When I was a kid, I wanted a telescope. I was enchanted by the romantic idea of sitting out under the night sky (which I didn’t really know, but loved) with a telescope (which I loved, but didn’t know). But I couldn’t afford a telescope, and I hadn’t learned how much stargazing you can do with binoculars (tons, in fact). And actually, had a telescope come into my possession, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. I figured astronomers just, er, pointed their telescopes at stars.
I mean, stars are the basic units of matter accumulation in the universe, and they’re primarily what you see what you look up into the night sky. If you’re in a sufficiently dark place, you may also see the Milky Way, and a couple of dozen of the brighter clusters and nebulae, and there are a handful of double stars you can split with the naked eye. And the moon and planets may be out, too. But mostly what you can see with the naked eye are an awful lot of individual stars. So ever since I got into amateur astronomy eight years ago, it has greatly amused me that amateur astronomers spend almost all of their time looking at everything but individual stars.
Now, most of those not-individual-star thingies are still related to individual stars in some way. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek breakdown:
- Double and multiple stars: teeny groups of stars
- Open clusters: small groups of stars
- Globular clusters: big groups of stars
- Galaxies: huge groups of stars
- Galaxy clusters: groups of huge groups of stars
- Stellar nurseries: baby stars
- Planetary nebulae: dying stars
- Supernova remnants: corpses of stars
- Bright nebulae: disorganized star dust, lit up by stars
- Dark nebulae: disorganized star dust, not lit up by stars
- Planets, moons, asteroids, and comets: organized star dust, lit up by one star
- The sun: okay, you got me there
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to pick one star in the sky, learn a little something about it – how big it is, how bright, how old, how far away – and then go have a look. Doesn’t have to be with binoculars or a telescope, but it can be. Just take a couple of minutes and get acquainted with this actual physical object, a gravitationally-contained fusion bomb blazing away out there in space, shooting intense and continuous beams of photons in all directions for millions or billions of years. As physically real as your own body (which is itself compiled from the fusion-forged dust of long-dead stars), and from the standpoint of the physical universe, a lot more durable, lasting, and important.
Contemplate the unique appearance and attributes of your chosen celestial snowflake.
And then – and only then – look around and see that you are standing in a blizzard – a universe dense beyond counting with stars.