Category Archives: Astronomy

Totally Eclipsed

The traffic notwithstanding, it couldn’t have gone better. This past Monday, in Seneca, South Carolina, my wife, my son, and one of my daughters witnessed three minutes and thirty seven seconds of totality.

The journey began last summer when I decided, without consulting my wife Kathleen, that we had to make the trip to see the eclipse. We had seen partial eclipses before, but never a total eclipse, and here it was, passing just a day’s drive south of us. In terms of weather, South Carolina wasn’t the best choice. It probably had the highest chance of clouds of any part of the path, not to mention the potential for a hurricane or tropical storm. But in this case, closeness counted, because I only had limited time I could take off from work. After selecting Seneca and finding an available hotel, I sprang the surprise on Kathleen and booked the rooms.

In January, I bought a pack of solar filters–not the glasses, but the cheaper cards that you hold in front of your face. I also constructed a cheap projection viewer the weekend before the eclipse. (See the photo at the top).  This was based on plans found online by one of my colleagues and made use of lenses he purchased. He got two sets for $6 and kindly gave me one set.

The morning of August 21, clouds began to drift over Seneca, but by the time the eclipse began, the sun was in the clear and remained that way the entire time. While the moon’s disk bit into the sun, I monitored it using the projection viewer and took some time to watch the goings on here on Earth. The light became noticeably dimmer by the halfway point. Gaps in the leaves of nearby trees projected images of the eclipse on the asphalt parking lot. Shortly before totality, streetlights and security lights switched on.

We watched through our filters as the last sliver of sunlight shrank and winked out, then lowered them and looked into the inky dark of the moon surrounded by the blaze of the solar corona. Venus shone brightly to the west. Kathleen saw another object, probably Jupiter, to the east, although I missed it. To the northeast, the only part of the horizon we could see, the orange-red of sunrise/sunset appeared although the sun was high in the sky. As the moon continued its crawl across the face of the sun, sparkles winked on and off in the gaps between the lunar mountains. Near the end of totality, a couple of them sparkled ruby red on the trailing edge of the moon.

You try to take in everything in those brief moments, but there is too much. It is the longest/shortest two and a half minutes of your life. And there is something else, something you can feel rather than see, something born of the whole complex of phenomena that make up a total solar eclipse: a sense that this is organic, alive, intimately connected with your own life.  We know the sun is the source of all life on our planet, but for those couple of minutes when it isn’t there in the middle of the day, this knowledge becomes tangible. The whole world changes. The temperature drops. The light diminishes. Animals prepare for the coming of night even though it’s nowhere near nightfall. It is as though the universe is reminding us that we, ultimately, are not in charge.

Being an amateur astronomer, I don’t think people ever really feared that the sun might not return following an eclipse. Eclipses don’t happen that often in any one place, but they happen somewhere on Earth every two or three years, and people have long understood the reason: the passage of the moon in front of the sun. Nothing happens to the sun itself, and the moon never stops in its orbit. So no eclipse ever lasts more than three or so hours, and no total eclipse lasts more than a few minutes. But witnessing a deep eclipse, and especially totality, does bring our dependency upon the sun home in a way nothing else can.

 

Life Intrusions

Life has a way of intruding on an author’s work.  This happens because, as my wife and editor Kathleen is fond of saying, “Your output is derived from your input.” In ways both subtle and obvious, a writer’s background shapes his writing.

In my case, one such influence dates back to my earliest childhood. For as long as I can remember, the universe has beckoned me. Astronomy was my first love. When other boys might have said they would grow up to be doctors or policemen, I wanted to be an astronomer. My father taught me the constellations and the names of the brightest stars.  In junior high school, I bought a cheap telescope from K-Mart and spent time observing the moon, stars, and sun. In high school I expanded my horizons to cosmology and from there to relativity and quantum physics.

I didn’t actually end up as either an astronomer or a physicist, but my interest in those subjects hasn’t flagged. I have a better telescope today, although still a modest one, and subscribe to Sky and Telescope. I’ve even sold them a couple of essays.

My interest in science and particularly astronomy influenced my literary ambitions, too. In the long ago, I principally read and wrote science fiction. My favorite SF stories to both read and write were those involving the exploration of the universe.

Later I became increasingly interested in mysteries and somewhat disaffected with the direction in which the science fiction genre was heading, but astronomy didn’t get left behind. In The Fibonacci Murders, for example, you’ll find Venus shining in the evening sky, as well as references to the moon and light pollution. Light pollution also figures in the opening scene of my forthcoming novel, Ice on the Bay. My in-progress return to science fiction, Space Operatic, takes place in the inner Oort Cloud.

My other key hobby, bonsai, hasn’t yet worked its way into my writing, but then I’ve only been into the art for about ten years. I have, however, pondered some possibilities. Tomio Kaneko, the Japanese-American mathematician who debuts in The Fibonacci Murders, just might have a son with an interest in bonsai, an art that can yield valuable works through the application of, among other things, sharp instruments.

That sounds about right for a murder mystery, no?

 

Suddenly, the Swan!

I’ve had very little time and energy for my astronomy hobby for the past two years or so.  It used to be that I’d take the telescope out at least two or three times a week, weather permitting.  I logged my observations, worked my way through the Messier catalog, reported my observations of variable stars to the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers), and tried to observe occultations of stars by asteroids for IOTA (the International Occultation Timing Association).  I was never the most accomplished of observers, but I was out there doing things.

Life gets in the way, though, and I’m a bit older than I used to be.  So time and energy are not what they once were.  Enthusiasm has taken a bit of a hit, too, for several reasons.  For one thing, I only have modest astronomical equipment, which limits what I can see.  For another, I live eight miles from downtown Baltimore, and the light pollution is horrible.  That’s an even worse limitation on what I can see.  I also have less interest in going out on cold winter nights than I used to, but that’s at least a seasonal problem.  What I can, or rather can’t, see is the main issue.

Which brings me back the Messier catalog, one hundred and ten objects forming a list that began life as a collection of objects not to look at if you happened to be hunting for comets.  Today, that list is a key focus for many amateur astronomers.  Hunting for and finding Messier objects is one of the first things most amateur astronomers undertake.  For some, drawing these objects at the eyepiece occupies many hours of observation, while others photograph them.  There is even an activity known as the Messier Marathon in which an amateur astronomer attempts to locate all one hundred ten objects in a single (looooong) night of observing.

I’ve never tried the marathon myself, but I have revisited these objects time and again.  The problem is, I can’t see them all.  Some are too faint or diffuse to see using my equipment from my location, and I don’t typically get to travel to darker locations.  I have tried time and again to spot these elusive objects, hoping against hope that with growing experience and maybe the luck of just the right conditions, I’ll be able to catch one.  But that has never happened.

Until last night.

Last night I took the telescope out for the first time in a long time.  I happened to be out when Saggitarius was hanging in the sky at the end of my driveway.  It’s a fairly bright constellation, and it also boasts a special position in Earth’s sky: the center of our galaxy lies in that direction, so the band of the Milky Way is thickest and brightest as it runs through Saggitarius.

But from my house, not so much.  From where I stand with my telescope, that direction happens to be roughly the direction of downtown Baltimore, so the skyglow is brightest there.  Worse, there’s a streetlight in my face, glaring at me from across the street.  The Milky Way is invisible here, and I can’t even see the stars of Saggitarius without blocking the streetlight with my hand.

As you might guess, if I point the telescope at anything in that direction, it’s generally a disappointment.  An object in that part of the sky must be fairly bright for me to see it, so most of the Messier objects in that region are difficult or impossible for me to observe.

That doesn’t mean I won’t try.  I looked for several of them last night, moving from Saggitarius gradually upward from the horizon until I came to M17, a nebula known as the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula (and one or two other names, depending upon who’s doing the talking).  There are very few nebulae I can see.  Because they are spread out over the sky, their light is diffuse and their surface brightnesses fairly low.  They have to compete with the human-created skyglow, even in a telescope.   There are only a handful of nebulae I can see without using a filter designed to block the wavelengths of light most typically associated with light pollution.

I have two such filters, one a relatively recent purchase.  Last night, I installed that filter, pointed the telescope at M17, and looked.  Amazingly, there was a smear of light, long and thin, across the view.  At first I thought it was a reflection off the lens from the streetlight.  I moved the telescope a bit.  The smear moved with the stars!  It was real!

After years of not seeing the Swan Nebula, there it was before me.  I tried the older filter and discovered that I could indeed see the nebula with its aid, but it was much fainter.  Had I not known exactly where to look, it’s possible I would have missed it, or at least wouldn’t have been entirely certain that I’d seen it.  Returning to the newer filter, I reveled in the view for some time before moving on to other targets.

What you see at the eyepiece is never what you see in a photograph.  For many people, the smudge of light that greeted my eyes last night would probably have elicited an underwhelmed response.  But for me, after years of not seeing it, suddenly discovering the Swan was a real treat.