Tag Archives: we sing with our light

Suddenly, no giraffe!

Camelopardalis is one of those early-modern constellations of the northern sky, too dim to really pick out without a telescope, which astronomers seemed to quite literally name after the first thing that popped into their heads. This is how, for instance, we came to have the now-defunct Quadrans Muralis– named for an instrument that was doubtless hanging right there on the wall of Jerome Lalande’s observatory. Lalande also provided Globus Aerostaticus, the hot-air balloon, and from Johann Bode came several other gadgets in space: Machina Electrica, for instance, and Officina Typographica, the Printer’s Workshop.

Bode also dabbled in the other major source of early modern constellation names: blatant toadying. Thus, Frederici Honores (the Glory of Frederick the Great). I don’t want to be down on Old Fritz, as Brandenburgers still affectionately call him, but this seems like a solid case of if-you-get-one-they’ll-all-want-one; in fact, in much the same region of sky, there was also Sceptrum et Manus Iustitiae (the Sceptre and Hand of Justice), honouring King Louis XIV of France. Which is just a bit much, considering he already had the Sun. Anyway, both of those have been split up and divided among neighbouring constellations, so Frederick will just have to content himself with Bach’s Musical Offering. (Mind you, Scutum, the Shield, was originally the shield of King Jan Sobieski of Poland; but without him coffee would have taken much longer to arrive in the West, so it’s understandable that European astronomers are willing to make that exception.)

The other major naming theme, which brings us slowly back on topic, is animals. Lalande also created a cat, being a cat-lover and figuring he had done enough astronomical work he was entitled to put a cat-picture in the sky, which is a 21st-century enough sentiment. And the Fleming Petrus Plancius supplied Musca Borealis (the Northern Fly), Gallus (the Rooster), and Camelopardalis – the Giraffe, which made the cut as one of the 88 standard modern constellations. Regarding the motivation for the name, Ian Ridpath writes:

The German astronomer Jacob Bartsch included Camelopardalis on his map of 1624 and wrote that it represented the camel on which Rebecca rode into Canaan for her marriage to Isaac, as told in the book of Genesis. But Camelopardalis is a giraffe not a camel, so Bartsch’s explanation is unsatisfactory.

So I’m falling back on “Plancius was just thinking about giraffes that night” as the null hypothesis.

In general there’s not a ton going on in the area of sky subtended by Camelopardalis, although there was a supernova there recently, and Voyager 1 is headed in that general direction. In the past couple of months, though, Comet 209P/LINEAR crossed the Earth’s orbit, leaving debris in its wake; and astronomers predicted this debris would cause a new meteor shower, peaking the night of May 23rd-24th, with its radiant in Camelopardalis.

As indeed it did. They predicted, too, that the shower might be quite spectacular, and this didn’t pan out; but I would much rather that astronomers let me know that something might be an impressive sight, rather than that they play it safe and leave me slug-a-bed while the show of a lifetime plays out in the heavens. In the worst case I have gone out and enjoyed the company of the night sky.

And, in fact, that was what happened; I spent about twenty minutes watching, and no meteors, but it was a decent night’s stargazing all the same. Those with more patience and/or kit did see a few, evidently.


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The Gate of the Silver Key

“Look! through that window shine the stars of eternal night. Even now they are shining above the scenes you have known and cherished, drinking of their charm that they may shine more lovely over the gardens of dream. There is Antares—he is winking at this moment over the roofs of Tremont Street, and you could see him from your window on Beacon Hill…”
-H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

There’s a tradition, at least in journalism, that I should lead into talking about my experiences in another city by citing some pithy wisdom from the cab-driver who took me into town from the airport. However, the cabbie who drove me into downtown Providence last month was completely intent on a game on the radio, and all I can tell you is that he wore a Blue Jays cap. That’s a point in his favour, but it’s not much of a story. (Disclaimer: I award this point through love of Toronto, my home for close to 10 years, and not out of any actual baseball-related feels or opinions, which I don’t really have.)

The principal reason I went to Providence was for NecronomiCon, a big celebration of all things related to horror author (and local history expert) H.P. Lovecraft. Most of that fell outside the rubric of this blog, but there were a few intriguing points of contact. One of them was the Ladd Observatory.

H.P. Lovecraft's "Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy"

The Ladd is of the same vintage as HPL himself: he was born in 1890 and the observatory opened in 1891. Lovecraft’s parents knew the director, Winslow Upton, and so the young Lovecraft got a key to the observatory. A key! To an observatory! After that he spent a great deal of time there, which I can well believe. It’s not a huge observatory, but a 12″ refractor is pretty respectable, and early in the 20th century the hill it’s perched on, some ways from central Providence, must have offered great viewing. That’s not so now, but it’s still lovingly maintained and used for educational purposes, and it held an open house Thursday evening at the convention highlighting Lovecraft’s long connection with it.

I had expected to see some interesting sights, but hadn’t anticipated an enthusiastic and informed tour of the place. Among other cool things, a small telescope means one person can (in principle) operate it! I was allowed to pull on the ropes to rotate the observatory dome, which was a lot of fun. I kept saying “amazing”, which probably got repetitive, but it was. Although really I think all observatories are amazing places, by nature. When I was small my mother would sometimes take me to open houses at the Cronyn Observatory at Western; which is of no particular architectural or historical interest, but it is the place I put my eye to an eyepiece and saw an ice-giant (though I can no longer recall which one) shimmering blue and green against the stars. That moment remains vivid as yesterday.

By all accounts the Ladd Observatory was something of a refuge for Lovecraft, who had some bad family stuff going on. He cited, as reasons to go on living through a tough time, “beauty and curiosity”. (Which is what I try to foreground in this blog.) In fact he leaned towards a career in science, but was defeated, I’m informed, by math. (This may have been poor aptitude for math, or it may have been lousy math teaching, which no doubt has been plentiful in all times and places, alas.) But his devotion to astronomy was such that he wrote, hand-illustrated, and published his own Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy when not yet in his teens. Several issues are still preserved in his papers at Brown University, and during the convention they were on display at the Providence Athenaeum, along with a number of astronomy books from Lovecraft’s library. Here, for instance, he’s soliciting observations of the Leonid meteor shower – part of that same crowd-sourced science endeavour going on since at least 1833 on this continent (as touched on in earlier post, Misumena vatia and Dr. Olmsted”):
H.P. Lovecraft's "Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy"

It was something to walk up through College Hill while night was falling, through streets of old houses and trees, and then see the observatory dome, not approaching slowly but all of a sudden right there, looming against the purpling sky. Looming friendly-like, yes, but definitely looming. And then in the last of the twilight to stop at Prospect Terrace – another favourite haunt of HPL’s – overlooking downtown and the state-house, and to watch the final beams with a mix of local denizens, frat boys, bohemians, and a great big statue of Roger Williams, in

… that universal haven of the odd, the free, and the dissenting.
– HPL, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Sunset, Prospect Terrace

Many thanks to Francine for the tour. There’s at least one more Providence trip post in the works, since I took one day to rent a bike and ride out along the Blackstone River, taking in the Lime Rock Preserve and its diversity of ferns; so, stay tuned.

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To follow knowledge like a sinking star

For reals, this time: Voyager 1 has entered interstellar space. In another 300 years it should reach the inner edge of the Oort cloud, assuming there is an Oort cloud; but all instruments will have gone silent by only 2025. Still, ten years of data from the interstellar medium, even at 160 baud, is a lot.

.. but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

-Tennyson, “Ulysses”

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Lighting endlessness

After an incredibly long deployment at the Day Job, arrived home close to 3; bone-tired, but when I looked up there was Jupiter, the half Moon, and Aldebaran in Taurus, in a perfect line. Despite weariness I dropped my stuff and grabbed my binoculars for a better look. I’m rarely up this late so it was a sky markedly different from my recent expeditions between 9 and 11 PM; and dark enough for a good look at the Pleiades, the Hyades, and the Great Orion Nebula. Betelgeuse was visible, bright red, not too far above the horizon. Recently I was watching Brian Cox in Wonders of the Universe, enthusing how it might go supernova at any moment… within the next million years. That would be a heck of a show.

Here is Holiness — of the begonia leaf, and deer, and the star Aldebaran, lighting endlessness…
-Lou Harrison, “Four Strict Songs”

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Watching a meteor shower, I felt, required some decently dark skies; so on Saturday afternoon I went to New Glarus on my bicycle. As evening came on the sky started to fill with clouds, despite constant predictions of clear weather. Hoping for it to blow over, I set an alarm for midnight, and then made my way to a nice dark hillside; and sure enough, there was still some significant clouding in the north and west, but most of the sky was clear. I lay down, surrounded by the sound of crickets and frogs in the nearby Little Sugar River, and let my eyes adjust; until I could see the Milky Way, arcing from an Aquila half-covered by clouds, through Cygnus and Cassiopeia, into another cloudbank.

And then I started to see the meteors – some short flashes out of the corner of my eye, but others vivid streaks of light, crossing several degrees and leaving a vivid afterimage. I watched for about an hour. When not staring at meteors, I took advantage of the dark skies to get a good look at M31 – the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s odd to think that it was only in 1925 – within my grandparents’ lifetime, and almost within my parents’ – that Edwin Hubble established that there even were other galaxies, by calculating the distance to M31; using Cepheid variables, Miss Leavitt’s stars.

When I got too chilled, I went back downhill and went to sleep, head full of meteors and galaxies as I drifted off.

Here is Nourishment — of the swamp-rooted cattail.
Here is Nourishment — of the water-reed, and the redwing, singing enrapturedly.
Here is Nourishment — of the Meteorite lining the sky.
Here is Nourishment — of the falling star, and the damp-darkened, crumbly soil.

Here is Splendor — of the airplant Spanish moss asway in sun.
Here is Splendor — of the airplant, and the cobra arching his head.
Here is Splendor — of the galaxy in Andromeda.
Here is Splendor — of the galaxy, and the turquoise cloudless heaven.
-Lou Harrison, from Four Strict Songs, commissioned by the Louisville Symphony Orchestra

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Lagoon Nebula

For about 10 days there it was either hazy or cloudy at night, or the Moon was up before midnight, but the past couple of nights have been good for star-gazing. Sagittarius is visible, and through binoculars I got a good look at the Lagoon Nebula – a birthplace of stars some 4 to 6 thousand light-years away. Not far from there, my Collins Gem guide to the stars has a little cross indicating the direction of the Galactic Centre. That’s just mindblowing; pure romance, more evocative even than “Here be dragons”.

I was going to say this is the first time I was really observing the night sky since I was a child, but in fact, as a child I was somewhat dependent on a parent to go with me someplace away from the glare of streetlamps, so my star-gazing was actually quite intermittent; so this year is really the first time in my life I’m able to get outside night after night and see how the stars and planets move. It’s a thrill every time I see some constellation above the horizon for the first time. Perhaps next year that’ll be a little attenuated – ‘oh well, Sagittarius again’. But of course there will continue being more new things to see.

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The 61st star of the Swan

With my recently-acquired binoculars, I was able to locate 61 Cygni. It’s not a spectacular sight, but it has a lot of history: it was the first star whose distance was determined with reasonable accuracy, by Friedrich Bessel in 1838. Before reading up on this I hadn’t actually been aware of Bessel as an astronomer; both from undergrad calculus and tinkering with software sound synthesis I was familiar with Bessel functions. (Which it turns out were discovered, or invented, depending on whether you lean Platonist or constructivist, by Daniel Bernoulli.) Bessel functions can be used to describe the vibrations of a cylinder, hence of the head of a drum.

The whole story of Bessel’s observations, with historical background, is given a jaunty treatment in Alan Hirshfeld’s Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos. At the same time, coincidentally, I also had out from the library Andrea Wulf’s Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, about the 18th-century observations of the transit of Venus that allowed the size of an Astronomical Unit to be calculated for the first time. I have to look askance at this trend in the titling, or subtitling anyway, of science books, but despite that I enjoyed both of these. My own observations of the recent transit of Venus consisted entirely of a few seconds of looking at it through a pair of solar glasses that were passed back the line-up to look through a telescope at the Washburn Observatory; but it was cheering to see all the people who had gathered for it, and to feel a sense — however tenuous — of connection to the people who sailed for months to take a few hours of measurements.

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