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The Incurable Hobbyist Five: Eyes To The Sky

Posted by Christine / October 17, 2011

20111017-green.jpg The Incurable Hobbyist is a highly subjective monthly series that examines various hobbies and the areas of the city that offer means to facilitate their practice. The goal is to inspire curious readers to develop hobbies they'll grow to love dearly, filling their hearts with the singular joy that comes with learning something special, something new.

When I was a child it was usually one of two things: dinosaurs or space. The great past and the far beyond. Truly, it seems I've always had a penchant for extremes. Today however, I'll be talking about astronomy.

My family acquired a modest telescope to accompany us during the camping trips we took every summer. With the zealousness one derives from newness, I brought the strange device outside to observe the stars and planets with. I also owned an astronomy book that had these clever, glossy rotating diagrams of the sky, with which I would cross-reference what I saw.

Up until that time, I had come to name clusters of stars after pets that had died. It was a sweetly naive way of keeping them alive forever. Not exactly being the hardiest of creatures, a substantial amount of fish swam the night's sky. Years later I would discover that my hamster Patches' final resting place was in fact Orion's Belt.

Bedtime. Every night a planetary mobile hovered above my head as I fell to the pillow. A glow-in-the-dark poster of the constellations taped to my closet door could be faintly seen from this position, and disappeared when I closed my eyes. Space was a novelty for me. It was unreachable, flattened and expressed in books.

Everything changed the night of my tenth birthday.

Earlier, I blew the light from my cake's candles and wished I'd be beautiful one day. I made the same wish every year. When birthday children near or far excitedly winced at their flames and made their request in the darkness behind their eyelids, I thought it was some being, existing in extradimensional space, who answered them. Worried this birthday god would think it brazenly unreasonable to ask for immediate beauty, I would always take care to add the "one day" specification.

I was digesting a piece of my garishly iced birthday cake and watching television when my father came bounding down the stairs. He told me to follow him outside, breathless and without explanation.

As the brisk October night's air wrapped itself around me, I noticed it. An undulating, vivid green cluster had soundlessly emerged in the sky above the surrounding suburban rooftops.

It was named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek word for the north wind, Boreas, by Pierre Gassendi, priest and scientist. Aurora borealis is a rare occurrence anywhere, especially in the heart of the suburbs.

Enrapt by this imposing dazzling sight, I felt as though I had been touched by something that possessed unparalleled mysterious power, more power even, than that of birthday wishes. After that night, I searched more passionately than ever to unlock the hidden depths of the sky's beauty.

If you're unfamiliar with astronomy, a good place to begin is by watching Carl Sagan's genius, yet accessible and entertaining series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Despite the 13-part series originally running in 1980, it has needed few revisions. A companion book has also been published. Ranging from the history of astronomy to more current topics, like the theory of relativity, the series' contents are framed in a prose-driven, thoughtful manner by charismatic turtlenecked narrator Carl Sagan.

The Cosmos may be purchased at your local Chapters or Indigo.

While at the bookshop, it might be a good idea to pick yourself up a copy of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. This is a definitive text that features an introduction by previously mentioned man-of-my-dreams Carl Sagan. First published in 1988, it describes numerous topics of cosmology. Similar to Cosmos, the information is presented in a way that is clear, often elucidating concepts with helpful diagrams. For those of you interested in science fiction, this read briefly touches upon the possibility of time travel. Awesome.

If your favorite form of media is the podcast, I highly recommend The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This weekly podcast is hosted by five people who discuss the supernatural, the paranormal, the occult, pseudoscience and other emotion-based beliefs with a scientific and skeptical critique. They also cover a litany of purely scientific topics. News items concerning cosmology, astronomy and astrophysics are common during the show's various segments.

Bad Astronomy, hosted by astronomer Phil Plait is another important electronic resource. This website is devoted to clearing up misconceptions about space and astronomy that are often found in popular media.

The Night Sky Guy is an additional recommendation. According to the website, "TheNightSkyGuy.com is a unique daily online one-stop shop for casual and beginner stargazers. It gives a no nonsense guide -without the confusing astro jargon - to the best celestial sights you can see with your naked-eyes or binoculars, whether you are looking up from your big city backyard or the deck of your country cottage." The "Sky Tonight" section is particularly useful, don't be surprised if you come to check it daily.

After you've familiarized yourself a bit with some basic concepts, it may be time to purchase your very own telescope. There's a wide range available, depending on your intentions.

There's always Canadian Tire. Their website is quite helpful and works on a rating system. Please note that, like all online rating systems, its not exactly the highest of authorities.

The Celestron Astromaster 70AZ, an amateur-level telescope, appears to be the highest rated, with four and a quarter stars out of five. This product is $199.99 and boasts a 20mm (45X) and a 10mm (90X) eyepiece and coated glass optics for clear, crisp images. Canadian Tire sells about ten different models of telescopes. It's safe to say that if you're an advanced stargazer, these telescopes are not for you.

La Maison De L'Astronomie offers a massive array of choices. With helpful product information, you'll know whether each item is intended for amateurs or advanced individuals. The technical specs included are also very detailed.

Furthermore, La Maison De L'Astronomie encourages customers to build their very own telescope! They provide grits, focusers, secondary mirrors and more.

Visit the store in person at 8074 St. Hubert Street. It can be accessed via metro Jarry.

This may seem obvious, but stargazing and city lights are woefully incompatible. While you can see the stars from a suburban vantage point, like the West Island, Two Mountains or the South Shore, this too is not an optimal scenario. If you're lucky, you or someone you know owns or rents a cottage up north. Perhaps, you have access to another area of quiet, like the Adirondacks. In these places, the sky will blacken and contrast itself with an array of twinkling stars. Exciting occurrences like the northern lights, shooting stars, comets and even meteor showers may be seen.

If you're a parent looking to get your child into astronomy (and perhaps learn a thing or two yourself), there's the Montreal Planetarium. According to its official website, "Since 1966, the Montreal Planetarium has offered multimedia shows for people of all ages, designed to reveal the fascinating world of astronomy and space exploration."

Unfortunately, the current Planetarium, located in the Old Port, closed its doors just a few days ago. You'll have to wait about two years until the new one is open for business. Hard sigh.

The Cosmodome is another option for such an endeavor. It re-opens its doors in mid December to present innovative space missions for young people and families. According to Executive Director Sylvain Belair, "The layout, decor and interactive narrative will combine to give visitors the experience of a space station."

The Cosmodome is located in Greater Montreal, at the intersection of highways 15 and 440. Specifically at 2150 Autoroute des Laurentides, Laval. It also accessible from the Montmorency metro station.

Astronomy is truly one of those special hobbies that leads to another and another, opening the floodgates to a vast array of scientific disciplines. Don't be surprised if, what began as simply peering, doe-eyed into the night though a telescope, progresses into an all-consuming obsession with dark matter literature. Or perhaps, your gaze retracts towards Earth and you find yourself utilizing a microscope instead.

If you're like me, a later interest in science fiction will lead you by the hand into the world of theoretical cosmology.

So said the maestro:

"For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love."

-Carl Sagan

Image from National Geographic.

Discussion

5 Comments

future driving / November 18, 2016 at 06:20 pm
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Would you advise starting with a free platform like Wordpress or go for a paid option?
There are so many options out there that I'm totally confused ..
Any recommendations? Bless you!
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