A rare and beautiful sight

A few days of howling southeaster has well and truly brought out everyone’s worst side! This wind that batters us with sometimes hurricane force gusts is not called the Cape Doctor for nothing, and we can only hope that many Covid-19 particles are heading out over the Atlantic right now. With these gusts come the pollen, dust, banging doors and windows, leaves stripped from trees and broken branches everywhere. It takes two days for a perfectly manicured garden (arranged to look good for Christmas) to look like the aftermath of a tropical cyclone and you can only wonder why you went to the expense! We have a myrtle hedge (actually more of a copse as the hedge trimming fell by the wayside many years ago) which has the tiniest leaves constantly falling and piling up in every nook and cranny. One day when I am allowed free rein over this little kingdom, the first thing to go will be this monstrous alien invasion,, followed by the two Brazilian peppers that sprout twelve new branches every time you trim one off. Their invasive roots send out new shoots that have to be constantly removed and I fear a tree poison will be the only way to get rid of these. But I digress…

The biggest drawback of this particular spell of wind is the effect it has had on the viewing possibilities of the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. The planets have been drawing closer together since October, and on 21 December, the solstice, they reached their closest approach (visually, not physically) since 1627 when a young astronomer called Galileo Galilei turned his rudimentary telescope to the heavens and recorded this notable sighting. Eager to view the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ as the media punted it despite no evidence, crowds gathered at sunset down at the Kom, gazing out towards the horizon as the sky slowly darkened and a pinprick of light appeared. ‘Wait, it’s going to get brighter and brighter’, someone told his unimpressed family. They waited until the sky was completely dark and the only light was from the street lamp high overhead. And then everyone got back into their cars and went home. Of course, that was when the view improved and the two planets could be seen with accompanying moons against a backdrop of deepest space. But the media hype created an expectation of a spectacular event which could only be appreciated by those with access to a really good telescope, and there were none of those around due to the howling wind. Even with a tripod, a photograph was less than satisfactory.

It was quite dismaying to gauge the lack of education in basic astronomy that is evident, especially when looking up is free and always available no matter where you are in the world, apart from cloud cover. And yet it was encouraging to hear that young and old wanted to learn more about the stars and planets and find out even simple things such as names and what season you can see certain constellations, etc. There is so much to teach and learn, if only we can put ourselves to work on it.

We have been spoiled by those mind-blowing pictures first sent out by the Hubble telescope and later by the ease of sharing astrophotography on social media, little knowing that the naked eye view will only ever show a smudge or a pinprick. But for me the wonder of just being able to see these unimaginably distant bits of rock, gas and assorted energy which make up our universe, and indeed ourselves, will always be the drawcard to entice me outside on a dark night when clouds have disappeared and only the starlight casts shadows. We are all stardust.

(Main photo courtesy of Angus Burns. Zoom in!)

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