I think that the most profound, emotionally powerful moments of my 45-year love affair with the sky have been those when the world seemed to move beneath my feet. And not just this world we call Earth, but others as well. Moons, planets and asteroids have all invoked at times a feeling of awe verging on what I can only call spiritual ecstasy.
These sensations come when I am observing those astronomical phenomena known as eclipses, occultations, transits and close conjunctions; those brief events where I can actually see the relative motions of our planet and those bodies as they pursue their orbits.
When the image of a star or planet seems to draw ever closer to the dark limb of the moon, or the shadow of one of Jupiter’s satellites appears to be chasing its source across Jove’s cloud-tops. When sunspots disappear one-by-one behind the ink-black bulk of the moon; when all of these events and more take place I find myself actually viewing with mine own eyes the combined motions of worlds!
My imagination soars at these times. I am transported into a wholly Newtonian universe where the heavens move to clockwork precision in accordance with Sir Isaac’s Laws; where planets and moons, planetoids and comets, sun and stars dance with the Orrery’s precision. A mechanical model made vast by my racing thoughts.
I feel the rumbling of huge, perfect gearing, hear the huff of steam, smell the whiff of lubricating oil.
And then the moment is gone, and I feel a brief sorrow at its passing. My universe returns to what I usually perceive it to be; vastly un-knowable and apparently contradictory at the macro- and quantum-levels. It is wonderful and fascinating and I have seen but little of what I wish to of its majesty, but also a little more cold and a shade less comforting.
You might be able to understand now why I chase eclipses, travel to observe occultations and eagerly await conjunctions of the moon and planets. Precious are those seconds of totality when we recollect the ancient terror of darkness in the full of day, precious the instant when a bright star or planet vanishes behind our natural satellite and then, minutes later, bursts from concealment as the moon moves onward in its orbit; precious the sight of planets, separated by hundreds of millions of kilometers of space, seeming to pass within a finger’s breadth of each other in the twilit sky.
I wish more than anything to sense the movements of worlds.
My astronomical heart seems to dwell in the 16th and 17th Centuries, when a major goal of this particular branch of Natural Philosophy was to quantify the characteristics of the planets; their distances, sizes and movements. Popular during this era was a form of dance known as the pavane; a slow, stately court processional in which couples would come together and then turn away to face others.
I’d like to invite you, during the next few weeks, to observe a dance of a different sort with me. We’ll watch, night by night, as worlds similar to and vastly unlike our own move steadily together in our evening sky. As the pavane comes to its climax, I’ll try to share both the scientific and personal perspectives as I perceive them.
My goal in this exercise? I want you to feel the worlds move beneath your feet.
Shall we dance?