January 9, 2010 11:22:00 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
Forty years ago in Duluth, Minn., a 4-year-old boy and his family watched as Americans first landed on the moon. After that July afternoon in 1969, the boy, David Teske, would never quite be the same.
Friday evening Teske shared his life passion with, to quote Ben Chilcutt, the 20 or so "nutty people who showed up" at Plymouth Bluff on a brutally cold night to participate in "Backyard Astronomy," a workshop sponsored by Mississippi University for Women''s Science Enrichment Program.
Those nutty people heard from Teske how long, long ago, long before there were televisions and computers and drive-in movies, people looked to the nighttime sky for their stories. Using the stars as skeletons, they imagined the shapes of their gods and goddesses, and they saw these celestial formations as markers for their storytelling. Thousands of years later on this winter evening, we were essentially doing the same thing.
Teske, who teaches science to a group of lucky kids at Noxapater Attendance Center and is associated with Rainwater Observatory at French Camp, said astronomy is the most ancient of the sciences. All modern science has its roots in astronomy, he said.
Though ancient peoples all over the globe named the stars, we know the 88 constellations by their Greek names: Orion, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Andromeda. Half of the 88 are rooted in Greek mythology.
Sirius B, the companion star to Sirius, the dog star, and brightest star to us on Earth has a Mississippi connection. In the 1850s Ole Miss commissioned a European telescope maker to manufacture what then was the largest telescope ever made. By the time the instrument was to be delivered, the Civil War had begun and the telescope went instead to Harvard where an astronomer discovered the star.
The light we see from the most recognizable constellation, Orion the Hunter, has been 1,500 years getting here, Teske said. The bright reddish upper left star in Orion is Betelgeuse, Arabic for "armpit of the hunter."
The end is coming, but not anytime soon. In one to two billion years, Teske says, the Milky Way (our galaxy) will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy, M31.
After the classroom presentation and before venturing outside, Teske herded about a dozen of his more adventuresome charges into a 20-by-8-foot inflated tube made of visqueen and duct tape. Inside the homemade planetarium, the stargazers sat, legs crossed or on their backs, while Teske, with a green laser, pointed out the pinprick constellations on the ceiling.
"Didn''t think I''d be sitting inside a trash bag tonight," someone said in the darkness.
Outside the backyard astronomers took turns squinting through Teske''s two telescopes at Mars, Betelgeuse, the Pleiades and the Andromeda Galaxy while others waited their turn huddled around a small, but equally popular, fire pit.
Among the group were Doug and Cheryl Williams and their four lovely children, including Monika, who said she "would be 4 after her next birthday." Maybe the seed for another astronomer has begun to germinate.
Afterward Teske spoke about the importance of space exploration. "When Columbus sailed everyone thought he was a nut.
"We''ve had so many spinoffs from the moon exploration: microwave and computer technology used to build moon rockets."
Teske says the big thing now is Mars. "We sent the rovers up there six years ago, and we''re still getting information (from them). They were supposed to last three months."
He thinks humans will get to Mars in some distant decade, though with the economy it''s not going to happen soon. The trip would take six months, Teske said. The explorers would have to spend a year on the red planet and the trip back would likely take a year.
On Friday, Jan. 22, Teske again will lead another group of backyard astronomers in an exploration of the moon. The event is free and begins at 7:30 p.m. For more information see www.muw.edu/sci_math/sep/
There was something timeless, even spiritual about standing around that small fire on a cold night under a glowing winter sky. Here we were, a handful of puny humans looking up at the heavens, trying, as humans have done since the beginning of time, to explain the infinite with what we call science and a handful of well-worn stories.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.