When I was a kid we lived in the country far from city lights. One night my cousin Clifford showed me the major constellations and pointed out the planets that were visible in the sky that evening. I’ve been a star-gazing fool ever since.
In my preteens my mother bought me a small telescope just powerful enough to resolve Mars and Jupiter into tiny shimmering disks. On a clear night the craters of the moon jumped right out with almost frightening clarity. I couldn’t actually make out the rings of Saturn, which appeared to have small lumps on either side of it. At the age of twelve I had a telescope to rival that of 17th century Italian physicist Galileo Galilei, who described Saturn as the “planet with ears.”
As I got older I acquired more powerful instruments which revealed not only Saturn’s rings but the Great Red Spot of Jupiter and the polar ice caps of Mars. I could also enjoy views of the Orion Nebula and the Great Andromeda Galaxy. I was a full-on astronomy geek.
As an adult I joined the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society. At our meetings members would give demonstrations of their respective projects, such as telescope building or astro-photography. My favorite activity was the star parties we hosted for the general public at Highland Road Park. Few things are more satisfying than seeing the stunned look of wonder on someone’s face who’s never before seen a celestial object through a high-powered telescope.
My wife used to rag me about going to my “nerd meetings.”
“Don’t forget your pocket protector!”
She joked that she wouldn’t have to worry about any of us being seduced by attractive women. This was all in good fun, of course. One interesting thing we did at the society was to try to form a coalition with other astronomical societies throughout the South. Several titles were batted around. I lobbied for “Astronomical Society of the South.” The acronym alone made it work. Alas, nothing ever came of it.
All kidding aside, no science has benefited more from dedicated amateurs than astronomy. Over 40 extrasolar planets have been discovered by amateurs, fifteen of which have the wherewithal to support life. Many asteroids and comets were discovered by amateurs, including the spectacular Hale-Bopp comet of 1997-98. Even Uranus was discovered by an amateur. OK, stop that sniggering back there. My interest in astronomy faded as Ascension Parish
boomed. Thousands of lights from new streets, subdivisions and strip malls light up the sky now. Even on the darkest nights it’s hard to make out the milky way. I’d have to pack up my telescope and drive many miles to find a place dark enough to make the effort worthwhile. Sadly, getting shot or knocked in the head on a dark, secluded roadside has to be a consideration these days. I am also lazy. Oh, I still look up to see the bright constellations and planets when I go out to get the mail or bring in the garbage cans at night. But my star maps are rolled up and stashed in the back of a closet somewhere and my telescope collects dust on top of my piano. It was fun while it lasted.
Anyone interested in the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society can visit their web-site at http://www.brastro. org.
And as Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer used to say on PBS, “Keep looking up!”