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

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Alternate Reality Groundhog Day

So Groundhog Day...that amazing celebration of rodent hibernation behavior and Bill Murray thinking he's a once again upon us.

Last time, we talked about the possible origins of Groundhog Day, and where our modern traditions for the day come from.  Most likely, Groundhog Day is a hold over from the celebration of Imbolc, the Celtic cross-quarter day festival marking the midpoint between Winter and Spring.  During this time, the Celts would watch to see if serpents or badgers began to appear above ground again...meaning that the weather was warming and spring was on the way.

But I got to thinking last night...what if in some alternate universe, some other tradition from Imbolc were emphasized in the modern era?  There were many things the Celts did to celebrate this important day in their calendar.  So here, in the tradition of numerous sci-fi franchises, I present three possible ways Groundhog Day might have evolved in alternate universes.

Alternate Reality #1: It's...SHEEP MILK DAY!!!

An important part of the festival of Imbolc was the the beginning of lambing season.  That of course, also meant the ewes would begin lactating.  With more fat, protein, calcium and sugar than cow's milk (and less cholesterol too!), sheep's milk is a good choice for cheese making.  So February 2nd in this universe is a day of eating!  Dishes featuring cheeses made from sheep's milk like feta, roquefort, pecorino romano and ricotta (oooh!  lasagna!) would be found in abundance, and in Punxsutawney, PA, the mayor would bring a ewe up into the town's square, milk her, and share the warm milk with everyone!  Err....okay, maybe I'll just stick to the lasagna.

Awassi sheep in Israel.  This breed is commonly kept for milking rather than wool.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

Alternate Reality #2: It's...BRIGITEEN!  Trick or Treat!

Another tradition among the Celts was to seek the blessings of Brighid, later Christianized as St. Brigid, by leaving food and drink for the goddess outside on the night before Imbolc, along with clothing to be blessed by her.  Similar to the Samhain tradition that let to the modern concept of Halloween, in this universe, Imbolc Eve took prominence, and on February 1st, families leave treats outside on the porch for the minions of Brighid to come and collect.  If they've got sense, they won't leave any clothing out for a "blessing."  I shudder to think what they might find in the morning.

St. Brigid in stained glass.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

Alternate Reality #3: It's...OPEN SEASON ON BIRDS!!!

Another legend surrounding Imbolc and related to weather is of the Cailleach - a Gaelic witch-woman representing the winter.  Legends say that on February 2nd, the Cailleach leaves her home to stock up on firewood for the rest of the winter.  If the day is clear, the Cailleach is awake and can gather plenty of wood for the remaining 6 weeks of winter.  If the day is foul, the Cailleach is asleep and gathers no wood, meaning that spring will soon arrive.  Since the Cailleach generally takes the form of a large bird in these tales (who carries the wood in its beak) this universe, February 2nd marks the beginning of bird-hunting season!  Hunters are encouraged to take down any bird seen carrying any sticks, thus hopefully securing an early Spring for everyone to enjoy!  And maybe a good dinner for that night as well.

The Cailleach Bheur by Altara

Meanwhile, here in this reality, February 2nd is a Saturday, and we are going to have a wonderful Groundhog Day celebration here at the museum!  The planetarium reopens after some maintenance and upgrades, and we'll be featuring Assignment: Earth, our popular program about the relationships between the Earth, Moon and Sun starring our very own groundhog!  Plus enjoy fun activities and games throughout the day, meet a real live groundhog, and witness our very own Groundhog Day prognostication featuring WAVY-TV's Jeremy Wheeler and the museum's groundhog.  It's going to be a day full of fun you won't want to miss.  Check out our website for more information.

Whatever you decide to do, Happy Groundhog Day.  Me, I think I'm going to make some lasagna.
See you in two weeks!
Carpe Noctem,

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

NASA and the Fiscal Cliff

Sounds like the title of a fairy tale, doesn't it?  Alas, if only it were.

The fiscal cliff has been the subject of much discussion of late, of course, as our government has chosen to kick the can further down the road before dealing with the issue yet again.  With discussions of this kind, there's something often mentioned by well-meaning folks that just forces me to get out my soap box and hold forth.

It usually begins something like this..."They should just eliminate funding for NASA...we've got problems here at home, we don't need to be worrying about space!"

I grit my teeth, take a deep breath, and find myself standing on the soap box yet again.

First and foremost, the point is often made that even eliminating NASA's budget entirely would do little to save America much money.  In 2011, NASA's funding allocation represented 0.5% of America's overall spending...but that 0.5% represents a full 35% of the total spending on academic scientific research in the United States.  Trimming the budget by 0.5% won't save us much...but slicing the academic research budget by one-third will cripple the course of scientific endeavour in the United States.  We really, really cannot afford that.

How NASA spent its money in every state in the union in 2003.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

Second, listening to some politicians hold forth on the ills of NASA, and how their spacecrafts fail, costing the U.S. taxpayer millions of dollars...I sometimes wonder what they think NASA does with the money.  Let me make one thing completely clear: NASA does not cram their spacecrafts full of dollar bills before launching them into space.  Truly!  All the money apportioned to be spent on a given mission is spent right here on the planet Earth.  Each mission represents dozens, if not hundreds of well-paying jobs for Americans, companies which contract to NASA, and of course, technological developments with a wide range of applications.  Believe me, the money spent on a spacecraft like Mars Observer was still well spent, even when the mission failed.  What was lost was the science payoff.  We missed out on learning amazing things about Mars when we lost contact with the spacecraft...but the money was still safely here on Earth, driving the economy forward.

An artist's conception of Mars Observer at Mars.  It wasn't carrying any money.  Courtesy NASA.
 Finally,  few of us, myself included, fully understand the true benefits we have received from NASA's exploration of the cosmos.  There's the intangible...the wonders of the universe revealed to us...a broader understanding of our own cosmic significance...and a sense of connection with something beyond ourselves.  But let's talk turkey here.  Or perhaps LEDs.  Or scratch-resistant lenses.  Or aircraft anti-icing systems.  Or fire-resistant reinforcement for buildings.  Or firefighting equipment.  Or water purification.  Or solar energy.  Or...okay I think you get the point.  Hundreds of things we use in our everyday lives are made better thanks to technological advances made by NASA in preparing missions.  Those new products and ideas are then made available for companies in the United States to use - by law, NASA cannot charge for them or hold any claim on them.  So the next time you feed your little one nutritious, enriched baby food or you drive safely on the highway in slippery conditions thanks to roadway grooving or radial tires...remember that NASA made those things possible.

A Left Ventricular Assist Device, used by patients awaiting heart transplant.  NASA engineers applied technology developed for the space program to make these devices smaller and more energy efficient, allowing transplant patients to lead normal lives while awaiting a new heart.  Courtesy NASA.
 As I climb gingerly off my soap box, let me say this.  The financial problems faced by America are serious, and cutting of the budget will certainly be required.  NASA is by no means perfect, and there is always room for improving the way it uses the money it is allocated.  But we need to consider long and hard whether in the long run we can safely do without NASA and its scientific research and development of new technologies.  And indeed...the wonderment of discovering the universe around us is truly priceless.

Well, it's rainy (again), lunchtime, and in a few hours I'll be judging a science fair.  Plus I need to grab some protein so I can be ready next time someone needs a good lecture from a soap box.

See you in two weeks!
Carpe least once the clouds clear out.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Happy New Year everyone!

I hope your 2013 has gotten off to a great start.  For many of you, that may mean making some New Year's Resolutions.  I've never been much for them myself...I often find my enthusiasm for them wanes rapidly after the New Year's celebrations are over.  But if you find yourself in need of some resolutions this year...I humbly present to you these recommendations.

New Year's Resolution #1: Resolve to be more in touch with the universe around you.
Back in the day, humans were very in touch with the universe.  It was our clock, our calendar, a source of wonder and the home of the gods.  Today, many of us go through our lives without ever taking the time to look up.  Make it a mission to spend some time under the stars this year.  We can help!  Every second Saturday of the month, the museum hosts a Star Party.  The first one in 2013 is on January 12 - we'll look forward to seeing you!  Star Parties are FREE and everyone is welcome.

New Year's Resolution #2: Resolve to see some shooting stars.
Virtually every year there's a really good meteor shower to see...and 2013 is no exception.  This year, the Perseids are on tap to put on an excellent show, and that's great news for all you folks who hate having to be outside in the freezing cold weather to do your stargazing!  The Perseids peak on August 12th, so you'll be able to spend a balmy evening in your shorts and t-shirt watching "stars" fall from the sky!  On that night, the Moon will be just past first quarter and will set early, so you can drag out a lawn chair and stare upwards for the rest of the night with nothing to dim your view of the heavens (just get away from any city lights near you).  Some models are predicting a bump up in rates for the Perseids this year, so this one could be pretty neat.  Remember - no telescope or binoculars are needed; the more sky you can see, the better.  Put your back to the constellation Perseus and enjoy the show.

A bright Perseid meteor streaks across the sky.  Image by Stefano DeRosa

New Year's Resolution #3: Resolve to use that telescope in the closet to see something cool.
So many of us have a telescope sitting somewhere gathering dust.  Well, this year, you need to get it out and have it set up and ready to go on Friday, October 11, no later than 11:30pm.  Point it at Jupiter as early as you can, and watch.  Slowly but surely, the shadows of not one, not two, but THREE of the largest Jovian moons will make their way across the giant planet.  A triple eclipse for Jupiter...a triple shadow transit for those of us here on Earth.  It should be a lovely sight in a good sized telescope.

A rare triple shadow transit on Jupiter on March 28, 2004.  Image by Sid Leach.

New Year's Resolution #4: Resolve to watch a rocket take off.
If you can get to Cape Canaveral on November 18th, you'll have the opportunity to do it in person!  If not, tune in NASA TV and watch the launch of MAVEN: the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission.  MAVEN will study the Martian atmosphere to see how the loss of materials to space has affected Mars over its long history.  Launches are always cool to watch, and this one should be no different.

An artist's conception of the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars.  Courtesy NASA.

New Year's Resolution #5: Resolve to see the comet of the century...maybe...
There's already a buzz in the astronomical community about Comet ISON - it could be the most amazing comet North America has seen since Hale-Bopp...or it could fizzle.  Currently located beyond Jupiter, this newly-discovered comet is making its way toward a close encounter with the Sun.  If it holds together, it could put on an incredible show during the last two months of 2013.  Early predictions indicate that Comet ISON could reach negative magnitudes (bright like Jupiter or Venus), or even outshine the Moon (2nd brightest object in the sky!) and have a gorgeous tail visible to the unaided eye for weeks or even months.  Other early predictions say it could completely collapse under the pressure of the Sun's light and heat and be a total washout.  The only way to find out will be to watch the skies.

The orbital path of Comet ISON.  Courtesy NASA.
So there you have it - five astronomical things to resolve to do in 2013.  Whatever you choose to do, may 2013 be a year full of joy for all of us.

Carpe noctem!