Whatever hectic pressures may be at play in your life, you can always look forward to one quiet moment each week to contemplate the night sky in peace. I refer, of course, to when you have to take out the garbage – or as the Americans would have it – the trash.
Bin night observing receives less attention than perhaps it should in the astronomical literature. The chance to check the night sky once a week and at about the same hour gives you a chance to experience the difference between solar and sidereal time since the same stars now rise about 28 minutes earlier they did last week. And of course, you can quickly check the ecliptic for planets and for the Moon’s phase if it’s up.
Rarely, there may also be opportunities for educational outreach. A neighbor, aware of my astronomical tendencies, once asked me whatever happened to the Milky Way, which she recalled seeing as a child. I didn’t consider this a dumb question, since I remember seeing it as a kid too – it really is a ghost of its former self.
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We had a useful chat about light pollution and then she said it. What’s that red one? Is it Mars? Not being on the ecliptic, it wasn’t – and the proximity of Orion’s Belt was a bit of a give-away. It’s Betelgeuse, I told her and she remembered the name from a Douglas Adams story and then we said good night. Astronomy advocacy in sixty seconds.
But I hate that color thing. I’ve spent years unsuccessfully squinting to make out the allegedly red color of Mars or the yellowish tinge of Saturn – while as soon as I get someone interested in the night sky they start picking out M type supergiants. I’m not color blind and I manage just fine in the daytime. But bin nights have always been a strictly black and white affair.
That is until now. I saw that Mythbusters episode about how early sailors wore an eye patch so that during a cannon battle they always had one dark-adapted eye. Allegedly, this was so they could go into the powder room for more ammunition without having to light a match.
As you probably know it’s all about the rods and the cones in your retina. The cones carry three types of photopsins – that preferentially absorb red, green and blue, while the rods carry the all important rhodopsin – which enables you to see in very dim light, though just in black and white. Apparently, it takes rhodopsin 30 mins to recover from light bleaching, but only nine minutes for the photopsins. Nine minutes is all I need to decant the kitchen scraps, grab the recyclables and wheel the bins out to the kerb. Then patch off, I can enjoy an opsins-optimized, monocular view of the night sky and yep, there’s a little hint of orangey-red. Awesome.
You should try it. In fact I’d be grateful if everyone would try it and spread the word. So the next time someone in my street asks… Who’s that nut taking out his garbage dressed like a pirate? There’ll be someone nearby to explain… It’s OK. He’s an astronomer.