Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Eclipse Chasing

Yesterday came Jim Buxton's turn to enthrall Wanderers at the Pauling House on Hawthorne, and I must say he did a good job. I'm embarrassed to confess that my new Toshiba Satellite wasn't up to showing his 600 MB PowerPoint though, while his much older Win98 laptop managed to plough through it (good thing he lugged it along). I need to get more RAM.

One lesson I took away from Jim's talk is we really do know the future a lot better than we used to, at least when it comes to such cosmic events as total solar eclipses. Not only do we know the dates, but at least some of us know where to draw the narrow tracks along the Earth's surface that demarcate "front row seating" -- which is how Jim and his wife knew to be in a cactus desert in Baja in 1991, and on a cruise ship in the Black Sea in 1999.

Another lesson: we live in a time of contradictory trends. Otherwise literate, informed humans remain ignorant of the night sky, unable to say which are the planets, point out the constellations and so on (I'm one of the dolts in this regard; I can spot the Big Dipper, Orion's Belt, Southern Cross when in Lesotho and that's about it), while on the other hand software and planetariums have made all this information so much more accessible. Light pollution gets some of the blame. If you live in the big city, you forget about the stars (excepting those of the Hollywood variety), i.e. you totally lose perspective.

I see we have a total solar eclipse tracking through Oregon in 2017. Even if I'm lucky enough to still be here, knowing Oregon it'll likely be a rainy day.

Speaking of astronomers and astronomy, it was my privilege to join Wanderers Don and Jon at a surprise 60th birthday party for Doug McCarty over the weekend. Doug teaches a popular college astronomy course -- plus has studied Wittgenstein's philosophy and been to Bhutan, just like me. Also present at this party was Dick Pugh, Oregon's top meteorite specialist, and as a present, he gave Doug a meteorite. Way cool! Doug might be in Libya for the next eclipse in 2006. Jim is eyeing Egypt or Turkey.