Field Notes: Star-Hopping by the Outhouse; June 1996; Scientific American Magazine; by Gibbs; 1 Page(s)
As my headlight-dazzled pupils slowly dilate, I can begin to distinguish the forms scattered across this grassy slope on Mount Tamalpais. Tall knolls block most of the orange glow from San Francisco, so it is quite dark. There seem to be about two dozen tall, thin objects pointing up at the vast canopy of stars. Some of the objects, I presume, are members of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, assembled to witness Comet Hyakutake¿s unexpected visit to our part of the solar system. The rest are their telescopes.
Al Stern, a jovial member of the society, points me toward the comet and proceeds to describe, in endearing detail, its position over each of the past seven nights. Tonight it hangs like a drop of milk frozen mid-fall from the handle of the Big Dipper. Hyakutake is just one day from its closest approach to Earth, and its tail seems to grow by the minute. "I believe it stretches halfway to Arcturus," Stern says, tracing a line with his finger to the bright red giant in Bo¿tes.