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Memory hooks

I vividly recall the first time I observed the grand globular cluster Omega Centauri (NGC 5139), which was glowing low in the southern sky. The staggering number of resolved stars within the cluster stands ingrained in my memory, along with the unusual scratch-like markings near its southeastern edge. I can still hear the soft chatter of nearby observers and feel the warmth of my old jacket, as well as how my knees ached from sitting low to the ground. But what makes an observation of a celestial — or indeed any — object memorable?

In short, our brains create memories because of repetition, imagery, and patterns. The more frequently you observe an object, the better you’ll remember its location and appearance. Similarly, sketching what you see helps commit your target to memory. You’ll start to notice small nuances or shapes that make each object unique as you relax and slow down the observing process. Meanwhile, the surroundings stimulate your senses so that each observing session becomes special in its own right.

As my first example this month, let’s look toward the constellation Hydra the Water Snake and locate NGC 3242. It’s a magnitude 7.8 planetary nebula that lies 1.8° south of Mu (μ) Hydrae. It’s been coined the Ghost of Jupiter for its planet-like appearance, but, in fact, its bluish hue more resembles Uranus. When Miguel Ángel Pugnaire Sáez created the sketch of NGC 3242 that I’ve included here, it wasn’t a planet he visualized, but rather a “great cosmic eye” that was “worthy of remembering.”

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