Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"All These Worlds..."


I'm fascinated that the argument over the definition of the archaic word "planet" simply refuses to die. On the one side of this ongoing non-controversy we have those who respect the current IAU definition and argue that we have eight planets in the Solar System plus an odd number of dwarf-planets (including Pluto, Ceres, Eris, etc.). On the other side of acrimony we have those who pine of the good 'ole days of "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas" and can't abide the IAU decision.

But wait. Now we have a THIRD side, demanding that EVERY object that orbits the Sun is a planet--which will give us an impressive catalogue indeed!

Personally, I think that we need to dispense with this entire debate. We are making the mistake here of trying to squeeze the incredibly numerous and varied bodies that orbit the Sun into very small taxonomical boxes by forcing them all into some new, all-encompassing, impossible definition of a single word.

"Planet"


The term itself is unfit for our purposes. Meaning "wanderer" It's based on an ancient word applied in its era to the five naked-eye bodies that wandered in the skies of Babylon and Athens. Sometimes also applied to our Moon and passing comets, it simply isn't enough for today's Solar System.

Try on a different word: "Worlds".


When I speak to students who visit the Abbitt Observatory I use this word rather than "planets" because it better represents the bodies of the Solar System as we know them today; not as unknown and un-knowable points of light that inexplicably brightened and dimmed as they traced mysterious paths across the ancient heavens but as what they are to us in this modern era; actual places that can be visited and explored, studied and understood in all their sizes and varieties.

Earth is a world; there can be no debate on this. So is Mars. And the Moon, Vesta and Ganymede; all worlds. Tiny Pluto, giant Jupiter, icy Comet Halley and all the myriad objects in the Kuiper Belt...the word applies to them all broadly, without need of division or amplification.

Within the massive catalogue of worlds there are giants and pygmies, from super-Jovian exoplanets down through the scales to the smallest aggregations of rubble to be found in the Main Belt. Of course there is need of classification within the broad context of Worlds, but no requirement for time-and-energy wasting argument regard the very meaning of the term!

"Planets" are passe; open your mind to other Worlds.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Photo: Telescope Family Portrait

I'm thinking of opening a telescope shop...
After some serious effort--setting-up ONE telescope for a night's observing can be a project (but not as much of one as taking it back down after an all-nighter at the eyepiece!)--I am happy to present a "family portrait" of my primary observing equippage!

From left to right (back row): a Sky-Watcher 6-inch Newtonian reflector, my very first (recently restored) telescope, a Bushnell Banner 60mm refractor, an Orion 10-inch Newtonian on a Dobsonian mounting, and a Sky-Watcher 4.7-inch APO refractor. Front row: a Meade ETX-90RA and Edmund Astroscan (This is my SECOND 'scope--I've had this little gem since 1977!).

Please note the total absence of computers from this assembly of fine optics--I prefer to explore the Universe in Mode-3*, thank you very much!


(*Mode-3: Naval Aviator lingo for flying [and fighting] their aircraft without computer assistance.)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Guest Post: Headed For The 'Poe' House


The Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Richmond VA

So on January 16, 2017 Tom and I finally achieved our long planned, and several times aborted mission to visit the Edgar Allan Poe museum in Richmond, VA.  We were suitably rewarded for our efforts.  The museum is a tiny gem tucked within Richmond's sprawl, and is the only house from 1712 left standing after the Civil War and the fire that burned Virginia's capitol to the ground.  It is a house that Edgar Allan Poe would have passed by in his day.  He never lived in the house, but it certainly evokes the time period, especially on a chilly, February day.
In the Enchanted Garden
Edgar Allan Poe is one of those rare figures in history whose life is more fascinating than what he left behind.  While he invented the science fiction genre, and gave birth to detective fiction, his life was one huge spiral of destitution, misery and misfortune.  He may have been on a life long search for stability, which never came.

Orphaned at two, taken in but never formally adopted by the Allans, young Edgar's life reads like a continuous series of unfortunate events.  Though a brilliant student, he never had any money for books, and quarreled constantly with his adoptive father.  Edgar finally quit the University of Virginia and enrolled in West Point.  In two years, he rose from private to Master Sergeant, but then, because of financial difficulties, made the decision to get expelled!  His early efforts at earning a living as a writer were undermined by a publisher who never distributed the fifty copies of Poe's first book, Tamerlane.  From there, his life is one continuous roller coaster of brief happiness and abject misery.
 
Armed with what we know today about various mental illnesses, Tom and I could not help but speculate on just what was going on in Edgar's head through his brief life.  Genius certainly, but genius tainted with depression, possibly bi-polar, possibly effects of lead poisoning, considering that lead was in glass, and water.  In the end, the mystery of Poe's mental state and his death in Baltimore will remain conjecture.  The last few days that he spent in Baltimore make for a mystery worthy of the genius that he was. 

The visit to the Poe museum is certainly worth a trip.  Not only for Poe fans, but for anyone interested in history.  The museum has changing displays, and of course, hosts Edgar Allan Poe himself in October!  There is  friendly rivalry between the Poe museum in Richmond and that in Baltimore, where Poe lived and spent his final days.  
 
If you do visit the Poe house in Richmond, do be mindful of Pluto and Edgar, the two four legged keepers of the house.  They will come and investigate. 
One of the Museum's feline managers requires attention
For those interested, there is a film that depicts Edgar Allan Poe's final days in Baltimore.  'The Raven' came out in 2012, and stars John Cusak as Poe.  It is very well done, but only really makes sense if one knows Poe's history and stories.  Certainly some liberties were taken, but overall, the film is as good an explanation of the poet's final days as any other assumptions or theories relating to his demise.

Lucilla M. Epps
Newport News, Va

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Quick Post: Tired, But Worth It!


Welcome to Mansfield Plantation
I had a very successful--and enjoyable--day, driving around eastern South Carolina locating possible observing locations for the August Total Eclipse and making contacts in the local governments of two well-placed towns. I also had the opportunity to check out the bed & breakfast that my family and friends will be using as a "base camp"; what a lovely place to gather for a reunion AND to observe such a remarkable celestial event together!
One of the Mansfield B&B Outbuildings
A Smokey Plantation Scene

Monday, February 13, 2017

Quick Post: Southern Comfort


And here I am in a nice motel room in Moncks Corner, SC. I'm here to scout out observing sites for THE solar eclipse (21 August) and to meet with some reps from the town; they want to set aside a large recreation area for visiting and local amateur astronomers and the local public and have asked me for suggestions. Hey--I guess that makes me a Consultant!

Anyway, after tomorrow's get together with the Town Fathers (Mothers?) I plan to cruise around and visit a few more potential observing sites before heading home on Wednesday. All part of planning for the Epps/Dunn/Tharp/Bratun/Hastings/Burroughs get-together down here in August, so stand by for further updates!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Quick Post: Sun-Day At Virginia Living Museum


A good session Under The Dome at the VLM. Lots of guests out enjoying sunspots thru the telescope, lots of conversation about my favorite subject (astrology? Nah...), and lots of questions!

I really love this gig!

(Photo: a young family meets the Meade 16-inch!)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Quick Post: The Morning Shift

A quiet morning in the Abbitt Observatory. Too cloudy to be showing visitors any sunspots, so instead I have the little 100mm refractor set on a distant cell tower where dozens of birds are roosting. In springtime a pair of osprey make their nest on the tower--kids are especially thrilled to see the new hatchlings being fed!