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Eric Wilcots, a UW-Madison astronomer, says he no longer wonders at the paucity of people who find it fun to tilt back and gaze at the heavens.
"I was at first, but I've ceased to be amazed," he said, laughing, on a stellar September evening at Governor Dodge State Park in Iowa County. "A lot of people at some point know a few constellations in the sky. But I was surprised at how little time people actually take to look up."
I'm ashamed to say, I was once among those multitudes. But I made amends that September evening as I joined about 20 other night owls at the park for a stargazing session with Wilcots and two graduate students, D.J. Pisano and Birgit Otte. The "others" included a ladies' church group and several families with kids, who planned to crash at their campsite later.
Before the night was over, I'd recalled the legend of a desirable maiden named Andromeda, glimpsed my first binary star, and finally understood why astronomers say that our view of space is really ancient history. I'd also appreciated the limits of exploring the universe through an ordinary telescope.
The University of Wisconsin's outreach programs decided a few years ago to cajole nonscientists like me to discover astronomy by marrying the expertise of real-life astronomers with a vital ingredient: dark skies. A perfect place was a state park – farther from artificial lights and full of people seeking natural outdoor experiences. So for the last four summers, the UW has held numerous sessions dubbed "Universe in the Park" at state parks, including Governor Dodge. That's where I caught up with Wilcots and his two students.
The three scientists brought the essentials of their craft: two telescopes, slides, and a hundred cans (it seemed) of bug spray. "The spray is the most important thing," Otte declared. "At home [Germany] I don't have a problem with them. American mosquitoes are different."
Even more important than bug spray, perhaps, especially on a night with no bugs, was rehearsing their stories. Their plan was to show slides of stars and then douse the lights and help us amateurs view the sky through the scopes.
But stars carry more than just a name and a position in the sky. Creative minds centuries ago assigned to them simple tales rivaling any of the Brothers Grimm. In many cases, it's those legends that draw people in to take a heavenly glance and let their imaginations wander.
Take the constellation Andromeda, for instance.
According to Greek legend, Andromeda was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, also constellations. Cassiopeia boasted that Andromeda was more lovely than the Sea Nymphs, and in retaliation the nymphs, who were goddesses, complained to Neptune, the Sea God. Neptune sent a whale who promptly began to devour Cepheus's people. The people complained, and the only solution was to sacrifice Andromeda. After Andromeda was chained to a rock, Perseus killed the whale and saved her, and they flew off in harmony on his winged horse, Pegasus. And somehow they all got thrown up in the sky as stars and constellations.
Now, if that doesn't hook people, nothing will. "The Greeks had fairly active imaginations, I think," said Wilcots.
The crowd saw a slide of Andromeda projected onto a screen that night, but I'm not sure she was visible through the telescopes. That's the reality of stargazing; it could be the right time of year, but clouds might distract, stray light can dim the sky, the telescope could be too weak or it might not be properly aligned. Even behemoth scopes like the ten-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain they brought that night can't see everything.
That scope is a smaller cousin of the 15-inch Washburn Observatory telescope on scenic Observatory Drive at UW-Madison, which was, until 1958, the second largest in the United States. To examine the starry sea precisely nowadays, the UW astronomers rely on even longer vision and technology. They just instruct a digital computer camera at an observatory in New Mexico when to shoot the photograph they want. "You're sitting in a nice, warm, brightly lit room, happily drinking coffee, waiting for the next image to download," chuckled Wilcots.
In other words, no more fiddling in the dark. That's part of the reason these celestial junkies rejoin their forerunners every time they set up the Schmidt-Cassegrain at a state park.
The device was strong enough to show how one star, Albireo, is actually two: one blue, one reddish, and is now called a binary star. Back in 1952, when H.A. Rey, the children's author known best for a little monkey named Curious George, published a book called "The Stars," it was thought that binary stars were only one out of every five. Now it's known that they are more common, said D.J. Pisano. "There's a saying that three out of every two stars are binary stars," he said. "It's kind of a joke."
Even more amazing than the twins of Albireo was realizing just how dated that view was. Albireo may look peaceful enough, but the sight I saw that night was really old news; it took place thousands of years ago. That is how long the light from the twin stars took to reach Earth. If we were closer to them, we might discover that the stars look completely different now. Astronomers call this "looking back in time."
In 1987, a supernova exploded in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is a galaxy named after the Portuguese sailor Magellan, in the southern hemisphere about 150,000 light-years away. (A light-year is the distance light travels in a vacuum in one year, about six trillion miles.) "It went off, from our point of view, all of a sudden," said Professor Wilcots. "But that star really exploded 150,000 years ago. It took that long for the light to get to us."
Insights like that are the sort that prompt kids (both young and old) to develop an interest in astronomy, not so different from the reasons Pisano got started as a boy. "I remember that on the beach, my father explained the stars to me," he said. "Everything is so far, everything is so big. It was beyond my imagination. And that's what's so fascinating about it."
Having a professional astronomer explain the mysteries doesn't hurt, either.
Fortunately, stars stick around, so there's ample opportunity for the next crop of Curious Georges to get started. For a schedule of upcoming sessions, check out the websites and addresses listed in the box. Also, the books of H.A. Rey are highly recommended: "The Stars" (Houghton Mifflin, 1952, 1980) and "Find the Constellations" (Houghton Mifflin, 1954, 1976).
Katherine Esposito is a staff writer based in Madison.