Silent Stargazing


I tugged at the sleeping form of my 16-year-old brother. "Wake up, David. It's time."

"Huh?" he murmured. "Oh..."

We both slithered into jeans and t-shirts discarded only hours earlier, my brother just slightly more sluggish than me. Silently we crept downstairs and out into the cold November air.

Looking up, we gave thanks that there were no clouds early Monday morning above suburban New York, just a quiet night sky dotted by dozens of twinkling stars. It appeared to be a good night for viewing the prizes of the heavens.

What might have passed for a Christmas Eve dress rehearsal in another home was destined to reward us with a far more lasting gift than a new pair of socks from an aunt or uncle.

What would descend from the chilly stratosphere was not jolly Saint Nick (who doesn't visit our house anyway), but a vision of a Thanksgiving lunar eclipse the likes of which had not been witnessed so clearly by North American inhabitants for nearly 11 years.

Peering into the (formerly) moonlit sky at 1 a.m., we caught a glimpse of a lopsided ring of light just before the satellite was completely occluded by the Earth passing between it and the Sun.

We gazed for a few minutes, until the Moon was completely eclipsed, just about as predicted. No danger of burned-out retinas, such as might characterize solar eclipses. At that point, the relative brightness of the surrounding stars offered a dazzling view, to our untrained eyes, of star clusters, nebulae--and other groups of lights which we had no idea what to call. The names sounded right then.

"Look at that!" David whispered, pointing at a spot graced seconds ago by the trail of one shooting star. I nodded, having seen it too. Another shooting star passed in front of our house just minutes later.

I was glad I had stayed home an extra day for Thanksgiving break. As close as we live to New York City, the pollution which would have made night viewing difficult in Cambridge or Boston was not present in the suburban skies above our town.

It was still, and the just perceptible noise of cars speeding the parkway one mile away was the only sound we heard. For some reason, only one or two planes flew overhead. Appropriately, neither of us spoke, except to point out the occasional lights of interest.

I gave a mostly correct explanation of the Earth's position in the universe and why such a location makes viewing at the Milky Way difficult. Then my brother broke the silence just once before we went back inside.

"We're so insignificant, it's not even funny," he ventured.

"You're right," I answered.

But significant enough to appreciate a lunar eclipse, I thought to myself.

Ivan Oransky '94 is executive editor and science/health editor of The Crimson.