Friday, July 28, 2006


As hot as it will get here next week in southeast Michigan, it won't feel like it did this day of the Big Hike. Toasty, crispy warm with a breeze that drew the sweat right out of your skin. We hiked straight up the crumbling clay, down again and then marched along the open dry plain, watching for rattlers and cacti, wondering how long the hike really would be, and wondering if our spare water jugs would still be somewhere south of boiling in the minivans.

They weren't. This was the day Allison and I gave our paper on the K-T boundary. After the Hike. After the seeming endless trek into hot winds, dry grasses and astoundingly desolate landscape.

We managed to recover our wits in the five minute drive to the spot where we could see the K-T boundary. This is the famous edge of life, the time spanning the age of the Dinosaurs, ammonites and about 65% of other species on earth. Above the K-T boundary, there are no dinosaur bones. There are no ammonites, there are no psauropods. All gone.

So what do we find in the K-T boundary? Weird stuff, mixed with a more-than-normal amount of the rare element Iridium. Ir is related to platinum, and it's that rare. Not so rare in outer space, however, and it is most likely that the relatively copious amounts of that element found in the K-T boundary is from outer space. Aliens? No, asteroids. Is that what killed the dinosaurs? A giant wad of stone and dust from outer space? It's possible. Asteroid collisions do nasty things to the earth.

I love the earth!

The little white thing you see in the crumbling clay is a deer's butt.

Look what else the earth looks like!

Here's what it looks like on the inside!

It was nice and cool in the cave. Yes, that's me wearing a flannel shirt. I was glad I brought it to South Dakota in July. Though it was in the high 90s outside, it was in the 50s in Rushmore Cave. I prefer the 90s, but that's just me.

Later on...

I was teaching everyone the "Happy George, Sad George" trick with a dollar bill. Luckily Jay had the whole gamut of bills in his wallet so we continued on in the same manner with Hamilton, Jackson, and Grant...what fun. It was even more fun watching Rachel laugh everytime we did it! Jay even had Ben Franklin! Go Jay- drinks all around!

Not fun: Dr. Murray handing me the van keys bright and early the next morning. First shift? Sweet.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing

7/30/06 – 8/5/06

By C. Zaitz

I looked at the Sun recently. I didn’t just glance, I stared at it. It wasn’t the mellow, orangey red, romantic looking sunset sun, it was the real deal. It was hot, bright, and burning high up in the noontime sky. I of all people should know better, but I couldn’t help myself. I was walking along the beach in Port Austin. There were high stratocirrus clouds covering the sky, but they were silky and see-through. They were transparent enough to create a gorgeous full circle or halo around the sun. I had sunglasses clipped over my regular glasses, but that’s no excuse. It’s just plain bad to look at the sun.

The sun halo was very striking. I looked as long as I could until my eyes started to water. Then I noticed a partial rainbow arc underneath the ring. I brushed the tears away and looked as much as I could. I began to notice people looking at me, and heard a whispered, “what’s she looking at?” I realized there were kids around and that I was setting a very bad example. But I kept looking up near the sun until things started to go pale. I knew I should stop, that I could be irreversibly damaging my eyes, but it was such an unusual sight that I kept sneaking looks.

I heard my mother’s voice in my head. “You’d better protect your eyes from the sun or you’ll end up with cataracts like your grandmother.” Yikes. To ease my conscience, I am now going to rant about protecting your eyes from the sun. I’m going to wallow in a hypocritical pool for one whole paragraph.

Eye damage is cumulative, like skin damage from UV rays. Eye lens cells are never replaced, so each time you expose them to the sun, you’re chipping away at your vision. You can’t see the damaging rays, and they don’t even hurt. When your eyes water, it’s more from the sheer amount of light trying to enter your eyes as your pupils try to shut down quickly. However, the damage really occurs when the ultraviolet rays enter your pupils. You can get cataracts and eye cancer from sun exposure, and it’s never too early to protect kids from the sun’s damage. Don’t be fooled by the kiddie sunglasses, either- make sure they have 100% UV protection. I most likely gave myself a bit of “sun blindness” or photokerititis from looking at or near the sun, and while the white-out effect goes away, the damage remains. I will most likely get cataracts, if I live long enough. No one will cry for me either, since I am admitting freely that I did a bad, bad thing.

That night, I looked up into the post-sun sky and saw three satellites overhead. They were moving at about the same speed like a small armada. Then I saw a meteor slash through the Summer Triangle. I was glad to have recovered my vision. I kicked myself for being so foolhardy with something so precious. I’ve had fairly bad vision my whole life, and you’d think I’d be more careful about protecting what I can. From now on I will. I promise, Mom.

Besides the distant stars, you can still see Jupiter in the evening. He is still King of the Evening, the brightest thing other than the Moon in the southern night sky. Venus can be seen around 5:30 am in the eastern sunrise.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

Friday, July 21, 2006


I have an interview on WHFR, a local station this morning at 10:20-ish AM. You can stream it at I'll be talking about the planetarium and education. I have all sorts of thoughts about it. I hope they come out in English.
Update: you can listen to the podcast on their website.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Somewhere in Time

7/23/06 – 7/29/06

by C. Zaitz

A single glance at the night sky can transport you back in time. The stars are very far away, and their light takes time to travel to us. Even the bright, steady light from Jupiter takes about a half hour to reach us. Starlight can take hundreds or even thousands of years to reach us. I realize that on the scale of our galaxy, which is what we see when we look at the night sky, a human lifetime is pretty short. But my recent week-long foray into geology of the Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming left me feeling downright ephemeral. I was looking at rock formations billions of years old. I use the word “billions” all the time when talking about numbers of stars or distances to far away galaxies. But touching rocks that had been buried for billions of years and are now exposed and blowing away in the wind was something different.

The Earth is old, about 4.5 billion years old. The Badlands aren’t quite that old. About 70 million years ago, the rising Rocky Mountains and Black Hills dusted the lands to the east with sediments and sands. Back then the whole middle part of North America was covered with a warm, shallow sea. The sea grew and shrank over time. Dead sea creatures and dust built up layers of limestone, sandstone and clay sediments. Then, a few million years ago, the area of the Badlands began to rise, exposing 70 million year old sediment layers to the wind and rain. Once the clay and sand layers were dissected by rivers, the erosion process took over and created the incredible display of “badlands” that we see today. Hidden in the soft clays are fossilized bones of creatures that used to roam the Earth, such as the gigantic-headed Triceratops and three-toed horses that were smaller than Great Danes.

The granite intrusions of the Black Hills and Devil’s Tower are even older. They are Pre-Cambrian, at least 570 million years old, most likely over a billion years old. But some of the oldest rocks I touched were in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The pink quartzite found there used to be sand 2 billion years ago. Time, tide and great pressure and heat formed the sand into rock. The rock was hidden for billions of years by layers of sediments, and now has been exposed to the elements through erosion.
Some of the quartzite ended up in the local roads, giving them a particularly curious deep pink color. Both the quartzite and the gas we were combusting in the mini van have been hidden deep in the earth for ages, but now we’re using these resources up in a matter of decades.

I touched some really old rocks, but the Moon showed us the most ancient rocks we can see. I was annoyed at Luna for spilling her light over the night sky all week long. She washed out any chance of seeing a dark star-lit sky. But the 4 billion year old surface of the Moon reminded me of how old things are, and how we are just here briefly, somewhere in a long continuum of time.

The class was taught by Dr. Murray of the University of Michigan at Dearborn. It was an excellent class, and has forever changed the way I look at rocks. And now I don’t feel so old anymore!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Close Knit Stars

7/9/06 – 7/15/06

I love to knit. I learned to knit at Mount Holyoke* College. If you say it fast, it sounds like “Mentally Ill College.” At least that’s what I thought when they called to accept me. I hesitated until I realized who it really was. Mt. Holyoke had a January term, where you could spend a month goofing off, learning to knit, or taking an internship somewhere like Nantucket Island at the Maria* Mitchell Observatory, plotting the light curves of a variable star called DL Cas in the constellation Cassiopeia. I chose the latter. I had already learned to knit watching Moonlighting on Thursday nights with the girls in Ham Hall.

On Nantucket I lived on hot dogs and sauerkraut, shivered along the frozen beaches of a deserted resort island, and studied glass photographic plates of a variable star. The big question I was there to solve: was the “light curve” (its dimming and brightening pattern) of this star changing or remaining stable. Plot after plot, I couldn’t conclude that the light curve was changing. How unsatisfactory. I read my article in the A.A.V.S.O. recently and I didn’t understand half the stuff I wrote. It sounded like a big non-issue.

But it is an issue. Many stars are somewhat variable for a few reasons. Supergiant stars sometimes get brighter and dimmer because they are huge and are shrinking or expanding, trying to survive by “burning” whatever they have left in them after hundreds of millions of years of hydrogen fusion, holding out against the inevitable crushing force of gravity. These are called Cepheid stars, and it has been found that the period of variability of these stars is directly related to how bright they are. Once you find a star’s period, you can figure out its distance by knowing its intrinsic brightness. Thus these stars act as celestial rulers in figuring out distances to objects.

Other stars have different excuses for being variable. Two stars can be knit together with gravity like those mittens held together by a cord. One star might be a medium sized star like the sun, but it might be in orbit with a massive star or a shrunken dwarf star. If it happens that a double star system is at the right angle, we can see the bright star dim for a few hours or even days as the companion star passes in front of it, blocking some of its light.

If you’d like to see a beautiful double star system, find the three stars of the Summer Triangle. The most northwestern star is called Deneb. If you look closely you can trace the shape of a cross, with Deneb at the top. The bottom of the cross is in the middle of the triangle, and is a “star” called Albireo. Through a small telescope, you’ll actually see two stars. One is a brilliant blueish star, and the other actually looks golden. Even though I didn’t go to U of M, I can appreciate the beauty of those two colors next to each other. (Sorry State alums, there are no green stars!) These close knit stars are one of the many beautiful sights to see this summer.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view!

(* - pronounced “Whole-Yoke”, and Maria rhymes with pariah. If the representative had pronounced Mt. Holyoke correctly, I wouldn’t have thought the funny farm was calling for me…)