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A cosmic traveler visited us earlier this year. Comet Lovejoy's appearance was widely reported and people were encouraged to see it for themselves. While it was said to be visible to the naked eye, I saw nothing. Using a pair of binoculars I could make out a small fuzzy spot in the sky. Not particularly impressive. My camera did better.  A 30-second exposure produced a more well-defined object, but it was smeared across the image.

Realizing the problem was the motion of the stars, I purchased a small tracking device that allowed the camera to move at the same speed as they do. The result was nothing short of stunning: a greenish, glowing ball with an ethereal tail off to one side, seen over an enormous field of stars. For many nights I used my newfound window into the heavens to image the planets, the Orion nebula, and other deep space objects.

Looking into the sky, I found myself pulled from the rhythms of modern life to something much more primitive. Time stopped being driven by the motions of my watch and began to be driven by the motions of the heavens. The stars are in constant motion and it can easily be perceived hour to hour, day to day, and week to week. I became aware of how these motions affect my surroundings. A full moon is nearly bright enough to read by while a new moon will have you struggling to see more than a few feet. Without modern distractions, our ancient cave dwelling ancestors would have been acutely aware of these effects. Their observations would have led to questions about the periodic appearance and disappearance of the moon, the planets and other celestial objects. It would take millennia to answer these questions and the quest would lead humans across the planet and eventually into space itself.

Some would argue that this connection to the heavens has no place in our modern world. But for those who still marvel at the nighttime sky and wait with anxious anticipation for the moon to disappear from the heavens and reveal new wonders in the darkness, the rewards are infinite. And the only thing you need to do is spend some time outdoors at night, getting in tune with the rhythms of the sky.

With a Perspective, this is Jason Zweiback.


Jason Zweiback is a scientist. He lives in the East Bay.