I knew there was a problem when I first brought the physicist out to the bookstore’s backyard. Lucian Undreiu, Associate Professor of Physics at UVA-Wise came to lead a bookstore stargazing night. But as he lugged his telescope tripod around the yard and looked more and more disappointed I could see that all my plans were falling apart.
I don’t know about the rest of you humans, but I am exquisitely sensitive to contaminants and pollution. The slightest whiff of scent and I’m crawling around my apartment, searching for gas leaks. Litter in parks makes me bonkers. Is that a plastic bag or a jellyfish drifting there? Either way, my day at the beach just got a little worse.
But despite all these sensitivities I rarely notice light pollution.
In New York the sky is a red haze all night long. If I see a star, any star, I usually point it out. A single star is a noteworthy event. So when I went into the backyard of the bookstore, looked up at the stars and then looked down to the two streetlights and the lighthouse beacon at the car dealership across the street I shrugged, this’ll do. But as Professor Undreiu’s frown deepened I knew that this would not do, it would not do one bit.
As people started arriving for the event Ali and I stalled. Wendy had driven Lucian out into the night, out to find a place suitable for his telescope. We passed out cups of hot cider and printed off stargazing sheets (sounds simple… but was its own saga, involving incorrect charts, poor contrasts, kitty interference, and a cartridge change). I started sweating on my upper lip, like Richard Nixon. This was turning into a disaster!
But then Lucian returned and began his talk. He started with basics, but soon expanded into cosmic ideas, covering vast distances and spans of time. Instead of asserting knowledge he walked the audience through the steps scientists took, sharing the process of discovery. By the end of his talk everyone was ready to see some stars… and had a decent idea of what they are, how they act and how humans know what we know about them.
After getting everyone situated in a vehicle, the convoy went a half-mile down the road to a dark field. Lucian’s telescope begins with manual searches for specific stars. After a few points of input have been fed to it, the telescope can then process where it’s pointing in the night-sky and find new objects on its own. A very cool gadget. Lucian also had a powerful green laser that shot a beam into the night sky, so he could point specific constellations, planets and star clusters. We took turns peering through the lens at Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy, the Pleiades star cluster, and a binary star system with each a different color. People chatted, asked questions and kept an eye on the sky for shooting stars.
While everything felt like it was falling apart before it had even started, the night ended with a cup of hot cider and complete satisfaction. Thanks to Professor Lucian Undreiu I think everyone had a great night and learned a bit about our universe… I know I did.