Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween On An Inclined Plane

On an inclined plane
a perfectly formed marble
accelerates down.

Frankenstein’s monster,
zombies, werewolves, vampires and
Frankenstein himself

stand at the table
watching the marble roll down.
The Loch Ness monster

submerges outside.
A UFO flashes past.
On a far plateau

a Triceratops
fights a Tyrannosaurus.
The marble rolls down.

It feels like it takes
forever to reach bottom
as the creatures watch.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Darkness Inside The Wolf

“Right away the huntsman guessed what had happened. ... So he took out his knife and quickly killed the wolf while he lay sleeping. Then he carefully cut open the wolf’s stomach.

“At the first cut, he saw the red velvet cloak, and after a few more slashes a little girl jumped out and cried, ‘Oh, thank you! I was very frightened! It was so dark inside the wolf!’”

Little Red Riding Hood
as retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

Hmmm. Many modern versions of the Little Red Riding Hood mythos don’t include the hunter actually cutting open the wolf. However, I suspect this version touches on a particularly ancient tradition.

And I suspect this version and the ancient tradition say a lot about what is really happening in this story. I think most people kind of/sort of have a feeling that fairy tales are about much more than just the superficial events narrated in the story.

I suspect this business about cutting open the wolf is the narrative clue that in the Old Times people intuitively understood that the darkness inside the wolf, along with the warmth and digestive juices, would activate deeply encoded genetic programs inside the cells of the Little Red Riding Hood creature. The cells of the Little Red Riding Hood creature would then start to grow and multiply, furiously dividing and reproducing the Little Red Riding Hood creature. Soon two Little Red Riding Hood creatures would burst out through the wolf’s abdomen, just like those creatures in the movie “Alien.”

(The movie “Alien” and its rip-offs are all contemporary incarnations of the Little Red Riding Hood mythos. That’s why there is almost always a young woman as the protagonist. I suspect there is also a large content of something like genetic memory, what people used to call ‘race memory,’ at work in these films which feature creatures that, in the course of their feeding and reproducing, rip their way through a person’s abdomen. Of course, in the original “Alien” the character played by Sigourney Weaver, “Ripley,” [that is, Rip-ley] rips apart the creature’s life cycle, killing it, even though she has no intention of eating the creature or using it to reproduce herself. In this kind of thing there is always more going on than meets the eye.)

This reading of the Little Red Riding Hood mythos preserves the “happy ending” consistent with a traditional fairy tale format. The Little Red Riding Hood creature is prevented from reproducing. The wolf is killed, but the wolf’s death is in service to what philosophers characterize as the ‘greater good’ of preventing the spread of Little Red Riding Hoods.

And, also consistent with a traditional fairy tale format, this reading maintains a strong moral. A real moral. Of course, the actual moral of the Little Red Riding Hood mythos is not targeted only at young girls and has nothing to do with ‘staying on the path’ or ‘avoiding strangers.’ The real moral of the Little Red Riding Hood mythos is much more primal.

The real moral of the Little Red Riding Hood mythos is: Just because something looks good that doesn’t mean you should eat it.

I hope everybody has a happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Leptons, Quarks, Gauge Bosons And Britney Spears

If Britney Spears were a bar of soap
she would have broken in half by now.
We’d have been forced to buy a new bar.

But Britney Spears is a bar of soap
in a complex, string theory cosmos
and when she breaks in half we observe
the two halves are just different edges—
imaginary edges at that—
of a bar of soap manifesting
itself across many dimensions
and the imaginary edges
are just theoretical constructs,
mathematical explorations
of a conceptual fantasy
no different than, say, imagining
a Britney-Beethoven love affair.

Britney Spears will never break in half
just as she’ll never kiss Beethoven.

I strongly suspect that when results
come from the Large Hadron Collider
they’ll confirm my shower experiments
and this interpretation of them.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sharks From Beyond Space: Sky As Shoreline

I wonder what goes on behind the sky?

Fishermen in boats study the shoreline
because what they see above the water
is sometimes an indication, a clue
to the unseen terrain underwater.

I wonder if the sky, the stars and all,
is just a shoreline, the visible part
of a larger, unseen reality?

Fishermen aren’t the only people
dealing with the shoreline and unseen depths.
There, by that sandy stretch, a boy and girl
are in up to their necks, laughing, splashing.
Their clothing is in two piles on the sand.

I’d like to go swimming among the stars,
skinny-dipping, laughing, splashing out there
between this world we see and what we don’t.

Of course I remind myself, however,
freshwater lake metaphors are safe but
if the unseen is like saltwater depths
then the oceans have riptides and big sharks . . .

I think I’d risk it. Sharks from beyond space
sound scary. But swimming among the stars,
skinny-dipping, laughing, splashing out there
between this world we see and what we don’t,
sounds fun. I’d risk it. Life is a gamble.

Friday, October 24, 2008

When We Meet Monsters

I saw a pheasant
at the end of the alley
but never an owl.

I saw a beaver
in the next alley over
but never a fox.

In a dream last night
I watched a chimera play
with the squirrels out back.

They were all chasing
along the telephone wires
above the alley,

two or three squirrels and
a half-squirrel, half-owl hybrid.
In my dream I thought

it is surprising
the chimera—partly owl—
doesn’t eat the squirrels.

But I guess monsters
get behavior encoding
that is mixed up, too.

I can’t stop thinking,
wondering what I would do
if a chimera—

say, fox and something
came to my alley wanting
to have fun with me.

The squirrels in my dream
looked like they were having fun
with the chimera.

But even dreaming
I thought the chimera soon
would eat all the squirrels.

When we meet monsters
should we play with them? Or run?
Or play carefully?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I suspect
of today’s post
was inspired
by this AP story
I read yesterday:

British plans to allow scientists
to use hybrid animal-human embryos
for stem cell research
won final approval
from lawmakers Wednesday...

[11/10/09 - AP removed the original link,
this links to the same story, different source]

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Monster Snakes And Sexy Tee Shirts

I haven’t seen a movie worth talking about for some time. Amazingly, Tuesday a new monster snake movie (with David Hasselhoff!) came out on DVD and it wasn’t awful! In fact, I really enjoyed it.

It is “Anaconda 3: Offspring.” Now, the first “Anaconda” was a genuinely good movie. The second, “Anacondas - The Hunt for the Blood Orchid” was a genuinely bad movie, nothing worth seeing at all. This one stakes out a kind of middle ground—it doesn’t try to be good good, it just tries to be a fun, enjoyable monster flick. And it does okay.

First of all, Hasselhoff gets top billing, but he really doesn’t have a big part, thankfully.

Second of all, the special effects aren’t all that great. A few months back I wrote about my two favorite monster snake movies and they both had better special effects than this one.

However, the director here, Don E. FauntLeRoy, is a cinematographer (ASC and everything!) and when camera guys or editors get to be directors there is almost always something worth seeing in their work. (With the exception of Peter Hyams, of course, who is always just wretched and unwatchable.) And in this film the director seems to lavish something like Hitchcockian attention to his leading lady’s wardrobe.

And it makes the film worth watching!

The real star of this film is an actress I know nothing about named Crystal Allen. I’ve never seen her act before, but she is a big step up from the Tara Reid lab coat/glasses/clipboard approach to being a woman scientist. Crystal Allen is reasonably convincing as a herpetologist [!] in charge of keeping a couple of monster snakes alive for a dubious scientist working for a dubious rich guy. (John Rhys-Davies plays the dubious rich guy, essentially the same role he played in “Sabretooth.”)

It’s good that Crystal Allen is a reasonably good actress because the best thing about this movie is watching her . . . very closely.

In the opening scenes, the setup, Allen wears a sexy black tee shirt over some kind of yoga/jogging pants.

When the film gets into the plot-plot-plot scenes, with businessmen talking to scientists and everyone walking around going golly-gee at the high tech lab, Allen wears random working-around-the-lab clothes.

But when the snakes wreck the lab and escape and everyone has to team up and go hunt the snakes, Allen changes into her basic herpetologist outfit: tight blue jeans and sexy white tee shirt.

Now, during the first couple of chase scenes she wears some kind of floppy army vest on top of her sexy tee shirt. But when the snake chomps down on the guy next to her, it splashes blood on the vest, so, of course, she has to take off the vest . . .

Then, after the first couple of chases and snake fights, there is a quiet scene that sets up big climactic chase and snake fight. During that quiet scene, Allen washes off the mud and puts on a clean pair of tight blue jeans and an even skimpier sexy white tee shirt.

So, she is looking very good in the final scenes where there are pleasant, slow motion shots of her walking toward the camera, away from the abandoned building and waiting for the Big Explosion.

It’s not great stuff, you know, it’s not cinema. But it’s a lot of fun. Everything’s adequate and Crystal Allen is an actual actress. And she’s very pretty.

So, it’s a fun monster snake movie.

And, I see at IMDB that “Anaconda 4: Trail of Blood” will be out soon, with the same director and Crystal Allen will reprise her role as Amanda, the sexy herpetologist. I’ll be watching!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Broken Windows From A Day In The Life

Last year a friend and I drove to a nearby suburb to visit their library. They have a cool aquarium there. I wrote about that visit here: Goldfish And Sea Monsters #1 of 3 and Goldfish and Sea Monsters #2 of 3 and Goldfish And Sea Monsters #3 of 3

That afternoon we stopped at a convenience store near the library. I bought a lottery ticket. The numbers I had worked out weren’t very good, however, and I didn’t win anything. But I’ll have more to say about this convenience store in just a bit.

That was last year.

Now, just a few months back I was by myself at that library with the aquarium when a kind of junior high gang war broke out. Some of the kids fighting threw a decorative boulder through the library’s front window, completely shattering the glass. I wrote about that here: Let’s Go To The Library And Scare Ourselves

That was a few months ago.

Now, just a few days ago—actually, just a few nights ago—a vendor was delivering supplies to that convenience store near the library with the cool aquarium and when the driver tried to park his truck he screwed up and drove the truck through the convenience store’s front window, completely shattering the glass.

I really don’t see a lot of shattered big windows, of boarded up big windows. But that makes two, recently, and both shattered and boarded up windows looked back to a particular day in my life.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of that.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of that, but since I got close looks at both shattered and boarded up windows from that day in the life, I suspect I am now just a little bit closer to figuring out how many holes it really takes to fill the Albert Hall.

And when I work out those numbers, everything will change.

Look out.

I’m working hard at it.

I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
Nobody was really sure
If he was from the House of Lords

I saw a film today, oh boy
The English Army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book

I’d love to turn you on

Woke up, got out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up I noticed I was late
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream


I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes
It takes to fill the Albert Hall

I’d love to turn you on

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Stars. Clouds. Us.

I wonder, do stars
on cloudy nights look down and
wish they could see us?

Clouds can look both ways.
They can look up at the stars,
also down at us.

If you can learn things
by looking, clouds must know things.
They’re not telling us.

Stars. Clouds. Us. No one
is talking to anyone.
Still, the stars watch us.

Monday, October 20, 2008

How Pluto’s First Moon Got Its Name

The discussion a few years ago about whether or not Pluto should be called a ‘planet’ missed the most interesting bits about Pluto. The mainstream media kind of presented the issue as if Pluto was getting demoted. But just the opposite was true.

Calling Pluto simply a ‘planet’ doesn’t do Pluto justice!

I used to think of Pluto as the ‘plain’ planet of the outer system, the last planet to be discovered, a ball of rock on the edge of nothingness on the fringe of the solar system.

I was wrong on just about all those thoughts.

First of all, Pluto is far from plain. It turns out that Pluto is in fact the solar system’s only known binary planet. Pluto and its largest moon are of such comparable size that neither really revolves around the other, rather they both revolve around a point in space between them. And with two additional small satellites and even, possibly, a ring system, Pluto may be one of the most complicated bodies in the solar system.

And rather than being the ‘last’ planet to be discovered on the edge of nothingness, now we know that Pluto actually was the first of the interesting TNO’s, the trans-Neptunian objects, to be discovered. Now we know there are thousands of TNO’s out there and trying to make sense of them with their odd combinations of some asteroid characteristics and some comet characteristics has become the single most interesting astrophysics issue of the modern era.

Pluto is the star of that show.

Pluto is known to have three moons. The two most recently discovered moons, Nix and Hydra, are very small and were first found with the Hubble space telescope. They have since been imaged from ground telescopes using state-of-the-art equipment and cutting-edge observing techniques.

The first moon of Pluto to be discovered was found by an astronomer named James Christy and he discovered the moon without ever leaving his desk . . .

How Pluto’s First Moon Got Its Name

One Thursday back in the late 70s James Christy was looking for a straightforward job he could start and finish by the end of the week. He decided to review a series of photographs of Pluto an observatory had sent him. The photos had been marked as defective because the observatory noticed that the images of Pluto weren’t as perfectly round as they should have been. Christy thought he could quickly check out the photographs, recover any useful positional information they may contain, and then call it a week.

After looking at the photographs first by eye and then with a microscope, Christy began to wonder if they really were defective. The star images were perfectly formed. Only the image of Pluto looked odd. And he began to notice a pattern to the oddness.

It occurred to Christy that the odd shape of Pluto could be caused if there were a moon orbiting around Pluto and the two images had become blurred together. As the moon changed position, the round image of Pluto would become elongated first in one direction and then another.

Christy studied the photographs and saw exactly that pattern.

He spoke with his boss, explained his moon theory, and the two of them both reviewed the photographs and worked out initial rotational periods independently. When they checked their numbers with each other, their calculations agreed.

It appeared Pluto had a moon.

When Christy reported his find, observatories quickly confirmed it.

Christy had identified a moon of Pluto from his desk, without ever looking through a telescope.

And since Christy had discovered the moon, it was his right to give it a name.

Astronomers Alan Stern and Jacqueline Mitton tell the story of the name:

“...Within a day of his discovery, he offered his wife, Charlene, the honor: ‘I could name it after you—Char-on.’ He was thinking it rhymed with prot-on and neutr-on. Another romantic astronomer.

“To make a very long story short, however, Christy realized within a few days that although it was his privilege to propose a name, the rules of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) nomenclature bylaws within which he operated stated that he would have to choose from Greek or Roman mythology. Someone suggested Persephone, the wife of Pluto. Christy liked that, so he went to a dictionary to get himself out of the trouble this would cause with his wife. But to his amazement, there, in black and white on the page, was the ancient name ‘Charon.’ In Greek mythology, Charon was the repugnant boatman who rowed dead souls over the river Styx into Hades, where the god of the underworld, Pluto, ruled. Christy realized this was the solution to his dilemma with both the IAU and his wife. Although correctly pronounced ‘Khar-on,’ Christy pronounced it ‘Shar-on,’ like Charlene—who promptly got her moon!

“It was done. Pluto’s satellite, which had for billions of years remained nameless in its anonymity, had acquired a name less than a week after its discovery by one very careful Homo sapiens.”

Friday, October 17, 2008

Saving Lucy

If I could somehow jump into
any novel in history
as a superhero and save
a character doomed by the plot
I would jump into Dracula
and save poor Lucy from her fate.

Poor Lucy had no idea
a monster had come to England.
She didn’t know that her friendship
with Mina put her in harm’s way.
And even as poor Lucy died
she died not knowing what killed her.

I wouldn’t jump in there to kill
the monster Dracula himself.

But I would like to save Lucy.

And I guess protect England, too,
until Jonathan can get back
and warn people Dracula’s loose.

Poor Lucy. The loneliest death.

If I could jump in I’d save her.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wine And Cigarettes And Children’s Art

When I think of illustrators, I don’t think of comic book artists, I think of children’s books.

Hundreds of children’s books are published every year and almost all of them are illustrated. Unlike comic books where there is—for all practical purposes—a single tradition for the look-and-feel of the images, children’s books have a long tradition of exploring imagery, of allowing artists to experiment with media and create any imaginable images as long as the work is well-crafted and communicates with the reader.

One of my favorite illustrators is Trina Schart Hyman.

This is her cover for Snow White:

Very cool stuff. She doesn’t always work with the same media and she doesn’t hesitate to used mixed media. But her illustrations are always beautiful.

A website dedicated to women illustrators maintains a Trina Hyman page.

[Check out the site’s sculpted paper section, too!]

And, of course, there is a Trina Hyman Wikipedia entry.

I’m going to post Trina Hyman’s own description of how she works from her page at the site dedicated to women illustators. I’m not going to upload all the graphics that go along with it, so click over there to see more examples of her beautiful work. But I like this little piece because even though she is famous for illustrating children’s books, she doesn’t hesitate to pass along a couple of un-PC bits about how she works:

How I Do My Work

by Trina Schart Hyman

My picture ideas come directly from the story I am working on, which are then embellished and augmented by looking at the world I see around me, by my own fertile imagination, and when necessary, by careful research.

I usually receive the story from the publisher in manuscript form. Then the art director and I decide on an appropriate trim size and type face for the book. The next thing I receive (from the art director) are type-set galley sheets—the text of the story as it will appear printed in the book. By this time I have read the story anywhere from 5 to 25 times and have been thinking hard about how I want the illustrations to look and what the "mood" of the book will be. If the story is set in a particular or historical period, I will also have started to gather pictorial research from the library or bookstore—or from my own well-stocked bookshelves.

Then I design the book. I cut the galleys apart and decide where to place the text and where to put the illustration. Sometimes I will do very rough sketches—notes to myself, really—in a dummy of the book to see how the illustration will look on the page. Then I begin work on the finished art. I very rarely do preliminary sketches, because all the preliminary work has already happened inside my head. I don't work from models, and I never work from photographs. I have a pretty good visual memory, and if I don't know how to draw something I want to use in a picture, I go out and find it and make some drawings from "life" or else find a picture of it in a book. Many of the characters in my books are actually friends, neighbors and family—people I know pretty well and can draw from memory.

I work on illustration board—either Bainbridge, Fabriano, Whatman or Crescent "scannerboard." If I am going to work in oil paints, I gesso the surface first. I almost always work "same size," i.e., the actual size of the book. I start to draw in pencil and make many corrections as I go along until I can get the drawing just the way I want it to look.

Sometimes at this point I give up and have to start all over and revise my first ideas, but eventually I get it right. Then (unless I am working in oils) I go over my pencil drawing with a final drawing in India-ink. I use a brush for this drawing (Windsor-Newton series 7 sable brushes, usually #1 size) because I can get more control and sensitivity of line with a brush than with a pen.

Sometimes I add areas of shadow with an India-ink wash. Than I lay on the color with acrylic paint in fairly thin washes that are built up to the desired intensity of color. I use glazes of ultramarine and raw umber mixed with a varnish medium to deepen shadow areas. Depending on the book, I may then work into some areas of illustration with colored pencils, lead pencil, pastels or plain old Crayola crayons.

I do my illustrations chronologically, from page one through the last page—then I do the cover illustration. I can only work on one book at a time, because when I am illustrating a book (or even just the jacket illustration for a novel) I am totally immersed in the "world" of that story, and dare not let anything else intrude into the imaginary world that I've created.

I usually work from 10:30 in the morning until 9 o'clock at night, with an hour's time off at 4:30 to walk the dogs, feed the sheep and then have a glass of wine. I smoke cigarettes the whole time and listen to music—usually jazz and R & B—and take frequent breaks to stoke up the little red wood stove, which is the only source of heat in my tiny, messy studio.

-- from Once Upon A Time, Spring 1997 Issue.

"I do all my work on the same piece of paper, so my preliminary sketches become the finished piece of art work. First I make a pencil drawing, then I use India ink and brush followed by acrylic paint, which I dilute like watercolor and apply in thin glazes. I believe that because I work on the same piece of drawing board, the pictures are alive. My own struggle, underneath the final image, is what gives the picture its soul."

-- from Something about the Author, Volume 46.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Water, Clouds And The Alchemy Of People

Woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!
— Ophelia

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Madness in great ones must not unwatched go. — Claudius

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

In Monet’s seascapes we often find waves
crashing against rocks. Crashing against rocks.

Pissarro’s landscapes often feature clouds
floating above fields. Floating above fields.

Cézanne seldom paints water as changing.
Cézanne seldom paints clouds as unchanging.

And Cézanne paints people, too, the same way
he doesn’t paint water, doesn’t paint clouds.

Cézanne looks through the so-called impression.
Cézanne looks past transitory effects.
Cézanne looks beyond the fleeting moment.

Cézanne looks for more. Structure that persists.
Something that earlier generations
may have spoken of saying eternal.

It’s tempting to think such things don’t exist.
It’s tempting to think of such thoughts only
as the romantic day-dreams of lost times.

We see photographs of waves. They do break.
We see clouds moving slowly. They are forms.

But then we see a Cézanne painting and
we understand that behind the changing
is something more. Structure that does persist.
In the landscapes around us. And in us.

It’s there even if we pretend it’s not.

It’s tempting to think. It’s good to think more.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Some Outer System Notes

And the search—the quest, really—for understanding the outer solar system is still happening right now, every bit as dynamic and even more interesting now than it was four hundred years ago.

Galileo And Neptune

Before I get to some interesting news about the outer system, I have a confession to make.

Last week Friday I made a real stupid error. I mean, bobble-head doll dumb.

Astronomy magazine prints a helpful page of celestial events for the month. (I don’t see the same feature offered online.) So, all last week I was looking forward to Friday when the Moon would be about one degree away from Neptune because I saw the note in Astronomy magazine. The note was clear, the conjunction would happen at 6am EST on 10/10.

Of course, that means “Thursday night!”

Darn it! I knew that. Heck, on Wednesday I observed the Moon in Capricornus. If I’d thought about it, I would have known it only would take one day to get through the constellation.

It wouldn’t have mattered since we had cloudy skies last Thursday, but I would have stopped myself from looking like a fool on the net!

Yeah. Friday night after sundown I checked out the southern sky and saw the Moon four or five degrees east of Capricornus and I knew instantly what a screw-up I’d made.

[sighs] So, there I was doing a post about what a great, rigorous thinker Galileo was and I couldn’t even keep straight in my mind that “am” times for a day actually mean the night before for astronomy types. [sighs]

Yeah, I don’t think anybody is going to be studying my notebooks four hundred years from now . . .


Anyway, there’s interesting stuff going on beyond Neptune and astronomers are knocking themselves out to find out about it.

Over the weekend, a Sky & Telescope writer, Kelly Beatty, posted an interesting story about a new TNO. (The links inside this story are especially cool. They lead to the Canada-France Ecliptic Plane Survey and just about all of the links there are worth clicking on and reading. This is a pretty cool bit of astronomy in progress.)

Here’s the TNO story:

Kooky Kuiper-Belt Object

A few weeks ago I learned of a curious discovery out beyond Neptune. The object itself, dubbed 2008 KV42, was no bigger than about 30 miles (50 km) across — no threat to Pluto and Eris as the new king of the Kuiper Belt.

What caught my attention was the inclination of its orbit: 104°. In other words, the path it takes around the Sun is tilted up and over so much that the motion is more "backward" than "forward." Astronomers sometimes term this a retrograde orbit.

It's the first known retrograde trans-Neptunian object, but it didn't seem like that big a deal at the time. After all, 17 asteroids are similarly headed the wrong way around the Sun.

But today, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences, I learned that 2008 KV42 might be more archetype than oddball. Brett Gladman, a member of the discovery team, explained that this find could be the "missing link" in a long-running cometary conundrum. (I also learned that he and his observing buddies have nicknamed their find "Drac," because Dracula and other vampires purportedly could walk on walls.)

Gladman, J. J. Kavelaars, and Jean-Marc Petit found it on May 31st while trolling for just such high-inclination objects using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Comets follow one of three general paths as they plunge toward the Sun. Jupiter-family comets glide in close to the major planets' orbital plane. Most eventually encounter Jupiter and become trapped in tighter, short-period paths around the Sun. The thinking goes that they must originate either from the "classical" Kuiper Belt, a loose disk of bodies that lurk from Neptune's orbit out to about 55 astronomical units (a.u.), or from what are termed "scattered-disk objects," which have eccentric but low-inclination orbits.

Nearly isotropic comets, meaning they come screaming in from pretty much any direction, originate in the outer Oort cloud at least 10,000 a.u. from the Sun. Finally, Halley-type comets, named after the most famous ice ball of them all, have orbits that are highly inclined and often retrograde (as Halley's is).

Despite their best efforts, dynamicists have yet to puzzle out how the Halley-types ended up so skew to the rest of the solar system. Computer models that simulate long-term orbital evolution haven't been able identify a source region in either the Kuiper Belt or the more distant Oort cloud.

Gladman has a hunch that 2008 KV42 might provide some clues. Its average distance from the Sun is 32 a.u. and comes its closest near the orbit or Uranus. So does 2002 XV93, which is inclined steeply at 77°. But Uranus doesn't have enough mass to have yanked these so far up, Gladman says. So, for now, he's headed back to the dynamical drawing board.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Galileo And Neptune

This weekend will be an interesting and frustrating weekend for astronomy buffs who enjoy observing Neptune.

Tonight, 10/10, the Moon will pass less than one degree north of Neptune. (The Moon, full, is about half a degree wide. So, tonight the Moon will be about two lunar diameters away from Neptune.)

This isn’t an Earth-shaking event, it happens not infrequently, however it is unusual. For one night observers will have the most distant easily visible solar system object, Neptune, in the same telescopic field of view as the nearest solar system object, the Moon.

That’s pretty cool.

The bad news, however, the frustrating bit, is that the Moon now is very bright. We are only four days away from the next full Moon. Bright light from the Moon probably will wash out dim Neptune for most observers.

I’ll check it out with my 60mm refractor.

Neptune Last Weekend

Toward the end of last week we had patchy moments of reasonably good seeing. I got to observe Neptune from my tripod-mounted 10x50 binoculars.

My binoculars are wide angle, taking in something like 6.5 or 7 degrees. I did this quick crayon sketch [an exaggerated impression of the scene (I’ve exaggerated the brightness and size of the objects, not the field-of-view)] to remember what I saw. That’s Delta and Gamma Capricorni at the bottom. Above Delta are the three stars about 5.5 magnitude, 44, 45 and 42 Capricorni. Just west of 44 Capricorni are two dim field stars of about 8 magnitude. Neptune is a third star in that line, about 7.8 magnitude.

This makes for a great scene for finding Neptune. For the rest of this month Neptune will continue retrograde, moving away from the two dim field stars. Then Neptune will resume its normal motion and move back east. By the end of the year Neptune will have moved back past the two dim stars. With so much motion going on, from week to week you can be sure you’re observing Neptune.

There were moments Thursday or Friday when I thought I could glimpse just a hint of color for Neptune through my binoculars. It was fleeting and I’m generally certain I imagined it, however I have a sliver of doubt that I may have actually observed the color because it looked just like the unexpected color I saw last year through my telescope, a kind of greenish-blue glint, coming and going. (Neptune is a blue planet so it’s odd to see it as greenish-blue, but with colors in astronomy you just note what you think you see because the colors are so transitory that sometimes they take you by surprise.)

Galileo And Neptune

Although this isn’t an Earth-shaking occasion, the Moon being so close to Neptune, just about four hundred years ago Neptune passed very close to Jupiter. That wasn’t exactly Earth-shaking, but hundreds of years later it is still big news.

It’s big news because at the end of 1612 and the beginning of 1613 Galileo was observing the moons of Jupiter that he had discovered. Galileo was observing the moons of Jupiter very carefully because back then nobody really knew what was happening in the sky. The Church had one view. Superstitious astrologers had another view. Scientists trying to think rigorously had worked out quite a few different possible views and were attempting to gather evidence to sort out what really was happening.

Galileo’s observations of the moons of Jupiter, specifically how the planet Jupiter eclipsed the moons and cast its shadow on them, would be a pivotal bit of evidence for convincing most scientists that, in fact, the Sun is at the center of the solar system. It also, of course, caused a heck of a lot of trouble between Galileo and the Church, but that’s another story.

So, Galileo was making very careful observations of Jupiter and the moons of Jupiter. He was drawing diagrams and measuring the distances of the moons from Jupiter using a device that he inserted into his telescope to ascertain graphically how wide Jupiter appeared to be and how far away the moons appeared to be, using as units the apparent width of Jupiter.

For a few nights, late in 1612 and early in 1613, Galileo observed that Jupiter passed very close to a dim ‘fixed’ star. At the same time, Galileo noticed a second star in the same area and, strangely, the second star appeared to move from night to night.

Galileo made some diagrams of the odd arrangement of celestial bodies but, unfortunately, it appears that bad weather made it impossible for him to perform follow-up observations.

However, Galileo’s observations and diagrams were so accurate that astronomers today can easily identify the fixed star Galileo observed and astronomers today know that the second star, the star that appeared to move from night to night, was actually Neptune.

Galileo was a real scientist. An amazing guy. Nobody back then even knew what planets and moons were. Even the people who were beginning to suspect some hints of the truth were still pretty unclear. Kepler, for instance, the guy who would work out the real geometry of the solar system, suspected that Venus was actually burning by its own light, sort of like a miniature version of the Sun.

But Galileo went about his work so carefully, with such dedication and with such active interest in what he was doing, that his results are not only still interesting today, but still can be useful today.

Astronomers who are trying to locate possible new planets in the outer solar system have been trying to use the data Galileo set down to calculate possible disturbances to Neptune’s orbit that could point to the location of a new planet.

Unfortunately, as careful as Galileo was, because he only had two or three opportunities to observe Neptune, astronomers today are not exactly clear on how to interpret, I mean exactly interpret, his diagrams. One researcher puts it like this: “If Galileo’s diagram is indeed drawn to scale, as Kowal and Drake believe, then the presence of a tenth planet in the solar system is almost a certainty. The modern ephemerides of Neptune cannot contain an error as large as 3 Jovian semidiameters (more than one arc minute). However, if Galileo did not bother with scale and drew the asterisks only to show alignment with Jupiter, then his diagram demonstrates the accuracy of modern planet position tables—which are based on the gravity of only nine planets.” [from “Planets Beyond” below]

This is one of the coolest episodes in the history of science that I am aware of. Galileo, working away four hundred years ago, worked so carefully that scientists today are still able to use Galileo’s data to help us sort out our understanding of the solar system.

It pays to do things right. I mean, right. You just never know what role the stuff you do might someday play in a bigger picture.

Incidentally, this episode touches on many other interesting episodes. The whole business of Galileo observing the moons of Jupiter is an interesting story in itself and can be read in: Galileo: Pioneer Scientist, by Stillman Drake. The astronomer who first learned that Galileo ‘accidently’ observed Neptune didn’t learn it by chance. He tells the story himself on the net here: Galileo’s Observations of Neptune, by Charles T. Kowal. And the search—the quest, really—for understanding the outer solar system is still happening right now, every bit as dynamic and even more interesting now than it was four hundred years ago. Some of that story can be found in: Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System, by Mark Littmann . Finally, the actual discovery of Neptune in the ninteenth century was a very strange (and strangely modern!) combination of mathemtics, observational astronomy and oddball politics. People are still writing books trying to sort out exactly what happened. The links at Wikipedia’s Neptune page point to some good titles for further reading.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ode To The Concept Of Cotton Candy

Amy Winehouse, Amy Winehouse
Bad, bad cheese for a deaf, dumb and blind mouse

Paris Hilton, Paris Hilton
The pinball game in your head is tiltin’

Nicole Richie, Nicole Richie
Just the thought of a kiss makes me itchy

Britney Spears, Britney Spears
Don’t even speak till I’ve had three more beers

Winona Ryder, Winona Ryder
Everything she steals piles up inside her

Mischa Barton, Mischa Barton
Curdled milk spilled from an open carton

Alyson Michalka, Alyson Michalka
Rock and roll face in show business polka

Hilary Duff, Hilary Duff
Please go away, I’ve had more than enough

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Paint Brushes Have Nightmares And Sometimes Dance

In my bedroom by the doorway
on a table in a glass cup
are some paint brushes. They’re standing
on their handles, bristles upward.
Acrylics. Oils. Watercolors.
Some were designed, manufactured
by England’s Winsor and Newton.
I think last night I heard them all
clinking around in their glass cup.
I may have imagined it but
I think they were all excited
reading some news I’d printed out
from Winsor and Newton’s website.
I’d left the page on the table
by the doorway to my bedroom
next to the glass cup of brushes.
A paint brush for years lost at sea
has been rescued and brought back home.
Brushes have nightmares of being
lost where there’s no one to hold them.
I may have imagined it but
I think my brushes read this news
last night and danced in their glass cup.

A Titanic Discovery by Emma Pearce!

Ever wondered about how long your Series 7 brush might last? Well back in 1994, Emma Pearce, then Technical Adviser at Winsor & Newton, found out in a most unusual way.

"Like so many people, I've always had a real fascination about the Titanic, fuelled at art school by those wonderful black and white photos of the grand staircase, staterooms, 1st Class promenades and reading rooms, the construction photographs and the passengers boarding in Southampton.

The 1994 exhibition at Greenwich Maritime Museum was the first following the locating and salvaging of the great ship, the prospect of seeing actual items retrieved from those rooms and decks was really exciting, certainly one of those landmark exhibitions in one's lifetime.

So I queued and travelled round with the hoards, amazed at each exhibit; the ship's compass, a chandelier from the 1st Class public room, a printed luggage tag, a suitcase still locked, pieces of coal, a steward's jacket with his name written on, even a bottle of champagne still corked. It was fantastic.

Then I turned a corner to pore over another cabinet and saw a paintbrush, fascinating I thought. Naturally, as a painter and Technical Adviser I leaned close to have a better look. My gasp at seeing it was a black lacquered Series 7 was clearly audible to those nearby. It truely looked exactly the same as those in my paint pot! How could this have been 2 ½ miles down for more than 75 years?

Now many of us who lovingly care for our best Series 7 brushes can be using them for many years but the ability to survive in those conditions and remain usable is surely the ultimate endorsement of quality!"

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Monster Bears And Knitting

Over the weekend I watched a MonsterQuest episode about the possibility that remnant populations of prehistoric bearsthe short-faced bear (Arctodus simus)—may still exist in Alaska or Siberia or Canada. It was pretty interesting and yesterday I looked around the net for more information on monster bears. When I did a Google image search for monster bear, however, in the first line of results right alongside the pictures of monster bears was a picture of an attractive young woman looking oddly seductive in a very clean cut sort of way.

This picture. I wondered what the connection was between the babe and the bears. So, I clicked into the link.

It turns out the young woman is very, very into knitting. And blogging. She had done a blog post with the title, Little Monster Bear.

I’m not an arts & crafts person, but the ‘little monster bear’ (and sexy picture) got me interested and I looked around her blog.

It turns out, in fact, that she has four blogs. All about knitting. She lives, apparently, in Alaska and I’m guessing those longs days and long nights need to be filled up doing something. She does knitting and blogging about knitting. And her blogs look pretty darn popular. They are:


Argyle Vest-Along!

Knitting Japanese Wannabees

Icarus Shawl KAL

Wow. That’s a lot of knitting and a lot of blogging about knitting.

I’m not an arts & crafts person but I like blogs by people who are serious about what they do and this looks like one serious knitter and blogger. I’ll be checking in again.

Oh, this is what her knitted ‘little monster bear’ looks like. After ‘felting’ (whatever felting is):

Monday, October 06, 2008

The World And The Supervillain’s Nightclub

Even if I were a supervillain
and I maintained a nightclub as a front
for my nefarious doings, my hunt
to conquer the very concept of sin,

I wouldn’t let the fellows pushing gin
headline Amy Winehouse on stage to grunt
her way through her act which is, to be blunt,
dying while the world drinks, yawns and looks in.

One good thing about being happily
beyond good and evil is you’re also
beyond shabby, pointless and pathetic.

The supervillain laughing crazily
is a shabby, pointless, pathetic show
but it’s not staged to a drunk’s aesthetic.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Center For Backyard Astrophysics

One cool thing about astronomy as a science, something quite different from almost all the other sciences, is that in astronomy it is not too unusual for the work of amateurs to find a place right next to the work of professionals.

Even in this era of robotic telescopes and automated sky surveys, every year amateur astronomers discover new comets, new novae and maintain data on variable star fluctuations.

My pick for the coolest thing amateur astronomers have ever participated in happened two years ago about this time of year. It started, in fact, in Japan on Halloween night

An accomplished Japanese amateur astronomer, Akihiko Tago, discovered that an obscure dim star in the constellation Cassiopeia had suddenly become fifty times brighter than normal. He reported his find to the astronomy world’s central clearinghouse of information and they immediately announced the discovery via email to professional and amateur astronomers all around the world.

Professionals and amateurs turned their attention to Cassiopeia. Professionals began to try to figure out exactly what kind of event was taking place. Was the star going nova? Was it a normal star suddenly turning variable?

One group of amateurs who responded enthusiastically was the Center for Backyard Astrophysics. This is a world-wide group of astronomy buffs who all have equipment optimized for studying variable stars. This group collected data on the strange star in Cassiopeia night after night, documenting the star as it slowly faded back to its normal magnitude.

Professional astronomers and astrophysicists eventually concluded that an obscure bit of Einstein-type physics had taken place—a small star had passed directly between the Earth and the star in Cassiopeia and the gravity of that small star had created a gravity lens, specifically a micro-lens event. Space itself had become bent and gathered light from the distant star and focused it on the Earth.

Such events had been witnessed before, but only involving stars from outside our own galaxy.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of such an event is the manner in which the star’s light brightens and then returns to normal. All the data gathered by members of the Center for Backyard Astrophysics were used by professional astronomers and astrophysicists to plot the curve of the changes in the star’s light. The curve conformed perfectly to what the physics of a micro-lens event predicted.

Pretty cool stuff.

The amateurs work with generally off-the-shelf equipment. Telescopes between 8 inches and 30 inches. Standard electronic imaging equipment. They have some custom software they share among themselves for processing their nightly images, but the software runs on normal computers.

Pretty cool stuff.

(But I will be honest: Although this is my favorite episode of amateurs working with professionals, the whole field of variable star observing always has seemed indescribably boring to me. It is, I think, the one sub-field of astronomy that I have never personally participated in. I sometimes wonder about my own lack of interest in the activity because I think the astrophysics of variables stars is very interesting and I strongly suspect studies of variable stars will someday yield surprising discoveries. It’s strange: I think it’s cool and interesting, but I feel no imperative do it . . .)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sky & Telescope magazine
published an interesting article
on the Cassiopeia event in their
July, 2008, issue.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The False-Color Moons Of Filipe Alves

Normally colors in astronomy are rare, transitory and subtle. They can be among the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, but colors in astronomy typically are not intense.

One of the cool things about digital astrophotography, however, is that a skilled person can tweak, manipulate and push reality and create colors that are amazing.

Filipe Alves takes careful photographs of the Moon through filters which allow specific spectrum colors to pass, generally red and blue. Then he uses the brightness differences between the different spectrum results to create artificial color images of the Moon.

These images are not only beautiful, but they highlight different surface characteristics which makes it easier to become familiar with the lunar landscape.

Planetary geologist Charles Wood writes a monthly column for Sky & Telescope magazine about the Moon. In the September, 2008, issue, Wood points out that although these false-color images aren’t ‘real’ in the sense that we would never see these colors observing the Moon, the differences in brightness of the different spectrum images is caused by actual differences in the composition of the lunar surface. For instance, the strong contrast between the light Sea of Tranquility and the dark Sea of Serenity is caused by the lava which formed the Sea of Tranquility being rich in titanium. Although we would never see these particular colors observing the Moon by eye, on a good night with good equipment and a sharp eye, observers might be able to see some color differences between areas of the lunar surface.

To give you an idea of how subtle and transitory colors in astronomy typically are, Wood writes about his own experience looking for color on the Moon: “...I have only noticed colors in one spot: the low plateau northwest of the bright crater Aristarchus. For me the Aristarchus Plateau appears a distinct olive. Other observers have reported seeing it as yellowish or slightly red, perhaps like hot-dog mustard mixed with a little ketchup.

Given that green (‘olive’) and red are what artists call ‘opposite’ colors, the fact that experienced observes can report the same feature as either green or red tells you how variable the experience of colors in astronomy can be.

There is one tip I can pass along for trying to observe colors on the Moon. Normally lunar observers avoid the full Moon. The light is too bright and the absence of shadows makes it hard to distinguish lunar features. But the extra light from the bright full Moon can help activate color receptors in the eye. If you allow your eyes to adapt to the brightness of a full Moon, you can sometimes see colors you normally would miss. Be warned, however, that although observing the full Moon is safe, almost certainly you will get a headache as your eyes constantly try to adjust first to the darkness around you and then to the brightness of the Moon.

There is a second way, a less dramatic way, of tweaking, manipulating and pushing reality to create color images of the Moon. You can take careful, full-color photographs and use image-processing techniques to adjust the color saturation to maximum. Filipe Alves provides a reasonably detailed tutorial on how to do it here: How to capture the color of the Moon, by Filipe Alves

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

2008 3rd Quarter Index

September, 2008

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 -- Never Having Kissed Amy

Monday, September 29, 2008 -- The Almost New Moon In Black And White

Friday, September 26, 2008 -- Sometimes The Stars Move Backward

Thursday, September 25, 2008 -- "The Ancient Art Of Knowing The Sky"

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 -- Frustrating Skies: Neptune At 50mm

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 -- And Now A Musical Interlude With Judas And Jesus

Monday, September 22, 2008 -- Ode To "Smallville"

Friday, September 19, 2008 -- Oh-Oh. If Cats Could Fly (The Poem)

Thursday, September 18, 2008 -- Oh-Oh. If Cats Could Fly...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008 -- The Tache And The Touche

Tuesday, September 16, 2008 -- "A Vaguely Fantastic Truth"

Monday, September 15, 2008 -- Rendering Golems

Friday, September 12, 2008 -- Hunting The Storsjoodjuret

Thursday, September 11, 2008 -- Petting Katydids

Wednesday, September 10, 2008 -- Endings And Beginnings

Tuesday, September 09, 2008 -- The Unfinished Image

Monday, September 08, 2008 -- Keeping A Vampire As A Pet Always Ends Badly

Friday, September 05, 2008 -- Ashes To Ashes

Thursday, September 04, 2008 -- The Word Monster

Wednesday, September 03, 2008 -- Primal Forces Of Nature

Tuesday, September 02, 2008 -- The Old Gypsy Woman Said Dirt Is Coming My Way

Monday, September 01, 2008 -- What Is Love? 5 -- Godzilla

August, 2008

Friday, August 29, 2008 -- Charles Moore Goes To Saturn!

Thursday, August 28, 2008 -- Never Once Harmed By Anyone

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 -- Avril, Yes; Beyonce, Christina, No

Tuesday, August 26, 2008 -- Twilight Language—Decapitations, Bigfoot And Psychopathic Movies

Monday, August 25, 2008 -- After Dark

Friday, August 22, 2008 -- A TV, A DVD Player And A Cloud Somewhere Above Me

Thursday, August 21, 2008 -- Hanny's Voorwerp

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 -- Bigfoot Update (Cops Lie?!)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 -- Hollywood Makes Psychopathic Movies?!

Monday, August 18, 2008 -- Michelle Wie And Bigfoot

Friday, August 15, 2008 -- Deviations and Norms #1: Numbers

Thursday, August 14, 2008 -- Not Britney, Not Even Mischa

Wednesday, August 13, 2008 -- Wrinkled, Lined And Flabby (Reprise)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008 -- The Big Machine On The Table

Monday, August 11, 2008 -- Plum Island Monsters

Friday, August 08, 2008 -- The Picture Manifold

Thursday, August 07, 2008 -- Wrinkled, Lined And Flabby

Wednesday, August 06, 2008 -- Crying (A Loose End)

Tuesday, August 05, 2008 -- Petting Butterflies

Monday, August 04, 2008 -- Grim

Friday, August 01, 2008 -- Checking Out Mirror Neurons At The Grocery Store

July, 2008

Thursday, July 31, 2008 -- A Fluffy Update

Wednesday, July 30, 2008 -- Hell Is The Eclipse Of Art

Tuesday, July 29, 2008 -- Grousing And Werewolf Grousing

Monday, July 28, 2008 -- The Black Slip: A NASCAR Mystery

Friday, July 25, 2008 -- "The Fountainhead" Versus "The Phantom Of The Paradise"

Thursday, July 24, 2008 -- My "Year Of The Cat" Fantasy

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 -- Beethoven On Gilligan's Island

Tuesday, July 22, 2008 -- A Painting For The Pope

Monday, July 21, 2008 -- Devouring Memory

Friday, July 18, 2008 -- A Thirty Year Old Mushroom

Thursday, July 17, 2008 -- Fireflies (Not Synchronized) In My House

Wednesday, July 16, 2008 -- Frank Frazetta's Pencils

Tuesday, July 15, 2008 -- Vic Mizzy

Monday, July 14, 2008 -- Friday I Visited A Haunted House (A Befuddlement)

Friday, July 11, 2008 -- Decades

Thursday, July 10, 2008 -- Trouble At Yerkes Observatory

Wednesday, July 09, 2008 -- Losing Cool

Tuesday, July 08, 2008 -- Rogue Blossoms

Monday, July 07, 2008 -- Monster Types

Thursday, July 03, 2008 -- The Harp-like Strings Inside The Piano

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 -- 2008 2nd Quarter Index