Monday, April 06, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing

A moment, if you will, for a philosophical reflection.

Once a month or so I do a talk for a local amateur astronomy club about what's available up in the night sky in the coming month.  I offered to do the talk a few months ago, just a few months after I joined the club, which was just a month or so after I bought a telescope and for the first time in maybe 25 years looked up at the sky with more than drunken longing.  (Astronomy is honestly my first love; I got into Philosophy and math because of the larger considerations explained below, but in all fairness I just married Philosophy of Math, intellectually.  Astronomy is the one I'll always love.)  The talk is designed to be useful and interesting for kids and adults alike, so we use simple flashy pictures and don't go too much into the science; the point of the talk is more slideshow empiricism than it is deep astronomical science.  I want the kids and the adults just starting to go outside into their backyards on a new-moon Wednesday night and take a look around with some binoculars.  That will provoke questions, but it helps to have some names on things.  In much the same way that people are able to understand the health of their neighborhoods if they can name the trees and shrubs and vegetables growing there as well as the middle schools and coffee chains and the name of the people with the purple fence down the street, people will feel more comfortable looking up if they have some sense of what they're looking at.  So to encourage that, we need to show them around a little, so they get a sense of the texture of the night sky and what's visible, and what's just out of visibility.