Last weekend was Halloween, so we’re now primed for spooky things. This week, the Moon doesn’t rise until after midnight.
The Sun is setting earlier and earlier: It’s really dark. The leaves have dropped away in most of the country, so barren branches now tremble in the wind. And yes, even that wind is generally stronger during the cold months.
Gather round the campfire. It’s the perfect time to tell blood curdling tales of the sky’s sinister side. Ramping up the scare-factor is that backyard sky-gazers are usually on our own. Seldom can we coax others to join us on freezing fall nights to stare at a rambling star pattern that we insist is a hunter or a bull.
Autumn evokes deep‑seated, foreboding aspects to the heavens that involve ominous cultural lore. There’s no shortage of melancholy autumn myths, possibly because of the season’s dying plants and diminished food.
In most places, November begins the cloudiest section of the year, further diminishing the already-weak precious sunlight. Moreover, the season’s long nights epitomize darkness and mystery, giving primitive civilizations an uneasy dread that went beyond their fear of nocturnal predators. Widespread cultures linked night with disaster. Even that word derives from the night sky: Dis means bad; Aster means star.
In modern times, sky‑related hazards are relatively small, but the risk is neither zero, nor is it limited to sensational possibilities such as being clobbered by a meteor.
- A more immediate hazard comes from muons. These subatomic particles, created when high‑energy cosmic rays strike the upper atmosphere, constantly zip through our bodies and occasionally damage genetic material at the cellular level. They cause many of the spontaneous tumors that have been with us long before we started downing charred hot dogs.
- Then there’s the remote possibility of a near‑enough supernova to zap our planet with lethal gamma rays. It’s a wonderfully weird catastrophe, worthy of these darkest nights. Orion’s famous star Betelgeuse is the nearest true peril. If it “goes supernova” the resulting radiation would increase earthly cancers and mutations. But at 400 lightyears, it’s too distant to wipe us out.
But bravely forget all this eerie business. Pick a good place stargaze far from lights and sky‑obstructing buildings. For a nice open sky, you can’t do much better than—a cemetery.