I read an article long ago that asked the question, “What if the stars only appeared once every thousand years?” The idea was put forth by the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).
I read an article long ago that asked the question, “What if the stars only appeared once every thousand years?”
The idea was put forth by the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882):
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
But what about having a starry night only once in a millennium? What a sad thought. To a lot of people, however, it would not make a lot of difference. The majority of Americans live in or near metropolitan areas, where one is fortunate to see the moon and brightest of planets. Sadly, even in the countryside, where the Milky Way can still be seen, relatively few pay much attention to the night sky splendor. It is almost as though the stars really do appear only once in a thousand years.
Thankfully, interest in astronomy has blossomed, thanks much to the Space Age. Modestly priced, good quality telescopes, supplying a growing demand, reciprocates and encourages even more people to get into the hobby.
If it were true that the heavens opened up so rarely, the stars would become mythical. Imagine that the last time the Moon, stars and planets appeared in the night was the year 1010. That’s a thousand years ago, when Vikings ruled the northern seas; North America had been known to them for 10 years. It was the scientific zenith of the Islamic world. The Chinese had just invented gun powder.
Yet so much of world history would have been altered. Celestial navigation would have been unknown, save for following the sun. Lunar cycles would be unknown. The night would be so very dark and foreboding, the perpetually cloudy sky giving no comfort when one might be outside. Lovers would have no moon to sing about. Cats would find no light to howl by. Space travel would never have developed; benefits we have from weather and communication satellites would never have been realized. No one would grow up knowing the Big Dipper or Orion.
Meterorites would be frightening indeed (rocks from the clouds?).
Stories of the stars would seem like fairy tales. Yet as the thousand year epoch was nearing an end, some groups would talk about the coming stars. They would be ridiculed and ignored.
Then the night would come, and the wonder of the cosmos would show forth for all eyes to see.
No one would sleep that night. Religious revivals would likely break forth. The legends of so long ago would come alive and we would not know what to make of the thousands of point of light sparkling over our heads. Like diamonds, we’d want to reach out and hold them and keep them. We’d never want to ignore them again. Just for once, we’d likely turn off all our own lights to see the stars the way they were meant to be seen.
Alas, the stars are so commonplace that most of us take them for granted, while our growing light pollution threatens to snuff out their visibility without hardly a notice.
We are thankful for eyes to see, for the wonders above us every clear night seen from as near as your backyard, or where ever we can find away from manmade lights. Every nights the clouds depart, the constellations await, and the secrets of the cosmos shine down for our personal discovery.
This theoretical inquiry was put forth in an edition of Sky Magazine. Many backyard night sky enthusiasts or even arm-chair astronomers, have heard of the monthly magazine, Sky & Telescope. There was a time when this famous magazine was not one, but two. Their names were - you guessed it - Sky & Telescope. The periodical Sky was published by Hayden Planetarium in New York City starting in 1936. The two magazines combined in 1941. I first read about the concept of the stars appearing once in a thousand years in an old issue of Sky.
The last-quarter moon is on Sunday, Nov. 28. Send your notes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep looking up!