Down at the beach, have a little telescope. I’m checking out Mars…closest Earth approach until 2035 was last year, but it’s still pretty close. Worth a look.
As I’m lugging the scope up the boardwalk, there’s a guy there. We sorta nod and stare together at the heavens for a minute. I pointed to Mars and start to speak, but he cuts me off and holds up his phone. “I got this, app, see?” he says. “I just point it and it tells me what I’m looking at. There’s Mars…and Uranus is over there somewhere.” Sure enough, it showed Taurus and Auriga on the eastern horizon with a white dot indicating Uranus, the next planet after Saturn. Finding Uranus is tricky; it’s dim and you have to know just where to look.
As a kid, I was really into astronomy. I had a dinky, wobbly telescope, paper star charts and a flashlight covered with scotch tape that I colored red to preserve night vision. No apps back then, and South Florida was a fraction of the sprawling place it is today. Just the dark skies of west Boca Raton, the wind sighing in the australian pines…a faint glow from Boca to the east and Pompano Beach to the south. Absolute darkness to the west over the Everglades. I learned the constellations the hard way, holding the star maps over my head, bathed in dim red light. They became familiar friends and as the seasons changed and some constellations set and others rose, I got to know my way around the heavens. It never got old.
I learned Uranus took 84 years to make one trip around the sun. I could relate to that, it was how long my mom’s father lived. The lifetime of my grandfather to make it through all twelve constellations of the zodiac. So tonight, when I realized that–holy cow–Uranus was closing in on a completed trip from my boyhood… it jarred me. Where the heck did almost 50 years go?
That guy I met tonight will probably never experience the fun of finding his way through the heavens with paper star maps and a red-lit flashlight. Like most things today it’s click…bzzzt…yep, there it is…a quick Clarke Griswold moment at the Grand Canyon, then inside for some Netflix. He’ll probably never know the excitement of viewing the red planet through a telescope, or the awe of seeing distant Uranus–so far away at two billion miles it takes light 80 minutes to reach it.
I’m glad I learned it all the hard way…in a place and time that exists now only in memory.