Astronomical Irish Women
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‘Astronomy is essentially a popular science. The general public has an indefeasible right of access to its lofty halls, which it is all the more important to keep cleared of unnecessary technical impediments’           Agnes Mary Clerke When I was president of the Irish Astronomical Society one of the most interesting guest speakers we had was Dr. Marie Bruck. She was noted for her interest in an Irish astronomer called Agnes Mary Clerke.  Back in 2007 our meeting room in Ely Place Dublin was full to  bursting point.  She delivered an eloquent talk on the centenary of the death of  this unusual lady astronomer. Her erudite presentation finished up to warm applause from all attending. Marie did her doctorate at Edinburgh University and then went on to live and work at  Dunsink Observatory in Dublin in 1950. She met and later married the director of Dunsink, Dr. Hermann Bruck.  After Dublin Marie and her husband moved to … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Of stars and sheep
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2015 ‘Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible. Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment? With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify.’ — Pope Benedict XVI At Notre Dame University [in June 2015], Katharine Mahon, a doctoral student in theology, reminded me of this passage from Pope Benedict’s Easter 2012 homily. One of the striking hallmarks of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, was how it was rooted in the theology and writings of his predecessors, like the passage above. Just as our badly-overlit cities blind us to the stars, our desire to wrap ourselves in the soft wool of technology insulates us from the reality of … Continue reading

What time is it? – Musings on time from zero to Webb
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The concept of time on this Earth is a fictitious delusional notion to facilitate human beings to operate collectively and individually. We humans live on this Earth as it is moving through space and time at 18.5 miles per second. The imaginary line through Greenwich in London gives us a vertical starting point for longitude at zero. East away from zero adds positives in time and west away from zero produces negatives from time zero. A straight line south of Ireland reveals that vast areas of Africa and Antarctica share the same time zone as we do. The ancient Egyptians were the first to understand and put to use the concept of a year. The Egyptians kept accurate astronomical records on papyrus scrolls circa 4,500 BC. Through careful astronomical observations they realised that Sirius one of the brightest stars in the sky was visible rising next to the sun every 365 days. Exactly the days the earth takes to orbit … Continue reading

Hymns of Faith and Science
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A few years ago, I gave an astronomy-themed retreat in the UK and among those attending was Trevor Thorn, who among other things writes hymns. He shared a few of his astronomy-themed hymns with me. Now, I’ll be honest, I find most such mash-ups tend to be pretty cringe-worthy. So I was all the more surprised to read his; they were very good… as you can see, on his blog site, The Cross and the Cosmos. (Which also includes a lot of other faith/astronomy themed art.) One particular bunch were written with kids in mind, and they’re quite fun. He’s “test-run” some of his songs with local church schools in Cambridge. Here’s a short video about that effort: … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Shapes of Things
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2015 In May of 2015, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona honored the retirement of Dr. Randy Jokipii, Regent’s Professor of Planetary Sciences… and the man who directed my doctoral dissertation. It’s customary at such events to downplay the scientific work of the honoree, and praise instead the “life lessons” taught. But Randy was not my father, my pastor, or my guru; he taught me physics. I chose to work for him for the simple reason that I thought he was the smartest guy in the department. (I still think so.) His field, cosmic ray physics, was far from what I had done before… or since. That was another attraction: I wanted to be challenged to learn new stuff. I got what I wanted. Under his direction I spent two years applying techniques that he’d invented for tracing cosmic rays in solar system magnetic fields, to the … Continue reading

A Slice of Solar Drawing in h-alpha
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On my 50th birthday my better half gave me a present of a PST 40 (Personal Solar Telescope) with a 40 mm objective. This gift was literally a piece of visual heaven. Since I acquired this fabulous instrument my work with it has always been drawing. Drawing the sun or even drawing features on the sun is without a doubt the biggest challenge in astronomical drawing. Here is the thing, the telescope objective is just 40 mm, the sun as I see it is only about 30 mm of that 40mm to the eye. Using an 8 mm eyepiece gives about a 50X magnification and therefore the best view of the features and action on the disc and on the limb. There is no point whatsoever in drawing something at a diameter of 30 mm unless you provide your viewers with magnifying glasses or the object is a daisy. Therefore I work mostly at dinner plate size, sometimes at side … Continue reading

The Earth-Destroying Planet Nibiru! (and Johannes Kepler)
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I wanted to become a theologian; for a long time I was restless:  Now, however, observe how through my effort God is being celebrated through astronomy. —Johannes Kepler in a letter to his former teacher. Will the mysterious shadow planet Nibiru obliterate Earth in October? —from a Washington Post “Morning Mix” headline, January 5, 2017. The question was answered with “No”. You might not think that Johannes Kepler, one of the most influential astronomers in history, and “Nibiru”, the supposed Earth-destroying planet, would share any point of connection.  But they do. Nibiru is a supposed planet that purportedly passes through the solar system periodically, wreaking havoc of one sort or another.  There are various versions of the Nibiru idea.  If you Google Nibiru (something I do not recommend, unless you have a great tolerance for the worst in internet misinformation) you will find there are many Nibiru enthusiasts, but they are not all in agreement on what is supposed to happen.  … Continue reading

A Saint, a Medallion, and a Highway
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Travel through far western Indiana in the U.S. (so far western that it is almost Illinois), and you might find yourself passing by Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.  The college was founded by Théodore Guérin (1798–1856, birth name Anne-Thérèse Guérin), a remarkable woman.  She travelled from Europe to the American frontier in 1840, along with Sisters Olympiade Boyer, St. Vincent Ferrer Gagé, Basilide Sénéschal, Mary Xavier Lerée, and Mary Liguori Tiercin.  They arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs, and proceeded to build up an order of nuns and a college (the first institution of higher education for women in Indiana)—all while managing in an alien culture and clashing with the local bishop.  Saint Mother Théodore Guérin was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.  She even has a section of U.S. Highway named after her—part of US 150 near Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College is the “Saint Mother Theodore Guerin Memorial Highway,” so named in 2014 by Indiana Governor Mitch … Continue reading

Rhapsody in Blue – Saturn / Moon Occultation
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On the evening of May 22nd 2007 the beautiful blue sky was host to a first quarter moon. The evening was to bring me one of the most visually rich observations in my drawing odyssey . When I set up my dob I really wasn’t expecting to  catch a glimpse of Saturn in a daylight sky. The software gave me an idea of where the planet was, I scanned the area in the hope of finding it. My task was to see Saturn before it went behind the unlit quarter of the moon. In my first look there it was, the white ringed planet, one billion miles away in space. Saturn was there in my eye, embedded softly in the azure sky moving swiftly toward  the invisible limb of the moon.  Nothing could have prepared me for that  revelation, it was a totally different experience to seeing Saturn in a dark night sky. My drawing paper was hastily endowed in blue … Continue reading

Video from a Vatican Observatory Tour
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Last month (March 2017) Vatican Observatory Director Br. Guy Consolmagno and Vatican Observatory Foundation Development Director Katie Steinke led a week-long tour of astronomy-related sites in Italy.  They invited me to accompany them on the tour, to provide some extra history of astronomy expertise.  I was happy to go, not only for all the obvious reasons (it was a fantastic experience, as you might imagine), but also because many of the places on the tour were connected to material that is part of my Astronomy 101 classes at my college (Jefferson Community & Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky).  I could serve the tour as “the flowing font of history of astronomy knowledge,” and also serve my students by bringing them along on the trip “virtually” (by means of a video camera and YouTube). Community college students are a diverse bunch: some have the means to travel and have been to Europe; many others are financially very hard-pressed and have travelled … Continue reading

Sketching Eddington Crater with the Grubb refractor at Dunsink Observatory Dublin – a very nice memory
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Last night I was looking up at the moon, it brought back to me a wonderful April evening in 2007 when the phase was exactly the same. That evening was to offer me a great experience in lunar sketching. When I was about fourteen years old I had my first looked through the South Refractor at Dunsink Observatory in Dublin. For months I had pestered my dad to bring me out there, a bit of a long drive in those days, before motorways existed. Jupiter was on view that evening, it was crystal clear. The planet must have been quite high as I could look through the Grubb standing on the floor of the dome. At that time I had my own little white 50 mm Tasco telescope on a short plastic tripod. There was not much to see in it, however the moon always got a look. Since that first planet view at Dunsink I wanted to revisit the … Continue reading

Cosmic Lobster Pot
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I have always visualised Cassini’s journey through the Saturnian system as a kind of orchestrated cosmic dance. Cassini moves silently at great speed in its petal shape overlapping orbits. This precisely executed dance brings Cassini frequently through the icy ring plane north to south and then back again on the opposite side of the planet, south to north. This robot ship continues on its unparalleled odyssey of exploration. On board, Cassini is the custodian of twelve science instruments all primed to seek, gather, and process the offerings of this unique planetary system. Collectively they are performing one of the most important scientific probing of Saturn and its many moons in the history of space exploration. One of these science instruments is the Cosmic Dust Analyser. The CDA looks a bit like a golden lobster pot,that is not a bad analogy. This apparatus is trawling the interplanetary ocean for particles of cosmic dust, tiny particles that are the messengers of the … Continue reading