I Do Not Fear Missing the Solar Eclipse

The great solar eclipse of North America has gotten a lot of publicity recently, and rightly so.  It is a script written for movies, a stark event to be witnessed by large areas of a large country.  Everyone from the professional astrophysicist to the completely uninitiated layman will appreciate it.

There is just one small hitch though – the weather.  Cloud cover may potentially block some or all of the eclipse.  This is not unusual for an astronomical affair, with the main casualty here being the lost opportunity due to the infrequency of this particular one’s chance.  The last solar eclipse in North America was over ninety years ago.  The next will be in seven.  After that, likely none of us today will be alive for the solar eclipse of 2099.

Last year, in May 2016, was the latest transit of the planet Mercury across the Sun.  This too is a rare event, though with a frequency of about once every 13 years.  While location on Earth is important, there is still a decent chance you can witness a Mercury transit over the course of 30-40 years.

I was in a prime location for the Mercury transit and had a full seven hours to observe it.  Unfortunately, the clouds that day were like a mockery from the gods, with the densest cover short of a severe thunderstorm.  My days of preparation and planning with telescope and solar filter and camera were fruitless.

Now being days away from the August 21st eclipse, I watch the weather forecasts for Monday like a hawk.  Currently they foretell party cloudy, muggy, with a chance of a thunderstorm, but with an uncomfortable encroachment of rain first in the evening and now late afternoon.  In my area, the eclipse will be at its peak around 13:20 and over by 14:45.

Will I be disappointed if the weather does not cooperate?  Absolutely.  Fortunately, there are a few mitigating perspectives.

First as a practical matter, cloud cover does not necessarily mean the eclipse will not be observable.  The Sun is very powerful and can pierce a variety of cloud formations.  I have taken pictures of star and planets through cloud cover when they were invisible to the eye alone, and have imaged the Sun through clouds as well.  Clouds can actually provide an artistic effect through a solar filter when imaging.

The second is a much longer perspective.  I hope those unfamiliar with astronomy take this as an opportunity to begin their own personal explorations of the cosmos.  A solar eclipse it just one event, but there is so much more to see, so much more to wonder at!  Every clear night offers something spectacular if you know how to observe the sky.

The Moon, the planets, meteors, nebulae, star clusters, galaxies, binary stars, constellations.  Conjunctions, oppositions, Jovian moon transits.  They are all there, if not all the time then at least for long durations annually, every night for the taking.

This will also be a useful opportunity to push the cause of light pollution.  Though the wonders of the cosmos are out there, too much of our planet is poisoned by the sickly orange sky glow that ranks with any other pollution source.  Few people know about it, as it is not easy to realize, but artificial lighting at night distorts ecosystems.  If you don’t believe me, try sleeping with your bedroom light on, every night.

So even if the weather forces me to miss the eclipse, I know it will not be the end-all, because of all the amazing things in the sky and all the other astronomical events, including eclipses, to come.  The clouds cannot win every time!

A Certain Point of View on Pluto

Nine decades ago, the largest of the most distant objects in our Solar System was discovered by an observer in America.  Even today, it is still king over thousands of similar known objects residing past the gas giant Neptune.  All of these objects share many of the same physical characteristics.  Some leave their distant neighborhood to embark on a long journey towards and around our Sun, and are known as comets.

The discovery of this one object is a fascinating tale, for it was not found at random.  Neptune was discovered 75 years prior, and astronomers had noted over that time that Neptune’s orbit was not quite the same as the other three known gas giants (Uranus, Saturn, and Jupiter).  It was thought that a planet similar in size to Neptune and Uranus must lie just beyond the orbit of Neptune, pulling at Neptune via gravity.  And so a search was underway.

After its discovery in 1930, the newfound object was thought to be the solution to the Neptune orbit question.  As such, it had to be very large.  Soon it ranked among our Solar System’s magnificent residents.  In short order and for the next half century, it would be counted in science textbooks across America as one of the nine planets orbiting the Sun.  This harmonic order was solidified in schools and reinforced by all the amazing advances happening in science generally and our space program in particular.

Also during that half century, astronomers continued to learn and understand so much more about how our Solar System is built.  They realized, for one, that the inner found planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars) are a family of objects.  The outer gas giant planets, starting with Jupiter, are another family.  Each family was created in their own similar manners and composed of the same basic materials.

More importantly, the inner versus outer distinction among the planets is strongly related.  The four inner planets, being so close to the hot Sun, long ago burnt off all their access gas, primarily hydrogen and helium, to leave mostly their rocky cores.  The inner planets really are rocks, and we’re on the third from the Sun.  By contrast, the outer planets were not close enough to the Sun to burn off their access hydrogen and helium, so they remained, and still do, in their large, gaseous forms.  That is why we call them gas giants.

Like an ever-increasing jigsaw puzzle, more and more parts of our Solar System have been revealed thanks to advances in astrophysics.  How many parts to the Solar System are there?  Classically from ancient times, there were only a handful of planets, including the Moon and Sun.  For a while, in the early 19th century, there were more than ten planets accounted for, but eventually those newly-discovered objects, such as Ceres, were determined to be asteroids, a class of objects on their own.

Returning to the object discover almost 90 years ago, it was the first of the newest Solar System class, known today as Kuiper belt objects.

So we classify our Solar System roughly by five major object types:

  1. The center star, our Sun
  2. The inner rock planets
  3. Asteroids, most predominant between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter
  4. The outer gas giant planets
  5. Kuiper belt objects, which include comets

Around the same time that this first and largest Kuiper belt object was discovered, an important cultural genesis was happening elsewhere.  Mr. Walt Disney was creating his beloved cartoon characters, which are still the core of his Disney empire today.  One of these was a dog named Pluto.

Thanks to the intersection of planets traditionally being named for mythological gods and Disney’s cultural phenomenon, a star, err…planet, was born.

First Impressions Are Everything

We all know today the cultural battle – and it is cultural, not scientific – around Pluto’s demotion from the ranks of the other eight planets.  What exactly happened, and why is it still such a hot-button issue?

Some 15 years ago, a group of scientists, including Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose writings on the Pluto affair I base much of this post on, created a museum exhibit in New York to show the scale of the entire universe.  When it came to the Solar System part of the exhibit, being good scientists and knowing how Pluto is best classified as a Kuiper belt object, they placed Pluto not with the other eight planets, but with the Kuiper display.  Their exhibit made no specific mention of why Pluto was not in the planet exhibit.

This was mistake #1.  Culturally, Pluto has been ingrained into every school student for the past 60+ years as one of the nine planets.  Pluto was a planet just as the Sun rises and sets each day – it was taken for granted and never questioned by the general public, because they were never given a reason to question Pluto’s status.

But during that 60-year span, astrophysicists gradually realized that Pluto was not like any of the other planets.  It is mostly ice, smaller than Earth’s Moon.  If Pluto was ever near the Sun, it would form a tail, just like a comet, because Pluto is essentially a comet that never gets close enough to the Sun to start melting off its ice.  Its chemical composition is unlike the eight planets as well, but it is similar in makeup to the other Kuiper belt objects that reside at the farthest known space of our Solar System.

So it was obvious in the field of astrophysics that Pluto was unique and separate, but scientists never made mention of this (certainly not enough to change Pluto’s textbook status as a planet), particularly in their universe museum exhibit.

A reporter for the New York Times saw the exhibit, noted Pluto’s exclusion from the other eight planets, and wrote a sensational published article on how scientists unilaterally decided to demote Pluto.  At that point, scientists lost the battle for the narrative, because they allowed someone external from their profession to control it.  Dr. Tyson claims the exclusion was innocent and not intended to offend, but this reaction only reinforces a problem scientists have even today – they don’t understand that their knowledge has the power to upend common assumptions, and importantly, the aftershocks they can cause.

People prefer stability over change.  In a chaotic world, they look for constants.  The basics of what every contemporary adult man and woman was taught in elementary school is like a sacred foundation.  What happens when you tell them 2+2 no longer equals 4?  That is how most everyone reacted to the news that Pluto was, effectively, no longer a planet.

Digging a Hole

Like you, I grew up believing Pluto to be the ninth planet of the Solar System.  Like you, I was affronted when the news about Pluto’s apparent demotion began circulating.  And like you, I was even more upset when I heard, about a decade ago, that a group of scientists “officially” decreed Pluto no longer a planet.

Dr. Tyson is correct in that if Pluto was not named after a Disney character, the storm around its planetary status may never have gotten so big.  It may have flared and then subsided.  But Pluto is not just a planet to most, it is a beloved planet.  The sacred textbook matter is reinforced by the public’s fondness for something named after a Disney character.

The official reason and decision on Pluto only made matters worse.  This was mistake #2.  First, nobody (in the general public) is going to be swayed into rethinking Pluto because it has not cleared its orbit of debris.  That may make sense to an astrophysicist but not to a New York Times reporter.  Secondly, the problem was only compounded by calling Pluto no longer a planet, but a “dwarf planet.”

With apologies to Snow White’s hardworking miners as well as Gimli, nobody and nothing ever wants to be relegated to the status of “dwarf.”  Yesterday, you were an apple.  Today, you are a dwarf apple, because scientists say so.

The optics of calling Pluto a “dwarf planet” are horrible.

Fruitless Amends

After reading Dr. Tyson’s full explanation, I am thoroughly convinced Pluto is not a planet like the four inner and four outer planets.  I contend that any reasonable person who reads Chapter 9 of Dr. Tyson’s co-authored book Welcome to the Universe will agree as well.  There was no ulterior motive, no political agenda in demoting Pluto.  It was not about making our knowledge of the Solar System fit to keeping Pluto a planet, but recognizing that today’s accumulated knowledge puts Pluto into another class of object.

Mistake #3 has been the ongoing attempt by scientists to make some sort of compromise classification of Pluto, to return it to full planet status.  This is an Occam’s Razor matter – any new, refined definition to make Pluto a full planet again comes along with its own complications.  Pluto is the largest and most famous Kuiper belt object.  That is a grand status on its own.  But status is not science.  So why are scientists trying to “save” Pluto?  Perhaps for the fame of being the savior of a cultural icon is my guess.

I will not say, “Scientists should have done X, Y, and Z to have avoided the Pluto public relations nightmare.”  The Pluto matter is about the need for scientists to understand the enormous power they wield, especially as science itself becomes more potent in challenging long-held beliefs.  This is particularly true for how scientists communicate their knowledge to the public at large.  “You don’t have that option,” to not believe what scientists tell you to believe is no way to dispel the stigma of scientists being arrogant, over-educated fools who want to be your new high priests.  Science may be objective, but scientists are still human, complete with their own failings and prejudices.  That public figures like Dr. Tyson don’t appreciate their own complicit role in Pluto’s problem is one example of how scientists have to change their strategy for convincing the general public that the causes of science are sincere and real.

Dr. Tyson is likely very much aligned ideologically with his childhood hero, Carl Sagan.  Sagan, however, had a demeanor and way about him that invited everyone, regardless of their beliefs, to the knowledge of the cosmos.  It is to Sagan’s approach that I would look for the communication answers, not to the contemporary scientist’s abrasive method.

How to Fight Light Pollution

“Great results can be achieved with small forces.”
― Sun Tzu

Sometimes you have to step back and re-assess a strategy you feel is not working, or just the wrong path.

Light pollution is a serious problem, but one known today by very few.  It wastes energy.  It harms our sleep cycles.  It damages the ecosystems within our environment that developed over millions of years on the assumption of a non-polluted, dark night.  It deprives all humans of our inalienable right, as inhabitants of Earth, to spur our imaginations by wondering at the universe beyond.

I have written before about light pollution, but those were constituted primarily of my own thoughts.  I am not an expert on light pollution.  There are people who are, and doing the real yeomen’s work to raise attention to the cause, to change the public’s attitude, and to guide civic remedies.

So instead of espousing my own random thoughts, which may not always be right or productive, I want to use my blog writings on light pollution to highlight the people and organizations working to solve the light pollution epidemic.  My tiny blog will not have much impact, but I will do what I can to spread knowledge on the genuine efforts underway.

I will start by highlighting one account on Twitter, Saving our Stars.  It is a good daily feed of light pollution matters being posted throughout the Internet.  It also has an accompanying website.  I encourage everyone to follow this Twitter account to appreciate both the small and large scale issues regarding light pollution.

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.

What an Ugly and Depressing Sky…

March 18th, 2017, 7:30 p.m. local time

This is my sky right now.  Everything above me looks like this.  Not a pinhole anywhere.  No relief to be seen from the distant West.  And these are not storm clouds.  They are more like a proverbial middle finger given to stargazers on what could otherwise be a pleasant Saturday evening of observation.

So no crescent Venus tonight.  No searching for Mercury.  No late-season Orion.  No Sirius.  No falling Cassiopeia pointing to the ever-so-faint Andromeda Galaxy.  No Big Bear.  No Little Bear.  No Aldebaran.  No star clusters in Auriga.  No Gemini.  No early morning Waning Moon.  No Spica.  No Jupiter.

Yet many radiating objects are emerging as the day settles.  Perhaps I will stroll through my neighborhood and observe the wonders of every house’s lit porch, three for five times over.  Then perhaps I will begin keeping a log of all these incredible illuminations.  I may even then, if I so fancy, name each one, noting their colors and brightness.  I will conclude my studies by developing a new field of quantum physics to explain what each of those lights are.

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