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.