Sunday, November 18, 2007

Comet Holmes

Comet Holmes came into naked eye view a few weeks ago and is still visible. What is remarkable is that, prior to about Oct 20, it was absolutely undetectable by anything but the largest telescope. It suddenly brightened by a million fold and we don’t know why. Image! We don’t know something. Isn’t it wonderful? All you need is a pair of binoculars and you can examine something nobody understands. Of course, there are enough Earthbound things you can observe, even without binoculars that nobody understands, but that’s not as interesting. I’ve been watching Comet Holmes as it marches across the star field behind it and as it changes in both appearance and brightness. It is approaching a rather bright star, Mirfak, and tomorrow night will be as close as it will come to that star. There are so few things in the heavens, other than the major planets, the Sun and the Moon, that change in time spans comprehensible to us short lived humans. This is what, to me, is remarkable and fascinating. And most people don’t know that the position of the brightest objects in the sky, the planets, change night to night, year to year.

I’ve found casual observational astronomy a wonderful way of engaging in the Cosmos and avoiding eye contact. It’s wonderful for both the thinking and the shy, especially because it takes place in the dark, safe from the withering gaze of, well, people. Even if I weren’t shy, I still like astronomy because at night, when you’re explaining that a light-year is not a measure of time, or inviting people to look in your telescope at some distant object that, through a telescope looks REALLY distant, you are spared seeing the eye-rolling that inevitably occurs whenever I wax enthusiastic about something that couldn’t be less relevant to our daily lives. Ahhh—the burden and suffering of the obscurist.