True Confession of the Stellar Kind

There’s a point in The Serpent and the Rainbow where the author claims that Venus used to be visible to people during the day, we’ve just “forgotten” how to see it. This has stuck with me over the years because on the one hand, it kind of seems plausible to me–that Venus may be bright enough for you to see it in the daytime sky if you know where to look and it’s not near the sun–and on the other hand seems stupid. You don’t forget how to see something. Seeing something is not a matter of remembering to see it.

But I keep reading things about how most people in the US can’t see the Milky Way and soon it will be impossible for everyone in the US to see. And, in fact, just now, I read something about a guy from out east going on vacation to Yellowstone and being blown away by the Milky Way.

And I don’t mean to sound stupid here–like maybe I need to travel to Yellowstone immediately–but do they just mean that they’re able to see it so much clearer in Yellowstone that it’s really stunning and surprising (which I can believe) or do they genuinely not see the Milky Way when they look up in the night sky ever? Because I mean, it’s right there.  I can see how, in cities, you might not be able to make it out, but I live right outside of a big city and I can stand in my front yard and see it on clear nights.

So, now I wonder if you can lose, somehow through forgetting, something like a star.

I don’t know. I find it baffling. Can you forget how to see the Milky Way?

Share you thoughts on cockapusses below.

5 thoughts on “True Confession of the Stellar Kind

  1. Where I live (south of Boston), the Milky Way is not visible in the night sky at all. It’s a flat gray (thanks, light pollution), punctuated by a precious FEW stars. The stars are not visible, the Milky Way is not visible. When I lived in very rural CT, it was faaaaaaaintly visible and I actually had to explain to someone (at her house in even more rural RI) what that thing in the sky WAS because she had lived in more urban areas previously and had never seen the Milky Way before. She just had no clue what she was looking at, and even after I told her what it was, she couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of what she was seeing. I’m explaining about how our solar system sits slightly above the ecliptic plane and what we were looking at was the combined glow of billions and billions of stars being born, living, and dying over 14.5 billion years, and she just … couldn’t wrap her head around what I was trying to explain, and was generally unimpressed.

    Meanwhile, I was enraptured.

  2. I can’t see the Milky Way from where I live. I’m actually a little surprised that you can, B, though I believe it. I have been on camping trips outside St. Louis where I could see it clearly. But if you went to Yellowstone you would see something else again. I flew over the Rockies at night once, and … there’s just no comparison. It wasn’t faint, it was huge and bright and with a sharp edge and ten times more like a river of light than looking at NYC traffic from the air at night. A whole nother thing. I spent the whole time with my face pressed to the window, blanket over my head to cut out the light from the cabin. The flight attendant thought something was wrong. But it was an awe-inspring sight.

  3. An early example used In philosophy of language is how to make sense of “the morning star” and “the evening star” having the same referent, which is “Venus”, today in comparison to back when people called them “the morning star” and the “evening star” and didn’t know that it was not only the same thing but a planet, couldn’t have known. It has taken me some time to understand that lots of people who read these 100+year old essays don’t even know that they are talking about Venus. The time between not knowing it was a planet and no longer even remembering that people used to mistake it for a planet – or maybe up till this time now when few look at the sky for anything but fun, not for navigation or weather or anything – means nothing to most people today. So much of nothing that the damn essays turn out to be very hard to read even though it’s just a simple example that permeates the argument.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Milky Way, or at least I haven’t known that I was seeing it. I can see so much more of the night sky, and even some early morning viewings of things too, here than I ever imagined. And in just a few miles outside of town I get views that are so beautiful it stops my breath. I really need to go look for the Milky Way.

  4. I’m from Houston. The night sky is a flat red, because of the reflected light from the oil refineries. You can make out a couple of very bright constellations: Orion, Scorpio, the Big Dipper, but that’s about it. The Milky Way is definitely not visible.

  5. I could see the Milky Way in Boulder, CO. Even better from the higher altitudes. I’m in SoCal now, greater LA metro, and I am lucky if I can find Orion most nights. Years ago I was teaching “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” to my class, and one of my students (native Angelino) was trying to write about it. I asked him if he’d ever looked up and seen stars. He had not. My heart broke a little bit, and I told him he had to go out into the wetland park on a clear night and DO THAT. I hope he did.

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