A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Look up!

My wife noticed, many years ago, that every time I walk outside at night, the first thing I do is to look up. For a while she assumed that it was because I had a telescope operating somewhere and I wanted to see the condition of the sky, the locations of the clouds. Then she realized that I would even do it when she knew that I wasn’t using any telescope anywhere. It’s just what I always did: walked outside, looked up. Finally, she asked me about it. My first reaction was: I do? But then, after awhile, I realized: I do. I am always curious about clouds and about clarity, but mostly I just want to make sure that everything is right with the universe, that all of the stars are in place, that the moon has moved to whichever new spot in the sky it should be that night, that any of the planets that might be up are where they are supposed to be.
Sometimes I get a bit of a jolt, even though I know it is coming. When I fly to Hawaii and go use the telescopes out there I look up at night and see, oddly, that Orion is almost straight overhead, instead of low in the south like it is supposed to be. At that point my eye always travels north to try to find Polaris, now dangerously close to the horizon. Then I take a glance as far to the southern horizon as possible and I see something unsettling: stars I don’t know. I might as well be in another universe.
For all of my traveling the globe to go to telescopes, I’ve only been south of the equator once, for my honeymoon. When I went outside and looked up there, it was an odd combination of familiar and bizarre. In the north, Orion was flying overhead, but upside down. The bright red Betelgeuse, which translates as armpit of the giant, should really be called kneecap of the giant from there. The moon was also much further north than I was prepared for and it, too, was upside down. It really did give me that feeling that I was standing on the opposite side of the world, that my head really was pointing in a different direction than when I was at home.
One of the reasons that I was surprised when my wife mentioned to me that I always look up is because I was a little surprised that everyone else doesn’t do the same thing. The grand vista of the stars and the planets is above us night after night, and all you have to do is to look up. Most people are shocked when you explain to them, for example, that you can look at Betelgeuse and you can look at Sirius, and you can see that they are different colors. They’re amazed to know that that bright light in the twilight sky is not an airplane but is indeed the planet Venus. They are truly floored when you suggest to them that they get out a pair of binoculars and look at Saturn – high over head in the sky these days and you can see the rings. Or the moons of Jupiter. All of the stuff is out there for the taking.
I was in New York City this past week to give a lecture at Sarah Lawrence College. To get to Sarah Lawrence I walked my way down to Grand Central Station in the late afternoon, stared at the board of departures trying to figure out which was the right train to take, bought my ticket at an automated dispenser, and then had a few extra minutes to kill before the train left, so I stepped back against a wall to watch the people go by. Everyone was in a hurry across the floor, trying to catch a train or make their way home. But somebody on the other side of the concourse was doing something that no one else was doing, so it caught my eye. She was looking up. Curious what might be attracting her attention, I did the same, and there, inside of the building, a hundred feet up on a huge dome ceiling, was the sky.
Not just any sky, a spectacular painted sky with stars in place but also the constellations drawn and the ecliptic and celestial equator drawn through! Orion (with a gleaming Betelgeuse in his armpit) battles Taurus the Bull in the heart of the flowing Milky Way while winged Pegasus watched high above. Castor and Pollux look, to me, like they are plotting mischief to the side.
And, with thousands of people streaming through the concourse, there was one – now two – people actually looking up to notice. It reminded me of, well, of Los Angeles at night, where no one bothers to look up.
Because the constellations were painted along with the stars, I concentrated on the constellations. They were what was new to me. When I look at the real sky, I look at the stars, and don’t think much of the constellations, since no one has taken the time to paint them in the sky. But here they were beautifully drawn with sparkling stars as highlights.
Something was a little funny, though. At first, since I was concentrating on those new drawings, instead of on the real stars, I didn’t quite get it. But then it hit me: Taurus is on the wrong side of Orion. Castor and Pollux are switched. And what is Pegasus doing high to the left instead of to the right? It was like the real sky, only backwards.
Backwards is not the same as upside down. Backwards is like a mirror. Backwards it like you never ever really see it anywhere on earth, or, really, anywhere else in the Universe.
My scientific, educational self was offended. What? They spend all of this effort to put the sky on the ceiling and they get it wrong?
The ceiling, though, was copied from artwork that was supposed to be illustrating what the sky looks like from outside the Celestial Sphere. Except for one thing: there is no such thing as a Celestial Sphere. The Celestial Sphere is what you would think was out there if you considered the whole night sky to be a planetarium with little points of light a small distance away. Imagine now that you can sit outside the planetarium and see the stars. This is what the ceiling at Grand Central looks like.
And then I went from slightly offended by the inaccuracy, to thoroughly charmed by the historical accuracy. Yeah, I thought. People really used to think that you could step outside and look in and this is what they would see. This ceiling is fantastic.
It is the International Year of Astronomy.
A few weeks ago I participated in a panel discussion with 4 other astronomers as part of the celebration of the Internation Year. The event was sponsored by, among others, Discover Magazine. In this month’s issue they have a [heavily edited] transcript of the discussion amongst the five of us from the event. I am proud to say that, in the [heavily edited] transcript, I got the last word from the night, based on a question from the audience. Discover Magazine gets the last word:
Audience: What are your hopes for this year’s International Year of Astronomy
Brown: If there is anything I can convince people to do, I want people to not just sit here and listen to astronomers and think about astronomy but to look at the sky. So what I want everyone to do where you walk out tonight is to look up. You’ll see Orion, you’ll see Sirius. Just look up at the sky for a minute and think about what’s out there. That’s what I want.


  1. Thanks for explaining so clearly how rare it to find people looking up in the sky, no matter what time of day it is. Is there any way to remedy this situation, any way to stop everybody in their hustle and bustle to stop once and a while to look up, and to wonder what's up there? Education? More sidewalk astronomers? Hopefully after IYA 2009 there will be more people looking up and appreciating the beauty of the cosmos and of the sky and general, and how this is something that humanity as a whole can partake in.

  2. Mike,
    You need to spend a winter in the Australian outback. With no lights for 100's of km, the winter stars command everyone's attention, and the galactic center glowers overhead. On our first two field trips, my fieldie and I would serve ourselves dinner, turn our chairs around with our backs to the fire, and just stare of into interstellar space.

  3. What a lovely read! A friend on FB shared your post and I just wanted to stop by and say hi.

    I am by *no means* an amateur astronomer, but the best date my husband (then boyfriend) and I have had thus far, was going up to Mt. Tamalpias (just north of San Francisco) and on a bitterly cold November night, we watched the Leonid meteor shower under a shared sleeping bag. It was beautiful, wonderful and we got to snuggle to keep warm.

  4. Laurel KornfeldApril 20, 2009 at 2:16 PM

    My astronomy club is located in Cranford, NJ, and while we all love looking up and have weekly open public nights, we also unfortunately have either clouds or rain on maybe 70 percent of those nights. We did manage to see the February 2008 lunar eclipse after almost having to cancel due to bad weather. Unless one is a meteorologist, clouds just aren't that interesting to look at.

  5. One of the side benefits of hauling my tired carcass out of bed at 4 a.m. this morning, to go running, was that I got to see Venus in the eastern sky. I, too, am constantly looking up.

    Which reminds me, I've got to look up that bright star, in the southeastern sky at dawn, to find out what it's called. It's already too light out for the constellations to be visible, so I don't have that as a clue.

    Excellent post, Mike! I can't help thinking that every year should be a "year of astronomy". It kind of puts us in our place.

    Bob Shepard

  6. Hello, Mike :), and Laurel :D

    Well, I took your advice. I did look up. And I saw it! A bright, magnitude 0 (? not a good magnitude estimator) or better, Lyrid meteor! It was yellowish-white and appeared for less than a second from behind the trees.

    I couldn't get to a dark-sky site because I have no car. I stayed up all night reading the last words of Richard Cartwright.

    Y'know, sometimes astronomers don't realize that actually, a lot of people look up. Here's Richard's description:

    http://www.ccadp.org/uncensoredcartwright.htm"Yesterday (01/25/2005), I was allowed the one hour out of my cage to go outside into a slightly larger area made like a pit. There is concrete walls that goes about 30 feet up on all side. Across the top there are steel bars that tic-tac-toe back and forth to ensure that even when we look to the skies, we see prison.

    This is our ‘outside hour’. The air isn’t fresh, but there are smells out there we don’t get on the inside. There are spaces that divide the ‘yard’ up so two of us can be out at one time, separated by steel bars serving as ½ way marks.

    When outside the only thing we can see is the same stuff we see in our cages (concrete and steel).

    Oh, I forgot, we can look up to see the sky. Sometimes we catch sounds (birds, lawn mowers, airplane), but if we look up too long, a person’s neck starts to hurt.

    I never stare straight up for too long anyway, for fear that a bird may [censored] in my face ~ seen it happen too many times...

    The 2 officers came to tell me my time is up. I told ‘em to go put their ‘suits’ (riot gear, MCE) on, and I was gonna hang outside for a while.

    Once a prisoner refused to come in, they must notify their supervisors. They (supervisors) came down and we talked about it a little, but that didn’t help me any. So they went to get 5 guards to suit up in ‘gear’ to physically force me back inside..."

    Richard Cartwright was murdered May 19, 2005, by Rick Perry & accomplices on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

    I found out about the Lyrids when Robert, the maintenance man, posted it on the bulletin board. Having wasted the night anyway, I went out the front door. But there was too much light. So I went to the back. I told the night watchman about the Lyrids and pointed to the bulletin board.

    I went into the back yard and the automatic floodlights turned on. Arrghh!!! So I went to the alley. In a few minutes the night watchman came out, hoping to see a Lyrid.

    My neighbor down the hall, Allen Haskell, died the other day. He was a former homeless bum, which qualified him for the public housing. We've had an accelerating rate of that, two in December and three this year; delayed effects of the "camping" experience. Allen was a paranoid schizophrenic, but he had good control over his illness (better than my diabetes control). He always had a hearty "Have a nice day" for us in his very loud voice. His couch was in the alley.

    I looked at the night watchman. "You know, Allen would have told me to use it." The night watchman agreed. So I settled in. Then we both saw it; a flare in the sky. But it was moving too slowly for a meteor. No flashing navigation lights; it disappeared entirely in a little over a second. We think it was a satellite. It was just before morning twilight and it would have been in the sunlight.

    The night watchman had to go back inside and watch the monitors. Allen, like most paranoid schizophrenics, had real enemies, too, like most ex- (and current) homeless bums. That's why all the security and of course, it's internal, too.

    I settled in. There was light pollution, but with us (then me) in the alley the floodlights had turned off. Unfortunately trees blocked off a lot of the sky, which might explain why I only saw about two meteors in about an hour. The other was faint, like maybe 4th magnitude (?).

    I dozed off in the comfortable couch and missed the occultation of Venus by the moon that I had read about in Sky & Telescope online. But, for the first time in a long time, I did't get clouded out!

    I find some clouds, especially thunderclouds, fascinating. They roil and boil and then there's the suspense; will it produce an icecap? Lightning? Rain? A rainbow?

    The sky is a fascinating place, both night and day!


    -Michael C. Emmert

  7. I always look up at the stars! Studying astrology though, I am more interested in the moon and planets and their connection to our Sun.

    I know their ancient myths -- common archetypes within Life's stories. We've all shared the same struggles and loves for thousands of years. The heavens are our common ground.

    They're beautiful bodies, and their power is in what they can communicate and teach us.

    A little Moon/Venus tale this a.m.

    It doesn't matter if it works, or how it works. It's "Know Thy Self" that makes you evolve and brings peacefulness.

    EZ-Read Dabbling? http://www.cafeastrology.com/siteindex.html


  8. Your advice reminded me of "When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer"...

    Living in the midst of a crowded city in one of the most crowded and light polluted countries in the world, the most I can see of the night sky is a few paltry stars here and there. It was only when spending a weekend camping out in Suffolk in the middle of nowhere that I first saw the Milky Way in all its glory.