Friday, December 28, 2007

The Space Club, Part I

12/30/07 – 1/5/08

Have you ever wondered who is in the Space Club? The Space Club is the group of countries that can send things or people up into space. There are different levels of participation in a Space Club. If you have some money, expertise, and motivation, you can send stuff into space. If you have a lot of money, high-end expertise, and a lot of motivation, you can send people into space. Many countries have launched satellites into orbit for purposes of research; scientific, political or military. Sending stuff into space is the first level of space exploration.

The first satellite ever launched was the famous 200 lb. beeping “beachball,” Sputnik. The Soviet Union had launched not only the first orbiting satellite, but the first volley in what would be the increasingly heated space race between our two countries. A month later the Soviets struck again with Sputnik II, a heavier version containing not only a science payload, but Laika, a female dog. United States responded immediately: NASA was created and in 1958, America successfully launched Explorer I. Though the payload was smaller, it helped discover the radiation belts surrounding the earth. It was clear that satellites were the wave of the future. 1960 was a big year for satellite firsts; the first solar probe, first weather satellite, first navigation satellite, and the first communication satellite. That was nearly 50 years ago. What would we do without our satellites today?

From 1957 to 1962, the only members in the Space Club were the US and the USSR. Canada knocked on the door of the Club in 1962, though their Canadian-made Alouette satellite was launched by NASA. In 1967, the UK and Australia also joined in the satellite game, though they also used rockets from the US to get their payloads into space.

Japan entered level one in 1970, launching their first satellite, Osumi. China followed with their satellite Dong Chang Hong I, and a year later Britain launched a satellite from their own rocket. India and Germany launched satellites during the 1970’s but they used either US or USSR-made rockets. In 1980, India launched a satellite from their launch pad, using their own vehicle. The Club was growing. Today, there are seven satellite-launching capable entities: the USSR (now Russia and the Ukraine), The United States, The European Union (formerly France and Britain), Japan, China, India and Israel. North Korea and Iraq have also claimed orbital launches, but they remain unconfirmed. Many other countries are in the process of developing launch vehicles as well.

This list does not include collaboration between countries that make their own satellites and countries that have the vehicles to launch them. The ability to launch vehicles into space is the first step in an expensive and dangerous club, but one that leads to the exploration of space. We’ll explore the next levels of the exclusive Space Club next week.

Meanwhile, enjoy the view of ruddy-faced Mars in the night sky. January is the best month to see Mars as he outshines the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius. Look up high in the sky above and to the east of Orion. You can also watch Venus and Jupiter edging closer to each other in the pre-dawn sky. Look to the East as the sun begins to make its presence known.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Expanding Nothingness Part II

12/9/07 – 12/15/07

In science, knowledge and research usually expand our view of things. But recent discoveries in cosmology have shrunk our known universe by expanding the unknown universe. In the late 80’s and 90’s, it seemed that we were closing in on some important numbers, like how old the universe is, and how fast it is expanding. By figuring out how fast it’s expanding, we could figure out how long ago it had started expanding, thus determining its age. By this method we had narrowed the age of the universe down to somewhere between 10-20 billion years. Ballpark figure or not, it’s still a staggeringly huge number. Now we know it’s most likely 13.7 billion years. Very old. But it’s a number.

Finding the universal expansion rate required knowing how much stuff there was in the universe, which was thrown into doubt by the discovery of dark matter. We tossed the presumed amount of this mysterious, invisible and as of yet undetected dark matter into the equation, and came up with an expansion rate of somewhere between 70-75 km/sec/Mpc. That means that for every 3.2 million light years of distance, galaxies are receding at 75 km/sec. Though the expansion rate is fast, the funny part of the story is that it’s changing, and it’s not slowing down.

Cosmologists say that the universe is expanding faster than ever. But when questioned as to what is expanding, they say it’s space, which contains about 4% stuff we see, and 96% dark energy and dark matter. Dark matter is a mysterious, theoretical and undetected substance that defies our understanding. And what is speeding up the expansion? Dark energy, a mysterious, theoretical and undetected force that defies our understanding. Swell. So instead of expanding our knowledge base, research has introduced two new facets of the universe that are dark, undetected, and have an almost mythical, unknowable nature. The ultimate fate of the universe, once seemingly around the corner of our understanding, recedes into the distance.

So where do these ideas come from? And what does it do to our understanding of the universe? The idea of dark energy was introduced to explain an observation that was otherwise unexplainable. By looking at a certain type of supernovae (the spectacular explosions accompanying the death of a star) astronomers estimated how far away they are. By using these supernovae as standard candles, they found that, instead of slowing down as expected, the expansion of the universe was actually speeding up. It was quite a surprise, and immediately demanded explanations and theories. Thence came dark energy, a force manufactured to explain the quickening of the spreading out of the stuff that was not really known. Once again, our understanding recedes into the distance.

Do we feel the thinness of the ice of knowledge yet? It seems that we are continually breaking through, falling into the dark chasm of the icy water of the unknown. But that’s the exciting part about science: the cold, wet realization that you’ve got to come up with new ideas to explain the questions that arise from observations. Currently, cosmology is a field of science that demands careful, methodical study, but also demands creative, almost crazy thinking. It’s not for the faint of heart. But the rewards are immeasurable.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Expanding Nothingness Part I

11/25 - 12/1
by C. Zaitz

In the late 1980's I learned there was a good possibility that we could know the fate of the Universe. There were three choices, and cosmologists were hard at work narrowing it down to one. We knew the Universe was expanding. In 1929, Edwin Hubble had made that clear by showing us the red shifts of countless galaxies. Red shifts meant they were receding, and the farther away they were, the faster they were going. Hubble deduced this meant that space was expanding.

Armed with this information, cosmologists ran the expansion back like a movie to figure out how it began. That’s where the Big Bang Theory came from. And then they ran it forward to see how it would end. Knowing the fate of the Universe seemed within reach. But the fate of the Universe depended on how much stuff there was in it. If there was a lot of mass, gravity would stop the expansion and bring everything together into a Big Crunch. If there was not enough mass, the Universe would expand forever, growing dark and cold into a Big Freeze. Some thought that one day the Big Bang might come together in a Big Bounce, which was an elegant extension of the Big Crunch, wherein the Universe would oscillate forever.

It turns out that the visible Universe, namely the stars that make up galaxies, has only a small percentage of the mass needed for such a fate. The Universe was too light for a Big Crunch or Bounce, and it looked like we were headed toward the Big Freeze. But this is not a happy ending, so cosmologists looked around the Universe for more mass.

We live in the Milky Way, a spiral galaxy home to hundreds of billions of stars. It looks like a big spinning pinwheel. The Milky Way is spinning so fast that the stars in the arms of the galaxy should have wound up around the center a long time ago, like cotton candy winding around a paper cone. But they didn’t; our Milky Way has spun about 20 times in the past 5 billion years and it still looks as pinwheely as it did as a baby galaxy. This doesn’t make sense with the amount of mass calculated from all the stars. There must be mass that we can’t see. Aha!

Cosmologists call it dark matter, and though it is invisible and nothing like regular matter, it accounts for most of the mass in the Universe. The galaxies are embedded in it, and it shapes spacetime. Its existence has changed how we think about the fate of the Universe. In Greek mythology, the three Fates were Clotho, the spinner of the thread of life, Lachesis who measured the thread of fate, and Atropos, who cut the thread to end a life. As the universe spins out its history, it’s easiest to study the past and present. The thread of information left over from the Big Bang is fairly strong. When we look to Atropos, to the end of the Universe, things have gotten cloudy. The fate of the Universe has become uncertain. As we struggle to understand the nature of dark matter, hopefully the answers will become clearer. But there is another piece to the puzzle, an even more enigmatic discovery: dark energy. To be continued…

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Helium Rush

11/20 - 11/27

by C. Zaitz

I was five years old when Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt took their last steps on the surface of the moon. They paused to place a plaque that read, “Here man completed his first explorations of the Moon, December 1972.” We never imagined that it would be the final exploration of the moon, but 35 years later, we seem completely earth-bound. The twelve brave astronauts who traversed the dust of the lunar maria have no successors as of yet.

Noise is beginning to be made, however, of a new race to the moon. In the late 60’s, the main concern for space travel was political. The Soviet Union had launched the first satellite into space, that famous beeping sphere called Sputnik, and had also beaten us into orbit. The only way to save face in the world domination game was to land men safely on the moon, which we did six times. The threat eventually passed, the cold war ended and the motivation to go to the moon lay sleeping for decades.

New motivation has risen, and has shifted to economics. So what’s on the moon that anyone would want? We know the dusty surface is pulverized regolith, mostly a basalt powder blasted out of craters from the moon’s pummeled surface. We have lots of basalt here on earth from volcanoes. But the moon harbors a mineral called ilmenite, which is iron titanium oxide. It’s not important for its own chemical make-up, but for its ability to retain helium-3, a product of the solar wind. The sun streams high energy particles in all directions. Earth’s magnetic field deflects most of this material, but the moon has no such deflector. The particles slam into the moon and are trapped in ilmenite. It is said that 220 pounds of the lunar rock could yield $140 million worth of helium-3. At $40,000 per ounce, helium -3 would be 26 times more expensive than platinum.

But what is it? Helium-3 is a lighter form of regular helium, the stuff that makes balloons float. Helium-3 is valuable because it could provide a cheaper, safer and more efficient way to produce energy. Nuclear power plants currently use nuclear fission to break apart heavy atoms like uranium to get energy, but they leave behind toxic nuclear waste. Fusing atoms creates much less waste, and is more efficient. Unfortunately, there is very little helium-3 on earth to fuse.

When President Bush announced his decision to send us back to the Moon by 2018, a committee was formed to research the feasibility of such a project. Sitting on the committee were none other than Neil Armstrong and Harrison Schmitt, the Apollo 17 astronaut, one of the biggest proponents of mining the moon for helium-3. The committee built a small reactor to test the theories of the helium-3 fusion, and it produced energy. However, it will most likely take decades to produce and test commercial reactors. Meanwhile, we aren’t the only country interested in the moon’s supply of helium-3. China, Russia and India all have sights on the supply, and are working toward getting there first. It seems the race is heating up.

Plans are underway to build the new Apollo-like rockets to get us back to Luna, but unless we hurry, we may have to wait in line to plant an American flag on the moon once again.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Hairy Stars

11/12/07 – 11/19/07
by C. Zaitz

We have a comet in the sky! By now you’ve heard that Comet Holmes has exploded into a naked eye comet and has been haunting the northeastern sky near the constellation Perseus for weeks now. Even in ancient times, comets have appeared in the sky, only to disappear weeks later, leaving folks wondering what they were. Labeled “hairy stars” due to their fuzzy appearance in the sky, the Latin word “coma” literally means “hair” and this comet has quite a head of it! Now said to be over 7 times the diameter of Jupiter, the coma of comet Holmes is an amazingly giant, diffuse ball of fluorescent gas and dust, visible to the naked eye.

Comets are made of ice, gases, and dust. The nucleus, which is the main part of a comet, can be a mile or several miles in diameter, but it is the coma, or the cloud of gas and dust surrounding the nucleus, that becomes huge as the ice melts. The melting is more like dry ice turning straight into a gas rather than an ice cube melting into a puddle. As the gas is released, dust grains are also released, and depending on their size, they will travel a certain distance from the nucleus, puffing out into the coma and tail. Comet Holmes has had more of an explosion than a mere melting, it seems, as it has grown an enormous coma. It doesn’t have much of a tail, though. Usually comets grow two tails, one made of gases and the other made of heavier dust grains. The comet drags the tails around the sun, but they are always driven away from the comet by the pressure of the sun’s own radiation, so no matter where the comet is going, the tails always point away from the sun. Comet Holmes is too far from the sun to grow much of a tail.

Many comets come from a distant place in our solar system, beyond any of the known planets. Far beyond the orbit of Pluto, the Oort cloud is thought to extend halfway to the closest star to us and is home to trillions of comets. Some comets live closer to us. Comet Holmes orbits every 7 years, and was discovered in 1892. Orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, it usually passes unnoticed. This time around, some of the ice must have broken off like our melting glaciers of earth, releasing an enormous amount of dust and growing its huge coma. We get to enjoy its brilliant hairy appearance for as long as it continues to glow.

People are often surprised that comets can be seen night after night, because they associate them with shooting stars, or meteors. It’s a common mistake, most likely because of their streamlined, zippy appearance. With the tail blasting out, looking like a rocket to Mars, comets definitely are the speedsters of the solar system. They do move swiftly, clocking over 100,000 mph, but are so distant that you cannot detect their motion over the course of one night. They seem to hang in the sky for weeks, giving us a view of the mysterious, changing nature of the universe, or at least the solar system. Soon comet Holmes will die down and once again become an icy, dirty snowball, one of many silent, small members of our solar system.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Monday, October 29, 2007

No Glass Ceiling

11/4/07 – 11/10/07

by C. Zaitz

When I was visiting my parents in Rochester, NY, I saw a headline in the local paper about Pamela Melroy, a retired US Air Force Colonel. She was a local girl, one of the very few female pilots who had made it successfully through the astronaut training program. She is only the second commander of the Space Shuttle, and most likely the last.

Melroy got degrees in physics and astronomy from Wellesley College, a female-only institution patterned after Mount Holyoke Seminary (College in 1893), the first of seven famous colleges for women. These so-called “seven sisters” were chartered in the late 1800s when women had little opportunity for the excellent education that men had from the so-called Ivy League schools. Currently only five of the seven are still private women’s colleges, but those five still strive to give women an excellent education and the self confidence of succeeding in often male-dominated fields. Apparently it worked for Pamela Melroy. As she herself said in a commencement address, “The environment gives women a place to dream without being restricted or blinded by culturally generated limits.”

One of a very select group of shuttle pilots, Melroy is definitely a minority at NASA. She is one of 18 female astronauts out of a group of 91. Strangely, and for the first time ever, she is one of the two women in charge on the current mission. While she commands the space shuttle Discovery, her colleague Peggy Whitson will serve as the Station Commander on board the International Space Station. The fact that for the first time in the 50 year history of spaceflight that two women will be commanding is a rare coincidence, NASA says. The fact is, Melroy is most likely the last shuttle commander, and the only female test pilot left at NASA.

The shuttle’s days are numbered. NASA is phasing out the shuttle in favor of an updated launch vehicle, Orion. From the first flight of the Columbia in 1981 to the recent launch of Discovery, the Space Transportation System, NASA’s official handle for the shuttle, has been an astoundingly reliable workhorse of our space program. Of the120 flights of the entire fleet, Discovery has flown 33 of them. However, the loss of even one vehicle means the loss of the astronauts within it. Out of the original five shuttles built, only three remain. Considering the danger of launching and landing such an unwieldy vehicle, the statistics of 2% death rate per astronaut-flight seem like a small risk. But each one of those twelve deaths in the two shuttle disasters was painful and very difficult to overcome.

It is the tragedy of loss that spurs us on to build a bigger and better space exploration vehicle. And it is the spirit of adventure and the willingness to risk her life that allows people like Pam Melroy to follow her dream against the odds to become an astronaut, and to command the Discovery.

The last trips planned for the remaining shuttles are in 2010. After that, Orion will take over for the return to the Moon and possibly one day to Mars. Astronaut tryouts are coming, and astronaut school begins in 2009, in case you want to clear your calendar!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Core Issues

10/28 - 11/3
by C. Zaitz

I look up a lot, but right now my mind is on core issues, like what is at the core of our home planet. There has been conflict about this very question in the past. In the 17th century, the famous comet hunter Edmund Halley had a theory that the earth was actually hollow, and thought the core was luminous and filled with gas. Where did he get such a bright idea? From none other than his contemporary scientist, Isaac Newton. Newton had calculated the density of the earth, and had found that the center of the earth must be at least twice as dense as the surface. But he also calculated the density of the moon, and mistakenly found it much denser than the earth. Since there was no reason to suggest that the moon was made so much differently than the earth, Edmund Halley sought to explain the difference by suggesting that four-ninths of the earth was empty. He imagined the inner sphere inhabited by throngs of beings, as were all the planets of the solar system. He even had a portrait painted of himself as Astronomer Royal with a diagram of his hollow- shelled earth, forever immortalized. Luckily his comet became so famous that for the most part people have forgotten this aspect of his work. Some folks, however, took the idea of the hollow earth and elaborated, so vestiges of the theory still haunt society today.

Rather than being hollow at its core, Earth is actually quite dense. It is a rocky conglomeration, like the other inner planets, very close in nature to its sister, Venus. Earth and Venus are like twins, separated at birth. Venus has a different disposition than her sister. She’s very hot, with an atmosphere that would crush and melt any visiting earthlings. Earth is more subdued, and more gracious to the living beings that inhabit her outer skin.

Underneath the harsh exterior, Venus has a dense metallic core, similar to earth, with perhaps a liquid outer core surrounding it. On earth, this rotating liquid core generates our strong magnetic field, allowing us to navigate with compasses and protecting us from killing radiation from the sun. Venus seems to be lacking a magnetic field, though her makeup is similar to the earth. The difference may lie in the fact that Venus rotates slowly, and retrograde to the rest of the solar system. The slow rotation may not provide enough energy to generate a magnetic field.

So how do we know about the cores of the planets? On earth, no one has been more than 7.5 miles down. That’s not very far, considering that it would be a journey of 4,000 miles to reach the center. Most of what we know about the interior of the earth comes from seismic data. We can measure how fast earthquake shock waves travel through different materials, and estimate the depth and make-up of earth’s layers. That is how we found out about the liquid outer core of the earth. Seismic data doesn’t tell us everything, but it does rule out a society of folks living in a hollow earth.

As you ponder life at the center of a planet, you can spy Venus by looking toward the sunrise. She’ll be winking at you from the south eastern morning sky.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


10/21/07 – 10/28/07
by C. Zaitz

Halloween is a great night, isn’t it? Modern culture has taken our holiday to new heights of materialism, but if we can get back to its former meaning, it can be a great night for communities. October often has cool, clear nights, great for viewing the sky. On Halloween, kids and parents are out, neighborhoods are active, and the sky darkens early. What better time to look up and notice the evocative sky? It can bring us together and remind us of our connection to the seasons and the sky above.

Halloween is the last of four special days of the year known as the cross-quarter days. These days are the midway points between the better known solstices and equinoxes. As the earth slips around the sun, it changes its tilt with respect to it. At this time of year, the earth is changing its orientation daily. The northern hemisphere leans toward the sun in the summer, but in winter it leans away from it. The leaning causes a big difference in weather. The sun doesn’t heat us as well now that we aren’t getting direct rays. The sun also makes a short path in the sky, which means it’s not in the sky as long. Shorter days and indirect rays cause winter here in the north. That, and that alone, causes our seasons.

We celebrated the first day of fall, the autumn equinox, on September 23rd this year, and winter begins officially on December 22nd, the winter solstice. But for many of us, fall doesn’t really get under way until October. Perhaps that’s why we have retained the celebration of the cross quarter day in this one season. Seasons on earth don’t really kick in until the earth itself is on board. It takes time for heating and cooling to take place, just like in the air conditioning and heating in your car. Our seasons are delayed so much that it seems like the cross-quarter days are really the "first days" of the season. It’s not a great leap to imagine October 31st as the end of the growing – harvest season. What better New Year’s Eve party than Halloween?

I like Halloween for one reason and one reason only: people are outside and looking at the sky. Ok, maybe that and the leftover candy! Halloween at the Zaitz house includes the traditional bowl of candy for trick-or-treaters, but also my trusty 4” Astroscan telescope, showing any and all comers a view of the sky. This year the moon will be past full by Halloween, so not very helpful in lighting our evening activities, but Jupiter will be shining powerfully in the southwest and showing its children- four of its tiny moons, visible through a telescope.

We have lost touch in our modern culture with most of the cross quarter days. The others are Groundhog’s Day in February, May Day, and Lammas day, in August. Halloween is by far the most famous of the cross quarter days, and the most fun. Halloween celebrations have lasted through the centuries. Pre-Christian Celts celebrated Samhain (“sau-wen”) as the end of the year/beginning of a new year. The association with death and dying has been preserved through the centuries in our modern celebration of Halloween. It’s the time of the year we can easily be in touch with the rhythms of the earth.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Hot Hot Hot

From the nuclear furnace at the core to the extremely hot plasma of its corona, the sun is the definition of hot! Far from the “giant ball of fire” we learned about in first grade, it is more accurately described as a sphere of plasma. Plasma is not a common everyday household item. You know of plasma- lightning is an example. If you’ve seen the northern lights, you are seeing a colorful display of plasma. Plasma is hot, ionized gas.

The sun has plenty of plasma. Like other stars, it supports itself from the crushing weight of gravity by fusing hydrogen atoms at its core. Pressures and temperatures being what they are at the core of the sun, atoms that normally don’t like being all that close will overcome their repulsion and fuse together. In this process, they release prodigious amounts of energy.

It was actually the icon scientist Albert Einstein who quantified exactly how much energy in his uber-famous equation, E=mc (squared). In English, this equation says that you can get an enormous amount of energy out of a little bit of mass. The variable “c” stands for the speed of light, which is a pretty big quantity. And if you square it, it becomes super big. No matter how small your mass (m), if you multiply it by the speed of light squared, you have a very big number, which is E, the amount of energy you can get from it. This idea opened up a world of hurt.

Here on earth, we have harnessed the power of fission to unleash energy from an atom. We have figured out how to take a heavy element like uranium and “fission” it by tossing a neutron at it. By splitting a very heavy element like Uranium, we can release exorbitant amounts of energy. Unfortunately a by-product of the process is radioactive material, called “waste” due to its unpleasantness and difficulty of disposal without harm to humans. We use our knowledge for good, in our nuclear power plants, but also for bad, in our nuclear bombs. Hiroshima and Nagasaki both felt the power of unleashed of nuclear fission.

Stars don’t “fiss,” they fuse. Stars release energy through nuclear fusion. The sun isn’t filled with heavy elements like uranium. All they have at their disposal to keep alive is hydrogen. Luckily the universe decided that elements lighter than iron would be better off if they fused, rather than fissioned. The sun has lots of light elements to fuse, and it does so at will. This releases the life-giving energy that we receive some 93 million miles away. We seem to have a very advantageous spot in the solar system.

Think about toasting marshmallows on a stick. When you get too close to the fire, you end up with a crispy marshmallow that you have to snuff before popping into your mouth to hear the sizzle of your own saliva. If the marshmallow is too far from the fire, it remains cool and solid, not the most pleasing form of the food product. I find it both fascinating and reassuring that the earth maintains the place of the well-browned marshmallow. Not too close to the nuclear furnace, and not too far. It’s just right to keep us comfortable. So even with changing temperatures and seasons, we can be grateful for our place in space.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Astarte and... Astarte

From Sunday morning, October 7th, 7am-ish.

The "too-poetical" poem of Edgar Allan Poe,


The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere -
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year:
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir -
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Here once, through and alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul -
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll -
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole -
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere -
Our memories were treacherous and sere, -
For we knew not the month was October,
And we marked not the night of the year
(Ah, night of all nights in the year!) -
We noted not the dim lake of Auber
(Though once we had journeyed down here) -
Remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

And now, as the night was senescent
And star-dials pointed to morn -
As the star-dials hinted of morn -
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn -
Astarte's bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

And I said: "She is warmer than Dian;
She rolls through an ether of sighs -
She revels in a region of sighs:
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion
To point us the path to the skies -
To the Lethean peace of the skies -
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
To shine on us with her bright eyes -
Come up through the lair of the Lion,
With love in her luminous eyes."

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
Said: "Sadly this star I mistrust -
Her pallor I strangely mistrust:
Ah, hasten! -ah, let us not linger!
Ah, fly! -let us fly! -for we must."
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
Wings until they trailed in the dust -
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
Plumes till they trailed in the dust -
Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

I replied: "This is nothing but dreaming:
Let us on by this tremulous light!
Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybilic splendour is beaming
With Hope and in Beauty tonight! -
See! -it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
And be sure it will lead us aright -
We safely may trust to a gleaming,
That cannot but guide us aright,
Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night."

Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
And tempted her out of her gloom -
And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista,
But were stopped by the door of a tomb -
By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said: "What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?"
She replied: "Ulalume -Ulalume -
'Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!"

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere -
As the leaves that were withering and sere;
And I cried: "It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed -I journeyed down here! -
That I brought a dread burden down here -
On this night of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber -
This misty mid region of Weir -
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Candle In The Dark

9/30/07 – 10/6/07
by C. Zaitz

Do you remember Carl Sagan? Back in the early 1980’s, Carl Sagan was the voice of science. Scientists envied him for his fame and comedians imitated him due to his juicy enunciation of words like “nucleosynthesis” and “billions.” I was an impressionable 13 year old when Cosmos: A Personal Voyage first aired. Cosmos was Sagan’s illustrated ode to science and scientific thinking. Not only did he reveal the latest findings in astronomy, he discussed everything from the origins of life to the prospect of space travel, touching on biology, chemistry and physics. He framed phenomenon on earth within the larger context of the entire universe.

Who can forget the giant “Cosmic Calendar?” Sagan fit the whole history of the universe into one year, starting with the Big Bang on New Year’s Day. Humans started walking upright around 9:30 pm on December 31st, the very last day of that same year. Recorded human history begins at 11:59:45 pm. The voyage of Christopher Columbus happened on the very last second before midnight. Sagan reminded us that everything that has ever happened, everyone we’ve ever known about, any deeds ever done, occured in the last minutes, the last seconds of the history of the universe.

Later in life Sagan wrote a book called, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. He wrote extensively about the importance of skepticism and scientific thinking in our daily lives. He rallied against the influence of pseudosciences like astrology and ufology, while being a strong proponent of the search for extraterrestrial life. Sagan warned against sloppy thinking, and came up with the “Baloney Detector,” useful ideas to keep in mind when forming ideas. “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.” ”Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified. (Can it be tested?) Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?” And Occam's razor has been used in countless debates: “if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.” Why go supernatural when something can be explained by natural laws of science?

Carl Sagan died in 1996 of a rare bone cancer, but his legacy lives on. This fall the Henry Ford Community College Planetarium is showing each of the 13 episodes of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage on Fridays at 11:15 am. The doors are open to anyone interested, and there is no admission fee. The episodes are updated with new graphics and commentary by Sagan and his widow Ann Druyan. The ideas and words of Carl Sagan speak to us over the decades. Who can forget his famous quotes, “We are all star stuff” and, “We are a way for the universe to know itself.” It’s hard to leave the planetarium not feeling a little richer, a little wiser for having thought about our place in the great scheme of things. Even if you don’t agree with every thing he says, Carl Sagan was nothing if not an inspirational educator and popularizer of science. He made the process of scientific inquiry interesting, and he gave us perspective by describing the grandeur and curious nature of the universe and our local part of it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Music to My Ears

9/23/07 - 9/29-07
by C. Zaitz

I love music. I’ve studied it, I listen to it, and I play it. I started piano lessons when I was five and after years of practice I can make music that sounds good to my ears. But the sweetest sound I’ve heard in a long time came from a human voice, and it made this music, “My daughter never liked science before, but now she likes it.” This was from a mom I met at Parent’s Night in the girl’s school where I’m teaching.

I’m still flying from hearing those words. There’s nothing that makes an educator feel better about the difficulty of teaching many classes every day, the long hours of correcting labs, grading tests, and crafting lessons, than to hear that they made a difference. It makes me very happy when young teen-aged girls, just entering puberty, are still excited about science. When I hear that the older girls in their later teens are still curious and interested, it makes me feel even better. We often lose girls in science at that age, and I think one reason is that they don’t know why it’s important. But I tell them why. It teaches them how to think. And that takes practice.

The first time you ice skate can be frustrating, as can your first karate lesson, or your first attempt at driving a stick shift. They all require repetitive practice. So does scientific thinking, but many of us don’t naturally tend toward it. We have to practice our thinking, our language, and our ability to reason. We all have habits, but to make science a habit requires the same kind of practice that cooking or playing football does.

So how can we practice scientific thinking? By reading a lot. Scientific questions come from observations and prior knowledge, gathered by humans since they first started painting bison hunts on cave walls. We have to know stuff to ask questions about it. Books and periodicals are important, but we get a lot of information from on-line sources. On-line science news can be convenient, but we run the same risk there that we run by getting our news from TV, and that is getting information from biased or non-reputable sources. Which leads me to the subject of critical thinking.

We should think critically about what we read and hear and see. Critical thinking doesn’t mean to “criticize,” it means to be discerning and evaluate the information we get. If we start with reputable sources, perhaps do a little research before we read, we can avoid wasting our time reading information that is not based in science, meaning based on facts or testable information.

Believing what someone tells us just because they speak the loudest isn’t using sound judgment, and certainly hasn’t done our nation much good in recent history. We can all think for ourselves, and yet sometime we choose not to. Sometimes we buy into other people’s ideas because they sound good to us or fit in with our belief system. I am as guilty of it as anyone, but I know what it takes to think critically and to avoid our personal biases and prejudices: practice, practice, practice. And that’s how you can get to Carnegie Hall, or to Mars!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

All Things Being Equal

September is one of those transitional months. School–aged kids know instinctively what fall means, and now many Michigan adults find themselves school bound for work related retraining. Even at work the feeling can change; no more “sliding out” early on Friday afternoon to find a favorite beach or an empty picnic table. There’s a palpable crispness in the air, a curt bustle in our motions, as if we still had to gather in the crops before the first hard frost.

The equinox approaches. Day submits to the creeping onslaught of night. Practically speaking, we have to walk the dog before it gets dark. We don’t linger outside talking to neighbors as late. The balance of power between light and dark is coming to equilibrium. We could relax in the abatement of burning rays from the sun and enjoy the lessening humidity and moderate temperatures, but we know what comes next: the utter and complete domination of a Michigan Winter. Can you hear the distant bells tolling for our dying summer?

Equilibrium of night and day means that the stars appear earlier. You don’t have to stay up very late to see the mighty planet Jupiter hovering low in the western twilight sky, or to see Princess Andromeda and her hero Perseus playing out their ancient story in the deepening night. So let’s quell those morose tolling bells and enjoy the equinox, for it brings some of the most interesting constellations and the biggest of planets to the early evening sky. Plus, fall in temperate Michigan is nothing to sneeze at! (Unless you suffer from allergies as many of us do!)

I like to think of autumn “advancing” because that word reflects what’s happening in the sky. The Sun, positioned against a background of very distant stars, seems to be marching eastward little by little. We can’t see this happening because the blue day sky prevents us from seeing the stars and the sun at the same time. The only change we can detect is the advancing of sunset, minutes earlier each day. If we could watch the process from space, we would see our home planet plodding along its normal course around the sun.

One result of this plodding motion is that the constellations that have been with us all summer are now getting lost in the glow of the sun. It also means that the star patterns that you’ve seen in the sultry summer mornings are now visible much earlier in the evening. Instead of the Summer Triangle adorning the sky all night, it will be fading not long after sunset. And the glorious and familiar constellations of fall, our friends Perseus and Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Pegasus, have migrated from early morning apparitions to familiar players in our evening heavenly tableau.

All things being equal, we can enjoy the moderate temperatures, the early evening sunsets, and the convenient timing of the crisp and clear fall night sky. The equinox occurs on September 23rd, the day when the sun rises due east, sets due west, lingers in the sky for half of the earth’s rotation, and goes down in time for us to take a break from the bustle of fall and enjoy the twinkle of the celestial bodies in the autumn sky.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

All Over the Map

9/9/07 - 9/15/07
by C. Zaitz

I write about astronomy. At least, that’s what I say I’m writing about. But I tend to be all over the map with my topics. I’ve talked about Jamestown, Dinosaurs, Snorkeling and even the weather. It’s not because I have Attention Deficit Disorder, it’s because Astronomy can be all over the map too.

Astronomy encompasses a lot of other sciences, leading down a road that passes through towns like physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and it even goes to territories like philosophy and religion. Forgive my extended metaphor, but astronomy is rather like a path or a trail that leads to many different places. Of course, the vehicle driving astronomy is curiosity, the same thing that drives all the sciences. Curiosity, and the desire to make our lives better and easier.

Take Google Earth, for example. You can download a program to your computer that allows you to zoom in on practically any place on earth, as if you were orbiting our planet and had an amazing zoom lens that allowed you to see, in some cases, who planted a new tree or where dirty water is pouring into our streams. That sounds like science fiction, but it’s not; it’s easy, fun and useful as well. Curious to see what Madagascar looks like? You can, and not just a colored blotch on a world map; you can see the actual landscape from a bird’s eye view. You can visit the Coliseum in Rome, and see the four presidents at Mount Rushmore. And thanks to scientific technology, it’s available to anyone who can use a computer.

Scientific knowledge allows us to keep satellites in space to take the pictures, and it allows us to understand optics and information storage. Scientific inquiry allows us to use quantum tunneling in our electronics, and allows the global sharing of information. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it. But some people may feel like it’s an invasion of privacy, or feel the Orwellian “Big Brother is watching us” uneasiness.

Perhaps it’s our ability, or maybe our need, to be curious and question things that is important, especially now when it’s difficult to accept what science is telling us about global warming and climate change. We have the data that tells us that our world is changing. Information is coming to us from all over the map. But we cannot forget that it is ultimately our interpretation of information that matters.

Interpretation comes from our background knowledge, such as from our education, our experiences, and what we’ve heard, read, or seen on TV. And that can truly be a mish mosh of ideas, of reality and faux reality. But the more we get information from reputable sources, from primary and authoritative sources, the better informed we can be in our interpretations. Science allows us to rely on experiments and observations to try to explain things. But many areas of science are open to interpretation, and misinterpretation, if we’re not discerning.

Information may seem to be all over the map, but we can use all of the tools at our disposal to interpret and synthesize it. And the best tools we have are the sciences. They may be disparate areas of study, but they all stem from our attempt to understand our universe, and ourselves.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Entangled States

9/2/07 – 9/8/07
C. Zaitz

I’ve been thinking about quantum mechanics lately. QM is a branch of physics that deals with the universe on the scale of the very small. On a daily basis, we don’t enter the realm of quantum mechanics, but more and more, scientists are finding that the properties of the very small scale inform the universe on a very big scale. And it’s a quite different universe on the small scale.

On the scale of the tiny, basic laws of “classical” physics break down. We are used to measuring things and describing their positions with numbers. In the realm of atoms, measuring things becomes impossible. You may have heard of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the idea that you cannot know both the position and the momentum of an electron orbiting the nucleus of an atom. You can know where an electron is likely to be, but you can’t pinpoint it. The act of doing so would destroy the information you were trying to get. Once you “stop” the electron to study it, you have changed its momentum. And you cannot get around this fact. The measuring and the measured thing are entangled, you cannot separate them. We can intuit that perhaps more easily than other aspects of QM. In art, we say that “negative space” is as important as the object in space. There is a direct and entangled relationship between the object and the space around it. Change the object, and you automatically change the space surrounding it.

It turns out that objects, rather than just being objects, are better described as a series of relationships. You might not be able to know exactly where one particle is, but if it is entangled with another particle having an opposite position, you can know that whatever you do to one particle will always affect its entangled particle. So if one egg is sunny side up and its entangled partner is sunny side down, you can flip one egg and automatically and always flip the other too. This is called “entangled states.”

In quantum mechanics, we have to give up absolutes and accept probabilities. Perhaps that’s why we never notice quantum mechanics in our daily lives. QM says there is a real possibility that all of the atoms in your body could pass right through the atoms of a wall, allowing you to walk right though it. Does that mean Kung-Fu masters can really walk through walls? No, because on the scale of a human being, the probability of that happening is incredibly small, almost non-existent. But on the scale of the atom, it can happen. In fact it does happen, and furthermore, we rely on it happening. It’s called “quantum tunneling” and it’s the basis for our modern electronics and microchips.

Science and philosophy come together in quantum mechanics. We often say that the age of determinism in science, where A causes B through a direct line of events, has been replaced with the age of probability. Einstein hated this idea. His aversion to it shows up in his famous quote, “God does not play dice with the Universe.” Even today many people reject the underlying philosophical ramifications of QM while using its principles and products in every day life. But I find the QM idea of probabilities, relationships and entangled states to be an active and connecting philosophy. And we’ve only begun to explore it.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dark Ages

8/26/07 – 9/1/07
by C. Zaitz

When we think of the “dark ages” in western history, especially in science, we often think of folks believing the earth was flat and that the stars were little lights attached to a crystal sphere which circled the earth. In reality, just like today, people probably didn’t spend too much time thinking about how the stars were attached to the heavens, since they were busy trying to survive on meager meals and trying to avoid diseases. But there are always a few folks with either the time, or the light headedness from lack of food, who think about the heavens. All was not dark in the dark ages.

If we can get beyond the strong terms of contrast used throughout history like black and white, light and dark, we can begin to see the time period in Europe we generally regard as the “dark ages” more realistically. Between the years 500-1000 AD, or the early Middle Ages, people didn’t stop working, they made things, they communicated, and they thought. The problem with the dark ages, historians say, is that there is very little recorded information. Without recorded events, the time period becomes “dark” to historians. Unfortunately, writers from later times have shaped the way we think about the so-called dark ages, comparing them with what came before, the glorious Roman Empire, and what came after, the High Middle Ages and the Enlightenment. However, it isn’t completely accurate to say that no advancements to civilization came during that period. By the middle ages, most people believed that the earth was a very small part of an immense universe. Folks knew the earth was round, and though the science of the sky was intricately tied to prognostication and astrology, there was a considerable bank of knowledge about the planets and stars.

But in these times, people had to deal with an ongoing scarcity of food, hardships of weather, and now it seems scientists have found evidence that crop failure and a series of very cold summers may have been caused by some catastrophic event, such as volcanic eruption or asteroid collision. The first appearance of the Bubonic Plague came around this time, and before it was done centuries later, it had killed perhaps one half or more of the entire population of Europe. No wonder they didn’t record their history.

I wonder if the folks in the sixth century would have done anything different had they known the plague would kill every other person. I wonder what they would have done to prevent it. Eerily, the same things that may have prevented folks from recording their history then are predicted to happen to humanity again. Are we prepared? There are folks who look to the skies and tell us that we should begin to colonize other planets, but most of us aren’t listening. We are just trying to get through the day with modern day plagues of disease and lack of food and shelter many people worldwide suffer from.

I hope that the visionaries who want to travel to other planets, and the rest of us who support them, will make it happen in our lifetimes. I hope we learn from our history, and that we can keep a light on in the darkness that we all sometimes face.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


8/19/07 – 8/26/07
by C. Zaitz

Sometimes when a person takes their first look through a telescope, they get a feeling of, “is that all there is? Where are the colors? Why is it so small and faint?” Ah, you were expecting Hubble Space Telescope photographic quality. How disappointing! Hubble Space Telescope photos are works of art, created from information traveling by radio frequencies over hundreds, thousands, and in the case of the Hubble Deep Field image, billions of light years.

The images are breathtaking. Who can forget the famous “Pillars of Creation,” the image of the Eagle Nebula whose elongated fingers of gas and dust may harbor baby star systems. Or the Deep Field, an image made by opening the Hubble’s photographic eyeball and having it stare at a tiny area of space for a very, very long time. But how do these images get back to earth? Actually, they come to us in black and white, as a series of zeroes and ones, strung along in complicated patterns like strands of DNA. Once they get to earth, computers assemble the information into black and white images. So how did they get so colorful?

Astronomers, or should I say artists, add it later. They use a computer program like Photoshop to color in the gases and clouds with tints they assign. But color is a hard thing to define. We each perceive it differently. Some people have a very keen sense of color, and some are color blind, meaning that the colors they see are different from what most of us see. My dad often confuses red and green, because, he says, red is a very dull color. Most of us don’t see it that way. In the the Pillars of Creation, both hydrogen and sulfur were detected as a red color in the clouds of gas. Astronomers changed the hydrogen to green so it could be distinguished from the sulfur. What we got was a gorgeous, colorful, if not accurate image that filled our imaginations. But what does accurate mean when it comes to color? It’s difficult to define an exact color because it is mostly perception. So how far from red can we stray before it becomes green? Or does it really matter? Dad thought they were still the same color!

How often have I said, “here’s Betelgeuse, a red star,” or, “this is Rigel, a blue star.” No wonder people get disappointed when they are expecting the star to be the color of Bozo’s nose in the sky. I could say, “Betelgeuse radiates light mostly in the infrared and red end of the spectrum, so it’s considered a “red star,” but it is so far away that the very little bit of light we get from it is only slightly tinged orangey-red.” But that’s pretty long-winded! So we oversimplify.

The Hubble pictures are so inspiring that I don’t think the colors are an issue. The only problem comes when people expect to see those kinds of images through a telescope. If you are expecting your view through a friend’s telescope to look like the poster you saw in the mall, you’ll be disappointed. But if you have patience and look with eyes and mind ready to see detail and to absorb what you are looking at, you’re bound to avoid disappointment.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

It's Just a Theory...

8/12/07 – 8/18/07
by C. Zaitz

If science is based on “theories,” how do we know they are true? After all, a theory isn’t necessarily truth or law, is it?

All scientific theories begin as a hypothesis, or a possible answer to a question we ask. For the question, “Why don’t we fall off the earth if it’s round?” we could invent some pretty cool explanations. For example, we have seen how magnets on earth attract each other, and we know that iron can be magnetic. If earth is a big magnet, maybe it pulls the iron in our blood toward it. But then we remember that feathers and leaves also fall to earth and they have no iron in them. Oops, back to the drawing board with our hypothesis.

We will have to gather observations and do experiments to come up with another hypothesis. We have to design experiments that will test exactly what we want to test without introducing too much error. And we have to accept the answers we get, even if they don’t agree with our hypothesis. The key to scientific theories is that they need to be falsifiable. That means that we must be able to test to see if a hypothesis fails. If it does, we have to refine it or chuck it completely. If we make all reasonable tests and it holds up, it may become a theory.

In the late 17th century when Sir Isaac Newton began to think about what made apples fall and held the moon in orbit, he didn’t have a word for the force he was trying to describe. He wasn’t trying to prove a theory; he was trying to find a reasonable hypothesis to explain his observations. He needed a mathematical way to describe how objects move, so he developed calculus. With that tool, he was able to find an equation that worked in every case he tried. Finally he came up with a name for what he was describing, from the Latin, “gravitas,” meaning weight or heaviness. Today we call them the Laws of Gravitation, but they are really theories that have held up over time and trials. But new technology brings new tests.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Albert Einstein was able to test the laws of gravity around a massive object, the Sun, and found that the “laws” needed to be modified. By the time he was done, he had changed the way we think about gravity. No longer do we imagine it as an invisible magnet, but more like a fabric in which we are all embedded. Our movements are shaped by this fabric, which itself is shaped by mass. We follow its curves like golf balls on a putt putt course. Einstein called it spacetime, and scientists are still unraveling the implications today.

The word theory deserves more “gravity” than it is usually given. In order for a hypothesis to be scientific and to become a theory, it has to be tested. That’s why religious or “new age” ideas are often not considered to be in the realm of science. I believe it’s important for us to understand how science works. Otherwise we might never have known how gravity works, and therefore never be able to fly a rocket to the moon. Scientific theories are the only things that let us do that.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Fiery Skies of August

8/5/07 – 8/11/07
by C. Zaitz

Every August, the earth passes through a part of its orbit where a vast cloud of debris awaits. The debris consists of tiny particles, many no larger than a mote of dust or grain of sand, left behind by a comet. As earth plows through the cloud, the tiny bits of rock are jammed into the thick atmosphere and create spectacular plasma trails as they incinerate. These are the Perseid meteors, and the nights of August 11th and 12th will be the peak this year.

I find it odd that particles so very tiny can make such a fiery fuss in the sky. So do other scientists, and it hasn’t been completely clear what is actually making the light. Scientist study the light from meteors to find out if it comes from ionized gas as the meteorite interacts with the air and melts and sublimates, or if it’s from the compressed and heated air that the meteorite creates as it slams in at over 40 miles per second. It may be both, but meteor spectra tell us that most of the light contains ionized bits of meteorite, making the first explanation more plausible as the main cause.

This year, the event of the Perseid meteor shower is predicted to be good. The moon will not be around to outshine the sometimes faint streaks of light, and if you can find a spot where the sky is not tainted by artificial lights, the chances are great for you to see several meteors a minute. Perseids can go off in any direction, but if you trace the streak back to the source, you will be somewhere near the constellation Perseus. Though the average sighting may be one per minute, often you will see a “clumping effect” where you may see 3-5 in a minute but then experience a lull.

The very best time to see them is always between midnight and sunrise, but that’s inconvenient for most of us. Luckily, anytime after twilight is fine, though if you can stay up, the view will get dramatically better towards morning. You don’t have to know where Perseus is, which is handy since he’s not the most spectacular of all constellations. Look toward the northeast in the early evening, and higher in the north more overhead as night turns to morning. All you really need is a fairly dark sky, perhaps a lawnchair, and some patience.

Meteor showers are one of the most fun things to watch in astronomy. You do not need the aid of binoculars or a telescope to enjoy a meteor shower, but you can try to photograph them if you’re a gambler or just very patient! You can stay out late with friends and count them or just try to be the first to see the biggest and brightest one of the night. It’s always fun to hear someone shout “There’s one” and have everyone sigh because by the time someone says those words, the meteor is usually gone. Meteor showers are social events, and a great way to watch the sky with your loved ones and friends. I encourage you to take your children or parents out for the evening and enjoy the natural show of the Perseid meteor shower.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


7/22/07 - 7/29/07
by C. Zaitz

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Jamestown, Virginia is known as the birthplace of the country, where the first boatload of eager colonists landed. They arrived in May, and I can imagine that the summer was filled with building, hunting, cooking and fending off human and animal enemies. By July I imagine that the colonists were wondering what they had been thinking, coming to a new world so far from home. They must have been hot, hungry, riddled with mosquito bites and maybe a few arrow wounds. But enough of them survived the terrible famines and attacks from the Spanish and Natives to build homes, churches and official buildings, to flourish and become farmers and businessmen.

400 years later, we can wonder what happened to that colonizing spirit. When you first heard that we’d gone to the moon, didn’t you think Mars was next? What happened? Yes, space travel is very dangerous, expensive and time consuming, but was not also crossing the Atlantic to the New World?

Old colonizing risks: Running out of food and water. Disease and pestilence. Getting speared by someone already living there. Death.

New colonizing risks: Running out of food, air and water. Disease and pestilence. Getting lasered by someone already living there. Death.

So why haven’t we planned a mission to Mars? Are the risks any greater? Are the costs heavier? If we really wanted to travel to Mars, we would. America has not been frugal when its will was strong. Why do we not establish a mission to Mars, to walk the rusty sands and build a human presence on that nearby planet? Perhaps we need an outside menace to motivate us. The mission to the moon was a response to immediate threat of Soviet superiority. Without that threat, it’s not obvious that we would have endured the expense and the risk. But being motivated by threat is not the best case scenario, since the threats that would motivate us to travel to other planets usually involves the destruction of our own planet.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Economic incentive seems to be what drives us today, rather than fear of asteroid collision, irreversible global warming, or even nuclear holocaust. Some say our governments should pool resources and offer incentives to private companies to innovate. Private companies can often get the job done with less bureaucracy, more efficiency, and less waste than governments. That requires widespread cooperation, however, and economic motivation. Companies need to know what they will gain from the endeavor. On the other hand, did the Jamestown colonists really know what they were getting into before they left England? They surely weren’t making a profit during the first years of starvation.

I don’t think our will is weak. We are fascinated by space travel, by UFOs and aliens. Maybe we are just yearning for proof that it can be done. Whatever our ultimate motivation, I hope that it includes our will to survive and our curiosity to know the universe. And I hope we don’t wait too long to get started. Who knows where we’ll be in 400 more years. I hope it doesn’t take a threat of Jupiterian superiority to get us motivated, because by then, it may be too late.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Night Watchmen

7/15/07 - 7/21/07
by C. Zaitz

There are a lot of things floating above us, circling the planet all day long, all night long. While we are all sleeping, there are flocks of satellites gliding silently overhead. If you’ve been out this summer even for ten minutes of star gazing, you’ve seen them. I love it when you can see more than one at a time. They look like a flotilla of space ships, and I imagine a future where they are just commuters coming to and from work.

Meanwhile I looked into what is really up there. Mostly, it’s derelict satellites, parts of old rockets, debris from collisions and even frozen space sewage. It seems the astronauts launch it out into space to get rid of it. Unfortunately, the bags of waste have the same orbit as they do, so it is not unheard of that someone might meet up with it in a future orbit.

There are many different types of orbits for satellites. The International Space Station and most of our weather satellites are in LEO’s, or low earth orbits. They are speeding along at nearly 20,000 mph because they are so “close” to earth, at only 200-500 miles. They circle the earth every 90 minutes. If they went any slower, earth’s gravity would overcome them and they would tumble to earth, burning streaks of incinerated satellite parts as they fell.

A common LEO, especially for satellites that need to see the whole earth over time, is a polar orbit. As the satellite travels from pole to pole, the earth rotates underneath. Over time, the satellite will have passed over the entire planet, just by maintaining its orbit. They can map the entire earth. Remote sensing and long term weather satellites are often in these polar orbits. These are very common to see. I saw three the other night, all at slightly different speeds, but traveling along the same trajectory like silent watchmen.

A GEO is a much higher orbit. GEOs are geosynchronous orbits, meaning they are up so high and going just the right speed so that they appear to be stationary over a certain spot on earth. You can imagine what use these orbits would be, especially if you were curious about a certain spot on earth. Unfortunately, at 22,000 miles up, the view is not as sharp as a lower orbiting satellite's. Their advantage is that they have a large coverage area. We use them for relaying a signal for communication or broadcasting. Our telecommunications satellites are in GEO orbits. The problem with this kind of orbit is that the satellite must be directly over the equator to maintain the orbit. That leaves out the polar regions, and those folks want their satellite TV, just like we do. So we have another orbit, a highly elliptical one, which can come close to earth at one point, even a polar region, and then wander father out.

If you’d like to know exactly when satellites are passing over your head, you can go to the Heavens Above website and enter your town. You’ll be surprised at what you can see. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg of the night watchmen. You’ll be surprised at who’s seeing you!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Heavens

7/8/07 – 7/14/07
by C. Zaitz

I have a collection of old astronomy books. Sometimes the author will refer to the sky as “the Heavens.” What a lovely way to think of the regions above our heads. It gives the sense of the vastness and beauty of the sky, but the term does tend to lump everything together. “The Heavens” is a more encompassing term than saying the singular “heaven” but it doesn’t truly capture the layered and complex nature of what lies above.

For example, during the day, the sky is all around us, and we rarely ever look at it, just as we rarely look at the ceiling in our house. But the sky is much more interesting, even on a bland day, than the ceiling. The sky has magnificent layers of intrigue, layers of depth and color. Blue skies aren’t just blue, and grey skies are even more colorful. My favorite, of course, is the black sky of night, when all the subtle, distant and concentrated light from the stars can penetrate the atmosphere and be seen here on earth.

But sometimes when you look up, you see what looks like “heaven” from what we’ve seen in paintings and drawings. We can see rays of light coming down from the frothy, fluffy gold-edged clouds with a bright sun lighting them from behind. It’s a beautiful scene, which is probably why it was chosen to represent heaven. Those rays have a technical name. They are called crepuscular rays, which certainly isn’t as poetic a term as “heavenly rays,” but describes the rays of light that seem to spread out from behind back lit clouds, especially at twilight. Crepuscular means, “twilight,” though the effect can happen anytime there are enough particles of dust or vapor in the air to scatter light well. The cause of these rays is a combination of light and shadow. The light is always there when the sun is out, but the shadow created by an object like a cloud that gives the light a “ray” appearance.

From our perspective, the parallel rays from the sun actually look like they diverge from behind the cloud, giving them that spread out “ray from heaven” look, as if a heavenly body shone a great golden flashlight to illuminate our little patch of earth. It’s the same trick of perspective that the brain plays to make parallel railroad tracks look like they converge at a distance.

There certainly are other beautiful effects of light and shadow, scattering and perspective to be seen in the sky, but I think crepuscular rays are some of the most evocative. Perhaps it’s because they do seem to be flooding the earth with golden light, almost like a curtain opening up onto earth’s stage, as directed by something bigger than ourselves. Next time you see them, you’ll know that they are caused by natural circumstances, but you can always let those pretty rays take your gaze up into the sky. I assure you there will always be something interesting to see in “the heavens.”

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Summer Vacations

7/1/07 – 7/7/07
By C. Zaitz

‘Tis the season to get away. Whether it is vacation travel time, visiting relatives time, or maybe just taking a vacation in your mind time, most folks like to change locations in the summer. I’m often asked about how the sky changes when you travel. The answer is: it depends on where you’re going! If you are traveling mostly due east or west, you don’t have to worry. You’ll see pretty much the same sky you will “here,” at pretty much the same time of the evening, give or take some minutes depending on how close you are to the edge of your time zone. For example, if you travel to Chicago from Detroit, you’ll notice a large difference in actual sunset time. Chicago is on the eastern edge of the Central zone, and we are on the western edge of the Eastern. We gain an hour by traveling to Chicago, so though physically the two cities aren’t that far apart, Detroit has sunset around 9pm EDT, and Chicago sees it at 8:15pm CDT.

If you’re traveling north or south of “here” (wherever you are), you’ll start to see some differences. From Michigan and pretty much anywhere in the US, the solar system objects make a path across the southern sky as they seem to travel east to west. The further south you go, the higher they will be in the sky. As you travel close to the equator, they will be above your head. As you go south of the equator, you’ll notice the parade of planets across the northern sky, but they’ll still be in the same order. Currently Venus is closest to the western horizon at sunset, followed by Saturn, with Jupiter bringing up the rear furthest toward the east. They will still seem to travel east to west, so the only difference is that you’ll be looking north, rather than south to see them.

The constellations do vary with latitude, but not that much within the US. If you travel north of here, you won’t add any new constellations to your repertoire; we see all the northern ones throughout the year already. If you go significantly south, perhaps beyond Miami, you will see sights never seen from our latitude. This is the realm of the hopelessly obscure constellations. If you thought Cancer (the crab) and Monoceros (the unicorn) were hard to find, try finding Antlia (the pump) or Norma (the carpenter’s square). I may be biased, but I think most of the groovy constellations are in the northern skies. That’s no excuse to stay home this summer, though!

I think the main difference you’ll find as you travel is the view of the sky in general. There aren’t too many places left that are unpolluted by street lights, but when you travel, chances are greater that you may find a few of them. I think that the mind actually sighs when it sees the vast number of stars of the Milky Way in a velvety black summer night sky. That’s when it begins to get rid of the hassles and worries of the long cold months and begins to finally get a change of perspective. And for me, that’s when the vacation really begins!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Not Just a Pretty Sky

6/24/07 – 6/30/07
C. Zaitz

I am in the habit of telling people to look in the sky to see various things like planets or the moon. Then I will invariably say “it’s so pretty, just look east, blah blah etc.” Recently I was called on to clarify my statement. “So just what do you mean by pretty? What colors? What should we expect to see?” “Um, well, uh, it’s just pretty,” was all I could say.

I know people want to know what to expect, but describing beauty in the sky is tough, since it’s in the eye of the beholder. I’m always tilting upward to check out the sky, even during the day. I find beauty in the cloud formations, in the gradation of blue to white in a daytime sky, in the windblown condensation trails left behind by high flying jets. But such visceral experiences are hard to put it into words. Words are for the explanation of what a contrail is, but when I’m just enjoying it, I fall silent. I think that’s a pretty common human experience.

Recently the crescent moon, Venus, Saturn and a bright star Regulus were in alignment in the western sky. My parents were visiting so I showed them the line of objects and extended it over to Jupiter, also along the ecliptic, or plane of the solar system as seen from earth. But rather than going into the whole explanation of what we were seeing, I just pointed to them and named them. I know that some people would rather just enjoy the view rather than knowing what they were looking at and why.

On the other hand, sometimes knowing is good. In the past, and even still today, there are folks who would rather make a leap of the imagination and say that the alignment meant something, such as an omen or a foreshadowing. It is unusual it is to have such an alignment of bright objects in the sky. Unusual because it doesn’t happen every night, or even every month, but it is to be expected from time to time, since the planets do all travel the same highway, the ecliptic. For me there’s no need to assign a special significance to it other than “it’s really pretty when it happens.”

The other night I went out on a hot, humid night to gaze at the setting moon and Venus, and they were both tinted orangey red. Immediately I thought “how beautiful, a blood red crescent moon.” It occurred to me that some people in the world might think that something was wrong, that maybe the moon had exploded or was on fire. The truth was not that exciting. It was reddish because there was a lot of water vapor in the air. That’s why it felt so humid. It is the same light extinction that happens when the sun is low along the horizon making gorgeous sunsets on humid days. Knowing it allowed me to appreciate the science and the art at the same time.

There’s definitely a time and place for just looking, but we shouldn’t forget the depth behind the beauty; there are reasons for why things are the way they are. For me, knowing the reasons adds another dimension to the view, but doesn’t make it any less “pretty.” And it helps scare away the ghosts of superstition.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Close Encounters

6/17/07 – 6/23/07
by C. Zaitz

Every summer, an email floats around the internet about Mars. The email tells us that no one alive will ever see this again. It’s a once in a lifetime event. Don’t miss it. Then the email says that Mars is as close as it will be for 5,000 or maybe even 60,000 years. However, the same email comes back every year, and most of it is hype. Technically, earth and Mars were closest to each other in August of 2003, but every time earth passes Mars, we have a close encounter. Human eyes can’t discern the difference between when Mars is 35 million miles from us or 40 million miles. It would be like looking at a baseball 400 miles away. You can’t really tell if it’s 50 miles closer with the unaided eye because it’s so small compared to its distance.

Currently, Mars isn’t even a player in the night sky. But there are three planets that are. Jupiter, for one. If you’re looking for close encounters, it happens that we are closer to Jupiter this month than at other times in the year, and it is definitely showing off brightly all night long. “Closest” simply means that we are on the same side of the sun as Jupiter. Imagine a Nascar track with earth on an inside lane and Jupiter further toward the outside edge. Because we are going faster and have less space to travel, we pass Jupiter. As we pass, we are closer than we are at other times. It’s happening now, and it’s a great time to use your binoculars to see Jupiter and its largest moons. If you want a fun project with kids, you can even watch it from night to night and see how the moons move around Jupiter, just like the famous astronomer Galileo did. Use a sketch pad and draw the configuration. Kids (and adults) can actually see something changing in the sky, and you never know what will spark a life-long interest in science. Galileo’s sketches changed the way people thought, and forever put to rest the idea that the earth was the center of everything.

Saturn is also up in the evening sky, but sets an hour or two after dark. Saturn is even more astounding when you see it through a telescope. Often we are jaded by seeing full color giant images of planets and space objects from the Hubble Space Telescope. But there is something special about seeing Saturn through a small telescope. You can’t see color, and it looks tiny, but you can see the rings and even a moon. It’s nearly twice as far away as Jupiter, but it is so distinctive that you really know you’re looking at a planet, not just a bright light. I highly recommend it this summer, especially with kids.

The third bright planet up in the early evening is Venus. She’s been especially showy lately, high in the west during evening twilight, and shining more brightly than airplane headlights. Her reflective clouds send a lot of sunlight our way, and because you can see her at sunset, she’s the planet you’ll notice most. At the end of June, she’ll be close to Saturn, and this will be the prettiest close encounter of all. Just look to the west as it gets dark enough to see them, around 9:45-10 pm.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Crowning Glory

6/10/07 - 6/16/07

I happen to have a rather large collection of jewelry. Big piles of it. Drawers of it. Most of it is costume jewelry, just shiny cut glass, but that’s the stuff I love. I’ve been collecting it since kindergarten. I remember playing with a small wooden dresser at school and opening a drawer that contained a shiny necklace. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what rhinestones were and thought I had found the crown jewels, so I promptly plopped the thing on my head, a gesture that pronounced me princess of the kindergarten class. Silly, but my fascination with rhinestones never wore off.

It was about that time that I fell in love with the sky. Was it the sparkly nature of it that drew me? Perhaps, but what I didn’t know then but to my great pleasure learned later, is that there is a sparkly crown in the sky. It’s called Corona Borealis and it crowns the sky in late spring and summer. Corona is Latin for crown, and borealis refers to the fact it’s in the northern sky, not to be confused with Corona Australis, the much less impressive Southern Crown. The northern circlet is made of seven stars, none of which are especially bright. The brightest is called Gemma, aptly named as the shiniest gem star. It’s not directly in the center, but fairly close to it.

Corona Borealis is found high in the sky, close between Hercules and Bootes. Once you find it, you may get a little thrill of seeing princess Ariadne’s crown in the sky. She was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and Pasiphae. Thanks to her mother, Ariadne was also half-sister to the Minotaur, the half bull, half human creature that lived in the labyrinth of Crete. The labyrinth was a riotous collection of maze-like hallways, a perfect home for hiding the human-flesh eating Minotaur. Pasiphae had known he was a terrible beast even as a baby, but hadn’t the heart to kill him, so he grew to be a terrible menace. To pacify the monster, each year King Minos chose seven male and seven female Athenian youths to sacrifice to the creature. One year the son of the king of Athens, Theseus, decided to put an end to this annual gruesome slaughter. He joined the group of sacrificial victims and went to meet the Minotaur.

Meanwhile, Ariadne had caught a glimpse of the handsome Theseus and instantly fell in love with him. She decided to help him by giving him a sword and a ball of thread. The sword’s purpose was obvious, but the thread was what saved Theseus from being hopelessly lost in the labyrinth. Theseus did slay the Minotaur, and was able to rescue himself and other victims by following the thread back through the labyrinth to safety. Theseus rewarded Ariadne briefly for her help by taking her to the island of Naxos, but there he abandoned her. She managed to catch the eye of Dionysus, the god of wine, who felt sorry for her and married her. He is the one who gave her the crown now seen in the evening sky.

Now we can all enjoy having a crown above our heads. Sure, it’s made of stars, not diamonds, but as with my pretty rhinestone necklace, you can make of it what you will. And now you can think of the story of Ariadne and Theseus and join the kingdom of people who have done so since early times.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Messier Sky

6/3/07 – 6/9/07
by C. Zaitz

It is my opinion that summertime is the very best time for evening sky watching, whether you are a casual looker, an interested observer or a hard-core “Messier object” junkie. I’ve been all three at various times, but summer is the time when we can spend more quality time outside at night, gazing upward, finding your “fix” in the stars. Beyond knowing the constellations, if you really want to get to know the universe, finding Messier objects is a good way to do it. (Messier doesn’t refer to the chaos of the sky, it’s the last name of French astronomer Charles Messi “ay.”)

Monsieur Messier was an observational astronomer at the end of the 18th century who was very interested in finding new comets. This was a popular past time for an astronomer seeking to be immortalized by getting a comet named after him. However, Messier was annoyed with the countless fuzzy clouds in space that were easily confused with fuzzy comets. Messier catalogued over 100 “nebulae,” which were thought to be some sort of cloud within the galaxy. He hoped to save himself and other comet hunters the confusion of wondering if the faint fuzzy was indeed a fame-inducing object, or merely another “cloud.”

The existence of other galaxies beyond the Milky Way was not known until William Herschel and others continued cataloguing the fuzzy objects. The Herschel General Catalogue of Nebulae, listing over 5,000 objects, gave way to the New General Catalogue (NGC) in 1888, which contained nearly 8,000. Soon their true nature became clear- these clouds were not of the Milky Way at all, but each a separate “island universe” like our own. And Messier’s catalogue of galaxies, nebulae and supernovae remnants gave him more fame than any comet would have. Amateur astronomers world-over know of Messier and his wonderful catalogue of deep space objects. The NGC does not immortalize its author, but contains Messier objects as well as many more interesting destinations for the observer with time and telescope on hand.

The summer skies hold many Messier objects, known by their “M” number. Many of them have very pretty nicknames. For example, M57 is the Ring Nebula, M101 is the Pinwheel Galaxy and M104 is the Sombrero Galaxy. Other nick names are not so lovely; such as the Blackeye galaxy (M64), the Crab Nebula (M1), and the Dumbbell Nebula (M27). Cute name or not, one of the most beautiful sights to see in the late spring and summer is M13, the lovely globular cluster of stars in Hercules. A globular cluster is a tightly packed group of older stars. In M13 there are estimated to be over a million stars in a sphere of space about 100 light years across. You can see the Hercules cluster with binoculars, but it truly is best seen through a telescope.

M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra is also a pretty sight in a telescope. It is the first planetary nebula ever discovered. It looks like an ethereal smoke ring in the black sky, but it is the outer shells of a dying star, suffering the same fate as will our sun, in some 5 billion years.

There are many more such objects within view of a typical amateur telescope, and summer amateur group star parties are the best way to see these sights, and to get to know those folks who can help you discover the universe of Messier deep space objects.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


5/27/07 – 6/2/07
by C. Zaitz

The earth is cooling. It had to. When it formed some 4.6 billion years ago, it was way too hot for any life to form. In fact, it’s taken a lot of time to cool enough for rhinos and beavers and gazelles to be able to roam freely without burning their hooves and paws and giant feet. Much of earth’s history has been spent cooling and changing into the planet we know and love. Unfortunately, earth doesn’t know and love us. It keeps changing, whether or not the life forms occupying its surface can survive it or not. It cares not whether its atmosphere grows thick or thin, whether its waters are pure, or if its movements will disrupt the parasites on its edge.

We know that huge volcanic eruptions and earthquakes can cause widespread destruction. They are caused by the movement of the plates of crust and mantle. Deeper within the earth lies the mechanism for creating an invisible shield, a barrier against the killing radiation from the sun. The earth has a fairly strong magnetic field, created and maintained by the movements of its liquid metallic outer core. The field extends out into space like a giant protective web. We have learned about the nature of our magnetic field from looking at the bottom of the ocean at the mid-Atlantic ridge. As magma flows out from the crack between two separating tectonic plates, little bits of magnetic material align in the direction of earth’s magnetic field. It hardens and the magnetic record is solidified. We can read the ocean floor like a book, and it’s telling us that over time the magnetic field of the earth changes. Sometimes it is aligned as it is now, but other times it’s completely switched. The north magnetic pole is sometimes in the southern hemisphere! What’s nerve-wracking is that while it’s switching, it can weaken and be non-existent for awhile. Our mid-Atlantic story book is telling us that it may be time for another switch. Or even more harrowing, as the earth cools and the outer core solidifies, the magnetic field may disappear forever.

Though we don’t often notice the effects of the magnetic field in our daily lives, it does provide an invisible barrier from the harsher radiation from the sun. We’re all familiar with the northern lights, which are caused by high energy solar radiation interacting with our atmosphere, spiraling in along the magnetic field lines near the poles. But what we’re not aware of is the daily bombardment of high energy particles from the sun that are deflected away from us. Without our magnetic field, we would be exposed to much more radiation than we’re used to, and it could be very harmful to all life forms on earth.

Between earth’s mantle and the cold, stark emptiness of outer space, lie the layers of geology that hold our history. Creatures have come and gone in the 3 billion year history of life on earth. It started with single celled organisms and has proliferated in the multifarious beings of today. But the creatures that were around 100 million years ago are not necessarily the ones we see now. Life has changed, often in big sweeping changes caused by the earth itself. Our magnetic field may be an important part of the plot of how life on earth changes, and we may be in store for the next chapter in the book. I hope it has a happy ending!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Short and the Long

5/21/07 – 5/27/07
by C. Zaitz

I just had one of those milestone birthdays- you know, the ones that are supposed to be more special than the rest because the number is getting so high that you have to celebrate just being alive. It made me think of the age of things. Biologically, things happen on a pretty short time scale. 70-80 years is not that long when you take into consideration how long rocks live. In astronomy we talk about ages of stars, in geology we talk about the ages of rocks and planets. In human lifescales, those numbers are incomprehensible. We have no feeling for how long it takes a rock to form, much less a star. It seems like eternity to wait for your tomatoes to ripen or for your hair to grow out after a bad cut!

Though humans have a relatively short lifespan, we are still around long enough to watch things grow and develop, die and transform. Plants and animals live in our time scale, though we marvel at the 2,000 year old sequoias and ancient cedars. But things we think of as everlasting, like rocks or stars, are not eternal. All rocks move through a cycle, from being sand sediments on the surface, to being metamorphised as the pressure of layers upon layers of rock change its character, to suffering the igneous fate of melted rocks, turning into magma and reforming on the surface as lava basalt, only to be worn away again as sand and sediment. Eons pass and the dirt just keeps changing form, nothing destroyed or created, but morphing from one form to another.

The same thing happens with stars. Our sun was once diffuse gas and dust, our own planet not more than a breath of cosmic debris, sprinkled with rare elements fused in the death throes of an ancestor star. Gravity and pressure brought everything around, and our solar system will go for at least as long as it already has, some 4.5 billion years. Then it will die, only to form something new in the next “billenia.” Will it be something completely different? A double star or part of a new open cluster of stars? Or maybe a familiar life-harboring solar system?

We happen to be living in a very particular time when we as a species can begin to understand all the cycles of life and death around us. How unique and incredible for us. It’s not surprising we’re so curious about the universe, since we see our own selves reflected in the life cycles, in the growing and dying of everything around us. I think we study these cycles to try to understand what happens when we, too, die. Will we be born again in some “next cycle?”

From an old southern banjo tune:
Little birdie, little birdie,
come sing to me your song.
I've a short while to be here,
and a long time to be gone.

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes you fly so high?
It’s because I am a true little bird
and I do not fare to die.
I guess I like to think that nothing really goes away. We all get older and will all die, but even black holes give up their dead eventually. Nothing seems to be destroyed, and it all comes back around again, sometimes in the near future, like perennial flowers, and sometimes in the long run, like planets with life.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Weighty Subject

5/13/07 – 5/20/07
by C. Zaitz

My husband recently lost about 35 pounds due to having a very overactive thyroid gland. After an intense potion of radiation, it calmed down, so we started going back to the gym for workouts. He picked up a 35 pound weight and gave it to me to feel how much weight he’d lost. It seemed very heavy, but he carried it around for years. I started to think about weight and how we measure it, and how hard it is to lose it.

Weight is a combination of how much gravity pulls down on us, and how much “us” there is. Often in everyday life we confuse “mass” and “weight.” Mass is an intrinsic property of something, measured in pounds or kilograms. It’s how much “stuff” there is. If our mass was 150 kg on earth, it would still be 150 kg on the moon. But we wouldn’t weigh as much there, because the moon has much less gravity than earth. To get our weight, we would have to multiply our mass by how much gravity our “ground” has. Since we all live on earth and have nearly the same amount of gravity tugging on us, we forget the fact that weight and mass are different things.

Interestingly, if there were no floor or surface to stand on, you wouldn’t feel weight at all. If the floor wasn’t “pushing” back on you as hard as gravity is pulling you toward the center of the earth, you would just fall in, feeling no weight at all. This is “free fall” or “weightlessness.” It’s hard to do on earth, but the astronauts in orbit are very familiar with it. The astronauts and the space station might not have any “weight” in orbit, but they certainly have mass, which takes energy to move. That’s why it takes a lot of fuel to move stuff around even in “weightlessness.”

The fun comes when we figure out how much we’d weigh on other planets. Which would you choose, big planet or small? A 150 pound person would weigh 57 pounds on Mars. On the moon, you’d weigh a mere 25 pounds. But things get weird when you go to one of the giant, gassy planets. You’d think a mammoth planet like Saturn, a planet that could engulf earth 760 times, would have an enormous amount gravity. It does, but the farther you get from the center, the force of gravity lessens exponentially. Saturn has about 95 times more mass than earth, but its radius is 9.4 times that of earth. The math works out that on the “surface” or visible gassy outer atmosphere of Saturn, you would weigh approximately what you do on earth. The same is true of Neptune and Uranus. Jupiter is the most massive planet, 318 times more than earth, but its radius is over 11 times earth’s. Its surface gravity turns out to be about 2.5 times that of earth’s. Our 150 pound person would only weigh 375 pounds on Jupiter. Not bad for the biggest planet of them all. On Saturn, this same person would weigh a svelte 137 pounds. So you can actually “lose” weight by going to Saturn. Not to mention the weight you’d lose by eating freeze-dried peas for the three years it would take to get there.

If you’d like to check your own weight on the planets, you can go to: to plan your weight loss/gain itinerary.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Saturn in Leo

5/6/07 – 5/12/07
by C. Zaitz

Sometimes I take comfort in the thought that, as crazy as life gets here on earth, the planets are making their planetary journeys ‘round the sun in their own time. Each planet has its own pace, and the slowest, calmest naked-eye planet is Saturn. Right now Saturn is passing in front of the constellation Leo. Some folks say that this fact can be life altering.

For fun I looked up what astrologers have to say about the planet Saturn being “in” Leo. Because Saturn orbits so slowly, it spends more than two years in any one of the zodiac constellations. Saturn was the god of change, of destroying the old to make way for the new, so astrologers say. In his modern personification, he’s a teacher, and his tests are often difficult and life changing.

Astrologically, people born when the sun was “in” Leo tend to be leaders, and very involved with ego. So to have such a “destructive” planet in Leo seems to spell disaster for the top cats. But astrologers also say that if you are willing, Saturn’s life-changing presence can open up new doors and clean your inner house. That’s a lot of deep advice from the distant gas planet and the even more distant, boiling hot gas stars that make up the constellation of Leo. Recently I showed Leo to some 4th graders. They said that Leo looks like a smiley face or a pony or a balloon. This is not a very distinguished description of Leo, but nevertheless, kind of true. In general, constellations like Hercules or Sagittarius look nothing like a giant hero or a centaur. So to assign such lofty characteristics to a group of stars scattered through space is amusing to me. Of course, it’s crafty humans that come up with the characteristics, the shapes and the connections. And it’s searching humans that read their horoscopes and make connections with their own lives. It’s kind of interesting that not only do planets reflect sunlight back to us, but they reflect our own hopes and dreams, problems and possible solutions, back to us from afar.

As far as Saturn being “in” a constellation, right now is about 8 times the distance from the earth to the sun. It takes light about and hour and half to reach us from Saturn. Stars are much farther away. The brightest star in Leo, Regulus, is nearly 80 light years away from us. The planet actually moves “in front of” the stars of the constellation as it orbits, but it sounds more mysterious and inviting to say Saturn is “in” Leo, especially if you call that part of the sky a “house.”

If you want to see Saturn in Leo, look toward the south after sunset, about halfway up the sky, and look for the “sickle” or the backwards question mark shape of stars. That is the front part of Leo, if we imagine the round sickle blade as his head and golden mane. Saturn will be just to the right or west of the sickle. This spring, Saturn’s rings are prettily displayed for anyone with a telescope. Whether or not Saturn brings life altering events for you, you can still let the beauty of the reflected light dazzle your eyes and your mind. And that can be life altering as well, especially if it moves you to use the credit card to buy a new telescope!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.