Moon memories

July 20, 2009

If it weren’t for all the focus in the news media today, on the events of forty years ago, I wouldn’t be able to say what I had been doing the evening of July 20, 1969. In my memory, as a matter of fact, it was afternoon, not evening. So I don’t know how much of what I remember is accurate. But I do know that, like millions of people across the country and around the world, I was in the living watching TV and waiting to see the astronauts walk on the moon.

Some people were inspired by the event. Jim Todd, nine years old and 70% deaf, was motivated not only to study science and engineering, but also to overcome his disability. Today he runs a planetarium and teaches children about space. Eight-year-old Jeff Weld and ten-year-old Tom Hockey were also inspired to become science educators. Somewhere I’m sure there’s an astronaut who first got the yearning to go into space while watching the moon landing.

I’m afraid I can’t identify with all that. I had never given any thought to such a career path (I have no idea if I even knew what an astronaut was before July 1969), but I certainly would not have after the moon landing. I could not imagine wanting to do something so terribly boring.

I’ve read that some children were put to bed in the early evening, and then awakened in time to see the first moon walk. I don’t remember going to bed, just sitting in the living room and waiting and waiting and waiting. The astronauts had to check and double check everything. Maybe they triple checked. I couldn’t imagine what they found to check that took so long.

I would much rather have been watching a baseball game. Even a football game would have been more interesting – and for me at that age, football was the epitome of boring. Most of the time the clock was stopped between plays, and when the ball was moving I could never figure out where it was until the bodies piled up on top of it.

But even football moved faster than those astronauts. I honestly don’t remember what I thought when they finally descended to the moon’s surface, other than relief that the long wait was over. Whatever I saw in those grainy black-and-white images, I wasn’t very impressed. I remember also watching the splashdown when the astronauts returned from space, and seeing how they had to go into quarantine before they could be reunited with their families. More waiting!

Now, of course, I remember it with some nostalgia. It’s the only nationally shared event of the sixties that I do remember. Along with certain cartoons, songs, and other cultural expressions that at the time I simply took for granted, it represents a piece of my childhood. Since many of my childhood memories are of being lonely, afraid, bored, or otherwise unhappy, I’m not sure why reminders of that era evoke pleasant feelings of nostalgia. But they do.

What a dessert can teach

July 1, 2009

We ran out of ice cream sandwiches, so we had to get inventive to make dessert. Of course, my younger son had been wanting to make a dessert, ever since I brought home the book Boredom Blasters, which I had checked out from the library in search of ideas for playing with the children at day camp last week. It gave us fun both at camp and at home doing Slapstick Story Time (similar to Mad Libs). Then he noticed the Alien Candy Factory.

It has recipes for Marzipan Monsters, Saturn Swirls, Martianmallows, Chocolate Space Spiders, Plutonian Pretzels, Asteroidough, Rocket Raisin Balls, Truffle UFOs, and Interstellar Space Junk. (Also fortune cookies, but they looked like too much work, just to make something we can get anytime at the local Chinese buffet.) Some of the recipes called for ingredients I didn’t have (almond paste, chow mein noodles), or ingredients my son doesn’t like (raisins). But Saturn Swirls sounded perfect.

When I was a child, I used to try mixing chocolate chips and peanut butter to try to approximate the delicious taste of Reese’s peanut butter cups. Now I see what my mistake was – I used too much peanut butter and too little chocolate. Saturn Swirls are made using four parts chocolate chips (by volume, not weight) to one part of peanut butter. Melt the chips in the microwave, mix in the peanut butter (but not completely – you should still see swirls of lighter brown), drop by globs onto wax paper, and freeze.

The instructions say to freeze until they reach the atmospheric temperature of Saturn or until they become solid, whichever comes first. I suspected it would be the latter, but just to be sure I had to look up the temperature of Saturn. Not surprisingly, it’s extremely cold up in the clouds above the “surface” of the planet (being a gas giant, that word doesn’t apply very well), dropping to about 285 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) at the top of the clouds. But it gets a lot warmer lower down.

I found estimates of “surface” temperature anywhere from 140 degrees below zero (Celsius) to minus 20 (Fahrenheit). It turns out that Saturn actually generates heat, 2 1/2 times as much as it receives from the sun. NASA explains that “Many astronomers believe that much of Saturn’s internal heat comes from energy generated by the sinking of helium slowly through the liquid hydrogen in the planet’s interior.” I didn’t understand why that would generate heat, but another site explains that

Like an oily salad dressing, the gases in Saturn’s atmosphere are very slowly separating, with the lighter gas rising up and the heavier gas falling down. As this happens, friction between the molecules heats the gas, accounting for the extra heat.

I learned a few other things from this experiment. The commercial freezer in our basement freezes Saturn Swirls very quickly (but not to the temperature of Saturn’s surface, unless you use the highest estimate). Fingers melt them even more quickly, so make them small enough to pop in your mouth in one bite. And I think they could use just a little more peanut butter.

Books: Calendar

June 29, 2009

I remember learning, as a child, how the date of Easter was determined each year: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Besides being complicated (compared to Christmas, or even Thanksgiving, which just required counting Thursdays in November), it seemed foolish to make the holiday move around so much every year. I couldn’t imagine why they – whoever “they” were – had decided on that formula.

And apparently not everyone could even agree on that, as our calendar always showed a separate date for the “Orthodox Easter.” I didn’t know anyone who was Orthodox, but presumably there were such people around, since the date was included on the calendar (our calendar didn’t include foreign holidays, as some calendars do).

Eventually, in some history class or other, I must have learned about the Gregorian calendar, but it wasn’t an important enough topic to spend much time on. I knew that different civilizations had used different calendars (in a class on the Middle Ages we learned about the rise of Islam, with their calendardated to Muhammed’s Hegira in our year 622 A.D., and I also knew that the Jews had their New Year in September), but I had little idea how we had come to have the one we do.

Several years ago I read Waiting for the Weekend (a fascinating book, as is everything I have read by Witold Rybczynski), which is primarily about the development of the two-day weekend and attitudes toward work and leisure. Rybczynski starts, however, by looking at the origins of the seven-day week, which was far from universal in the ancient world. That whetted my appetite to learn more about the origins and development of the calendar we live by today.

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Discovering truth

February 15, 2009

In light of my recent post about the priority of truth, I could not help being struck by the February 15 Quote of the Day from 2005: “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” Wikiquote shows the quote as “unsourced” – meaning that the document from which is comes is unknown, but it is apparently known to have been said by Galileo Galilei.

I have taken much interest in learning about Galileo, in part perhaps because while I appreciate his discoveries in astronomy, I cannot begin to understand the mathematics and physics needed to arrive at his conclusions. More than that, though, I think it is because nearly every discussion of Galileo seems to revolve around his conflict with the Catholic church.

Christians I know would not disagree with Galileo’s statement (in a letter to Christina of Tuscany),  “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.” As there is no conflict between God and Truth, there is none between what we know by faith and what we know by our study of reality.

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Valentine in the sky

February 14, 2009

Cassiopeia looks like just a big W to me, but somewhere up there – way too far away to see with the naked eye – is the cool-looking Heart Nebula. At least it looks pretty cool in this Astronomy Picture of the Day for Valentine’s Day.

The photographer, Daniel Marquardt, has quite a few more impressive photos, especially in his nebula gallery. I don’t expect to ever be able to take pictures like that, but I sure like looking at them.

Seeing stars

February 10, 2009

As best as I can remember, my interest in astronomy goes back to fourth grade, when I did a project on constellations. I drew a number of the well-known constellations (on dark blue paper, with white ink my father had bought for me), and wrote up the Greek myth behind each one. What I don’t remember is whether my interest started with mythology and moved to astronomy, or the other way around. (I do remember reading all the mythology books I could find in the children’s section of the local library.)

At some point, my father purchased a used telescope, and I remember using it with him in our back yard, though I don’t remember much about what we looked at. My interest in astronomy peaked at the end of eighth grade, when I participated in a summer program at the Talcott Mountain Science Center, photographing the night sky at their observatory.

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December 12, 2008

When my husband called to tell me to take our younger son outside to look at the moon tonight, because it was especially big and bright, I said OK but wondered how the moon could be bigger than usual. As a young teenager, I had studied astronomy one summer at a small observatory, but I don’t remember learning about the moon being bigger sometimes than others. (The class was held at night – of course – at a small observatory, and I was the only girl in the class. We had to develop our own photographs, and one of the boys magnanimously offered to help me in the darkroom – but he turned out to have ulterior motives. I quickly lost interest in astronomy and was glad when the class was over.)

A quick look at National Geographic answered my questions. The moon is at perigee – the closest point in its orbit to Earth – and a closer perigee than usual coincides with this month’s full moon. It appears 30% brighter and 14% larger than usual. I wouldn’t have known just from looking (I might have attributed it to having clear skies for a change), but it sure is bright.

So out we went to look at the moon. I tried out a cheap telescope I had purchased for next to nothing at Goodwill, not expecting much but I figure it didn’t hurt to try. After much difficulty positioning the telescope (the knob that holds it securely to the tripod was missing, so I had to jury-rig something), we finally managed to catch a glimpse of a bright white circle. Even when I got it in focus as best I could, it was still just a very bright white cirle. The naked eye did better than that.

Next I tried the binoculars. These gave a much clearer view, with details I hadn’t been able to make out with the naked eye. But it sure was hard to hold them steady. My son was undecided whether it was better to have a steady view but not clear or clear but not steady. But he was glad to have had the chance to use a telescope for the first time, and to get a good look at the moon. We read a Magic School Bus story about space rocks (including a near collision with the moon) for a bedtime story.

Still not ready to give up on getting something more out of a special night for moon-watching, I got out my camera. For a digital camera it takes pretty good pictures (though it’s a couple years old and today’s pocket digital cameras are even better), but it’s a far cry from a 35-mm camera attached to an observatory telescope. I tried holding the camera to one eyepiece of the binoculars (and was surprised I managed to get a picture of the moon at all that way), but I was back to just a big bright blob of white.

Oh well. Enough luna-see (lunacy?) for one night. It looked really cool, even if you can’t make out much from the picture.