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Owls and Asterisms

Figure 1: Artwork by Arin Underwood, scrupulously stolen from her Instagram feed.

The following bit 'o sunshine (moonshine?) was graciously submitted for your reading pleasure by the fantabulous and soon-to-be-famous biologist, Arin Underwood. Unsolicited, marvelous, enthralling, it is the stuff of dreams. This piece contains Arin's impressions and good vibrations of astronomy from northern Cali. I will restrain you no longer from the evocations of her eloquence.

"I never looked at the night sky growing up in the north. Midnight sun summers rarely grew dark enough to, and polar night winters were cold and unforgiving. I looked up occasionally, appreciated the aesthetics, and nodded when told there were planets, black holes, and other massive consequences of physics that my uninterested little mind couldn’t really be bothered to comprehend. But it all seemed very far away and vaguely fascinating in the way distant history was. Certain branches of science have a way of requiring your involvement to capture your attention. I focused on my biology degree, and if you had asked me why I chose that field, I would say it was growing up in the Alaskan wilderness. I was interested in ecology, animals, and oceans because I had searched for anemones and nudibranchs in low tides. I had seen octopus and seals and whales. Everything was attainable to me, tangible. I could grasp the theories that structured those ecosystems because I had been there, I never had the same experience with astronomy until I went south.

Figure 2: Owl; Arin Underwood.

My first summer out of Alaska was also my first biological field job. As a new graduate I had been excited just to have gotten a job offer and wasn’t too concerned with what it was, anything for the chance to work with wildlife and get some experience. Which is why I ended up in rural northern California on a thirty-year running study of the northern spotted owl and the encroaching barred owl. The main occupational environment of working with owls is obvious; almost all species are nocturnal, and this job involved varying work hours for different owl territories, usually from 5pm to 1am if not later. I worked with the two different owl species for two summers, with a lot of the work involving point counts, where I stood at a pre-specified location for 10-15 minutes and listened and watched for owls.

For our study, I had sometimes 6-11 points in a night and would imitate and broadcast owl calls to irritate the potential residents enough to call back at me or even fly in to investigate (in a blind rage for barred owls and a mild curiosity for spotted). These nights were long solo hikes through spider webs, imagining cougars in every shadow, making wide detours around rattlesnakes, smacking my headlamp as it dimmed for some reason (I hadn’t changed the batteries in a week), and differentiating between the turkey warble of a screech owl, the high-pitched peeps of saw whets and pygmy owls, and the slow low depressed hoot of a flammulated owl who really couldn’t be bothered. While these long walks and drives to the remote corners of the national forest were interesting excursions through beautiful landscape in sunset and twilight, most of my time was spent silently at call points. I would wait for owl calls and look upwards at the night sky because there was literally nothing else to look at in the dark. California was a cloudless place in the height of those summers, and not only was my view unimpeded, we were too far out in the woods to fall under the filter of light pollution that plagues most of the modern world.

I grew up around my interest in biology, but to find a fascination with something when you’re older often requires the help of a friend who either grew up with, or has already found, that deep-set awe that can only come from understanding the complexity and logic of scientific laws and functions. My co-workers and friends at the research station had a telescope the size of a car windshield, and would star gaze on our weekends off. They would set up in the back yard while I sat inside and watched Game of Thrones, unknowingly ruining their night vision with all the lights in the field station on. That first summer, Mars was the closest to earth that it had been in 8 years, but it was a speck in the black to me. When my friend offered to show me Mars through the telescope, I did so out of mild curiosity. But there was Mars, not a distant speck, indistinguishable from the thousands of other specks, but a small red planet. It was swirled with browns and brick reds and its poles were dusted with white ice. In my mind, only expensive space programs could see such things, they were there, but inaccessible to regular people. Perhaps sensing my piqued interest, my friend quickly swiveled the telescope to Saturn, a small yellow planet encircled with silver rings. As I watched through the telescope, Saturn began to creep away out of my view, it was so close in relation to the stars that I could literally watch the planet I was on rotate Saturn out of my line of sight.

Figure 3: Arin Underwood, photographing in the field.

My space friends were eager to share their enthusiasm with me. Working with them, or doing telescope nights with the station, they shared a wealth of information they had accumulated over their life, the way I accumulated random wildlife facts. The Andromeda galaxy was the furthest away space object that could be seen from earth with the naked eye. 2.5 million light years away, and if I focused on the top of the constellation Pegasus under Cassiopeia, I could make out the faint smudge of the galaxy. I found the International Space station orbiting through Ursa Minor several nights, right through the head of Draco, the dragon. I could learn constellations by finding ones that I knew and branching outward to make my own maps. I would practice during my long walks to call points. At first, I jumped at the sound of toads moving across leaves, sure that every sound in the night was a mountain lion, stifling shrieks when my headlamp lit up the reflective eyes of a deer. By my second summer I wasn’t as nervous, but the old survival instinct that there is something following you in the woods is older than language, and hard to shake. It sometimes helped to have the night sky be familiar to me, it wasn’t the chaos of stars I had always seen, it was patterned. It was predictable. The stars were governed by the same laws as everything else, subject to physics and light and distance. Every night Jupiter would rise in the same place, the brightest in the sky, and each constellation was where it had always been and rotated with the seasons. Shooting stars were much more common than I thought, almost every night I saw at least one. The Perseid meteor shower came down every year toward the end of the season. And despite knowing it all my life, I watched in fascination as I pulled out my compass and the needle was pulled north to the tail of the little dipper, just like I had always been told.

Figure 4: The northern night sky; Arin Underwood.

The center of the galaxy, galactic north, is right where the Milky Way comes streaming out of the spout of the teapot asterism, in the constellation Sagittarius. Celestial north isn’t always Polaris. It rotates every 27,000 years, and 12,000 years ago north pointed to Vega, the brightest star in the constellation, Lyra. The constellations shift over time, as farther away stars move slower than closer ones. Jupiter was a beautiful swirl of colors through the telescope, with bands of white and pearls of hurricanes. Galaxies and comets were green hazes and smudges, and one star became two when looked at more closely. The longer my night vision adjusted to the dark, the more stars crept out of the shadows until the milky way was a thick band that formed an arch across the domed sky, burned with gold, white, and light blue as stars massed together in the distance.

Everything was subject to physics, new ideas and planetary objects were discovered every day. The exo-planets, once not thought to have existed, got their first discovery in 1995. A few dozen more were found over the following years until technology caught up with the hunt and hundreds were found across the sky, then thousands, now over a billion are predicted to exist out in the universe. Juno and Cassini, space probes, were going closer than ever before to Jupiter and Saturn. The moon Io erupted in volcanos, Titan steamed with methane seas, and Pluto was a pale dusty color with a dark red heart shape on its side.

Figure 6: Jupiter, courtesy of NASA.

The stars are receding as the universe ages, in several million years the skies above earth could be black and empty. If it wasn’t for the stars, what would humanity have done? What would we have accomplished? The moving stars introduced mathematics and navigation, time beyond days, and planets.

Radiation from the big bang saturates the universe and the humming of cosmic radiation gives voices to the stars and planets. Now we know how infinitely small and rare our planet is, how incredible the billions of years it took for life to establish itself out of pure chance and randomness. The possibility of other intelligent life is almost statistically certain beyond our cosmic horizon and as we speak, the Voyager probes travel beyond our solar system in search of them.

To study science is to never lose the awe and wonder of a child when they run through the ocean or look up at the stars. Everything is beautiful to you and made more so by understanding the laws that govern it, or by striving to comprehend its mysteries. The best scientists are curious, but also understand that we can never know everything, and that is what is so wonderful about exploration and discovery.

One of the greatest gifts you can receive is someone’s passion for what they love. Now, I can look up and watch the magnetic field bend northern lights into the pink of the lower altitude, name the brightest stars in the sky, and watch new constellations rotate into view with the changing seasons. I have the same awe at the universe that so many had before me, and hopefully others can find. Now, instead of sitting inside watching Game of Thrones, I sit inside and watch Star Trek. I occasionally find the time to sit back and watch the stars move across the frozen polar night sky. The sun sets at 1pm here, in the arctic circle. I finally have the patience to put on a decent coat and look upwards, because somewhere out there are intelligent civilizations looking back at us. Trillions of stars with orbiting exo-planets, and the Voyager probe carrying a postcard from earth, filled with whale song, heartbeats, and human laughter."

Figure 7: Comic of childhood, Arin Underwood.

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