Ying Yang Bling Bling Ba da Boom

ying-yangAstronomers are an interesting bunch. I’ve never encountered a community so full of polarities. Being the nice guy that I am, let me give you a few pointers, lest you run afoul in your initial forays into this cryptic world.

1. Embrace the new like your long lost dog; hold on to the old like a bad habit. Astronomy has been termed the “Queen of the sciences.” If you want to be on the very forefront of cutting-edge technology and supercharged theoretical thinking, then delve into the world of astrophysics. There are few sciences that offer the awe that accompanies the eyepiece of a decent-sized telescope, or even just a dark, clear night out in the boondocks, when a well-versed astronomer is guiding you.

But, astronomy is chock full of anachronisms:

A 6th magnitude star is VERY MUCH dimmer than a 1st magnitude star. A Quarter Moon looks half illuminated while a Full Moon is, well, fully illuminated. The dark areas of the moon are often referred to as seas, even though they have always been bone dry. The A Ring of Saturn is further away from the planet than the D Ring; though the E Ring is further away than the A Ring. A B class star is much hotter than an M class star; but an O class star is hotter than a B class star. The earth rotates on its axis, but revolves around the sun. Polaris is currently the North Star, but there is no South Star. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are not clouds, they are galaxies. You get the idea.

2. Introversion and extraversion. “These guys are really stuck up,” my wife commented at one of her first star parties out of the city. “Just wait until dark,” I reassured. It was, at first, like driving down a dead end road in the deepest, darkest reaches of xenophobic Appalachia. They stared as we drove up, offering only a few wary greetings. No banjo, thankfully. A few awkward hours later, as the first stars peered through the dusk, the transformation commenced. Let the party begin! Ice chests of beer were generosity laid open, someone offered us a hot dog, a satellite radio came on, the whirring sound of servo motors filled the air as scopes slewed to favorite targets, and a cacophony of chatter ensued.

Ironically, astronomers can be very enthusiastic about public outreach. Most of us are passionate about astronomy and love to tell you all about it. I’d admit, that while I may give my neighbors a courteous nod and Hello while working in my yard, if they walk by when I have my scope out I’m sure to bend their ears about the object I have in the viewfinder. If I can get you to see Saturn through my 10″ reflector, I know you will be hooked, and I will have just made another friend.

3. Fanatical dogma; rabid skepticism. I don’t know about you, but my Mother sought to instill in me a basic competency in the social graces, which could be summed up as “Don’t talk with food in your mouth, keep your elbows off the table, open the door for the ladies and never talk about religion or politics.” Given the level of burping and farting that characterizes most astronomical camping trips, I’d say that most of these rules of thumb can be interpreted very loosely. However, HOW EVER, I strongly recommend that you not broach the subjects of religion or politics in the presence of astronomers. It’s not that these topics won’t be broached; just don’t venture down that path yourself unless you learned your etiquette at San Quentin State. It is territory where angels fear to tread.

On the other hand that you have left, if you happen to like to stir up controversy and mischief, then there would be no better way to do so than to sit back, after dark, after the blood alcohol levels have risen a bit, stare up at the heavens and casually say something like, “Look at that glorious sky! How can anyone in their right mind not believe there is a God. I attended this great lecture the other day on Intelligent Design&#0133”

May the Force be with you, my friend.

OK. Not all astronomers are acrid atheists. In fact, the folks I hang out with are mostly church going types, even the so-called “professional” astronomers. Really.

But, I’ve never quite understood the bitterness that so many astrophysicists have toward religion. Granted, Galileo was threatened with torture 400 years ago by the Catholic Church for teaching that the earth was not the center of the universe. So, this was a war that the Church started. That might explain the red-faced, bug-eyed, fang-showing fury at all things religious on the part of many astronomers. But, hey, Copernicus—a Catholic Priest—proved that indeed the earth revolves around the sun. And did you know that the originator of the concept of the Big Bang was Farther Lemaitre, a Catholic Priest? I guess the day is coming when parents will hope that their sons grow up to marry a good skeptic girl.

Mom was right, after all. Keep polite conversation… well, polite. And just to be safe, keep your elbows off the table.