Jupiter, Venus, Galileo, my old man and me
The morning sky right now reminds me of my misspent youth. My father, who never graduated the ninth grade, was inexplicably an opera buff. How could I forget the trips to Cleveland to see the touring company of New York’s Metropolitan Opera? I am an opera aficionado myself to this very day.
But my old man’s opera obsession had a hidden benefit. He owned a cheap, three-buck pair of opera glasses. They had plastic lenses and made the performers on stage look like circus clowns. Come to think of it, some of the characters represented were indeed circus clowns, but never mind.
Those opera glasses were my first and only optical aid, and they turned me on to the wonder and majesty of the cosmos. In the morning before school especially, I often reveled in the beauty of the sky.
Right now, the two brightest planets grace our mid-autumn sky during deep morning twilight. Yellow Jupiter dominates the southwest. Below it is the bright star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus, the Bull.
Even more brilliant Venus blazes, purest white, near the eastern horizon.
In between and above the two planets are a plethora of bright stars. Above Jupiter is Capella, the She Goat, in Auriga. To the left of Capella are the famous twins Castor and Pollux in Gemini. Between Jupiter and Venus is the star Procyon in Canis Major. Between and below Jupiter and Venus is the brightest star of all — Sirius, the “Scorching One” in Canis Major. Below Jupiter is the plethora of bright stars in Orion, the Hunter.
The view is a life changer if you can manage to catch it at just the right time and place: just as morning twilight begins at a place where trees and buildings don’t block the view from the east to the southwest.
Believe me, it’s worth the trouble. The presence of Venus and Jupiter reminds me how Galileo changed the world when he first looked at them in his crude telescope 400 years ago. They certainly changed my world when I was 10 years old. Armed only with my old man’s opera glasses, I sallied forth to replicate the discoveries of the mighty Galileo.
Like the famed astronomer so long before, I trained my primitive instrument on Jupiter and saw its four brightest moons lined up around it. They orbit so quickly that I could watch them move by propping my elbows on the back of a kitchen chair to steady my binoculars.
When the astronomer discovered his “Galilean moons,” as we now call them, he recognized their importance to the radical theory of Copernicus, who suggested that the sun, not Earth, was at the center of things. Opponents of Copernicus argued that an orbiting Earth would leave its moon behind as it moved. Yet Jupiter had plenty of moons traveling with it. Could Copernicus be right?
Two months later, I saw Venus as a thin crescent just as Galileo had. Venus has phases like our moon! Galileo soon realized that the phases provided even more valuable evidence for the Copernican solar system.
Right now, Venus looks gibbous, fatter than a half Venus. As the planet moves closer to the sun over the next few weeks, it will become nearly a full Venus before it gets to close to the sun to see.
Venus gets around the sun faster than Earth because Venus is the second planet from the sun and Earth is the third. When Venus is on the far side of the sun, the whole disk of Venus is illuminated from our Earthly vantage. As Venus moves away from Earth and hence swings around to our side of the sun, an increasingly large part of its front side is illuminated. From Earth, Venus appears to grow toward “full” Venus.
The conclusion was easy and obvious to Galileo and to me. Venus must be on the other side of the sun from us. As it approaches the sun from our vantage, Earth, the sun and Venus become increasingly lined up with the sun in the middle.
While you’re looking, imagine the planetary motions that cause Venus to grow, and you will quite literally feel the Earth move as Venus and Earth orbit the sun.
So what did those opera glasses do for me? They taught me how to think, but they also taught me how to feel. Thanks, Dad.
You can sit there and read about Galileo’s seminal astronomical observations, or you can go outside and look for yourself. The experience just might release your inner Galileo or, if your heart is truly pure, the lost 10-year-old who lies dormant deep within us all.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at email@example.com.