As Sheila and Jerry have mentioned, this week Mars is closer to our planet than at any other time in the last 60,000 years. In anticipation of a couple of night time field trips this week to see the ruby beauty, I spent the day yesterday with my telescope trying to figure out how to use the star/planet automatic tracking system. I can operate and maintain most types of computers, was first in my class in electronics in college, and can even program a VCR — you would think I could figure out how to program the telescope, wouldn’t you?
No you daft thing — Arcturus is over there. No, I’m not Deneb.
My mother gave me the telescope for Christmas two years ago. I’d been eying them for years, but just couldn’t bring myself to plunk down the money. I’d never told my mother I wanted a telescope — she just thought they’d make good presents, and sent one to me and to my brother.
My brother is not what you would call a man who’s enamored with either science or nature. He likes people and art and music and is heavily invested in the the humanities. He respects nature, and supports the environment, but you won’t find him hiking the woods on his off days. He also hates house pets, so of course his family members have brought in an assortment of parrots, hedgehogs, rabbits, rats, cats, dogs, fish, song birds, gerbils, hamsters, turtles, and things even I haven’t a clue what they are. Every last one of the beasts is neurotic to the core.
As you can imagine with this background, he was a bit puzzled by getting a telescope for Christmas and I think gave it to one of his kids. For myself though, Mom couldn’t have picked out a better present.
When I was in San Francisco, I used the telescope to look from my apartment out onto the harbor at the boats and the birds, and once seeing a shark attack a pelican, but I didn’t use it at night. I felt that people might misconstrue it’s use at night.
After I moved to Missouri, I’ve used it to look at and take photos of the moon, but this week is the first I’ve tried to use the automated features of the beasty, to faciliate my Mars viewing experience. Last night out on the back porch in 96+ F (in Celsius, “hot”) degree weather, I spent a happy hour training the telescope so that I can have it automatically find objects for me, and then track them once fixed. I viewed constellations and what might have been Uranus, lost in the heat haze and street light reflections. Unfortunately, light polution and a big tree blocked Mars, but tomorrow and Wednesday, I’ll move to more telescope friendly areas. To see Mars with my own eye, directly — what a wonder.
Thinking about people who love art but don’t necessarily love nature — I wonder if sometimes an artist isn’t more of a translator than anything else, interpreting the beauty of every day things for those who can’t see the beauty any other way. The artist is inspired to create art to inspire others who cannot be inspired by that which inspired the artist.
Who cannot be excited about seeing Mars directly, who cannot be moved by a night filled with stars or a full moon. Yet people will go into raptures about Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece, Starry Night, and never spare a glance for a night sky unless its filled with neon and they have a martini in their hand.
Not van Gogh, though. I picture van Gogh, half mad, which is worse than being fully mad, pacing about at night because he can’t quiet the demons long enough to sleep. In one breathless, immortal moment, he lifts his head and looks out over the sleeping town below, and at the stars blazing in the heavens above on this crisp, cool night. In perfect clarity, he sees the glory of the stars, their truth, as they burned themselves into his soul and hence to his art, so that he may show those below him what they miss in their sleep and their sanity.
But I will refrain from falling into the trap of the inevitable by including the lyrics to Starry, Starry Night, though I do like the song. Besides, I know you’ve been humming it under your breath since you read the title.