Bixby Bridge by Starlight

Bixby Bridge by Starlight - Big Sur, CA

Bixby Bridge by Starlight – Big Sur, CA

 My brother Chris took this photograph and sent us a framed print of it that arrived yesterday. It is a beautiful picture, one of my favorites of the many great photos that he has taken of the rugged central California coastline. In the night sky, he has stunningly captured the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way, floating above the Bixby Bridge. A ribbon of car’s headlights mark the undulating path of the coast highway and is the only manmade light in the picture. Like I said, it is a gorgeous photograph. Follow the Yellow Brick Road. Thank you, Chris.

Mars, Like a Warm Wet Kiss

MOOOOONWALK, part of Cows on Parade, by Craig Wartman

MOOOOONWALK, part of Cows on Parade, by Craig Wartman

Last night, Anne, Joanie and I attended Washington University’s January Science on Tap lecture by its own Professor Raymond E. Arvidson. The title of his talk was Early Mars: Warm, Wet, and Habitable. In his talk, Dr. Arvidson asserted that at one time there was free-flowing water on the surface of Mars and that the conditions for life existed there, like three to four billion years ago, but he was not willing to venture so far as to assert that there was free-flowing beer on the surface of Mars, even if he was giving his talk at the Schlafly Bottleworks, where there was plenty of beer flowing.

There were horrible audio-visual issues, one could either use the microphone of the projector, but not both simultaneously. Arvidson manage to rise above these technical difficulties and carry on. Then there was the issue of the new seating arrangement. The chairs up front were fine, but the long rows of tables, oriented perpendicular to the direction of the speaker meant that half of those people sitting at these tables had to somehow squirm around, in very tight quarters. The geriatric nature of the audiences at these Science on Tap lectures are not very conducive to squirming. I think that orienting the tables, in shorter rows, but parallel to the direction of the speaker, would be better. Also apparently, the fire marshal had taken issue with past overcrowding at these events. A ticketing system was instituted. I don’t think that anyone was turned away, but I cannot be sure. “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

It was a great talk, on a subject of keen personal interest. Dr. Arvidson and his team have been and continue to be involved with the myriad of Mars probes, past, present and future. His talk keyed-in on the two still active Mars rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity. Opportunity and its twin Spirit were launched years ago. Both rovers have by now, far exceeded their original warranties. Spirit eventually got stuck in sand and was abandoned in place. Opportunity is still operational, even if it now suffers from both Alzheimer’s and arthritis. After each nightly shutdown, to conserve power, its memory has to be reloaded the next morning. Its mechanical arm has lost enough degrees of motion that it now has to traverse the planet’s surface in what looked like to me as a Hitler salute. The new kid on the block is Curiosity and she is a she. Compared to its predecessors, she is a behemoth. Arvidson was able to tell us what these two still active rovers would be doing that night, today and tomorrow, in great detail. It was a great talk! Plus, the Q&A session after his talk was good too. During this part, Arvidson was able to speculate on Mars projects yet to come.

Camelopardalids

Big and Little Dipper

Big and Little Dipper

There was a thin layer of clouds overhead and I live deep within the light-well that is Saint Louis. Around one last night, I stuck my head out and saw stars. The area on interest, around the North Pole was still obscured though. There are a lot of trees in that direction from my house. So, I hopped into the car and drove over to the old AB Green ball field. There were still thin clouds and a lot of light pollution, but there were no trees. I set up the tripod and camera and took a few trial photos. I had brought a chair, so I then just sat back and waited for the show to begin. “The only thing that would make this meteor shower better is actual meteors.” I didn’t see any, but I wasn’t certain why. It could have been too early yet. It could have been the observing conditions. When the time got closer to two, I started taking thirty second exposures, one right after the other. I was just hoping to get luck and catch a bright one. I never did see any meteors and after examining my photos, I didn’t catch any there either. I went to bed both tired and disappointed. In the morning I checked Twitter and found that my experience was pretty much the norm. This much trumpeted astronomical event was just another dud. One Twitter wag wrote, “If you look up at the sky, shake your head really fast, the stars kind of look like meteors.” I could have gone him one better. My wide field-of-view lens has an unusual telescoping arrangement. For widest field-of-view the barrel is fully extended. This is a quality Canon red-line lens, so it is heavy and mine is a little old too. When you point the lens up to look at the sky, the weight of the lens can cause the barrel to contract. You end up getting the following effect, which was what I was out there last night looking for.

Falling Stars

Falling Stars

Moon Jellies

Moon Jellies at the Monterey Aquarium

Moon Jellies at the Monterey Aquarium

These alien-looking creatures are named for their translucent, moon like circular bells. They were photographed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Although they haven’t gotten to the moon yet, thousands of moon jelly polyps, an early stage in the jelly life cycle, went into orbit aboard the space shuttle. They were part of a study on the effects of weightlessness on development of internal organs in juvenile jellies.

Scientists have studied the life cycle of this jelly extensively. They know the adult male moon jelly releases strands of sperm, which are ingested by female moon jellies. After fertilization, larvae settle on or near the seafloor and grow into polyps. Polyps alternate between feeding and reproductive stages for up to 25 years. In the reproductive phase, polyps launch buds of cloned juveniles, which grow into adults.

Instead of long, trailing tentacles, moon jellies have a short, fine fringe that sweeps food toward the mucous layer on the edges of the bells. Prey is stored in pouches until the oral arms pick it up and begin to digest it. Could I have described more alien specie? As their name alludes they would be more believable as a creature from outer space than something native to Earth.

Comets are astronomical bodies that are roughly shaped like jellyfish. They have a bright bell-shaped head and trail a fainter willowy tail. They can also be as delicate as jellies. The comet ISON, named for its discovering body, the International Space Observation Network will round the sun at perihelion this Thanksgiving Day. If the sun’s gravitational forces don’t tear it apart, then in the days and weeks after Thanksgiving, it could become a wonder to behold. Every day after perihelion it will continue to dim, but with each passing day, as it separates from the sun, it will become easier to view in the predawn sky. By Christmas Day it will become a circumpolar object, meaning; that is, it does not rise nor set but remains above the horizon all night long. The day after Christmas, ISON makes its closest approach to the Earth, some 40 million miles away. It will be a faint object then, about half the diameter of the moon.

Nuclear Fire

The Transit of Venus by Jerri Stroud

The Transit of Venus by Jerri Stroud

There was a total eclipse of the sun yesterday, but unless you were hundreds of miles off the US Atlantic coastline, there was no chance for North Americans to see this eclipse in its totality. If you were on the eastern seaboard, you could enjoy the partial eclipse version of this celestial event, but we here in the Midwest were too far inland to see anything. I have seen one total eclipse in my life, in 1979; I flew up to Manitoba in February to witness it, not exactly a peak tourist season there. Last year, there was a mini-eclipse of sorts, the transit of Venus. I was able to photograph it from the front yard. Last month, at the U-City Circle in a Square quilt show, Jerri Stroud displayed her The Transit of Venus quilt. All of these astronomically themed pictures are simply preamble to what I really want to talk about, something way more terrestrial.

This story starts some seventy years ago. It is the height of World War II and unknown to almost all Americans, the United States is involved in a super secret program to develop the first atomic bomb. This program was called the Manhattan Project. During that war and afterwards during the Cold War, Saint Louis based Mallinckrodt was a key contractor in the refining of fissionable materials for the bomb. Three former Mallinckrodt sites are on the list of Superfund sites in Missouri. One of them is way too close to me at work.

Wiki describes this Superfund site as soil contamination by uranium, thorium and radium and groundwater uranium contamination from uranium ore processing associated with the Manhattan Project and from transportation and dumping of process residues. Basically, back then dump trucks full of radioactive ore were dumping their loads willy-nilly across what was back then rural countryside. One of these contaminated fields was where I played softball, back in the day. I’m glad that I never slid. Some of my co-workers are much less sanguine though, because their then young children were playing it that dirt.

February 26, 1979 Solar Eclipse

February 26, 1979 Solar Eclipse

No one plays there anymore, because for years now, just across the street from this ball field, the Corps of Engineers has been running the cleanup effort of this Superfund site. Fast forward to the present day, a couple of weeks ago I received an email, telling me that in the near future Corps employees would be searching in and about my work location for additional contamination.

This morning, I had an early morning meeting in the land of broken toys. The meeting went well, but on the way out, my boss decided to grab another cup of coffee. It was then that we learned that the water supply to this building is no longer considered potable and its drinking fountains have been shut off. Water for the coffee pot is now delivered in five gallon plastic containers. I wasn’t paying the best attention to the conversation at this point, so I can’t say for sure that the potable water problem is related to the Superfund site or not. It could be totally unrelated, but this building is located only a stone’s throw from my former ball field.

PS – After writing the above, Anne cruised by and read it over my shoulder. Her comment was, “Thank God, you have already had your children, but then maybe that explains them.”

My Photo of the Transit of Venus, June 6 2012

My Photo of the Transit of Venus, June 6 2012