Traveling in place

Wherever you go, there you are.

I began a journey more than a year ago….all I knew was that I was going to be in the middle of a large public event that the area was phenomenally unprepared for.  Five years ago I intended to just ignore the rest of the world and enjoy it for myself, but when you have the time and talent to make a difference….shouldn’t you?

Well, so.  I felt that I could not actually just sit on my hands, that I was called to do what I could.  In the old Testament, ignoring a call can get one in trouble.  Not wanting to have to get carried to Ninevah by whale, I decided instead to answer the call to inform and inspire as many as I could.  Begin by traveling to conferences and workshops.  Make connections.  Gather information.  And slowly, to get in front of people with a message: On August 21, 2017, we’ll watch the Sun disappear in the middle of the day.  With hundreds of thousands of friends.  We want everyone to see this!

A year later, we stand only a few short weeks from the Great American Eclipse.  I’ve traveled thousands of miles while ending up at home.  Spoken to schools, civic groups, park rangers, libraries.  And for the most part, had a great deal of fun while doing it!  Has it made a difference?  I think so.  I could wish for a small army to be doing likewise, but as it is slowly there are more people who see the potential in this amazing natural event.  There’s really no downside to that.  Like all outreach, when it’s good it is very good.  You see the light bulb moment, the “aha!”, in this case “oh my gosh!” as they see the Sun directly for the first time.

I have more roads yet to traverse, like running a race I want to make sure that in the end I’ve done as much as possible.  I’ve made some great friends, some great connections….and I have a feeling I won’t be able to just walk away from this in 54 days.  Although like any good prophet, I intend to retreat to the wilderness to recharge.  But the joy of showing off the universe will remain.  The sky is available to everyone, you just have to be reminded to look up…and thus look out.

But right now I can almost feel the shadow of the Moon bearing down on us, sweeping us up in the dance of the Earth, Moon and Sun.   I’ll be just one of millions gaping at the dark noon sky.  Enjoy!

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Another year, another Supermoon. This one claimed to be the closest since the ’40s, which would be true if we all observed from the center of the Earth.  But we don’t… someone saw a very close Moon as it came to perigee overhead…but not the US.  For Tennessee, the Moon was at perigee at moonset, which added several thousand miles to the distance.


Can you see it? Just barely visible 15 minutes after moonrise on Sunday the 11th, 15 hours before full.  Smoke from fires didn’t help.


Nice orange color rising over a fall landscape.

This swamps the tens or even hundreds of miles of difference between the close perigees.  If you wanted to know when the closest Moon of YOUR life happened, you’d have to find perigee moons that came to perigee near midnight for you.  (And a trivial search shows a better distance for us on January 30, 2010..less than 90 miles center difference, but full at 1am and perigee at 3am.  Much better than this!) Or did you want closest on moonrise? Or….

It degrades real fast into trivial nonsense.  Which is why you should just go out and enjoy the Moon anytime.  Not every planet has a large satellite.  Just spend time outside, under the bright moonlight.  Relax.  Enjoy.

moon conp

September 2016 vs. November 2016, same time of night…one is super, one is not. They are actually only a few pixels different.  No, you can’t tell the difference…and it’s not important.  Just pretty.


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Under 300 days now…..and until I stand under the shadow, it is surely following me.

So I run away, easier to do this year. Run to the country, to let the starlight wash over me for a bit.  To think about the rest of the universe for a while and lose myself in it.  Or at least that was my intention in going out to Pickett this weekend.  The last time I was there, the sky was heartbreakingly clear.  I hated to leave, but I couldn’t really stay the night. This time we came loaded with new gear to try out, and the promise of a clear sky.

…except it wasn’t clear.  This is what will haunt me until eclipse day, the dang weather forecast is so poor for cloud cover that what is clear two days out is haze day of.  Although it would have been acceptable for an eclipse…the day wasn’t so bad…but the night was *not* clear.  Even attempting to use the new gear we had all sorts of interesting issues.  Well, that’ll eventually ease out.  Learned a bit, every time out is new experience.

So you do what you can….and high haze will make halos…testament to the dark sky here that the halo showed up with a less than first quarter Moon.

moon halo

Moon halo from Pickett group camp

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Dark side

New Moon…when we are looking at the dark / night side of the Moon.  It was most new after sunset yesterday, so tonight one *could* be challenged to look for a very young Moon just after sunset.

new moon

Working in the planetarium encouraged me to know  where we were in moon phase, where the planets were, and the constant parade of the constellations in their season.  Now that I’m back under the actual sky, I like being in tune with the natural rhythms of the planet.  The dance we do each month with the Moon, the rising and setting points for the Sun, what star I see first in the evening sky. You can understand why our ancestors liked the predictable motions in the sky as an anchor against what otherwise seems like chaos.

The patterns that were more than they could see sometimes surprised the ancients…like a solar eclipse.  Being caught under the shadow of the Moon without warning, darkness flashing over you and a sudden hole where the Sun belonged.  Terrifying would not begin to describe the feeling.

Even knowing that we have an eclipse coming….predicted to the minute….it will be in many ways an unexpected experience.  Everyone I know that has seen a total eclipse has a look in their eyes, they’ll tell you you’ve just got to experience it for yourself.  So we are counting the moons now until the pattern runs the Moon across the Sun for us……

Can’t wait.

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Dancing with the stars

I met, and fell in love with, the universe before I met boys. You never get over your first love…..

I’ve been losing sleep lately to a morning comet. Get the gear set up the night before, then wake before dawn to go outside and image. It’s always hard to wake up no matter how good the idea seems the night before. But I finally get up and pad toward the bathroom. The east facing window will tell me if the night has indeed stayed clear. I turn the corner….

..and am caught. Caught by the pool of brilliant white moonlight on the floor spilling through the partly open door. I can hear the night calling…

“Come on in, the water’s warm.”

Yes. I step into the pond of light, push open the door, and am lost looking up at the lovely Moon and two bright planets. A clear morning. Somewhere just to the left of blazingly bright Venus a comet is waiting.

Just like that, I’m awake, not a problem to layer up to head out into the crisp morning to greet the sky.   Gear, of course, has some issues, but still we get some pictures.

c/2015 us10

Every time I go out, it’s more practice, I get a little better. Most of all, I just enjoy spending time out under the sky. The sky of Earth, full of stars, many of them with stories I know. Red giants. White dwarfs. Standing at the back porch, looking out into the trees, I see the bright stars of winter winking in and out in the west. You could imagine they twinkled on the tree branches.

Truth be told, I like being outside most days. If I go out for one thing, I’ll find excuses to stay out.  Day or night.  Rain or shine. Listening to the wind, the birds, the thunder. But the night, the night is special.  To be out under a clear dark sky watching the universe go by is a wonder. I have truly enjoyed getting out more over the last several years, being aware of the rhythm of the seasons, the stars, the Moon and planets.

Dawn slowly lights the eastern horizon. The night now includes color as I pack up the gear. I linger outside, though, unwilling to start a busy day. The first bird song breaks the quiet. I find Venus, still bright just below the Moon. I watch, one eye on the eastern horizon as the first diamond of red spills over the hills. Slowly the Sun rises as I mark the position of both Jupiter and Venus. Waiting until the whole Sun has cleared the horizon, and yes, I can still spot both tiny shards of light in the now blue sky. Jupiter is gone five minutes later, but Venus….Venus I’ll see again as the Moon moves across it later in the morning. The night is gone, but I know the stars are still there. Time, though, to begin the day.

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I am thankful.

For family, friends, actually pretty much everyone I know.  Past friends.  Friends no longer here, whose memory still informs my present.  I am not the most social person I know, I can cheerfully spend days without other humans….but for those in my life, I am thankful.

For just plain dumb luck.  Living in a great place on the planet, in relative peace and prosperity only dreamed of by my ancestors.  A roof over a comfortable house.  Food.  Wine!  Am I rich?  Not perhaps in an absolute sense in this age, but certainly I am richer and have better health care than any Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.  Truthfully, there is nothing I actually need in material goods, and really I need to shed stuff.

For the sky.  Day or night, I never look up that I do not find beauty.  The sky shames my ego, reminding me that my petty concerns are just that.  That I live on a planet that is an amazing place.

For having a mind.  For being able to comprehend the world I live in, to explore, understand, and celebrate the amazing universe.  I can be in mind anywhere in time and space.  From atoms to supermassive black holes, everything is a wonder to explore.  Sure, I still have to do laundry and cook dinner, but how fortunate we are to have the time to simply go traveling down random roads of discovery.

For not just living, but being alive.


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Bending metal

For  getting rid of frustrations, you really can’t beat denting metal with a sledgehammer.

Even better, unbending metal with a sledgehammer.

About a year ago, a dead tree next to the garage let loose.  Part of it hit the trailer that we used two summers ago to go out to California.  Dented up the one fender and tore off the rear light.  Now we are starting to think about using the trailer for hauling stuff, so it needs to work.  We had done some damage to the fender just prying it to where the wheel would roll (also deflating said tire to help), so tire off, time to get angry:

bent fender on trailer

Tree damage

Parker had tried to do some whacking on his own, but since we are hitting from below and going up, a lot of energy is wasted just moving the trailer up and down.  So we took turns holding it down, made the hammer blows actually do some good.


Making progress and slowly hitting the low spots, we finally got to where it was good enough. A lot of paint flaked off from the hits, and there was rust, so sandpaper was used:

Polished dents


Good old Rustoleum primer comes next:

primer coat

Why is rust resistant primer…rust colored?

And of course a couple of flat black topcoats.

with topcoat

Nice and black

Last, we replace the light and got the tire back on.  A good day’s work!

repaired fender

Now with tire!

Which of course reminded me of the fender on the Moon buggy….never leave home without duct tape!  Light works, only thing left

Is to figure out why the OTHER light doesn’t brake or blink.

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The bright side of the Moon


Sometimes I think I am spitting in the wind to do astronomy outreach, especially with a partner like

“July 10, 2014: In June of last year, a full Moon made headlines.  The news media called it a “supermoon” because it was 14% bigger and 30% brighter than other full Moons of 2013.”

Sadly, this is incorrect.  The “supermoon” is 14% bigger etc than the apogee moon……and only that one.  The news wires pick this up, and now the prevailing idea is that you have some number of “average” moons and then a “supermoon.”  If you are going to argue that the supermoon foolishness is a teaching opportunity, fine, but then use it to teach that the Moon distance at full changes each month in a cycle from smallest to largest, farthest to nearest.

But wait, there’s more!

“If you thought one supermoon was bright, how about three….? The full Moons of summer 2014—July 12th, August 10th, and Sept. 9th–will all be supermoons.”


Well, you might be charitable and think that perhaps there is something unique about 2014.
But that’s not the case.
For the last three years, time of full Moon from perihelion

2012:  April +21h  May 0h   June -21h
2013   May  +21h   June 0h   July -21h
2014   July   +21h   August 0h   September  -22h

anyone see a pattern here?

So what’s changed?  Obviously someone thinks more hype is better.  Maybe next year they can all be supermoons.  Think I’m kidding?  This from the Washington Post:

“There are technically five supermoons by definition in 2014, but only the full moons of July, August, and September will be visible. The other two happen during the new moon phase, when it is invisible on Earth.”

I could agree that getting people out to look at the sky is a great thing, I know some of you run star parties for this.  (We don’t have telescopes at the planetarium, and the local group is not generally wanting to drag telescopes out for the Full Moon, which here means you will see pretty much nothing else in the haze.)

Still…is there some reason why a NASA sponsored website feels the need to hype to the point of incorrectness?  To lead the bandwagon? Now I have to ask people to forget the incorrect stuff and I’m ruining the three month supermoon story, signs and portents in the sky oh my.    But I can’t….all of us together don’t….reach anywhere near the number of people reached by all the news services.

To me, the tsunami of incorrect or half-right ideas of this far outweigh any educational outcomes.

Might as well deliberately re-run the Mars as big as the Full Moon email….at least people might go out and look at the sky?

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Through the first few episodes, the new Cosmos series has been ok to good.  Lots of folks have detailed likes and dislikes.  But I have to admit….I really liked the last episode.  Two reasons:  people…..and light.

I personally enjoy the history of science as seen through the lens of the individuals involved.  To see how their lives influenced what they did and appreciate what they discovered with mere stone knives and bearskins is a lot of fun.  Last night I enjoyed the story of Joseph Fraunhofer.  I’d seen it before, but it’s a great story of a very bright individual who began as an indentured apprentice but who nevertheless made huge contributions to our understanding of the information contained in light.  The tragedy of the story is not that he died young, probably from toxic chemicals used in glass making.  Rather, the tragedy is that today, among the seven billion people on the planet…there are many Fraunhofers, Newtons, Einsteins….and we should be finding those folks and giving them room to use their intellect.  These individuals weren’t just smart…there are enough at the high end of the IQ bell curve….they are different, they imagine the world in new ways that lead to fresh insights.  I count it a loss that we do not know most of them.

Light… amazing.  Going to the Moon was cool, the sky at night always beautiful, but I fell in love when I found out how much information is carried to us by light.  Tiny points of starlight that give us the story of the stars, lets us ask crazy questions like what things are made of, how far, how old…and actually get answers.  The light from the planets, comets, asteroids..and distant gamma ray bursts, all of it has an amazing amount of information.  Spreading the light to see the spectra….is magical.  Case Western Reserve University had a wonderful wide field telescope with a prism that was used for surveys.  Glass plates, 4 inches on a side, covered with tiny spectra.  And you could learn to read them, and recognize that here was a white dwarf, there was a Cepheid variable… cool!

stellar spectra

Prettier than fingerprints

At high dispersion, every star is unique.  You can’t get lost in space as long as you can find a bright star!  You can identify them by their spectra.  We still call the absorption features Fraunhofer lines.

Not to ruin the romance, professional spectra are not generally colored  (except for fun).  Even the phototgraphic plate emulsions were black and white to get maximum detail.  And today, they are not of course photographs plus we are often in non-visual wavelengths.  But still….the story is written in the light.


What we actually see

cas a

If you had x-ray eyes

Light….lets us go from the rings of Saturn (ice, some rock) all the way to the dawn of time, the cosmic microwave background.  Across time and space.  Warped by black holes. How cool is that?

I don’t have the time, really….but it was all I could do to not seriously consider buying a spectrograph for the telescope when one was being sold locally.

You never get over your first love…..


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I reminded myself many times last Friday of how many miles I used to log in relative comfort on my bike……

Sons need to do several longish bike rides to earn the bicycling badge for Boy Scouts.  So we’ve done two ten mile and one 15 mile trip, needed another 15.  Looked up a promising bike trail in Nashville, and off we went one (kind of) sunny morning.

Began in mid morning at Shelby Bottoms Nature Center.  Lookin’ good, we got our helmets, gloves, water bottles and lunch.

10:30 am : The Journey begins

10:30 am: The Journey Begins.

And off we go down the way.

After a couple of more or less flat miles, a climb to the top of a short hill brings you to the bridge over the Cumberland River.  Next to the bridge is a firepit/urban sculpture.

random public art

Which is it? You decide.

Which since I had the fisheye to hand, needed a different view:

random public art

Wacky use of tools and a welding torch.

So over the river, past Wave Country and McGavock High School, after some up and down riding we came to Lebanon Road.  Nice, they left the old bridge over the Stones River for bikes and pedestrians!

us70 bridge

Bridge over Stony water

Past the water treatment plant, more up and down, a nice viaduct pass nice homes build on the Stone’s River bluff, a longish hill here….also a few folks who were obviously told by their doctors to exercise.  How much weight CAN a bike frame support?

IMGP4576_smAnd finally, I-40.  We got to go under.

almost to the dam

Parker asking, “are we there yet?”

On the other side, our destination:  Percy Priest Dam on the Stones River.  And lunch!

I’d been watching all morning the high thin clouds and the Sun, and was not disappointed.  Nice ring around the Sun right at noon.

Sun ring

Must be a sign that we should stop and eat.

Signs….the sign for the bike path was some years out of date, as it had the bridge over the Cumberland (which we’d gone over earlier in the day) as still under construction.


The long and winding road

And being near a dam, the obligatory warning that water might be involved.

dam warning

In case of epic rains or dam failure…..

Our bikes now being well rested, we took off back toward Shelby Bottoms.  My goal was to catch the funny signage along the way.  We also realized that we had done a lot longer ride than we had intended, but we needed a 25 mile ride anyway.

bicycle races


So begins the trail of signage.


Danger danger danger

Well, I guess…..could be….although no water was actually seen.

no ice

65 degrees.

Nope, no ice either.  I admit I’d never seen a sign like the one just a bit farther along…..perhaps you can tell we are on an upward incline?

wheelchair warning


And of course what goes up, must also come down

going down fast


Some cash was spent on this….long stretch of what I would call viaduct, a “bridge” running along the bluff.  Stones River below and nice homes above.  Looked like synthetic wood.

artificial planks

Greenway grant money, anyone?

Here’s a fun combination:

fun signs

Twisty turny bike path ahead!

And what really hurt is that they kept putting POSTS in the middle of bridges that were invariably at the end of a long downhill.  So you couldn’t just let it all hang out and gain enough speed to make it up the next uphill.

more fun signs

Sign explosion

Make sure you read everything whilst zooming by.


Pretty bridge

And as much fun as I am poking, this is a pretty tunnel under McGavock.  Still, when you come up on the other side, you are greeted by stupid:

common core manifesto

You have to be a middle school teacher for this to makes sense at all.

They are required to post this sort of drivel in the classrooms, too.  Walking arguments for homeschooling.  What does this mean?  Folks, someday we will have to take back the schools from the government.

Opryland boat

The General Jackson steamboat turns around.

You could, for example, be watching this from the bridge.  The General Jackson’s propulsion system is a fine engineering design, as the ship is *just* barely able to turn around.  The turbines are located amidships…the stern paddlewheel is mostly for show.  Education is everywhere, all around you, and does not consist of mouthing empty statements.  But I digress….

We needed a few extra miles at the end, so we took a spur trail to the old Cornelia Fort Airpark.  Now you can bike on airplane tarmac….


Richard Thomas used to take off from this very runway

The wind was howling at their backs, it was hard to come back the other way!


Sun over the river trestle at Shelby Bottoms.

A sign in the skies….time to quit.

We were all tired and sore.  But it was also a lot of fun.  Now they are starting to realize what the 50 mile ride will be like!

Hot shower…pizza…beer….zzzzzzzz












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