October 17, 2020 Introducing a new category
Despite this reporter’s career as a Geophysicist, he was an Astronomer by education. These fields of study overlap when the Astronomy is “planetary”, since Geophysics involves the study of a particular planet to be found under the feet of a standing Astronomer.
Your Humble narrator also has the habit of swimming – the only form of exercise he can manage to “stick to”. If one can manage to show up at the pool early in the morning, a single-use swimming lane is to be obtained. Large swimmers are particularly disadvantaged when “sharing” lanes – and said narrator is large.
Reporters are often instructed – by Editors – to refer to themselves in the third person (as above). Since I am my own Editor here, I am now putting an end to that.
If I can snag a lane in the outdoor pool, I am able to swim alone and in relative darkness, but even so there is considerable urban lighting with which to contend – not to mention the glaring lamps in the sides of the pool. Nevertheless, the Astronomer/Swimmer takes note when there are visible stars and planets available for viewing.
A few months back, it happened that there were four planets visible from the outdoor swimming pool. My natural tendency is to point things like this out perfect strangers. However, some of the people around at this time of morning know me – by sight at least. And we are all eccentric individuals, or we would not be swimming at 5 AM. Since having four “Eyes Only” planets in the sky at once is a fairly rare thing, I pointed these out. The average reaction was one of surprise. They had no idea of what was over their heads.
The oldest Astronomer joke in the world is to promise to point out one more than the number of planets actually visible. So, I promised five and pointed out four. The punch line of this ancient bit of comedy relies on the audience to ask where the fifth one might be. Then the Astronomer replies, “You’re standing on it!”. Of course, no one asked about that fifth planet and the joke went flat. Don’t you people have any curiosity? Yes, it is an old joke, but none of them ever heard it before – because it is so old.
Now, the interesting part about that stale humor – if you think about it – is the point it makes. Specifically, that all those small round lights that this Swimmer is pointing out are actually massive worlds – a lot like the one we are standing on. Some of them are stunningly larger, some smaller than our own planet. Some are closer to – or farther from – the Sun. There are places where “the world” is profoundly different from the “world” we experience. With those thoughts, the human imagination is expanded beyond the mundane existence of day-to-day life.
The night sky is pretty much a mystery to most City Dwellers. The glare of city light drowns out all but the brightest stars – and planets don’t do much better. If you are interested, I can tell you where to look to see these far-off worlds. If you were not interested, you would have stopped reading after the first paragraph. So, at this point, I know my audience. 😉
Some description of how far apart objects in the sky is needed, and “degrees” are another unfamiliar subject for Urbanites. Extend your thumb and put it at arm’s-length and close one eye. Now your thumb covers one degree of sky. For Apollo 13 fans – this is why Jim Lovell was making the same weird gestures. He was, in fact measuring the sky in degrees.
Most Sophisticated Urbanites are also unfamiliar with compass directions. The moon shows up pretty well, however. So, I will use the moon to “landmark” where you Urbanites should look to find points of interest in the sky. Those will be planets mostly, since at least four of same are bright enough to be seen in the City Glare. The moon moves quickly across the starry sky, so pay attention to the dates and times. This first installment is for the night of October 22nd at 20:00 (8PM).
At that date and time the moon will be near Jupiter and Saturn in the South-Southwestern sky. Jupiter and Saturn are approaching a conjunction which will peak in December when the two planets will be within a tenth of one degree of each other – in the Earth’s sky, only. They will actual be separated by about five Astronomical Units. And – an AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun (about 93,000,000 miles).
All of my description, the thumb-and-one-eye-closed bit and the skychart are just illustrations. This is Urban Astronomy – just look where the moon is! 😉