Tag: astronomy

Backyard Astronomy, 1979

When did you discover the stars? When did you realize that the sun was a star that was (relatively) close by? When did you first learn that there were other planets–entire worlds, some so big that they could swallow the earth–right here in our solar system? When did you find out that the universe didn’t revolve around our little world, that the Earth was part of a solar system, and the solar system part of a galaxy, and the galaxy part of the larger universe?

For me, it was sometime in 1978, and a chance encounter with a book in the Franklin Township public library. The book was the The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. I’ve written about this book before, but I’ll repeat myself here because it is vital to the story. Indeed, it is the germ from which the rest of the story flows.

The Nine Planets

I no longer recall what drew me to this book. Was it something I picked out on my own? Was it something my mom, who would take me to the library, picked out for me? All I knew is that I liked it so much that I read it again and again. The Nine Planets1 is where I discovered the other planets, moons, and stars. The Nine Planets led directly to the backyard astronomy that took place at our house in the spring and summer of 1979.

Voyager 2 was in the news in the spring of ’79. I was about to turn 7 and I followed the news of the space probe’s approach to Jupiter assiduously. With the help of my mom, I kept a scrapbook of clippings from the Star-Ledger with pictures that Voyager 2 beamed back from Jupiter.

From those images, I got to see, firsthand, the Great Red Spot. I memorized the names of the Galilean moons. And for my birthday that year, my parents got me a telescope.

With my dad’s help, I learned how to setup the telescope, and align the view finder. We would take the telescope out into the street during the day, and point it at a street side so far away I could barely see it. Then we’d use that sign to align the telescope.

But it was the nights in the backyard that I looked forward to most of all. We pointed that telescope up in the sky and I could Jupiter, making out its fuzzy bands as the reflected light from the planet jigged about in the atmosphere. I could see the four Galilean moons as bright pinpricks of light at various distances from the planet.

It was a propitious time to look up at the night sky. I could see Saturn with its rings angled just so, casting a shadow. The thing was I could see Saturn. It was not just a picture in a book. It was there, up above, posing for me.

We pointed the telescope at the moon and I could see the mountains and craters. We pointed the telescope at seemingly dark parts of the sky and there, in the view finder, that small disc of sky was suddenly filled with stars, many of which I could name. I began to recognize the pattern of the constellations in the sky. I was given more advanced books on astronomy, and though I couldn’t make sense of much of what they were saying, I read through them again and again anyway. If someone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “An astronomer.”

This adventure in backyard astronomy led to my discovery of the larger field of science. When I discovered that there were stories that involved spaceships going to other worlds, I felt as if I was in seventh-heaven. Science fiction became a passion, and while I never grew up become an astronomer, I did grow up to be a science fiction writer, at least as an avocation, selling stories to some of the very magazines I loved reading. It all traces back to a forgotten trip to the library, and the discovery of Branley’s book.

In the decades since, I’ve periodically taken to the skies again. In my 20s, I pulled out that same old telescope I’d gotten when I turned 7, and pointed it up at the hazy skies of Los Angeles. The light pollution muted the experience, but I still managed to catch glimpses of Jupiter, its moons, as well as Saturn. Older, and somewhat wiser, I sketched what I saw into a notebook.

At some point, that old telescope vanished, but I got new one, as a gift from Kelly back when we were dating, and once again, I made time to look up at the sky, this time the skies over Maryland, where the light pollution wasn’t so bad.

A few years back, we had a big family reunion at a place we rented in rural Vermont, and I brought a pair of strong binoculars and tripod with me. At night, the sky was clear, and moonless, and the stars I could see took my breath away. I setup the tripod and pointed up toward Jupiter. The binoculars were strong enough to make out the Galilean moons, but not strong enough for the gas giant to appear as much more than a fuzzy sphere. My kids, as well as my brother’s and sister’s kids were all there, and I gave them turns looking up at the planets and stars. They each took their turn, but I could tell they didn’t feel the same sense of wonder that I felt when I seven, and that I still felt when I looked up at the stars on that clear summer night in Vermont. Then again, none of them had read The Nine Planets.

Is there a book that has had a particular impact on you? This question comes up from time-to-time, and I never have to hesitate with my answer. Other books have made stronger emotional impacts, or excited my sense of wonder, but none of them have had the impact that Branley’s book had on me. I’ve often wished I thought to send Branley a letter of thanks for writing the book. He died in 2002, after writing more than 150 books on science and astronomy for youngsters. I can only imagine how many future scientists, astronomers, astronauts, doctors, artists, and science fiction writers he inspired through his writing.

Of course, I would never have discovered the book were it not in the library to begin with. I have tried, in a small way, to payback the Franklin Township library by donating to it every year. Libraries always seem to be on precarious footing, and yet they contain multitudes. They are temples of inspiration just waiting to be tapped. In my case, the library inspired a bit of backyard astronomy in 1979–and a lifetime of discovery ever since.

  1. Now, clearly dated, in not just facts, but in title; Pluto is no longer considered a planet.

May 28, 585 B.C.

Since it is May 28 and I happened to remember on the day, for a change, I thought it worth mentioning to both history and astronomy buffs, that at May 28, 585 B.C., the Battle of Halys took place. This battle is significant for two reasons.

First, the battle stopped abruptly when  solar eclipse darkened the battlefield. This was taken as an omen that the gods wanted the fighting to cease.

Second, because the dates of solar eclipses can be predicted, it is the earliest historical event to which the date is known to such precision.

Actually, the battle is significant to me for a third reason, which involves the story that I have been working on for the last few months, in which the history of the battle and the eclipse that abruptly ended it, both play a small, but significant role.

Astrologers are constantly claiming the stars shape the fortunes of humanity. I think the battle of Halys is a perfect example of this, although I am certain it is not what the astrologers mean when discussing the dawning of the age of aquarius.

The Universe: Season 1

I finished watching Season 1 of the History Channel series The Universe a few days ago and I enjoyed it for the most part. The episodes were interesting and the computer graphics helped to illustrate concepts that might not otherwise be clear to a layperson. As a popular program on science, it does a good job. I think my favorite part of the show was seeing all of the scientists interviewed in each episode. I think there is a lot of value to hear about astronomy and physics and biology and chemistry from the people who actually do it and the scientists interviewed (some of them quite famous) seemed genuinely enthusiastic.

If I had one criticism of the show, it was that there was too much anthropomorphism in the writing. Galaxies were waging violent battles with one another. Black holes were swallowing matter as if they were living being with a consciousness. Ever present gravity always seemed to be “lurking” like some hidden beast, just out of sight. I understand the need for dramatics in a show on science, but it has been my experience that astronomy and astrophysics is exciting in its own right. It doesn’t need to be puffed up into something with humanlike characteristics. Toning down the writing in parts of the show might make it feel a bit more natural.

That said, the show is currently in its fifth season so it must be doing something right. At the time of this writing (last night) I am about to watch the first episode of the 18-episode second season.

And there is another positive side-effect of the show, from a science fiction writer’s perspective: from the first fourteen episodes, I got one solid story idea.

I have discovered the Universe

I’m talking, of course, about the History Channel series that apparently started in 2007. I bought the first season and watched the first episode, about the Sun last night before bed and it was fantastic. I enjoyed it so much that I was a little sad that there were only 14 episodes. But then I discovered that there are 5 seasons and somewhere between 60-70 episodes. This makes me very happy and you can bet I will have more to say on the program once I’ve seen more of it.


Astronomy Today: Chapter 1

I mentioned a few weeks ago how, in my copious spare time, I’m trying to brush up on astronomy. I ordered a text book that came highly recommended, Astronomy Today, 7th edition, put out by Pearson, and so far, I’ve found the time to get through exactly one chapter of that text book. But it was a lot of fun. As it turns out, the text book is designed for people without much of a science background. I was a physics major when I started college (not when I finished) and so I have more of background than is needed for the book, but it was still refreshing to read an astronomy text that starts at the very beginning.

The first chapter covered the foundations of astronomy, with a lot of emphasis on how scientists know what they know about things that they cannot actually go and visit. How do we know how big the sun is, or how far away the stars are? This was all familiar to me, but it was nice to have the refresher, particularly on some of the basic geometry and trigonometry required for computing parallax and angular diameter. The chapters also covered things like why we have seasons on Earth, the phases of the moon and lunar and solar eclipses (including the difference between full eclipses and annular eclipses).

All told, it was a good review of the very basics. I’ve been trying to find the time to jump into the second chapter which covers the law of motion, among other things. Probably not this weekend, but maybe sometime next week.

The pinnacle of science fiction nerdiness


My astronomy text book arrived today and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I am entered the part of my story that requires some information on Pluto, as well as some calculations of spacecraft orbits and other little tidbits like that, and I can put the new text book to use for at least part of that.

As I said in an earlier post, I don’t have a background in astronomy and it was suggested to me by a science fiction editor I trust that I could benefit from brushing up. Ordering the textbook, and ultimately reading through its pages is the first step on that brush up. Plus, it provides a nice counterpoint to the stories and articles I’m reading in Astounding.

I’m eagerly looking forward to going through the book, cover-to-cover, in a careful way, in the hopes that I can establish a more solid astronomical foundation for myself. Kind of nerdy, I know, but what can I say, it’s something I enjoy. It reminds me of those days when I was a six-year old boy, just discovering astronomy, amazed that the stars were all giant suns, far, far, away, and dazzled when I looked through the Tasco telescope my parents got for me, and saw the rings of Saturn for the first time.

Brushing up on astronomy

The first astronomy book I ever read was The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley when I was six years old. What caught my interest in astronomy at that young age were the pictures in the newspaper of Jupiter as the Voyager spacecraft made its flyby. My parents got me a telescope and I started looking at stars and planets in my backyard. I was hooked.

I learned a lot about astronomy since then, almost all of it from Isaac Asimov. But I have never taken a formal astronomy class.

Recently, however, I discovered that I needed to bone up on this subject. Many science fiction writers are also working scientists and in writing their stories, they have a clear advantage of a lifetime of familiarity with their area of expertise. I am not a scientist and I sometimes make amateur (and silly) mistakes in a story. Editors have been exceedingly kind and helpful in pointing these out to me. And since I want to learn from my mistakes, especially when editors prompt me to do so, I felt it was time that I really brushed up on my astronomy–a crucial skill for a science fiction writer to have.

So I contacted my friend Michael A. Burstein–who does have a science background, who has taught science and edited science texts (to say nothing of having written outstanding science fiction)–and asked him to suggest a good text for me to start with.

Michael suggested Astronomy Today (7th edition) by Chaisson and McMillan and this evening, I placed an order for that text book. When it arrives, I plan to go through it at a nice steady pace (on weekends, during my “research time”) in order to make sure that I am really understanding what I am reading, not just whipping through it. It is my hope that not only will I come away with a better understanding and appreciation of astronomy, but that it will help to make me a better science fiction writer.

Off to bed

Skipped the gym this evening.  I much better at the gym in the morning, and I may have to find a way to get back to a morning schedule.

Less-than-optimal day at work.  I was waiting for some spreadsheets to prepare for a meeting and they were never done, and now we have had to push the meeting to the end of the week, so we lost some good time for no apparently good reason.  It’s a little frustrating.

I was hoping to finish Frameshift today, but I’ve still got about 100 pages to go.  Spent much of the evening working on notes and research for the new story, "Origins".  No actual writing of the story, but I should be able to start soon.  In any case, I’m about 230 pages through the book.

Took the telescope out tonight to look at the moon, Venus and Jupiter, all in alignment.  Some nice looks at the moon.  Venus and Jupiter seemed to come in very fuzzy.  I’m certain I was doing something wrong.

Kelly and I watched two more episodes of From the Earth to the Moon.  And earlier in the day, I listened to mabfan  on Hour of the Wolf.  Great interview.

Picked up a new wireless keyboard for the iMac at home.  The old wireless keyboard, more than four years old, was worn out and dead. 


Took a sick day today because of a bad night of allergies and arm aches, which led to antihistamines and pain-killers. I’ve put myself on the DL for our game next Wednesday as I think I need to give my arm some rest.

I made as good use of the day as I could, considering I couldn’t log into work to check email. I did more packing, and made good progress on that front. I also did some cleaning. I got a haircut. I put out another ton or so of bulk trash for pickup tomorrow morning. I did my last bit of grocery shopping at the old house and the last bit of lawn mowing and bamboo trimming, too. I won’t miss the latter.

Kelly came over after work and we made dinner: ravioli, veggies, and a salad.

When it was close to sunset, I went into the backyard and sprayed a hornets nest that had formed under the back door. I bought this stuff that shoots 22 feet. I saturated the nest, as instructed, and in theory, I should be able to go out there tomorrow and remove the nest.

There was a full moon tonight and I took the telescope out so that Kelly finally had a chance to look at it. The angle was bad (tree branches, etc.) but I made up for it by getting a clear view of Jupiter the 4 Galilean moons. When I put in the more powerful lens, we were able to make out the bands of Jupiter. It was pretty cool to see.

Not a whole lot of reading today. I’m 354 pages through The Count of Monte Cristo.

Question about “magnitude”

There is something that has always bugged me about the evolution of the measurement of the brightness of a star, also know as it’s apparent magnitude. I understand, in principle, the notion of both apparent and absolute magnitude. What troubles me is the evolution of the idea. As I understand it, Hipparchus was the first to attempt to catalog stars by their relative brightness. He looked for the twenty brightest stars and called the “first magnitude”; then he took another grouping of dimmer stars and those became “second magnitude”, and on and on until he had the dimmest stars, just barely visible cataloged as “sixth magnitude”.

In the mid-1800s, Norman Robert Pogson made this quantifiable by showing that the average first magnitude star was 100 times brighter than the average sixth magnitude star. This means that ratio for 1 magnitude of brightness is 2.512, or that a magnitude 1 star is 2.512 x 2.512 brighter than a magnitude 3 star.

So my question: how does one measure the brightness of a star in order to put it into a given magnitude. When I look at the sky, sometimes the difference in brightness is obvious, but other times it isn’t. I can see doing it the way Hipparchus did it, by grouping, but in the mid 1850s, how did Pogson do it? What was the measurement of brightness (lumens?)? How is the brightness measured today? In other words, is there a range of brightness that qualifies for first magnitude?

The moon

I took the new telescope into the backyard just now. It wasn’t 100% dark, but it was dark enough. I still need to learn how to work it properly, align it correctly, etc. But I pointed it at the half-moon or so that was up there and even with the low-power lens, all I could say was, “Oh my god!” What rich detail. You could see the shadows in the craters, the razor-thin sharpness of the terminator line. It was amazing!

I also pointed it at a bright star in the southern sky (I used to know all of this stuff when I was 7 years old; it will take some time to catch up again). I thought it might have been a planet, but it was, in fact a star. I brilliant white point of light. It’s a little cool out and I didn’t want to stay out too long. I also noted Orion to the southwest, and was tempted to point the telescope at the double-star in the center of the belt: Mizar and Alcor. I can remember as a 7-year old, discovering these two stars with my Dad. I think that was the first time I’d ever seen a “double” star system.

I can tell I’m going to have a lot of fun with this. Eventually, I’ll have to catch up on general astronomy. While I do keep up with SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, most of my astronomy education came from reading The Nine Planets over and over again when I was in 1st grade. The rest of it came from Isaac Asimov’s F&SF science essay collections. I can’t wait to dig into it again!

What is a planet: problems with the current definition

Yesterday, while eating lunch, I got around to reading the article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN “What Is A Planet”, by Steven Soter. The article tries to address the rationale for the new definition of a planet, and why Pluto no longer meets that definition.

I can’t say that I disagree with the definition as presented. The definition is based more or less on the orbital characteristics of a body, how much it sweeps clean of it’s surroundings, and the ratio of the body’s mass as compared to the total mass of all other objects in its orbital zone. These are fairly measurable things and seem to support the categorization as it has been made.

I do have some problems with the definition, however, one scientific, the other semantic.

Read why I think the new definition has problems