By David Ward
Are you tired of listening to squabbling political candidates? Weary of worrying about the latest computations of delegate mathematics? Bored with what is politically correct and what isn’t? I have got the cure for you! Simply turn off your TV, your computer and your smart phone, go outside and spend some time under the stars.
They have been shining for millions of years and, with a few exceptions, will shine for millions more, long after the memory of 21st century politics will have faded into oblivion.
The evenings are much warmer now and you do not even have to put on all those heavy clothes. All you have to do is lie back in your favorite lounge chair and look up. If it is a dark, clear night, you can see thousands of stars. If you do not know what their names are, do not worry about it, just revel in the mystery of it all.
Virtually every star you can see up there, both dim and bright, is bigger and brighter than our sun. Yet for every one we can see, there are 15 or 20 more that our eyes are not sensitive enough to pick out. They are tiny red dwarfs, the most common type of stars in the sky. These are the Methuselahs of the universe. While our sun is about halfway through a 10-billion year life cycle, these little stars will live for hundreds of billions, perhaps even trillions of years. No one knows for sure. If our eyes were sensitive enough to see them, our view of the sky would be vastly different, perhaps almost overwhelming. There would be so many stars up there that it would be difficult to even pick out the constellations.
Believe it or not, everything up there is moving at unimaginably high rates of speed, including us. We just do not notice it because the distances are so vast and our lives so short. Hold on tight to your lounge chair and try to wrap your head around the idea that our sun is cruising through space at a speed over 8,000 times faster than you drive down the road on your way to Seattle.
The solar system and our little Earth are getting pulled along on this wild ride in a huge spiraling vortex through the cosmos. It takes 250 million years for us to make one loop around the galaxy. As we go, we dip in and out through the galactic plane like one of those horses bobbing up and down on a merry-go-round. Getting dizzy yet?
Maybe you want to know the names of some of the objects up there. There is a natural human tendency to name things. Ancient people were awed by the night sky, so in order to tame the mystery a bit, they started naming what they saw. High in the south, just after it gets dark, look for a very bright “star.” Notice that it does not twinkle. That is a clue that it is a planet, not a star. It is in fact the largest planet going around our sun, Jupiter, named for the Roman name for the king of the gods. All the planets bear the names of the gods and I have often wondered if the planets were named for the gods or were the gods named for the planets.
Check out the stars near Jupiter. Can you find that backwards question mark to the right? That is Leo the Lion, the constellation that Jupiter shines in front of this summer. We see the sky as a two-dimensional sphere above us. Even though we realize there is a lot more depth up there than meets the eye, it is difficult to visualize the vast distances of space. Look for the brightest star in Leo, the one that makes the period below the backward question mark. That is Regulus, and it shines 140 times brighter than our sun and it is well over a million times farther away from us than Jupiter.
If you find yourself outside later at night, look for the very bright reddish Mars and Saturn along with the red star Antares low in the southeast. Mars will be as close to us in late May as it has for a decade and will be a bright red beacon in the sky this summer.
If you are having trouble finding Jupiter, look for it on the evening of May 15 right near the moon. Remember, watching the evening news is probably not going to be very relaxing, but an evening with the universe can be amazing.