Cruelest of tricks

By GEORGE ROBERTSON, M.D.What a beautiful setting the June Bee motel had. Located in the little town of Conception on the Philippines island of Llollo, a 2-1/2-hour bus ride from the nearest city, it would be far away from light pollution and the dark tropic sky would allow me to see everything in the night sky that I’ve never been able to see before—or so I thought. A few problems came with the stargazing right from the start. Our hotel locked its doors at 10 p.m. and by doors I mean huge, steel structures padlocked from the inside, a situation not conductive for wandering away from the hotel light, continually fueled by generators on site. Yet from the balcony, the northern sky could be seen by shielding away from the room lights. From the other side a few of the Southern Constellations could be seen through the upstairs windows. My stay at the remote location would start by sharing an air conditioned room with three other travelers in a dorm-like setting, in a room with no windows. I was eventually moved to the penthouse which was ideal for star-watching through a large north-facing window. Since the jet lag kept me waking up in the middle of the night, I would already have my night vision and could just sit up in bed to see the stars. I kept my binoculars handy so that I could retrieve them in the dark and was at first disappointed with the cloud cover the first time up. The cool ocean breeze picked up by the second rising, and at 2 a.m. the heavenly lights were at full brilliance. The Big Dipper’s handle extended straight up and the tip of the cup pointed to the North Star about 20 degrees above the dark ocean. Suddenly I saw what looked like a round, fuzzy cloud or smudge just east of the polar star. I racked my brain for memory of a galaxy that was supposed to be in that area. As I looked at the disk-shaped, faint light I could imagine a pinwheel shape tilted 70 degrees toward the north and from the pictures and my astronomy journal, thought I might be seeing the Whirlpool Galaxy.It took a while but after tiring from viewing the spectacle, I looked away to the Big Dipper for another Meisner object and didn’t see any, even though I remembered its location from the star maps. My attention came back to the new discovery once again which this time seemed to have a different location in reference to the background of surrounding stars. That’s when it hit me that I was seeing not a galaxy, but maybe a comet. Comets move in relation to the stars but not as much as this one had moved. It wasn’t even a nebula, although they can also be difficult to spot and localize. As I slowly moved my binoculars to the right and left, the object which seemed so three-dimensional proved to be very much so. It turned out to be only a smudge or otherwise foggy imperfection in the window glass I had been looking through. Now I can understand how Percival Lowell saw those canals on Mars.Editor’s Note: George Robertson is a physician with Family Medical Associates, PC, in Lebanon.