Dark skies

It’s international Dark Sky Week. Now I’m sure that star gazing is a worthwhile activity, and the night sky is both mysterious and beautiful, but for me the true marvels of the heavens are things that we can’t see with the naked eye, however dark the skies.

After all, stars are pretty but they’re rather random and meaningless, unless you believe in myths like constellations or astrology. As I’ve discussed before, ideas are more important to us than reality.

So, to celebrate Dark Sky Week, here are a few ideas that you can enjoy indoors without even having to go outside in the cold at night.

Even under perfect conditions we can see only a few thousand stars in the sky, and these are all in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. And yet the Milky Way contains 300 billion stars and there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. What we see when we look up at the night sky is practically nothing.

Much more interesting, to me, is our mental model of the universe. It’s a big, big place, mostly empty, but still with an almost unbelievable amount of stuff in it. Using telescopes we can photograph distant galaxies and detect exotic objects like quasars, neutron stars and black holes. We can even detect dark matter and dark energy. Despite the fact that the universe is mostly empty, there’s an awful lot going on out there.

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Although we can’t see a lot through the naked eye, one of the things that we can see is something we put there ourselves – the International Space Station. It looks like a moving star. And here’s the most mind-boggling idea of all – there are people in it.

And because I’m more interested in people than things, I’m going to show you a photo of the most interesting sight in space ever. But it’s not something you’ll be able to see by looking up at the sky, however dark it may be. For me, this photo illustrates where the true wonder lies. And most excitingly of all, it’s just the very beginning of a new story.

manonthemoon

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