Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Gawking at the Universe

If I were a skilled photographer living in El Salvador, this is what the eclipse would have looked like on Tuesday. Unfortunately, I am an unskilled photographer living in New Jersey and my photos looked more like a white smudge on an inky surface. This photo is courtesy of: The photographer was Jose Cabezas.

Early Tuesday morning the winds were howling outside in the darkness and the thermometer plunged to below freezing. Winter had us surrounded. What better time to go outside and watch a total lunar eclipse? After all, this momentous event was coinciding with the December solstice, something that hasn't occurred in 372 years, and won't come around again until 2094.

I donned two layers of pants and shirts as well as a warm winter coat, scarf and hat. Standing in the driveway and leaning on the roof of my car to brace my hands, I took several inadequate pictures of this seldom-seen celestial event. My husband did the same.

Why this fascination with the machinations of the sky? I think many of my generation first became enamored with astronomy back in the 1960s when the adventures of Star Trek captured our imaginations. Down on Earth, there was the Vietnam Conflict, the Civil Rights struggle, protests, rioting and the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King. It seemed like the world was falling apart. Looking up into the night sky, anything was possible—even world peace, and a guy sporting pointy ears and triangular sideburns.

The moon has always held a special fascination for me. While finding specific planets and stars in the night sky can be challenging, the moon is always easy to spot. It offers a variety of shapes with its waxing and waning cycles, so it is never boring. And when it’s full, given that you are with the right person, it can be incredibly romantic and beautiful. It also has spawned the lore of werewolves and crazy people. It is, after all, the namesake of the time-honored lunatic asylums. Oh, yeah, and there's that thing with the moon and the tides.

Watching the eclipse in the early morning, whether alone or with others, was a group experience. People from countries across the half of the world draped in night were witnessing this event simultaneously. It was a terrestrial experience that connected us all. Beyond this one event, it was mind-boggling to consider that every sighted person who has ever walked the Earth has gazed up at the same moon—from prehistoric cave dwellers to Aristotle to the people who built the pyramids and the Great Wall of China. It is a nocturnal bond we share.

Observing the shadow of the Earth crawl across the moon and finally turn it a dull red was captivating enough that I stayed outside until my camera-clutching hands went numb with frostbite. An eclipse is not just an astronomical phenomenon. It represents an event that is bigger than all of us. It offers a reminder that the universe is unfathomably large—and we’re not. That’s actually a comforting notion, considering how dependable celestial bodies have been throughout the ages, and how capricious human beings can be.

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