Jerry Nelson: Scoping out the sky
Winter has well and truly arrived, much to the disappointment of those (such as me) who had hoped that global warming would spare us from this season of freezing blizzards and stinging snowstorms.
Winter is actually a gift. Without winter, we wouldn’t fully appreciate spring and summer. A person who lives in a place that’s always balmy would be like someone who dines on filet mignon and apple pie à la mode every day. They would be unaware of how good they have it, having never been forced to exist on leftover Spam that’s been accessorized with dusty French fries that were excavated from between the car seats.
Our long, chilly winter nights are also a gift. They force us to slow down from our hurly-burly summertime activities which had expanded to include such things as spoon-feeding our tomato plants with a special fertilizer made from bat guano that was mined in secret caves located deep in the jungles of Borneo or combing the grass clippings out of our lawns with a toothbrush.
My wife and I have been married for so long that it’s nearly impossible for us to surprise one another. For instance, if we go on a grocery hunting expedition and happen to pass through the greeting card aisle, I might pick a birthday or anniversary card from the shelf and show it to her.
“That’s nice,” she’ll say and put the card back on the rack. Being married this long comes with advantages, one of which is not spending good money to express our deep feelings for each other.
Like many of us, my wife and I have changed our shopping habits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shopping online isn’t really much different than when we were kids and ordered things from the Montgomery Ward catalogue. You placed your order and watched for the mailman’s daily visit with a heightened level of interest. Will today be the day that my package arrives? I hope our mail carrier will be able to fit that new ceiling fan in the mailbox!
So, it was somewhat of a surprise when the mailman recently dropped off a nondescript brown box at our house. It was a surprise to my wife, that is.
“What’s this?” she asked as I eagerly tore into the box.
“You bought me a new spotting scope for Christmas!” I replied. “How did you know that this was exactly what I wanted?”
“Maybe it’s because you were the one who ordered it online,” she replied. “But hey, whatever works. Merry Christmas!”
A telescope enables a person to travel through time and space. For example, when you look up at the moon, you aren’t seeing our next-door celestial neighbor where it actually is. Light takes 1.3 seconds to travel from the moon to the Earth, so you are seeing the moon where it was 1.3 seconds ago.
If you were to literally “shoot the moon” with some sort of powerful projectile, you would have to calculate an appropriate amount of lead. Add in other factors such as the moon’s orbital movement, Earth’s rotation on its axis, the sun’s motion around the Milky Way and … good grief! You would need to be some sort of rocket scientist to make sense of it all.
I set up my new telescope in the east window and took a gander. I could almost count the pigeons perched atop a grain elevator that’s more than a dozen miles distant. Our nearest neighbor is well over a mile away, but I bet I would be able to read the words “hand wash only” if they hung their clothes on their clothesline.
Winter nights are too chilly for outdoor stargazing, so one evening I pointed my powerful new telescope at the moon. I couldn’t see squat, but then I realized that I had forgotten to remove the lens cap.
It took some doing — the tiniest twitch shifts the scope’s field of view by several megaparsecs — but I finally found the moon.
Anyone who thinks that Earth’s only natural satellite is as flat as a dime should examine the gibbous moon through a telescope. You can see mountain peaks illuminated by sunlight and the craggy rims of craters that are large enough to encompass a city.
“What do you see?” my wife asked one evening as I studied the sky with the scope.
“I found a new star!” I replied. “It’s a magnificent orange color. Here, take a look.”
My wife peered through the telescope. “I see your future,” she said. “And it involves taking down the Christmas decorations so that you won’t mistake an orange light for a star.”