Archive for the ‘Weather’ Category

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I’m the jerk

October 8, 2013

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For various complicated reasons, I had to take a cab home from work tonight. The cabbie mentioned that we were supposed to get rain soon. I took this as good news: even the cacti in my front flowerbed are looking a bit peakid, and the SoCal skies are always cleaner and more transparent after a rain. I asked when the rain was due, and he said maybe as early as tonight. That is not fantastic news, because I had hoped to watch Algol go through its minimum tonight and thus check off the 100th item on the AL Urban Observing Club.

When I got home, I learned why the rain is coming in tonight. A long skinny box from Oceanside Photo & Telescope was waiting for me. In other words, the New Scope Curse has struck again. So if you’re a SoCal stargazer and you’re wondering why, after a fortnight of  clear skies, we’re having rain: I’m the jerk.

I have some catching up to do here, but not a ton. Basically since March I have been out of stargazing, except for a quick peek or outreach here and there. In addition to teaching, which goes on every year, I’ve been shepherding a record number of papers (for me) through the publication process, writing a book, and gearing up for my tenure application. To be honest, it hasn’t been super fun. Like Bilbo, I feel thin, like jam scraped over too much toast. The lack of stargazing is just a symptom of that larger problem.

But things are looking up, metaphorically and literally. I will be in the anatomy lab until the last week of this month, but I have given my last lecture and written my last exam question for this year. My tenure application is almost done, and so is the book, which is good, since the former is a little past due and the latter is due at the end of this month.

And I have rediscovered something that I had forgotten for too long, which is that stargazing is therapy for me. In the middle of town, it puts me in touch with nature; in a career that keeps me on the computer for most of the day, it gets me off the grid (even if only by twenty feet); amidst the crowds and busyness of life it is a little space in which to be alone and at peace. I need to remember that, at least for me, a telescope is a device for seeing farther both inwardly and out.

I will have more to say soon about my return to stargazing and the contents of that preciptation-precipitating box. For now, I am just glad to be back.

The photo at the top is from our Arizona vacation in May, on the Sunset Crater/Wupatki Ruins loop road. That’s 300-million-year-old limestone on the right and probably 300-year-old basalt on the left. In fact, the likelihood of this road being destroyed by a future lava flow is pretty good. I’m still a fan.

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Letting the crazy out

April 24, 2011

From 2001 to 2006, we lived in Santa Cruz. This was before I became an amateur astronomer. Spring was storm season, which pretty much made it my favorite season. In the morning after a big storm, you could drive over kept strewn across West Cliff Blvd by the waves and wind. I used to go out the cliffs and just sit on the rocks. When a big wave came in and crashed against the cliffs, you could feel it, as if someone had gently kicked your chair. It was mesmerizing, watching the waves, thinking about the fact that the ocean had been there longer than life itself. Staring into that immensity always seemed to put me right with the world. My problems shrunk to manageable size. I often went down to the cliffs frustrated and bent out of shape and left with a little perspective and a little portion of calm.

I called it “letting the crazy seep out”. I don’t remember where I got that phrase, but it is one of my touchstones. It doesn’t just happen at the seaside (which is good, considering that I only lived next to the ocean for 1/7 of my life). Long drives through desolate country also do the trick, especially at night. Hikes of any length. The desert is a marvelous sponge for the accumulated mental grime of civilized life.

So is the night sky. I usually go out to observe with a purpose in mind–some new target to track down, or an old favorite I haven’t seen this season, or just to stare in awe again at the rings of Saturn or Jupiter with its little entourage of moons. But whatever purpose gets me out there looking up, one of the effects of stargazing for me has always been to let the crazy seep out. As if the telescope is a big syringe, drawing the poison out through my pupils. When I first realized this, back in Merced, I started to think of the night sky as another seashore. Carl Sagan’s description of the surface of the earth as “the shore of the cosmic ocean” resonates for me. If sitting on the cliffs in Santa Cruz brought me face-to-face with immensity, stargazing gives me a brush with eternity. I usually leave more tired but less crazy, and that’s a good trade.

Someone said of E.E. Barnard that he was a true observer because if he was prevented from making astronomical observations for any length of time, he got cranky. I can certainly relate. I am in a similar state right now. It’s been cloudy all week. It was cloudy the week before last. It cleared off last weekend, just in time for the camping trip to Owl Canyon, but the nearly-full moon and unsteady seeing made for one of the least satisfying nights of stargazing I’ve ever had, to the point that I gave up and went to bed at midnight (horror!). It’s not supposed to really clear off until Monday.

I did get out tonight, briefly. I was taking out some trash a little after 11:00 and noticed that the sky was mostly clear. By the time I got some warm clothes on, grabbed all my gear, and got set up out in the driveway, that was no longer true. Clouds from the west had already passed the zenith and were creeping down the eastern sky. Saturn and Virgo were already gone, and the Big Dipper was rapidly getting submerged in the soup. I tried without success to find a double star in Bootes, but it was eaten by the clouds too soon. The only stars I could make out lower in the sky were those of Hercules. I cruised down to M13, the Great Glob, mostly so I wouldn’t get completely skunked. It was barely there, but I swapped eyepieces around until I found the best magnification for this evening (75x; it might be higher or lower on other nights, under other conditions), cupped my hands around my face, and stared until the lights went out, which didn’t take long. Less than 10 minutes after I got the scope set up, the sky was completely socked in.

Needless to say, the experience was the opposite of therapeutic.

I know it’s probably galling for some to have a SoCal resident complaining about a measly week or two of clouds. William Herschel discovered 2500 or so deep sky objects, several hundred double stars, and the planet Uranus from England, where clouds are nearly omnipresent, sometimes even coming into people’s houses and carrying off their children. Herschel earned a post as Astronomer Royal, so stargazing was both his obsession and his occupation. If he could put up with a career of observing from England, I’m sure I can suck it up for a couple more days.

I hope so. The crazy is building up.