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Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘astronomy’

Astronomy

The art of not seeing very much (as yet)

The other day I mentioned The Children have just turned seven. As The Child Who Likes Animals has spent quite a lot of time in recent months liking space instead, watching Brian Cox’s The Planets innumerable times, memorising lists of dwarf planets, Kuiper Belt objects, centaurs and so on, and learning the difference between a red dwarf, a white dwarf and a brown dwarf. We decided, therefore, that it might be a nice idea for The Mother to get him a telescope, as a suitably grandmothery sort of present. Not trusting The Mother to judge what might be suitable, I reached out to a few astronomers I know for recommendations, and found something that both fell into The Mother’s budget and had a reasonable chance of imaging the rings of Saturn. The number of times I’ve looked down a telescope myself before can be counted on the fingers of one hand; but if I was age seven, was given a telescope, and found that it couldn’t show the rings of Saturn I’d be terribly disappointed.

Of course, I messed up to a certain extent. I’m sure I achieved my objectives, but there’s no way really that The Child Who Likes Animals would be able to actually point the telescope at something himself. So, this is going to be the sort of present that I set up in the garden on dark nights; find out what he wants to point it at; try to point it; and then he looks down the eyepiece. Naturally, it becomes a family event, with The Child Who Likes Fairies also wanting to get involved.

As I said, I’ve hardly ever been near a telescope before, despite having books and books on astronomy when I was that age myself. So, on the few nights we’ve had so far when the cloud has at least been broken rather than blanketing, it has gone something like this: I set up the telescope outside. A child asks to point it at something, in a brief pause for breath whilst running around with crazed excitement. If it is an easy thing—the moon, say—I contort myself to the right angle to try to see through the finder, point the telescope and roughly nudge it about until we can see what we’re looking for, all the time with said thing bouncing up and down in the eyepiece as children bounce up and down on the decking. A child then steps up, instinctively grabs the telescope and knocks it out of alignment, and we go back to square one.

Eventually everyone has seen what we’re looking at, and one of them will name something else. I try to work out how to find it, with my laptop and a copy of Stellarium. I fail to find it, and end up sawing the telescope back and forth across the sky desperately trying to find the thing they have asked for. I try again with the finder, drape myself over the telescope and twist it around until the red finder dot is in just the right place; then look through the eyepiece and see nothing but haze. I look up at the sky again, and my target patch of sky, clear a few moments before, is suddenly covered in thick cloud. This cycle repeats a few times, until we either look at the moon again instead, or The Children get bored and go back into the house.

So far, we’ve successfully looked at the moon, Mars, and some random patches of sky that have lots of stars in but nothing I can actually put a name to. Oh well. I’m sure at some point we will get the hang of it, even if I end up becoming the main telescope user myself. It certainly has shown me just how non-empty an empty-looking patch of sky actually is, even living in a hazy, foggy, light-polluted city like this one. I’ll let you know if I manage to find anything less easy to spot. Or, indeed, if we do ever see the rings of Saturn.

The changing mood and the changing season

Or, something of a lull, and the strange ways in which memory works

This blog has been relatively quiet this week. Clearly, finally completing that in-depth work-related post about inclusion and diversity on Monday must have taken it out of me. There are a number of things waiting in the to-be-written queue, but all of them are the sort of posts that deserve effort and energy and research putting into them, and this week has been too tiring a week for that sort of thing.

I like to think of myself as not a superstitious person, but the truth is that there are an awful lot of Dear Diary things I could have posted but didn’t because, frankly, if I do then it might jinx them and it might not happen. There are some things that have been lurking on my horizon for a few months now, but I don’t want to think about them too much in case one thing goes wrong and everything collapses. A couple of weeks ago it all looked to be going badly; this week it’s been going better, but I still don’t want to put too much effort into hoping everything will work out in the end in case that is all effort wasted.

The Children turned seven recently, which inevitably leads into thoughts of “this time seven years ago I was doing X” variety. At least, it does if you’re me: I think I picked the tendency up from my father, who would do it at the slightest potential reason. It’s strange to think that The Children were not always exactly as they are now. I don’t know how your memory works, but when I think back to my memories of people I knew long ago my brain tends to fill the image with them as they are now, not as they actually were then, which is very confusing when I think about things that happened, say, at school. It’s almost disconcerting to see things like school group photos and think “we all looked like children!” and similarly it’s strange to look at photos of The Children as babies and see that, yes, they actually looked like babies and not the children they are now. No doubt when they’re adults I will look back on how they were now and be surprised they looked like children.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the season changing. Enough leaves have dropped from the trees now that if I look carefully I can see trains passing the end of the street again, rather than just foliage. The skies are dark at night, and on clear nights filled and sparkling with autumn constellations. I go outside, look up at Vega, at Mars, at the cross of Cygnus, and wonder what will happen when we have turned around some more.

The state of the world

Or, the world keeps turning

Today was the first morning of this autumn with signs of frost on the ground. I sat down at my desk and saw the roofs across the street fringed with white at the edges of the tiles, as the sun rose in a clear blue sky. Winter is coming, and our Hallowe’en pumpkins are in a dark corner of the garden for the local slugs and snails to eat. A robin fluttered around the garden, getting ready for all the Christmas posing; I doubt they go for pumpkin. In the summer the garden was full with house sparrows, as nearly every house in this street has a few sparrow nests under the eaves; but now they are quiet and are staying inside.

A month or so ago, I talked about how awful the world of politics is, too awful to want to write about. This morning, with the results of yesterday’s American presidential election still entirely up in the air, that seemed still very true. This evening, the results of yesterday’s American presidential election are still somewhat up in the air, but not quite as awful. We can but hope.

Since the clocks changed it’s dark now before I leave my desk in the evening, and on nights with clear skies, at the moment, I can see Mars rising, the first “star” visible above the roofline on the other side of the road. It rises above them just as dusk falls, visible already as a dim orange pinprick whilst the sky around it is still blue. Over the course of this year I’ve come to know the roofline opposite my window intimately. I feel like I know all the cracked tiles and broken patches like the back of my hand; I’ve watched the missing tiles on a house down the street get worse as the year has gone on and wonder how the residents cope in rainstorms, and I’ve watched a house a similar distance up the street slowly have its roof replaced, its chimney repointed, everything tidied and neatened and primped. Winter is coming, we are a third of the way through the final quarter of the year. After that, though, things will be brighter again.

Night sky

Or, things are looking up

As I came home, after midnight, the skies were clear. I looked up into the sky, and could see it full of stars, clouds and clouds of them like a sprinkling of dust, more stars than I’d ever seen before. I looked up and spotted constellations: Orion, Cassiopea, Lyra, Pegasus, the Great Bear. The sky was filled.

And then I walked into a tree.

Ink Polaroid

In which we look up at the stars

This is a slightly faded memory, from a few years ago now, from the last time I was in the Outer Hebrides. It’s a late night, two in the morning or so, in August. You can hardly make out a thing in the darkness. There’s a crowd of us sat around in deckchairs, in the front yard of the University farmhouse, heads leaning back. We’ve all just returned from the “local” pub, about six miles away, and we’re sitting outside to watch for the Perseids. Out there on the Atlantic coast, the sky seems, strangely, lighter than elsewhere, because of the number of stars scattered across it. The sky is filled with patterns of light, coming from millions of years ago; and leaning back in a deckchair, the age, complexity and size of it all fills me with a slightly dizzy awe.* Every thirty seconds or so, a meteor flashes across the dark sky, and everybody watching smiles.

* Not to mention that the rocks beneath us, the Lewisian Gneiss Complex, were themselves nearly three billion years old, older than the light from some of the stars.

The turning wheel

In which it is probably Midsummer

I was thinking: really, I should post something newsworthy, or political, because there hasn’t been much of that on here lately. Nothing in the news has caught my eye, though – it’s all been football-related, and I really couldn’t care one way or the other about it. Then, though, I remembered that today is the summer solstice.*

I’ve been wondering lately: what is the appropriate date for me to do an “end of the year” post. Is it January 1st? Probably not, to be honest. December 21st feels like a much better fit. Samhain would be appropriate, too; and, of course, I’ll have to post something on August 27th, just because that marks a year of blogging here. But today is also a good day to reflect on the changing seasons.

All of the yearly festivals are to some extent dual-faced. Today is a largely time to celebrate summer happiness, but it’s also a time to remember that winter is on its way. I can sit back and look around me, looking at how happy I am right now; but there’s still a long way to go. I’m in a good place at the moment, much happier than I was a year, two years, three years ago, but I’m still wary that something will happen to push me back where I once was.

On the other hand, it’s now High Summer, and I can see that reflected in my life. I am getting a social life once more. I am making friends, and I realise now that I’m a lot better at relating to people, and handling friendship. I’m learning how to avoid driving friends away, too. I’m finding myself. I’ve been learning a lot about my physical body, and learning to appreciate it a little more. I’m even getting better at taking compliments, rather than just stammering: “um … no … really, that’s not true.” Midsummer is a time to appreciate passion and feeling; and I’m even starting to understand that better too.**

* Actually, I haven’t checked the ephemerides to see if it is today. Occasionally it can fall slightly to the side, and the official astronomical solstice is now a few days further on.***

** even if it is in theory rather than practice.

*** Update, August 26th 2020: I have finally looked this up, and the summer solstice in 2006 was indeed on June 21st, at 12:26 UTC.