Sky Talk October 2008: Making the Photon Connection

This month we touch on an amazing aspect of stargazing largely unknown to most of those who turn their eyes skyward on clear nights. It’s called the “Photon Connection” and once you make it you’ll never look at celestial objects the same way again — guaranteed!

Seeing the wonders of the heavens firsthand is certainly the next best thing to actually being “out there” in a strictly physical sense. And there’s more to this than meets the eye. The light we see coming from celestial objects actually brings us into direct personal physical contact with remote parts of the universe! This involves a profound but virtually unknown aspect of looking at the stars — something the author has coined the “photon connection.” It’s based on the fact that when we look at a celestial object like a star or nebula or cluster or galaxy or quasar, we are seeing it by the photons of light it is emitting. And as has been long-known by science, photons have a very strange “dualistic” nature; they behave as both particles and waves — or particles traveling in waves, as I like to think of it.

So personally making the photon connection is the amazing realization that when you gaze upon a celestial object, you are quite literally getting a piece of it in your eye! Something that was once inside of it has crossed the vastness of space and time and ended its long journey inside of you! And this extends to even the remote quasars, the nearest of which is 3C-273 in the constellation Virgo. Despite the fact that it lies some two billion light-years (or some 12,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles) from us, knowing exactly where to look I can glimpse it through my Edmund Astroscan telescope (#30020-01) — which is focusing its two-billion-year-old light onto the retina of my eye. Again, something that was once inside of it has traveled across the vastness of space and time and ended its immense journey inside of me! No wonder stargazers experience such uplifting and inspiring thoughts while looking at the stars. No wonder the heavens have always held an almost mystical appeal for so many of us.

On some dark, moonless night this month, set your Scientifics Star and Planet Locator (#30092-27) for around 9:00 p.m. local time. Find the big vacant sky area in Pegasus labeled the “Great Square” — and then the spot marked “Galaxy” to its upper left. This is the location of the famed Andromeda Galaxy, visible to the unaided eye and unmistakable in your Edmund binoculars (#30311-02) as a fuzzy oval glow. As you gaze upon it, realize that the light entering your eyes left there more than 20,000 centuries ago. You have now, indeed, personally made the photon connection!

Before closing, note that the annual Orionid Meteor Shower peaks on the early morning of October 21. Unfortunately, this year the last-quarter Moon rises around midnight and will brighten the sky until dawn, greatly reducing the number of “shooting stars” normally seen.

–James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine and author of five books on stargazing.

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