Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Time in a Bottle

12/31/06 – 1/6/06
by C. Zaitz

I’ve been thinking about time. I celebrated Christmas with my parents in Adams Basin, New York. Adams Basin is a little cross roads, but it has a tiny Post Office, a church, and a Little Red Schoolhouse. It is also recognized as the place where George Washington’s drummer boy was buried. In 1976 I was a little Brownie Girl Scout, marching in the Bicentennial parade, when America celebrated 200 years as a nation. We stopped at the little hill cemetery where the crooked slabs of marble poked out of the ground like broken teeth. People who had lived so long ago were buried there, their names long since erased by rain and wind. I grew up in an old house where the land was rich with buried bottles of different colors and shapes that would turn up every spring after roto-tilling. Every time we’d find a bottle, it was an exciting link to the past and the history of the little burg.

This past year I have learned a lot about time and different ways to think about it. Geology has taught me that time can be read like a mystery novel. Rock and dirt layers write the past in paragraphs of time, with overlapping plots and buried clues, like my bottles. Astronomy often depicts time as an arrow. The point of the arrow is in your brain, and the feathers are at the object whose light you are seeing. Locally, time’s arrow is straight and true, traveling only in one direction, from past to present to future. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is an expression of how we all feel about time- it tends to flow, like heat or energy, from concentrated to spread out, like light leaving the sun.

However, we have found that gravity and speed can change time, as Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity has stated. Traveling at nearly the speed of light can really slow down time for you. So can getting too close to the gravity of a black hole. If you were standing at a distance watching someone “fall in” to a black hole, they would appear to slow down and stop right at the edge, and you’d never actually see them fall in due to the stretching of time. Apparently time can be touched, time can be changed. Time is perceived.

My education courses reminded me that time must be used wisely, as teachers have a lot of work to do in a short period of time. Organization and planning must be the tools of an effective teacher, or an effective person. In this case, time is a commodity, and we are always trying to buy more. Sometimes we all need a mini black hole to slow down time for us.

On a personal note, this year has been one full of changes for me, from job loss to full time school and training, and now I will begin student teaching. I am grateful to those of you who have expressed support for the work I do in astronomy outreach, both by writing and by teaching in the planetarium. It is the one thing I hold on to through all the changes, and if I could keep the warm feelings I get from sharing astronomy in a bottle, I would, but since the only way to really “keep” moments of time is to share them, I will continue to do so as long as I can.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Circle of Stars

12/24/06 – 12/30/06
by C.Zaitz

What a lovely time of year to see the stars. It’s always been said that winter stargazing is the best stargazing of all. The sky is dark right after dinner, and is lazy to get bright again the next morning, giving us the longest nights of the year. With our mild winter so far, it’s not such a task to spend a few minutes looking heaven-ward.

What’s up there to see? Looking south, you’ll see the “wreath” - seven stars that form a ring in the winter sky. Some call it the “winter circle.” It’s so sparkly bright, I like to think of it as a wreath of candles sparkling all night long. Four of these seven stars are in the top ten list of bright stars of all time.

Let’s start with the Bull’s eye. Though it’s only the 13th brightest in the sky, it’s a noticeable star. Aldebaran is the name of the pink-tinged eye of Taurus, the Bull. Since we’re starting our circle with this star, let’s be sure we know which one it is. Use the three stars of Orion’s belt, from east to west, to make an arrow that points up to it. It’s the top star of a V-shape of stars, outlining the face of Taurus. From there, you can look back at Orion’s foot, a bright blue-white star called Rigel, from the Arabic ar-rijl, “the foot.” That’s one hot foot! Rigel is much hotter than our own sun, and the 7th brightest in the sky. Now we are going clockwise around the circle, and the next stop is the most serious one of all. It’s Sirius, the number one brightest star in the whole night sky. Sirius is also nick-named “the dog star” due to its position as the wet, shiny nose of Canis Major, the big dog. Now we are east of Orion, and can look up from Sirius to another bright star in a dog constellation. This time it’s the little dog, Canis Minor. The star’s name is Procyon, which means “before the dog” referring to the fact that Procyon rises slightly before Sirius, the dog star. It’s the 8th brightest star in the sky.

We are halfway around, and the next two stars are the Twins. Castor and Pollux, the twin boys of the god Zeus disguised as a swan, and Leda. The two stars are inseparable, just as the twins were during their life, so the stories go. At the top of the circle is a bright star called Capella. It’s very high up in the sky, and it is the 6th brightest star in the sky. Its name means “she-goat.” It is part of a constellation named “Auriga” which sounds a little like Orion, who is just below him. Auriga is a Charioteer, but he is holding baby goats in his arms, known as “the kids.” They are a cute little triangle of faint stars near Capella, who must then be the Momma goat.

And then there’s the famous star Betelgeuse, though it lies more toward the middle of the circle. It is the 10th brightest star in the sky. As the shoulder (or more literally, “armpit”) of Orion, it shouldn’t be forgotten in our winter stargazing.

I hope you enjoy the embracing wreath of winter stars, as you enjoy the embraces of family and friends this holiday. Joy and peace to you all!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Here's a website with a good depiction of the Winter Circle.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Light of the World

12/17/06 – 12/23/06
by C. Zaitz

I’ll admit it right now, I think I’m in the throes of SAD, the seasonal affect disorder, or at the very least, I’m pining after sunlight. Usually I love to see all the lights and decorations at this time of year. I have strings of “stars” hanging in my porch, twinkling on and off, and my neighbors have decorated with strings and strings of colored lights, wicker light-covered deer that appear to graze, and those blow-up Santas and snow-globe scenes. Perhaps I’ve grown cynical, but sometimes it all seems like too much.

Light can be good, but too much of anything can be bad. We live in a place where bigger seems to be better, where we want more of everything. I have a neighbor who has pretty much covered every square inch of her front yard with some glowing bit of plastic or twinkling light. Sure, it makes your mouth gape, but a little of the surprise and wonder is tinged with horror, as we remember the energy dials clicking and our hard earned money flying right up to the sky. So this year, I’m wondering if we can all spend a moment or two thinking about the ways we can avoid wasting resources. At the risk of sounding like Scrooge crossed with the Grinch, I wish we could tone down the outer displays and work on our inner lights, spreading around cheer and goodwill in a more personal way.

That’s a tall order, especially for someone like me who is pining for cheer and light. But think of the benefits of being able to walk out on your front porch with your kids and point to the Pleiades, that beautiful little cluster of stars that hangs on the edge of visibility in our light polluted skies. Or to be able to see Polaris, the North Star, and talk about who might be standing under the North Star at this time of year, working hard for all the good little girls and boys. Polaris is not a very bright star, and can be washed out by our street lights. It is the end star of the Little Dipper, but most of the stars of the Little Dipper are also washed out by light pollution.

I’m not suggesting we turn off all our lights; that would be sad. But perhaps we can resist the urge to “outdo” our neighbors and find other ways to show our Christmas spirit. Here’s something you can share with your neighbors as you are coming in from your long days of working, shopping, and surviving. See if you can find Orion’s belt in the sky, use a finger to draw a line up from the lowest star, straight across the three stars and beyond, until you find another bright star in a V-shaped group. This star is named Aldebaran. It’s the eye of Taurus, the Bull. On Taurus’ back ride the Pleiades (usually pronounced PLEE-a-dees), the little cluster of stars I mentioned. If you have a pair of binoculars, take the time to look through them. I predict you will be delighted. They are prettier than any diamonds in the jewelry store, and they have a lot of history and mythology associated with them. Sharing that with your family can be priceless!

I wish you all a very merry and cheery holiday season, with or without lights, but mostly I wish you peace and happiness.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Elusive Green Stars

12/10/06 – 12/16/06
by C. Zaitz

Stars come in different colors. We’ve all heard about “red giants” and “white dwarfs”, blue hot stars and orange cool stars. But what about green stars? Where are all the green stars? Our streets and houses are lit up this time of year with lights of red, blue, purple, green, orange and yellow. The stars come in those colors too, all but green. So what’s wrong with green stars?

Green is a great color. It's my mom’s favorite color, so I usually buy her clothes with green in them to make her happy. Green is the color of life, of plants and trees. Grass bleeds green when you cut it, and to me the color even "smells" like freshly cut grass. Green is the color of ”go” and avocados, girl scouts and money. Green is great. But not in stars. Our sun radiates energy mostly in the green part of the spectrum, so technically it would be a green star, if stars could look green. But they can’t. Why not?

Remember Roy G. Biv? Scientists have done away with color indigo for the most part, so it could be shortened to Roy Gbv, but that’s not as memorable, and hard to pronounce. Roy is the red end of the spectrum, and Biv is the blue end. Green is right in the middle of the light spectrum, and that is the problem. We can easily see when a star’s energy peaks in the red end of the spectrum. Most of the light we can see is reddish, so these cooler stars often appear red, even to the naked eye. The star Betelgeuse in the right shoulder of Orion is a classic red giant star. Very hot stars can peak in the blue end of the spectrum, giving them a bluish-white cast. The star diagonal from Betelgeuse in Orion’s left foot is called Rigel, and it is a very large, hot, bluish star. When you compare the tint of these two stars in the sky, it’s pretty easy to see the difference. However, since green is smack dab in the middle of the spectrum, when a star sends out most of its radiation in that wavelength, it is also sending out almost as much in the adjacent wavelengths. So all the colors- the reds, greens and blues- all mix together and make white. If we looked at our sun from above the atmosphere it would look white. In the sky it often appears yellow, or even red near the horizon. This is not because the sun has changed color. It is because the air is scattering blue light to make the sky blue, and the color that’s left when you take light blue out of white is yellow. Later on, as the light from the sun has to pass through a lot of atmosphere at sunset, most of the blue light has been scattered out of the sunlight, and only the long reddish wavelengths are left, giving us really rich sunsets.

If you want to see pretty Betelgeuse and bright Rigel, wait a little while after sunset, and you will see the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt. They are, from east to west, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. Betelgeuse is above Alnitak, and Rigel is below Mintaka. All three stars in the belt are white-blue stars, very hot and very big. You can look for a green star among the thousands up there, but unless you’re wearing green-tinted glasses, you won’t find one!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.