Understanding The Night Sky From The Atacama Desert
STANDING in the middle of the Atacama desert on a cold night staring at the stars I finally understood something.
That we are all one, how each and every one of us is the centre of the universe, and at the same time an almost insignificant speck of energy forever being converted to different forms.
Drug induced hippy nonsense? Far from it. Modern physics folks.
Or so I learned in probably the best astronomical tour on offer in Chile, itself one of the best countries to view the night sky.
This tour, leaving nightly from San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile is the work of French astronomer Alain Maury who provides an amazing overview of the constellations, planets with a self-mocking humour of the arrogant Frenchman.
Highly entertaining and informative, this tour is a must for travellers to the Chilean desert and for once I am not complaining about the heafty 15,000 Chilean peso entry fee.
Alain points out the main features of the sky, explaining how groups of stars or constellations were culturally grouped depending on what the particular society thought they could see, be it a sausepan or a big bear. (Or a 4x4 landcruiser - it's there, believe me.)
As he put it, "Some constellations are easy to see, some are easy to see with imagination and some are easy to see with hallucination.
"Every culture has its vision of the universe based on observation with superstition filling in the parts they don't understand," he said, noting that that was just about everything.
For example, the Eqyptians believed that the earth was flat so therefore the sun every night had to take a magic boat running straight under the earth to be back in position in the east the next morning.
However, despite only using the naked eye, the ancients had some amazing insights into the movements of the stars.
"They were watching black and white TV with the same thing on every night so after a while they knew the movie," he said.
As well as the brilliant lecture at his desert home over a hot mug of chocolate, Alain also allows use of the largest tourist telescope in the country along with seven others to see various marvels.
Some of the night wonders on view are a group of stars in the shape of a butterfly, the rabbit on the moon, a nebula, a "globula" of over 3 million stars and planets such as Jupiter.
Bookings from Astronomical Tours, Caracoles, San Pedro de Atacama. Best time to go is when the moon is at its smallest. Bring your wollies!