My window on the urban night sky

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Urban skies: The blaze of Venus (upper left) poses with
the thin crescent Moon above downtown Milwaukee,
Wisconsin on April 19, 2007. Daniel Pendick

I took this photo at about 8 P.M. last Thursday April 19. I live near downtown Milwaukee, at the south edge of the Brady Street neighborhood. My west, third-floor window looks out over Cass Park. The small raised area between the flowerpots is Brewer's Hill, a gentrified version of an old neighborhood, once known as Uiehlein Hill, where many breweries used to be located.

The view from this window is, for me, a poor man's hot tub, a cordless Shiatsu massage chair, a non-pharmaceutical muscle relaxant. Lately, I've been spending a lot of time leaning on the sill at this window in the early evening, watching the sunset. Venus is a brilliant evening star loitering near a sliver of the Moon, all floating above the city in the glow of sunset. (In case you are wondering, those plants are heirloom tomato seedlings — magnificent Cherokee Purples — that I grow indoors from seed until the midwestern winter abates enough to allow outdoor planting. Depressingly, this sometimes happens well into May.)

Is the sunset an astronomical object? To be very literal about it, no. It's a meteorological phenomenon caused by the interaction of sunlight with dust and aerosols in the atmosphere. It is not a creature of the celestial realm. The word astronomy comes from two Greek words, astron and nomon. "Astron" refers to stars, to celestial lights. "Nomon" is the daemon of laws, statutes, and ordinances of Greek mythology. Put them together, and you get something like "the laws that rule the stars."

But for me, the sunset is inextricably connected to astronomy. The transition from day to night still intrigues and incites me. It's a form of meditation. As the day ends, you confront what you did that day and perhaps what you plan to do that night. It's a transition, like a street corner where you pause for a moment and decide which way to turn.

Years ago, I was fortunate to work for the Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton, New York. The Roberson's science division included a small planetarium and science museum in the city and a small observatory in the country. I had unfettered access to both. You would think, as an astronomy enthusiast, I would have made a rush nightly for the big, beautiful Schmidt telescopes in the two domed observatories. But I rarely did that. I would, instead, take people up to the observatory on off nights, when there were no classes or events, and just sit on lawn chairs facing the southwest sky. I'd get there maybe an hour before sunset and just watch and listen until it was dark, without a lot of yakking or fidgeting. Just listening and watching.

If you haven't tried it, you ought to. As we always told our audiences in the planetarium, you can often see extraordinary things in ordinary places if you just take the time to look.

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