Category Archives: Star Stories

Evolving Culture at Winter Solstice

On the longest night of the year, under a full super-moon, a ritual evolves in a small Utah town.

Bluff, Utah, December 21, 2018

A full super-moon rose as complete dark enveloped a crowd gathered in the December cold around campfires and torches to celebrate the longest night of the year with art, culture, and sculptural pyrotechnics.

For those like me who are not motivated by the Christian religious myth of Christmas, Winter Solstice is the natural time to celebrate the turn of the seasons. A ritual is called for and one is evolving in rural Bluff, Utah, with all the resulting tensions that come with change and growth.

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Torrey House Press publisher, Kirsten Johanna Allen, in search of words from the land. 12/21/2018 in Bluff, Utah

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The Zen of stuck

I recently sent this letter to my daughter, Kristen, of adventures and unexpected lessons from the observatory.

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Mounting the beast (Celestron C-14)

Hi Bug!

I had an experience this week that is sticking with me as a terrific little metaphor. I am the student. The thing has cast a spell. I am pondering how to take in the message.

Last Friday Kirsten [my wife] went to NYC to the annual Torrey House distributor conference and to see her dad and sister. While she was gone I scooted down to Torrey to see if I could install one of my dad’s telescopes in the observatory, one that I had not used before. It is his most powerful scope and it is a big beast. I didn’t know if I would even be able to lift it up to the mount, slightly over my head, into its dovetail fitting. I could have used help, but Torrey is far away and I have already imposed on a willing neighbor there too much. I put on some old work gloves. I hefted the thing up, got the dovetail started, but then it jammed. Before my muscles gave out I set the scope back down and waited a while. The gloves left incongruous dust prints on the pristine instrument. Throughout the day I tried 7 more times and went to bed that night thinking I should lift weights more. I thought about it and the next morning tried a new angle. On the second try I finally got it. I sat down to marvel at myself while I gave the mount the command to move to its home position. As it did so I laughed as I realized I had put the beast on upside down.

But that was not the full lesson. Continue reading

Hair in the air

I wonder if she had bangs. The constellation Coma Bernices is named in honor of Berenices II of Egypt, who was the queen of Ptolemy III (246 – 221 BC). The queen vowed to sacrifice her acclaimed amber tresses in the temple of Aphrodite at Zephyrium following the king’s safe return from battle. After her golden locks mysteriously disappeared from the temple, the court astronomer Conon apparently made peace by convincing the royal couple that the lost sacrifice had been transformed by the gods and made into an eternal constellation. Perhaps kings then, like president trumps today, required constant creative handling. Trump might think it handy to have a blowdryer galaxy all his own for his special headdress.

M100 & NGC 4312 Galaxies

M100 & NGC 4312, Torrey 5/27/2017

M100 and NGC 4312 are members of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies in constellation Coma Berenices, 50 million light years from earth. M100, also known as the Blowdryer Galaxy, is the upper galaxy seen face on, NGC 4312 is a spiral galaxy seen edge on. There are several other small dwarf galaxies also in the image. Continue reading

Fireworks galaxy (NGC 6946)

 

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Fireworks galaxy, NGC 6946, in the constellations Cepheus and Cygnus. Torrey, 6/4/2016 (revised color)

It is new moon early June and the nights are dark but short. Summer solstice is only two weeks off and it does not get dark enough for observing until 10:40 PM. It will start getting light again in just five and half hours. Dark enough for observing is known as astronomical twilight and technically starts when the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon or almost two hours after sunset. Before astronomical twilight comes nautical twilight, defined by the old mariners as when the horizon at sea is still barely discernible. Continue reading

Black Eye Galaxy (M64)

Black Eye Galaxy (M64)

Black Eye Galaxy (M64)

I am able to get close enough to the heavens to take photos of deep sky objects from my driveway on the Colorado Plateau because I am standing on the shoulders of giants. This subtle jewel of a galaxy first picked up it’s nick name in February 1787 when William Herschel wrote in his observing notes, “A very remarkable object, mE. [much elongated], about 12′ long, 4′ or 5′ broad, contains one lucid spot like a star with a small black arch under it, so that it gives one the idea of what is called a black eye, arising from fighting.” Continue reading

The Whale and the Hockey Stick

“Star gazing is 50 percent vision and 50 percent imagination,” says my favorite astronomer, Chet Raymo. And maybe another 50 percent knowledge. The more you know, the more you can see. On a clear dark night in Salt Lake City, or Chicago, or Boston you can maybe see 50 stars, probably more like 25. The sky is washed out by light pollution and it is the sky most of us see if ever we look up. But we evolved under the stars of pollution free skies and on a clear dark night high on the Colorado Plateau there are still thousands of stars visible. Here the light of the Milky Way can be enough to cast a shadow. All the same, the stars we can see are a tiny fraction of the 100 billion in the galaxy. On nights like these the scene above seems to reach down to shake my sleeping natural soul awake and beg my mind to look up and see, to stand and see with imagination.

Whale and Hocky Stick (Crowbar) Galaxies, Torrey 3-9-2016

Whale and Hockey Stick galaxies, Torrey 3-9-2016

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Heart and Soul

My friend and Torrey House author Brooke Williams has been thinking about awe lately. He is intrigued by how we seem to disappear in the wonder of the wild moment. He thinks that in a moment of awe we shift “our focus from our individual selves to the great and potentially powerful collective.”  Brooke is intrigued by what psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley, Dachel Kelmet, in his book, Born to Be Good, calls the “pro-social” behavior that is often the result of experiencing awe. Brooke and I have been comparing notes about consciousness and our awareness of beauty, connection and self-awareness of our awareness, what Brooke calls “Homo sapiens sapiens” (they who know they know), for quite a while. You can see his blog on awe here.

I tell Brooke I have a growing sense that consciousness is probably an element in the Cosmos, something like time and space are. It is consciousness in quantum mechanics that “collapses the probability wave function” and brings a mere thought into material being. I am not the only one who supposes that consciousness is the elemental source. If it is, when we are in the most beautiful and wild places our whole evolved being is called to greater attention. Our realization of something beautiful is telling us we are looking at truth and AWE is the feeling of the connection to that universal consciousness, the source of all being. I think about this often and wonder. Starry nights like we had lately are a good thinking and experiencing catalyst.

Heart and Soul nebulae in Cassiopeia

Heart and Soul nebulae in Cassiopeia

And just in case I need a hint from above, there it is . Two fantastic nebulae about 7500 light years away in Cassiopeia are called the Heart and the Soul. Here is my cropped capture of a two by two mosaic. The conditions on the first night out were exquisite. It was cool, utterly clear, moonless and calm. It felt like I should be able to reach up and manipulate the constellations or scoop of a handful of stars to pocket and give to my kids. Kristen would think that was a cool wedding present. The second night had high clouds, not all that thin, but the photons made it to my telescope anyway.

These nebula are emission nebula where the red areas are glowing gas with dark dust bands interspersed. The gas glows from the radiation of the clusters of hot stars in the nebulae centers. In fact, in the center of the Heart nebula are, according to Wikipedia, two stars locked in orbit, accounting for the unique shape of the Nebula. The stars are doomed to fuse together and explode into a supernova in 700 million years. According to researchers, this discovery, reported in Nature in February 2015, was the first confirmation that giant white dwarf binaries exist, and the first record of a system with such a fate.

I posted more on the technical aspects of this capture, including the full un-cropped mosaic, on my astrobin site here.