Learning about the night sky with Alain Maury

Sunday 11th October 2015

We chilled out all day and I published a few blog articles I had prepared during the no-WiFi nights in the desert. I also finally got myself onto Trip Advisor to leave a few reviews about hostels, trips, dives, and so on! In the evening, we boarded a mini-bus full of French people, we were about 30. Drove to the Astronomy centre. We stayed there from 9.30pm to midnight. We made a circle around Alain Maury, the French astronomer and he explained to us the stars and the history of astronomy. It is so rare to listen to someone and feel his words are like gold. I felt like this and I think many of us were under his spell. I didn`t have my recorder, I always forget it when I need it and have it on me when I don`t need it. How I wish I could have recorded what he said. I probably forgot 90% of it by now, writing this article two weeks later! He managed to capture our attention for the entire 90 minutes he spoke. We were standing there, under the stars, in the darkness, in a circle around him, covered in lots of clothes layers. There was no wind. He explained how the perception of the sky had evolved, how it took a long time because what we see is far from what it is. In the past, astronomers didn`t have enough equipment to be able to make sense of the sky the way we can now. The Inquisition was very strong also, and the Church had a strong power. Going to them and saying: “Hey but I think you got it wrong, the Earth is not flat and it is not the centre of the universe!” would be like jumping in the fire. Well literally, as people were getting burnt for contradicting the beliefs of the time.

I learnt a few things that night. The Scorpion constellation is…bigger than I usually though of. It has the two Scorpion mandibules on the side of the head!! I can`t actually find online an image showing the constellation including those stars where the claws are but that`s the closest you get.

Scorpion constellation

He also talked about Antares, the star you can see as the head here of the scorpion before it branches off to the left and right arms. It is a giant red and 500 light-year away. He also talked about Alpha Centaurus which is the closest star from us, 4.4 light year away which is 40,000 billions human years away. He talked about the idea humans would want to go away from the Earth to try to be on a new planet. If we wanted to reach Alpha Centaurus, we would need to put some humans in a spacecraft that would reproduce themselves thousands and thousands time to make the specie survive. He said you can imagine in which state they would arrive. They would not look like humans anymore and I doubt about their mental capacity in dealing with anything. It is not a surprise that aliens are always represented with three eyes, or weird faces. We laughed.

He also explained that yes, if a star was dead for example 300 years ago but was 400 light years away from us, it could be 100 more years of receiving its light before we would not receive its light anymore and know it was dead. However, it is very rare and it never happened in his life that a star would be found dead. He said surely, because of Murphy`s Law, when he dies, they will find one a week later. But in any case, this is quite rare.

He also explained that we can see about 3,000 stars with our own eye in the sky in one hemisphere, and about the same in the other hemisphere. There are 80 constellations in the sky and he said that all of us knew at least 15 to 16 of them. We were all thinking: No, we don`t! But indeed, we all know the 12 zodiac constellations, ok at least most of them. And then the Big Bear, the Small Bear, Cassiopee. All zodiac constellations are located on the same line in the sky where the planets are. All planets turn of x degrees each night, which makes them be back in the same spot after x rotations of the sky, some take a year, some takes three years. This is why they are called PLAN – NET, because they always stick to be on a PLAN that is NET. (And in French you can make jokes, for example if they were making kind of rotations (boucles), we would have called them bouclettes.)

He also laughed about the names of some constellations. For example the Big Bear has different names. It is also a Big Cart which we can kind of imagine. But a bear? What did they smoke at the time to come up with the idea it looked like a bear? He showed us the constellation of Pegase and the constellation of the Centaure which doesn`t look like a Centaure.

And so much more…that I forgot!

He gives the talk in English too (although he told us he doesn`t like having to talk about Uranus to English audiences. It can be a bit embarassing to talk about UR  – ANUS…) If you go to San Pedro de Atacama, whether you are French speaking or English speaking, he is the person to go listen to! Incredible story-teller of our incredible sky.

Then there were 10 telescopes he had setup pointing to different things. He said, alright guys, first I will take you through each one by one to explain what you see in each, so stick with me. And then we will operate in a French way. So for the Swiss people in the group, this means that we will not be organised at all but it will naturally regulate itself. So everyone will go wherever there is less people, and if you see 10 people at a telescope and none at another one, well, you know where to go. So we did that, but by half of the telescopes, we had lost most people, mostly French people ahahaha. The Swiss were still sticking around to hear all explanations about all telescopes first.

So we went around. We saw in one a little blue dot, Neptune, tiny. In another one, Saturne but it had disappeared below the horizon already. In another one, a foggy magma which is where stars are all dying and in another telescope a magma where stars are all being born. He also had an impressive telescope which he claimed to be the biggest public telescope of South America. We had to climb a few steps on a ladder to go see. It was pointing to a galaxy which had billions of stars agglutinated next to each other. That was cool.

One guy wanted to learn how to do night photography so I listened about what Alain Maury was telling him. I learned that I could open the wider possible for example at F2.8, no need to do F4 or F5.6, only when shooting for a long exposure. He talked about putting it on ISO 6400 for a short exposure ok. Now the interesting thing was that he was changing the white balance for “electric bulb – halogene” to avoid the hazy orange light that comes through and keep the sky colour as close as possible to the white stars. Interesting! I will have to try that out next time I shoot the sky.

Then after that, we went inside and each had a mate de coca, or hot chocolate or coffee or other tea. We sat around him and he continued talking about the universe. The main question was: Is Pluto a planet or not?

He explained that no, for him, Pluto is not a planet. Pluto is a big asteroid. But Americans don`t like to hear that and still want to believe that Pluto is a planet. Pluto was discovered in 1930 by an American amateur. At the time was the 1929 crisis and so it lifted up the moral to discover that in the context of the time. But it can not be a planet because there are too many asteroids around it. All other planets do not have asteroids around them. It could have become a planet maybe as the other planets did when lots of asteroids bumped into each other to create planets. But Pluto is not a planet. Voila.

What else did we learn that evening? A bit about the different hemispheres and why we see a certain sky in winter and another sky in summer. We saw the Magellan clouds but I can`t remember what he said about them. We talked about astronomers, history, the evolution of the thinking of the sky. Everyone used to have their own constellation system. For example the Incas had their own ones, and their own names but when the Spanish arrived in South America, they destroyed that belief system and imposed their own, and it is a bit the same all over the world so ultimately everyone started adopting a universal constellation system. There was a guy in the twenties century who created the lines that delimit all constellations so that everyone would use the same delimitations.

He also told us how some very specific nights every few years there could be 10 shooting stars a minute, or even once in China there had been 4 shooting stars a second for a few hours. It does happen but that is really rare. He had been the witness himself of events like these.

We left the head full of information and stars. And by the way, just a note about the sky, it was beautiful but the sky I saw in the Cordillera Blanca on the Santa Cruz trek from Huaraz in Peru was way more intense, in particular the milky way. But the good thing with the sky in San Pedro de Atacama is that it is not cloudy most days of the year so it is more reliable to look at when learning about the stars.

Voila for the evening learning about the sky with Alain Maury! If you have the chance to go to San Pedro de Atacama, make sure you go spend an evening with him, it was a magical evening.

Tomorrow, off the to the Lagunas of the Altiplano, the Desert of Atacama and the Valle de La Luna!

More about Alain Maury here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_Maury