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1050    OCTOBER 2, 2016:   Dying: A Different Perspective
As an Episcopalian, I position myself to the far left with lots of liberal ideas and fewer concrete answers than I would like. As an astronomy educator and someone interested in the sciences his entire life, I find the divisiveness between science and some religious values to be annoying, pitting one against the other as evidenced in the thinking of far right conservatives. Global warming comes to mind immediately. Even if our heating planet is not a function of our carbon footprint, and I seriously doubt this is true, wouldn’t it be prudent to unite and consider viable options to this problem, simply because it is a proven fact that the Earth is warming! In astronomy, I believe that a lot of the public’s interest stems not from an innate concern about the facts, but our place in the universe and where we go after death. We look into the heavens for a spiritual solution to ease our angst about dying. I’m personally against a non-corporeal existence, but can find no way of avoiding it. Discussing this conundrum many years ago with Nick Knisely, a quantum physicist who was called to God and became rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem (PA), a solution was advanced. Quantum physicists, those who deal in the physics of atoms, believe that the four dimensional universe of Einstein is more diverse. We live in a universe, in fact a multiverse with perhaps a dozen or more dimensions. Many of these are extremely small, embedded deep within the structure of atoms, but others, such as the “bulk,” surround what we perceive as our own four dimensional universe of space and time. There may be bulk beings walking through the room in which you are sitting while you are reading this small article, and you would have no idea that they were watching you. In their universe they may see us, but we cannot see them. In short, it was Knisely’s contention that dying was simply a transitional phase of an eternal existence, a right of passage from one set of dimensions into another. Death is still a scary proposition for most of us, but nonetheless, Happy Halloween!

[Moravian-Telescope Wars]
Telescope Wars: Now that both Moravian College astronomy sections have learned to disassemble and reassemble their telescopes, and have learned the basics of how their hand controllers operate their mounts, it’s time to go outside and find some real stars on the Sky Deck. Note the Vulcan “Live long and prosper” signage, fourth image down, right side. My Monday/Wednesday section is to the left, while right is Tuesday/Thursday. Smartphone images by Gary A. Becker...

1051    OCTOBER 9, 2016:   Carhenge: Only in America
Virtually everyone has heard about Stonehenge near the town of Salisbury, England. When completed about 2600 BCE, it consisted of a circle, a henge of 30 upright sarsens capped with rectangular lintels. Interior to that was a horseshoe-shaped configuration of five free standing trilithons, each capped with a lintel facing towards the NE, in the direction of the Heel Stone, 254 feet distant. The Heel Stone marked the direction of sunrise on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. If you stand near the center of Stonehenge as I have done, and imagine it complete and in operation 4600 years ago, most of the horizon was blocked from view except for key slots which also allowed the observer to view the winter solstice (shortest day) sunrise and sunset, as well as the summer solstice sunset. Stonehenge could be described as a religious temple or as a calendar, but one fact is certain; it was part of a much larger complex of circles, avenues, and burial mounds where the nobility of that time wished to be interred. There are many recreations of Stonehenge around the world, but in typical American fashion, there is one near Alliance, Nebraska which is so weird that I just had to see it on a trip this past summer. It is called Carhenge, and you may have already guessed it. The monument is composed of entirely American automobiles. The total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 passes right across Carhenge, so it will probably be a gathering place for the Flower Power generation of which I am a member. I approached Carhenge as a lark, but as I walked around the gray spray painted cars, the sarsens and lintels of the structure, it became evident to me that there were similar alignments imbued into Carhenge, comparable to the sarsens at Stonehenge. Alignments for sunrise and sunset on the two solstice dates were easily visible, but whether they lined up precisely with the rising and setting positions of the sun, I do not know. Carhenge’s brochure intimated that they do, but I’d have to witness that to believe it is true.

[Carhenge Overview]
Carhenge Overview: With no giant slabs of stone present in the Alliance, Nebraska area, designer Jim Reinders, a petroleum engineer, decided on a new medium for his sculpture—cars. They were essentially the same shape as the sarsens at the real Stonehenge, and with wheels, they were truly easy to move around. The original 25 cars were erected during a family reunion in six days and dedicated on the summer solstice of 1987. Image by Gary A. Becker...

[Carhenge, Looking Toward the Heel Stone]
Carhenge, Looking towards the Heel Stone: Although the construction in this direction looks a little sloppy to me, the summer solstice sun at the real Stonehenge rises over a sarsen called the Heel Stone. This is represented by the distant upright automobile. Along this same corridor, exactly opposite to summer solstice sunrise, the winter solstice sun sets. Photo by Gary A. Becker...

[Carhenge, Winter Solstice Sunrise]
Carhenge, Looking towards Winter Solstice Sunrise: I was surprised to be able to view through the outer sarsen circle and through two free-standing trilithons to gain a clear access to the winter solstice sunrise position. Opposite, lies the direction of summer solstice sunset which also would be visible from the center of Carhenge, pending a correct orientation of the monument. Photography by Gary A. Becker...

1052    OCTOBER 16, 2016:   Night of the Living Dead
It has always been intriguing to me how our language veils the act of dying. We use words like loss, ascended, pass, depart, and expire to dilute our fears, until the very end of October when we celebrate Halloween, a sort of “nose thumbing” to our successful efforts in eluding the Grim Reaper for yet another year. All Hallows’ Eve, October 31, has its roots steeped in astronomy, just like many other common celebrations, such as Groundhog Day, February 2, and May Day, May 1. They fall on what are called cross-quarter days, the midpoints between the four seasonal markers of the sun: the winter solstice (low sun), vernal equinox (mid-sun), summer solstice (high sun), and the autumnal equinox (mid-sun again). The cross-quarter day of October 31 is a fitting time to celebrate our avoidance of death. The comfortable period of warmth is well beyond us, and our focus has shifted upon the encroaching cold of winter. Sol has rapidly moved south becoming lower in our noontime sky, lessening daylight and emphasizing the dark. Leave it to the Celts to have envisioned their harvest festival called Samhain (SAH-win), meaning summer’s end, the first and most important of the cross-quarter days, and then to add a touch of the macabre. They believed that the veil separating the living from the dead thinned on Samhain, permitting the souls of the dead, ghosts, fairies, and demons to move freely in our world. Sacrifices of animals and plants were made; bonfires were lit to guide the departed along their way, and to keep the living separated from the dead. Offerings of food and drink were left outdoors to placate these netherworld beings from entering homes. The poor went door-to-door begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers, often said for the departed, while others dressed like the dead to avoid being recognized by roaming ghouls and drawn into their world, our modern origins of “trick or treat.” The reaction of the Church was to Christianize these customs which they were unsuccessful in curtailing by adding to their church calendar All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on November 1 and 2nd.

1053    OCTOBER 23, 2016:   A Robotic Telescope for Moravian
Astronomy at Moravian College is looking up. The foundation of the program began during the tenure of Professor Joe Gerencher, whose 40 years of service to the College established a solid astronomy curriculum and a rooftop observatory at the Collier Hall of Science, now called the Sky Deck. In addition, Dr. Gerencher taught the course at night, when stars were actually visible, something not in the purview of most college curricula. Since Joe’s retirement in late spring of 2010, the astronomy footprint at Moravian has grown. The course went from being taught once a year to twice each semester and during this expansion, Moravian gained charitable supporters who have donated equipment and funds to insure the growth and success of the program. Foremost amongst these contributors is David Fisherowski of Boyertown, PA. Not only has he given numerous high-quality telescopes and mounting systems to Moravian, but he has sold other high-end gear to the College at well below market cost. Moravian has truly been blessed with his kindness and the support of department chair, Dr. Kelly Krieble, who found the resources to support these purchases. An anonymous donor has also provided a substantial yearly input of funds to the program which has been enhanced by the proceeds from the sale of my astronomy book which students purchase. Now MoCo Astronomy is posed on the precipice of another opportunity, a consortium with the Mars Society and the University of North Carolina to construct and operate a robotic observatory at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah, one of the darkest sites in North America. A firm cost analysis has been completed and through the efforts of Peter Detterline, MDRS lead astronomer, commercial interests have also promised support for the project. The mounting system for the telescope has already been purchased. When completed, Moravian students will have the opportunity to control and conduct research with a telescope in Utah on any device with Internet access.

[Moravian-Telescope Wars on the Sky Deck]
Telescope Wars on the Sky Deck: My Tuesday/Thursday section is to the left, while right are students from my Monday/Wednesday class. Students learn to set up telescopes, line up their scopes to Polaris (North Star), and find and center two alignment and four calibration stars. If done correctly, the computers in the hand controllers will allow hundreds of objects, such as planets and the moon, double stars, open and globular cluster, and even some brighter nebulae to be viewed from light polluted center city Bethlehem. Smartphone images by Gary A. Becker...

1054    OCTOBER 30, 2016:   Dark Nights at Shooting Star
This week saw my Moravian astronomy students visiting Shooting Star Farm north of Quakertown, PA for their dark sky field experience. Bill Jacob’s and Johnny Killwey’s farm is not your typical dairy or agricultural enterprise. Bill is an independent film maker and former director from Paramount Pictures who is in the post production phases of a major feature film, When the Moon was Twice as Big. Johnny is the producer and financial guru. Showing them many of the objects they had seen from center city Bethlehem, friends of mine bring their telescopes and treat my students to an evening of stargazing from a more rural, darker setting. As an example, the Andromeda Galaxy, which is observed as a faint smudge from Main Campus, appears with a much wider galactic nucleus. Included in the telescopic view are Andromeda’s majestic arms, making it look like a real galaxy. Globular clusters, gravitationally bound aggregates of 10,000 to a million stars, represent some of the oldest structures in the universe. They appear like fuzz balls from the Sky Deck at Moravian, but in darker skies reveal themselves as thousands of pinpoints of light, almost like bees frozen in time swarming around an active hive. Most globulars orbit the Milky Way at high inclinations, diving through the denser galactic plane every 100 million years or so, churning up the medium and triggering new star generation. Open clusters are more localized regions where gravity has overwhelmed less massive clouds of gas and dust, causing the “star stuff” to condense and form dozens to thousands of luminaries. Over the stretch of a hundred million to a billion years, stars near the edge of these clusters stray. The mass of the system lessens, reducing the ability of the other cluster members to hold the system together gravitationally. Astronomers say that open clusters evaporate, each member becoming a separate entity moving in its own distinct orbit around our home galaxy. Our sun was once a member of some unknown open star cluster 4.5 billion years ago.

[TT At Shooting Star Farm]
On the night of the first killing frost, October 25, my Tuesday/Thursday class enjoyed a brisk evening observing session at Shooting Star Farm north of Quakertown, PA. Venus shines in the background of the bottom photo. Digital images by Timothy Murphy, a computer science major with a minor in photography at Moravian College, and a former astronomy student of mine...

[October Star Map]

[October Moon Phase Calendar]