Saturday, December 27, 2014

He Who Hesitates...

Lucy and I share a love of thrift-shopping.  Rather then browsing at the mall we are likely to be making the "rounds" of the dozen or so charity-run shops within a half-hours' drive of our home searching racks of discarded clothing and shelves of books, CDs and DVDs for "something good".  We don't (usually) spend a great deal of money on these expeditions; the thrill, it seems, is in the hunt rather then the kill...

I think everyone, has had the experience of finding something for sale, deciding against buying it, and then having second thoughts the next day.  Sometimes the item is still on the shelves when one returns to the shop, often it has been sold in the intervening days.  When this happens--a hesitation followed by disappointment when the item in question is gone--the departed "great deal" assumes far higher value in ones' mind than might be considered reasonable.  Or rational.

I've been victim to this psychological escalation more than a few times over the years; that volume or gee-gaw seems much more important because I hesitated and decided not to buy it, then changed my mind only to find it no longer available upon a second visit.  It happens, and in most cases ends with my shrugging off the incident, casting a few desultory hexes at the lucky soul who has made off with MY "item", and resolving not to make the same mistake in future (knowing full-well that I will).

This week, however, the circumstances were a little different, and to me worthy of note.

As a way of escaping the insanity of the pre-Christmas chaos Lucy and I decided to hit the shops a few days back.  We weren't alone; many thrift-shopppers were abroad that afternoon, but we enjoyed visiting a few of our favorite haunts: the Goodwill, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and even the CHKD provided inexpensive shopping experiences as we browsed the day away.

It was in the Denbigh DAV that I ran across that proverbial "item".  It was a coffee table, only a foot tall and three feet square, thick and sturdy.  I immediately homed in on it as a candidate for a support for one of my telescopes, a job I had attempted to fill previously with very limited success.

The table was worn but rock-solid; I tested this by performing a few push-ups on it, which for some reason attracted curious stares from other shoppers.   It seemed perfect for my purposes, and its worn state would make no difference.  A done deal, right?

Then...hesitation.  Doubt.  Second-guessing.  I began to think of the un-finished projects cluttering my den and the dis-organised mess of the observatory.  I thought about money; should I spend dosh on this battered piece of furniture after my rather profligate expenditures of recent months.  Standing over the table I indulged in a moment of soul-searching.

I turned away.

Oh, foolish mortal!

Of course I began to question my decision that very evening.  Observing the moon from the backyard on that very evening I began to consider the utility of that table; by placing my Dobsonian-mounted 10-inch reflector on it I would raise the telescope by a foot, making its use easier by placing the eyepiece and finder-scope at a level where I wouldn't have to perform the limbo to aim and use the big 'scope.  Why, the table's introduction would make my "Dob" much more usable!

I resolved to re-visit the Denbigh DAV at the first opportunity.  Which, of course, would be the 26th of December.  Boxing Day.

Early on the 26th I headed toward Denbigh, my plan being to arrive at the doors of the thrift store at the very moment of their opening for business.  By this time the "item" in question--a beat-up, twenty year old coffee table, had assumed nearly cosmic importance for me.  I had to try again,to correct my error of two days before, seize that battered piece of furniture if it was still available, and make it part of my observatory equipment.

I drove westward on Route 60, and turned into the DAV's parking lot.  Soon I would know if the "item" was still in stock.  Soon, if I were lucky, I would be heading home with it.  Soon.

The table wasn't there.

Or rather, it was in the DAV store.

It was the store itself that was gone.

The familiar building was blackened, windows shattered, the doors gaping wounds in the smoke-smudged facade.  I braked to a halt short of the yellow tape enclosing the perimeter of the structure and choked on the thick miasma of smoky air surrounding the structure.  Gone the bustle of bargain-hunting customers, gone the helpful and friendly faces behind the counters, gone the cloying holiday music.  Through gaping doors I could just make out piles of fire- and water-damaged merchandise, now only debris to be cleaned away.

The building had burned in the early hours of Christmas Day, only hours after my resolution to return in search of the sturdy table.  The investigation was on-going, but there was already talk of arson. Now that table was burnt and broken inside the scorched building, placing into new and stark perspective my own, small obsessions and desires.

I paused to talk to a few employees of the store, there to help with clean-up.  In their faces I saw sadness and anger, confusion and rage against what could only be an unexpected, even monstrous event on what was meant to be a happy day of celebration.

How had this happened, and what lay ahead for these people who had relied upon this store for their livelihood?  What would the charity organization that employed them in order to do good for others be able to do for them now?

I had driven out to Denbigh with only personal, petty concerns of my own.  Making my way home in the afternoon I found myself caught up in the pain of a holiday season gone terribly wrong for good folks with far more important worries than I.  A lesson in proportion, yes, but a terribly expensive one for far too many people.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Just When You Thought It Was Safe...

Lucy and I went to the Mariners Museum (Newport News) to see their exhibit titled "Savage Ancient Seas: Dinosaurs of the Deep", and were duly impressed by the collection of fossil castings and displays relating the story of Marine Reptiles during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous eras and how they dominated the seas even as their land-dwelling relatives ruled the land-masses.  Very cool exhibit and worth visiting in the time remaining before it closes (4 Jan 2015--so hurry!).
I've been visiting the Mariners Museum ( )since I was a young boy, and today Lucy and I live just a mile or so from the huge ship's propeller that marks its entrance.  At one time I served as a docent there, and the famous golden Eagle (the figurehead of frigate USS Lancaster, c. 1858) that dominates the foyer has been a familiar sight during my many, many visits over the years.

The Museum is also home to the Monitor Center, where work to conserve relics from USS Monitor (which sank off the North Carolina coast during the Civil War) is ongoing, plus several permanent and changing galleries.  If I sound like a spokesman for the place there may be a reason;
museums like this one are an endangered species in this age of the Internet and instant information, and I'm quite happy to support this institution in a small way by spreading the word.  After all the information (and inspiration) I have gleaned through a lifetime of wandering through its halls, this is the least I can do.

Back to those sea-faring "dinosaurs"...
A 54-foot-long Tylosaur of the Cretaceous Era
The title of the exhibit is actually a misnomer; those relatives of Tyrannosaurus, Diplodicus and Brachiosaurus who dwelt in the deep oceans, shallow seas and coastal waters during the Age of the Dinosaurs are known to Paleontologists as Marine Reptiles rather than Dinosaurs.  The curators can be forgiven, I think, as I doubt many people would be drawn to visit without the D-word in the exhibit title.  Fascinating stuff, whatever you call it--
Lucy seems to have attracted un-wanted attention...
If you happen to visit this area, or are fortunate enough to live nearby, I strongly urge you to add the Mariners Museum to your itinerary.  Even if the Marine Reptile exhibit has already closed I think you'll find plenty here to fascinate and inform.

This concludes the Infomercial segment of our programming...we now return you to the Cenozoic Era, already in progress.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Stars Fall on Virginia

I'm happy to report that the Geminid meteor shower, as seen last night from Newport News's Virginia Living Museum, was a terrific success.  The weather cooperated splendidly, and four members of the Virginia Peninsula Astronomy Stargazers ( joined Museum staff and volunteers plus several dozen "members of the public" for an evening of stargazing thru both the Museums' 16-inch reflector and our own, personal telescopes.

After Friday night was clouded-out (although I could see a few, brighter stars thru the milky mess of the sky, I gave up after a few hours and caught up on some sleep instead) I must admit to having doubts about Saturday night's prospects.  All day the sun was playing tag with ominous banks of stratus cloud and thru the gaps in that cover one could see thick cirrus high above.  I even went so far as to downgrade my planned equipage for the evening; instead of one of the larger (and heavier) telescopes in my "observatory" I instead broke-out my little "go-scope", a Celestron 80mm short-tube refractor on a table-top EQ-1 mounting, and loaded it into the passenger seat of my Hyundai for the
short trip to the dome.

As I arrived at the VLM a half-hour prior to sunset there seemed little sign of improvement, and even for the first hour or so on the observatory deck the view wasn't promising.  At about 1830, however, the temperature dropped abruptly to near-freezing and the cloud cover seemed to evaporate, leaving crisp, steady air and sharp, pinpoint star images thru the eyepiece.

My choice of the 80mm refractor proved fortuitous; with four 'scopes on deck (in addition to the 16-inch SCT) we had a nice mix with an 8-inch SCT, a 4.4-inch Newtonian, and two refractors, one a 120mm and the other my smaller model.  In fact, the 80mm was the smallest telescope there; its small size combined with its low and accessible height usually make it the telescope that kids gather around.  I had a great time showing-off the Pleiades, double star Albireo and the Double Cluster in Perseus to all comers--and "pushing" the stars & joy of amateur astronomy!

All the time as the evening wore on, we kept a weather eye out for "shooting stars", both Geminids (identifiable by their apparent origin in Gemini, which at the time lay low in the eastern sky) and 'sporadics', those random, non-shower-related streaks of light to be seen on any night of the year. What began as the occasional  bright, slow moving meteor soon after sunset developed into clusters of two or more, following the same track as they "burned" across the sky, until by 2200 they could be seen whenever one looked up for more than a minute.

At about 2230 the party broke up, with the other VPAS members heading for the club's usual observing location to continue the meteor watch while I loaded up the buggy and drove the three miles back to our little white house near the park.  But my night wasn't over.

While water boiled I set out my equipment to air before stowage, and then I carried a large mug of mint tea (quietly so as not to disturb either sleeping wife or snoring bulldog) out to the backyard.  There, with the sounds of a city at night muted by distance and the trees that surround our little property, I leaned back on the porch swing to watch the barrage continue silently far overhead as the breeze tumbled dry leaves across the lawn.

All in all, a very good night.  Sharing the skies with friends old and new, spreading the "gospel" of astronomy to children with stars shining in their eyes, and watching cometary debris silently flaring in the upper atmosphere with a cup of hot tea at hand and a warm bed awaiting.

It just doesn't get much better than that.

Friday, December 12, 2014

ASTRO ALERT! This Weekend's Meteors

I'd like to invite everyone to join me this weekend for an impressive fireworks show.  No, I don't want all of you to travel to Virginia on short notice and gather in my backyard; however you are all invited to join me (metaphorically) for the annual "Geminid" meteor shower, which is widely regarded (in my circle of friends, anyway) as the years' finest display of 'shooting stars'. 

The shower is already underway, but the peak of meteor activity is expected on the evenings of the 12th and 13th, with the best show anticipated on Saturday night from approximately 10 PM to 2 AM Sunday morning.  After the peak nights, meteor activity will fall off sharply, but on either of those evenings you can expect a pretty impressive view from a dark location.  With Moonrise occurring near or after midnight we should be able to view peak shower activity without the Moon's glare to interfere, washing-out the dimmer meteors.  The timing of this shower--on a weekend with little Lunar interference in the peak hours--makes this an excellent opportunity!

Obviously, those in rural areas will see many more meteors then urban observers; city mice can expect 10-20 bright meteors per hour while country dwellers will view many more, perhaps 30-40 per hour during the peak period.  In any case, no equipment is required beyond warm clothes and a reclining chair (I usually lie in my sleeping bag on an insulating pad).  From personal experience I can recommend a thermos of your favorite warm beverage, few companions to enjoy the show with, and some appropriate music.  (I usually play Smetana or Copland--with Holst and Tchaikovsky at climactic moments!)

Try to find a location with a good view of the entire sky and few streetlights or other man-made illuminations to interfere.  An excellent idea is to check the websites of local amateur astronomy organizations; search "astronomy (city name)" to find area astronomy clubs, observatories and planetaria that might be hosting "open to the public" observing sessions to view the meteor shower.

Because the Geminid shower's meteors will appear to be moving from the direction of the constellation Gemini (hence the name), you can expect to see meteors radiating from the northeast early in the evening; as Gemini rises higher in the sky toward midnight the "radiant" will be much higher--just to the northeast of the zenith.  If you stay out past midnight you'll notice that Gemini (and the radiant) have moved to the northwest.

Wherever you are, I hope you all find yourselves this weekend under a clear night sky, bundled-up against the cold, hot mugs in your gloved hands, enjoying this celestial fireworks show with friends and loved ones. If you've observed meteor showers before, feel free to go all "scientific" and keep a record of how many you see; if this is your first such event then just sit back and enjoy the show--and feel free to write me with your experiences and impressions!

Tom Epps
Chief Astronomer
USNS Big Horn