Opera glasses started it all


I am, by nature, an early riser. My internal alarm goes off at 5 a.m. whether I want it to or not. That tendency was a real problem in my younger days. Often, I would stay up all night observing the stars with some hastily slammed-together telescope of my own devising. After a long, exhausting night, I might cruise into home base at about that time. Ah, how blissful an hour or two of coma-like sleep would have felt before sitting zombie-like in my morning classes. Later, the same pattern repeated itself, except that I was the zombie teaching the classes. “Psst,” my students would whisper. “I think he’s been observing again.”

But blessed slumber was not to be. I was wide awake at 5 a.m. whether I had slept or not. After a cup of coffee or four, I would be off to the day’s activities.

As old age has crept up on me, I find myself still getting up early, but the days of all-night observing sessions are over. I content myself with the evening and morning skies and sleep in between.

The evening and morning skies right now remind me of that misspent youth and, strangely, my father’s opera obsession. My old man, who never graduated the ninth grade, was inexplicably an opera buff. How could I forget the trips to Cleveland to see the touring company of New York’s Metropolitan Opera? I am a minor opera aficionado myself to this very day.

But my old man’s opera obsession had a hidden benefit. He owned a cheap, three-buck pair of opera glasses. They had plastic lenses and made the performers on stage look like circus clowns. Come to think of it, some of the characters in the operas were indeed playing circus clowns, but never mind.

Those opera glasses were my first and only optical aid, and they turned me on to the wonder and majesty of the cosmos. In the morning before school, especially, I often reveled in the beauty of the sky. Then, as darkness fell, I would borrow my old man’s opera glasses and sneak away from my homework to grab a quick look at the sky.

Right now, the resplendent sky of winter decorates the early evening. The two brightest planets grace our mid-winter sky during morning twilight. Yellow Jupiter dominates the southwest. Even more brilliant Venus blazes, purest white, as it sinks toward the western horizon.

The evening and morning views were life changers for me, and they can be for you or your children. However, you must catch them at just the right time and place: just after dark and just after morning twilight at a place where trees and buildings don’t block the view along the horizon.

Thus, as I walk the dog in the evening, I revel in the bright stars of winter. Low in the west is orange Mars. Oh, how I reveled in John Carter’s “Chronicles of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. They seem silly to me now, but in those days, oh how I dreamed of going there.

Higher and in the southwest, the bright star Aldebaran competes with Mars in its orangeness. Aldebaran dominates the V-shaped head of Taurus, the Bull.

The planet and the star look so much alike, but the planet is a tiny, 4,000-mile wide hunk of rock 150 million miles away right now. The light you see when you look at Mars took 13 minutes to get to your eyes. Since radio waves move at the speed of light, a simple radio exchange of greetings (“Hello how are you? I’m fine. How are you?) between you and a Martian would take nearly half an hour to complete.

Aldebaran is a heaving ball of thermonuclear energy millions of miles wide. Reduce Aldebaran to the size of a soccer ball, and Mars would be the size of a speck of dust.

Here then is your own middle-aged star, the sun, as it will look at the end of its life some five or so billion years hence. Our star is but a million miles wide. Aldebaran has reddened, cooled, and swelled to 22 times our sun’s diameter as it has grown old. It shows us a distant future that our species will almost surely never witness.

The light that you see took 65 years to get to your eyes. I remember staring at Aldebaran during my 65th year and thinking, “The light entering my eyeballs right now erupted from the surface of that star on or about the day that I was born. That light spent my entire life traveling the immense emptiness in between.”

Let’s broadcast the same “hello” we sent to Mars. We can only hope that our great grandchildren will receive a reply.

How far is Mars? You can measure the distance in light minutes on your watch. Distant Aldebaran is a human lifetime away.

And on it goes. Below and to the left of Aldebaran is the plethora of bright stars in Orion, the Hunter. Above and to the left are the famous twins, Castor and Pollux, in Gemini. Above the Twins is Capella, the She-Goat, in Auriga. Low in the southeast is the brightest star of all — Sirius, the Dog Star, Orion’s faithful companion, in Canis Major. To the left of Orion’s shoulder is Orion’s other dog, the star Procyon in Canis Minor.

Every star, every planet, and every constellation has its own ongoing story. A single human life cannot capture them all — nor can it encapsulate or truly understand the immensity that you see in the eye’s single sweep of the evening sky.

And then you go inside to take a long winter’s nap. Get up during morning twilight before the sunrise spoils the view. Believe me, it’s worth the trouble. The presence of Venus and Jupiter in the same morning sky reminds me how Galileo changed the world when he first looked at them in his crude telescope 400 years ago.

They certainly changed my world when I was 10 years old. Armed only with my old man’s opera glasses, I sallied forth to replicate the discoveries of the mighty Galileo.

Like the famed astronomer so long before, I trained my primitive instrument on Jupiter and saw its four brightest moons lined up around it. They orbit so quickly that I could watch them move by propping my elbows on the back of a kitchen chair to steady my binoculars.

When the astronomer discovered his “Galilean moons,” as we now call them, he recognized their importance to the radical theory of Copernicus, who suggested that the sun, not Earth, was at the center of things. Opponents of Copernicus argued that an orbiting Earth would leave its moon behind as it moved. Yet Jupiter had plenty of moons traveling with it. Could Copernicus be right?

Two months later, I saw Venus as a thin crescent just as Galileo had. Venus has phases like our moon! Galileo soon realized that the phases provided even more valuable evidence for the Copernican solar system.

Right now, Venus looks gibbous, i.e., fatter than a half Venus. As the planet moves closer to the sun over the next few weeks, it will grow even fatter. Finally, it will be too close to the sun to see.

When it finally appears again in the evening sky in late 2019, it will still be nearly full. Over several months it will come closer to us and get between Earth and the sun. As its back side is increasingly illuminated, the side facing us will shrink to a thin crescent by May 2020.

Venus gets around the sun faster than Earth, because Venus is the second planet from the sun and Earth is the third. When Venus is on the far side of the sun, the whole disk of Venus is illuminated from our Earthly vantage. As Venus moves toward Earth and hence swings around to our side of the sun, an increasingly large part of its back side is illuminated, and the side facing us grows dark. From Earth, Venus appears to shrink to a sliver.

The conclusion was easy and obvious to Galileo and to me. Venus must be on the other side of the sun from us. As it approaches the sun from our vantage, Earth, the sun, and Venus become increasingly lined up with Venus in the middle.

While you’re looking, imagine the planetary motions that cause Venus to shrink, and you will quite literally feel the Earth move as Venus and Earth orbit the sun.

So what did those opera glasses do for me? They taught me how to think, but they also taught me how to feel. Thanks, Dad.

You can sit there and read about Galileo’s seminal astronomical observations, or you can go outside and look for yourself. Do yourself a favor by doing both. The experience just might release your inner Galileo, or if your heart is truly pure, the lost 10-year-old who lies dormant deep within us all.


By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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