Syracuse Astronomical Society President's Message for March/April, 2008

A repost of the original at the Syracuse Astronomical Society website.

2008 Messier Marathon

Charles Messier (1730 – 1817). Click HERE for more info.

It is that time of year again! The opening of the observatory on April 4th will also be our official date for the 2008 Messier Marathon. While approaching the edge of the "ideal window" for the Marathon (which is between mid-March and very early April), the new Moon matches up with our ability to get near the Observatory soon after the beginning of Spring (when there's usually snow still covering the scope pads). As our Society Meetings now coincide with Public Viewing sessions, this is an excellent opportunity for anyone interested to get a thorough "crash course" in astronomical objects and viewing equipment (a few of us will only attempt the Messier hunt with binoculars, while others will stay fixed to their telescopes for quality-over-quantity observing).

Courtesy Thierry Lombry,
Click on the image for a larger version.

I will save the discussion of the Marathon and its history for a few excellent websites on the subject. As for those planning to attend either Friday or Saturday night (Friday is the planned date, but check the website Friday afternoon for weather updates and the official call from the Board), be VERY sure to bring extra layers of clothing. After dark at the observatory, the temperatures can quickly drop to freezing and, without the Sun to help, you provide the heat to Darling Hill, not vice versa!

The February 21th MOST Lecture

For those that missed the MOST, I wanted to post a few notes and links mentioned by Prof. James Lloyd during his lecture on "Planets Orbiting Distant Stars." These barely scratch the surface, put certainly provide some great reading and viewing.

Giordano Bruno

"It is then unnecessary to investigate whether there be beyond the heaven Space, Void or Time. For there is a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call Void; in it are innumerable globes like this one on which we live and grow. This space we declare to be infinite, since neither reason, convenience, possibility, sense-perception nor nature assign to it a limit. In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own." – Giordano Bruno, From De l'infinito universo et mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds), 1584.

The proposal that ours is not the only (habitable?) planet in the universe is not at all recent, especially given that it's been less than 20 years since the first discovery (HD 114762 b way back in 1989. I still have the clipping from the Post-Standard in my old Peterson Field Guide). One thing that has changed in the last +400 years is the way in which such new revelations are handled by society. Bruno burned at the stake for his then heretical views, a misunderstanding the Catholic church has since acknowledged regret for.

At some point in the not too distant future, people will look upon the website and comment "They found yet another one. Ho hum." In the meantime, this website, run by Jean Schneider of CNRS/LUTH (the French equivalent of our National Laboratory System) is the international place to go for updates on the total count of planets beyond our Solar System, including all kinds of information about the planetary properties and how they were discovered.

Our tax dollars at work, and including a free widget! The site contains the up-to-the-minute tally of extrasolar planets, news articles (popular press) about those discoveries, and a download-able widget for Windows and OSX that provides the total count on your desktop.

Prof. Lloyd Quote Of The Night

"We know as much about the cores of extrasolar planets as we know about our own."

Ye Olde Popular Press

In discussing the methods by which we discover extrasolar planets, Prof. Lloyd made reference to the phenomenon of gravitational lenses, one of the amazing aspects of the interaction of light and matter predicted by Albert Einstein before its reported observation by Arthur Eddington. I've heard it described as "The great reconciliation of Germany and England after World War I", but recent studies indicate that Eddington's measurements were within the error bars of not being credibly observable, although we know today with our increasingly sensitive equipment that the phenomenon is very real.

How often does science make the front page? The two clips are taken from the New York Times reporting the… peculiar revelations (that description sounds reasonably dated, yes?) of one Albert Einstein.

American Scientist Stamp Unveiling At The MOST

February 6th saw the official release by the US Postal Service of a panel of four stamps commemorating four American Scientists. For those keeping count, a set of four stamps came out in 2005 featuring Barbara McClintock, John von Neumann, Josiah Willard Gibbs (of Gibbs Free energy fame, of course) and the incomparable Richard Feynman. Included in the current set are Gerty Cori, Linus Pauling, John Bardeen, and the reason I mention the release, Edwin Hubble. Given just how far science has progressed us since the simpler times of Giordano Bruno's Italy, it is still amazing that it wasn't until the reporting of Hubble discoveries on January 1, 1925 that it became public knowledge that the Milky Way is not, in fact, the only galaxy in the universe. Less than 100 years ago, every galaxy we've now observed with the Hubble Space Telescope was believed to lie within the (still uncharacterized) bounds of our own galaxy. As a practicing scientist, I consider that a very humbling thought.

Click on the image for a larger version.

Syracuse Stamp Club Commemorative Hubble Cover

The first day of availability of the aforementioned "Scientific Panel" (certainly one that could have easily lost their audience without scratching the surface of their respective fields) was celebrated by the Syracuse Stamp Club with a Commemorative First Day Stamp Cover designed by Board of Director member and fellow Syracuse University alum Vincent Juchimek. After a delightful afternoon campus visit and First Day Stamp Cover education with his wife Dianne, Vincent graciously offered to make available a Hubble-centric stamp cover to SAS members (see the image below). I think they serve the important purposes of supporting the recognition of American Scientists (by buying the stamps from the US Post Office), demonstrating how two otherwise very different hobbies (I only ever pick up a magnifying glass when I'm trying to find a cluster in some dense pocket book to set the sights of my 25×100's on) can overlap in a most productive way, and providing an artistic way to commemorate a national event in a most Syracuse-centric way. Thirty of these have been secured for the SAS that will be available to members for $3.00 each (which included the cover, the stamp, and the commemorative cancel). If you're interested in obtaining one or more Hubble Stamp Covers, let me know as soon as possible and we'll have them out as they come off the press!

Click on the image for a larger version.

Ice Pillars Attack Downtown Syracuse!

The SAS received a little bit of local recognition on the morning of February 29th with a news article in the Post-Standard about some remarkable pillars of lights the night before. I received a phone call from reporter Douglass Dowty asking for info about the strange lights observed downtown after he'd received information from the 911 Call Center about people reporting strange lights, flying discs, etc. After briefly peaking my head out the window (and running out quickly in socks to not miss what, given viewing conditions in Syracuse, could have been the last 5 seconds of "something wonderful"), I told him that the phenomenon looked like aurora, which I confirmed to myself by checking to see if we were, in fact, in the middle of a major solar storm (which we reportedly were). After a bit more viewing from downtown, what I thought was aurora became decidedly more localized in nature. The phenomenon we all observed was "ice pillaring," a specific example of "light pillaring," a not-too-common phenomenon in itself that provides a different, but no less stunning, light show in the Night Sky.

I quickly threw together a picture of how ice pillars form (well, appear) that I'm including here (replete with local color).

Click on the image for a larger version.

After some posting on the article blog at, Douglass re-quoted me with my more likely explanation in the February 30th edition. Two of my best pictures of the pillars are provided below. The picture on top shows a slightly over-exposed view of North Syracuse (to make the pillars more prominent). The picture at bottom is exactly as my camera and I saw it, with very pronounced pillaring over St. Joseph's Hospital. The pillars remind me a bit of the transporter signatures in the old Star Trek movies (very bright and very localized).

Click on either image for a larger version.

and finally…

Milky Way Gets Super-Sized (Sorry, I Can't Resist)

Oh Henry! A Fast Break over the scientific newswire reports that the Milky Way has reportedly put on a bit of weight, but no one appears to be Snicker-ing. Like the rest of us, the Milky Way hasn't gotten longer, only a little Chunky-er, or wider in the middle (and tailing off to either end). A group of astronomer Smarties at the University of Sydney didn't need their 100 Grand scope, requiring only an analysis of small Mounds of data available on the internet to determine that the Milky Way is now 12,000 light years wide. Truly a low-cost, high-impact PayDay for Prof. Bryan Gaensler and co-workers, with some calling this the most important discovery in astronomy since the discovery of water on Mars.

Click on the image for more info.

We can only hope that the researchers performing the data analysis weren't a group of Butterfingers. Stay tuned for S'More astronomy news.

If it weren't bad enough that we're less than 100 years past Hubble's great announcement on the distance of other galaxies from our own, consider now how significant it is that we're still uncovering the very largest-scale properties of our own galaxy.

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)

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