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  • Our Great American Eclipse Adventure 2017

    Why Wyoming?

    The most important player in a total eclipse is the sun. It has to be visible in all its glory. Otherwise you won’t see the spectacle of the moon moving in front of it. Wyoming had the best chance of cloud-free skies and not-so-congested roads. (Wyoming’s population is 585,501.)

    In January, after deciding on Wyoming, I went on a lodging quest. Most places on the centerline were already booked, so I chose the Little America Hotel in Cheyenne as our base.  It is only 90 minutes from the centerline, the small town of Glendo (population 205), and Glendo Resevoir State Park.

    It’s About Calories

    The Internet and 24-hour news talked so much about possible food, water, and cash shortages during the eclipse, that we stocked up. After hitting the ATM, we bought all the nonperishables we thought we’d need, including toilet paper. As you can see, nothing is gourmet or particularly healthy. Our criteria were:

    • Must not require refrigeration
    • Must not need to be cooked
    • Must be openable without a can opener or cork puller
    • Except for water, must be transportable home in case we don’t eat it
    • Must have enough calories to sustain us for two days




    We didn’t necessarily intend to eat this stuff, as we were hoping to find local vendors selling something delicious, like BBQ chicken for dinner and brewed coffee and fresh rolls in the morning. If there weren’t vendors, or if they ran out, we would be prepared.


    Scouting the Site

    The day prior to the eclipse, we set out at 5:30 AM to scout the Glendo State Park site. We wanted to get a look at possible viewing sites and assess how many people the park could hold. We figured that on eclipse day, we’d leave Cheyenne at 3:00 AM, beat the crowds, and arrive at Glendo when the park opened at 4:30 AM. Our scouting day started with a beautiful sunrise.



    When we arrived at Glendo State Park at 7:00 AM, we discoverd there was lots of space. Some were marked for parking, some for viewing, and some were established camp sites. We had been under the impression that the camp sites were sold out, but now we saw that our information was wrong. We looked at each other and knew what we had to do. Drive back to Cheyenne, pick up our gear, and immediately return to get a camping spot. That would save us from driving at 3 am on eclipse day, a safer alternative than driving while sleepy.

    But first…breakfast! We set off for the town proper.

    In this town of 205 people there are a few bars but exactly one choice for breakfast. The restuarant featured “eclipse specials” which turned out to be the typical breakfast egg dishes rebranded with eclipsey names. The restaurant gave us the opportunity to experience a few things that we don't normally encounter. It turned out to be a true cultural experience.

    A gentleman at the lunch counter was smoking one cigarette after another. There was a Trump-Pence sticker by the cash register and a Trump:  Make America Great Again hat next to that. To complete the scene, a  TV at the front of the room was blaring FOX news. Its commentators were talking about the massive food shortages and traffic problems that the eclipse was going to cause. Some locals remarked “Where are the people they keep talking about?” So far, Glendo was calm.

    We arrived back in Cheyenne and packed up our viewing gear. But we also needing sleeping gear. I stripped the bedding and snuck it out the patio door to our rental car. I put the Do Not Disturb sign on our hotel room door so our deed wouldn’t be discovered. But just in case the maid ventured in while we were gone, I left a note on the bed: “We went to see the eclipse. We will return with the bedding on Monday night.”

    We headed north once again.


    No is Not an Option

    When we arrived back at Glendo Park shortly before 11:00 AM, two volunteers posted at the fee receptacle informed us there were no camping spots. The place still looked relatively empty to me, so I explained that we had driven to Glendo, back to Cheyenne, and back again to Glendo all this morning. Going back was not an option. I thrust the fee envelope into the receptacle and said that I now paid for a spot and need to get one. Fortunately these people were volunteers and had no authority to enforce anything.

    Seeing my eclipse passion, one of the volunteers said …”Just saying, but if you drove up the road a bit you would find open space, but I don’t mean open space for camping, but space that is open, if you get my meaning.” So off we went. We couldn’t camp in what was designated as Eclipse Central, but we found a stand of trees, pulled in, and placed the “permit” we paid for on the dash.



    This is where Wyoming’s small population comes into play. With just over half a million people in the entire state, we figured that at most they have two park rangers for 100 square miles. Wyoming simply doesn't have the people power to visit each car in the park to see if it is authorized to be there. We vowed to keep a low profile and not move the car for any reason.

    Staying parked in one spot had its drawbacks because those vendors making delicious food were now about 2.5 miles away. It was hot and dusty. We were not going to walk that far for food, especially not knowing if, when we got there, anything would be left. The pile of nonperishables was looking very good at this point.

    We were in. We had food, water, pillows, sheets, and a little place to curl up in until eclipse day.

    The "Crowds"

    On the day of the eclipse we took an early morning walk to the area designated as Eclipse Central. We climbed a small hill so we could see how many people had arrived for the eclipse. We were surprised that the park was not full. The day tripper areas had a good number of cars, but as you can see, they were not anywhere near capacity.



    We walked back to our car, grabbed our gear, and set out for a spot near the Glendo Reservoir shoreline. We brought two telescopes. Our small $99 special solar telescope is best for looking at the sun during the partial phase. Our red Astroscan is only for looking at the sun during totality, when we would be able to see prominences. We also brought two pairs of 2x solar glasses. Glen set up his iPhone to try to capture the shadow that rushes over the Earth just prior to totality.



    Projecting Shadow Creatures

    We were able to see the very first bite out of the sun by looking through the solar telescope. When the bite got a bit bigger, we could also see it in our 2x solar glasses. As it takes over an hour to go from first bite to totality, we entertained ourselves by making shadow creatures. If you look carefully, you’ll see “eyes” created by projecting the partially occluded sun through our fingers.



    Using our solar telescope, we could see the sunspots in the center of the sun One by one they disappeared. Then two new ones showed up at the bottom. We were pleasantly surprised to see so many sunspots because this is a solar minimum year.

    Sunset All Around

    This eclipse was to last about two and a half minutes. Not much time. My goal was to experience it myself—not through a camera. So I allocated about 5 seconds to taking a panorama photo and about that much to taking a photo of the sun.  

    I didn’t look at the screen when I took the pano. I swept the phone and hoped for the best. The Camera app made my crooked sweep as straight as possible. Compare the before and during photos and you’ll see the eclipse one is a bit off. That’s because I was jumping for joy!  



    The Black Moon

    I placed the lens of my iPhone camera on the eyepiece of our Astroscan telescope. I looked at the screen for one second and snapped. Once again, I hoped for the best as I didn’t want to waste time lining up a shot. No photo can communicate the profound experience of being in-person at a total eclipse.



    It was exhilarating to be there, in the moment, taking in the scenery around us. We each alternated between oohing and ahing at the extent of the corona, looking through the Astroscan to see the animated prominences, and basking in the darkness. All the while crowds were cheering in the distance.

    We are already planning for our next eclipse adventure!

  • Contemporary Art in a Spectacular Setting

    In a quiet corner of Sonoma, on a private ranch, you’ll find some amazing works of art. It is not that easy to see these works because Oliver Ranch is a privately owned estate. Over the years the owner, Steve Oliver, commissioned  site-specific art installations, working with each artist to ensure the pieces fit well with the land. He allows nonprofit organizations access to the land for several weeks during the year. I was lucky enough to secure a spot on a fundraising tour for the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.

    The two-and-a-half hour tour covers 18 artworks, from a very disturbing sound installation to a concrete tower/performance space whose interior consists of a double-helix staircase. 

    When I arrived, I was drawn in by the peacefulness of the small lake and the abundance of yellow flowers, but I was also disturbed on a visceral level. I sensed that Mother Earth was angry, as I heard intermittent grumbling from the ground, similar to the violent fumaroles in Yellowstone National Park. That sound turned out to be one of the art installations. Although a clever idea, I wished that the sound were more tonal and musical—something that soothed rather than disturbed.

    The other art pieces were unique and wonderful to experience. Each has a story of how the artist was commissioned by Steve Oliver and how the piece was constructed. Fortunately Mr. Oliver is in the construction business, so making white concrete or super dense steel or building a concrete tower were challenges that he was able to solve for the artists. This gave each artist tremendous freedom to create. (Photo: The reflection in the pool at the bottom of The Tower.)

    Because each piece is so unique, it’s difficult for me to rate one over he other. Rather, each allows you to explore the background of the artist and the artist’s perception of the ranch. It is difficult, though, not to be drawn in by the Tower, a piece you can experience inside and out. I hope to return one day for a performance in this space. 

    The ranch also as an award-winning guest house. The clever design gives maximum privacy to guests while still enabling them to experience the serenity of the outdoor landscape. (Photo: Looking inside the guest house, with reflection of the tour group.)

    I had the option to take the stairs to the main road or ride the bus. I, along with most of my fellow travelers, chose to take the 300 stairs of uneven height, and without a handrail. Like all the art at Oliver, the stairs are designed to complement the land. When the slope calls for a tall step, the step is tall. When the slope is more gentle, the stair height is shorter. The varying height made me focus on each step, slowing me down to appreciate the artistic aspect of the stairs as I was delighted by the verdant landscape.

    If you love contemporary art, find a way to secure a spot on an Oliver Ranch tour. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes, otherwise you might end up in the same position as this woman.

  • A Cosmic Adventure

    More than 20 years ago Comet Hyakutake graced the skies of Earth, passing closer than any other comet had passed in 200 years. It was a spectacular sight, made even better because it appeared to pass through the handle of the Big Dipper. This photo, taken by Glen Gould and stitched together by me, is the result of quest that took persistence and creativity.

    Seattle is not a very reliable place to see stellar events and March 1996 was typically cloudy. We knew we had to travel somewhere to photograph the comet. But where? Many of our usual viewing sites in eastern Washington were covered in snow, so we decided to head to Othello. To our surprise, there was as much light pollution in this sparsely populated area as in a big city. Each small farm had two to three unshielded mercury vapor lights perched on tall poles. Light lessens the ability to see the stars and makes it impossible to capture a comet on film. 

    Defeated, we spent the night in a hotel and set off to eastern Oregon the next morning, hoping that the rain shadow of Mt. Hood would be clear and dark. That night we found a small spot by a river to pitch our tent. Soon after, light clouds started to gather but our hope did not wane. We set an hourly alarm so we could jump out of the tent and assess the sky throughout the night. No luck. By the morning snow started falling. Disappointed, we headed back to Seattle.

    After arriving home around 2:00 PM, we decided to look at the national weather map to find a place with clear skies. We chose Las Vegas. That might sound strange given the vast amount of light pollution, but we know the area outside Las Vegas well. The desert is deserted and there are enough mountains around that is it possible to mask the glow of Las Vegas lights. Besides, there are not many places where there are frequent flights and seats available on short notice. We packed up the camera equipment and headed to the airport.

    At the ticket counter we explained our desperate need to get to Las Vegas. The agent assumed we were eloping, took pity, and got us the last two seats on the plane. Fortunately all this happened in the pre 9-11 days, as the apparatus needed to photograph the comet would never have gotten through security. 

    Photographing stars and comets requires a long exposure. The Earth is constantly rotating, so it is necessary to compensate by using a device called a star tracker. The tracker moves the camera to match the rotation of the Earth. The photo will then capture stars as pinpoints and not as smears of light. 

    We didn’t have the money to buy a motorized star tracker, so Glen built a manual one. He used a very large barn door hinge, a paint stick, a small LED clock, the numbered part of a mechanical kitchen timer, a small battery-operated gooseneck lamp with a red filter, a straw, and some assorted screws. The camera gets mounted on the hinge. The paint stick becomes a crank. The numbers on the timer guide the manual turning of the crank. The turning rate is monitored using the LED stopwatch and the lamp. Turning the crank causes the hinge to open, thus changing the angle of the camera. With a steady hand, it is possible to match the rotational speed of the Earth. (Build your own, see these instructions.)

    We arrived in Las Vegas at 10 PM, rented a car, and drove north for an hour an a half. Then we pulled to the side of the road and set up the apparatus. Glen positioned himself on the ground in cranking position and I stayed on the lookout for the occasional car. Each exposure took up to 10 minutes. When I announced a car in the distance, Glen put a black card in front of the lens until the car passed. All the while he would continue to crank the apparatus. 

    It turned out to be an beautiful night and the end to an amazing cosmic adventure.

  • A Surrealistic Afternoon in Monterey

    Salvador Dali spent several years in Monterey, California during the 1940’s. Perhaps it is fitting that the largest private collection of his works in the US are available for viewing in a permanent exhibit only steps from Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. 

    Like most people, I am quite familiar with Persistence of Memory, with its melting watches. What I didn’t know was that Dali illustrated a wide variety of stories from the Bible to Alice in Wonderland to Dante’s Inferno to a few stories with sexual themes, including copulating beans. I hadn’t realized what a creative illustrator he was.

    Dali also created illustrations for Tarot cards and another series for the Apostles which look instead like the Knights of the Round Table.

    It is an amazing exhibit that is not to be missed if you go to Monterey Bay.

  • Where Neon Signs Retire

    The Neon Boneyard is home to more than 200 signs from Las Vegas hotels, motels, and businesses. As neon gave way to LED signs and uplighting on buildings, the signs disappeared one by one. In 1996 the Neon Museum formed and started rescuing old signs, preserving them from further decay and restoring a few of them. 

    The outdoor boneyard has more than 200 signs on display in a site that is two acres. The signs sit on the ground arranged closely to each other. The huge signs at eye level in a tight space provide a warped perspective that makes the signs look like pop art. At night, the color-wheel spotlights further enhance the effect. 

    The collection has a few signs that aren’t neon. One is the pirate head from the original Treasure Island Hotel, which opened in 1993. That’s the decade that casinos started to turn from neon to other ways of attracting attention—the Treasure Island pirate head and ships, the Excalibur castle architecture, the New York New York iconic skyline, the MGM Grand lion entrance. So far, the pirate is the only sign of that era in the boneyard. The head is so large that its smiling teeth are visible in maps apps using satellite view.

    Old neon signs require a lot of money to restore, which is why only a handful in the boneyard are working. Some signs, like the Yucca Hotel, have intricately arranged, hand-bent neon tubing that would be difficult to fix. Others are salvaged parts of larger signs and will never be seen whole again. 

    The museum has a number of signs that are fully operational so they haven’t been retired to the boneyard. You can see these at various locations on the meridian of Las Vegas Blvd. The Sliver Slipper slipper and the Bow and Arrow Motel sign are closest to the museum’s visitor center. 

    Check out my photos of the boneyard. If you decide to visit the Neon Museum, you must book a tour in advance. Night tours are best. These sell out two weeks or more in advance. Don’t just show up at the museum hoping to get on a tour. When I was there, I saw 11 people get turned away.

  • Seeing the Small: Eric Betzig at STARMUS 2016

    STARMUS 2016 featured many talks about the cosmos and using sophisticated instruments, like LIGOS, to peer backward in time. Just as fascinating was a talk by Eric Betzig, whose quest is to image the very small—that is, living cells. 

    A challenge for biologists is to see 3D images inside live cells and at the resolution of a molecule. There are many obstacles to this type of imaging, including something called the diffraction limit which restricts how close two things can be and still be imaged sharply. Another problem is that the amount of light needed to see small things results in phototoxicity—damage to the cells. Although it can be useful to look at dead cells, real insights will come from looking inside living cells and observing how they operate.

    Dr. Betzig found ways to get around the imaging obstacles. First with photo activated localization microscopy (PALM) and later with Lattice Light Sheet Microcopy and Structured Illumination Microscopy (SIM). 

    Brightly illuminating a cell causes the substructures to reflect light back such that the light from one substructure interferes with the one next to it. To get around this, Dr. Betzig found that he could build up an image by using a random process to illuminate small parts of the cell. If you do this enough times, you’ll eventually illuminate each part. No more interference. The image is sharp. This is essentially the PALM approach.

    His later approaches use more sophisticated techniques to illuminate cells and minimize the instantaneous power directed at a cell. This allows him to image living cells in stunning detail. He showed a movie of a lysosome in action inside a cell. Quite amazing. 

    Dr. Betzig won the nobel prize in 2014 for his early work. At STARMUS 2016 he said this was not his best work—as he feels his best is yet to come. I can’t wait to see what else he does!

    Take a look at:

    Imaging Life at High Spatiotemporal Resolution

     

  • Paleoastronomy: Why Fish Left the Sea

    At STARMUS 2016, Steve Balbus, Ph.D. (Theoretical Astrophysics) stepped outside of his main field of study—magneto rotational instability—to explain his theory of why fish grew legs and left the sea. He pointed to two main factors—geography and tides. 

    In the Devonian period (roughly 417 to 350 million years ago) the continents as we know them today did not exist. Back then there were only two continents, and they were moving towards each other. As they got closer, there was a narrow channel of water between them. That’s where the tide comes in. (Image: Map of the continents as they looked 370 million years ago. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Author: Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc.)

     

    Tides are caused by forces exerted on the Earth by the moon and the sun. High tides occur twice a day (as do low tides), but there are times when the high tide is highest. Tides are highest when the sun and moon align in a straight line. The scientific word for this is syzygy. This happens during a new moon and again during a full moon. The force of the sun reinforces the tidal force of the moon. (You can view a simulation of tides on the Science Rocks website provided by Everett Meredith Middle School.)

    In narrow channels, the effect of a tide is more dramatic. The highest high tide is even higher, flowing inland even farther. If you are a fish traveling with one of these high tides in a narrow channel, you have a chance of getting stranded in a tidal pool that’s far inland. Until there is another very high tide like the one that stranded you, you will be trapped. If this happens enough times, there is evolutionary pressure to do something about it. Upgrade your fins to legs!

    Sounds easy, but with anything evolutionary it takes a  l o n g  time. 

    Professor Balbus points out that the moon and sun have the same angullar radii. That means when you look into the sky, the sun and the moon look about equal in size. Of course we know they are not, but the fact their angualr radii are equal means their tidal forces are equal. When these two celestial bodies line up, the tidal force doubles. Trapping fish in tidal pools might not have happened if our moon had a smaller angular radius with respect to the sun. There were other other factors at play to encourage the evolution of tetrapods, but he makes a convincing argument for tides having a major role.

    For details, see:

    Dynamical, biological, and anthropic consequences of equal lunar and solar angular radii, 2014, Steven A.Balbus, Proceedings of the Royal Society. 

  • From Pagan Angel to Anathema: STARMUS 2016 Featured Performers

    Reading the history of the band Anathema is a course in music history in and of itself. Started in 1990 under the name Pagan Angel, it was a death-doom band whose core was the Cavanagh siblings—Vincent, Daniel, and Jamie. The continual evolution morphed the name from Pagan Angel to Anathema, and the sound from death-doom to alternative. 

    I first listened to the band when they showed up on the program for STARMUS 2016. Two of the Cavanaghs—Vincent and Daniel—are still with the band. They are joined by John and Lee Douglas and Daniel Cardosa. Anathema band at a concert in Mega Club in Katowice, Poland 2004. From left: Les Smith; Daniel, Vincent & Jamie Cavanagh. (Image under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Courtesy of Krzysztof Raś.)

    Ariel, from the album Distant Satellites, and Thin Air, from A Sort of Homecoming, convinced me that the music at STARMUS will be stellar!  Check them out on iTunes.

    Ariel

    I found you in the dark
    Don't leave me here
    Don't leave me staring at the sun
    Love is so strong, that it hurts
    I dreamed of you in the dark
    You spoke to me from afar
    What you mean to me is clear
    And I'll always be near
    I found you in the dark
    Don't leave me here
    Don't leave me staring at the sun
    Love is so strong, that it hurts
    Look into your eyes
    See my life's defined
    Look into your eyes
    See a heart of mine

     

  • Adventures at the Ends of Chromosomes: Elizabeth Blackburn to Speak at STARMUS 2016

    At first glance, I thought Dr. Blackburn’s research was a bit esoteric. Telomerase? Telomere? What are these things and why should I care? Then I began digging into these terms and her work. I now care, perhaps you should too!

    Telomerase is an enzyme that elongates telomeres. Telomeres are repetitive sequences at the end of a chromosome that keep the ends from deteriorating. It’s not good for your chromosomes to unravel at the ends. If the ends are damaged, the chromosome can’t replicate properly. Your cells are going to die, and so will you. 

    Dr. Blackburn and Carol Greider discovered telomerase in 1984. How do you find something like that? They used  substances labeled with radioactivity to permeate the cells they were studying. The radioactive substances distributed themselves such that they were able to see patterns of telomerase activity—the telomerase enzyme reaction. Not to worry about the radioactive substances, you need to be careful with them, but they aren’t going to kill you unless you ingest them. The radioactivity creates an image on an emulsion that is similar to a photograph, but it is called an autoradiograph. It’s a technique used a lot in biological research. (Image under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, by Bengt Oberger.)

    As cool as this research seems, I was struggling to find how this particular discovery might impact my life. Then I found a paper with Dr. Blackburn as fifth author: Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. That got my attention! If mindfulness meditation can slow my cells from aging, sign me up!

    Perhaps this excerpt will entice you to read the entire article:

    We review data linking telomere length to cognitive stress and stress arousal and present new data linking cognitive appraisal to telomere length. Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, we propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.“

    Dr. Blackburn is a great champion of science. In 2002 she was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. However, because she opposed the Bush Administration, she was taken off the council n 2004. 

    "There is a growing sense that scientific research—which, after all, is defined by the quest for truth—is being manipulated for political ends” ~ Elizabeth Blackburn

  • Music for Spaceports: Brian Eno to Keynote STARMUS 2016

    By the time the 21st Century arrived, I had thought that Brian Eno would have written Music for Spaceports, and that I would be listening to it while waiting for a shuttle to Mars. While the Earth has muddled along—progressing in some sectors and not so much in others—Brian Eno has been evolving his art. I’m thrilled to see that he is a keynote presenter at STARMUS 2016

    When it was first released, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports was one of the most talked about albums in my music circles. Classical musicians didn’t want to recognize that album as music, while others thought it was brilliant. I enjoyed the debate about the music-worthiness of the album as much as the album itself. Good art stretches the boundaries of definition. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.)

    Now that I am researching Mr. Eno’s music in preparation for my trip to STARMUS in the Canary Islands, I realize how much I’ve missed his and other experimental music. It’s a treat to be reunited once again and to listen to his more recent work, like The Ship. This, in turn, inspired me to see what’s up with people like Ellen Furman, Pauline Oliveros, and Alvin Lucier, all of whom I’ve heard perform in person, and who, along with Brian Eno, taught me to listen deeply and appreciate the nuance of tones and textures. 

    Why did I fall of out touch with experimental music? I moved to Silicon Valley in the late 1990’s where the culture is fast paced and high-tech with a bias towards pop. Ambient and slow change music could not exist here, where the space between words and the pause at the end of a sentence are opportunities for someone to interject more words. The start-up culture doesn’t have the word sustain in its vocabulary, much less patience for any tone that would last more than 250 milliseconds or a song longer than 4 minutes. Yet albums like The Ship are just what we in high tech need as an antidote to our hyperdrive living. 

    Explore These

    The Ship, Brian Eno

    The Difference Between Hearing and Listening, Pauline Oliveros

    Long Strings Performance, Ellen Furman

    I Am Sitting in a Room, Alvin Lucier