Category Archives: Science

Who Thought Blinking Windfarms was a Good Idea?

One night, a few weeks ago, I was driving west on I86 near American Falls when I spotted a long string of blinking red lights. The lights stretched over a large arc of the horizon. My first thought was “Jesus H. Christ now what?” As an amateur astronomer, I have climbed mountains to get away from light pollution. Now some jackwagon was ruining an entire rural horizon with a goddamn string of synchronized windfarm lights.

May I ask why?

Windfarms blink at night to warn planes they’re flying to low. Please! The towers are well under 400 meters. If you are flying a plane below 400 meters in mountainous locales like Idaho you have far more serious problems than running into wind turbines. This is another example of stupid regulation. There is absolutely no good reason for lighting up entire landscapes. It wrecks the view, distracts drivers, (cars on I86 were slowing down to get a better view), wastes energy, rapes the night sky, and reminds everyone what an environmental tax-subsidized eyesore windfarms are. Don’t even think of disagreeing. When was the last time you looked at a landscape littered with wind turbines and thought, “This is so much better than it was before.”

Yes, I know windfarms are saving us from global warming. If you believe that you are probably exactly the type of person that signed off on ruining an entire county’s nighttime view with goddamn blinking windfarms.

Don’t be a Weenie Launch Cassini

Future generations will remember Bill Clinton for two things, not having sex with that woman and authorizing the launch of Cassini. I was working in Dallas Texas in the months before Cassini’s launch. It was 1997 and the Internet was just beginning to disrupt everyday life. Google was morphing from a thesis to a company and abominations like Facebook, Twitter and smartphones were years away. It was a time of CD-ROM games, 56K dial-up modems, bulletin boards, hand crafted HTML websites, and Netscape Navigator.  Even in its primitive state the Internet already exhibited many of the things I value and detest about it today. Two events made this abundantly clear. The inane shenanigans that preceded Cassini’s launch and the death of Carl Sagan.

I had a few beefs with Sagan. Like all science popularizers he often dumbed things down to misleading levels and, like most western academics, he was naive about vicious authoritarian regimes. In Sagan’s mind, a handful of exemplary Soviet scientists went a long way toward excusing the Gulag and purges. I overlooked his good-natured naivety. It was, and still is, a common delusion. Many intelligent people fall victim to the belief that their superior accomplishments endow them with universal wisdom. This is pure classic hubris.

Sagan had flaws but he was also the real scientific deal. He predicted the surface temperature of Venus before it was measured and contributed both scientifically and politically to the success of some of the 20th century’s most spectacular space missions like the Martian Viking landers and the epic Voyagers. Even his popular stunts like the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager gold records were classy and compelling. For me, Sagan’s most enduring quality was his very public and relentless refusal to buy into irrational bullshit. He rhetorically dismembered idiots that saw faces on Mars and skies full of alien bearing UFOs. The Martian face turned out to an eroded mesa, just like Sagan said it was, and we are still waiting for genuine rigorously authenticated evidence of real UFOs. Sagan’s often said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!”  It’s a maxim I apply every single day and you should too.

The day Sagan died I connected to the Internet with my trusty 56K dial-up modem. I was looking for unofficial Sagan obituaries and boy did I find them. It turns out that UFO cultists did not appreciate Sagan’s precise and correct analysis of their unsubstantiated nonsense. Clearly, he was part of the vast centuries old global cover-up. Everyone knows that the Illuminati, the Masons, the Rothschilds, the Jews, and the Jewish aliens in the UFOs, are suppressing UFO evidence: presumably to facilitate draining our precious bodily fluids. I exaggerate but not by much! It was my first encounter with unhinged Internet trolls. My already low opinion of the people’s intelligence dipped lower. Of course, trolls come in all flavors. There are good trolls, the ones I agree with, and evil trolls, the ones I disagree with. Overall, a free Internet with hate mongering vicious trolls is vastly better than a censored Internet that’s been reduced to a giant empty echoing, ruling-class-approved, safe space. “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

No matter what you think of the boorish behavior of UFO cultists celebrating Sagan’s death it’s clear to all, including the UFO cultists themselves that they are, in Douglass Adam’s exquisite words, “mostly harmless.”  No one gives a crap what ufologists (yeah it’s a word) think and nobody will pay attention to their ravings until they meet well-defined standards of proof. Sorry guys it’s a skeptic’s world and we won’t be lowering standards of scientific validation for you.

Unfortunately, anti-nuclear don’t launch Cassini, nitwits almost aborted what turned out to be an undisputed marvel of our age. I remember these 1997 loons and until they crawl out from their troglodyte caves, prostrate themselves before the great and powerful Internet, and publicly admit that they were completely wrong about Cassini, that launching the probe was the right thing to do, and that some tiny risks are very much worth taking, I will forever curse, mock, belittle, and remind others of their appalling judgment and sniveling cowardice.

The Cassini launch hysterics began when a pack of dolts noticed the word “Plutonium” in Cassini’s press material. Plutonium, oh my god! What are those privileged white devils in JPL up to? The JPL white devils tried to explain how RTG generators work and that a safe reliable compact long-lasting power source was required for operations at Saturn where sunlight is around 0.011 Earth’s intensity but math is hard. Way too hard for ideologues triggered by visions of Plutonium saturated Challenger like explosions spreading deadly radiation over a wide area. It was all over hyped rubbish. As of 2017, it’s not clear that RTGs have killed a single person in over fifty years of use let alone the tens of thousands the Cassini Cassandras were picturing. The white devils lost patience and did a little back of the envelope calculation that assumed a major Cassini crash that uniformly spread the probe’s “deadly Plutonium” over the entire Earth. Given this absurd worst case scenario, how many excessive cancer deaths could we expect?  The calculation estimated about 5,000 spread over a lifetime: not enough to worry about! Michio Kaku called bullshit on this absurd scenario and quickly concocted his own absurd scenario that had Cassini crashing into a dense urban area with laser guided bomb casualty maximizing effectiveness. This bumped the dark wet dream body count to 200,000. Both calculations were ridiculous. This entire episode is neatly summarized in this Mother Jones (can you believe it) article.

The launch of Cassini and its Earth flyby imposed miniscule risks. Even if things went horribly, but realistically wrong, it’s unlikely the probe would have killed more than a thousand people. Whenever I hear projected death tolls I convert the statistic into one I care about. What are my chances of dying? The Earth’s population was roughly six billion in 1997. The chances of Cassini killing me was at most one in million and probably much less. What type of whiny cowardly snowflake would give up the glories of Cassini for one in million odds of something bad happening? I would have accepted much worse odds.

I wasn’t the only one willing to take an infinitesimal risk to advance human knowledge. Just before Cassini’s launch the anti-Cassini mob planned a march in Washington to screech, wave banners, and go full incontinent leftist ape. In their bush baby brains Cassini had to be stopped. Before 1997 protesters rarely faced counter protesters but Cassini touched a deep nerdy nerve and a small band of pro-Cassini protesters showed up shouting “Don’t be a weenie, launch Cassini,” and like the Greeks at Marathon, they drove the stunted grunting anti-Cassini beasts from the rhetorical field.  I like to imagine the “don’t be a weenie, launch Cassini” ruckus stirred Bill to take a break from dipping cigars in intern vaginas and get on the phone to authorize Cassini’s launch.

Today the pro-Cassini protesters would be erroneously described as “alt-right.” Actually, they were simply and absolutely right as hundreds of thousands of stunning Cassini images, thousands of scientific papers, and dozens of unexpected discoveries about Saturn and its Moons attest. Cassini exceeded everybody’s expectations. The Voyagers were the greatest space probes of the 20th century and Cassini is the greatest of the 21st so far.  If we’re lucky we’ll see Cassini surpassed and that is something to look forward to.

Still Totally Awesome

The total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, was my fourth complete solar eclipse. I’ve seen two annular eclipses, 1994 and 2012, and two total eclipses, 2001 and 2017. Annular eclipses, or rings of fire, are worthy spectacles but nothing compares to a total solar eclipse. Some things have to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Unless you have stood under the Moon’s shadow you don’t really know what it’s like. Pictures and recordings all miss the mark. Maybe one day, when virtual reality directly hooks into all our senses, it may be possible to record totality but until then you have to get under the Moon’s shadow and, this is absolutely crucial, only totality counts!

Here in the Boise Idaho area, many people decided 99% was good enough. This is not even wrong! The August 21st eclipse took place right in the middle of Western Idaho State Fair and like all make a buck opportunists the fair promoted an “enjoy the eclipse with us event.” There was only one problem: Boise wasn’t in the totality zone so advertising dollars were spent reassuring fair-goers that 99% was close enough; that a measly 1% difference was no big deal; that it wasn’t worth refraining from shoveling junk food down your obese pie-hole on the overpriced midway for a few hours. Cosmic spectacles cannot be allowed to suppress the bottom line.

Fortunately, I knew better. The difference between 99% and 100% is vast. Solar eclipse awesomeness is not linear! It’s actually more like a logarithmic step function with a really big step at totality. XKCD accurately summarized this with his with recent eclipse cartoon. He correctly notes that total solar eclipses are off the scale.

XKCD accurately notes that total solar eclipse “coolness” is off the scale. Totality in on an entirely different plane than partial or annular eclipses.

There was no way I was going to miss totality, especially when it was in my backyard, so we got up at 4:00 am on the 21st and headed east to Mackay Idaho. I’d already driven around southern Idaho and Oregon scouting eclipse watching locations. My preferred location was on Sunset Peak in the Lost River mountain range of Idaho. Unfortunately, Sunset Peak required that we climb the mountain the night before, camp out near the summit, and then wait for the eclipse the next morning. It would have been cool. Sunset Peak is slightly over 3,050 meters with nice views to the west and east. It would have been possible to watch the Moon’s shadow race over the Boise and Sawtooth mountains, blacking out one peak after another. I was all ready to pack up and go but my wife no longer camps out in tents. This is a problem I am still working on.

With the mountain summit vetoed we checked out the Snake River Valley near Huntington Oregon and Stanley Idaho. Both locations are very scenic but both required traversing easily congested roads. To ensure totality we would have had to go the night before. So we were right back to camping in tents. My third option Mackay Idaho was a nice mixture of, easily reached on good roads, large enough to find parking on public lands, and far enough out-of-the-way to avoid big crowds.

Mackay is about four hours from Meridian. To make it before first contact, shortly after 10:00 am local time, and to miss projected heavy traffic, we started at 4:00 am. In retrospect, we could have left later. Traffic was light on I84 and almost nonexistent on Idaho highway 20. We hardly saw another car until Highway 20 crossed the road to Sun Valley. Sun Valley was in the totality zone but it was too far from the center line for me. Leaving early paid off when we reached Craters of the Moon: a smoke reddened Sun was creeping over the eastern horizon and illuminating the black volcanic flows.

We left Meridian at 4:00 am and headed east to Mackay Idaho to see the eclipse. On the way we caught the Sun rising over the Craters of the Moon. It was a good start to eclipse day.

Turning north at Arco Idaho we headed north to Mackay. There was more smoke in the air than I would have liked. The further north we went the thicker the smoke got. When we reached Mackay you could smell the smoke. Mackay sits in a valley. Details on mountains to the east and west were obscured by smoke but the sky was completely clear of clouds and at totality the sun would be high overhead. I worried about smoke’s impact on the corona but I cheered myself up with the thought that sunblock cream wouldn’t be necessary.

Getting ready for totality. This shot shows how much forest fire smoke was in the air. The mountains of the Lost River Range are almost completely obscured in the background. The smoke probably reduced our view of the corona at totality but it increased the darkness and helped cast a deep orange red 360-degree dusk.

Being two hours early Mali decided to nap in the car while I walked around Mackay taking pictures. Main Street was blocked off and street vendors were setting up tented stalls and big meat smokers. Others were busy selling souvenirs. Most of the stores were closed. The eclipse was a good excuse for a holiday. I waited in a donut line and chatted with other eclipse tourists. One Maryland couple had just arrived in a rented car from Salt Lake City. A few Italians had come all the way from Naples. I saw lots of Utah, California, Alberta and Nevada license plates. Total solar eclipses gather the multitudes.

Mackay blocked off Main Street for anticipated eclipse crowds. The number of people that showed up underwhelmed. The only eclipse complaints I am aware of were made by businesses hoping to cash in on massive crowds. Crowds were down over the entire country. Too many people were scared away by horror stories about traffic and the rest bought the malarkey that 99% coverage is close enough to 100%. Eclipses are not tests. That last 1% obscures a vast unfathomable difference.

After checking out downtown Mackay I drifted back to the Centennial Rest Stop where Spanish science students were setting up equipment to observe the eclipse. They had come all the way from Spain to watch the eclipse in tiny Mackay Idaho. The moon’s shadow turns even the most unlikely places into tourist attractions. The scientific utility of total solar eclipses in the 21st century is not what it used to be but eclipses do offer great excuses for globe trekking and the re-enactment of historical experiments. The Spaniards were busy preparing weather balloons and getting ready to photograph the corona. They were also making objective lens solar filters for people who brought binoculars and telephoto lens. I considered having some made for my 16×70 astronomical binoculars but decided against it. Instead, I went back to our car, woke up Mali, and then started hauling eclipsing paraphernalia to the viewing area. Unlike many present, we didn’t have a lot of gear: just binoculars, three-legged folding stools, cell phones, cameras, and eclipse shades. Shortly after setting up our stools the Spanish students started counting down to first contact. Shortly after 10:00 am the eclipse started.

A group of science students came all the way from Spain to watch the eclipse in Mackay Idaho. They brought a collection of telescopes, sun filters, and weather balloons. They released a balloon just before the eclipse, presumably to measure the eclipse induced temperature drop which was considerable. Mackay’s elevation is almost 1800 meters. When the Sun goes down the temperature drops. The wind was blowing from the north and their balloon took off towards the south. They probably had a little road trip to recover it.

At first, people were excited to see the Moon slowly nibble at the Sun’s disk but they quickly quieted down. I got the impression that many were questioning the so-called awesomeness of solar eclipses. It’s just a boring black cookie-bite Sun. What’s the big deal? I think many were also surprised by how long it took for the Moon to cover the sun. I’d seen this phase before so I wandered around the crowd taking pictures while the Moon slowly covered the sun.

Fifteen minutes before totality the changing light was getting hard to ignore. The human eye adapts logarithmically to changing light levels. At this point in the eclipse more than 90% of the sun was covered, dropping light levels by a factor of ten, but it was only in the last five minutes that it became obvious that it was getting dark. I spotted a flock of pigeons gathering on the fences nearby. They were disturbed by the change in routine. As totality approached people started counting down. I peeled off my eclipse shades and glanced directly at the waning light. As the sun squeezed down to a pinhole of brilliant light I saw dazzling rainbow halos around the sun. I’m developing cataracts. When I stare into bright point sources I see rainbow halos. I had never looked at a point source as bright as the Sun and the effect was both beautiful and alarming. I will have to do something about my cataracts in a few years.

At totality, the blasé crowd erupted. Many started squealing, pointing, and yelling. Mali pointed to a flock of pigeons, the same flock I had spotted on the fence before, tearing through the air. I briefly looked all around to see the 360-degree sunset. I was expecting a deep orange dusk all around up but it failed to appear. We were too close to the mountains. Then I pointed my 16×70 binoculars at the eclipsed sun. Three flares were visible and the corona’s filaments were as beautiful as ever. The corona was not as extensive as the 2001 eclipse and the core region near the sun seemed brighter. I looked around for planets and stars. Venus was easy. I was expecting to spot Mercury and Mars but I the only star I saw near the Sun I later identified as Regulus. I didn’t try to photograph my first total solar eclipse but near the end of totality I grabbed my DSLR and fired off a few 300mm telephoto shots just to see what might come up.

I didn’t try and photograph my first total solar eclipse but this time I fired off a few 300mm handheld telephoto shots just to see what might come up. The result was better than I expected.

Then, as suddenly as it started, the Sun burst forth. One bystander yelled, “Do it again!” The small crowd kept buzzing as more of the Sun was exposed. The consensus was, “Yeah, total solar eclipses are freaking awesome and totality is totally worth seeing.” Later, while standing in line to view the Sun and receding Moon through a Hydrogen Alpha filtered telescope, I overheard a fellow in the crowd say, “I’d read about shadow chasers, people who go all over the world to see total eclipses, I thought that was crazy, until today!”

The next total solar eclipse is in 2019. The greatest eclipse is in the Pacific, later the shadow runs over parts of Chile and Argentina. I’ve always wanted to visit the large observatories in Chile and view the southern sky from the super dark high elevation skies of the Atacama. This with totality is close to amateur astronomer heaven.

Mauna Kea Morons on the March

Thirty Meter Telescope

Thirty Meter Telescope

There are two types of stories about major astronomical observatories. There are stories about new discoveries and observation technologies and then there are stories about how batshit crazy people are! Lately a rash of batshit crazy has broken out over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. The ignorant press is casting the story as another tale of wanton destruction of sacred pristine aboriginal environments by “big astronomy.” On most days I ignore the moron maelstrom but I’m in bad mood today. I couldn’t resist venting on The Register. The following is a slightly edited version of my contribution to the conversation bitches!

Trigger Warning: searing contempt for tools and fools!

You are making way too much sense. As a long-standing amateur astronomer and aficionado of major observatories I can state with absolute certainty that if you want to preserve the environment around a mountain one of the best ways to do it is to place a major observatory on it. Large telescopes require large dark zones. If people would turn their damn lights off at night development in dark zones might be permissible but as you are well aware people will not turn their fucking lights off and will look at you like you’ve just beamed down from starship Looney Tunes if you try to tell them that light pollution is a real thing. The only way to insure a dark environment is to restrict development and, as you point out, that limits how much money certain cretins can extract. What’s happening on Mauna Kea happened before on Mount Graham in Arizona. So called environmentalists fought for decades to block the Large Binocular Telescope because it might stress some squirrels. Well the scope got built and the squirrels are doing just fine and will continue to thrive because their habitat will not be sodomized by condo developers and other invasive lower life forms.

Mixed in with all this phony eco-warrior nonsense is even more phony religious nonsense. I realize it is horribly judgmental and privileged white male of me to say that sky fairies of all types, even “protected class” aboriginal brown people sky fairies, are complete and utter rubbish! Jesus did not rise from the dead, Mohammed did not ascend to heaven, and Pele is not stomping around on Mauna Kea regardless of what native Hawaiians believe. If this offends you demonstrate why your sky fairy is any less imaginary than The Flying Spaghetti Monster. “Belief” is a bullshit word. It will be a pathetic day if the construction of a major 21st century observatory is stopped to placate scientific illiterates and religious primitives.

Blood Morons

Here we go again; literal lunatics are, for the zillionth time, announcing the end of the world.  What’s going to do us in this time?  Would you believe the next four lunar eclipses?  Starting tonight, an unusual, but not rare, sequence of four lunar eclipses begins.  Some religious loons are claiming this so-called eclipse tetrad is a sign of the end times. Oh, if it were only so.  Imagine a world cleansed of imbeciles! Unfortunately, as Fred Espenak notes on his highly regarded eclipse pages, there is nothing unusual about this sequence of eclipses.  In the last five thousand years we’ve had 142 eclipse tetrads.  That’s about one world ending every thirty-five years.  Look around people; we’re still here.

It astounds me that there is still a market for such nonsense. Astrology, and that’s all this blood moon rubbish is, has been completely, totally, absolutely and utterly debunked. On this the science really is settled! But, when have we ever let science get in the way of a good marketing opportunity, and world endings are well — world ending — sales opportunities.  Get your end times before they’re gone!  Running astronomical scams is easy because large swaths of the public cannot reliably answer basic questions like: does the Sun go around the Earth?  Maintaining such levels of ignorance must be exhausting.

You might want to pull your head out of your blood moron ass long enough to observe tonight’s total lunar eclipse. It starts around midnight here in St. Louis with totality commencing around 2:00 am. I’ll be out there, St. Louis weather permitting, shooting eclipse tracks.  With proper framing eclipse tracks make neat pictures. If what I have in mind pans out it will constitute my next post.

John L. Dobson R.I.P.

At tonight’s meeting of the St. Louis Astronomical Society I learned of John Dobson’s recent death. John Dobson was widely known as the inventor of the homemade “Dobsonian” telescope and the co-founder of the Sidewalk Astronomers: perhaps the most famous and effective amateur astronomy outreach group in modern times. “Big Dob” light buckets are a staple at star parties around the world and most of them derive from John’s original designs. John lived a long life and touched many people including myself.

I briefly met John at a star party in central Texas in the late 1990’s. I cannot remember exactly where we were but it was about two hundred miles west of Fort Worth and was one of the best “dark sky” sites within easy driving distance of the Fort Worth Dallas light pollution wasteland.[1]  Amateur astronomers abhor, detest, loathe and constantly rage, rage against — street lights. When I see the sky sodomized by one ill placed security light or a hideous blinking radio tower I have to suppress Homeric, (Simpson), urges to kill. Light Pollution is an assault on one of the most beautiful things the human eye can behold, a glorious night sky, and most people are completely and utterly oblivious to it.

Because our central Texas star party was far from the maddening crowds, just the way hard-core dark sky connoisseurs  like it,  there weren’t very many people present and most in attendance where armed with state of the art telescopic gadgetry. This did not quite suit John. I remember he remarked that this was an “astronomer’s gathering.” Meaning this was a gathering for people who already knew the majesty of night sky. It was John’s passion to introduce neophytes to the that glory and judging by the accolades coming in from people who caught the astronomy bug at one of John’s sidewalk star parties it’s a passion that will outlive him.

John felt it was vitally important for people to see, with their own eyes, the craters of the moon, the moons of Jupiter, Saturn’s rings, sunspots, the Andromeda galaxy and thousands of other sky wonders. He apparently never tired of watching someone look through a telescope for the first time and until tonight I must confess I didn’t really appreciate just how crucial such “first lights” are.  As I drove home I started thinking about my top astronomical experiences and soon realized they are some of my top experiences — period. Here’s my top ten “first lights” in no particular order. Only the last stands above the  others.

1. First look at the moon through a telescopeRedwash Utah, United States. When I was in grade school my parents got me a 60mm Tasco refractor. It was a simple, and surprisingly good, little telescope. I’ve talked to many amateur astronomers over the years and many fondly remember getting started with a 60mm Tasco. Shortly after I got that telescope I set it up and waited for the sky to darken. The moon was not full when it rose; I didn’t care. I lined up the scope, fiddled with the focus, and then suddenly, the moon’s craters appeared: the sharpness and clarity almost hurt. I’ve been hooked on amateur astronomy ever since. In retrospect the moon’s craters made a bigger impression on me than my first kiss. I don’t remember my first kiss, but I’ll never forget my first telescopic glimpse of the moon. John never tired of introducing strangers to the moon.

2. Seeing the crescent of Venus for the first time: Redwash Utah, United States. It took me awhile to learn how to properly focus my telescope. The moon was easy but for some reason I never got Venus dialed in until one evening when I turned the knob far enough to condense the unfocused blob of Venus into a sharp little crescent. It was mind-blowing. The seeing on the high Uintah plateau was superb. I have seldom seen Venus so steady, sharp and clear. I felt like Galileo — hell for a brief instant I was Galileo!  John loved showing off the bright planets. Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, even Mars and Mercury are all easily visible from the middle of light polluted cities.  Sidewalk Astronomers turned these ancient wanderers into modern celebrities.

3. Seeing Jupiter and its four Galilean moons: Agha Jari Iran. Shortly after getting my first refractor my family moved to Iran. I lugged my little telescope half way around the world. The telescope was my hand baggage. In those days airlines were more tolerant of large carry-ons and being a kid I enjoyed extra latitude.  After we settled in Agha Jari I set up the telescope in our front yard. I wanted to check out a bright star that was hanging about twenty degrees above the hills to the southwest. I knew that looking at stars in the 60mm was, with the exception of binaries, kind of dull. Stars appear as points of light in even the largest of telescopes. Only in modern times, by using long baseline interferometry, has it become possible to resolve details on distant stars.  Not expecting much I aimed the scope at the bright star and focused. Suddenly a new “solar system” sprang into view. I could see a tiny ball surrounded by four bright spots. For a few moments I thought I might be seeing something new. How could people have missed this? Then I realized it was Jupiter. Big J is still my favorite planet.  In John’s Big Dobs Jupiter is a super-planet. You can easily see four or more atmospheric bands, shadows of major moons and the Great Red Spot. Even better, it’s all visible from city sidewalks.

4. Catching Halley’s Comet: Edmonton Alberta Canada. Once you catch the observer’s bug it never really leaves you. It may go dormant but something always wakes it up. The return of Halley’s Comet roused my inner observer. Halley’s Comet is the most famous of all comets. It takes roughly one human lifetime for it to complete its orbit so catching Halley’s Comet is something most of us will only do once. The last time Halley’s Comet zoomed by in 1910 it put on a spectacular show. Astronomers warned that the 1986 passing would be “disappointing.” The comet was further away than it was in 1910. They were right but I was still delighted by what I saw. It was a freezing -30C Edmonton winter night when we drove to the city’s southern outskirts to see the comet. Despite the blistering cold dozens of people were parking along the road and getting out of their cars to look for the comet. I knew exactly where to look and it only took me a few seconds to find the fuzzy ball known as Halley’s Comet. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was historically satisfying. John spent a lot of time educating people about what they would see in the sky. If you understand, even the faintest of objects can thrill.

5. All sky aurora Edmonton Alberta Canada.  Amateur astronomers have mixed feelings about auroras. Amateurs that live in aurora zones, Canadians, Norwegians, Argentines and others often bitch about “natural light pollution” until they witness a full-blown all sky aurora.  It was another cold Edmonton winter night and I was up late watching the idiot box when a local news alert interrupted programming to report an impressive aurora was underway. Northern lights in Edmonton are common and seldom newsworthy. I had to see what the fuss was about so I bundled up, stepped outside and was immediately transfixed. Auroras are usually silent slithering green sheens. Tonight the sky was blazing green, then red, hinting at purple, then back to green, red again, rippling and roaring, from the north to south, east and west: all ablaze. I had never seen a display of such magnitude. Giant auroras are not only beautiful they can shut down power grids.  I love it: natural light pollution shutting down man-made light pollution. I don’t know if John saw great auroras but I know he would have loved them.

6. Comet Bennett near Canmore Alberta Canada. I wasn’t looking for Bennett’s Comet when I saw it. I was driving back to Calgary from Vancouver with friends. We made a road side stop in the Canadian Rockies near Canmore to relieve ourselves. I trudged out into the snow, unzipped my fly,  looked up and saw, just above the dark jagged outline of the mountains, the most exquisite comet. I wasn’t sure what it was. It was so striking that we stopped peeing and admired it. I remember saying, “It looks exactly like the comets you see in textbooks.” I was right.  That passing of Bennett’s Comet was canonical. I’ve seen some great comets since Bennett: Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake were both spectacular but unexpected Bennett is still my favorite. John often reminded people that you don’t always need a telescope: just keep looking up.

7. Total Eclipse of the Moon: Tamale Ghana Africa. I taught mathematics for two years in a northern Ghanaian boarding school after graduating from university. The best total lunar eclipse I have ever seen occurred during my Ghanaian years. I reckoned the eclipse would be a great teaching opportunity for my students.  The school had and old telescope; it was a small reflector that a previous teacher had donated. The scope didn’t have an eye piece so we adapted a microscope eye piece. It worked better than expected.  On the night of the eclipse we set up the scope on a second story veranda with a nice southern view. Lunar eclipses are leisurely events. It takes a long time for the Earth’s shadow to cover the moon. Before the eclipse began students started peaking at the moon through the telescope. Many of them where as delighted as I was with my first telescopic glimpse of the moon. I remember some of the older, and cooler, students had to reign in their obvious excitement. As the Earth’s shadow touched the moon people in small villages around the school started pounding drums. As the shadow crept further and further the drumming got louder and louder and bonfires started popping up all around the school.  I didn’t expect this reaction. It was the best damn star party I’ve ever attended. The eclipse was a good one too. At totality the moon was a deep dark blood-red.  John took advantage of eclipses, nature’s astronomical advertising, to show even more people the greatest show off earth.

8. Annular Solar Eclipse: Syracuse New York United States. 1994 was the year of Shoemaker–Levy 9: the fragmented comet that smashed into Jupiter with such awesome energy that it blinded sensors on large telescopes and left massive bruises that could be seen in small telescopes. Shoemaker-Levy 9 was a rare major event. We were lucky to see such an impact in our lifetimes, but the 1994 event that sticks in my head was the annular eclipse of that year. Annular eclipses are, according to eclipse snobs, failed total eclipses. The moon is too far away to precisely match the angular size the sun so at totality an annular looks like perfect super bright ring in the sky.  It’s a rare celestial event that fits into your work day but the 1994 annular eclipse did just that. Totality occurred during lunch hour and many of my coworkers and strangers on Syracuse sidewalks paused to look through eclipse shades and welding glass at the one ring to bind them all. It was Dobsonian sidewalk astronomy at its finest.

9. Glimpsing the Gegenschein: Grand Teton National Park, United States.  Seeing the gegenschein requires very dark and clear skies. The tiniest hint of light pollution will wash it out. I’d been observing for years before I saw it. I was south of Yellowstone Park looking directly north. There are no large cities directly north of Yellowstone for hundreds of miles and the park is blissfully black. At 3:00am I noticed a slight glowing that steady increased in brightness. Seeing was superb. I could see 7th magnitude stars with averted naked eye vision. I was alone, in the cold, in the dark. Not John’s style but this was a personal first. Sometimes the sky is all you need.

10. Total Solar Eclipse: Zambia Africa. Total solar eclipses are beyond awesome. They utterly wowed our ancient ancestors and still blow away the most jaded and media saturated people today. You have to put yourself in the moon’s shadow and give yourself to the spectacle. It’s worth spending thousands of dollars and going to the ends of the Earth to stand in the moon’s shadow. Of all the wonderful and spectacular things I have seen I’d rate my first total solar eclipse above them all. Of all the planets, moons and other bodies in our solar system only the Earth enjoys pure total solar eclipses. By some freak cosmic accident the moon and sun are almost exactly the same angular size in our sky. It’s only when I’m standing in the moon’s shadow, during a total solar eclipse that I don’t mind being trapped on Earth.

Looking over my list it’s pretty clear that John Dobson had the right idea. The things that stuck were first glances through telescopes and watching special things in the sky with my own eyes. I have spent many long nights tracking objects down in telescopes but after a few years such “serious” sessions blend together. It’s those fleeting first lights that dig in and change how you feel. John Dobson changed how many people feel about the sky. Nice work John.

[1] The best dark sky sites in Texas are in the Davis Mountains near the McDonald Observatory. The Texas Star Party is held nearby every year.

Venus puts a period on our Time

I left work early yesterday to scoot down to Forest Park, one of St. Louis’s best city parks, and take in the transit of Venus. The St. Louis Astronomical Society conducted a public outreach event on the grounds of the World’s Fair Pavilion. The pavilion sits atop a small hill with a good view of the western horizon. Many club members had set up telescopes for the public. Some scopes projected images of the sun and others used solar filters.  It was another large daytime star party. Hundreds of people showed up and patiently waited in telescope lines to get a glimpse of Venus crossing the Sun.

World's Fair Pavilion

Worlds Fair Pavilion in St. Louis’s Forest Park on Venus transit day.

The mood was curious and somber; parents urged their children to look and remember. Many dutifully complied but you could see they were more interested in running around the pavilion than watching a little black dot. Maybe some will remember in the decades to come; maybe one or two will live to see the next transit but for the rest of us the little black dot of Venus is a “period” to the sentence of our time. We will never see Venus’s silhouette on the Sun again.  Venus will circle on punctuating future epochs but we, my friends, will soon cease to exist — period.

Sunspotter solar transit projection

A Sunspotter transit of Venus projection.

The Wahweap Wow

Glen Canyon dam

Glen Canyon dam

Last weekend I was in Page Arizona to visit my parents and catch the May 20th 2012 annular solar eclipse. Page is a little town that owes its existence to the construction of the Glen Canyon dam in the early 1960’s. The reservoir behind the dam, Lake Powell, has appeared in so many movies that it should collect royalties. Charlton Heston crashed his spaceship here in the first and only good Planet of the Apes movie.  John Travolta nuked the place in Broken Arrow. Even Jesus Christ used Lake Powell as a Dead Sea ringer in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Page, the dam and Lake Powell did not disappoint. I had a great time toodling around shooting pictures. I only had one day which was partly devoted to the eclipse but I saw enough to give Glen Canyon an unqualified thumbs up. If you’re into rocks, desert and water this place is bucket list material. Like MacArthur I will return.

Wahweap Overlook eclipse fans

Wahweap Overlook eclipse fans

While pleased with Glen Canyon I was surprised by the large number of people who turned out for the annular eclipse. The US park service in conjunction with local amateur astronomers set up viewing grounds on Wahweap Overlook and ran full size shuttle buses from the nearby Carl Hayden dam visitor center. At least four busloads of eclipse fans were carried to the overlook where they joined more amateur astronomers and serious eclipse photographers that had set up dozens of telescopes and cameras for the big show. There must have been at least four hundred people on Wahweap Overlook and Wahweap was only one of many sites where people set up to watch the eclipse. It’s gratifying to see that when a real star puts on a show the audience is huge.

Before the eclipse started, and during the early phases when the Moon was creeping on the Sun’s disk, I walked around looking through telescopes. Two scopes stood out. One expensive large aperture Hydrogen Alpha scope served up gorgeous high-resolution views of the Sun. In Hydrogen Alpha light solar prominences , filaments  and photosphere mottles are clearly visible. The big Hydrogen Alpha scope put on a good show but bang for the buck went to a 15 dollar light funnel that a 14-year-old made by hand and attached to a small refractor. His makeshift funnel projected the brightest and clearest white light image of the Sun. I told him his projection was the best; he was happy to hear it.

iPhone image captured by holding eclipse shades over the lens.

As the eclipse approached the annular phase I set up my camera. I didn’t have the right filter, only a 4D neutral density, but I thought I’d give it a try. When the light ring formed I fired off a few shots. The filter didn’t cut enough light so I immediately gave up and went to plan B. Plan B consisted of covering the lens of my  iPhone with eclipse shades and Phd’ing it.  I took a few frames and managed to catch the ring. It was a minor triumph of iPhoneography.  After that I just gawked through my eclipse shades while the Sun and Moon wowed the masses with their dance. The crowd burst into applause when the ring broke but, sadly, the performers declined an encore.

Lake Powell houseboats

Lake Powell houseboats

As I have already said, annulars are not in the same awe-inspiring class as totals but this annular, falling where it did, was special. From the overlook you could see the lake, the dam, towering red rock formations and of course the sky. The perfect ring of light was just the icing on the cake of a Wahweap wow!

Blurb: Nick Lomb’s Transit of Venus

Nick Lomb’s Transit of Venus 1631 to the Present is the best illustrated astronomy book for general readers since Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer’s The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide.  Everything about Lomb’s book from its eye seizing cover, rarely seen historic photographs and charming well researched commentary is first class. Transit is the type of work you steal[1] from and frankly, there is no better endorsement than that.  I’m not the only reader to reach this conclusion check out this and this and this.

When prowling our few remaining bookstores I often skip illustrated works. Usually they’re dumbed-down rehashes of familiar material but, in Transit’s case, I learned something on my first randomly browsed page. The chapter introduction for Venus of the South Seas reads:

Sometimes scientific expeditions have unintended consequences. The desirability of observing the 1769 transit from the South Seas began a chain of events that would lead to the founding of the colony of New South Wales by the British in January 1788. In effect, modern Australia owes its existence to a celestial event.

How about that history haters. I knew why astronomers cared about transits of Venus. In 1677 Edmond Halley, of Halley’s Comet fame, described a method for calculating the astronomical unit from transit of Venus timings. Venus is close enough to the Earth that its track over the Sun differs for widely separated terrestrial observers. This is the familiar parallax effect.  From this small difference you can determine the astronomical unit and if you know the astronomical unit Kepler’s third law tells you the distance of every planet in the solar system.  This was a huge payoff for 17th, 18th and early 19th century astronomers. This is what got Cook out in the Pacific. It’s a great story and Lomb’s telling is the best you will find.

[1] I’ve picked up a few page design ideas.

2012 Venus Transit and Annular Eclipse

I’m gearing up for two big eminent celestial events. On May 20th I’ll be near Page Arizona observing an annular eclipse of the Sun and on June 5th, weather permitting, I’ll be in St. Louis watching Venus creep on the disc of the Sun for the last time in my lifetime.

Eclipses and transits are spectacular events for amateur astronomers and innocent bystanders. Of the two eclipses offer the greater spectacle. In fact, for sheer unbridled awesomeness, it’s hard to beat a total eclipse of the Sun! You can add up all the World Cups and Super Bowls ever played and they would barely register on the logarithmic total solar eclipse spectacle scale. The one total solar eclipse I saw easily ranks as the greatest thing I’ve ever seen and I’m including the births of my children. The May 20th solar eclipse is annular so it’s not in the same galaxy as a total but annular’s have their charms. At maximum eclipse the Sun appears like a perfect blazing ring of light. In Page it will be 10 degrees above the north-western horizon: a good altitude for composing solar landscape pictures.

By comparison the June 5th transit of Venus will not be a big show. Without proper equipment you won’t be able to see it at all. During transit Venus looks like a little black dot on the Sun. The best way to see this event is with telescope or binocular projection. Under no circumstances should you look directly at the Sun without proper eye protection!  For safe transit viewing techniques look here. In 2004 I used binocular projection to view the last transit of Venus from Ottawa Canada. Transits of Venus come in pairs, eight year apart, followed by over a century before the next pair.  After 2012 you will have to wait until 2117 to see another transit of Venus. This is our last chance people. Yeah mortality seriously blows.

2004 transit of Venus from Ottawa Canada. I used 10x50 binoculars to project an image of the Sun. The little dark spot on Sun's limb is the planet Venus.