Star Dust Seeing Itself
This print, Foucault tested on Takapō, shows the legendary light pattern. It can be created when a telescope mirror is ground to parabolic perfection and tested with a single light source and a straight-edge razor blade. Leon Foucault worked it all out in 1858. A simple home science project with lovely results.
Lake Takapō is home to the Mt John Observatory and its two large telescopes, 1 and 1.8 meters.
A unique area of lakes, mountains, high country plateau—and one of the world's best dark sky projects.
The graphic is a drypoint/monotype, and I'm working on a sequence to highlight the idea of the seasons at Takapō.
Foucault's test is my shorthand way of describing the precision of the scientific instruments simultaneously with the extraordinary light the scientific observations throw on the nature of humanity's existence. Which, of course, is less than precise and deeply ambiguous.
We may be stardust observing the universe, but, just possibly the stardust has assembled itself in such a way and with such events as to observe the human form of existence?
The dark sky project is great tourism earner. Rakiura, Stewart Island is another, and I think Great Barrier has applied also. Learn more...
1987 | The Year 170 million Years of Dreaming Awakened
A dream 170 million years in the making
Does stardust dream of seeing itself in human form? Just fantasy I guess. But possibly not.
Ever since I was a boy, maybe nine or ten years old, there was one thing I wanted to see more than anything else. But like all childhood dreams it was eventually forgotten. It died a natural death. Years and then a few decades sped by. Then, unexpectedly, it all changed. A dream 170 million years in the making came back to life.
That day was February in 1987. My dream had been to see a supernova, and not only that but to look at it through a large telescope. What had sparked it was the simple fact when my father took me for walks before bedtime, and we looked up at the night sky, he pointed out planets and constellations but I couldn't see what he meant. The heavens were all–a–blur.
Spectacles were prescribed
Spectacles were prescribed. The first walk I had after that, I saw an enchanted universe. Questions bubbled to the surface. And I learnt about supernovas, and how they were by no means uncommon in the vast time scale of the universe. But, as far as human beings are concerned, they are exceedingly rare events. Every 400 hundred or so years, a star will go nova, flaring into brightness, and a few will go supernova.
The occasion of a supernova is quite momentous for astronomers. Who will be the first to discover the change to a single star in the night sky? Because, as soon as it's found it will become an object of much attention. Albert Jones, an amateur astronomer in Nelson, New Zealand, and a professional Chilean astronomer are jointly credited first for the 1987 supernova.
The size of telescope matters
As the weeks went by, it grew brighter and brighter. Even in my tiny little backyard telescope it was a fine sight, a fiery orange red pinprick of light. And so the boyhood dream was rekindled. A very rare event had happened, I had seen it, but would I see it through a much larger telescope?
In late April, there was an unexpected call from the local astronomy club. Would we be interested in driving up to the Mt John Observatory at Lake Takapō. Was there a chance to see the supernova?
The gods do conspire against us
Before he had finished speaking I was saying yes. A hundred times yes. The elusive dream was about to become a reality. Oh, but how God, or the gods, do conspire against us. Just when we think we have it in our grasp. Twelve or so hours before we were due to set out, I got an attack of raging tonsillitis. The trip was off, at least for me. A few hours after that the weather changed for the worst. And the whole trip was cancelled. There were half a dozen very disappointed amateur star-gazers that night.
Nature takes its course in all things. The tonsillitis was quickly cleared up with antibiotics, and as a few more weeks went by the supernova began to fade. The dream had indeed eluded me, and I didn't think nature would be so kind as to provide another supernova in my lifetime.
A turn-up for the better
Then, just as unexpectedly, the Observatory rang again to say one of the professional engagements had been cancelled, and we could be accommodated for a few hours that Saturday. You betcha! I couldn't wait.
When we finally arrived on top of Mt John, the evening sky was crisp and clear. Around us were skiffs of snow, and just a few small lights below in the village of Takapō. Above us was the bone black of the night sky. Scorpio dominant, the prow of a great waka in Maori star lore, and suspended below was Saturn. The Milky Way glowed with a richness that can only be seen in southern latitudes far away from light pollution and city smogs. We who live in or near cities are far removed from nature's night and darkness.
Inside the observatory is another world. The dome rotated and the shutters pulled up. Eight tons of telescope moved with whisper precision to a pinpoint location and one by one we went forward to view. First up was Saturn, surely one of the most rewarding objects to look at. Today, contemporary astro-photography, NASA space missions, and so on, have brought home to all of us the extraordinary beauty and complexity of the universe's farthest reaches in space and time. But looking at Saturn through a big telescope still sends shivers down the spine.
When we had sated our appetite, the telescope moved again pointing directly at the Large Magellanic Cloud. The moment had arrived. No, not quite. First the professional astronomers wanted us to look at the Tarantula Nebula, a beautiful sight in itself. And just a fraction away from the supernova. After a minor positional adjustment, we stepped forward, one by one, to peer through the eyepiece.
At a loss for words
As one who was learning his trade in dealing with words for my daily bread, I can only say no words will quite capture that moment. Though stars appear no larger in big telescopes than small, they are brighter, and there are more of them to see. And at that moment the 1987 supernova was almost beyond the point of visibility to the human eye. We were peering at the last stages of its visibility even through a 1 meter mirror, the largest telescope at the time on Mt John.
It was the consummation of the dream. Was it a fluke of nature that this star should go supernova? Yes. But was it mere chance that at that time, I should live in Timaru and be able to visit Mt John Observatory, and that a change of plans gave a window of opportunity to our group?
As I looked and looked and looked, I knew that the human race and the supernova were akin to one another. From such explosions come the heavy metals of the universe, the raw materials without which life could not evolve. Our genesis was in such explosions and we were born of the interstellar dust. And to it, we shall undoubtedly return.
Suddenly I was lost in a surge of questions and feelings, and emotions pulling in different ways. Chance? Mere chance? Perhaps. But how do we measure human worth and human destiny. The words of David, the Jewish King, began to ring in my ears.
A Psalm rang in my ears
When I look at Thy Heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars which Thou has established,
what is man that Thou art mindful of him?
What I was seeing in that eyepiece was what I had seen in my mind's eye as a child, who had put on spectacles and seen as if for the first time. The supernova leapt and danced before my eyes because of the atmospherics. There was a deep richness in the fabric of those few moments. Finally I could savour no more. I had to let go.
The telescope and dome began to swing around again, pointing high up into the sky to Alpha Centauri, the brightest pointer to the Southern Cross, our closest stellar neighbour. I followed the direction with my naked eye. I felt extraordinarily happy. Yet at the same time, I knew I had no right to that moment – it had come as an undeserved, unmerited instant of grace.
Although there was a grin of sheer pleasure all over my grace, inside I felt small and insignificant. We are mere specks of nothingness in the vastness of the cosmos. Yet, David's psalm had spoke another truth. The night air of Takapō had grown freezing cold, and I was glad of the company around about.