When I first became enamored with the night sky, at the age of 13, one of my immediate objectives was to learn all the constellations. I purchased a sky map – one that my local astronomy club recommended to me. You could rotate it to your day and time of year and see all the constellations and their locations above your head. Seasons rolled by and after numerous outings with my family and the club, I became familiar with the apparent motions of the sky – where I could expect stars to rise and in what order, which stars never went below the horizon, which stars marked the summer triangle and the winter hexagon. Our tilted Earthen journey around the Sun made seasons more meaningful by night.
Then one night at the monthly astronomy club meeting, when I was about 16, a visiting presenter shared about their journey to Australia to see the southern stars. My jaw dropped. There were more stars to see? More constellations to learn? I couldn’t wait for my chance to see them. When vetting which university I wanted to attend, I learned that the University of California Santa Cruz had a both a world-class astronomy program, and a strong study abroad program. I submitted my application to UCSC, telling everyone that I was “going to be an astrophysicist.” It made me feel smart.
I was very impressionable as a high schooler (and I think I still am). Someone suggested that I study abroad in New Zealand instead: “Australia is too much like the United States,” they said, “you won’t get much of a cultural experience.” Around the same time, the page-turning books I was flying through, The Lord of the Rings, were also being made into movies… in New Zealand. I found out I was accepted at UC Santa Cruz, yay, and waited patiently for sophomore year to apply to study abroad in New Zealand. I still remember opening my acceptance letter while alone at night in the campus mailroom – I literally sat down and started crying. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
Once in New Zealand, I purchased my Southern Hemisphere constellation map and headed to the hills. My star map had the same rotator capabilities as my northern hemisphere star map, but the constellations looked somewhat upside-down. Even though it took a while to get adjusted to the differently-paced semesters of the University of Auckland, on some nights I would drive up to the top of One Tree Hill, a peak in a park surrounded by Auckland city sprawl. There I could see the Large and Small Magellanic “Clouds” adjacent to the Milky Way, irregular galaxies in orbit around us. I picked out Alpha Centauri (the closest star visible to Earth, and not visible from most of the northern hemisphere) and used it to find the south celestial pole - there is no South Star, like there is a North Star (Polaris) in the northern hemisphere. One thing I always remember about this night sky observing is how safe I felt. Star gazing with my astronomy club in the United States made me comfortable in the dark. New Zealand crime rate was nearly non-existent. To this day I wish to make this kind of experience – of being a casual night sky observer more common and accessible to my students.
While learning the southern night sky, I also found others who appreciated the night sky. I began volunteering at the Stardome Observatory and Planetarium, and much to my surprise, was invited to become a regular planetarium presenter. Imagine! The student from the north, getting the opportunity to educate the public about the stars in the south! I fell in love with astronomy education and knew that from that point forward, I wanted it to be a part of my life.
Sharing about how the sky is different in other places of the world, I think, is an important understanding for human experience and vitality. I hope that in my teaching about the stars around the world, I am able to inspire students to “look up” more often, and appreciate what they have right in front of them – no matter where they are on Earth. What you are experiencing as you witness our Earth and sky is unique from nearly everyone else on our planet.