Tag Archives: astronomy

Listening to the Moon

Paua mosaic moon pendant I made. Closest I could get to an eclipse image from my own photographs!

With the lunar eclipse coming up on January 31st I wanted to mention an astronomer, mathematician, and poet that I’d only recently heard of. Her name was Wang Zhenyi (1768-1797) and in her terribly brief 29 years she covered a lot of ground.

Wang Zhenyi was born in 18th century China to a family that valued education. Her grandfather had a library of some 70 books, and when her father failed his imperial exams he studied medicine on his own and recorded his research, making a living as a travelling pharmacist. Her father taught her about medicine, mathematics and geography, her grandmother taught her poetry, and her grandfather shared his library and his love of astronomy.

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Filed under Historical Facts and Trivia, Nature and Science

Dog Days: The Great Conjunction is at hand

I am not a warm weather person. Hot and sunny days I tend to spend indoors with a vague sense of guilt unless lured outside by antique or craft shows, a project that requires heat, or occasionally, a shady corner to read or paint.


It seems like there are a handful of canine summer sayings, hot as a dog, dog tired, dog days… The dog days of summer have a long history.


We’ve inherited them from the ancient Romans, who associated the season’s hot weather with the star Sirius because it rose at about the same time as the sun. Sirius is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major and they believed it was adding its heat to that of the sun and causing the brutally hot weather they thought lead to drought, plague and madness.

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Discordant Dwarfs and Bad Apples

After mentioning Ceres, and since we mostly know Pluto, it seemed only fair to do a quick swing by Eris. Especially since we’re still in apple time.


Eris was the Greek goddess of discord and strife.


The most famous myth involving Eris is how she sort of started the Trojan War.


In a classic fairy tale setup, most of the pantheon had been invited to a wedding, but she was left out since she was a known troublemaker.


So of course she crashed to make trouble. She tossed in a golden apple engraved with to the fairest–all the other goddesses started to bicker over which of them deserved it.


Zeus (king of the gods and possibly of bad ideas as well) decided that the handsomest man in the world would be the best judge. So Paris, prince of Troy, was given the job. It was down to three powerful goddesses, all of whom stripped and when that failed, tried bribery. Hera offered him political power, Athena prowess in battle, and Aphrodite the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world. (Ignoring the fact that said agreed upon beauty was married.)


Ruben’s Judgment of Paris

 In the famous ‘Judgement of Paris’ Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite and ran off with Helen. Helen’s husband and allies went to war with Troy, and the rest is a couple epics long. Per most classical mythology, it ends poorly for nearly everyone.


The dwarf planet that came to be called Eris was discovered in 2005 from photographs taken two years earlier. It seems to be more massive than Pluto, about 1/4 the mass of Earth. They’re not sure yet if it is slightly larger than Pluto or denser.


It’s a little odd that all of the planets have the Roman version of names, and here Eris is the odd planet out with the Greek version.


It seems like a planet named after strife should be one big enough to have the gravitational pull to clear its orbit and be considered a full planet.


There’s a certain appropriateness in giving the name to a dwarf planet, given the discord their designation, discovery and naming seem to sew in the astronomical community.


The team that discovered the object known as Eris and the one called Makemake announced their discoveries earlier than planned, after another team announced the discovery of a third object they’d been tracking. (The one now called Haumea.)


Haumea became a source of bickering, Caltech said they saw it first, the Spanish team announced it first. Caltech had found someone accessing their data  days before the announcement and accused the Spanish team of using Caltech’s data without permission. The Spanish team accused Caltech of politically interfering with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) when they officially recognized Caltech’s suggested name over the Spanish team’s suggested name.


The official reason was that the Spanish team suggested Ataecina, who was an underworld goddess. They thought it was a good way of honoring their Iberian background, and as an underworld goddess it fit nicely with Pluto. (Nice sounding name too…)


The IAC argued that the names of underground deities could only be used for planets in a similar orbit to Pluto, so went with Caltech’s proposed Hawaiian goddess, Haumea. She was the goddess of the island of Hawai’i, fertility and childbirth, and fit the guidelines that Kuiper belt objects are supposed to be named after creation deities.


Of course, with so many mythologies to choose from, it seems odd they couldn’t just pick a neutral one, shelve those names for the next time, and move on.


Golden apples anyone?


Contentious Haumea is a tiny dwarf planet beyond Neptune. It’s has only 1/3 the mass of Pluto and is oddly elongated, but both teams agreed that it is big enough to have its own gravity.


Shadowed by the infighting, slightly larger and rounder (2/3 the mass of Pluto) Makemake was named after the creator god of the Rapa Nui.


The birdman cult which worshiped him was suppressed when Christian missionaries came to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) so not much is known about their practices or Makemake, beyond that he created humanity.


Okay, who has a good mnemonic to remember all these new guys and their order?


Filed under Historical Facts and Trivia, Natural Science


A short *wow*

I was rereading Theodore Gray’s The Elements. You don’t have to go very far to find amazing things. I was blown away all over again by the first paragraphs of the first element. Hydrogen.

“Stars shine because they are transmuting vast amounts of hydrogen into helium. Our sun alone consumes six hundred million tons of hydrogen per second, converting it into five hundred and ninety-six million tons of helium. Think about it: Six hundred million tons per second. Even at night.

And where does the other four million tons per second go? It’s converted to energy according to Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc2. About three-and-a-half-pounds-per-second’s worth finds its way to the earth, where it forms the light of the dawn rising, the warmth of a summer afternoon, and the red glow of a dying day.”

While we’re on the sun and universe and mindblowingly BIG numbers and spaces… I don’t know if you’ve seen this video yet: Why the sky is dark at night-it isn’t why you’d think…

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Transit of Venus

You might have heard about people gearing up for this one already.

The transit of Venus is the term used for when the planet Venus passes between the earth and the sun so that we see a small black dot crossing the sun. It’s similar to a solar eclipse, which is when the moon gets between us and the sun. But the moon is very close to us, so from certain vantage points on earth appears to block out the sun entirely. Venus is much larger than our moon, but is also very far away, so appears as a small dot.


(Does anyone else feel like our moon deserves a name? All the other planet’s moons have names, and they aren’t even important to our survival. It doesn’t seem fair!)


The transit of Venus is very rare. It occurs in large, regularly irregular intervals: 121.5 years, 8 years, 105.5 years. The last transit was in June of 2004, so this June is the last chance for anyone living now to get a shot at seeing one! It will be on June 5th, around 6pm on the Eastern coast of the US. The transit of Venus site has some help for finding local times, as does NASA.


The trick is how to see it safely. (I’m still working on that bit.)


DO NOT look directly at the sun. This is a BAD IDEA and cause permanent damage to your eyes. (This is one of those things your parents were right about…)


The safest way is to project the image from a telescope or binoculars onto a screen, or use a pinhole projector and a white piece of paper. Apparently you can also buy glasses with special filters to look directly, and I’ve read that some welder’s glasses will work. #14 or more. I need to investigate this further, it’d be awesome if I could use the welder’s glasses I slightly steampunked to watch the transit.


In 2003 a march written by John Philip Sousa in honor of the 1882 transit of Venus was rediscovered.

For something a little quieter than Sousa, try Gustav Holst’s Venus, Bringer of Peace. Apparently the pieces were written based on the supposed astrological effect of the planets rather than their mythological basis.


Mythology buffs know that Venus was no sort of peace bringer. As goddess of love, lust and beauty she caused at least as much trouble as any of the war oriented gods! Again, it seems unfair. Earth got left out because the planet’s were all tied to their astrological symbolisms and Earth was lacking. Isn’t being our home enough?!


I would love to see (hear) someone do a similar series of suites, but with our knowledge of the planets and their physical properties rather than astrology as the influence.

Did anyone catch the 2004 transit? Anyone have suggestions about their preferred method of viewing?


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