Today, let's prance! Staring at the Sky Day

What can we see in the sky and why should we look at it as often as possible? We will try to answer these questions from both an astrophysical and a psychological point of view.

April 14 is International Day of Staring at the Sky. Therefore, it can be considered a holiday for astrophysicists and astronomers who observe what is happening above our heads every day. What will we be able to observe in the coming days by raising our eyes?

'It is difficult to point to an exceptionally spectacular phenomenon,' - explains dr hab. Marcin Wieśniak, prof. UG from the Institute of Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics. - 'On April 22 and 23 the meteor shower from the Siridae swarm will have its peak, very nice, although not the most abundant one. On April 30 there will be a solar eclipse, but only visible in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. On May 16 there will be a lunar eclipse, but in Poland, this phenomenon will be visible only in a small part, between 3:00 and 4:00 at night, so you can wait for a better opportunity.'

Milky Way at night

However, the lack of exceptional phenomena does not mean that nothing is happening in the sky. Constellations, galaxies and nebulae are permanent features of the cosmic landscape. 

'In the evening you can easily find the Leo constellation, proudly looking west,' - continues the astrophysicist. - 'Behind it, to the east, are less clear constellations: Berenice's braid and Virgo. This area is teeming with galaxies, some of them bright enough to be an interesting visual challenge and an excellent photographic subject for those with small telescopes. With time, these constellations give way to the summer sky, where the eye is delighted by numerous globular clusters, planetary nebulae and charming fragments of the Milky Way.'

The aurora borealis observed in the English city of Yorkshire

However, you do not have to be a scientist to recognise all the celestial bodies visible in the sky. Less experienced observers will certainly be interested in applications for their phones, which, when pointed at the sky, will display the names of all the visible stars, constellations etc. In the coming days, there is also a chance to see a phenomenon that cannot be mistaken for anything else.

- 'It is still possible to see the Aurora Borealis. It can be experienced by driving on a particular night, preferably by the sea. However, it is an unpredictable phenomenon and it is best to use a mobile application that informs about the sun's activity,' - says prof. Marcin Wieśniak.

With simple photographic tricks you can capture stars moving across the sky in a photograph

We already know what we are going to 'stare' at, but it is worth asking ourselves why we want to do it? The beginnings of observing celestial bodies date back to the Palaeolithic. It is suspected that our ancestors tried to capture astronomical objects in some cave paintings. So there is something about staring at the sky that has delighted us for hundreds of thousands of years. Why? 

'Astronomy as a hobby is very versatile. It involves contact with nature and the use of specialised equipment. Quick trips and long expeditions,' - answers prof. Marcin Wieśniak. - 'Long map studies and computer work to process the photos. Concentration, and patience, but also a race against time, because, for example, the phenomenon on Jupiter has just finished, so the few remaining hours should be spent on completely different objects. It teaches organisation and humility: if we miss something, no one can organise it for us again. Looking at the sky, we experience something extraordinary. We are participating in the greatest show in the Universe, which is the Universe itself. We are looking at something that we cannot comprehend with our minds. Enormous structures and incomparably greater voids between them. Looking, for example, at nearby galaxies, we can be sure that there is life there, although we cannot make contact with it. The most important lesson to be learned from observing the sky is our loneliness. We have no second home in the cosmos available to us. We must take care of our one planet and live with each other in harmony and peace.'


Staring at the sky from a psychologist's perspective

Psychologists have studied the topic of gazing at the sky (upwards) from various angles, asking themselves many, extremely interesting, questions. We already know the answers to some of them today. If only thanks to the development of a trend called skychology 'sky psychology'. The latest research confirms that looking at the sky improves our well-being. 

- 'Looking at the sky improves our quality of life and increases, among other things, our sense of happiness and contentment. Moreover, it works well as part of psychotherapy, available everywhere and "at your fingertips" (or neck....) and completely free,' - says psychologist dr Agata Rudnik from the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology of the Faculty of Social Sciences UG, Director of the Academic Psychological Support Centre UG. - 'The psychology of the sky has even gained a separate term - skychology, as written about by Paul Conway of Birkbeck, University of London, among others. His 2019 study attempted to answer the question, what do people experience when they look at the sky? What role does the sky play in the experience of wellbeing? By talking to people who practice 'looking up' as a moment to catch their breath, he showed that it is a helpful mindfulness technique (practice of mindfulness) that improves our wellbeing, helping us to be in the here and now.'

As dr Agata Rudnik points out, gazing at the sky gives us a sense of security, calms us down, and can be an effective form of emotional regulation. What is more, this activity allows us to experience the so-called awe - a complex psychological construct positively related to well-being, perspective taking, humility, creativity and pro-social behaviour. 

'Let's not treat "staring at the sky" as a waste of time, let's rather think that we have a moment for ourselves, thanks to which we can improve our own well-being,' - adds dr Agata Rudnik. 

More information about the study:

The fact that it is worth looking up as often as possible is also confirmed by the research of dr Aleksandra Mańkowska from the Department of Neuropsychology, Institute of Psychology, WNS, who studies processes related to the orientation of visual attention in horizontal and vertical space.

'From the point of view of neuropsychology, it is worth looking up as often as possible! We have known for a long time that "it feels like heaven" is a metaphor that describes well the state we would like to be in. In 2010, Valeria Drago and colleagues showed that different emotional memories and experiences can affect the spatial allocation of attention. The researchers proved that memories with a positive emotional tinge favour directing attention upwards, while sad memories direct our attention downwards (in a spatial sense),' - says dr Aleksandra Mańkowska. - 'Our research, conducted at the Department of Neuropsychology of the University of Gdansk, also confirms this relationship - it shows that people with greater severity of depressive symptoms tend to direct their attention downwards. So the study concludes that if we want to feel like in heaven, we should look at it as often as possible,' - she adds.


Marcel Jakubowski, Elżbieta Michalak-Witkowska / Press Office UG