Thursday, January 31, 2013

Throw Me to the Coyotes

Denny Henke, Founder of the Eastern Ozarks Astronomical Society (EOAS);
Photo By Russ Middleton, Member EOAS

I've often wanted to write down the words of Denny Henke as they've gently tumbled from his lips. Yesterday, I indulged my inclination.

I asked Denny why it mattered to him so very much that our elements of life derive from the stars…?

Denny Henke: Because our human culture is off-track. We’re overly focused on the self, especially as it has come to be defined, self as each individual person. Its conceptual roots are in Christianity, the soul inside a self, defined by the body. As a consequence, our lifeway has come to be based on private gain. And fear.

We got off-track in the 1950’s when we created the physical environment centered on the nuclear family. In suburbanization we built the physical system to put people off on themselves. Old people are warehoused and kids who don’t manage to leave their parents’ homes are considered failures. Our lifeway has become one of fear and alienation.

FM: Is your own passion for stargazing fueled in some sense by social alienation?

Denny Henke: For me it’s a few different things.

To remember the context of life on planet earth, that it’s fragile and special. I’ve lived my life trying to respect that, on balance.

And we know the end of the story for our planet, that one day it will be consumed by the sun. And when you recognize that we come from stardust—literally the carbon in our bodies—and that’s where it goes back to, then one is no longer limited by mortality. When you make peace with mortality and if you’re curious about the universe, what better way to spend your time on the planet than looking up? It’s absolutely amazing.

FM: Can you describe your sense of amazement?

Denny Henke: I have a moment of giving up—wowed—allowing for the mystery of something. Not that I own it, or even that I understand it. Just that this thing in front of me is…awe inspiring!

This is not to say that you won’t try to understand it, but not in that first moment of encounter.

FM: How do you, Denny, try and understand the galaxies?

DH: You mean my approach?

FM: Yes.

DH: I combine the beauty of looking through the telescope at objects, which is enjoyable in a physical way, with research. Wikipedia covers anything you can think of in astronomy, and is almost always a good starting point. But there’s so much available on the Internet, high-level astronomers offering up free podcasts—284 of them so far. When you combine the audio with the research, it’s not exactly like going to a university but you can pick up everything except for the math. And anyone can do it.

If you don’t have a telescope, even looking up at the sky with the naked eye, you can still see a lot.

Which brings me back to your first question about matter; because it’s through matter that we’re connected to each other, and to the universe.

It’s sad that many of us never learn the truth about the origins of the universe, very simply, that we all literally come out of the stars at the moment of the Big Bang. In the first few moments of the universe there were only two elements: hydrogen and helium, and maybe a trace element of something else. They clumped up, by accretion—think of a dust bunny on the floor gathering material to itself, getting bigger, collecting a gravity. 

The first generation of stars had to produce carbon, iron, lithium and beryllium, etc.; they cooked up all the elements and then they blew up. Then the second generation had more to work with, and so on. All the elements of life came from the stars, we are literally star stuff.

Because of that you are never alone. You can get locked in emotionally into a bad place, but physically, you’re never alone.

FM: Then the attempt to understand the stars also becomes a way of gaining a deeper self-knowledge?

DH: Yeah, without a doubt, yes! We’re just another part of it, hydrogen studying hydrogen. We are the universe studying itself. We are nature studying nature. Humans get caught up...we forget we're just part of it. It’s why we do damage, that forgetting; why we’re alienated from each other, isolated from the life force around us.

Studying astronomy is definitely an attempt to understand where we come from, and where we might be going.

FM: At the level of affect. How does it make you feel to know that your humanity is literally supported by the stars, that humanity itself was born in the cradle of the stars?

DH: When you connect with that, you live like I have been doing—in a constant state of bliss. The universe is fascinating; it doesn’t get more fascinating than looking up, and more so within this extreme limit, knowing this is all I have, a very brief time on the planet. That’s the beauty of it, I’m good with that—the briefness of it. But it’s a comfort to me to know my atoms will never cease to exist, I’ll always be a part of it.

The day I die, I want them to throw me to the coyotes. Don’t put me in a box. I don’t know if it’s legal, but what I want is for my body to be thrown into the woods for the coyotes to eat me. Let them rip me to shreds into tiny bits and pieces. That’s life! That’s what I have right now.

FM: Even without consciousness, you feel that it’s as much life as—?

DH: —Feeding the worms, who feed the birds…? Yeah!

FM: I’m wondering if stargazing has given you some hyperawareness of light—all those hours and hours of  basking in starlight, that’s got to be affecting you?

DH: After half-an-hour, or so, your eyes adjust. The more you look, the more you see. When I’m looking at a galaxy, I’m looking at something that’s ten million light years away. It’s incredibly dim. The photons have traveled trillions of miles. We’re looking into deep history, deep dark space. You have to be patient and spend time picking up the details.

FM: What is the quality of that time? Does time slow down? Is that another reason why you stargaze so avidly?

DH: Absolutely! But sometimes you can spend a lot of time outside at the scope, and it feels like it went very quickly. The experience of astronomy is not just what you see through the scope; it’s also the knowledge and thoughts you have fermenting in your brain.

FM: For example…?

A globular cluster

DH: Globular clusters are one object people really enjoy looking at. A globular cluster is a tightly-grouped ball of stars. On a good dark night with a good telescope, if you’re looking at, say, the Hercules cluster, you’ll see just that, a ball of stars. But if you keep looking, your eye will start to be able to pick out individual stars. 

Eventually your eye will be able to pick out about a hundred stars.

Globular clusters aren't on the same plane with the majority of the stars in our galaxy, so I think about where we are in relation to the universe, issues of placement posed by that particular object.
Plus they’re old stars, among the oldest. At one time they were calculated to be older than the universe, which is impossible. And Science had to confront its miscalculation and correct for it, refining its own scientific method. 

And that’s what ferments in your mind, those kinds of things.


For more information about opportunities for amateur astronomy in southeastern Missouri, please visit the Eastern Ozarks Astronomical Society's Facebook Page and Website. 

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