I walked home from work last night and because a clear sky at this time of the year is something of a rarity in Vancouver, I dawdled so I could enjoy the incredible view of burning stars and golden moon. My slow walk brought home the fact that we are surrounded by awe and wonder.
Take for example Rosetta’s (European spacecraft) successful landing on a speeding comet yesterday. This is an extraordinary achievement and yet another leap for mankind.
Why should this audacious achievement excite me or you? Well for one that washing machine- sized explorer is about to help us re-write history and what we know of ourselves.
Images of Rosetta landing on 67P (couldn’t they name it after a nice Greek nymph? one of the many ravaged by the insatiable Zeus? I wonder) are a reminder that we are constantly redefining our limits.
The Night Sky also brought back a flood of memories. On warm and warm(ish) evenings my sister and I would drag one of our mattresses out into the backyard where we would lie, sometimes in our pyjamas, sometimes in our bathing suits, to watch countless worlds spin and sparkle before our eyes.
Night time was particularly exciting because it was quiet – except for the crickets and cicadas (also known as Christmas beetles) – and the adults were in bed because as everyone knows adults are scared of the dark. One of my most treasured possessions was an encyclopedia with a map of the Southern Skies. I would pore over those pages with a torch and read out loud the names of constellations – Canis Major, Scorpius, Centaurus – and we would point to – well, anywhere in the sky – and link random stars and proudly tick off a constellation in my encyclopedia.
The encyclopedia told us stars are balls of gas but that didn’t stop us from imagining they were much more. Many we knew even then, were worlds. Some undoubtedly inhabited by lizard men and robots. We wondered if from our small backyard, we could spot the remnants of that great planet Krypton after the explosion. Wouldn’t pieces of that great planet glow green in our night sky?
We tried counting stars. But neither one of us could figure out how many zeros fit into a million back then. Now that I’m older and a little more learned I happen to know words like quadrillion actually exist but I can’t bear to think of all those zeros!
It’s impossible to manipulate stars. You can’t make them explode by willing them to, like you can clouds. A cloud is a temporary and fluffy thing with no fixed course or firm hold. We used to lie there, rubbing the sides of our temples and will those stars to go ‘POOF!’ because we imagined we had that power. The first time we saw a shooting star we ran into the house and hid for cover under the kitchen table. It was our first experience with God.
And the first time we spotted a satellite tracing it’s slow arc across the sky we shook our mother awake and announced the imminent arrival of Martians. My mother told us it was way past our bedtime and we had to drag the mattress back inside.
No one had told us we could wish upon a falling star in those early years. We only found that out later. Certainly wishing on stars was not a tradition in our family.
How many wishes were lost? Countless.
I try to make up for it now by watching the Perseids and Leonids (coming soon to a Night Theatre near you Nov 16) meteor showers.
Do you enjoy the night sky?
What is your favourite night time memory?