October 27, 2010
Navigating the Milky Way
Recently I spent several days in the middle of the North Carolina mountains. I was on a farm far from any city. One night, we walked out into an open area away from the farmhouse lights and looked up into the evening sky.
There stretched above us in the sky were wide expanses of the Milky Way. Millions of stars twinkled in the heavens. Mixed in were bright stars and planets that beckoned with a brillance greater than their other shining companions. They intertwined in patterns above our heads.
Now I once upon a time as a child learned the basic constellations. However, I have forgotten most of my former star-gazing knowledge - and at its best, it was meagre. So, as I looked up, I felt disoriented.
Several scientists in the group began rattling off the constellations, planets, and stars. They quickly pointed out the patterns in the sky. They explained why certain bright points could or could not be planets. They talked about different quadrants of the sky and why we could not see this or that constellation. They conferred about how the array would shift by the next evening. They excitedly discussed the finer points of a comet that coursed through a constellation right on schedule.
Perhaps if I could have stretched out on my back in the grass and stared at the same segment for a good while, I could have absorbed all they were telling us. But, it went by too quickly for me. There was too much to take in at once. It was organized in a way that made sense to them, but which I couldn't fully follow because I didn't grasp all the basics that were second nature to them. I felt like I was getting a bit lost in the discussion because everyone in the group was interrupting with questions at different levels of understanding from where I was. I wished for a one-on-one tutorial so I could get up to speed. And suddenly it was over, not to be repeated another night.
Some of our students must feel in their courses that they are viewing the Milky Way far too quickly with too little understanding in the midst of too many rapid-fire comments and questions. I now remember how that feels. (Amy Jarmon)
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