To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Part 5: Post 4: Star Watching

Location of Perseid Radiant
 You ever have one of those realizations that’s almost impossible to explain because the thing you realized is too obvious? I mean, a sudden shift in your thinking where something becomes clear all of a sudden, but there’s no way to explain it to someone else because there is no actual new information involved?

I had one of those this week. I used to wonder why we’re learning all this science stuff—not that I mind, I like ecology and physics and geology, but it just seemed a little out of place. I mean, what does geology have to do with magic? Our teachers explained it, and I guess what they said makes sense, but I don’t really get the big picture. It didn’t sink in. But then this thing clicked in my head and I remembered something I heard in a seminar way back in March, and now I’m wondering why we don’t learn other sciences.

The thing that I remembered from the seminar is that up until almost modern times, science and magic were the same thing. A lot of the ideas that we think of today as metaphor or, I guess for some, information about the spirit world, started out as scientific explanations of how the physical world works. Like Kit calls fire spirits salamanders because people used to think that actual literal salamanders, the little wet crawly things, could live inside fire. Astronomy grew out of astrology and chemistry grew out of alchemy. I’d heard some of that before, of course, but not from the perspective of someone who actually takes magic seriously.

And so the thing that went click in my head this week is that if science was once magic, then science was once magic. See what I mean? It sounds imbecilic, or at best tautological. I don’t know how to explain the light that went on in my head with those words. Ok, try this; it’s not just that early scientists did and thought things that seem definitely occult today, it’s that people involved in the occult thought that figuring out how the world works was the best way to learn magic. So if astronomy and chemistry are properly branches of magic, then why aren’t we learning them here?
Because we can’t learn everything, I suppose. I mean, I understand that if we had to gain even a passing familiarity with every area of scholarship that has anything to do with magic at all we’d all be undergraduates until we died of old age. But how did they decide on one science over another? And does anyone here actually study astronomy, even as a hobby?

I seem to have a knack for asking good questions, because I mentioned this question, completely at random, to Karen the other day, and she smiled and said that she and Joy go star-watching a few times a week, weather permitting, and that I could join them if I wanted.

So I went.

There’s a pretty serious telescope in the Herbarium, and even some of the binoculars are good enough to resolve Venus into a crescent (apparently Venus is always a crescent as seen from Planet Earth), but last night we didn’t use any of them. Instead, we watched the Perseid meteor shower.

We went to the pasture in front of the Dining Hall, because the goats and the sheep are on pasture we call the Edge of the World. They’ve been in front of the dining hall, off and on, for a while, but now they’re done with it and the grass is nice and short, almost like a lawn. Other than the sheep and goat droppings everywhere, it’s a pretty good place to lie on your back and look up at the stars. We brought some old blankets to lie on, to keep our backsides clean. They don’t have outside lighting here, and of course all the windows are dark unless there’s somebody in that room, so you get a good view of the stars anywhere on campus. The area is pretty rural, so you can see the Milky Way.

There were about a dozen of us, and we just laid on our backs and looked up. Joy pointed out constellations and told us the names of some of the stars, along with whatever random thoughts came into her head about those stars—this one is a red giant, that one is 65 light years away, and so on. Sometimes we spoke to each other, or told jokes. There was a bottle of home-made alcoholic birch beer we passed around. But mostly we just watched the sky. Shooting stars streaked here and there, some short and dim, others long and bright. A lot of the time I was looking in the wrong part of the sky, which was frustrating, but I got lucky some of the time. Whenever anyone saw a shooting star they said “there’s one!” and pointed, which was a pretty pointless thing to do, since it was usually gone by the time the rest of us turned our heads, but we all did it anyway. There was probably one or two a minute, Joy said that’s normal for the Perseids, but of course we didn’t see all of them. I think all of us fell asleep for a while, at one time or another.

I’d heard, years ago, that meteor showers are comet dust—when comets go around, they leave a trail of dust, and when Earth passes through that trail the dust burns up in our atmosphere as a lot of shooting stars. I don’t remember where I learned it, I learned it so long ago. I’ve always wondered if that means it’s possible for the comet itself to hit Earth, one of these times around, and I think it is, but nobody else seems worried about it. Anyway, Joy says the Perseids are the trail of Comet Swift-Tuttle.

The Stars of Perseus
Karen didn’t say much. I don’t think she ever says much, except in class, but once, after an especially bright meteor, she did give an appreciative “oo!” and then she spoke.

“You know, they used to think it was scientifically impossible for rocks to fall from the sky to Earth. Remember that, whenever anyone tells you about what can and cannot be done.”

I like that. What I do not like is waking up stiff and cold in the middle of the night. We fell asleep and lay out there until nearly three in the morning. Remember when I said I thought it was still summer, Kit’s ritual year notwithstanding? I was wrong. It’s fall now.

[Next Post: Friday, August 16th: Lying to Lambs] 

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