KISS my magnet – or may the Force be with you!

KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid – a great motto, at least for me, for the simpler it gets the more profound it seems to get and the simplest and most profound piece of science I remember from what? Elementary school? Junior High? I’m not sure. Maybe even high school. But it was at least 50 years ago, so while the insignificant details have escaped me, the significant detail remains: Like magic, iron filings dropped on a sheet of paper line up along the lines of force created by a bar magnet placed underneath that paper.

Why do I find this so profound? Because it is action at a distance. Oh sure, you say, the thickness of the paper – not much of a distance. No! Look at how the magnetic force reaches out to left and right several inches beyond the magnet. That’s distance!

And order. Pour iron filings onto a sheet of paper and you have chaos. It looks like this.


But place a magnet under that piece of paper, then sprinkle the filings on it and you get something like this. (I like watching this in fullscreen – and meditative – mode. It is not intended ot be a wham-bam-thank-you-mam video. Damn! I want things to slow down long enough for me to engage something other than the skin of my brain.)

Simple. You’ve all seen it, right? Or have you? I’m not sure I saw it as a child. But with each passing year – with growing knowledge – I feel my eyes start to open. What was so understandable – I mean there was a “north” end and a “south” end and of course the filings lined up this way because magnets attract iron, dummy. What’s to know?

Well how? Please tell me what is actually happening here? Why should a magnet attract the filings? What are “north-south”, “positive-negative,” but names we’ve applied to a concept we can observe and predict, but don’t really understand. Naming it doesn’t mean it’s ours. Why should “opposites attract” and “like” repel one another? And what is actually doing the attracting and repelling? I know the rules. I know something about atoms. I know just enough about “how” to predict what will happen. I know how to create an electromagnet. I know about radio waves and light waves and a host of other waves that are part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

And I know nothing at all of what’s really going on here.

I know when I look through my telescope at a distant galaxy that electromagnetic waves – energy – from the stars in that galaxy are somehow pinging my brain. And on a fundamental basis I simply don’t know how. I don’t know what that energy is or how it manages to travel all that distance undiminished. (Oh sure, it spreads out. But a photon – something-or-either we name “photon” – leaves a star at 186,200 miles a second and it continues that way for several million years never losing a step until it vanishes into my body. That’s real contact with the real universe, but certainly way beyond our common-sense experience. )

Modern technology tends to obscure the magic – hide it in black boxes that look complex – and are – when you open them up.

So I make simple black boxes. Crystal radio sets, . Simple, simple, simple devices – a few, easy to understand parts. A long wire put in the air. And when I pick up the headphones, sounds. Intelligent sounds. Well, frequently not intelligent these days. AM radio is overloaded with talk-show idiots, or people selling religion or ronco slaad shooters. But that’s not the point. The point is that all the energy that created that sound in my headphones didn’t come from the magic of an electrical socket. And it didn’t come form the magic of a battery. It was drawn instead out of the air – out of the force fields – the electromagnetic waves created by some distant transmitter.

I understand this stuff – honest. That is, I can build from scratch fairly sophisticated radio receivers and transmitters and have done so of and on since my youth. So what. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I have a collection of rules I follow. Connect the arm bone to the shoulder bone – that sort of thing. I know something of the theory of how it all works – why I create coils and capacitors and how they work together in a tuned circuit to select only certain frequencies out of the babel that surrounds us and goes entirely unnoticed by us.

So i take the black boxes we purchase and call radios and I throw them out. I want something simpler. So I build a crystal set. But it’s still complex. little pictures whiz about my head of all those electrons pouring down the wire, heading for ground, but first spining through my coils, pausing in my capacitors, getting chopped in half by a galium crystal and fed into my headphones were they create elctromagnetics that’s pop a thin metal disc in and out so rapidly that it creates sounds. Geeeeeeesh. That’s too much, still. So I go the Edmund Scientific catalog and find a bar magnet and some iron filings and now I’m really functioning at the KISS level. I love it. I can watch this little video over and over. More importantly, i can do the little experiment again and again. I can meditate with the paper before me.

It’s the way I rig encounters with the profoundly unknown. Yes, i can do the same by looking at a candle -a flower, a pebble, an old arrowhead. It’s just that I find some things more stimulating than others – more likely to awake in me that childish sense of wonder I crave. A magnet, a piece of paper and osme iron filings do that. Don’t get me wrong. I assume it’s all knowable. I certainly think it’s all part of one world – the natural world. I don’t see anything super natural. I just see a natural that’s super 😉

The Star of Bethlehem – Found once more!

In the western sky at dusk on June 17, 2 BCE, a strange, brilliant "star" dominates the Bethlehem horizon among the more familiar stars of Leo. (Chart from Starry Nights.)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East [or at its rising] and have come to worship Him. When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. – Matthew, New King James Version

Is this the star of which Matthew wrote? A recent newspaper headline seems to indicate it is.

Astronomer Dave Reneke believes he has solved the Star of Bethlehem mystery

* Software maps Star of Bethlehem
* ‘Solves mysteries’
* ‘Pinpoints star’s location, date of Jesus’ birth’

I don’t think so.

In fact, I believe anyone can find the Star of Bethlehem – just look in your heart and if you can find it there it will blaze forth for you in the smile of a child, in the brilliance of Venus in this year’s western sky at dusk, in the bouncing joy of a puppy, or in the kind gesture of neighbor, friend or enemy, for the star is simply a symbol of the Christian spirit of Christmas – nothing more, nothing less.

Still, every year at this time I, like anyone with a little knowledge of the night skies, gets questions and suggestions about that wondrous star – the one the Wise Men in the East saw at it’s rising. The one they told Herod about. And the one that went before them as they journeyed to Bethlehem and stopped and in some miraculous way told them which house it was over and so they entered. They did not, as so many Christmas scenes represent, kneel before a child in a manager. What they found, the Bible says, is Mary and a “young child” in the house. In fact, using the information he got from the Wise Men, King Herod calculated that the child was as much as two years old, so he ordered all children under the age of two killed.

(Hmmm. . . is there a lesson for us there – about how human beings can take a piece of news and turn it into a horror story through their reactions?)

This story – with its truly horrible ending – is told in only the Gospel of Matthew. It is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and there is no indication in Matthew’s account that anyone except the Wise Men was aware of this star. So even from the Biblical account I think it’s reasonable to assume there was no really obvious change in the heavens, but a change that could only be detected by Wise Men – people who followed and interpreted the meaning of the stars – what today we would call astrologers. It’s obvious such changes took place – but it’s impossible to prove they were connected to the birth of Jesus.

However, many people assume there really is some blazing Christmas star that was seen 2,000 years ago and they want to know if they too can see it. The issue, with all it’s spiritual overtones, can’t be proven one way or the other. I find searching for it as hard, provable fact about as satisfactory as searching for the historical Jesus – and a meaningless exercise in either case. As I said – yes you can find the Star of Bethlehem – just look in your heart for the Spirit of Christmas – look for all those things the Christians brought to the pagan celebration of the return of the Sun after the winter solstice – the spirit of love, of joy, of peace on earth and good will to men – a spirit of universal harmony which is certainly dear to me. I’m serious. Find that and it will be the most wondrous “star” you will ever “see.”

OK – that obviously doesn’t satisfy a lot of literally-minded people and many have sought the “real” star. My friend Dom – who is not so literally-minded – thought a recent news story from Australia would interest the amateur astronomer in me and it does. It is of one more “discovery” of this star. Take a moment and detour off to take look here.

I think that story is wrong in many ways – not the least of which is the implication that a fancy computer is needed to do the kind of calculation referenced in the story. It isn’t. I can do this on my computer using Starry Night software – and I’ve done so. You could too with any of a number of software packages. And planetarium directors have spiced up countless Christmas shows with one version or another of the star story using their special projectors and they have been doing this throughout my lifetime. In fact about 40 years ago I wrote a feature story for the local newspaper about one such planetarium director’s theory of the Star of Bethlehem. He attributed it to a triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. He had a very clever interpretation involving the retrograde movement of the planets which made the “star” – in this case “star” was taken to mean an astrological sign – in fact stand still before the Wise Men. And to the naked eye when a planet – a wandering star – switches from normal to retrograde motion it does for a few days appear to stand still. How in the world you would coordinate this action with a specific house and decide to enter that house is anyone’s guess – but astrology involves lots of interpretations which I think are pure guesswork and fantasy. (Yes, it drives me crazy when people confuse astrology with astronomy!)

But long before the computer, long before the fancy planetarium projectors, wise men were doing the math and working backwards and “discovering” all sorts of explanations for the Star of Bethlehem. One such wondrous explanation came from none-other than the genuinely great scientist Kepler who 400 years ago was the first to discover that planets moved in ellipses about the Sun – not circles – and through his calculation learned about that long ago triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that my friend the planetarium director used. (That one was in 7 BCE, as I recall – not 2 BCE.)

But Kepler didn’t think that conjunction was the star – though it is often reported that this is what he thought, Kepler actually thought that the triple conjunction somehow spawned a later nova – a brilliant, exploding star. He came to this incredible conclusion because he witnessed a nova – new star – and such a planetary conjunction had occurred a year or two before in the same area of the sky. So he reasoned that there was some connection between a spectacular – and rare – planetary conjunction and nova. There isn’t, of course – a planetary conjunction is a mere alignment of the planets so that from our point of view they appear to be very close to one another when in fact they remain hundreds of millions of miles apart. And there are trillions of miles between them and even the nearest stars, so again any alignment is simply how we see things.

None of this prevents the authority in the story from Australia from declaring that he has identified the Star of Bethlehem and it is in fact a conjunction of planets – in this case the two brightest ones we see, Jupiter and Venus. That’s cool because on December 1, 2008 many people all over the world saw a wonderful conjunction of Venus and Jupiter with the crescent Moon to form (in Australia) a smiley face – a frowny face over us – but by all means a spectacular sky event. (See this earlier post, and this one, and this one.)

I do believe that one problem with the conjunction suggested in this latest news story is that it would indeed be an awe-inspiring event to the general public – it would fit the usual popular interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem as a spectacular sign in the night sky. But Matthew seems to think that only the Wise Men were aware of this event.

The Jupiter-Venus conjunction – the focus of the latest story – took place on June 17, 2 BCE. The two planets are so close together I believe they would have been seen by the naked eye , for a brief time, as a single star of exceptional brilliance. The brightest objects in our sky are the Sun, Moon, Venus, and Jupiter in that order. So to combine the last two would result in the appearance of an unusally bright star. (In those days the only difference between a star and a planet was the star seemed to stay put and the planets “wandered.”)

By the way – this event, the conjunction in 2 BCE, has been known for decades, I’m not sure how long exactly, but I have found it mentioned in an article about planetarium shows printed in 1981, so I hardly see this as new. In fact that article is a great source for a variety of different explanations for the star.

But I understand the excitement. And if you are looking for a star to make your personal reminder of the Star of Bethlehem this Christmas, I suggest you look into the western sky – southwest for most of North America – and you’ll see brilliant Venus a bit higher each night at dusk as we approach Christmas. It will be easy to see – it is the first “star” to come out and it shines brighter than any other – absolutely dazzling in full darkness.

That is my personal Christmas Star this year – and it has been many other years, but not all. Venus goes through cycles where sometimes it’s a “morning star” and sometimes an “evening star” and these aren’t in sync with our calendar, so it is only some years that it happens to be prominent in our Christmas sky – either in the evening or the morning.

But for me it is simply a symbol – a reminder of something far more precious – the deep joy of the Christmas season where many people are inspired to think of the need for harmony and peace – and some are touched enough to act and discover once again that the only Star of Bethlehem that matters is the one in the human heart.

Playing the Star of Bethlehem game

OK – the Amateur astronomer in me can’t resit playing some games with the Starry Night Software and this idea of the planetary conjunction in 2 BCE.

Here’s one difference I can’t explain – and it may be an error of the reporter, or the astronomer – or , of course me and my software. The news article says:

Similar to the planetary alignment of the “smiley face” witnessed across the Western sky last week, he said a “beacon of light” would have been visible across the eastern dawn sky as Venus and Jupiter moved across the constellation of Leo on June 17, 2BC. [Emphasis is mine.]

My problem is this – my software puts this event in the Western, evening sky. But oh my – what a conjunction it is! In a half a century of amateur astronomy I’ve never seen such a thing – and this was particular to Bethlehem. In other sections of the world it would not have been seen quite this way. However, if someone in Bethlehem in 2 BCE had owned a small telescope – and, of course, they didn’t because the telescope was still 1,612 years in the future – this is what they would have seen!


See the two “stars” on either side of Jupiter – all on the same equatorial plane with the planet? Those are the four moons that Galileo discovered in 1610 when he first turned a telescope towards the giant planet. The smallest telescope will reveal them, but to have another whole planet in the same telescope view – that’s unusual. And to have it this close is extremely unusual. The software show the gap between them as less than 10 seconds of arc. The disc of each planet is obviously much larger than this gap.

But the reality, of course, is that the two planets are separated by at least 500 million miles. To put that in perspective at this particular instant in 2BCE Venus was about 60 million miles from Earth.

Look in your southwestern sky tonight and you’ll see a Venus about 8.5 degrees from Jupiter. There are 60 minutes in a degree and 60 seconds in a minute – so when you think that they were separated by less than 10 seconds in 2 BCE – well let’s see – right now they’re separated in our sky by about 30,600 seconds! In real terms right now Venus is about 87 million miles from us and Jupiter is about 539 million miles away. If someone were on Jupiter right now and trying to send a radio message to us it would take 46 minutes to get here – even though it would be traveling at the incredible speed of 186,200 miles a second!

Here’s Venus and Jupiter as they appear tonight about half an hour after Sunset.


Comet Holmes – even more a mystery

Remember Comet Holmes? If you are an amateur astronomer you undoubtedly do.

Comet Holmes among the stars of Perseus, Nov 11, 2007 - from Driftway Observatory, Westport.

Comet Holmes among the stars of Perseus, Nov 11, 2007 - from Driftway Observatory, Westport.

It was putting on a great show through late October and most of November of last year. What’s more, it was really a freakish one that surprised astronomers. Holmes is one of those “regulars” in the comet world, a familiar periodic comet that comes around every six years or so and puts on a pretty hum-drum display. It has been known for well over a century. But twice – once in November of 1892 and once last year – it suddenly exploded – no one knows why – and brightened a million fold. Now that get’s your attention.

I was thinking about it today when I stumbled across some of my pictures of it, and I wondered whether anyone had figured out yet just what caused the sudden eruption. What I found was a fairly recent (October) NASA press release that explains that it is still a puzzle – in fact, in some ways it’s now something more of a puzzle then it was last year. (Next two photos are from NASA.)


Spitzer’s infrared picture at left reveals fine dust particles that make up the outer shell, or coma, of the comet. The nucleus of the comet is within the bright whitish spot in the center, while the yellow area shows solid particles that were blown from the comet in the explosion. The comet is headed away from the sun, which lies beyond the right-hand side of the picture.(From NASA press release.)

Comet Holmes enhanced

The contrast-enhanced picture . . . shows the comet’s outer shell, and strange filaments, or streamers, of dust. The streamers and shell are a yet another mystery surrounding comet Holmes. Scientists had initially suspected that the streamers were small dust particles ejected from fragments of the nucleus, or from hyerpactive jets on the nucleus, during the October 2007 explosion. If so, both the streamers and the shell should have shifted their orientation as the comet followed its orbit around the sun. Radiation pressure from the sun should have swept the material back and away from it. But pictures of comet Holmes taken by Spitzer over time show the streamers and shell in the same configuration, and not pointing away from the sun. The observations have left astronomers stumped.(From NASA press release.)

Here's how Comet Holmes appeared to me on November 11, 2007. Like so many amateurs, I observed it many nights that fall with naked eye and various telescopes. This is simply a snapshot of a video screen taken when using a small telescope with the Color Hyper Malincam  - a special super-sensitive video camera - to observe it.

Here's how Comet Holmes appeared to me on November 11, 2007. Like so many amateurs, I observed it many nights that fall with naked eye and various telescopes. This is simply a snapshot of a video screen taken when using the Color Hyper Malincam to observe it.

Here are some more details from the NASA release:

Comet Holmes not only has unusual dusty components, it also does not look like a typical comet. According to Jeremie Vaubaillon, a colleague of Reach’s at Caltech, pictures snapped from the ground shortly after the outburst revealed streamers in the shell of dust surrounding the comet. Scientists suspect they were produced after the explosion by fragments escaping the comet’s nucleus.

In November 2007, the streamers pointed away from the sun, which seemed natural because scientists believed that radiation from the sun was pushing these fragments straight back. However, when Spitzer imaged the same streamers in March 2008, they were surprised to find them still pointing in the same direction as five months before, even though the comet had moved and sunlight was arriving from a different location. “We have never seen anything like this in a comet before. The extended shape still needs to be fully understood,” said Vaubaillon.

He notes that the shell surrounding the comet also acts peculiarly. The shape of the shell did not change as expected from November 2007 to March 2008. Vaubaillon said this is because the dust grains seen in March 2008 are relatively large, approximately one millimeter in size, and thus harder to move.

“If the shell was comprised of smaller dust grains, it would have changed as the orientation of the sun changes with time,” said Vaubaillon. “This Spitzer image is very unique. No other telescope has seen comet Holmes in this much detail, five months after the explosion.”

“Like people, all comets are a little different. We’ve been studying comets for hundreds of years — 116 years in the case of comet Holmes — but still do not really understand them,” said Reach. “However, with the Spitzer observations and data from other telescopes, we are getting closer.”

Swims – yes swims – like an eagle!

map1_eagleBack in August of 2006 what started as a very casual, “let’s get out of the house” expedition, turned into the most memorable birding event of our lives. I wrote this account shortly afterwards and have decided to include it here.

It was 4 pm on a Sunday and I was feeling kind of hum-drum, so I suggested to Bren we do some shore birding. She was recovering from an overnight trip to Vermont and at first didn’t want to go, but as I fiddled around delaying my departure she decided to join me. On a whim, as we sat in the driveway, I suggested we could go see if we could find the bald eagles that, according to a recent newspaper article, were nesting on North Watuppa Pond. “Sure,” she said, so we headed north. Watuppa is the water supply for the City of Fall River so as far as I know there’s only one small strip of causeway that gives a good view of the pond and it’s at the north end. There’s no boating, fishing, swimming, etc. allowed.

So in about 25 minutes we pulled up on the causeway ( the circle marked “1” on the second map) and began scanning with our glasses. Almost immediately we saw a bird above the tree line of a distant shore that looked awfully big and seemed to have the flat-winged glide of an eagle! Then as I continued to scan I picked up a white head in a distant pine tree off on the same eastern shore. (The circle marked “2” on the second map.) I was sure it was a bald eagle. Then I saw its white tail as well. I was using the 15X45 IS Canon’s and Bren was using much smaller glasses of just 8X, but she found him too.

We were thrilled. Neither of us have seen more than a couple of eagles in the wild in our lives, so just seeing this one off in the distance was great.


As we both watched the eagle in the pine tree – he was maybe two-thirds up from the water – no nest in sight – a second eagle suddenly came into view. This one was closer, maybe 10-feet above the water, and flying from right to left. We saw he was approaching a seagull and I murmured something like “bet he steals that gull’s fish.”

Wrong. The target was the gull and he got it in the blink of an eye. We both shuddered. Yes, this is nature. There’s nothing wrong here. Eagles have to eat too. But neither of us enjoys seeing one animal kill another animal. Still, we watched as the eagle floated on top of the water, the seagull underneath it. ( See the circle marked “3” on the second map.) About a minute passed – it’s hard to say exactly how long – and then he took off, gull in his talons. But he hardly got above the water with his load than he plopped back down in.

This time it didn’t look like he was going to get out. I had heard that young osprey sometimes catch a fish that is too large for them, but their talons lock in, they can’t let go, and they end up drowning. Was this what we were about to see?

Then the most incredible thing happened. The eagle – a mature bird at least four years old with white head and white tail, started swimming. I kid you not. There was a small chop on the water and wind blowing that slapped at him. But he held his head out of the water, as well as his white tail, and we could see him rowing – yes, rowing is the best way to describe it – with his wings. It seemed like an act of desperation, but experienced birders perhaps see this all the time. I don’t know. In any event, from our stand point we seriously wondered whether we were going to witness the demise of both the prey and predator. He was in the middle of the pond at a point where it is about 2,000 feet across. The nearest shore was perhaps 600 feet away. It’s hard to be sure, but reviewing the maps afterwards this is our best guess. That’s where the tree was that held the other adult eagle – who must have witnessed this, but was doing nothing. He just sat and watched. (Well he or she – we don’t know how to tell the difference.)

But our eagle wasn’t heading for that closer shore. He (she?) was striking out in the other direction. Not straight into the wind, but off towards a quite distant shore to the west with the wind coming from the outh west. Was she confused? To our surprise, she made steady progress. At first I thought she wa barely treading water, But then I noticed the background changing. Very fast, really. So we eventually decided she knew what she was doing, though we continued to wonder out loud if she could make it. Then, ahead of her, after what seemed like a longer time thanit was, we spotted a rock. “Bet she’s heading for that!”

And indeed she was. There actually was a shallow area there, still quite far out in the pond, with two or three rocks and some reed visible, and after a swim of perhaps 10 minutes and covering about 1,000 feet, the eagle clamored up on the rock, dragging its prey behind it. (See yellow dot marked “4.”) I believe she had the gull in a just her left talon, though it was on the down slope of the rock facing away from us, so was difficult to be sure.

We breathed a collective sigh of relief, then watched as the feathers started flying. That went on for another 30 minutes or so, then she took off, some portion of the prey still in her talons, and headed towards the western side of the pond where we presume the nest is. She was out of view pretty quickly,

And the other adult? He stayed in the tree. We decided it must have been a male, since men enjoy watching women prepare dinner 😉 Incidentally, other gulls came by apparently investigating this event and it looked like a couple might try to harass the eagle as it swam, but they didn’t get too close. As it ate its prey, a flock of about 20 gulls floated on the water between the two eagles, either unaware, or unbothered by the recent events.

But in all seriousness – seeing two eagles would have made this a red-letter birding day. Seeing an eagle catch a gull would have upped it a notch, certainly making it nearly as memorable as the day we saw eight eagles and over 1,600 broadwings from atop Mount Watatic in northern Massachusetts. But watching that eagle swim all that distance with its prey – that put this event off the charts and what a delight it was to share it with each other!

I sought independent confirmation and while I found this was a shock to many – including some experienced birder friends – it is not totally unusual. In fact, it has been captured on film more than once. I just searched on YouTube and came up with this video, obviously taken from a boat that was very close to the eagle. Our eagle was not nearly so close, but it swam exactly as this one is doing. (If video fails to load, try going directly to it here.)

When I first posted this story on my old Natural High blog, I received several comments from folks – including birders – who felt this was indeed unusual. One, who spent serious time watching eagles in Alaska where they are quite common, said she never saw anything like this. But she shared it with a friend who wrote back to her:

VERY cool story….very cool. I was struck by his comment/query that perhaps this was not something out of the usual for habitual birders. So, out of curiousity (you know how curious I am). I Googled “swimming bald eagle” and came up with these sites. The first has PHOTOS of an eagle swimming much as Greg’s story recounts.

(The link that was given here no lnger works ;-(

The second is a story of a similar incident (catching a fish that was too big) with an eagle in Alaska that also swam to a rock with its prey.
And this is from an “ask an eagle expert” site.

Q. Can a Bald Eagle swim?

A. Great question. Absolutely. They are very good swimmers, and I’ve even seen older nestlings who can’t fly yet swim. It’s not uncommon for an eagle to “misjudge” and latch into a fish too heavy/large for it to fly with, so they then may swim quite a distance to shore (wouldn’t want to let go of lunch now would we), drag the fish up on shore and then eat it.

So, thanks for an interesting time–reading Greg’s captivating account and then searching for info on something that I didn’t know……they SWIM (and the photos in the first website are very cool too).

Any comments? Information on similar incidents? Expertise on eagle behavior? Please share using the comments form below.

Moon, Venus, Jupiter – so what?!

Joe Carvalho captured the event nicely from his home in Fall River, MA. Venus is the brighter “star,” Jupiter the other one.

I urged folks to take a look at the unusual alignment of Venus, Jupiter and the Moon Monday night and I know several did and were suitably impressed – but I suspect a lot more reacted the same way as a good friend did – though they didn’t tell me 😉

He wrote:

I had a clear view of the event last night…. and my reaction was, “That’s interesting.” Yawn.

Essentially, he said “so what?!” OK, fair question. My immediate answer is to fall back on EInstein’s words:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”

So what? From my perspective the answer is if you ask this question your eyes are closed, you’re “as good as dead.” Ouch. That seems a bit harsh. Afterall, even if you are aware of thee science involved – and this individual certainly was – it’s next to impossible to be intuitive about it. Nothing in the science fits our down-to-Earth experiences. It’s all bigger than life – much bigger. So why should looking at this alignment of lights in the sky evoke an “experience of the mysterious” and thus leave us “rapt in awe?”

And for me the first answer is because it is mysterious. Science gives us great and useful answers about what we were seeing, but there is still much to know. Essentially we are seeing clear evidence of huge masses of matter being manipulated precisely by the most fundamental, pervasive – and weakest – force in the universe, gravity. And we don’t know what the heck gravity is – we know a lot about what it does, but what it is, well, that’s another question.

And think of what we consider big – an elephant? It’s a mere flea. OK, a mountain. We like to talk about the force to move mountains as if that were impossible. Well, the smallest thing we were seeing the other night was the Moon and it is loaded with mountains. A small telescope reveals them as tiny bumps on the surface. From our vantage point on Gooseberry we were noticing that one particular bump was mostly in the dark, but it’s peak was catching the first rays of the Sun. That meant that whole mountain was a tiny, pinprick of light along the dark portion of the dividing line between light and dark on the moon. That tiny speck was a mountain. The moon is so much larger than a mountain, it’s difficult to contemplate. That’s why I fear that the “facts” tend to run off our minds like so much water off the proverbial duck’s back. They don’t penetrate. But still – they can be helpful if you try to let them sink in – especially if you do this while experiencing an event such as viewing the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus all bunched up. So let’s go down that path a little.

The moon is relatively small in comparison to Venus. Get a 2-inch ball and put it next to a basketball and you have an idea. It’s diameter is roughly one fourth that of Venus, but the volume of Venus is far, far greater, And Jupiter? Well, it’s about 10 times the diameter of Venus (or the Earth) and that means roughly 1400 times the volume! Moving mountains is child’s play compared to moving these objects and constantly changing their direction as gravity does.

And speaking of moving, as we watch these three objects slowly set, we are spinning at an incredible 800 miles an hour – here in Westport, MA – faster if you’re closer to the equator, slower if you’re nearer to one of the poles. As folks looked at the Moon or one of the planets Monday night through one of my telescopes they would invariably say, sometimes with a little shock, “it moved out.” Nope – we moved. But we’re not used to seeing the impact of our motion – or we don’t think about it much. But do think about it. You are standing on what feels like solid ground and while there may be a little wind where you are, there’s nothing like the 800 miled per hour wind you have every right to expect from being on this extremely fast merry-go-round. So that’s a tad mysterious and awesome in itself, though easily explained by science. Hey, we’re not on the Earth, we’re init! We’re in a spaceship with a wonderful shield of atmosphere around us protecting us from all sorts of harmful stuff. That’s awesome and pausing to looka t a clestial displays uch as this, bring these things to mind.

But if you watched carefully for an hour or so you would have seen that the planets were setting – as I say, it’s really us spinning – faster than the Moon. What gives? Simple. The moon is whipping around the Earth at about 2,300 miles an hour and it’s going counter-clockwise. So while our spinning motion tends to make it appear to set – it’s in effect running against the motion – sort of 10 steps backward, one forward – so it doesn’t set as quickly as the planets and stars.

Again, speaking of motion, consider that all of this scene is in motion – we’re on a rotating platform that’s also moving at about 65,000 miles an hour around the Sun and because of this our view of Venus and Jupiter changes constantly – though slowly. Then we have the motion of Venus around the Sun at roughly 75,000 miles an hour and Jupiter at a much more stately speed of about 28,000 miles an hour.

Why is Jupiter slower? More distance between it and the Sun – the center of gravity – that all-pervasive force that is the weakest of the four forces – yet strong enough to keep us all in motion as if we were rocks on a cord of unlimited strength and being whirled about a giant’s head. What if someone cut the cord/ What if someone through the gravity switch to “off?” Would we know it instantly? It take slight form the sun a full 8 minute sto reach us – but gravity seems to cover the same 93 million miles – and much greater distances – in no time. Awesome.

But I call gravity a “force.” Einstein explained it as a geometry. What is it?

How about a mystery? And when I see an unusual alignment of three of the four brightest bodies in our sky – see these three brought so close together – from our perspective here on our merry-go-round – then I am reminded of all these things and more and I am, indeed, rapt in awe.

But what if you knew nothing of this? What if you had no scientific knowledge of what you were seeing? What if you were an illiterate pagan of today or some other time? Would you feel anything? I am sure several of the people observing with me the other night did not know these things – did not need to know them to be rapt in awe.

Why? I call on Wordsworth to help me out here – to give a far simpler and more direct answer to the question “so what?” – an answer that was as true two centuries ago as it is today.

The World Is Too Much With Us; Late and Soon
by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. -Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Hmmm. . . if I have this straight, Hell already frooze over!

If I’m understanding the lead science article in the New York Times today, a lot of people will have to drop the challenge “when Hell freezes over” from their lexicon of defiant oaths. See, Hell already froze over. As a matter of fact, the whole idea that Hell should be hot may just be our ignorance of Greek mythology – but I stray from the main point of the article, which is this: Life probably began on Earth a lot earlier than has been thought.

Geologists now almost universally agree that by 4.2 billion years ago, the Earth was a pretty placid place, with both land and oceans. Instead of hellishly hot, it may have frozen over. Because the young Sun put out 30 percent less energy than it does today, temperatures on Earth might have been cold enough for parts of the surface to have been covered by expanses of ice.

Thus we have Hell freezing over – for the early Earth most certainly resembled the typical picture of Hell as a fiery place, totally inhospitable to life. It just changed much faster than we thought. And speaking of life:

In the new view of the early Earth, life could have emerged hundreds of millions of years earlier. “This means the door is open for a long, slow chemical evolution,” Dr. Mojzsis said. “The stage was set for life probably 4.4 billion years ago, but I don’t know if the actors were present.”

OK, so who cares? So what? Well I care because all of this is yet another piece of thepuzzle that is the continuing search for life elsewhere in the universe. It’s beginning to look like the formation of solar systems is a pretty typical thing, what with all the planets we’ve detected around other stars. But our methods of detection are too coarse to reveal Earth-like planets – that is, planets the size and probable composition of Earth. That should change in the next couple years. And our studies of Mars keep hinting strongly at the existence of life there at one time, but the proof is still missing. So when and under what conditions life emerged on our own planet is of significant interest for this, and I’m sure, many other reasons. Everything is connected, every piece of new knowledge helps. And with that in mind, I like the little tidbit on Hell they threw in at the end of this article – kind of shakes up traditional thinking. See this period in Earth’s history is known as the “Hadean Period,” but . . .

Dr. Mojzsis said “Hadean” might not be a misleading name for the earliest eon of Earth’s history, after all. The ancient Greek concept of hell was not one of fire and brimstone. “In Greek mythology, Hades was a dark, cold, mysterious place,” he said. “It seems to me the Hadean is living up to that moniker.”

Venus, Jupiter and Moon – why so different from Australia?


It was a stunning event and fortunately the clouds held off until we were done observing. Unfortunately, my camera battery died – I had forgotten to check – and I didn’t have a spare with me. So I only got a few shots of the early stages. Later it was a brilliant, awesome display and hopefully others in our small group had better luck with their photos. Stay tuned. I hope to update this post. These are the three brightest objects in our sky after the Sun!

Ahhh! David Cole of Westport got a much better shot that evening – here it is. (Posted 12.11.08)


And don’t forget to look tonight! No, the moon won’t be so close, but the planets still put on a great show and will for the next couple of weeks as they change position from night to night. Good way to get an intuitive understanding of why the ancients called these “planets” – a name which means “wanderers.” They’re also bright enough to see from even light-polluted suburban – and some city – skies.

Meanwhile, there are lots of good shots from Australia online here and this one was taken there by Guy Tunbridge. It’s interesting because the Australian alignment was much different than ours. Do you know why? Answer to come later, but feel free to add your explanation to the comments on this post. Note that not only is the moon oriented differently, but Venus and Jupiter have switched places.


Update 1: Does seeing them together help?


Ideally, your explanation will account for three changes:

  1. The side of the moon that is lit appears to change – or at leasr the orientation of it.
  2. In the US Jupiter is higher than Venus. In Australia this relationship is reversed.
  3. If you drew a line between Jupiter and Venus the orientation of the line would change.

If you stand on your head does it make any difference? (I no longer can do that so it’s a little hard for me to gather experimental evidence 😉