Sunday, May 28, 2006

Record new moon

Very exciting news tonight. I caught sight of the new moon this evening when it was only 19 hours and 19 minutes old. This is beyond what I had ever expected to see from New York, and it completely shattered my old personal record of 26 hours and 41 minutes, from June 7, 2005. But what I'm particularly happy about is getting a shot of this one, not just in the 9x63 binoculars, but in the telescope (thanks to our friend Kate's roof!)

I watched from Brooklyn as always. The sun set at 8:17 p.m., and after waiting a little while I started sweeping the skies near the point where the sun had gone down. At 8:45 I actually saw Mercury first, and holding my binoculars at that height, I moved just slightly to the right, and saw the moon instantly. Four minutes later I took this shot through the telescope, at a magnification of about 30 (the orientation is adjusted here to a right-side-up view):

SkyView Cafe has Mercury at an altitude of 4 degrees, 25 minutes at 8:45, and the moon slightly higher at 4 degrees, 50 minutes. But I think the crescent was lower, because SkyView seems actually to be measuring the altitude at the center of the moon's body, which was largely invisible tonight. The moon itself takes up nearly half a degree -- its angular diameter tonight was 31.41 minutes -- so if you subtract half of that from SkyView's altitude for the moon, you get the crescent at nearly the same height as Mercury, which is how I remember it (though I did not think to note it at the time).

At 8:51, I put in another lens for a magnification of 90:

Here the moon, again at 30x, is about to set behind a low building at 8:56 p.m., when it was about 3 degrees above the horizon:

I moved over to put some lower buildings between us, and took this one at 9:01 p.m.:

I could no longer see it in binoculars at 9:08, when it had not yet descended behind the lowest buildings on the horizon; the thickening gloom just consumed it.

And no wonder: its face was just 1% illuminated, and its magnitude was just -5.1 (compared to 1.4% and -5.2 on June 7). Like the June 7 moon, and unlike all previous record new moons that I'd spotted, I never saw this moon with my own eyes.

SkyView Cafe has the full body of the moon setting at 9:23, but in the enlarged-moon page you can see that the bottom portion, where the crescent extended in a grin that looked like no more than a third of the moon's circumference, had already disappeared at 9:20. That was really when no more moon would have been visible tonight.

Fantastic stuff.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Missing the morning moon

Because of my new night job, I rarely get on the roof anymore to do morning astronomy. So it was a delight to make the effort and get up this morning for the Moon-Venus conjunction.

Click on the photos for the best views of the two bodies.

I plan to go back to taking down precise notes of what I see in the sky, as I used to do before I started this blog. My astronomy journals ended when this blog began, and that can't be good. So I will have to change this blog to become more detail-oriented, or else retire it.

But I do have one conjunction project to publish here -- and it's almost finished. For those still reading, I hope you'll stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Warehouse blaze

These are some pictures I took of a large fire that broke out in an abandoned 3-story warehouse along the East River at 5:30 this morning. The warehouse is the site of the old Greenpoint Terminal Market, and it collapsed around 9:30. It's one of three buildings that have caught fire.

The local television news called it New York's largest fire in 10 years, including 9-11, in terms of manpower. I don't know how that can be true, but 350 firefighers were reported to be at this fire. It's 1:30 now and, although the fire is under control, I am still hearing fire engines rushing past our apartment, which is about 3/4 of a mile from the fire. I saw some EMS on the scene, but it's not known whether there were any squatters living in the warehouse.

A shot from our roof, followed by photos that are self-explanatory:

This is how the main warehouse looked immediately after its collapse, which I saw from about 500 feet away, corner of Franklin and Oak:

In this last shot you can see, in front of the Empire State Building, streams of water, probably from fire boats on the river.

Monday, May 01, 2006

A Flock of Dodos

I saw A Flock of Dodos earlier today as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, and I stayed for a very brief Q&A with the filmmaker, Randy Olsen. A Harvard-trained marine ecologist, Olsen fully supports the theory of evolution, but with a twist. He endorses evolution directly, but the heart of his support seems to be expressed in criticism. He likens scientists to a flock of dodos and warns that science could go the way of the dodo if it's not communicated with greater concision, personability, and humility.

It occurs to me that all three of these traits are often found in humor, or at least in varieties of humor that are not meant to ridicule. Olsen's movie is in fact concise, personable, and humble in its sense of humor. The movie gave me my first chance ever to laugh at the subject, and it's apparent that Olsen likes people and likes to laugh with them -- not at them. He asks himself in the movie whether he would want to sit down for a game of poker with some of the dry, respectable scientists that he's interviewed or with the various colorful personalities that he's found among supporters of Intelligent Design, and he has no problem expressing how much he likes the latter. He says that his first note in his research was his discovery that ID advocates were not the close-minded Bible thumpers, he implies, that he had expected.

Ultimately this is a movie about people more than evolution. At the Q&A, Olsen was asked why he didn't go more deeply into what was wrong with the concept of Irreducible Complexity, and he noted that the medium was, relatively speaking, more of a motivational than an educational tool. He said he considered adding a few minutes of hard scientific details, but he chose to raise the issue rather than try to settle it on film, which would be hard to do. As an ordinary viewer, I think that's a good approach. A different kind of documentary, perhaps for public television (as was alluded to in the Q&A), could delve into the details more fully.

And Olsen said that it would not be easy to describe in a few minutes why Irreducible Complexity was wrong, which is an indication right there that he does not consider such concepts to be on par with basic children's errors. He did mention someone else who he thought had summarized very quickly what was wrong with IC, which just showed his admiration for concision as well as his belief that evolution cannot win its debates so long as scientists are long-winded about it.

In that way and many others, A Flock of Dodos is a call, in the best sense, to popularize science. There is an idea out there that popularization of anything dumbs it down, but Olsen is just not an elitist about this. For him, popularization seems to mean a direct connecting with people. That's how you popularize among great numbers of people -- just talk to them.

And listen. Olsen spends a lot of camera time listening while ID advocates have their say; and most of these conversations, it seems, do not proceed into arguments over scientific data. Olsen is really more interested in talking to people about the controversy, which is what his movie is about. He's done a great job of teaching the controversy -- in the best sense.

He has less sympathy as he looks higher up on the food chain of ID, so to speak. The Discovery Institute comes off as a secretive, impersonable glass-windowed facade that won't speak to people -- which is true in the case of Olsen, who tried repeatedly to obtain an interview. There are also strong implications in the movie that the Institute is more a successful child of wealthy and skillful marketing than an honest broker of science. There will be food for argument here, but I have to say that my own sympathy with ID also rests with the ordinary people who are interested in it.

Even here, though, Olsen is not offering a wholly negative judgment. He does not view skillful marketing as a bad thing in itself, and he considers it essential for scientists to adapt to the current age or, well, you know the rest.

One more thing I appreciated about Olsen's take is that he does not introduce ID as originating with the Discovery Institute. He begins instead with the philosopher William Paley (d. 1805) -- who used the famous God-as-watchmaker analogy -- and introduces ID almost as if it stepped out of a tradition with deep philosophical roots and straight into the 1990s. I think he's missed, or chosen not to dwell on, the connections between creationism and ID. A Flock of Dodos does repeat the finding of the Dover trial that ID is repackaged creationism, but there is no more on that subject. In fact creationism appears in the narrative often as a contrast to ID and not as an ancestor.

Olsen's final judgment on ID is that the movement is stuck at the level of intuition and has not yet proceeded to make a scientific theory. He sees ID as residing presently in the heart (he says his own heart is with evolution), and he plainly sees its advocates as heartful, personable people. His contention that ID is not a scientific theory cannot be tested in the movie, which does not offer much scientific content -- but it is the view I hold, and I have yet to see anything from ID that counts as a rival mechanism to mutation and natural selection.

It's a good movie and worth seeing. It is not a hard-hitting movie, either in terms of teaching science or even teaching the social controversy. There is no mention of such a prominent atheist as Richard Dawkins, for example, which is something of a lack in a movie that is largely about how scientists can lose a debate which is theirs to win or lose. Still, if you've never laughed about this subject and you want to, or if you're simply interested in the subject, it's very much worth checking out.