Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Cosmic Fireflies

Toward the middle of last week, when the skies first cleared up, I read an astronomy book that was new to me. It instantly became one of my favorite astronomy books. When the skies clouded up over the weekend, I re-read the book because it makes a great companion to the book I talked about yesterday, “Cosmic Butterflies.” It’s a great companion because it’s similar in some ways, and very different in others.

Now, yesterday I said I thought “Cosmic Butterflies” would be interesting to anyone. That book had the beautiful pictures, the high-technology research, scientists struggling to make sense of things. Today’s book, “The Hundred Greatest Stars,” by James Kaler, must be the prototypical example of a book written by an astronomer for astronomy buffs. I mean, how many people could even think of a hundred stars, let alone have a hundred favorites out of a larger number?

It was a page-turner for me. I was thinking the typical list-reader type thoughts: Where would my favorite stars show up on the list? How could he put this or that star in front of such-and-such a star... [He actually lists star alphabetically, so there is no insult to the later postings!]

Which is not to say this is an unattractive book. Each star is illustrated with a beautiful graphic, mostly full-color photographs. But some graphics are clearly things only an astronomer would love. Zubenelgenubi (#99) is illustrated with a simple star field photograph with the Alpha and Beta components of the double star circled. The curious variable star Beta Lyrae (#13) is illustrated with a simple curved, bumpy line describing its changing magnitude over a twenty-five day period. And one or two of the most interesting stars in the sky, in fact, are invisible to the naked eye. HZ 21 (#51) in Coma Berenices (and similar stars) appears to have a surface rich in helium and poor in hydrogen, although related stars appear to have somehow ‘recovered’ hydrogen—it’s an on-going astrophysics mystery and HZ 21 is illustrated with a simple picture of helium balloons against a blue sky.

Only one of my favorites didn’t make the list. Aldebaran in Taurus. When I was in grade school, the first time I saw Saturn was by locating the beautiful yellow-brown planet’s position relative to the beautiful, red-orange Aldebaran. And, under Chicago’s awful skies, the first time I saw the Pleiades I found them by locating them offset from Aldebaran.

I wanted to talk about this book for a particular reason, also. There is a strange thing about astronomy. I touched on it in passing in “Saturn and Titan, And The Pleiades.”

Even the simplest thing in astronomy can sometimes have an effect seemingly all out of proportion to the cause.

Just looking at a star through a telescope can be almost hypnotic. Seductive. Literally entrancing. It’s very hard to put into words how or why something like this happens.

If you look at, say, Saturn, you see the beautiful ring system, the gorgeous colors. If you look at, say, the Pleiades, you see the sparkling pattern of white, diamond-like points against the black sky, the hint of nebulosity. You expect a moving experience from such spectacular sights.

But even looking at a single star—bright white Vega (#96), bright orange Antares (#8), whatever—creates a subjective experience that is next to impossible to capture in words.

It’s classic Goblin Universe stuff because it’s something like magic but it’s real.

And anyone can experience it any time there is a cloudless sky.

James Kaler’s Home Page

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