Posts Tagged ‘Total Solar eclipses’


March 1, 2018

This is the twentieth anniversary of my first section hike on the Appalachian Trail (AT).  I never finished the trail; indeed, I hiked only the southern quarter of it in two section hikes, 528 miles total, with another couple of miles in Hanover, New Hampshire, where I went to college, for the AT went right through town.  I have another couple of miles on Mount Moosilauke in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the tenth highest of the 4000 foot summits in the Whites.  I climbed it my freshman year in 1966.

The AT was something that I put on The List and eventually took off.  I have no plans to hike the remaining 1600-odd miles, although I have no regrets having done my two section hikes, one in 1998, the other the following year.  The first one was painful, learning the hard way how to do a long distance backpack; the second was done properly, and I have fond memories of the three weeks I was in the woods, making over three hundred miles good with no blisters and little pain.

I had many “AT moments,” the shelters, the white blazes, the bears, the camping out in the middle of nowhere, “starlight. moonlight and firefly light,” but perhaps one of the classic moments was when I became a recipient of the kindness of a trail angel.  I never thought I would some day become one, and indeed, I didn’t even think of the fact until recently, nineteen years later and on the other side of the continent.

Somewhere in northern Georgia, when I descended one of the many mountains of the AT, I saw a man standing near the road that I would be crossing before ascending the mountain on the opposite side.  The AT was down, down, down to a road and up, up, and still more up on the other side.  My pack that summer day was lighter, after I had dumped 10 pounds of gear I didn’t need at a store that specialized in shipping unwanted gear home.  I also bought a Pepsi, which gave me the energy to get to my camp that night.

Anyway, back to further north in Georgia: next to that somebody was a cooler, and as I approached, the somebody asked if I wanted a can of Dr. Pepper.

A free Dr. Pepper out here.  You’ve got to be kidding.

One has to understand that after a few days on the Trail, a hiker is in a state of borderline biological red alert when it comes to food.  I was additionally dry, hot, a bit hypoglycemic, and totally beat that afternoon, so I initially didn’t process his words.  I looked up, and no, it was not a mirage, it was a man holding a can of Dr. Pepper.

A free, cold Dr. Pepper out here.  You’ve got to be kidding.

I took the can, swallowed the liquid in about two gulps, and thanked him, in that order.  It was wonderful—sweet, cold, and wet, with a bit of caffeine to boot.  I think I can still taste it twenty years later.  Thanking the man profusely, I crossed the road, thinking that maybe the other side wouldn’t be so difficult after all.

That’s a trail angel, and the AT is famous for them.

Across the miles, 19 years, and a continent, on the West Coast trail, AKA PCNST, or the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, three of us were dayhiking south right by Lower Rosary Lake, headed back towards Willamette Pass.  We had taken a loop off the PCT up to Tait’s Loop, which two of us would adopt during the coming winter, making sure the trail markers, blue diamonds, were in place.  We had intersected the PCT and were returning on it. Ahead, we saw an elderly couple with good sized backpacks cross the outlet stream of the lake, and as we approached, they started up a conversation.  They were early 60s, retired, and didn’t bother to shed their packs while talking to us.  Long distance hikers are part of their pack, and one has to have been such a hiker to truly appreciate that fact.  After a week of high mileage days, I was my pack.  My pack was another appendage, a home, a lifeline.  They looked strong, with not one bit of unessential gear with them.  Thru-hikers.

Anyway, last summer a good share of the Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson Wildernesses were burning, and there had been some trail closures, including many miles of the PCT.  The couple, from Alaska and sporting “Alaska Flour” shirts, knew that, so they were going to take some rest days in Bend around the 21st to see what was going to happen.

August 21, 2017 was a big day.  That was the solar eclipse, and these folks, if they continued, would walk right into the path of totality.  I asked them if they knew about the eclipse.  They knew a little and figured Bend would be suitable. It wasn’t.  Before they got to Bend, they would walk into the path of totality, but if they weren’t careful, they could walk right out of the path, too.

Normally, I don’t usually tell people what to do.  I offer an opinion, make some suggestions and expect them do what they want.  Most people do that and aren’t interested in my advice.  I accept that and usually stay quiet.

But, neither quiet nor Bend was suitable, and this was a total friggin’ solar eclipse, for crying out loud.  One of my hiking companions, who would adopt the trail with me, a good friend, would end up staying in Eugene, outside the path, for the eclipse, although he had heard me give a talk to 80 charged up people about it back in June at the Obsidian Lodge and came away less than impressed.  I wasn’t going to change his mind, and he would one day tell me he regretted his choice, but these people deserved to know more.  I mentioned that they would be close to totality, and if they could get north of Bend, they would be able to see it.  I further added that I had seen sixteen of the things (I don’t think I used “friggin’) and they were incredible sights.  I gave it my strongest recommendation: “It’s worth seeing.”  They had a few more miles to go that night and we needed to get back to our vehicle, so we parted ways, we went south, they north.


Interview by KEZI-TV anchor Renee McCullough in the Eugene Science Center, April 2017.


Lower Rosary Lake in winter

I had quite forgotten about the couple until sometime in September, when I got one of those strange emails, where the sender is a weird name that makes no sense, except the message line is somehow very relevant.  The couple had seen the total eclipse by Santiam Lake, somehow able to get far enough into the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness near Three-fingered Jack.  I was thanked in capital letters for having suggested they go to the eclipse track.  They hiked in to one of the more beautiful spots I could think of—I had been to Santiam Lake on a hike the past June—and had clear skies, no smoke, and a beautiful view.  Someone even took a raft out on the lake—which is a tough 6 miles in from US20 and about eight in from Duffy Lake—and saw the eclipse from the middle.  Wow. That was better than my experience in eastern Oregon.  The couple was back in Alaska, but they were planning to come down again next year and finish off the PCT.

I was thrilled.  I didn’t have a cooler, and I didn’t have Dr. Pepper, but this Doctor had a cool idea for them, and it worked out just fine.

Trail Angel.  Nice term.  I can now apply it to myself for a very uncommon reason.

Santiam Lake

Santiam Lake and Three-fingered Jack, June 2017.


February 4, 2018

The recent lunar eclipse made me wonder what has happened to sensibility. I’m all for people learning about the night sky, but the comments I saw on social media were disheartening. Worse, many in the astronomical community were guilty of overhyping what shouldn’t need to be hyped in the first place.

The recent total lunar eclipse was one of eighteen occurring in the 20 year period 2001-20, so while these aren’t common, they aren’t rare, either.  The total minutes of all these eclipses is nearly 1300, so if one happens to see a total eclipse, one will see it for a period of many minutes, sometimes more than an hour, unlike total solar eclipses which last fewer than 7 1/2 minutes, and in all of our lifetimes under six minutes, assuming one is in exactly the right place, and I mean exactly.  For a lunar eclipse, being in the right place is on the night side of the Earth, which has a probability about one half.  For a total solar eclipse, the probability is 0.5% just to be on the track, let alone in the right place.  The Europeans and Asians will see a total lunar eclipse in July, and all of North America next January.

What bothered me was the blue, super, and blood appellation, along with “the first in 150 years.”

Some background: back on June 5, 2012, when there was a transit of Venus across the Sun, I showed it to a small group of people at the Pima County Medical Society’s office in Tucson.  One individual commented that it was not very interesting, seeing the small dot of Venus against the background of the Sun, 30 times the diameter of Venus, viewed from the Earth.  To me, this was an exceptionally rare event, which last occurred in 2004, and before then in 1882. The next will be in 2117.  The rarity,  the history of those who traveled great distances to see one, the fact that I was following in their footsteps were all important to me.  Others don’t see the world (or other worlds) the way I do, however, and I accept that.  The total solar eclipse last summer was a yawner for a few of my friends, although I actually convinced my brother to take the effort to see it, and he was not at all disappointed.  The next solar eclipse to touch Oregon will be October 5, 2108, and barely reaches the Pacific coast. This past lunar eclipse lasted 76 minutes, which was worth mentioning; I’ve spent fewer than fifty minutes under the Moon’s shadow during the 17 total solar eclipses I have seen.

A blue Moon is when a full Moon occurs twice in one month.  It’s a calendar phenomenon only. Between 2001 and 2020, nine occur.  The exact dates differ, because of time zones, where the full Moon may occur a calendar day later in the eastern hemisphere.  We have two blue moons this year, which is unusual, and yes, it is interesting, but it isn’t the stuff of which “I have to see this or I am missing out on something special and not likely to happen again.”

Supermoons are when the full Moon is relatively close to the Earth.  Because of the shape of the Moon’s orbit and the behavior of the Moon, our satellite can be full and be within 360,000 km of us, one definition of a supermoon, at least twice and maybe three times a year.  That’s like giving an gold star for attending class.  The full Moon of New Years’ Day was actually 2500 km closer to us than this one.  “Supermoon” is a recent term, dating only about three decades.  Before then, we just admired full moons and did just fine.  In part, the “horizon effect,” where seeing a full Moon rise against the horizon, something to compare it with, makes the moon appear large.  It actually appears larger six hours later, when highest in the sky, because we are no longer looking at the Moon across the radius of the Earth but directly at it, 6500 km closer, give or take. I have had almost no success, either as an astronomy columnist or as an amateur astronomer, convincing people that rising full Moons are not unusually bright.

Then again, once I failed to convince a couple that the large red object that was a lunar eclipse wasn’t Mars.  And when I was a kid, I called the crescent Moon “Venus,” because I had recently learned Venus can show phases.  But unlike the couple I learned to change my mind in the face of convincing evidence–and appropriate public shaming.

A supermoon is about 0.28 magnitude brighter than a regular full Moon.  Magnitudes are listed where negative means brighter; every 5 magnitudes is 100-fold difference in brightness.  This translates into a supermoon being  a quarter brighter than average, but brightness is relative.  We don’t compare full moons that we see with other full moons unless we use a light meter.  We usually compare them to what we have recently seen, like how the Moon appeared the night or two before full, also bright.

Still, full moons are special, 11 times brighter than a half moon and 10% brighter than the Moon the day before or day after.  The apparent size of the Moon is larger, but again, without comparison to other full moons, such as photographically or in an eyepiece of a telescope in which one can calibrate size, is not appreciably different.  One way to prove this is to look at a rising full Moon through a cardboard tube and then look at it high overhead.  The size is the same to one’s eye.

The blood moon is a reference to the red color of the eclipsed Moon, because the only light that can reach the eclipsed Moon is from the red sunrises and sunsets around the eclipsing Earth.  As Fred Espenak, “Mr. Eclipse,” put it, “people have been calling these lunar eclipses for two thousand years.”  Of the three terms, replacing blood moon with “eclipse” would have been the most helpful.

There are many astronomical events every year.  In my opinion, they don’t need to be hyped.  There are many beautiful things above, on, and below the Earth, and they are there for those who want to look.

Next time around, my self-improvement goal will be to discuss the phenomenon without raising my voice.  THAT would be a rare event.


Total lunar eclipse 27 September 2015, White Bear Lake, MN. The darkest part is the Moon that is deepest in the Earth’s shadow; the lighter is in the outer shadow.


Transit of Venus beginning, 5 June 2012, Tucson, AZ



July 28, 2017



  • Solar filters of some sort, which may include eclipse glasses, a #14 welding filter, mirror covered in paper with a dime-sized hole to reflect sunlight on to the wall.  Please don’t use sunglasses, X-Ray film, black and white film, or smoked glass.  None of it is safe.
  • Sunscreen:  remember, 99% of the event will be spent in sunlight.
  • Binoculars, only to be used during totality, and absolutely MUST not be used for any other part of the eclipse unless they have adequate solar filters. This includes ALL binoculars, even 8 x 20.  Binoculars are more dangerous if one so much as glances at the Sun, for they concentrate sunlight.
  • White sheet to put on the ground to look for shadow bands near totality.  Don’t get too hung up on having one.
  • A colander or something with many small holes.  A hat with a mesh is fine.
  • Thermometer to watch temperature changes is useful.
  • A video camera that about 5 minutes prior to totality you can set pointing to the west, where the shadow will come from, and start it and not worry about until about 3 or 4 minutes after totality.  That way, you can film the darkness without taking precious time away from totality.


  • First:  Moon just touches Sun and you won’t see any of the Sun eclipsed for a few minutes.
  • Second: beginning of totality
  • Third: end of totality
  • Fourth: Moon just touches Sun and eclipse is over.

Between First and Second Contacts:

  • Watch the Moon slowly cover the Sun.
  • Notice that the temperature starts to fall before you notice any change in light.
  • When the Sun is about half covered, notice the slight “yellowish” cast of the light.  It’s different.
  • After the Sun is more than half covered, use a colander or hat to cast crescents on a surface, as each hole becomes a pinhole camera.  Check to make sure you are positioned where you want to be for totality.
  • IMG_2880.jpg

    Crescents made by the mesh of a deck chair, 9 March 2016 eclipse in Makassar Strait.

  • Periodically look to the western sky, because from there is where the Moon’s shadow is coming.  You are looking for some darkening.  You won’t see anything until a few minutes before totality.
  • Notice Venus to the right or west of the Sun.  It will become very easy to see.
  • Look to see if any animal nocturnal behavior is occurring, such as birds coming to roost or cattle acting like it is evening.

Last 5-10 minutes before totality—things start happening fast:

  • Sun shrinks to a crescent, and the crescent starts breaking apart into fragments to eventually become a single point of light, the Diamond Ring.  This is where you may remove all filters, because the light quickly fades.
  • A minute or two before totality, look at your shadow to see every individual hair.
  • As totality approaches, steal quick looks at the west, as the shadow approaches as a giant black curtain. Watching the shadow is good, but the Diamond Ring is something you want to see for sure.  I can look quickly at both, but I’ve had a lot more practice.  See the Diamond Ring.
  • Don’t forget to look at the ground or a wall for shadow bands.  If you don’t see anything don’t keep trying.  There is too much else to look at.

TOTALITY  (Take the eclipse glasses off, if you didn’t do it at the Diamond Ring)


9 March 2016 Total solar eclipse over the Makassar Strait, Indonesia.

  • I begin by staring at the eclipse for 15-20 seconds, to fix it in my mind, for no second spent looking at the eclipse is wasted. I start talking aloud about the corona, how many solar diameters out from the Sun it is and where. I look at how dark it is and comment compared to twilight.  If you do nothing more than look at the eclipsed Sun, you will have done well.
  • What the Moon covers last is the lavender chromosphere, the inner atmosphere of the Sun.  I look for it, because it’s there and the color is beautiful.
  • Look for prominences on the surface of the Sun.  They will be small red dots on the edge of the Sun that get covered by the Moon on one side and exposed more on the other.
  • I do a 360 degree turn looking at the horizon all around me, to see reds everywhere.
  • I look for planets.  Venus has been seen; Mercury will be to the left and below the Sun; Mars on the opposite side. The star Regulus will be to the left of or east of the Sun. I want to see Regulus, but if time is passing quickly. I won’t look for other bright stars other than maybe steal a quick peek at the zenith.
  • I look at the eclipsed Sun and see if the prominences have changed.  The Moon is moving, so there will be a change.

Near the end of totality, get ready for the Diamond Ring.  There will be a slight increase in light and then suddenly there will be brightness, as the Sun is no longer completely covered.  See it, and before you put eclipse glasses on, while others are celebrating the end of the eclipse, watch the Moon’s shadow as a huge black cloud move off to the east.  Virtually nobody discusses this great phenomenon, and there are only about two or three seconds to see it.


Libyan eclipse of 29 March 2006, after Third Contact.


Between Third and Fourth Contacts

Look for shadow bands again, notice the crescents on the ground and on you.  Watch everything happen in reverse as the Moon slowly uncovers the Sun.  The lighting changes, the temperature rises, animals revert to normal behavior, and soon it is difficult to know that anything happened.

I consider it honoring the event by staying until Fourth Contact, when the eclipse is over.


And for us it is never completely over until we see the Moon as a crescent in the evening sky.  Notice that this is south of the equator and not the view that will be seen the evening of August 22 or more like August 23, since summertime evening crescents are difficult to see until 2 or more days after new.


June 20, 2017

“Without music, my life would be a lot less enjoyable.  Without science, my life would have ended a long time ago.”   My letter published in Newsweek, many years ago.

It’s a honor to know that I think the same way Neil deGrasse Tyson does about both the night sky and about society’s tacit approval of math illiteracy.

I have spoken to several groups about the upcoming solar eclipse.  Oddly, the largest number to whom I have spoken was not an group of adults but children at “a little school” (the teacher’s comment, not mine) in eastern Oregon.  In an hour, I spoke to all grades, about 100 students, and then in another hour spent time with about fifteen in a class, showing them how to make a solar filter on their own.  The other talks have had fewer than twenty, sometimes under ten.  Last week, I spoke at the LIONS meeting, and despite the microphone’s being near the speaker at one point, making a god-awful noise, one man was asleep right in front of me within 5 minutes after I began.

My solar eclipse talks have been short:  It’s worth seeing totality; protect your eyes and drive safely to and from the event; if you are a first timer, don’t waste precious seconds trying to take a picture.  Then I answer questions, and if the Sun is shining, have people look at it through solar filters.


Students at Prairie City school in Oregon view the Sun.  The total eclipse will last 2m6s there.


Howard Elementary 5th graders in Eugene.


Eastern Oregon, 1 hour after leaving Prairie City. My payment for the talk.

I’ve stayed away from the math explaining why a total solar eclipse occurs.  Much of it isn’t complicated, but people don’t like numbers.  On the 2006 eclipse tour to Libya, there were several eclipse talks, and I asked the editor of one of the astronomy magazines why he didn’t discuss the Saros cycle in detail.  His answer was short, “People don’t like to look at numbers.”

While perhaps readers don’t like to look at numbers, perhaps they might learn something interesting by viewing 6 of them.

223 Synodic periods (common lunar cycle we know)=6585.32 days: The Moon has to be new for a solar eclipse to occur.  That lines up the three bodies in one plane.

239 Anomalistic (from perigee, closest approach, to perigee)=6585.54 days; the Moon must be within a few days of its closest point in order to appear to have the same apparent size (we call it angular size) as the Sun. Too far away, and the Moon will appear smaller, “inside” the Sun, a ring or annular eclipse.

242 Draconic (crossing the plane of the Earth’s orbit)=6585.36 days; the Moon must cross the plane of the Earth’s orbit when new in addition to being the right distance from Earth for a total solar eclipse to occur.  Crossing the plane lines up the three bodies in a plane perpendicular to the synodic.

Divide 6585 days by 365.25 days in a year and one gets 18 years 10.3 days, meaning that eclipses repeat.  The 18 year Saros cycle means that eclipses recur, shifted a third of the way around the world, which is what the decimal 0.3 shows, but the same general path occurs on the Earth.  Ancient people without computers knew this, and they didn’t know the math we know today, an impressive feat.

While these cycles aren’t exact, they are so close that an eclipse “family” will continue for some 70 eclipses, give or take about three.  That makes a family last 1200-1400 years before the small changes in many cycles finally fail to allow an eclipse to occur.  I think the resonance of these cycles might be part of the Musica Universalis, the Music of the Spheres, an idea dating at least to Pythagoreas, yes, that guy, that music was part of the movement of the celestial bodies.  If those three cycles aren’t beautiful, one has amaurosis mathematica, math blindness.

It’s not OK to use “I’m not good at math” to explain away inability to calculate basic things in life.  When I taught statistics to adults, I once made the comment that I didn’t care for a lot of jazz, and the class hammered me.  Wow, one would think I was born with a major defect.  I think the idea of people jamming is neat, playing off each other, finding the right beat, the right chord, the right sense; that is special.  I can’t do that, but I appreciate those who can.  What bothers me about math is that people use “not being good” as proud excuses to explain away issues, rather than concerns that they might be losing money, being conned, or missing out on something special in the world.  Without jazz, my life would be less full; without math, I would not have practiced medicine or even gone to college.

If I could learn to play the piano, and I did learn, I think that it is appropriate to say that others should learn to do basic math and like it. An astronomer the other night at the Club spoke how he taught basic astronomy to students without using math.  Everybody thought that was great, including me, until I thought about it a little.  Why leave out math?  By doing that, one fails to show why math is important.  One fails to listen to the Music of the Spheres.  What’s so wrong about showing the difference between an ellipse and a circle, between a parabola and a hyperbola?  You’ve got a satellite dish, and that is a parabola. These four conics all have a square or a quadratic term present, and quadratics are essential to understand energy of motion, gravity, projectiles, tides, how the solar system works, why we should wear seat belts and not drive too quickly around curves.

Maybe if we understood math a little better, we’d realize the number e, yes, there is a number e, used in a variety of places, including continuously compounding interest.

$1 at 8% for nine years, compounded each year $1(1+.08)^9=$1.99; we make interest on interest.

Compound twice a year, it is (1+(.08/2))^18 or1.04^18= $2.025.

We can compound daily (1+(.04/365))^365*18=$2.0543.

We can continuously compound, infinitely, and 1+(.08/n)^nt=e^(.08t)=e^(0.64)=$2.0544; notice where the 0.08 goes.

This infinitely number of compounding times sadly doesn’t give us infinite riches but approaches a limit given by the number e, the exponential.  Interestingly, it is far easier to calculate continuous compounding than it is daily compounding.

Note the close resonance of the product (multiplication) of the interest rate in per cent times the number of years it takes to double money.  That product is 72. In other words, 8 per cent interest  means that debt, money, population will double in 9 years, 72/8.  At 24% credit card interest, debt doubles in 72/24=3 years.  One student once asked me why we learned the formula for compound interest.  When I explained to him how with punching 5 keys on a calculator, he could find that the tripling time of money at 8% interest was just under 14 years, he was stunned.  Divide 110 by the interest rate.

Yes, beautiful, essential, interesting numbers.  Enjoy the eclipse.  Enjoy the knowledge that three cycles are coming together in August the way they did on 20 July 1963, 54 years and 32 days from when I saw this same eclipse family, canoeing in Canada’s Algonquin Park, where I saw the reflection of the solar crescent in Dickson Lake.

Thrice 18 years 10.3 days.



March 13, 2016

It’s easy to get disoriented finding one’s way around the night sky from the Southern Hemisphere.  I’ve been south of the equator 11 times, each time having to relearn the southern night sky.  From our ship in the Java Sea, 4 degrees south of the Equator, almost all the northern hemisphere constellations were visible, but they appeared upside down, although my Down Under friends would disagree.

My wife and I had done a lot of laps walking around the deck during this cruise, never using the elevators.  We were piling up steps, number of feet climbed, in a losing effort to burn off the calories it was so easy to consume on board.  At least we eschewed alcohol, saving both money and calories.

On one evening walk on the third deck, we stopped to look at some of the stars, despite the bright lights aft.  My wife spotted Orion, high overhead, and from there I was able to work my way around familiar stars in both the northern and southern celestial hemispheres.  From the Equator, theoretically the entire sky is visible, although near the horizon faint stars disappear, because we look through many thicknesses of the Earth’s atmosphere to the horizon.  Go outside on a dark night sometime and notice how much brighter a star appears overhead compared to when it was on the horizon.

We did see a bright star to the south, but I couldn’t identify it, needing a darker sky.  The next night, we went looking for a better spot.  The first place we tried was the bow, but some ship workers told us that was off limits.  We weren’t convinced, however, because we had been there in daylight without problems, so we waited until they were gone and snuck back, but found the area dark and full of obstructions.  Chastened, we beat it back to safety and planned another assault to view the dark sky.  My wife suggested seven decks higher, where we finally found an open deck with a small platform that allowed us a view over a plexiglass rail.  The sky was beautiful, the ambient light minimal but enough to keep us from tripping over a bollard or a deck chair.

Now I could see some neat stuff.  Leaving Orion behind, I pointed out the False Cross and then the true Southern Cross, low in the east.  I was speaking softly, when a man approached, asking if he could join us.  We helped him up, since the platform held four or five.  He was either an astrophysicist from Vancouver or was interested in astrophysics, I wasn’t really sure, but he definitely wanted to learn the night sky.

Now I was in my element.  Night sky, interested person, chance to teach, to talk about what the stuff meant, along with what I didn’t know, which is a lot.

I started with Orion:  On the Equator, Orion is a bit hard on the neck, but wow, even the sword was bright, and the Milky Way’s running through Orion and Monoceros was fabulous, although I omitted mentioning the name of the latter.  Keep things simple.  I took us around the stars of the Winter/Summer Hexagon/Heptagon, depending whether one counts Castor and Pollux as one or two.  Following Orion’s belt to the south, I began with Sirius, brightest star in the night sky and closest night star visible to the unaided eye; then Rigel; Aldebaran; and Procyon; P for the next star, Pollux; then Castor; C for the next star, Capella; then back to Sirius.  Red Betelgeuse was in the middle and at the opposite end of Orion from Rigel.  The astrophysics guy was able to appreciate the colors of Betelgeuse, orange Aldebaran and slightly orange Pollux.  He was having fun, I was having a blast. My wife found the Pleiades, one of her favorites, and she was contibuting, too.  This was great.  I mentioned the Hyades Cluster around Aldebaran, about a third the distance of the Pleiades.

From Sirius, we looked down to Canopus, the second brightest star, just visible from southern Arizona in the winter, but really bright here on the Equator.  The astrophysics guy loved it.  He had once been to a star party in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, and was starting to remember a few things. I then took him further south in the sky, to alpha-Centauri and the Southern Cross.  This was new to him, and he was thrilled, saying he wished his wife were up with us.

By now, I was fully dark adapted, and I remembered in March, the Magellanic Clouds are visible, and pointed them out a little south of where we had been looking.  This was amazing, reminding me of the writer Peter Leschak’s words:  “You don’t see this stuff every day.  But you do see it every night, under a clear, dark sky.”  Or something like that.

Not detecting boredom, and not being told by my wife I had said enough, I kept going. I pointed out the three stars of Orion’s belt, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, from left to right in the northern hemisphere, and I was totally confused what to call them overhead, laughing.  OK, Mintaka was about overhead, lying on the celestial equator, the projection of our equator on the night sky.  Orion is great.  Want to learn the night sky?  Find Orion, and you can learn to name about 18 stars in a hurry:  Betelgeuse and Bellatrix are at the top, in the Northern Hemisphere, Saiph and Rigel on the bottom.  But top and bottom are different on the equator—different degrees of neck straining.  Betelgeuse is definitely red and the belt goes directly overhead.  At least where we were.  Your results may vary.

So, seven stars in Orion; near Sirius was Murzim to the west; near Procyon, Gomeisa shone to the left or west; near Castor and Pollux was Alhena near Betelgeuse.  I think that’s 16.  Canopus and Alpha-Centauri make 18.  The astrophysicist mentioned that everything we were looking at was part of the Milky Way.  He was doing great.  I pointed to the region where the open star clusters M41,near Sirius, M35 near Alhena were.  We were rolling now.  I talked about the “kids,” three dim stars near Capella, one of which fades in an eclipse every 27 years, although I was damned if I could remember which Greek letter it was (it’s epsilon). The last eclipse was 2010.  I doubt I will see it eclipsed again, but I’ve seen two, and they were fascinating.  I mentioned I was formerly a variable star observer, measuring the light of pulsating intrinsic variables and eclipsing binaries.  Astronomy is such a huge field.

The astrophysicist mentioned that Andromeda was the furthest we could see with the unaided eye and continued that Hubble was one who realized that Andromeda might be beyond our galaxy.  Great.  He was teaching.  That got me talking about the Cepheid variables, whose brightness is a function of their cycle, something that allowed us to determine Andromeda’s distance.  Thank you, Henrietta Leavitt, one of the forgotten—not by me—women of astronomy, who discovered that.*  The astrophysics guy said he was going to try to bring his wife top side.

At that point, my wife was going to try to bring me back to Earth, or at least the lowest deck, where our room was.  Fair enough.

I’ll remember a lot from the cruise, but that night with the astrophysics guy was better than a lot of tours we took.

I bet he’d say the same thing.




*Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921) proposed the periodicity-luminosity ratio for Cepheid variables in the Magellanic Clouds, discovering that the brighter ones had a longer periodicity.  Assuming correctly that they were all similar distances from the Earth, it was then possible to determine the distances of remote objects.  Hubble used it to determine the distance Andromeda Galaxy was far further from the Earth than we could have imagined, that the universe was expanding,  huge leaps in astronomical knowledge.


March 13, 2016


My wife and I are dedicated eclipse chasers.  Yes, we are crazy folks (we prefer the adjective “interesting”) who go to the ends of the Earth and take a chance on the weather in order to see the Moon completely cover the Sun, one of my top four sights in nature.  By the ends of the Earth, I mean both poles, Pitcairn Island, all 7 continents, Siberia in March, and five times in Africa.

I have been fortunate enough to have been in many beautiful wilderness areas, and the other top three were a face-to-face encounter with a wolf on Isle Royale, nobody within ten trail miles of me; the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes; and the closeness I’ve been to grizzlies in Alaska.


Bears at Brooks Falls, Katmai

On our last chase, hoping to see my sixteenth total eclipse, we flew to Singapore, boarded the MS Volendam and sailed across the equator (my finally earning at long last “shellback” status) to Indonesia, first south, later east and finally northbound for the eclipse 8 days later.

I wasn’t particularly eager to take the trip. Long flights are difficult, I don’t sleep well, and I’m not a great people person, so cruises and Asia aren’t places I like to be.  Still, I will do what it takes to see an eclipse.  We took a tour in Jakarta, so I trod on the soil of my fiftieth country.  I’ve seen a lot of the Third World, only a few times actually immersing myself in it helping people, time measured in days, not months or years, and it is difficult to see how most of the people in the world live.

We often find special moments in unexpected places.  On Jakarta’s tour, I saw the usual monuments and museums that I guess I should see, although frankly I am not a monument or a museum person.  Maybe I should be, but I don’t judge harshly those who don’t share my love for the wilderness.  In Probblingo, we went into town for the sole reason to find a mall to buy a couple of cotton Indonesian shirts like the ones we had seen in Jakarta.  We found the mall, got the shirts, explored the place, and enjoyed ourselves.  The tour was on our own, lasted two hours, and we have fond memories of the place.



National Monument in Jakarta



Red Church in Probblingo

Several days later, heading north towards the eclipse track, we stopped in Makassar, a city on the southwest corner of the island of Sulawesi, across the strait from Borneo.  This was a place I never expected to see, a comment I make on every eclipse trip.  We saw Fort Rotterdam, avoided getting run over in traffic, and later returned aboard the ship, a little nervous about next day’s eclipse.


Fort Rotterdam in Makassar

Eclipse chasing requires one to be at exactly the right place at the exactly right time, have decent skies, clear where the Sun happens to be.  This is a tall order in the tropics, especially during rainy season.  Sometimes, we have had to explain to a tour guide that “exact time” means to the second, not whenever one happens to arrive.  Exact time for eclipses does not mean mañana.  There is no mañana.  It is be there or miss it.  You can’t see it “some other time.”

With that attitude, I can perhaps be forgiven for not being overly polite to those who dawdle going to the eclipse path, thinking that my visiting one more museum or monument is important.  No, seeing the eclipse will make my trip.  If that means I miss a monument, an elephant ride, a temple, or a church, so be it.  My priority is seeing the eclipse.  I’ve heard stories of ships being 2 hours late to the eclipse track, of vehicles breaking down.

Fortunately, we had a good captain, who along with his bridge crew understood our needs.  He steamed a little further west in the Makassar Strait than originally planned, because cloudiness was less there.  It’s not only a matter of rain that may affect eclipses, but those puffy, pretty cumulus clouds become eclipse killers on eclipse day, and we needed to dodge them.

A good eclipse is directly proportional to the amount of sunscreen one uses.

My wife and I were up at 5 to get a place on the 9th deck on the starboard side at 5:10, where twenty people had already arrived.  Stars were visible, Jupiter dotting in and out of view between clouds to the west.  Well, I thought, there is hope, but I couldn’t yet see the sky well.  We didn’t have much equipment, but we still brought up two chairs from the deck below.  The Sun rose just after 6, and the clouds were not great, not bad.  We knew the Sun would be higher during eclipse, and we waited. Others arrived, bringing more deck chairs from below.


People on deck before totality

At first contact, where the Moon takes a small bite out of the Sun, it was partly cloudy.  Eclipses last about two and a half hours, totality in the middle, a little less than 3 minutes for this eclipse, 7 minutes and 32 seconds maximum possible.  After first contact, the Sun often disappeared behind a cloud for a few minutes, which is no problem, unless those minutes are during totality.  As the eclipse progressed, weather prospects improved.  The clouds became fewer and thinner.  The Sun’s projection through the weave of our deck chairs showed a multitude of crescents on the deck below, scores of pinhole cameras.  This is one of our favorite times during every eclipse.


Crescents made by eclipsed Sun’s shining through tiny holes in a deck chair

As the crescent shrank to nearly nothing, I looked behind me to the west.  I was first to call out the arrival of the Moon’s shadow, a huge, dark mass, approaching at 30 miles a minute, the Moon’s orbital speed.  I turned around in time to see the Diamond Ring, the last bit of sunlight, and then beautiful totality, lasting 2 minutes and 45 seconds, over the calm Makassar Strait.  After the second Diamond Ring, the end of totality, I quickly looked down and east, calling out the rapidly disappearing Moon’s shadow, leaving us at a half mile a second.  For some time now, I have regularly watched the disappearance of the Moon’s shadow.  It’s visible for about 5, maybe 10 seconds.  I don’t know anybody who has ever mentioned it in eclipse talks.




Maybe they never looked.  After all, when totality is over, most people leave to celebrate, unfortunately in our instance leaving their chairs on the deck, instead of putting them back where they got them.  That’s kind of rude, even on a cruise ship.

Then a man about my age nudged me.  “Thank you,” he said, with his wife’s standing by him, “for pointing out the shadow’s disappearance.  I saw it, and I had never seen that before.  It was really interesting.”  His wife nodded.


Moon’s shadow’s disappearing.  It is subtle, but the darkness on the horizon is the shadow

All total solar eclipses are special.  Sometimes, what I remember best is not the black disk in the sky covering the Sun, but something else, quite unexpected, like a disappearing shadow.  The man’s comments made my day.  I taught him something, and he was glad.

Later, my wife and I picked up about four dozen chairs left behind and helped the crew return them.  Yes, the crew is there to serve the passengers, but put the chairs back.

It appeases the eclipse gods.


April 2, 2015

I make it a point to know eclipse dates and locations well in advance.  We eclipse chasers do that sort of thing.  I knew about the eclipse in 2015 for at least a decade.  I knew it would likely require a plane to see it, since nearly the entire path was over the North Atlantic and high Arctic.  Only the Faeroe Islands and Svalbard were occupied land masses in the path.

With that in mind, we decided to book an eclipse flight out of Düsseldorf, with  I went with them last year to Uganda.  They know me, and I can book the flight in German.  We decided to tie the tour into a visit to Germany and to see Berlin, which I, as a child of the Cold War, had always wanted to see.  We would also visit Dresden and then return to Düsseldorf, take a side visit to the Köln Church and then take the eclipse flight, before coming home.  Eclipse trips allow one to see well-known places or not so well-known, depending upon the eclipse location.

Eclipses of the Sun must occur at least twice a year.  If the alignment is right, and the Moon is close to us, we see a total eclipse.  If the Moon is further away, but the alignment is right, we see a ring eclipse, with the Moon “inside” the Sun.  With less than perfect alignment, we see a partial eclipse, like we did last October.

Take a flashlight, and turn it on in a dark room.  There is a bright cone of light in the center.  Outside of that, the cone of light is a little dimmer.  Eclipses are the same with darkness.  Be in the center of the shadow of the Moon, and it is dark.  Outside the shadow, it is lighter.   Without going into too many details, there are 40 eclipse families currently occurring every 18 years and 10 1/3 days.  The Saros cycle, the word coined by Edmund Halley, is a corruption of an ancient Babylonian word, which meant about 3600 years.  Ancient people understood the cycle.  About a third of the families generate partial eclipses, another third annular, or ring eclipses, where a small amount of sunlight is visible, and the final third total.  There are 13 total eclipses during this 18 year period.  Each family is born, lives, and dies, with about 70-80 cycles over 1200 to 1500 years. The cycles themselves are a combination of 223 synodic lunar cycles (the familiar “month”), lining up of the Earth-Moon-Sun, 242 cycles, and the Moon’s being close enough to the Earth to cover the Sun, 239 cycles.’

I’m trying not to give too many details, but sometimes my enthusiasm slips out.

It’s a shame that my enthusiasm wasn’t present earlier in my life.  On 20 July 1963, I canoed in Canada and missed a total eclipse, seeing 91% partial from Algonquin Park.  Nearly 7 years later, I missed totality again, by not going to Nova Scotia, saw a 94% partial eclipse.  Almost a decade later, I missed totality during the American-Canadian eclipse of 1979, skiing near Salt Lake City, seeing a 91% partial eclipse.  Perhaps had I been aware of the fact this was the last total eclipse to strike the contiguous states for 38 years, I might have been more eager to drive to Montana to see it.

This most recent eclipse is a member of the same family that last brought the umbra of the Moon’s shadow over on America.  Eighteen years and 10 or 11 1/3 days later (leap year, dateline and midnight considerations) this particular eclipse family repeated, same type of track, in this case the right side of a “U”, either north or south of the prior (this instance north), and 1/3 of the way west around the world.  The American-Canadian eclipse of 1979 became the Siberian eclipse of 1997, the North Atlantic eclipse of 2015, and will become the Siberia- Alaska eclipse in 2033, the last total eclipse of this family.  I did see the Siberia eclipse in 9 March 1997, along with about 60 others, and not too many other people.  The American eclipse on 21 August 2017 will be a repeat of the family I saw in Ontario in 1963.

All of Europe enjoyed some degree of partial eclipse, but partial eclipses are not total.  The concept was lost on me for many years, when I had said “I have seen an eclipse.”  I had, but not a total eclipse.  A woman in Hamburg, Germany, posted on Facebook why she saw a fat crescent and her friend in the Faeroes saw briefly (through clouds) totality.  For eclipses, 99% partial is not total and that 99.9% is also not total.  An individual understands this statement once totality has been seen.  Eclipses are nature’s way of telling us that time and place matter.  I’ve heard many say, “You can see it later,” when no, we can’t see it later.  We place ourselves on the track the day before if possible, and look for good viewing spots.  When the Moon’s shadow no longer covers us, we can’t chase it down again.

The advantage of seeing an eclipse by air is planes can fly above clouds, which cover much eclipse tracks, including the North Sea in March.  Additionally, planes may fly along the eclipse track at a quarter of the Moon’s shadow’s speed, allowing one to see a longer eclipse.

The disadvantage of seeing eclipses from the air are the lack of the ability to see the subtle changes as the Moon covers the Sun, the approach of the shadow, and the last part of the eclipse, although not many care to watch the last part of an eclipse.  My wife and I think it is our personal obligation to nature.

Another problem with seeing an eclipse from the air is that windows get frost.  I’ve seen three from the air, and only over very dry Antarctica, was the window completely frost-free.  In 2008, we had a great deal of ice, from too vigorous cleaning of the window by well-meaning individuals who left water in the window well.  At 11,000 meters elevation, it is cold, and water freezes to the window.  This time, we had smaller amounts, that while not affecting our visual viewing, did affect quality of pictures.  I was able to remove a lot of the artifact, but not all.  Finally, it is difficult for two people to look out an airplane window at the same time.


The latter brings me to viewing an eclipse.  I try to take pictures and shoot video.  But equipment fails, falls out of focus, or is on a moving platform, such as a ship or a turbulent plane.  The most important thing for an eclipse viewer is to see it.  Each eclipse is a little different; each has the same pattern.  Each stays in my mind in some fashion.  I don’t know in what way it will, only that something will strike me as special.

I will always remember the diamond ring with this eclipse, the last bit of sunlight before totality.  As the Moon covers more of the Sun, making it a smaller crescent, eventually the edge of the Moon, not perfectly round, but containing mountains and valleys, allows sunlight to pass only through valleys between the mountains. These are called Bailey’s Beads.  Finally, one valley is left, allowing sunlight to pass through, showing a dark disk with brilliant light.  I will also remember the beautiful gossamer-thin corona, and the large prominence on the Sun, which normally I miss.  I saw Venus, by accident, because I don’t look for planets near the eclipsed Sun.  Venus was impossible to miss.


Crescent Sun, just before the eclipse


Another view of eclipsed Sun.

Eclipsed Sun with Moon's shadow overhead.

Eclipsed Sun with Moon’s shadow overhead.

Most eclipse chasers know how many they have seen.  A few of us know how many seconds we have been under the Moon’s shadow.  One thousand is a milestone.  An hour is a huge milestone.  Another milestone is seeing the same eclipse family twice, which means 18 years and 10 or 11 days later.  To me, one of the nicest milestones is seeing somebody I met on a prior one.   This trip, a German flight, was no exception.  There were several familiar faces, my roommate from the Uganda trip, and people I had seen in 2008 and 2010.  I have gone on several trips where I was certain I would never see anybody I had seen before, only to be pleasantly surprised.  After 24 eclipse trips, this sort of thing happens.  It is nice.

Oh, I am just shy of 45 minutes under the Moon’s shadow.


March 22, 2015

I hadn’t seen Christiaan since the 2010 eclipse, when a few of us got really, really lucky in Patagonia, Argentina.  We had a tour that had chartered a flight to see the eclipse, since July is winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is almost always cloudy at 50 degrees south latitude.  The flight was cancelled, ostensibly for “maintenance issues,” which none of us believed, and we thought we would never successfully see the eclipse from the ground.  Instead, we saw the most spectacular total eclipse I have seen, and I’ve seen fifteen.


Christiaan, along with some others on the trip, befriended me on Facebook.  Like most of my Facebook friends, I didn’t expect to ever meet him, except that he does chase eclipses.  He lives in Amsterdam, and while we were in Germany, before the 2015 eclipse flight, he happened to message me on Facebook, asking whether we were staying at the Sheraton by the Düsseldorf airport.  I was, and he gave me his room number.

Things are things, people are busy, and he was on the other of the two eclipse flights.  I decided I really should call him after the eclipse, our last night there.  I’m not the greatest people person, but I called, and we talked for a while.  It wasn’t clear to me whether he wanted to continue the conversation. In the US, I have long been known when people didn’t want to talk to me.  In Europe, the culture is different.  In any case, I ended the conversation, since his eclipse group was having dinner together, and my wife and I planned to take the train into Düsseldorf and eat at a restaurant we liked when we had arrived ten days earlier.

Later, we decided instead to eat at the airport, a short walk, where we knew a good restaurant.  Mostly by chance, I thought since we would go by the bar in the hotel, on the spur of the moment gave Christiaan a call, asking him if he had a chance to stop by and say hi.  I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do, but it seemed like a good opportunity to at least try. The worst that could happen was we wouldn’t meet.  Ten minutes after we arrived, I saw a tall young man and a young woman appear, guessing correctly, as it turned out it might be Christiaan and his girlfriend.  We had a delightful visit, despite being from different parts of the world, different cultures, and different generations.  We are fellow eclipse chasers.  It would have been easy not to have gone to the effort to call, but I’m glad I did.  I may or may not see Christiaan on another eclipse trip; it is highly unlikely I will see him in Europe again.  But I saw him.  That mattered.



Quite by accident, later that evening, after dinner, I decided to go and use the free wifi the hotel had only in the lobby.  I had posted something on Facebook in German, only to discover a grammar mistake.  I decided I would take the post down altogether.  I should do that more on Facebook.

While at the computer, I heard a conversation about two people, one of whom I know.  His first name is uncommon; I don’t often refer to people by their full names in this blog, so I will call him Stanley.  The man talking was an editor of an astronomy magazine, with whom I have been on at least two eclipse trips and may see in Indonesia for the 2016 eclipse.  He said that Stanley, now in a wheelchair, could be photoshopped into a group picture the other eclipse flight had taken.

Stanley is not a close friend but a man whom I greatly respect.  He lives in Tucson and has chased eclipses at least ten years before I started in 1991.  In 1984, he spoke at the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA) about the 99+% annular eclipse on the East Coast.  He said it had really been worth seeing.  I hadn’t.  He talked about the earlier Java total eclipse, then showed a map of total eclipses that would take place between then and 2002.  “That’s my vacation schedule,” he said, and everybody laughed.  He wasn’t kidding.

Stanley went to eclipses to possibly miss them, standing near the predicted edge to see if he saw it or didn’t.  That is a scientist.  I want to see every second of totality.  In 1987, I was with him at Tucson Mall, when the TAAA had a booth during a fair.  He showed a video of the annular eclipse in China, back when travel to China or videos were both uncommon.  He once climbed one of the Aleutians in pouring rain to try to see totality.  He failed but was philosophical about it.

Stanley is quiet.  For years, I went to a Christmas party given by a fellow amateur who is the opposite.  As I did less astronomical observation, I knew fewer and fewer people.  Stanley always came, and I knew I could talk to him about eclipses as common ground. He had been to St. Helena twice, a remote island group well off southern Africa. I once asked him how many eclipse trips he had been on.  He told me 38, and that was a while back.  Stanley never bragged.  The last time I saw him, he was 79 and looked great.

I don’t know why he is in a wheelchair.  Had I been a different person, I might have walked over and asked the editor about Stanley.  It didn’t seem appropriate.   Stanley might not have known me well; I am not a fixture in the eclipse community.  he is.

The individual hosting the Christmas parties once told me, that my eclipse chasing wasn’t “real astronomy.”  I didn’t argue, for he was one with whom one just never argued.  I think looking up at the night sky is astronomy, and seeing the Sun disappear in daylight qualifies as well.  I’ve published three articles about how astronomy has affected my life, one in Astronomy; two were in Sky and Telescope.

Perhaps I’m not a real astronomer.  But I’ve traveled all over the world chasing the Moon’s shadow.  Stanley is one of my heroes, a good man.  I’m sorry he is in a wheelchair and hope that in his early 80s now, it is temporary.  The odds don’t favor that. Nevertheless, he saw the 2015 eclipse.  I hoped he loved it.  I hope others got to hear some of his wisdom that he imparted to me.  I’m a better person for knowing him.

I’m glad that night I went to the hotel lobby twice.

Mostly by chance.


March 5, 2014

13 February 1988, West Anklam Road, Tucson, 6 a.m. I’m standing with an ICU nurse looking at Saturn and Uranus in conjunction, the same longitude in the sky, near the hospital where we worked.  “They’re in Sagittarius,” I pointed to the “handle of the teapot,” noting the bright star Nunki, guide star for the Voyager 2 spacecraft, to pass near Neptune a year later.

“No,” J. replied. “They’re in Capricorn (sic).”

“No, there are the two, and they are in the constellation Sagittarius.”

“But astrologically, they are in Capricorn (sic).” (It’s “Capricornus”)

“Well,” I sighed, “you can say they are in the Big Dipper, if you want.”  This was the last conjunction I would see of the two planets, unless I live to 83.

The Dartmouth Alumni Magazine recently profiled a man, a professional astrologer.  The astrologer  stated  his beliefs; the first thing I do in these “last page” articles is to check the “fine print.”  He left Dartmouth before completing his studies; no reason was given.  That colored my opinion.  Yes, Robert Frost left Dartmouth without finishing, but to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen in his 1988 debate with Dan Quayle, “You’re no Robert Frost.”

7  December 1972 shot of the Earth.

I’ve posted the above picture before, and it’s worth re-posting.

What month is this?

What constellation is the Sun in?

What are constellations, anyway?

What can you learn from this picture?

Notice Antarctica illuminated by the Sun, so it must be near the Austral summer solstice.    The actual date was 7 December.  The Sun is in the constellation Ophiuchus on this date, meaning that if one could see the Sun from space, where the light isn’t scattered by air molecules, it would appear against the background stars in that constellation, an arbitrary grouping of stars with arbitrary boundaries, not in Scorpius (the proper spelling) or Sagittarius, the astrological constellation for this date.

Notice the white comma, a major anticyclone, or storm, off the southeastern coast of Africa, and the large clusters of thunderstorms in the southern equatorial region of Africa, consistent with migration of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) this time of year.

What predictions did the astrologer make?  In 1986, Bank of America was going to have problems.  He claimed he knew by looking at the rocks in the foundation; I would have looked at the internal books as a better foundation.  He said that the 50th degree of longitude, “that bisects the Persian Gulf,” would become a major factor in the world, and that the 35th parallel through the southern US would become very important.

Wow. The 51st meridian (or 27th parallel, another bisector, which was omitted) bisects the Persian Gulf better than the 50th.  Given the Gulf’s importance (he didn’t mention the Gulf of Oman and Somalian coastal waters), this prediction is not surprising.  All degrees of latitude in the US may be important; he omitted Kirtland and Edwards AFBs, near 35 N., but important Los Angeles is not.  What does “important” mean?  A chemical explosion, a nuclear weapon, or a great discovery?

50 E. longitude.  This might be considered important in the coming years.

50 E. longitude. This might be considered important in the coming years. This goes through oil-rich Baku, near Dagestan, through Iran, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman,  the Horn of Africa, and Somali waters.

I limit my issues about Astrology to four:  first, my “sign” of Sagittarius is defined by my birthday, not the Sun’s location when I was born. There are fourteen (not 12) constellations through the Sun may “travel.”  While it was in Sagittarius on my birthday 3000 years ago, it is now in Ophiuchus, north of Scorpius (the correct spelling).  I have no classical astrological sign.  Astrologers use celestial longitudes to try to deal with this fact, but they haven’t factored in precession; the Sun passes through 14 constellations during a 26,000 year cycle.  In 1991, $10,000 was offered to anybody’s showing the July 11 eclipse of the Sun against the background stars of then astrological Cancer, not the actual Gemini.  No takers.

Ophiuchus.  Scorpius is in the lower right; the curved red line with 255 on it is the Sun's path, 255 being the number of days after the vernal equinox.

Ophiuchus. Scorpius is in the lower right; the curved red line with 255 on it is the Sun’s path, 255 being the number of days after the vernal equinox.

Second, there is no proof why astrology works.  What happened before 1781, when Uranus was discovered?  How can a planet’s position affect us? It can’t be gravity, because I have more gravitational attraction with my car than I do with Saturn.  Gravitational force decreases with the square of distance.  I would like to know the reason using terms that a layman can understand. I practiced neurology, and it was my job to explain what I knew to people, not hide it to make money.

Third, lines of latitude and longitude are dimensionless, so there must be some “wiggle room,” or error.  How much?  Why?  We are 95% confident global warming is occurring.  If we ran 100 simulations, 95 of them would not contain zero.  Where is astrological uncertainty, required for any prediction?

Just after 3rd contact or totality, Uganda, 3 November 2013. We had to be in a path 18 km wide to view 19 seconds of totality.  This path was known decades in advance, because we understand orbital mechanics.

Just after 3rd contact or totality, Uganda, 3 November 2013. We had to be in a path 18 km wide to view 19 seconds of totality. This path was known decades in advance, because we understand orbital mechanics.

Finally, too many never learn the actual sky, far more beautiful and fascinating.  I can tell time, date, and latitude by looking at the sky, and I can teach it.  Why seasons? The poles point in the same direction as the Earth’s orbits the Sun; sometimes they point towards the Sun (summer, more direct Sun); sometimes they point away (winter, less direct Sun).  I can predict full Moons and eclipses of the Sun and Moon; so can anybody, should they wish to learn.  It is science, not vague words.  Science has allowed me to see 20 central eclipses from all over the world.

Contrast that to my horoscope today, “You may want to let go of plans and let your spontaneous personality take over.”   “May”?  Why?  What is “spontaneous personality”?  All “plans” or some?

I once showed a minister the sky.  I scuffed my feet in the desert that night, explaining where the silicon in the sand came from–a star.  The iron in our blood came from a large star that accumulated iron in its core, which cannot be fused.  The star first implodes, gravity taking over when fusion ceases.  The ensuing explosion, equal to the Sun’s energy output during its whole existence, produces heavier elements.  The gold in a ring came from a star.  The magnesium in the pyrrole ring of chlorophyll came from a star, the carbon, nitrogen and sulfur in our bodies came from a star. The calcium in our skull came from a star.

Now, if the contents of that skull could appreciate this beauty, direct efforts towards improving the world, rather than making a buck through magical thinking, our life would be improved on this once-part-of-a-star world.


December 16, 2013

On an autumn day 15 years ago in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I sat in a Math Stats graduate class.  The teacher was discussing some function and came to the part where he said, “Oh, now we have to get the integral of log x.  I can’t remember what that is.”

With that question, my stats teacher had just opened a life changing door that neither he nor I knew existed.  The class, mostly in their 20s and early 30s, was silent.  I was the oldest person in the room, even having four years on the professor.  I quietly said,

“It’s xlog x – x”.  I continued, “you integrate it by parts.”  My classmates and professor looked at me as if Einstein had been reincarnated.

The class moved on to other subjects that day, about which I knew nothing:  moments of functions, and other aspects of beginning graduate level statistics.  I would have many difficulties in the coming 20 months, but that day changed my life, and my teacher’s, too.

He later became my advisor, and said when I left NMSU that it had been a long time since he had enjoyed a graduate student as much as he had enjoyed working with me.  I had a very difficult two years at New Mexico State, but I did pass with a 3.89.  I took graduate level statistics starting at age 49, and I got through the program in two years.  The last semester wasn’t pretty, but I finished it.  My advisor helped me finish in two years, when many stayed longer to finish their thesis.  I was grateful to him for that.

My advisor told me that the day I knew the integral of log x was the day he realized I was for real.  He did not give out praise often.  When I determined the mean and variance for a godawful hypergeometric function using a technique that I was frankly quite surprised I figured out, I showed it to him.  He agreed, and as I walked out the door, called to me: “That was a slick piece of work.”  I remember that as one of the top 5 compliments I got in grad school.

Chance occurrences one might say.  Perhaps.  I have, however  been amazed at how often supposedly “chance occurrences” appear.  I was volunteering in a calculus class when limits of the function: y= x squared, was discussed, when x was 0.999999.  The teacher said, “I need a calculator for that,.   From the back, I stated “no you don’t,” and gave the answer, exactly, to 12 decimal places.  The year before, I had seen that problem, wondered if there were a pattern to squaring numbers that were all 9, found it, and happened to be in the class the following year.

Or the day in a quality improvement course in Salt Lake City, where the discussion centered upon diseases common in “the three Scandinavian countries.”  Without thinking, a major flaw I have, I blurted out, “There are four.”  The teacher looked at me and said, “Name them.”  There was no problem with Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, I suddenly realized Finland wasn’t one, and somewhere from the recesses of my brain, I dredged up “Iceland.”

Why?  Am I unusually intelligent?  No, I am not.  Plenty of people are a lot smarter at many things than I, including math.  What I have learned over the years are two fundamental facts about learning:

  1. If you learn something really, really well, you will eventually forget it if you do not use it.  But if you ever need it again in the future, with a little reading, it will come back quickly.  It doesn’t matter if it is math or playing the piano.  I  had to relearn calculus after 30 years of never seeing a derivative or an integral.  One day, I happened to see the integral of log x, and for whatever reason, it stayed with me.
  1. Know your learning style, which is how you learn best.  Do NOT let teachers tell you,”You don’t have to write this down,” if you feel you should.  Write it down.  Do not let people say that we learn like children or “adult learning theory says…..”  We are not children, and adults have different learning styles, too.  Mine is very different from most adults, and I have struggled a good share of life until I understood what my learning style was.

I am a slow processor.   When a financial advisor explains a trust, a company’s prospectus, or a host of other issues, I cannot understand what they are saying.  I need time.  I understand numbers quickly; finance is a different matter.  I was also an average medical student in gross anatomy.

Being a slow processor, however, comes with a big, big advantage.  Once I learn something well, I keep it forever.  The first time I knew that was in my clinical rotation in surgery when somebody asked me where the nerve that eventually caused tearing left the skull.  “The hiatus of the facial canal,” I stated, and the expression on the surgeon’s face was priceless.  Nobody had answered that question right the whole year.  In anatomy, I was average; the following year, I had the same knowledge I had before, but the fast learners had forgotten it faster.  Both groups have advantages and disadvantages.  It isn’t only fast or slow processing, either.  It is a matter of vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell–our senses–that help us learn, too.  Some are primarily one, other a combination.  It is useful to know what works for oneself; no, it is more than just useful.  It is essential.\

Education is never wasted, said Moira Gunn, when she was once told that a woman engineer from Purdue should not host a radio show about technology and science.  Today, her “Technation” show is arguably the best show-podcast for science information.  She knew how to interview people, and her life took a direction I don’t think she ever dreamed it would.

Jay Anderson was a Winnipeg meteorologist whose interest in solar eclipses and weather were melded into a climatology page for very solar eclipse.  Every “chaser,” and the number is increasing, knows who he is.  His page is free; the information astoundingly good.  He never would have believed he would be a household name in the eclipse chasing community.  I will be doing ground views of the eclipse path in Oregon the next three years, before the 2017 eclipse. I never thought I would chase solar eclipses; now I am helping a little with the climatology for the next one to cross North America.

Integral of log x? Something odd that you learned that you think is worthless?  Perhaps. Maybe, however, it will be life changing.  Keep your mind open to opportunities.  You can sometimes log a few more than you thought.