Why Do We Love Astronomy?


We typically associate the “all-nighter” with carcinogenic work schedules, irresponsible teenagers, and sleepovers; however, in astronomy, the long night acquires a distinct identity: one of clear skies and meditations, of astronomical romance. For us astronomy addicts, it is a night under the stars; with bright pinpoints above us and telescopes near us, sleep grows counterintuitive. 
        In May of this year, I managed my first all-nighter while at my city’s local observatory. I, like many other amateurs, spent the night observing and imaging; and, unsurprisingly, my first was not my last; only a week later, I was back at the observatory for another tiring, invigorating night.
        I quickly learned of my fate on that May night. The last sleep I had was one from 11 PM to 7 AM, the archetypical school night sleep; yet, without preparation, without a healthful adjustment of my schedule, I did not rest the next night. Instead, I found use with the computerized telescope, the 18” Dobsonian, and Plato’s Republic. I traveled home at 7 AM, long after the sun rose and long before my eyes closed.
Six months later, my circadian rhythms have not yet recovered. I continue to fight health, sleep, to capture the heavens. I continue to miss Saturdays and Sundays to sleep. I continue to tire into the school week. Only two weeks ago, I traveled three hours away to the middle-of-nowhere, Wisconsin, to see the northern lights and use my new apochromatic refractor; from 2:30 to 5:30, I drove back home, completely dazed and longing for a bed. Only last weekend, I pulled my 20th all-nighter at the observatory; miraculously, I managed to stay awake long enough to arrive home at 4:30 (technically 5:30, for it was daylight savings). On both occasions, I fell asleep immediately the next night, Sunday night.
These abrupt sleep schedule changes must be unhealthy. No rational scientist has ever concluded that “getting 2 hours of sleep on a night to look up at some lights has numerous health benefits.” No educated doctor has ever elaborated that “precipitous modifications of your sleep schedule are a must, along with frostbite in the winter and mosquito bites in the summer.” 
Hardcore astronomy must be the most hellish hobby: for example, in Wisconsin, during the first six months of the year, there is snow on the ground, it is cloudy 96% of the time, and the nighttime temperatures are subzero; during the other six, the mosquito population density becomes a living human rights violation, it is foggy or smoky 95% of the time, and the nighttime temperatures are excruciatingly hot and humid.
Despite such significant health and comfort sacrifices, we remain indefatigable, inexorably tied to the lights above and the glass around. But why? With hardcore astronomy, we risk the many effects of varying and limited sleep, like migraines, focus issues, and, in the long term, even cancer. With this hobby, we often slash time with family and friends for telescopes and remote skies. We miss life for a hobby that rarely returns us any money and always empties our checkbooks. We lose our lives for a hobby that freezes us to frostbite in the winter and infuriates us with itchy bumps in the summer. How could we love a hobby that requires such great sacrifice?
So what is amateur astronomy? How are we captivated so dearly by this hobby? Why are we willing to sacrifice entire nights of sleep just to look up? Why do we go outside despite astronomy’s many inconveniences? One poet may have an answer:
    Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
wrote Walt Whitman in his poem, When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer. While us amateurs indulge in the shocking and world-altering discoveries present in this science, we yield the same partiality to the sky itself as does the poet. We exit the technical field of astronomy to the emotional heaven of the sky, unremitting in our passion toward the bright lights above. 
        As I pondered the blind, unparalleled commitments we make to hardcore astronomy, I observed great difficulty in an explanation itself; as a fellow astronomer, Tom, once told me, “it is that we must do it, it is so compelling.” He observes the essence of astronomy as inexplicable, an addiction drawn from our most innate fancies. But how can a fancy not have an explanation? When I wrote to my love, I found 50 individual explanations for her. Yet my love for astronomy remains stronger, a disposition so compelling, so profound that even the 50 explanations do not suffice. So why can I not find an explanation?
       Experience. Astronomy is preferred over tenderness for us hardcore hobbyists. And, even though “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” we fancy those stars, those distant points of light, with greater veracity than love itself. But, like love, we find no explanation without incident. 
        The first fall is always inexplicable. I remember, when I was much younger, falling for a girl, an event I had not experienced prior. I remember how perplexing, how utterly impossible that emotion was; with a growing and ever-complex disposition, I found myself unable to explicate my novel sentiments. After the next two girls, however, the idea of love was much clearer. Though I had no practical relationship experience, I had grown an understanding of, at least, unrequited love, and I found means to define the origins of my love. 

        And I arrive at the same conclusion with this love. 

        On Friday, November 19th, 2021, the night after a gruesome foot injury left me in a boot and on crutches, I forced myself awake at 2:00 AM to observe my first lunar eclipse. With a great struggle and my mother’s help, I opened my back door, brought out my telescope equipment, and winced in pain as I worked with the heavy gear. Once the moon was in the camera frame, I sat down and looked up, 45 degrees above the horizon, and witnessed an unbelievably shocking and picturesque spectacle: the moon entering the umbra and reaching a near-total eclipse.

  That night, the reasons became so clear, so conspicuous, that my confusion evolved to rumination.
            We find that it is not the sheer beauty of the night sky. Not the meditation. Not the science. Not the romance. It is not the planets, the moon, the stars.

It is the separation of astronomy, the unearthly studies, from all other earthly interests. We love astronomy not for its pulchritude, but for its peculiarity. There is no other hobby that produces spectacles so universally shocking as an eclipse, a shooting star, or the haze of the June Milky Way. There is no other hobby that produces such an explicit and overwhelming feeling of humility, of wonder. 

It is the accessibility of astronomy, the most pop-culture science, that separates it from the prerequisites of other interests. There is no background requirement to feel wonder toward the heavens. Simply look up, witness that vast night above, and you are doing astronomy; simply look up all night, lose yourself in that mass of haze, and you are doing hardcore astronomy. One needs no expensive equipment, no prerequisite knowledge- just eyes to see and brains to wonder. An apt for astronomy is an endowment that all of us hold in common. As enslaved people traveling on the Underground Railroad worked their way North in the night, they looked up at Polaris, the “North Star to Freedom,” longing for freedom, pursuing freedom, following the night sky to freedom. The sky is accessible to all, regardless of their accessibility on earth. 

    It is the patterned inconsistency of astronomy, the slow-moving science, that elicits consistency unlike that of other interests. Every night, the sky changes by 4 arcminutes- even after this night, the sky changes. After a season, there is a new set of stars, one completely different from the last season. Every day, the sun develops new sunspots and prominences, and every day the moon moves higher or lower and becomes brighter or darker. Their long patterns may be consistent, but those patterned inconsistencies are sufficient to evoke a constancy to our love’s inconstancy. 
        Unlike other human interests, astronomy grows in us eternally- as we enter, we become aware that the sky is an unremitting addiction, one that will exist with us until the moment our hearts cease to beat. 
       We observe that, in its obscurity, in its anomalous incredibility, astronomy amasses our perfervid love. We find that it is not astronomy itself, but its abnormality and humility, that excites our love most. 
      The sky awaits us again, ready to accompany us in our all-night wonders, our carcinogenic sleep deprivation, and our unremitting tenderness. We frolic back into the sunflowers of starry light, humbled by their magnitude, wondered by their peculiarity, invigorated by their embrace.