Astronomy teaches simple life lessons

By John Peters - [email protected]

Tonight, and maybe into the wee hours of Monday, we have a chance to witness a relatively rare occurrence — a blood moon and a super moon happening at the same time.

Neither is nearly as dramatic as the names imply — I’ll get to that soon.

I enjoy events like this. I’ve been fascinated by astronomy most of my life, since coming across that particular discipline of science when I was in the fifth grade. I still recall one of my teachers that year with a mobile model of the solar system hanging from the ceiling — you know, a big yellow Styrofoam ball in the middle representing the sun, then similar balls of varying sizes hanging at different distances from the sun.

I was enthralled, so much so I went home and started making plans to build my own. Along the way I began reading the available science on each of the planets — keep in mind this was long before anyone outside the world of academia had any clue there was something called the Internet. We had to do our research the old-fashioned way, by taking trips to the library and reading through encyclopedias.

I couldn’t get enough. I read everything I could get my hands on, from the mythology of the names behind the planets and stars to the latest discoveries available in the world of science. My Christmas wish list became loaded with astronomy books and a telescope — which my parents gave me that Christmas, while I was still in the fifth grade. I used that telescope for years, until buying a better one when I was in high school.

I got a subscription to Sky and Telescope for my birthday, a subscription I renewed over and over until I was in college. I often set my alarm for 2 or 3 in the morning to get up and go outside, catch some astronomical event that was happening. I was determined to become an astronomer when I reached adulthood. One of the things I found appealing is that there’s so much to learn in astronomy — lessons in math, chemistry, geology, history — nearly an infinite number of lessons to be gleaned by delving into the science, moving from one question to the next.

I recall my brother-in-law joking once when I was 14 that when I turned 16 he expected I’d be all into cars and girls and the telescopes and books would have cobwebs on them. While I did find myself taking a greater and greater interest in my female classmates as I aged, cars never held much fascination for me, and I still found myself out at night, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, with my telescope and note pads.

It was a high school physics course that ultimately derailed my astronomy career plans. I muddled through it and did okay, but I never really mastered the course and realized this wasn’t something I was ever going to be good at.

Still, I’ve managed to maintain my interest in the world (maybe universe) of astronomy, keeping up with some of the major discoveries (I still don’t like Pluto being reclassified as a dwarf planet, though I’m happy to report that may change as a result of data being collected now by the New Horizons space probe).

Over the years I’ve shared some of my interest in astronomy with my kids. I’ve shown my kids what the moon looks like through a telescope; we’ve all gotten up in the middle of the night, gone outside and bundled up in sleeping bags to watch meteor showers. I’ve explained to them the science behind lunar eclipses and I’ve made it a point to show them events that occur on rare occasions.

Tonight is another one of those events. A super moon is when a full moon occurs while the moon is at it closest approach in its monthly orbit around the earth, which means the moon appears a little bit larger and brighter than other full moons. We have so-called super moons a couple of times a year, sometimes more often.

A blood moon is really just a lunar eclipse, when the moon drifts into the earth’s shadow at full moon, turning the moon a deep reddish or copper color. They’re not exactly rare — there have been three already this year, though some years there are none.

Having both happen at the same time? Now that’s a different story. The most recent one was in 1982, the next one will be in 2033, so unless it is cloudy and rainy I plan to be out watching — who knows if I’ll still be around in 2033?

In addition to being a really cool science, astronomy can teach us other, more philosophical lessons, one of which is to seize opportunity when it’s there — whether that be something as dramatic as a career choice or a marriage proposal, or something as innocuous as spending an extra five minutes sitting with a parent or spouse, or making time to be with your kids — because some day those chances will be gone.

Perhaps that’s really what those nights I spent lying under the stars with my kids watching for meteors, or taking them out — even when it was bitter cold — to show them a rare comet or planets in alignment with one another, were all about. It wasn’t about the science, but about not missing the fleeting time with the kids.

And that might be the best lesson of all.

John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 336-415-4701.

By John Peters

[email protected]


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