The Science of Sustainability

First Star I See… In My Life!

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email

Tycho Brahe observing the 1572 supernova, with astonished
spectators.

What's that up in the sky? A… uh… an… uh…. Golly, never seen that before…

Ever seen one of those? I won't say UFO, because that immediately conjures images of flying saucers and big-eyed space aliens, and that's not what I’m going for here. What I mean is, have you ever seen something in the night sky that you have "never seen before," but that you later learned was actually a natural and recurring apparition, like the appearance of Venus as the Evening Star?

This time of year usually stirs up a phone call or email or two involving "first time" sightings of the bright star Sirius, whose brilliant, multi-colored twinkling catches some people's attention at least once in their lives, causing them to gawk and either wonder why they'd never noticed it before, or assume it's a new thing in the sky, some rare and unusual occurrence.

Sirius did the same thing to me when I was in Junior High. I walked outside one night, looked up, and saw this glittering spectral jewel, brighter than I could remember any star I'd seen. This hook, or teaser, inevitably led me into the adventure of star gazing, because I had to find out what that thing was. But this kind of "revelation" can happen to people much later in life– and in hind sight I'm amazed I hadn't noticed it when I was even younger.

For the past few months, Venus has been in the western sky as the Evening Star– so naturally I’ve been getting more calls than usual. A man who I would guess (by his voice) was past middle age called to report the brilliant white light in the western evening sky, and was stunned to find out it was Venus. I could hear the amazement in his voice that he had never before noticed Venus in his life, after I told him that Venus comes and goes, alternately from the evening and morning skies, but comes back regularly.

And finally I've reached the "point" of this blog: how we can go through sometimes decades of our lives without noticing, or fully registering, something of unusual beauty that has more or less been "in plain sight" all along (or periodically, at least).

My feeling is that is must have a little to do with timing, a little to do with prevailing conditions in our lives, and a lot to do with how we focus our attention on the world around us, or above us. One day we might look to the evening sky and see brilliant Venus flashing over the horizon and not see anything unusual; twenty years later we might look at essentially the same scene and all of our attention and wonder is suddenly drawn to that inexplicably bright light.

See what you think. Go outside one evening in March, look to the south and see if you can spot Sirius– it'll be to the left of Orion's Belt, if you can find that. And, if you're reading this anytime before, say, March 20th, look to the west after sunset and look for Venus. Maybe you've seen these objects before, and know exactly what I'm talking about. Or, maybe, you'll experience something for the first time in your life. Worth a try, isn't it?

37.7631 -122.409

Related

Explore: , , , , ,

Category: Astronomy, Partners

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email
Ben Burress

About the Author ()

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.