Monday, November 21, 2011

My Old Haunts

A few notes before I offer another bloggy re-run to get me through this deadline/holiday rough patch while providing regular infotainment value to you.

Karen and I really appreciate the sympathy and support that we received here, on Facebook, and in person about our stolen car. Thanks. I think the people who called it "mean" best summed it up for me. Stealing someone's car is just a mean thing to do. Human beings sharing this little rock for such a short time simply shouldn't be that mean to each other.

I realize asking a car thief to pause and consider the epochal cosmic perspective might be a bit much.

Luckily, our insurance company is handling it well and we can roll with it financially. As I said, our beloved Honda was getting old enough that we were thinking of replacing her anyway (although we never discussed it within her earshot). So we went car shopping last weekend. Car technology has improved since we bought our Accord 15 years ago. Car salesmen have not.

Today's re-run is nearly five years old. I chose to post it today because it was originally inspired by a sighting of the constellation Gemini, which I happened to notice for the first time this fall a few nights ago. As you'll read, Gemini holds a special place in my heart.

One of the commenters on the original post was "TVDadJim," aka Friend O' the Blog Jim O'Kane, who wrote, "Watching Orion, though, usually gives me something like Galactic vertigo--because I know we're facing away from the cheery fireplace of the Milky Way's core, and out into the inky black of forever." Tell you what, Jim: you head for the black hole at our galaxy's center, I'll light out into the inky blackness the other direction, and we'll see which one of us is in better shape in a couple million years. Your "cheery fireplace" looks like a radiation-drenched gravity-shredding maelstrom to me, but to each his own.

(January 2007)

The stars of Heaven, now seen in their old haunts--
White Sirius glittering o'er the southern crags,
Orion with his belt, and those fair Seven,
Acquaintances of every little child,
And Jupiter, my own beloved star!

--William Wordsworth, The Prelude

I have relationships with stars, which I think may be unusual but perhaps not as unusual as I think.

I was reminded of that (and of Wordsworth's epic poem, which I studied in college and is one of the few textbooks I've kept all these years) the night before last when I stepped outside and noticed Gemini rising in the east, over beside Orion. I can never look at the constellation of the twins Castor and Pollux without remembering another night almost 20 years ago, right after my wife and I found out she was expecting twins, when I looked up at the sky and smiled because I was looking at their constellation. Not their Zodiac sign (bleah), but the distant suns whose pattern in the sky would always remind me of the happy day I learned they existed.

I'm pretty sure that years later I showed my girls Gemini and tried to explain the significance it held for me. If I recall correctly, they were unimpressed. That's all right.

The reappearance of old friends in the sky marks the seasons for me: Antares, Lyra, Orion of course. My pals Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, about whom I once made up a nifty ditty.* The fuzzy blotch of the Pleiades that always seems to catch me by surprise. I seek out the tiny, obscure constellation Vulpecula and remember freezing nights spent in a small university observatory doing photometry of a dim nova with my physics professor mentor who found it soothing to listen to WWV time signals pinging on the shortwave. And doesn't everyone have a favorite planet? (When I was a kid mine was Mars but I'd have to say Jupiter now, although I've flirted with Venus from time to time. Saturn's nice but just too ostentatious for my taste; I don't appreciate a show-off planet that tries too hard.)

Being in the habit of looking up at night gives me an agreeable perspective. There's the notion that somewhere out there, someone you're thinking about might be looking at the very thing you are (I believe astronomers call this the Fievel Mousekewitz Conjecture). Maybe even an alien looking at it from the other side, or looking past it at you. There's also the notion I've had while peering through a telescope that at that very moment I might be the only person in the universe looking at that particular thing. And there's always the "eternal circle of life" idea that you're just a point in a continuum of people who've looked at virtually the same moon, planets, and stars for millions of years and will continue to do so for millions more.

No profound conclusion. It's just nice to see Gemini again.

* Sample lyrics: "Zubenlegenubi, Zubeneschamali, yeah yeah yeah!"


Mike said...

I like Gemini. Of course, I grew up in a circus of stars and the high school years, when I'd walk home at night, came after I'd taken Earth Science and could identify some of what was overhead. Gemini, like Casseopeia, is easy enough to find but not as obvious as Orion.

I live in town now and wouldn't see as many stars at night even if I didn't own a car. You can see the same number of stars through the roof of a car, city or country.

Jim O'Kane said...

Funny - I was looking at Pollux the other night at a star party through a 16" scope, and thinking about how somewhere in that glare, there was a planet 10 times the size of Jupiter. It's strange how in the few intervening years between now and the time your blog was first posted, the sky has become filled with extrasolar planets.

As a child of the 60's Gemini always means the McDonnell-Douglas spacecraft first, THEN the constellation. Not sure if I have a favorite planet, but Gemini is always my favorite spacecraft. It *looked* like a spaceship, and its cats-eye windows made it seem both sleek and predatory. Gemini XII was my first live launch, and so that particular ship type will always have a close place in my memory.

Gemini never got a fair shake in the movie world. You Only Live Twice had the horrible opening sequence with the ship-napping satellite, and Robert Altman's Countdown had the ridiculous Gemini-on-LM-descent-stage landing on the Moon.

As to inbound or outbound in the Milky Way, I'd head for the nice warm energy sources until I bumped into the Puppeteer Fleet of Worlds.

Brian Fies said...

Mike, you should be less modest and mention your serial "Stories in the Stars," meant to teach the science and mythology of the constellations to kids. I thought it was great and was honored to get an early look at it. For a taste, see and scroll about two-thirds of the way down (also take a moment to look at all the other material Mike's developed on that site--an impressive body of work).

Jim, I hadn't thought about exoplanets in that context, but you're right. One of the items on my bucket list is someday seeing a clear image of a planet orbiting another sun--not just a bump on a graph, but some clouds, ice, water or land. At the rate we're progressing, I think I've got a good shot.

I made my affection for the Gemini spacecraft obvious in WHTTWOT; agree that it's overlooked between the pioneering Mercury and glamorous Apollo. I love how the hatches just open up like cockpit canopies and BOOM, you're in space, flying by the seat of your pants.

Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

When daylight savings time ends and I arrive home after sunset, I always notice Capella as I walk to my front door.
One thing I like about the constellations is how static they appear (yes, I'm aware they are in fact moving relative to one another.) Stuff on the ground changes. People and things come and go away. You get older. But the stars show up on time each year, like clockwork.