Pick a Star


Author: Mike Alexander ’72

There is ritual to it, a proper way of doing things. Done wrong, and you will not find your way. Done right, and you may be richly rewarded.

A tripod is set out in the early evening. The telescope is carried out and attached to it, 60 pounds of glass and metal carefully maneuvered over the setscrew as Earth’s shadow passes overhead and the first mothlike stars come glimmering out. I flip a switch, and the device hums to life. An electronic plumb bob in its base responds to the pull of gravity, making it level. A built-in compass senses invisible lines of force, and it turns to magnetic north. A GPS receiver listens to the call of satellites far overhead, and the telescope swings slightly left to true north, aligned with Polaris peeking over the fir trees, northern jewel on the world’s axle. Only then does it ask for help, and just for the fine tuning.

Pick a star, any star, the computer seems to say. I choose Arcturus, which I then center in the eyepiece and press a button. Give me one more it says, and I swing over to Spica (or maybe Aldebaran or Dhube or Capella, whichever is properly placed on this particular night) and the centering is repeated. A brief internal calculation, and the machine now knows where and when it is.

In Lord Dunsany’s play The Laughter of the Gods, King Karnos said: A man is a small thing, and the night is very large, and full of wonders. I can now ask it to show me wonders.

There is room for more than one hundred thousand full moons in the sky. The night is, indeed, very large. I enter the name of the planetary nebula in the constellation Lyra into the computer, and the instrument slews around, motors whirring, turning its shallow cup of silvered glass up to catch a bit of the musings of the universe. It slows, then stops, pointing near the zenith.

The Queen said: Men laugh at the gods; they often laugh at the gods. I am more sure that the gods laugh too.

Looking into the eyepiece, I see a few bright pinpoints on a sable field. And there, just below center, is a faint smoke ring blown on the stars.

Even if you know it should be there it is so unexpected, so insanely strange, that the eye looks away and back, as if to give the gods a moment to reconsider this odd thing flung there like some cosmic raspberry at little Man. The moon, that is breathtaking, but its mountains and valleys and plains, even in gaunt airlessness, are not unfamiliar. A smoke ring blown on the stars: that is something else and takes time getting used to.

Arolind said: I do not trust a prophet. He is the go-between of gods and men.

Why do it? Stealing hours better spent asleep than plucking the silver apples of the moon or staring at almost nothing somewhere out on the marches of forever? The sky is heedless if I look or not.

Part of it is the ritual itself, the satisfaction gained from the consequence of correct procedure. In this it is no different than a mechanic listening to the purr of a well-tuned engine or an artist stepping back from a freshly finished painting or a priest turning from an altar. I have done something well, and I can appreciate the results without having to take anyone else’s word for it. I have looked at the Ring Nebula, the swarming beehive of the great globular cluster in Hercules, the stark ramparts of Tycho with my own eyes. I have looked through the glass at wonders, and I believe.

Arolind said: She makes me have huge fears of prodigious things.

The sheer depth and breadth of creation gives a re-innoculation of proper humility. Not the “aw shucks, ’twarn’t nothing’” kind that draws as much attention as it deflects. Proper humility is nothing more than a sense of perspective. Looking at a globe of glowing gas of a size and at a distance that puts even the numbers of the national debt in their place lets one relax and not sweat the small stuff for a while. Infinity divided by any bounded value is still infinity, and there is room for an existential shiver in the dark between the stars.

King Karnos said: I am told that sometimes a man will play all night.

Observing requires a certain patience, the ability to remain alert while at the same time achieving a paradoxical relaxation where the mind is cleared of the everyday and focused on the object at hand. It is an old astronomical truism, yet completely true, that the more you look, the more you will see. A quick glance at Jupiter will show an oblate sphere with parallel bands, but watching for an hour or two may allow a few seconds here and there when the seeing suddenly snaps into greater focus and swirls and festoons appear on the surface of the clouds. In this it is a very human activity, plugging ahead while waiting for those moments of ultimate clarity.

King Karnos said: Ah. I am glad you love it.

There is the delight in sharing discovery, calling others to see what you have found. (Come see Saturn! See rings around a world! See Albireo! A double star regal in sapphire and topaz! See Orion! Look at the Great Nebula swirling on his sword! Come see wonders!) There is the sharing of history, too, of lore from millennia past. Up there, King Cepheus and his queen, Cassiopeia; Perseus and Pegasus; Draco and the great ship Argo Navis; Cygnus the Swan, flying down the great sky river of the Milky Way toward Sagittarius the Archer; the Great Bear and the Hunting Dogs; Berenice’s Hair. Old names, magic names. There are reasons enough to do it.

Ichtharion said: Man’s fear rises weird and large in all this mystery and makes a shadow of himself upon the ground and Man jumps and says “the gods.” Why they are less than shadows; we have seen shadows, we have not seen the gods.

Sitting in the dark with a forest at my back the night is palpable around me. The lights of the town five miles distant do not so much illuminate as etch the dark in sharper relief. Down the valley I can hear the occasional ululation of a herd of coyotes. Mountain lions are not completely unknown in these parts.

As a child of the suburbs I grew up in light and was afraid of the dark. Some of that remains, and I find myself at first staying close to the telescope, like a hunter’s fire, for protection. I jump at the sound of a falling pinecone rattling down the roof of the shed, freeze at eyes glowing beyond it. Cougar? Housecat. The longer I stay the more my eyes adapt, and after an hour I can move around without any trouble. The more you look the more you will see. The dark becomes an ally, and you curse the rare car that passes or the neighbor who turns on a distant porch light. How dare you!

Ludibras said: They are like no tangible thing in all the world. They are like faint beautiful songs of an unseen singer.

On a moonless night at the right time of the year, the core of the great galaxy in Andromeda can barely be seen with the naked eye as a small, faint, fuzzy patch, an illumination in the window of heaven two million years old. The telescope is a time machine; everywhere we look we look into the past, constrained by the finite velocity of light. (But not the light itself: Traveling at the speed limit of the universe, a photon experiences no duration of time at all. In its own frame of reference the moment of its creation is also the moment of its destruction. It is not obvious that, to itself, a particle of light even exists. That is a wonder, too.) Andromeda is actually several times the width of the full moon, but distance dims it so that only the supernal core is visible to the unglassed eye, looking as it was before men wore clothes. Before men.

From my vantage I see only half the sky, with other wonders waiting in its hidden hemisphere. To the south lie the Magellanic Clouds, the Tarantula Nebula, the giant star Eta Carinae. Below the horizon is Alpha Centauri, Far Centaurus, also called Rigel Kent, our nearest neighbor after the sun (Rigel, Arabic, Rijl, lit. foot), a name meaning the Foot of the Centaur, a bit more than a hundred trillion miles away. How easily the trillions roll off the tongue as we pad our limited imaginations with zeroes! (How far away is it, Daddy? About a billion jillion skillion miles, dear. Is that farther than New York?)

Voice-of-the-Gods said: The sun is falling low. I will leave you now, for I have ever loved the sun at evening. I go to watch it drop through the gilded clouds, and make a wonder of familiar things.

This evening if it is clear, if the seeing is good, I will repeat the ritual. Overhead, as the light seeps away, the Summer Triangle shimmers: Vega, Deneb, Altair. Old names, magic names. The Northern Cross points to the southern horizon, the Swan flying endlessly down the river of stars toward the heart of the galaxy. Around the bulge of the world Far Centaurus burns in the night, waiting for me, someday, with the patience earned of five billion years.

I wish you wonders.

Mike Alexander lives in western Oregon, which would be perfect with just a bit fewer clouds.

The magazine welcomes comments, but we do ask that they be on topic and civil. Read our full comment policy.