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.

Mike Brown Punts Pluto

As a longtime amateur astronomer I appreciate good science writing and Mike Brown’s little book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is a wonderful example of the genre. When Pluto was tossed from the pantheon of planets I didn’t care. I knew that in previous centuries, when asteroids were first discovered, that they were briefly counted as planets. Eventually asteroids lost their planet status; there were too many of them and they were all dinky compared to real planets. Brown notes this bit of astronomical history by pointing to 19th century textbooks with high planet counts. The same holds for Pluto, Eris, Sedna, Quaoar and all the other known baby ice balls that make up the Kuiper belt. Real planets are massive enough to clear their orbits of crap. By this standard Mars barely qualifies and Pluto does not.

The emotional hysterics that greeted Pluto’s demise are still playing out. Some reviews posted here castigate Brown in terms rightly applied to suicide bombers and Obama voters. When Pluto bulks up and starts bullying its neighbors like all manly planets do we’ll talk until then I’d advise the puerile Pluto partisans to plumb up their pie holes otherwise we’ll have to toss you in the crank bin with the creationists and cold fusion nitwits.

cross posted on Goodreads.

Old white guys look at the sky!

Last Friday I joined the Saint Louis Astronomical Society (SLAS). In the last twenty years I have been a member of two chapters of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Kingston and Ottawa, the Forth Worth Astronomical Society in Texas, the Minnesota Astronomical Society in Saint Paul and the Orange County Astronomers in southern California. No matter where I go I can see the sky and I can find people who share my interest in it. The SLAS is very similar to other clubs. If you were to walk into a typical astronomy club meeting your overwhelming impression would be: old white guys like looking at the sky!  

The undeniable old whiteness of astronomy clubs is a concern because it tells you something about the health of our culture.  If you think I am pulling your leg or being sarcastic consider the following.

  1. Club members have strong noncommercial or unprofessional interests in science.  Most are not professional astronomers or even scientists. Few derive any income from their interests in astronomy and many spend insane amounts of time and money building telescopes, observing  the sky and keeping up with findings in astronomy and related sciences. What’s the point? Wouldn’t these people be better off devoting the time they “waste” on astronomy to more productive pursuits?  Mind you the same applies to unprofessional artists and hobbyists of all types that “waste” comparable amounts of time on their own “pointless” pursuits.  Astronomy club members love what they do, and, in my experience, it’s a constant and enduring love that never dims or goes away. Anyone with a real passion knows what I’m talking about.
  2. Astronomy club members respect, understand and value scientific arguments. We are constantly reading depressing assessments of the public’s dismal understanding of science. For example, 44% of the US public accepts that, “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”  Only 5% of scientists accept this nonsense and even 5% seems to high for my skeptical ass.  Astronomy club members will poll more like scientists than the general public on this question. A society that depends on science yet harbors ignorant masses that do not grasp or appreciate basic scientific findings will not hold.
  3. Club members welcome anyone with an interest in astronomy. I have belonged to half a dozen astronomy clubs and without exception they welcome anyone with an interest in the subject. I have never seen somebody turned away, or discouraged, for reasons of race, age, sex, sexual orientation, political or religious affiliations, or social class. Astronomy clubs are about as egalitarian as it gets! It gets better. Most clubs nurture and cherish the youngsters in their midst’s. This is partly because we don’t see a lot of youngsters and by youngster I mean anyone under thirty!

So why are astronomy clubs in North America old and white? Do people think you need expensive telescopes and other pricey gadgets to enjoy amateur astronomy?  I’ve looked at the sky for decades primarily with binoculars. They are still the best way to learn the sky. Has the public’s interest in science declined during the last forty years? Is elementary science education worse than it was when I was a child? Is the XBox’ed and Avatar’ed generation bored with looking at faint smudges in the sky? Finally, do we smell?  I don’t know why astronomy clubs are old and white but I do know that I will probably be associated with one until the day I die.

PIP News: Isabelle is Up!

Before my fall I launched a PIP (Perpetual Impossible Project).  PIPs are long-range risky undertakings that cannot be finishedPIPs contradict and subvert the very notion of tightly controlled corporate style projects: hence their manifest appeal to recusants like myself.

I won’t go into details about my particular PIP. Let’s just say it captures every delusional notion I have ever entertained. Part of my project involved installing a few Proof Assistants. Proof assistants are programs that verify formal mathematical proofs. There are many proof assistant programs available. These programs are not mathematical magic bullets. They don’t prove theorems and they don’t make the job of “theorem proving” easier. To use a programming analogy: a traditional proof is like pseudo code while a formal proof is like an assembly language program.  If you have ever written a nontrivial assembly language program you have some idea of the sheer effort required to produce a formal proof.

So, if formal proof only makes mathematics more difficult, why bother? This is like asking, so if implementing pseudo code only makes programming more difficult, why bother?

Isabelle 2011 on my Ubuntu box.

A screen shot of Isabelle 2011 on my Ubuntu machine. To install this program I had to convert a Windows machine to Ubuntu and install a host of Linux tools. Reaching this point represents a lot of water under the software bridge.

Open Source Hilbert for the Kindle

David Hilbert

David Hilbert

While searching for free Kindle books I found Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg offers free Kindle books but they also have something better! Would you believe \LaTeX source code for some mathematical classics.

The best book I’ve found so far is an English translation of David Hilbert’s Foundations of Geometry. Hilbert’s Foundations exposed some flaws in the ancient treatment of Euclidean geometry and recast the subject with modern axioms. Because it is relatively easy to follow, compared to Hilbert’s more recondite publications, this little book exercised disproportionate influence on 20th century mathematics. We still see its style aped, but rarely matched, in mathematics texts today.

I couldn’t resist the temptation of compiling a mathematical classic so I eagerly downloaded the source and ran it through \LaTeX.  Foundations compiled without problems and generated a nice letter-sized PDF. Letter-size is fine but I was looking for free Kindle books! I decided to invest a little energy modifying the source to produce a Kindle version. Project Gutenberg makes it clear that we are free to modify the source. Isn’t open source wonderful!

Converting Foundations was simple. The main \LaTeX file included 52 *.png illustrations with hard-coded widths in \includegraphics commands. I wrote a J script that converted all these fixed widths to relative \textwidth‘s. This lets \LaTeX automatically resize images for arbitrary page geometries. When compiled with Kindle page dimensions this fixed most of the illustrations. I had to tweak a few wragfig‘s to better typeset images surrounded by text. The result is a very readable Kindle oriented PDF version of Hilbert’s book. There are still a few problems. The Table of Contents is a plain tabular that does not wrap well and one table rolls off the right Kindle margin. Neither of these deficiencies seriously impair the readability of the text.  If these defects annoy you download the Project Gutenberg source with my modifications and build your own version.

This little experiment convinced me that providing free classic books, in source code form, is a service to mankind.  Not only does it allow you to “publish” classics on new media it also fundamentally changes your attitude toward books. Hilbert was one of the great mathematical geniuses of the 19th and 20th century. It’s hard to suppress we are not worthy moments and maintain a sharp critical eye when reading his “printed” works.  You don’t get the same vibe when reading raw \LaTeX.  Source code puts you in a, it’s just another bug infested program, frame of mind. You expect errors in code and you typically find them. This is exactly the hard-nosed attitude you need when reading mathematics.