“Did you find the comet?” a friend asked me the other day.
“Yeah. It was right between the Windex and the furniture polish,” I teased him.
If I were a less scrupulous person I could have easily cashed in on the arrival of Comet Hyakutake in the skies over Northeast Mississippi during the past week. I could have set up my telescope and charged a couple of bucks a head for people to see the 10-mile-wide snowball up close.
That’s because just about everybody I’ve talked to in the past week, knowing my interest in astronomy, has asked me: (a) Where do I look to see the comet; (b) Can I come over to your place and look at it through the telescope; or, (c) What does scrupulous mean?
But I was actually glad to field the questions and to let whoever wanted come over and look through the telescope for free. I think it’s great anytime people can find something to talk about other than religion and politics, both of which are beginning to get on my nerves.
So it’s great to have distractions of Biblical proportions such as comets overhead, earthquakes underground and Mississippi State in the Final Four.
The questions about the comet started coming last week when Comet Hyakutake began receiving worldwide attention. The most common, of course, was, “Where do I look to see it?” to which my common and flip response was always, “In the sky.”
Actually the comet is still visible to the naked eye, which makes sense because if you put clothes on them you couldn’t see a thing. Around 8 p.m. or so tonight the comet should appear as a fuzzy, faint patch of light about the size of a quarter held at arm’s length and about a hand’s width to the west of Polaris.
I was explaining this to a friend of mine and when I was finished he looked at me, nodded his head in apparent understanding and said, “Great. Now where’s Polaris?”
Now I know all of you know how to find Polaris, but there are actually people out there who take the night sky so much for granted, it takes something spectacular like a comet or a night spent in the gutter to make us even look up.
(Polaris, by the way, is the North Star. It’s the only star that never changes position. It’s in the north. First star in the handle of the Little Dipper. If you need help finding the Little Dipper, give up and go back inside.)
Our general lack of interest in the night sky is nothing new. As I was reviewing a book on comets in anticipation of Comet Hyakutake’s arrival, I came across this quote from the first century by Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca:
“As long as the ordinary course of heaven runs on, custom robs it of its real size. … But when there is any change in the wonted order, then all eyes are turned to the sky. So natural it is to admire what is strange rather than what is great.”
Still, even if it takes a comet to start people asking me questions about astronomy I’ll take it, and I’ll gladly answer those questions if I can or tell you where to find the answer.
And this year I’ve got a feeling I’m going to be answering a lot of those questions because, as soon as Hyakutake disappears around the sun in early May, a second, even brighter, comet will come into view. Comet Hale-Bopp, currently somewhere out around Jupiter, is already brighter than Halley’s comet at the same distance and should become visible to the naked eye in late June or early July.
Marty Russell is senior reporter for the Daily Journal