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Letting the crazy out

April 24, 2011

From 2001 to 2006, we lived in Santa Cruz. This was before I became an amateur astronomer. Spring was storm season, which pretty much made it my favorite season. In the morning after a big storm, you could drive over kept strewn across West Cliff Blvd by the waves and wind. I used to go out the cliffs and just sit on the rocks. When a big wave came in and crashed against the cliffs, you could feel it, as if someone had gently kicked your chair. It was mesmerizing, watching the waves, thinking about the fact that the ocean had been there longer than life itself. Staring into that immensity always seemed to put me right with the world. My problems shrunk to manageable size. I often went down to the cliffs frustrated and bent out of shape and left with a little perspective and a little portion of calm.

I called it “letting the crazy seep out”. I don’t remember where I got that phrase, but it is one of my touchstones. It doesn’t just happen at the seaside (which is good, considering that I only lived next to the ocean for 1/7 of my life). Long drives through desolate country also do the trick, especially at night. Hikes of any length. The desert is a marvelous sponge for the accumulated mental grime of civilized life.

So is the night sky. I usually go out to observe with a purpose in mind–some new target to track down, or an old favorite I haven’t seen this season, or just to stare in awe again at the rings of Saturn or Jupiter with its little entourage of moons. But whatever purpose gets me out there looking up, one of the effects of stargazing for me has always been to let the crazy seep out. As if the telescope is a big syringe, drawing the poison out through my pupils. When I first realized this, back in Merced, I started to think of the night sky as another seashore. Carl Sagan’s description of the surface of the earth as “the shore of the cosmic ocean” resonates for me. If sitting on the cliffs in Santa Cruz brought me face-to-face with immensity, stargazing gives me a brush with eternity. I usually leave more tired but less crazy, and that’s a good trade.

Someone said of E.E. Barnard that he was a true observer because if he was prevented from making astronomical observations for any length of time, he got cranky. I can certainly relate. I am in a similar state right now. It’s been cloudy all week. It was cloudy the week before last. It cleared off last weekend, just in time for the camping trip to Owl Canyon, but the nearly-full moon and unsteady seeing made for one of the least satisfying nights of stargazing I’ve ever had, to the point that I gave up and went to bed at midnight (horror!). It’s not supposed to really clear off until Monday.

I did get out tonight, briefly. I was taking out some trash a little after 11:00 and noticed that the sky was mostly clear. By the time I got some warm clothes on, grabbed all my gear, and got set up out in the driveway, that was no longer true. Clouds from the west had already passed the zenith and were creeping down the eastern sky. Saturn and Virgo were already gone, and the Big Dipper was rapidly getting submerged in the soup. I tried without success to find a double star in Bootes, but it was eaten by the clouds too soon. The only stars I could make out lower in the sky were those of Hercules. I cruised down to M13, the Great Glob, mostly so I wouldn’t get completely skunked. It was barely there, but I swapped eyepieces around until I found the best magnification for this evening (75x; it might be higher or lower on other nights, under other conditions), cupped my hands around my face, and stared until the lights went out, which didn’t take long. Less than 10 minutes after I got the scope set up, the sky was completely socked in.

Needless to say, the experience was the opposite of therapeutic.

I know it’s probably galling for some to have a SoCal resident complaining about a measly week or two of clouds. William Herschel discovered 2500 or so deep sky objects, several hundred double stars, and the planet Uranus from England, where clouds are nearly omnipresent, sometimes even coming into people’s houses and carrying off their children. Herschel earned a post as Astronomer Royal, so stargazing was both his obsession and his occupation. If he could put up with a career of observing from England, I’m sure I can suck it up for a couple more days.

I hope so. The crazy is building up.

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One comment

  1. Hats off to you, Matt, for observing in the city. I’d like to do the same, but I’ve got a neighbor with a bright patio light who is afraid of the dark. Also, across the street is a street light. I get out once, sometimes twice per month under very dark skys, at Red Cloud Rd often. May should find me at RTMC, July at Grandview, and for September Central Nevada Star Party near Tonapah, that is a terrific event. My friend Cliff Saucier tells me your club will be at White Water for May 6th. Most likely, conditions permitting, I’ll be out there too. Steve



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