Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The December 10, 2011 lunar eclipse

Any hobby usually requires some "sacrifice". In my case, astronomy normally requires that I be awake and up while it's dark outside (the exception is when I'm using my telescopes to look [safely] at the Sun). A lunar eclipse always takes place when the Moon is full; the Moon is always exactly opposite the Sun then. At this time of year, the Sun rises low in the SE. That means that the Moon sets high in the NW.

This month's lunar eclipse occurred a couple of hours before sunrise, and I could watch it through my west-facing office window. I set up one of my cameras (a Canon Rebel XT SLR) and took some pictures through the double-paned window, and through breaks in the clouds. Before the eclipse started, the sky had been absolutely clear, but, just around the start of the eclipse, heavy clouds began to roll in. This is Vancouver, after all. Midway through the eclipse they totally obliterated any view of the eclipsed Moon. I got only one good picture through the last cloud break. These clouds kept the day dark and gray right through the next night, until the next morning.

Here are some of the pictures:

From the top down:

The Moon before entering Earth's shadow. The area at "11 o'clock" is getting darker.
Clouds are rolling in.
Three quarters into the Earth's shadow. Picture taken through a break in the clouds.

About 5 minutes before "totality" (again a break in the clouds). The star under the Moon is Iota Tauri (Iota in the constellation of Taurus, the bull)
The last "hole" in the clouds. The clouds to the right of the dark tree covered the Moon a short time later.
Midway through totality. This picture was taken just after the one above. About half-way through totality - the Moon has moved, so now is totally covered by the Earth's shadow. The brighter part of the Moon is closer to the edge of the shadow. Notice that the star Iota Tauri is now farther away from the Moon - it's a consequence of the Moon's motion in its orbit.

This is my last picture of this eclipse. A minute later, the Moon was completely covered by clouds and no longer visible.

The orange colour of the Moon in the Earth's shadow is due the sunlight being "refracted" by the Earth's atmosphere onto the Moon's surface. If you were on the Moon, you'd see the dark disk of the Earth surrounded by a reddish-orange ring (a circular sunset). From the Moon, this event is a total eclipse of the Sun. You'd have an awe-inspiring sight.

 The top picture was taken about two hours before the bottom one. It was a cold morning outside. This kind of thing did not bother me in the past, but now, in my old age, I enjoy creature comforts much more. I was glad to witness this in my nice, warm office.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Green Thing

The Green Thing

(forwarded by my sister)

Checking out at the store, the young cashier suggested to the older woman, that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren't good for the environment.
The woman apologized and explained, "We didn't have this "green thing" back in my earlier days."

The clerk responded, "That's our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations."

She was right -- our generation didn't have "the green thing" in its day.

Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled.  But we didn't have "the green thing" back in our day.

We walked up stairs, because we didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn't have "the green thing" in our day.

Back then, we washed the baby's diapers because we didn't have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts -- wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right; we didn't have "the green thing" back in our day.

Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house -- not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana . In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn't have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the
mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, we didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she's right; we didn't
have "the green thing" back then.

We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn't have "the green thing" back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

But isn't it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn't have "the green thing" back then?

Please forward this on to another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation from a smart ass young person.
Remember: Don't make old People mad.
We don't like being old in the first place, so it doesn't take much to piss us off.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

7 months

We raised a toast to Derek again at 5:40 pm. It seems like yesterday. The memory will always be with us.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A beautiful day

Today is one of those "picture-post-card" days. The fresh snow on the mountains and the crisp clear air make for a wonderful view from our living room. This morning, at sunrise, the mountains looked as though they were covered in pink whipped cream, and they'll look like that again in about half an hour, at sunset. We went on our usual walk, and took our granddaughters' dog, Lucy, along. She seemed to enjoy the day as much as we.

I also went for my annual blood test this morning, and picked up the fecal blood test kit at the same time. I strongly urge everyone to have these tests, young or old. Our family can attest to the importance of this (see http://www.penmachine.com/ ).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In Readers' Digest

The November Canadian edition of Readers' Digest features a 30-page excerpt of Derek's blog, available at Safeway, Shoppers' Drug Mart, and others. It's an indication of the impact his writing still has. I'm keeping Derek's memory alive at http://www.legacy.com/guestbook/can-vancouver/guestbook.aspx?n=derek-miller&pid=150846264. It will always be possible to leave messages regarding his life and writing there.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

An adventurous trip

We returned from a three-day repositioning cruise with an added three days in Las Vegas this last Saturday. The cruise had an "interesting" period. The "Golden Princess" is a 109,000 ton displacement cruise ship with wonderful amenities, excellent food, nice lounges, great music (including the kind of music we like to dance to). We enjoyed all this on the night we left. By midnight, just after we went to bed, the ship left Juan de Fuca Strait and turned south towards the next destination, Los Angeles. At that point we ran into an extreme low pressure system with hurricane winds and huge waves.   This extreme storm was strong enough to toss the ship around like a log, making walking almost impossible. Because of the violent motions, and winds in excess of 110km/h, access to the open decks was blocked, the swimming pools were emptied, and the ship had to reduce its speed to about 13 knots. The noises generated by the wave action kept me awake all night - the most annoying noise was the constantly clicking of the empty coat hangers in the open closest hitting each other, funnily enough. After we took them off the rack and stuffed them between our suitcases, my wife got some sleep, but I didn't.

While my wife has better "sea legs" then I, she managed to get to the dining rooms at the centre of the ship at the lower levels on the following day (which was just as violent as the night). I stayed in our cabin, which was located just one level below the open decks, and near the bow, close to the ships bridge, and tried to get some sleep. In that location, the motion is probably the most extreme. I could time and anticipate whenever the ship breached a wave, and then slammed down on the next one. At that point, everything in the cabin banged, creaked, and groaned, and I felt like being inside a drum being worked by a heavy metal band drummer.

This episode lasted just about 24 hours. When we finally got out of this extreme low north of San Francisco, the day turned into a much nicer one, and the previous day was soon an "interesting experience". The captain brought the speed up to over 22 knots, trying to make up for the lost time running slowly through the previous days' storm. None-the-less, we arrived three hours late, which played havoc with many people's travel connections. As usual, it takes about three hours to disembark the passengers and go through customs.

Our own travel connection was a bus to take us to Las Vegas - we had no trouble with that because the driver had to wait for all his passengers (who were making the same trip we were). We arrived in Las Vegas around 8pm. There were two stops at hotels before we got to ours (Harrah's). The first two got people off the bus to a well-organized reception by the travel agency; our destination had no one to "receive" us. That was somewhat chaotic and meant individual check-in. We finally got to our room after 9pm, and called it a day.  Our room was nice enough, but little things left an impression of neglect (loose shower head and hot water tap covers, a bit of rust here and there, hallway carpets showing wear and tear and so on)

The next day, after a so-so and expensive breakfast with indifferent service at Harrah's, we walked the strip, and started looking at the various hotels, especially the new, luxurious ones: Bellagio, Aria, Caesar's Palace, Excalibur, Mirage, Venitian, Wynn's, etc. They were all superior to Harrah's. If we get to L.V. again, we'll probably stay at one of those. They incorporate large "shopping concourses" with many nice restaurants and other amenities. In the evening, we enjoyed watching both the "volcano" at the Mirage, and the "water ballet" at the Bellagio. Since we are not gamblers, these activities were our main occupation.

The shows which might have been of interest to us (Cirque de Soleil, and other high quality ones) were always either sold out or had long box-office line-ups. We had only two days in L.V., so we passed on them. Most of the other shows were "imitation shows": Sinatra, Elvis, Rat Pack, etc. They were expensive, and, since we have seen the real artists in the past, of little interest to us.

There are very few benches to sit down in L.V. - obviously on purpose: the businesses want you to spend time in the ubiquitous casinos (almost all hotels have one or more - they all look alike, and are just as noisy). You are also almost always forced to walk through them in order to get to the shops and amenities. The nicer hotels had easy chairs and tables in the long hallways, away from the casinos, which enabled us to sit down to a leisurely coffee or ice cream and watch people (which both of us enjoy).

We went to downtown Las Vegas on the following day - bought a day pass on the "Deuce" (a double-decker bus system which runs 24 hours a day). This proved to be the most efficient transportation for us. Fremont street downtown has a two block long arched cover which is actually the worlds largest video display. It's advertised as the "Fremont Experience". We arranged to be there early for the 7pm "showing" - it was a bit of a disappointment. While technically impressive, with a Hallowe'en-related theme, the show was only 7 minutes long. The real fun part for us was watching people from a sidewalk seat at a Starbuck's - the bikers had a convention; it made for some interesting viewing.

The flight home was somewhat convoluted. We were flown from L.V. to Phoenix, changed planes there, and flew right back over L.V. on the way home. Airport security is highly inconvenient (body scanners, numerous identity checks, etc.) and takes a lot away from the actual flying, which we both enjoy. The flight itself (US Airways) was on time, we actually arrived home early.

So, what is our overall impression? Las Vegas is a city of "imitation" and flamboyance, with relatively little cultural substance. It exists to "pull money out of your pocket", and that may be it's "talent", if it can be called that. Superficiality comes to mind; everything is "show"(off). Some of the new hotels are really beautiful from an architectural point and can be considered to be counterpoints to the shallowness evident elsewhere. We may get there again, someday, passing through, but it's unlikely that we'll make a special trip with this city as the destination.

Pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mimiandpapa/6213529854/in/set-72157627696025357/

Thursday, September 22, 2011


It's been awhile since I posted. In the meantime, I've done some astronomy, got busy with my business (schools and universities started up again after the summer break), we painted the carport, removed the accumulated algae from the front steps and generally took advantage of the nice summer weather we had until a few days ago. We're now getting ready for a minicruise to L.A. and Las Vegas. The weather is back to it's standard after-summer behaviour (rain), so we'll appreciate the warmer southern climes.

Life has settled into its new routine. I think of Derek daily (it's coming up to 5 months since he died), but my thoughts are slowly taking on some characteristics of nostalgia (in addition to the sadness). We'll be reminded of him on this coming trip too, because he and his family visited both places last year. Read the posts subsequent to the one indicated in the link, too. He also knew that it would be his last time to visit there.

Anyway, we'll enjoy this little sojourn, and I may post some pictures on Facebook.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Public Astronomy

I'm going to help with this event by setting up a couple of telescopes.

Here are details:

Metro Parks Starry Nights at Deas Island
is happening today

Saturday, August 13, 2011
6:30 PM
Deas Island
River Road and 62B st,
Delta, BC V3M 0A2

10 Astronomy buffs

Weather permitting, on August 13th several RASC volunteers will bring telescopes to Metro Parks’ Starry Night 2011 event on Deas Island.

Bring the kids for a fun evening with (hopefully) a bit of stargazing.

Here’s a link to Metro Parks'
information poster on the event; the following information is taken from the poster:

Starry Night

Deas Island Regional Park, Delta

Saturday, August 13, 2011

6:30 - 9:30 pm

Enjoy an enchanted evening illuminated by starlight and lanterns. Stroll the lantern lit paths, join the drumming circle and discover the park at night. Allow 1hr to complete the walk. Bring a flashlight.

Presented by the Corporation of Delta, Parks, Recreation and Culture in Partnership with Metro Vancouver.

Everyone welcome


Sponsors & Perks:
RASC-Vancouver ·

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lack of understanding

I'm just reading an article in the Vancouver Sun titled "Dark side of the moon enigma solved?" It's astonishing to me, considering that we live in the age of space travel, that people still think that there is a "dark side". Everyone has seen that the moon always presents the same face to us, as it orbits around the Earth once a month (the word "month" comes from "moon"). This means that the moon turns around it's own axis of rotation once a month as well, as seen from a point outside the moon's orbit. This also means that sunlight illuminates every part of the moon in turn, as the moon travels around the Earth, just as most parts of the Earth receive sunlight every day. The side of the moon we never see from Earth is called the "far side", not the "dark side"; it gets it's sunshine just like the rest of the moon.

To see this kind of misunderstanding perpetuated in a reputable newspaper is lamentable. In my opinion, it shows a very limited knowledge of our place in the universe and a lack of scientific understanding.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A pleasant evening

With the "kids" being away, the house feels somewhat empty.
But, with today being a nice day (it's 24 degrees Celsius - 72 F) right now (8pm), my wife and I decided to enjoy a glass of wine along with our evening snack on the back deck.
We do this as often as possible. The back deck is covered, sometimes we spend a good part of the day here. Occasionally, we sit here (particularly when family or friends are visiting) well past midnight.
This is a pleasant evening; there have been very few this year.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Evolution is dumb.

Every day, I think of Derek. His death on May 3 seems such a waste. He was killed by the rogue colorectal cancer cells in his body, which were the descendants of one cell. This mutated cell did not stop replicating, its descendants eventually invaded many of Derek's other organs, rendering them dysfunctional.

Derek's death also meant the death of those cancer cells, certainly not advantageous to them. I fail to see any purpose in this.

In addition, the we all lost a man with a brilliant mind who helped others in so many ways, both in person, and with his online writing. The many comments on his blog (www.penmachine.com) attest to that. His presence contributed to the betterment of humanity in many ways. His loss, therefore, is also a loss for all who knew him, intimately or casually. Again, I feel to see any logic in this.

In general, evolution has the connotation of progress. In reality, to me, evolution seems to be based on random changes at random times for random causes, the vast majority of which are detrimental to any organism involved. I suppose that this is a manifestation of the increasing entropy to which the second law of thermodynamics refers. Only very occasionally, by random happenstance, do these random changes result in an improvement for, or, even more rarely, the creation of an organism. It is only because there has been an immensely long time available (billions of years), that these very rare "good" mutations "accumulated" to form the life forms we see here on Earth. This may be a point to consider when talking about "extraterrestrial" life. What is hard to construct is easy to destroy. Disorder is far more likely than order.

Evolution has no directed purpose; it is not intelligent.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Life goes on

During this month my wife and I went to visit good friends in California, and yesterday, our granddaughter Marina graduated from elementary school (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mimiandpapa/sets/72157627073520948/).

We quite enjoyed our visit to California; it is always good to see friends whom you've known for a long time.

Our granddaughter's graduation was a lively affair - followed by a dance from which parents were "disinvited". She is a lovely young lady now, her dad (http://www.penmachine.com/would have been proud of her.  In fact, we had a hard time recognizing many of her school friends in their fashionable dresses; they looked so mature.

Looking at this from the perspective of our own age, we had nostalgic feelings about our own youth, now so long ago.

Life goes on...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A bit of a sad day

As fathers' days go, this is a sad one today.
Since our son died on May 3, I will no longer be
getting a fathers' day card from him.

But, in future, the sad memories will be tempered
by the happy memories we have of our time together,
and this day will be bitter-sweet.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Return what you borrowed

A month ago today, our son Derek died. His ashes will be dispersed in a couple of places on Earth which he considered to be some of the most beautiful.

We are all made of "star stuff"- the original hydrogen, and most of the other atoms generated eons ago in some stupendous explosion of a supernova. Our existence may be considered to be an assembly of these various atoms into the molecules which constitute you, me, Earth, and all the animals and things that surround us. When we die, these are all returned to some place in this universe - perhaps to become part of some other intelligent entity eons from now.

It is possible to say, then, that we only "borrow" the building blocks of which we are made. Derek's molecules are therefore in the process of being returned to where they came from. This resonates with me.

(pictured by the Hubble Space Telescope)

As some of you know, I've had a life-long interest in astronomy. New stars, nebulae, and planets are constantly being formed somewhere in the universe. One of those places is the Orion Nebula, pictured above. From now on, I'll forever look at the heavens with the thought in my mind that some of these future objects will incorporate some of the same atoms and molecules which were once a part of Derek.

We'll all return what we borrowed.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The New Normal

The last 3 weeks have been ones of upheaval in our family, but the new reality is taking hold.

Most of you who read this blog may be aware that Derek's last post generated an unprecedented amount of traffic on his website (over 10 million hits), and a large number of comments. Additionally, local and international media picked up the story. We have been in interviews on radio and TV; had one family memorial and one public memorial for Derek, also covered by TV.

That's more or less in the past - which is just as well; there are fewer reminders of Derek's death.

For us, as his parents, our grandchildren, and our daughter-in-law, as well as our extended family, there will be no forgetting, of course. However, life carries on. Our daughter-in-law and granddaughters are in Seattle for the long weekend, along with a good friend. We are at home, looking after Lucy, their little dog. We are fortunate that we live in the same duplex, so Lucy can go to her own home for a few hours every day.

Our family routines are changing; this is the new normal.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The end of the gravel road

Our son Derek died in the evening of May 3, 2011. He had to deal with metastatic colon cancer for four and a half years. Our family is immensely saddened, and his death will leave a large void among us. He will be deeply missed by all of us.

Derek had an extremely unique intelligence, and a multitude of interests. All his friends, and we, could ask him almost any question and he would have an intelligent and easily understood answer. His blog http://www.penmachine.com is a testament to his extensive knowledge and eclectic thinking. Through his blog, he a affected a multitude of people, and many commented on how his posts had helped them deal with adversities of their own. He was a very knowledgeable technologist - he had extensive knowledge in computer and internet technology, photography, was a musician and composer, had a degree in marine biology, and a diploma in writing (both from UBC). Writing was his passion.

Both the Province and the Vancouver Sun published articles about him today. Here is what Pete McMartin of the Vancouver Sun had to say:

(click on the image)

No medical treatment, including several operations and many sometimes very debilitating chemotherapy treatments could stop this cancer. Throughout these years he maintained his interests and wrote about them in his blog. It never became a "cancer blog".

As his parents, we have lost our only child - a part of us died with him. We are lucky to have his wife and our two granddaughters living next to us. For us, Derek lives on in them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A memorable Easter

We had our Easter family dinner at our house yesterday. My wife Hilkka cooked her specialties, and other members of our extended family brought their special food as well. Derek's and Airdrie's friend Steven, and Derek's on-line friend Jean-Hugues took part. Jean-Hugues connected with Derek when both were diagnosed with colon cancer at about the same time; he came all the way from Paris, France. Thank you, Jean-Hugues. You, Laurence, and your family paid us all a great honour.  

For us, this dinner get-together was bitter-sweet: it likely was Derek's last family dinner. He managed to stay for around two hours, then he had to go and rest. Fortunately, he can still enjoy the taste of food. I think that he inherited his wide-ranging tastes from his mother.

We're lucky to have Derek, Airdrie, and our granddaughters Marina and Lauren adjacent to us - our porches connect - so it is easy to go back and forth.

This was not a maudlin occasion. Lively conversation is always part of our family get-togethers and this one was no different in that regard. Although Derek's voice has still not come back, he can "rasp" clearly enough to make his points. His mind is as incisive as ever.

Here are some casual pictures I took:


We hope that you all had an enjoyable Easter.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A little cheer on a dreary day

As many of you know, I'm interested in Astronomy. Accordingly, above is a picture of a "Stargazer Lily" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilium_%22Stargazer%22, of which we have some sitting in a vase on our living room table. Notice the "liquid sugar" on the stem to lure insects, I would think. That's probably what gives these flowers their heavily sweet odour, which seems to be particularly noticeable in the evenings. Click on the picture for a larger image.

Below is a picture of the camelia "bush" in our neighbours' back yard - these blossoms were not there yesterday. Click on the image.

This has been a rather unpleasant week, and not just because of the weather. Derek has not been feeling well, and yesterday we received notice that a very good friend of ours, Al, had died. We've known Al and Ernie, his lifelong partner (over 55 years), for more than 25 years. Al was almost 85 years old, and he had not been in shape for the last four years. A sad day for all of us who knew Al.

I posted these pictures to show that there is always something beautiful in nature. A little cheer on a dreary day...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

All talk-little action

Last night, "Earth Hour" passed with nary a difference in our neighbourhood. We put out all lights in our house, turned off the TV and computers, lit up some candles, and had a glass of wine. Before the earth hour we had watched an episode of the "Cosmos" (Derek gave us the CD series for Christmas), and discussed the subject of that episode ("Backbone of the Night") while the lights were out.

Occasionally, I looked out of our front window to see whether other people had turned off any lights - nobody else seemed to have done so. Windows were still lit, outdoor lights were on, and the clouds were as bright as ever from the stray city lights.

For all the talk about preserving the environment, cutting energy consumption, making a smaller "footprint" on our planet, our neighbourhood at least gets a failing grade in that regard from me.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The solar flare of Monday, Feb 14

Near the centre of the image is the white flare which sent a massive amount of energy to Earth a couple of days ago.

I looked at the Sun through my Hα telescope yesterday but the flare is not visible in Hα light; however, the disturbed area where it originated on the Sun is. In particular, the "striations" at the centre of this image are visible in Hα.

ultraviolet image

Image from SDO/NASA

Caution: Never look at the Sun with the naked eye! All events on the Sun must be viewed through special protective filters; these reduce the light to about one thousandth of one percent (=1/100,000).

Here's a pertinent article published by National Geographic Magazine:

Ted Chamberlain
Published February 16, 2011
The most powerful solar flare in four years exploded over the sun late Monday, according to NASA.
The magnetic instability that caused the flare also unleashed a blast of charged particles that should hit Earth's atmosphere tonight, possibly sparking auroras farther south than usual, experts say.
The most powerful explosions in the solar system, solar flares occur when magnetic field lines on the sun cross, cancel each other out, then reconnect.
These "explosive reconnections" release huge amounts energy as heat—in this case, a short blast measuring roughly 35 million degrees Fahrenheit (19 million degrees Celsius), according to physicist Dean Pesnell, project scientist forNASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO.
In visible light, only the small dark surface blotches of sunspot 1158, which spawned the flare, could be seen. Without the SDO satellite, "you would never have known what was happening above" the sunspot, Pesnell said.
But the satellite's ability to detect many wavelengths of light allowed the observatory to image not only the flash, in extreme ultraviolet, but also streams of charged gas arcing along magnetic field lines—a "perfect example of solar physics." (See a January picture of a large solar flare.)
Not that SDO is perfect. Its digital-imaging hardware, for example, was overwhelmed by the intensity of the flare, resulting in overexposed areas that make the flare look bigger than it was.
Imaged flawlessly, the flare, at its most intense, would "look like a ball of light floating above the surface," Pesnell said, "about the size of a house."
Solar Flare Plus Aurora-Inducing "Wind"?
Monday's fleeting magnetic breakdown also sent "a firehouse of material spraying out from the sun" when "spring loaded" streams of charged gases were freed from the magnetic fields that hold them in place on the sun.
Such so-called coronal mass ejections can pose radiation threats to astronauts and overwhelm Earth's magnetic field, potentially disrupting satellite communications and power grids on the ground.
But the solar gale now heading our way isn't expected to be particularly harmful. That's because, according to predictions, "it won't hit us dead-on," Pesnell said.
Still, he said, strong geomagnetic activity is expected Wednesday night, perhaps most visibly in the form of auroras—the southern and northern lights, which occur when atoms above Earth's gain energy from solar charged particles, then release it as light.
The U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center, he said, forecasts a 30 percent chance of auroras as far south as Washington, D.C.
Stargazers below the northern U.S. should look for a diffuse reddish glow, however, rather than the neon-hued "curtains" seen around the Poles. Furthermore, the nearly full moon will effectively dim any auroras Wednesday night.
X-Rated Solar Flare
Monday's blast was the first X-level solar flare since December 2006—X being the highest level of the flare-rating system.
But at X2.2—or 0.00022 watts per square meter—the Valentine's Day flare wasn't unexpectedly powerful.
"It fits in just perfect" with forecasts that show the sun entering a period of increased activity, Pesnell said.
The recent explosion, he added, has nothing on the giant blasts of the early 2000s. That most recent active period spawned the biggest solar flare on ever directly measured in November 2003—a blast more than ten times as powerful as Monday's.
Compared to that "big honker," he said, this week's flare "is pretty typical—except it was beautifully typical, because we saw it with SDO."
For more on solar flares, sunspots, and solar wind, read "The Sun—Living With a Stormy Star," from National Geographic magazine >>

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Since the weather was reasonable this morning (it's getting ready to rain right now), my wife and I decided to take our regular walk around the neighbourhood. We do this as often as weather permits. For us that means that it's not raining or snowing. In that case, I substitute a half hour on our stationary bike. I've been using that bike basically by myself; my wife does her exercise by doing her normal housework - we have a "split-level" home, and she's constantly walking up and down the stairs.

By now, the bike's odometer reads just over 6043 miles (over 9700 kilometers). I commented on this exercise bike in March, 2009, at which time the odometer read 3000 miles. At an average of about 9 miles per half hour that additional distance represents roughly 330 days on which I used that bike.

It shows how often the weather around here is bad enough for us to forego taking a walk, because this means that there have been something like 170 inclement days per year during that interval; it's an indication that we live in a "high precipitation" city.

Here's the link to that previous post:

True friends

Last night, since Derek has been feeling a bit better for the last couple of days, he had a date with some of his buddies to go to dinner. They arrived in a limousine to pick him up, much to Derek's surprise. The dinner took place at Gotham's - one of the "in" dining institutions in this city (http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fflic.kr%2Fp%2F9c7N4i&h=6d43a. Fortunately, Derek has not lost his appetite; food is one of the things he can still enjoy.

What a considerate thing to do - true friends indeed.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Other "Earths"

For many years, astronomers, physicists, geologists, and scientists in other disciplines, as well as science fiction writers, have speculated whether there are planets circling other stars, much like our star (the Sun) has a retinue of large and small planets circling it. Our Earth is one of those planets. The ultimate aim is to establish whether there are other planets (exoplanets - not part of our solar system) which could perhaps have liquid water on their surfaces. We see liquid water as the absolute basic necessity for life as we know it, although we are beginning to see variations of life even here on Earth which may perhaps lead us to a possibility for other life forms, not necessarily requiring water.

In any case, the underlying reason to look for Earth-like planets elsewhere is to come up with a reason to think that life is present throughout the universe (at the moment, we have absolutely no evidence that life exists elsewhere).  Exoplanets have been known to exist for a couple of decades or so, but they are very hard to detect and the first ones we knew about were extremely large and could be called "failed stars".

There are a number of telescopes in orbit which are specifically designed to look for the extremely small effects which such planets have on their "suns".

http://www.astro.ubc.ca/MOST/  - This is a Canadian project, directed by Dr. Jaymie Matthews of UBC, which has detected some exoplanets as a serendipitous byproduct of its main mission (to measure tides and wave propagation in distant stars).

There are orbital telescopes specifically designed to look for exoplanets, and one in particular is designed to look for Earth-sized ones. Here's a link:

It has just succeeded in detecting one exoplanet which is just slightly larger than Earth, albeit unlikely to be earth-like. This is the news release from NASA:

(Artist's concept, NASA news release)
It'll have a profound impact on human thinking if we ever find another planet on which intelligent beings are present. If we ever get into direct contact with such a "civilization" the course of human evolution may be permanently altered.