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Playlist for the planets

Greetings stargazers.

I have an astronomy music playlist, and know I am not the only one who has one. I was recently reminded of it because I sing with the Durango Choral Society and the theme for the March Concert is “To the Stars,” which I find quite fun. Composers have been writing music about the heavens for probably as long as they have been writing any music and I am glad to listen to it, and in this case perform it.

I started my playlist on an iPod back in the days when they had a tiny hard drive for data storage. I would play one of the songs at the beginning of my astronomy class while people were entering the room and was usually able to find a song related to the day’s topic. I tried to stay with contemporary pieces that the students would have heard on the radio.

Unfortunately, classroom technology changes made playing songs from portable devices inconvenient for a while, so I got out of the habit of a musical prelude to the lecture. My list was much longer than the number of days in a semester, and way too long to list here, but I thought I would give a few examples of how different songs fit in with the classroom topics.

My first goal is always to make sure everyone can differentiate astronomy from astrology. “Aquarius” performed by The 5th Dimension got played – at least until I found out students more closely associated it with the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” reminded some that it wasn’t just the sun that rises in the east and sets in the west. We have discussed if “The Fool on the Hill” who sees “the world spinning ‘round” could refer to Galileo, even if Paul McCartney never mentioned him.

Spectroscopy, blackbody radiation and Wien’s Law, used as our cosmic thermometer, are very important topics in the class. They went along with “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones, and “Colour My World” by Chicago, even though the topics of those songs might not be about electromagnetic radiation.

Useful links:

Durango Choral Society


Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks


Astronomy picture of the day


An Astronomer’s forecast for Durango


Old Fort Lewis Observatory



A discussion of eclipses let me play Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse.” The Dark Side of the Moon album also included “The Great Gig in the Sky,” but I think I only played that on exam review days.

Rocketry and space travel aren’t included in the text we use, but we do cover current events, which let me play “Rocket Man” by Elton John, and “Space Oddity” by David Bowie.

A white dwarf star is the carbon core remnant of a sun-like star at the end of its life. When evidence suggested BPM 37093 had crystalline carbon structure, the star was nicknamed Lucy, after The Beatles “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Cosmology leads to the Big Bang and that it must have started everywhere at once. If that is the case we all get to be the center of the universe, even if that is not what is said in The Eagles “Center of the Universe.”

This month

This month there will be a very interesting and contrasty planetary conjunction. Venus, at magnitude -3.9, is still the brightest thing in the sky and is racing ahead of Earth in its path around the sun. Every morning it is rising later and later and soon will be lost in the glare of the rising sun. Mars, which had been a dim evening object last year is now reappearing in the morning sky as Earth catches up to it. Every day it is rising earlier and earlier. Since Mars is now on the opposite side of the sun, at the farthest point in its orbit from Earth, it is close to the dimmest it will ever appear from Earth, now at magnitude 1.24. This makes Mars appear over 100 times dimmer than Venus. On the morning of February 22, Venus and Mars will be separated in the sky by less than 1 degree. You should be able to cover both with one finger held at arm’s length.

Predicting comet behavior is always risky business, but there is one heading towards the inner solar system that might be worth a look. Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks returns to the inner solar system every 71 years. It is not expected to be exceptionally bright, but it has been known to have outbursts that change its brightness by a factor of up to 100 from night to night. This week it is a faint binocular object in the western sky at sunset but should become higher and visible to the naked eye by the end of next month.

It is not to early to start making plans for the solar eclipse happening on April 8th. While the path of the 2024 eclipse doesn’t go directly over the Four Corners like the annular eclipse last year, this one will be the last total eclipse in the contiguous United States until 2024.

Charles Hakes teaches in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is the director of the Fort Lewis Observatory.