Sunday, August 20, 2017

Unexpected eclipses

Midway to the peak of the eclipse.  No, I didn't look through
the camera to take this!  Note the lens flare just to the right
of the sun.
"Aunt Chel," called my youngest niece as she bounded through the front door of my dad's house, "it looks funny outside."

I got up and went to check.  I agreed, something was off. The sky was dimmer than it should be and an odd color, not the desert blue I expected late on a Sunday afternoon, but colored a bit orange.  Thunderstorm incoming?  No, not a cloud in the sky.  And I'm in the desert. Right. Fire? This is more of a worry, there is only one road out from my dad's small farm.  We don't smell smoke, but still, I'm uneasy. And then there are the trees....something is just not right.

We go back inside to check if there is anything on the Cal Fire site about nearby fires, my dad and sister-in-law have worried looks on their faces as I describe the sky. As I'm opening up my laptop , my stepmother mentions in passing that she'd heard something about an eclipse coming next month. Next month?  "Or perhaps today?" I wonder aloud. I hadn't heard anything, but I live on the other side of the continent, and I'd been on retreat for the last week, staying in a hermitage in a spot even more remote than my dad's farm, and before that, spinning around in the end of semester chaos.  
You can see the "bite" the moon has taken out from the sun in
the lens flare!


I type "eclipse" into the search box. We are indeed in the middle of an annular eclipse of the sun, the moon's shadow will sweep over California, but not reach the East Coast.  80% of the sun's disc will be obscured by the sun at the peak.  This is a noticeable amount of shade, and we've noticed.

I breathe a sigh of relief, and take my niece and nephew out to show them how to observe the eclipse by making pinhole cameras with sheets of paper, and by looking at the crescent shadows on the ground (the leaves on the trees serve as ad hoc pinholes, or you can make your own grid with your fingers).

The crescents are visible in the
grid made by my niece's hands.
This time I know there is an eclipse tomorrow. The reports on the radio, TV spots, news reports are hard to ignore.  I am prepared.   I have glasses to watch with, and a pair of binoculars with the appropriate filters on them.I have a good sense of what the sky will look like; outside Philadelphia, where I live the sun will be just under 80% obscured.

But I wonder if being so prepared will change the experience. Will it be as viscerally disturbing, or just a fun science-in-the-neighborhood day, much like the Wallops' rocket launches we gather at the school field to watch?  What do I miss when I am not sitting uneasily on the edge of uncertainty?

The mathematics and science that let us predict eclipses, not only their time and track, but also the phenomena we ought to observe, take my breath away, but I confess I don't long for a universe that I can completely predict.  It reminds me of a line from one of Alice Walker's poems (Before you knew you owned it): “Live frugally on surprise.” Surprise is part of the delight of doing science, the interesting questions for me come when molecules surprise me, in their structures or or in their behavior.

Similarly, my heart and soul are not captured by an utterly predictable God, a clockwork deity. I long to be surprised by mercy, ambushed by God, caught in a whirl of life and love beyond my comprehension, just as I was caught by surprise by that eclipse.



A version of this post appears at the Vatican Observatory Foundation's blog, The Catholic Astronomer.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Whale's Tale



Crash criss-crossed the country in a little red Fiat this summer.  Kentucky to DC to Pennsylvania, back to Kentucky, on to Chicago. Seattle, San Francisco and my dad's Central California farm.  All this to come and go from his job in Montana, where he was stage managing Macbeth for Shakespeare in the Parks,1 or more precisely, managing the production until it was ready to criss-cross Montana and the Dakotas.

It's a fascinating program, the actors take everything on a 6000 mile road trip — including the stage itself — except for the tech crew.  They rehearse with the help of the tech crew, but in the end learn to do for themselves.  Including putting up, taking down and packing the stage into the giant trailer they tow, nicknamed The Whale. (See the timelapse embedded in this post!)

Read Crash's interview with two of the actors here:  SixByEightPress.


1. Not that Shakespeare in the park, note the plural and the distance from New York.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

J.F. Powers and cloaks of invisibility

Betty Powers, with J.F. Powers and their daughter
There is an interesting piece in Commonweal ("His Bleak Materials")by Jeffrey Meyers on Catholic novelist J.F. Powers. I've read Morte D'Urban and several other of Powers' stories, and found Meyers' perspective on his priest characters intriguing, casting them as ordinary men with no special talents trying to negotiate their way through the thickets of the world and the church, despite the seemingly (and perhaps truly) irreconcilable differences between these spheres.  I can relate.

I was more intrigued by Meyers' lead into the article, which sketches a monastic version of Powers' life (he lived near St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, a place I've spent time writing and retreating).  He describes Powers' doing his laundry on his knees in a rusty bathtub, and his "hairshirt house" — drab, shabby and cold.  It's a sharply unromantic view of a writer's hermitage.

But where is Mrs. Powers in this sketch?  Powers was married and had five children. Were they perhaps living elsewhere?  No, they were not.  At least one other person lived in that hairshirt house, but somehow she has been rubbed out of this particular picture of Powers. It made me think about The Astronauts Wives which I recently read, and how many of them had been majoring in STEM fields, but dropped out when they married, their other selves tucked into a drawer or a footnote.

Betty Powers née Wahl is not neglected in John Rosengren's memories of Powers ("The Gospel according to J. F. Powers").  Next time I'm in Collegeville's cemetery, I will look for her grave.  She was a promising fiction writer when Powers was introduced to her by one of her professors at St. Ben's and continued to write and to publish after she was married.

Powers died while folding his own laundry.  An ordinary task.




Friday, August 04, 2017

Arboreal alarm clocks

I walked down the driveway yesterday morning, the cicadas howling in the humid air.  Classes, you need to get ready for classes. Their fall alarm seems so much louder when you've been away. This year, after a cicada-less stop in California, the sounds of summer fading to fall feels like an alarm going off at 3:30 am for an early flight, rousing me from the deepest of sleeps.

Usually the end of the summer creeps up slowly. The cicadas hum, the air gets misty, the leaves on the trees wrinkle ever so slightly, their spring greens grow dusty and faded.  The garden begins to look a bit spent.  I don't need my calendar to tell me summer is waning (though one of the astronomers at the Specola kept saying, "July is going to be over, it's going to be the 8th month of the year."  He was aghast at how the year had flown.  Me, too.)

It's been a good summer, with stretches of time for thinking and writing, time to explore some new projects and finish off old ones. There was time with family (wedding!) and time to tidy.  A bit of retreat time.  Time seems more expansive, perhaps because of the longer days, or perhaps because they are less hectic, more predictable.

And for the record, there is a full month of summer left before I begin teaching.  If only I could hit snooze on the cicadas, and blissfully go back to my midsummer's dreams.


Monday, July 24, 2017

An observer from the Vatican


Not this telescope, a very modern Celestron scope with
an autoguider
It was a clear evening, hardly any humidity veiling the gardens as we came down from the terrace, one of the Jesuits wondered if it might not be a good idea to pull out one of the small(er) telescopes and look at the heavens. So at about 9:30, three Jesuit astronomers, a philosopher of science and I convened in the courtyard, lights out, except for the light in the pool of the fountain.  It won't be fully dark for another hour.

This telescope has an autoguiding system, you sight on four stars to calibrate, then you can just pull up a celestial feature from the menu and the telescope will twist and turn until it has the selected feature in its field of view.  Very cool. The hard part is figuring out what you might want to see and whether or not it is visible.

The visibility depends on whether a particular feature is "up" on this time of the year,  the light pollution in the sky,  and whether or not it is behind the roof of the Specola!  And if you are tall enough to see through the eye piece.  I had to stand on a chair (carefully, so as to not fall on the telescope) to see a couple of things.

What to look at?  Jupiter!  The moons again, strung out like a necklace of pearls, and just a wisp of its stripes to be seen. Saturn, where we strain to see the Cassini division in the rings, and wonder if that is one of the moons of Saturn we see, or....

We pulled out Turn Left at Orion (Guy Consolmagno SJ and Dan Davis' great guide to the sky, even without a telescope, just a good pair of binoculars, you can see fascinating things), to see what we might see. Astronomers suggested galaxies they had studied.  We saw Vega, icy blue. We looked for double stars.  We saw a ring nebula, which Rich Boyle SJ called a smoke ring, and for all the world that's what it looked like. Does God blow smoke rings?

There were things to be seen even if you weren't looking at the telescope.  I saw a meteor streak across the sky.  We watched a satellite sail majestically across the heavens, wondered if it was the international space station (no, you can find the ISS's orbits as a function of time on the web and I checked the next day).

There is something about looking up at the heavens, even when the scientific work does not actually require it, that pulls you deeper into the mysteries of both God and the astrophysics.




The title comes from a time when Br. Guy was visiting a telescope to do some observing, and went to Mass at a local  parish where the pastor announced they had a visitor:  an observer from the Vatican. Not that kind of observer!