Monday, August 14, 2017

Another Eclipse Post. . .

As we draw closer to The Great American Eclipse of 2017, a few thoughts are percolating in my brain (which is not quite as painful as it sounds). . .

Of course, a solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and what's so complicated about that?  But when I think about it. . . It is at least a colossal conincidence (or is it?) that the moon and the sun are almost exactly the same size, when viewed from here on earth.  The moon is about a quarter the diameter of the earth, and the sun is about 100 times bigger than Earth.  But the sun is about 400 times farther from the earth than the moon, so they look to be about the same apparent size.  If the moon were a little bit smaller, or a little farther from earth, it would never be able to cover the sun (and all eclipses would be like the one in '94 that passed near OurTown).

Eclipses always correspond with a New Moon - when the moon passes from one side of the sun (viewed from our persepctive here on earth) to the other.  In fact, if the moon's orbit were coplanar with the earth's (i.e. perfectly 'flat' to earth's orbit), every new moon would result in an eclipse.  But because the moon's orbit is tilted by 6 degrees relative to the earth's, the moon sometimes passes above the sun, sometimes below it.  If the earth were bigger (I don't really know how much bigger would be 'big enough'), then the likelihood of the moon's shadow crossing the earth would increase, and there would be more eclipses.  As it is, total eclipses occur roughly every 1-2 years, somwhere on the planet (and the fact that it's been almost 100 years for the US means we're WAY overdue) (but, to make up for it, the next one comes less than seven years from now, in April 2024). . .

So, an eclipse happens when a new moon corresponds to the moon being at a point where its orbit is crossing the earth's orbit (or at least, 'close enough' to it).  And where the eclipse falls on the surface of the earth just depends on which part of the earth is turned toward the sun at the moment.  Next week just happens to be when our turn comes up here in the good ol' USA, for the first time in virtually a century.

It blows my mind a little bit that things like eclipses are mathematically predictable, to a high degree of precision.  I mean, we know when the eclipse is going to happen and where it's going to happen.  There are published maps, showing the path of totality, and how wide it is, and which towns are in the path of totality, and which are just outside it.  If you're on the southwest side of St. Louis, you'll see the totality; if you're on the northeast side, you'll just miss it, and we know that before it even happens.  We know how the eclipse will progress across the country, starting in Oregon around 10:15 AM Pacific Time, and ending in South Carolina about an hour-and-a-half later, mid-afternoon Eastern Time.  We know that the totality will last for just longer than two minutes (two minutes and 40+ seconds in Missouri/Illinois/Kentucky, where Jenn and I will (hopefully) be).  I mean, that's knowing an awful lot about how it's all going to happen, and it was known years, even decades ago. . .

Jenn and I are laying our plans to drive down next Sunday afternoon/evening.  We'll actually be staying with an old blogger-friend who lives not too far from the path of totality (but not actually inside it), then getting up early on Monday to fight the (hopefully not TOO awful) traffic, and settle in a decently favorable location from which to track the progress.  The long-range forecast, at least as of today, is pretty favorable for good viewing.  Hopefully, it will stay that way.  Then, sometime around 1:30 or so, the lights will go out.  And that's what I'm waiting to see. . .

-------------------------

And of course, there are those who are just unclear on the concept. . .

In the meantime, I'm trying not to get too irritated with Jenn singing that old Bonnie Tyler song, over and over and over and over. . .

Monday, August 7, 2017

Signs In the Sky

By now, most of you, or at least some of you (okay, the nerds among you) have heard about the total solar eclipse that is due to happen on August 21, two weeks from today.  This is the first total eclipse visible in the continental United States since June of 1918, nearly a century ago.  So it's a pretty big deal, as eclipses go.  Over a narrow band maybe 50 miles wide, stretching from the Oregon coast to South Carolina, the moon will blot out the sun, for as much as two-and-a-half minutes, stretched over a couple hours, from coast to coast.

Jenn and I are planning to drive down to Hopkinsville, KY (about 8-9 hours drive time from OurTown), braving what will probably be pretty brutal traffic, at least by Hopkinsville standards.  Depending on what we see in the weather reports the day before, we could end up anywhere from Illinois to Tennessee, or just stay home, if we see that the eclipse path will be clouded under.  But we are looking forward hopefully to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the sun blotted out in mid-day.  I'll certainly blog about it, once we get back. . .

But until then, I'll whet your appetite with a few reminiscences of heavenly phenomena I've been witness to in the course of my young life. . .

-------------------------

The earliest solar eclipse I can remember happened in July of 1963, when I was seven years old.  Our family was vacationing at a beach resort near what would soon become our hometown UpNorth.  In retrospect, my dad was probably interviewing for the job that would have us moving there the following November (just after the Kennedy assassination), and his bosses wanted to impress upon him the pleasantness of life on the Big Lake, in the midst of the North Woods.

Anyway, seven-year-old me was mostly happy to splash around in the Big Lake, among the sandbars and whitecaps; I recall it being sunny and warm for our entire stay there.  Then one day, folks gathered on the beach, with an air of excitement, talking about 'the Eclipse'.  Precocious (read: nerdy) child that I was, I had read age-appropriate astronomy books (maybe even a year or two above my grade-level), and knew what an eclipse was (at least in theory), but I had never seen one live and in-person.  My dad was a pretty mechanically-clever guy, and he rigged up an eclipse-viewing box, with a pinhole on one end, and a 'screen' of white cardboard on the opposite end (which, honestly, didn't require that much mechanical cleverness, but still. . .), so we could watch as the 'bite' the moon was taking out of the sun grew.  At that location, the eclipse reached a maximum of something like 85% totality.

There was much dire hand-wringing among the adults that we MUST NOT look directly at the sun, lest we go blind, so dad's little box-viewer was what we had available.  But, naughty boy that I was, I snuck off for a minute or two. I had, from time to time in my young life, squinted with my eyes just barely slitted open, and looked straight at the sun for a couple seconds, so I had reason to doubt the whole 'going blind' thing.  I wondered briefly if there were some sort of special rays or something associated with the eclipse, but decided that I'd done it before, and if I did it again just now, it probably wouldn't be any different.  So I did - just enough to confirm for myself that, viewed directly, through my tightly-slitted eyelids, the sun looked pretty much the same as what we saw in dad's box, so I was mainly content to view the eclipse via the box, for the rest of the duration of the eclipse, although I probably risked a couple more quick views through slitted eyelids.  I think one of the men at the resort had a welding hood with him, which was quite popular with the other vacationers present. . .

Anyway, it was very cool.  As the eclipse approached its maximum totality, the light had a strange, ethereal dimness about it - sort of twilight-ish, except that the sun was high in the sky, and shadows were mid-day short.  Very cool. . .

The event probably stayed in my brain because of the vacation aspect of it, combined with (especially) my mother's anxiety over my impending blindness.  Or, you know, maybe I'm just a nerd. . .

-------------------------

In the course of 50-plus years since that first eclipse, I've experienced several other solar eclipses, somewhere on the order of a half-dozen or so, maybe more.  Some of them I've taken notice of, some of them came and went without me noticing much.  But there was another one, in May of '94, that is worth telling a story about. . .

The eclipse of '94 was an annular eclipse, meaning that the moon's disk was slightly smaller than the sun's disk (i.e., the moon was at a farther point in its orbit), so it wouldn't completely cover the sun.  But the path of maximum eclipse passed very close to OurTown, so the local news was in more-than-normal 'hype mode' for it.  One of the articles mentioned that a Number 14 welding shade was sufficient to allow viewing of the sun.  So I went to a local welding-supply store, and asked for a Number 14 shade.  "Number 14?" the guy said, when I asked him.  "Jeez, what are you trying to do?  Look at the sun?"  Well, yeah, I said.  "Well, I don't have a Number 14," the guy continued, "but if you slap a Number 6 and a Number 8 together, that's a 14; that ought to work.  I asked if he had a 6 and an 8 handy, so I could check it out.  He handed them to me, and I went out to the parking lot, put the 6 and the 8 together, and looked through them up at the sun, and saw the clear, green-tinted disk of the sun, at a comfortably dim brightness, comparable to the night-lights in my kids' bedrooms.  So the man had himself a sale. . .

A group of 5 or 6 of us played hooky from work for a couple hours on the day of the eclipse and drove to the county fairgrounds, maybe 15 miles from our office, and watched the familiar progression of the moon taking an ever-larger bite out of the sun, while the light took on the other-worldly dimness that I'd been through a few times by then.  At its peak, the sun was 96% blocked out, so the dimness was even more ethereal than usual that day.  My Number 14 welding shade was quite popular with my fellow-truants.

Our location at the fairgrounds was in what was called the 'Graze Zone', where the edge of the lunar disk just 'grazed' the edge of the solar disk, producing a very cool effect. At the height of the eclipse, the sun 'peeked through' the valleys between the lunar mountains, producing a 'string of pearls' effect, with a series of tiny pinpoints of light arrayed in an arc between the 'horns' of the thin crescent of the sun that remained visible.  And we saw it live, mitigated only by the green welding shade. . .

(not a great picture, but this is what we saw. . .)

-------------------------

Up to now, that 'string of pearls' is probably the coolest thing I've ever seen in the sky, although a few other things deserve at least a mention. . .

Halley's Comet came by in 1986, right on schedule, with all the hype that you would expect for a well-known once-in-a-lifetime event.  We have friends who have a farm 30 miles or so from OurTown (away from city lights), so we arranged a Halley's Comet viewing party with them, and the kids we both had at the time.  We actually stayed overnight at their house, and got up at 5AM, to catch the viewing window between when Halley would rise over the eastern horizon, and when the dawn's early light would wash it out.  It was pretty deep in winter at the time, so we ended up trudging across their barnyard in the snow (at 5AM), with temperatures hovering around 10 degrees or so (Fahrenheit; about -12C).

And Halley was pretty much of a dud.  We consulted our star charts, to be sure that we were looking in the right part of the sky, pointed our binoculars at the correct sector of the sky, and saw. . . a little smudge of light that wasn't on the chart.  That's all - just a little smudge.  We had to look several times to convince ourselves that it wasn't just a snowflake on the binoculars.  Once we had convinced ourselves that, by golly, that little smudge was Halley's Comet, we sighed, declared victory, and trudged back to the house to go back to bed.  While our kids wondered what the hell we had hauled them out into the frozen night for. . .

But in 1997, Hale-Bopp was a comet actually worth watching.  I think it took even the astronomer-types by surprise by how bright and prominent it was.  For weeks, there was this large, sort-of V-shaped apparition in the evening sky, visible even walking amid the bright lights of OurTown.  Nothing ambiguous or smudge-y about this one.  Very cool - the best comet I've seen in my young life. . .

In 2012, there was a Transit of Venus, in which Venus passed across the disk of the sun.  It happened rather late in the day here in Michigan, so I took my Number 14 shade to work with me, and at a suitably remote location on my drive home, I pulled off the highway and took a look at the sun.  And sure enough, there was a small black dot in the middle of the sun's disk - Venus, doing its very best to block out the sun (which amounted to something on the order of a 0.1% eclipse).  Not nearly as spectacular as even a partial eclipse, but very cool, nevertheless. . .

(There was also a transit of Mercury just last year, but it happened at an inconvenient time (early in the morning), so I missed it.  Plus, Mercury is both smaller than Venus, and farther from Earth, so it's harder to see.  But I wanted you all to know that I knew about it. . .)

-------------------------

There are others, I'm sure (I recall a pretty cool triple conjunction involving Mars, Jupiter and the moon, I think), but those are the major highlights of my sky-viewing experience so far.  At least until August 21, I hope. . .


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Progress Marches On. . .

"Our grandparents did not have ultrasounds, so they wondered about the sex of a child before it was born.  We are more sophisticated now.  We wonder about it after."

          - Anthony Esolen, professor at (for now) Providence College

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Misadventures in Flying. . .

The headlines in recent days and weeks have been filled with stories of airline misadventures - people getting dragged off planes by the police, fistfights between passengers, rude treatment from flight staff, and on and on.  I really can't relate to much of what we're seeing lately - Jenn and I have flown exactly twice since 9/11, and while air travel wasn't exactly pleasant back in the day, it has gotten noticeably less pleasant since then.  Anyway, the recent stories remind me of one egregious tale of airborne awfulness. . .

-------------------------

It was June of 1998, and my youngest brother was getting married in Missoula, Montana.  Jenn and I duly made our plans to fly out and be with my family in celebration of the joyous nuptials.  7M was 2 months old at the time, and in those days, you could still take an infant-in-arms on a plane, well, in-arms, without a child-seat (or, more relevantly to the cash-flow, another ticket).

In the week or so before our flight, a couple of our friends, who flew a lot more than we did, came to us, asking which airline we were flying on.  It turned out that the pilots' union for the airline which, indeed, we were flying on, was approaching the end of their contract, and had set a strike deadline for the weekend we were travelling.  Naive as we were, we didn't overly concern ourselves over it, and continued with our travel plans as if nothing was up.

Flying to Missoula from OurTown was a bit of an ordeal, all by itself, involving two planes, and four separate take-offs and landings.  From OurTown, we flew to another Michigan airport, about a 20-minute flight (and east of OurTown, so we began our journey traveling backwards.).  From there we flew to Minneapolis, where we changed planes and flew to Great Falls, Montana.  At this point, we were starting to relax, since it was only another 30 minutes or so in the air to Missoula.  We landed in Great Falls, and stayed on the plane, taking on a few more passengers, then taking off to our final destination.

Now, Missoula sits in a little bowl in the mountains, and whereas it had been bright and sunny all the way from OurTown to Great Falls and beyond, it was cloudy and rainy at Missoula (such are the climatological vagaries of mountainous terrain).  Even so, we broke through the bottom of the clouds, and the whole valley laid out below us.  We could even see the lights of the airport.  So we began to pack and stow our stuff in preparation to land.  The plane began its descent, and about halfway down, the pilot suddenly pulled up, aborting his landing, and went back into a holding pattern, informing us that conditions weren't favorable, but he would line up and try again.  We started down once more, but this time, he pulled up even sooner, telling us over the intercom that flight rules required 1000 feet visibility to land, but visibility was only 995 feet, so he was taking us back to Great Falls.  Which he did.

We arrived back at Great Falls (it was still bright and sunny), and taxied to the terminal building.  But not to a jetway.  Or any other means of leaving the plane.  The pilot engaged in some, uh, negotiations with his bosses about getting back in the air, and getting us all to Missoula.  While we sat in our seats on the plane.  For an hour.  With the plane powered down.  Including the air conditioning.  Finally, the pilot came back on the intercom, and told us that he was going to try to take us back to Missoula, even though conditions there hadn't improved, and he personally didn't think it was wise.

So we took off again, and in 30 minutes we were back at the bowl in the mountains where Missoula sits.  Again, the pilot made an attempt to land, but pulled up halfway down.  From the holding pattern, he told us that he'd make one more run, and this time, he descended virtually to ground level.  Except that, when we got to the airport, we were about 20 feet off the ground - AND THE RUNWAY WAS 20 YARDS TO OUR LEFT!!  He flew along in that configuration for virtually the entire length of the runway, before pulling back up, announcing that it just wasn't safe to land in Missoula that day, and took us back to Great Falls.  Again.

When we arrived back at Great Falls this time, we got off the plane, and the airline hastily arranged a fleet of buses to convey us all to Missoula.

The bus ride was pleasant enough, as bus rides go, but it was three hours, instead of the 30 minute flight we'd signed on for (and which - bonus points! - we'd already done twice, and twice more in reverse).  It twisted and wound through some beautiful montains.  At one point, the driver came on the intercom to tell us that just over the ridge to our left was the Unabomber cabin, so you know, more bonus points.

We eventually arrived in Missoula, just in time for dessert at the rehearsal dinner, and about five times more bedraggled than we started out.  The wedding the next day was lovely (some years later, Jenn and I rented the movie A River Runs Through It; the church in the movie is the same one in which my brother and his wife were married), and the day after the wedding, my brother took us for a hike in the mountains, which was pure bonus points.

-------------------------

The airline and the union settled their differences over the weekend, and we returned home without incident.

But there remains a special place in Purgatory for the pilot who used the lives of a plane-load of passengers as a bargaining chip that day.  Oh, he made a nice show of following the rules (that last 5 feet of visibility made all the difference, I'm sure), and he gave us a nice stunt-flying performance (flying 20 feet off the ground, exactly parallel to the runway; if he could do that, he could land the plane on the runway; asshole), which we were privileged to view from inside the plane, no less.  And he used up six hours of our lives in the process.  All to flip the bird at his bosses.  What a guy!  But hey, we got to drive past the Unabomber cabin, and we did eventually get to Missoula, so there's that. . .


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Talkin' Baseball. . .

Baseball season has begun, and that's always an occasion of joy in my own psyche.  I grew up loving baseball, and had some middling success at it, mostly before I was 15.  Once the other guys hit puberty, and started throwing real curveballs, and fastballs too fast for me to get around on, I sighed, learned how to drink beer, and moved over to the softball diamond.

Since I've been a father to sons, I've taken a lot of joy from watching my sons play (I've enjoyed watching my daughters play, too, but none of them played baseball; or even softball. . .).  All of my boys have been ballplayers, and among them, they've had at least as much success as I did in my day; and, what I'm happier about, they've come to love the game almost as much as I do.  My three oldest boys all learned how to play catcher, because I told them that coaches love a kid who'll volunteer to catch (and I wasn't even a catcher; but I did coach for a couple years).  I took 'em to see the local minor league team a few times every summer, and I'd point out to 'em how the catcher would subtly 'drag' a pitch into the strike zone, and sometimes get his pitcher a strike call that wasn't quite, uh, true.  And the first time I saw one of my sons do that in a Little League game (it wasn't exactly even minor-league subtle, but it worked on the teenage ump who was calling the game that day), I burst out laughing, which is to say, busting my buttons with pride. . .

-------------------------

But that's not really the story I set out to tell you today.  It's really just setting the stage for me to tell you about my friend Todd. . .

I first met Todd probably about 10 years or so ago, when his son and mine were on a Little League baseball team together.  For most of that time, our relationship has been defined by our mutual fatherhood of athletically-inclined boys.  7M and Todd's son Joel were on baseball, basketball and football teams together, roughly from age 9 all the way through high school, and were often among the better players on the field for their respective teams.  I blogged five years or so ago about a memorable weekend of baseball, during which their team won six games in two days, in 95-degree heat, winning the championship with a suicide squeeze play in the bottom of the final inning of the final game.  Todd was the coach of that team (and I had some complimentary words regarding his, um, endowment afterward).  When Joel and 7M were on the high school football team, Todd and I ended up sitting together for most of the games, all the way to the state finals their junior year (they lost), and another run to the state semifinals their senior year.  And along the way, Todd and I built a really nice friendship.  We had both grown up as jocks of one degree or another (his degree was a lot higher than mine, at least in terms of actual athletic success), and we enjoyed talking through the games with each other.  When our sons graduated, our two families joined together for their open house.

-------------------------

Todd is a bear of a man, thick and muscular, and strong as an ox.  You can easily imagine him as a football player, and he was.  But his first love was baseball, and as a young man, he had more-than-modest success.  When he was in high school, he was probably the second-best high-school ballplayer in Our Town.  The best was a young man named John Smoltz.  Todd played for the Catholic high school, and he and Smoltz were actually teammates during their freshman year.  After that, though, young Mr. Smoltz moved to Waverly High across town, and he and Todd would play against each other a few times every season.  As you might imagine, Smoltz cut quite a swath through the baseball world of Our Town, as all future major-leaguers do.  But Todd held his own, and even hit a home run (or two?) off young Smoltz.  In those days, John Smoltz was the kind of high-school pitcher that young ballplayers would congratulate themselves for even fouling a pitch back off him, to say nothing of actually putting the ball in play.  Much less getting an actual hit; much less hitting a home run.

I don't know what happened with Todd's baseball career after high school, if he ever played college ball, or what.  I don't think he ever got a pro contract.  For at least the past 20 years or so, Todd's life has been the typical, ordinary grind of work and raising kids.  And putting in his time on aluminum bleachers, sitting next to me, watching our kids play. . .

John Smoltz, on the other hand, did get a pro contract, and went on to a distinguished 21-year major-league career, virtually all with the Atlanta Braves.  He was eight times an All-Star, pitched in five World Series (winning one), and won a Cy Young Award as the National League's best pitcher in 1996.  Pretty rarefied air for a guy who grew up playing on the sandlots of Our Town.  Heck, along with Magic Johnson, he's one of the most distinguished athletes to ever come from here. . .

-------------------------

Since our sons graduated from high school last spring, I've seen less of Todd, but we still enjoy the occasions when we bump into each other.  Two summers ago, John Smoltz was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.  A short time after that, I bumped into Todd, and he started reminiscing about when he and John Smoltz had been the two best ballplayers in Our Town, back in the day.  So I stopped him, and said, "You know what this means, don't you?"

He looked at me.  "What?"

"You hit a home run off a Hall of Famer."

He grinned, as big a grin as I've seen him grin (and he's got a pretty big smile, just normally).  "I did, didn't I?  How many guys can say that?"

Indeed, my friend. . . Not very many, indeed. . .

Friday, February 3, 2017

Howcum Izzit. . .

. . . That so much of what I see flying under the banner of 'Love Trumps Hate' looks more like 'My Hate is Cooler than Your Hate'?

Just, you know, askin'. . .

-------------------------

And, under the heading of 'People Coming Unhinged', you have people (more than one, including a former official in the Obama administration) publicly advocating the military overthrow of the President of the United States.

I mean, wouldn't it be easier just to move to Chile, or Uganda?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Visitor From Beyond. . .

This Christmas, I'm re-posting a favorite old cartoon of mine, with a really cute take on the Incarnation. . .


If the SETI folks only knew. . .