Spring skies from paradise (complete with August sunrays)

American engineer Willis Carrier, inventor of modern air-conditioning, in 1915

Lots of exciting things are happening in the heavens. Jupiter, the brightest “star” in the sky, still dominates the west at nightfall. Orange Mars hovers high in the southeast. It’s still brilliant, even if it will lose half its light during May. And Saturn gives its best showing in six years as it reaches its closest point to Earth next week. As icing on the cake, the normally elusive Mercury is coming into easy visibility as well.

All these planets are arrayed like a string of pearls. If the weather’s clear, join us next Saturday night, May 10, on the Walkway over the Hudson to observe and talk about this gorgeous celestial apparition. We’ll even have telescopes set up for you to use.

What a change this will be from the coming fall, when the sky will be planetless.

Of course, most people are enjoying the day sky, now that the midday sun hovers 64 degrees high, or about two-thirds of the way up above the horizon. This weekend the sun’s rays have the exact same intensity as they do in early August – and it will burn skin just as quickly.

The daytime sky’s visual changes are obvious. Winter’s typical sheets of stratus clouds are being replaced by puffy, interesting cumulus clouds – a situation that will persist through August. The strong winter winds are giving way to the milder breezes of our warm season. And the air’s capacity to hold moisture has increased tenfold. We can put away those humidifiers.

In the next month or so, some of us will dig out our room air conditioners. This is a big change from when many of us were young and air conditioning was a rare, expensive luxury. Those over 55 can remember lying in our perspiration-soaked beds on sultry summer nights, trying to sleep on damp sheets. Nowadays a good air conditioner costs less than $200.

Why aren’t there statues honoring Willis Carrier? Carrier lived here in upstate New York, went to Cornell and then Lehigh, and he changed our lives. Sixteen years ago, Time voted him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

But in many other ways, life in upstate New York hasn’t changed much. A friend who hadn’t been to Woodstock in 30 years commented that it’s still pretty much the same, except the ubiquitous dented cars belonging to local artists and carpenters have been largely replaced by a shiny rich folks’ vehicles, one result of the second-home craze sweeping our region. Phoenicia, where I lived in the early seventies, is also virtually unchanged. What a stunning contrast from India or China, where villages and cities are unrecognizable from their analogs of just 15 years ago.

For those of us who enjoy nature, the rural northeast remains a paradise. The farms are stunning, the forests just as extensive as they were a generation ago. I’ve even seen mountain lions out my window. And our skies remain largely unpolluted. Why would anyone move away from here?

Oh yeah, I forgot. Those endless winters.

Want to know more? To read Bob Berman’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at www.HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.




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