Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hot summer nights

The Southern sky - (c) Case by Case photography used with permission
Are you humming the song? I am. We've had a bit of nostalgia on the blog lately, which sent me down memory lane.


I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, in the fifties and sixties. It was a simpler time, a simpler world. We didn't have air conditioners. If you wanted to cool the house down, you opened the doors and windows. The powers-that-be turned off the street lights at 1am. Not too many people were abroad at that hour of the night, so why waste the money?

You might think those two facts are unrelated. But you'd be wrong. Summers in Perth are hot and (usually) dry. 38C (100F) is common, and temperatures could soar to over 40C for several days at a time. Houses – especially small, solid brick houses like the one I lived in – are great at insulating the interior, but when they get hot, they hold the heat. Sleep becomes impossible. Even a fan just shifts hot air around. So, knowing sleep is impossible anyway, you go outside where it's a few degrees cooler.

Have you any idea what the night sky looks like without light pollution? Most especially the Southern sky. The centre of the Milky Way galaxy is in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius which is much more prominent in the Southern sky. 

The Southern Cross is in the middle of this picture
One of the first things you'll see in our skies is Crux – the Southern Cross, which appears on our Australian flag and those of several other countries down here. It's visible in southern latitudes all year round, although it does get low at some parts of the year. It's prominent, and you'd think unmissable. The photo above was taken a few years ago, where I live in Queensland, in the early evening, so the town was full of lights. Even so, the night sky is clearly visible. Crux is in the middle, a kite formation with one fainter star along the top longer axis. Just above the right-most palm frond you'll see alpha and beta Centauri, the pointers to the Cross. They almost line up through the Cross's short axis. But when the street lights are out and the arc of the Milky Way comes into its own Crux disappears into the blaze of glory that is the galaxy. You can see a hint of that in the clouds of mist around the Cross. Those are stars.

And then there's that wonderful photo at the top. It was taken by my great-nephew, Glenn Casey, who is an award-winning photographer. He has some amazing photos - take a look at his Facebook page.

Here's another one, also by Glenn.
(c) Case by Case photography used with permission

I loved being out there, star-spotting with a pair of binoculars. We tied them to an old cake rack, which we balanced on a ladder to reduce the shake, and we star-spotted. We found Orion and its famous nebula – just a fuzzy blob through binos. If we looked carefully, we could maybe see Jupiter's Galilean moons. The Jewel box, an open star cluster in Crux, was revealed with its sprinkle of coloured stars. And on one memorable night, when Sagittarius was just above the horizon, we spied a globular cluster.

When I was a little older I bought myself a small telescope with which I could see Saturn's rings, Jupiter's moons, Venus's phases, the Orion Nebula's trapezium of stars, and realised that there were a lot more than seven stars in the Pleiades. I bought books about astronomy and learned about the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of stellar evolution. I didn't understand the maths, but I was a fan for life. And yes, a much younger Glenn got a look at the stars through my telescope.

From there, of course, I went on to read science fiction, and ultimately, to write my own books. All because of hot summer nights in the sixties.


4 comments:

  1. Beautiful images. On nights when the British weather plays fair hubs and I tried laying out on the kids' trampoline to watch shooting stars, or to show youngest the ISS and pretend it was Father Christmas passing over on Christmas Eve. I lived out in the country as a kid so no light pollution then (in the late 70s for me) but I was terrified of the dark so going outside to look at the stars was a no-no!

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  2. Gorgeous photos!

    I remember some not-so-hot nights in Michigan as a kid, laying in the grass and staring up at all the stars, and on occasion a spectacular display of Northern Lights. We lived far from the masses of civilization in those days, so the sky viewing was usually quite good.

    Later, when we first moved to the East Mountains in New Mexico, there was almost no light pollution and the sky was a glorious deep black velvet strew with stars. The Big Dipper is prominent here, as is Polaris--the North Star. We could watch satellites in transit, and sometimes the ISS, and on really clear nights we could see the hazy glow of Andromeda Galaxy.

    But it's been much less so in recent years as houses with outdoor security lights have sprawled across the valley floor and bled their light pollution into what was once pristine darkness. Sometimes I really miss the night sky we lost.

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  3. Lovely stargazing memories. We've been doing a family trip the last several years over the Labor Day holiday to a gloriously undeveloped area of central/eastern Washington called the Methow Valley. We stay in a mountain cabin, and one of my favorite parts is going outside to pee at night and looking into that glorious starscape, undiminished by artificial light. :D (The cabin has an outhouse, but outhouses after dark are a big NO for me.)

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  4. There you go. We all did much the same thing - to the best of our ability.

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