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“Applied imagination,” or “creative visualization,” is usually directed inward or toward a desired outcome by those of the New Age persuasion, but in this application is directed outward—in this case, onto the Milky Way. The goal here is to experience our galaxy as it actually is, rather than merely as a blobby haze of light up there in the sky. This is done by programming the relevant information into the brain, and then going out and looking at the Milky Way with this information in mind.  It’s a deceptively simple technique, actually.  Does it really work?  Please let me know.

Our galaxy is approximately 13.2 billion years old – almost as old as the universe itself.  It contains up to 400 billion stars, forming a gigantic pinwheel 100,000 light years in diameter.  (A light year is how far a beam of light can travel in a year. Light travels pretty fast—7 times around the Earth in one second—but even at this tremendous speed, it would take a ray of light 100,000 years to cross our galaxy.)

Our solar system is located about 26,000 light years from the galactic center. We’re located in a comfortable middle-class neighborhood, all things considered—nowhere near “downtown,” but not stuck way out in the boonies, either.

A convenient time to watch the Milky Way is on a summer evening, when the brightest star clouds near the galactic center are easily visible from dark locations. The best place to watch the Milky Way is anywhere far from city lights with an unobstructed horizon, particularly a clear southern horizon if you live in the northern hemisphere.  An isolated mountaintop or wide mesa is ideal.  If you live in a city with lots of light pollution and ever find yourself in a dark sky location, get your eyes thoroughly dark adapted for about 15 minutes and enjoy a spectacular view of our Galaxy – star clouds, dark silhouettes of gas/dust clouds, star clusters – all easily visible to the naked eye.  Binoculars add to the spectacle.  Watching the Milky Way can be a multisensory experience – sometimes I think it looks like thunder rising.  I’m not sure what this actually means, but sometimes language proves inadequate to the task.  We can but point and grunt.  “Pointing at the Moon,” as the Zennies say.

When imaging the Milky Way, just remember a few key facts, and imagine that these are so while looking at the galaxy. That’s all there is to it.

• All of the thousands of stars we see in the foreground are our galactic neighbors—most of them are mere dozens or hundreds of light years away. The hazy Milky Way itself, the luminous band of star clouds stretching all the way across the sky, is the main body of the galaxy looming in the distance, about 10,000 light years away. When this light we are now seeing began its journey, humans were just beginning to develop agriculture.

• The center of the Milky Way is located between Sagittarius the teapot and Scorpius the scorpion, but is hidden behind the bright star clouds in the foreground.  A huge black hole lives there but we are in no danger of being sucked in, since we are in permanent orbit around it.  

• From our vantage point, the galaxy is rotating in the direction of Cygnus. Our solar system is headed for the bright star Vega, which passes nearly overhead in mid-northern latitudes during midsummer.  One revolution takes about 250 million years. One galactic revolution ago, dinosaurs roamed the Earth. One galactic revolution from now, who knows if Earth will still be a living planet?  The jury is definitely out on this one, and we will have our answer almost instantly in terms of galactic rotations.

The distances involved are so vast, and the time scales are so long, that it is difficult for us to encompass the reality of what we are actually experiencing as we stand outside looking into the heart of our galaxy. Despite the technology that has become our de facto God, and despite the superstitious faith in deities “out there” that so many people maintain, we remain in key respects mere animals, with all the limitations that implies. Our basic unit of time is the day, and our basic unit of distance is probably how far we can throw a rock. Being caught in the mad whirlpool of arrogance that calls itself Modern Civilization, it is easy for us to lose track of both our truly insignificant place in the grander scheme of things, and the fact that we and the Universe are the same essence.  The Universe is watching itself.  It’s easy to be distracted from these important basic truths.  So it can be a very beneficial antidote to go outside on a dark night and immerse ourselves in the incomprehensible and healing vastness of outer space.

And where does this outer space really begin? Well, it’s closer than you might think—the sky starts, after all, at our own feet. We are already standing in the sky. We are already skywalkers.

Originally posted to soarbird on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 12:10 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA, SciTech, Astro Kos, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  We had a power outtage the other night (10+ / 0-)

    and it stayed out for over an hour so I got my binos out and scanned the milky way.

    I really do hate street lights and would like to see them banned along with a lot of other outdoor lighting.

    Honesty pays, but it doesn't seem to pay enough to suit some people. Kin Hubbard

    by Mr Robert on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 01:08:40 PM PDT

  •  My most amazing Milky Way moment (11+ / 0-)

    was in Maine, at the camp my dad's family owned (Great Pond, Belgrade Lakes, where On golden Pond is set). I sat on a small dock and just star gazed for the longest time. The coolest thing - and something I'll never forget - was that it was so clear that the Milky Way was reflected in the lake.

    Isn’t it ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray. ~ Rachel Carson, Silent Spring ~

    by MA Liberal on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 05:26:08 PM PDT

  •  There's an amazing garden in Hawaii (10+ / 0-)

    called The Galaxy Garden where various plants, and even the pebbles on the paths, are symbolic of parts of the Milky Way. This fountain, for example, represents the black hole at the center of our galaxy:

    The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. -- Judge Learned Hand, May 21, 1944

    by ybruti on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 05:50:48 PM PDT

  •  I can help visualize a bit of it (7+ / 0-)

    The video here is  a simulated trip from about 2,000 light years away to Earth from the direction of Cygnus (the bright star at the start is Deneb), in the northern Milky Way, which is looking outward from the center of the galaxy

    By definition the viewer is headed toward (ish) the galactic center. from Deneb you line up with Orion, then finesse the course toward the Pleiades, then Hyades, then Aldebaran then Capella, then Vega and then Alpha Centauri. Line up with Cassiopeia kinda back the way you came and you're golden. :)

  •  middle class neighborhood (6+ / 0-)

    Just one more lucky break. I heard in a Science channel doc recently that life outside a rather narrow band is very unlikely. Closer to "town" you are bathed in radiation, even gamma rays in the heart of the galaxy. A pity, really. Imagine the night sky anywhere near galactic center. It's gotta be mind-bending, especially anywhere near enough to catch some of the visual effects from the central Black Hole.
     Out in the sticks, opined the narrator, it is unlikely life could have gotten going. I don't fully understand this aspect; I gather (and it wasn't explained) that the more far-flung stars have less matter to work with in forming solar systems, and the chance of sufficient water and a panoply of life-sustaining elements is correspondingly less as you move out from "town" (less stars dying and flinging matter outward, less big stars with heavy elements to contribute to making rocky planets, etc).
    I hadn't considered this particular restriction on the chances of life on other worlds. It seems to cut the likely number quite significantly - the bulk of the galactic population of stars is within the radiation zone, thus making them ill-suited. Of the Milky Way's 400 billion suns, that probably means three hundred billion are incapable of harboring  life-sustaining planets.
    Too bad, we could use some help with the owner's manual for this one.

    Class war has consequences, and we are living them.

    by kamarvt on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 06:25:15 PM PDT

    •  In the short story "Nightfall" the people on the (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      planet never see all the suns their planet orbits all set at the same time.  As a result, it's always been light, as far as recorded history goes.  The narrator learns that this continual light is about to end, and when it does, and people see night and the stars for the first time, he makes a point that the people see not just the 2500 stars that we can see from earth, but 10,000 stars blazing down upon them.

      I think (other than the problem of radiation) it would be rather nice to have more stars in the sky, or perhaps closer nebula.

  •  Your whole view changes if you: (9+ / 0-)

    ...go to a dark, rural area on a cool, cloudless, and if possible moonless night, and lie down on your back.  Looking up, stop seeing them as points and patches of light, but as objects in three-dimensional space, if possible with a mental z-axis added in.  Once you look at the sky long enough, the concept and the vision will "pop" together, sort of like those "magic vision" paintings, and if you get it just right you will unconsciously clutch the Earth around you so as not to fall into the sky itself.

    At least, that's how it worked for me (in rural South Africa, in fact--near the edge of the Kalahari, where the seeing is excellent).  And after initially rearing up against the ground, I stood up and tried to jump as high as I could, but no luck.

  •  I really enjoyed this. I love to go outside (6+ / 0-)

    late at night and gaze up at the stars.  It is definitely humbling and awe inspiring.  Sometimes it even makes me laugh when I think about the vastness of the Universe and the relative pettiness of my problems.  I wish you well.

    "Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." - John F. Kennedy

    by helpImdrowning on Fri Jun 22, 2012 at 07:02:40 PM PDT

  •  18 Cycles (6+ / 0-)

    That means the earth has gone around the galaxy 18 times. About the first 18 times of that there weren't any humans on earth.

    Nice diary!

  •  question for any astronomer out there (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    burnt out

    In order to orient oneself in the galaxy, one needs to get a grip on relative axes of rotation, and I am ignorant in that regard.

    For instance - is the earth's rotation on its own axis parallel to (on the same plane as) the rotation of the earth around the sun? [Perhaps that discrepency is only the difference between magnetic north and true north?] Do all planets revolve around the sun in the same plane? And if so, does that plane parallel the path of the solar system around the center of the Milky Way?

    I can point to the center of the Milky Way galaxy (between Sag and Scorp) but I want to point back to what we're all rushing away from. I want to point to the Big Bang. Is that asking too much? Or is it just all around us...  

    •  ... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      burnt out, ColoTim

      1." is the earth's rotation on its own axis parallel to (on the same plane as) the rotation of the earth around the sun?"

      The Earth's axis of rotation is tilted about 23 degrees from perpindicular to it's orbit (or parallel to the axis of its orbit).  (Look up pictures of "axial tilt" to see).

      2. "Do all planets revolve around the sun in the same plane?"

      Nearly, although there's a little bit of relative tilt among the orbits.  That's why all the planets appear in the same band of sky we call the "zodiac" - we're in roughly the same plane.

      3." And if so, does that plane parallel the path of the solar system around the center of the Milky Way?"

      No - if it did, the Milky Way would appear as a band going more or less straight East/West, instead of heavily skewed across the sky as it is.

      4. "I want to point to the Big Bang. Is that asking too much? Or is it just all around us.."

      Yes - it's all around us.  We aren't all rushing away from a point, we're all rushing away from each other - all of space is expanding from a point source, so there's no reason to assign a single point as the "center". We're ALL in center from our viewpoint, no matter what galaxy we're in.

      There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who fit into one of two mutually exclusive categories, and those who don't.

      by zhimbo on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 08:49:10 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  thanks (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        burnt out

        Just a quick follow up - to me the Milky Way goes almost north-south in the sky; maybe north northeast to south-southwest. Which I think would mean our orbit's closer to perpendicular to the plane of the Milky Way galaxy. Make sense?

        Also my understanding of Big Bang breaks down quickly because when I read your " all of space is expanding from a point source" my mind naturally concludes that that point source is locate-able in space. But it's clearly not. Maybe it's a semantic thing?

        •  ... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          ColoTim, burnt out

          "Which I think would mean our orbit's closer to perpendicular to the plane of the Milky Way galaxy. Make sense?"

          Yep - I don't know the actual angle, but that's the idea.

          As for the Big Bang - we easily think of objects in space expanding from a point, at which point we can locate that central point.

          That isn't what's happening with the expansion of the Universe. Objects are not moving in space - Space itself is expanding, and carrying us along with it.

          This bit from Sagan's Cosmos might help visualize things:

          There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who fit into one of two mutually exclusive categories, and those who don't.

          by zhimbo on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 09:41:50 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  thanks again (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            burnt out

            Nice clip. It was somewhat helpful, but my main conceptual stumbling block is that I cannot imagine anything taking place outside of space. If space itself is expanding, what could it possibly be expanding into besides more space?

            Even the word "expand" to me means simply taking up more space, as opposed to entering space from non-space.

            I come at this from a Buddhist perspective, and for the Tibetans, contemplation of space is a koan-like proxy for intuiting the nature of mind. Tulku Urgyen joked - "How far do you have to extend your finger in order to point to space?"

            So most of Sagan's musings about open and closed universes and saddle shapes, etc. is just beyond me because I cannot get beyond this notion of space expanding. The contents of space expanding, maybe, but space itself? From what and into what?

            •  That's a tough one. (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              burnt out

              I'm not actually going to maintain that this stuff is intuitive to me. It surely isn't.  But I have a hatfull of tricks to help my intution along.

              Space isn't expanding "into" anything, because if it did, that would be more space.

              Within space, any two given points are getting pulled away from each other, and there's no reason to prioritize any of those points. From earth, it looks like all the distant galaxies are running away from us - which intuitively places us at the "center".

              But, from those distant galaxies, all of the other galaxies (including us) appearing to be rushing away from them. So, intuitively, to them, THEY are at the center. We can't both be right!

              There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who fit into one of two mutually exclusive categories, and those who don't.

              by zhimbo on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 11:18:33 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  Deserts are my favorite places (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    miscanthus, burnt out

    for stargazing ... the Himalaya are pretty good as you actually feel closer to the firmament and there's a lot less dust between you and the shiny stuff than in deserts.

    Avoiding Theocracy at Home and Neo Cons Abroad

    by UniC on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 08:52:07 AM PDT

  •  Take any American who was born and grew up (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    miscanthus, burnt out, ColoTim

    in a city of any size.

    Drive out into the countryside, preferably a National Forest.

    Wait until full dark, about 10-11 pm most seasons of the year.

    Watch the look on their face, when they see the full glory of the Milky Way, for the first time in their life.

    For most of them, they've never really seen the Milky Way, laid out across the sky like a river of gleaming stars.

    * * *
    I like paying taxes...with them, I buy Civilization
    -- SCOTUS Justice O.W. Holmes Jr.
    * * *
    "A Better World is Possible"
    -- #Occupy

    by Angie in WA State on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 01:19:52 PM PDT

  •  There and Back Again (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    burnt out

    The Detailed Universe, from nanometers to billions of light years then back all the way in to Quantum Foam

    -8.25, -7.13 "Well, on second thought, let's not go to Camelot -- it is a silly place." "Right"

    by leathersmith on Sat Jun 23, 2012 at 01:20:40 PM PDT

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