By Tom Burns
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 slapped-together telescope of my own devising.
After a long, exhausting night, I might slide 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, except 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 or three of coffee, I strode with determination into the day’s activities.
As old(er) age has crept up on me, I still get 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 evenings in February remind me of that misspent youth and, strangely, my father’s opera obsession. My old man, kicked out of the ninth grade for fighting, 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 can still close my eyes and see and hear the Triumphal March from Aida. I am a minor opera aficionado myself to this very day.
My old man’s opera obsession had a hidden benefit. He owned a cheap, three-buck pair of opera glasses. They had plastic lenses that distorted the performers on stage into 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 mornings before school, 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.
Currently, the resplendent winter sky decorates the early evening.
Higher and in the southwest, the bright star Aldebaran competes with Mars in its orangeness.
In the southwest, Aldebaran dominates the V-shaped head of Taurus, the Bull. Mars is above the Bull’s head between its horns.
The planet and the star look so much alike, but Mars is a tiny, 4,000-mile-wide hunk of rock 100 million miles away right now. When you look at Mars, the light you see takes about nine minutes to get to your eyes. Since radio waves move at the speed of light, a simple exchange of greetings (“Hello, how are you? I’m fine. How are you?”) between you and a Martian would take about 18 minutes 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 half a speck of dust.
When you look at Aldebaran, you see your very own middle-aged star, the sun, as it will look at the end of its life, some five or so billion years hence.
The sun 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 our solar system’s distant future, which our species will almost surely never witness, thank goodness.
The light from Aldebaran 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 I was born. That light spent my entire life traveling through the immense emptiness in between.”
If we broadcast to Aldebaran the same “hello” we sent to Mars, we could only hope that our great-grandchildren would 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.
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.
And on it goes. Below and to the left of Aldebaran is an abundance of bright stars in the constellation Orion, the Hunter. Above and to the left are the famous twins Castor and Pollux in Gemini. Above the Twins is the brilliant star Capella, the She-Goat, in the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer.
Of those stars, I remember Capella with the utmost fondness.
Right now, The Goat Star is almost straight overhead. When it is lower on the horizon, it flickers like a cosmic beacon against the darkness of the night.
Its twinkling gets so violent that it moves around in the sky and sometimes flashes from red to green and back again. The opera-glass view only adds to the effect.
If you were wondering why the gods encumbered the mighty Charioteer with a goat on his shoulder, the younger me shared your confusion.
A small right triangle of stars nearby added to my bafflement. The three stars are called the Kids. Auriga is stuck with the whole blessed family.
From the earliest times, people have nicknamed Capella the Goat Star. In an early Greek myth, Capella reflects humanity’s early fondness for goats.
The Titan Kronos, the king of the cosmos, believed that one of his children would supplant him as ruler. His solution was to swallow his children whole soon after they were born.
Kronos’s spouse, the redoubtable Rhea, got pretty fed up with the god’s all-child diet. She replaced her latest son, the newborn Zeus, with a rock, which Kronos eagerly swallowed.
Rhea spirited the baby Zeus away to the island of Crete, where he grew to adulthood under the watchful eye of his nanny, Amaltheia.
As a baby, Zeus suckled on a young she-goat for nourishment.
When Zeus finally replaced his father as an all-powerful god, he never forgot the life-giving power of that goat. When it reached old age, he transported it to the sky as the star Capella.
Our ancient fondness for the goat eventually morphed into a less sentimental attitude.
In the ancient Jewish faith, a rabbi would sometimes symbolically place the sins of his community on a goat and set the poor creature to wander in the desert. We still use the word scapegoat to this day.
As a child, I sometimes felt like I had messed things up beyond repair, so I became “the goat,” even though I was just a kid. Besides, goats are stubborn, raucous creatures. In my childhood imagination, cartoon goats ate tin cans.
Only lately has the goat regained part of its former stature. The acronym GOAT denotes the Greatest of All Time in various sports.
Every star, every planet, every constellation has its own ongoing story. A single human life cannot capture them all — nor can it encapsulate or truly understand the immensity you see in the eye’s single sweep of the evening sky.
As I used those opera glasses as a kid, I experienced my first inkling of that immensity. It produced a longing and loneliness that I sometimes still feel half a century later when I stand under a star-lit sky.
To this day, I feel incapable of putting it into words. But I’ll try.
The stars were very far away. I wanted to reach out and touch them, but they were beyond my grasp. I felt the lonesomeness of a kid standing on a ball of rock surrounded by an immensity of space.
As an avid science-fiction reader, I imagined civilizations on planets orbiting those stars. Even then, I had persuaded myself that we would never come into contact with them. But, oh, how I hungered to visit those shimmering, distant places.
Instinctively, I realized that humans would never touch the stars, at least not in the pathetically short life of one human being. Someday, maybe, but not in my lifetime.
My adulthood brought a complex matrix of human interactions, and my youthful cravings faded. My advancing age has engendered a desire for the comforts of hearth and home.
For excitement, I content myself with the sublime sorrow of “Un bel dì” in “Madame Butterfly” or the heavenly heights of the Sextet in “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Still, from time to time, I stand alone on a cold winter’s night under a warm starry blanket. Suddenly, my youthful yearning stirs, and my heart again hungers to wander among the stars.