Jason Shilling Kendall: Citizen Astronomer

William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York
Hunter College

107 Stars
January 4, 2013

107 Stars.

Tonight, I came home, and Donna had a friend over rehearsing her music, so I decided to take in a little bit of our night sky from Inwood Hill Park without a telescope. So, I walked up to the hilltop above the tennis courts, high enough that I was above all the streetlamps 70 feet below. I saw Orion rising in the East, with its stars blazing brightly. Setting in the West was the Great Square. Jupiter of course held sway over it all, shining with a singular brilliance. Jupiter's light is a penetrating glow that seems quite mysterious when floating in the sky next to Aldebaran and the Pleiades. Then, I thought of counting the stars I could see. I just went around the entire sky, from ones that are low to ones that are high. It took a few minutes, and I didn't try to trick myself into believing I could see stars that weren't easily seen. It didn't hurt that someone had left a plastic milk crate up there to sit on. So, there I was, in the darkest possible place within a short walk, and I found that after 5 minutes, I had counted 107 stars. Just those 107. Now, the tale takes two turns. Is the story "half full" or "half empty"? Our night sky is rapidly disappearing under wanton glare, ignorant landlords, paranoid parks officials, poorly designed streetlamps and the bizarre idea that electricity does not cost money. I now take to wearing a cowboy hat just so I can tip it into the glare of people who simply must drive or park with high beams on. But, the 107. Those 107 were not lost in the glare, and I wondered a wonderful old question, that I'm sure trying to answer would baffle a class: "Why don't they just fall down out of the sky?" Why don't they? To those who are wise in the ways of science, this is a question that will bring either a laugh, or a well-meant mini-lecture, or both. Those 107 stars just seemed to hang there, just being there, dots on the reddish blackness of what passes for night in New York City. But the sky was brittly clear, and the view of Jupiter through the telescope would have been wondrous to be sure. However, those 107 called to me, and spoke in a way I was not sure I had heard before. You see, before going up there, I had considered the bars and watering holes to grab a dinner and a beer, but every place that I would have gone to spruce up my presentation I am about to give, would have had loud noises and more televisions, demanding that I watch and engage in their fervent needs. The 107 just waited there. These stars have names, given many times by may cultures. Their lights shining down on us, gently tugging at our minds, asking us to look up, and spend a moment asking a silly or profound question, such as what are they, really, or what's it like over there, or how far are they, or did my grandfather see the same stars, or did a laborer on the Pyramids look up with hungry, parched eyes after a brief respite from a back-breaking toil to wish he were there instead? Were these 107 to be the only stars that we are allowed to see today from this night forward? I know why we block out the night. We have slain all the real monsters, but we still believe in them, and the only ones that remain are other people. That's all we have left to fear: each other. But those 107. They call us back to the gentle night, with its odd sounds of nighttime insects and evening birds. Instead, we put up garish spotlights on the streets below. Then people respond to this intrusion into their homes with thick curtains. The street outside your window has now become the Other. The street below has become unsafe even though it is brightly lit. No one looks out to look down on the kids below. So, the streetlights and security lights basically force us to turn the windows into walls. This makes our streets, in fact, much more dangerous because no one shall stand to open their window at night to look at the glorious, fun, rough, joyous, vibrant street-life below. With the lights on, and the windows shut and the curtains drawn, no one watches what walks by below, or just in arms reach of your window. Now, we shutter our windows after sunset, because it is no longer night. When I was a child, my window looked outside over our backyard. I heard the night sounds of the wild animals and bugs. I would sleep with the gentle breeze through the ungated, open window with no curtains, listening to the owls coo, the nocturnal squirrels and rabbits come out to make their way. The leaves gently rustled as the wind went to its unknown destination. And I looked out my window to the night sky. I counted stars then, too. It used to take a few seconds to count 107 stars. And then I would sleep.

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Amateur Astronomers Association of New York Astronomical Society of the Pacific