Category: Astronomy

midpoint of partial solar eclipse, 85%

midpoint of partial solar eclipse, 85%

… actually it was 85% coverage of the sun by the moon in a solar eclipse. At our latitude we saw a partial eclipse. To see a total eclipse, assuming that the weather was kind, would involve a trip to the Faroes, which was out of the question for us. Still, I was able to take a few photos using a homemade solar filter. (I should add that the paper was high quality specialist film which I had bought previously when I thought we might see the transit of Venus. As it was, the weather was inconvenient then).

Given that I was using a bridge digital camera (mid-way between point-and-shoot and, say, a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera) and filter holder made from a “Pringle’s” tube, I think I did quite well.

Interstellar (12A)

Strictly speaking this could have been called “Intergalactic” but that is splitting hairs, I suppose.

This was a superbly crafted and well-produced film set in  a possible near-future earth. NASA has become an underground organisation because people have accepted, as an overriding priority, the growing of food under dust-bowl conditions beset by blighted crops – space travel has been confined to myth and propaganda. In this world we are introduced to an ex-NASA astronaut, Cooper, and his family, currently doing his bit on the family farm with his father-in-law and his two children. After some twists and turns, our hero discovers that his skills are needed elsewhere so he leaves his family in order to save humanity. He is sent through a “wormhole” (a short-cut through space) to re-establish contact with some explorers who went on ahead.

There is some physics involved here because the astronauts travel at near-light speeds meaning that hours experienced by travellers works out as years passing for those left behind. That hazard of space-travel is one of the sub-themes running through the film: what happens to the people left behind? What happens to the travellers when they get back? How do they deal with the changes?

I found it a bit mawkish at times. For me, sentimental old fool that I am, that meant reminding myself that these were pretend families and the heart-wrenching moments merely a plot device.

Another theme was a poem by Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night” (click link for the full text on PoemHunter). I suppose it was intended to help us understand Professor Brand (Michael Caine) with its defiant pessimism. Or maybe his bleak optimism. While I am not a fan of this pessimistic world view, I find it a mark of a good drama, film, TV show etc, when it can weave more than one strand together – sometimes in contradiction with each other, sometimes in appreciation of another work, sometimes with a nod to the past, sometimes with tongue in cheek.

The special effects were, well, effective, the plot was OK, the acting fine including the capable old hands of John Lithgow and Michael Caine. Forgive me, but you will have to look up the names of the main characters for yourself (e.g. the official website) as I did not recognise them; they performed well enough to bring an appropriate tear to the eye. Special credit should be given to those who played the Murph character. At a published 169 minutes (more like 3 hours) it was perhaps a bit overlong. For a fellow cinema-goer. sitting a few seats away from me, that was “three hours I shall not get back again!”

On its presentation, effects, acting skill and well-crafted narrative this merits at least 4 stars. However, two reasons for giving it three: I liked it but it is not one I am in a hurry to see again, nor do I intend to get the DVD; secondly, its sentimentality was a bit over done.

Do watch it if you like sci-fi / thrillers; it is safe for teenagers.

Overall, 3 stars or 7/10.

I saw the moon last night

I should have been sleeping but at least I got to see the full moon at perigee. Evening and this morning it has been cloudy so it was by chance I happened to be up when there was a break in the clouds. It was bright and I managed to take this photo. I didn’t want to go outside so this is through a window at an angle to the glass – hence the picture is not as crisp as it might have been. You can still see some detail, though.

full moon 23rd-24th June 2013

full moon 23rd-24th June 2013

Looking at it now I notice that the right hand side (as we look at the picture) is bumpy. I should not be surprised: the moon is not a perfect sphere but instinctively one expects to see a circle. Must be all those childhood picture books…

Sir Patrick Moore 1923 – 2012

With Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore helped foster my interest and understanding of astronomy. I’m not an avid fan of “The Sky at Night” partly because it lives up to its title and is generally broadcast late at night. However, it is a notable achievement to present a TV program every month (bar one) for over 55 years. He wrote many books and it is some of those which have informed me over the years more than the TV series.

Having never met him I’ll leave it to others to describe his life in more detail: see The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the BBC websites for example. There is a brief autobiography on this BBC web page from 2008. He was an eccentric and an enthusiast. However, he was not just a respected amateur astronomer. He wrote books, included scientific ones as well as fiction, he composed and played music, appeared in comedy and children’s TV programmes and as a young man served in the RAF during World War II. It was then that he loved and lost his sweetheart during an air raid. Subsequently he never married.

Sir Patrick met many amateur astronomers, young and old, as well as famous scientists and pioneers including Orville Wright, Alert Einstein, Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. His detailed maps of the moon were used by both Russia and America in their lunar missions of the 1960’s. They were also used by the Apollo missions.

Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore OBE FRS, born in Pinner, Middlesex, 4th March 1923, died in Selsey, Sussex, 9th December 2012

I still haven’t got the hang of taking night-time photos but these two pleased me given that I’m using a bridge camera (not a DSLR). Jupiter is a bit blurred but that is because of the trail caused by a 1 second exposure without any kind of tracking. The Moon has some discernible detail – also a 1 second exposure. For the rest of the settings I chose “landscape” from the scene menu and hoped for the best for things like focus and aperture. So really it’s “well done” to the camera!

Jupiter and four moons

A gibbous moon

National Space Centre

We took a few photographs when we visited the National Space Museum in Leicester but most of the time was spent looking, pressing buttons, driving a space rover and the like. We also saw the show “We are astronauts” in the newly renamed Sir Patrick Moore Theatre. The show was OK but much of the content was already familiar to us.

National Space Centre, Leicester


Inside the National Space Centre


Blue Arrow (UK) and Thor (USA)

A friend of a friend suggested this link which illustrates the scale of the universe and our place in it. Can’t vouch for the rest of the site but I found this video thought-provoking to say the least. I think we too easily forget just how small we human beings are. And if we are tempted to think: “Wow, the universe is so big, God can’t have made it” then I would humbly suggest that may be our idea of God is too small.

And, as for the other end of the scale, I would suggest that perhaps we underestimate God’s subtlety – God is rather more clever than we tend to give credit for. Sometimes we invoke God to explain the things we do not understand about our universe (the so-called “God-of-the-gaps”). That is not really very helpful because as soon as we think we understand what was previously ‘a mystery’ we assume that this “disproves” God in someway. We forget that God is in the things about the universe that we do understand too.

A more perfect heaven

Or “How Copernicus revolutionised the Cosmos”, by Dava Sobel (who also wrote “Longitude”).

This book centres on a meeting between Nicolaus Copernicus and Georg Joachim Rheticus after which Copernicus agreed to publish his theory and astronomical observations. In it he puts the sun at the centre of the observable universe instead of the earth. A revolutionary idea not least because it meant a fundamental shift in understanding how the universe works. With his insight it could be realised that the earth moves, revolves, contrary to common sense (we see the sun rise and set) and contrary to the common understanding of parts of the Old Testament ( see Joshua chapter 10 and Psalms 93 and 96).

The book is in three parts. The middle section is a play based on the author’s historical research and speculates on Copernicus’ meeting with Rheticus. The other two parts give some “before and after” historical details. I had forgotten, for example, that Copernicus was a contemporary of the Reformation: a time rife with controversy between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. I learned some of the complicated history and geography of Poland and Germans states; and I discovered that Copernicus was a Canon in the service of the Roman Catholic Church.

Having said that, I am sorry to say that this book shared a characteristic of “Longitude” (also by Dava Sobel). By being reasonably thorough it was not exactly a gripping read and I nearly gave up reading it more than once. It accompanied me while I ate my breakfast porridge and while both have been reasonable food for body and mind it was by no means obvious which was the stodgier. The play was OK – probably better seen than read – but if shown on TV then a couple of scenes are best placed after the watershed.

For general interest I would probably rate this somewhere between 3 or 4 stars; for style only 2. As I don’t expect to read it again (I’ve since returned it to the local library) I give it 2 stars overall or 5 out of 10.

Nonetheless, this churchman, Nicolaus Copernicus, did not set out to challenge the Faith he had inherited although he did challenge some of the assumptions people made about it. He is significant for the advances in understanding our universe that his book and heliocentric universe helped to make; credit must be given to him for that.

For this post I’ll let him have the last word.

“So vast, without any question, is the divine handiwork of the most excellent Almighty”, Nicolaus Copernicus

Global Mean Temperature

Came across this today. Posted just as a matter of interest

The bulk of this post was written originally for our parish magazine but as star-gazing is one of my topics I have included it here.

Despite what the nursery rhyme says, there are some people who think they do know what a star is and what it is made from. By comparing the light that shines from a star with the particular colours (spectrum) of individual chemical elements, scientists reckon they can deduce which particular elements are in the stars.

In previous centuries there were people who did not know what stars might be made of but they were also fascinated by them and just as dedicated in their pursuit of knowledge. We can read about some such people in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. These were experts in studying the heavens – the sort of people who drew star maps and who could tell you, for instance, what time of year you could expect to see a particular star or constellation. On this occasion they had noted something unusual about a particular star – or perhaps a planet or some other light – and they were determined to discover what it meant.

“When the Magi, the wise people, saw where the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy because they had found the child they had been searching for” (Matthew chapter 2 verses 9 – 10).

“The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 8 verse 1)

The stars, when we see them in their brilliance, are an awe-inspiring sight and, as it was for the Psalmist, can hint at God’s heavenly glory. They can also remind us, as that star declared to the Magi, that God did not remain remote in heaven but revealed his glory in that special human baby, his Son, Jesus Christ.

If you get a chance to see the stars late one evening this winter, you might like to wonder about them and see what thoughts they inspire about God’s glory shown to us.

By the way, the rest of the poem is reproduced here (see Wikipedia for more information):

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the traveller in the dark,
Thanks you for your tiny spark,
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.

In the dark blue sky you keep,
And often through my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye,
Till the sun is in the sky.

As your bright and tiny spark,
Lights the traveller in the dark.
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
How I wonder what you are.

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