Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tucker Creek Observatory Update!

The deck, Tardis telescope shed and scope all in place and
ready for a night of viewing!
Finished!! Well, it is finished now. At the time I started this post I was not quite done. I do still have to stain the deck but the roof on the Tardis is now finished. Oh, wait, I also need to add the trim on the Tardis shed to make it look a bit more like the Doctor's Tardis. After this picture was taken it was painted a darker blue. Will update again with more progress!

Something Decidedly Different

It is December 25. Christmas. I sit here this morning enjoying my coffee and the sounds of children happily playing with toys in the other room. Mostly giggling and excited play talk though there is the occasional shriek or tense raised voice. Mostly though, all is well. What’s different about these kids and their toys is that they did not open them up this morning and these are not new toys. These are the same toys they’ve been playing with for years. There is no tree in the house with presents underneath. We do have lights strung up for decoration though they remain up all year long as they provide a soft, cozy and yet festive atmosphere. We enjoy them, why take them down?

These are children who have never believed in Santa nor have they ever celebrated Christmas. Their mother, now an atheist was, for 14 years, a Bible believer that actually read the Bible and came to the conclusion that the Christmas holiday was nothing more than a creation by Constantine to emulate a pagan holiday for the purpose of conversion. In any case, last year, as she says, she studied her way right out of the Bible to deism which then, after a few more months of consideration, was replaced with atheism.

And so, here we are, a happy and content family enjoying a beautiful winter day. Sure, we have some homemade cookies but those are made all year long not just around the holidays and we enjoy some of the holiday music as well. We’ll enjoy this day as any other with three healthy meals, chopping wood, playing blocks, doing a bit of homeschool, maybe some crafts later.

Do our kids lack? Do they feel they are missing out because they’re not getting a roomful of new toys? No, I don’t think so and I’ll illustrate with a little story which is fairly typical. Recently we had a couple birthdays and the girls were asked for a list of things they wanted. The list? Empty. When pushed to come up with a list one shrugged and suggested a coloring book. When pushed further they agreed that they could use some fabric, paint and a few other art supplies. This is the rule, not the exception around here. In general these are kids that are very happy that seem to be living very full lives. For the most part the kids here spend their freetime reading, playing, crafting or watching a couple movies on weekends. In general, they’re not staring at screens, not texting and not partaking of the mainstream culture.

I’d guess that were I to take at a look at the wish-lists of random children living in the U.S., be they birthday or Christmas, the lists would, in general be quite long. I’d also guess that the kids with fairly long lists would already possess a great abundance of fairly new toys and gadgets. This isn’t about proclaiming some sort of right or wrong way to live or raise kids. Not about a right or wrong way of spending December 25 or any other day of the year. Rather, it is suggestion that it is entirely possible to live a life which does not revolve around the hyper-consumption that seems to have become the norm in today’s America. It is also to ask questions: Are we and our children happier as a result of this greatly increased consumption? Are we even aware that this seems to have become the new norm? What is the relationship of our identity and sense of happiness to our consumption of material goods? Have we come to believe that such consumption, as a distraction, can serve as a solution to our problems?

Really, the questions around consumption and hyper-consumption are not new. There are many more questions that could be asked regarding the effects of a way of life based on hyper-consumption on our personal and cultural health. There’s nothing fresh here and many others have been asking the questions for a long time. Nevertheless we seem stuck in this cultural and behavioral rut and I don’t see it as something that is making us happy or as something which can be sustained on a planet which has reached its limit.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Carl's Birthday

Dr Carl Sagan

Yesterday was Carl Sagan’s birthday. I really should have celebrated with a night of star gazing but I was exhausted from a full day and a full week so I stayed inside. It seems fitting though that sometime around 3 am I awoke with thoughts of Carl, the Universe and my place in it. As my mind often does at those early hours (If I’ve been asleep in bed but stir from slumber) I began mulling over a variety of thoughts. Perhaps that’s why long nights at the telescope with views of distant galaxies or Milky Way globular clusters and nebulae are often such an interesting exercise in quiet contemplation. In any case, I was awake and pondering some time outside under the stars. Laying next to Kaleesha I caressed her neck, her back and her hips enjoying the warm coziness of the moment and her sweet sighs as she stirred to my touch. After a little while I decided I would get an early start to the day with a view of the stars, planets and the sunrise.

I layered up with clothes and ventured outside with my iPad and quietly walked up the hill with Murphy at my side. There’s something entirely comfortable about walking up a woodland trail with the stars peeping through the breaks in the trees above and a big dog like Murphy keeping you company. The stars this morning were not a disappointment. They never are. The sky could not have been clearer and in this part of Missouri they are very dark. Orion took my breath away as it hovered in the southern sky. It is in moments such as this that I am overcome with a blissful mix of emotions and thoughts, feeling a joy of being connected to the Earth as I look up with an understanding that I am from the stars. That we, that all of this, is of a Universe which is bound together even as it is expanding further apart.

One of my thoughts this morning, in bed and now carried with me as I walked up the hill pertained to how it is that so much of our lives, in the America of 2013, are spent in pursuit of the next big thing and in particular, then next big shiny thing. Shiny things. It seems we modern humans, at least those of us who live in the “wealthy” nations, have become obsessed with trivial entertainments. From the Super Bowl to sitcoms to eating out to shopping, all the while dutifilly posting Facebook “Status” updates, we keep ourselves busy with our various forms of consumption and our “sharing” of it. How much of our mental and emotional energy is bound up in the aquisition of wealth and material objects. Bigger homes with nicer furnishings, name brand clothes covering overly cleaned and perfumed people driving new cars to jobs which may or may not be satisfying but which are required to maintain the lifestyle and the seeking of status that often comes with it. iPhones and iPads, texting while driving to the next afterschool sporting event, in the presence of others but rarely actually communicating with them.

This morning I think of Carl and his efforts to push humanity forward in its exploration of the Universe and it’s understanding of that Universe. I think of his warnings about our behaviour towards one another and towards the planet we share with not just other humans but with a great multitude of other species. I’ve spent most of my adult life concerned about problems such as climate change and have made a fairly consistent effort to communicate those concerns with others. I’ve made many of my life decisions based upon my understanding (limited though it is) of humanity’s effects on our planet and so this morning as I looked at our Milky Way neighbors I could not help but ponder Carl and what he sought to communicate.

If we humans are ever able to leave our planet for the purposes of living elsewhere it is a long way off. For the forseable future the Earth is our home and we are not doing a very good job of taking care of it. In this past year of looking up at the night sky I have, more than any other time of my life, come to appreciate the beatuy of the Universe. I have also developed a new-to-me understanding or perspective of our home planet in the context of the Universe. With each day the evidence grows that there are likely billions of planets in just our own Milky Way galaxy that might support life, planets that inhabit the “goldilocks” zone around their respective stars. There are billions of galaxies and, in light of these numbers, my doubt about life elsewhere in the Universe continues to shrink. And though we know that life on Earth has an expiration date based upon the life cycle of our sun I can’t help but wish that we humans might make the effort to live as though what we do matters. Perhaps our existence is meaningful because of this known expiration not in spite of it. Our species’ existence is likely to be ephemeral in the grand scheme of things but is that any reason to live without care?

Before the sun began to lighten the sky I pointed the telescope to the north, to Ursa Major and there I found the two galaxies, M81 and M82, collectively known as Bode’s Nebulae. The photons from these distant galaxies traveled for more than 12 million years before finding their way to my eyes. I spent a good long while looking at these two as they are fairly close and offer more detail than more distant galaxies. What life might exist there on the billions of planets that likely orbit billions of stars? Next I looked at Jupiter and then Mars, just a stone throw away by comparison. The sunlight reflected from these two planets traveled to us in just minutes. Current missions to Mars are looking for evidence of past life there. Jupiter’s moon Europa has an atmosphere which consists primarily of oxygen and a smooth icey surface which may well have liquid oceans beneath. Oceans that may support life. As the sun began to brighten the sky I aimed the telescope at the Orion Nebula for one last look.

After putting the scope away I stood for a few minutes on the soft layer of cedar mulch that covers the boulders that overlook the shut-ins of Tucker Creek. I spent a few minutes observing the rushing water and rich textures of the landscape. The trees of this south-facing hill are now nearly shed of all their leaves but are covered in thick layers of lichen. The rocks too are covered in patches of lichen and moss. Even in the chill of a fall morning life is abundant.

As I walked down the path, Murphy again at my side, I could not help but overflow with joy at the crunching of leaves underfoot and the gold light of our sun filtering through the mostly bare branches. There is something very enjoyable about acknowledging and being mindful of the sun not just as the sun but as OUR STAR. At the bottom of the hill our little homestead was stiring with the morning. Chickens, ducks and a goose were all awake and begining their business as were the goats. Soon I would sit in the warmth of the house and write at the kitchen table to the sounds of children pitterpattering above.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tucker Creek Observatory - Night Shot

Observatory at night A time exposure so the amount of light from the red LEDs around the observing deck is exaggerated.. A beautiful view. Sagittarius is visible above the southern horizon, left of the moon.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Tucker Creek Observatory

I've been here at Make-It-Do Farm for almost four months and I'm happy to say that we now have a fantastic observatory site. It took a bit of work but we got started a couple weeks ago cutting down a few trees. Most of them were cedars and not the healthiest trees so I don't feel too terrible for cutting them down. We've got a couple more on the north side to take down. As of now the view from the northwest all the way around to the northeast is pretty fantastic. We've got a great view of the southern horizon which allows for easy viewing of Sagitarius in the summer. When we're finished I expect that our view of the skies will be as clear as those I had at the lake but even better as the skies are even darker here! The observation deck is nearly finished and then I'll build the telescope shed.

In the few nights I had up on the hill before the moon and cloudy weather returned I had some fantastic views of the Ring Nebula, Andromeda, Perseus Double Cluster, Messier 2, Eagle Nebula and Lagoon Nebula. Quite a few others too but those are the highlights. Not only is the hill a great viewing site but it sits within just a hundred feet of the shut-ins of Tucker Creek. Just as the lake offered an amazing night-time symphony of geese and other life, so too does this site offer the sounds of frogs, insects and running water. The skyline is framed in trees and the rock bluffs all around are barely visible in the pale starlight. Beautiful. I didn't think I could have a better site than the lake but I think this is it.


Friday, August 09, 2013

Accepting Complexity

A few days ago we had a visit from the Johavah’s Witnesses. We glanced out the window and didn’t recognize the van. When I saw them get out I guessed pretty quickly who they were and excitedly put on my shoes. By the time I got out to the car they were already in conversation with Kaleesha. She didn’t see me approach from behind. She was being very polite, letting them talk for quite an extended period. I wasn’t sure if she was going to quietly listen and let them leave or confront them. I piped up from behind when they produced an article titled “Should you trust religion?”

“Oh, no, we’re atheists.” I wasn’t interested in anything but being blunt and to the point. I’m happy to engage with them but it will be on my terms if they’ve come to my house. So, I happily let that cat out of the bag. I won’t really bother recounting the conversation as they didn’t have much to offer. My basic suggestion was that we relied on and believed in science and that the Universe was plenty amazing without an imaginary god. But they did leave a few things and agreed to come back next week for more conversation.

So, what was it they left? Well, let me sum it up as useless. Not that I’d expect anything of use from them. One of the “publications” was about science: “The Origin of Life: Five Questions Worth Asking”. Essentially, it can easily be summed up as this: Life and the Universe are far too complex to be anything but the result of intelligent design. That’s it, just their assertion. We’re supposed to take their word. While they actually do a pretty commendable job of introducing some actual science, giving credit and acknowledgement (in a minimal way) to the progress made by various fields of science, they end each section with a sort of “God of the Gaps” argument. Essentially, they’ve taken some big steps backwards from progress made 60 years ago. At least according to this humble non-believer. During World War II German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
“…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”
Charles Alfred Coulson, in his 1955 book Science and Christian Belief wrote:
“There is no ‘God of the gaps’ to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking.”
The problem is that science continues the march onward, making fantastic progress across the many fields. From microbiology to astrophysics, the gaps in data, the gaps in knowledge, are being closed at an amazing rate. The writing on the wall. God is no longer needed and is being handed his hat. Thanks but no thanks, we can use the scientific method to explore and understand the Universe.

Some of them seem to think that the meager offerings of the Bible are sufficient but it is far from that. It is a religious document written over a thousand years ago that does not deal with a scientific exploration of the Universe. It explains nothing. Our visitors the other day seemed to think that they could point to a passage here and there to somehow prove the Bible’s accuracy. Nevermind the contradictions that exist, a passage here and there do little to explain the mysteries that the scientific method has been used with such efficacy to explain.
“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.” – Carl Sagan
Of course science is just a method, a tool used by humans to learn. But we recognize that mistakes can be made and the method is design to confront the mistakes. Nothing in science is sacred or above challenge. New data can confirm our understanding or might be used to challenge it. That is the beauty, resiliance and utility of science and what makes it such a valuable tool.

Addendum: As planned, we were revisited by the JW folks and had a nice conversation. I expect it was pointless but who can predict. To put it simply I shared with them everything I’ve written here. Whether they will consider my thoughts and criticisms or not I do not know.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Bringing Permaculture to Make-It-Do

Hugelculture herb spiral in
construction. Leaves and wood used
as organic filler, topped with soil
and compost.

Let me start by saying that Permaculture is not a new concept for Kaleesha and she's been putting various elements of it into practice for several years. What is new though is having me around and my thoughts on how to go about things.

Probably the biggest change is going to be a change in goat management which is both a permaculture driven change as well as a very practical need. Essentially the goat fencing was never quite finished and with a bit of effort they were able to free-range which is not a good thing with a road nearby. Nor is it a good thing if one wants to grow berry and fruit trees and bushes or any kind of flower garden. If you dont already know, goats eat practically every kind of growing thing so growing a garden or food forest is difficult, probably impossible if goats have open access to growing areas.

Last week we finished the fencing and the goats are mostly contained. They will do their best to get past it and will find a few week points (already have!) so we'll have to get out and do a bit of troubleshooting. But as of now, it is a big improvement and they are behind the fencing most of the time which means we are now free begin landscaping areas around the house which had previously been left as grass or gravel.

After the goats the priority has been to improve the aesthetics of the north, driveway side of the house is poorly defined with two doors that confuse visitors about the actual entrance. The first door goes to the laundry room is more a utility entry but is usually the first door seen by visitors. The real entryway is not marked in anyway. That entire face of the house was used as storage with a heating unit, doors, windows and other items leaned against the wall. The rocks of the driveway were steadily migrating down into the gravel mulch that served as a yard. Most of this area is heavily shaded by the house and two large trees. The northeast side of the yard has a bit of grass and gets a good bit of sunlight.

Well rotted log from my hugelculture beds. The logs
and soil are full of fungi and micro organisms.

We started by getting all the items along the house moved to the shed. Once we cleared the space we wanted to bring some life and usefulness to the area. We built a hugelculture shade bed against the house and to the west side of the main entrance to the house. The bed has been planted with a mix of shade tolerant plants such as ferns, hostas and native columbine. A smaller bed on the other side of the door will also be built and planted with shade plants. The concrete pad in front of the door will also be getting some attention. Currently it gathers a good bit of small gravel which makes its way into the house. To help draw attention to this door as the primary entrance and to reduce the amount of gravel coming inside we are repurposing some concrete paver stones mixed with various stones found around the property which are being laid in as an extension of the pad forming a sort of patio.

Much of the focus thus far is working on moving extra plants over from my efforts at the lake. I've gotten some of the kitchen herbs and Missouri natives moved over with many more to go. My folks will be taking over my cabin and have no interest in gardening so I'm also bringing over soil from the two year old hugelculture bed. The logs are rotting up nicely and the resulting soil, previously enriched with manured straw from the chicken coop, is fantastic. Thus far the herb spiral and hugelculture beds around the mature trees in the yard have been planted with Oregano, Skullcap, Lavendar, Garlic Chives, and Purple Coneflowers.

This fall I'll move the serviceberry bushes, blackberries, and raspberries and possibly a few others. In the longterm I'd like to put the hill that the house is built on to use. It is a south-facing hill and an excellent opportunity for water harvesting with swales. Another longterm project is improving the goat forage. Currently they forage a diverse area with a fairly good mix of food but it could be improved. Yet another long term project that we'll get started in the spring of next year we will be several food forests. We'll obtain low-cost nut trees from the Missouri Department of Conservation as well as a few fruit trees from other sources.

This is a great site with fantastic potential and I look forward to becoming a part of it.


Thursday, August 01, 2013

Building a Partnership With Kaleesha

Living in the cabin these past 5 years I’ve gotten very good at being single and alone most of the time. I’ve not had a serious long term relationship since 2001. But I’m good at being a partner, I enjoy it greatly and find the cooperative process a very rewarding one. Connecting with someone of like mind with whom we can work and learn and share, well, isn’t that what we all look for in a relationship? The core of such a partnership, in my view, is communication.

So, here I am building a new relationship with Kaleesha. Really, we’re just getting started. We’ve been friends since January but, as I mentioned recently, that friendship took on a new direction in recent months. What I’ve found in Kaleesha is a beautiful human being that has a relentless desire to explore life in the Universe and to communicate those explorations. Now, I should probably clarify what I mean by explore. As a homesteader with a variety of animals and seven kids, she is not skipping willy nilly across the globe. Her exploration is a bit closer to home.

As I explained previously I met Kaleesha when she and her family took an interest in astronomy. I did not share that she had, in the late summer of 2012, quit the Bible and Christianity. As she puts it, she “read herself right out of it”. That got my attention. A serious Christian of many years who reasoned her way right out of religion. A person not content with faith and courageous enough to confront a lifetime of self-deception was a person I wanted to know better.

Upon her initial departure from Christianity she considered herself a deist but soon began to question that as well. As of this writing she considers herself an agnostic with atheist leanings. As she says, “I’m fairly confident that in a couple of months I’ll consider myself an atheist”. She’s currently reading Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Gandhi’s autobiography which brings me to her habit of constant reading which I greatly appreciate and admire. I’ve always thought that reading is the base of intelligence… Or, rather, a primary tool required if one is to have any chance of intellectual development. A lifetime of reading exclusively romance novels is not likely to lead to much in the way of personal intellectual growth. Fortunately her reading materials are substantative.

By circumstance our friendship evolved via a mix of face-to-face conversation blended with many Facebook conversations and email exchanges. These direct communications were supplemented with our explorations of one another’s blogs. From the beginning ours was a process largely based on the sharing of our written words, our ideas about the world and our experiences in it. To put it simply, it was intellectual exchange rather than emotional exchange and I think it set the foundation for what we have been developing since. I consider her one of the more interesting people I’ve met in my time on the planet.

Kaleesha is the first writer with whom I’ve been involved romantically and it was immediately obvious that her being a writer added something of great value to our relationship. I’ve not known many writers in my life but those I have known seem to share a common trait of experiencing life more fully. A more developed vocabulary and ability to use language (oral or written) seem to correlate with a generally deeper appreciation of the Universe and a curiosity about its workings.

I have greatly enjoyed her fondness for reading aloud to the kids and often as we lay in bed she will share quotes from her current read which often leads to a bit of conversation. This is a woman who loves words and the expression of ideas. She loves to dig into the current subject of her curiosity, roll it over and examine it from a variety of angles and chew on her observations. When she gets around to writing about it (as she inevitably does if it is worth writing about) she is thoughtful and deliberate in her craft. In fact, this is yet another aspect of her which I greatly appreciate and admire: her willingness to take her time and do it right. Whether she is writing for her blog (or upcoming book), making a pizza, sewing or working with the kids, she is careful to take her time, to be deliberate and mindful of the task at hand.

Partnership with Kaleesha is both a comfort and a challenge. Comfort when it is needed, say at the end of a long day or even just a general sort of comfort that comes with having a close confidant. There is the comfort that comes with her bringing me a cup of coffee or her sweet smile from across the room or the sight of her confidently rolling out a loaf of bread that will soon be in the oven. There is the challenge she puts forth by just working so hard everyday. Gone are my days of lax activity living alone in the cabin. Not to say I didn’t get done what I needed to (usually), just that it was a very relaxed life with accountability only to myself. I could get away with my laid-back day-to-day efforts. Life with Kaleesha requires that I rise to the occasion, that I put forth greater effort. Whether it is time with the kids and giving them my thoughtful attention or some chore such as moving a goat fence, there is more to do here. Kaleesha has been the primary caregiver to her seven children and it’s not left her with much time to write or to engage in other projects. My intent is to take over some of these responsibilities and general household responsibilities so that she has more time to develop herself in other areas.

Of course there is the passion that comes with real partnership. Such passion manifests in many ways. It might be shared passions such as astronomy and gardening. While viewing the stars with friends like Russ and Mark is always a very enjoyable experience and my solitary time at the scope too is very rewarding, time shared with Kaleesha at the scope adds a new flavor to the experience. Sometimes we are focused on what we are viewing, sharing in the beauty of a globular cluster or nebula, other times the experience wanders to the holding of hands, conversation or warm embrace. Spending time in the garden together is equally beautiful and greatly enriched over time spent gardening alone. Occasionally all the passions come together and blur such as the night we started observing the stars and moon in the yard. We wandered into the garden as we searched around trees and clouds for a particular patch of sky. There we enjoyed an awareness of all the elements merging; of being in our garden, surrounded by growing things as we looked to the heavens. There is no better place to be.

This post would not be complete without some mention of our daily communications which start every morning in bed. There is nothing as sweet as starting a day with a gentle conversation in bed with the person one loves. We might jump into a conversation about the day’s plans or we might mull over an event from the previous day. Sometimes we start with a bit of silliness, sometimes it is a meaningful discussion. Regardless of the start, our day is marked by consistent communication with each other and with the kids. She is very skilled and deliberate in her management of the home and much of this manifests as a sort of conversational tone of respect which makes for a very pleasant environment.

This is a partnership I will deeply enjoy.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Throwing Myself In

Sometimes it's the unlooked for happenings in life that turn out to be the most impactful; chance meetings that turn us from the future we'd expected or planned for. I sit typing this, not in the cabin I built and have called home for five years, but at a beautiful kitchen table in the home of a family I did not know this time a year ago. My days are no longer in the quiet woods, a solitary life shared with a variety of non-human beings. Now I am surrounded by children. Blue Berry is next to me showing me her latest creation. Royal and Atira are explaining to me how much Royal has grown since October. This morning when I awoke Seth was waiting for me with a deck of UNO cards in hand. Most mornings start with a conversation with Kaleesha followed by coffee and a trip to the barn. To put it simply, my days are now filled with the building of a new relationship with Kaleesha and her seven children.

It gives me pause, to consider how quickly and to what extent life can change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. This past fall I'd purchased my first telescope and that also represented a shift for me as I started spending a lot of time looking at the night sky. I'd already been spending more of my time studying and reflecting upon the Universe and a variety of astronomical subjects. The result was a remarkably happy and blissful me. When one spends one's time focused on the Cosmos it seems that a natural result is a certain kind of calm or bliss that comes from an appreciation of the beauty and perspective in such studies. My turn to the stars was certainly a change for the better.

Making ice cream!
And now this. I find myself in the daily mix of a wonderful family of eight, nine counting myself. This is hardly the sort of thing one plans for. Just as my reflecting upon the billions of galaxies in the observable Universe or the billions of stars in our Milky Way was overwhelming and exhilarating, so too, is my new life here in this home. Daily life here is an adventure filled with moments of sharing and opportunity for learning and growing. For all of us. It's difficult to really know where to begin. Like sitting down to a huge feast. So many possibilities.

Let me start with one of the fundamentals of life on Earth: to raise young. Long ago I made several decisions about my life. One of those was that I would not have children. This, not because I have anything against little humans, but that I believed the Earth already had too many of us and certainly too many of us called "Americans" that are really good at consuming far more than our share. So, I would do my part for the planet and hold back. There were other aspects to this decision but really it is a side point that I don't need to go into too deeply. But, for the record, I think little humans are pretty neat and watching them develop, helping them grow into adult humans is an amazing process, opportunity and responsibility. It's not something I'm afraid of being a part of, I just didn't expect that I'd ever be in a position to do so. But, here I am. Five months ago I had a great friend with seven amazing kids. Now I love that friend and call her partner. As for the kids, I'd never aspire to replace or emulate their biological father. What I will do, what I am doing, every day, is loving them as best I can. Let's explore that.
Farra, Justin and our visiting goose

Love. I've had a tendency to be fairly critical of the society and culture of which I am a part. It's what I do. A part of that has been questioning the idea and, more importantly, the practice of love. What does it mean to love someone? To love a partner or a child? What does parenting look like? What does it mean to be married or in some sort of committed relationship? Of course there is no set answer to these questions, no "right" answer. But I haven't let that stop me from pondering them quite a bit over the years. Now, I recognize that my observations are obviously very limited to a tiny, tiny sample. But in my experience relationships of most kinds do not get the care and attention they need.

The general rule seems to be that parents don't really want to parent. Spouses, partners, or whatever term you want to use, often don't seem to want to do the work of communicating with one another, don't want to cooperate. It's easy to use words like love but how do we manifest it in our day-to-day relationships? How do we put it into practice in our relationships? What's the connection between love and respect in our relationships? How do we love those outside our "family" or is that even possible?

Let's take that last one. It applies here because I find myself in this home and now the newest addition to this family. But… but… these are not MY kids! How can I love them? What is my role here? Is there a switch I just turn on? How does this love thing work? Many years ago I came across a few different ideas that transformed my notion of love and even my notion of what it means to define "me". Interestingly these ideas played very well into my recent explorations of the Cosmos. The idea, quite simply, is that we're all made of the same stuff. We share and exchange atoms and molecules, we are all a part of this Universe and all return to the same place at death. It's much easier to love one another, to accept one another and to care for one another. We humans have created countless ways to divide ourselves from one another, to compete with and dominate one another.

Getting back to the idea of loving others and in particular those outside our family. It's really not that hard to extend ourselves, to offer any variety of things to those outside of our "circle". Of course there are only 24 hours in a day and most of us have limited resources so I'm not suggesting that we are unlimited in what we can do, just that we can often offer far more to others than we do. Settling into this house it was easy and natural for me to begin caring for the kids. Anyone that knows them might say that yes, of course it was! They are adorable, respectful, loving… its a long list of compliments that are often applied to them by friends and family. It is accurate but visiting with them is not the same as living with them as Kaleesha told me many times. I can safely say that they really are normal human kids that sometimes get upset, cry, throw little fits and more. They're not perfect. They are, however, well loved by their mother who parents them with an attention to detail and a consistency I have never seen before. Ever. And they respond very well to her parenting. They know that they are loved, appreciated, cared for and many other things.

Blue Berry
Loving in this context comes naturally. Kaleesha has worked very hard to create a culture of love in her home. It is evident morning, noon and night at the dinner table, in the garden, on the porch and anywhere else. She is, frankly, relentless in her insistence upon active engagement with her kids and with others that might be around. I've spent these first few weeks talking with her about parenting and have observed her carefully. I don't feel that I'm in a position to do much more than observe but I am constantly learning and engaging. The daily lessons range from actually parenting to learning about the children themselves. Learning their interests, expressions, habits, ways of speaking, their ways of non-verbal communication as well as their patterns of interaction amongst themselves. Jeesh, I'm sounding a bit like an anthropologist in the field with that last bit. Oh well. There are so many little details to appreciate in daily life here.

My life here is just beginning and I have much to learn but I don't doubt that I will. Over the years I've had several people share with me that they thought it a shame that I would not have kids, that they thought I'd make a good parent. Time will tell but I certainly am happy and grateful to be given the chance to be a part of what's going on here.

Next time around (and soon) I hope to share about Kaleesha specifically as well as a post about the similarities in life here at Make-It-Do Farm as compared to life at my cabin on the lake. Check back soon!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

An Unexpected Journey

Where to start? Up is down, down is up. In the dark of space there really is no up or down but then, this is not a post about space at all. It's also the first post in over two months. One of my many gaps in posting here but this time with good reason. I've moved and by moving I don't mean to a new blog but a new home and it was very much unexpected. It's not just that I've moved but that my life has taken quite a turn in a direction, onto a path, never looked for or considered.

Several months ago, November to be specific our local librarian referred a family of homeschoolers my way for an astronomy session. He cheerfully told me that they'd recently come out of Christianity and suggested that they were very interested in astronomy. I happily obliged and we arranged to meet one Saturday evening for a look at Jupiter and a few other objects. It went well and from there a friendship began to build. A few chats here and there over the next few months led to my inviting Kaleesha to our Geek Parade, a weekly discussion group. She began attending the discussions in January and as the group began transitioning from general science discussions to a more astronomy focused group she happily followed along. Many of our indoor meetings transitioned to outdoor viewing sessions and she often showed up with two or three of her seven children.

As our face to face conversations got longer so to did our online chats and before long we'd become good friends. Sometime in February or March I started to see evidence of problems in her marriage. Apparently there were many and they were nothing new. In April, another milestone: Saturn. Kaleesha stayed late one night with the kids and we were lost in conversation. We noticed the time and as she was getting ready to go I realized Saturn was up so we had a look. As always, being around to show someone their first view of Saturn is a fantastic experience. We said our good byes. It was a few days later that our conversations grew a bit more intense as her troubles at home increased. It was increasingly obvious that she was moving towards ending her marriage.

A few weeks later her marriage was ended. Not officially, but in the way that matters most. She asked her husband to move out and informed him of her intentions to divorce. He resisted at first but not for long. Suffice it to say, he'd made the choice to leave the marriage long ago so the parting of ways, once she decided, came quickly.

As her friend I was in the thick of it all. The build-up to the separation as well as the days that followed. Then there was a day that she came to me with no kids. We walked and talked and she cried a good bit. She cried on my shoulder and I held her. Then a little later, after she'd calmed and we got back to talking, she looked up and asked: "Can I kiss you." I was surprised but not that surprised. I said yes and a new chapter was started for both of us.

In some circumstances I would be more cautious and would have thought that she needed time after the ending of her marriage before moving on. But in truth her marriage had ended long ago and she was only now getting around to dealing with it. So things began to move fairly quickly as the nature of our friendship changed into something more. I'll stop there and get to writing on the next post. I'm sure you see where this is going.


Tuesday, April 02, 2013

How and why to record your astronomy observations

M84 is the last, in the bottom right of this chain. M86 is the
large, slightly oblong galaxy to the left of M84.
A couple weeks back I finished my Messier List! Or so I thought. Come to find out, in the first month of observing during which time I was relying only on Sky Safari to record my observations, I was not recording descriptions of my observations. At the time I was not yet set on fulfilling the requirements for the official Messier certificate nor is Sky Safari really designed for detailed observations. At some point I made the decision to begin taking down full descriptions at which point I switched over to a FileMaker database to better record observations. So, I'll have to re-observe 80 or so objects!! I was going at quite a pace to get that many in just 40 days or so. To be honest, I'm actually happy to do it because a second round of observations with my improved viewing skills and a better scope really is called for anyway.

In looking through the notes that I did record, starting sometime in November, I realize now what a poor job I was doing. I expect I may one day look back at my current notes and think the very same thing. Here's an example. For M84 my description was simply "A fantastic cluster of galaxies - beautiful." That's not the correct way to do it. For starters, M84 is a single galaxy that is a part of a string of galaxies called the Markarian Chain. It would have been fine for me to describe it as a part of that chain but I should have included a description of the object too. Probably something along the lines of "M84, a lenticular or elliptical galaxy, presents as a spherical halo with a stellar core." That is still a pretty basic description but it would be a step in the right direction. I could have added something about it's relationship to nearby M86, perhaps comparing the two and noting that M84 is more spherical with a slightly brighter core while M86 is slightly less bright with a more oblong shape. This is far more complete and will help me remember what it is I've seen.

As for the how of basic observation and recording, I use an iPad, spread sheet and database. Each observation gets logged into the spreadsheet on the iPad which is later entered into a FileMaker database.  I record the date, time, atmospheric conditions, telescope used and eyepieces used. Lately I've also been recording temperature. Last is a brief 2-4 sentence description of the object and how it might appear in relation to other objects in the eyepiece. The more detail I can record the better I'll remember the observation when I read the description later. Also of great importance is that in recording observations, in looking for detail, we're actively training our eyes and brains to see better. The recording reinforces the observing skills and the increased observing skills, in turn, result in better written notes. One last thought, I also make it a point to at least skim the description of the object in Sky Safari as it often notes what should be visible in an amateur scope. I am also sure to study the image presented as a guide in observation of detail. The photos are far more detailed than what we can expect to see with our eyes but after a bit of practice I've learned to translate the images into more realistic expectations. They present the ideal of what is there.

Amateur astronomy, as I've written before, is a great way to learn some of the basic skills of science. Namely, the importance of consistent and methodical observation/data collection as well as consistent and methodical recording of that data. Amateur astronomers regularly contribute to the collection of data used in the field and with citizen science projects such as Zooniverse they are also helping to analyze the data collected by the many space telescopes currently collecting vast amounts of data. Whether they are finding NEOs (near earth objects such as asteroids) or finding exoplanets, amateurs are contributing to the science. It requires a certain level of observational skill, a willingness to increase that skill, and time. That's about it. Well, actually, it can be quite a bit more complicated and the time involved can be great if one is serious about certain areas such as the search for NEOs which requires not just detailed observation but consistent and methodical photography.

One last point. For anyone getting involved in amateur astronomy there is the side benefit of not only paying closer attention to what is being done by scientists in the field but also a very real-world personal benefit of a much deeper, more meaningful understanding of how science works generally and just how complicated the work really is. I can say that in just a few months my level of understanding, though still pretty basic, has been greatly increased and my appreciation for the work of NASA and others is now on an entirely different level.

Dark Skies to you!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Comets, Meteors, and Asteroids!

Winter is passing and I'm certainly looking forward to the spring!

I've had some great viewing sessions since my last post just over a month ago. Mostly galaxies on my Herschel 400 list. I've now viewed 329 out of 400. On the Messier list I've got 107 out of 110. I'll probably get the Messier completed sometime in April and the Herschel 400 sometime in May or June. I've just got to wait for the objects to become available in the sky again! Next on the list of observation programs: The Herschel II and the Lunar I program. There are 40+ programs offered by the Astro League. I'm looking forward to them!

Before I get into some of the Herschel highlights, I'll note two very cool observations. Most recently, last night in fact, I got a look at Comet Panstarrs C/2011 L4. It is currently viewable just after sunset. I caught it at about 7:40pm halfway between the moon and horizon. Just barely visible to the naked eye, it is best viewed with binoculars or telescope. I had a very nice view of it with the 8" dobsonian. With the 30mm eyepiece the tail is nicely defined and the comet core is very bright!  Photo was taken at ISO 800 at 85mm, about a 2 second exposure. Comet is in the bottom right. The moon was nicely lit with reflected light from the earth called earthshine. As of now the comet has completed its orbit around the sun and is moving back towards us and into its tail.

The second observation was that of the asteroid, 2012 DA14, that made a close flyby of the Earth on February 15th which by chance, was the day that a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia. My observation of 2012 DA14 didn't last long thanks to the clouds but I had it for five minutes or so... As expected, it looked like a faint, small, slightly fuzzy star slowly moving through the eyepiece. Pretty neat to observe it.

I've looked at more than 50 galaxies and clusters since my last post so I'm just choosing a couple to mention here. The first I observed on February 13,  the irregular galaxy NGC 4449, in the constellation Canes Venatici. It is located about 12 million light-years away, part of the M94 Group (the Canes Venatici I Group), a galaxy group relatively close to the Local Group containing the Milky Way. A very interesting object to observe because of it's shape and the fact that some detail is visible in the eyepiece. Obviously, no color but some mottling is visible.

Another galaxy, viewed on  March 7, was NGC 4565, The Needle Galaxy and this was quite stunning. Similar to NGC 4710, in that it is an edge-on spiral galaxy. It is about 30 to 50 million light-years away in the constellation Coma Berenices. It is a stunning object in the eye piece. What makes it nice to look at is that dark lane of light absorbing molecules that extends across it, blocking the light. A very nice detail that can also be observed in the Somrero galaxy, NGC 4594. The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait has an excellent write up about on edge galaxies.

The Eastern Ozarks Astronomical Society continues to meet regularly to observe and we have also begun our efforts at community outreach. Hoping to have more to report on that soon. One last thing I'll add and that is that there is so much happening right now in the field of astronomy. Between the Mars Curiosity discoveries as well as the many other discoveries concerning the Higgs Boson, exoplanets, it's hard to keep up with it all!

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Weeping to the Heavens

Moon photographed with iPhone and Z12
February 5, 2013
We had a fantastic night last night in our group observation for the Eastern Ozarks Astronomical Society. It was the usual crew plus a couple of newbies. Of course Russ and Karen were there. Kaleesha made it back for her third time at the scope and with her Blueberry and Seth. It was Seth's first time and he took to the scope very naturally. Our new Farmington astronomer friend Mark made it for the second night in a row and though we were clouded out first night, last night we had perfect skies from sunset till sunrise. It's always nice having new folks in attendance. We discussed open clusters, the use of the word nebula in the initial naming of galaxies which, at the time, were not known to be galaxies! We also went over star hopping with the 8" dobsonian with a red dot finder and folks got a chance to find a few Messier objects. Lots of fun! We also saw a very nice green fireball!

After most folks left Russ and I had an excellent conversation about the scientific method and the importance of skepticism. After that I took a brief dinner break and then set back out for some solo galaxy observations from my Herschel 400 list.

After about six galaxies I took a break to just look up with my eyes and the beauty of it was just too much. I suppose all there is to say about it is that I cried and I kept on crying. I thought I'd finished and then I cried more. No doubt, a part of what was going on was that I'd set a particular song on repeat, The Cinematic Orchestra's song To Build a Home and I'm fairly certain that it was the song, combined with what I was seeing, that sent me over the edge. To be honest there have been several such moments  during my nights at the scope over the past few months. I'm usually able to control it but sometimes it is good to just let go and accept it.

Saturn photographed with iPhone and Z12
February 5, 2013
It's not the first time I've had the sensation, a sort of heightened alertness and emotional intensity that just comes in like a slow motion wave. Usually it's just the result of really being in the moment, be it under the night sky looking at stars or standing in the cold watching my breath seemingly frozen midair or any number of other similar moments. It is as if time slows down and in those moments I am not just seeing what's around me,  but being in what is around me. To put it simply, it seems like a convergence of emotion and intellect that results in something not quite our normal day-to-day experience, something overwhelming.

I'm guessing most people have these moments at various times in their lives... I certainly hope so. I've mentioned to a few folks recently that I feel like, more often than not, I exist in this sort of low level bliss. In part I think it comes with this kind of simple life. I own so little and live in such a small space that my life is not about owning but about being, about experiencing... searching and exploring. Our lives are short and so it makes sense to me to live it as my life but to do so in constant connection and ever deepening relation. I made a choice to never have children so being connected means something different for me. It's frogs and stars, geese and planets, friends and family, it is belonging to life and to the earth and to this cosmos. When you belong you are free.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Eastern Ozarks Astronomical Society Updates!

I'm very happy to report that our work towards building an organizational advocate for astronomy and science in Madison County is coming along! Lots of tidbits to report. We've had a good bit of support on our Facebook discussion group as well as the new community group set-up on FB. You can never have enough Facebook pages can you? Actually, I'm pretty sure you can. Frances Madeson was kind enough to feature me on her blog in a post aptly titled, Throw me to the Coyotes. I know, that does not sound astronomy related but I assure you, it is. I'm honored to have been interviewed by her.

EOAS member Corey Warner of Studio 222 designed a fantastic logo for us and Karen Whitener was interviewed, for J-98, for one of the regional radio stations which will be airing the spot several times so that will help get the word out as well. Thanks to Scott Kubala of J-98 for taking an interest in our project. I also set up the Eastern Ozarks Astronomical Society website to seal the deal!

We've got many evenings ahead of us and I expect that they will each be filled with the joy that seems to come with the shared exploration of the universe. Dark Skies!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Exploring the Universe Together

NGC 4594, the Sombrero Galaxy
Recently Kaleesha put up a pretty fantastic couple of posts. The first, Creation, the Big Bang or Both? is one in which she shares her current attempts to better understand the Big Bang. It has been very interesting to read about her intellectual journey since her rejection of Christianity several months ago and inspiring to see her push on in her search for truth. In her second post, Astronomical Scattershooting (what a great phrase, eh?), she provided a wonderful description of her current explorations of the universe as an amateur astronomer. My  post here is something that grew out of my initial comment to her on her blog.

What I enjoy most about being an amateur astronomer is learning about the Universe through a blended process of observing distant objects  and then reading about those objects in the Wikipedia which is usually supplemented by a related episode of Astronomy Cast.  It adds so much to my life to be able to look up through a telescope and view the Sombrero galaxy, to really take it in and ponder its existence.  I wonder, who may be there and are they looking out in this direction?  In my last viewing of that galaxy I spent nearly 30 minutes allowing my eyes to adjust and taking the time to notice the details. After a time of looking through the scope and seeing so many beautiful objects, supplemented by the research, I can say that now when I look up with my naked eyes I see it all very differently. There is now a deeper awareness brewing in me, fermenting knowledge, of the details and I more fully appreciate what I see and the emotions I experience as a result.

But of course we don't explore this Universe alone do we? At the forefront we have a global community of scientists cooperating and collaborating and challenging one another through this amazing process we call science. This open community, based on finding the mistakes and correcting the theories and adding in the details as they are discovered with newer, better instrumentation, sets the example for how we can better get at the truth. It is a never ending process, an ongoing adventure and exploration of our Universe and one we can all take part in. Those of us that are not scientists have a role as well.

As citizens of our planet it is our responsibility to make our own effort to learn and to explore. It is our responsibility to reach out, to share and engage with one another and with the knowledge being produced. The internet is allowing for increased communication between the public and the scientific community. For those interested in astronomy and related fields there are the sites I mentioned a couple days ago: CosmoQuest,  the Planetary Society and the Citizen Science Alliance, all of which have at their core mission an attempt to engage the public and even to create a space for them to participate. Most of these groups are also involved with Google+ hangouts which allow for real-time video conferencing with the scientists doing the work. If you can't be around to watch live they are all archived on YouTube. For example, here's the Planetary Society's Channel.

There is an essential trait that we need to borrow from the scientific community before we can move forward: a willingness to embrace our mistakes and our ignorance. It seems to have become a common cultural trait to fear our fallibility but such fear holds us back from moving forward as individuals as well as collectively. Not so in the scientific community which is based upon a willingness to fail and a recognition that with failure comes knowledge and a better understanding of the Universe. It is in the moment of embracing failure, mistakes, and ignorance that we grow.

It is perhaps one of the great failings of the past 60 years that we have come to think of ourselves as alone and with that we have come to feel isolated, alienated. In that kind of world it is easy to become fearful and when we live in a culture of fear and insecurity we tend to avoid failure. We avoid growth out of fear of failure and we avoid accepting our mistakes because to do so is to admit we are fallible.

Fortunately, for us, the Universe that we actually inhabit is not one in which we can ever be alone or alienated, at least not physically. We might come to feel separated and alone in our minds due to our perception and our culture, but as far as the reality of the physical Universe that we live in, we are all very much connected:
When I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than most of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, because they’re small, the Universe is big — but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity — that’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings on and activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.” - Neil DeGrasse Tyson
It is natural for us to share what we know or think we know and it is natural for us to be curious. It is these natural desires, coupled with critical thought and the scientific method that we can lift ourselves up and, just as importantly, lift one another up. We have great challenges before us but in teaching one another and encouraging one another we can do remarkable things. In our cooperation we have the opportunity to co-create something beautiful: each other.

We truly are in this together. There is no such thing as alone in this Universe and the sooner we remember that, feel that, and understand that, the sooner we can get on being whole again. We are but one species sharing this planet sharing this cosmos. I did not know Kaleesha or her husband or children until just a couple months ago and am thankful to Bill (another of our community and local librarian) for sending them my way when they indicated interest in astronomy. As a result they have become an important part of our little outpost of science advocates in this out of the way rural community. As long as I'm expressing my appreciation I think I'll also mention how happy I am to have connected to Frances, Russ, Angie and Karen, all humans with which I am grateful to have met since moving to this little corner of the Universe and who have shared the exploration with me.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Eastern Ozarks Astronomy Society First Night!

A brief report on what was happening in Madison County Missouri last night. It was one of those nights that just seemed... perfect. This was our first group viewing session since forming the Eastern Ozarks Astronomy Society which kinda makes it seem official and made it seem something of an occasion.

My friend Russ Middleton got some great photos and one of our new members, Kaleesha, and her girls had a look at a nice variety of nebulae: Orion, Pac Man, Eskimo and M1, the Crab. We also took a look at Jupiter and ended the group viewing with Bode's Nebulae, M81 and M82. Lots of great astronomy talk about the Cosmic Microwave Background, the Bing Bang, and how astronomers (and science in general) come to know things through the scientific method.

After everyone left I warmed up inside for a couple hours and went back out after the moon set. I logged 13 galaxies, a planetary nebula and a globular cluster, M68. Five of those were Messiers bringing my total on that list to 103, just 7 more to go! Messier 104, the Sombrero, was really impressive and with averted vision I was able to make out the dust lane. M68, was really beautiful with many of its stars nicely resolved. I also added nine more to my list of viewed Herschels, bringing me up to 241 out of 400.

The last object viewed from 4:20-5am was Saturn. This was, by far, the best view of the planet I've ever had in my life and honestly, I think I could have cried but it would have ruined the view so I didn't let it happen. It was so otherworldly, and yet, so familiar an image. Viewing Saturn is always special but when it is so perfectly clear, it can be much more.

I saw at least 5 of the moons as well as the Cassini Division in the rings, a first for me. Also saw clouds/color bands, another first for me. Sometimes language fails me.

I can think of no better way to spend a night than this.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Advocating for Science Literacy and Reason

I've always been a big fan of getting at the truth of things no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable we may be getting there. It's something I've insisted on and many times in my life it has caused me a good bit of trouble. That said, I don't feel I have much choice in the matter. It's the activist and the radical in me. It is, perhaps sad, that insisting on the truth might, today, be considered radical. I suppose when you look at the definition of "radical" it does speak to the search for truth. According to the New Oxford American dictionary, radical is: "relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough."

In recent months my small town life got a bit rough in terms of some of my relationships. Specifically, those relationships which I'd developed with local conservatives. It was my intent to cross lines, to try to relate to my fellow humans as humans regardless of their political or cultural leanings. As a result, I'd gotten to be "friends" with quite a few folks that I tended not to agree with on many things. They knew and I knew those differences existed but we made a go of it. But eventually those differences presented themselves front and center and some of those friendships ended in turmoil.

What I am coming face to face with in rural Missouri is the hard truth that many rural residents are not comfortable with having their beliefs challenged, most notably their religious beliefs. Some are able to co-exist with science and accept the possibility that their belief in a higher power can be retained along with an acceptance of science. Others don't seem able to bridge the gap but tend to remain neutral. Some are resistant to the point of hostility.

I have pondering for some time what seems to be an innate tension that exists between religion and science. This is a very real and very serious problem and manifests itself in important and basic elements of science education, namely the teaching of the Big Bang, evolution and climate science. Creationism and intelligent design (a version of creationism promoted by the Discovery Institute) are not, in any way, valid alternatives to evolution. Nor does the fundamentalist Christian community provide any kind of explanation or description of the origin of the universe and yet, they have established an influence in public education on this as well. While the U.S. has downgraded and simplified math and science education other countries are making great progress.

My intent here is to explicitly advocate for science literacy and reason. Evolution, the Big Bang, climate change are all areas of science that have been, to a great degree, settled. While there are many in this and other rural areas who do understand the importance of science as a method for understanding the world and as a basis of progress, there are many who do not. A part of the problem comes from the churches, from organized religion who are crossing lines in terms of social and political advocacy which cannot be tolerated. Another part of the problem is the confused and sloppy thinking that comes from religious belief. I would argue that religion, as it is based on faith, actually requires a level of rejection of reason and the scientific method. At the core, science is the search for truth while religion is advocacy of a belief in something that can never be shown to be true.

I'd like to explicitly support a few organizations that are doing important work that you can support and in some cases actually participate in via citizen science projects.

CosmoQuest is one of my favorites. From their website:

Our goal is to create a community of people bent on together advancing our understanding of the universe; a community of people who are participating in doing science, who can explain why what they do matters, and what questions they are helping to answer. We want to create a community, and here is where we invite all of you to be a part of what we’re doing.
There are lots of ways to get involved: You can contribute to science, take a class, join a conversation, or just help us spread the word by sharing about us on social media sites.
Like every community, we are constantly changing to reflect our members. This website will constantly be growing and adding new features. Overtime, we're going to bring together all the components of a research learning environment (aka grad school), from content in the form of classes, resources, and a blog, to research in the form of citizen science, to social engagement through a forum, social media, and real world activities.
Another is the National Center for Science Education.
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a not-for-profit, membership organization providing information and resources for schools, parents, and concerned citizens working to keep evolution and climate science in public school science education. We educate the press and public about the scientific and educational aspects of controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution and climate change, and supply needed information and advice to defend good science education at local, state, and national levels. Our 4500 members are scientists, teachers, clergy, and citizens with diverse religious and political affiliations.

Last but not least is The Planetary Society, co-founded by Carl Sagan and currently headed by Bill Nigh.
The Planetary Society sponsors projects that will seed innovative space technologies, nurture creative young minds, and be a vital advocate for our future in space.

Why we do it
Our Mission is to create a better future by exploring other worlds and understanding our own.

Current projects include:
  • Fighting for funding in Congress
  • Developing new technologies to deflect asteroids
  • Hunting for Earth-like planets
  • Searching for intelligent life in the Universe
  • Creating a global network of EarthDials
  • And flying our very own solar sail spacecraft, Lightsail-1.

Interested in getting your hands dirty with some citizen science? Of course you are! Check out the Zooniverse which is a project of the Citizen Science Alliance.
The Zooniverse began with a single project, Galaxy Zoo , which was launched in July 2007. The Galaxy Zoo team had expected a fairly quiet life, but were overwhelmed and overawed by the response to the project. Once they'd recovered from their server buckling under the strain, they set about planning the future!

Galaxy Zoo was important because not only was it incredibly popular, but it produced many unique scientific results, ranging from individual, serendipitous discoveries to those using classifications that depend on the input of everyone who's visited the site. This commitment to producing real research - so that you know that we're not wasting your time - is at the heart of everything we do.

Real Science Online
The Zooniverse and the suite of projects it contains is produced, maintained and developed by the Citizen Science Alliance. The member institutions of the CSA work with many academic and other partners around the world to produce projects that use the efforts and ability of volunteers to help scientists and researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them.
My favorite thus far is Planet Hunters which I have participating in. It's very easy and exciting to know that I'm actually doing some of the preliminary work required to find planets around distant stars.

Of course there are others but these are the ones I wanted to mention today.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Second night with the Z12

Little Dumbbell
My planned highlight for Sunday night's chilly adventure was the Crab Nebula, but, though it was nice, it was not much improved over what is visible with the 8".  The highlight of the night, as it turned out, was the Little Dumbbell Nebula. While it is less impressive in what it is (when compared to the Crab), it was a bit more interesting to look at! While the Crab presents a fairly large object in the eyepiece it is mostly just a nebulous cloud with no structure. I have read that with scopes of 16" structure and detail begin to emerge but at 12" it's still just a gas cloud. The Little Dumbbell presents a nice object with a very interesting, much more compact and defined shape.

There were several nice open clusters in the constellation Monocerus and a whole slew of galaxies in Leo. 14 objects knocked off my Herschel 400 list plus just for fun looks at Andromeda, Jupiter and the Orion Nebula. Almost 7 hours, 21 degrees when I came inside and started a fire at 2am! A great night!

Monday, January 07, 2013

12" Zhumell Dobsonian Review and First Light

Pardon the rope, the Telrad was not permanently
attached at the time fo the photo!
This post will serve both as a review of the new telescope as well as a report on the previous two nights of viewing with it. So, yes, unexpectedly I purchased a new scope. I'd planned to purchase a 16" this spring/summer but upon seeing the current prices of the Z12 I decided that, based on my budget, spending $750 now would be much wiser than $2,000 later. As much as I would appreciate the added light gathering of the 16" the 12" is a substantial upgrade from the 8" and should be enough for now.

The scope arrived in good shape in undamaged boxes. I had it put together in an hour and that was taking my time. This is a huge scope for one person to safely maneuver. I'll be happy to have it in a permanent location with shed that will get rolled back during use.

Collimation before first light was a bit tricky. I'd read that the laser collimators that ship with these are out of collimation themselves and are of no use until they are collimated first. I set about doing that but adjustment screws are of a size (allen wrench) I do not have. Luckily my observing buddy Russ had his. Getting the secondary aligned was easy enough. The primary mirror, on the other hand, not so much. It seems that the tension springs in the adjustment bolts are pretty weak. As I turned them this way and that it became clear that I was going to have a hard time getting the mirror where it needed to go. Then it occurred to me that the lock screws, while not intended for adjustment, often do effect the mirror when tightened down so I tried turning a them a bit and presto, I had a collimated mirror.

This is a big mirror that will often need cooling down which is why they include a fan. I have not used it yet because I had it out in the shade on the first day and in the well house the second day so it was cooled off and ready to go at dark.

A few words about the hardware on the scope before I delve into what I saw with it. Everything seems very solid.  I've not used the finder scope yet because I ordered a Telrad and have used it both nights. That said, the finder seems decent in terms of construction. The big plastic cover for the OTA (optical tube assembly) is a pretty loose fit so I'll have to do something about that. Of course the stand is particle board like all of these mass production units but seems solid enough for now. Movement of the scope is very smooth and it is very well balanced. I WILL upgrade to a home built birch plywood stand at some point. All in all, the scope seems very well built. I've encountered no problem other than the above mentioned weak tension springs on the collimation screws that I'll replace and the loose cover.  As you can see from the photo, this is a huge scope and not something I want to move much.

The dual-speed Crayford focuser is very smooth and a nice upgrade over the focuser on the XT8. Being able to fine tune the adjustment is a very nice benefit of this focuser.

First Light for the new scope was Friday night and it was perfectly clear for it! My intent was to spend some time just getting familiar with the bigger scope and compare some of the views with what I've seen with the 8". There's no doubt it is impressive.

First object viewed was Jupiter and it looked great. The main difference, given good seeing conditions, is a sharper image. The 8" struggles with the 5mm EP but provides a fairly crisp image with really good seeing conditions. The 12" provides an even sharper image with a few more details  in the cloud bands and also seems to have a little more tolerance of poorer conditions though I won't know for certain until I've used it more. Of course the same eyepieces also provide higher magnification due to the different focal length. The 5mm needed for detailed planetary viewing gives me 240x in 8", but 300x in the 12". So, not only is it a sharper image but it is also more magnified. Even better, I could, push it to even higher magnification if given the right eyepieces/barlow whereas 240x is the upward limit for the 8".

Next up for comparison was M31, M32, M110: The Andromeda Galaxy and it's satellites. This is a big and very bright object so what I was hoping for was some detail. With the 8" I get a big and beautiful view but no detail. With the 12" I am seeing some structure. It is especially noticeable with the 11mm Explore Scientific 82 degree (provides a wider field of view than standard lenses). At that level of magnification I am seeing a smaller picture but I do see the dust lanes which I don't think I'm seeing at lower magnification. In all the EPs the 3 objects are beautiful and the more faint M110 is much more defined and easy to see.

Next on the list, the Orion Nebula which never disappoints! In the 8" the nebula presents a fantastic view and in the 12" it is a fantastic view. More detail is visible and some of the dark areas are more pronounced. I'll have to spend more time observing before I can offer any more detail.

Now we are getting closer to those things which I expect will really benefit from the 12". Specifically, globular clusters, faint nebula, and distant galaxies. A great example would be something like NGC 2158 which is very rich open cluster in Gemini which almost seems like a loose globular cluster. In the 8" it presents as a nebulous sphere with little to no resolution of stars. In my first attempt to see it back in September I failed with the 8" due to deteriorating atmospheric conditions. The second attempt the next night was a success but the view provided little detail. By contrast, the 12" presented  this cluster as very easy to see and with much greater detail as many stars are resolved. Through the 12" this cluster of stars is now exactly that, a cluster of stars and not just a nebulous sphere.

My next target was the Pacman Nebula, NGC 281 in Cassiopeia. With the 8"  I had no success finding it even with the NPB nebula filter. With the 12" it was easy to see.

After that, a trip to Bode's Nebulae, two easily visible galaxies in Ursa Major. These are easy to find, I was hoping for greater detail. Unfortunately I didn't get much but more than likely that was due to my not taking the time. The night was getting on and I wanted to get some of my remaining Herschel 400 so this is by no means conclusive. I fully suspect that when I revisit and spend more time on these I will indeed see some new structure.

Last on the list were my remaining Herschel 400 galaxies in Ursa Major, 11 to 12 magnitude. While the 8" would make these visible they are often incredibly faint. With the 12" they were easy to find with little to no effort... it was so easy I almost felt like I was cheating! They don't provide much in the way of detail but certainly more than is visible with the smaller scope. I'm sure I'll have more to say about viewing these fainter objects as I spend more time with the Z12. Suffice it to say that the light gathering capability of a 12" scope is fantastic.

I'd intended to offer up the second night's viewing but I'm going to save it for the next post as this is getting quite long! Stay tuned.

Just to let you know

A couple posts today... this first is just to let folks know that I WILL get back to permaculture/homestead related writing at some point! But the simple reality is that in the winter there's not a whole lot going on in that area. At the moment my day-to-day routine consists primarily of reading, occasional freelance web work, starting fires and keeping them going, tending to critters, and getting the telescope out on clear nights. As we get closer to spring I'll update a bit on the garden and food forest plans.