I get it, you’re too wrapped up in work, school, what’s on TV, that latest videogame and you wonder quite what the hell the interest in space is. It’s massive, it’s far away and it seems it barely interacts with you at all.
It has got to the stage where even something as big, bright, beautiful and obvious as the bloody moon needs to have marketing terms applied to it to make people give a shit. It isn’t enough to actually see a moon, just have a look, and appreciate it and the differences. No, we need to advertise the SuperWolf Strawberry Milkshake Blood Moon – claiming it’s named after some aboriginal hunter-gatherer tradition and soon it’ll be brought to you by McDonalds.
I was one of you, too. I didn’t care about looking at space. Sure, I’d spot a few things whilst out and about, here and there. I just didn’t really care. It was a conversation with Osnat about what I could potentially contribute to Popular Astronomy magazine that got me into it. What I wanted to do, in a hobby full of old, male, pervy nerds throwing stupid sums of money around on telescopes and lenses that cost hundreds or thousands of pounds, was tell the regular, 13-45 year old, person, no matter who they are, on the street how they could enjoy space for free, or for little money.
There is no doubt that a good set of binoculars, or even a decent telescope, can show you a lot more than you can ever see with the naked eye. But people, especially people who live in the light-polluted urban sprawl, will be surprised the difference a dark sky can make.
With the naked eye at least four of the planets in our solar system are easily visible (Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.) There are a potentially another three in Mercury, Uranus and Neptune but they are incredibly faint or appear at stupid-bastard-o-clock.
With the naked eye I have seen the Orion Nebula (on the sword off Orion’s Belt…Kind of look where his knob should be for what looks like a star with a spunky mist around it).
You can, obviously, see the moon but if you see a moon at less-than-full you may even catch some Earthshine. This is where light reflected off the Earth illuminates the dark area of the Moon slightly. You can see the galactic core of the Milky Way – the cloudy, dense, fuzzy chasm across the sky that gives our galaxy its name.
You can see clusters, like the star nursery of The Pleiades – otherwise known as the Seven Sisters, an amazing sight that looks like a tiny version of the Big Dipper.
You can see amazing stars like the dazzling rainbow jewel of Sirius (actually two stars, but you can’t see the separation with the naked eye) and the massive, red Betelgeuse which caused a lot of buzz in 2019/2020 as speculation rose about whether or not it would go supernova.
You can even see our nearest galactic neighbour, Andromeda – a galaxy ours loves so much they are rapidly moving together for a kiss in about 4.5 billion years’ time.
That’s just the highlights of the obvious stuff, as well. There are other nebulae, clusters, galaxies, objects, comets, meteors, satellites, random shiny objects, stuff that seems to appear and disappear at will and possibly aliens – although there have been, as yet, zero confirmed alien sightings by amateur astronomers – all visible with the naked-eye.
So why not go observing? What’s stopping you? This ain’t trainspotting, people! You don’t have to don your anorak and notebook and go nerd it up. You can take a bivvy tent and a few cans of beer and sit on top of a hill chilling with your mates. Although I am obliged to suggest you drink responsibly, it is at your own risk if you choose not to drink responsibly and end up inventing your own constellations shaped like cocks. If you’re a real criminal scumbag you could do something else that We Lack Discipline is legally obliged to suggest they do not recommend or endorse and take some dope, do some magic mushrooms and sit down a really dark beach gazing up at the stars and listening to the gentle hush of waves tripping yourself all the way to another damn galaxy.
That’s the other great thing about observing. Do it your way. Do what you bloody well want. If you want to hang around a bunch of 50-year-olds with red lamps and notebooks, spouting coordinates and magnitude numbers like it means something, you do it. If you want to get tipsy, screw on a beach and then gaze in post-cum clarity at a few constellations do that as well. The Earth is big, space is bigger and there’s plenty of room for everyone at its table.
Why, though? Well to me that’s obvious. Whether you want to believe it or not we’re connected to everything out there. I’m sure the dinosaurs at one point thought “What’s the point in space? I just want to eat, shit and bang!” and then a giant hunk of rock from space turned the Yucatan into a bowl and I bet they wished they had the ability to gaze up and go “Ooh! What the fuck’s that! Maybe we should prepare for this!?”
The sun sometimes flares, messing with your mobile signals and wi-fi. The moon is sometimes dazzling white and sometimes red and that’s because stuff is happening. Comets appear and disappear as transient visitors and one day one of them may eviscerate itself in our atmosphere and you’ll be a lot less scared if you know it’s coming. We are inhabitants of this universe and it’s good to know what’s going on.
Space doesn’t belong to anyone. No nation owns it, no school owns it, no elite group owns it. Sure the stuff up there has names and designations, but so do the birds of paradise and if you saw them without knowing their Latin binomial you’d still think they were fucking beautiful.
I’m a working class guy with a middle-class brain. I never loved school, I didn’t appreciate the rules and the structure didn’t fit me, but the stuff – the things you can learn – that is something I loved. I reckon most other people are the same. There’s a stigma where I come from for being clever. You get called a boffin, a nerd, you get picked on and bullied, as you get older you get accused of being above your station or forgetting where you came from. The more you know the more alienated you feel and yet, because you’re like me and grew up with ‘fuck’ as more of a form of punctuation than a word, you don’t fit in with the people who do like it and do care about it.
I’m here to say “fuck that!” I want to see MDMA fuelled stargazing beach parties. I want to see kids being grumpy in the streets because they were up past midnight gazing at the stars with mum and dad. I want to see hoody-donning delinquents on housing estates saying “Mate, that ain’t a star you fucking idiot – that’s Jupiter!” I want to make it acceptable for people to know stuff.
Knowledge is power, always has been and always will be. Amongst humans, that’s as permanent a fixture as the stars and planets shining, orbiting, twinkling, shooting, exploding and rotating in our skies. There was a time when every beer-swilling, nut-scratching, blue-collar family dreamed of their kids growing up to be astronauts. I’m bringing those days back.
What’s the point in space? It doesn’t need one, just like you. Space is just fucking cool, fight me.