The joy of stargazing

I fell in love with looking up into the night sky at a young age. Now that I am older, and busier, and living in the center of a light-polluted city, I rarely look up into the night sky anymore.

But on those rare nights when I get a chance to look up to the stars and planets and moon again, I get the same giddiness I felt when I first looked up to the sky in wonder.

Why should you, dear reader, also look up from time to time?

There can be as many answers to this question as there are stars we see in the sky, which, by the way, ranges from around 1000 to 5000, depending on your eyesight and the levels if light and air pollution in your observation site.

The answer can be practical. Being familiar with the night sky has its uses. The stars have helped humans navigate across oceans and continents for thousands of years.

Today many of us have electronic devices such as smartphones that help with navigation. But when these devices run out of battery, familiarity with the night sky comes in handy.

I experienced this first hand one time while driving through unfamiliar streets. My phone ran out of battery and there was no one to ask about the directions. To find my way, I just pulled over by the side of the road and looked up to the stars to find my bearings. I felt a pleasant, tingling sensation in participating in a practice our ancestors have used all those nights and moons ago.

Aside from being useful with the directions, the sky is also a great time keeping tool. Even today, with our modern time keeping devices and techniques, many of our day to day routines and even special observances and holidays are governed by the cycles of the sky. For example, many people do not know that Holy Week is scheduled according to the phases of the moon.

However, stargazing is not just about what is practical and useful. Looking up in wonder is also about the sheer joy of gazing into the cosmos and catching a glimpse, even if it is just a glimpse, of our place in the universe.

Stargazing is also for free. When the sky is clear, try to look up some time. Even when you are in the middle of a city, you will still see a few bright stars. You may even see bright planets like Mars, Venus, or Jupiter.

The moon, familiar as it is, is also a delight. Observe its waxing and waning. Look for it during the daytime sometimes. Understand why it has been worshipped for thousands of years. Appreciate why its cycles still have an impact on our modern lives. Imagine what those impacts are for people who are still connected to nature, or for the ancients who used it to create their celestial calendar.

Enjoy its splendor when it exhibits the phenomenon called earthshine, when it reflects back to us the sunlight we reflect on it. In doing so, we can see both the bright and dark sides at the same time. I never tire of admiring the moon’s beauty during such times. Poets of long ago called it “the old moon in the arms of the new.”

However, if you can, look up into the night sky from a dark spot. Put down your phone for a while—look up to the lights in the sky instead of the lights in your hands, for a change. Look for the Milky Way, the faint fuzz of light that is a cloud of stars representing the plane of the galaxy we are part of. Try and see if you can make out the constellations. Watch out for a shooting star.

The sky is as connected to culture —to art, religion, literature, history —as it is to science. Understanding it and enjoying it is a common heritage of humanity. We owe it to ourselves as a favor to partake in this heritage.

I hope you start looking up to the next clear night sky you get.

Topics: Sounds of Science , Pecier Decierdo , The joy of stargazing
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