Saved By the Celestial Clock--Amateur Astronomy as a Deterrent to Suicide
Wes Stone/1996

Sometimes, I get depressed and start thinking about ending my life. The world really doesn't need or want me around, and I am not very fond of it, either. I doubt that anything will stop me this time. Wait a minute...If I commit suicide, I'll miss Comet Hale-Bopp's apparition next year. Oh, well, I guess I'll just have to stay alive for now.

OK, so maybe I'm being overly dramatic, but I can say that my hobby of amateur astronomy adds a sense of order as well as one of anticipation to my life. The lunar cycle sets a rough schedule for observing faint objects. The changing position of the Sun determines the hours of darkness and therefore the constellations that will be visible on a given night. Each planet has its individual timetable of apparitions and conjunctiions. Meteor showers invite all-night watches several times per year. All of this is set against the mostly constant starry background, with its bottomless well of deep-sky objects.

The real treat is the appearance of something new. Comets are suddenly announced, become bright enough to view, undergo daily changes, and then fade back into the darkness. The same goes for novae and extragalactic supernovae. Every event is different, yet similar. That may be what hooks me and makes me keep looking up.

Oddly, failure is not much of a setback. Hale-Bopp may be a flop and my view of the next Draconid or Leonid meteor storm may be pre-empted by a local thunderstorm, but there is always something else to look forward to. I had the privilege of seeing the celestial event of the century when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter, and I may yet see the first Milky Way supernova since the invention of the telescope. Besides, on every clear night there is something new to look for, even if it's just something I never noticed or never took the time to view. In the end, I find that every little part of the big show is a good reason to stay up (and stay alive).


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