The Art of Stargazing
In every corner of the world, since the beginning, people have looked up to the night sky. And there, the mystery and beauty of life rose up to fill their hearts. Around them, the warmth of their home planet, pulsing and breathing with life and energy. Above them, the sheer incomprehensible scale of reality laid out bare and crisp and silent and perfect. Stargazing unites us all — little people on a little speck. Our differences dissolve in the vastness. We can see our shared place in the cosmos, and it becomes an infinitely precious thing when held up to the infinite emptiness around it.
I want to share the fruits of my efforts to really comprehend the night sky. So to put the rest of this post into practice, save it ready for the next time you have a clear starlit night to gaze at…
Stargazing is an art, and there is much more to it than just “looking up”. My own experience is that giving your brain a little bit of information about what you are actually seeing can change your perspective of the night sky completely. It seems that the brain needs a little nudge to really comprehend the vastness of the visual field before it. So learning this art is very simple: remind your brain what it is actually seeing in order to overcome some basic optical illusions.
The moon is a good starting point. The basic, automatic interpretation the brain gives on seeing the moon is often simply of a flat — 2D — disc. It looks like a circle on a flat sky:
Now see what happens when you tune into the fact that you are actually looking at a ball, a 3D sphere, of rock. See how the curved shadow denotes that this is round, and really big. Consider, really, how big it is, compared to your body. Look at the dark sky around it, and suddenly that flat disc has become a round grey marble, adrift in empty space…
You can do the exact same thing at sunset. Look at the Sun and focus on discarding the illusion that it is a 2D circle mounted on a flat surface — come back to fact that you are looking at a giant ball of nuclear fire. When you’re mindful of the fact that it’s 93 million miles away, it might just click how scarily big it really is.
I firmly believe that if we started saying something like “Home Star” instead of “the Sun”, and “starset” instead of “sunset”, we might all be a little more attuned to just how amazing the whole thing is.
Now, how to see the sky and stars as they really are? There’s two illusions to crack here.
- The sky is a blue/black surface above me
- The stars are just points on this surface
Have a gaze and see if this is more or less what you are seeing…
The key to proper stargazing is to keep in mind that you are not looking up, but looking out. You are standing on the edge of a sphere (Earth) looking outwards at a 3D field of stars which stretches away from you in every direction. It’s a little like this:
Lying down can really help this become clearer. Again: you are not looking at some flat surface called the sky, but a vast 3D scene.
Try and forget your usual reference frame of the ground being “down” and the sky being “up” — because that’s just one way of seeing things. Try looking at the star-speckled sky as if you’re looking forwards, with the Earth behind you. Be patient with this; gaze until it clicks — you will be astounded.
What’s more, the stars aren’t points on a flat “sky surface” above you. The brain likes to tune everything out and dismiss the night sky as a flat 2D thing hovering somewhere high above the ground. But this isn’t true at all, is it? The night sky is dark because there’s nothing there at all!
Once you manage to throw away this illusion of a 2D “sky surface”, it is clear that the starfield above you is a 3D tapestry of light of a size you barely even considered before. Constellations are not flat; all the stars you see are at different distances from you, emanating their perfect nuclear light across the silent expanse until it reaches our own little home-rock.
Forget about “the sky” — what are you actually seeing? That darkness of the sky isn’t a thing at all, but a lack of thing. Emptiness — a silent void that stretches to the furthest reaches of the observable universe… all the way to the spherical boundary 13.7 billion light years away beyond which we have no information at all. Stare outwards until this hits home.
What’s more: stars aren’t points, they’re orbs! Seriously big ones — and yet, how tiny, like dust particles, compared to the space around them…
Reference Frames and Orbital Planes
Planets: you can identify planets because they don’t flicker like stars do, and they’re usually the brightest visible points in the sky. If you can find a planet, look at it set against the background of stars, and consider just how close it is in comparison to those distant lights. They’re Earth’s cosmic siblings, nestled here beside it in our minute corner of space.
If you can see the glowing strip of the Milky Way, you’re in a position to take this even further, seeing how the planets and bright stars are so much closer than that hazy stellar mist that is the centre of our home galaxy. It’s a thin disc, like a pancake, and we’re on the edge of it looking inwards.
Some more “practice” images for you:
If you can see more than one planet, it becomes clear that the orbital plane of the planets around the Sun is not aligned with the galactic plane. If you can see that, try switching your reference frame from the orbital plane of the planets (known as the ecliptic) to the entire galaxy’s — so that the planets seem to be orbiting the Sun on a tilted axis.
Two awesome tools to catalyse great stargazing are 1) a real-time phone stargazing app, like Stellarium (free), and 2) some form of magnification — the most accessible being a simple pair of binoculars, through which the sheer number of stars will astound you — as will the surface of the Moon and the moons of Jupiter.
This interactive 3D map can help you explore the reality of our local stellar neighbourhood and location in the outer arm of the Milky Way galaxy: http://stars.chromeexperiments.com/ … I particularly like this zoomed in so that the Sun is visible against the strip of the galactic disc.
Work on discarding these optical illusions, gazing patiently and calmly, and you might experience a shift, when the sky-scene before you becomes far more clear, far more colossal than it has ever appeared before… before you lies the immeasurable, incomprehensible vastness of empty black space — in which drift these diffuse star-systems, swarming and coalescing as their matter curves the very geometry of 4D-spacetime, orbs of gas so dense that they ignite a nuclear fire to light the void, swirling into galaxies which spiral and flicker over vast tracts of time… and in one corner of one galaxy a little rocky ball lit up with microbial swamps, seaweeds, mosses, insects, ferns, pines, meadows, forests, whales, horses, dogs and a curious species of hairless upright ape who started looking outwards from their drifting spherical home at the vast and violent cosmos that birthed them…
I did my best in a previous article to lay out why Earth is so extremely unique, precious and significant.
Endnote: for those who feel small.
Many people seem to get uncomfortable in the face of the night sky’s vastness. Interestingly, others feel humbled and inspired. Again, I think some basic scientific information informs the situation greatly.
This feeling of smallness only manifests if one feels cut off from the universe, and falls away in the knowledge that people are not disconnected or separated from the universe in any way… we didn’t come into the cosmos, but out of it (as Alan Watts said). Organisms are totally inseparable from their surroundings, and humans are no exception. By the simple act of breathing, air becomes body, becomes mind. Every person is a continually emerging process of their environment —and the starlight hitting your retinae isn’t separate from that. It’s triggering reactions in your brain… it’s part of you. Consider also how every heavy atom on Earth — in your body — was created long ago during the deaths of unimaginably distant stars.
This environment, then — the stuff and source of our very being — is simply far vaster, far more ancient and majestic than we usually dare to appreciate.