Stars, Desert Travels, and My Science Illiteracy

The sky calls to us.   – Carl Sagan

I’ve been missing the stars this summer.  The other day I was reading a children’s book about the history of science (The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way, by Joy Hakim), and was struck from the very first page by the thought of what the night skies must have looked like thousands of years ago, before there was electric light or air pollution.  I can’t even begin to imagine the magnitude of what that must have looked like.

Those of us living in the city go night after night rarely thinking about the stars overhead.  It’s only when we leave the city on a clear night that we suddenly realize how different the sky looks, and that it always looks that way, but stubbornly remains obscured to us.

I remember well my first sight of the Milky Way.  I was eighteen and camping in the Everglades and wasn’t sure what I was seeing.  I was amazed.  Even though my family had traveled back and forth many times between Dallas and Oklahoma, I had never once seen the Milky Way.  I was looking into the middle of our galaxy, and it took my breath away.

I’ve seen the Milky Way many times since then.  One of the reasons I love traveling west on  summer vacation is the chance to see the night sky.  Even though our days are exhausting, either driving to get to our next campground or hiking through canyons and up mountains, I love nothing more than watching the stars for hours at night and pondering the mysteries of the universe.

One summer years ago, when the kids were younger, we drove to one of our favorite places, Arches National Park in Utah.  Unfortunately, by the time we got there the campsite was full.  The rangers suggested we drive over to BLM land just outside of Canyonlands NP and camp for free, then try back in the morning.  Despite my initial reluctance, it was incredible. We hiked around and saw huge tracks in the sand and convinced ourselves there were cougars nearby (we later saw in a ranger station they were just coyote tracks).  Later that night, we saw more stars than any of us had ever seen.  Someone had the idea to look at the stars with the binoculars, which we did, but the sheer incomprehensibility of that many more stars was literally frightening, and we put the binoculars away.

My son on the edge of Canyonlands NP

What was it that scared us so much about seeing that many stars?  I think it magnified our questions to the same percentage as the stars.

Another time we sat on the edge of Bryce Canyon on the 4th of July.  We saw numerous falling stars that night, and all agreed it was better than fireworks in the city.

My daughter at Bryce Canyon NP

In Badlands NP in South Dakota, we hiked a small rise at the primitive campground one evening to look at the stars.  With the Milky Way bright overhead, we could see lightning on the horizon in all four directions.  Later that night, the four thunderstorms converged directly over our tent.  The rain came down so hard it flattened the side of our tent, snapped one of the fiberglass poles in half, and left us drenched.  The lightning was nonstop, and I very seriously thought we were all going to die.  We laugh about it now, but I prayed that night.

Our tent after the storm. The kids are still asleep inside.

Another trip, this time camping in Guadalupe NP in 1997:  It was mid-March, Spring Break, and we had driven all day to get there.  We pitched the tents and went to sleep as soon as the sun went down.  As is so often the case when camping and the restroom is either a gazillion miles away or nonexistent, I woke up in the middle of the night and had to go.  It was cold, and I hurriedly unzipped the sleeping bag, then the tent door.  As I did so, I saw something strangely bright in the sky just above.  I squinted as hard as I could, then fumbled around in the dark until I found my glasses.  I couldn’t believe it–it looked like a comet!  I woke up the entire family (and probably the entire campground) with my wondrous discovery.  They weren’t as impressed as I was, but the next day I asked around and got mostly blank stares from the rangers.  Apparently it was Hale-Bopp, and the word was just starting to get out about it’s existence.  It was a beautiful double-tailed comet, and so bright I could see it from my front porch a mile from downtown Dallas.  Night after night, month after month, it made its appearance, but very few people noticed it.

There is one winter constellation we can always see in the city, and that is Orion the Hunter.  Even my fifth grade students were familiar with Orion.  There is a fantastic website called Dakota Lapse that I love to visit.  When I showed my students Randy Halverson’s motion controlled timelapse photos of Orion, they couldn’t grasp the fact that so many other stars were always in the sky, unseen to them because of city lights.

What is it about the stars that hold such mystery for us?

Science has always been a subject that’s fascinated me–especially astronomy and geology–but one that I struggled with, like math, as a student. Reading and writing were easy for me; science and math weren’t.

Most of my science classes in high school were taught by coaches, and we rarely did labs or anything hands-on.  Both subjects were taught straight from textbooks, and no teacher stands out as making the learning fun or interesting.  It wasn’t until college that I had a teacher who made algebra come alive.  His passion for math made me want to solve  algebra problems in my spare time, kind of like solving crossword puzzles.  I wasn’t so lucky with science.  I’m pretty much science illiterate, and through the years I’ve made it a goal to learn more about the sciences.

I loved Carl Sagan, whose beautiful style of writing and obvious humanity are still greatly missed since his death in 1996.  We need more scientists and mathematicians who have the gift of imparting abstract ideas with such clarity and poetry.  One summer I decided to watch the entire Cosmos series.  I made it to the episode where he lays all the chemical elements on a table and says something to the effect of, Everything in our universe is made from these elements.  I stopped, rewound, and watched it again.  And again.  And again.  That’s as far as I got in the series.  For some reason, it was so simple and so complex all at the same time.  It was the precursor to looking at the stars in the binoculars.

Maybe I’ll give Cosmos another try one day.  As a matter of fact, I’ve already got it queued up on Hulu.  In the meantime,  I’ll keep reading and learning and wondering–and I’ll keep leaving the city every chance I get to gaze up at the stars at night and ponder the mysteries of the universe.

*** My friend Jon posted this amazing video on Facebook this morning, which goes right along with my post:

***The significance of Orion continues.  I saw this news article yesterday:  Oxygen Molecules Detected in Orion Constellation

***And the BEST news of all:  Cosmos gets a sequel

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3 comments

  1. skippingstones

    I had a similar experience with stars when I was going to college in Radford, Virginia. It’s a small town and it’s so dark in the country when there is no moon, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. We used to go star-gazing at a little bridge there, where you could stand with your back to the rail, lean back as far as you could and just look. One night, there were so many stars – more than I’ve ever seen before or since – it boggled the mind. I still remember that sky.

    The think is, that sky is up there every night. Only I can’t see it.

    It is a little bit too much to bear. I think the largeness of the universe is too much to bear. Humans need the safety and security of our world-sized blanket. To see so much open above us, and to contemplate the possibilities that open space contains…it’s more than our little lives can handle.

    • Mind Margins

      And it’s so humbling to look up at all that mystery staring you in the face. It always makes me feel so small and inconsequential in comparison to the universe, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes I think we need something like the night sky to remind us that our little lives, and our little problems, are maybe not really as important as we think they are. I’m not a very religious person, but looking up at all those stars is like going to church. It truly moves me and fills me with such a sense of wonder and awe. It takes all my words away.

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