Backyard Astronomy, 1979

When did you discover the stars? When did you realize that the sun was a star that was (relatively) close by? When did you first learn that there were other planets–entire worlds, some so big that they could swallow the earth–right here in our solar system? When did you find out that the universe didn’t revolve around our little world, that the Earth was part of a solar system, and the solar system part of a galaxy, and the galaxy part of the larger universe?

For me, it was sometime in 1978, and a chance encounter with a book in the Franklin Township public library. The book was the The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. I’ve written about this book before, but I’ll repeat myself here because it is vital to the story. Indeed, it is the germ from which the rest of the story flows.

The Nine Planets

I no longer recall what drew me to this book. Was it something I picked out on my own? Was it something my mom, who would take me to the library, picked out for me? All I knew is that I liked it so much that I read it again and again. The Nine Planets1 is where I discovered the other planets, moons, and stars. The Nine Planets led directly to the backyard astronomy that took place at our house in the spring and summer of 1979.

Voyager 2 was in the news in the spring of ’79. I was about to turn 7 and I followed the news of the space probe’s approach to Jupiter assiduously. With the help of my mom, I kept a scrapbook of clippings from the Star-Ledger with pictures that Voyager 2 beamed back from Jupiter.

From those images, I got to see, firsthand, the Great Red Spot. I memorized the names of the Galilean moons. And for my birthday that year, my parents got me a telescope.

With my dad’s help, I learned how to setup the telescope, and align the view finder. We would take the telescope out into the street during the day, and point it at a street side so far away I could barely see it. Then we’d use that sign to align the telescope.

But it was the nights in the backyard that I looked forward to most of all. We pointed that telescope up in the sky and I could Jupiter, making out its fuzzy bands as the reflected light from the planet jigged about in the atmosphere. I could see the four Galilean moons as bright pinpricks of light at various distances from the planet.

It was a propitious time to look up at the night sky. I could see Saturn with its rings angled just so, casting a shadow. The thing was I could see Saturn. It was not just a picture in a book. It was there, up above, posing for me.

We pointed the telescope at the moon and I could see the mountains and craters. We pointed the telescope at seemingly dark parts of the sky and there, in the view finder, that small disc of sky was suddenly filled with stars, many of which I could name. I began to recognize the pattern of the constellations in the sky. I was given more advanced books on astronomy, and though I couldn’t make sense of much of what they were saying, I read through them again and again anyway. If someone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “An astronomer.”

This adventure in backyard astronomy led to my discovery of the larger field of science. When I discovered that there were stories that involved spaceships going to other worlds, I felt as if I was in seventh-heaven. Science fiction became a passion, and while I never grew up become an astronomer, I did grow up to be a science fiction writer, at least as an avocation, selling stories to some of the very magazines I loved reading. It all traces back to a forgotten trip to the library, and the discovery of Branley’s book.

In the decades since, I’ve periodically taken to the skies again. In my 20s, I pulled out that same old telescope I’d gotten when I turned 7, and pointed it up at the hazy skies of Los Angeles. The light pollution muted the experience, but I still managed to catch glimpses of Jupiter, its moons, as well as Saturn. Older, and somewhat wiser, I sketched what I saw into a notebook.

At some point, that old telescope vanished, but I got new one, as a gift from Kelly back when we were dating, and once again, I made time to look up at the sky, this time the skies over Maryland, where the light pollution wasn’t so bad.

A few years back, we had a big family reunion at a place we rented in rural Vermont, and I brought a pair of strong binoculars and tripod with me. At night, the sky was clear, and moonless, and the stars I could see took my breath away. I setup the tripod and pointed up toward Jupiter. The binoculars were strong enough to make out the Galilean moons, but not strong enough for the gas giant to appear as much more than a fuzzy sphere. My kids, as well as my brother’s and sister’s kids were all there, and I gave them turns looking up at the planets and stars. They each took their turn, but I could tell they didn’t feel the same sense of wonder that I felt when I seven, and that I still felt when I looked up at the stars on that clear summer night in Vermont. Then again, none of them had read The Nine Planets.

Is there a book that has had a particular impact on you? This question comes up from time-to-time, and I never have to hesitate with my answer. Other books have made stronger emotional impacts, or excited my sense of wonder, but none of them have had the impact that Branley’s book had on me. I’ve often wished I thought to send Branley a letter of thanks for writing the book. He died in 2002, after writing more than 150 books on science and astronomy for youngsters. I can only imagine how many future scientists, astronomers, astronauts, doctors, artists, and science fiction writers he inspired through his writing.

Of course, I would never have discovered the book were it not in the library to begin with. I have tried, in a small way, to payback the Franklin Township library by donating to it every year. Libraries always seem to be on precarious footing, and yet they contain multitudes. They are temples of inspiration just waiting to be tapped. In my case, the library inspired a bit of backyard astronomy in 1979–and a lifetime of discovery ever since.

  1. Now, clearly dated, in not just facts, but in title; Pluto is no longer considered a planet.


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