When we get the chance, my family and I hitch a camper trailer to our car and head out of the city for a few nights. An hour or two west of Brisbane are some of Australia’s most beautiful camping grounds and we like nothing more than to light a fire, pull up a chair and stare straight up into a sky impossible to see from home. While my son and I warm our feet, we confidently point to constellations and individual stars, and track loopy planet trajectories. We've often been astounded to discover that what we thought was Venus was actually Jupiter and talked about important issues such as how easy it can be to mistake the red-tinged Betelgeuse for Mars if you’re not sure what to look for.
And when we’re finished identifying as much of the night sky as we can see, we close the Night Sky app and put the phone away.
I went through an astronomy phase as a kid. I suspect most curious kids do, even the ones who grow up in the pervasive glow of street lights. I had a couple of children's astronomy books; I had a set of binoculars (‘borrowed’ from my brother’s room); and I had a lot of enthusiasm, at least for a while.
See, astronomy was hard. Those books were published a long way from home in places like New York and London. The sky they described was not the sky I saw. Their constellations were strange (Bear? What bear? Where’s the Southern Cross?). And the maps they contained were inscrutable, filed with arcane directions and esoteric symbols. Halley’s Comet, when it arrived, was easy enough to find (its tail took up half the sky), but for the most part I looked up at night with little guidance and no clue. Books were of no help to me as a would-be astronomer.
For my son, no such barrier exists.
We talk about how pervasive handheld screens have changed the nature of reading as an activity and the book as an object. But all too frequently, we get blindsided by electronic books that take little to no advantage of a container that’s connected, listening, and aware of its position in space. The Night Sky takes data and information (all previously shoehorned into books) and connects them in meaningful ways to the person holding the device right now. It takes something as opaque as a star atlas and makes it instantly understandable. Crucially, in order to achieve this, it abandons any bookish trappings.
Does that mean the Night Sky is still a book? Kind of a book? Or something completely different? Watching my son confidently identifying Antares, I realise such thoughts are irrelevant to him, baggage for a previous generation.
The Night Sky: http://bit.ly/ifbook450