NGC 663

        One of the first astronomy books I ever read was John Benson Sidgwick’s Introducing Astronomy.  Thew book was published in 1959, a year after his death.  In it was a large section in which each constellation was introduced, along with interesting things to see in each one.  I particularly recall Cassiopeia, in which, between the two fainter stars Delta and Epsilon Cassiopeiae, lies the open cluster NGC 663.  I first saw that cluster during the late summer of 1962.   All Sidgwick had to say about it was that it can be spotted through binoculars.  It didn’t look like much, but I did spot it and then promptly forgot about it for more than sixty years.  The other night, while conducting my search for comets, I encountered this star cluster again.  This time it was one of the loveliest things I have ever seen.  It moved me to tears.

               I have since learned that NGC 663 is a grouping of about four hundred mostly big, bright, bluish suns.  On a really dark night it might even be visible with the naked eye.    An unusual feature is that the cluster happens to be positioned directly in front of a molecular cloud, which somehow blocks the background stars and allows the cluster to be even more beautiful. In a field of view already rich with stars in the Milky Way, the cluster stands out like a heavenly flower filled with diamonds.

               I do have more to say about Sidgwick.   In my youth I considered him a famous astronomer, but he is known mostly for the few books he wrote, especially Introducing Astronomy.    Sidgwick enjoyed wide interests.  He loved to hitchhike across the United States and Canada, and he edited a book of the shorter poems of Walter Savage Landor’s shorter poems.  Landor, Sidgwick’s subject, had an unusual life, getting expelled both from Rugby School and from Oxford, where he allegedly shot a gun in his dormitory room.  Reading about him led me to his delightful poem “The Evening Star:”

                                Thy star O Venus! often changes

                                 Its radiant seat above,

                                 The chilling pole-star never ranges—

                                 ‘Tis thus with Hate and Love.

                   And ‘tis thus I return to NGC 663, a cluster of stars that warms my heart.  Where have I been for the last sixty years, religiously watching the sky, searching successfully for comets, enjoying many far-off stars and galaxies, but largely ignoring one of Nature’s most wondrous splendors?

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David Levy