Tag Archive: star-gazing


The bulk of this post was written originally for our parish magazine but as star-gazing is one of my topics I have included it here.

Despite what the nursery rhyme says, there are some people who think they do know what a star is and what it is made from. By comparing the light that shines from a star with the particular colours (spectrum) of individual chemical elements, scientists reckon they can deduce which particular elements are in the stars.

In previous centuries there were people who did not know what stars might be made of but they were also fascinated by them and just as dedicated in their pursuit of knowledge. We can read about some such people in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. These were experts in studying the heavens – the sort of people who drew star maps and who could tell you, for instance, what time of year you could expect to see a particular star or constellation. On this occasion they had noted something unusual about a particular star – or perhaps a planet or some other light – and they were determined to discover what it meant.

“When the Magi, the wise people, saw where the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy because they had found the child they had been searching for” (Matthew chapter 2 verses 9 – 10).

“The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 8 verse 1)

The stars, when we see them in their brilliance, are an awe-inspiring sight and, as it was for the Psalmist, can hint at God’s heavenly glory. They can also remind us, as that star declared to the Magi, that God did not remain remote in heaven but revealed his glory in that special human baby, his Son, Jesus Christ.

If you get a chance to see the stars late one evening this winter, you might like to wonder about them and see what thoughts they inspire about God’s glory shown to us.

By the way, the rest of the poem is reproduced here (see Wikipedia for more information):

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the traveller in the dark,
Thanks you for your tiny spark,
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.

In the dark blue sky you keep,
And often through my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye,
Till the sun is in the sky.

As your bright and tiny spark,
Lights the traveller in the dark.
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
How I wonder what you are.

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& counting

This week two national organisations have asked the general public to help with their counting. Last weekend the RSPB had their annual garden bird count and this week the CPRE are asking us to count how many stars we can see in the constellation Orion with the naked eye. The idea is to get a measure of how much light pollution there is according to how many of the stars have been “drowned out” by street  and security lighting etc.

Counting is one of the first things we learn as young children – you may have learnt finger rhymes such as the one beginning “Tommy Thumb” – and it is an important tool of government. Counting people, taking a census, appears in the Bible. However, there it has a somewhat checkered history. In the appropriately named book of Numbers, Moses is told by God to count the number of people in the tribes of Israel who were with him in the wilderness. I suppose it helps to know how many people are travelling with you. Meanwhile, centuries later, King David gets into trouble for ordering a census of his people for no obvious reason – except perhaps to boast about how big a population his country has.

When it comes to counting money I suppose it can work either way. It can be a case of boasting “Look how much money I’ve got” – which is childish at best. On the other hand, keeping track of one’s accounts, knowing how much money you’ve got for paying the bills, giving to charity etc and whether there is any left over for luxuries, is a matter of good housekeeping.

It turns out that I’m not the only one thinking about counting at the moment. There is the national census in March and even the Bishop of Peterborough has seen fit to comment. I don’t think the British census is intended as an occasion for boasting – more like the one in the book of Numbers; trying to find out who’s here with us in order to better inform public policy.

In the meantime, it was too cloudy last night to see the constellation Orion – didn’t see any stars here at all, in fact.

PS a couple of nights later we did have a clear sky and my naked-eye count was 11. Somewhat ironic  because on other occasions it has been fewer. Less light pollution in the week we were supposed to be measuring it!

If you can’t see the stars…

… look at the weather instead.

We were enthused by “Stargazing Live” and were keen to go out and look at the night sky. Well, I don’t know what it was like in your neck of the woods but yesterday evening here was a bit cloudy. So I wasn’t too optimistic about seeing much. Wrapped up warm we went outside just in case.

Overhead we could make out the constellation Cassiopaeia – that’s the one where, if you join up the dots so to speak, it makes the shape of an ‘W” (or ‘M’ or ‘3’ or even a ‘Σ’ depending which way round you see it). On the other hand, I could only make out some of the stars of Orion and I only knew where to find those from looking a couple of nights before. In fact, anything close to the horizon was lost in the night-time haze.

Jupiter managed to show itself but, even with binoculars (10×50), there was no chance of making out any of its moons. Meanwhile, we did see the earth’s moon nearby in the SW sky. It was not quite half full but we could see a few of its craters – despite the fact that it was like looking through net curtains. With binoculars we could see some towards the bottom of the moon (South?). Please don’t ask me what they’re called – we did well to spot them at all.

Then we noticed the halos. I realised this morning that there was also one round Jupiter but we did not pay it any attention. Around the moon there were two halos: rings of bright cloud, around the shape of the moon, each with a width roughly (of the same order as) that of the moon itself. The inner ring was fairly bright, the outer one was less obvious and only really noticeable when you looked for it (i.e. after you’d seen the first one). The rings went around the shape of the whole moon, not just the brightly lit portion.

What struck me in particular was the fact that the halo (especially the bright one closest to the moon) was not perfectly circular. It was more like a capital ‘D’ – slightly more rounded than the not-yet-half full moon. I have seen rings around the moon before only then it was a cold frosty night with very high cloud where the full moon lit up a whole patch of the sky. This was my first view of a D-shaped halo.

So in the end we did not do much star-gazing but I did see something I had never seen before. As we went indoors we remarked “If you can’t see the stars, look at the weather.”

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