Jupiter Shines in August

Every time I look at the night sky with a friend, we marvel at our small place in the universe.

“You can really see a lot of stars here, not something I’m used to.” I told Toni while we found ourselves together again in a nighttime park. This park was dotted with the occasional street lamp, which shone its bright light directly out into our eyes and up toward the sky. It was a half-mooned night, and Jupiter was glowing brightly just to the moon’s waxing side. Despite such seemingly inescapable brightness, if we focused on a part of the dark night sky for long enough, we could make out the faint flicker of stars residing light years away. How do they flicker so? Is it their fiery death?, or the dance of a bi-solar system seen all the way from our distant corner of the Milky Way?, or the interruption of starlight by ‘dark matter’ (the composition of which I am totally ignorant) somewhere in space between us and them?

Toni got up on the picnic table and laid her body down, belly up, on it to look at the night sky. She located a few Chinese asterisms that we could see in a light-saturated, North American night sky, and described to me how they compare to the Ancient Greek constellations with which we are too familiar. Toni, drawing lines with her pointer finger between the stars, attempted to outline for my virgin eyes the boundaries of the Purple Forbidden enclosure centred around the North Star. I have always been envious of those who can identify the patterns of stars, transforming these into something full of meaning.

“How can we see Jupiter from here?” I asked Toni. I was intrigued why we could now see our sibling planet, and not at other times of the year. I remember seeing it a few summers ago, too. What happens in Summer in our celestial arrangement that allows for Jupiter to glow this brightly? To make us all marvel? “The sun has to be shining on it, but from where? How does it even work?”

“Yeah definitely,” Toni told me in her ever-affirmative tone. “The sun has to be shining from over there from the opposite direction of the moon,” pointing to the street behind us.

I thought about this for a moment. Zooming out from our position on Earth, I thought about the place of our planet in the solar system, and I realized that there’s something not quite right with what my friend just said. If the moon is overhead in our sky, and we are sitting facing the moon, that doesn’t mean that the sun is at our behind. “Wait, Toni” I said as I put my thoughts together into a new revelation, “if the moon is there, that means that sun is there,” I said while making an eccentric gesture at the ground below the picnic table.

A brief pause. I saw Toni’s eyes expand, and felt mine widen in turn, and their mouth slowly open in awe of something totally new. “Yo! What the fuck,” Toni was as astounded as myself! This was such a new thought for both of us. We — so used to imagining the world situated below the heavens, as if Copernicus didn’t translate to the Twenty First century — were shocked to think of the sun positioned on the other side of the Earth. The two of us suddenly saw things for what they are: us, two of many elements planted on the perimeter of a rotating ball of rock, floating in space and part of a spinning, swirling, revolutionary dance among celestial bodies. Perhaps this dance mirrors our own here between Earthly bodies. I’d like to think of our lives, too, in the astronomical terms of gravitational push and pull, reflected light and eclipsed darkness, faint twinkles and bright flashes.

Every time I look at the night sky with a friend, from then on, I learn so much about ourselves.

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