The hunt for a hairy star …

  • Article by: PETER M. LESCHAK
  • Updated: January 11, 2014 - 4:44 PM

… and the beauty of not knowing if you saw it. A meditation on uncertainty, as occasioned by a comet.

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This image taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on Nov. 28, 2013, shows the sun, but no sign of comet ISON. Scientists said the comet broke apart on Thanksgiving after coming close to the sun.

Photo: NASA via Associated Press,

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It’s an hour before sunrise on the banks of the Boise River. The valley bends southeast, and that’s a fortunate angle for my mission. The due eastern horizon is blockaded by the surge of foothills, still black against the vanguard glow of daybreak, but southeast is where I need to see.

The ground is hardened by frost, the spoor of a late November chill of 19 degrees. A tenuous mist wafts off the river as it purls northwest toward the Snake, the Columbia, and the Pacific. That’s good. Dense fog would spoil my chances. I find it pleasing that less than a mile away you can still see wagon wheel ruts from the old Oregon Trail, but I’m on a more ephemeral quest.

A waning gibbous moon is glaring near the zenith, almost blotting out the stars of Orion. More darkness would be better, but I’m hoping the light-gathering power of my 7x50 binoculars will coax Comet ISON out of the dawn sky where it is plunging in from deep space to graze the sun.

It was discovered several months ago, and when astronomers calculated its trajectory, many became excited about the potential. Sun-grazers tend to mount spectacular shows for earthlings, and the hype began. I’ve ventured out to see for myself.

Two of my guides have not yet risen, the planets Mercury and Saturn. A third, the bright star Spica, is about 15 degrees above the horizon. I hope to spot the comet a few degrees west of Mercury and 10 degrees or so below Spica. When Saturn appears, the comet and the two planets should form a small equilateral triangle. This celestial blazonry is motive enough to look.

I’ve kept the binoculars inside my vest to warm the focusing mechanism and make it easy to spin, though I only need to focus once. I draw out the 7x50s, aim at Spica, and resolve it to a glittering bluish sparkle. From the charts I’ve seen, I expect the comet to rise just a little ahead of Mercury, so I begin to scan the southeast horizon.

I see a faint object almost immediately, but it looks like a star. “Comet” derives from a Latin phrase meaning “hairy star,” and ISON won’t show as a point, but as a tiny fuzzy ball — with a tail, if I’m lucky. I look away for a few moments, to “reset” my eyes; closing them, then looking around at the cottonwoods. As any astronomer knows, you can wish phenomena into existence if you stare long enough at a dim object with preconceptions in place. That’s one reason people used to believe there were canals on Mars.

When I swing the binoculars back to the distant hills, my lips release a hiss of appreciation. Mercury has popped into view. It’s a brilliant beacon just above midslope, and tinted orange. The air is so crisp and still that I detect no wavering in the image — “tack sharp,” as they say in the optics trade. I pan west, then up to Spica and slowly back down, occasionally slipping into averted vision, employing the extra sensitivity of the rod cells in my retinas. When I spy Saturn, it’s already a degree above the ridgeline, forming a dazzling pair with Mercury. I shift the binoculars to the third vertex of the imaginary triangle, and the faint object is still in view. The comet? That’s precisely where it should be, but I’m not certain. The sky is quickly brightening, and the object will soon be invisible. No matter; it’s a lovely twilight, graced with planets, and worth the chilly awakening.

As sunlight floods the foothills, I pedal away on a mountain bike, cold air stinging my cheeks and the joy of sentience swelling my chest. Unmistakably identifying the comet would’ve added a dash of spice, but uncertainty doesn’t detract. It simply means I’ll be back to the same spot tomorrow morning. Uncertainty, after all, is what encourages us to keep on living. What will happen next? What will we learn? Who will we meet? Where will we go? How long will we be here? Uncertainty persuades us to handle our fellows gently. It helps to temper overly harsh judgments about their actions or beliefs without fully hefting their baggage, or understanding their motivations, which is not often simple to do. Not-knowing may encourage a smidgen of patience and/or curiosity that can transport us near enough to meet halfway.

Uncertainty is a spur to observation, and it cheers me to be familiar enough with the sky to mount a credible comet hunt. Stargazing roots go deep, and many ancient Greeks, Celts and Sumerians were keener witnesses than I, and generally enjoyed darker, clearer skyscapes. Seeking comets and other astronomical phenomena is in league with birding, rock-hounding or collecting butterflies. All naturalist finding-and-naming activities — a core scientific task — lead inevitably to moments of ecstasy. The Greek root means “to stand outside of.” And where is that stand? Outside of our needy selves.

In learning about the world, and in taking its measure, we bump into truths that transcend our frailty and mortality. Paying attention is the price of admission to the performance, and there is no privileged point of view, no front row or cheap seats, no special access that is granted to some and not to others. We look, listen, reach out, and are always rewarded to one degree or another. We also notice we are less special than we feel, especially when contemplating the grandeur of the cosmos and our infinitesimal presence.

The philosopher and lens grinder Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), believed that we, and all else in the universe, are varied expressions of a single basic substance, and thus everything is intimately interconnected. Whether that notion is physics or theology, or a blend of both, cannot, at this moment be known. It is mysterious, in that full comprehension of such complexity is beyond us. Albert Einstein, who accomplished more than his share of decoding the cosmos — or rather, revising the questions — wrote: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Transcendence will happen of its own accord; you cannot impose it. Mystery will have its way. There are no sacred humans, only sacred moments.

We’re connected to comets in a fundamental way. The elements that comprise both comets and homo sapiens were forged in the cores of suns that ended their existence in massive explosions called supernovae, seeding heavy elements, like carbon and iron, into space. As astronomer Carl Sagan said, “we are star stuff.” Spinoza was unaware of that particular astrophysical detail, and I suspect would’ve been thrilled to know it, and to concur with Einstein that mystery is attractive. But it is also a human trait that we are restless about mystery, leery of uncertainty. Spinoza, who was excommunicated from his Dutch synagogue, believed that the certainty of religious intolerance, what he termed “superstitious” religion, was produced by two weak areas in human nature: self-aggrandizement and fear of death. He wrote: “It is fear, then, that engenders, preserves, and fosters superstition.” And by implication, deadly sectarian conflict — prominent in the past, and prominent today, only abetted with more devilish weapons. Worship can be a fine practice, but we are often too attached to our personal certainties. As Sam Harris noted: “Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.” Doubt is the indispensable lubricant in the gears of society and science.

I did return to that same spot near the river next morning, and followed the same guides, but again could not aver I had seen the comet. A few days later, ISON rounded the sun — far too closely — and for all practical purposes was destroyed. That is, there wasn’t enough left to see with binoculars, much less with naked eyes in daylight, as many observers had hoped. Sun-grazing comets can occasionally be less durable than the wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail.

Less durable, too, should be our attachment to certainty. We need wiggle room — not to escape accountability, but to relish the natural state; to be able to surely say: I don’t know. And with respect, neither do you.

As sunlight washed out that second dawn, I was satisfied with the attempt. Let it be.

 

Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground,” “Letters from Side Lake” and other books.

 

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