Rob's Blog Archive

November 6, 2011

The Winter Sky










The 2.5 inch refractor telescope was a joint present for Rick and me.   It arrived in the middle of the winter. I think it was after my parents had done some major remodeling as well as putting in a swimming pool, and all that took place during the winter of 1969.  We probably got the scope during the winter of 1970.

By that time, I was almost 14 and could have put it together myself.  Then again, the deal was that the gift was actually shared with my dad as well as Rick and dad wanted to put it together.  Sharing the scope with Rick and him made perfect sense, we were the science/engineering/math half of the family. 

Putting the scope together was actually pretty simple.  The one hard part was aligning the sighting scope, something that had to be done anytime we took the telescope out of its storage box.  Here’s where my father’s practicality won the day.  He pointed out that there was enough give in the mount of the spotting scope to allow it to be aligned simply by jiggling it into the correct position, and that that the mount was rigid enough to hold it in place after this.  I’m sure my inclination to follow rules exactly would have had me trying to adjust it by loosening and tightening the screws that held it in place relative to the main telescope, a workable process with results no better than the jiggling but much more time consuming. 

So dad did a crude but adequate alignment with some distant earthbound object and then proceeded to use a very bright star to refine this.  Sighting starts with the lowest power, 40 for that scope.  Even with that low power, the first star my dad aimed the telescope at had a distinct set of rings.  It was Saturn.   The feeling was the same as I would get a few years later when I was working on my first experiment using a particle accelerator---- all the physics books I had read had talked about particles shooting down beam lines, but it became real when I had one of my own (a Fluorine-19 beam, for the record).  The rings of Saturn were real and I got to see them with my own eyes. 

As the winter progressed, I started learning the constellations in front of me.  The small scope we had wasn’t good enough to see nebulae or anything like these, but we could see planetary phenomena like Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons.  It was probably about as good as Galileo was able to do.  Even though it didn’t help finding objects we could see with the telescope, I became pretty adept at picking out the dozen or so most prominent constellations in the winter sky. 

During the winter, Orion the Warrior dominates the night.  While it takes a bit of imagination to make a bear out of Ursa Major or Ursa Minor, it takes none to make a warrior out of Orion, sword included.  Along with trees bared and frozen lakes, Orion front and center in the night sky tells me it’s winter.

The week started with a pair of cold clear nights.  We didn’t quite make it into the single digits, but got very close.  Night or day, I like being out in the cold.  I still enjoy playing with my gear and cold weather clothing is gear.  This was my first real chance to wear my parka and my foam cold weather boots. 

The other reason I wanted to get out was there usually aren’t that many clear winter nights here.  Many more are overcast.  I’ve learned to take advantage of clear nights anytime I can. 

So sometime a bit past midnight on the first night, I went out for a stroll.  It was only two miles, down to the Clearwater River and back.  The river itself isn’t the best spot for stargazing, so I started home.  There are several pastures between my house and the river, and these are ideal for checking out constellations.  I shut off the headlamp and stared up.  The Pleiades, Cassiopeia, Argus, Gemini, Ursa Major and Minor and of course Orion the Warrior were all there.   Just like when I was a kid, only better. There’s no backlighting here like there was in L.A. suburbs and stars are always much brighter.  I didn’t stop for an inordinately long period, maybe five minutes, then popped the headlamp on and walked home.

It’s been eight and a half years since I moved from San Jose to Montana.  There are lots of reasons living here is harder than living in a suburb or city.  As trite as it sounds, the payoff is being able to look up on a clear starry night or staring across the valley at the crest of the Swan Range.  Most people who live here get that.  What is incongruous to me is people who live here and don’t look up at the night sky, and there are some of those too.  Sadly, it seems that somewhere they decided living in a place like this was the right thing to do or their ego won’t let them see that this isn’t for them.  The final bit of good news is I’ve never known of somebody who came or lived here, enjoyed the beauty for some years, and then got bored with it.  There may well come a time when I won’t be up to doing the work necessary to stay here, particularly taking care of a pack of twenty dogs, but it looks like that will be because I’ve gotten weaker with age, not bored with nature.

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