Sharp-eyed space cadets in the Commonwealth may have noticed an error in last week's column. Although I steered you to Mars and Saturn correctly, I mentioned the star Sirius when I meant to refer to a somewhat dimmer (but still bright) star called Spica. “Spike to Spica” is part of an old star-finder's tip. I've used it for decades. So reaching into my bag of tricks and pulling out the wrong wrench is like something Wily E. Coyote would do.
Speaking of tricks, I'm going to avoid any hint of the news today, and mention why I'd bother to tackle esoteric, starry topics to begin with. I've done a few such pieces. It was a mission of sorts. A teacher asked me if I could scribe something about the importance of math and science, in order to nudge the Commonwealth's impressionable young minds toward such topics.
I tried to wriggle off the hook. I'm not a preachy sort of guy, I explained. It's not up to me to tell somebody else what to study or what to pursue. After all, like all emotional venues, Saipan is utterly saturated in finger-wagging.
But if I were to wag a finger and give advice, my advice would be not to take anyone's advice. I guess that's cross-canceling logic right there, which is, of course, the best kind. Keeps things simple.
So I just decided to outflank the issue instead of doing a frontal assault. That's how I settled on the starry realm. While I don't want to sell anyone on anything, I'll mention why I've always been a star-geek. This is just a random walk through my own noggin.
One great thing about casual astronomy is that it is so doggone approachable. The skies are free for the looking. Well, at least for now.
Furthermore, there is an entire industry that serves the appetites of the casually interested, ranging from several magazines, to an entire slew of well-written books, to websites, to, in some places (not in the CNMI, though), sidewalk astronomers with serious telescopes giving passers-by a look at the heavens.
Can you imagine a sidewalk mathematician offering a look at, say, Taylor series? Or a sidewalk chemist providing free lectures on stoichiometry? I think not.
Indeed, math, chemistry, and, of course, physics, are not exactly approachable for casual dating. This is hard stuff. Of course, all of these rigorous subjects are components of astronomy, but for casual, pedestrian dabbling in it, we can enjoy the big picture without having to understand, or recall, the nitty-gritty of the underlying sciences. It's like licking the icing off the cake.
For example, at the most basic level, it's an easy walk through the basics of what stars are made of, how they burn and change, where they are in the life-cycle, and so on. Learning the basics about a few specific stars gave me a little dose of “something to think about” that I could carry with me anywhere in the world. And I did just that.
This made duty on ships and in remote areas a lot more pleasant. Keeping one's mind engaged in such settings is not always easy. I've worked in places where everyone nearby was grunting, spitting, belching, and emoting, so peaceful equanimity was not to be had. Empty kettles make the most noise.
One thing I learned from such duty was that sometimes all you've got is the clothes on your back and the thoughts in your head. So you'd better leave home with good gear. After all, once afield, you're stuck with what you've got.
Another thing I enjoy about the topic is that it's like a team roster of the world's smartest guys. Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Kepler, Descartes and Einstein are just a few of the household-name brainiacs who scored points. I could never be a genius, for the simple reason that I'm too stupid, so I enjoy being able to vicariously enjoy some of their exploits. If that's not a windfall, then what is?
And here's a great thing: eye candy. Astronomical bodies look cool. Planets, galaxies, nebulae; pictures of this stuff are often compelling and memorable. Anyone on Saipan will have an appreciation for good scenery; we've got some of the best in the world. But there are so many worlds, eh?
I mentioned the bounty of learning materials earlier. It's worth noting that good books keep rolling off the presses. A few good contemporary writers are Richard Panek, Brian Greene, and Lawrence Krauss.
Well, that's how it looks from my beach chair. But we now return to our regular Saipan programming: emotions, politics, and emotional politics.
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.