The Matter of the Yellow Cape – A Short Story

Marcus hurried up the eroding cobblestone steps.  He felt the shifting gravel beneath him, slipping at the soles of his boots from time to time.  Still of young spirit and body, Marcus navigated these obstacles with ease.  He was not going to be late for his summoned arrangement.

Clouds hung over the sky this morning, though rain was not feared.  The villagers carried on their morning business as Marcus sifted past the merchants and buyers, performing their duties from tents, as well as abodes made of wood topped with straw.  These newer structures comprised the edges of the central district, and sat nestled within the ruins of much larger ancient buildings from eras long past, which now acted as fortification to protect the thriving, contemporary village.

Most paid him no heed, though some turned as the young man approached, as they would any potential customer or supplier on the main village path.  Some knew him but most did not.  But all recoiled as he passed, to varying degrees by each’s steadfastness.  A few women gasped upon the site of Marcus and scurried away.

Marcus has come to expect such reactions and so did not acknowledge them, even the loud, audible wails.  When he first made his decision, these inflictions from the townspeople distressed him greatly.  But he quickly became resolute, bolstered by the soundness of his reasoning, despite what he viewed as the absurd, irrational fear all around him.

Continuing at his brisk pace, Marcus arrived at the village’s center and its great lodge, where the people’s most important affairs, and sometimes for the surrounding regions, were undertaken by the elders.  One of the few masonry structures built within anyone’s lifetime, the lodge stood high enough to be seen even from the ancient surrounding ruins.  Torches were always kept lit at the entrance, even throughout bright days.

The path into the lodge was clear, for only those with official business would ever dare approach.  While catching his breath, Marcus slowed his pace as he had the path all to himself.  Two guardsmen wearing thick animal hides covered by large, flowing yellow capes stood on either side of the entrance.  Each held a black spear in hand with each resting at the foot of a guard.

Most were forbidden to enter, under any circumstance.  Normally, a man of Marcus’s station would have been able to pass into the lodge, despite his age.  But these were not normal times, as Marcus was well aware.  Still, the guards were ordered special instructions to watch for this young man in particular, and to allow him through.

As Marcus approached, the guards looked at him, each fighting their disposition to recoil.  He started to say something to the guards, but in unison each took a step away from the path and motioned for Marcus to proceed.  While the young man was taken aback for an instant, he decided to continue walking, directly through the entrance.  When Marcus had passed, the guards resumed their earlier positions as if the young man was never there.


Upon entering, Marcus immediately noticed that the only true direction for him was down.  Being his first time in the village lodge, it was immediately obvious there was far more to the structure than the exterior hinted.  He followed a winding stare, lit by torches evenly spaced.

As he reached the end of the stone staircase, narrowly encircled by stone walls, voices could be heard, random and many.  Marcus followed the sounds and drew near what he surmised to be the main gathering hall.  It was dark but bearable to see by the multiple wall torches.  There was a spattering of guards but none paid him notice (likely due to the poor lighting), so Marcus entered the assembly hall.

Within, the light became more pronounced as the number of encircling fires dramatically increased.  The voices had come from a few dozen men.  Some were standing but most were sitting in rows of wooden benches, all facing towards an elevated stage with an elaborate table and nine chairs behind.

And behind the table and chairs hung a large portrait of the ruler of the land.

Most of the men in attendance had gray or thinning hair, and even grayer beards.  Marcus immediately guessed himself to be the youngest in the room.  Beyond their age, Marcus quickly took in their dress, and particularly the capes worn.  All were yellow.  Those sitting or near the first bench wore vibrant yellow capes, made of fine texture, with some ornamentals attached.  Those of the middle benches had clean but otherwise ordinary yellow capes.  Among the few men in the back of the hall were duller capes, almost brownish, made of coarse materials and exhibiting no decorations.

The young man continued to scan the room, still standing near the entrance.  Though he did not know explicitly, his inclination was that it was not his place to take a seat among the rows.  Marcus decided to slowly drift, away from the door and towards the back.

Some of the men began to notice him.  As eyes found their ways to Marcus, each man in turn expressed a momentary bout of surprise which quickly turned to a scowl as they scanned the young man’s full attire.

Though dressed quite normally for a youthful man of his station and order, Marcus wore no cape.

By an unseen cue, the men began to quiet and the several still standing took their seats at the bench rows.  A stillness inflicted the hall, broken only by the crackling of torches.  Random men at this secluded gathering turned their heads back towards Marcus, always showing a near-identical expression of mild disgust, which seemed tame to the young man, compared to the malevolent stares and aggressive ejaculations he got used to receiving in the open village.

After several minutes, a new group of men entered the hall, opposite from where Marcus approached.  Each was fully covered, from head to foot, in the brightest yellow over-capes possible.  All were embedded with jewels and some were decorated with painting that looked to tell stories, the specifics Marcus could not ascertain from his vantage.

One by one, these fully covered men entered, each standing behind one of the eight chairs that surrounded the stage’s ninth center chair.  When eight had settled, all in the hall stood up, and the ninth entered.  Though covered as the others in a gaudy over-cape, he was of noticeably greater weight and girth than anyone in the lodge.

The ninth man immediately sat himself in the center chair, and everyone followed his lead.

Everyone, except Marcus and the guards.

“I call this standard meeting to order, for the province of Sturtutton, in the name of our gracious and all-knowing guardian servant, Lord Dectaevius,” said the ninth man while pulling back his hood.

All hail Lord Dectaevius!” the crowd of men recited.

The other eight kept their hoods in place.  The now-exposed ninth was devoid of hair, plump in face, with multiple chins.  He remained silent while reading a parchment left at his position before the meeting had started.

In a calm, unemotional tone, the ninth man said, “There are many matters for review at this session of the elder council.  Our first is the situation concerning…Brother Marcus.  Is Brother Marcus here, as requested?”

The ninth looked up from the parchment but not fully, keeping his head angled in front of him while his sagging eyes scanned level.  The head did not move as the eyes roamed from side to side.

“I am here, Grand Elder Cornelid, as summoned,” Marcus said loudly from the back of the hall, so all could hear.

Cornelid raised his right hand and motioned to Marcus.

“Approach.”

Marcus strode steadily to the front of the hall, and positioned himself evenly between the nine elders on stage and the first row.  The men in the first row started to fidget and sit back as far as they reasonable could, to put as much distance between themselves and the subject of inquiry as possible.  The men on stage made no reactionary movement.

As Cornelid took his time reading over the parchment, Marcus looked to the other eight hoods.  They were still but not motionless, obviously alive and attentive.  The young man could hear whispers immediately behind him but could not focus on them.  He was nervous, of course, but he consciously tried to stand as tall as possible and breath evenly.

Standing so close to the stage, it was impossible for Marcus to ignore the painting of Lord Dectaevius behind Cornelid.  Imposing and larger-than-life, the man was portrayed with dark wavy hair, flowing embroided clothes, and a stern expression that eerily focused directly upon the spot Marcus was standing.

The young man reminded himself to stay calm and focused.  He turned from the painting to look below at Cornelid, landing his gaze directly in front of him, as he waited for the Grand Elder’s next words.

Finally, after some time, Cornelid, stopped reading and looked up at Marcus.

“We are all aware that the condition you present yourself to this council puts us at great peril to the Blue Plague.  If not for the wisdom granting protection by our Lord Dectaevius, we would not even bear this hearing.”

Cornelid grasped a fold of his cape near his chest.

Marcus answered, “Your excellency, if I may be obliged, I wish to explain to you and other elders my reasoning, and why I have come to my conclusion that our capes, yellow or not, offer no protection against the Blue Plague.”

“Reasoning?  Your conclusion?  Are you denying the truth pronounced by Lord Dectaevius?” retorted Cornelid.

“It is not a matter of denying a truth, or to go against the wishes of our lord.  If you will allow me, I say we must look at all options to combat this very real threat that afflicts not only our province, but the entire kingdom.  The Blue Plague is a most serious matter, and I wish to help, not harm, the efforts to contain its spread.  And to this point, we should also ask what methods work, and what methods do not work.”

“Preposterous!  What else is needed, when we have the guidance of our sagacious lord?  Is not his command sufficient?”

In unison, the crowd chanted,

There is one truth.  Receive the truth from Lord Dectaevius.

Marcus faltered a bit from the reverberation behind him, but answered, “I have studied the reports from throughout the lands.  I have visited the inflicted areas, both in ours and the surrounding villages.  Yes, many outbreak areas recovered coinciding with populace’s adoption of yellow capes, as the decree of Lord Dectaevius arrived to them.  But other areas recovered without assumption of yellow capes, or their peoples could not dispose because capes were not in supply by local merchants.

“The yellow capes were granted benefit from what I believe are related motivations for the subsiding of the plague, in certain areas.

“So it is my assertion, that the yellow cape is not the reason the outbreaks lessoned, but only happened to be leveraged at the right aligning times.  We would do well, for all our people, to support my work, to help find the true remedy, and bring a final end to this all-too-well known terribleness across the lands.”

“Brother Marcus,” Cornelid asked, “Do you assert that donning a yellow cape brings harm?”

“I do not assert that notion, Grand Elder.”

“Then why not simply don a cape, and relieve yourself of the burden you now carry and bring to our council?”

“I do not wear a yellow cape because it will not protect me from the Blue Plague, of this I have grown certain, through all I have learned.  With respect to our lord, the yellow cape may make townsfolk feel safe, but it is a false sense of safety that may lead to undisciplined practices which may further spread the plague.”

Commotion erupted behind Marcus throughout the bench rows.

Cornelid said in a raised voice, “There will be order!  By the authority granted unto me by our Lord Dectaevius!  Order!”

The murmurings subsided.

Continuing in a higher pitch and spitting out his words, Cornelid said, “We have the remedy!  It is the yellow cape!  To deny this is to deny the truth from our lord!”

The assembly again said in unison,

There is one truth.  Receive the truth from Lord Dectaevius.

Returning to his unemotional tone, the Grand Elder said, “My dear Marcus, you are a learned member of the Brotherhood.  And you have been in the favor of our Lord Dectaevius recently by your explanations of the movements of that peculiar star…”

“Venus.  Its name from ancient times is Venus, and it is not a star…” interjected Marcus.

Cornelid ignored Marcus’s correction and continued, “…but that favor wears thin, as decreed by this council, for your refusal to cover yourself in a yellow cape.

“Did it occur to you, Brother Marcus, that our Lord Dectaevius has already done what you have suggested, and learned himself the wisdom for which we all now benefit?”

All the assembled men in the rows looked down at their yellow capes fondly.  The nine elders made no movement.

“…And does not our lord have access to the same ancient writings as you Brother Marcus, and more?”

Marcus stroked his short, brown beard for a moment, and then said, “I have no doubt in the wisdom professed by our lord, that he has proclaimed actions in what he believes are the best recourse for all of his people.

“My pursuit is not to deny our ruler’s wisdom, but to…petition for the consideration of other activities, based on wisdom that may not have been available to Lord Dectaevius at the time of his yellow cape decree.”

The assembly murmured again.

Cornelid spat with eyes widened and said, “Petition?  Consideration?  You use the scholarly words of your ancient texts.  But this is not a scholarly debate.  Lives are at risk.”

“But it is to those ancient works kept by the Brotherhood where wisdom can be found, I do believe, in this matter and others.  Combined with my observations of the Blue Plague’s rise and fall in infected neighborhoods, these ancient teachings could be a powerful method for finding the true cure, or at least to find a means to lessen the Blue Plague’s deadly impact.

“As demonstration of my conviction, I strongly believe that ensuring our neighborhoods receive clean water for drinking and bathing would greatly prevent the plague’s spread.”

Mild laughter rolled through the ranks of men behind Marcus.

Cornelid responded, “Ah yes, the stories of the magic arches that brought fresh water to the large towns of ancient Rome.  Fine for you scholars, but they are at best fables that have no practical value today in the modern era.”

Marcus felt he could say all he could without appearing insane to Cornelid, the other elders, and all stately men in attendance.  The young man was now resigned to not being able to convince them to support his cause, to see the impotence of the yellow cape decree.

A weight seemed to fall on Marcus’s shoulders.  He could only stand there, clasping his hands in from him, and wait for the inevitable instructions from Cornelid.

“Dear Marcus, I ask again, why don’t you simply assume the yellow cape?  You could roam the village, without incident, without distain for your very presence.  And this council will look into the matter no more.”

“Grand Elder Cornelid, my answer is still no.  I have what I call a proof that yellow capes do not help contain the plague, as I alluded before.  I wish to present my evidence, to seek the petition…”

“There shall be no petition.  Lord Dectaevius has spoken on the matter, and his wisdom is our truth.”

There is one truth.  Receive the truth from Lord Dectaevius.

“Given your station and past approvals from our lord, the council grants you three days to don the cape.  Failure to comply with the council’s law will mandate a referral of the situation to Lord Dectaevius himself, that his gracious judgement may fall upon you.

“This matter is concluded.  Brother Marcus, you are dismissed.”

Cornelid looked down and started reading his parchment again.  The assembly hall fell silent.  Marcus understood he must now leave, as council rulings were final.  He walked out of the assembly and headed to the stairs for the village surface.


As Marcus left the assembly hall, a short, older man caught his attention, standing at a side passage.

“Brother Roberto?” Marcus said.

The older man motioned for Marcus to follow him.  There were several guards, but none paid either Roberto or Marcus notice, beyond stepping away slightly from Marcus as he drew near.  Roberto was an elder Brother of the Sacred Order, clothed in the Order’s traditional brown robes, and wore a very modest yellow cape.  His presence at the town assembly hall level was not unusual.

As Marcus approached, Roberto turned into the side passage, a clear cue for Marcus to follow.

The two started walking together down the winding tunnel, with the younger slowing his pace to match his elder’s.

Roberto did not appear at all to be revolted by Marcus’s presence.

The young Brother asked, “Brother Roberto, why are you here?”

In a whispered tone, Roberto said, “You put on quite a performance back there.  Rare is it for someone to show such audacity in front of the Grand Elder.  It is my business to be here, and to talk to you, before it’s too late – for you.”

Trying to mimic Roberto’s whisper but still talking louder, Marcus said, “Too late?  What could you possibly mean?  You know as well as me that the yellow capes are not helping.  Is not this the time to stand up for what is truly right?”

Roberto slightly raised his left hand and pushed a calming motion towards the young man.

“My dear boy, your methods are powerful and provide you with great wisdom.  But as you just saw, that wisdom can be difficult for the men of Sturtutton to accept.  Today, they laughed at you.  Tomorrow is difficult to tell.”

“But I know if I could just be granted an audience with Lord Dectaevius, I could persuade him!”

Roberto stopped walking for a moment and Marcus followed his lead.  The elder Brother looked down in contemplation.  When he starting walking again slowly, he said, “When I was your age, my brother thought as you.  Had the same spirit, but for different matters of the time.  Gerald was resolute, and a bit stubborn, just like you.  He too challenged the elder council of his day.”

“And what happened?  Did your brother succeed?” Marcus asked in a hopeful tone.

“Ended up with his head on a pike at the village gate,” Roberto answered, unemotionally.

“Goodness!  Would they still do such a thing?  Are we not living in a more civilized time?”

“It is rare, but it does happen.  Do not take the appearance of peace and prosperity, despite a lingering plague, as society’s tolerance for righteous causes, especially when the people are afraid.  And do not underestimate the powers that would be wielded against those who challenge the way the world is…decreed.”

This assertation visibly shook Marcus.  He wanted to respond to Brother Roberto, but could not find any retort.  Despite the confidence the young man felt in front of the village elders, now hearing the words of his friend and mentor, Marcus felt collapsed.


The two Brothers walked unspoken a while.  The torches disappeared as the winding tunnel started to be lit by the outside through wall slits.  They were steadily climbing up and now far from the great lodge.

Roberto broke the silence.

“I’ve seen it before.  You believe you have the ability to make choices for yourself, to you make your own decisions, based on your own findings, and not be forced into the dictates of others.  And even to challenge the ruler’s decrees.  It is quite a radical and dangerous concept, though not new.”

“Not new?”

“The ancients had a word for it that was declared obscene long ago.  Few know it today, and to utter this word out loud will be still to invoke the wrath of the elder council.

“Even in these civilized times.”

Marcus did not respond, but appeared lost in reflection.  Roberto later continued.

“The notion has manifested before, in past ages.  It flourished, at times, but it has never truly lasted.  Still, for those of us that believe, we must remain steadfast.  We are the very last to carry this flame, now flicker, of knowledge on the true nature of Man’s spirit.  We yearn for it, not to be controlled by a king, or a lord, or even a council.”

“Can you not tell me what this word is, Brother Roberto?”

“In time, you will learn of it, if you so choose the path as I did.”

“Then you believe in this…concept that shall not be named?”

“I believe in it just as much as Gerald did, but I took the longer view whereas he sought…more immediate results.

“By dear boy, do you think I enjoy assuming this cape?  It is only so I can blend in, nothing more.  So I can continue my work, to continue the cause, from the ever-watching eyes of the elders.

“If I had followed my brother’s path, I would not be here either, to beg you now to stay your hand.”

Marcus asked, “But if comply, as you suggest, will not that be admitting my assertions are wrong?”

“The elders and general populace would take no notice of you after this.  Yes, you would have to live with the burden of the compromise, in hopes of helping to carry on what has become a forbidden wisdom, to a time when the lands will be ready to accept it.

“Though I must warn you, that time may be well past both of our lives.  It is a patient business we must undertake.”

The men continued their walk, and could now see the end of the tunnel.  The faint sounds of villagers could be heard far off.

Marcus said, “You have given me much to think about, Brother Roberto.  But still, I feel I must be resolute in forsaking the yellow cape.  Even if that means…accepting the consequences.

“Surely, there are others besides you?”

“Yes, there are, but we are spread far and wide.  There is safety in dispersal.  There is also much you do not know, which was erased from the ancient texts, but knowledge that still lives…underground.”

The elder Brother smiled and waved his hands at the walls.

Roberto continued, “There is much you could learn, and perhaps you will use that wisdom to bring light to truth.”

“Like what?  What is there else to learn?”

“In many ways, the ability to choose by one’s own will has a great weakness when applied to public rule.  It has an innate antithesis for controlling governmental authority.  Greek democracies and the Roman Republic all made their own attempts to manifest this will for society at large, but in the end, they all failed.

“There was one experiment, in the distant past now that, incredibly, attempted to leverage that very controlling government apparatus for the securing of Man’s…ability to choose his own destiny.”

Marcus stopped walking.

“Brother Roberto, why is this experiment not known to me?”

“You have never heard of it, because it was erased from history.”

“Did this experiment have a name?” asked Marcus.

“Of course, but it also must never be said outside of these walls, at least in any of our lifetimes while this dark age of ignorance and hysteria persist.”

“Please, Brother Roberto, I must know, what did they called this fabled experiment, to aid the individual in pursing his own will?”

“The name is now only passed by word of mouth, as it is too dangerous to write.  We refer to the experiment as Amreca.”

“And what happened to it?  Who tried Amreca?”

Roberto answered, “Amreca wasn’t so much a trial as it was a place, likely a kingdom, or at least a gathering of many villages.  Some of us believe we are within its ancient borders right now.

“It prospered greatly, at least for a time, and was said to be a model for all other kingdoms.”

“So why was it so dangerous that it had to be erased from all knowledge?”

“A tale for another time, my dear boy.  One step must happen first.  See, the village awaits.  And more importantly, right now, Brother Marcus, you have a choice.”

“And the choice is indeed mine.  The will is mine.  I see that now.”

Perseid Meteor Captured on iPhone with NightCap

Taken with NightCap. Meteor mode, 5.06 second exposure, 1/1s shutter speed.

August 12th, 2020, 04:20 a.m. local time

Meteors!  They are today’s topic.  I got up very early this morning and saw six of them, likely from the Perseid Meteor Shower.  Although the sky was clear, that pesky Moon was still shining bright at 4am, even in its Waning Crescent phase.  Fortunately, my large tree to the East blocked its direct light.

Aside from visual observation, I also set up my iPhone on a tripod and ran the NightCap app in Meteor Mode.  It continually took several-second exposure images indefinitely.  I let it run from for about 40 minutes, until around 5am when the sky started to visibly lighten.

The image above was the most spectacular, captured very early in the session.  The other images mostly caught “space junk,” i.e. random satellites.  I didn’t see this specific meteor as, early on, I was more busy watching my phone and remote-control watch to ensure everything was in working order.


Where in the sky was this image taken?  Unless you’re familiar with the constellations, it will be hard to guess.  I had the phone on tripod pointed almost straight up.  Interestingly, I noticed while viewing this image in a dark room, you can see a dark aura emanating from the center top; that is the sky’s Zenith, and you can get a sense for how bad my light pollution is even around 4am.

Thanks to Roger Powell’s recent post on identifying photographic objects, I discovered nova.astrometry.net, which can identify the place in the sky your image was taken.  It’s very neat.  I uploaded my meteor image and it identified the constellations captured.  I will call this the meteor of Pegasus-Equuleus of August the 12th, 2020:

Facing West, pointed towards Zenith.

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.

Plane and Moon

Click for larger image.

May 31st, 2020, 6:37 p.m. local time

Here is another “by chance” image.  I was outside early evening to photograph the rising Moon with my Canon EOS, to get a daytime shot.  I was using my phone as the remote shutter, so I wasn’t paying full attention while I stepped away to snap images.  Normally during that time, I try to stand as still as I can, to minimize ground vibration.

It was only afterwards that I found this one image of a very high flying plane.  If you zoom in, you an see quite a bit of detail, including an underside red light and the color of the top fin (I don’t know what the technical terms are).

Image settings for reference:

  • f/5.6
  • 1/500 sec exposure
  • ISO 100
  • 300mm lens
  • Minor image touch-ups in PaintShop Pro

The Orion Nebula via DSLR Camera

The Orion Nebula, M42, plus surrounding stars. Click for full-sized image.

April 5th, 2020, 8:40 p.m. local time

On Sunday night, in addition to imaging Venus, the Pleiades, and the Moon, I also pointed the camera towards the Orion Nebula.  This was mostly an experiment, as I had never imaged M42 without the aid of a telescope.

As this time of year, the Orion Constellation is falling into the West after Dusk.  So the nebula, along with the surrounding stars that make up Orion’s sword, are at an angle towards your right.  This is in the Northern Hemisphere; in the Southern, I assume the configuration is “upside down” and would be angled towards your left.

I took a number of images of the nebula, playing around with the exposure and ISO settings.  The image included with this post is the best in my opinion, with only some minor post-processing touchups in an attempt to remove background noise.

I would like to do long-exposure stacking of deep sky objects again, but my “new” DSLR camera only outputs raw images in a format (CR3) that my software programs cannot handle.  The old standard was CR2.  I haven’t checked recently if any programs like DeepSkyStacker now support CR3, but I should.

Image settings for reference:

  • f/5.6
  • 2 sec exposure
  • ISO 3200
  • 260mm lens length
  • Minor post-processing in PaintShop Pro

Astropolitics and the “Lost Focus” of The Hubble Space Telescope

 

Our personal worldviews are shaped early in life, and can be solidified in education.  While an undergraduate studying computer engineering 24 years ago, I read a book that molded my own perspective on science, scientists, and politics.  It created a philosophical foundation in me that remains today.

As part of my needed “humanities” credits, I took a class called Politics of Science.  An assignment was to find, read, and report on a book that discussed some topic concerning politics in science.  Perusing my local library, I found The Hubble Wars by Eric Chaisson.  Hubble was still a hot topic in 1996, and with my lifelong interest in astronomy, it seemed like an easy fit for the school assignment.

The most profound lesson I took from reading the book?  Scientists are human.  They can be mad, jealous, even threaten others to defend their territory.  This never occurred to me, even though I was nearing the end of an engineering program, which was effectively all calculus and physics and C++, aside from the humanities classes, of course.  Learning equations and the names of those who discovered them were “book smarts”.  Up to that point in my life, I never really thought about science as a profession, how it generally operates as an internal structure, and how it, and specifically individual scientists, interacts with the world at large.

The Hubble Wars helped shape my worldview.  One of my philosophical pillars is that when politics and science mix, it all becomes politics, and politics is driven by money. Like how astrology is anathema to astronomy, politics in an ideal world would stay as far away from science as possible.  But politics is that necessary evil which can enable scientific advancement, even though the actual political intentions are never altruistic. This is the lens that I see everything through when politicians invoke science to justify their political agendas.  I question everything, and never assume what is presented at face value.  I wish more people would do the same, but the opposite seems to be the norm.

There isn’t much available online that I can see by way of discussion and rebuttal to this book.  The topic might as well be ancient history here in 2020.  Still, it is not hard to imagine that Dr. Chaisson’s account of events was not well-received, and indeed perhaps career inhibiting with regards to NASA and related agencies.  The book is still available for purchase on Amazon, and the scant reviews make reference to this, but no sources are cited.  Neither Dr. Chaisson‘s Wikipedia page nor Harvard profile mention his Hubble account.

Below is the report I wrote on The Hubble Wars in 1996.  It is largely intact outside a variety of minor edits that present-day me did to clean up past-me’s writing, plus a small edit to clarify which President Bush is being referenced, though that is implied by the date of the report.


Hubble Space Telescope Project’s Lack Of Focus

May 9th, 1996

The Space Telescope Project was an initiative started by NASA approximately 20 years ago. The origins of the project may be traced back to 1974, when the National Academy of Sciences recommended the creation of the Space Telescope Science Institute. Simply, the project’s goal was to put a telescope in orbit around the Earth.

There is one primary reason for having a telescope in space: the atmosphere. From thousands of years ago through Galileo’s time and up to the late 1980’s, astronomers had been confined by the layers of gases surrounding the Earth. Further, the atmosphere does not allow ultraviolet light from the universe to reach the ground. Ultraviolet light is crucial to understanding many objects in the Cosmos. In fact, Eric Chaisson, author of The Hubble Wars and member of the Space Telescope Science Institute in the 1980’s and early 90’s, claims there have been only two major advances in telescope astronomy. The first was Galileo’s initial discoveries, and the second was the Hubble telescope.1 With the Hubble Space Telescope, the barrier of the atmosphere has been broken. Astronomers are able to observe the universe with more clarity than ever before.

Aside from the scientific importance of the Space Telescope Project, the political story surrounding Hubble has had a significant impact on large-scale scientific projects in the United States. The first prominent aspect of the Space Telescope Project (also known as the Hubble Project) is its size. Throughout the 20 years of the project, it has employed tens of thousands of workers, had numerous organizations, committees, contractors, and government intervention. All of this has been headed by a weakly-managed and disorganized NASA. The result was many people with many personalities and many agendas, and not much coordination or management, which ultimately hurt the project when it ran into trouble.2

Perhaps not surprisingly, the federal bureaucrats responsible for managing Hubble seemed unconcerned. NASA officials stressed to the workers being part of the “Hubble team”, not realizing that the agency’s version of total quality management damps innovation while promoting mediocrity.3 NASA’s inability to effectively manage the HST Project often made problems worse, while creating disasters with the media.

In the most general scheme of the Hubble Project, three agencies are involved: the Goddard Institute, and the Space Telescope Science Institute, and NASA. The Goddard Institute is the center for Hubble‘s engineers, as well as the location of Hubble Control. The Space Telescope Science Institute, located on the campus of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, is responsible for scheduling Hubble‘s activities. The high-level management belongs to NASA, which also controls the Hubble Project’s funding and media relations.

In terms of scientific advice to government, this report considers the Space Telescope Science Institute’s advice to NASA. However, the advice given to government by the Hubble Project as a whole shall be examined first. Why should the government fund such a project? First, there is the previously mentioned reason about scientific research above our atmosphere, but are there any benefits besides this? Clearly, the Hubble Project will not give society a better toaster, or create a new washing machine. Instead, it shall repay the American public with something far more valuable: a renewed interest in science.

Our society is prevalently illiterate of science. To use astronomy as an example, a government-sponsored survey found that nearly one-third of the U.S. adult population thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth, and an additional 28 percentage do not know it takes a year for our planet to revolve around the Sun.4 While there are many such ‘eye-opening’ statistics like this, they do not help to solve the problem.

Eric Chaisson was the head of the Science Institute’s educational-outreach programs in 1990, when Hubble was launched by Shuttle Discovery. Their target group was, and still is, precollege students. Hopefully, by sharing the rewards of Hubble with students, many will become interested in science, and even enter careers in science or engineering. Obviously, these rewards would be far greater than any single commercial project alone. Shortly before launch of Hubble, a U.S. Senator asked Chaisson what will be the benefits of the Hubble Project, and he gave this fore-mentioned answer. She, and many others, came to believe in this reasoning for the support of Hubble.

To turn this report from the benefits of Hubble, it is important to understand why Chaisson’s book is entitled “The Hubble Wars”. In summary, the relations between NASA and the Science Institute were in a state of chaos in the months following the deployment of Hubble. Before the late-April launch of Hubble in 1990, NASA had over-hyped the Space Telescope Project by claiming things that the telescope could never do. For example, at one NASA press conference they stated that Hubble would be able to see 10 times farther into the universe than from the ground.5 This is false, writes Chaisson, since Hubble cannot see much farther than conventional telescopes. Hubble‘s power lies in its superior resolution and sharpness of images.

In the weeks and months following the launch, the Space Telescope ran into one setback after another. Its initial commissioning period, which was supposed to last only a few weeks, was dragging on into months. From spacecraft jitters to entry into ‘safemode’ (where the spacecraft essentially shuts itself down to some degree), the problems and frustration of Hubble‘s operators steadily grew. This primarily meant the engineers at Goddard, who had to continually uplink software patches to fix problems. NASA didn’t help much with its media relations either. They would always say the telescope was fine, or that they were experiencing only minor problems.6

During this period, the Science Institute continually advised NASA to be truthful about the problems of Hubble. If NASA had been honest with the press by stating that projects of Hubble‘s size were bound to have difficulties during their commissioning period, then perhaps the media would have been more forgiving.7 However, this advice went ignored by NASA. The press knew that NASA was either not being truthful or didn’t know the full situation themselves.

It is interesting to note why the Science Institute did not talk to the press directly. This is because NASA wanted all media relations to go through them. To note one item in particular, whenever an image from Hubble was released to the public, NASA wanted only their logo on it, despite the contributions of Goddard, the Science Institute, and even the European Space Agency, which built several major components of the Space Telescope.8 These actions never faired well with the other agencies.

Tensions came to a climax when NASA had to tell the world that Hubble’s primary mirror was suffering from a spherical aberration, the worst type of optimal defect. The problem was discovered by one of the ESA scientists who specialized in optical physics. From the first pictures taken by Hubble, he calculated that the primary was not the correct shape by 2 microns, or one one-ten-thousandth of an inch. While that does not seem like a large defect, such an error is almost unthinkable in the world the high-precision optics. It would like be making a door that is an inch too wide.

How was such an error overlooked? Quite simply, nobody ever checked the mirror’s dimensions. It was built in 1981 by the Perkin-Elmer Corporation, and remained in an air-tight room for several years before assembly. Through lack of management, it was assumed that the mirror must be the correct size.9

When NASA finally conveyed the news, public opinion of the project worsened considerably. Hubble became the subject of political cartoons, and jokes on late-night television. At this time it was mid-summer, and there was worry that Congress would terminate the project when they reconvened in September. Something had to be done in order to save Hubble.

Chaisson realized that Congress may decide to ‘pull the plug’, and so he wrote a rather stern email letter to everyone at Goddard, the Science Institute, and officials at NASA, pleading that someone take charge of the project. Despite Hubble‘s aberration, many productive pictures could still be taken by Space Telescope with the aid of computer image-cleaning. On this fact, Chaisson recommended that the Early Release Object program (ERO) be reinstated immediately. ERO was meant to have Hubble take several pictures which would be released to the public to show the benefits of the telescope. However, this project was terminated before launch due to the objections of many professional astronomers who didn’t want ‘their’ photos to be seen by ‘street people’.10 Basically, the Universe had been divided by professional astronomers for viewing with Hubble. Each astronomer would have exclusive rights to their pictures for one year, after which they would become public domain. However, given the desperate situation, ERO had to be revived.

A few high-ranking officials took Chaisson’s letter seriously, and ERO was reinstated. Essentially, during August and September of 1990, the Science Institute ignored NASA’s directives and took control of Hubble themselves. They were able to take many pictures which proved that Hubble was not ‘broken’. While several disgruntled astronomers publicly denounced the EROs as a publicity stunt11, the imaging campaign did to some extent restore public support for Hubble, as President (H.W.) Bush showed off a stunning picture of Saturn at the White House. More important, the project was not terminated by Congress in the fall.

Today, several years after the December 1993 Hubble repair mission, public opinion has almost completely reversed. Hubble is now fulfilling its original expectations by unlocking many secrets of the Universe. You can hardly see an astronomy magazine which doesn’t talk about Hubble or show its findings.12 However, the Hubble Project’s downside is that Congress has been much more skeptical about funding large science projects. Projects such as the Mars Exploration and U.S. Space Station (not the international station) have been cancelled13, and non-space related projects such as the Superconducting SuperCollider can trace their termination, at least in part, to Hubble. Despite these setbacks, Hubble is alive and well, and should continue to yield many more fascinating discoveries for well over a decade.


1 “The Hubble Wars”, p25

2 IBID, p30

3 IBID

4 IBID, p31

5 IBID, p352

6 IBID, p116

7 IBID, p169

8 At one point, NASA mailed Chaisson their 12-page booklet containing the official NASA regulations for display of their logo!

9 IBID, p186

10 IBID, p200

11 IBID, p268

12 For an example, see the May 1996 edition on Sky and Telescope.

13 IBID, p350

Bibliography

  1. Chaisson, Eric J. “The Hubble Wars”, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 1994
  2. Sky & Telescope Sky Publishing Corporation, Cambridge, MA, May 1996

Sun in April, 2020

Click for full-sized image.

April 2nd, 2020, 12:50 p.m. local time

It has been a while since I looked at the Sun through a telescope.  This mildly-warm Spring day with few clouds seemed like the perfect opportunity to see what the fireball in the sky was up to.

This was a somewhat rush job, as technically I needed to get back to my job.  But all in all in turned out ok, I think.  I could see two extremely small sunspots together in the upper quadrant.  If you look at the full-sized image, you may be able to find them as a small black smudge.

Equipment Used:

  • 254mm Mak-Cass telescope
  • 23mm eyepiece
  • Orange eyepiece filter
  • Solar filter for telescope lens
  • iPhone XS
  • Smartphone telescope eyepiece adapter
  • Nightcap app on iPhone with settings:
    • f/1.8
    • 1/300 s exposure
    • ISO 24
    • 4 mm focal length

The Stark Contrast of Old and New Bulbs – Light Pollution

I have tried to swear off further posts on light pollution, feeling my prior writings suffice for the time being.  However, this week I walked into an empirical example that I simply could not ignore.

While getting off the train one night, I was on a section of platform that had recently been renovated.  It had received a new walking surface, and the lamp light bulbs had been replaced with newer LEDs.  Within a few paces of one of these lamps with the new bulb was a lamp with an older bulb, closer to the parking lot.  I assumed this was a sodium bulb, or at least it exhibited the characteristics of the old sodiums.

I was able to take a picture of both lamps from the same location, posted here above.  On the left is the old sodium (-like) bulb, and on the right is the new LED bulb.  From my vantage point that evening I quickly observed differences in experiences from being under the light of both.

First, both lights were overall too bright, and they were unshielded.  You can see how the lamp design does very little to restrict the light towards its intended targets.  While the light mostly heads towards the ground, it disperses in all directions, including up.  There are probably at least a hundred of these lights throughout the train station area.

Aside from these issues, all else being equal, here is what I observed, first on the sodium/older bulb:

  • Had a softer glow.  I could look in the direction of the bulb and not feel irritated.
  • Does a far better job of bathing and immersing its surroundings in light.  The entire area around the lamp definitely looked “lit up”.
  • For night, it was relatively easy to make out all the objects around the lamp.
  • The color of the lamp distorts the natural color of the surroundings.

For the new LED bulb:

  • Projected a very harsh brightness.  Cannot comfortably look in the direction of the bulb for very long.
  • The ground around the lamp looked very dark compared to the area around the sodium bulb.  I could definitely see everything but I also felt like my eyes were straining to see the area.
  • The color was more neutral/white than the sodium, but this was offset by the weaker luminous feel.
  • In my peripheral vision, the bulb was distracting.  I’ve noticed this while driving, too.

Any energy savings of these newer LED bulbs are offset and nullified by their degraded functionality.  They seem to be very good at pinpoint brightness but are unable to luminate their surroundings effectively.  On top of that, they are grating on the eyes.

Ultimately, any bulbs (except blues) should be fine for nighttime function so long as they are properly shielded.  I have seen and walked under “dark sky” lights and they are fine for their intended purpose.  These accompanied with motion sensors and smart electronics would go a very long way towards helping reduce light pollution.

Thirty Theses on Light Pollution, 2020 Edition


I have scarcely written about light pollution since my first edition of this list two years ago.  That’s in part because the original theses covered everything I wish to say on the topic, for now.  This update is very minor in form, with just a few small changes throughout.

Light pollution unfortunately continues unabated, with the threat of ever newer and bizarrer ways concocted to ruin our common view of Space.

There is no obvious or quick solution.  I hope this list helps to frame the matter for you, and perhaps will assist you in discussing the topic with others.

(I) Light Pollution is pollution.

(II) Light Pollution is possibly the least-understood and least-recognized form of pollution.

(III) Most people do not know what Light Pollution is.

(IV) Light Pollution distorts the Earth’s natural night sky.

(V) Light Pollution’s distortion on the Earth’s night sky, by extension, distorts the Earth’s natural environments.

(VI) Science continues to accumulate evidence of the environmental impacts of Light Pollution.

(VII) The scientific evidence to-date is insufficient to awaken the general population to the existence of Light Pollution and its impact on Earth’s environments.

(VIII) Light Pollution is a recent phenomenon in human history.

(IX) Light Pollution is artificial.

(X) Moonlight is not Light Pollution, but part of the Earth’s natural environment that evolved over billions of years.

(XI) Humans and most non-nocturnal animals have difficulty sleeping under artificial light, preferring the dark of night.

(XII) Light Pollution directly inhibits terrestrial stargazing and other astronomical pursuits.

(XIII) Light Pollution lessens children’s curiosity about the night sky, stunting their desire to learn and imagine.

(XIV) Light Pollution severs our visual conduit of the cosmos from Earth.

(XV) The intended direction of nearly all artificial night lighting is down.

(XVI) Most artificial light illuminates in all directions (down, up, sides).

(XVII) Artificial light that illuminates outside of its intended range wastes energy.

(XVIII) Artificial light that illuminates outside of its intended range may be an encroachment onto surrounding lands and properties.

(XIX) Light Pollution is caused by artificial illumination of the night sky.

(XX) Light Pollution will never be eliminated completely from civilized locations, but it can be greatly mitigated.

(XXI) Light Pollution can be reduced with no impact to quality of life and security.

(XXII) Light Pollution can be significantly reduced by shielding all outdoor lighting to focus illumination on the intended ground target.

(XXIII) Shielded lights make nighttime visibility easier by reducing harsh bulb glare.

(XXIV) Light Pollution can be significantly reduced through the use of timers and motion sensors.

(XXV) All commercial and home decorative lighting should point downward with bulbs or diodes shielded on their sides.

(XXVI) Most Light Pollution comes from street lights.

(XXVII) Newer LED lights contribute far more to Light Pollution than the older, traditional sodium streetlamps.  This is because newer LED diodes blast light across almost the entire visible light spectrum, whereas the older sodium lamps emitted light at a very narrow yellow band within the visible spectrum.

(XXVIII) Newer LED lights are OK for outdoors but should be low-intensity, shielded, and ideally triggered by motion sensors.

(XXIX) Blue light is the worst light for outdoors because the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs blue spectrum light the easiest.  Think of the daytime blue sky!

(XXX) Images from space of the Earth’s ground illuminated at night were once evidence of progress, but now should be viewed as evidence of our collective ignorance about Light Pollution and not understanding how to lessen its impacts on the Earth’s environments.