18 June 2007

Stargazing at the 2006 Retreat

I realized that I omitted one important highlight from my entry about the 2006 Stanford IV Grad Fall Retreat, primarily because I did not have any photographs of it. The highlight was a tour of the constellations of the night sky that I gave to the other participants in the retreat. I have given such tours on many retreats, weather permitting.

One of the disadvantages of living in a city is the negative effect artificial lights have on our ability to see the stars, especially faint ones. We have gained the ability to work, play, and travel 24 hours a day, but we have paid with the sky. I cannot remember the last time I saw the night sky unaffected by some kind of artificial light. I am not sure if I ever have.

Most retreat locations are in rural areas, so they offer significantly less light pollution than major cities, which I why I give these tours on retreats. On this particular night, we had some artificial light pollution from some of the cabins, but nothing as bad as street lights. The weather was not completely cooperative because a thin haze obscured some stars, but the sky was still far better than the one seen from my apartment.

It has been so long that I cannot remember exactly which constellations we saw, but I do remember quite a few wise cracks from my audience as we were on our backs on a basketball court looking up at the stars. At first, I was a little upset by this because I thought it meant they did not appreciate my tour, but I realized that they were simply having fun. They enjoyed the tour and managed to add a few laughs. Also, I may have encouraged the comedy because, as one of my friends said, "You are really good at playing the straight man." That is true.

I also lead a group stargazing in at the most recent CGSA retreat at a Boy Scout Camp in the suburbs of Toledo. Despite the light pollution from the city, we managed to see three planets (stunningly bright Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn) and several constellations including Leo, half of Scorpio, both Dippers, and Draco. A few or the bright stars we saw included Vega, Polaris, and Antares. At one point, I had several people on the tour arranged into a crude model of the solar system to show where the visible planets were in relation to Earth.

An unexpected bonus was a meteor that streaked almost directly overhead across more than half the visible sky. For a brief moment as it was incinerated by friction with the atmosphere, it appeared brighter than Venus. I will probably write more about this retreat in a later entry.

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