How to Appreciate the Stars
by Ellis Parker Butler
Do you love the stars as we astronomers love them? Too many people go out on the back porch and say, "Look, Maggie, there is a moon; I wonder who left it there?" or "What, ho! there is a star!" but they do not know what they are talking about. They have never weighed a star. They have never taken a star apart to see whether it was filled with atoms or only stuffed with sawdust. How many of you know how far it is from the earth to a star?
Only last Tuesday I asked a man named James O'Haggerty the question. He is a democrat and wears a black derby hat. I asked him, "Mr. O'Haggerty, how far do you imagine it is to a star?" and he answered, "I don't know; how far is it?" This is the common attitude toward this important matter. That is what we astronomers have to contend against.
If you want to love the stars you must know how far off they are. To do this you make a picture of a railway train going to a star and then you write under it how long it takes the train to go from the earth to the star. When you have done this you begin to love the star.
We will now show how we astronomers arrive at these distances. Let us first select a star. Suppose we choose Mongoose, which is one of the most respectable stars in Pennsylvania. If we look at Mongoose through the naked eye we may say, "I bet Mongoose is over twenty miles from here." But if we are an astronomer we do not say that. We say, "I must see how long it would take a train to reach Mongoose."
The first step is to select a railway in which we have perfect confidence. I usually prefer the Long Island Railway because I can get a fifty trip ticket for nine dollars, but the B. & O. may be used if you prefer. We now take the railroad and aim it at Mongoose, allowing for curvature of the spine, a washout at Woodside and the Einstein Theory. This is usually one and one half per cent. It is best to put a cigar box or something under the other end of the railway so it will stay propped up like that and not slump down and aim at Port Jefferson.
We next take a time-table and look for a good train. We select, let us say, Train No. 675, which the time-table tells us leaves New York at 11.31 A.M. We now look to see what the "ff" mark at the top of the column means and discover that it means "This train does not run on week days or Sundays." As the stars are distributed around the sun in a discoidal system, the central plane of wbich coincides with the galactic girdle, we choose another train. This time we choose Train No. 439. The "kk" mark attached to this train in the time-table means "Baggage to Jamaica, Orion and Woodside only. Does not stop at Mongoose." We now throwaway the time-table and get on the first train that comes along.
We take a seat in the smoking car and to our glad surprise we see that the man in the next seat is a bobbed-haired girl and we lean over and poke her in the shoulder.
"I beg your pardon," we say, "but is this the train for Mongoose?"
"You're a quick worker, ain't you?" she replies.
At this we laugh heartily.
In taking the trip to Mongoose it is just as well to take some lunch with you as the distance is thirty thousand light-years. A light-year is the distance light can travel in a year, or about six trillion miles, which is called "a stone's throw" in real estate advertisements.
The conductor now comes through the car, saying, "Tickets! Tickets!" and you ask him, "Is this the train for Mongoose?"
"You had better ask Information," he says, and when you ask Information she tells you, "Number now Longacre 5649." You then call up Longacre 5649 but it is not the butcher. "No, this is not the butcher," a voice says, "this is the Riding School." This is all very silly, but it would be more aggravating if you did not know that Mongoose is forty thousand light-years of six trillion miles each from the earth. You have a feeling that, by the time the train reaches Mongoose, Information will have found the right number. There was an Information once who found the right number in less than two hundred and forty thousand trillion years. She was a blonde and her name was Gladys, but she is dead now.