Winter Sky

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(HOST) Commentator Ted Levin thinks that this time of year – with its cold, clear night sky – is perfect for star gazing.

(LEVIN) Recently, Annie and I took our boys to the Christa MacCauliffe Planetarium in Concord, New Hampshire. To orient us to the night sky, lines of light connected various of stars to form constellations, which filled the domed-roof of the planetarium like random shapes flung from a Chinese puzzle.

When we returned home to gaze at the anarchy of our own diamond sky (I find it hard to recognize most constellations without the aid of lines), I thought about living outside, night after night, year after year, one generation to the next. With little to do after dark but stare at the vault of stars, ancient man leaned back and memorized the pattern and rotation of heavenly bodies, which eventually became central elements of myth and religion, as well as navigation.

Who looks at the sky this closely today? Reverend Robert Evans of Australia has a knack for finding dying stars, or supernovas. The faint twinkle from a point of space that wasn’t occupied before is all that distinguishes a supernovae. Evans finds an average of two a year, which Bill Bryson explains in A Short History of Nearly Everything is like setting up a line of diner tables two miles long. Cover the tables with a black tablecloth and then scatter a handful of salt across each table.

“Now,” writes Bryson, “add one grain of salt to any table and let Bob Evans walk among them. At a glance he will spot it. The grain of salt is the supernovae.”

Earlier this year, I visited Great Britain. On the road between Wales and Winchester we passed by Stonehenge, where, for more than 3,000 years, beginning nearly 6,000 years ago, Druids convened for important lunar and solar events. I pulled into the parking lot and, for ten minutes, peered through a chain link fence at two towering stone arches and several stone posts, which were part of the outer Sarsan Circle. The erect stones stood above a jumble of fallen or leaning stones. I spent more time in the gift shop than I did looking at the ruins.

On the flight home, I read that Stonehenge was built on the principal of repeating right triangles, whose apexes marked, among other things: the solstices, the equinoxes, the midwinter sunset, the midsummer sunrise, the seasonal cycles of the moon and an 18.6-year cycle of solar and lunar eclipses. Here was a culture that stayed up late and charted the changing face of the night sky, a culture with whom Bob Evans has a common bond.

Standing in my front yard last night, the world twinkling overhead, I recalled a quote from the British biologist J.S.B. Haldane: “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.”

How else could anyone explain the Red Sox winning the World Series on the night of a Total Lunar Eclipse?

This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Ctr.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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