Friday, December 28, 2007

The pleasure of anticipation

This is the time of year when I curl up with Guy Ottewell's new Astronomical Calendar and savor the anticipation of next year's celestial pleasures. If you don't know Guy's calendar, you really should buy one; the man has a gift for graphical presentation. This is not a calendar is the familiar sense, but a large-format book packed with information.

Some years ago, Guy transported himself from South Carolina to Dorset, England, and the cover of the 2008 Calendar is a painting of the astronomical clock in Wells Cathedral. Guy is an artist, and a cyclist too. He has had a long-standing invitation to visit us in Ireland, and I'm still hoping that some summer day he'll come pedaling up on his bike.

In the meantime, I see that as Venus abandons its prominence in our evening sky, it will have a close conjunction with Jupiter on February 1. Other nice groupings are in the new year's offing, such as a conjunction of Mars and Saturn on July 10/11.

No interesting naked-eye lunar occultations this year, at least not for any place I'll be residing.

The most anticipated event here in Exuma will be the total lunar eclipse of February 20-21, which couldn't be better placed. There is a total solar eclipse later in the year, on August 1, but you'll have to go to Siberia or Mongolia to see it. I'll try for the Shanghai eclipse the following year.

Here in Exuma, with our clear skies and marvelous horizons, I'll be looking for the young Moons of January 9, February 8, and, especially, March 8. The latter Moon will be less than 30 hours old, and on a track that puts it almost vertical to our horizon. Eyelash thin!

These are just a few of the pleasure that await us.

Gut Ottewell is an astronomer, artist, poet, novelist, and polymath, all of which shows up in his Calendar. He has Fred Schaaf as a collaborator, another poet-astronomer. These two guys know more about the sky than I could ever dream of knowing, and I am lucky to have them as my guides.

And what's the point? What's the point of watching young Moons, conjunctions, eclipses, or even something as ordinary as Mercury in a rosy dawn? Under a dark night sky I feel pretty much what Vladimir Nabokov felt with his butterflies. In his autobiography Speak Memory he wrote: "The highest enjoyment of timelessness...is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude..."