Thursday, April 15, 2010
“Are you a witch?”
The universe is so fucking fun. Even when it screws with you it’s usually a good time. Mystic rhythms.
Today was potentially a very cool Thursday for astronomy buffs. Yesterday was a new moon. But because of the details and timing, today, just one day later, the new moon was due to be visible just after sunset if you had a clear view of the western horizon and if you knew where to look.
Now where I’m living right now I don’t have a clear view of the western horizon. But I knew where to look and I decided to go for a walk around sunset and see if I could grab a view between buildings or find a particular vantage point that somehow offered me a clear view of the western sky.
There were two bonus reasons to look to the west after sunset this evening. Venus would be very bright in the evening sky right after sunset. Venus would more or less provide a reference point for where to find the moon. The moon would be just to the right and just down a little from Venus.
The second bonus reason to look to the west is that just below the thin crescent one-day-old moon would be the planet Mercury. I’ve only seen Mercury two or three times in my life. The tiny inner-most planet never rises more than a few degrees above the horizon and I’ve seldom had the opportunity to get a clear view. But right now Mercury is reasonably high, and Venus and the moon would be like a diagram in the sky marking the location of the little planet.
So just after sunset I went for a walk and kept my eye on the western horizon.
As the sky slowly darkened Venus became visible first. But at the same time Venus became visible, thin dark clouds began moving up into the sky from below.
I kept walking, kept looking for an area between street lights and between buildings.
At an intersection I was trying to estimate how far the clouds were from Venus when I saw the moon!
This might have been the thinnest crescent moon I’ve ever seen. I posted once about seeing the moon three days before it disappeared. [The Almost New Moon In Black And White] But this evening it was just the day after being new.
And I got a practical lesson in how hard the moon was to see today.
Once I saw the moon I began looking for Mercury. The sky was still light, still phasing out of dusky twilight. But the clouds were moving up quickly and I was afraid I would only have a few minutes to see Mercury.
So I began to use my hand to judge degrees—holding up first my index finger and little finger spread to judge the distance from Venus to the moon. Then holding up first my clinched fist, then three fingers to judge distance below the moon looking for Mercury.
Even if I couldn’t find Mercury today, I wanted to familiarize myself with the Venus/moon distances for tomorrow in case the sky is clear tomorrow. The moon will have moved, of course, but Mercury will be, more or less, still down and to the right of Venus.
So there I was holding my hand up to the sky and a woman’s voice next to me asks, “Are you a witch?”
Now I just mentioned that I’m pretty comfortable talking to strangers and I’ve had, probably, more than my share of odd conversations with people, but that was the first time anyone has ever asked me if I was a witch.
The woman was smiling so I asked, smiling too, “Why would you think I might be a witch?”
She pointed at the sky. “You were making weird hand gestures at the sky. It looked kind of like the hand motions the guys made at the end of ‘Close Encounters’ when they were talking to the aliens. Is that Wicca stuff? Were you communing with the nature gods?”
I pointed west and showed her Venus, and the moon.
She said, “Oh my God, I didn’t even see the moon there. It is so thin.”
I explained it was only one day past new and how that’s a big deal to some religions but, no, I wasn’t into Wicca. I showed her how hand shapes could be used to measure degrees of distance in the sky.
“That’s very cool,” she said.
“It’s not as cool as being a witch,” I said.
“It’s not,” she said. “But it’s still cool seeing the moon like that. I never would have seen it if you hadn’t been out here doing the weird hand stuff.”
So we talked about astronomy for a while and I pointed out the clouds, by then, obscuring the moon and Venus before the sky had become dark enough to see Mercury. I said I’d have to come back tomorrow night, if it was clear, and I’d bring my binoculars.
“Cool,” she said. “Maybe we’ll talk again.”
So I was bummed that I didn’t get to see Mercury. But I did get to see Venus and the one-day-old crescent new moon. And I got to talk science with a woman wearing one of those tee shirts with cut-away shoulders that showoff her bra straps. I was pretty proud of myself for even being able to put sentences together.
And I might get a chance to see Mercury tomorrow if the sky is clear. And maybe talk science some more. Or talk witchcraft some more.
Witchcraft might be more fun for a Friday night.
Sometimes even when things don’t go right they still go cool.