Thursday, February 21, 2008

Drunken Astronomy

Yesterday was my birthday but I didn’t make a big deal out of it. We had an evening full of the detritus of suburban living lined up but they all got canceled when a few snow flakes showed up and sent school officials scurrying for cover. Instead we ordered pizza, bought an ice cream cake and invited another family over.

After two glasses of wine and five shots of amaretto (it would have been rude not to drink my birthday presents), we were reminded that there was a lunar eclipse. Just after the peak, I went out with my camera and decided to take a few shots with my new camera. Here was the first attempt:

Eschewing any tripod, I decided to instead use a handy lamppost to steady myself. This picture which has a star or planet or something on either side of the moon is much better:

And this one, brightened a little with photoshop magic, is the best of the bunch:

Edwin Hubble is spinning in his grave at my ineptness and the fine folks at NASA have no fear of me working their turf. The only constellation I can identify is Orion’s Belt and other than the three stars that make it up, I have no idea where the rest of Orion is.

Over the years I have been suckered into either getting up very early or staying up too late to see some vague phenomenon that is usually underwhelming. That includes comets, meteor showers, lunar eclipses, and various planetary syzygies.

When I had a dog to walk late at night and in the pre-dawn morning, the planetary alignments were the most interesting because they usually lasted for days or weeks and I could see the minor shifts over time. And the planets are about the only astronomical objects that can be reliably seen through the eastern seaboard light pollution.

The only time I have been genuinely impressed was in the mid-80s when a true solar eclipse hit Atlanta. I was working a co-op job and all my fellow students had built little science fair viewing boxes or borrowed welding helmets from the shop. The sky briefly got late twilight dark and all the birds stopped chirping.

The ancient people were much more in tune with the rhythms of the night. Predicting astronomical events was a ticket to power. But in our modern world star gazing is just another eccentric geeky hobby along the lines of trainspotting or Civil War re-enacting. Anyone that takes it seriously is viewed as just a little out of kilter. Much like my drunken astronomical snapshots.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: What have you been impressed by in the sky?


Read/Think/Live said...

Happy Birthday, yello, and to the missus, too.

The most impressive thing I have seen in the night sky would probably be the meteor showers in the Rockies, but I prefer the daytime sky--Florida has great clouds and blue sky and sunshine. I never stop appreciating the view. Maybe the most impressed I ever was by a sky was soon after I moved to Key West, the first time I ever saw a double rainbow all the way across the sky. It seemed like a message from God (checking my Bible--oh, hey, it is a message from God, what do you know.)

trusty getto said...

I once saw an enormous meteor cross the sky over the course of about 30 seconds. That was spectacular.

Last night, the kids asked to be woken up for the full eclipse. so, at about 10:15, Meredith and I went up. Neither of the boys would wake up. Hannah finally got up and peeked at it for a second, and then went back to sleep. Esme got up, wanted to be picked up, and fell back asleep on Meredith's shoulder w/o seeing the eclipse.

They were all cute as could be!

TBG said...

When the comet Hale-Bopp first appeared in the sky we went out in the neighborhood looking for the best place to see it. We stood up the hill a bit, gazing from a neighbor's yard.

The next night, my then 3-year-old daughter said she saw Hale-Bopp while standing and looking out the front storm door. "Cute," I thought. "She thinks she sees it again."

Well... I haven't doubted her scientific observations since. There it was... right outside the front door. She stood at that door every night and watched "her" comet until it disappeared from our sky.

It was pretty cool looking.

Oh.. hey.. happy birthday!

Anonymous said...

You just aren't trying hard enough. I grew up in LA, which meant not only light pollution out the wazoo but skies that were very far from clear, and I was still able to see more than just the planets. Hale-Bopp was pretty darn impressive and I've seen a couple of bolides, but I think the single most impressive thing I've ever seen was when I was about 10. We were out in the desert and there was absolutely no light from anywhere. The entire night sky was full of stars. The Milky Way was clear enough that you could see that it was made up of individual stars and even colors were apparent. It was like a Bonestell painting. Truly awesome.

Stargazing is far from just a geeky hobby and it is certainly on a different level than trainspotting. For every 10 kids who spend their time looking up at the night sky, at least one will become an astronomer and half a dozen more will go into the sciences in some way. Admittedly, 2 or 3 others will become astrologers, new age gurus, ufologists, or philosophy majors, which is something of a downside, but hey, nothing is perfect.

Cedar said...

I saw aurora borealis a couple years ago. I was living in Minneapolis at the time, which is a wonderful city, but the suburbs are very sprawl-tastic. My roommate and I drove two hours, almost to Duluth in order to get away from the light pollution. I suppose we could have been father away, but it still hasn't that clear. But, regardless--quite impressive.

I also saw Mars a couple years ago (2003, I think) when it was supposed to be the closest to the earth it's been an awhile. I wasn't nearly as impressed by that. It was just a tiny red dot.

Mooselet said...

I blogged about my trip to the Charleville Cosmos Centre last year and getting to see various things through their telescopes. I'd go back there in a heartbeat.

One of the regular meteor showers back in 2001 was pretty sweet. I was working nights then and we spent plenty of time in front of windows gazing up at the sky. Haley's Comet back in 1986/87 was a bust, but a few others since were fairly memorable. If I had the time, and money, I'd set up a telescope in the yard.

Oh, and that first picture of yours reminded me of a colon. Just saying...

Mooselet said...

Oh, and a happy birthday to you! Yet another February birthday to add to the list.

Catherine said...

Happy Birthday, and guess what, I found you this WHOLE OTHER WAY! I first discovered you through Dave at Blogography, but then I was surfing along this completely other wave on this whole other beach of the interwebs, stumbled across Ironic Sans, and there you were again! cosmic.

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

Happy Birthday Yello! Sounds like you have a nice night all in all.

Much like Cedar, my best experience was once in Minot, ND of all places. The northern lights were multicolored and phasing in and out for hours. It was quite magical.

Elizabeth said...

Venetie Alaska, about 200 miles north of Fairbanks, is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern lights. We saw them about 3-4 times a week when it was dark. They were green and pink and blue and purple, just amazing. I miss them, we don't get to see them much in rainy Juneau.
And Happy Birthday fellow Pisces, mine is Monday!

yellojkt said...

I would love to see the Northern Lights. A trip to Alaska is one of my "bucket list" must dos.

Anonymous said...

Happy Belated!

One night I was driving to Florida and realized that there was a whole lot of dark to either side of me, so I grabbed an exit with no services, moved maybe a mile off the road and pulled over by a field of some kind. Then I just got out of the car and lay on the hood to look up at the bazillions of stars that I don't usually see.

When I was in college I took an astronomy course, which involved going to the observatory atop one of the school's buildings. Nobody knew it was up there unless you took the course. The roof retracted and we got great views of Saturn that first night. Another night we were able to pick out individual craters on the moon. Despite the work involved, that course was about eleven different kinds of cool.