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Randi Kreiss

Searching the heavens for common ground

Posted

I just booked a reservation to see the next full solar eclipse. Call me an optimist; I expect to be there. Save the date: April 8, 2024. You can see it in all its glorious totality from Mazatlán, Mexico, along a narrow diagonal path that enters the United States near San Antonio and moves across the country to Maine and Canada.

I am embarrassed to say I missed the last big eclipse, in 2017, because I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to go to Nashville with me, where the viewing was expected to be superb. I mean, how shortsighted was that? I am in awe of astronomical phenomena, and that was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I didn’t go, even though I had a hotel booked. Failure of what? Energy? Determination? I did see a sliver of the eclipse from my home in Woodmere, along with my mail carrier, who was stopped in his tracks, looking skyward through a sun filter. Very meh experience, eclipse-wise.

The world has turned since then. When the pandemic began and we were all shut down and shut inside for long periods of time, I started looking upward and outward for comfort and inspiration. I set up my Celestron telescope and learned how to use it properly. One dark night, I saw the surface of the full moon, with craters and geographical features I hadn’t seen before. Last Dec. 21, I saw the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn and could distinguish the rings of Jupiter in the telescope.

As the pandemic wore on and wore me down, I found a real freedom in the night sky, observing the constellations we all know. I watched the International Space Station fly by. I downloaded the NASA website so I could try to spot other space objects floating around overhead. One app visualized my own night sky at any given moment, based on my location as communicated through my phone.

This may sound elementary to those well schooled in astronomy, but across the span of my educational experience, astronomy remains a black hole. I have a passion and interest to learn what I can, but I feel frustrated by how difficult the discipline is. I’m a word person, and astronomy is all about math and physics and chemistry. Still, I’m determined to learn what is within my reach. Speaking of black holes, I’ve read the simplest descriptions of the phenomenon over and over, and yet I don’t get it, or the concept of an expanding universe, or gravitational waves, or dying stars.

So I let that go. I absorb what I can. I look at the night sky and know for certain that we are an infinitesimally small piece of the universe, and that other worlds and other beings are possible. I know that our daily gripes and strife and political conflicts are nothing in the cosmos. Whatever our thinking, our alliances and our behaviors, we have in common this minuscule life raft called Earth, and we don’t have it for long. Contemplating the galaxies that stretch for millions of light years in all directions makes me think we can do better with this transitory gift of life.

End of lecture. I am comforted by gazing upward, and I wish the same for you.

As part of my galactic journey, I just read “The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers,” by astronomer Emily Levesque. It was much more fun than Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” which was pretty much a black hole to me, not that I can visualize “a region of spacetime where gravity is so strong that nothing — [not even] light, can escape from it.” (Wikipedia)

Levesque has traveled to every far-flung spot on earth to book “observation time” on the most advanced telescopes in the world, which are always perched on remote, dark-sky mountaintops. She shares her adventures at the observatories in Chile, where the lively tarantulas almost took the fun out of the moment. She talks about the freezing cold at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, and the time a colleague thought he had discovered a new planet that turned out to be energy coming from a nearby microwave where someone was heating soup. She evokes the gorgeousness of the heavens and the privilege of being among those who roam the stars.

Read the book. It’s a great escape into a world most of us don’t know.

Then think about the Great Eclipse of April 2024. Save the date. 

Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.