Time spent doing what you love is never wasted

By Phil Plait | June 17, 2010 10:00 am

Recently, I was performing the mundane task of taking out the trash.

I went from room to room, collecting the detritus of the week. I then spent a few minutes scooping out and changing the cat litter, and, sighing, finally tied up the bag and hauled it out to the bins around the side of the house.

As I lugged the hefty bin out to the curb in the darkness, I did what I do, what I always do, when I go outside: I looked up.

I was greeted instantly with an astonishing sight: the reddish, glowing dot of Mars bumped right up against Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. The two were paired less than a degree between each other, low over the western horizon.

It was beautiful. Mars was the slightly brighter of the pair, and even in the mildly light-polluted and sparsely clouded night sky of Boulder I could see the color difference between the planet, some 240 million kilometers away, and the star, 3 million times farther distant yet.

I let my gaze drift a bit over and saw Saturn looming near Leo’s other end. Venus, I knew, was already behind the mountains, but I could see the Big Dipper standing on its bowl to the northwest. Following the arc of the dipper’s handle, I was led to mighty Arcturus, an orange giant nearing the end of its life, and a harbinger of things to come for our own star. Turning, was that Vega I saw dancing in between my neighbor’s tree branches? Why yes, yes it was. Summer’s coming, Vega is telling me.

My trash-hauling chore was forgotten. I suddenly had a flashback, visceral and total, of being a teenager. Standing at the end of my family’s driveway, I watched the sky. Every clear night you’d find me out there. I spent hundreds of hours, thousands, either gazing with my eye to the telescope or simply with my chin tipped up, the Universe unfolded above me. I would always have to pause when a car drove by, and while my absorption with the task didn’t allow it to occur to me then, I now wonder how many of those people saw me and thought to themselves that I was wasting my time.

But as I stand outside my house as an adult, gaping up at the sky, I am familiar there. The stars are my friends… no, that’s hopelessly anthropomorphic and somewhat twee. But they are like slipping your feet into well-worn slippers, like the first bite of a recipe you’ve perfected by countless trial-and-error meals, like holding a book whose spine has been softened through years of reading and re-reading.

I’m comfortable with the sky. I’m at home there. When I stand in my yard and look up, my heart sings and my mind reaches out. My weekly chore was interrupted, delayed, but it didn’t matter.

I don’t know what your own passion is. But I will say this, and you hear me well: no time is wasted spent under the stars. And no time is wasted spent doing what you love.

Picture credit: Il conte di Luna’s Flickr photostream, used under the Creative Commons license.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind

Comments (77)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper


    Well said! Great post BA. :-)

    (Hmmm … All small letters & italic-y now. Did you forget to close a tag somewhere BA? ūüėČ
    Tried > / [other way course] fix but no FXT. That’s pretty much my net-fu exhausted. Can anyone fix this please?

    Why yes, yes it was. Summer’s coming, Vega is telling me.

    Well that ll depends on your pouint of view – or rather viewing. It is winter when I see Vega – and for me & my fellow South Aussies, Alpha Lyrae barely scrapes above the horizon before sinking out of sight again. ūüėČ

  2. Jess Tauber

    I dunno- it seems to me that almost everything you do can be time wasted when the people with the power (political, financial, military, criminal, religious) in this world believe in so much waste matter. They’ll never listen if you try logic and rationality- perhaps better to go after them using their own weapons. Put a hex on a witch or two- let them know. Cast a bad horoscope. Give ’em medicines diluted to nothing. Point a bomb detecting wand their way, and paint them as terrorists.


  3. Jessica @ Purdue

    I thought this was beautiful, and just the kind of thing I’ve needed to hear lately. This helps remind me what I’m trudging through grad school for.

  4. John Baxter

    Thank you, Phil.
    During my Army time at Ft. Huachuca, AZ, there was a period during which I needed to go out on a range away from the lights of the post nightly at 03:00 to perform a part of a test. (Radiation involved, so had a second person.) From the not very light polluted desert sky at around 5,000 feet altitude, that was the best sky viewing I’ve had.

    (There were times while at Huachuca, driving back to the post from Tucson into a rising moon when I actually needed to use the car’s sun visor against the moon, and there was enough brightness that some color was visible at roadside.) A good couple of years.

  5. JMW

    Very poetic – not in the sense that it’s written in verse, but that it is passionate. I’m planning on my 14 year old to read this. Thank you.

  6. Mircea

    Beautyfull post. Makes me happy :)

  7. K

    Heee heeee, I wish I was an alien so I could swoop you up in my spaceship, drive out to the middle of nowhere, make you look out the window and say, “HA! You’re lost now, ain’tcha!”

    It still bothers me to look up at the sky in Florida (lived here now30 years) because I grew up in St. Louis and none of the stars are in the right place or at the right time of year.

  8. DaveH

    What if you love Astrology?


  9. MT-LA

    Wonderful post, Phil. From the heavens to the earth, my “comfortable slippers” are found when I grab a good 18V power drill, a band saw, or really even a Lego block. Put a tool in my hands, and I remember countless hours helping my dad in the garage – turning me into an engineer today.

    Thank you for reminding all of us to embrace our childhood, especially as summer comes around!

  10. K Ehnle

    A very moving post. I’m feeling good for the rest of the day.

  11. oldamateurastronomer

    Damn, I miss observing so!

    I’m not sure when my love of the sky started, but I could not wait until I built my first scope ( 8″ F/5 Newtonian) and start observing!! My problems now preclude my even going out at night just to look at the sky to see what planets are up or anything else.

  12. ross

    I would add video games. I’ve replayed a few (SimCity, Ultima, Half-life 1&2, neverwinter nights, mass effect 1&2) multiple times and enjoyed it every time. I wish I had thought of this when I was a kid, and my mom said I was wasting time. In retrospect, it’s amazing how many words (and how much quasi-history) I learned playing games.

  13. Phil, you should submit the sky to Lifehacker.com as your nicely arranged “workspace”.

  14. Christine P.

    Waxing philosophical, aren’t we? Very nice post, Phil, and I wholeheartedly agree.

  15. For most people that live in cities, the night sky is nothing to marvel at.
    Light pollution lets you see only a few stars. According to a poll, 44% of
    the young people in Germany have never seen the Milky Way.

    Nevertheless, a very nice post. Whenever I am in a place with little light pollution,
    I spend hours gazing at the night sky.

  16. David P

    We should make a list of things we have tripped over while looking up at the sky while walking. My girlfriend has learnt quickly to guide me away from obstacles whenever my head looks upwards.

    (On a side note I long for dark skies. I would love for Cities to turn off all non essential power once a year for a few hours on a clear night. I can’t help think that people would be in awe of the sky they had never seen.)

  17. Zucchi

    I have got to get out of Atlanta, and go someplace where you can see the stars at night. I haven’t seen the Milky Way in years.

  18. Josie

    World of Warcraft, I love you. ūüėõ

    I love the post and the sentiment is one i think about every day so as to not ‘waste my time’ on things I do NOT like.

    As a result I have an *awesome* job researching how to wrangle stem cells, i swim in the san diego beach waters regularly, I watch birds every time I run in the deserty landscape around my house, I constantly ask questions and seek the answers…and I play wow. I like my life :)

  19. This was a beautiful post. Thanks Phil!

  20. stephanie

    The next time someone tells me I’m wasting time with my knitting I’ll poke them with my needles and show off my very useful socks!

  21. Tod R. Lauer

    Fantastic Phil!

    You should know you’re not the only one. I, too, saw the Regulus-Mars pairing by chance, which was fantastic. I went out a couple of nights ago just to brush up on my constellations. I had never got the hang of Ophiuchus, for one, and finally traced it all out. In fact I was surprised to find that Oph hosts Barnard’s star, which I should snag with my 10″. Keep looking!

  22. Tell that to my family member that only plays xbox and won’t get a job.

  23. Mircea

    Nice comunity here , Phil you must pe proud :)

  24. It’s amazing the amount of people who never look up at the sky.

  25. Jackie

    I understand this post completely, as I often find myself in the same situation. As a matter of fact, I know I was out that very same night, Phil, looking at Mars & Regulus. I often wonder what the neighbors are thinking when they drive by and see me standing in the driveway, again, just looking up.

    Thanksgiving night, ’08, as I was putting out the trash, I looked up to see a very slow-moving, bright orange fireball trace its way across the sky. I guess these amazing sights are our thanks for taking care of those mundane chores.

  26. Noelle

    One of the things I miss the most about the town I grew up in is the stars. I live in a big city now, where the light pollution has washed out all but a few of the brightest stars, but where I grew up, I saw so many more. The summer sky has always been my favorite, and I can remember sleeping on the porch with my sister every August to watch the meteor showers. A few months ago I made a short road trip through Arizona, and found myself staring up at the night sky (when I should have been looking at the road…). This post was beautiful, and it makes me want to drive out of the city for the rest of the week and not look back.

  27. I guess you’re a fan of “Rose is Rose”?


  28. ross


    As soon as a job is required for them to have the money to continue playing xbox, they will have a job. It will be a means to an end: doing what they enjoy (xbox). The real waste would be if they spent all their time working at a dead-end job that they hated, and never had time to spend on the xbox.

  29. ross:

    You’re right. What’s the pointing of earning money and stressing yourself out if you can’t enjoy life?

    But in this case, he’s not doing what he enjoys, he’s doing what is easy. The trick is to go to school to study something you enjoy and make a career out of it. That would be the best.

  30. It is rare I believe for anyone to be passionate about something. I honestly believe that’s why people “lead lives of quiet desperation.” The question being – how does one become passionate, instead of just enjoying something in a mild way.

  31. DrFlimmer


    Somehow I have nothing to add, except: Thank you!

  32. AliCali

    I call the stars “my friends” too. I remember when I was a kid and it was around wintertime (for the Northern or “correct” hemisphere), so Orion dominated the sky. My family and I had to go somewhere very early, so we left a few hours before the Sun came up. Imagine my delight when I looked up and saw Scorpio! I said, “Hello, old friend. I wasn’t expecting you for a few months.” Such a delightful and surprising sight because I knew the night sky.

  33. This is the second time in a week that I’ll have made reference to World of Warcraft! It’s funny someone else mentioned it though but it reminded me of something kind of silly.

    Back when they released The Burning Crusade expansion, myself and my nerdly friends were all eager to explore the new world that awaited us beyond the portal. When I first set foot into the new world the first thing I did was look up at the sky. Mind you it was a computer generated sky but I looked up anyway. I think maybe it’s just instinct?

    I’m not an astronomer and could hardly qualify as an amateur but I love to read about it and talk about it. I guess that does make me a true amateur? Every time I walk outside at night I will look to the sky. I don’t know everything that is up there but I know enough to make it enjoyable. I was able to tell the neighbors kids and my son what some of the objects were in the sky. I got a lot of joy out of that.

    It’s profound to gaze up and have a look at where we ultimately come from and where we’re going.

  34. ross


    That’s definitely a trick and one that is rarely mastered. If everyone could do that, we wouldn’t have anyone left to be a janitor, fast food worker, retail worker, factory worker, or almost anything you see on Dirty Jobs. As far as doing what’s easy, it’s hard to play xbox if your power has been cut off for lack of payment. Is this person still in school, or like 30 living at mom’s house? One requires discipline, the other requires a kick in the ass.

    Though the whole thing does remind me of a twilight zone episode:


  35. Astronomynut

    Loved the post! Followed the same arc to Arcturus and straight on to Spica while getting something out of my car last night myself. Finally a clear night after all the storms coming through the midwest.

  36. kevbo

    Mars bumped right up against Regulus?

    Vega in conjunction with your neighbor’s tree *predicting* summer?

    Sounds like a bad astronomer to me…

  37. Tribeca Mike

    Your touching commentary reminds me of this line from Vladimir Nabokov’s story “Time and Ebb”:

    “Attainment and science, retainment and art — the two couples keep to themselves, but when they do meet, nothing else in the world matters.”

  38. Russell

    Ahhhwww ! … thanks Phil, just what I needed today.

    When the world gets you down there are always the stars.

    I’ve already read the post three times now…..

  39. Really enjoyed this post Phil – never a truer word spoken

  40. Michael Swanson

    I’m envious, Phil.

  41. TheLoneIguana

    I used to see various projects online, over-the-top computer case modifications, odd art, etc., and think “wow, they have too much time on their hands.”

    I realized one day that’s a horrible attitude to have.

  42. Bryan

    thanks. I needed this today.

  43. A friend of mine, a longtime resident of Los Angeles but originally from rural Illinois, once was asked by his teenage daughters why he looked up every time he went outside at night. He explained to them that he liked looking up at the stars. They scoffed. “The stars” were just a couple of dim specks against a deep purple backdrop.

    My friend realized they were right. Those specks were the only stars his daughters had ever known. So the next weekend he and his wife packed the kids up and drove to Cambria, a lovely little seaside town up the coast, far away from city lights. Their first night there, he dragged them out onto Moonstone beach, promising to “show them something.” They all sat down on the pebbly beach, switched off their flashlights, and waited a few minutes. The girls, my friend told me, waited, expecting their dad to start in on a boring ghost story or something equally dumb and daddish. Instead, once a few minutes had passed, he quietly instructed them to look up.

    They did.

    He told me they cried.

  44. Ken (a different Ken)

    Okay … Father’s Day this weekend, for once I get to pick what we do. Weather report is predicting mostly decent weather for a change. My kids have been mildly interested in my newfound hobby of peering a the sky (being able to actually see Jupiter and its moons last summer helped a lot).

    Anyone know a decent darkish site somewhere near the Northern Virginia area, where we won’t get run off by someone?

  45. Crux Australis

    BA, you are now officially on the business end of my man-crush. Congratulations!

  46. DrFlimmer

    Thinking again, I have something to add.

    Because one thing I feel when I “really” look up at the stars is: Peace. And that is true enjoyment!

    Maybe, if only some more people these days would look up, just as you did, Phil, maybe the world could be a little more peaceful, and maybe a little more calm! Maybe…..

  47. DataJack

    Well put, Phil. That was beautiful and inspiring.

  48. Very well said, BA! In Northern VA we don’t see a lot of stars, but during the brief period of time I was leaving for work at dawn I would always check out the sky and on those clear mornings it would always make me smile. It’s a good way to start the day. And when I do manage to go out at night, I always look to see what’s up.

  49. The Mutt

    I live in the inner city. (A term I’ve always loved because it sounds kinda sci fi.)

    When I was a child in the 1960’s, I could see thousands of stars. I could see Saturn with binoculars.

    Today, it’s so bright here at night I’m lucky if I can see Orion.

    There used to be Lightning Bugs and Toads and Rabbits and Lizards in my neighborhood.

    No more.

    And comic books cost 12 cents!

    Damn. I’m old. Time to move to the country.

  50. Mary

    So true, Phil. We are fortunate to be at the lake the last few days. The sky is much darker here than at home. It’s pleasant in May and June befiore all the regular campers and cottagers come and turn on their lights. It gives me a chance for some serious observing.
    I find it amusing–sad, but amusing–when campers are sitting around their campfires commenting on how they can see so many more stars here than at their homes. Sometimes, I feel like shouting. “If you’d turn off the cottage lights, you’d see a lot more”. But, that would be rude, wouldn’t it? Although, some who rent a spot each year are catching on. Some come to check to see if the ‘telescope lady’ is here as they are hoping part of their time will include a summer sky tour. That is always lots of fun. It takes a lot to beat a clear Summer night, some ‘Wows’ and ‘Aahs’ from someone viewing a celestial treasure through the eyepiece, hearing the loons calling, and listening to the water lap against the shore. It’s very peaceful. (Don’t forget the Thermacell to keep the mosquitoes away–if I can mention a product here.)
    The other night, the Moon and Venus were definitely a gorgeous sight sinking into the hills on the other side of the lake while the reflection of Moonlight danced on the water. For awhile, there was some Venus shine, also. Unfortunately, the sky clouded over soon after and has been cloudy ever since. But those moments are memorable, refreshing, and keep drawing me back to the the night sky.

  51. JupiterIsBig

    #16 @DavidP
    ” My girlfriend has learnt quickly to guide me away from obstacles whenever my head looks upwards.”
    LOL – same with my wife !!!!
    I showed the kids at my sons school Venus in the evening before sunset. They loved it.

    I was lucky enough to have to go to Karratha for work last week. It’s a desert mining town. We had to walk a kilometre to get over the hill away from the football field floodlights, but the Milky Way was impressive.
    My colleague wasn’t impressed when we had to use mobile phones to navigate the dirt road walking back into the town !
    Being from a time zone two hours earlier, I got up well before sunrise but there was a light cloud haze, so I didn’t get two good views !

    In winter, I take the sunshades down from our living room skylight (2m *5m 13mm glass) I can see the stars whenever I want – pity about the light pollution.

    Thanks Phil !

  52. Cindy

    My husband always jokes that people can tell I’m the astronomer as I automatically look up when going outside and he always looks down (he’s the biologist). Our daughter loves looking at bugs and our son loves looking up.

  53. That was a lovely post. It’s strange that I also took the garbage out -this morning- and stopped to admire the flowers in my front yard. I walk around inspecting the garden several times a day and it seems to restore my soul. Making plants grow is something I love.

  54. awesome piece. very inspiring.

  55. csrster

    But what I love doing is wasting time!

  56. William

    I’ve been following my own interests and it has lead me here.

    I have a theory that’s a fine example of bad astronomy. However, it’s very creative. You can get video and pictures of just about everything here. I am considering several ideas. One of them involves things moving in and out of ultraviolet light.

    July 1992 Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, torn into pieces as a result of a close approach to Jupiter
    July 16-July 22, 1994, fragments collided with Jupiter’s southern hemisphere
    July 23, 1995 Hale Bopp A very large comet which was discovered
    January 31, 1996 Comet Hyakutake discovered
    February 4, 2010 Largest dust storm on Mars in 30 years
    March 13, 2010 One of the largest solar flares ever seen produced CME
    April 12, 2010 A large sunspot decayed
    April 13, 2010 Astroid 2010(GA6) made close approach to Earth (http://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/sbdb.cgi?sstr=2010%20GA6;orb=1)
    April 14, 2010 Volcano Eyjafjallajökull produced largest Eruptions
    April 15, 2010 Meteor seen over Midwest USA
    April 15, 2010 Nebraska shakes under 3.7 magnitude Earthquake
    April 16, 2010 Meteorite found in Wisconsin
    June 5, 2010 Fireball on Jupiter

    Keep looking out…

  57. Eric

    This post resonated with me very strongly. I am also the one who ends up taking out the trash and scooping the cat litter. The only thing that makes it worthwhile is being able to check out the night sky. A satellite is always a bonus. Last night I was thrilled with how bright the stars appeared.

  58. bob

    This post made me cry a little; tears of joy, at the sheer beauty of the universe, and tears of sadness, for I live in one of the worst light-polluted cities in the world, and if I go outside at midnight I am lucky to find even a single star in the cloudless Southern California sky.

  59. JB of Brisbane

    Phil’s post and Kuhnugget @#43 remind me of an experience in my life. It was during my Year 8 school camp down in the foothills of the border ranges, well away from Brisbane’s light pollution. The first night I was there I looked up and marvelled at how many more stars there were. But what was that whitish stuff that I could see at intervals across the sky?
    Then it hit me. “Omyg… it’s the Milky Way!” This was the first time in my then thirteen-year life that I had seen it. To cap the night off, a satellite went over (possibly even Skylab) that I pointed out to several of my fellow campers. The fact that it was the middle of July and the temperature was tipping below zero Celcius no longer mattered.

  60. Chip

    That’s a great little article. Though I’m a composer of mostly orchestral music and not an astronomer, I really do a lot of the same things – collect the garbage (and recycle stuff) and clean the cat box. Taking it out to the cans I cannot help looking up. I try to identify what I’m seeing. Being a total skygeek I tell Mrs. Musician (we’re both musicians) stuff like “there’s Scorpius” – “we’re looking toward the center of the galaxy” or “See that star there, from that star our sun would be in the direction of Cassiopeia, so in their science fiction, we’re the “Cassiopeians”.

  61. Tobin Dax

    Great post, BA. It seems like there’s always something new in the sky to be impressed by. And now I have to share. About a week ago, I was out around midnight. I got home, got out of my car and looked up (because, hey, I’m an astronomer). Lowish in the south was Scorpius, nice and big and clear. Antares was impossible to miss. The fish hook shape seemed to stretch across the sky. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it like that. It was absolutely beautiful. I wanted to just stare at the constellation for hours, but, unfortunately, I did have to get up at a decent hour the next morning.

    I just had to share that. I’m sure that a number of you understand. :)

  62. Richard

    My son emailed me the link to this page. He said when he read it that it made him think of me. A touching thought and a touching piece you’ve written. When I was a teenager most every night my head was bent over a telescope, especially in winter. Or, I’d wander around the outskirts of our very small town with my ‘chin up’ watching, memorizing, alone and enjoying it; I was so absorbed. You’re piece brought those pleasant memories back. And you are so right, Time spent doing what you love is NEVER wasted. Thank you. Thanks, Josh for sending it along.

  63. Grand Lunar

    Excellent post, Phil. ūüėČ

    I get a similar feeling, but mostly when I observe the moon. I get that comfortable feeling when I take notice of that orb.

    The stars themselves often still feel like strangers to me, even though I can name some of them on site.

  64. Ah, such recognizable sentiment! Vega rising, Regulus setting, and Antares low in the south…

    Like you, I know the sky like the pocket of my pants (as we say in Dutch). Looking up when getting out at nightime is a second nature of me as well. At daytime, I tend to look down (I am an archaeologist by profession). The sky and the ground interest me more and make me more happy than the world inbetween them.

    Thank you for this post.

  65. Lav

    I needed that. Thank you.

  66. Matt T

    Great post, very poetic… you should, I dunno, write a book or something.

  67. The sky and the ground interest me more and make me more happy than the world inbetween them.

    That’s the coolest thing I’ve read all morning!

  68. Derfisch

    Haha. Phil cleans out the litter box only once a week!

  69. Tom

    Great comment Phil! I wish we were neighbors, since you “get it”. We could both bet standing out there together with our noses skyward….and bag of kitty poo in hand. :-)

  70. BigBadSis

    Really great post Phil. I got a little verklempt remembering those days. But I’m so glad you told your story. It was your very public passion (and my husband’s — an amateur astronomer) that encouraged me to bring the stars to my Girl Scouts. For our last encampment in a rural area of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I brought my husband’s huge binoculars with it’s tripod in the hopes of getting the girls’ sights off the hiking trail and up to the heavens. I told them that as Scouts, we often talk about the earth around us, the Leave No Trace philosophy for the trail and places we visit, but I reminded them to look up. Look up! How simple, but how powerful. They saw the craters on a full moon that almost blinded us, and several moons around Jupiter. All were amazed and wanted to look again and again. I actually got a little emotional telling them what they were missing if they kept their head on the trail. Maybe a little passion will get their attention. Thanks Phil, for your passion and your outreach.

  71. Lonny Eachus

    I am a software engineer, and I enjoy the challenges that brings. I have warned past employers: often my most productive time is when I appear to be doing nothing but staring off into space, and not “producing” lines of code. If in contrast I am perceived as obligated to produce a certain amount of code in a day’s work, they will get perhaps half the value out of me that they would otherwise. It will also not be my best work, and I will not be happy in the job.

  72. Phil:
    Sorry I missed this post, I’ve been terribly busy the last few days.
    Of course, I wholeheartedly agree. I do the same thing when taking the trash to the roadside here in Albemarle County. On my walk back to the house I usually pause for many minutes to see what’s happening above. It’s my passion as it is yours.

    Now if I could just get a certain National Observatory to hire me to make high-def video programs for them to get this same passion spread to others…

  73. vivek raykar

    Such a poetic depiction of astronomy.I am proud of science that rises to such a
    level that there is no need of any so called religious or spiritual dimension
    to be added separately to scientific experience.Science is enough.


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