Category Archives: science

Field Trippin’ to Mercury

Class visit to the Elumenati studios in West Asheville, Feb. 20, 2009.

The program shown projected on the GeoDome is NASA’s Digital Universe Atlas.

Flickr set

November Sky Show

From NASA Science News, some eye-catching night-sky events happening on the first three days of November:

On Nov. 1st, Venus and the Moon emerge from the twilight side by side, Venus on the right, the Moon on the left: sky map.

Look carefully at the Moon. Can you see a ghostly image of the full Moon inside the bright horns of the crescent? That’s called Earthshine or the da Vinci glow because Leonardo da Vinci was the first person to explain it. Sunlight hits Earth and ricochets to the Moon, casting a sheen of light across the dark lunar terrain. A crescent Moon with Earthshine is one of the loveliest sights in the heavens.

The show continues on Nov. 2nd with Venus, the still-slender crescent Moon, and Jupiter arrayed in a broad line across the southwestern sky: sky map. This linear arrangement attracts attention almost as much as the luminosity of its points: Venus, the Moon and Jupiter are the brightest objects in the heavens, visible from light-polluted cities even before the twilight sky fades to black.

Trace your finger upward along the line—that is where the Moon is going. Nightfall on Nov. 3rd reveals the Moon transported to Jupiter: sky map. The two form a pair so tight and eye-catching, it may take your breath away.

Haekel’s Art Forms in Nature Completely Archived on Flickr

Via Bruce Sterling’s blog, I learn that Ernst Haekel’s Art Forms in Nature has been scanned and uploaded to Flickr, seemingly in its entirety.

Haekel is the German polymath who drew those insanely, exsquisitely detailed pictures of sea creatures and radiolarians.

Click here to enjoy the Flickr photoset from Flickr user EricGjerde.

Chet Raymo: Saying Yes to the Universe

From today’s post at Chet Raymo’s Science Musings blog:

If the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo whispers anything in our ear, it is that the neolithic myths so many of us live by are hopelessly out-of-date. We need new, more capacious stories commensurate with the stunning achievements of human knowing. We need theologies that consist of more than projections of human qualities onto a mystery that burns like a hidden flame in the “ten thousand times ten thousand boxes of salt.” When I tried to convey some sense of cosmic scale, my students sometimes said to me, “It makes me feel so insignificant.” My reply: You are part of a species who flung a magnificent instrument into space and managed to keep it pointed at a tiny dot of sky for 11.3 days as the instrument whirled around the Earth. You made visible 130 billion galaxies. You carry a universe of 130 billion galaxies in your head. If that doesn’t make you feel significant, nothing will.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo is an extraordinary step in human knowing. And, ironically, it confirms our ultimate ignorance. We are blown and stirred and battered by a wind of galaxies that rushes outwards from a deeply mysterious beginning, We are the stuff of it. Every atom in our body vibrates with the tempo of it. We let go of our ancient moorings and swim in the sea of it.

The Non-Newtonian Fluid Video

Via Boing Boing, a very weird and cool video of a non-Newtonian fluid (ordinary cornstarch and water) on a metal sheet on top of a subwoofer. To me it looks like living, vaguely human creatures are fleeing some crisis or catastrophe. Flight of the Cornstarch People.


What is a non-Newtonian fluid?

The physics of Oobleck

Tons of amazing vids on YouTube

The Moon Illusion and the Queen of the Night

Sometimes this blog is quiet because bad things are happening.

Sometimes this blog is quiet because good things are happening.

Sometimes this blog is quiet because there’s nothing much to say.

Sometimes nothing much to say is a good thing.

I’m settling into summer, getting the yard caught up — yanking up the little patches of poison ivy, pulling weeds from between the stones and bricks of the patio, putting in stonecrop and rhododendron… A few times already I’ve gotten a little lost in the familiar sloughs of summer boredom, but I realized, when reading this old blog entry of mine, the tremendous progress I’ve made in learning to live alone. In learning to live, period.

The author of that “old” entry not yet even a year old impresses me with the way that she reveals an embarassing amount of suffering along with a total lack of submission to it. This summer, with new job leads, deeping friendships and fair amount of fun to go along with catching up on my gutters and weeds, things already feel different. And not just because of the unreliable fix of more and better things to do.

My life is slowly deepening and enriching, changing like leaves and detritus turn to rich compost. I am back in love with my sweet house, even more in love with my city, and every day brings me greater and greater awareness of how much I love and am loved by my circle of friends.

I had dinner with a friend last night and as we walked into the restaurant we saw a dear mutual friend there with her extended family, in town for a visit. The friend I’d come with, Laura, told us all a story of a friend of hers getting sick while vacationing in a nearby town, and Laura’s journey of driving to her projectile-puking friend in need and taking her back to Laura’s condo and caring for her.

“I’d do it for you,” she said, looking at our friend and then at me, and was told right back she could expect the same from us. We all kind of turned to one another and told one another that we would all indeed drive to Cherokee to rescue each other should we ever become projectile-pukers, and cart each other back home safe and see to each other until we were well. And it was true.

The point of this nerdy story is to show that this is the kind of tribe worth waiting a lifetime for. My only regret is the constraint of geography that doesn’t allow me to widen my circle to those I would welcome but who live far away.

This is a very fine life I have, not in material riches or even that many conventional accoutrements of contentment (a husband and family, a fat salary), but in gratitude and emotional and intellectual wealth.

Yesterday I woke at 6:15, had lunch with a friend, had dinner with another friend (helper to fallen projectile-pukers everywhere) and late in the evening caught a spectacular solstice moonrise.

Last night was a good night for the fabled “moon illusion,” which according to the buzz of the astronomy newsletters I read is especially spectacular at the summer solstice:

On Wednesday night, June 18th, step outside at sunset and look around. You’ll see a giant form rising in the east. At first glance it looks like the full Moon. It has craters and seas and the face of a man, but this “moon” is strangely inflated. It’s huge!

You’ve just experienced the Moon Illusion.

The buzz was totally right.

I drove to my local eastern horizon observing spot, a gravel residential parking lot overlooking a river valley with a clear horizon view blocked only by the unavoidable ring of mountains, and was met by a few fellow nature freaks. Moonrise was at 9:14 but it took awhile for the moon to clear the dark blue peaks of the Smokies.

We weren’t quite sure where due east was until the undersides of a little bank of low, dark clouds began to glow with an eerie golden light. It was the light of the still-hidden rising moon. Soon part of it peeped, a hot molten blot of orange glowing in the dark gray, not through the clouds but in the gaps between their smoky blackness.

Though we could see little of it through the clouds, we got a breathtaking sense of the strange illusion of its size. It seemed the size of an apple or grapefruit, and glowed a magnificent yellow-orange. Bloated but more luminous than baleful, the moon was for agonizing minutes on end mostly shrouded in black clouds jaggedly backlit with a ragged fringe of gold.

We desperately wanted to see the whole moon, but the color effect of yellow-orange and deep gray was gorgeous. I found myself making impatient lifting motions with my arms, as if lifting a tarp or a sash, I wanted so bad for the bank of dark cloud to lift above that gorgeous orange solstice moon.

“It looks like a sunset,” said the woman behind me with quiet awe, her young son on her shoulders.

Eventually it broke through the clouds. I have never in my life seen a moon so bright. My eyes swam trying to focus on it, and I found myself instinctively shielding my eyes — from the moon.

We missed the best viewing as by the time it had cleared the clouds and mountains it had been rising for a good 45 minutes, and was too high in the sky for the moon illusion, an optical illusion based in the moon being low on the horizon.

But what little we saw was unforgettable. And tonight, with the moon still mostly full, I think I will slink over to another observation spot and watch the show again.

So of course this isn’t really a month where nothing is happened. It’s just a month where everything happening is quiet and small, a molten suburban moon and an excited child on his mother’s shoulders being shushed. I have lain in bed listening to a mockingbird calling for his mate in the moonlight. I finished my first case study with my new corporate client. I knitted on the grassy college quad while listening to live Latin music. And this morning, as if the beauty of the solstice moon last night were not enough to recharge my spirit, I found this:

The year’s first blossom of my well-named Queen of the Night cactus, a night-flowering cactus that must have produced its strangely alien and lunar yellow-white florescence as the moon rose last night in solstitial splendour.

Sometimes this blog is quiet when there are no stories. When the are stories, it speaks up again.

Total Lunar Eclipse Feb. 20, 2008


Wednesday night’s the night — a big ol’ total lunar eclipse over most of planet Earth.

Here’s a map that lets you know how much of the eclipse you can see from your part of the world. The partial eclipse begins at 8:43 EST (1:43 a.m. GMT); the total eclipse starts at 10:01 p.m. EST.

While lunar eclipses aren’t as exciting as comets or meteor showers (they’re dramatic but slow) they’re still fascinating to watch unfold.

I charge anyone who’s interested to take the JSFW Lunar Nerd Challenge: can you get someone to watch the eclipse? Can you get someone interested in what’s happening?


Here’s a cool NASA article on the different colors the eclipsed moon can turn (gray, black, red and even bluish) during a total eclipse, and why.

If you recall, last year an eclipsed moon rose at sundown, ashy gray and nearly invisible, after I got myself and my blogfriends all worked up about a gigantic scarlet ball of fear, possibly including live bats and organ music, balefully marching over the horizon at sunset. Ah, well.

And as the damn thing eclipsed it just turned black. Stupid moon. Maybe this year will be different and we’ll get some Lovecraftian color action.

The word from NASA is that this is the last lunar eclipse visible in the Americas until 2010. Catch it if you can.

Doomed Spy Satellite Overhead This Month


USA 193, a malfunctioning U.S. spy satellite (not something you see flying over the house every day), is currently circling the earth in a low orbit, appearing overhead at night as bright as a first- or second-magnitude star.

Spaceweather has more details.

You can use Heavens-Above, a website that lets users look up skywatching info for their exact viewing site, to look up exact US 193 flyby times in your city. Word is is that the satellite streaks by fast, not with the slow pace I’m used to observing from satellite-spotting in the yard. It’s visible in the Asheville area on Feb. 16, 17 and 18.

Today the Pentagon announced plans to blow US 193 up before it reenters the atmosphere.

From Heavens-Above:


USA 193 was launched on December 14th, 2006 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launch vehicle was a Delta II. Shortly after reaching obit, ground controllers lost the ability to control the satellite, and have never regained it.


The exact design and purpose of USA 193 are, or course, closely guarded secrets, but specialists believe it is probably a high resolution radar satellite which was intended to produce images for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

When and where will it hit the Earth ?

This is the question which interests most people, and unfortunately very difficult to answer. The satellite is being slowed down by friction with the tenuous upper atmosphere and losing height steadily, as can be seen in the plot below, which shows the orbital height over the last year. As it sinks further, the atmospheric density increases and so does the friction, making the descent faster and faster. Re-entry will happen when the height reaches about 100km.

I plan to try to catch it whizzing by, and when I do I know I’ll relive the days when Skylab was falling, way back in the summer of 1979, when my mom, in an act of kindness I have never forgotten, drove her 10-year-old daughter around suburban Greensboro after dark, hoping to catch a glimpse of a falling man-made star.

Thanks, Mom.

Moon and Mars Show Dec. 23



MOON AND MARS: Please don’t miss this: At sunset on Sunday, Dec. 23rd, the full Moon and Mars will rise in the east less than two degrees apart. So close together, the two brightest objects in the evening sky look absolutely dynamite. The display will be visible all night long, even from brightly lit cities, and requires no telescope to enjoy.

There’s also a full moon Christmas Eve.

Geminid Meteor Shower: Tonight!


Mark your calendar: The best meteor shower of 2007 peaks on Friday, December 14th.

(That’s tonight actually, because the peak is after midnight, though the show starts around 10 p.m., again according to

If you plan to watch this year’s Geminid meteor shower, you’ll want clear, dark skies, ideally away from city lights (though I consistently see meteors from my back yard, fairly close to my city’s small downtown). Nature is not cooperating here in Asheville this year, where’s it’s misty, drizzly and gray, and I am disgustedly sitting this shower out.

From my local radio observatory, the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute:

The Geminid Meteor Shower is one of the more reliable showers and we should see some Geminids for a couple of mornings before the 14th and a morning or two afterwards. Successful observing of the Geminids can start as early as 10 p.m. and continue until dawn as the constellation of Gemini the twins rises higher in the sky. One should observe from a clear, dark location with a good horizon. Look high in the northeast for meteors appearing to radiate out of Gemini.

PARI also notes, interestingly, that this shower is not the result of cometary debris (which I thought was the cause of all meteor showers). This one’s from the dust traces left by an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon.