Blog: When Earth Confounds, Skies Work Wonders

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Pam Linn

I’m not sure how many astronomers or moon watchers there are among my readers, but two days ago I accidentally came upon the most impressive crescent moon visible in my lifetime.

For reasons I still don’t understand, I awoke at the unusual hour of 3:45 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. Thinking I heard something strange (it turned out someone had left a sprinkler on overnight), I opened my bedroom drapes (something I never do until after first daylight) and saw a deep yellow crescent rising above the Bridger Mountains directly to the east.

Now, I’ve been able to see many full moons in that location, along with several lunar eclipses and even some double rainbows, but I can’t recall a sight quite like this. Just above and to the left of the moon was what appeared to be a planet, and it remained in its juxtaposition to the moon for the hour I watched the two. It was really quite glorious, but at that hour of the morning I couldn’t think of anyone I could call who might be awake or even slightly interested in my discovery. 

The following morning, I hoped to see it again but was disappointed that a faint cloud cover (or possibly a reddish haze from a forest fire) seemed to obscure the moon. An hour later, the sun rose and, putting on my sunglasses, I was able to see the same crescent moon centered in the sun. Now, that’s really freaky, but of course I couldn’t look at it for very long.

Anyway, on August 21st.we will experience a total solar eclipse. Proper eye protection is required (regular sunglasses won’t do) and our program director has ordered the required goggles (similar to those worn by welders) so many of us can watch. I don’t know whether to hope many residents take advantage of this opportunity or to wish that nobody might interrupt with a lot of chitchat. Some things are just better watched alone.

The last solar eclipse in my memory was, I think, only partial and occurred in mid-afternoon. My eldest granddaughter was grocery shopping with me and, when we left the store (just off Sepulveda Boulevard), the eclipse was already in progress. Some lovely folks offered to share their eye protection with us, but what I remembered most was the strange quality of the air, which cooled considerably as the eclipse progressed. The feeling was eerie and I couldn’t help wondering how the Native Americans might have reacted to such a phenomenon that they couldn’t possibly have understood.

My sister, ever the scientist, corrected my perception that the feeling was “eerie,” describing the eclipse in proper scientific terms. That was one of the few times I didn’t appreciate the correct knowledge and preferred to experience the feeling.

So, for those who don’t care to get up at odd hours enabling them to see the real thing, I’ll recommend again Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new book, “Astrophysics For People in a Hurry.” And now, another book loaned to me by a friend, “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” by Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. Already on best seller lists in Italy and the U.K., it offers in less than 100 pages easy –  to understand descriptions of general relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, gravity, black holes, the complex architecture of the universe and the role humans play in this wonderful world. Although he covers some of the same ground described by Tyson, the two books are decidedly different in their approaches. I’ll share with you just one quote from Rovelli’s little book: “Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking.”

I’m only sorry that during all the years I lived on our ranch in the mountains, where there was no ambient light to interfere with night time sky watching, I was simply too busy or too tired to become involved with the world and all its beauty. 

With occasional prodding by my sister, I managed to set my alarm clock to awaken in time to see several meteor showers (the Pleiades and the Leonids). Visible just outside my door were the wonders that are free and available to all of us.

At no time in our recent history has the daily news been so appalling, our leaders so ineffectual and unwilling to work together to solve the often complex problems our society faces.

Since I am in no position to affect these maladies, and those who are seem unwilling to do so, I’ve turned my attention to the sky and to the scientists who understand where we came from and where we may be headed. These are the people to whom we must listen and to whom we owe our attention.

Happy reading.