anghara (anghara) wrote,

Counting the stars in the sky

It's almost a companion piece to the Moon missions which I wrote about only a couple of days ago, but Mike Brotherton has something up on his blog about an international star-counting project, working out what people can see in the sky and where they can see it and where light pollution is wiping out any chance of doing so.

No wonder none of us look up any more. There's little left to SEE up there unless you're in the wilderness - otherwise you're surrounded by street lights, neon, electronic billboards a la Blade Runner (you think I'm kidding? Go stroll down Ginza in Tokyo...)and even, in the kinder and gentler suburbia not quite so aggressively urban, light spilling from houses, outside lights parked on garages and driveways which serve no real purpose other than to spread the pervasive illumination even in times when the driveway or the garage is not being used for anything at all.

We were born and formed under that great swathe of the Milky Way. I don't think I've seen it now in years.

I remember once, back in South Africa, when I was at University and my department (or a few members of it, anyway) drove across the country from Cape Town to - eh - somewhere, I don't even recall any more now. Whatever, we spent the night in the middle of the Great Karoo, which is the semi-desert arid scrubland stretching for endless empty miles in the hinterland of Cape PRovince. I remember that we broke the journey for the night, and stopped to stay at this tiny place in the middle of nowhere, just this one house with faint lights on the back side of it where someone had set up a barbeque and was busy frying up some burgers or whatever was on the menu. And I stepped away from the people hanging around the barbie with their beers, and went around the corner of the house, and crossed into darkness - the house lights were hidden from me by the bulk and shadow of the house, and there was nothing on this other side. NOTHING. And I looked up, and the sky was vast, and close, and the stars were splinters of light so sharp that you could cut your fingers on them if you reached out to touch them - and they looked like you COULD touch them, if you just reached out your hand.

And behind them, painted on that black velvet, was the great luminous swathe of the Milky Way. That was the last time I remember really *seeing* it - oh, it must be nearly twenty years ago now. But I remember it vividly, even now - and if I close my eyes and it's right there for me, my galaxy, spilling into my night sky.

I remember a feeling of vast and unbounded awe, standing there staring at these vivid stars, and thinking that this was a sky under which there could be nothing but truth - and this was not a land that I would have wished to answer for when judgment day rolled around. The Karoo was brutal, brutally honest, and stripped away all pretension - it could be no less, bared to the gaze of the Universe as it was, with no place to hide on the huge flat plain with nothing on it higher than scrub that you could hide behind.

No, here, you took responsibility for who you were and what you did.

The stars do that.

I can't really take part in Mike's star count - I live in the Pacific Northwest and it's October and it's increasingly unlikely that I'll see anything other than cloud cover for the next five or six months. But if you're somewhere else and the skies are clear for you, you might want to lift your eyes to the sky. Go here to find out more about it.
Tags: stars

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