Pursuits of Happiness: StargazingDecember 31, 2019
By LEANN BURKE
When Ian Grant, 29, of Jasper saw Jupiter and its moons through his Celestron Travel Scope over the summer, he ran inside and woke up his wife, Anna.
“I probably got her a little mad,” Ian admitted. “But I was really excited. I could see all four of the moons, and I could even see some banding [on Jupiter].”
Something about the night sky has called to Ian since he was a child growing up in Indianapolis. The seed, he believes, was an episode of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” that featured an interview with some Apollo astronauts. Then, when he was in college at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, he took some astronomy classes — his major, though, was English — and was hooked.
“That class showed me the practical side of it,” he said. “It grounded it for me.”
Two experiments stuck with him. One involved measuring the wavelengths of the light coming through the classroom window to determine the elemental composition of the sun, and the other involved creating a scale model of the solar system on the streets around the campus. The first experiment showed him that although the sun is about 92 million miles from Earth, it’s a tangible, measurable thing, and the scale model gave him an appreciation for how vast the solar system is as he stood in one place about half a mile from the representation of the next closest planet.
“You don’t have a great sense of it just by looking up,” he said of the size of the solar system.
Ian isn’t the only local fascinated by the night sky. Tony Bryan, 61, of Jasper has also been captivated by the universe since childhood. Born in 1958, Bryan grew up at the height of the space race, and the hype led him to ask his parents for a telescope. They obliged, and Bryan said he fiddled around with it, but didn’t really know what he was doing.
That changed in the 1990s when he attended a star party hosted by the Louisville Astronomical Society. There he gazed at the expanse that is space through a high powered telescope and was hooked. Now, he’s the president of the Evansville Astronomical Society and spends much of his free time looking at faraway galaxies and nebula through his collection of telescopes.
One of the fun parts of astronomy, Bryan said, is waiting for your favorite objects to come into view. The sky, like the earth, has seasons, he explained, and you can see different parts of space at different times of the year. One of his favorites is the Owl Nebula, so named because it appears to have the shape of an owl’s face.
“There’s so much out there,” he said. “You never run out of things to look at.”
The most important thing, Bryan and Ian said, is having a clear sky. That was a challenge for Ian growing up. The light pollution around Indianapolis made it difficult to get a good look at the night sky, but he’ll never forget the first time he looked at the sky with almost no light pollution.
Anna’s family has property in Haysville, and the first time Ian visited, he was amazed at how much he could see. He got an even better look at the night sky when he and Anna honeymooned near Great Sand Dunes National Park in Crestone, Colorado. There, he said, there was no light pollution at all, and he saw the Milky Way Galaxy for the first time.
The more Ian learns about the night sky, the more humbling it becomes. The astronomers of centuries past always come to his mind, and he can’t help being awestruck at the idea that he’s seeing the same things they saw. The different interpretations of and explanations for the night sky that have been passed down through the centuries stick with him, as well. Many of those interpretations turned out to be wrong, he said, and humanity could eventually discover that some of what we believe to be true now is just as wrong as the ideas our generation has disproved.
“It’s humbling,” he said. “We know more, but not everything.”
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