On Time Spent Scanning The Skies

Originally posted December 10, 2008

I glanced out the kitchen window last evening right around sunset and saw what must have been Jupiter in the southern sky. It might have been Venus, I suppose, but I think it was too far from the horizon and the sunset for that. I didn’t think much about it, just noticed the intense point of white light in the sky and wondered for a moment: Jupiter or Venus? And then I poured myself another cup of coffee and went back to the study.

But it got me thinking about the night sky in winter. If I’d poked my head out into the chill last evening, I would have had a good view of Orion, the huge – and most easily identifiable – constellation that dominates our sky in winter evenings. And I thought of the winter of the telescope and of star names and of fledgling astronomy.

I got the telescope for Christmas in 1970, my senior year of high school. It was a Tasco, and I used it many evenings that winter, lugging it out into the cold back yard, scanning the craters and plains of the moon and straining to see detail in the fuzzy and distant nebula just below Orion’s belt. I focused on Jupiter and saw as well the large planet’s four largest moons, the moons first seen by Galileo in 1609: Ganymede, Callisto, Io and Europa. (How amazing it is that those names remain in my memory!)

And I learned the stars, through my telescope, my own reading, and through an astronomy course offered at St. Cloud Tech during the second semester of that school year. Along the way, I became fascinated by the names of stars and by being able to tie those names to what I saw: Betelgeuse, with its dull red glow at the upper left corner of Orion, and diagonally across, in the lower right, Rigel with its sapphire gleam. Vega, glowing like an emerald in the constellation Altair, and Arcturus, another reddish star in the otherwise faint kite-shape of Boötes.

I read about stars and planets, looked nearly every night at one or more of them in the sky and listened in class as we talked about them and about the physics and math that lie behind the science of astronomy. I imagine it was my study of astronomy that led me to my years-long passion for science fiction. And – as I demonstrated above with the names of the four largest moons of Jupiter – much of that has stayed with me for nearly forty years.

I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. But it did last evening as I thought about Orion. In my head I named the stars of the constellation: Betelgeuse, Rigel, Bellatrix and Saiph in the main rectangle, and in the belt, the three stars with names bestowed on them long ago – as were many other stars’ names – by Arabian astronomers wandering the desert: Alnilam, Alnitak and Mintaka. Strange-sounding names for something we can see every night, if we only tilt our heads to the sky.

I know where my telescope is. It’s in the basement, in its original box. Something broke on the tripod a few years ago, and I’d have to have it repaired to be able to scan the skies again. I might do that.

A Six-Pack of Stars
“Stars in Heaven” by Comfortable Chair from Comfortable Chair, 1968

“Song of the Stars” by Dead Can Dance from Spiritchaser, 1996

“Everybody Is A Star” by Sly & the Family Stone, Epic 10555, 1970

“I Found Her In A Star” by the Guess Who from Wheatfield Soul, 1969

“I’m In Love With A German Film Star” by the Passions, Polydor POSP 222 (UK), 1981

“Good Morning, Starshine” by Oliver, Jubilee 5659, 1969

A few notes:

I don’t know much about Comfortable Chair. The group was a so-called psychedelic group from California, according to All-Music Guide and recorded only one album for Lou Adler’s Ode label, which – reading between the lines at AMG – wasn’t much of a label. The most significant thing about the album, AMG notes, is that its producers were Robbie Krieger and John Densmore of the Doors.

“Song of the Stars” is one of those long trance-like pieces mixing world music influences with what comes off – from a distance of twelve years – as sophomore year philosophy. Like most of the long pieces Dead Can Dance came up with, it can be interesting listening, but in the end, it seems a little hollow. As it played this morning, I was reminded of how some friends and I listened intently during our freshman year of college, trying hard to catch every nuance of the Doors’ long track, “The Soft Parade.” I think “Song of the Stars” should age better than “The Soft Parade” has.

As happens so often with songs from the winter of 1969-70, the first strains this morning of “Everybody is a Star” resurrected in my mind the old RCA radio that sat on my nightstand long ago. It offered through music the comfort and reassurance that I could endure junior year and that I really wasn’t any more of a dork than anyone else. “Everybody is a Star,” – the flipside of the No. 1 single “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” – might be the sweetest tune that Sly Stone and his pals ever offered up, and it’s a favorite of mine.

The Passions “I’m In Love With A German Film Star” didn’t make the Top 40 on this side of the Atlantic, but I assume it did so in Britain. Its production flourishes, coupled with an archly offered lyric, make it a track that screams “Eighties!” And that’s okay – that oft-maligned decade provided worse.

“Good Morning Starshine” originally came from the musical Hair, one of four cover versions from the musical that made the Top 40. (The Cowsills’ “Hair,” the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In” and “Easy to Be Hard” by Three Dog Night were the others.) “Good Morning Starshine” went to No. 3 during the summer of 1969.

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