibernate, to wait out the darkness. But if you make the effort, you often reap rare and sensual rewards.

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