Monday, January 31, 2005

The gate to mystery

Who am I? Why am I here? What does it all mean? The Big Questions. There was a time in my life, as a youngster, when I was happy to be given answers. Now I am content to say "I don't know."

I want instead answers to the Little Questions. How do the enzymes in every cell of my body build proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids? How do helium atoms form carbon in the cores of stars? How does a hummingbird hover?

"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao," wrote Lao Tzu, two-and-a-half thousand years ago. "The name that can be named is not the eternal name." Let me celebrate here what can be told and named.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

A foot in the river...

A candle burns, releasing carbon atoms. Some of the atoms link in pairs to make soot. Others combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, and drift away in the air. A flowering plant steals carbon dioxide from the air, and, with sunlight, makes sugar. The flower's sweet nectar attracts a bee. The bee makes honey and wax. From the wax, a candle is made. The candle burns.

"All things flow," said Heraclitus. We cannot step in the same river twice, he said. What flows are atoms, in a constant shuffle, in and out of stars, nebulas, planets, animals, plants. Of all atoms, it is carbon that provides the frame upon which life weaves its woof and warp of variation -- the subject of this week's Musing.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Ants in the pants

Isn't science wonderful! I mean, who would think of fidget pants but scientists?

No, really. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic asked their subjects to wear special underpants with sensors that measure body movement. As the subjects went about their daily lives, the underpants made a record of fidgeting.

The biggest fidgeters burned the most calories. As if we didn't know.

"Stop fidgeting!" my wife has been saying for years. "You'd drive anyone crazy the way you jiggle all day."

Yeah, well. "Fidgeting is a good thing," says a spokesperson for the Mayo team. " It's not a bad habit like picking your nose," .

In fact, so valuable is fidgeting in fighting obesity that the scientists wonder if it's possible to teach people to fidget. So how about wiring the fidget pants so that they deliver a mild electric shock every time the wearer settles down. That should do the trick.

"I'd wire you up the other way around," says my long-suffering wife.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Bioerosion

Fuzzy chitons. The most common chitons in Bahamian waters. Creatures of the rocky shoreline. Not quite sure why they call them "fuzzy." They are hard to tell from the rock itself.

No way to get one of these guys off without a hammer and chisel. Under those eight armored plates that make up their shell there's not much but a big sucking foot and gonads. Chitons have reduced life to the basics: hanging on and making sperm. No wonder they have survived so long in the history of life.

The ones I watch seem content to stick in the same place from tide to tide, but apparently they move about at night. They feed by scrapping bacteria and algae off the surface of the rock with their sharp rows of "teeth," in the process turning rock into sand. Mate? Not exactly. Chitons eject sperm and eggs into the water and let nature take its course. Not particularly romantic, but if your most important organ is your foot there's not much point to romance.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Chicken Little

A ten pound meteorite has smashed into a field in Cambodia, setting fire to crops. People in the nearby village think the stone is a sign from God, and want to build a shrine.

Pliny the Elder, the Roman natural philosopher, described stones that fell from the sky, and chunks of iron that resembled sponges. But he also recorded a rain of milk and blood, and a rain of flesh. Once, he tells us, wool fell from the sky, and on another occasion it rained baked bricks.

In the 18th century, the newly enlightened Academy of Sciences at Paris attempted to put an end the superstitious nonsense once and for all by simply decreeing that objects could NOT fall from the sky, whereupon European museums tossed out valuable collections of authentic meteorites. In America, when two Yale professors described a meteorite that fell in Connecticut, Thomas Jefferson is said to have remarked, "It is easier to believe that Yankee professors would lie, than that stones would fall from heaven."

But of course stones do fall from heaven, and there's no way to tell when or where they will fall. By all means let the Cambodian villagers build their shrine -- to the god of chaos.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

"The very thing..."

We don't have a TV here on the island, but once a week or so we curl up in bed and watch a DVD on my laptop. Last evening it was a full-length documentary about the Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy, called Rivers and Tides.

Goldsworthy is unique in his whimsical and provocative environmental constructions. For his materials he uses twigs, leaves, flowers, thorns, raindrops, stone, ice, sand, dust. The works are ephemeral, although recorded photographically. Some last only until sunrise, or high tide, or the next strong wind; he works on the edge of collapse. "The very thing that brings a work to life," he says, "is the thing that will cause its death."

Goldsworthy has long been a hero of mine. I own all of his books, and they have taught me to see the natural world in a new way. He works in a place, he says, between "breathlessness and uncertainty."

About ten years ago, The Britannica Yearbook asked me to write an appreciation of Goldsworthy to accompany a photo essay. My compensation was to be money, or $1000 worth of deeply discounted Britannica merchandise. I chose the latter, and Britannica kindly shipped to the island (at their own expense) multiple sets of the Junior Britannica encyclopedia, which now reside in Exuma's tiny primary schools.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The green fuse

Coffee on the terrace, watching the sunrise, thinking of a line from a poem of Dylan Thomas: "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower." The long, long fuse -- through twenty miles or so of blue air, 93 million miles of space, and half-a-million miles of turbulent hydrogen -- to the heart of the sun.

It's hot at the center of the sun. About 15 million Centigrade degrees hot. At 15 million degrees something remarkable happens. Hydrogen nuclei, which carry positive charges, are able to overcome their mutual repulsion and fuse together to form helium. Fuse. That word again! The green fuse. Dylan Thomas was more right than he knew. Fusion is the force that drives the flower.

Every second the sun converts roughly 700 million tons of hydrogen into helium. And the helium weighs less than the original hydrogen. Five million tons less. Matter has disappeared. Matter has been turned into pure energy. The old Einstein equation -- energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Every second the sun turns five million tons of its own substance into radiant energy.

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/ Is my destroyer." Dylan Thomas was a poet. Einstein was the scientist who unraveled the mystery of fusion in the sun. The two men were contemporaries. They died within a few years of each other in the mid-1950s. They both perceived the essential unity of matter and energy. They both recognized in nature a physical force that drives all things, a force that is both creative and destructive, holy and terrible.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Brrr -- Part 2

Location, location, location. Or I should say: angle, angle, angle.

It's all in the angle at which the sun's rays hit the Earth. If the angle is less perpendicular, the energy of sunlight is spread out over a bigger area and heats less effectively.

As I calculate it, today (with the north pole tipped 19.6 degrees away from the Sun) one-third less energy is falling on a square meter of New England snow than on a square meter of Exuma sand.

Of course, other factors determine the weather too -- currents of wind and water, proximity to the sea, and so on. But the basic reason I'm down here all toasty warm and Tom is freezing is -- angle, angle, angle.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Brrr...Buried in Bolton

While some of us are basking (and blogging) on Bahamian beaches, myself and the rest of Massachusetts are buried underneath two feet of fresh snowfall. How's the water down there, Pop?

A grandeur in this view of life...

In Suggested Readings for this week's Musing, I mention Charles Darwin's beloved daughter Annie who died at age 10, apparently of tuberculosis. The great scientist's attendance at Annie's bedside was unwavering.

Twenty-six years after Annie's death, Dr. Robert Koch took the first photograph of a bacterium, the tuberculosis pathogen, and so confirmed the germ theory of disease. As Darwin suspected, Annie had died so that another creature might live -- nature red in tooth and claw. But humans can escape from the relentless logic of natural selection, Darwin firmly believed. By caring lovingly for the sick and weak, we lift ourselves above our animal natures.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Where is Clarence Darrow when we need him?

Intelligent design (ID) has been "taught" in a Pennsylvania classroom.

Administrators read a statement to students offering ID as an alternative to evolution. Thankfully, science teachers were not required to teach what most of them know is not science.

Not science because as far as I know there is not a single research paper in any of the world's vast refereed scientific literature that offers reproducible, experimental evidence for ID.

Not science because by definition there can be no reproducible, experimental test of divine whimsy.

Make no mistake, ID is religion masquerading as science, and the adults involved in foisting it on public school children should be ashamed of themselves. Let them keep ID in their bible schools where it belongs.

"The revolution in education has begun," crowed a lawyer speaking on behalf of the school district. What has begun is the great dumbing down of America.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Buy then! bid then!

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!

I look, I look. Each night when I wake at one o'clock, or two, I step onto the terrace and soak myself in the tropic night, the huge overarching star-spangled dark, and think inevitably of Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Starlight Night."

O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves'-eyes!
The gray lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at farmyard scare!
Ah, well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

On the skids?

The recently passed U.S. budget for 2005 cuts funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). No surprise there. Neither science nor the environment is high on the Bush agenda. A big part of the NSF's responsibility is the improvement of science education.

Meanwhile, a new report from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Advancement shows U. S. eighth-grade science and math students lagging behind their counterparts in Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Hong Kong, Estonia, Japan, Hungry and the Netherlands. Fourth-grade U. S. students also trail the Asians in science and math.

The present administration and its fatcat/creationist constituency might usefully read the always interesting Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Jared's case studies suggest that the most resilient societies are those that take the long view, conserve their environments, and do not attach themselves stubbornly to the past.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Cosmic romance?

Dinner last evening. Candlelight. Wine. M's homemade carrot soup and homemade bread. On the stereo, Diana Krall singing Irving Berlin's "How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?"

Romantic, uh?

Well, not exactly. In yesterday's post I urged the cosmic view. On the scale of the planet, the ocean depths and mountain tops aren't so great. Take an ordinary household globe, sculpt its surface in exact proportion to the topography of the real Earth, then run your hand over it. You won't feel a thing. Wrap the globe in a sheet of Saran wrap and you've got a pretty good representation of the atmosphere.

On the cosmic scale the Earth is as round and smooth as a billiard ball.

How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? I'll have another glass of wine.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The view from Titan

The greatest revelation of planetary exploration has not been how different are other worlds, but how much like Earth they are. Photographs from the surfaces of the Moon, Mars, Venus, and now Titan might have been taken in a terrestrial desert or Antarctic waste.

Just 400 years ago people believed that everything that existed above the sphere of the Moon belonged to another changeless world, utterly different than Earth. We now know that the laws of energy and matter that shape our planet are universal, and among the billions of galaxies we can see with our telescopes we should not be surprised to find countless other Earthlike worlds and intelligences both greater and lesser than our own.

This new information does not sit well with certain religious beliefs that evolved at a time when we believed ourselves to be the sole proprietors of the creation. But as the biologist E. O. Wilson has said, "If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth."

Monday, January 17, 2005

Intellectual Darwinism

In yesterday's New York Times yet another story of a school committee -- this time in Dover, Pennsylvania -- seeking to impose an alternative to "Darwinism" in the science curriculum.

Yes, "Darwinism" is a fair enough name for the idea that organisms evolve by random mutations and natural selection. But here is another kind of "Darwinism" that it would be good to teach in science classes, defined by the words of the great man himself: "I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free, so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved, as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it."

Sunday, January 16, 2005

On extended wings

What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?


-- from Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" (see this week's Musing)

Getting there

Almost every school room has a solar system poster with the planets lined up like soldiers on parade, or a dangling mobile with the planets jostling each other in the breeze. These illustrations do little to convey the true scale of the solar system -- or the achievement of Cassini-Huygens.

Imagine the Sun -- our blazing star, nearly a million miles in diameter -- as a smallish grapefruit on the goal line of a football field. Earth is a salt grain on the 10 yard line, and Saturn a pea at the far end of the field. Now, in your mind's eye, delete the ground, the bleachers, the goal posts, and everything else except the grapefruit, the salt grain and the pea. Set the salt grain and the pea in motion.

Now imagine that scientists and engineers on the salt-grain Earth decide to send a spacecraft to pea-sized Saturn, a football field's length away. The journey will take seven years, and make several loop-the-loops around the Sun, picking up gravitational kicks from the inner planets. The craft swings by pea-sized Jupiter out there the 50-yard line, getting another bit of ummph. Then it's on to Saturn.

And not just finding the planet, but dropping a package of instruments -- touchdown! -- onto its dustspeck moon.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Touch down!

The string of successes continues. Today the European Space Agency's Huygens probe, after hitching a ride with Cassini for the past seven years, successfully touched down onto the surface of Titan. This is the first time we have made a landing on a body in the Outer Solar System.


The first few raw images have been returned including this view of the probe's final resting place.

Other photos taken during descent show the surface of Titan beneath the enshrouding clouds. Channels made by flowing liquid are visible as well as a possible coastline. Yow!

Science & Spirit

In other news, starting this month Chet is now writing a back-page column, Natural Wonder, for Science & Spirit magazine. The magazine appears every two months. You can read his first essay online.

Saturn and his children

Saturn dominating our sky last evening, as the Huygens space probe begins its descent onto the surface of Titan. Here is the planet as it might have looked through a telescope, surrounded by its major moons, and, at the upper right, a star of Gemini. Amazing to be looking at that dot of light in the sky, 750 million miles away, knowing that a human instrument of knowing is about to bring a new world into our ken.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Science and pseudoscience

Tom is a sometime crossword constructor. I suggested the following theme to him.

Horizontal theme answers: EVOLUTION, SELECTION, MUTATION, FITNESS, DESCENT, WALLACE, DARWIN, for example.

Intersected by vertical theme answers: PHYSICS, CHEMISTRY, GEOLOGY, ASTRONOMY, CHEMISTRY, GENETICS, for example.

A beautiful metaphor for what science is and how it works. Science is not a smorgasbord of ideas from which one can pick and choose. Any scientific idea takes its significance and resilience from its place in a mutually reinforcing web of ideas.

Tom wittily suggested instead a crossword that has only a single theme answer: INTELLIGENT DESIGN.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Chasing slivers

Here on the Tropic of Cancer the sky is almost always clear and we have good views to the eastern and western horizons. A perfect place for the sport of young and old moon spotting.

Last evening the new moon was 34 hours old, low in the western sky as the sun set -- eyelash thin, but easy to catch in the darkening sky before it too slipped below the horizon. The previous evening the moon was 10 hours old and lost in the sun's light.

The record for a naked-eye young moon is said to be 15 hours. Any moon less than 30 hours old is deliciously thin. Next month (February 9) offers a chance for a mid-20s moon -- indescribably elusive in the waning light.

The same game can be played with old moons before sunrise.

UPDATE: An added lunar note. We read in the news that high tides Monday troubled tsunami devastated coastlines in Asia. January is the time of the year when the Earth is closest to the sun. More to the point, on Monday the moon was closer to the Earth than at any time since March 1993. It will not be closer until December 2008. A bit of bad luck for the tsunami victims.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Celestial visitor

Astrophotographers around the world were waiting last week for Comet Machholz's pleasing pairing with the Pleiades. In my neck of the woods, it was overcast for much of last week, so I didn't get to view it. For anyone else who missed out, here is a beautiful photograph of the event from British astrophotographer Pete Lawrence.

Tonight the clouds are gone. I went back out to take another look, this time with the telescope. To my delight, I was able to locate the comet with the naked eye, although it is hardly conspicuous. Through the eyepiece of the telescope, it glowed gently, humming along its slow arc. Thanks Don -- well spotted!

UPDATE -- an even more spectacular photo at APOD!

Getting antsy

Last evening during preparation for dinner and cleaning up afterward I watched a troop of ants shlepping a crumb along the kitchen windowsill.

It was a chaotic effort. Ants joined up and bailed out, seemingly at random. The crumb went left, then right, up, then down, but ever so slowly drifted towards the thin crack under the screen where the ants entered the house.

No ant had the smarts to organize the effort, nor did they recognize that the crumb would never fit through the crack even if they got it there. But still, I had to admire the purposeful collective behavior of creatures individually smaller than the point of a mechanical pencil.

Ants are jampacked chemical factories. They employ the most complex system of chemical communication of any animal. Their glands are endlessly active, puffing and squirting secretions for every purpose. When tastes and scents fail, there are other modes of communication -- tappings, strokings, graspings, nudgings, and antennations.

Put billions of ants together -- as you might put billions of transistor logic gates together, or billions of neurons -- and in their collective fidgeting and simple responses to tactile and chemical signals, you might get some surprisingly sophisticated activity.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Dawn

These tropic mornings when the eastern horizon is heaped with cloud, and Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury wade into the day before the sun, I wait with my coffee on the terrace, and...

...Then the sun,
Orange, red, red erupted.

Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,

And the big planets hanging --


(from Ted Hughes, The Horses)

Sunday, January 09, 2005

How to make a worm

In my Musing this week I mention the little worm C. elegans, beloved by developmental biologists. The worm has only 959 cells, yet it is a fairly sophisticated creature.

You can find the complete parts list here. In every one of C. elegans's 959 cells there are identical copies of DNA, carried on six chromosomes, something like 18,000 genes, coded as 100 million paired chemical units of just four kinds along the DNA double helix. If you are interested in the details, or just want to see how much biologists have learned about this little creature, you can find it all on the web.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

A gecko's tale

Watched the third installment of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings the other evening. Remarkably true to spirit of the book, as I am sure Tom -- a longstanding Tolkien fan -- will agree.

One theme that flows through Tolkien's trilogy is what the author calls "the bewilderment of the treasure," represented most forcefully in the influence of the One Ring, but associated with all accouterments of wealth and power. As Tom Shippey suggests in his book on Tolkien, the "bewilderment" starts as intellectual curiosity (read "science"), develops into craft ("technology"), turns into greed and desire to dominate. Saruman's orcs start by felling trees for furnaces, and end up felling trees for fun.

As I write, I look across the room -- my G4 PowerBook, my iPod, the music system, the books, the electric coffee maker by the kitchen sink. And there at the window above the sink, clinging to the screen outside, a gecko, head nodding above the sill. Two tiny "hands" appear. Body, "feet," dangling tail.

A little Hobbit restraint might serve us well as we edge our way into an ever more affluent future, embracing the beneficent artifacts of knowledge, but holding fast to all things that live and grow and breathe.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Protecting the dark -- Part 3

If anyone is wondering if there is anything that they can do to help curb light pollution, an excellent resource is the International Dark Sky Association. The IDA is a non-profit organization committed to reducing the light pollution that is slowing erasing the starry night. Their website provides a list of lighting manufacturers who produce sky-friendly fixtures--lights that project all of their radiance downwards. A fixture that leaks light upwards does nothing but contribute to that orange glow that many of us see instead of stars.

Food for thought

As I had my coffee, fruit, and bread this morning I was reading a fabulous book my daughter gave me for Christmas -- Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Not so much a book to read, as to nibble.

You want to know the molecular structure of sugar, its history in diet, its role in the slave trade, the etymology of the name, its function in the body, how it is transformed by heat, etc. etc.? Mr. McGee has the answers. Milk, cheese, eggs, meat, fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, seeds, breads, herbs, spices, coffee, tea, chocolate, wine. Stop! I'm stuffed.

A great smorgasbord of a book, jam packed with gastronomic delights -- including jam.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Protecting the dark -- Part 2


If you look closely at the photo Chet linked to yesterday, the night time view of Earth from space, you will see something interesting in Eastern Asia. Whereas the modern societies of Japan, China and South Korea are bathed in light, North Korea is conspicuously dark. Either Kim Jong-Il is quite a stickler for controlling light pollution, or they just don't have lights. Methinks it's the latter.

Einstein's lost daughter

We will be hearing a lot about Albert Einstein this year. It is the 100th anniversary of his annus mirabilis, his "year of marvels." In 1905, as a relatively unknown physicist working in the Swiss patent office, Einstein published four papers in the prestigious journal Annalen der Physik, any one of which might have won him a Nobel prize. One paper prepared the ground for quantum theory, another provided definitive proof for the existence of molecules, a third established the theory of relativity.

At the time, Einstein was recently married to his first love, Mileva Maric, herself an accomplished physicist. In 1901, Mileva had given birth to their illegitimate child, a daughter named Lieserl. The newborn was given up for adoption. No records have been found, and Lieserl vanished from history.

It is interesting to think that a rather astonishing combination of genes is floating around somewhere out there in the gene pool. Someone could make a big splash (and a lot of money on a book) by tracking down Lieserl's fate.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Protecting the dark

It was my pleasure yesterday to go caving with Sharrah, the new environmental education person on the island. Sharrah makes the rounds of the island's eight settlement schools, teaching the kids about the natural world and reasons for protecting it. Exuma has been launched on a period of rapid development with the arrival of a first large resort and environmental protection is suddenly a priority.

My own priority has been -- in writing and a teacher workshop -- to make the case for dark skies. Most of the new artificial lighting is decidedly unfriendly, and the island has begun to show up on nighttime satellite imagery from space. Any light we can see from up there is doing nothing down here but obliterating the stars.

Cool comet

Today, a view of Comet Machholz is NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day. Keep in mind that this is a time lapse photographic exposure. You could not see this level of detail through binoculars or a telescope. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Sweet pleasures

Comet Machholz slips towards the Pleiades, a smudge on the black windowpane of night.

The great 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell wrote: "It is a universal condition of the enjoyable that the mind must believe in the existence of a discoverable law, yet have a mystery to move in." A newly discovered comet satisfies both criteria, which is why we find Machholz so pleasurable.

Before the lawful nature of comets was recognized, they were sources of fear only.

Planetary roundup

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of Spirit's touchdown at Gusev Crater on Mars. Both rovers are still going strong, operating well beyond their 90 day primary missions.

Tonight, NOVA looks at their first year exploring the surface of Mars. Along with the significant discoveries that have been made concerning the presence of water.

Over around Saturn, Cassini has successfully released the European Space Agency's Hyugens probe. On January 14th, it will set down on the surface of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. This will be the first Earth spacecraft to land on another planet's moon.

If its parachute deploys correctly, Huygens should transmit data during its descent and landing for several hours. After that it will go quiet. Huygens does not have a transmitter powerful enough to reach Earth. It requires Cassini nearby to collect its uploaded data to relay back to us. After a few hours, Cassini will disappear from the Titan sky and continue on its amazing tour of Saturn.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Star light, star bright

Jane draws our attention to the star Canopus, second brightest in Earth's sky, and a prominent winter presence for those of us who observe from as far south as the Tropic of Cancer.

Canopus appears less bright than Sirius, but it is actually a much larger and more luminous star, 316 light-years distant compared to Sirius's 8.5 light-years, a yellow-white supergiant approaching the end of its life. Unlike most star names, Canopus is Egyptian, and seems to refer to the pilot of a ship, perhaps that of Jason's craft, the Argo, in which he went in search of the Golden Fleece. Canopus was the name of an ancient port near the Egyptian city of Alexandria, and the principle thoroughfare of ancient Alexandria was named the Canopic Way. The star, the port and the avenue appear in my novel Valentine, recently published in Ireland and the UK.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Comet Machholz -- Part 3

From this dark island Comet Machholz is an easy, indeed conspicuous, naked eye object. As commenter Dave says, the vee of Taurus's face points the way -- for the moment. While I was observing the comet through my spotting scope, two satellites passed through my field of view.

My Sunday Musing this week is about the winter sky, although certainly not the sky of this tropical place. Nostalgia? Sorta. But not enough to take me back to snow and ice.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Comet Machholz -- Part 2

Tom beat me to Comet Machholz, although I must confess I haven't looked for it yet. With his prompting, I certainly shall now, especially as it reaches maximum brightness in the next week or two. On the evening of January 7 the comet will pass a few degrees west of the Pleiades, a perfect guidepost, and is predicted to reach magnitude 4, a naked eye object if you are in a dark place -- such as Tom's new house in the country. The tail will sweep across the Pleiades; you can be sure that the astrophotographers will be having a field day -- er, night.

These days most comets are discovered by machine on photographic plates. Don Machholz is America's premier telescopic comet hunter, with ten comets to his credit in 30 years (7000 hours) of comet searching. Like Tom says, it's fun to see a comet; it must be much more satisfying to have your name attached to ten of these celestial visitors.