Does your mind (and binoculars) fly to outer space seeking out distant constellations more often than to the tree in your backyard trying to discern the wing-bar patterns on that warbler flitting there? Mine did, back in college several decades ago when I was an active instigator in a campus Astronomy club. Back in the Institute of Science in Bombay as a starry-eyed undergrad (zoology major, mind), some of my happiest moments were spent peering up past the city’s well-lit smog through the business end of a telescope trying to catch that faint streak across the sky known as Halley’s comet, or marvel at the smudge of the Orion nebula! O what fun we had refurbishing a lovely old brass 4-inch optical telescope found forgotten in some cabinet in the Physics department (where it has perhaps retired once again – but I hope not); even more fun designing and then building a proper equatorial mount for the brass beauty in the institute’s machine shop. We even went on to build (from scratch) a 6-inch reflecting scope, starting with grinding and polishing out the mirror from a thick disc of optical glass! We took these out on to the roof of the Institute to share views of the comet, or eclipses and such, with fellow students. The best part, perhaps, was when we went away from the city, hiking in the mountains of the Western Ghats (indeed on that very plateau you see in the wikipedia image on the page I just linked to), to get better views of the sky. And what a contrast it was from the urban sky, to be able to actually see the milky way, and once, most astonishing of all, catch a fleeting shadow out of the corner of my eye that could have only been cast by an unbelievably incandescent Venus burning up the moonless pre-dawn sky! What a cosmic experience to break open the floodgates for a sheltered urban mind! Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, I tired of reading about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, and, on the day-hikes to-and-from our itinerant hill-top observatories, turned some of the high-powered optics to life closer by; discovered bird watching (which goes surprisingly well with star-gazing) and stepped on to the path which has kept me in a state of wonder about the universe we inhabit, and the life that has evolved from the star dust right here on earth.
And no, unlike us birders or other measurers of life on earth, the astronomers aren’t asking you to help them conduct an actual census of the stars, or help them figure out how many there really are (wouldn’t that be fun?!). Their concern is more earth-bound, as in how many known stars can you actually see from any given location on earth! Why wonder about that? Because along with the various other ways we humans are befouling this planet for ourselves and other species, we are also robbing the night sky of its mysteries, by lighting everything up! Here’s an excerpt of an article about this project from the NSF:
The event, which is open to everyone who wants to participate, is organized by the Windows to the Universe project at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, Colo., in conjunction with planetariums and scientific societies across the country and abroad.
Funding is provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“By searching for the same constellations in their respective hemispheres, participants in the Great World Wide Star Count will be able to compare their observations with what others see, giving them a sense of how star visibility varies from place to place,” said Cliff Jacobs, program director in NSF’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences.
The observers will also learn more about the economic and geographic factors that control light pollution in their communities and around the world.
“The star count brings families together to enjoy the night sky and become involved in science,” says Dennis Ward of UCAR’s Office of Education and Outreach. “It also raises awareness about the impact of artificial lighting on our ability to see the stars.”
So if you aren’t doing anything of an evening during the next couple of weeks, why not walk outside your house, see if you can spot a particular constellation: Cygnus (there’s a constellation for bird-watchers!) in the Northern hemisphere, Sagittarius in the Southern, assess its magnitude, report your observations, and bask in the afterglow of participating in a collective science project?
Back in college when my friends and I wielded binoculars more at night than in the day, there was a fellow student who knew of our enthusiasm for astronomy, even though he didn’t share it enough to participate in our nocturnal adventures. Upon graduating, he came to the US for graduate school – where exactly, I don’t quite remember. What I do remember is that a few months later there was a postcard from him, gushing with excitement about his new life in this land of dreams. And among the highlights of his brief stay here was a special tidbit just to amaze us stargazers: someone had taken him camping in the US, and you know what? One could even see the Milky Way from here! Imagine that!!
I hope this project helps students like our friend know where to go to find the Milky Way wherever they happen to live on this small blue dot. I hope you can help. Even if you can’t observe the constellations, at least turn out those lights!
[Hat-tip: Urban Science Adventures]