Moon, Venus, Jupiter – so what?!

Joe Carvalho captured the event nicely from his home in Fall River, MA. Venus is the brighter “star,” Jupiter the other one.

I urged folks to take a look at the unusual alignment of Venus, Jupiter and the Moon Monday night and I know several did and were suitably impressed – but I suspect a lot more reacted the same way as a good friend did – though they didn’t tell me 😉

He wrote:

I had a clear view of the event last night…. and my reaction was, “That’s interesting.” Yawn.

Essentially, he said “so what?!” OK, fair question. My immediate answer is to fall back on EInstein’s words:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”

So what? From my perspective the answer is if you ask this question your eyes are closed, you’re “as good as dead.” Ouch. That seems a bit harsh. Afterall, even if you are aware of thee science involved – and this individual certainly was – it’s next to impossible to be intuitive about it. Nothing in the science fits our down-to-Earth experiences. It’s all bigger than life – much bigger. So why should looking at this alignment of lights in the sky evoke an “experience of the mysterious” and thus leave us “rapt in awe?”

And for me the first answer is because it is mysterious. Science gives us great and useful answers about what we were seeing, but there is still much to know. Essentially we are seeing clear evidence of huge masses of matter being manipulated precisely by the most fundamental, pervasive – and weakest – force in the universe, gravity. And we don’t know what the heck gravity is – we know a lot about what it does, but what it is, well, that’s another question.

And think of what we consider big – an elephant? It’s a mere flea. OK, a mountain. We like to talk about the force to move mountains as if that were impossible. Well, the smallest thing we were seeing the other night was the Moon and it is loaded with mountains. A small telescope reveals them as tiny bumps on the surface. From our vantage point on Gooseberry we were noticing that one particular bump was mostly in the dark, but it’s peak was catching the first rays of the Sun. That meant that whole mountain was a tiny, pinprick of light along the dark portion of the dividing line between light and dark on the moon. That tiny speck was a mountain. The moon is so much larger than a mountain, it’s difficult to contemplate. That’s why I fear that the “facts” tend to run off our minds like so much water off the proverbial duck’s back. They don’t penetrate. But still – they can be helpful if you try to let them sink in – especially if you do this while experiencing an event such as viewing the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus all bunched up. So let’s go down that path a little.

The moon is relatively small in comparison to Venus. Get a 2-inch ball and put it next to a basketball and you have an idea. It’s diameter is roughly one fourth that of Venus, but the volume of Venus is far, far greater, And Jupiter? Well, it’s about 10 times the diameter of Venus (or the Earth) and that means roughly 1400 times the volume! Moving mountains is child’s play compared to moving these objects and constantly changing their direction as gravity does.

And speaking of moving, as we watch these three objects slowly set, we are spinning at an incredible 800 miles an hour – here in Westport, MA – faster if you’re closer to the equator, slower if you’re nearer to one of the poles. As folks looked at the Moon or one of the planets Monday night through one of my telescopes they would invariably say, sometimes with a little shock, “it moved out.” Nope – we moved. But we’re not used to seeing the impact of our motion – or we don’t think about it much. But do think about it. You are standing on what feels like solid ground and while there may be a little wind where you are, there’s nothing like the 800 miled per hour wind you have every right to expect from being on this extremely fast merry-go-round. So that’s a tad mysterious and awesome in itself, though easily explained by science. Hey, we’re not on the Earth, we’re init! We’re in a spaceship with a wonderful shield of atmosphere around us protecting us from all sorts of harmful stuff. That’s awesome and pausing to looka t a clestial displays uch as this, bring these things to mind.

But if you watched carefully for an hour or so you would have seen that the planets were setting – as I say, it’s really us spinning – faster than the Moon. What gives? Simple. The moon is whipping around the Earth at about 2,300 miles an hour and it’s going counter-clockwise. So while our spinning motion tends to make it appear to set – it’s in effect running against the motion – sort of 10 steps backward, one forward – so it doesn’t set as quickly as the planets and stars.

Again, speaking of motion, consider that all of this scene is in motion – we’re on a rotating platform that’s also moving at about 65,000 miles an hour around the Sun and because of this our view of Venus and Jupiter changes constantly – though slowly. Then we have the motion of Venus around the Sun at roughly 75,000 miles an hour and Jupiter at a much more stately speed of about 28,000 miles an hour.

Why is Jupiter slower? More distance between it and the Sun – the center of gravity – that all-pervasive force that is the weakest of the four forces – yet strong enough to keep us all in motion as if we were rocks on a cord of unlimited strength and being whirled about a giant’s head. What if someone cut the cord/ What if someone through the gravity switch to “off?” Would we know it instantly? It take slight form the sun a full 8 minute sto reach us – but gravity seems to cover the same 93 million miles – and much greater distances – in no time. Awesome.

But I call gravity a “force.” Einstein explained it as a geometry. What is it?

How about a mystery? And when I see an unusual alignment of three of the four brightest bodies in our sky – see these three brought so close together – from our perspective here on our merry-go-round – then I am reminded of all these things and more and I am, indeed, rapt in awe.

But what if you knew nothing of this? What if you had no scientific knowledge of what you were seeing? What if you were an illiterate pagan of today or some other time? Would you feel anything? I am sure several of the people observing with me the other night did not know these things – did not need to know them to be rapt in awe.

Why? I call on Wordsworth to help me out here – to give a far simpler and more direct answer to the question “so what?” – an answer that was as true two centuries ago as it is today.

The World Is Too Much With Us; Late and Soon
by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. -Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.