Monday, March 30, 2009

Disappointing Earth

On Saturday, the hour from 8:30 to 9:30pm was designated "Earth hour". The idea started in Australia, and its purpose is to cut down on energy consumption for that hour. In most cases, this means shutting off extra lights, computers, and other unused appliances in one's house.

We lit a few candles, shut off all our lights (we use the non-incandescent bulbs anyway), the network computers in our house, and did not turn on the TV, even though one of the programs we regularly watch was scheduled for that time.

I looked out our windows during that hour. Sad to say, I noticed absolutely no difference from the normal situation. All our neighbours' lights were on as usual, the highrises in our neighbourhood were lit up like Christmas trees (as usual), and the sky did not look one whit darker (it was as light-polluted as ever). If I want to be charitable, I'll say that most people did not even know about this hour; otherwise I have to assume that people around us just don't give a damn.

As it turns out, our city, along with many others, saved less energy this time than last year. What does that say about individual people's attitude towards "Global Warming" and climate change?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Hazy Astronomy

As I've mentioned before, this year is designated as International Year of Astronomy (IYA). To that end, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC - I've been a member for more than 30 years) is undertaking many public activities, free for all to take part in. Worldwide, there are many astronomy associations and educational institutions involved in the same activities.
After several locally scheduled events were "rained out" lately, last night turned out to be more promising. A clear evening was predicted by Attilla Danko's "ClearDarkSky" program which uses data from Environment Canada's weather forcasting system.
Things turned not quite as clear as predicted - there were thin, hazy clouds drifting across the sky all evening. However, they were transparent enough to show the brighter objects, one of which was the planet Saturn. Three of us were slated to run this meeting, and two of us had committed to set up our own telescopes at the H.R. McMillan planetarium for this date, so I set up my Celestron C-8 in front of the Gordon Southam observatory. The third member in our group operated the observatory telescope itself.
This year, Saturn's rings are seen almost edge-on. That's a consequence of the tilt of Saturn's axis of rotation with respect the plane of its orbital plane and generally all the major planets' orbits. This presents some interesting viewing since some of Saturn's moons, most of which orbit Saturn in the same plane as its rings, can occasionally be seen crossing Saturn's disk, along with their respective shadows. Since the hazy clouds had a detrimental effect on seeing some of the very fine details through the telescopes, such an event would be somewhat difficult to perceive. However, the rings and Saturn's bright moon Titan were easily visible. To the left you see what Saturn and Titan looked like as seen through a telescope, at a magnification of about 90 power. Click on the picture for a larger view.
There were more than 100 people who took advantage of the occasion - some had been attending a show at the planetarium, others just happened to be out for a walk. Many had never had a look through an astronomical telescope, and were very impressed about what could be seen. It's amazing how interested people are in what's going on in space; many just don't know how to meet people with similar interests. So this get-together fulfilled its primary purpose of bringing these people together. Some enquired about how they could get more involved. Here is one possibility: the RASC member meetings and sky observing sessions are open to the public, and are free. If you become a member, there are a number of privileges which you'll enjoy. In Canada, for more information, go to, and pick the link to your closest local centre. If you live elsewhere, look for an astronomy club in your area - IYA is a worldwide effort.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Turning 3000

About 3 years ago, my brother-in-law's brother and wife gave us an exercise bike which they were replacing with a more up-to-date version. At the time, it's speedometer indicated about 300 miles. It is a totally mechanical bike, with an adjustable tension roller pressing against the wheel, which makes it possible to simulate mountain "grades" and, if adjusted properly, will make us work hard. On the days when weather or a particluar time commitment prevents us from going for our walk, we use this bike for about one half hour - and for myself, I adjust it so that I work up a real sweat. On average, I cover about 9.3 miles in that half hour (according to the odometer). If I do any less, I'm not working hard enough. Both my wife and I are making pretty good use of it, but since she gets quite a bit of exercise around the house, it is I who does the bulk of the pedalling on the bike (90%, or so).

In the winter, the bike is used almost daily. In the summer we're much more likely to walk - our neighbourhood is hilly, and a good walk is good exercise. In any case, the other day, when I was doing my usual half hour on the bike, the odometer turned 3000 miles (it's an older bike, and still calibrated in miles). This means that we've added about 2700 miles (a bit more than 4300km) to its total use. That's the distance from Vancouver, BC (our city) to Halifax on the East Coast. It also means that the bike has been used about 320 times by us (it's getting close to the equivalent of one year's worth of half-hour per day pedalling). I never thought we'd "bike" all the way across Canada - we did it "virtually", of course. Luckily, the bike doesn't simulate any inclement weather "along the way".

The bike works just fine - I've oiled the various bearings, chain, and especially the pressure roller about 3 times. I expect it to last a lot longer still.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Looking for Life

Most of the mainstream media don't pay much attention to the efforts being made regarding our search for the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe - including our own solar systems. Now and then, you are made aware of temporary highlights (the Kepler space telescope launch just yesterday, for example), but in general, ongoing coverage is not available.

You can find this kind of information on the websites maintained by the space agencies involved in these endeavours.

Here are some links for proposed space missions related to this topic:

Europa Jupiter System Mission

Titan Saturn System Mission

This is the International Year of Astronomy. Astronomy is closely involved with the search for life elsewhere. Amateur and professional astronomers are making many varied efforts to promote the awareness of this ancient science. Here, for the area where I'm at home, are a couple of links indicating the locations where observation of the sky, seminars on various astronomical topics, and other related efforts are taking place :

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vancouver Centre

Local meetings

There are similar events scheduled all over the world. Check you local astronomy club or association for more details.