The Meaning of Stargazing

The stargazers, family Uranoscopidae, are bottom-dwelling fishes with eyes on the tops of their heads. The Common American Stargazer, Astroscopus y-graecum, has a special talent: it can generate weak electric shocks.
New Zealand-American Submarine Ring of Fire 2005 Exploration, NOAA Vents Program
Stargazing makes a snappier title than Visual Observing or Amateur Astronomy, but that's not the only reason I chose it for my blog. Those other phrases don't quite capture what I want to talk about.

Outside the context of astronomy "visual observing" could mean just about anything. It also seems redundant; to most people, the word "observing" implies using your eyes. But to professional astronomers, who only study celestial objects with instruments and never with their own eyes, "visual" refers to the tiny slice of wavelengths wedged between infrared and ultraviolet.

As for "amateur astronomy," it definitely includes astrophotography, which is outside my bailiwick. In addition, many people think that the phrase implies somebody who's advancing the science of astronomy. And though that's certainly an admirable goal, it's not one shared by most amateur astronomers — or whatever you want to call us.

By contrast, the word "stargazer" has a whiff of frivolity to it. To check this, I looked the word up in the Oxford English Dictionary, where the oldest listed meaning is:

"One who gazes at stars. Often used as a familiar or contemptuous substitute for astrologer or astronomer."

On the other hand, the American Heritage Dictionary, comparing the words gaze, stare, gape, gawk, glare, and peer, notes that "Gaze is often indicative of wonder, fascination, awe, or admiration," citing "gazing at the stars" as an example of this meaning. That's more like it!

Still, whether you call me a stargawker, stargazer, or stargeezer, the word "gazing" doesn't really convey my relationship with the stars. — it's too passive. Wonder, fascination, and awe are certainly part of the experience, but if that was all of it, I'd get bored in a hurry. I don't just admire celestial objects; I study them. Not to advance the state of the science, not to make the world a better place, but to make me a better person — more perceptive, more aware, more engaged with the world. Sometimes that seems like a completely selfish goal; sometimes exactly the opposite. Either way, I'm stuck with it. It's what I do and who I am.

How about you? Does the word "stargazing" capture the essence of what you do? Can you think of a better word? Does stargazing have a meaning or purpose for you, or is it just a simple, uncomplicated pleasure, like eating a good meal when you're hungry?

6 thoughts on “The Meaning of Stargazing

  1. Steve Stansbery

    What really keeps me coming back and sharing it with others is the moments of discovery. Sometimes the discovery far exceeds how it was imagined, sometimes the discovery comes at a totally unexpected moment and sometimes … both!

  2. Ge' van Gasteren

    Thank you for your very accurate and detailed description! Here’s my thoughts:

    -Stargazing is plain fun, and that is a very great purpose. The only thing in life to be taken seriously is happiness.

    -I agree: stargazing is completely Selfish – with this “catch”: I’d distinguish between our own little “self” and the infinite cosmic “Self”. So stargazing is both unselfish and Selfish, because it makes us more “whole-ly”, more one with God.

    -Stargazing is a simple and uncomplicated pleasure, like everything divine. In our man-made environments, the sky is often the only God-made thing around us, so I think there’s great meaning and purpose to stargazing, if only to remind our own bodies of their divine origin and heal them in the process!

    Maybe I’ll sum it up like this: If you want to pray, first have a look at the sky. If you don’t want to pray, have a look at the sky instead. I wish you clear skies!

  3. Jeremy

    Dear Tony,

    I agree mostly that stargazing is selfish however it is not complety selfish

    - stargazing brings people together even strangers

    - it also makes people happy which certainly makes the world better

    - stargazing creates a memorable experience for someone ( I still remember my first star party)

    Anyway stargazing will always be fun but I like to think it makes the world better to live in.

  4. jerry church

    I wonder how many stargazers have been asked for their I.D. by the local athorities? What are you doing out here in the middle of the night and what is that thing (especially Dobs)? Looks like a mortor to me. No sir, it’s a telescope. On every occasion that this has happened to me the officer is always understanding. On one occasion he grabbed his cell phone and asked his wife to run outside and look up. The ISS. But the most I get a kick out of it is the children in my apartment complex who want to take a look. It always amazes me the questions they ask and what amazes me more is that I can answer them. By the way when an officer of the law shines a spotlight on you, you can forget about seeing anything for about an hour.

  5. jerry church

    I wonder how many stargazers have been asked for their I.D. by the local athorities? What are you doing out here in the middle of the night and what is that thing (especially Dobs)? Looks like a mortor to me. No sir, it’s a telescope. On every occasion that this has happened to me the officer is always understanding. On one occasion he grabbed his cell phone and asked his wife to run outside and look up. The ISS. But the most I get a kick out of it is the children in my apartment complex who want to take a look. It always amazes me the questions they ask and what amazes me more is that I can answer them. By the way when an officer of the law shines a spotlight on you, you can forget about seeing anything for about an hour.

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