ASTRONOMICAL MOOD SWING


“And this is the Silver Coin Galaxy, NGC 253, in the constellation Sculptor.” The speaker at the Eugene Astronomical Society, the new president, continued his fascinating talk about lesser known deep sky objects in the autumn night sky.

I was initially amazed at what he was showing, then became a bit depressed, because I used to be a lot more familiar with virtually everything he was discussing. I’ve seen NGC (New General Catalogue) 253, although I never knew it as the Silver Dollar Galaxy. I used to look at the variable star TX Piscium, which the speaker discussed, and I knew about NGC 404, the galaxy near the star Mirach in the constellation Andromeda. If I were at a star party in the autumn, and somebody wanted to see a galaxy, I could show them Andromeda, but this galaxy was even easier to find, because it was right next to a bright star.

I hadn’t forgotten everything I had learned, but it had been years—20 to be exact—since I last did serious observing of the night sky. I went to grad school in Las Cruces in 1998 and had little time to observe. During the 15 or so years prior that I was a diligent, active observer, I saw over 2000 double stars and at least 800 galaxies. I tracked 80 variable stars, often getting up in the middle of the night to observe a nova for the American Association of Variable Star Observers. Most of the variable stars I tracked I could find without using star charts. That’s good.

It’s not, however, as good as the Reverend Robert Evans, an Australian, who holds the record for the most supernovae discovered, 42. He could find his way without charts through the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, hundreds of them in a small area, that looks empty to the naked eye observer, in the constellation Virgo. He knew the appearance of the galaxies well enough to know whether or not they had changed since the last time he looked. That’s beyond good. His record is likely to stand, for in the age of computer driven telescopes and built in star maps, robotic telescopes are discovering many supernovae.

While no longer actively observing, I can still find my way around the night sky quite well. In 2016, at sea in Indonesia, I gave a Vancouver astrophysicist a tour of the night sky, without charts, and did a credible job. We both learned something.

My time in astronomy is like a lot of other things in my life. I study it until I am as good as I think I want to be, and then I move on to something else. I started learning German and did little else for about 3 years, then moved on, although I still watch about an hour of German videos daily on the Internet. I’m not likely to go back to Europe, although I won’t rule out the possibility, and I am not going to become fluent in German or Spanish, which I also spent time studying.

In the hiking club, I have led nearly 150 hikes and taken another 300, but I am not hiking with the group as much as I did, nor am I leading as much. I won’t give it up, but it isn’t the main focus of my life right now.

In all areas of life where I am reasonably competent—mathematics, statistics, neurology, astronomy, canoeing, writing, teaching, learning a language, traveling, leading hikes, predicting the weather, sawing logs in the wilderness—I have started at the bottom as a totally green know nothing and have worked my way up to some degree of competence. It’s not enjoyable being at the bottom, and learning provides the way upward.

Periodically, some of my past areas of competence are called upon unexpectedly. My mathematics skills, put aside for so much of my life, became my career for a while, then a source of worth for me by volunteering in high schools during the time I was neither employed nor retired. I didn’t do much, but I learned more, which I parlayed into a substitute teaching job and into my fifth year as a useful volunteer today at the community college. Writing became a way for me to relax and discuss life as I lived it and as I saw it. I am a decent writer, but not great, and never will be, but that’s fine with me. Writing is a way I express my creativity, just as the husband of a friend of mine composes and plays music that will never make him stand in front of thousands or appear on CC40, but gives him and the people with whom he is around pleasure.

Giving back to the community matters to me. Online, it is the nearly 10,000 problems I have solved on algebra.com. It’s a hope that some of the 28,000 hits my blog has had in 9 years will have helped somebody in some way. By giving, one gets back a lot more.

Several weeks ago, I went to the new SUN-day showing of the Sun by the astronomy club in a nearby park. There were three solar scopes set up and several Club members discussing the views with a few members of the public. I brought my binoculars with solar filters, but they weren’t needed. I didn’t know what my role there would be. For some reason, however, I mentioned sundials, many types of which I have built. Jerry, the Club secretary, is a remarkable person. He writes sci-fi books, columns for Sky and Telescope, has a telescope making class at his house, can make almost anything, and knows the night sky well. We starting chatting about sundials, and I explained the four corrections that needed to be made: Daylight Savings Time, correcting for one’s watch time, correcting for the longitude east or west of the time zone, which in the US is 75/90/105/120 degrees west for the contiguous states, and finally the Equation of Time, the delay or advancement of Sun time, depending upon the date. The Equation of Time deals with the Earth’s day length, which is fixed by our clocks, with the speed the Earth travels around the Sun, which changes depending upon our distance from the latter. It explains why the earliest/latest sunrise and the latest/earliest sunset do not occur on the solstice but a few days on one side or the other.

Jerry was interested and I enjoyed feeling somewhat useful. I gave him a book on sundials I had, and he returned the following week with two beautiful equatorial sundials that he made. A week after, he had business cards with a corner one could cut off and glue on the card itself to make the gnomon, or shadow caster, of a sundial. What an remarkable person.

Last week, the two of us found a place nearby to make an analemma, where if one measures a specific shadow at the same time of day over a year’s time, the shadow will trace out a Figure of 8. I once made a partial one in a math class at a high school in Arizona. There is a nearby sign with the park map where we will put a long pole to cast the shadow. Jerry now wants to make a vertical sundial on the back side of the sign. I know he can do it. I’m in awe of people like him—so creative, so full of ideas.

That’s not at all depressing to me, for while I’ve forgotten so much, I decided one day to show up in the park without any preconceived notions what would happen.

Sometimes, that’s the best way to live.

.

My log book from an observation of the variable star TX Piscium and two neighbors. I observed it from 1989-99.

Analemma:  The shadow caster is at the bottom, where the shortest shadow will be (summer in the Northern Hemisphere.)  The areas to the right are where the Sun “runs fast” relative to clock time, especially in autumn, which gives rise to the very early sunsets we notice.  In January and February, the Sun “runs slow,” and we see that as late sunrises but relatively late sunsets, too.  We notice by Christmas that the Sun is setting later.  The vertical line is neutral.  Four times a year, Sun and clock time are the same.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: