Tuesday, October 17, 2006

On seeing stars and hearing voices

On Saturday night, the Dude and I went up into the mountains to escape the city lights and look at the galactic ones instead. The night started out quite clear and warm, and we were fortunate to be able to see some pretty spectacular sights through a collection of telescopes of different shapes and sizes.
We saw Jupiter, and three of its Galilean satellites (although the owner of the telescope, a far more experienced stargazer than I, said he could see the fourth one lurking at the edge of the planet's atmosphere). Some of the cloud bands were visible, but I didn't spot the Bad Astronomer's eponymous storm -- the Oval BA. After Jupiter sank below the treeline we watched Scorpius following in its wake. The Southern Cross was also headed for the horizon but we took a quick look at Alpha Centauri and were able to discern that there were two stars through the telescope, despite the fact that it looks like a single star to the naked eye.
The Dude was fascinated by the nebulous Milky Way -- he's been to one of these viewing nights before, but I guess it didn't come to his notice in the past. He also enjoyed seeing globular clusters, nebulae and galaxies through the telescopes.
We saw Uranus, as well, and the Dude amused some of the more senior stargazers with his off-hand comments when they enthusiastically inquired what he thought of it. "Did you see it?" "Yeah," he shrugged nonchalantly. What more reaction could you expect from a self-conscious pre-teen, on the cusp of grunting adolescence? He was actually quite impressed, as he revealed the next day when he told His Dagginess all about what we had seen.
The last sight we saw before the sky clouded over was the Andromeda galaxy, rising above the treeline on the northern horizon. Our host informed us that it it is the most distant thing that you can see with the human eye, although we needed binoculars that night.
This stargazing event was run by my former astronomy teacher, who began the evening with a quick tour of the sky and was patiently happy to answer all sorts of questions from the assembled throng. This was one of the best parts of the night, as he imparted interesting information and opinions: I always enjoyed his classes because he has the ability to relate esoteric information without being patronising, and he is possessed of a speaking voice of such a lovely mellow tone that one could listen to him for hours without tiring of hearing it (in fact, I have listened to him for hours...)
Thinking about the pleasant sound of his voice drifting through the clear, dark night brought about a Proustian moment of sorts. It made me remember other voices I have loved to listen to: such as my grandfather (for whom the Dude is named) praying in his deep, sonorous voice at the breakfast table, while our linen napkins lay on our laps and our heads were bowed over the pristine china and silverware; or my dad using his "radio voice" as he read the news on the air -- I recall the way he would lower the tone of his normal speaking voice to achieve the proper solemnity required by the broadcast; my uncle, too, has a voice I love to listen to, although I've never sat in on one of his university lectures I imagine his students might have been privileged to enjoy his dulcet tones in that way.
I like the tones of His Dagginess' voice, too. Maybe I just have a soft spot for baritones.

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