November 20, 2022

Late November at 8 PM looking southeast

Sunday, November 20, 2022

On this Sunday of Thanksgiving week, I'm beginning to think of coming holiday celebrations with family and friends. On the two Thursdays after Thanksgiving (December 1 & 8), the William M Thomas Planetarium will present the popular holiday show “Season of Light” and Bakersfield College will have holiday concerts before the semester ends on December 9. 

Early morning risers will be able to see a thin waning crescent moon rise in the east shortly before sunrise. It'll be within a binoculars' field of view of the bright star Spica in Virgo—Spica will be in the upper right and the moon in the lower left. On Thanksgiving evening, the moon will be one day past new phase, so you may be able to spot a very thin sliver of the waxing crescent moon low in west just after sunset but the following evening should be an easier one to see. 

The outer planets, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are now visible in the evening after 6:40 PM The star chart above shows the view at 8 PM but unfortunately, we can't get all three planets in one chart. Mars is low in the east between the horns of Taurus. Nearby is the bright star Capella in Auriga. Due South is the king planet, Jupiter, outshining any star. The dim stars of Pisces will probably be hard to see in Bakersfield but you should be able to see the great square part of Pegasus almost at the zenith. Low in the southwest, Saturn will be at the tail end of Capricornus.

Last weekend my wife and I took a walk with a couple of friends. One of them is working on a non-technical book about a mathematics topic geared for the interested layperson. My interest in mathematics is from a utilitarian perspective of its use in astronomy but his interest is in mathematics itself, the purity of the form and logic of it all. His joy with mathematics and its beauty is the same feeling I have for astronomy and why I wrote the Astronomy Notes textbook and why I write these astronomy columns.

About seven years ago, I wrote a review of the book “What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” for the Levan Humanities Review. I included in that review article a comic strip by Zach Weinersmith describing the tension between the practical and aesthetic value of doing science. The interviewer asks a science advocate, “Why is it important that we have trapped antimatter?” The advocate responds, “Oh! It has future applications in propulsion, energy creation, data transmission, you name it!” but when the interviewer asks the same question to a research scientist, the scientist responds, “Because it's #&!*@* AWESOME!”

Our curiosity about how nature works is one of the key reasons for the great biological success of Homo Sapiens. It is that curiosity that drew us out of the caves. It is that curiosity that pulled us up the hill to gaze out at the sea and curiosity that pushed us to find out what lay beyond the sea. It is that same curiosity that draws us beyond our terrestrial bounds. Whether you believe this curiosity of humans is a God-given gift or that it is a trait enhanced through millions of years of evolution, you cannot deny that curiosity is built into us. At a deep mental or spiritual level we get great pleasure in trying to satisfy our curiosity. 

The market-driven ones of us will say that understanding how nature works enables us to master it—have the power to manipulate and control nature for our own purposes (e.g., the domestication of grasses to make wheat and corn, river dammed and canals cut to manage the flow of water, etc.). The downside of this is the negative environmental effects such as pollution of water, soil, and air and climate change that'll lead to mass migrations of many millions of people with all of the political turmoil that'll create. 

For some, the market-driven approach comes from the command in Genesis 1 to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” A more accurate interpretation of that command is to be responsible caretakers of creation. We learn about nature so that we can figure out how to take better care of this gift of creation. The true value of studying the cosmos is that it is worth knowing about. Although I'm a United Methodist, I looked forward to reading Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si' when it came out in 2015. I enjoyed it then and I still recommend that everyone carefully study it today in 2022.

Nick Strobel
Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College
Author of the award-winning website