Insignificant joys – or how I went out to look at stars (guest article by Karsten)

Here at last! Yesterday I was finally able to venture out on a journey, which the best wife in the world had allowed me to participate in several months ago. Ever since I was eager for said journey to arrive, and I shall give even more credit to the best wife in the world (further climax impossible, albeit required to grasp the self-sacrificing nature), as the little one had just developed fever after a vaccination and thus the previous night had already been exhausting and I certainly did not envy the best wife for having to make it through the next without assistance (another reason to tip my hat to any single parent!).

To get to the point: I was allowed to accompany the local hobby astronomers society to a trip to the Rigi for a stargazing night, farther away from civilization than I had managed before (not difficult as all of our stargazing events so far were either in our garden or on the balcony) and at 1600 meters also with less atmospheric noise. I had wanted a telescope for a very long time, and when I finally got one, I soon afterwards found out about this opportunity to learn star hopping techniques and other cool stuff from people who share this passion and simultaneously look at all the incredibly beautiful things that the night sky offers and was looking forward to it ever since. So naturally I was excited like a little boy for Christmas or his birthday (or come to think of it: me today at Christmas or my birthday as well) and had butterflies in my stomach of excitement all day (and probably told everyone at work I met about what I will do).

When we arrived at the Rigi yesterday, the sky was clear blue, while we ate, the sky was still clear blue, while we mounted the telescopes… you get the idea…. Anyway, after having identified the north star and aligned the telescope to it, the first cloud appeared on the horizon and five minutes later, the last patch of visible sky was gone. Two of the stargazers used this opportunity to make use of the trampolines on the playground right next to our spot and spent the next hour or so, trying to sync their jumps (but never managing to have more than 5 simultaneous jumps). On this point I should mention, that the group of stargazers was really diverse and ranged from semi-pros via people without any telescope at all, grandparents with their grandchildren to – and I loved that – a twelve-year-old girl, who was the only person interested in stargazing in her family, but whose family had accompanied her to enable her to see the stars.

Anyway, it took a bit more than an hour for the stars to reappear, but then I was finally able to tap the full (or close to it) potential of my telescope and the hours just went by. It was as much of a thrill as I had expected it to be and I was overjoyed, while we watched several of the Messier objects and looked at M13 (the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules), M45 (the Pleiades), M42 (the Orion nebula – seriously an object of astonishing beauty and really the most breathtaking object of them all that evening), M31 (the Andromeda galaxy, our closest neighbouring galaxy. The one that will soon (in astronomical terms that is, which are luckily long in human time scales) crash into our galaxy and form an unprescedented turmoil (for us – in case that mankind will be there to witness it, which I seriously doubt)…).

Orion nebula_wikipedia

Orion nebula (source: wikipedia)

You can get the list online and I will not bore you with details. The peculiar thing here to notice is, I at times looked through the lens and realized that to most people these clusters of stars, nebula and galaxies will look very boring – the pictures of Hubble etc. are simply no match for the commons man telescope. I particularly got that idea during the following discussion: we looked through one telescope at one galaxy (I do not even remember which one it was honestly, but in fairness: it was very far away…), which no one but the telescope owner was able to see: “so can you see it now?” “Quite frankly, no” “well, then wiggle around with your eyes a bit, move them around in the space, does that help?” “Actually no, not really, I might see something but it might also be my imagination” “Well, then breathe in deeply while looking through the lens, that helps to increase oxygen flow to the retina, sometimes that helps” “I am really sorry… still no….”. And so forth. The thing about stargazing, and particularly of deep sky objects is: they do not really look spectacular by many people’s measure – but that is simply because you do not account for their true beauty. It is not about what you see so much, as it is about what you know and the incredible vastness of our universe. The orion nebula is very close, but is still 1300 light years away. To most of us, already numbers in the millions are in practice quite inconceivable, although we deal with them on a regular basis – at least hear about them in the news etc… Even billions we hear very often, but understand even less (financial people probably understand the least of what a billion actually is, I guess). But being on a planet that is limited to 40.000 km when you move around it once at the equator, you get no grasp of what a million kilometers it. Well, light takes about 3 seconds for that distance…. So if it needs 1.300 years for something, that is pretty darn far away, and the fact that I can see it, looking through a meter long tube, with some lenses is too astonishing to find words for it and does leave you seriously breathless. The Andromeda galaxy we looked at is staggering 2.9 million light years away.


Andromeda – as close as someone might see in the future (source: wikipedia)

Things like that are simply to magnificent to be comprehended by a few neurons, which we so proudly call our brains and consider to be the one and only source of wisdom. It does make you a bit humble (humbleness was, according to my wife, seriously required by me). So due to the failure of words to explain something, which cannot be perceived anyway, I simply say: Next time you look at the stars, call back to mind the vastness of it all and our insignificance, and do smile while thinking of a picture of an unknown artist (at least to me), that a dear friend of mine once shared with me, and which has been on my mind ever since:

floating through space

source: cryhavok

Kind of puts life into perspective, doesn’t it?

P.S.: Unfortunately no one of us did some astrophotography, but look at some of the pictures above and simply let your imagination run free (and no, that is not what you actually see it like through the telescope!)

About erdhummel

Familial entropy - that's an insight into our current life which has been fundamentally changed last summer when our daughter was born. Having studied in Cottbus, Germany, and worked/studied in Edinburgh, Scotland, we momentarily live in a small town in Switzerland where Karsten is trying to save the environment and Freddie is trying to save our sanity. Since there is not much time for elaborate, long emails while doing that, we thought a blog might be a good option to smuggle ourselves into the lifes of our friends.
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