Venus in silhouette

A local astronomer's transit viewing station

Transits of Venus are a very rare celestial event: since the invention of the telescope in 1608, there have been just eight of them. The most recent one, of course, was Tuesday; the next one will be on 11 December 2117. Here in Berkeley, there were a number of amateur astronomers setup public transit viewings with their telescopes.

To see some absolutely stunning images of the transit, I recommend Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomer, and the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Of my transit photos, this one turned out the best. You can see some sunspots as well as Venus.
Some transit watchers on Indian Rock
Later, clouds obscured the transit but made for a beautiful sunset

The Ring of Fire

The "ring of fire" projected through my binoculars. That's me on the right.

On 11 August 1999 I was standing in the rain in Stuttgart, Germany. Very slowly the light grew dimmer, until for two minutes it was as dark as twilight. Then it suddenly brightened again. Behind the opaque clouds was a total solar eclipse that I had come a long way to see, but instead, nothing but dark clouds. I was very disappointed.

This time was different. On May 20th, my friend Coy and I drove up to Red Bluff to see the annular eclipse. Along for the ride were my two nephews, Josiah and Samuel; Coy’s two daughters, Anne and Emma; and Emma’s friend Kelsey. We had a great time, and seeing the eclipse was a rare delight.

During an annular eclipse, the moon isnt’ close enough to completely block the sun, so the result is the “Ring of Fire” instead. It doesn’t get dark like it does during a total eclipse, but it did get noticeably dimmer, similar to the “Golden Hour” effect just before sunset.

The annular eclipse becomes thousands of little circles when filtered through trees. Note that it's still very light out.
Anne making tiny "pinhole cameras" with her crossed hands
Just after annularity, I caught Emma in profile. Tiny crescents can be seen in many places, including the edges of her lips
Mt Lassen as seen from downtown Red Bluff

The Incredible Invisible Milky Way

The Milky Way over Switzerland, (c) Stephane Vetter

Arlene and I just returned from three days in Mendocino, on the northern California coast. It had been foggy recently—a very common thing in Mendocino—but during our stay it was completely cloudless. And no moon! A stargazer’s paradise. I walked down the street to where there weren’t any nearby lights and looked up. And there it was! The magical mystical Milky Way: the combined glow of billions of stars in our own galaxy.

The Milky Way is magical to me because I can’t see it at home. There is so much artificial nighttime light in the Bay Area that only the brightest stars are visible. The Milky Way is still there, of course, RIGHT THERE, EVERY DAMN NIGHT, AND I CAN’T SEE IT.

My brother and I were both interested in astronomy at an early age. Every weekend we went around the neighborhood collecting used newspapers in the old red wagon, which we stacked up in our garage. Once we had accumulated a carload, we’d pile them into our Chevrolet station wagon and Dad would drive us into Oakland to the recycle yard. (I’m sure Dad spent more in gas, not to mention in his time, than we made selling the newsprint. He was generous that way.) After about two years, we took the money we had saved and bought a small telescope. I still remember the first night we used it and saw Saturn.

But we couldn’t see the Milky Way! Suburban Fremont in the mid-1960s already had way too much light pollution. Pretty much the only time I got to see the Milky Way as a lad was during Boy Scout summer camp, far from the city lights.  And as an adult, I still have to journey far to see it: this week was the first time I’d seen the Milky Way in several years. It’s one of the prices we pay to live in the city, and one of the reasons I often fantasize about living out of it.

Comet Redux

Yesterday NASA’s Stardust mission flew by comet Tempel 1 and took detailed photographs. In July 2005, the same spacecraft (then named Deep Impact) watched as a special impactor successfully slammed into Tempel 1. Investigators have located the 2005 impact zone on the comet and can see a crater that wasn’t there before.

This is the not the only super-duper cool astronomy stuff that’s happening right now. In just 28 days, the Messenger probe will become the first spacecraft ever to go into orbit around the planet Mercury.

Should humans build robots? You bet. Where should we use them? Outer space!

Martin Gardner—Author, Puzzler and Renaissance Man

When I was a teenager, one of the highlights of every month was the arrival of  Scientific American magazine. I would immediately turn to Martin Gardner’s delightful column Mathematical Games. Gardner died on May 22 at the age of 95.

“I came to understand that there were thousands of people spread all around the world: mathematicians, physicists, philosophers, computer scientists, on and on, who thought of Martin Gardner’s column not merely as a feature of Scientific American, but as its very heart and soul.”

Author Douglas Hofstadter in 1992, as quoted by Scientific American‘s Steve Mirsky in their podcast conversation of 24 May 2010

Little did I realize how many other teenagers (let alone tenured professors) shared my much-anticipated monthly pastime:

“When I came to know Martin Gardner’s column, I was probably on the order of fourteen years old… I will always remember the excitement if I went to the mailbox at my parents’ house and found that the copy of Scientific American had arrived. And I instantly flipped it open, looked to the page where Martin Gardner’s column was, went to that page, and was riveted by whatever he said, every time, without any exceptions.

“And I realized later—not at that time, perhaps many years later—that many, many, many people did exactly that, that in some sense Scientific American itself was just the wrapping for Martin Gardner’s column… It was so full of profundity and exploration of fantastic new ideas, so stimulating to people who enjoy mathematics or philosophy, the savoring of beauty and paradox mixed together, with also a wonderful dose of sense of humor.”

Douglas Hofstadter talking with Steve Mirsky later in that same conversation

I always felt a bit guilty about ignoring most of the rest of the magazine, with its scholarly articles on quantum physics, viral genetics or nuclear detente treaties. But I shouldn’t have been: Gardner had been delighting Scientific American‘s readers since before I was born. His Mathematical Games column ran from 1956 until 1981; here I share four of them that remain particularly fresh in my memory:

  • Eleusis, a card game devised by Robert Abbott. Gardner wrote about the game in October 1977; I xeroxed the column and then spent many delightful afternoons playing Eleusis, particularly at the Planina folkdance camp in the Santa Cruz mountains.
  • The art of tesselations, the tiling of an infinite plane with shapes such that there are no gaps or overlaps
  • A review of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Based on Gardner’s glowing review I bought the book, although many sections were quite beyond me.
  • Perhaps my favorite: the April 1974 column, which contained a half-dozen remarkable new scientific discoveries, all of which turned out to be an elaborate April Fool’s Day hoax. In the podcast quoted above, Hofstadter talks about Gardner’s fascination with hoaxes, including how Gardner once wrote a pseudonymous negative review of one of his own books.

Later in high school, a friend told me about Gardner’s Annotated Alice, with its erudite and playful notes on both Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass. Gardner clearly enjoyed annotating books, and I collected several more: Oddities and Curiosities, The Annotated Casey at the Bat, and The Annotated Night Before Christmas.

For my birthday in 2000, my wife Arlene gave me Gardner’s latest book, From the Wandering Jew to William F. Buckley Jr. In it I discovered an essay entitled “John Martin’s Book: A Forgotten Children’s Magazine.” Gardner was a subscriber to John Martin’s Book in 1921 when he was seven years old. He wrote to John Martin for an autograph, who obliged saying “I rather send it to you than a king.” I was astounded and delighted by the essay: John Martin was the pen name of Morgan Shepard, the author and one-time partner of Paul Elder, the San Francisco book publisher I had been researching since the 1990s. After all these years, I suddenly had a scholarly connection to one of my favorite authors! I immediately wrote to Gardner, telling him about my research into Elder’s and Shepard’s careers, and gave him one of my Elder checklists. Although I never heard back—I knew Gardner was already in poor health, and could only imagine the mail he must have received on a daily basis—the connection satisfied me on a deep level, and is something I will hold dear throughout my life.

Here are some more tributes to Martin Gardner: