Serious Telephoto

This is about 1/3 of a camera I spent a summer serving. You might recognize it from the movies Contact and 2010: Oddesy Something-or-other, or maybe from the cover to that Night Ranger album you’d rather forget.

Not even sure how to calculate the focal length on this baby, but the aperture is measured in miles.

Not even sure how to calculate the focal length on this baby, but the aperture is measured in miles.

Note: You do not want to watch Contact when I’m in the room, unless you want to hear me complain at length about how that’s not really how a radio telescope works. I can’t help it!

I was just a lowly grunt at the VLA, but I worked the quiet night shift and when data came off the antennae and passed through my system (using a special memory array to accomplish fast Fourier transforms on the data to convert it from time-based to space-based), I would become the first human being ever to see Things Out There.

Yeah, chills.

I’m pretty sure that specialized, really expensive piece of hardware could still outperform my phone for that one specific task. Probably. But then again game engines use that same math, so maybe not. The PDP-11’s that fed the data into and took the data out of the array were what once was called minicomputers before microcomputers ate them for breakfast after Moore’s Comet hit.

I spent free time working on the Silicon Graphics workstation to make false-color images that looked cool — uh, I mean, enhanced the features the scientists wanted to study.

I have some OK gear of my own now, but I won’t be photographing quasars shooting out gas jets the size of galaxies.

If you’re ever on a road trip across the southwest, I recommend highway 60 for Salt River Canyon alone. On your way through New Mexico be sure to stop off at the VLA and walk around a bit. It’s a hell of a camera.



I knew that there would be lots of people taking pictures of the sun as little Venus crawled across its face, and I knew that I could never hope to match the pros. I decided instead to emphasize the surroundings of the shoot instead. I happen to live near a city with a distinctive skyline, so I thought I might try for a dramatic sunset that just happened to have the little black spot of Venus on the sun.

But where could I stand so that the sun would set right behind the Transamerica tower? I fretted over maps and even drove up the coast on an unsuccessful scouting mission, but in the end I discovered that the ruler tool in Google Earth made the job ridiculously simple. I knew the sun would set at 300° azimuth, so I just had to click on downtown San Francisco and draw a line at 120° over to the other side of the bay. The ideal spot was right at the end of the runway at Oakland International Airport. I didn’t quite get to the ideal spot, but darn close.

As you can see in the pics, I was not the only one who did the math. All that was left was for the gods of photography and those of meteorology to shake hands.

I had a problem with stupidity for a while; fortunately I got over it before the critical period. Also, nothing makes dirt on your sensor show up like shooting at really high f-stops. Should have cleaned diligently before a last-chance-in-this-lifetime photo op. There were light clouds on the horizon, so my dream shot was not to be, but as the sun passed through a gap just above rooftop-level I shot like crazy. In retrospect, I should have shot even more, and exposed some of them far less, to give Venus a chance. As it is, however, I got about sixty nice sunset shots to choose from for this gallery. Not bad for an evening’s work.


A Comfy Star

Recently ‘they’ found a brown dwarf nearby. A brown dwarf is a star that never quite made the grade; when all the other stars in the dust cloud were snatching up fuel these hapless wanna-bes were left just shy of the mass (and therefore gravitational pressure) to squish hydrogen atoms together into helium, and as a side effect shooting off heat. They’re barely stars at all.

You can see a thoroughly uninteresting photo of one over at Astronomy Picture of the Day. It’s pretty close to us — on a cosmic scale at least — a mere 40 light-years away. What made this one interesting (to me at least) is the surface temperature. It’s about the same temperature as the room I’m sitting in right now.

So let’s say, for the sake of Science Fiction, that one can travel faster than light. Only slightly more impossible would be dealing with the high gravity. Once those two minor things are taken care of, you could build your house on this star. Well, there probably isn’t a real surface per se, and there’s likely to be some pretty wicked radiation and magnetic what-not. And epic storms, like on Jupiter.

BUT – if you solved those things, you could build your house on a star. That would be cool.


Kicking off the Workshop in Style

I’ll be in Kansas for the first half of July, attending a writing workshop. Big fun! Apparently some of the big names in Science Fiction are bigger than I thought, as they have arranged to have a comet fly by to announce the beginning of the session. Way to go, Jim!

Astronomy Picture of the Day is my new favorite RSS feed. Almost never disappointing.


Need a Little Background for a Story

I’m writing an eclipse-inspired very short story, and I need a city in Mexico. The requirements are:

  1. Good view of the 1991 total eclipse (long totality and had good weather that day)
  2. Populous enough to have bad neighborhoods (bonus: name the neighborhood!)
  3. Bonus: humid enough to have lots of insects

It’s a silly little piece, but I like to get my facts straight. Currently I have it in Cabo San Lucas, but a larger city would be preferable, as long as the first two criteria above are met.

Thanks in advance!

The Big Day

The eclipse is past, it was a success, and the folks on board are ready to party. Fortunately it’s still practically deserted here in the aft lounge on deck 9, tucked away behind the casino. The pianist has been joined by a trumpet player who is quite obviously not on the payroll but what he lacks in prowess he makes up for with a sweet tone and a good attitude. Everyone seems jolly this evening. We saw a total solar eclipse together today.

I woke up early, but not as early as I had planned. Outside our porthole the sun shone brightly over calm seas. By gum, it looked like it would be a good eclipse-watching day.

Many paused for a moment of reflection, and veterans told their stories.

Astronomy buffs prepare for the upcoming eclipse as the boat passes Iwo Jima

My plan called for breakfast first, a big meal in case the excitement later took precedence over meals. When I got up on deck, I changed my plans. Pictures first. On the port side was Iwo Jima, about as close as tourists can get to it these days. It is hallowed ground, dedicated to the memory of the blood shed over a few square miles of rock in the middle of the ocean. I thought about the marines who had looked over the waves at the same island so long ago, knowing that soon they would step ashore there. I took a couple of pictures in cooperation with Stereoptic Pete, who I have not mentioned yet in these chronicles, but I’ll get to that another day.

The island behind us, we set course for the center of the path the eclipse would take, balancing the longest possible totality with the occasional banks of clouds. “We’re good for Plan A,” the organizer said over the ship’s PA system. I went for breakfast and to make sure that I was as ready as possible for the main event. memory chip cleared, battery (and backup) fully charged, no funky settings on the camera. I went over in my head what I would do for the six and a half minutes of totality. 1) Look at eclipse 2) take pictures of eclipse. I reminded myself to get the priorities right. There would be plenty of pictures to share among the family, but there won’t be another eclipse as long as this one for more than a century.

Also, before I took my position on the sunny deck, I needed better sun protection. My hopes of finding a decent sun hat were thwarted, but the gift shop on board had baseball caps, and one of those would be better than nothing. I sprang for the hat, slathered on the sunscreen, and headed topside.

Sun goggles on! Sunscreen on! Hat on (for now)!

Sun goggles on! Sunscreen on! Hat on (for now)!

I took up a position on the patio at the stern of deck 10. It was less crowded (most of the patio is covered by an awning) and it was close to the beer. It also had the benefit of having a good view to the rear, and I hoped to see the cone of the shadow overtake us as second contact approached.

It wasn’t long before first contact – the moment when the disk of the moon first impinges on the sun. I pulled out my sun-looking-at shades and watched. Near me was a German couple and their cute-as-a-button daughter. The eclipse was going a bit slowly for a girl her age, so I took the daily newsletter, unfolded it, and punched a pattern of holes into it with my pen, creating the largest array of cameras on the boat. We had a good time looking at the dozens of crescent shapes projected onto the table top, projecting them on each other, and generally goofing around.

The day grew dimmer, and cooler. The ship adjusted course to run right down the center of the track, prolonging the totality by a fraction of a second. (“Because we can,” the director explained.) Unfortunately, due to poor math on my part, I had positioned myself directly under the ship’s exhaust on our new heading. As the deck became crowded with the ship’s crew, I crossed over to the other side of the boat, pausing to get a beer on the way. I found a spot on the rail, introduced myself to my new neighbors, and made another check of the camera. I was shooting with a big ol’ zoom lens and it seemed like about halfway zoomed would give the best results. I checked ISO, focus, shutter speed, and aperture. I was ready. The plan was to not spend too much time thinking, but just step through a whole bunch of settings, assuming at least one would give good results.

Second contact, the photo shaken as I grabbed in futility for my runaway hat.

Second contact, the photo shaken as I grabbed in futility for my runaway hat.

The cone of darkness appeared behind us as the world dimmed. The temperature, cooling steadily for the last hour, dropped abruptly further. The light took on an odd twilight aspect. I looked up, and saw the last flare of the sun vanish behind the rugged lunar terrain. Second contact, they call that moment in the biz. I raised my camera, almost vertical, and lined up my first shot. Shoonk went the slider for the zoom, pulling me back from the image. Fwip went my brand-new hat as it tumbled off my head, over the rail, and into the sea far below. I took the picture.

You’ve seen eclipse pictures before, better ones than these. Probably you’re read descriptions of the time spent in the shadow of the moon. Twilight in the middle of the day. Sunset-pink clouds on the entire horizon, 360 degrees. All I can add is “spooky”. Venus appeared, then elusive Mercury and some of the brighter stars. The whispy streamers of the corona cast an eery glow over the sea, and the sky was a color I’d never seen before.

I raised my beer to sun and moon and corona and speedy little Mercury and I silently toasted the spectacle.

The inner corona of the sun, with streamers and stuff

The inner corona of the sun, with streamers and stuff

I took some more pictures, pausing now and then to take it all in, not thinking about anything but the thing itself. Well over six minutes passed that way, then came the first peek of the sun through a valley on the lunar surface, a flash known as the diamond ring that means that we have reached third contact and the magic is coming to an end. I quickly made an adjustment to the camera and fired up at the emerging brightness. And waited as my camera beeped off ten agonizing seconds before taking the picture. It turns out I had adjusted two things. Maybe I was lucky, however; the picture came out right nice.

I hadn’t taken any shots of the crescent sun before totality, but afterwards I found a piece of solar filter blowing across the deck and held it over the lens with one hand while shooting with the other.

The "diamond ring" as the sun peeks through a valley on the moon, while the corona is still visible.

The "diamond ring" as the sun peeks through a valley on the moon, while the corona is still visible.

Eventually it was time to abandon my post and find the rest of my group, in the more crowded areas forward of my position. “Did you get good pictures?” people asked as I moved around. “I don’t know,” I said. I hadn’t gone back to look at them. It didn’t even occur to me until later. I was pretty sure that I was moving the camera too much anyway.

Before fourth contact, while the moon was still slinking back into obscurity, the moon geeks began to break down their fancy telescopes and clever moon-watching devices and the party atmosphere began. The ship hoisted the official ‘successful eclipse’ flag and cheering ensued. Our boat shared horn blasts with other boats that had come to the ideal viewing spot. My cousin sweet-talked the head of bartenders on the boat to slide me a free Eclipse Cocktail.

The central lounge on the boat was packed this afternoon, filled with clusters of people (like us) reliving the experience, checking photos, and partitipating in the traditional cruise activities for the first time in days.

As the eclipse geeks below begin to celebrate, the moon slowly moves along.

As the eclipse geeks below begin to celebrate, the moon slowly moves along.

Tonight after dinner (celebrating fuego’s mother-in-law’s birthday) I followed my nephew out to the foredeck, kept dark for this cruise only, to allow people a place to see the stars. There was the Milky Way and a buttload of stars, along with the fiery trail of the occasional meteor. I stayed out there for quite a while in the dark and quiet, listening to the low conversations around me and thinking about how big it all is, this universe measured in time, and how tiny was the little island we had passed that morning.

Sun and Moon collide
bound by ancient formulae
meteors are free

The Moon is Waning

Less than three days from now I will find myself at the airport, documents in hand, ready to go chase the new moon. Some moons, you see, are newer than others, and the upcoming one is going to get smack-dab between the Earth and the Sun. It will also be a particularly close new moon, so it will cast an unusually large shadow. My goal, and the goal of a brotherhood of geeks that my parents belong to, is to be in that shadow.

The best place for viewing this eclipse will be at sea, and happily there are enough moon geeks to encourage a cruise ship or two to make a special trip out to the middle of nowhere so people can spend a few hours risking eye damage. Our boat will be aiming for optimum totality time, modified by where clouds are at the critical moment. We eclipsists don’t like clouds so much. The boys steering the boat will have all sorts of gizmos to tell them about the weather (sailors have always been funny that way) and will try to put us in the ideal spot.

When the moment comes, we will be able to look almost straight up and see the moon eat the sun.

With only a couple days’ prep time left, I really should think about packing. I even went out and bought a pair of long pants just for the trip. Actually, most of the credit for that goes to my sweetie; left on my own I would have procrastinated on the slack-buying mission (slack slacking? Am I a slack slacker?) until just about now, then rushed about in a panic trying to find some. Apparently onboard and around and about in Asia, “semi-formal” doesn’t include cargo shorts and aloha shirts. What the heck?

Which brings me to the item that now I have to rush around in a panic to find. A suit jacket of some sort. Not only are we out there to ogle astronomical phenomena, we will be celebrating my parents’ fifty years of wedded bliss. There will be a dinner celebration on the boat, and it will be a fancy (on the Seeger scale) affair. I’m pretty sure I have a tie around here somewhere, and I have button-up shirts without flowers or martini glasses printed on them, but the coat is going to be tricky. Anyone have a spare they can loan me? Something in a meduimish size? I can roll up the sleeves if they’re too long.

Other than that, I’ll be packing a camera, lenses, laptop (but which one? the one that can edit photos or the one with a working battery?), a smaller camera, battery chargers (what plugs do they use over there and on the boat?), shampoo, and a toothbrush. Ooo, and a swimsuit. Snorkel and corrective diving mask? Probably not. Oh, and shoes. They’ll probably come in handy for that formal dinner thing.