Saturday, December 31, 2011

Unfinished Business

For the past few years, I've been trying to get more things done in my life by writing out a yearly "To-Do" list in my journal (if you don't have a bound journal, get one - - it worked for Pepys and it works for me, too). The downside of the To-Do list is that, at the end of each year, I have a thorough and accurate record of the things I didn't accomplish.

Top of the Unfinished pile is my Sekrit Space History book. I'm barely 40 pages into an expected 290-page book, and its completion keeps getting moved down the priority list. If I don't finish this epic by the end of 2012, I'm going to miss a lot of 50th anniversary events that tie into the narrative. So that's a key item to focus on for the coming year.

Second missed goal was my emptying of the End of Raiders of the Lost Ark basement. I've dumped a half-dozen crates into trash bags and shredders, but the stack o' stuff still clogging my cellar needs to go. It's at the point now where I don't like going downstairs because I'm reminded about how much stuff needs to be sorted, sold, donated, or trashed. However, 2012 is now my fire sale date for ditching the detritus. was supposed to be on the Drupal content management system by now, but I've been working so much on paying gigs that my web equivalent of the cobbler's children is still without shoes. Perhaps I can tackle this after my current client gig is up, but before the 2012 Fall Season announcements arrive.

Of low priority but long overdue, my never-ending critique website of Ross Hunter's Airport movie remains stalled at 0:15:00. As with the TVDads upgrade, too many events took priority above its completion. I think I can solve this by devoting a solid weekend to typing and frame-grabbing. The big decision, of course, is to figure the right weekend.

Other than those goals and a few minor missed opportunities, 2011 has been a smashing success. I received my Master's degree, my daughter graduated with honors at the University of Rhode Island, my son ejected from his frustrating job to go to work at a place where they respect, love, and (most importantly) PAY him for his talents and labor. My girlfriend has also left her frustrating job and moved closer to completing her own degree.  Our family ends the year generally happy and definitely healthy.

I'm thankful most of all for having so many friends in my life. When days are filled with work and study, it's easy to become isolated from the rest of the world. Fortunately, the people I know and love and who know and love me keep me connected and share their lives with me every day. If the question is "what are you most grateful for in 2011?" the answer, of course, is you.

Have a great 2012. See you there!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Backyard Lucas

A million billion years ago when I was young, I used to make animated movies - - not the kind with the acetate sheets on a drawing board, but actual 3-D, stop-motion films. With a bucket of Matchbox cars, a Super 8 camera and a cable release (something that the camera guy at Woolworth's couldn't understand: "Why would you need a cable release for a movie camera?"), I'd film stop-motion traffic jams in my backyard as long as the summer afternoon light lasted. Pixelated GI Joes in Mercury spacesuits would be tethered to the "orbiting space platform" that looked an awful lot like the family mailbox out by the curb. Hundreds of feet of processed film epics sit in shoeboxes somewhere in my house, each reel  a short lesson that taught me how to make the next film a little better.

I went to college to learn how to make professional, compelling films. Then I got married, had kids, and found other priorities that crowded out my early desire to tell stories with moving images. I couldn't go back to making films, because I didn't have time or budget to take care of what was more important in my life. Understand that I enjoyed the life that happened instead - - - I didn't think I'd ever be able to go back to making films like I used to.

In the past month, I've found out that there may be a way to make cool movies again. Since I'm now the CEO of a New England high-tech company, I can now experiment with the latest software technologies and equipment. One of these software technologies is the latest release of Adobe's AfterEffects program, a piece of software that comes pretty close to parking Industrial Light & Magic on your desktop. For troglodytes like me, the output from this software is nothing short of breathtaking.

Let me give you a brief idea of the level of coolitude brimming from this software. I ordered a copy of Adobe AfterEffects from Amazon early last week. It arrived Saturday and took about 10 minutes to install on my computer. After looking at a few brief tutorials online, I thought of a test subject to try as a first-go at learning the ins and outs of the program.

Here are the details: NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been receiving closeup photo data of the Moon from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbit for more than a year now. Last spring, JPL published a high-resolution Mercator projection photo of the Moon. It looks like this:

One of the cool things Adobe AfterEffects can do is  take a flat picture and wrap it around a 3-D sphere, so that the result can be displayed as a virtual globe. So, I took the hi-res LRO picture, told AfterEffects to wrap it around a sphere, and then I spun the virtual sphere and told AfterEffects to move the virtual camera away from the virtual Moon globe. Here's the result:

That's just from an hour or so of playing with the controls and slapping one NASA pic into the photo asset directory. 

Now, I really *want* to make a short film with this amazing bit of software. First, though, I think I have to make it through Christmas first.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Remember Where We Parked!

If you've tried out my two previous blog posts on how to be a Moon map expert, you're now quite ready to be a Certifiable Lunar Historian when it comes to knowing where all the Apollo Lunar Modules landed. It's a snap, because (1) there are only six lunar landing sites and (b) the maria you already know will help you pinpoint the landing sites quite easily.

The Apollo lunar landing missions were numbered 11-17. If you saw the movie, you already know that Apollo 13 wasn't able to land on the Moon, so all we have to think about are the remaining missions: 11,12, 14, 15, 16, and 17.

Everybody knows that Apollo 11 landed in the Sea of Tranquility, and we'll get into more detail about that shortly. Let's split the remaining missions after Apollo 11 into "odds" and "evens" :

So, we've got the even-numbered missions on the lower left, the odd-numbered missions up above, and the Apollo 11 mission right in the middle as sort of a "divider." It's funny, but the layout is pretty darned close to how the actual landings occurred back then.

You know where Apollo 11 landed, right? "Tranquility Base," on the Sea of Tranquility. Let's go back to the Moon map and look at the Sea of Tranquility again:

As you remember, it's right in between the Seas of Serenity and Fertility, right? (STuF). The Sea of Tranquility straddles the Moon's equator, which is fortunate, because Apollo 11 relied on an equatorial orbit when it arrived at the Moon. Landing on the equator would make things a lot easier for fuel consumption and communications back to Earth, so Mission Control picked out a smooth spot on the Sea of Tranquility that's right on the equator. Let's look at the map with an equator drawn on it so you can see where the landing was:

See? Right on the equator, at the bottom left corner of the Sea of Tranquility is where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed. All you have to do to find the landing site when you're looking at the Moon is to find the Sea of Tranquility (which you know how to do already) and then look at the 7 o'clock position of the mare - - THAT'S Apollo 11.

Let's go on to the next two landings, 12 and 14. Both of these ships landed in what's called the "Known Sea" or Mare Cognitum. The reason the sea was named the "Known Sea" is because so many lunar missions (manned and unmanned) arrived on this expanse of flatlands on the west side of the Moon. In fact, part of Apollo 12's mission was to set down next to an earlier unmmaned probe named Surveyor 3, a feat which Pete Conrad and Al Bean achieved in November of 1969:

The landing site for Apollo 12 was right where the Known Sea bumps into the Ocean of Storms, just south of the equator:
Once again, we skip over Apollo 13 because that mission didn't put anyone on the Moon, thank goodness. The next mission, Apollo 14, landed on the east side of the Known Sea, next to a huge, ancient crater called Fra Mauro. This mission was also south of the equator:

The final three Apollo missions were much more ambitious. While the earlier missions were near the equator and aimed for smooth, flat landing targets, the later Apollos were sent to the highlands of the Moon. The Apollo 15, 16, and 17 crews were outfitted with larger fuel capacity LMs, to fly further away from equatorial sites and carry more gear to the surface. They even had lunar rover vehicles with them to extend their surface activity areas. 

I'm going skip Apollo 15 for a moment so we can finish up the even-numbered flights. Apollo 16 landed in a highland area almost 10° south of the equator, near a rugged crater named Descartes. If you draw a line straight south from the bottom of the Sea of Serenity, the Apollo 16 landing site is about even with the north side of the Sea of Nectar:

Apollo 15 and Apollo 17, the only missions north of the equator, have easy-to-remember landing sites because they both landed next to the Sea of Serenity. Apollo 15 set down in-between the Sea of Showers and the Sea of Serenity, in an area called the Hadley-Apennine Mountains. It's really easy to spot if you look right at the middle of the northern half of the Moon.

The final mission landing site, Apollo 17, is as easy to spot as Apollo 15's locale, because it's also stuck at the intersection of two maria. In this case, Apollo 17 landed in the Valley of Taurus-Littrow, where the Sea of Serenity bumps into the Sea of Tranquility: 

And that's it! Just remember that Apollo 11 landed on the equator, all the even-numbered Apollos after that landed to the south and west, and all the odd-numbered missions landed to the north around the Sea of Serenity.

The crew of Apollo 17 left the Moon in December of 1972, and nobody's been back since. Hopefully there will be more landing sites to memorize soon, instead of just the six dots that mark mankind's furthest steps away from Earth.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Be a Moon Expert! - Part 2

You're half an expert on Moon geography already - - so let's get the rest of the Moon into your head right away.

Quick technical review: the maria are the dark splotches we see on the Moon. The maria are spread out over the whole Moon in an easy-to-remember pattern:

"Five on the East Side,
Five on the West Side,
Two in the Middle
and an Ocean out West"

Last time, we went over the East (right-hand) side of the Moon, where there are FIVE maria: the Sea of Crises in the East, then then three "ity" maria in the middle East (Serenity, Tranquility, and Fertility -- "STuF," remember?), and then the Sea of Nectar, "dripping" at the bottom of the East side of the Moon.

Let's take a look at the Moon again:

Okay, we did the East side, and we'll do the West side - - but first, let's make a note of the two maria
that aren't East or West - - they're right in the middle, see?

Let's pull the Moon out of the background to make it clearer about how these maria straddle the centerline of the Moon:

They're a snap to remember. The north mare is Mare Frigoris - - the Sea of Cold. So, North - - North Pole - Cold, get it?
The second mare is smack dead-center in the middle of the Moon. It's called Mare Vaporum, the Sea of Vapors.

Now, I will tell you the incredibly stupid way I remember the name of this sea: "when you get a head COLD, you put Vicks Vapo-Rub on your chest." I came up with this memory aid when I was 8 years old, and it's been my personal shame to remember things like that for decades. Head Cold (up north where it's cold), then Vapo-Rub on the chest - - middle of the body, middle of the Moon. Sigh. Sad, but it's worked for me since the Apollo days.

Okay - - - remember where all the maria are:

"Five on the East Side,
Five on the West Side,
Two in the Middle
and an Ocean out West"

Let's press on to the West side of the Moon, okay?

Wow, that looks like a lot of maria, doesn't it? Fortunately, most of the dark part of the West side is taken up by the only named "ocean" on the Moon (the "Ocean out West") - - the Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms:

The way to remember the Ocean of Storms is to once again think of a US map - - the biggest ocean the United States bumps up against is the Pacific, which is in the Western part of the US. So, West... Ocean. And since it's the only "ocean" on the Moon, just remember that the name of the only ocean is the Ocean of Storms.

The Ocean of Storms accounts for almost half the "maria-type" surface of the West side of the Moon, so that brings the remaining maria in the West down to a more manageable number. Namely, there are only five more maria to remember. Let's look at the five remaining circles on the map of the Moon:
Okay, that looks like a lot of circles - - but you already know the blue one is the Ocean of Storms, so we just have to get the names of the five orange circles and we're done! Let's clear off the Moon and work on just the shapes:

So the first mare we'll deal with is the big round one at the top of the stack: Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Showers or the Sea of Rain.
There's an easy comparison you can make in your head - - the Ocean of Storms is HUGE. Mare Imbrium isn't as big as the Ocean of Storms, so it's just a "shower," not a "storm." Got it? Showers and Storms.

Okay, so the next mare on the stack is Mare Insularum -- the Sea of Islands.

Think of a rainy island, and you can remember that the islands are surrounded by the Ocean of Storms and the Sea of Showers. Another way to remember that it's a sea of islands is that there are some honking great craters scattered across it, like Copernicus and Kepler. We'll talk about craters next time, but right now just remember that the "islands" in the Sea of Islands are big craters.

This next mare is really difficult to remember, but I've kept it in my head with one of the stupidest metanymic memory aids ever conceived.

Mare Cognitum is the "Sea That Became Known" or The Known Sea. The way I remember this mare is that I *know* the mare below the Island Sea is the Known Sea. Yes, it's meta, but it works for me because I know the Known Sea is under the Island Sea. And now you know, too.

Here we go with the final two maria. As you can see from the places you've already learned, the places on the West side of the Moon seem to be concerned with weather - - storms, showers. The final maria are also about weather: namely, clouds and moisture. The mare on the bottom right is the Sea of Clouds, Mare Nubium.

The other mare is Mare Humorum, the Sea of Moisture.
How to remember these two? Well, on the Moon, "moisture is on the outside of clouds." Easy to see as the Sea of Moisture is closer to the edge of the Moon's horizon than the Sea of Clouds. Additionally, the Sea of Moisture is the lowest mare in the West - and so it's a drippy business, just like the Sea of Nectar, the lowest mare in the East.
Yes, the memory system is all quite infantile, but it seems to stick in the head if you give it enough time. Let's take a final look at where all these maria fit on the lunar surface:

Remember? The head COLD and the VAPO-RUB in the middle of the chest? Then, there's the only big Ocean, like the Pacific on Earth, that's way out to the West and is called the Ocean of Storms. 

Next there's the remaining five maria in the West - - the top one is Showers, which is like the big Ocean of Storms except Showers aren't as big as Storms. And it Showers on the Islands in the Sea of Islands, right in the middle of the West side of the Moon. And under the Island? Well, you KNOW that the Known Sea is under the Island, right? And you also know that the West is full of Clouds and Moisture - - but Moisture is on the OUTSIDE of Clouds on the Moon. Got it? Great!

Here's a look at what you know about the Moon:

"Five on the East Side,
Five on the West Side,
Two in the Middle
and an Ocean out West"

And you can name ALL of the maria now - pretty darned impressive! Next time, we'll go over some quick tips so you'll be able to point out ALL SIX Apollo lunar landing sites like a MOON BOSS. Failure is NOT an option. More soon.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

You Will Be a Moon Expert in Five Minutes (well, half a Moon Expert)...

Thanks for coming back for the meat-and-potatoes part of the Moon talk. This episode, we'll get the map of the Moon memorized so that the next time you see the Moon in the night sky, you'll be able to impress your friends, family, and passers-by with your insanely-great knowledge of the Moon.

Here's the best part: you'll only have to learn HALF of the map of the Moon to be an expert. Why? You know this already: we on Earth only see one half of the Moon's surface. So, we'll only go over the NEAR side of the Moon. The FAR side - - the side we never see - - is mostly populated by hundreds of thousands of craters, like this:
And it's mostly a bunch of craters with really long Russian names (they were the first around the back of the Moon with a satellite, so hey -- naming rights!) so we'll just skip that part.

Okay, back to the Near side. When we look at the Near side of the Moon, we see mostly dark areas, punctuated by a couple of lighter, dusty cratered areas. Like this:

The dark areas are called by the Italian word for "sea," which is "Mare" (remember Galileo and his telescope? Hey -- naming rights!) The dark areas were given Italian names, and form the major identification structure of where things are on the Moon. It's sort of like talking about continents on Earth.

Now, it looks like there are a lot of mares on the Moon, and that might seem difficult to remember. However, if you break the Moon down into regions, it becomes super-easy to remember what is where on the map of the Moon.

First, a quick note about directions: when you're looking at the Moon in the Northern Hemisphere, north on the Moon is "up," south is "down," west is to the left, and east is to the right. So, let's think about it like this:

The secret to learn the map of the Moon is to learn this ditty about the Moon maria:

"Five on the East Side,
Five on the West Side,
Two in the Middle
and an Ocean out West"

Say it out loud. Don't worry - - nobody will notice. Say it:

"Five on the East Side,
Five on the West Side,
Two in the Middle
and an Ocean out West"

Okay, let's not learn the whole Moon at once - - we'll start with the East side of the Moon:

The East side of the Moon, the part that the New Moon first lights up at the start of the lunar month, has *five* major maria we can spot with the naked eye. Here's a bunch of circles to highlight the five maria:

Let's take the Moon away so we can focus on the maria circles:

So, there's one really circular mare on the upper right, three connected seas in the middle, and then a stretched-out one at the bottom. See the groupings? 1, then 3, then 1 more.

That one circle at the top right is the Sea of CRISES, or Mare Crisium.

See? You've learned the name of a lunar mare. Crises - - think of it as  NEW ENGLAND Crises, and it'll be easy to remember - -because it's waay up in the northeast part of the Moon, like New England is on a map of the United States. Crises - - you've got that one down pat now.
Let's get on with the clump of three. These are the "ITY" seas because their names all finish with "ity." Look:

There's the Sea of Serenity, the Sea of Tranquility (Neil! Buzz!), and the Sea of Fertility. Serenity, Tranquility, Fertility. How to remember this stuff? STUFF. Stuff - that's it! STF - Serenity, Tranquility, Fertility. Think of it as a sandwich - -the STUFF goes in the middle.

Last one on the East side of the Moon is the Sea of Nectar:

Nectar - - how to remember that? Nectar DRIPS down to the bottom, so the Sea of Nectar is at the bottom of the Moon's Eastern maria. The Sea of Nectar is also the oldest mare visible on the Moon, so it's going to be at the BOTTOM of the totem pole when it comes to stacking the maria on a timeline. 

Let's go over those East side maria again: Sea of Crises at the far northeast, then the STUFF in the middle (Serenity, Tranquility, Fertility), and then the dripping Sea of Nectar at the bottom. Done with half the Near side's maria!

We'll bring the map back in for a moment so that you can picture how it looks in the sky with the names (but of course you know these names now so you won't need a reference when you look at the Moon in the sky later, right?)

Isn't it something that you know all these names in your head now? I was going to continue with the west maria, but let's pause here for right now and pick up the west side of the Moon next time. You're doing really well sticking with this post all the way to the bottom! Come back again for the west side.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Shadow of the Earth

Everyone is an astronomer.

When we wake up in the morning, we look out the window and see if the Sun (the nearest star) is up yet. We talk about the days getting shorter as winter approaches, and we notice star formations like the Big Dipper when we're out walking in the evening.

It's human nature to be observers, and we notice a lot more than we sometimes realize. One of the things we notice in the sky is change, especially changes in position and shape. The Moon, of course, exhibits the most change each night we see her in the sky. Sometimes, she's a crescent shape, hanging low in the western sky after sunset. A few weeks later, the Moon is full, high in the sky near midnight.

Yes, you knew those locations (low in the west for a crescent Moon, high at night for a full Moon) even though you may not have thought of them before now. Again, it's all about observation. Mankind has looked at the Moon as long as there have been people on the planet. Four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei turned one of his handmade, 30-power telescopes toward the Moon and drew this:

It's pretty much the same view I saw of the Moon last night:

Both Galileo and I saw the same phenomenon you've noticed with the Moon moving across the sky each night: the Moon has phases of light and dark, and the phases change over the month. 
Why does the Moon have a crescent shape sometimes, and is full other times? I thought this was a question with an obvious answer, and I thought everyone knew that answer. I was wrong about the latter bit. Last year, I took an Astronomy course whose first homework was to ask people to answer the question of why the Moon has phases. The answers were surprising, and to me, saddening.

The most common answer I received from the dozen people I asked "Why is the Moon a crescent shape sometimes and full other times?" was "Because the shadow of the Earth falls on the Moon differently each night." I was amazed. Wasn't the way the phases of the Moon worked taught in elementary schools since, like... ever?

I'm sure they've taught why the Moon has phases since at least 1904. I found a book about how to teach science topics from that year and they had a picture in the book on how to explain Moon phases: 

It's not difficult to understand. The *only* source of light in our Solar System is the Sun. Other stars are too far away to light things up, so every bit of light you see in the Solar System is either from the Sun, or light from the Sun bouncing off something else.

If you look at the nice graphic, half the Earth is in sunshine at any given moment, and half of the Earth is in darkness. It's the same for the Moon - - half of the Moon's surface is always lit by the Sun, and the other half is dark.

Now, since the Moon circles the Earth every 28 days or so, we on Earth get to see the sunlit parts and the dark parts every month. It's got NOTHING - zip, zilch, nada - to do with any shadow from the Earth falling on the Moon - - it's just that we look at the Moon from different angles as it's getting lit up by sunshine on half of its surface. 

The graphic also explains why we only see a new crescent Moon only just after sunset, and not in the middle of the night. The Earth is spinning counterclockwise in that graphic as we move around the Sun every year. If the Moon is in the position of a crescent between the new Moon and the 1st quarter Moon, we're only going to be able to see it just after sunset (about where the 'E' in Earth is if we're standing on the planet). By midnight, the Moon will have passed below the local horizon and we wouldn't be able to see it anymore. Conversely, a full Moon is best viewed in the middle of the night, when it's high in the sky over where it says "NIGHT" on the Earth graphic. If we saw a full Moon at sunset, we'd only see it *rising* in the East, directly opposite the Sun setting in the West. Imagine that you're standing at the "R" in Earth looking at the full Moon and you'll see what I mean.
Yes, the Moon sometimes falls into the shadow of the Earth - - we call that a lunar eclipse, but it only occurs one night every two years or so. It's not a Moon phase. 

Next time, we'll talk about the basics of the Map of the Moon. See ya then!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Not a Teacher

On the list of the many jobs I'm incapable of doing, right after "Opera Singer" comes "Teacher." I'm an awful teacher - - I can't figure out how to assemble tests, I wander far from whatever syllabus is planned for the day, and I am miserable at grading papers.

If I were a teacher, though, I'd want to teach the geography of the Moon. Wait - let's not use "geography" as the proper word, because "geo" means "Earth." So, what I'd like to teach is the *MAP* of the Moon. Back in the dinosaur days when kids my age were studying everything they could about Project Apollo, Moon maps were everywhere: on the backs of cereal boxes, on placemats at Howard Johnson's Restaurants, in schoolbooks, and on TV. Everyone with a lick of interest in current events knew where the big craters were, and where Apollo XI landed.

All that's gone now. I was on the front lawn of my house last night, taking pictures of the Moon through my new Celestron telescope, and it struck me that I may be the only person for miles around who could name locations on the Moon. That thought made me really sad.

So, I've decided that I'm going to write three blog posts about the basics of the Moon: why it has phases, what the principal features are that we can see from Earth, and where and why the astronauts landed where they did.

I don't know if project will be interesting or not for my readers, but I feel like I must write about the topic to appease the part of me that wishes I could be a teacher.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

First Light

Sometimes I really hate being right.

Last week, I predicted that it would be a string of cloudy nights as soon as my new Celestron telescope arrived. Sure enough, the skies were blanketed with thick clouds for days. Although the downtime gave me a chance to study the telescope manual and familiarize myself with how to plug all the pieces together, it was like getting water skis for Christmas.

The kicker for the week was the approach of one of the worst October snowstorms to hit New England in decades. This sort of thing never happens - - until someone orders a new telescope, of course.

Two waves of  storms were supposed to pummel the East coast, and astronomy seemed out of the question. However, there was one ray of hope in the forecast: between the two storms was a brief respite near midnight. The sky cover was supposed to thin to 10% overcast, so I took a chance and drove the telescope north to Captain Girlfriend's house.

The Captain's backyard is ideal for sky watching. Except for an annoying clump of pine trees to the north, the yard has a near perfect view of a dark, rural sky. Jupiter, due at opposition that same night, would be high in the moonless sky - - as long as the forecast held up.

This would be my first attempt at letting the telescope's auto-orientation do its business. According to the instructions, all I had to do was point the scope at a planet (say, Jupiter) and the telescope would figure out where the rest of the sky was. It seemed a bit Buck Rogerish, but I hoped it would work like it said in the manuals.

True to the Weather Channel's forecast, the clouds began to clear at 11pm. I stepped out into the dark, lugging a 50-lb telescope down The Captain's back stairs. As I set the telescope down on the driveway, Jupiter popped out from behind the passing clouds. It was BRIGHT - - at opposition, I think it was magnitude -2.2. The alignment on the finder scope was a snap - - the scope had a little red LED dot that covered Jupiter perfectly. I fired up the telescope's tracking computer, told it the scope was looking at Jupiter, and then screwed in a 32mm objective lens to get a close-in view.

This is what I saw through the lens:

Okay, I didn't have the band Train playing through the telescope, but that's pretty close to the view through the Celestron. Amazing. "I Eat Green Carrots" flashed through my head as I was trying to name the four Galilean moons in my eyepiece. It was like I was 11 years old again, looking through my Monolux refractor scope.

Then, the clouds moved in, and the second storm commenced. I packed up the telescope and loaded it back in my pickup truck. The clouds and snow continued through the end of the week.

Now, the telescope and I are back home, and the weather forecast is predicting clear skies tonight. Can't wait to see what this telescope can do without clouds in the way.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Guaranteed Cloudy Skies

It's a dead certainty this week will be the rainiest and cloudiest on record in Massachusetts, because I've finally pulled the trigger and ordered my Celestron telescope.

This will be the third telescope I've owned. My folks bought me my first telescope, a refractor made by the Monolux Corporation, when I was 11 years old. The Monolux telescope had wobbly wooden legs that were screwed together with an endless series of hardware store replacement wingnuts as the original equipment stripped, cracked, or simply fell off during road trips. My dad took the telescope fork to work several times, re-welding the cracked mounting bracket with a heli-arc plasma torch. It was a flimsy instrument but I learned a lot about astronomy just by working within its limitations. Through the Monolux's eyepiece, I first saw the Galilean moons of Jupiter, the Comet Kohoutek, the Great Nebula in Orion, and the mountains of the Moon. I learned that increased magnification sometimes just meant increased blurriness, and I also found out how fast a planet moved across the sky just from the simple act of the Earth's rotation.

My second scope was an abortive attempt to discover the world of Newtonian telescopes - - although I made a horrible choice by getting an example model at Sears. As far as I could tell, the mirror at the base of the Newtonian scope was made from the underside of a soup can. I couldn't resolve the crater Copernicus while looking through the viewpiece as a first light experiment. Brought the Newtonian back to Sears the next day, and didn't bother looking for a new scope for decades.

Wednesday, my new Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain 8" scope is due to arrive from Amazon. Unlike either of my previous telescopes, this one has a tracking motor so that I don't have to keep dragging the eyepiece along the ecliptic as the night progresses. The tracking motor is attached to a handheld computer that can move the scope to any of 40,000 celestial objects. This is (pardon the expression) light-years beyond any of my previous astronomy outings. I feel like I've finally moved  to a "grown-up" telescope.
I'm not sure what object I'm going to look at for a First Light subject - - ideas are welcome. First Light for my Monolux was Copernicus Crater on the Moon -- that landmark became a regular destination for setting up my telescope most Moon-filled evenings. Since there's no Moon this week, though, I'll probably go with Galileo's choice and focus on Jupiter. It's been a friendly planet to astronomers for 600 years now, and I feel very much at home when I see the place through a lens. Uranus is another possibility, because it's a planet you can only really see in a telescope, and an initial viewing may give me a feel for how good this new scope is.

All this, of course, is dependent on the weather, so I may not have a First Light report until the end of November.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Writers are supposed to write for their audience, but I am never quite sure who my audience is. There are many ways to divide an anticipated audience by what they know, and what they don't know. Here's the dividing point for this post:

Four feet, eight and one-half inches.

That measurement automatically means something to a few of my readers (mostly nerdy old guys like me, I'm sure) but will leave most of the audience baffled until I explain the purpose of such a specific distance. Four feet, eight and one-half inches is the standard inside span between two railroad tracks in most of the Western world.

Now, the favored legend of how 4' 8.5" became the standard gauge for railroads is literally Romantic: James Stephenson, the inventor of the locomotive, built his first railroad in old Roman chariot ruts, which also happen to be that magic distance. The pedestrian truth, though, is that coal mining wagons typically used 5'-wide axles. The axles were attached at the outside of the 2"-wide wheels, making the wagon's tread width 4' 8" from the inside of each wheel. Add a 1/4" wiggle room to the rails so the flanges of the wagon wheels could easily turn corners, and -- boom -- a standard gauge is born.

Just because the gauge was "standard" doesn't mean it was universal. By reason of geology or economy, the standard gauge wouldn't fit in places such as mountain railways or winding valleys. The Denver & Rio Grande Western, for example, relied on a 3' gauge for much of its pathways through the Rockies. Many logging railroads of the Northwest chose the 3' gauge in order to slide narrow flatcars around the pine-covered hills.

Sometimes, odd gauges were chosen for defensive reasons. The Soviets, for example, have a gauge of 4' 11 and 5/6" -- which slowed invasions by Germany during two wars. Gauge choices can also be defensive in an economic sense.  Many trolley car lines, fearing hostile takeovers by freight trusts, deliberately built their rail systems in wider gauges, on the premise that their networks would be unappealing to the robber barons.The most common trolley car gauge was five feet, two and one-half inches. It was called the "Pennsy Gauge" because the first trolley lines to adopt the odd width were located in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsy Gauge is still used in, well, Pennsylvania of course (most of their subway and trolley lines use the five-foot-two-plus width). It's also used in the few towns still operating 100-year-old trolley systems -- like New Orleans, for instance.

I was in The Big Easy this past week, and had a chance to be a total rail geek tourist with their trolley system. Sadly, there's no streetcar named Desire anymore - - the Desire Street Line was closed in 1948. There are still three operating lines in the city, though: the Riverfront Line, the Canal St. Line, and the St. Charles Line. St. Charles uses  Perley A. Thomas streetcars built in 1923. Eighty-eight year old street cars still manage to haul over 17,000 passengers every day through the streets of New Orleans.

Here's a picture of two gauges: on the left is the 5' 2.5" Pennsy Trolley gauge, and on the right is the 4' 8.5" standard gauge. The two rails parallel each other on the riverfront, with freight trains taking the rightmost rails and streetcars using the left.

A better view of the wide Pennsy gauge running down the "neutral ground" of the St. Charles median. Very odd and scary to see folks jogging along an active trolley line, but people were using this center grassy strip as both a rail and a trail.

Right out the front window of a St. Charles trolley car. This is the view the motorman sees as he or she negotiates his way through downtown traffic. Quite amazing to see how often cars and trucks turn into the path of an oncoming trolley. The motorman makes frequent use of the trolley bell.

The wide gauge certainly makes for a wide interior. Four across still leaves room for two average-sized people to stand side-by-side in the aisle.

The wooden seats and the brass fixtures are authentic. According to the motorman, they're original to the trolley.

It's a beautiful thing to see a piece of railroad history actually doing a day's work instead of sitting parked in a museum. I'm glad the New Orleans Transit System picked the wide Pennsy gauge to keep these trolley lines from being swallowed up by some now-bankrupt railroad company. That defensive move let me take a ride on a streetcar named St. Charles a whole decade into the 21st Century.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Old Space Books

It's an obsession: I read every bad space book from the 60's I can find. Church bazaars, library sales, used book stores - - all are rich hunting grounds for some of the worst science writing ever glued between book covers. Based on the sheer mass of these awfully written "true-life" space novels, the 60's seemed to have an exemption for publishing houses who wanted to print books without the typical expectations of plot, characters, or storyline.

Last week, The Captain and I visited a great antiquarian bookstore in the tiny town of North Hatfield, Massachusetts. Whately's Antiquarian Book Center has become my new favorite place to burn an afternoon rummaging through old hardcovers and paperbacks.

A major find for me was "Apollo at GO" by Jeff Sutton. Written in 1963, just after Lunar Orbit Rendezvous was settled upon by NASA as the way to land on the Moon, this novel tries its best to be the most exquisitely precise, pedantically literal story about the first three men to visit the Moon.

The book is a classic yawner: the astronauts are all rock-steady test pilots, each the top of his graduating class. The wives are weepy but patriotic and understanding about why their men have to go to the Moon. The flight is described endlessly, with every course correction and sleep cycle explained until it's difficult to tell where the storytelling ends and the cutting-and-pasting from the Apollo Spacecraft Operations Guide begins.

Apollo at GO sold tens of thousands of copies. People actually paid to read this book. Allow me to give you a random selection from the story:

The timer hand moved on. At T minus 6 minutes he issued a brief order. Closing his faceplate and inflating his suit, he spoke into the radio: "Apollo calling Cap. Com..." He repeated the call several times.
"Roger, we read you." The voice, faint but clear, unmistakably was Burke's.

"Beginning attitude correction preparatory to retrothrust," he reported.

"Roger, keep in touch."

"Will do."
183 PAGES of this stuff.  And yet, it still manages to be fascinating, but for reasons entirely unintended by the author.

These books are like mini time capsules: reading them  (while keeping an eye on the copyright date) gives a great chronology about how science writers viewed the technology of the Moon voyage at given points in time. Apollo at GO presupposes that the first manned trip to the Moon on a Saturn V would naturally be the first attempt at a Moon landing. The astronauts, although trained in the operation of the spacecraft,  have no familiarity with each other and somehow never bothered to talk with each other about the spacecraft in which they're flying to the Moon. It's as though they never used simulators or attended construction meetings with the prime contractors. The author apparently  believed that it was a necessary conceit to allow for exposition, but the personal distances placed between crew members seem to be very odd to us in the post-Apollo, post-Shuttle world.

There's also a curious lack of foresight in the book. Although the author knew that Project Gemini would occur before Apollo ever launched, he failed to realize that most of the Apollo astronauts would not be rookies in space. Instead, he writes the characters as though they were newbies, reliving John Glenn's flight while they were in Earth orbit, right down to watching for the lights of Perth on the first pass over Australia.

Another blind spot is the role of the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston. By 1963, Houston was established as what would be the new home of Mission Control -  a role that it took over during the Gemini IV mission. However, the author still wrote the book as though all mission planning and operations were still controlled from Cape Canaveral. I'm not sure why he missed this, unless he had written portions of the book before the proposed role of  Houston was approved.

I'm not quite done with the book - - it's quite a slog to read more than a dozen pages at a sitting, but I'll post more when I get to the (hopefully dramatic) conclusion.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs

I've never purchased an Apple product. My cellphone is a Droid, my computers are Windows-based or Ubuntu machines built by HP, and my music isn't stored in an i-anything.

Yet, Apple has been a part of my life since the late 70's. I sold TRS-80 computers for Radio Shack, and frequently heard comparisons to Apple's 6502 microprocessor machine.  Their systems always seemed more robust and had many more third-party hardware and software companies than the Radio Shack line. The few people I knew back then who owned Apple machines seemed to be even more enthusiastic about their machines than the TRS-80 owners.

Although I've never purchased an Apple computer, I did own one for about a year. It was a Lisa, the failed precursor to the Macintosh. A friend of Michelle's had bought several then-new Macs for his office and asked me if I'd like his old Lisa. I took it home and fired it up. It was a pretty amazing computer, considering it came out about the same time as the IBM PC-XT. The icon-based screens, reflecting Steve Jobs' successful co-opting of the Xerox Palo Alto GUI, was years beyond anything on other manufacturers' machines. Windows --- the kind of GUI experience already present in the Lisa -- wouldn't arrive until almost a decade later.

Steve Jobs didn't invent all of this, but he brought together the kinds of minds who could build this for the world. Jobs was a promoter even more than he was an inventor. He could sell his vision to others, and show people how wonderful, how simple, and how smart computers could be. In short, Steve Jobs made the future happen - - even for those of us who never bought his products.

A lot of obituaries this evening are making comparisons between Jobs and Thomas Edison, but I think there's a closer comparison between Jobs and Wernher von Braun. Edison focused on the present, but von Braun, and Jobs, sold us on the future - - a future that few could ever imagine happening.

RIP, Steve.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hurry, Butter, Hurry

Captain Girlfriend and I were at the Great Eastern States Exposition ("The Big E") this past weekend, fascinated by all the 4-H and Future Farmers of America exhibits. Somehow in the middle of the pigs and the cows and the sheep and the horses, the conversation turned to butter.  Specifically, the conversation was about making butter from cream. Captain Girlfriend had *never* made butter in her life.

It turns out The Captain never had a kindergarten teacher like Mrs. Mueller -  -  *my* kindergarten teacher. Every spring, Mrs. Mueller would have a butter-making party for her students and their parents. She would fill up empty peanut butter jars with heavy cream and then pass them around a chair circle. The kids and the parents would take turns shaking the jars three times, while saying "Hurry, butter, hurry!" It was a magic moment when one of the kids could not shake the cream any more, because the cream had suddenly turned into butter!

With The Captain's unfortunate revelation about her childhood deprivation, I decided it was time someone gave her the opportunity to experience the wonder that is butter-making. We stopped at a Super Target grocery store, purchased a small container of heavy cream, and headed for The Captain's house.

Like mostly everything else, butter making is more exciting when you know the science behind it. Back when I was working on my Eagle Scout badge, I had the opportunity to study for the Dairying merit badge - - which gave me a whole bunch of knowledge about dairy products that I've never had the chance to apply in daily life - - until NOW, of course.

Here are some basics about dairy: milk is mostly water, with some proteins and fats. Cream is also mostly water, with lots of fats and a few proteins. Proteins are long, stretchy molecules that form most of the bubbles you see in food - - things like milk shakes, meringue, and heads on beer are protein bubbles. Proteins also let fats emulsify in water, which is why homogenized milk doesn't usually have clumps of fat floating around - - the proteins are helping the fats and the water mingle.

More science in a second - let's do a how-to on home butter making. Here are the tools and the ingredients:

You'll need a clean jar with a tight seal (like a Ball canning jar), some heavy whipping cream, and some ordinary table salt.

Pour the heavy cream into the jar until the jar is slightly more than halfway full.

As you see in the picture, this level is just about perfect. Make sure the lid is on tight for this next part, because we're going to start shaking the cream.

Don't shake continuously - we're shaking the cream to break the proteins away from the fats, so we need to give the two types of molecules a chance to clump together in the mixture.

As the cream builds up the foaminess from the shaking, the bubbles remove the protein from the mixture. What's left in the liquid part is mostly blobs of fat floating in water. The blobs of fat start attaching themselves to other blobs of fat that they bump into in the shaken solution. The proteins, already removed from the liquid, can't keep the fat molecules apart anymore, so....

Clumps of fat start connecting with each other, until there is just one huge clump of fat and a small solution of water and the proteins that had formed the bubbles when the fat was once emulsified in the cream. Ta-dah! Butter!

It's a bit of a wet, soggy butter because the store-bought heavy cream wasn't as heavy as it needed to be for super-quality butter. But this soft butter is quite adequate.

This type of butter is known as "Sweet Butter" by the USDA, but my taste buds are more familiar with the regular store-brand butter sold in supermarkets. So, I add a few shakes of salt to equalize the taste for me.

The ultimate test: can it spread on a crumbly sourdough cracker? Oh yeah!

I get the feeling Captain Girlfriend won't be buying sticks of butter anytime soon. She now knows Mrs. Mueller's Sekrit Recipe. And you do, too!