Archive for the ‘stargazing’ Tag

A Slice of Sky   Leave a comment

For all my good intentions, I still don’t go out stargazing as often as I did in the years before I launched into self-publishing. It’s hard to justify spending time on a hobby when there are so many stories trying to claw their way out of my head. But the night sky can be insistent, and the urge can become overwhelming. A few days ago it became irresistible.

It was a clear evening, typical of the desert in springtime. The constellations of winter, Orion most prominent among them, were low in the west and slipping away. Sirius blazed and glittered in the southwest. Gemini was high in the west, and Leo was straight overhead with Jupiter just within reach of his paws. The arrangement of planet and constellation brought to mind a kitten chasing a toy, a strange fate for the King of Planets. Rising in the east were the constellations of spring and early summer. Boötes was almost horizontal, as if not quite ready to rise and shine from a long seasonal sleep. The Big Dipper was high in the northeast, and the North Star was, well, where you always find it. Plenty to choose from, in terms of targets, even with the narrow bit of sky I can see from the backyard these days.

In 2003, when I bought the new telescope and began to re-educate myself in the art and science of visual astronomy, setting up on the back porch was a workable option. I lost some of the north and northwest sky to the mesquites growing in the back yard, but there were only a handful of constellations I couldn’t reach. In the years since, the trees have responded to our care by doing what trees do best – growing. Twelve years later, setting up on the back porch leaves me with somewhat limited observing options, which has regrettably discouraged me from observing from home base. That night I was reminded that even a narrow slice of an infinite universe is a busy place.

Using a four-inch refractor under moderately light-polluted skies requires careful target selection. No galaxy hopping this time ‘round; I needed bright lights in the night sky. I went for familiar double stars and spent a lot of time looking at Venus and Jupiter. It was a cool, quiet evening that started out a bit windy, but settled to mere whispers of a breeze. The atmosphere was fairly steady, what astronomers call “good seeing.” The twinkling of stars that you sometimes see, famed in song and nursery rhyme, is actually a bad thing for stargazers. If I’d been able to look up that night and honestly recite “twinkle twinkle, little star,” I’d have gone back in to work on the next book. That didn’t happen, so I gazed the evening away, and was satisfied the time was well spent. If you’re at all moved by the sight of stars, just being out on a clear night will do it for you. I spent as much time seated and looking up, eyes alone, as I did at the eyepiece, relaxed and unworried for a while by recent events.

The Muse, however, is never silent, and for all that I focused my attention on Castor and Pollux, Mizar and Alcor, and the moons of Jupiter, the current work in progress was ever present. Bits of dialogue crept into my thoughts. An idea for resolving a plot wrinkle came to mind. Notes for the book appeared among the observing notes regarding the ruddy gold double star in Leo designated Gamma Leonis. The Muse nudged, but it was gently done, for a change, something always there, but otherwise leaving me at peace under that slice of the night sky. A fact of life, if you’re a writer. It never really stops. I felt no conflict between writing and stargazing as this went on, and that’s likely because amateur astronomy is such a blend of knowledge and imagination. Objects in the night sky are utterly beyond my grasp, and so I can only look at them with my eyes or a telescope, touching them with my thoughts alone. I consider what I’ve read about these things, about how long a star in a double system takes to orbit its companion, about the stars being born in that patch of light beneath Orion’s belt, and they assume a reality of sorts for all that they are far beyond my physical reach.

Telling a tale is much the same thing. The worlds I’ve invented are as unreachable, in their way, as the stars. They are built of knowledge and imagination, but they are real in my imagination, as real as the Orion nebula, because I have what I need, through a lifetime of reading and living, to make them seem tangible. And so it seems perfectly natural that, as I look up at the stars, I take their measure even as I imagine people living out there and having adventures. Stars and stories go together and always have, and I am hardly the first to be moved to tell tales while seated beneath them.


The Little Book That Could   1 comment

It’s a milestone. It’s also something that was quite likely inevitable, and in time may well become permanent. Now that it’s come, however, I find myself with mixed feelings about it.

Mr. Olcott’s Skies: An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession is no longer my number one seller. My novel The Luck of Han’anga has overtaken it. It’s by just a couple of copies, for the moment, but I’m so accustomed to the memoir outselling the first book of the sci-fi series that the realization that this is no longer the case feels rather odd.

Before any thought of self-published ever occurred to me, I gathered together material to use as a series of astronomy-related essays, intended for posting on the Cloudy Nights amateur astronomy forum. The project was never completed. As I was cleaning up the novel that eventually became The Luck of Han’anga, I realized that I had enough of this material to publish a small book of early astronomy memories. Doing so would provide valuable experience, and if I screwed up I would do so on a relatively small stage. Damage control, it seemed, would be easy, from what I knew of such things at that time. So when I turned The Luck of Han’anga over to beta readers, I began to work on the memoir in earnest, with the idea of using it as a sort of experiment, or a toe stuck in the proverbial waters. During the writing, it took on a life of its own, becoming much more than a test. On March 21st, 2011, I uploaded the book to Kindle Direct Press and Smashwords. It was quite the learning experience, indeed, and it did smooth the way for The Luck of Han’anga, which followed in June of that same year. By then, I’d seen a gratifying number of copies of the memoir sold, but fully expected the novel to go past the memoir in fairly short order.

That’s not what happened. Instead, the memoir sold steadily, and maintained the lead its head start gave it over the novel. It even held on to that lead when the next two novels were released, driving sales of the first novel in the series. Feedback from readers, along the way, both surprised me and helped explain what was happening. This little “experiment” was selling outside the intended niche market. While most of those who discovered Mr. Olcott’s Skies were in fact fellow amateur astronomers, a fair number had no such interests. Some of the non-astronomers were people who had encountered me in various social media venues. Others I can’t account for so easily. Either way, a couple of bucks – for the eBook version – apparently sounded like a small price to pay to satisfy their curiosity, so they gave it a try and found themselves reading a book that reminded them of quieter times in their own lives. It’s a book that apparently takes readers back to memories of their own childhood adventures. To say that this is gratifying would be an understatement.

For more than two years, Mr. Olcott’s Skies led the pack. A small slice of life set in words, an attempt to learn self-publishing, aimed at a niche market and going happily wide of that mark, this little experiment has been one of the real joys of my self-published journey. In our household it came to be known as The Little Book That Could – a reference to an old and revered children’s book. This year, The Luck of Han’anga finally started to eat away at that lead. As the gap began to close, I found myself rooting for the little guy. Perhaps that was foolish, but I couldn’t help myself. Every time a copy sold, I found myself grinning. Still in the lead! Way to go, Little Book That Could!

And now it’s in second place, and that leaves me feeling a bit melancholy. Silly, really, since the book is still “in print,” and will be for as long as I have anything to say about it. (One of the true advantages to being self-published is that you can keep a book out there indefinitely, no matter how slowly it sells.) It will sell additional copies. There will be more readers sharing that starlit journey with me. It may even regain the lead. You never know! And yet, I’m sitting here feeling the way I do when the team I root for loses the World Series. Yes, there’s always “next year,” but still …

Stars in the Balance   5 comments

On the 27th of August, 2003, Mars and our Earth passed as close to each other as they’ve been in recorded history. No one alive will see such a thing again. This was all treated as headline news, at the time, and spawned one of the most persistent internet hoaxes I know of, that being the claim that any given August Mars will appear as large as the Full Moon in the night sky. The event also marked a turning point in my life, since it changed astronomy from a fondly remembered teenage obsession to a present day pursuit of wonders in the night sky.

I was employed by a lab on the U of A campus that summer and saw an article in the campus newspaper about the close approach. There was an announcement of a related public event in that article, viewings of Mars from the campus mall on the weekend before and the weekend after opposition, hosted by the Flandrau Science Center and the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. Mars that close, viewed through a telescope? For free? No matter how low a level my astronomy interest had reached, it was too attractive a notion to pass up, so my wife and I attended the first viewing. The desert monsoon was in progress, and the clouds left behind by afternoon thunderstorms left us with mere glimpses of Mars, though I did wander the field examining telescopes and speaking with their enthusiastic users. It made me nostalgic for times past, to say the least. It was also a strange and wonderful feeling to actually look through telescopes of sizes and powers I could only dream of owning as a teenager.
The following weekend, just a day or two after the actual opposition, the weather was clear. We decided to give it another try, and were well rewarded for our effort. There were more telescopes on the mall, and more people had come out to have a look. It was a noisy event, punctuated by excited shouts as folk unfamiliar with telescopes had their first looks at Mars or some other celestial sight. I saw Mars as I’d never seen it before, and will never see it again. By the time we were home I’d decided on two things: the Old Scope was coming out of the box, and ownership of a newer, larger instrument was in my immediate future.

If you’ve read my short amateur astronomy memoir, Mr. Olcott’s Skies, you already know that this is exactly how it unfolded. Now I find myself sitting here, ten years after that event, contemplating the changes that have come since then.

For a time, amateur astronomy was everything. I bought gear, I bought books, and I joined the local club. I immersed myself in the hobby, attending star parties and outreach events, writing reviews and observing essays for the Cloudy Nights forum, on which I also served as a moderator and then an administrator. I wrote instructional material for the local club and helped run their beginners’ program for a time. Amateur astronomy became the major focus of my free time. This was possible because I’d given up writing.
I’ve mentioned that sad decision in this blog in the past, so suffice to say that after nearly two decades of selling ever fewer magazine articles, and not a word of fiction, I quit. There was no way I could continue to justify the attempt, especially knowing as I did that it was getting harder all the while for new authors to break in. I quit, but the creative energy was still there, scratching and clawing at me from the inside, seeking a way out. Astronomy provided that outlet. The planning and study required for observing, the interactions online, the reviews and observing reports, all these aspects and more soaked up that energy and then some. Because of this, some of the most creative times in my life involved no writing at all, or writing as incidental to astronomy, a tool to communicate and share my love of starlight and moonlight with others.
Along came the Kindle, and then Nook and Kobo. The digital revolution had finally caught up with publishing; it did so all of a sudden and in a big way. As a writer, I found myself with options that hadn’t (and couldn’t have) existed when I stopped trying to sell my words. When I realized there was a new reason to hope, a reason to write in earnest, writing experienced the same sort of revival that astronomy did in August 2003. Regrettably, this has happened at the expense of star gazing.

An unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of the writing revival has been a reduction in the amount of time spent at the eyepiece. For the last couple of years I’ve put all my spare time and energy into books and stories, and felt very good about doing so. As a priority, it’s a no-brainer. To have any chance of success I need to produce material for publication, balancing speed of output with quality. But here, a few days after the 10th anniversary of my return to my youthful obsession with star gazing, I find myself seeking a balance of another sort. I must write, for this is the very definition of my being. But I must find the time to go out and point lens and mirrors at the sky, to gather and focus ancient light on my eyes and imagination. The spirit in me craves both. The challenge before me is to placate the muse, and somehow manage to keep looking up.

Words Take Over   Leave a comment

Time and energy for making astronomical observations has been rather scarce of late. My interest in matters astronomical has never been stronger, but writing has taken such a firm hold of my life that other priorities have been set back a notch or two. (Gardening is one of these. You should see the weeds out there!) Until relatively recently I had the time to devote to astronomy (and horticulture) because I’d given up on writing. The creative energy once soaked up by writing needed to go elsewhere. It went into the Earth and out to the stars.

It’s not really a surprise that a return to writing has rearranged my life as it has. Now that modern self publishing (independent publishing, as many prefer to put it) has turned being published from a bottleneck to an open outlet, I have no reason to hold back. And for the past year and a half or so, I haven’t held back at all. Getting the words down, getting the stories told, is priority one, without question. So I turn my eyes back to the Moon and stars only at those times when I have gotten enough writing done that I feel comfortable taking some time at the eyepiece.

Writing follows me to the eyepiece, and has changed the way I practice astronomy in a way that I didn’t expect. With my mind so focused on making words work for me, these days, I find myself wielding a pencil less often, when I record observations. Instead of sketching each object, I find myself taking ever more detailed notes. It was a subtle drift from one method to the other as the dominant technique, and it’s far from a complete change. I still apply graphite to the blending stump on a regular basis, especially when working on something like an Astronomical League observing project. But for observations made for the sake of observing, I just don’t sketch things as often.

Many artists focus on one form of self-expression to the near exclusion of others. (People who can draw, sing, and play a musical instrument with equal facility leave me awestruck.) The art I practice is that of wordsmithing, and it has always suffered competition without much grace. I suppose for me it’s a sort of artistic monogamy. And the more involved with writing I am, the more ways writing finds to express itself in my daily life. For astronomy, writing always had a role, but for years I spent as much timing illustrating observing reports as I did writing them. Words are my thing, now more than ever, the medium in which I best express what I see and think and feel while out under the stars.

I crossed a divide of sorts when I started using a digital voice recorder, instead of scribbling in the dark. Even a faint red light reflected off a white piece of paper (and it doesn’t matter if I’m sketching or scribbling) reduces dark adaptation, a necessary trade-off for effective sketching. With a DVR and a sense for words, I don’t need to reduce my night vision as much, though reading star charts still has an effect. Use of the DVR promotes spontaneity as I search for ways to describe what I see. The following day I use those spoken words for a foundation, and write essays to fill my observation reports. Allowing the medium that comes most naturally to me take over when recording observations has made visual observing a more vivid experience for me. As was true of sketching, making the effort to come up with just the right word or phrase focuses my attention in ways that links my mind more clearly to the process of observing. Just as it happens with sketching, that focus means I see more, and see more clearly. The act of observing becomes an interaction between lenses, eyes, and mind, and not a merely passive collection of photons by the retina.

As with any art, the more you write the more you can write, and with greater facility. The desire to write also grows. The more writing I do, the more I want to write, so it really is no surprise that I practice astronomy the way I do, these days. At least, when I manage time to do a little observing, that is. The writing habit that has taken the sketch pad out of my hands also keeps me working on the next book or short story. That leaves me with little time for star-gazing as I work to get another book written and published.

Clear Skies!   Leave a comment

Amateur astronomers often use the phrase “Clear skies!” when closing a letter or an online post. The meaning of the sentiment is obvious to anyone who knows anything at all about stargazing. Without clear skies, you can’t really do much in the way of astronomical observing. Short of setting up a radio telescope, I mean. (And that has been done by amateurs.) But it takes more than a clear sky for astronomy to happen. Other things need to line up just so.

For one thing, the “seeing conditions” need to be pretty good as well. When amateur astronomers talk about “seeing,” they’re concerned with the steadiness of the atmosphere. The ocean of air under which we live never holds still, and at times is downright jittery. You can see this without a telescope. Look up at night and watch the stars twinkle. That’s called scintillation, and as pretty as it may seem to the casual sky-glancer, it isn’t a well-loved phenomenon among astronomers. Telescopes magnify everything, including that jittery glitter you sometimes see at night, which goes from a pretty sparkle on high to a glaring blob of bright mush in the eyepiece of a telescope. When the seeing is bad the sky can be absolutely cloud free and the amateur astronomer will still have limited options.

Wind can be a hardship as well, complicating everything from getting a good view to using a star chart and taking notes. Breezes are fine, especially in mosquito season, but a good stiff wind battering the tube of a 203mm Newtonian reflector does not make for a fine night out, if your goal was stargazing. I can always do without wind, when I have a telescope set up.

And of course, there are the closely related matters of having the time and energy to take advantage of a clear night sky, when all other things are equal. Handling expensive eyepieces while in a hurry, or yawning, is not recommended.

Like so many matters of “real life,” then, it’s best not to take the wish for “clear skies” too literally. There’s more to it than a lack of cloud cover. Think of it as the amateur astronomer’s way of wishing you good luck. Something like saying “break a leg” to a performer, only a little bit more subtle.

Posted May 26, 2012 by underdesertstars in Amateur Astronomy

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