Reaching for the stars

‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’

A rhyme so commonly heard that few people actually take it to heart. However, it builds the very simple basis for how astronomy actually began.

In the beginning…
Originally people looked up to the sky for entertainment and eventually, that stemmed into curiosity for other onlookers.

Nathan Miller, assistant professor in the department of Physics and Astronomy, said he thinks it’s obvious why people began looking at the stars.

“In the time before people had a lot of lights at night, there wasn’t really a lot to look at. For people who spent a lot of time outdoors it was the most obvious thing to see,” Miller said. “They were a lot brighter to them, and it also provided them with something to do in the evenings.”

Miller added that the ongoing variance in our sky also helped grab interest.

“Things continually change, so it kind of grabs your interest,” Miller said. “Sometimes you can see some stars, sometimes you can see other ones. The planets also move between the stars, so after time it really grabs your interest.”

On a daily basis
Sophomore Kyle Albertson, who has taken Miller’s Physics 115 – Survey of Astronomy course, thinks looking up to the sky on a regular basis is a great idea.

“Whenever I’m walking somewhere at night and there isn’t a lot of clouds, I always have to look up,” Albertson said. “There’s just so much you can see.”

People might wonder what they could possibly have to see on a night-to-night basis, but Miller contests that there is so much variation. The sun and the moon both have cycles that can be interesting to follow.

“The actual motion of the sun and connecting it to the seasons can be kind of interesting if you pay attention to where it sets throughout the year,” Miller said. “It’s pretty far north to the west during summer, and to the southwest during winter.”

Miller added that contrary to popular belief, planets can actually be seen on a nightly basis.

“Not everybody knows that you can just look up in the sky and see planets,” Miller said. “But actually some of the brighter things you see, that look like stars, are actually planets.”

Special events in our sky
Albertson said it is much more common for people to look into the sky if there is something out of the normal going on.

“If I hear that something is going on, I’ll definitely try to check it out,” he said. “Sometimes you look and it can be hard to see, but it’s at least worth a try.”

If you want to see these events, a detailed background in astronomy isn’t necessary, Albertson said. He added that anyone should give it a chance.

If daily cycles of the moon and sun aren’t thrilling enough, Miller said there is actually a pretty exciting phenomenon going on in our sky right now.

“There is this comet Lula and I know that the astronomy club has taken pictures of it,” Miller said. “So you can probably see it with binoculars pretty well.”

Miller said the comet appears much larger than it actually is.

“As a comet heads towards the sun, ice on the surface begins to vaporize off, and it makes a huge cloud of ice,” Miller said. “That’s why they get so bright, the vaporized water appears massive.”

Indoor stargazing
If heading outdoors at night seems too cold, or if finding constellations is too difficult, the astronomy department has the solution.

Every Tuesday night from 7 to 8 p.m. there is an adult planetarium show put on, with a children’s show Saturday morning from 11 a.m. to noon, in the Phillips Planetarium.

Professor of astronomy and physics and planetarium director Lauren Likkel said the adult show is more for the college level audience.

She added that children had trouble understanding the concepts or even staying calm for an hour.

Having two shows has ended up working out well for Likkel.

“We can have cute shows for the children, that the adults would not want to sit though,” Likkel said. “We can have more educational shows for the adults that would be too slow and boring for the children.”

Likkel said that each month there is a different multimedia show, and that the topics change.

“We’re always going to talk about what is up in the current night sky,” Likkel said. “Right now with the comet in the sky we would direct everyone as to where they might see it.”

Shows are almost entirely run by students who love astronomy, have been carefully trained and know exactly what they are doing, Likkel said.

Tickets can be purchased at the doors for just $2, and everyone is encouraged to go, because no prior knowledge of astronomy is needed.

“Everybody is welcome and everybody will learn something, no matter what level they are at,” Likkel said. “There is something for the absolute beginner and for the total expert, you will certainly enjoy it either way.”