Skyward for March 2022
By David Levy
What crowd is this? What have we here? We must not pass it by;
A telescope upon its frame, and pointed to the sky…
William Wordsworth, 1806
While I was working on my master’s degree at Queen’s University in Canada some 42 years ago, I came across this poem, loved it, and decided to include it in my thesis. Norman MacKenzie, my thesis advisor, a scholar and a genius, pencilled one comment at the bottom of this poem: “Wordsworth wrote some wretched verse.” Norman did not have much of a sense of humour, but I am still laughing at his written comment.
In his poem, Wordsworth complains about how many people who look through a telescope are disappointed in what they see. At no point in time is that idea more cogent than now. If a telescope we look through cannot offer us a view as good as a space telescope, then that telescope is a failure.
By the end of the poem, the crowd abandons the telescope:
“One after one they take their turns, nor have I one espied
That doth not slackly go away, as if dissatisfied.”
For me, the night sky is far more than our imagined perceptions of what we can see through a telescope. Some of us can look at an internet photograph all day long, but not I. The beauty of the sky lies in its reality. The planets I see are real worlds. The constellations I point out to young observers contain real stars. One evening I asked a group if they had seen the recent eclipse of the Moon. “Yes,” answered one, “I saw it online.” No, he didn’t. Eclipses are real only if you see them in the sky, while they are happening.
It is a given that a back yard telescope will never show us Jupiter as detailed or as colorful as a telescope out in space will. What that telescope does show us is the genuine sky, a sky without artificial color enhancement, a sky as it really exists on top of our heads on every clear night. It shows us a sky untarnished by the trivial events of the day, and unspoiled by petty concerns that are bothering us. Our own telescope truly shows us the Moon as it was a third of a second ago, a star as it appeared thirty-four years ago, or a galaxy as it appeared twelve million years in the past. Our back yard telescope shows us what is there, and unlike the crowd from 1806 that left dissatisfied, the people of today can understand that the sky they see is real.