What’s So Amazing, Part II; Testimonies

Astrophotographer and fellow astronomy club member Nick Lamendola captured the grand night sky over Cherry Springs State Park during the September 2013 Black Forest Star Party. Nick used a Nikon D300 with a 14mm f2.8 lens at ISO800 for 3 minutes. A tracking mount compensated for the earth's rotation but created the motion blur seen in the tent, telescope and treetops in the foreground. The Andromeda galaxy is at 12 o'clock, the Pleiades at 6, the Milky Way and the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia run up the left side.

Astrophotographer and fellow astronomy club member Nick Lamendola captured the grand night sky over Cherry Springs State Park during the September 2013 Black Forest Star Party. Nick used a Nikon D300 with a 14mm f2.8 lens at ISO800 for 3 minutes. A tracking mount compensated for the earth’s rotation but created the motion blur seen in the tent, telescope and treetops in the foreground. The Andromeda galaxy is at 12 o’clock, the Pleiades at 6, the Milky Way and the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia run up the left side. (Click for a stunning high res version.)

In the first part of this series, I tried to provide Bicycle Astronomy blog readers with a sense of how different telescopic views are from glossy, colorful astrophotography. Given the dim nature of what we observe night after night, what is the origin of the thrill of stargazing with a telescope. In this post, I suggested one ingredient in the recipe for celestial enchantment; a lot of objects we observe through telescoples, from planets to double stars to globular clusters to distant galaxies, are all tiny enough to fit into the sharpest part of the human eye’s field of view. Humans seem to have a tendency to find beautiful anything that fits into that narrow, crisp field, from polished emeralds in an outstretched palm to ghostly blue Uranus through a telescope, just barely more disk than point of light.

There is more to it than the physiological aesthetics, however. The mind plays an important role in contexualizing what we are seeing. Knowing what we are looking at seems to increase not just the emotions we feel while observing but, I think, might actually make the telescopic view more visually arresting. (Has anyone in psychology done any research on this?)

My friend Dana Wilde,  a naturalist who writes for the Kennebec Journal in Maine (and previously for the Bangor Daily News), captures what I call the “context effect” in his essay Starstruck, collected in the wonderful book Nebulae: A Backyard Cosmography. His target is the Andromeda galaxy, visible in Nick Lamendola’s photograph above. (Dana’s telescopic view would have looked a lot like the sketch by Michael Vlasov in part 1.)

I look through the eyepiece. There’s the galaxy near the center of the circle. It’s still just a blur, like a wisp of spit in a lake. But this is where your imagination takes over. M31 is actually a gigantic collection of stars. The Sun is a star. These 700 billion suns are so far away (2.5 million light years) that even magnified fifty times the whole bunch of them is just a cottony fuzz.

The context effect is not limited to telescopic observations. Taking in the entire night sky at a dark location can be mesmerizing. Add to it the fourth dimension, time, and sometimes the observer can achieve a hightened state of consciousness, something I call “profound orientation”. I’m coining phrases left and right here today. Don’t stop me now.

Here is how I desribed the experience, in this post about using ipods to augment our experience of the natural world:

I have to admit that sometimes, during long observing sessions under a clear sky studded with stars, planets, the band of the Milky Way sprawling from horizon to horizon, and the zodiacal light rising like a aurora in the pre-dawn eastern sky, I have had the distinct feeling that not only was I on a sphere, but that I was also falling into the sky. No drugs involved, I promise, just a shift in perspective from hours of watching the sky slowly change around me. It was dizzying and incredibly illuminating, and represents for me one of my biggest achievements as an astronomical observer: actually feeling the reality of the our vantage point. The correct words for that emotional cocktail is delight and awe. If our armed forces could drop that from the sky instead of bombs, we’d win every heart and mind in sight.

I was reminded of this experience when I read a post on the Cloudynights forum thread “The Joy of Visual Observing” by Don Pensack, owner of Eyepieces Etc.:

One night I suddenly got the idea of distance in my mind as I saw the bulge in the Milky Way extending to alpha and beta Librae, and viscerally felt the enormous size and distance to that bulge. For a brief moment I was a speck of dust on a small ball of rock orbiting a small star an immense distance from the core of the galaxy. It was enough for me to spend the rest of my life looking for that same feeling again. It happened when I was 12, and had my first scope, and sat outside by a lake learning the constellations with a paper planisphere. I had read all about the Milky Way and how big it was and how deep into it the Messier objects were that I was observing with my 4.25″ scope. I knew where home was. And it was under the stars, looking up.

Profound orientation. Understanding our place in the cosmos through direct, close observation, informed by a basic understanding of the structure and scale of the universe, from our solar system to distant galaxy clusters. My working definition. There is a fanciful and beautiful idea, perhaps it was Carl Sagan who first came up with it, that the universe created intelligence so something could ponder and appreciate it. Karstenkoch echoed this on the forum:

Regardless of whether you choose to image with your retina or observe with your CMOS, in either case we are doing very similar things: enjoying the beauties of the cosmos, participating in their existence with our awareness of it, and pondering our place in it all. That’s what unites observers, imagers, naked eye astronomers of past millenia, and future travelers to the objects of our attention.

There is a direct physicality to observing that escapes many who don’t understand the basic phsyics of light and vision. The eye collects actual photons that have travelled, in some cases over millions of years (though apparantely the photon is unaware of any time having passed, quite a trick), from faraway corners of the galaxy. This is why many visual observers, like myself, insist on the direct observational experience of looking through a telescope versus a second-hand simulation like a photograph. Visual observing distant stars, clusters and galaxies is a bit akin to getting a letter from long-extinct dinosaurs–on another planet! Otto Piechowski writes of this physicality this way in the Cloudynights thread:

When we observe the stars with our eyes, we are consuming star light; the electro-magnetic energy of the light strikes the eye and is changed into the electrical chemical energy of the eye/brain system; turning into an image within the brain. We are changing one form of stored energy into another form of stored energy, just as when the apple is eaten and digested. We are actually consuming light. The light from a distant star is created within that star, is part of the substance of that star. So when we observe the stars with our eyes, we are touching the star.

Others have mused, like me, about what exactly is happening physiologically when we observe. I claimed in my testimony above that my profound orientation moment was not the result of any drugs, but that might not have been true. Maybe, like when someone falls madly in love, the brain is being effected by hightened levels of dopamine and norepanephrine, followed by the release of ocytocin, which creates feelings of comfort and satisfaction. Witness the testimony of BoldAxis1967:

After I have an interesting session under the stars I feel satiated. I feel that I have experienced something spiritual and I have accomplished something using my equipment and my limited but growing knowledge of the celestial sphere. For several days after such a session I am on a “natural high”. Maybe certain areas of the brain, the pleasure center, have established this emotional and intellectual gratification?

I actually think these testimonies raise interesting possibilities for nuerological research.

Repetitive observing, perhaps like practicing a musicual instrument, becomes a comforting refuge for some. The idea that these objects can be observerd many times over a comparatively short human lifetime adds to the appreciation, especially perhaps at this point in human development, where things are changing so fast. Here is GeneT:

Several months ago, Jupiter peered over the horizon. A few months ago, the same for Saturn. Old favorites such as M13, the Ring, M42 and so on appear and reappear every year. I have been looking at these and other objects every year–for the past 55 years. Not only are these objects as exciting for me now as those many years ago, viewing these old friends keep me connected with the memories of my past, and give me hope for more in the future.

As we will see in part 3, the human mind might be just as (or even more heavily) wired for mystical thinking than it is for logical inquiry and analysis. Thus it should not be too surprising that experiences above, like profound orientation, are often articulated in terms that sounds spiritual, if not outright religious. On that note, we will close Part II with the words of ev2 in the “The Joy of Visual Observing” thread:

As a practicing buddhist, [visual observing] helps me to remind myself of just how small and insignificant we all are, that nothing is permanent (one day, the Earth will cease to exist). Suddenly all my problems – *our* problems – can fade from my mind, if only for a few chilly hours on a clear night.

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