Mack Williams: Clearest of nights

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 3, 2016

Not long ago, the online Weather Channel had an article with a title to the effect: “The night sky will never look the same!” This gave me a sense of alarm, as if something had suddenly “happened;” but shortly into my reading, I discovered it to concern the gradual encroachment of artificial light pollution on that wonderful, “natural” light pollution of stars, moon and planets on display long before our ancestors’ first torches were lit.

Even when I lived within the “ruralness” of Caswell County, I cursed my neighbor’s outside “pole light” while setting up my telescope.

Believers in “astronomical conspiracy theory” talk of a “Nemesis” hiding just beyond that region of the moon sung of by Pink Floyd; but fortunately, the moon’s “backside” holds no more danger than the side we see.

Almost on the heels of seeing the Weather Channel story that night, I received a call from my daughter Rachel, who exclaimed: “Go outside and look up!”

As before, I thought for a second that the “death star” had come — the natural one, not the man-made variety. (To the best of my memory, that one is as easily dispatched as “Bulls-eyeing wombats” on Tatooine.)

Rachel then ended any apprehension by saying: “It’s so clear; I’ve haven’t seen the night sky as clear in years!” (and for greater effect, add to this statement the location from where she was making it: within the city limits of Winston-Salem!).

I told Rachel I would go out and look up (thinking of the late Jack Horkheimer), which I did, immediately after hanging up (well, not really “hanging up,” since it’s a cell phone).

I was amazed by the sight of the most crystalline black sky I had seen in years, such clarity familiar not just to me, but to Rachel and Jeremy as well, their having often looked through my telescopes and binoculars while growing up in Caswell County!

I confess a selfish thought: that such clarity of perhaps, pollen-free sky might translate into a certain “clarity” within my nose.

Rachel had mentioned the Pleiades, and even despite street lights, all of its naked-eye “Seven Sisters” were visible. The Great Nebula in Orion stood out with “great nebulosity,” a hint of stars within, no “earth haze” obscuring that of its own.

Despite the moon’s appearance of being a little over half full, the Great Nebula’s glowing gas was not lessened in brightness.

Orion’s red star Betelgeuse (not to be confused with the movie), was distinctly “redder,” and for Leo the Lion’s blue star, Denebola, the  phrase “Bluer than blue” from the 1920s dance song “The Varsity Drag” could be appropriated.

The Dipper’s handle stood out even in the city’s amber streetlights; and although my unaided vision isn’t enough to “split” the double star in its handle, I imagined myself on the verge of doing so. The North Star (Polaris )appeared to be more clearly pointed to by the Dipper’s “pointers” than at almost any other time in my 65 years.

That sky looked like my contact lenses after cleaning, or as if a crystal-pure bubble of air had suddenly shown up in the mix of city lighting, automobile fumes, and the great swath of pollen. It was like “country sky” in the city, with the city lights still on.

On that night, the long-traveling starlight, though forever twinkling from upper-atmosphere air currents, proved itself to be tougher than bulbs on poles and lamps.

I thought about man’s effect on Nature leading to nature’s certain natural responses when it comes to the weather; and the thought occurred to me that maybe the night is not just some static thing to be modified by high pressure sodium lamps without an engendered reaction being caused.

Perhaps, in response to that “rude” push from man-made light, there is an “equal and opposite reaction” on the part of the night in its far-distant reaches, making empty space darker, and stars brighter. In this sort of “détente,” the street lamp still causes the street to be “burglar-challenged,” while the interstellar regions become an even showier place for “Treasures in Heaven.”

I called Rachel, and we remarked on the unusual clarity of the night sky we had just seen.

In past years, whenever much rarer phenomena — lunar eclipse, meteor shower or comet — were on the night’s “agenda,” I would sometimes return outside several times before dawn, just to keep “check” on things. And just as in years past, I did likewise on that recent “clearest of nights.”

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