by Edward Johnson
Late last month, Gene Ramsey was kind enough to show me around our observatory and let me take advantage of a break in the clouds to see the super-nova in M101, a star that exploded some 23 million years ago.
It took awhile to wrap my mind around what that meant. I was looking at light that was 23 million years old from a star that exploded during our planet’s Miocene Epoch. When that star exploded, the closest thing to a human walking the Earth was a small monkey-like primate called proconsul africanus. Hoofed animals and primates had just begun to diversify, charts from that period say.
The dictionary says astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena that occur outside the Earth’s atmosphere. And while physicists with more knowledge than I’ll ever have fill charts with formulae that try to explain where our universe came from and where it’s going, my wonder is of a more simplistic variety.
I can scan the sky with a set of binoculars and look at objects that have kept their own watch for billions of years. Sometimes I have to pause and think about that—billions of years! It seems there’s a peaceful permanence in that. Long before I walked the Earth the planets of our solar system and the stars of our galaxy were there. They will, in all probability, be there long after I’m a memory.
The ancients studied the skies with wonder, some-times explaining what they couldn’t understand with fables and legends. Later, they tried to ex-plain their observations through mathematics, just as we do today as our quest to know continues.
Today’s professional astronomers work off radio soundings, satellite transmitted photographs and data, and mathematical formulae that are intimidating for someone like me to even look at. I read somewhere that most of today’s researchers don’t have to even see the sky to do their work. That certainly shows a form of technological progress and will probably lead to greater discoveries and understanding, even if it seems like less fun.
For me, there was something mystical in getting a clear telescopic view of Jupiter and its four visible moons; the same four moons Galileo first saw all those years ago. Those Jovian moons and that star that exploded some 23 million years, ago are true objects of wonder.