Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Passing of a President

Sad news. President Gerald Ford passed away.

He was the only person in the history of the country to be both Vice-President and President, and was not elected to either post. He was appointed to the Vice-Presidency to fill the vacancy of Spiro Agnew, who resigned in 1973. And he then ascended to the Presidency in August of 1974, with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

I had the honor of meeting him once when he was here in Grand Rapids after he was President. I remember back in 1977 when our “Close Up” high school group went to Washington DC, and we were saddened that he had not been reelected, and we didn’t get to meet him at the White House (President Carter stopped the meet & greet tours that year).

I also remember proudly wearing my WIN (Whip Inflation Now) button all the time.

And so passes the last honest President of the USA.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The True Meaning

"And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid... And the angel said unto them, "Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."

"And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men."

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."
--Linus Van Pelt (and Charles M Schultz)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Remembering the "People's Astronomer"

"We have a choice: We can enhance life and come to know the Universe
that made us, or we can squander our [13.7] billion-year heritage in
meaningless self-destruction." - Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
I can't really believe it's been ten years since the death of Carl Sagan. I remember I heard the news just before going to my local astronomy club's winter "party" meeting, and he was the topic of much discussion, as he and his unique vision had touched all of us who were there. We ended the evening with a toast to his memory.

I believe, like many people, I got my first experience of Carl Sagan on television, watching him as a guest of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. The way he explained things during the discussions that he and Carson had really brought science in focus for the "lay person" who wasn't really deep into the study of astronomy and space, but found it interesting. This publicity, I believe, spurred that interest in the general public to learn more.

When Cosmos first aired on PBS back in 1980, that hour would find me sitting on the floor in front of the television in a state of awe and amazement. I guess the only thing that disappointed me was that there were only thirteen episodes, but those few episodes rekindled my fascination with astronomy and space.

(Not that I wasn't interested in astronomy beforehand. I had a long history of fascination with the subject, having gotten my first telescope (albeit an inexpensive model) when I was four years old. I can remember watching Neil Armstrong step on the moon; my father would wake me up for lunar eclipses; I got to watch space launches all the time; I would spend warm August nights around my aunt's cottage - miles and miles away from any small town - watching the Perseid meteors. I was an amateur astronomer from a young age.)

In addition to watching (and trying to absorb) the television series, I had received the companion book for Christmas, have vivid memories of only being able to read a chapter, or part of a chapter, at a time, because trying to wrap my mind around the concepts presented gave me headaches (or brainaches). But I had to understand it, so I didn't give up, but dove right in again and read more.

I can remember reading that other astronomers were not kind to Carl, because of the way he brought astronomy to the masses, and I thought it was so elitist of them to want to "keep everything to themselves" and not let people into their wonderful world. Later I realized that many of them were simply jealous of Carl's "celebrity." The others were not receiving the "glory" from the public, and it hurt their egos. But I never thought Carl was doing it for the glory; he sincerely wanted to "get the word out to the world" about the subjects that he thought the public needed to know about, and be concerned about.

Over the years I enjoyed hearing his talks, reading his books, as he strove to get people involved in not only trying to save the planet (and themselves), but to also use their minds - to think critically, and not give in to the mindlessness of pseudoscience.

Years later, Cosmos came into my life again at Christmas as the series finally became available on DVD, thanks mainly to the work of his wife Ann Druyan. It's now become a staple to watch the series at least once per year.

There are some people now who actively bring science to the public, but I don't believe they will ever have the impact that Carl Sagan had. But the word is still getting out, more and more every day. I often wonder what Carl would think about this global, internet-driven society we live in today, and the new discoveries coming out almost every day. I also believe he would be saddened by the attempts of some to squelch said research and data on important scientific fields.

Even though I would still be an active amateur astronomer, I don't think that I would be doing the public outreach today without the inspiration of Carl Sagan. Every time I answer questions via our club's website, or from a visitor to our observatory, I like to think I am continuing Carl's legacy of bringing astronomy and science to the masses, in ways they can understand, and kindle an interest in them, as he did to me (and others) many years ago.

Thank you Carl. We miss you, and we will try to keep the candle lit.

Note: I wrote this as a part of the Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon (link below)

Some links..

Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon
Ten Times Around The Sun Without Carl - Ann Druyan
Nick Sagan (Carl's son)
Celebrating Sagan
What I learned from Carl Sagan - from Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

The Carl Sagan Portal
The Planetary Society

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Floating in Space

Here's hoping some photos turned out tonight.

I had noticed that the ISS (International Space Station) was going over my area this evening, and thought I would go and take a look. I've seen it many times before, but as an astronomer, I always get a kick out of seeing anything up there.

Discovery undocked from ISS about 50 minutes beforehand, so - even though they were going to Immelman the ISS, I thought I might be able to see both objects. After checking the predictions, I realized that they would be going right over my house, all lit up with Christmas lights. This was a photo opportunity!

I got out the camera and wide-angle lens, and waited. Sure enough, at 5.59pm there was the bright light in the southwest sky, traveling to the northeast. I sharting shooting photos a few minutes later, and could see a dimmer object in front of the ISS (which should be the shuttle). I framed it so ISS was going from upper right to lower left in the frame, with the house (and lights) at the bottom.

It should turn out, but I won't know until I get the film developed. Ah, to have a digital SLR... someday.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Help the Bad Astronomer do Good Astronomy!!

The Bad Astronomer - Phil Plait - has a blog on his sight. Wonderful science from a great astronomer.

His blog is up for a Weblog 2006 Award in the Science Category, and he needs help from everyone out there.

The deadline is Friday, and you can vote once every 24 hours. Or, like I just found out, you can use more than one computer and do it twice every 24 hours.:)

Vote early and often!!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Conjunction Junction?

Of a planetary nature.

This morning, the planets Mercury, Mars and Jupiter were only 0.3 degrees apart, and there won't be a "triple conjunction" like this until 2053. So naturally, I had to witness it.

The original plan was to just drive up to a local overlook and take some photos as the planets were rising in the morning twilight. That way I could get the shots, see the conjunction, and get back home, as it was surely going to be cold outside. But plans never survive the first minutes, as usual.

I got up around 6.30am, got dressed, grabbed the camera stuff, and headed out the door. I headed the car out to the northwest on the expressway, and halfway to my destination I decided that my brother was correct the night before, and the planned observing place would be too light, even in morning twilight. And by light, I mean light pollution. So I banged a u-turn on the expressway and headed southeast out of town towards the observatory. I had taken photos on the moon - and even another conjunction years earlier - on an out-of-the-way county road south of Lowell.

I could see morning twilight getting stronger as I headed east on the various roadways, and the star Vega was shining bright in the northeastern sky. By the time I navigated my way to the new destination, I could clearly see the planets hanging low in the southeast sky.

I jumped out of the car, opened the trunk, grabbing my tripod and camera. I had to work fast, as the skies were getting brighter by the second, and I needed to shoot these photos before it was too bright.

Oh yeah, did I mention yet it was really cold? And windy? I had to stand to the side of the tripod so the wind wouldn't shake the camera during the exposures.

I wasn't sure about the correct exposure times, so I bracketed. I learned that years ago in photography class: film is cheap, bracket to get the shot. So I ran the shutter speeds up and down from a 1/2 second to 15 seconds, hoping to get something.

The only problem I had was cold hands, as I had to take my gloves off to work the settings and dials on the camera. By the time I had shot the last frame, I actually couldn't feel my fingers. I could have shot more - as I had more film - but I decided that 20+ images was enough. I had seen the once-in-a-lifetime triple conjunction and taken photos of it.

It was now after 7.30am, and I drove back into town and dropped the roll of film off at the local one-hour place, and went back home.

After a little nap, I went back up and picked up the photos. They turned out, but they could have been better. So I went back home, scanned the best ones in, and sent them in to and the local television station. I just hope they use them.

I normally would have sent the photos to a second local TV station, but the meteorologist there back in November said - on the air - that someone else was his "go to guy" for astronomy images. So screw him.

Now let's hope for clear skies Wednesday night for the Geminid meteors.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

We Have Liftoff!!

The space shuttle Discovery is safely on it's way into orbit. I can relax now.

Launch was a beautiful sight, and I just hope I get a chance to be down in Florida ocne to see it before it retires in 2010.

Ever since Challenger in 1986, I've always been nervous about the launches. You listen for the "go at throttle up" and know that's when the accident happened back 20 years ago. You hope and pray that everything's okay, and breathe a small sigh of relief when the SRBs let loose. And then you nervously wait for over six more minutes, until you near the MECO call, and know they are nearly in orbit.

Here's to a great mission guys!!!


After having this blog for years (and another, secret one) the "Blogger Team" all of a sudden thinks this is a "spam blog." It is no such thing!

Would scientific professionals read this if it was? Heck, when I post to other blogs (Bad Astronomy, Astronomy Today, etc) I always provide a link back to this one. I'm part of the scientific community.

I hope they get their act together.

Early Sunsets

This is the time of the year when the sun sets the earliest around here. Since this past Sunday, the sunset has been at 5.08pm. It will continue to be at that time until Saturday the 16th, when we will gain one minute in the evening.

Of course, that doesn't mean much. We're still losing daylight in the morning, as the latest sunrise is December 31st at 8.14am. It stays at that time until January 6th, just past perihelion.

Not enough daylight around here. Counting the days until summer.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

An Active Mars!!

Water on Mars now!

Also, evidence of new cratering.

More later....

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sheesh - What Four Days Can Do

Wasn't it just three or four days ago I was outside taking my walk without a jacket?

Thursday, November 30th - 62 degrees and thunderstorms
Sunday, December 3rd -lake effect snow and 21 degrees.

What happened to Global Warming? It must have went south for the winter.

Friday, December 01, 2006


December 1 is the official start of meteorological winter, and winter sure arrived here today.

Freezing rain, snow, wind. Two days ago it was in the 60's with thunderstorms, and today it's 31 currently with heavy snow.

How long until Spring?