Hooray! 25 degrees and it didn’t bother me a bit!

25 degrees and it didn’t bother me a bit!

That’s good news. See there have been two or three pretty much perfect nights this week that I haven’t observed – nor put out an invitation for others to observe with me – and I was having trouble pinning down the reason. The choices were fairly obvious and not good:

  1. At 67 I’m getting jaded after half a century of amateur astronomy and just don’t feel like observing.
  2. I’m getting old – see reason one – and don’t care about sharing the wealth. Let others find the universe on their own, I’ve done my thing. I’m tired of this cosmic PR gig I’ve been on now for several years.
  3. I’m getting old – see reason one and two – and can’t handle the cold temperatures any more. Winter just isn’t the fun it used to be. Once it gets below freezing I’d rather pull a miracle out of the air with the crystal radio, even though there’s nothing there but right-wing talk shows, evangelical, and snake oil salesmen.

But this morning I discovered the simple truth – all of these are right an none of them are right. It boils down to this. I’m getting old and can no longer function well on four and half hours sleep. In the past year I’ve grown used to not one, but two “naps” a day. These aren’t “naps” as usually defined. These mean crawling into my bed for at least 90 minutes – maybe a couple hours. I cn handle a normal day routine with one of these naps in the morning boosting my accumulated sleep to close to 6 hours. But – and this is the key – if I am going to observe in the early evening hours I need another such sleep period – at least another hour – in the late afternoon. And for various reasons I haven’t been getting that second nap.

Without that sleep, 7 pm arrives and I’m looking to see what’s on television – and believe me, when my interest turns to reruns of “Law and Order” it means I am, for all practical purposes, dysfunctional. πŸ˜‰

All of this became clear when I woke up some time after 3 this morning – I’d had 4.5 hours sleep – and I looked out the window to see a clear sky and a last quarter moon rising with Saturn tagging just behind – I wanted to go out. I knew it would be cold and it was – 25 degrees at the house – maybe a degree or two colder at the observatory. But I really wanted to go out. I missed the universe. I missed the chill clarity of a dark, diamond-studded sky. Damn – I had to go out.

I started my tea water in the microwave, put on my heated vest, and stuffed my warmest gloves in the pocket of the vest. Then I found the waterproof “sneakers” – they’re rubber or something and warmer than my normal ones – put them on, added a scarf, a winter coat, a ski mask with wool hat on top of it. My tea was done, so I took the insulated cup and headed for the observatory. And who should be coming up to greet me in the East but my old friend Arcturus! Not gone for long, mind you – but still a welcome sight with memories of his celebrity he gained by kicking off the 1933 – or was it 34? – World’s Fair in Chicago. That was so cool – and I can’t help thinking tha in the 1930s people were more excited by the wonders of science that today we take too much for granted.

The little 80mm scope was doing fine, but the computer display on the Celestron mount obviously didn’t like the cold temperatures one bit. It barely crawled, taking about four times as long to display each new command as I aligned first on Sirius, brilliant in the southwest, then on Aldebaran – a clever choice, i htought, patting myself ont he back ;-). See, you have to chug through these stars one at a time and each star took an agonizing length of time to display – so I started at the bottom of the alphabet, worked up to Sirius, then reversed and went to Aldebaran through the back door sort of. Yeah – I do get a little impatient with these computer things and sometimes wish I was just using a manual mount. But I got them both centered, told the computer to go to M37, a truly beautiful cluster with a bright, reddish central star. (Yes – it takes both imagination and observing experiencing to appreciate M37 with an 80-mm scope and talk about that star as “red” – but there’s got to be some advantage to age πŸ˜‰

What I liked was I could now slip comfortably into a meditation mode. With both eyes open the frame of the observatory slot captured a significant chunk of the Winter Hexagon, one of my favorite pieces of sky. But this frame was augmented by low shrubs and an old cedar which formed an “L” on one side nicely framing the Hyades with another bright red star, Aldebaran. Sort of looked like Taurus was taking aim at me – I could imagine him pawing the ground with one foot and lowering his head – a celestial bull versus a puny, chubby biped that bore no resemblance to a matador. But two things quickly sunk in about this view – first, it mimicked the view in the scope. Here, easily visible to the naked eye, was the nearest of star clusters, the Hyades, at just 153 light years. Second, i could measure my meditation by the movement of the shrub and trees as I sat still and they approached the cluster. Well, i wasn’t really still – i was moving with the trees – but you get the idea. I really like these reminders of where I am and where I’m going.

But it was stimulating going through a routine of watching my breathing, eyes closed – then opening them and seeing the Hyades, a vision that started it’s journey my way while the South was stilla rguing about the North over slavery. A sip of tea, then a slow look into the scope – letting it put me on a mental spaceship and looking out aportal at this charming community of stars some 4,400 light years away. Hmmm. . . that would be about 2,400 BCE – what was going on then? Something important in Egypt, I think. They were certainly watching Sirius. for it told them things about the Nile – the same Sirius I had aligned on a few minutes before.

Don’t look at the pictures of M37 on the Web – not if you want some idea of what it looks like in a small scope. In my scope, at this time, with this 13mm eyepeice it looked about like:

M37 star cluster

M37 star cluster

Now settling down in meditative mode means not moving, so if the cold is going to be challenging, it will be challenging under these conditions. And it wasn’t.

Oh – one other little cold weather trick. I started with the Goodyear “mechanic’s” gloves. These give you dexterity to operate the telescope controls, but not a great deal of warmth. But once I had found my target and adjusted my observing stool, I switched to the warm gloves which had been in the pockets of the heated vest – and put the thinner gloves in those same pockets. Even if you don’t have a heated vest, keeping an extra pair of gloves near your body can make a difference during a long observing session.

The cold did challenge the comuter ont he Selectron mount, however. Near the end of my session I went to look once more at M37 and it wasn’t there! The Observatory ha dmoved, of course, but the clock drive ont he mount was countering that – until the computer decided it was going on strike unless I got it int he house and warmed it up! The Meade never gave me this complaint, nor does the Argo avis on the 15-inch – but I’m pretty sure the cold is the issue witht his mount.

But computer’s aside, the bottom line is this – I found that my basic problem was sleep deprivation. That was what was making me feel old, grumpy, and willing to settle for watching Jack putting another nasty behind bars instead of doing an evening observing session with friends eager to share the night sky. The second realization is that while being tired impacts the mood of anyone, it seems to impact us more as we get older – either that or I’m just becoming more self-aware. Of course, I’ll need more sleep today if I’m going to observe in the early evening, but that’s the point. And the cold – it’s perfectly manageable, though I do find sessions get shorter if comfort is important to you. At the freezing point, two hours is a good length for me. Then subtract about 30 minutes for every 10 degrees below that. At least that’s been my rule.

All of this comes down to better planning on my part. If I want to do an early evening session with other people, then I have to get that second nap, bringing my total sleep over 24 hours to something approaching normal. Otherwise, I’ll just do what I did this morning – enjoy the incredible silence and solitude of the universe at 3 am πŸ˜‰

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