A rush of vertigo and my hand is clamped to a railing.
I hope David Lengyel doesn’t notice as we look out over Oberlin College from six stories in the air. This is his domain, a perch high atop the 131-year-old Peters Hall in the center of town.
While I am concerned with the drop below, he is transfixed by what is overhead — the spellbinding sky, filled with our fellow planets circling Sol as well as stars long dead, their orphaned light reaching us after traveling millions of years across the void.
From here, telescopes can be mounted on the observation deck, or Lengyel can open a dome to point Oberlin College’s biggest lens upward and stare into the abyss.
“I love coming up here,” he says, describing how on a clear night distant galaxies can be spied tumbling through the darkness.
Lengyel, a Wellington resident, has run the college’s planetarium and observatory since 2011. Prior to that, he taught astronomy and other science courses for more than three decades at Amherst Steele High School.
“It was probably the most heterogeneous class at the high school,” he recalls. “Astronomy lends itself to everyone. It has something for all and a built-in interest level. We all love looking up at the sky.”
This is a very exciting month for astronomers of all experience levels.
Early Monday, expert stargazers will be able to use solar-shielded telescopes to watch the transit of Mercury. It’s a rare event in which the planet’s silhouette can be seen crossing the sun’s glowing disc over the course of nearly seven hours.
The transit can only be seen once a decade or so and only in May or November — and only by using special solar telescopes that filter out most of the sun’s rays. Without such gear, looking at the sun can cause blindness.
Novices also have some exciting opportunities.
The brightest object in the night sky right now (other than the moon) is Jupiter. Look 57 degrees above the southern horizon around 10 p.m. and, weather permitting, you can see the gas giant with the naked eye.
Why is it so easy to spot? Because it’s huge. Though it’s five times farther from the sun that we are, Jupiter’s diameter measures as wide as 11 Earths.
Jupiter will appear as a very large, very bright star. No planet will ever grow larger in our sky, despite some recent claims on social media that have Lengyel shaking his head.
Some patently false articles making the rounds prey on the extremely gullible, claiming Mars this August will rival the moon for size and suggesting Saturn will soon fill most of the horizon.
What is true is that May will be a very good month for viewing Mars — the best time, in fact, in an entire decade because Mars will be at opposition on the 22nd.
That will be the optimal night to view the Red Planet (again, if Mother Nature cooperates) because Mars will be at its closest point to Earth and aligned directly opposite the sun in the sky. It will be well-lit and visible without a telescope, pumpkin-colored and obvious near the Scorpius constellation.
If you want to learn more about the heavens, the OC planetarium is open for public viewings the first and third Fridays of most months during the OC academic year. Located on the fourth floor of Peters Hall, it seats 12 comfortably but can fit up to 20.
For the most up-to-date schedule of events there, follow Oberlin College Observatory and Planetarium on Facebook.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Photos by Jason Hawk | Civitas Media David Lengyel stands atop Peters Hall in Oberlin, where he often shows visitors the incredible night sky. In the background is the Oberlin College observatory dome.