The Hercules Cluster
People often ask me why I am so “obsessed” with Perkins Observatory. Part of the answer is the place itself. You can’t walk through the front door without feeling inspired by the angels guarding the door or the sun god Helios hovering above it.
But more than that, Perkins inspires because of its public mission. I am but one of a long line of people who have shown beginners the stars for the first time. I would not be doing this except for the folks who took me under their wings and taught me the sky.
The warm nights of summer always make me think of Jane Gann, now long dead, who was one of those mentors.
She was obsessed with showing other people the night sky. I saw her work two telescopes at once at astronomy-club public programs. She would jump from one ‘scope to another, pointing them, so that more people could see the galaxies and star clusters they were aimed at.
One summer night after everyone else had left, Jane and I stood looking at the stars from a rural observing site near Mansfield.
I asked her why she went to all the bother to show so many people the night sky.
Without a word, she swung the telescope over to the Hercules Cluster (M13 in the Messier catalog), a globular star cluster in the constellation Hercules.
In the early evening, the constellation Hercules is almost overhead right now.
Look for a rough square of stars, called the Keystone, that form the trunk of his body. About two-thirds of the way up on a line that forms the west side of his body is a ball of light that can be seen in a pair of binoculars.
In a small telescope, that hazy patch begins to resolve around its edges into individual stars. In a medium-sized ‘scope, it resolves into an explosion of countless stars.
Astronomers estimate that globular clusters like M13 in Hercules have as many as a million stars in them. They are mini-galaxies that hover at the outskirts of our galaxy, the Milky Way, out in the galactic suburbs, so to speak.
M13 consists of about as many stars as you can see in one telescope field of view. It unspeakably beautiful — like a pile of diamond dust glittering on black velvet.
As I looked at it, Jane began to speak quietly but urgently.
“There was a time just 75 years ago when everyone, no matter where they lived, could see that cluster with their own unaided eyes. As long as humans have been on the planet, they have looked at that faint patch of light and wondered what it was. Now, from inside the cities it is invisible, washed out by the glow of streetlights.”
“It is only in the last few decades that the lights from the cities have begun to make it impossible to see even the brighter stars in the sky. As the cities grow and outside lighting grows with them, there will come a time when people will no longer be able to look up at the night sky and marvel at its beauty.”
As she spoke, I looked up. Even now, the lights from small rural towns around us obliterated half the sky.
Have you noticed,” she said, “that when people walk around city streets they look down at their shoes to the pavement below. A generation of children who will always look down at concrete will soon be born. They will never look up and experience for themselves what their universe looks like.”
We stood silently for a long time looking at the glorious panorama spread out before us, as I wondered when the last time would be that humans would look up with wonder at the night sky.
In later years, I helped Jane with some stargazing programs for the residents of her nursing home. She was practically blind from cataracts and couldn’t see a single star without using binoculars. But there she stood on the roof of the building, still looking at the stars and still showing them to others.
Am I “obsessed” with Perkins Observatory? Not really. I am, however, part of an unbroken chain that links the first stargazers from our dim past with generations yet to come. I owe it to Jane to pass it on. Perkins simply provides a beautifully inspirational place to do so.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory, and he would be very happy to answer your questions or sell you a ticket to one of its upcoming Friday-night programs. He can be reached at email@example.com or 740–363‑1257.