WINNING THE JACKPOT AT AN AUCTION


I was recently auctioned off for a charitable event.  No, nobody was buying me, but they bought a dinner with me at a friend’s house with a star party to follow.  My job was to show up for the dinner then show the stars afterwards.

For 20 years, I wrote 750 astronomy columns for the local paper.  I don’t do much observing any more, other than chasing the next solar eclipse, which I’ve done 20 times, successful on 17.  I was once an avid observer of variable stars, sometimes getting up at 2 a.m. to make visual observations on one that the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers) needed.  I was so good, my eyes could detect a 0.1 change in magnitude.  I’ve seen about 400 galaxies, 2000 double/multiple stars, all the planets and once followed about 25 variable stars without using star charts.

The night sky is predictable enough to be reassuring but changeable enough to be interesting.  In 1999,  I saw 300 Leonids meteors in an hour.  I saw a red glow over the Catalinas in ’89, realized there was no fire but in fact an aurora.  I’ve seen one grazing occultation, where the Moon’s limb was tangent to a star, so that the star blinked in and out of view as the valleys and mountains of the lunar edge passed by.  That was really cool.  For many years, I did photoelectric photometry, then having to reduce the data by hand.  Other than a total solar eclipse or a total lunar eclipse, the occultation of 28 Sgr by Saturn in 1989 might have been the most striking thing I ever saw.  As Saturn covered the star, I could define every ring layer by the star’s passage.  I still have my notes for that one; the star disappeared from view 38 times in 45 minutes!  That was beyond cool.  I stayed out half the night looking, and I had an office full of patients to see the next day.  I’m sure more than a few of those patients noted the doctor was tired, but finally seeing the star in between the globe of Saturn and the inner ring was an image I will never forget.

I wrote an article for Sky and Telescope several years ago how astronomy and dark skies freed me from my shyness.  After I was auctioned, I didn’t know what would happen; the person who “bought me” was a minister, and I had some trepidation about the evening.  After all, some ministers believe the Earth is 4000 years old and don’t realize that we are made of star stuff; our Sun is at least a second generation star.  I am not religious, but I am intensely spiritual, the idea of the elements coming from stars strikes me to my core.  The iron in my hemoglobin, the calcium in my bones, and the carbon in the fat surrounding the myelin sheaths in the corticospinal tract leading from my brain to my lower spinal cord are just a few examples.

I wore my Argentinian eclipse T-shirt that two delightful women, brilliant German astrophysicists, gave me after the event.    I arrived at John’s house early, set up my ‘scope (20 cm reflector), then had a beer with John  and his wife.  John and I go back a decade as bike riders.  I quit the sport in 2006 after breaking my 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th bones, but we stay in touch.  Just as I finished my drink, the other guests arrived.

We went outside, as the brightest stars appeared.  This is navigational twilight, when the Sun is 6-12 degrees below the horizon, light enough to see both bright stars and the horizon.  I pointed out the Summer Triangle and Jupiter, and described star magic.  In Tucson, the mountains allow a rising star to suddenly pop into view, so if one can determine the exact time of its rising, she can go out 4 minutes earlier the next night and count down 4, 3, 2, 1 RISE!  And the star will rise.  It is like magic, except of course, it is entirely predictable.  I also spoke of “Earthmove” rather than “Moonrise,” for I have learned that if one changes perspective, it is possible to see the Earth rotate, which in fact is what Moonrise is.  I do it many times a year.  Seeing the Earth rotate is primal.

The minister thought all this fascinating.  His wife sat next to me at dinner and is, like me, is a teacher.  Before we finished dinner, she had invited me to her advanced junior high math class next February to talk to them about math in the outdoors, a subject I am particularly interested in.  American kids need to get out more, and this is one way.

After dinner, we went outside, and looked above us.  Even in the suburbs of Tucson, we can see the Milky Way.  I pointed out the beautiful curve of Andromeda, found the Galaxy, showed the star clusters around Mirfak in Perseus, the Pleiades and the Hyades.  I taught them how to use their fist to show that the elevation of Polaris was our latitude, and that Kochab, in Ursa Minor, is Arabic for “Pole Star.” which it was 3000 years ago.

As we turned to look at the southern sky, a minus 8 magnitude fireball, a meteor, shot across right in front of us.  Everybody saw it.  I’m not one into “signs”, but I had to be a bit impressed that we happened to turn at just the right time.  The minister and his wife were fascinated by the Moon.  I pointed out Alpenglow, where the tops of the mountains were lit up away from the terminator.  His wife loved seeing that.  I spoke of nuclear fusion in the center of stars, walking over to the sand nearby, pointing out that the silicon was made inside a star.  Heady stuff.  I showed them Albireo, a gorgeous blue and gold double star at the end of the Northern Cross, which seemed appropriate for a group of Christians.

I spoke so much that once again I forgot that I was a shy person.  I was bubbling over with knowledge about the sky.  I consider myself a profound introvert.  But it is all relative, for once I get talking about astronomy under a dark sky,  a solar eclipse, the wilderness I have seen, or the Sandhill Crane migration in March, I’m a different person.  For a long time, I thought it was the wilderness and the night sky that changed me.  But it’s more than that.  The next day I thoroughly enjoyed myself as a substitute math teacher.  What brings me out of my shell is teaching.  I am a natural teacher.  The minister and his wife learned a great deal about the sky that night, but I was luckier; I learned something about myself I had never realized before.  When I teach, I am a completely different person.  And I like that person a great deal.

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