StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

AUGUST  2017


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1094    AUGUST 6, 2017:   Perseids Under Moonlight
Dating back to 1964 when my cousin John and I planned for months to see them, watching the August Perseid Meteor Shower has been an annual tradition. Johnny lived north of Allentown near the Trojan Chemical Company which produced its share of “bangs” as batches of explosives were tested during the manufacturing process. Part of the fun was just staying up and talking, but this first all-nighter under the heavens probably helped to cement my career choice too! The day of the evening of our viewing was stormy, but near sundown, the sky miraculously cleared, and we had a remarkably transparent night with plenty of meteors to keep the adrenaline flowing. I still vividly remember an early morning fireball which lit up the sky and produced a trail of ionized air that glowed for at least 10 seconds. We were yelling and screaming. In 1969, I ventured with friend, Mark Adams, to Pulpit Rock Astronomical Park owned by the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society of Allentown. This was my first scientific observation of the Perseids. Pulpit Rock is located west of the city and on Hamburg (PA) Reservoir land. The site was in its infancy then, with a rough and tumble dirt road that boasted a steep, 17-degree grade at its base. That was always a challenge for my Corvair to navigate, but it was nothing compared to the unanticipated muddy patch of roadway encountered before the hill. I revved the engine to gain momentum, but only got about three quarters of the way through before coming to a stop—tires spinning mud everywhere. Trying to push my car didn’t seem to be a viable option, the nearest house was at least a mile distant, and it was getting dark. I paused for a moment, listening to the crickets, but I also heard the sound of an approaching engine. Around the bend appeared an old pickup truck complete with a winch, owned by the Hamburg Reservoir caretaker, Ralph Althouse. “You boys want to be pulled towards or away from the mountain?” he yelled. “Towards,” I shouted exuberantly. During the next 10 hours, I saw 219 shooting stars, my record for an evening of meteor watching. This year, the mornings of August 12 and 13 will have the highest Perseid rates, but unfortunately, a bright waning gibbous moon will also be accompanying the sky show. Face away from Luna and view near the zenith. Depending upon the time of observation, Perseids will appear to track backwards towards a vanishing point in the NE to east. You’ll miss the faint ones because of moonlight, but occasionally a fireball scorching the starry heavens will make the night a memorable one.

1095    AUGUST 13, 2017:   Ready-Set-Eclipse
We are now on the cusp of one of nature’s most spectacular events. On August 21 along a narrow 65-mile swath from Oregon to South Carolina, observers will experience an additional sunrise and sunset as the shadow of the moon sweeps past them. I cannot emphasis enough the beauty of a total solar eclipse. The anticipation of being in the moon’s shadow is just the beginning—the darkening sky as the shadow approaches, the observation of multiple planets as sunlight wans, the last moments before totality when the lavender hue of the chromosphere bathes the landscape, the diamond ring and the revelation of the corona (the sun’s outer atmosphere), and Baily’s beads as the last sliver of sunlight is extinguished and broken by the mountainous limb of the moon. Finally, there is the darkness of the moon’s shadow itself, overwhelming and consuming the surrounding landscape faster than the eye can adapt. While the shadow passes, the horizons take on a peach color because they are only being illuminated by the exposed limb of a nearly eclipsed sun. The light from this razor thin crescent is cooler and redder than the average light from our daystar which creates this effect. Then as quickly as it has commenced, totality ends with the chromosphere—diamond ring and a brightening—that turns night into day and is so overwhelming that it hides the moon in just 10-15 seconds. Only by seeing several total solar eclipses can you savor all of these various moments. Most Americans will witness a deep partial eclipse where 75 percent or more of the sun will be covered by the moon. For these individuals, shadow detail may not be as distinct around the time of maximum coverage. If it is a cloudy day, the landscape may take on a more somber appearance, darker than it should be for the amount of cloudiness present. Direct solar observations, other then during totality, will always need filtration or the construction of a projection device. StarWatch articles in June addressed these techniques. Go to for more information. I would also advise downloading the application, Eclipse Explorer, which will automatically give you the start, mid-eclipse, and ending times. If you are traveling to the centerline, your smartphone’s GPS will allow you to see exactly where you are located, as well as the precise moment when totality will begin and end. If cloudiness forces you to chase the eclipse, this app will be indispensable in getting you to the right spot in time. Much success to all the people who will be watching nature at its finest, but Please do it safely!

[Annular (solar) Eclipse, Chaco Canyon, May 20, 2012]
The May 20, 2012 Annular Eclipse viewed from Chaco Culture National Historical Park near Nageezi, New Mexico was the only solar eclipse that I have ever witnessed under a perfectly clear sky. Notice the eclipsed sun in the viewing screen of the camera. Image of Gary A. Becker by Jesse Leayman...

1096    AUGUST 20, 2017:   Solar Eclpse Just Hours Away
The Great American Eclipse is now just hours away, and as I write this StarWatch days earlier, I am wondering if I will be observing under a clear night sky anticipating good weather for E-day or whether I will be racing west towards Idaho during the cover of night or eastward into Nebraska in search of better viewing conditions. During our western trip last year, Pete Detterline (Montgomery County Community College) and I spent five days searching for various observing sites between central Nebraska and east central Idaho. Our pick was Guernsey State Park in eastern Wyoming for its acceptable location to the centerline, its distance from where we anticipated the majority of the 600,000 people coming into Wyoming (nearly half from Denver) would be headed, and for the hospitality that Guernsey Park officials offered to us in exchange for our promotion of the eclipse to some of the nearly 5000 visitors that were anticipated coming into the area by August 21. We were given two spacious yurts, a circular tent created by forming waterproof fabrics (originally animal skins) over a pole frame. These structures were first used by the nomadic peoples of central Asia, but unlike their earlier counterparts, these yurts were plush, with polished wooden floors, bunk beds with mattresses, a stove for the cool evenings, and a ventilation system. How could we say “no” to an arrangement like that? In addition, the yurts were located up high on a peninsula of land overlooking Guernsey Reservoir with a beautiful view of 10,276-foot Laramie Peak 33 miles distant which is also in the path of the moon’s shadow. This solar eclipse will be the ninth one that I’ve traveled to witness. It all started in 1970 with a total solar eclipse in Lumberton, NC. Then it was 1972—Gaspe Peninsula, Canada (cloudy); 1973—off the coast of Mauritania, Africa; 1984—Osceola, North Carolina; 1991—off the coast of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii; 1994—Canutillo, Texas; 1998—off the coast of Aruba; 1999—Prospect Harbor, Maine; 2012—Chaco Canyon, New Mexico; and now here in Guernsey State Park, Wyoming. Say a prayer for the tens of millions of Americans and foreign tourists who have traveled for so long and far to bask in the moon’s shadow. May the path of totality be clear from sea to shining sea.

[Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, July 11, 1991]
This what I am hoping to see on August 21. The total solar eclipse viewed from the deck of the Independence on July 11, 1991 was nearly missed because of clouds. I was about 30 miles off the coast of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Photos by Gary A. Becker...
[Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, July 11, 1991]

1097    AUGUST 27, 2017:   The Other Einstein: Too Much Speculation
Reading the jacket reviews for Marie Benedict’s, The Other Einstein, Sourcebooks Landmarks, 2016, you get the impression that this work may be truly a significant contribution to the history of science. It’s not! Benedict traces the university life of Mileva Maric and her romantic relationship with classmate, Albert Einstein, in a mainly fictional account. Maric was a mathematics and physics major attending Zürich's (Switzerland) Polytechnic, who finished her coursework, but failed to pass one of the mathematics components of her exams. Sadly, she never graduated. I think Benedict provides an excellent portrayal of the mental turbulence surrounding an intelligent and forward-thinking woman during the early 20th century, who is cloistered by a male-dominated discipline and society. Maric was against marriage, knowing full well that it would ruin her scientific aspirations and relegate her to being caretaker of her husband and their children. As the narrative proceeds, the stalwart Maric slowly succumbs to the amorous attentions that Albert is displaying. They eventually consummate their relationship, with Mileva becoming pregnant as a result. Retreating to her family in Serbia, she gives birth to Lieserl in early 1902, but Albert seems to be indifferent to Mileva’s suffering. The infant dies, possibly of scarlet fever, in September of 1903, but before that, she returns without Lieserl to Bern where Albert is working in the Swiss patent office. He and Mileva marry in January 1903. As the book continues, it becomes more fantasy than historical fiction. Benedict allows Albert to take the rap for Mileva not graduating from the Polytechnic. Later, in “an aha moment,” Mileva, not Albert, is responsible for conceiving some of the major concepts of special relativity, such as time dilation. Benedict also has Mileva playing a pivotal role in Einstein’s annus mirabilis (miracle year—1905) where Albert publishes four groundbreaking papers, including his treatise on special relativity. Albert fails to include Mileva’s name as a co-author of special relativity or cite her as a contributor in the other manuscripts because she had not graduated from the Polytechnic. Here the facts are simply lacking. As time passes, Albert becomes more distant and is distracted by other women (true), but he also becomes physically abusive toward Mileva. Her only recourse is separation (1914) and divorce (1919). To Benedict’s credit, she does admit that “Certainly, speculation exists in The Other Einstein—the book is, first and foremost, fiction,” but in this era of fake news, misinterpretations, and bias tone, why make up a story which diminishes one the great minds and personalities of the 20th century? Mileva Maric and The Other Einstein would make a superb focal point in a women’s study course, if only everyone just stuck to the facts.

[Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, July 11, 1991]
Cover design by Lisa Amoroso, Cover images, Susan Fox

[August Star Map]

[August Moon Phase Calendar]