Astronomy Briefly

brought to you by Duane Dunkerson




Your Handle On The Night Sky by Daniel E. Pope, 2011.

reviewed by Duane Dunkerson

Daniel Pope's book is based on his weekly syndicated newspaper columns. They began in June, 2005. He lives in Ohio. The columns have appeared in newspapers in Ohio, Utah, Pennsylvania, and California.

For his astronomical vantage point, the Northern Hemisphere is pertinent. Little, if any, mathematics is encountered in the book. Telescopes and binoculars are not needed. No knowledge of the azimuthal or the equatorial coordinate systems is required. He wants to aid you in locating, naming, and knowing the science and history of some major monthly constellations but also with notes on other stars as clusters and the Milky Way and other places, including the Moon, the Sun, sundials, the planets and more. He wants to convey to you our changing position in the nearer cosmos, at least at the moving intersection of our Solar System and our galaxy, the Milky Way. The movement excites him and places him in awe of what is constantly underway but rarely appreciated by millions of us. He portrays the realization of this travel as stunning and it helps him to find out how - "Before I go, I long to know where I have been." He relates the greatest and grandest past we can all have if we make an effort at comprehension and activism.

He could have been of assistance to Thomas Carlyle, an essayist of centuries ago, who Mr. Pope quotes as having been troubled by "Why did not somebody teach me the constellations and make me at home in the starry heavens which are always overhead, and which I don't half know to this day?" The author's assistance, too late for Carlyle, brings in the constellations he highlights month by month when those constellations are well placed in the sky early in the month at a time of early to mid-evening. Drawings of all these constellations are shown as white spots and white lines on a black background.

Start with any month, but June, of summer, is like a new creation, a childhood beginning, somewhat as Longfellow wrote about. In June's sky is the constellation of Libra and it contains Gliese 581d, an exosolar planet with an environment like ours. In another constellation, Cygnus, is a haze across the sky. This haze is most of our Galaxy.
The author recommends seeing and knowing the night sky among friends and relatives. Amateur astronomy is an underrated family activity. Most people refer to amateur astronomy as a solitary activity and of necessity having late or early hours with, at times, the expected rigors of very cold temperatures to be endured. Nowhere in his book does Mr. Pope think the "serious" and "dedicated" amateur need be the standard to be upheld. He would rather you be free of pressing objectives arrived at by expensive complications, skip the smartphone, assume a calm outlook. If you miss some nights because of clouds or social responsibilities, then you have not failed in any regard. It is for him a hobby, a recreation.

He quotes Jane Austen's Fanny as realizing that seeing the unclouded night sky can produce harmony, repose, and less sorrow. He can also produce answers to what is the most distant object we can see with our own eyes. We can know the Fall Equinox. There is a Summer Triangle of Stars and a Winter Triangle of Stars. There is the Demon Star. We don't have a Tropic of Sagittarius or a Tropic of Taurus. He fills you in on the details. He writes of Hipparchus of ancient Greece who made a map of 800 stars and started his map from a Vernal Equinox that doesn't stay put, it drifts westward. The drift of Sun and Moon gets us eclipses, do they cease to exist or abandon us in a stark disappearance? He can find for you the Gates of Men, an opening in the heaven's floor that allowed passage of souls to Earth. Mr. Pope can answer any puzzlement about the above. Most find the night sky a puzzle at first. There is fun assures Mr. Pope, in solving this puzzle. It can be done with his help.

The puzzle has various parts. Some of the parts are beautiful enough in their own right, Mr. Pope finds stunning the stars Arcturus, Sirius, and Vega as they rise. They are tremulous, dazzling with sparkle and dashes of brilliant light. Then in one diagram he shows you the North Celestial Pole, the North Galactic Pole, and the North Ecliptic Pole. We can be where we are and be near all three at the same time. For two of these there is an Earth tilt intersecting a Galactic tilt and they cross one another at a very steep angle. Awesome. This is ongoing, you are at it and it moves.

Mr. Pope takes us away from all this, but still in the puzzle, to the far south region of the northern skies to the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius. They are areas having millions of stars hidden in a haze, an indication of the center of our galaxy, The Milky Way, and the black hole at the center of our Galaxy. Such abundance is countered, as Mr. Pope writes, by a lack of a multitude of stars in other puzzle directions like toward the constellation of Pegasus. There we are looking out of the underside of the Galaxy. Fewer stars are there, no faint haze can be found indicative of untold stars in space. In the constellation of Perseus, he relates, there is a glow, a haze, but it is fainter than the one in Sagittarius since the direction to Perseus is toward the areas having the arms of our Galaxy, which a spiral galaxy. These regions of the dark night sky are relatively easy to see but the False Dawn, the Zodiacal Light, a faint puzzle component, is another reality for our orientation - in Mr. Pope's words - "When you see the Zodiacal Light, you are actually 'seeing' part of the plane of our Solar System, the Ecliptic, out in space - WOW!"

The Zodiacal Light and other objects of his desire for spatial understanding are mostly experienced from his backyard. In one case, the experience took place in a new room addition to his house. The skylight of that room would maybe form an analemma. He knew if one kept track of time, a time based on the Sun, that Spring is 92.76 days, Summer is 93.65 days, Fall is 89.84 days, and Winter is 88.99 days. But our clocks, as Einstein knew, run at a constant rate. In order for us to have noon at "noon" and dawn or sunset at the appointed times, then an average Sun was needed. There is a clock time and there is a Sun time. The analemma shows the difference. The analemma is the Equation of Time, a symbol, a shape made, in the author's instance, by a corner of the moving rectangle of the sunlight coming through the skylight. Its corner moved because we, of the tilted Earth, are moving. He marked the corner every 10 days, at 10 AM. The art of the trace of the Sun's apparent motion comes out to be not a circle but an ellipse. The distance between the marks along the analemma is not the same because the Earth's orbital velocity about the Sun isn't constant. He demonstrates this photographically.

Stepping outside an analemma room into a backyard is to engage the night sky puzzle on its terms and to have had life touched by awe. It need not be a solemn awe. It is fun to get it right, as Mr. Pope knows it in a very satisfying manner, so that we sense where we are in our solar system and that we can also know our galactic orientation and see where we are in our traversing of space.

We, human beings like Mr. Pope, do know, sense, and feel the solar-galactic complex but dogs and cats, elephants and whales, and many more, including people who prefer to be animals, have an excuse for their lack of celestial fun and awe.






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