We get very excited about these celestial events.
Meteors showering. Planets transiting. Eclipses.
Venus transited, last night. “This one will not happen again for another 105 years!” everyone said.
So I went running out of the office and dutifully squinted into the night sky. And I saw what most people saw when they looked at the emperor: nothing.
Well, nothing, some buildings, a cloud, something that might or might not have been a bird, another cloud and a large bright patch. And then a taxi honked at me for dallying in the middle of an intersection.
I look up at the night sky and I see a brownish area with points, as Buster would say.
This is not for want of years of trying.
I have always wanted to be an amateur astronomer. It cannot be too hard to be an amateur, I figured. Even an amateur clock is right once or twice a week. But my love of the night sky has been largely unrequited. I used to carry around books of Celestial Bodies and listen to audiocassettes (I’m dating myself) about The Night Sky And What Is In It. I projected pictures of Orion and the Big Dipper on the ceiling and tried to figure out which one Bootes was.
On the ceiling of my room it made perfect sense. It was when I got outside that I had a problem. Whenever I had successfully located a celestial body, it would invariably disappear behind a cloud or turn out to be a plane. I could not navigate by the stars if you hung an albatross around my neck and told me my life depended on it.
With telescopes it was even worse. My experience staring through the lenses was something like what used to happen to James Thurber with microscopes. He wrote in “My Life and Hard Times”:
I could never see through a microscope. I never once saw a cell through a microscope. This used to enrage my instructor. He would wander around the laboratory pleased with the progress all the students were making in drawing the involved and, so I am told, interesting structure of flower cells, until he came to me. I would just be standing there. “I can’t see anything,” I would say. He would begin patiently enough, explaining how anybody can see through a microscope, but he would always end up in a fury, claiming that I could too see through a microscope but just pretended that I couldn’t. . . .
“Try it just once again,” he’d say, and I would put my eye to the microscope and see nothing at all, except now and again, a nebulous milky substance — a phenomenon of maladjustment. You were supposed to see a vivid, restless clockwork of sharply defined plant cells. “I see what looks like a lot of milk,” I would tell him. This, he claimed, was the result of my not having adjusted the microscope properly; so he would readjust it for me, or rather, for himself. And I would look again and see milk.”
It is not quite this bad, but it’s pretty bad.
For me, these space incidents have always been the Emperor’s New Celestial Object.
And everyone gets so excited. It is hard not to be caught up in it.
“I try not to stare at meteors showering,” I say, “It’s rude.” But that holds only so much water.
“Do you see the majestic space thing?” everyone asks.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “The bright speck, right?”
But honestly I have no idea.
I’m sure in the 1880s, the last time this happened, there were a lot of people with the same problem. “Indubitably,” they said, glancing up. “Majestic.”
History has only documented the ones who actually managed to get a glimpse of it, who will remember the speck forever, who spoke feelingly of the “intrinsic interest of the phenomenon.” They failed to note my ancestors, the folks who squinted into the air and saw not much of anything because a cloud was in the way.
So I want to state, for the record: If you missed it, you were not alone.
And not to worry. I’m sure in 2117 someone will have the same problem.