October 9, 2019
Early one fall morning not long ago, having woken as usual before dawn, I gazed out the east window of my bedroom at the last stars which remained in the gathering light. Here at the edge of the Wasatch Range it’s often clear at night, and this morning I could see a lone star perched on horizon. I recognized it as Denebola, the third-brightest in the constellation Leo. I threw on a robe and stepped outside into the chill air. The great lion was climbing out of the eastern sky, leading the sun into a new day.
This bluish-white star, which brings up Leo’s rear quarters, suggested a tufted lion’s tail to European astronomers of the thirteenth century. Its name is derived from the Arabic Al Dhanab Al-Asad, or tail of the lion; in later star atlases it appears as Deneb Alased or Denebalezeth. The great 11th-century Persian astronomer Al Biruni wrote of Denebola that “The heat turns away when it rises, and the cold turns away when it disappears.”*
So it is at this season: the Pleiades are rising at bedtime now, and Orion is well past zenith at dawn. Watching this unfolding tableau from outside my bedroom, it occurred to me that I had not yet heard sandhill cranes making their way south. The hummingbirds have all departed and goldfinches swarm about the wild sunflower stalks. A lone warbler appeared in the aspen by our house; it had better hurry on, for there will soon be frost. I thought of a poem a friend sent me:
as the cold of night
deepens into autumn
are you weakening? your voices
grow farther and farther
These lines are from Saigyo, one of Japan’s best-known classical poets. They gave me shivers as I read them, and not just from cold. In not many more years, winter will overtake my body, too, and I will return my borrowed stardust to its original owner. I hope to see autumn return a good many times yet, but I’m aware that my own season is verging on November.
The starry morning sky also reminded me that I have not had my telescope out for many months; summer has somehow slipped by in a rush of trips and yard work. It is getting harder to load the heavy instrument in my truck for the sixty-mile drive out to where the city lights lessen and the Milky Way reveals its true splendor. Living at the edge of megalopolis, I must be content with stars of third magnitude or greater. Energy from a million lights blots out the photons which have traveled sixty-nine years from Leo’s tail to my eyes.
I built my first telescope fifty years ago as a teenager. It was a small Newtonian reflector with a mirror I ground from a mail-order kit. It came as a revelation that with nothing more than my hands, some grinding powder, and a crude testing apparatus consisting of a pinhole light source and a razor blade, I could create an optical surface accurate to a quarter-wavelength of light. A further revelation came when I took the completed scope outside and trained it on Jupiter. There it stood, halfway up in the east, its disk clearly visible in my field of view. Its four largest moons, known as the Galilean for their discoverer, were arrayed in a plane to either side of the planet’s disk, while its latitudinal bands and the Great Red Spot stood out clearly.
Spend enough time under a starry canopy and questions will form in your head. One is the old, and by now clichéd, matter of the vastness of the universe, the incomprehensible dimensions of the world in which we live. When I was much younger, it thrilled me to gain an inkling of the depths that lay out there, to know that light from the nearest large galaxy, visible to the naked eye in the constellation Andromeda, had spent the last two million years traversing empty space.
These days, viewing the deep sky on a dark night seems more foreboding, bringing the chilly touch of eternity a little too close. This morning, before I arose, I lay awake in bed wondering if I would be able to accept my fated merging back with the consciousless atoms that created this earth. Could I somehow take comfort from knowing that when that time comes, I will be reconstituted once again as a part of the whole? Who knows—although I hope to gain enough perspective to overcome the ego’s hold on my mind.
I think of Galileo, who four hundred years ago trained his primitive little telescope on Jupiter and drew open a curtain on the universe. His observation of those four moons, which he tracked over a period of weeks as they shifted position around the great planet, inaugurated a search that led him to certain novel truths about the universe. Continuing his nightly work, he observed the pockmarked surface of the moon and the individual stars of the Milky Way, which told him that the celestial realm was imperfect; it was not a series of glassy spheres arranged around us, but somehow existed apart from the known world. Suddenly our universe looked very different, and much larger.
By replicating what Galileo saw with my own telescope, I had to accept those same truths—including the inescapable corollary that my individual being held no importance whatever in the scheme of the universe. The time is not far off when I must live that truth.
Constellation Leo: Alexander Jamieson Celestial Atlas (1822), from Wikimedia Commons
Saigyo: Wikimedia Commons
Andromeda Galaxy (M31): NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day, Dec. 17, 2018