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Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

the night sky
Night sky, Panasonic Lumix LX100 F1.7, 1 sec, 1600 ASA
It was probably winter when my father first showed me the bear. I would have been about nine, confused already, dazed by the world and feeling secure only in his company. I remember a winter sky, cold and black, the stars iced-white and my breath fogging the eyepieces of the Russian 8×24’s that were his pride and joy – though cheap as chips back then, the poor old Soviets already selling their souls for dollars amid a collapsing economy.

Prior to that his night-sky explorations had been aided by a pair of British-army cast-offs, circa 1912. I still have them, the stout leather case still smelling like new, but they were only marginally better than the naked eye. I don’t know what happened to those Russian bins. I think they got dropped, the prisms dislodged to produce a disconcerting double vision, and then my father died, and the night-sky didn’t seem important any more, not for a long time.

“You see that star there,” he said. “That’s Mizar. It forms a double with another star called Alcor. Do you see them both?”

Yes, I could indeed see both in those days, but that was half a century ago, fresh eyes, fresh mind, fresh soul.

“The Arabs used to say if you can see both,” he said, “if you can separate them, you have the gift of perfect eyesight.”

Really? That cheered me. I don’t think he realised how much. In father-son relationships, the smallest things can mean the most.

Nowadays, even with spectacles, and the optician assuring me I’m 20-20 when I’m wearing them, I can’t separate Alcor and Mizar any more. Eyesight is more than perfect lenses. It has to do with the mind as much as matter, and there’s something about that old Blakean thing about seeing through, not with the eye as well. But I do remember their names: Alcor and Mizar.

Now I’m sitting out in the back garden of my home in the rural north west of England, on a crazily warm, late September night. It must be twenty degrees still, and the sky is a soft midnight-blue, the air infinitely more inviting than those freezing stargazing nights with my father, back in the sixties. I am resting on a bench in shirt-sleeves, after a long day in the sun, and as the stars come out, I am thinking about him.

There’s a bright star directly overhead. I wonder what it is, point my phone at it and, via the Star Walk app, I learn it is Vega. Just like that! Marvellous isn’t it? I’ve heard of Vega, but try as I might it does not fit into the patterns I have fixed in my mind, patterns like the Bear and Cassiopea, and the Square of Pegasus and from Pegasus that simple route-map to Andromeda which still astonishes – that softly defined spiral that grows as the eye adjusts to darkness until it seems to fill half the sky and you wonder how on earth did I miss that: another whole galaxy, so many stars it blows the mind, and surely also so many lives,… out there.

No, try as I might I cannot separate Alcor from Mizar any more, except through binoculars – not those 1912 vintage things, though I suppose they would do, but a pair of Chinese 10×42’s off Ebay, product of another era, another quirk of the global economy. Such a long time since the British made binoculars. Such a long time since we actually made anything.

The Rider, that’s what he called Alcor,… the Rider. One star riding upon another, as a man rides upon a horse,…

My father was an autodidact, self taught to a prodigious degree and in many disciplines, a collector of disparate technical knowledge, everything from electronics to geology to archaeology and ancient astronomy. His energy and enthusiasm had carried him from the coal face of the NCB to colliery deputy, about as far as a working man could aspire in those days, and much further than it would carry him now. But more than that, it always impressed me that other boy’s fathers did not know the names of stars, indeed barely ever glanced upwards on a clear night and wondered. But when my father saw the stars, he did not see them as an astronomer, aching to have the next comet named after him, but more as an early human might at the dawn of our most fundamental awakening, and simply wondering at his place in the world.

Betelgeuse – that’s the reddish star in the shoulder of Orion. Orion isn’t up tonight – he’s a winter constellation in western Europe, frosty nights and all that, and the deeper into winter you go he’s trailing the bright sparkly dog-star, Sirius – more names my father gave me, names with vivid pictures; the magic of myth. How neatly, how perfectly it all fits the contours of the mind. I still look for those names in the night sky, gain my bearings from them, my place in time.

Vega, was it? That star up there. So the app said, but it comes without a story, slips free from memory. I could look for it tomorrow but I’ve already forgotten its place in the sky. Technology advances, grants such a narrow window on the marvellous, but without the human element, the imagination, the story, these are dead things.

My garden is a wonderful place at night, spacious, lush green lawn, and unlike the place where I grew up, not overlooked, no neighbours wondering what the hell we were up to, lurking about in the dark with binoculars. He would have loved it here, my father. He would have built a shed in it with an articulating roof to house a reflecting telescope. I smile when I imagine it. In its place I have a cabin where I sometimes write and explore the stars another way. But not tonight. Tonight I have lanterns hung out on hooks to stretch out this last gasp of summer, an Indian summer’s night, and since I am otherwise alone, I have the company of my father.

We’re not far from the equinox, he reminds me. That’s where the ecliptic plane intersects the horizon due east and west, spring and autumn, the line on which the Sun and the Moon and now the planets are strung out one by one and sink west, into tomorrow. Due west for me is an old oak tree, across the meadow that backs onto the garden. It was probably just a sapling when Newton was a lad. So much learning since then. It was his laws of motions that navigated men to the moon, and by that time the tree was old. I don’t know what it means, if anything.

There’s a star or something, just about to dip behind the tree.

“Neptune,” says my father.

Well, I don’t know. It might be. It’s a planet, that’s all I can say for sure, and I know that because he taught me you can resolve planets to a disk through binoculars, while stars are so far away – at least they were back in the sixties – that you could only make twinkly points of light of them even through the most powerful optics known to man.

I point my phone at it. “Yea, Neptune.”

“That’s amazing,” he says.

“Not really,” I tell him. “You used to explain it a lot better, tell it as a story, then it actually meant something.”

Tonight I’m no longer much, much older than he was when he told me these things. I’m not a man with a house and grown children, and forty years of work behind me, years of my life he never knew about. I’m just a kid, staring up at the night sky as it deepens and the stars twinkle softly, and I am looking at the Bear once more, with my father.

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