Shoot the Moon
Driving the Last of the Big Clarks
“Declination?” “Minus five twenty five, Mike.”
“Minus three…minus four…minus five ten…minus five twenty…minus five twenty five, Larry.”
A giant whirring and grinding sound filled the air, as if a snarky barista would soon call “Espresso for Joss?”
A clunk, then silence, save for a faint electrical whine of a tracking motor. If one was to plot against the unsuspecting Moon, this is how it would be done. The massive Clark refractor (telescope), over thirty feet long, with a 26 inch objective, seemed a cannon ready to knock the indifferent orb out of the sky.
The cannon was designed to backfire, though, bowling over would-be astronomical gunners and leaving them stunned. Perched high on the creaky wooden bench (original to the 1883 construction of the observatory), I sat, mesmerized.
The Moon. There she was, peeking through the giant observatory hatch, gracing Charlottesville, VA with a silvery light. And there I was, getting trained in the use of this magnificent space at the McCormick Observatory, waving back.
I pushed a few buttons, slewing the scope along the terminator (shadow line) of the moon, and said hello to the crater Clavius. 144 miles across, with a myriad of smaller craters dotting the floor. I got a picture with my phone. As Steve Irwin would say…Have a go at this!
Ancient landscapes! Empty plains! Note the lunar geology - the “fresh” impacts of the sharp craters are younger, the worn and lava-flooded features are older. Note the subtlety of the light, the nuance of the shading.
A big shoutout to Boris - he just sent me some photos that show the scale of this fine instrument.
One can listen to a Bach concerto on Spotify (I am now) and enjoy it greatly. However, once I had the pleasure of watching Pinchas Zukerman conduct the same piece in a concert hall. The observatory drew a parallel. It was a serious, formal setting, dedicated to careful study. One cannot match the intricacies of Bach or the grandeur of the Universe, but at least we can sit quietly, with the greatest of attention, and try to follow along. (Besides vanity, I like to wear a tie to the symphony out of respect.) What a vital part of the human experience - that expression of reverence.
Plus, talk about the ultimate gizmo. You should have seen the star clusters, beaming across twenty three thousand light years.
“Well, that’s very nice, Josh! You’ve got use of a fancy observatory! But what about the rest of us?”
Ah, but I’m training. They have public nights. You’ve gotta come to the “concert hall” and witness the moon yourself. And, if you can’t? No worries: stay tuned here. I’ll keep bringing the updates. Careful study and appreciation can happen anywhere.
It’s Friday - I hope you have a beautiful weekend, with at least a few moments of quiet reverence and close attention to something you care about.
And a big thanks to Larry and Mike for their expertise, and helping me not crash the telescope, or fall off the ladder in the dark!