Nature simplified: ipad astronomy

I got a new ipad app. It is an astonishing piece of technology. It allowed me to point the device at the sky, and a map of the heavens appeared with the stars named, the planets identified, and the constellations lightly manifest in all their Greco-Roman pictography. The app even had a night mode so the touchscreen was displayed in a soft, night-vision friendly red, that allowed you to move from the sky to the pad with a minimum of iris adjustment. What is that star? Point at it and with a couple of calibrating moves between the ipad and the sky you recognize Arcturus. Wonder where Mars is? Ask it, and little arrows appear guiding you to its position, even if it’s through the center of the Earth.

We rushed out after downloading. We’ve spent many nights trying to get a telescope to work, standing thoughtfully under the starry sky venturing to find our physical place in the universe. Now a method was in our hands. A knowledge-base that pointed instantly to the thing in the world to which it was referring. A machine that generated what, for me had been a daunting bit of memorization and patient skytime. I have always had trouble with the constellations. Take Cygnus, for example, the great swan, sure I can pick out the principal stars very quickly, but I was never sure I was including all the stars that make it up, or excluding stars that shouldn’t be counted. There was always a sense of doubt that I had gotten it right. Now, boom! There is is! Those are the stars in it. Those stars don’t count.

We downloaded the app and flew outside. I planned to stay up extra late that night. My son and daughter were with me, and I debated the wisdom of pulling this out on a school-night. Sill! It was the stars! We all love the stars. This was education in action. We had it burning through the digital stream in moments. It was so cool. It showed us that Jupiter and Venus were close together, we found the place Neptune was hanging out, even though we could not make it out with our naked eye. We IDed Cassiopeia and Cygnus. Yes, we looked a bunch of things and had names for them in seconds.

That lasted about fifteen minutes. We were soon bored. The quickest fizzle-out in the history of our backyard excursions into the visible universe (visible that is, from our light-soaked city). We soon wandered back inside. My daughter did not have to compromise her school sleep schedule. I checked Facebook.

Why? Why didn’t this become a night of magic and mystery? This is what I think is the answer to that question, but, in truth, I’m not sure (although I’ve speculated about it in poetry). Experienced nature had been reduced to names. The immersion into nature connects to deeper things. Sometimes when we lie on the lawn with the visible universe above us there is an experiential depth there. I feel connected to bigger things. Something about the grass underneath, and light from ancient stars overhead, and us in between, could be felt as complexity and connectedness. There was something about the machine, the focus on names, that separated us from the things we were seeking knowledge about. This wasn’t about the philosophy of science debates about empirical knowledge (does it count as sensual experience if I’m having it mediated through a microscope, e.g.). But somehow the device cut us off from the very thing we looked to the heavens for. Why this should be so, I’m not sure, but I think it had something to do with the disappearance of wonder. We didn’t have to ask the objects, “What are you? How do you fit into the universe we share?” The names of things became not memory aids (what need is there for those in the digital age), but lists without context or meaning, even thought the context and meaning where handed to us on a plater. Wonder, complexity, place, sensation, were cutout in weird and strange ways that I did not expect or anticipate. Is knowledge without wonder worth having? Is wonder and experience without a physicality a reduction of what and who we are? What’s being lost? Do bodies that feel and sense and experience these connections important? Why did we come here to get one if not?

The final irony was that while the device was in use it played soft, pleasant, new age music. As if the developers knew that something was missing: Ambiance.


  1. Oh,man… the iPad people totally stole this idea from the Google Sky app for android phones that has been around for months if not for more than a year. What you describe sound like the *identically* same application. (Unless the app is Google Sky for iPad.)

    But I agree, this stuff is awesome!

    “Why didn’t this become a night of magic and mystery?”

    It could be also that people enjoy imagining about looking up at the night but have a hard time actually doing it for more than 15 minutes before they get burnt out.

  2. What was the name of the app?

  3. I’m forcing myself to wait for the next revision. Wait, wait, . . .

  4. At the risk of being a smarty-pants,

    Jupiter and Venus were close together

    Well that can’t have been very recent because I’ve been doing some backyard astronomy myself, over the past couple of weeks, and Jupiter doesn’t currently come up until around sunset while Venus stays near the sun. As far as I can tell, Jupiter and Venus have not been close together (and visible in the evening) since late Feb–maybe early March. But you couldn’t have had your ipad then, because they were released in April.

    So what gives? Was your experience so boring that you don’t even remember what you really saw? :)

  5. I have an app on my iPhone that sounds very much the same. It’s called Star Walk, and it (with many others like it) has been around for quite a while. I don’t think the Google Sky ripoff theory really holds, because I’ve been seeing apps like this since I got my iPhone almost two years ago.

    I have had a similar experience with it, though. I find that while it’s very interesting to be able to point and name a star, the experience is deeper without the device handing me everything.

    I can think of one instance where that wasn’t the case, but by and large it’s been the rule.

    The companinon app, Solar Walk, on the other hand, is different because it gives a perspective on the Solar System that you can’t get from earth. Not only can you “visit” each planet and its moons, you can see them and their relationships as they theoretically were at any point in the past and as they should be at any point in the future.

  6. I think this is an example of mistaking tool for substance.
    I also think it’s context rather than ambience that’s missing. I suspect if you read the mythologies about the particular constellations and watched their progress through the year that it would be more interesting. But then the iPad would be a quick reminder of what is where, not an end in itself. A lot of our life gets spent mistaking tools for the ends toward which we ply them.

  7. This reminds me of this poem by Walt Whitman:

    WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
    When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
    When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
    How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; 5
    Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

    Really not that similar but I’m reminded of it.

  8. I love this. I totally get you.

    This starts to capture as well why I can’t help but consider ebook readers slightly evil. It removes you from the ink, from the paper, from the uncomfortable neck cramp that you feel after being unable to put down a heavy book when you’re reading the last few pages, and it’s difficult to hold up from a lot of angles because there are only a few pages left on one side, and lots on the other.

    I feel the same way about the stars. And lots of natural things. Sometimes we get so caught up in understanding that we ruin the mystery of experiencing.

  9. I so want that app! Even if I will soon be disappointed :)

  10. Jared* right you are, it was Venus and Mars. Jupiter just sounded more important so that’s how I laid down my memory.

    The App is Star Walk, I think there are several out there.

    “I think this is an example of mistaking tool for substance.” True, but it also lessened the substance and made it cheap and homogenous. I just came from a film (which stared Philosopher Mark Wrathall, who is LDS) called, “Being in the World” that captured this sense that there is more to experience than information very nicely.

  11. O scene divine, on those bright towers to stand,
    And mark the wonders of th’ Eternal hand;
    To see thro’ space unnumber’d systems driven,
    Worlds round their suns, and suns around the heaven;
    To see one ordinance worlds and suns obey;
    Their order, peace, and fair, harmonious way;
    Their solemn silence: varying pomp divine;
    Their fair proportions, and their endless shine!
    Some nearer rolling in celestial light;
    Some distant glimmering tow’rd the bordering night;
    ‘Till far remov’d from thought the regions lie,
    Where angels never wing’d the lonely, verging sky, . .


    — Timothy Dwight, The Conquest of Canäan; A Poem, in Eleven Books . . . (Hartford: Printed by Elisha Babcock, 1785), 269.

  12. “Is knowledge without wonder worth having?”

    Great question. Thanks for sharing this little episode.

  13. Love the poetry, Rick. Thanks.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    My cousin showing me Mars and other things in a backyard telescope led to a longtime interest in astronomy. Thanks for this.

  15. SteveP,

    Perhaps a star party in the mode of the ancients would lend greater gravity excitement and gravity (har!) for a next occasion. To wit:

    -Bonfire (strictly for ambiance and hot dogs, the star-viewing of course must take place away from the bonfire)
    -Boondocks location- cute city stars and intimidating boondocks stars are entirely different phenomena
    -Kick-a stories. Hey kids, who wants to hear about Hercules? I even have pictures this time– IN THE SKY!
    -Uh, herbal spirituality enhancers may be better left to professional shamans. But I’m sure they didn’t hurt.


    Also FWIW most cultures developed their own constellations and legend– the ancient Greeks were great, but they didn’t have sole ownership of the sky! E.g. in the Pleiades the Incas saw a band of Andean condors (which they duly venerated as nature’s majestic sanitation engineers), the Egyptians had some sort of big deal going on with Orion, etc. I only know a couple of “non-Western” constellations but they really seem to help really “see” the stars in a whole new way.


  16. I used to know many of the the Hawaiian constellations, but they’ve all slipt away. Maybe its time for an update. What would modern zodiac look like? I’d definitely rename Leo, ‘Darwin’s Pigeons’ (adding or taking stars as needed).

  17. And I do like the idea of a party in the mode of the ancients!

  18. It’s true that people had more connection to the stars when they spent more time outside and had less outdoor lighting. But the Google app (mentioned @1) plus an inexpensive telescope (a “Galileoscope”) has helped bring some of the fun of the night sky to my little family.

    We don’t have a yard, so we just leave the telescope set up on a tripod in our apartment. Then, whenever there are planets in the right part of the sky, we look at them.

  19. I use to backpack a lot. One early morning, I got up just before dawn, the only stars still showing were those of the zodiac.

  20. StillConfused says:

    My husband and I, on the other hand, would have been out there for hours or days fiddling with that. But we were seriously entertained for hours with my home blood pressure monitor. “Does ___ make my blood pressure go up or down…”

  21. Doug Hudson says:

    What happens if you enter “Kolob”? Or do you need a special app for that?

  22. I’ve seen something like that happen too! When we got a super cool scope with clock drive and database, suddenly stargazing was less fun. Back when it was us with our homemade Newtonian, cranking the gears to find things from charts, and sighting down the tube to get the finder scope in the ballpark, it was glorious! I don’t understand the difference, really, or what set of conditions are necessary to show us the wonder of the sky undimmed. I do know that star parties fascinate almost all kids, that looking up through a telescope at Jupiter and seeing the small banded circle with bright Galilean moons lined up in a row is magical in a way that no number of awesome images from probes or orbiting observatories can ever be.

    Get (or make) a Dobsonian with an 8″ or 10″ aperture and go find things in the sky yourself! That’s a recipe that works for wonder and awe at the heavens.

  23. Tatiana, I have always wanted a Dobsonian, but I’ve alway been intimidated. I suppose because I always thought that I would have to grind and polish the mirror myself. I know you can buy one already done, but I think there is something compelling about putting in the work yourself that builds anticipation and excitement about the project. I wanted a Dobsonian and I wanted to build it myself. Old school and from scratch. If I care enough to do things myself there is something that binds what we care about and the work that has gone into the object of care. Cheep knowledge is usually held cheaply. Not always but your experiences matches mine.

  24. Jared and SteveP,

    Perhaps it was Uranus that was right behind Jupiter? The two are sitting right on top of each other in my Star Walk app, much closer than Venus and Mars are.

  25. I think the App is cool and helpful. It’s fun to see where stars and planets are in the sky, but ultimately, like you pointed out so well, the parts with a deeper meaning are while lying on the grass and staring up into the massive starry sky with a sense of wonder. Knowing the names of things and having the ability to find any star is wonderful, however a greater sense of wonder comes, I think, in the ability to see the vastness of space and lay on the grass staring up in amazement and mystery.

  26. iguacufalls says:

    Astronomy apps are of limited usefulness here in the Great Northwest. But we did use Star Walk to great effect during my daughter’s summer school Astronomy class.

  27. 21, you need a white rock for that, the I-Pad doesn’t quite cut it.

    Now I have serious I-Pad envy. I own a 6″ scope on a equatorial mount. My problem is finding stuff to look at, I have a hard time with ascension & declination and end up just pointing it at stuff. Luckily planets are easier to discern and I can get them into view with less effort. Also the moon is hard to miss, and it looks great with my moon filter, but I’d really like to find those messier objects some day.

    I think I would love that tool. Amateur astronomy is hard without computers.

  28. I’ve been using the Pocket Universe app on my iPhone. I’ve been trying to teach myself the constellations, things I can find with the naked eye in suburban light pollution. I’ve been looking enough to catch your Jupiter near Venus typo.

    I’ve been looking at the sky more, not less. I used to run in the house to check the star map on But I’m still wandering street to street to find places where trees or roofs don’t block the stars I’m looking for. Maybe it’s the obstacles that make star finding a good game.

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