New Year’s Resolution; Year TBD

Winter morning from January 14th, 2021. Click for full-sized image.

Hello, readers.  Feels like it’s been a while, but it has only been a tad over a month.  After the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, I have done no astronomy activities beyond a few glimpses of Orion when the weather permitted.  This is truly the dead of Winter.

The current season as well as the state of political affairs have offered a lot of time for thinking.  One of many questions I have pondered is what to do when (if) everything ever returns to normal?  It’s a good question that sparks regret.  For to ask the question of what you should do in the future is to, perhaps, insinuate what you should have done when you had the chance.

If there ever is a a true normal again (a real normal, not a fake “new normal”), I would like to plan my vacation time around travelling to dark sites across the United States.  It’s been a long time since I was in such locations, even fractionally of what would consider to have a dark sky.  Most such places are further out west.  It will make for interesting road trips, to pack up my telescope and camera equipment, and see what I can find.

So here is hoping to better days ahead.  I will try to keep my innate optimism up as much as possible.  But I will admit, in the dead of this Winter, it’s been tough.  20 years ago, I felt there would come a day when the travel we took for granted would no longer be possible without government sanction.  That day is here, or soon should be.  Once upon a time, beyond your reasonable (real reasonable, not politically reasonable) obligations to your family, property, and work, there was nothing stopping you from getting in your car, driving in whatever direction you’d like, for as long as you wished, then turning around when you wanted to go home.  In the near future, such a reckless disregard for planning, permits, and authorization could lead you into trouble, if the current trajectory does not change.

My greater worry is that what we take for granted today in regards to prosperity, opportunity, and decision privileges will be supplanted by the bureaucratic procedures of the emerging sudo-state.  It has gained great power during the pandemic.  If history is a guide, it will not give up that power by benevolent volition.

We shall see how the course of events unfold.  I would like to start visiting dark sites this year, but if not this year, I will hope for 2022.  If the pandemic continues, or is supplanted by a new crisis, I will plan for 2023, and continue planning and dreaming of those possibilities for the remainder of my days.  For regardless of how bleak things may look at any given point, always know that the trajectory of history is never a straight line.

Fifth Night of the Comet: End of the Tail

Click for full-sized image.

July 22nd, 2020, 9:54 p.m. local time

This one was from almost a week ago now.  Comet C/2020 F3 had risen sufficiently high enough that I was able to photograph it from the relative darkness of my backyard.  If you follow The Big Dipper’s middle part of the handle straight down, you can barely see Neowise above two stars near the bottom.  This picture was taken with my iPhone and NightCap, on a tripod.

It was, sadly, the last night I was able to clearly see the tail.  As I watched it through my binoculars, I felt a sense of loss, that soon, this comet would never be seen by me or anyone else again for thousands of years, unless a means to travel the Solar System is developed before it arrives again.  To give perspective, assume very roughly that the last time this comet was in Earth’s vicinity was around 4000 B.C.  Any semblance of civilization was in Sumeria.  The great Egyptian kingdoms were still about a millennium away.  Writing had yet to be developed.  The chronology of The Bible had barely begun.  Perhaps the Sumerians or tribes of the settled world saw Neowise and took it as a great sign from their gods.

When the comet returns, millennia from now, I wonder how the inhabitants of Earth will see it.

When Franklin Almost Met Netwon

Mr. Benjamin Franklin and Sir Isaac Newton

Happy Independence Day to my fellow Americans.  I usually don’t write about holidays, unless I can find some mild hook into the content of this blog.  My only other attempt was when I wrote about the possibility of the Star of Bethlehem being a supernova.  Consider this post then the second in an obscure series.

There are a few foundational works I wish every American would read.  One of those is the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.  He was, in my view, the true “proto-American.”  From his curious nature, to how he rose and excelled at his careers, his advice to others, to his views on government and public service, his suspicions of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, to his perspective of the world at large, Franklin was of course a core contributor to America’s independence philosophy.  If you struggle with what is means to be an American today, reading Benjamin Franklin’s account of his life is a wonderful starting point.

My favorite part of his autobiography has nothing to do with America or any of the latter events of the late 18th century (and spoiler, he never really talks about 1776 directly; his narrative is like a prequel of events long before the American Revolution).  It is just one brief comment, where Franklin mentions his interest and hope as a young man to meet Isaac Netwon, while Franklin was in England:

My pamphlet by some means falling into the hands of one Lyons, a surgeon, author of a book entitled ‘The Infallibility of Human Judgment,’ it occasioned an acquaintance between us. He took great notice of me, called on me often to converse on those subjects, carried me to the Horns, a pale alehouse in ——— Lane, Cheapside, and introduced me to Dr. Mandeville, author of the ‘Fable of the Bees,’ who had a club there, of which he was the soul, being a most facetious, entertaining companion. Lyons, too, introduced me to Dr. Pemberton, at Batson’s Coffee-house, who promis’d to give me an opportunity, some time or other, of seeing Sir Isaac Newton, of which I was extreamely desirous; but this never happened.

As an American interested in science and the historical contexts of both, it would have been very cool for the young Franklin to have met the old Newton in the 1720s.  Even though this was over a half century before America’s independence and Franklin’s rise to prominence, it nonetheless would have been an unlikely crossing of two legendary men, both slightly out of their own times.

It’s also fun evidence how this one small note from Franklin affirmed Netwon’s importance and notoriety even while he still lived.

Moon Day – Humanity’s Common Historical Site

50 years past safely qualifies as history in human time.  The Apollo Moon landings were important for many reasons, yet one overlooked is that they created the most common historical testament in the world.  For no matter where you are, no matter how far or little you travel, you can always look up, at least a few times each year, to where the six lunar touchdowns happened.

Think of it in this context: ever since July 20th, 1969, every single picture of the Moon taken from Earth has included the areas where American men walked on the lunar surface.  The evidence is microscopically invisible, sometimes in light and sometimes in shadow, but the Apollo landing sites are nonetheless within every image.

Since I started this blog, I have pointed my own feeble cameras towards the Apollo sites many times, yet hardly mention them explicitly.  Today, I look back at some of my favorite lunar images, all of which include the Apollo areas, of course.

On March 5th, 2017, the Moon struggled to be seen through the encroaching clouds.

March 15th, 2017. Not too bad for a smartphone.

May 7th, 2017. This remains my favorite Moon image, even though it is a composite with Jupiter and its moons. It shows the relative sizes of all six objects as seen from Earth.

August 22nd, 2017. The silhouette of the Moon as it passed in front of the Sun.

September 17th, 2017. A unique perspective of the Moon through the plastic cap of my Dobsonian telescope.

October 11th, 2017. Daytime Moon.

November, 2017. Composite of the Moon on four nights from the same location.

December 7th, 2017. Rising Moon still facing the East horizon.

January 31st, 2018. Partial lunar eclipse.

April 19th, 2018. Crescent Moon.

May 17th, 2018. Moon and Venus at sunset.

June 7th, 2018. The Moon (center-right) seen during the day in Chicago.

September 30th, 2018. Happenstance capture of geese flying past the Moon.

January 20th, 2019, Full lunar eclipse.

Thanking the Planets for Scientific Advancement

If it were not for the planets, where would civilization be today?  For one, I doubt I would have this computer, and the electricity to power it.  The people of this alternative 21st century would be waiting at least several hundred years more for those amenities.

The classical planets of the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are the exceptions in the sky.  (And did you just notice that there are seven of them?  Think of the days of the week.)  There are clouds too, but for our ancestors those were easy to explain as both the chores and whims of the gods.  The stars are fixed, as far as the unaided can see.  But those crazy planets break the rules, making the geocentric universe difficult to explain.

(Uranus was out there too, but likely went unnoticed until Sir William Herschel came along as nothing but an insignificant, dim star, moving too slowly for anyone to appreciate.)

The Sun and Moon are fairly easy as well.  Though they wobble in the sky throughout the year, nothing is perfect, right?  The point being their motions are very easy to predict, day after day, month after month, and year after year.

Then there are the visible planets, the real planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  If not for these, there may never have been any questioning of the order of our solar system, or our place in it.  Scientific advancements took off, in the context of the arc of history, once people accepted that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  For if we did not have these planetary exceptions in the sky, would there ever have been the intellectual curiosity to question?

The planets, unlike the “fixed” stars, offer these problems to explaining the geocentric model (i.e. Earth being at the center of the universe):

  • There is a difference in behaviors between the two inner planets and the three outer planets.  Whereas Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn at least appear follow the elliptic path of the Sun, Venus and Mercury are constantly zigging and zagging in proximity to the Sun.  Mercury quickly bounces from dusk to dawn.  Venus sometimes climbs really high in the sky, yet also falls back into Mercury-like behavior.
  • The planets speed up and slow down.
  • Sometimes, the planets start moving in the opposite direction of everything else (retrograde motion).
  • Mars is a very curious case by itself, since at times it will shine as brightly as Venus and at others be dimmer than Saturn.

Copernicus was the first to publish the notion that the planets revolve around the Sun.  Later, Kepler devised his laws of planetary motion, which explain all of the conditions listed above.  Still later, Newton came long, basing his general laws of gravity and motion on Kepler’s earlier work (and Kepler’s laws turned out to be a special case of Newton’s general gravitational laws).  Newton’s work in this and related areas was the genesis of our modern scientific knowledge.

If there were no planets, there would have been no questioning of the Earth’s status relative to the Sun.  If that questioning never happened, we would have never had a true reference as to our place in the universe, making fundamental questions on physics difficult to comprehend.  I don’t doubt that eventually we would have come around to figuring these things out, only that it would have taken far longer if not for the guidance of the planets.

So here’s to you, Mercury, for your quickness.

Here’s to you, Venus, for your brightness.

Here’s to you, Sun, for keeping the lights on when we need them.

Here’s to you, Moon, for all of your cool phases.

Here’s to you, Mars, for being the most famous red beacon in the sky.

Here’s to you, Jupiter, for your steadfastness.

And here’s to you, Saturn, for the delight you reveal through our telescopes.

A Very Brief History of Astronomy

As told by Neil deGrasse Tyson in his co-authored book, Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour:

“For thousands of years, all we could do was measure the brightness of a star, its position in the sky, and maybe note its color.  This was classical astronomy.  It became modern astrophysics when we started obtaining spectra, because spectra allowed us to understand chemical composition, and our accurate interpretation of spectra came from quantum mechanics.

“We had no understanding of spectra until quantum mechanics was developed.  Planck introduced his constant in 1900, and in 1913 Bohr made his model of the hydrogen atom, with electrons in orbitals based on quantum mechanics, which explained the Balmer series.

“Modern astrophysics really didn’t get under way until after that, in the 1920s.  Think about how recent this is.  The oldest people alive today were born when astrophysics was starting.  For thousands of years, we were essentially clueless about stars, yet in one human lifetime we have come to know them well.

“In 1926, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is bigger than anybody had thought, because he revealed that galaxies live far beyond the stars of our own Milky Way.  And in 1929, he discovered that the universe is expanding.  These leaps of understanding happened in the lifetime of people alive today.  Extraordinary.

“I often ask myself, what revolutions await us in the next several decades?  What cosmic discoveries will you witness that you can tell your descendants about?”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Nativity Magi through the Prism of Astronomy

magi-nativity-03

Part of human history’s story is how the faculties of scientific practice search for rational explanations to events depicted in the world’s religions.  The most famous is the great ancient flood.  As a matter of faith or not, people in every corner of Earth yearn for grounded reasons to understand their relationship with the Divine.  And from the life of Jesus Christ, there is no greater curiosity from The Gospel than the account of the Three Wise Men.

Within the entire breadth of the Bible, the story of the Magi is a strong candidate for interpretation and discussion by both theologians and scientists.  History is documented through the chronologies of the Israeli and Judean kings, but the Magi’s travels according to a potential astronomical event is too intriguing not to be pondered by the curious mind.

From Matthew 2:1-2,7,9,10:

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.

After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star”

If one were to look for a purely scientific explanation, the Magi discovered an astronomical event, their interpretation of which caused them to follow it towards the west.  Travelling likely for some time, weeks or months, eventually the star arrived at an obvious destination in the relative night sky, perhaps closing in towards Zenith around midnight.  By that time, the Magi had reach Jerusalem.  In their onward travel towards Bethlehem, the star finally did reach Zenith at the proper evening time.

Common explanations for what the star really was are:

  • Exploding supernova
  • Very bright comet
  • Unique planetary alignment
  • Extraordinary upper atmosphere event
  • An alien spacecraft

Even if you subscribe to one or all of these (even the last one), there will never be a means to prove even a remote proximity to an explanation.  The most obvious trouble is that we don’t know both the exact year and time of year that Jesus was born.  He was likely born a few years before 1 Anno Domini, due to the system’s inventor, a 6th-century monk, getting the years slightly wrong.  As for the exact date, the Bible gives no reference, with December 25th eventually being more a Roman imperial choice aligning with a pagan feast day.

So if we don’t know the year and day or Christ’s birth, how can we ever hope to align what appears to be an extremely specific astronomical event to it?  For the sake of argument, if we knew definitively the real date and year of Christmas, astronomers would have enough data to make highly plausible hypotheses for what the Magi’s star truly was.

As for my own understanding, going back to my time in the seminary, I believe the stories of the Nativity, found only the Gospels according to Luke and Mathew, were intended not as a historical accounts but allegorical links to the Old Testament for their contemporary readers to understand that Jesus was the Messiah.  The story of the Magi itself is only found in Matthew, with no allusions to it in any of the other three Gospel accounts.

Nativity accounts aside, the true celebration of Christmas is not about magi or shepherds or mangers or even a birth, but the coming of Christ into our world.  For, “all things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (John 1:3)