Story Submitted by Lori Stokan Smith

A Bunch of Dots in the Sky

“So, are you guys coming with us?” Jim asked Anna, Connor, and Maya, Connor’s girlfriend, at the dinner table on December 21st, 2020. “It’s just a bunch of dots in the sky. What’s the big deal?” Connor asked. Jim replied, “Connor, it hasn’t happened for 400 years. And it won’t happen again for 800 years.” We were trying to coax our kids, now adults at 22 and 23 years old, to join us in seeing the Great Conjunction of 2020, when Jupiter and Saturn would be so close, they would appear as one. It wasn’t working. The blank-faced kids looked skeptical and stayed non-committal. After clearing the table, they scurried off to their rooms, leaving us hanging. I understood their reticence. When Jim first mentioned the Great Conjunction of 2020, I too was a disinterested party. About a week out from the phenomenon, Jim said, “Let’s walk Mango.” I am always in for a walk. We put Mango’s harness on and started walking the long block to get to Bayshore Boulevard. Halfway there, Jim said, “I want to see if we can spot Saturn and Jupiter in the sky. They are supposed to be coming together so closely they look as one.” It was a gorgeous windy night with a tinge of chill, as we looked out at the bay. Orion was clearly showing its armor. We found the red planet, Mars. We made a guess that two dimly lit stars higher in the sky were Saturn and Jupiter; although at the time, we didn’t know we were way off. Jim researched after that night and figured out we should have been looking in the Southwestern sky. We took Mango on more walks, but South Tampa’s tree canopy obstructed any hope of seeing the confluence of planets. We researched and learned the Great Conjunction, when Saturn and Jupiter would be closest to each other, would occur at 6:20 pm on December 21st. On the morning of the Great Conjunction, the news commentators led with the ever-rising pandemic numbers, then ran a story on the confluence of planets. That afternoon, my computer news feed caught my attention. I logged on to space.com and found two wonderfully nerdy scientists* talking as they waited for ginormous telescopes to get the first picture of the conjunction from the Cayman Islands. Their excitement was as contagious as someone with COVID without a mask. One asked the other what was more exciting, a total eclipse of the sun or this conjunction. Without doubt, they both agreed it was the conjunction. They informed us listeners, “The last time the two planets were easily observable when separated by less than 0.1 degrees was almost 800 years ago, during the great conjunction of 1226.” Then, giddily, one scientist said, “Oh wait, I think we have our first pictures coming in.” There it was, a dark screen with two bright dots, Saturn and Jupiter, and four pinpoints, the moons of Jupiter. A closet geek, I was hooked. As we finished dinner, around 5:45 pm, I said to Jim, “We gotta get going.” Jim asked, “What did the kids decide?” I yelled up, “Are you guys coming?” Connor ran down the steps. “Do we have to go?” Jim said, “No.” I said, “Why would you not go? What else do you have to do?” Jim, tired of the kids’ lack of acquiescence, said to me, “Let’s go.” We got into the car and headed for Davis Island, where we thought we could get the best view. As we turned on to Bayshore Boulevard, we were shocked at the amount of people waiting and watching there. I asked Jim, “Do you think all of these people are here to see the conjunction?” As we drove the length of Bayshore, it was clear that everyone was facing the Southwestern sky. Families, groups of friends, young and old were all gathered for the event. Cameras, flashlights, and glowing neon necklace tubes filtered through the crowd. This night seemed like the most communal event of the last ten months – months in which we all felt like our only emotions were fear, division, and death. The Pandemic and the protests had left us weary. Finally, something spectacular was happening. Traffic slowly wound around the curvy streets of Davis Island, with cars parked alongside the road to the airport. We took over a parking spot as one driver left, probably not sure of why these dots in the sky were worthy of leaving home on a cold Florida night. Didn’t he know he was supposed to wait till exactly 6:20 pm when the two planets would be closest? Maybe he did not know this was a Cinderella moment for all of us. People came and went. Some had masks on, but most not. Generally, people eschewed the mask outside whenever possible since the experts said it was ok when socially distancing. It felt nice to not have to hide our smiles behind masks for a few moments. Then, alas, Connor called from the car. “Where are you parked?” He and the girls were close. Directions given, they arrived with minutes to spare. We stood, looking at the night sky. We could only see the two white dots, the planets, up high. We brought binoculars, which gave us a better close-up of the convergence of the planets. We shared them amongst our group, and with a family beside us with little kids. A gentleman next to us allowed me to gaze into his large telescope, which clearly showed not only the planets, but Jupiter’s four moons. I felt a connection with humanity on this night, more so than in all the months since March of 2020. For a few short moments, we threw off our chains of isolation and monotony. We saw the supernatural before our eyes. It was visceral and somewhat soothing. In 20 years, another conjunction will come, albeit much further apart. In another 100 years, a pandemic will come. Time stops for no man. Perhaps God knew we needed a little something special during this long cold winter of COVID 2020. * Paul Cox, Slooh Astronomer, and Bob Berman, Slooh Astronomer and Author ** Definition of a celestial conjunction: A conjunction occurs when two planets, on the same ecliptic longitude, appear to meet each other in the sky, as seen from Earth. Jupiter and Saturn meet every 20 years or so, but rarely do they get so close to each other as in 2020. NASA explained, “On December 21st, they will appear so close that a pinkie finger at arms length. The planets will be easy to see with the unaided eye by looking toward the southwest just after sunset.” https://mashable.com/article/great-conjunction-christmas-star-how-to-see/

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