StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

AUGUST  2022


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1355    August 7, 2022:   Introducing Webb
Astronomy shows us God's Grandeur as Gerard Manley Hopkins says. Telescopes peer into the vast depths of the universe and tantalize us with thoughts of What is out there? Beauty, yes, amid wheeling galaxies and fiery stars, deep colors of pink, yellow, blue, white, and an array of cosmic objects that entice and enthrall us. They are windows to an expanse that can hardly be conceived. If there is a Divine Poem in the universe, this is it, in rhythms and meters in imagery and symbols, in a language that responds to our souls' longing for answers to our creation and existence. * The James Webb Space Telescope with its 6.4-meter (21.4 feet), gold-coated mirror is all about creation, for it probes the heavens in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared energy has longer wavelengths than the visible light which allows our eyes to see. We distinguish this type of radiation as heat. If you have ever warmed yourself by a roaring fire, you know the soothing effects of infrared energy. Hug your significant other, and besides feeling a reduction in stress, you will perceive the warmth generated by metabolism which is also in the infrared. * Visible light is scattered by the copious amounts of small dust particles which are found particularly in areas where new stars are forming. When this material is in the size range of 0.1-micron (1/10,000,000 of a meter), dust prevents visible light from reaching telescopic sensors. Infrared radiation, on the other hand, is not scattered by these same dust particles, so its light has mostly free passage through the same dross that blocks visible light. * Perhaps you have noticed that the images more recently published from Webb show a white light component with all the colors represented, whereas the first image released by the JWST depicted a red star with hundreds of rosy-colored galaxies in the background. Examine the photo credits of the newer images, and you will notice that they are a composite of several telescopes, including Webb. * Stephan’s Quintet is my favorite new Webb portrait, a close association of five galaxies, four of which are interacting. In visual photographs, astronomers have been able to infer that stellar generation was probably taking place, but it was Webb that made it certain. Infrared radiating clouds of contracting dust and gas imaged by Webb show up as the red component of the picture extending far beyond the visible light portion of one of the galaxies. Four of the galaxies also show intense internal star generation. * Just like Hubble answered questions that were not even conceived at the time of its launch, Webb promises a similar starburst of new information as it carries out its mission to view the creation of new stars, and perhaps, some of the first galaxies to form in the universe. Ad Astra!

1356    August 14, 2022:   Thumbs Up!
Something distracted me, but I swung the sledgehammer anyway… right into my left thumb. The official medical diagnosis was a mallet to the thumb, but I knew that immediately, upon feeling the pain, seeing the blood around the cuticle, and drowning my neighborhood in expletives. Four weeks later, my broken thumb is healing, but I must wear a removable cast until the first week in September. * This all has to do with an observatory that my friends and I are constructing in my backyard, a dream that I have had since 2010 when I retired from teaching under the artificial skies of a planetarium and came to Moravian University to continue cultivating my lifelong interest in astronomy. * The project started, unknowingly to me, with a hailstorm on May 29, 2019, which dropped golf ball to baseball-sized hail in southeastern Lehigh County. I happened to be in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Colorado where it was also snowing. The money I had set aside to purchase a new roof and siding on my home and outbuilding was suddenly freed by my homeowner's insurance. There was also the matter of the 37 ash trees slowly withering because of the ash bore. They were cut down in January of 2020 as my initial ideas of building an observatory jelled. * The structure was first conceived as a simple roll-off roof design, a poor man's observatory. It has the advantage of having the entire sky visible while viewing the heavens rather than looking through the traditional narrow slit of a dome. I discussed my ideas with Adam Jones, a former student of mine and an IT specialist, who is also a talented amateur architect, builder, photographer, and mountain climber. He put my ideas on steroids, ramping up a design that produced a warming room, storage space for my astronomical gear, and even a small kitchen with a sink and microwave. The observatory was attached to the warming room and elevated six feet to give me better clearance from surrounding neighborhood trees. Then Adam intimated that, "This would be a fun project for us to tackle." * Adam and I had built my TajMa shed which had a similar evolution in complexity in 2004-6, but this structure was to be much more complicated. I said "Yes," not knowing what loomed ahead, and I can honestly attest to a greatly increased respect for those individuals who are involved in construction. * During the COVID summer of 2021, the site was excavated. Footers and foundation walls were completed. That fall saw the electrical trench dug with high and low voltage lines installed from the house to the observatory and backfilling of the structure and trench. Thank you, Dean Bauer, another friend. This summer has seen the most progress. The site had been landscaped, the cement flooring poured, and a building is taking shape that looks precisely like the hundreds of CAD drawings that Adam had produced. One of my friends, Peter Detterline, said that the way the structure had been fabricated was like a work of art. * Adam precut all the lumber based upon his CAD design. The walls were then assembled like a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The pieces fit perfectly together for the most part, and a building now stands in my backyard that is looking more and more like an observatory; however, it will probably be 2023 before the project is fully completed. Presently, the telescope awaits shipment from Adrian, Michigan, and the mount that will support the scope has already arrived from Italy. Eventually, all I will need will be clear skies to continue my real-time astronomical explorations of the universe. Ad Astra!

1357    August 21, 2022:   Dog Days of Summer Are Gone
Here's a sobering bit of news. The dog days of summer are over, and if you're a teacher like me, that simply means the beginning of the fall semester lies dead ahead. According to the Farmers' Almanac, the dog days represent the hottest part of the year which is defined as the period from July 3 through August 11. It is rumored that its stifling heat made dogs go mad. In the continental US only southern New Mexico, Arizona, and West Texas max out before the dog days while parts of the Texas and the Louisiana Gulf Coast peak after these times. That has to do with the lack of water in the drier states, and the extra amount of time that it takes the waters along the Gulf Coast to respond to the additional energy being provided by the high summer sun. This lag in the seasonal temperatures occurs because the ground and water are still absorbing more energy after the summer solstice than they are giving up at night. * It is also the time of the year when the Dog Star, Sirius, the most luminous star of Canis Major, the Big Dog, and the brightest star of the nighttime sky is in conjunction with the sun. That leads to a more ancient origin dating back to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt over 5000 years ago. This time of the year was linked with the rising of Isis (now Sirius the Dog Star) and the flooding of Egypt's lifeblood, the Nile River. Isis, who was Osiris' wife, was instrumental in the resurrection of her husband, god of the underworld, after he was murdered and mutilated by his brother Set. It was believed that the Nile River flooded each year because of the tears cried by Isis for Osiris when her star rose nearly at the same time as the sun (heliacally). Each year ancient Egyptian astronomers would wait patiently for Sirius to be seen just before it was washed from view by the luminescence of the impending sunrise. This event reset the Egyptian solar calendar, but it also serendipitously coincided with the flooding of the Nile which provided the rich nutrients that would sustain another growing season for the country. The heliacal rising of Sirius (Greek for searing) would have occurred shortly after the summer solstice in 3000 BC, and moved deeper into July as the millennia passed. This was coincidentally Egypt's warmest time of the year. For Egypt today, the first glimmer of Sirius rising heliacally occurs in late July to early August. For most mid-latitude US observers, that situation should be happening in the southeast at the present time. If you plan to observe the heliacal rising of Sirius, make sure that your southeastern horizon is flawless or wait a few weeks to catch the Dog Star in a darker dawn sky. The dog days of summer; I'm glad they are over and a more temperate time of the year is unfolding. Ad Astra!

1358    August 28, 2022:   50 Years in Education: Lessons Learned
Yes, it's true, I began my professional career on Tuesday, September 5, 1972 as a nervous 22-year-old, teaching astronomy in the Allentown School District Planetarium. During my 38 years in that capacity, I worked with every grade level, in every school, in every type of situation, and with students from the mentally and physically challenged to the brilliantly gifted. Upon retirement from Allentown, I was able to matriculate to Moravian University where I am starting my 13th year of teaching and am still having a ball. * What have I learned after a half century of being in the classroom? I tell my students that the learning process should be fun, that they should want to come to class because of their own innate curiosities. I also give them a little history about me, that I'm passionate about my subject, that I am human and will make mistakes, that I have my good days and my off days too, and that I will respect their bad days when they are having them. * Teaching is like live theater. The actors get inspiration from their audiences. I will expect my undergraduates to ask questions and tell me if they are having difficulty with the subject material, that my personality is a little bit out there and if what I say offends them, they should tell me about it, and I will listen and consider their point of view. I tell them not to BS me, but to be honest, that the educational process is a community effort, and that everyone has a responsibility to help others who may be in need. * I can lecture for three hours, but I don’t want to do that. It is so much more fun if learners take an active part in the process by adding their own perspectives into the instructional arena. Debate with me and I will listen. * Perhaps listening is the greatest attribute that a teacher can have when working with pupils because it tells them that what they have to say is also important and makes them a valuable contributor to the educational process. Finally, I tell my students that they probably don't believe half of what I have just told them, but that if they give me a chance to make good on my promises, I will. Almost every time my students have granted this request. * The educational process is not easy; nothing can be taken for granted. Some of my best presentations have been immediately followed by some of my worst lessons because I was riding on that endorphin high of self-adulation. * I believe that as an educator you have to self-evaluate by having out-of-body experiences. Imagine yourself sitting there in class as a student, listening and responding to what you are saying and doing. Are you stimulating your students with your brilliant rhetorical prose or putting them to sleep? Are you experimenting with new ideas that are being receptive to your audience or are you a god in your classroom issuing commandments, rather than being a working partner with your learners? * Hey, I am far from perfect—my students will tell you that; but these concepts are some of the foundational tenets that have guided my educational growth during the past five decades. It has been a Darwinian experience which I hope will continue its evolutionary track for a few more Earth revolutions. * I also consider working with students to be a privilege. It is a chance to peek into their world where possibilities are limitless, where people are generally happy, and full of boundless energy. It's not a bad place at all. I envy my students having the majority of their lives and their careers positioned before them. To have some small part in shaping their world has kept me thinking and acting younger as the years have moved forward. I am incredibly grateful for that transfer of enthusiasm. Teaching is an art and a science, but at the threshold of my 50th year, I believe that the art has a slight advantage over the science. Ad Astra!

[Gary A. Becker]
Gary A. Becker, 50 years in education, hanging out with Mo at Moravian. Image by Adam R. Jones...

[August Star Map]

[August Moon Phase Calendar]