16 Sep 2007
Our Moon has been revolving obediently around this planet since way before we ever got here, and when we did get here we immediately recognized its inherent ability to be a great timekeeper and fine nightlight, and exalted it to A-list celebrity status.
But in all those years legends grew up about what Shakespeare calls our "sweet moon," some of which, it turns out, are not exactly brimming with truth. Let's look at some.
#1. The Moon is seen only at night.
Many believe that the Sun is out during daytime, and its counterpart the Moon is, contrariwise, only out at night. Well, the Moon knows no such manmade law. It is going around this planet, taking its blessed time, and cares nothing as to when or where it is seen. Sometimes it is over the dark side of the earth; those times we see it at night. Other times it is on the same side as the sun, the daytime side, and we can see it then if only we know where to look.
Look for it yourself in the next couple evenings in the southern skies in the 5 o'clock hour, about 30 degrees above horizon. See it there in all its quarter moon glory - during the day.
#2. The Moon used to be used as a timekeeper, but those days are gone.
For our western culture, forgetful of the sky above and drowning in digits and technology, we have just vague leftovers remaining from those days when we used the moon for timekeeping.
One bit of flotsam that is an unknown nod to those bygone days is the word "month." It takes just over 29 days for the Moon to begin repeating its phases, not coincidentally the period of time we call a "month," named for that cycle of the moon.
But there are several cultures that still today use the movement of the Moon to keep time and mark the calendar.
Case in point: The 9th month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan, has just begun. It is a month of daylight fasting for Muslims. And it begins at the first site of the youngest sliver of a Moon, just after New Moon, the time our satellite passes in front of the Sun in its orbit around us. Moreover, the varying dates for Passover and Easter owe their reckonings to lunar movement.
#3. Since the Moon moves in front of the Sun every month, we probably have a solar eclipse every month.
That would be true if the Moon moved directly in front of the Sun every month. But our satellite's slightly tilted orbit takes it just above or just below the Sun most of the time. Because of this, there are usually just one or two solar eclipses somewhere on the planet in any given year.
#4. The best time to see the Moon through binoculars or a telescope is Full Moon!
As a matter of fact, one of the worst times to scope out our satellite is during full moon. It is completely front-lit, thus losing all its wondrously detailed surface features. See it, if you can, at First Quarter, the phase it will happen to be in during the next few days. It is then that the oblique angle of the sun's light raises to life so many craters and valleys you feel you could reach out and touch it.
We see our Moon so often that we easily take it for granted. But if you can take another look at it, do. Examine it, study its history. It is a wonderful work of art worthy of the time.
Until next time, clear skies!
02 Sep 2007
Do you enjoy watching a cast of real-life eccentric characters drowning in high drama, a drama that spans decades of history, and all of which makes up a fascinating part of our American heritage? Then you may be in for a treat with a film being shown at this year's Temecula Valley's International Film and Music Festival - The Journey to Palomar.
Many of us are at least aware of the Great Observatory on Palomar Mountain. We've seen its image on water bottles among other places, and those of us who drive south on the 15 through Murrieta and Temecula can see the magnificent dome on the distant mountain ahead of us.
And there are no doubt some readers who may have made the pilgrimage to the top of that mountain to visit the observatory and get a peek at the famous Hale Telescope.
But too many of us locals who've seen the observatory don’t fully appreciate its magnificent history. We see only some nondescript white object on the hill from the freeway. We might visit that massive dome, and peer, through the glass dimly, at a giant steel contraption that vaguely resembles our idea of a telescope. Unimpressed, we walk away, almost disappointed.
This, to us science folk, is the equivalent of walking up to the Grand Canyon or Botticelli's Venus or the Brooklyn Bridge, shrugging the shoulders, and then nonchalantly moving on to the next point on the tour.
The history, beauty, and grandeur of those works of art are profound. So, too, with the Palomar Observatory, the Big Eye on the Hill.
It was the culminating jewel in the crown for a man named George Ellery Hale, the greatest telescope builder in the last hundred years and whose telescopes changed the course of astronomy and opened up the heavens in ways never before dreamed of.
Hale was convinced that building big, great scopes would show us things in the skies we'd never seen before, and more importantly, give us deep insights into how the Whole Shebang got started, how it is now, and where it is going.
This belief drove Hale to court the richest and often most eccentric people of the early 20th century - the Rockefellers and the Carnegies - in order to fund his vision for astronomy. His tenacity paid off and resulted first in the building of the Yerkes Observatory near Chicago. But for us in southern California, his biggest accomplishments were yet to come.
It was he who put up the telescopes that put southern California on the scientific map. He was the builder of the legendary Mt Wilson Observatory in Pasadena and, of course, our own Palomar Observatory.
But all the building and planning and begging and necessary development of brand new technologies to make it all work took decades. And it sucked the life out of George Ellery Hale. Passing away in 1938, he didn't get to see the opening of Palomar, a momentous event that happened shortly after World War II.
The journey is a fascinating one and I'm tempted to go on and on about it, like about how thousands of people came out to see the great mirror as it was moved across the nation, or how it took 11 years just to polish that mirror to near perfection, or about all the paradigm-shifting discoveries his telescopes made in cosmology, ...sorry.
If you get a chance to go to the Temecula Valley Film Festival to see The Journey to Palomar, do. It shows on Thursday, September 13 at 8 PM, and Saturday the 15th at 3:30 PM. Both showings are at the Movie Experience in Temecula. For more information, go to www.journeytopalomar.org or www.tviff.com.
If you cannot make it to the film, amazon up one book called The Perfect Machine by Ronald Florence. Scott Kardel, the public affairs coordinator at Palomar calls it "THE book" on the building of the observatory.
One way or another, you can always plan a visit to our own great historical landmark. See for yourself both the dome and the telescope, both engineering marvels. And keep this in mind: This is no retired big leaguer. We are not looking at the grave of Babe Ruth or a Lincoln Memorial. Because of the new technologies of CCD imaging and adaptive optics, all the scopes on Palomar Mountain are still making discoveries; they are still on the forefront of modern astronomy. So go, and enjoy the glories of astronomy and America past, combined with the never-ending excitement of cosmology's present - and future.