I'm thankful that at outdoor skywatching events, like the ones that we have at Mohonk Mountain House a few times every year, nobody plays music through loudspeakers. Bach might indeed sound lovely while gazing at nebulae, and our culture already regards silence with suspicion. We have music nearly everywhere else: elevators, malls, telephone holds. At Overlook Observatory outside Woodstock, I'll admit to being tempted, on viewing nights, to play atmospheric music. The problem, of course, is different tastes. We all know that rap music is just plain wrong. But maybe Saturn would look better accompanied by hip-hop...Nah.
We can be grateful for the ways that humans adapt to every possible insult. By keeping his yard lights on while you are trying to observe the sky, your neighbor deserves to serve an indefinite term at a special brightly lit prison. Dealing with such people gives backyard astronomers a high tolerance for lesser crimes. We do not roll our eyes when people say, "You're an astronomer? What's your sign?" We don't get perturbed when taxed to build spacecraft that explode upon reaching Mars.
Many celestial phenomena do actually merit gratitude:
- That the only two disks in our sky, the Moon and Sun, both appear the same size. This is true nowhere else. It creates total eclipses. In just a few tens of millions of years, the slowly spiraling-away Moon will look too small to cover up the Sun. Total solar eclipses are only happening during this three-million-year period when humans are around. (Caveat: Before we were here, the Moon did block out the Sun, but then it was too big. During totality, solar prominences and corona went unseen.)
- That we live on a water-world, and are constructed mostly of that compound. Water is different from all other molecules of its size and weight, and acts as if it were much heavier. This allows H20 to be liquid at the relatively high temperatures found in our dining rooms, and lets our veins and brains be filled with fluid instead of gas.
- That astronauts do not make speeches every time they reach orbit.
- That good telescopes and amazing binoculars are affordable by everyone.
- That the values for 200 different constants and forces are exactly as they are, which alone permits planets and life to exist.
- And that there are still places on our crowded planet where skies are naturally dark, so that the universe appears with all of its ancient glory. I'm talking about the Catskills.
Yes, a Thanksgiving toast to our mountains: sanctuaries not only for bears, foxes and unspoiled streams - but for space itself.