Apollo and a Fictional Ancestor

Today is the official 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon (July 20th, 2019).  As a change of pace from the usual tributes and histories concerning the anniversary, I am posting a reworking of an excerpt of an article I wrote for the Asterism (AAI’s newsletter) some years ago where I compare the Apollo missions to their fictional ancestor, which was written by Jules Verne.  Enjoy.

Probably one of the first authors who wrote what we could call science fiction was Jules Verne. And he also had quite a knack for predicting things in the future.  Many (evidently including the U.S. Navy) believed that “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” foretold the nuclear submarine since the Nautilus was said to require a special substance mined on an island in order to run. And his most predictive story “Paris in the 20th Century” (which predicted the fax machine, among other things) was rejected by Verne’s publisher as being too far-fetched, even by Verne’s standard. But the story that will be discussed here is “From the Earth to the Moon” published in 1865.

The vehicle used by the space travelers was the Columbiad. It was a capsule made mostly out of aluminum, an exotic wonder material of that era, like carbon nanotube composite is in our time. But Verne made the right choice since aluminum is a major component of modern spacecraft for the same reasons Verne chose it – it is an extremely light metal. However, Verne either ignored or was unaware of atmospheric friction and there was no mention of any sort of thermal protection system on the Columbiad. Even though Jules Verne never thought of rockets having sufficient power to launch a space vehicle (this was about 25 years before Konstantin Tsiolkovsky would first describe space rockets), he did mention that the Columbiad was equipped with maneuvering thrusters for use in space, like modern spacecraft. Then there is the shape of the Columbiad itself. It is always depicted as having a blunt shape like an artillery shell, not the gumdrop shape that the Apollo capsules, NASA’s Orion capsule, as well as Boeing’s CST-100 have, but it is very similar in shape to the descent modules of the Russian Soyuz and Chinese Shenzhou capsules, as illustrated by a comparison between Columbiad and Shenzhou below (not to scale).

columbiad vs shenzhou

A comparison of the Columbiad (on left) and the descent module of the Chinese Shenzou spacecraft (on right)

While the method Verne’s astronauts used to leave the Earth, having their capsule shot out of an enormous cannon, was way off target, many other aspects in the story were extremely predictive. For instance, the launch site is located in Florida, not too far from the present-day Kennedy Space Center. While this might seem to be a lucky guess, it wasn’t.  Verne wrote that the organizers of the mission had a debate over the launch site between Florida and Texas, much like Congress had in the early days of spaceflight. Florida wound up being chosen for the same reason it was in reality – latitude. When a rocket is launched, it is generally sent on an easterly path. The reason for this is to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation to gain a little extra velocity. And since the Earth rotates as a solid body, this velocity gain is larger the closer you get to the equator (the European Space Agency has their launch site in South America). Verne’s astronauts were Americans and Verne knew that Florida was as far south as the United States went in those days.

In space, the astronauts on board the Columbiad pass the time by performing some scientific experiments – an activity that their real-life modern counterparts also do. But the resemblance to a modern flight doesn’t stop there. The Columbiad flight plan called for it to fly around the Moon and then head back to Earth. In NASA jargon, this is called a free-return trajectory and those who remember Apollo 13 (the actual mission or the Ron Howard film) know that this was the trajectory the crew had to get their crippled spacecraft back on to return home. And, foreshadowing what would become standard procedure in the Apollo missions, the Columbiad crew made observations of the Moon as they flew around it, though their attempt to study the unlit portion of the far side of the Moon was less than successful.

Finally, Verne ends the mission by having the Columbiad splash down in the Pacific near Hawaii, where it and the crew are recovered by a specifically designated vessel. Again this is quite similar to how the actual Apollo missions went. About the only major difference was that the real life U.S. Navy recovery teams found the Apollo capsules much quicker than Verne’s recovery team found the Columbiad.

Martian Persistence

This weekend marks the opposition of Mars and it is the closest one since 2003.  However, this opposition has Mars low in the southern sky, not good for observers in the Northern hemisphere.  On top of that, there is a dust storm going on that is obscuring the view of the surface features.  One side effect of the storm is that Mars is appearing a bit brighter than expected.

So, in honor of the opposition as well as the recent discovery by the ESA Mars Express probe of a deposit of liquid water (though it could very easily be a layer of thin, salty mud) about a mile underneath the Martian South Pole, here is a post about one aspect of the Red Planet that still persists amongst many in society even to this day.

The recently past July 20th marks two space anniversaries.  The better known one is the 49th anniversary of the late Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landing on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission.  The men who took part in that mission are American heroes and their deed deserves to remembered.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a holiday for it.  My late father felt that, if Columbus could get a holiday, the landing on the Moon should be likewise honored.   But this blog post is not about Apollo 11.

Also on July 20th, back in 1976, the Viking 1 lander touched down on Chryse Planitia on Mars, the first probe to successfully land on Mars and function (the Russians landed a probe a few years earlier, but they only got a few seconds of useless telemetry from it before they lost contact.  It is generally thought that the probe landed during a global dust storm and a gust of wind caught the still-attached parachute and toppled the probe over).  Viking 2 landed later in Utopia Planitia.  After a hiatus of a number of years, orbiting probes, landers, and now even rovers have been sent to Mars.  A good number are still operating after years in the Martian environment and we know pretty much what conditions are like there.  The atmosphere is only about one-percent that of Earth, the temperature is sub-zero during the day, but can get as low as -150 degrees F. at night, liquid water cannot exist at the surface, and the conditions at the surface are extremely hostile to all known forms of life.  But does everybody know?


Mars as it is today and as it has been for at least hundreds of millions of years.

It seems that there are quite a few people who through stupidity, lack of education, or willful ignorance, still hold on to the old discredited ideas about Martian conditions even after all these years of Martian exploration.

One recent example is from a man who should know much better.  Ben Bova wrote a series of books where it seemed there was life all over the solar system.  In a couple of them, the discovery of an ancient civilization on Mars figured into the plot and Bova implied that it met its demise fairly recently (in geological terms).  These stories were written back in the days when the Internet was mostly text and Sci-Fi Channel (I prefer the spelling they had back then instead of that “SyFY” they use now) had online chat sessions with authors and other such notables.  I actually confronted Ben Bova about this, pointing out that all the available evidence indicates that the period of time that Mars may have been able to support life was billions of years ago and that the window of time such conditions existed in was extremely short, therefore any such civilization was totally implausible.  He essentially pooh-poohed my comment.

Another more recent example was in the series “Supergirl”.  I’ll grant that the show is a fantasy.  Since the protagonist comes from a planet far from our solar system with different characteristics, they can be excused as well.  However, one character proves that the writers have zero knowledge of our own solar system.  On the show is a being known as the Martian Manhunter who is a bit over 300 years old.  He seems to function well on Earth, which would indicate that he lived under somewhat Earth-like conditions.  Yet, most of us (especially people intelligent enough to read this blog) are well aware that Mars was in the condition we see it now for a very long time.  Three hundred years ago, Mars was no different than today.  One would have figured that they would have changed the character’s planet of origin to a planet in another solar system and neatly solve the problem.  But they didn’t.

Some folks do get it right though.  The recent film “The Martian” is a prime example of an accurate depiction of Martian conditions, though the winds of the dust storm were far stronger than anything that could be produced under current conditions.  There have been books and short stories that have been accurate as well.

Why is it that, with Mars having been explored robotically for about 40 years, some people still cling to the idea of Martians?  Centuries ago, people wrote wild stories about creatures that existed in very far off lands.  Yet, once those lands were explored and those creatures were found not exist, the stories stopped.  Yet, in the case of Mars, we still have die-hards.  One reason I suspect is due to lack of imagination.  Imagining things on a planet in another solar system takes some work.  But it is easier to ignore science and set your action closer to home.  Another reason is that interstellar flight is nearly impossible in reality.  So, writers would rather not imagine implausible interstellar travel and imagine an implausible Mars to give Earth humans a chance to interact with (or at least discover evidence for) aliens.  It could also be that the writers perceive their audiences as stupid and ignorant.  Therefore, they wouldn’t mind a Mars that runs counter to everything we know about it.

Of course, there could be other reasons that I have missed.  If you have any, please post.

Astronomy’s Wonder Woman

2017 saw a major uptick in interest in “Wonder Woman” as the result of the movie where Gal Gadot played the role of the Amazonian princess.  Others remember the character as portrayed by Lynda Carter in the late 1970s TV series.  However, 2017 also saw the first American appearance by a real-life astronomical wonder woman – Pranvera Hyseni.

Pranvera Hyseni 4

Pranvera Hyseni at the 2018 Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF)


While both versions of the fictional Wonder Woman came from an exotic island, Pran (as she prefers to be called) came from an unusual location as well – a small part of what was once Yugoslavia and is now known as the Republic of Kosovo.  Kosovo came into existence as the result of the wars that ensued as Yugoslavia disintegrated.  In the final part of the conflict, Kosovo broke off from Serbia and became independent in 1998.  However, Kosovo is only recognized by 115 countries, including the United States, which is held in very high regard over there.  American flags can be seen in government offices and pictures of Bill Clinton (U.S. President at the time Kosovo became independent) are a frequent sight.

Pran was born on April 25th, 1995 in town of Vushtrri.  The first step in her destined path took place in 1999.  Kosovo was in the path of a total solar eclipse.  The news was received in the country with panic and much superstition.  However, Pran’s parents took no stock in that nonsense.  Instead, at the appointed time, they got a large bucket and filled it with water.  Then they and their children, including 4-year-old Pran, looked at the Sun’s reflection on the surface of the water.  This is a surprisingly effective technique when done correctly as the water surface reflects a fraction of the Sun’s visible light and virtually none of the non-visible wavelengths, enabling safe viewing.

The next significant event, astronomically, came in 2011.  Pran had been on Facebook for a time and one of her friends in Macedonia learned of her interest in the night sky.  So he decided to give her a small telescope.  While the 1999 solar eclipse set up the fuse, this telescope lit it.  Pran was so impressed by how much she could see in the night sky using the telescope that she decided to devote herself to astronomy.

Then, a major problem arose.  Pran soon discovered that there were no astronomy books, magazines, software, or websites in Albanian, the language of Kosovo (Kosovo has close ties to Albania).  Rather than give up or sit around and wait for astronomy stuff to appear in Albanian, Pran tackled the problem by teaching herself English.  This feat is not to be underestimated as not many people who come to the United States permanently from other countries are willing, able, or want to do it, instead preferring businesses and the government learn their language.  Pran soon wound up with a very good command of the language for a self-taught non-native speaker.

This opened up a world of astronomical information, allowing Pran to learn about all aspects of space science as well as developing contacts in the astronomical community, both amateur and professional, throughout the world.

Pran soon decided that it would be in the best interests of Kosovo and its population to spread astronomical knowledge and interest.  As a result, she created Astronomy Outreach Kosovo (AOK), the first astronomy club in the whole country.  The primary activity of AOK is hosting outreach events at in towns, cities, and various schools.  Due to this work, Pran was asked by the Ministry of Education to develop an astronomy curriculum to be used in schools throughout Kosovo, which she did.  She also trained schoolteachers in the use of a number of telescopes donated by the German outfit GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, GmbH)

Pran’s fame soon spread throughout Kosovo and the astronomical community.  Because of this, she became quite a traveler, representing Kosovo at conferences in locations as diverse as Milan, Italy, Zurich, Switzerland, and even the International SUNday event in Australia.  While on those trips, Pran toured numerous astronomical sites and built up her contacts in the astronomical community – something that would pay off in the near future.  But her greatest trip was yet to come – a visit to the United States.  This came about when Robert Reeves of the Texas Star Party (TSP) invited her to speak at the event.
But it almost didn’t happen.  Despite Kosovo’s good relations with the United States and the fact that Pran’s abilities were well-known to many in the space science community, she was initially denied a visa for her trip (mainly due to the influence of someone with bad hair and supposedly small hands).  But, complaints from the astronomical community as well as many of her social network contacts prompted the State Department to see the light and give Pran her visa.  The trip was on.

Despite a near-total lack of coverage by the mainstream American media, she wound up getting invitations from all over the country.  Joe Bergeron of the Grand Canyon Star Party invited her to his event.  While in Arizona, she got to see many attractions as well as some of the famous observatories there, including Lowell Observatory.  Later she toured part of New England, visiting Rhode Island (no, she didn’t waste her time trying to find Quahog – she knew it wasn’t real) and Brown University, as well as MIT and the Harvard Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts.  There were a number of speaking engagements, including one at Spacefest in June at Tucson, Arizona.  At this event was that Pran got to meet almost all the surviving Apollo astronauts except for Buzz Aldrin, who was out of the country at the time.

Also on this trip she got to visit some of NASA’s spaceflight centers, Kennedy in Florida and Marshall in Alabama.  While at those facilities, Pran was granted very high levels of access, including a visit to the roof of the Vehicular Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy.

During trip, Pran received numerous gifts from astronomical organizations, clubs, and admirers.  These ranged from telescopes to meteorites, including a lunar and Martian one.  This raised questions how they would be shipped back home to Kosovo as well as how to handle customs.  But Pran solved that problem and now has the largest meteorite collection in Kosovo as well as having increased the number of telescopes in the country.

It was fitting that Pran, whose interest in astronomy began with a solar eclipse, got to witness the totality of the August 21st solar eclipse.  After some discussion at the Kosovo Embassy in New York, she got an extension on her trip to allow this.  In another stroke of good fortune, a fan who happened to own a plane came forward, allowing her to fly to Springfield, Tennessee, near the path of totality, which she witnessed using much better equipment than the bucket of water she used back in 1999.

In one of their few moves that even AAI member and noted IAU critic Laurel Kornfeld would agree with, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) named an asteroid in Pran’s honor.  It is 45687 Pranverahyseni and, like 9967 Amastrinc (AAI’s asteroid), is a small (about 13 kilometers in diameter) body in the main asteroid belt.  Pranverahyseni can be observed through very large amateur instruments from dark locations or via astroimaging.

These days, it seems every major success inspires a sequel, Pran’s American tour was no exception.  This time, it is a six-month tour (let’s hope she never goes on a three-hour one – we all know how that ended up for one group of people).  It started in April and the first major stop was NEAF (North East Astronomy Forum) at Rockland County College in Suffern, New York.  She was a speaker at the event, but she had to share the stage with two other astronomers in a group that was billed as “Celestron’s Young Astronomers”.  She deserved her own billing, something I discussed with Stephen Ramsden of the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project (one of Pran’s best American friends) and we both agree on this.  But as a consolation, Pran was the best prepared speaker of the three (she never used index cards, doing it all from memory) and the only one who got a standing ovation.

The most recent project AOK has embarked on is setting up, with the cooperation of the government, the first ever observatory in Kosovo.  At NEAF, Corey Lee, the president of Celestron announced that his company would be donating a 14-inch telescope with associated hardware to this project.  I heard this from Pran herself very shortly after she was informed of this.

The ongoing tour is expected to visit many astronomical locations all over the United States, including some of the more noteworthy events such as ALCON (the Astronomical League Convention, not the Weird Al Yankovic fan event of the same name).  One major highlight already was that Pran finally got to observe her asteroid through a telescope at the Texas Star Party.  Those who want to keep up with the tour can follow Pran and AOK on Facebook.

And Pran has an even bigger and longer trip to the United States planned in the future.  Due to the lack of advanced astronomical education opportunities in Kosovo, Pran is hoping to get a PhD in planetary science at the University of Arizona.   So we will probably be hearing more about Pran for some time to come.

Though Pranvera Hyseni is no Gal Gadot or Lynda Carter, as far as space science goes, she is definitely a wonder woman.

(Trivia note: Lynda Carter does know about Pran and is impressed.)

The Traffic Jam They Don’t Talk About


This coming Monday, August 21st, is the Great American Eclipse, the first total solar eclipse to pass through a large part of the United States since 1979 and the first coast-to-coast American total solar eclipse since the Woodrow Wilson administration.

The narrow zone of totality crosses from Oregon to South Carolina.  And many eclipse observers who can afford it and can get the time off will travel to the area.  As predicted, the airlines have jacked up their fares substantially.  Other observers will drive to the path of totality.  Even if they get to the path ahead of time, in most cases, they will have to drive quite a bit more to dodge cloud cover.


The interstates may not be the only superhighway clogged with eclipse traffic.

If lots of eclipse observers do this simultaneously, there will be huge traffic jams on the highways reminiscent of what happens with those mandatory evacuations that they have for coastal storms.  But, aside from the photo illustration, this post will concentrate on the other traffic jam – the one nobody talks about as well as how effective a possible remedy would actually be.


It has been known for quite some time that NASA-TV will be having quite a bit of coverage of this event.  Sounds like a good idea.  But due to the fact that very few, if any, cable services and only one satellite network carry NASA-TV (the reasons for this will be the topic of a future post), this means that NASA-TV is pretty much an Internet-only TV channel.  This works under normal conditions, but is a major problem for events like the eclipse.  For those who are a bit unfamiliar with how the Internet works, NASA-TV uses web servers to put their content online.  And these servers can only handle up to a certain number of people hooking up to them to view the content.  As the number of people viewing increases, the performance of the server in delivering the content deteriorates.  If the number gets high enough, it malfunctions.  Historically, this has happened to NASA quite often during major events.  Not surprisingly since their computer hardware, like everything else, was put in by the lowest bidder on a government contract.  While this isn’t too bad for rockets as the engineers at those contractors work with physical things and they generally do a reasonably good job building rockets, when it comes to computers, those people are a different breed.  In physical engineering, it is common practice to build things a bit stronger than they actually need to be so there is some reserve capacity and also to cope with the unexpected.  However, when it comes to web servers, computer people tend to go with the minimum capacity for the job.  It would be better if they followed what I call “The Roebling Rule” (named in honor of the Roebling company that built the Brooklyn Bridge).  They insisted that, if a part on the bridge was supposed to support one ton, it had to be able to support six to ten tons.  As a result, the Brooklyn Bridge is a sturdy structure that is still around today.  Another company built a similar bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, but was told to keep the budget down.  Due to the corners that were cut, the bridge had to be replaced years later at enormous cost.

The other online eclipse coverage sites also suffer from the small server problem.  The Exploratorium in San Francisco has done eclipse coverage in the past and has had problems.  Compounding things are their rather amateurish production skills.

On top of all this, those people who do not have broadband Internet or have metered bandwidth (only so many gigabytes per month) will have problems accessing the online coverage.

If only there was a way to get video coverage of the eclipse that didn’t depend on bandwidth and server issues and can handle any number of viewers… wait, such a technology does exist and we have had it for years… television!

While this eclipse is well suited for television coverage as it does pass through quite a few cities and towns in the United States, the response from the mainstream (referred to hereafter as “lamestream” to use a term coined by Jim Kurdyla of Facebook fame) media has been extremely underwhelming.  The remainder of this post will discuss the TV eclipse options known to me as of the moment of this writing.  Some of this information may be subject to change.  Here goes…

One would expect that the lamestream broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and PBS) would have an interest in this.  Sadly, that interest appears to be rather small.

ABC: This network was probably the first national broadcast network to announce eclipse coverage.  The show will feature Sara Haines, Rebecca Jarvis, T.J. Holmes, Ginger Zee, Matt Gutman, David Kerley, Nick Watt, Adrienne Bankert, and Eva Pilgrim.  I suppose if you crammed all their astronomical knowledge together, you might get something equivalent to an entry-level amateur astronomer.  There are reports that some affiliates will go above and beyond this.

CBS: The national network seems to be taking the wimpy way out on this one.  They will only be having coverage online.  Some affiliates, mainly those along the path of totality, may take matters into their own hands.  One reason given by some wags is that CBS doesn’t want to preempt their daytime programming at eclipse time.  This consists of two daytime dramas (News flash: Daytime drama is a dying genre) and “The Talk”  Guess they don’t want to preempt “The Talk” or it might get Les Moonves in trouble with the wife at home.

Fox: Unknown.  They might decide to leave it up to affiliates.

NBC: Evidently realizing what ABC is doing, NBC will be doing a one-hour national show as well.  It will be hosted by Al Roker, Lester Holt, and Dylan Dreyer.  Not ideal, but it is better than CBS and Fox.  Wonder how these astronomical lightweights will manage?

PBS: Some PBS stations (not all) will be carrying a one hour program titled “Total Eclipse Live”.  I have no further details on it.  But, later that evening, PBS will show its talent for after-the-fact coverage of astronomical events with a special episode of “Nova” that will incorporate some footage from that day’s eclipse.  This is a rather rapid turnaround since it usually takes a few weeks at least for the “Nova” crew to put together something on an astronomical event.  As with the other networks, some affiliates might do something on their own.

Eclipse coverage is a lot like the Emmy awards in the fact that cable channels trounce the broadcast ones.

The Science Channel: This network is going to cover the eclipse completely in a program called “The Great American Eclipse”.  And in a departure from what the commercial broadcasters are doing, this program will be hosted by actual astronomers.  And, if that isn’t enough, there will be a recap show that evening.

The Weather Channel: The one channel on just about every cable system is doing quite a bit of coverage on eclipse day.  Their special “Total Solar Eclipse” will feature coverage from all over the eclipse track as well as from a ship off South Carolina.  And they are prepared.  In the event of bad weather at any location, NASA-TV coverage will be used as backup.

Of course, this information may be subject to change between now and the eclipse.  So, if you can’t see totality or are clouded out, keep an eye on the TV listings.  But, if you are where the eclipse is visible, don’t forget to see it for yourself (using proper safety methods).

Are Eclipse Pundits Out of Touch?

As most people (at least the intelligent people who read blogs like this one) are aware, there will be a major total solar eclipse on August 21st, 2017.  This will be the first total solar eclipse to cross a large portion of the United States since 1979.

There are also a number of people and websites promoting this event and discussing many aspects of the upcoming eclipse.  Some of these experts are undoubtedly well known to those who follow space science.  While they go on and on about how communications have improved since 1979 and how the social media we have now was not around back then, there is one major change in our society that these eclipse pundits have ignored, willingly or otherwise.


This condition is true of quite a few people who would like to observe the total phase of the eclipse

The eclipse pundits, in their effort to show off their calculation skills as well as sell safe solar viewers, maps of the eclipse path, eclipse books, and other related chotchke, have failed to realize that the ranks of the working poor have swollen since 1979.  A very large and growing number of the American public is poorer now than they were in 1979.  What does this have to do with the eclipse, they might ask?  Quite a bit.

While most of the country lives within several hundred miles or so of the path of totality, weather prospects are not equally good along the whole length of the path.  If one wants a reasonable guarantee of the weather, they have to go out west to states like Oregon (the eastern part), Idaho, Wyoming, and Nebraska.  Unfortunately, if most people want to get to those destinations in a reasonable span of time, that means flying.  And, in addition to the airline industry abuses that have made it into the news recently, flying is a major hassle and is very expensive (as I wrote in my previous eclipse post, I predict airfares will experience a sharp upward spike just before the eclipse).  Add the other associated expenses, flying to see the eclipse will cost quite a bit, possibly beyond the reach of observers who aren’t well off.

Then there is the option of driving.  While it is flexible, it does have some downsides.  For one, the range is considerably limited and it takes quite a bit of time to cover significant distance.  And, given the fact that when one reaches their destination, weather prospects could force them to drive even further, possibly hundreds of miles. This makes it a bit difficult for some working poor to figure out how much time to budget for an eclipse trip.  While some have paid vacation time they can take (they still need to figure out how much time an eclipse trip would need), others do not have that luxury.  In other words, they can take the time off, but they won’t get paid for it.  In that case, they would have to balance how much pay they can afford to lose with the other costs of an eclipse trip.  Don’t count on being able to reduce the time of an eclipse trip by speed.  In addition to the likely traffic congestion on major roads leading to the track of totality, it is very likely that local and state law enforcement anywhere near the path of totality will be out in full force looking for anyone who puts the pedal to the metal as well as anyone who puts in marathon driving sessions (the police can bust people for driving tired).  And, according to posts on some eclipse forums, parking regulations will be very strictly enforced as well.  Another factor that has to be considered is the price of gas.  I would not be surprised to see a major upsurge in the price of gas around eclipse.  The people who run oil companies may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.  It is very unlikely that these companies are totally unaware of the eclipse.  Since most cars can only go about 200+ to about 300 or so miles on a tank of gas, there could be several fill ups involved in an eclipse road trip.

This discussion of time brings up another issue: accomodations.  Already there have been numerous reports of motels engaging in price gouging for accomodations anywhere near the path of totality.  Expect to hear more as time goes on.

Now, how do the eclipse pundits propose on dealing with these problems, if they even acknowledge them at all?  One solution that has been proposed smacks of the logic Marie Antoinette was said to have used when she was informed of the bread shortage in Paris (and supposedly uttered “Let them eat cake”).  Some pundits have proposed that people get RVs (Recreational Vehicles).  This ignores the obvious facts that RVs are very expensive vehicles and tend to have rather poor gas mileage.  They also do not consider that an RV can’t generally be parked just any old place when used for the purpose of lodging.  That means one also has to find an appropriate place to stop, something that might be scarce in the days before the eclipse.  Yes, I have learned that it is possible to rent RVs, but that isn’t terribly cheap and might be daunting to someone who is unfamiliar with RVs.

Another proposal is that people camp.  While this does get around the enormous cost of the RV suggestion, it has some problems of its own.  You just can’t pitch your tent anywhere.  Several years back, there was this little old thing known as OWS (Occupy Wall Street)* where a number of people pitched tents in Zucotti Park in New York City and caused much consternation with the city government.  Also, in recent years, there have been a number of occasions where homeless people have set up tents in spots that were not considered appropriate.  Local governments have undoubtedly learned from those events and naturally restrict camping to certain areas, mostly campgrounds that have been set aside for such purposes.  And with such areas, one needs reservations.  If you have to change plans due to the weather, there goes whatever you spent on the reservation (that would also apply to anyone who books a motel).  Even if you are able to camp, there is the obvious lack of amenities and that could be an issue for those who are unfamiliar with camping.  (* The Occupy Wall Street reference is for historical purposes only.  This blog does not necessarily agree or disagree with the cause)

One of the most limited proposals I have read suggested staying with friends or relatives who are near the path of totality.  While this does get around some of the problems, it absolutely requires that one have friends or relatives who live near the path of totality and would not mind visitors staying at their place for a while.

The eclipse pundit approach to solving eclipse travel problems can be described charitably as throwing spaghetti against a wall in that they will throw out any idea, regardless if it is practical, that crosses their minds and hope something sticks.  Less charitably, but probably more accurate, is that they are simply out of touch with the socio-economic reality many Americans live with.  It takes surprisingly little to join the ranks of the working poor.  An unexpected expense, a downturn at work, or a combination of these is all it takes.  And given the fact that many people in the private sector have not seen any real raise in years means that recovering from a downturn in fortunes is slow at best.  Most of these eclipse pundits are fairly secure in their financial situation and they think little of traveling hundreds or thousands of miles for an eclipse.

As illustrated by the issues brought up during the March for Science this past April, now is not a good time for science to ignore a growing segment of the American society.  Given the challenges science faces with this administration, it needs all the public support it can get.

Does anyone have real workable ideas as to how people can resolve these issues surrounding the Great American Eclipse?  Do you think my assessment of eclipse punditry is too harsh?  If so, feel free to defend the eclipse experts.  Let’s hear from you.

Has Science Been Fair to the Fair Sex?

I know Women’s History Month is almost over, but the points raised in this post are still very valid.

The film, “Hidden Figures” has been in the news quite a bit recently.  It is a dramatization of the real-life story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American women who did heavy-duty mathematical calculations at NASA in the 1960s. Even though computers did exist in those days, they were the size of large refrigerators and had far less computing power than even the lowly Commodore VIC-20 (a nearly 40-year old personal computer).  Thus, humans were still needed to do the mathematical work that the early manned space missions required.

However, those women had several things going against them.  One was that they were women.  Another was that they were African-American.  On top of that, NASA facilities were mostly in the South.  In the case of Kennedy Space Center (though it wasn’t called that until after the assassination of John F. Kennedy), it was due to considerations of orbital mechanics.  As for the other NASA centers, it was to placate influential politicians.  As a result, segregation was in full force at the time.  Johnson and her team worked in a separate office, had a separate lunch area, and were treated as second class people by most at NASA.  However, John Glenn judged them by their work and treated them well.  In fact, he demanded that Johnson personally handle the computations for his orbital flight.

This got me to look back at other women in the history of science.  It turns out that the snubs and treatment that Johnson and her team got were not new.

One famous example was Caroline Herschel.  Due to her growth being stunted in childhood by disease, she was quite short.  On top of that, her parents told her that she would amount to nothing.  However, she helped out her brother, William Herschel, the greatest observational astronomer of his era.  Eventually, she learned enough that she became an observer herself, discovering several deep sky objects as well as a few comets.  Despite her superb training, her contributions were largely forgotten.  Even among modern astronomers, she is little known.

Another case was Maria Mitchell.  She was born into a Quaker family and, since the Quakers believed in equal education, she received far better education than most women of that era.  Mitchell developed an interest in astronomy early in life and became one of America’s first professional astronomers and the first female one.  During the 1840s, the King of Denmark gave an annual award to people who discovered comets.  In 1841, Mitchell discovered a comet and was up for the award.  However, there were astronomers who felt that she did not deserve to get it and raised quite a furor over the matter.  Finally, the Danish authorities intervened and Mitchell got her medal.

Jumping forward to the early 20th century, Harvard Observatory hired a number of women to do mathematical work and measurements of images on glass photographic plates.  Much like Katherine Johnson and her team, these women were referred to as “computers”.  Unlike Johnson, these computers earned sweatshop wages.  But, it was far safer than most of the work women got in that era, working in dangerous mills as well as garment manufacturing (anybody recall the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?). One of these women, Henrietta Swan Leavitt was assigned the task of studying stars on glass photographic plates.  Her job was to locate stars in the Magellanic Clouds that varied in brightness.  Doing so, she discovered that one class of stars (what we call Cepheid variables) had a brightness that was proportional to their period (cycle of variability).  This became known as the period-luminosity relationship and laid the foundation for finding distances to nearby galaxies.  Since she was just a lowly computer, her bosses took credit for the discovery.  But the truth eventually won out and the story is well known in astronomical circles today.

I could go on and on with other examples, such as the career of Lise Meitner, who had to contend with sexism as well as the rise of Nazi Germany, the story of how Watson and Crick might have “borrowed” information from a female colleague to aid their discovery of the structure of DNA, but here is a case of how a woman scientist made a discovery, only to have it stolen from her.

In 1968, Jocelyn Bell was working at Cambridge when she made an odd discovery.  When the radio telescope was pointed at a spot in the constellation of Vulpecula, a rapid pulsing signal was detected.  The pulses were very precise, enough that some people thought it was an alien radio beacon.  This idea soon fell by the wayside and it was learned that the object responsible was a pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star that emitted radio energy like the beam of a lighthouse.  Once the significance of this became apparent, Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle, Bell’s bosses, took credit for the discovery.  Though she did win a Michelson Award (along with Anthony Hewish) in 1973, she was totally ignored when the Nobel prize in physics was handed out in 1974 with Hewish and Ryle getting the prize.  Despite protests from other prominent physicists, Bell was denied Nobel recognition.  While the history books got things right in the end, it was too late for Bell to get the prize.  But she was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II some years later.

Sometimes, the side of good wins.  In 1979, Voyager 1 passed through by Jupiter and made many observations.  About three days after closest approach, navigation engineers were poring over the images sent back.  This was to refine the position of the spacecraft as well as the orbits of the Galilean moons.  One of those people, a woman by the name of Linda Morabito, noticed something odd in an image of Io.  It appeared that there was a limb of another moon peeking out from behind Io. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Morabito enhanced the image and, probably echoing the thought of Han Solo when he first saw the Death Star, found that was no moon.

converted PNM file

The first image of Io’s volcanism

It was actually the plume from a volcanic eruption on Io, the first display of active volcanism outside Earth.  Morabito was determined to get credit for this find and pushed her case.  Finally, with the mainstream media on her side, she was credited with the find, securing her place in scientific history.

These days, Morabito is involved in advocating for science.  In additon to her personal website, she also maintains a Facebook group, Linda Morabito’s Space Place where she offers commentary on various scientific issues.

So, as Women’s History Month draws to a close, remember the contributions women have made in science and let’s hope for the day when science gives credit where it is due without regard to whether it was a man or a woman who made the discovery.

Lunar Mythbusting

Tonight is October 8th, which has been declared International Observe the Moon Night (IOMN).  Personally, I would choose a date as close to September 13th as possible to take a jab at the late Gerry Anderson and his bit of lunar lunacy known as “Space: 1999”.  Yes, I know I missed that date as well on this blog, but I had other issues to deal with.  With IOMN clouded and/or rained out tonight for a large portion of the United States, I thought I would provide some educational lunar entertainment to make up for it.  So, I dusted off an article I wrote for the Asterism (AAI’s long-defunct newsletter) and I’m using it for material here.

Some years ago, I went to a convention and saw Dee Wallace, best known for playing the mom in E.T. The Extraterrestrial. She was quite nice and she was also there to push DVDs of “The Howling”, a werewolf movie she was in. I took the opportunity to explain to her that I didn’t find werewolf stuff too interesting due to my knowledge of the Moon and the fact that it exerts no strange influences. Dee agreed, but she said that the myths about the Moon were quite pervasive in popular culture, even after the Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon without anything strange happening to them. So, let’s take a detailed look at why the Moon, while interesting, is not mystical.

Time and Tides: People who believe in the mystical powers of the Moon often point out that it could exert its spooky actions through tidal forces. On the surface, this might seem reasonable. After all, anyone who has spent more than a few hours by the ocean or a bay has noticed that the water rises and falls due to tides. Some have argued that, since the ocean is water and people are mostly water in terms of composition, lunar tides should affect people and their behavior. They point to claims of increased weird behavior at times of full Moon and then the old stories always say that werewolves change from people to beasts at full Moon.

However, the “Full Moon effect” has been shown to be false by numerous statistical studies. Also, if one knows how tides work, it is easy to see that they cannot influence living beings.  Tides result when the side of an object nearest a gravity source experiences a greater pull than the opposite side does.  In the case of the oceans, the sea facing the Moon is about 8,000 miles closer to the Moon than the ocean on the opposite side of the Earth. Since the Moon is about a quarter of a million miles away, the diameter of the Earth is a measurable fraction of that distance and the ocean feels the effect of the difference.

Now, consider the case of a human being. To make things as fair as possible to the werewolf buffs, our example will be a player from the NBA who is seven feet tall. The difference in the pull of lunar gravity between the top of his head and the soles of his feet is so close to zero that it can be considered zero for any practical purpose. Even the varying distance of the Moon from Earth (the Moon’s orbit is slightly elliptical), while important for ocean tides, does not alter this conclusion.

It could be argued that tides do influence some living creatures since a number of sea animals lay eggs at times of very high tides. This is the result of their biological clocks, not lunar influence. And they are not infallible tide predictors as the large number of horseshoe crabs that die stranded on beaches each spring can attest to.

Blinded By The Light: Anyone who has been at an observatory on a public night during a full Moon knows it can appear very bright, especially through the telescopes. This brightness is deceptive. Actually the Moon reflects light about as well as the pavement of a road (an albedo of about 7%). It appears bright because the Moon is surrounded by nonreflecting space, so even a dark object like would appear bright. But that is not the whole story.

It is known that the full Moon appears about ten times as bright as it does at first or third quarter. Before people knew much about the Moon, this must have appeared strange. But there are two reasons for this effect. First of all, during full Moon, the Sun is overhead as seen from the lunar surface. There are no shadows. At other times, there are always some shadows formed by mountains and crater rims. But the other reason was only discovered after the Apollo missions returned lunar samples to Earth.

Most of the Moon is covered in a layer of dust, which is essentially lunar rock that has been pulverized by eons of micrometeorite impacts. When samples of this dust were studied on Earth, it was discovered that there were numerous tiny bits of glass in it. The glass formed as the impacts of micrometeorites melted little bits of surface material. The bits of glass give lunar dust a weak retroreflective property like those reflectors embedded in many roads. Due to this effect, the lunar dust actually reflects a bit more light towards Earth at full Moon.

No Cheese, Green or Otherwise: The final proof against strange lunar influence is the composition of the Moon itself. It is now widely believed that Moon formed as the result of a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized planetesimal in the early days of the solar system, which sent debris from the Earth’s mantle into space.

Because of this origin, only about a dozen minerals make up the Moon. Besides basalt and anorthosite (basic igneous rocks), most of these are oxides of iron, titanium, chromium, aluminum as well as some silicates, along with some minerals rich in potassium and rare earth elements. Recently, something new has been added to this list. In 1998, the Lunar Prospector probe found evidence of hydrogen-rich material in some permanently shaded craters near the lunar South Pole. While it could be buried water ice from ancient comet impacts, hydrated minerals and cometary hydrocarbons have not been ruled out. While this mix of minerals is interesting to those who want to build lunar bases, it is about as non-mystical as one can get.

As one can see, the Moon is an interesting place with great potential importance for humanity’s future. Now, isn’t this far more interesting and exciting than mysticism and werewolf stories?

Happy 50th Anniversary!

Thursday, September 8th, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of a cultural milestone – “Star Trek” as the original series premiered on September 8th, 1966.  While this blog discusses issues of a scientific and/or historical nature, this anniversary was one of those occasions that cannot be ignored.

As most people, especially those intelligent folk who read blogs like this one, know, “Star Trek” followed the exploits of the crew of the Starship Enterprise and its womanizing egotistical captain James T. Kirk.  Despite not being terribly popular during its original network run, struggles with budgets, and other pains, the series became legendary.  This was in part due to its success in syndication, but it also was due to the writing, the characters, and the stories.  While the late Joseph Campbell (professor of Comparative Religion at Sarah Lawrence college and renowned expert on the connections between mythologies and religions) never mentioned “Star Trek” as far as I can determine, Casey Biggs (Damar on “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” and a fan of Campbell’s works) believes that the “Star Trek” franchise fills the function of a mythology in modern society (a system of stories that metaphorically explore universal truths).  This is probably the key to its grip on the public mind.

Before this gets too mythological, it should be noted that the “Star Trek” franchise was extremely influential on our society.  It is generally thought that the concept of the flip phone was inspired by the communicators from the original series.  Today, scientists who are working on handheld analyzers say they are inspired by the tricorders (very portable scanning devices) from the franchise.  And the people involved in research on artificial vision systems that promise to help blind people all say they found inspiration in the visor worn by Geordi LaForge, a blind character from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.  Those who work on non-lethal weapon technology cite the phaser (the standard issue Starfleet weapon) as their ideal, since it could be set to stun enemies rather than kill them.

However, “Star Trek” has also inspired a number of scientific cul-de-sacs or outright dead-ends.  One prominent example is research into teleportation.  It is thought to have been inspired by the transporter used in the franchise, a device used to transmit matter (people, cargo, or whatever) from point A to point B.  The reason it was used in the series was not because people believed it would be developed in the future, rather it was because Gene Roddenberry wanted a way to get people from the Enterprise to a planet surface and could not afford to do special effects shots of the shuttlecraft transporting people to their destination.  But when people saw it on the show, many believed that if it was on “Star Trek”, it was in our future.  What real teleportation does is it merely transfers the quantum state of a particle to a similar particle some distance away.  While it is impractical for Trek-style uses, it is expected to play a part in quantum computing technology.

Another Trek-inspired false lead is warp drive.  Warp drive was how starships were able to travel throughout the galaxy in reasonable time scales without messy things like Lorentz contraction, time-dilation, and those other nasty relativistic effects that happen when one travels near the speed of light.  While the idea of a warp drive does not seem to contradict relativity and there is (if you accept cosmic inflation) one example of something that was similar to warp physics – the cosmic inflation that explains why the universe appears flat and also why there is so little variation across the Cosmic Microwave Background.  In that case, space itself expanded – for a very brief time – at speeds that would make the Enterprise-E (the latest version of the ship) look extremely sluggish.  Cosmic inflation was thought to be the result of processes associated with the Big Bang.

But this didn’t stop Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre from coming up with an idea for a warp drive to move starships.  However, Alcubierre found a problem that has persuaded most physicists that the idea of warp drive was crazy to begin with.  In the original equations, the energy required is truly enormous.  It would take energy equivalent to the entire mass of Jupiter (remember E=MC2?) to generate a tiny warp field.  And if it could be generated, it would be virtually impossible to control.  However, NASA scientist Harold White has picked up where Alcubierre left off and is studying the idea.  White claims that, if the shape of the warp field is modified, the power requirements are reduced to the energy equivalent of a ton of matter.  That is still quite a bit of energy.  White has also claimed that his tiny-scale experiments have gotten some results, though most people think that White was merely observing some kind of quantum phenomenon unrelated to what he is looking for.

Of course, there are the people who like “Star Trek”.  And to the surprise of some people, not all fans of the franchise are like those negative stereotypes seen on “The Big Bang Theory” (discussed in my earlier post about that program).  Among the people who like the Trek franchise are many NASA employees, most astronauts, many professionals from all walks of life, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and even one head of state (King Abdullah II of Jordan).

Then there are some surprising folk who really liked “Star Trek”.  Nichelle Nichols, the actress who portrayed Nyota Uhura on the original series, was at a book-signing in London when an enormous man with a shaved head, numerous tattoos, and all the regalia of a skinhead walked into the store.  Even the security guards were frightened.  The man then said that he stopped by because he had a message for Nichelle.  He explained that he used to be a skinhead.  One night, while he was bored, he turned on the TV and a station was running a marathon of “Star Trek” episodes.  As he was watching, he noticed how the crew got along with one another and how they dealt with various moral issues.  He then decided that the skinhead life was not the way to go.  The man then thanked Nichelle for her work on the series and offered his help if she ever needed any assistance during her stay in London.

Naturally, when there is something that popular, there are always those to try to denigrate its positive contributions.  On top of the vast multitude of negative stereotypes of fans, there are incidents that are even uglier.  A few years ago, the weekend edition of “Good Morning America” did a story on research into visual prosthetics.  Some of you might remember from an earlier paragraph that almost every scientist in that field was inspired by Geordi LaForge and his visor.  Did the GMA story bring that up?  No, it didn’t.  Rather than crediting the correct inspiration, they tried to imply it was inspired by Steve Austin’s bionic eye on “The Six Million Dollar Man”.  Those of us who knew the truth were not taken in, but some people might have been.  Why did the folks at GMA do this?  One could argue they disliked the Trek franchise.  I suspect something more vile.  Steve Austin was portrayed by Lee Majors, a white actor.  Geordi LaForge was portrayed by the talented LeVar Burton, an African-American actor.  Was racism involved?  Given our society, it can’t be ruled out.

On a happier note, I have been fortunate enough to have met most of the surviving actors and actresses from Trek franchise as a result of my convention travels.  They are all interesting people and all deserve credit for being part of the success of the Trek franchise.  With the J. J. Abrams movies and their alternate take on the Trek universe, the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” series, as well as tons of fan-created stories, songs, etc., who knows what’s going to happen at the next milestone anniversary?  And what do you think of this magnificent franchise?

In honor of this occasion, I leave you with a video featuring one of the franchise’s most beloved characters – Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.  The video was released by Paramount shortly after James Doohan, the actor who created the character, passed away.



Why Wink When You Should Salute?

August 25th, 2016 marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the lunar surface.  Shortly after his death, the Armstrong family announced that, to honor Neil, every August 25th, people should wink at the Moon if they see it.  I feel that does not go far enough.  One should salute it instead.

One of the main reasons for this was that the man was a true American hero.  While taking over the lunar module’s controls to steer the craft away from a field of boulders that would have brought the mission to a fatal end would be considered a very heroic feat, it wasn’t his only one or even his first.

In the Korean War, Armstrong flew fighter jets from a carrier to attack targets in North Korea.  On one of his missions, his plane ran into a cable stretched across a valley by the North Koreans to wreck low-flying American planes.  For most pilots, the level of damage would have been enough to cause the pilot to eject, which would have likely resulted in a stay at a North Korean POW camp.  But Armstrong was no ordinary pilot.  He managed to maintain some control over the plane.  While returning to the carrier was impossible, there was a Marine base that was within flying range.  Armstrong proceeded to fly to the base.  Just before he reached the base, the plane became uncontrollable and he was forced to eject.  Armstrong made it safely to the ground and was promptly rescued by Marines from the nearby base.

Another heroic feat was during the Gemini 8 mission.  This was to test the concept of docking spacecraft in orbit.  The test target was the upper stage of an Agena rocket.  Shortly after docking, the crew noticed the capsule was moving in an odd manner.  Thinking the problem was with the upper stage, they quickly undocked.  The problem only got worse and the capsule started to spin.  What had happened was one of the Gemini capsule’s thrusters got stuck in the on position and was causing the spacecraft to spin, almost to the point of uncontrollability.  Sizing up the situation, Armstrong decided to use the thrusters designed for reentry as a means of stopping the motion, something that nobody had considered.  Fortunately, the maneuver worked but it meant that they had to return to Earth immediately.  But that quick action saved the life of Armstrong and that of his fellow astronaut.

However, heroism wasn’t his only claim to greatness.  There was his character.  He never bragged about his heroic deeds.  When Apollo 11 returned from the Moon, Armstrong was always quick to credit the success of the mission to the vast number of engineers, scientists, and workers who designed and built the spacecraft.  He never lorded his accomplishment over others and, after he retired from NASA, he became a professor of aeronautics.  If our elected officials had only one-percent of his character, this country would be a better place.

Armstrong’s post-Apollo conduct was reminiscent of that of another great American hero – one of our first.  After the Revolutionary War, George Washington could have asked for, and got, anything he wanted.  Yet, he decided to return to his home at Mount Vernon and operate his plantation.  At the end of his two terms (he felt two terms were enough) as president, he again went back home and kept to himself.

So, if you see the Moon on August 25th, don’t wink, salute.  Let’s honor a great American hero, one who never disgraced himself and one we don’t have to apologize for.

T-Minus 1 Year

Today is August 20th, 2016 and that means it is one year until the Great American Eclipse, the first total solar eclipse to cross the continental United States since 1979.  This is the first post on that eclipse and there will be others as we get nearer to the date.

If you want information about the eclipse, such as its path, weather prospects, and such, the official Great American Eclipse website is the best place to look as it is frequently updated, has a wealth of maps, and very detailed information, including input from Fred Espenak, considered by many to be America’s foremost expert on solar eclipses.

While the information on the site is accurate, there are quite a few things that would-be eclipse observers should be aware of.  Most (if not all) the people intelligent enough to read blogs like this one already know that looking directly at any portion of the uneclipsed Sun without proper filters will result in severe retinal damage.  But there are other less obvious issues.

Most people live a considerable distance from the eclipse track (except for the 12 million or so who live on it) and that means that they must travel.  Unfortunately, long distance travel is quite a challenge these days, especially to those who have limited time and limited means.  The pundits say that one should choose their observing spot as soon as possible.  If we lived in a world with perfectly predictable weather, that would be easy.  Unfortunately we do not.  If one is traveling by air, and they see on the weather forecast that the weather their chosen site is going to be bad, that can mean a scramble to select another site, cancel the flight plan, and book another flight.  And as most people realize, changing air travel plans at the last minute can be rather costly.  On top of that, I predict that the airlines will raise airfares substantially next August just because of the eclipse.

Some people will travel by car to an eclipse site.  Driving to an eclipse site does take time and, if one can’t get much vacation time from work, that greatly limits possible eclipse sites.  Car travel does offer flexibility in terms of dealing with the weather, but there is a catch.  Travel range is limited.  According to Sky & Telescope magazine, given one day’s notice of a change in eclipse plans, it is thought that an eclipse observer can cover something on the order of 500 miles or so, depending on how long they plan to drive continuously.  Of course some will try to add to the range by increasing their travel speed.  But the interstate highway system is not like the German autobahn.  There are speed limits.  And I predict that police and state troopers all along the eclipse track will be instructed to be out in force with their radar guns to nab speeders.  According to the Great American Eclipse website, transportation departments in states along the eclipse track are well aware of the upcoming eclipse and I suspect the information will be passed along.

Does this mean that you should give up on observing the total eclipse next year?  Not at all.  It does mean that you should be aware of potential pitfalls when you make your plans.  Future posts will bring up other aspects of this truly astronomical event.  Stay tuned.