Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Happy Autumn

This weekend, while the Professor was mourning the apparent desire of Penn State's offense to spot Michigan 14 points, summer officially came to an end in the northern hemisphere. As seen from the Earth, the sun moved south of the equator, heralding the start of autumn and the bleak winter now only 13 weeks away.

You probably have noticed the days getting shorter. It is now dark when my alarm clock goes off, and the sun is setting as I head home; it seems just a few weeks ago that the sun was high in the sky when I awoke and light until late at night.

Many people who get interested in astronomy think that they need to buy a big telescope and then try and find extremely faint objects, then they get disappointed when they can't. It would be like an average person deciding to take up jogging as a hobby and being disappointed at not being able to run a marathon on their first time jogging, or someone who takes up carpentry and tries to build a house as a first project. Such an approach to amateur astronomy is only bound to lead to frustration.

But this is a great time of year to begin the hobby of astronomy. If you happen to wake up before sunrise or are getting home right about sunset, pay attention to where on the horizon the sun is rising or setting. Then, a couple days later, stand at the same spot and watch again. I bet you will be shocked to see how much the sun's rising or setting point has moved.

Since many of us are now still active when it is getting dark, it's also a great time to pay attention to the moon. In the next few days, a nearly-full moon will be rising just about sunset. If you just spend a few minutes over a few days, pay attention to the phase of the moon -- can you see the moon's phase start to wane from completely full on Wednesday night to more partial phases over the weekend. You'll also be able to notice that the moon is rising a little later each night (by about 30 minutes to an hour). And, if you pay attention to the stars around the moon, you'll easily see that the moon moves a large distance relative to the stars in just one day's time.

Ten years ago, I lived in Munich, Germany for a year and had an apartment that looked west across the city. Because of this, I had a great view of sunset every night. And although I was studying astronomy, I was amazed at how much the sun's setting point moved from one day to the next. It was not a subtle effect -- the sun would change its setting point by more than its own diameter, especially around the beginning of fall and the beginning of spring.

By watching this motion, I for once felt more connected to the larger Universe around me -- I was able to experience Earth's motion around the sun and the changing of the seasons without needing to stare at a computer screen or thinking very hard about orbital physics. The evidence was right there in front of me, very plain to see.

I think that, in our modern technological world, we often lose sight of the big picture. Clocks, cars, and computers dominate our lives, and the seasons only serve to tell us what to wear and, maybe, that the peaches in the supermarket came from our own state instead of being shipped in from Central America. Just a few minutes a day of looking at the sun, moon and stars, and even those of us with minimal astronomy knowledge can begin to see the daily, monthly, and yearly dance of the Earth, moon and sun, and begin to reconnect us with something a bit larger than ourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment