GAM 2019 Blog

Most of us have lost our personal connection with the sky. Since the early 20th century artificial light at night has replaced the starlit dome we've lived under for millions of years with a wan, amorphous glow. But we've lost more than our view the stars. Our place in the Universe is now hidden from view.

Before optics, ancients watched the Sun and stars move across the heavens, eventually realizing that the Earth itself was rotating, not a crystalline sphere overhead that encircled our planet. The enigmatic, seemingly irregular motion of the planets were understood once it was recognized that planets, along with Earth, orbit the Sun. The Earth's axial tilt - and the seasons that result - explained the Sun's changing position in our sky through the year. Studying the stars showed that they're at unfathomable distances from us, far beyond the wandering planets of our solar system. Two millennia ago, Eratosthenes measured the Earth's diameter by measuring the Sun's noontime shadow at different latitudes (the idea of a flat Earth had been debunked well before then).

Keen watchers of the sky wondered what could explain what they saw, and they found the answers in regular observation, unaided by telescopes. The cosmos presented the Universe to them and showed them their place in it.

How many of us today can say the same? Many, actually, as the members of Astronomers Without Borders show. They're out in public on every continent except Antarctica sharing this basic understanding with others. "Come see the Moon!" John Dobson used to say to passersby. "Come see Saturn!" That first view beyond our Earth changed the people Dobson lured to the eyepiece. The sky became a part of their personal universe.

I compare a new observer to someone who never ventures or looks beyond the fences surrounding their home. Climb to the roof and the view changes everything - trees, mountains, tall buildings, and vastness unimagined. We're part of a world far greater than the places we traverse daily, unless we have the means, and take the time, to look beyond those restricted horizons.

Looking at the Moon through a telescope somehow makes it more real, a place instead of a round light in the sky. The telescope shows the star-like planets as our neighbors in space. We learn where we are in that neighborhood, and all the vast Universe beyond. The sky is part of our home, as it was for our ancestors.

It doesn't take a telescope to make that journey. Nor does it take centuries of study as it did for astronomers centuries ago. A little knowledge makes it easy to see the clockwork of the heavens, the motions that dictate our daily and yearly lives.

I don't get out with a telescope nearly often enough anymore. But I still observe the sky. Any clear evening I may step out to take a little trip through the solar system. There's Venus shining brighter than anything else in the evening twilight, with Saturn glowing a dimmer yellow nearby. It's an illusion; Saturn is far larger but it's father from the Sun and farther from Earth, making it appear dimmer. They appear near to each other in the sky, but Saturn can be 25 times farther from us than Venus. It's like looking across a forest; we understand that the trees that seem smaller are just more distant.

I step out on nights like this to see the solar system in 3D, armed not with 3D glasses but just a little knowledge. Try it, using your knowledge of what's really happening. On some nights the Moon will swing past in its orbit, showing phases that reveal the relative positions of the Sun, Moon, and Earth. No orrery is needed. It's all happening right there.

The seasons bring great changes for those of us not living near the equator, but few understand how the Earth's position and motion are responsible. It's more meaningful to me understanding how it happens, watching it happen as the Earth moves in its orbit. There is nothing on Earth - absolutely nothing - that is not impacted by these motions.

We're now starting the tenth edition of Global Astronomy Month, celebrating all the ways astronomy affects us, engages us, and fascinates us. From science to art, astronomy is a part of everything we do, and responsible for who we are. What if we lived on a planet perennially shrouded in clouds, never to see the stars? Think about it. No five-star reviews. What would we call people who shine brightly in their field (movies or otherwise)? What would our day be like? Our year?

More importantly, how would we know where we are? Would we still send spacecraft to other planets? Even if we discovered the rest of the solar system, would we care as much as we do now? It's hard to imagine what that isolated world would be like and how its inhabitants would be different from us.

Astronomy gives us a perspective that nothing else can. In a Universe of unlimited possibilities, the Earth seems quite small. We're not really so far apart on this little planet. And we know we're not alone when we're sharing the same sky. That's the importance of astronomy, and the reason for Astronomers Without Borders.


Mike Simmons is the founder and president of Astronomers Without Borders. No stranger to organizing global programs, Mike was was co-chair of 100 Hours of Astronomy in the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Mike has been an amateur astronomer involved in public outreach and education for 40 years. MikeSimmons 150