Wednesday, August 30, 2006

All in the Family

9/5/06 – 9/11/06
by C. Zaitz

By now the news has been out and talked about, maybe to death. “Poor Pluto,” people are saying, if they aren’t saying, “I haven’t thought Pluto was a planet for years!” or “Who cares?” I had an emotional reaction to the news as well, though mine took place well after everyone else’s due to being incommunicado for a week. The news hit me hard emotionally, but as usual, my skepticism (cynicism) took over. I’ve lost things before. But a whole planet?

People are sad, mad, or glad. Some don’t care, and a few haven’t even heard yet. Most of us will go our whole lives never seeing Pluto. Who has even thought much about it after third grade? No one even knew it existed until 1930. There are people alive who were born when there were only eight planets in the known solar system. Think how exciting it must have been to read in the paper that a new planet had been discovered!

It’s a sad contrast to reading that an elite group of folks decided that it wasn’t a planet after all, at least not a grown up planet. Dwarf planet sounds diminutive, and rightly so. Pluto surely could never compete with a Venus or a Uranus as far as size, but it does have three moons, or so we think. Yeah, its orbit is wacky, and yes, it’s most likely closely related to other objects being discovered as part of a distant “band” called the Trans-Neptunian objects. The other “dwarf planets” recently discovered also fall into this category. All this is true, and the whole point of trying to classify things was to get a better definition of a planet. I don’t know if this has been accomplished, but regardless, I can’t help thinking that there should have been some nod to the emotional side of science. Because there is one; I’m convinced of it, as cynical as I can be at times.

Why else would folks get so upset about an object that has absolutely no impact on their lives whatsoever, at least gravitationally? Astrologers, for one, refuse to give up Pluto, since it lends such a dark and interesting presence to their readings! But why do we feel like something was taken away from us by Pluto not being called a planet anymore? Nothing has really changed. Pluto hasn’t shrunk since before the vote, and all the other objects we haven’t yet discovered are still going about their business of orbiting, just like the earth. They don’t change when we discover them, but we do. I was enjoying our growing family. I was even ready to call Ceres, that tiny little asteroid, a planet if it meant adding to the family. I strongly disagree that the general public can’t handle having more planets, that it’s too confusing. I don’t get “confused” when more species of plants or animals are discovered, do you? I was psyched that Ceres and Charon were topics of conversation. It felt like growth, like learning. We seem to attach more importance to things when they are part of our circle, our family. Humans are tribal at heart, and Pluto was part of our tribe.

Well, I don’t know if any of this helps, but I can’t ignore it, and I don’t have any answers about how to cheer up disappointed third graders, but I can say that I’m still glad it was all in the news and is still talked about in some circles. We’re all learning.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Sometimes Bigger is Better

8/29/06 – 9/4/06
by C. Zaitz

For the past weeks I’ve mentioned that Jupiter is the only planet visible in the evening sky, and that you can “catch a glimpse” of it after sunset. However, that’s been rather lame advice. There’s much more fun to be had with a telescope. But telescopes are expensive, so this is a great time of year to find your local amateur astronomy club and attend an evening observing session, or “star party.” We are lucky to have several fine clubs in our area. The clubs are friendly, social, and have access to dark observing spots, plus they always bring big telescopes so you can enjoy the benefits of Aperture!

Aperture is what matters in a telescope. Even though the word means “opening,” it refers to the size of the light gathering mechanism within. In most popular telescopes, it’s a mirror. Originally it was a glass lens, but glass is heavy and fragile, prone to cracking and chipping. Mirrors are still glass, but not solid glass, and only one side has to be ground to perfection, rather than both sides of a lens. You can make mirrors pretty big, and the bigger the mirror, the better the telescope.

Why is bigger better? What are we trying to do with a telescope? Many people think that telescopes “magnify” light, but it might be better to say they “collect” light. Objects in the night sky are very far away. By the time light from a distant object reaches us, it’s pretty faint and spread out. When you collect rain water, you use a big tarp and funnel it into a barrel. The bigger the tarp, the more drops you can collect. With telescopes, the mirror is the tarp. The bigger the mirror, the more photons of light it collects, and the better you can funnel or focus the light to see distant objects. The cool thing is that if you double the aperture on a telescope, you quadruple the amount of light you can gather.

I have just come into some aperture. I have had a 4 inch Astroscan telescope that my parents bought when I was young. Recently they arrived for a week at the cottage bearing gifts. For my husband, a beautiful set of hand made saw horses. For me, an 8 inch LX90 Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. I was flabbergasted. I named it Carl.

Through the Astroscan, Jupiter looked like a big dot with four tiny specks around it. Through Carl, Jupiter looked like Jupiter with its four largest moons dancing around it. It was impressive. We had a family star party: we toasted marshmallows in the campfire and toured the night sky. We saw M13, the globular cluster in Hercules, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, and the Andromeda galaxy, over 2,000,000 light years away. It was very cool.

Sure there are bigger, more expensive telescopes out there, but Carl and I will have lots of fun together touring the dark skies of Port Austin. Everyone’s experience of the night sky is special, no matter if you own a really big ‘scope or just go out in the backyard with binoculars and locate Jupiter in the western sky. The key is to do it, to give yourself and anyone you can drag out with you the experience of remembering how big and beautiful the universe is. But if you can borrow someone’s aperture AND get a cool explanation of what you’re looking at, well, that’s a Star Party!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

“Plutonic” Relationships

8/20/06 – 8/26/06
by C. Zaitz

Well, it’s finally come out. The IAU’s definition of a planet! How exciting- we’ve all been on the edge of our seats waiting and wondering, “so what is a planet, really?” The International Astronomical Union is the world-wide collection of astronomers making up the body that has been the official arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature since 1919. And they don’t take bribes.

Historically and etymologically, the word planet referred to the “wanderers” or the “stars” that moved as the year progressed. As the planets orbit the sun, they appear to move in front of the much more distant stars. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been known since people have looked up and noticed them. However, Uranus wasn’t discovered by telescope until 1781 by Sir William Herschel. Neptune was discovered in 1846 by Johann Galle, and Pluto is a mere baby, discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh.

Thanks to better ground-based and orbiting telescopes, we’ve recently discovered even more members of our solar system. Two more moons of Pluto have been discovered, as well as other small bodies like Sedna and Quaoar with eccentric orbits that can take well over 200 years to orbit the sun, beyond the orbit of Neptune. Pluto, by the way, is substantially smaller than our Moon. Controversy has raged about the definition of a planet, and much of it surrounded Pluto’s status. One of the more vocal opponents of Pluto’s planetary status was Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson of NYC’s Rose Center and Hayden Planetarium. His argument was that Pluto was too small to be a planet, and was most likely another Trans-Neptunian Body, such as those mentioned above. But who wants to deny that Pluto is a planet? It’s on all our placemats, mobiles and coloring books!

Here’s the quote: “The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other Solar System bodies be defined in the following way: 1. A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.” Basically, if it’s round and goes ‘round the sun, it’s a planet. That means you, Mr. Pluto. However, small bodies like Ceres, traditionally called asteroids or minor planets, are technically now planets, but can be called “dwarf planets.” Pluto is now a double planet, joined at the gravitational hip with Charon, but is head of a new subclassification called “Plutons,” namely the Trans-Neptunian objects. 2003 UB313 would fall into the Pluton classification. That would make a grand total of 12 planets in the solar system, pending more discoveries.

As you can see, this is all getting a little more complex than it used to be, but a complex solution was called for. We ran out of names and ways to classify the new discoveries. Dr. Tyson wasn’t mad at Pluto, he was pushing for a clearer, more accurate classification scheme.

The vote on the new scheme takes place in Prague on the 24th of August. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, nary a planet can be found in our August sky. Jupiter can’t escape the oncoming blast of light from the Sun much longer, and soon will be lost in the glare of sunset. Catch a quick view right at evening twilight in the west. Early morning birds may catch a glimpse of Venus in the east, though she is low and her light will be washed away as the sun rises.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

For more from the IAU, try:

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Seeing is Believing

8/13/06 – 8/19/06
by C. Zaitz

Often we are torn between wanting to believe in something and knowing that things may not be just as we wish. I have been accused lately of being a “scientist.” Normally I’d be flattered, but when it’s said with a little grimace and a funny tone of voice, I figure it’s akin to a curse.

I grew up believing in lots of things from Santa to Prince Charming. I believed in Heaven and Hell, and I learned the doctrines and dogma that would get me to one place or the other. But when I realized that there were all sorts of good people who were never exposed to these doctrines and therefore were doomed, I began to reject certain ideas. Soon everything was under my skeptical scrutiny. The more I learned about the universe at large, and more importantly, the universe that each person perceives uniquely, the more I realized that the human brain is so complex and capable of such a gamut of perceptions that we really don’t need to go outside ourselves to find ghosts and myths and gods and devils. However, we prefer to have them externally located, present company included, so we keep looking for demons and angels out in the universe.

I listen with envy when people tell me about their fantastic experiences. I always try to relate, and my mind is always trying to understand and make sense of clues in the stories. I know I take a skeptical approach, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I listen to stories, but I don’t always buy them. I buy that the teller does, however, and it is never my intention to change anyone’s belief. I am guilty of trying to interject some skepticism into their thinking. Thus I get labeled “scientist.” If they only knew; a substantial part of my interest in their ghost stories is wonder. I wonder why no dead relative has made a nocturnal visit. Why haven’t any aliens abducted me? Am I so boring that no one wants to haunt me or capture my DNA for some future planet’s repopulation?

I want to believe. If some big-eyed alien crooked his three fingers at me and gestured me to go aboard his ship, I’d be up the ramp in a New York minute. I want to talk with dead people and see who I was in a past life. But I’m a “scientist” and I am not “open” to these possibilities, apparently. As my crop circle loving husband reminds me, it’s the “open-minded” scientists that make the big break-throughs. However, Kepler had to divest from his superstitious thinking to figure out that the planets don’t circle the sun, they travel in ellipses. Galileo, Newton, and even Einstein all had to distance themselves from dogmatic beliefs to look at the evidence. They key word for me is evidence. Without that, it’s not science. And while evidence can sometimes be subjective, scientific evidence is the best hope we have of ferreting out the mechanics of the universe. Cars don’t run on witchcraft.

Having an open mind is not a bad thing. Neither is checking to see if the latest chain email is a hoax. If something can be explained without resorting to aliens and ghosts, then why blame it on a ghost? I’m asking, ghosts…and I’m free for a haunting tonight!

While I’m waiting, we can all spy Jupiter as it fades into the sunset. The other planets are too near the sun’s light to be seen.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Dancing Stars

8/6/06 - 8/12/06

by C. Zaitz

I did a google search for “arabic stars” recently, and I landed at a bellydance site. Funny, I had just visited my dance teacher, Princess Madiha. She’s a real princess, living here in the Detroit Metropolitan Area. Madiha's mother was of the Awabdi family, originally a royal family in Syria. When Madiha's grandfather, Prince Halil Awabdi, died in a power struggle in the late 1800s, the family lost all their power and wealth. Her mother later married into a farming family. Both she and Madiha are entitled to retain the title of "Princess" in memory of their heritage.

Princess Madiha is one of those special people who enrich your life in ways it takes years to fully appreciate. She not only taught me how to dance, but how to express the beauty in a kind of music that was new to me. She always said she didn’t have blood in her veins, she had music instead. She always tells her students that until the music and movements are part of our vocabulary, we’d always dance with a foreign accent.

I had been researching Arabic star names. The majority of star names are of Arabic origin. This is a little known fact, since it’s assumed that the Greeks named everything in the sky. Greek civilization was intensely interested in constellations and myths. Most of the constellations familiar to us today are of Greek origin, but the Greeks weren’t as interested in individual stars. It was the Arabs, between perhaps the 6th – 12th centuries, that catalogued and named many stars. They used the stars for time keeping, so they needed to know when individual stars rose and set. Western pronunciation has mutilated some of the names. Ibt al-Jauza is the origin of the name Betelgeuse. Its meaning is clearer than its pronunciation. It means the “armpit of the central one.” Betelgeuse marks the right armpit of Orion, the mighty hunter. His foot is marked by a star named Rigel. In Arabic, “ar-rijl” means “the foot.” The names are to the point.

The names of the constellations and planets come from the language of the Romans, Latin. However, the Romans adopted and assimilated the vast pantheon of gods and goddesses, heroes and witches from Greek culture, which in turn had assimilated images and symbols from even older cultures. The ancient Sumerians and Babylonians were the first to write down their ideas, but I am pretty sure that folks made up star pictures even before there was writing. Humans have a strong impulse to recognize patterns in things, and the sky is a good example of this. I’ve always thought it interesting that someone looked up at the teardrop shape of stars in the summer sky and decided that it looked like an Eagle. Or that the teapot shape of Sagittarius reminded the ancients of a centaur, a creature half-horse, half-man. But we look at the constellations with a “modern, foreign accent” and are ignorant of the very heavy and important symbolism the constellations once carried to cultures who relied on the stars to tell them stories of life and of time.

When you look up into the sky, you see the same star patterns that people have seen since there have been people, but the planets are always in motion. Jupiter has been pretty much the same all summer, though he is creeping toward the western sunset as summer heads down to the finish line. The other planets are basking in the Sun’s glow, and won’t be seen for a few more months.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!