Tuesday, January 23, 2007

My Old Haunts

The stars of Heaven, now seen in their old haunts--
White Sirius glittering o'er the southern crags,
Orion with his belt, and those fair Seven,
Acquaintances of every little child,
And Jupiter, my own beloved star!

--William Wordsworth
The Prelude

I have relationships with stars, which I think may be unusual but perhaps not as unusual as I think.

I was reminded of that (and of Wordsworth's epic poem, which I studied in college and is one of the few textbooks I've kept all these years) the night before last when I stepped outside and noticed Gemini rising in the east, over beside Orion. I can never look at the constellation of the twins Castor and Pollux without remembering another night almost 20 years ago, right after my wife and I found out she was expecting twins, when I looked up at the sky and smiled because I was looking at their constellation. Not their Zodiac sign (bleah), but the distant suns whose pattern in the sky would always remind me of the happy day I learned they existed.

I'm pretty sure that years later I showed my girls Gemini and tried to explain the significance it held for me. If I recall correctly, they were unimpressed. That's all right.

The reappearance of old friends in the sky marks the seasons for me: Antares, Lyra, Orion of course. My pals Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, about whom I once made up a nifty ditty.* The fuzzy blotch of the Pleiades that always seems to catch me by surprise. I seek out the tiny, obscure constellation Vulpecula and remember freezing nights spent in a small university observatory doing photometry of a dim nova with a physics professor mentor who found it soothing to listen to WWV time signals pinging on the shortwave. And doesn't everyone have a favorite planet? (When I was a kid it was Mars but I'd have to say Jupiter now, although I've flirted with Venus from time to time. Saturn's nice but just too ostentatious for my taste; I don't appreciate a show-off planet that tries too hard.)

Being in the habit of looking up at night gives me an agreeable perspective. There's the notion that somewhere out there, someone you're thinking about might be looking at the very thing you are (I believe astronomers call this the Fievel Mousekewitz Conjecture). Maybe even an alien. There's also the notion I've had while peering through a telescope before, that at that very moment you might be the only person in the universe looking at that particular thing. And there's always the "eternal circle of life" idea that you're just a point in a continuum of people who've looked at virtually the same moon, planets, and stars for millions of years and will continue to do so for millions more.

No profound conclusion. It's just nice to see Gemini again.


* Sample lyrics: "Zubenlegenubi, Zubeneschamali, yeah yeah yeah!"


Namowal said...

I'm with you with the constellations. I learned them when I was a kid and still take time to admire them. You're right, they ARE like old pals. Things change on the ground but the clockwork of stars stays the same.
Last night I spotted Sirius when I passed an alley. It was like spotting a friend I hadn't seen in awhile. I looked for Canopus (visible in Los Angeles) but it hid behind the clutter of fences, dumpsters and shrubs on the horizon. Canopus is a tease.

TVDadJim said...

Orion is a huge friend on cold winter nights, and the Belt stars of Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka have been part of my vocabulary since there really *was* a Full Moon (back before Neil and Buzz took some of it home).

Watching Orion, though, usually gives me something like Galactic Vertigo - -because I know we're facing *away* from the cheery fireplace of the Milky Way's core, and out into the inky black of forever. Brrr! (insert Burl Ives Snowman here)

ronnie said...

Just a note to say this was a lovely, lyrical post, and a joy to read.