Thursday, March 4, 2010

Deep-Sky Diving

Spring is in the air. I can feel it in my bones. Unfortunately, that’s no longer a figure of speech, but a physical reality, as the arthritis that runs in my family now sends exploratory twinges through my joints whenever the weather changes.

I am, admittedly, something of a fair-weather observer. I rarely break out my telescope during December, January, or February. I don’t like the cold, never have, never will. During the winter months, I’m usually satisfied to do quick sessions of naked-eye stargazing, eliminating the need for long johns, clunky boots, and layering. Reconnecting with the familiar patterns of the winter sky—Orion’s hourglass, Canis Major’s upside-down “Y,” Auriga’s pentagon—and reassuring myself that they’re still there, just where I left them, proves to be as bracing as the cold slap of night air that accompanies our reunion.

It was an evening in March when I began my life as an amateur astronomer, when observing the sky became the context for my life. So March always feels to me like the start of stargazing season. And each time it rolls around, I can’t help but recall my first tentative forays into what I call “deep-sky diving.”

The comparison to scuba diving is no accident. When, as a beginner, I began attending star parties at my astronomy club’s private observatory, there was, on each occasion, a moment when I had to give up the daylight and surrender myself to the dark. I had to psych myself up each time to make that transition—to turn on my red flashlight and begin picking my way around the observing field equipped only with that dim, eerily-colored light. To be, in essence, completely out of my element.

Ironically, this fish-out-of-water feeling reminded me of the scuba diving vacation I took on the island of St. Croix, many moons ago. I had never been scuba diving and hadn’t had a single lesson (not even in a pool), but I had an irresistible desire to go. So I capriciously enrolled in a certification course down there, and off I went.

I was completely unprepared for the physical fear I would experience in letting go of my terrestrial, atmosphere-breathing self in order to immerse myself in a water-world. My first day in the ocean was spent in a series of exercises that each ended with my panicked bolt to the surface, where my exasperated instructor would berate me (as he should have) for doing something that was potentially hazardous to my health.

Then he had a breakthrough, and took me into shallow water (like a pool, perhaps?). He had me do exercises there until I became more comfortable with breathing underwater, moving me gradually into deeper water. Then I had my breakthrough, reaching that pivotal moment when my awe at the undersea world to which I had mysteriously gained access overtook my fear of relying on a regulator and tank for each breath.

By the end of the week, I was confidently doing 60-foot dives in open water and exploring dazzling, brilliantly-hued coral reefs.

And so it was to be a novice sky observer. The unfamiliar star patterns, the totally foreign equipment, the strange lingo, and the breadth of science knowledge those intense people-of-the-dark had—all were terribly intimidating. In that state of nervous excitement, making the transition from light to dark made me gasp for air like a panicky diving student. It wasn’t fear of the dark, but rather fear of the unknown, loss of control, and being out of my comfort zone that squeezed my chest those first few months.

Like breathing underwater, I got used to seeing in the dark. I learned which end of the telescope to look into, how to get the Moon into a telescope, how to identify naked-eye star patterns and find my way around the sky, what a glorious thing a globular cluster is, how to spot the pencil line of the Cassini Division in the rings of Saturn. It helped that I was on a mission, finally fulfilling a life-long interest and deeply-held desire. Pushing through the discomfort each time made me a little less uneasy for the next. Each new skill I acquired, each new term I learned, each new object I observed: each gave me a little bit more confidence and stoked my passion.

The first time I looked through a telescope, I was 43. I didn’t know what a star was, had no idea why the Moon looked the way it did as it went through its phases, couldn’t find the North Star. If you’re younger than 43 and are interested in getting started in hobby astronomy, don’t wait as long as I did. Do it now. The younger your eyes are, the more nuances you’re likely to see in celestial objects and the more years you’ll have to train your eyes to pick out those nuances.

If you’re older than 43, hop to it. Time’s a-wasting. There’s a lot to see out there in your universe. The more you find out, the more you’ll want to know, so you’d better get started. Trust me on this.

Whenever, however, wherever: embrace the dark. Oh, and don’t forget to breathe.