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

Naked Eye Orion sketched from Ireland
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Recently I have spent some time in the west of Ireland . It’s been stormy , with icy rain and sideways on hailstones battering the landscape. The winds have been epic in this wild place where the ancient potato drills shout evidence of our ancestors ribs bursting the Earth , still hungry after all these years. Most evenings I have stepped outside to look up at the night sky while listening to the Atlantic roar its salty roar at stars too far away to listen. Occasionally the clarity of the sky has been impressive but short-lived. However on the evening of March 23rd on opening the door I was met with what I can only describe as a crisis sky. Every familiar constellation was buried in the galaxy. It is sometimes said that there are more stars in the night sky than grains of sand on all the worlds beaches, that sky was the epiphany of that statement. I sat … Continue reading

Eratosthenes Drawing Drama plus an Experiment opportunity for schools all over the planet
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On that cold evening back in 2007 Eratosthenes looked powerful in its position emerging into the suns warm rays. Rupes Recta was also inviting and Plato almost called me again. Even drenched in sunlight Plato’s steel grey floor carried those unmistakable flame shaped shadows. Eratosthenes is a truly dramatic crater, a sweeping mountain chain whips away from it in a visual series, of broken, deep shadows. Montes Appeninus is cut and chopped first by Mons Wolf, and then by Mons Ampere. Next in line, Christian Huygens name is lent to Mons Huygens named in honour of the discoverer of Saturn’s largest moon Titan . This high mountain (164,000ft) is a billion miles away from those primal methane or ethane seas discovered by the Cassini Huygens mission on one of its routine flybys. Mons Bradley and Mons Hadley cradle the Apollo 15 lunar landing area from 1971. A mission that put wheels on the moon for the first time. This wonderfully … Continue reading

Copernicus’s On the Revolutions—A Book That Continues to Challenge
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Last week’s post featured old science books from the William Marshall Bullitt Collection in the Archives and Special Collections (ASC) of the Ekstrom Library of the University of Louisville here in Kentucky, and readers of this blog may recall an earlier post about the collection, too.  I currently have the enjoyable task of studying the books in the collection and writing discussions of them for the ASC—discussions specifically intended for a diverse audience that might include scholars, students at varying levels, and interested members of the general public.  One of the books in the collection that no doubt would interest readers of this blog (and that readers can go to see and study at the University of Louisville) is Nicolas Copernicus’s 1543 De Revolutionibus Orbium Cœlestium, or On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres.  This post is an adaptation (with permission) of the discussion I wrote for the ASC. De Revolutionibus is a book that challenged scientists and non-scientists alike when it … Continue reading

Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn
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Also in Exploring the Solar System Exploring the Solar System: The Mass of the Sun Marvellous Mars Drawing Workshop at Dunsink Observatory Dublin Astronomical Sketching – Education in action Stars Wonderful Stars at Wexford Town Library Ireland Get ready the Perseids are coming Space the final Frontier – World Space Week 2016 On the richness of the lunar surface Dark Sky Magic at Ballycroy National Park Mayo Ireland Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn Cosmic Lobster Pot A Slice of Solar Drawing in h-alpha View the entire series … Continue reading