Monday, November 08, 2010

Goodbye to night

I think it was about 1966-67 that the college acquired its first telescope. We built a modest waist-high shed with a roll-top roof in a dark field, as far away from campus buildings as we could get. The scope was a six-inch Celestron reflector. I spent many lovely nights in that cold dark field with students, scanning the sky for faint nebulae.

When a wing was added to the old science building in the 1970s, the college sprang for a craftily engineered connecting link with two real observatory domes on the roof. The larger dome contained a computer controlled 14-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain. We also had a nearby darkroom, and my colleague Mike did some nice astrophotography with students.

But the college was growing by leaps and bounds, and ambient light increasingly became a problem. We tried to work around it with filters and so on, but year by year those elusive Messier objects faded into a sky that could no longer be called night. The time when a student would gasp an "Ooooh!" on seeing the Ring Nebula had passed. Even naked-eye star talks on the roof deck were hopeless.

In my book Skeptics and True Believers, I wrote about the 1996 apparition of Comet Hyakutake:
Best of all was the evening of April 3, when we forsook the observatory for a broad dark field where we watched the Moon rise in full eclipse, a spooky pink pearl. The comet was in the northwest, showing a degree or two of tail. Venus had joined the Pleiades, a blazing beacon. Meteors streaked the firmament. I was with a group of young people, students at the college. I was impressed by their reverence, wonder, worship even -- and especially by their intense desire to know. I described the physics of cometary motion and produced a three-dimensional model of the orbit I had previously constructed. We talked about the chemistry of comets and the chemistry of life. Knowledge, wonder, and celebration played off one another in perfect harmony. I thought: How sad that such experiences are not part of our formal religious traditions. It was at that moment, in that field, watching that comet, that I decided to write this book.
All that seems rather quaint now, as the campus sits in a pool of artificial light.

For a while we envied the radio astronomers, who weren't bothered by artificial light, or even daylight. Not anymore, the envy that is. An article in the October 22 issue of Science accounts the woes of radio astronomers coping with an explosion of radio frequency interference from cell phones, mobile wireless devices, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, satellite radio channels like XM and Sirius, GPS systems, airplanes, satellites, and so on. We live in a bath of radiation that makes the planet increasingly blind to the cosmos.

It's hard to find a college student these days who has a memory of having seen the Milky Way. That seems terribly sad, I suppose. But then they have access to a spectacular array of cosmic imagery from telescopes in space -- the Hubble, for instance -- that observe the sky in every part of the electromagnetic spectrum, from long-wavelength radio to gamma-ray. Stuff that sets the imagination alight and vastly broadens the intellectual horizon.

Does the new imagery compensate for the visceral, toe-curling thrill of standing with friends in a cold dark field watching a streaming comet welcome a moon rising in full eclipse?