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Into the night sky


In August, like many of us, I open the gift of the night sky. There is the sturgeon moon, for instance: Did you catch it last Sunday? It was crazy, the biggest, most lemony of the year, 14 percent closer to Earth, and 30 percent brighter. Then there is the annual return of THE Perseid meteor shower. Such a glam infinity of comet dust, all charged with the suspense — the thrill! — of a sometime shooting star. By mid-month, I’m greedy for more splendor. So here’s the plan: Two hours before sunrise on Aug. 18 , I’ll rise for a rarish meetup of Venus and Jupiter, both a mere 1/5 of a degree apart (by comparison, the moon is a half-degree wide). Such great pomp: The Queen Planet by the King Planet, third and fourth in brilliance after our sun, our moon.

Brilliance, actually, puts me in mind of Chet Raymo. I read his wonderful "Science Musings" column for the Globe for decades, and so when it came to covering books on stargazing, he took the lead. "The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage" (Cowley, 1992) is indeed a soulful affair, quoting poets like Rilke and Roethke, featuring rich wood engravings by Michael McCurdy, and strewing a nebula of lovely metaphors. Raymo compares black holes to the great kraken, for instance, the Norwegian leviathan who, when plunging underwater, pulled everything else to him like a whirlpool. To teach kids about the Milky Way, he pours a box of salt onto a pinwheel pattern.


But these are just handholds. If you dabble in astronomy you must cope with what Raymo calls "spiritual vertigo" because, as humans, we can't comprehend the vastness of outer space, which dredges up dread. No matter: Humility is a good way to start seeing in the dark. And consider this: In the last 150 years, we've made great leaps in astronomical knowledge, due to the invention of photography (before that, astronomers imprecisely sketched what they saw), the spectrograph (which splices colors from the blinding white of stars, which lets us analyze their chemical origins), and ever-better telescopes (on the ground, and in the sky, like the game-changing Hubble Space Telescope).

The result? We know much more, and we're much better at knowing what we don't know. Raymo estimates our knowledge base covers a tiny 3 percent of what's out there. But at least we realize that our galaxy isn't the only one. Since the big bang theory of starry destruction and creation, we grasp that universes, as Raymo writes, can "pop into existence like bubbles; an infinite number of bubble universes."

There's a bright side to our newfound insignificance. Astronomy is the best way to unify us, reasons Timothy Ferris, "by awakening us to our common status as fellow travelers on one small planet." He's a writer for The New Yorker and author of "Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril" (Simon and Schuster, 2002). And his enthusiasm is totally transmittable. An amateur himself, Ferris spent his childhood following the stars over Key Biscayne, Fla., and reading H.A. Rey's classic "The Stars: A New Way to See Them" (HMH , 2008).


First published in 1952, this clear, inspiring introduction to astronomy (for ages 12 and up) is by the author of the "Curious George" books. Rey writes: "To be familiar with the stars is both enjoyable and useful, and most of us would like to know them. The trouble is, few of us do." To fix this problem, he draws smarter versions of, for instance, Leo and Gemini, that help you connect the dots in the sky. The book is a beautiful blend of practical and dreamy.

The great thing about astronomy, Ferris says, is that it's the most accessible and democratic of all the sciences. Amateurs have been crucial all along. A brewer discovered Neptune's satellite Triton. A clockmaker discovered Hyperion, the eighth moon of Saturn. And even today, amateurs trade images over the Internet that professional astronomers incorporate into their work. This abundant crossplay informs "Starlight Detectives: How Astronomers, Inventors, and Eccentrics Discovered the Modern Universe" (Bellevue, 2014).


Author Alan Hirshfeld explains how "the human eye itself was a fundamental roadblock to progress" and how the heroes are the ones who made higher-quality telescopes and photographs. Those who applied substances like collodion, and then gelatin, to create crisper photographic negatives, are key here. And because of mounting technological advances, our era boasts great gains and great excitement. Hirshfeld sums it up: "The classical astronomer's question, 'Where is a star?' evolved into the astrophysicist's more profound inquiry, 'What is a star?' "

No one personifies this era better than Neil deGrasse Tyson, as Carl Sagan did a generation ago. Tyson is the host of TV's "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," and the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. In "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier" (Norton, 2012) he takes on lots of cool topics — pulsars, killer asteroids, cosmochemistry — but above all, he's messianic about the cosmic perspective itself. Get your head around this, for example: The most common chemically active ingredients in the universe are hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, all spewed into the atmosphere every time a star dies a fiery death, thereby nourishing its host galaxy. These same elements constitute life on Earth. "We are not simply in the universe," Tyson writes. "The universe is in us."

He knows we're still earthbound, though, when it comes to exploration: budget constraints, grumblings about NASA, the idea we need to solve worldly problems first. So he offers a thought-provoking list of reasons why further space programs will improve — or save — life on Earth. The most manageable one, I think, is his proposal that we should visit asteroids to learn how to deflect them. He also says we should dig on Mars for fossils and find out why liquid water vanished from its surface. And we should venture into Venus's atmosphere to grasp why its greenhouse effect went haywire. The message is clear: Study lifeless places so we can stay alive.


Then again, life must be somewhere else. There are more stars than all the seconds that have elapsed since Earth began — and, says Tyson, "[t]o declare that Earth must be the only planet in the universe with life would be inexcusably big-headed of us." Tyson is a winning writer, but if you want more juice, turn to Philip Plait. His Slate blog, "Bad Astronomy," smacks down urban myths and explains common concepts with clarity and black humor. "I do so love making your brains melt," he blogged recently.

"Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing 'Hoax" (Wiley, 2002) explains why asteroids are cold, not hot, when they hit the Earth, and how sci-fi movies get their facts wrong (i.e., you can't hear explosions in the vacuum of space), and why stars that twinkle are "an inconvenience" to astronomers (the twinkle results from atmospheric turbulence, which blurs sightlines).

A picture is worth a quintillion words, and so I'll end with one of the new slew of incredible astro-photography books. "Hubble: A Journey Through Space and Time" (Abrams, 2010), by Edward J. Weiler, gives us images produced not by the biggest lens (they're down on Earth), but the one with the clearest view, since it orbits beyond the reach of our weather. See the glittering Eskimo nebula, so-named because it looks like a face circled by the fur of a parka hood. See the Great Red Spot, a 300-year-old storm that's the size of two Earths, raging off Jupiter. See Saturn's pale rings shift through Saturn's seasons. I vote for nighttime reading here: Look down at the gorgeous, astonishing pictures, then go outside on one of these jeweled August nights. And look up.


Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore