Monday, April 2, 2018

Fossil Hunting in Aurora, North Carolina

Lucy and I visited the Aurora Fossil Museum on a chilly day in February. Wet, cold and gray, but we had a great time delving into both museum and gravel pits in search of treasures from North Carolina’s distant past. We found quite a few, too—a handful of small sharks’ teeth, some impressive fossilized coral fragments, some small objects that might have been rib bones. Lucy made the best finds; a pair of Mako shark teeth, one of them completely intact!

Inside the museum we were impressed by the displays of fossils both from the Aurora pits and other sites worldwide; this is a tremendous collection amassed over decades, and we could sense the passion behind the effort and its results.

We recommend the Aurora Fossil Museum to anyone interested in our world’s past. It’s a little out of the way, but definitely worth the trip. Oh, and should you decide to come to this little town in the coastal hinterlands of North Carolina to visit the museum, be ready to get dirty—no visit to this remarkable place would be complete without digging up a few souvenirs to take home with you!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Telescope Spotting in the Palmetto State, Part Two

A small part of the Ariall Collection of vintage telescopes, on display at the observatory.

Telescope Spotting in the Palmetto State, Part One

The 12 3/8-inch Alvan Clark & Sons refractor in the South Carolina State Museum’s Boeing Observatory

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Mechanical Worlds

Still no relief on the starlight front--it's been an overcast weekend--but I DID get the chance to do some astronomy outreach last night at the VLM. It was the monthly star party/laser show event in the Abbitt Planetarium, so I crated-up the orrery and assorted other educational props and set-up my table in the planetarium lobby.

Quite a crowd, actually! At least one of the showings sold out, and I'd estimate a hundred-odd people came through to watch 'Floyd' in coherent light.

I kept busy with a steady stream of folks curious about the brass-plated clock-work device I was tending. I talked about orreries, tellurions and other pre-planetaria means of visualizing the motions of our solar system's worlds and answered questions about my favorite subject.

Also on display; a die-cast rocket miniature, a sporty red toy car, and a tiny metal astronaut (this is Lucy's keychain, borrowed for the evening). Any guesses as to what recent event THIS collection might be alluding to?

My favorite question of the night: "If the Earth is flat, how do time-changes happen?" Where to begin?

Monday, January 29, 2018

Pluto: A World By Any Other Name

So, what I've learned about the "Pluto: Planet or Not" issue from a very interesting but somewhat painful series of exchanges with a number of planetary scientists over the past couple of days:

1) Planetary scientists (at least this particular group) have no sense of humor whatsoever.

2) The Pluto "controversy", being very, very, VERY important to them, is all about a "turf war" between different factions of the International Astronomical Union. They're miffed because of political wrangling within the IAU which allowed the Anti-Pluto gang to slip in the vote after all the planetary types had departed for the airport, thus installing a new definition for the word Planet in the "official" rules of the astronomical nomenclature. Their point being that said definition is imperfect. Must be nice to know what "perfect" is. Considering that Planet is Ancient Greek for "Wanderer", which could represent ANY celestial body which appears to move against the background of stars, it seems to me that we might want to find a new WORD rather than trying to squeeze the vast variety of types of worlds into some re-definition of "Planet".

3) The actual impact of this demotion of Clyde Tombaugh's 1930 discovery is nil. We've sent an unmanned spacecraft zipping past Pluto (NASA's New Horizons probe 2015) and continue to learn new things about this distant but dynamic world; the New Horizons mission wasn't cancelled after the IAU decision with a "feh, it's only a dwarf planet" news-release.

4) Given the number of books, articles and videos that have been produced since this 2006 vote in the IAU, I can only presume that a substantial number of researchers have now built their careers (or at least financial side-lines) on this "is/is not" argument, so we won't be seeing an end to this any time soon.

5) In full knowledge that I'm about to bring the wrath of an entire community of noisy scientists down upon my little, pointy, scientifically-illiterate head, I propose that we stop beating this dead horse and move on. After all, we call our ancestor on this planet Australopithecus ("Southern Man") because her fossil remains were first discovered in the southern regions of Africa. Now that her bones have been found throughout the continent that name is no longer "perfect", but the name continues to be used.

6) Pluto still doesn't CARE whether it's known to humans as a "planet" or "dwarf planet" or KBO or Plutoid.

Get over it, please.

Thursday, January 25, 2018


I think that most of the population of my country sees the USA as the Leader of the Free World, the City on the Hill as it were. This is a common delusion among my people, spurred-on by 1950's war movies in which we saved the world from the rampaging hordes of despotism and tyranny, and the idea that individually we are intrinsically better and more important to the world than everyone else. 

A typical symptom of this brand of psychosis is the belief that at one time America was "great" (it never was) and that we need to get back to that fictional level of societal perfection and prominence in the world. 

The only known cure is travel. Seeing the rest of the world, exploring the myriad variety of cultures and perspectives, seems to be the only way to break this American mental illness. Unfortunately the average citizen gets their input instead from Hollywood and cable channels, whose products just enhance the myth of "American Exceptionalism"

Maybe someday we WILL break free of this fantasy and join the rest of the world as equals, but that won't happen as long as we insist on being "America First".

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


I've always been a little bemused by political goings-on. No matter who is in the White House or is (temporarily) running Capitol Hill, I've been fascinated by the way the incumbent President is always demonized by his political rivals, the way the media whips up a frenzy of rumor and innuendo. It seems to be part of the American system, going back to the days of Washington, Adams and Jefferson. 

This rumor- and fear mongering seems silly and often childish (I recall the "run" on guns and ammunition that took place as soon as the 2008 election results came in--Obama was going to confiscate all the guns and ammo after all, right?), and I've always held myself somewhat aloof from all the hysteria. I mean, it's just politics, isn't it? 

For the first time in my life, it isn't. With the election of a man whom I can only perceive as an irresponsible, spoiled child to the highest office in the land, and with the incredible damage he and his cronies have done to our Nation in the year since his inauguration, I finally know the trepidation and dread that I've laughed at all my life. 

I'm afraid of what the news will tell me tomorrow morning; what new reversals of policy, roll-backs of carefully-considered legislation, what preserved lands have been opened to exploitation, what protections for the health and well-being of my fellow Americans have been stripped away.  I'm afraid of what the second year, the third and fourth, will bring.

Because this time it's not some trumped-up hate-speech or rumor floated by political opponents, not a FOX or CNN or MSNBC ratings-grab. This is real. 

And for the first time in my life, I am truly afraid of my government and my leaders, and deathly afraid for the future of my beautiful country and the promise of freedom and equality  that it once offered.

The barbarians are within the gates--they've been here all along--and the empire hangs in the balance.