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Odd Lots

  • Mercury has a tail. Whodathunkit? With all that solar wind blasting over it, the poor planet’s already thin atmosphere is constantly being driven outward, forming a tail over 24 million kilometers long. That makes ol’ Merc the biggest comet in the Solar System. You can’t see it visually; if you’re used to astrophotography, shoot through a sodium filter to make the tail more visible. Some good shots at the link; check it out.
  • NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe has left asteroid Bennu and is headed for home as fast as limited fuel and orbital mechanics allow. It’s got 300 grams of asteroid dirt to drop, after which it will head into a parking orbit. NASA is considering another mission for the probe. Nothing crisp yet, but there’s still some life in the device, so why waste it?
  • Having listened carefully to 60 million stars in toward the galactic center, the Breakthrough Listen project has found no sign of alien intelligence. We may be the one impossibly unlikely fluke that solved the Drake Equation.
  • Relevant to the above: Our dwarfy next-door neighbor Proxima Centauri spit out a flare a couple of years ago that was 100 times more powerful than anything we’ve ever seen out of our Sun. If too many dwarf stars are in this habit, it could bode ill for the chances of life elsewhere in our galaxy, where we have red dwarf stars like some people have mice.
  • I stumbled across a British news/opinion site whose USP is going against the grain of conventional wisdom. Given the current drain-spiral of American media, it can be useful to have a few overseas news sites on your bookmarks bar. This one is definitely contrarian. It’s also sane and not prone to the often-comical frothing fury we see in news outlets here.
  • Tis the season to be stumbling, in fact: I stumbled upon Reversopedia, which is a compendium of things that we don’t know or can’t prove. The entries are odd lots for very large values of “odd.” E.g: “Why is space 3-dimensional? And is it?” I love that sort of thing because it makes me think about matters that could easily become the central gimmicks of SF stories.
  • Bari Weiss posted a solid article on Substack saying what a lot of people are thinking but afraid to say out loud: That vaccinated people don’t need masks, especially outside. Social pressure against mask skeptics is intense. Masks have become a culture-war thing, which is both absurd and dangerous: Antivaxxers are asking what is actually a sensible question: If the vaccines are real and not just saline solution, why do we have to keep wearing masks?
  • Substack (see above item) is an interesting concept, rather like a blog site that you can get paid for. A lot of articles can be read for free, and subscription fees for many writers are $5/month. It’s not a gumball machine for articles, but rather a gumball machine for writers. A lot of writers who would be anathema in big national vehicles can write there, gather a following, and make a living.
  • Is sleeping with your TV on ok? Short answer: No. (And I’m wondering how old the stock photo in the article is, given that it shows a glass-screen TV.)
  • IBM has just created a proof-of-concept chip with a 2NM process. IBM’s published density numbers for this node are 333M transistors per square millimeter, whew! They say 2NM will improve performance by 45% at the same power.
  • I haven’t said much about my book project Odd Lots lately. It was a classic “odd moments” project accomplished in moments scattered across the last year or two. I just got the first proof copy back from Amazon and will be cleaning it up as time allows. Most of what’s wrong are OCR errors of old writings for which I no longer have disk files and had to scan out of magazines. I expect to post it on Amazon before the end of May.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • I’ve mentioned this before in several places, but I will mention it again here and probably more than once again before it happens: On December 21, Jupiter and Saturn will be only one tenth of a degree apart. That’s one fifth the diameter of the full Moon. I’ve never seen two planets that close, and I’ve been looking at the sky now for 63 years.
  • As I mentioned in a recent entry, I’m putting my big 10″ Newtonian scope back together for the first time in close to 20 years. Most of the work lay in building a new base. (Termites ate the original, which I cobbled together out of scrap wood when I was 16.) The base is finished. The rest should be easy. With some luck I’ll get it all together and do a star test tonight. If my stars are in alignment, it’ll work. But hey, all stars are my stars, so I can’t lose!
  • While listening to Peter Hollens songs on YouTube, I stumbled across a remarkable women’s vocal ensemble: Brigham Young University’s Noteworthy. They’ve posted a number of videos, and all of them are amazing in terms of pure vocal harmony. Nothing I’ve seen tops their cover of “When You Believe” from the animated film Prince of Egypt. It’s the best song out of a very good bunch, and those ladies nailed it for all time.
  • I suspect that by now you’ve probably heard, but SF legend and former Analog editor Ben Bova died on November 30, of COVID-19 complications. He was 88. Ben taught for a week when I attended Clarion East 1973, and he was spectacular.
  • And as though that weren’t bad enough, Chuck Yaeger died this past Monday, December 7. Yaeger, to me, almost defines the word “badass.” He shot down 13 German warcraft during WW2, five of them on one mission. He rode the Bell X-1 to the sound barrier and beyond, and piloted the X-15 to the edge of space. He fought Death to a draw that lasted 97 years. Godspeed, General Yaeger.
  • Watch for Northern Lights from Thursday sunset to Friday dawn. (H/T to Hans Schantz.)

Bringing the 10″ Scope Back to Life

Joe Lill and 10 Inch Newt - 3-8-1970 - Cropped.jpg

When I was 14, I took an opportunity and started out on a very large project: A friend of mine bought an Edmund Scientific mirror-making kit, decided he didn’t have the time to pursue it, and sold it to me. The kit included a 10″ Pyrex mirror blank, a plate glass tool blank, and all the abrasives needed to grind and polish it. I did most of the grinding in my basement, using a defunct round wringer washer as a grinding station. I followed the instructions in the kit, along with whatever I could find in the library, and though it took a couple of months, in time I had a Pyrex blank with a smooth curve, focusing at about 67 inches. My goal was 70, so I came pretty close, and in truth, 67″ would make for a shorter and somewhat lighter tube.

Now, grinding is only half the job. Polishing the ground mirror surface took sophisticated methods to gauge the accuracy of the curve, which has to be a parabola to focus items at infinity (like stars) to a sharp image. I decided I was over my head, and did the sensible thing: I enrolled in a class at the Adler Planetarium on Chicago’s lakefront, which took up most of the summer that I turned 15. They had an optical shop in the basement that included the required Focault tester, plus a superb teacher, Ken Wolf, who helped me get the polishing done and mirror curve accurate. They were also able to aluminize it, and by that fall, I had a 10″ F6.7 parabolic telescope mirror accurate to 1/25 wave, which was bogglingly accurate for a first shot by a 15-year-old.

The rest of the scope took another two years and change to complete. A friend’s father made me a tube out of sheet aluminum. I built a tube saddle out of scrap wood and hardware-store aluminum stock. I had no tools more sophisticated than my dad’s circular saw and saber saw. And that was for woodworking–for metal I did it all with a hacksaw and files. I had some help from my high school machine shop teacher, who dug up a piece of iron that he said was hull metal from a scrapped battleship. He cut it to size on the big bandsaw for me. I spent many study hall hours in his shop on one of the lathes, boring out 2″ pipe fittings and making numerous small parts. I owe Mr. Brinkmann a huge debt of gratitude. Without his help and the use of his machines, I could not have finished the scope.

It was going to be a big scope, and a much heavier one than the 8″ Newtonian I had built from a Sam Brown book the summer I turned 14. I turned my attention to building a base. There was a lot of scrap lumber in the crawlspace. I had the notion of building a cement form out of scrap lumber and pouring a solid triangular concrete shape 36″ on a side with bolts embedded in the top for the battleship-metal mount.

So I built me a cement form.

Whoops. Doing some math and library research showed me that the concrete base would weigh at least 400 pounds. Yes, I could make it–but once I made it, I had no idea how I would move it. So I was left with a scrap lumber cement form…


FirstDateSketchTelescope - 325 Wide.jpgThe form was made entirely from 2″ dimensional lumber, from 2X4s to a scrap of 2X12. I could carry it around with only a little puffing. So I would use the cement form as the telescope base.

A lot more work and allowance money would go into the telescope before I finished it–more or less–in the fall of 1969. On an early date with a pretty 16-year-old girl I had met in church, I told her about the project and drew a picture of it on her little spiral notebook. (See left. She enjoyed talking about science. So did I. She married me in October 1976, and our flag still flies.)

I used that scope a lot, even though it was bulky and heavy and awkward to cart around. In 2000, I (finally!) poured a concrete base for it at our house at the north end of Scottsdale. (See below.) I bought a large plastic trash can to put over the scope to keep the weather off it, and enjoyed it tremendously. Well, we moved to Colorado in 2003. When I went behind the garage to fetch out the now-retired wood base, I discovered that the local termites had been feasting for a couple of years, and there was nothing much left.

I haven’t had the 10″ assembled since. And it’s now about damned time to get to work.

10 inch with Michael Abrash - 2001 - 500 Wide.jpg

I’ve spent a couple of weekends messing with it. Yesterday I bolted the aluminum tang to the base, and although there will be some refinements, what you see below is pretty much what you’ll see when it’s in service.

New 10 inch wood base 1- 500 Wide.jpg

The equatorial head is still workable, though tremendously heavy. I hope to build a new one out of aluminum. In the meantime, I see no reason why I can’t have it up and working by the time of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21. The two giant planets will appear just 6.1 arc-minutes apart, close enough to see in the same eyepiece field, and closer in the sky than they’ve been since 1623. A conjunction of this sort is said by some to be the Christmas Star that the Three Wise men followed to Bethlehem. Miss that? No way!

More on the 10″ scope project as it happens.

Odd Lots

Three Coins 9-20-2020 - 500 Wide.jpg

  • The old pennies appear to be back. (See my entry for November 7, 2019.) Over the last two weeks, at least 75% of the pennies I’ve gotten at McDonald’s were pre-2000, some of them very pre-2000. Yesterday alone I got three pennies, two from the ’90s, and one from…1962. This morning I actually got a parking-lot nickel. (Left, above.) It’s from 1999 in case you can’t make it out, and it’s lived a very hard life. The nickel on the right is 80 years old. The penny, a trifling 38. I wonder if, with new coins in short supply, McDonald’s is again getting them from the people who run networks of supermarket coin exchangers. I was getting shiny new pennies for a couple of months, and then suddenly I wasn’t. We’ll just have to see how it goes.
    • “How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the manager? I would like to see him.”
      –Soren Kierkegaard, Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits (1847)

      (Hmmm. Maybe “Soren” is German for “Karen”.)

    • There’s an excellent COVID-19 stats dashboard maintained by the Arizona Department of Health Services that as best I can tell is updated daily. It covers new cases, hospitalization rates, daily death rates by date of death, demographics, and lots of other useful stuff. The daily death rates for the disease have been in single digits since September 10, and the peak death day was July 17, when 97 people died. Seeing the graphs and digesting the numbers, it’s pretty obvious that the pandemic is burning out in Arizona.
    • The older red wine is, the less trans-resveratrol it contains, and thus the fewer beneficial health effects. I’m not a wine snob, and most wine I drink these days is 2017 or 2018. I’ll open old wine now and then (we have some) when the occasion demands, but not for daily consumption.

    • Put this on your calendar: On December 21 there will be a “grand conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, which will be the closest conjunction of the two giant planets since 1623 AD. The planets will be separated by only 6 arc minutes, which is one-fifth the width of the full Moon. With a decent scope and good eyepieces, you should be able to see the disks of both planets in one view.
    • This is a good year for planet spotting. On October 6, Mars will reach its closest approach to Earth during its 2020 opposition. (The opposition itself refers to Mars with respect to the Sun, and is on October 14.) The Red Planet will reach magtnitude -2.6, and on that date will be brighter than Jupiter. It won’t be this big or bright again until 2030. So put it on your calendars.
    • Great fun: Sixty Seconds of Stella Leaf Jumps. (I remember leaves, heh.)
    • We’ve been hearing that Vitamin D enhances immune function for respiratory infections for quite awhile. It’s also true that many of the people who die from COVID-19 are significantly and often severely deficient in the vitamin. Here’s a scientific paper correlating Vitamin D levels with SARS-CoV-2 test results. Short form: The more deficient you are, the more likely you are to be infected after contact with the virus. Take some pills. Get some sun. Don’t just cower in your spare room waiting for a vaccine.
    • Twitter can be so worth it sometimes.
    • Check out the first graph in this article. Countries that treat their COVID-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine have far lower case-fatality rates than countries (including ours) that has banned or discouraged the use of the drug.

    Odd Lots

    Boy, writing this entry just felt good. I gotta do more of these…

    • People are asking me what’s happening with Dreamhealer. (First chapter here.) I’m working with an artist on a cover. The ending needs a hair more editing, but after that it’s an afternoon’s work to lay out the ebook in Jutoh. I had intended to introduce it at LibertyCon mid-June. Lacking a LibertyCon, I’m now just intending to get it out as fast as I can.
    • Are any of my ham friends (general or higher) interested in an experimental sked on the low bands? If so, where have you heard Phoenix? I usually try 20M before anything else, but if anybody’s got any heuristics, let me know somehow.
    • Everybody (ok, every nerd) knows about the Carrington Event. Even I didn’t know that we had another one of those in May 1921. Although Carrington is more famous, by strictly objective measure (the disturbance storm time index, or Dst) the two solar storms were almost exactly alike. In both cases telegraph stations caught fire from currents induced in the wires, and a lot of telephone equipment (which wasn’t deployed in 1859) was destroyed in 1921 by the same induced currents. Damn, like I needed something else to worry about.
    • I’ve backed a number of technologies before. Risky business. I backed Wi-Fi back in the early oughts and won big.I backed WiMAX and watched it swiftly and silently vanish away. I backed Powerline networking (now gathered under the umbrella term HomePlug) and lost but still use it. Here’s a good article on what happened to both WiMAX and HomePlug.
    • One technology I haven’t backed yet is 5G mobile, which is finally getting some traction in the marketplace. My LTE phone works just fine, and I don’t stream video to my phone. (I have a big honking TV for that.) Where I think 5G is most promising is as competition to the mostly monopolist residential broadband providers. We have cable Internet here, and it’s…ok. If 4K (or God help us, 8K) video is to have a chance, it will be through the benefits of 5G, and not otherwise.
    • Neil Ferguson’s computer model of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the UK’s lockdown. Now it comes out that the model was a good design with a trash implementation. (This from a computational epidemiologist, who just might know a crap pandemic model when he sees one.) Imperial College refuses to release the original model’s code and is making stupid excuses why not. A fragmentary and much-jiggered source code suite is now available on Github, and includes things like a global variable struct with 582 fields. (And lots more global variables.) Uggh. Her Majesty should demand her people’s money back.
    • A San Diego County supervisor stated that only six of 194 recorded coronavirus deaths were actually caused by the virus. The others died with the virus, but according to the supervisor, not of it. Yes, yes, I know, it’s not either-or. COVID-19 can push an elderly heart or cancer patient over the edge. Still, we need solid numbers on how deadly this thing is, and for that we have to back out the count of people who were already dying of other things.
    • Here’s a good example: A Colorado man died of alcohol poisoning. (0.55%, when the supposedly lethal threshold is 0.3%.) He was tested for coronavirus and found to be carrying it. So he was listed as dying of COVID-19. He had no comorbidities, beyond enough booze to kill a middling elephant.
    • The county I grew up in now has more COVID-19 cases than any other county in the US. Good ol’ Cook County, Illinois. I guess we got out in time.
    • In good news locally, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. is announcing plans to build a $10B plant in Arizona. Is it possible that those jobs are coming back? (Sorry, Steve.)
    • Now that we’re all obliged to wear masks, it was inevitable: Gait recognition technology is in development. It uses deep learning and sensors in the floor. This is more than a little creepy, granting that we once said that about face recognition as well. I recall a friend (now deceased) telling me in 1976 that “You walk as though you’re on your way to kill something.” (That was partly ROTC marching and partly the need to walk fast from one busted Xerox machine to another in downtown Chicago.) Maybe I should buy a scooter.

    Odd Lots

    • Amazon is selling hand-made (in Latvia) steampunk thumb drives incorporating copper pipe caps and a Soviet-made pentode vacuum tube. LEDs light up the glass from the bottom of the tube when there’s power available at the USB connector. (Thanks to Bill Meyer for the pointer.)
    • Tonight would be a good night to see Mercury. It’s never easy because the planet never gets too far from the Sun in the sky, but with smartphone apps like Sky Map (on all Android phones by default) it’s certainly easier than it once was. Start by finding Venus in the west, immediately after the Sun goes below the horizon. (You can’t miss Venus.) Mercury lies roughly on a line between Venus and the Sun. There are no bright stars in that part of the sky, so if you see a star near that line, it’s not a star but ol’ Merc himself.
    • Speaking of the Sun… Here’s a solid overview of the history of solar science. It’s a long piece, and even if you choose not to read it, the photos and diagrams are worth the visit.
    • Betelgeuse continues to dim for unknown reasons. It’s fallen from 10th brightest star in the sky to 24th brightest. Orion is the first constellation I can clearly recall seeing, and these days, it just looks…off. This may mean it’s about to go supernova…for large values of “about.” (Hundreds or more likely thousands of years. Stars are never in a hurry.)
    • I’ve been following the coronavirus epidemic using a dashboard maintained by Johns Hopkins. Who knows how accurate it is, but one does get a feeling that China is currently in a world of hurt. I got the link from my friend Charlie Martin, and he’s got a good article about the issues involved.
    • This is a little weird, but it’s one more telltale that the technical publishing industry I loved for so long is no longer with us. I went searching for a book on installing, configuring, and customizing the MediaWiki software, and found…nothing. There’s plenty online, but I’m talking about book-length treatments. If you know of one let me know. My longstanding heuristic is that if it’s not on Amazon, it isn’t available.
    • How to turn a waterway into wine. At least it wasn’t a Zinfandel.
    • Ah, but this was a sweet, sweet hack: Some guy wandered around downtown Berlin pulling a little red wagon full of smartphones, all running Google Maps. Wherever he happened to be during his wander, Google Maps reported a traffic jam.
    • If politics bores you as much as it bores me, here’s a solid distraction from all the tiresome yelling and screaming: The economics of all-you-can-eat buffets. Eat quick: My instincts tell me that as a category buffets are not long for this world.
    • Finally, you’ve heard me say that there’s funny, there’s National Lampoon funny, and then there’s Babylon Bee funny. This may be one of the Bee’s best pieces yet–given this season’s nonstop nonsense.

    Odd Lots

    Tuesday Night’s Super Blue Blood Lunar Eclipse

    Very late Tuesday night (in fact, just before dawn on Wednesday morning) we’re going to have us a super blue blood lunar eclipse. If that sounds peculiar, it’s because it is–and rare. The last one, in fact, happened in 1866. The key facts about the eclipse are these:

    • It’s a “blue moon” eclipse. A blue moon isn’t about color; it’s about having more than one full moon within a single month. This happens…once in a blue moon. Most months are several days longer than the Moon’s 29.5-day run around the Earth, so if you get a full Moon in the first couple of days of a month (February being the usual exception) you’ll also get a full Moon in the last few days of the months. This second full Moon in one month is a blue Moon.
    • It’s (almost) a supermoon eclipse. A day before the eclipse, the Moon will be at perigee in its orbit; that is, at its closest approach to Earth. This is called a “supermoon.” Although the eclipse occurs a day after lunar perigee, most people say, wotthehell, and call it a supermoon eclipse.
    • There’s nothing particularly bloody about this lunar eclipse, compared to other lunar eclipses. (Because the Moon will be close to perigee, the eclipsed Moon will appear larger in the sky.) The Moon will be in Earth’s shadow, and the Earth’s atmosphere scatters the light that passes through the atmosphere, with blue wavelengths scattered more than red wavelengths. This is why most lunar eclipses leave the Moon looking brown or orange. Much depends on how clear and steady the Earth’s atmosphere is at the time of the eclipse. A very occasional eclipse occurs when the atmosphere is unusually calm and clean; such eclipses are very dark, and the Moon almost black. There’s really no reliable way to predict the color of the Earth’s shadow before the eclipse actually happens.
    • Alas for Americans, this eclipse will occur while the Moon is setting, just before dawn on 1/31. If you’re on the west coast, you’ll see almost all of it. If you’re on the east coast, you’ll see relatively little. The best view (and this is sheer chance) is over the central Pacific. Alaska, Hawaii, Japan, eastern China, and (most of) Australia are the places to be. Western Europe, most of Africa, and most of South America are pretty much out of luck.

    So. When precisely will the eclipse occur? That depends completely on where you are. Your best bet is to look at the eclipse page, which has a feature that will display local times for the eclipse if you search on a particular city. Look for the search box, titled “Find Eclipses in Your City,” in the right-hand margin of the page. Most cities of reasonable size will be there. If your town is too small for the search box, search for the closest larger town until you find one.

    Here’s an example, for Scottsdale AZ. You’ll get local time for the eclipse begin, end, and maximum. The summary below the umbra/penumbra animation will tell you if a particular phase of the eclipse is visible at your location. In Scottsdale, approximately the last 90 minutes occur after the Moon sets, and thus can’t be seen. In Colorado Springs, the last two hours of the eclipse occur after moonset. Make sure you run the animation, which will give you a very clear picture of how the Moon’s disk crosses the umbra and penumbra of the Earth’s shadow.

    Carol and I generally wake up at six or a little after, so we’ll either get up half an hour earlier than usual (no big trick for us larks) or just miss the first few minutes of totality. Now, for the owls in my audience, the better path may be to wait until January 21, 2019. That won’t be a supermoon, nor a blue moon, but eclipse visibility will be almost centered over North and South America, which means that anybody in the US will be able to see it in its entirety.

    In truth, total lunar eclipses are common (the Moon is small, and the Earth is big) and in my life I’ve seen dozens. I need to emphasize that Wednesday’s eclipse is remarkable not for how it will look but for its flukes of orbital dynamics that coincide only rarely.

    Still, lunar eclipses, irrespective of their orbital dynamics, are celebrations of the beautiful and extravagant universe we live in. Take a look, especially if you’ve never seen one before. Compared to a total solar eclipse, it’s long, slow, and almost meditative. Seeing it in a photo or on TV just doesn’t do it justice. Go out there and use your own eyes. You won’t regret it!

    The Great American Eclipse, Nebraska-Style

    Total Eclipse 500 Wide.jpg

    A little over five weeks ago, Carol and I threw the Pack into the Durango and blasted north for Colorado Springs. We spent a day there visiting, then passed off the Pack to Grandma Jimi (the breeder from whom we bought them) and headed north again. We didn’t drive past our old house. We decided, in fact, that we would never drive past our old house ever again. Closure is good, trust me on that.

    We got the the Denver airport just in time to pick up my oldest friend Art, whom I had met in kindergarten, and who in 1969 had dragged me away from my pile of broken TV chassis long enough to meet my wife. All along northbound I-25 were dot-matrix signs from Colorado’s DOT, warning us about heavy eclipse traffic. Well, we had a plan for that. Instead of going straight north into Wyoming, we headed NE out I-76. We left I-76 at Sterling, Colorado, and drilled almost straight north into deepest Nebraska.

    This was not an impulse. This was something I had had in mind since we began making plans for the trip several years ago. I had a hunch that most people would make a beeline for places where the path of totality crossed an Interstate. That’s why we didn’t keep going east to North Platte. And forgive me for being right: We saw very little traffic once we got away from I-25. Many other people we know, including Charlie Martin, got caught in some nasty traffic jams coming down I-25 from Casper, Wyoming. Not us. Nebraska’s backroads are excellent, and there was almost no one else on them. We reached Alliance, Nebraska about 3 PM the day before the eclipse. I had reserved a hotel room there a full year before, practically the day they began taking reservations. That was a good thing, as there are (I think) all of three hotels in the whole town.

    With the hotel room squared away, we roared off to Wells Ranch, a few miles south of Alliance. There we met my high school friends Pete Albrecht and Ernie and Michelle Marek, along with their daughter Laura. Ernie had reseved space for us all at Wells Ranch, which had cleared one of their cattle pastures (you can guess what that entailed) and set up to receive as many as 1,000 visitors in tents, RVs, and trailers. Ernie brought his Airstream trailer, and Pete a tent. We had a nice little encampment fairly close to the portapotties and the building where the Wells people were providing hot meals, especially burgers and sausage made from (extremely) local beef.

    One startling thing we saw on pulling in was that the sky was full of kites. I hadn’t seen that many kites flying in one place since the old WIND kite festivals at Chicago’s Grant Park downtown while I was in college. I hadn’t thought to bring one, but a nearby camper had a few extras and I actually got to join the other campers in sculpting the sky, as they say.

    Art did a little better than kites: He brought his professional-quality 4K video camera drone. He didn’t fly it a great deal, but he took some video footage and a few stills of the campers in the Wells pasture.

    We spent an hour ot so catching up, and laying our plans for the next morning. Come five PM, we all piled into the car and headed back to Alliance. For that Sunday they had blocked off pretty much the entirety of their main street, and threw one helluva party. A local rock band played, and all the restaurants had tables and catering trucks outside. Beer flowed like water. It was a beer crowd, as you might expect; I looked in vain for wine.

    When Monday morning came, Alliance and its surrounds were covered in very dense fog. I got a little nervous at that point. Back in 1972, some friends and I (including Art and Ernie) had driven almost 2,000 miles to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River to see a total eclipse, only to be clouded out a mere hour before totality. The fog lifted eight-ish, with only a few scattered clouds remaining, and we began setting up our equipment.

    Art, Pete, and Ernie are hobby photographers with fabulous cameras, filters, telephoto lenses, etc. I’m not. I didn’t plan to photograph totality at all. Instead, I brought my Criterion portable scope (which I had bought to see Halley’s Comet from Bonaire in 1986) and arranged it to project a magnified image of the Sun on a sheet of foamcore board. This worked very well for the partial phases of the eclipse. No need for glasses; we were never looking at the actual Sun.

    Partway through the partial phase, some denser and far less scattered clouds wandered in. My blood ran cold. This was how it had begun in 1972. Fearing that this was as good as it was going to get, I took a couple of remarkably good shots of the partial phase right through the clouds, with the clouds acting as their own solar filter. All I did was aim my Canon G16 at the sun, and snapped away on auto. But damn, I was worried.

    Very shortly after I took the shot above, the clouds dispersed in a hurry, as though God had leaned over the railings of Heaven and yelled “Shoo!” I stilled my pounding heart; it would not be 1972 redux.

    As the partial phase of a total solar eclipse nears its end, the quality of the light changes. It gets “thin” in a weird way, which I have always characterized as “elfin.” Some people say it seems a touch green. It does seem more than a touch spooky. We put my spare sheet of white foamcore down flat on the ground, in hope of glimpsing the mysterious and hard-to-see shadow bands. Carol and I had seen them during the total solar eclipse of 1998, from a cruise ship in the Caribbean. It helps to have a large area of plain white to look for them. We had the side of a bright white ship, and the shadow bands were immdiately obvious in the last few seconds before totality. Nobody quite knows for sure what causes them; see the link above for several theories. The Sun became an ever-thinner sliver, putting the area into something like deep twilight. I looked at the foamcore, and damn! Shadow bands! They were hard to see and only lasted a few seconds, because then…


    Everybody all across Wells Ranch cheered. It got dark, but not midnight dark. Twilight-gray faded to a weird off-black. The Sun’s corona was much larger than I had predicted, and cast quite a bit of light all on its own. Yes, it really did look like Art’s photo at the beginning of this entry. During totality you can look at the Sun through a telescope, and we did. There were several pink-violet prominences at points around the Sun’s limb. You can see some in the photo below (from Pete Albrecht) if you look carefully:

    This was a short eclipse, with only a little more than two minutes of totality. I took some quick looks through the Criterion, but mostly I just stood and basked in the strangeness of the light and the weirdness of the corona. I wondered what our primitive ancestors might have thought, when chance placed them in an eclipse’s path. Were I even a hard-headed Neanderthal (and they were very hard-headed) I would have been hard-pressed not to ascribe the sight to supernatural activity.

    And as a quick aside, I need to point out that eclipses of the sort we see are a consequence of a truly weird coincidence: That the Sun and the Moon present almost precisely the same angular diameter to people on Earth’s surface. A smaller Moon would merely transit the Sun’s disk. A larger Moon would have blocked out the prominences and even the corona. So why did it work out this way? Nobody knows. It seems an astonishingly unlikely thing. In truth, the Neanderthals’ guesses are pretty much as good as mine.

    It lasted for two marvelous minutes and change. The end of totality is signaled by something no less astonishing than the eclipse itself: A dazzling point of light appears along the limb of the Sun, forming what people call the diamond ring effect. Like the shadow bands, it lasts only seconds, before the exposed point of the solar disk broadens to a slowly growing and painfully bright crescent. Again, people cheered, not so much because the eclipse was over, but because we had driven a long way to see it, and succeeded. (Unlike us in 1972.) This was my third total solar eclipse. I expect to make it four, come 2024. I hope to make it five, but more than that…unlikely. So I cheered with the whole gang scattered across the cowfields. We came. We watched. We triumphed.

    Then it was over, and before the Moon moved entirely away from the Sun, people were throwing stuff into their cars and trailers and heading for the exits. I expected that, and it was the reason we had all decided to stay the rest of the day and the coming night in Alliance, so that the mad rush out of town would be other people’s problem.

    And well that we did. That night, in the mostly empty cowfield, we were graced with some of the darkest skies any of us had ever seen. The air was clear, and apart from Alliance’s lights on the northern horizon, there was nothing to dull the stars. The Milky Way was as bright as I’d ever seen it. We leaned back in our lounge chairs and reminisced about Lane Tech, while spotting a few satellites and several very bright meteors, probably late Perseids.

    Earlier in the afternoon, we had taken a quick trip a few miles north to Carhenge, one of the most peculiar things I’ve ever seen. Back in 1987, an eccentric artist created a model of Stonehenge, only made out of 1960s and 70s cars, all painted gray. There is something delightfully human and weirdly Rural American about it. Nobody would do something like Carhenge in the Seattle suburbs. Sure, it’s a tourist trap. We were tourists.

    Worked as designed.

    And so it ended. In a way, the expedition redeemed our ill-fated coming-of-age adventure to Cap Chat, Quebec, in 1972. Closure, as I said, is good. Pete took a photo of the three of us who had gone that time, along with a little blue souvenir flag that Ernie had somehow managed to retain for 45 years. Better late than never–and it had been well worth the wait.