Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

It's The End of the World As We Know It...

...and I feel fine!

Actually, I seem to have caught the delightful virus that's been making the rounds here in southeast Virginia.  On week 2 of the darn thing and I am ready to be done with it.  But back to the matter at hand...

Holy cow!  The world is coming to an end this Friday!  The Mayan Long Count calendar says so!

The Seven-Day Forecast for this week.  Found on Facebook by my friend Jim Drummond.

Actually, it doesn't say anything of the kind.  It's a calendar.  All calendars end...that's how the calendar companies stay in business.  In all seriousness, when the calendar we use today, the Gregorian calendar, comes to the end of a cycle, no one worries that the world will end too...they just go buy a new calendar.  The Mayan Long Count calendar is no different - a new long count cycle will begin on Saturday, and life will go on.

Doomsday predictions and fears have been a common theme in humanity's long history.   It is not, by any means, a modern thing.  In fact, the first known "prediction" for the end of the world dates back to 2800 BC!  An Assyrian clay tablet dating to those times was found with the inscription "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common."  Just in case you thought that bribery and corruption were something invented in the modern era as well...clearly, we've always been good at those things.  Perceived degeneration of morals has long been seen as an indication of the coming end of the world.

There's a long tradition of apocalyptic destruction coming from space as well.  One of the earliest space-related predictions for the end of the world was made in the 1180s, when John of Toledo circulated a letter stating that the coming planetary alignment in Libra on September 23, 1186 would signal the end of the world, and only a very few people would survive.

Comets have long been seen as harbingers of doom.  One of the first comets to be directly associated with the coming end of the world was seen in 1532.  The prediction was made by a Viennese bishop, Frederick Nausea (!), after he heard numerous reports of bizarre occurrences, including bloody crosses being seen in the sky alongside the comet.  One wonders if this is the origin of our use of the word nausea today.

"Astronomical Chart of the path of the Comet of 1532", artist unknown.  From the Gedden Museum.

Sometimes the astronomical predictions get really exciting.  Tomasso Campanella, a Dominican monk, predicted that the Sun would collide with the Earth in 1603.  You'd think we'd have seen that one coming.

Obviously, none of these doomsday predictions came true.  But the long history of man's fascination with the end of the world is, in itself, quite fascinating!  Not being a psychologist, I can't really say why we are so fascinated with the concept of the end of the world.  But I wonder if it doesn't indicate a desire on our part to be involved in something greater than ourselves.  Even if that something gets a little scary at times.

So all in all, Friday should boil down to little more than Mayan New Year.  And you know what New Year's's time for a party!  We're having an End of the World Party at the Virginia Living Museum, and everyone is invited!  We'll be scanning the skies with our telescopes, searching for any killer asteroids (weather and disasters permitting), plus we'll have some fun activities and games going on in the Wason Education Center.  Activities and observing are FREE!  Plus, we'll be having some fun in the cafe, and you can grab a last meal, snack, or even some beer or wine.  In the planetarium, we'll have shows throughout the evening, including Star of Wonder: Mystery of the Christmas Star (6pm), Laser Holidays (7pm), 2012: The End of the World? NOT! (8 & 10pm) and Lasers at the End of the World (9 & 11pm).  Shows are $6 each, or two for $10.  Make it an End of the World Combo: any 2 shows and a $5 cafe gift certificate for $12!  Members always pay half price!  Stick around until midnight and help us end the world with a bang...or ring in Mayan New Year...whichever comes first.

As this will be my last entry of 2012, let me take a moment to wish all of you a wonderful holiday season, a Merry Christmas, and a joyous and blessing-filled 2013.

Carpe noctem!
See you in 2013,

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Something's Coming...

Come on in, don't be shy, meet a guy, pull up a chair!

Okay, you know it's been a tough day when I break into show tunes.

Seriously, good things are happening around here at the Virginia Living Museum.  It's getting kind of exciting.

First of all, we're getting pretty close to being done with flood recovery!  We hope to have the lower level of the museum reopened very soon.  So watch the museum's webpage for an official announcement on that score, hopefully before the end of the year.  It's been a long, slow recovery process, and we're very excited to get the museum fully opened again.  I hear tell there will even be some new exhibits coming downstairs, which is also pretty exciting!

Naturally, this is an exciting time of year in general, with the holidays in full swing.  I have an 8-year-old daughter at home and that makes Christmas extra-special, I can tell you.  Our annual trip to Christmas Town is coming up this weekend (can't wait!), plus all the decorating and visiting and baking and whatnot the season brings.  The Virginia Living Museum is all decorated up for the season, too.  In the planetarium lobby the tree has a lovely silver and blue theme this year which I think suits us well.  And of course, holiday programming continues in the theater until the end of the year, so don't miss out on that!

Jupiter and its largest moon, Ganymede.  Courtesy STScI.

Most exciting in my book is that this Saturday is our monthly star party and Laser Light Night!  It's a special one, too.  Jupiter is just past its opposition, so the giant planet is close to the Earth and looking fabulous even in a small telescope.  Rising close to sunset and remaining visible all night, we're hoping for the clouds to part and show us a fabulous view!  Ten times larger than the Earth, Jupiter shows an amazing amount of detail with only a small amount of magnification.  Probably the most wonderful thing about viewing Jupiter is that you usually get to see a few of its moons as well - most notably the four Galilean satellites.  These four largest moons of Jupiter were first spotted by Galileo Galilei (hence the name Galilean satellites) in the early 1600s.  He called them "the Medicean stars" since at the time of his discovery of them, his bills were being paid by the prominent Medici family (Galileo was no fool!).  Later, all of the moons of Jupiter we renamed for various lovers of Zeus/Jupiter.  Today, the four largest moons of Jupiter are known as Ganymede, Callisto, Europa and Io.  It's a fair bet we'll get a glimpse of all four of them this weekend, so be sure to join us.  Remember, observing is always FREE!

An artist's conception of an eruption on Jupiter's volcanic moon, Io.  A new panoramic wallpaper will be installed in the lobby of the Abbitt Planetarium this January based on this poster.  Courtesy NASA Langley.
 In addition, we'll be celebrating the hard work of the many good people who helped raise funds for the museum's flood relief campaign during Walktober!  This dedicated group of walkers raised over $8000 and counting!  And you can help by purchasing a Walktober Flood Relief T-shirt for only $5 this Saturday during the Star Party.  To thank our walkers, we've got extra shows on the docket, and everyone is welcome.  Check out the schedule online.  Shows in the theater, whether planetarium or lasers, are $6 each, or 2 for $10.  Members always receive half off.

Many other things are coming down the pike for the remainder of the year, so I'd better get back to work!

See you in two weeks! And until then...
Carpe noctem!