for release February 22, 2002
by Melodie Davis
What You Can't See
There's a marvelous free show playing every night of the week and it's enjoyed a run longer than any play on Broadway (New York) or King Street (Toronto). Or course it's not visible every night due to cloud cover, and the light from our cities increasingly makes it harder to see, but have you paused lately to take in "The Heavens"?
Jim Guthrie is a retired Presbyterian pastor/chaplain with an untiring passion for the hobby of astronomy. He and his wife, Mae, hosted a small group of dinner guests on an early January evening and for the after-dinner entertainment we bundled up against the cold and trekked out in twos to peek through his backyard telescope. What a show!
Our daughter has a telescope too but they're tricky to manipulate and master, so we enjoyed the sights Jim helped us see: Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and its rings, several nebulae, Orion, Cassiopeia, and "our sister galaxy," Andromeda. We only had time for the briefest glance, yet I learned, or was reminded of, so much.
For instance, I was kind of nebulous about nebulae, nebula, etc. Nebulous, of course, means vague, but nebulae is plural for nebula, which refers basically to gas and dust clouds "out there." It can also include a group of stars, like the Milky Way. One web site explains, "Originally, the word 'nebula' referred to almost any extended astronomical object other than planets and comets. [It can also refer to a cloudy covering over the eye.] We sometimes use the word 'nebula' to refer to galaxies, various types of star clusters and various kinds of interstellar dust/gas clouds." (<http://www.seds.org/billa/twn/types.html>)
What I was most taken by was when Jim focused the telescope on the area of the sky with the "seven sisters" grouping of stars also known as Pleiades. We spent some time picking out the stars with our eyes, and then looked through the telescope. Suddenly our eyes were opened: in that small grouping, you could see hundreds of more stars that you can't begin to see with the naked eye.
The Pleiades is one of the brightest and most visible open clusters in the sky, is 400 light years away with over 3000 stars. (And in case you've forgotten just how long a light year is, it is the distance light travels in one year, which is about 6 trillion miles or over 12 million round-trips to the Moon.) At least six member stars are visible to the naked eye, and the theory is that there used to be a seventh star visible, which faded. (But even a pair of good binoculars will make additional stars visible in this cluster.)
An interesting footnote is that in Japanese, the Seven Sisters are called Subaru -- which is where the car got its name. Many cultures have tales and folklore involving this cluster, which is easy to understand, since it is visible without a telescope. Pleiades is mentioned several times in the Bible, including (Job 9:9), where Job reflects on the Big Dipper, Orion, and the Pleiades by name.
With the Psalmist, we marvel, "The heavens keep telling the wonders of God." In fact, if you read all of Psalm 19, you have to think that David was out on the hills, where light pollution was practically nonexistent, observing the ever-moving, changing stars and constellations as he wrote: "Each day informs the following day; each night announces to the next. They don't speak a word, and there is never the sound of a voice. Yet their message reaches all the earth, and it travels around the world. In the heavens a tent is set up for the sun. It rises like a bridegroom and gets ready like a hero eager to run a race. It travels all the way across the sky." The stars must have been like a gigantic movie screen for ancient peoples and hence the stories they developed around the figures they saw there.
Then Jim took us on to his computer and showed us what he considered another marvel: he opened an e-mail he had saved, and showed us a digital video clip that a fellow astronomy hobbyist had sent him, of one of Jupiter's moons rising. He played it several times, saying, "Isn't it neat what they can do?" The Internet has made it almost too easy to find out everything you could want to know about a star, planet, term, or cluster of stars. Here is just one site: <http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap960618.html>
If there are worlds that are "out there" beyond what we can see, that are beyond our physical sight limitations, why is it so hard for us to believe that there are realms of being and understanding beyond our intellectual limitations? Even this small immersion into the "cosmos" takes me once again to greater faith in the God we cannot see nor totally understand.
An additional web site: www.valleystargazers.com <http://www.valleystargazers.com>
Comments? Write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
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