Monthly Archives: June 2015

Double and Multiple Stars and How to Observe Them

Double and Multiple Stars: And How to Observe ThemDouble and Multiple Stars: And How to Observe Them by James Mullaney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The amateur astronomer has access at all times to the original objects of his study; the masterworks of the heavens belong to him as much as to the great observatories of the world. And there is no priviledge like that of being allowed to stand in the presence of the original.”
-Robert Burnham, Jr. (my emphasis)

One of my goals this summer has been to spend more time with the fleet of telescopes I have access to through my university. I teach about the night sky and I research scientists who spent their lives studying the night sky, but I find I’ve had very few opportunities myself to get to know the sky outside the simulated confines of the planetarium dome.

Double stars are an ideal target for starting out. Unlike nebula, galaxies, and other deep sky targets, double stars are bright and fairly easy to spot. They’re like tiny gems hidden up there in the sky. The sky is a map, and sometimes it’s hard to learn. It’s often difficult to tell whether the star you have in your sights is actually the star on your charts that you think you might be looking at. Yet if your resources tells you it’s supposed to be a tight, nearly equal double with a separation of six arcseconds, and if you see it staring back at you like a pair of distant celestial headlights, then you know you’ve found it. They’re targets that are immediately rewarding, bright enough to spot on moonlit nights or in light polluted skies, and varied enough to be interesting.

Take separation, for instance. My six-inch reflecting telescope hasn’t had any troubles on the evenings I’ve been observing splitting pairs down to a separation of about four arcseconds. Izar in Bootes, with a separation of just under three arcseconds, shows a hint of the bluish companion star elongated from the edge of the brighter orangish primary. Depending on the viewing conditions each night, my scope should theoretically be able to distinguish even closer pairs, but the challenge of realizing this is part of what makes these targets rewarding.

Then there’s color contrast. You view an image from the Hubble Space Telescope, and it seems like space is vibrant with color. Yet actually viewing a nebulae or galaxy with the eye in a telescope eyepiece reveals perhaps a hint of greenish glow at best. With double stars though, the color contrast in star pairs is often quite dramatic. Different people observe different colors, which are artifacts of both intrinsic color differences in the stars and contrast between them.

Finally there’s simply the conceptualization of what you’re actually looking at. Most very close doubles are binary stars, which means systems of two (or more) stars rotating around a common center of mass. These are the objects John Herschel and others were studying in the early 1800s in order to directly calculate stellar masses. (They’re still the only method we have for directly measuring the mass of stars.) These star pairs, I argue in my dissertation, were instrumental in changing the way people thought of the stars: seeing them as vast physical systems. They continue to inform our popular stellar conceptions; recall the iconic scene of the double sunset on Tatooine in Star Wars.

Fortunate for the enthusiast like me there are a host of guides and resources regarding showcase double stars to observe. The Cambridge Double Star Atlas is a great place to start, and banking on the usefulness of that resource I purchased this observing guide by one of the authors of that atlas: Double and Multiple Stars and How to Observe Them. This slim guide is an ideal introduction to the topic, exploring in an overview the practical aspects of observing these objects but also going into some detail on the real scientific contributions an amateur could pursue. Mullaney’s enthusiasm for the topic is contagious, from the introductory physical descriptions of double stars as astrophysical objects (reminescent of the language popularizers were using to describe them in the 19th century) to his own advice on keeping observing journals.

Though the prose is good, I had two big complaints with the work. The first is the quality of printing. It was clear as soon as I cracked the cover that this was a print-on-demand title by Springer, with the pages consisting of scans of a PDF or other electronic image. The text is not crisp or clear, and on many pages there is grey stippling in what should be the white space between letters and lines. It’s not bad enough to make the text illegible, but it is annoying. The second is that Mullaney says the work is really two resources in one: a background or overview on double stars and observing them, along with an observing guide of locations and descriptions for one hundred showcase double stars. Yet– though I haven’t compared it star to star– this list seems to duplicate the list provided in the Cambridge Double Star Atlas. So if you’re looking for a lot of new double stars to admire, you might be disappointed.

“What we need is a big telescope in every village and hamlet and some bloke there with that fire in his eyes who can show something of the glory the world sails in.”
-Graham Loftus (my emphasis)

Invisible Man

Invisible ManInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the first significant accomplishment of my “affirmative action” fiction reading plan for the year. I would have eventually gotten around to reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-fight in Heaven, but I probably would never have read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had I not made a conscious effort this year to read fiction written by minorities. I poled several literary friends on suggestions via Facebook, and this one was at the top of multiple lists.

It was a difficult read, and part of that was probably the point. Ellison’s prose is vivid, almost too vivid, and at times I was overwhelmed with the shear volume of description. He makes you see everything with a cinematographic vision, focusing in on color, sound, texture, and description until the tableau snaps into focus in your mind as though you’re staring a screen. This is especially effective in his description of crowds in the city or of tumultuous scenes of action or disorder. Ellison can describe a march, a mass meeting, and a riot with an almost painful slow-motion exactitude.

It was this slow-motion exactitude that made the book an grueling read in places. Because the plot itself was rather slow and meandering, the places where it slowed down, heavy-laden with description, were sometimes a painfully vivid slog. The story on one level quite simple: a black man whose name is never given (similar somewhat to Swanwick’s bureaucrat in Stations of the Tide) trying to find his place in the world. Yet the point of the book, and Ellison’s genius in describing it, also contributed to making the book a difficult read. I kept trying to put the narrator into my own framework of a clear and upward narrative or personal progression. For an “effective novel,” my mind seemed to keep telling me– or at least my expectations kept waiting for– we’d see the hero conquer personal and exterior difficulties and arrive at a new position of status and success.

But this was frustrated over and over again throughout the novel. From the narrator’s original fall from grace at the southern black college where the book begins to his ultimate disillusionment with the socialist Brotherhood in which he has gained a position in Harlem in the novel’s second half, he– and my narrative sensibilities– are continually stymied. Throughout, I found myself frustrated more with the narrator himself than the situations in which he found himself: he was constantly second-guessing what people thought or expected of him, constantly trying to make himself the person he felt particular social groups or situations expected of him. And then it hit me that this was exactly Ellison’s point and the reason this novel was so significant: this was the story of so many black men in the decades after the Second World War.

It gets a bit at the concept of awkwardness Adam Kotsko discussed in his monograph by the same name. Ellison’s character is constantly awkward: he doesn’t know what is expected of him, he’s constantly stepping into situations– between different social classes in the south, between union and management in the north, between the people and those who represent them in Harlem, between white women and their sexual perceptions of black men– where there simply aren’t social rules for governing interactions. Or where, he keeps believing until his revelation at the novel’s conclusion, he simply doesn’t know them. But that’s the point: this is a world in which a black man has to completely invent himself or forever be at the mercy of other’s expectations. It’s a world in which he doesn’t have a place.

This is a novel about looking through the eyes of others. And it’s uncomfortable, because it makes me realize how my own assumptions about progress, about what works and what doesn’t both dramatically and socially, simply don’t map onto other situations, other experiences, other social and ethnic and cultural groups. The narrator’s experiences portray life for a black man in both the south and the north, portray its frustration, disjoint, and in some respects its sheer randomness.

The narrator first buys into the mode of progress and education represented by his southern black college and the inspired example of its president; when he realizes the futility of this, he attempts to make it in the industrialized north. Eventually he finds a place as an orator and community organizer, but even here he comes to realize that people are less interested in him than how they can use him. Maybe that’s a realization ultimately true for people everywhere, but in the awkwardness and social chaos the narrator has moved through– a constantly shifting landscape in which the default social relationship has been exploitation– it’s a shattering one. No one truly sees him. He is invisible.

Inheriting Paradise

Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on GardeningInheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening by Vigen Guroian

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The rain over the past several days has meant the plants in my meager garden have grow wild, chaotic, threatening to slip beyond the control of a weeding hand. It doesn’t help that I’m already a bit of a lazy gardener. It’s important for me to have growing things in the ground– my ground– every season, but I don’t spend time each day in the garden. I kind of let things– cucumbers and tomatoes, mainly– run riot.

I have two shallow raised beds in the backyard. This fall I may add a third. One of them is devoted to different varieties of cucumbers with basil plants holding down the corners. There’s a long trellis I made out of old chicken wire running down the middle. The cucumbers are gathering themselves right now in a slow green boil, like they’re gathering momentum to leap up and over it, as they will soon, burying it in a long leafy wave. I’ve always had good luck with cucumbers.

The second bed is more unruly. Half of it is devoted to a weedy onion patch, though the long fingers of the onions still have a comfortable lead on the grass growing up between them, for now. I dropped onion sets into this side of the garden haphazardly and without plan, so the onions have come up in bedraggled rows. The rest of the bed is split between four large tomato plants that have fountained up as bushes, spilling languid green arms in all directions, and a row of potato plants that I’m not sure what to do with. I’ve never grown potatoes before, and as lovely and thick as they look above the ground, I don’t know what that means beneath the soil.

In one corner of this bed I have an uneasy alliance with a bunch of mint. At one time this mint spread across the back of the house and my wife spent a long afternoon pulling it out of the flower bed where it had thrived for perhaps decades. I have a soft spot in my heart for the plant though, because I pull a leaf to chew every time I walk past the garden and I boil it to make mint tea for my kombucha. I have it walled off in its own corner of the raised bed, though my walls don’t go deep enough to actually do anything to hold it back. That’s just me, pulling out the constant runners that keep creeping into the tomatoes.

You’re supposed to be able to tell something about a man from his garden, and if this is true then my garden says I’m enthusiastic, overly optimistic, and naive. I know there are supposed to be growing things on my land, so I plant them, but I’m never quite sure I have the hang of what to do with them once they go crazy, as they do each season. I like to watch the garden come to life, but I lack artistry. Fortunately, there’s not a lot riding on my gardening. I don’t rely on it to provide a major source of my food. If Vigen Guroian is right though, I do need it to provide food for my soul.

The garden is the oldest analogy. As Guroian points out, man was placed in a garden at creation. Whether or not this is “historical” truth, consider what it means as literary truth. Man begins in some kind of order, as some kind of caretaker in relationship with ordered creation. Wildness and wilderness only come later.

For Guroian, an Armenian Orthodox theologian, gardening is more than a hobby or an ecological mission: it is theology, lived in the context of the soil. The annual death and rebirth of his garden is a reflection of the theological– the cosmological, he would argue– truths exemplified in the liturgical life of the Church. Indeed, in this slender volume the chapters are divided by Christian holidays, with Guroian reflecting on the beauty, significance, and meaning of what’s happening in the garden in time with what’s happening in the liturgical year. The garden is a way of participating with creation itself in worship, in bearing fruit joyfully before God. For Guroian, as he shares his own battle with depression, it’s also a means of healing.

The mirror for all this is the prayers and hymns of the Armenian Orthodox liturgy. Guroian pulls from this throughout the year– as well as scripture and occasional quotes from the Fathers or other writers– to draw the reader into an understanding of the cycles at work unseen beneath the turning of the seasons. This might be a central claim of anyone who gardens: for those of us who have lost touch with the land, the circle of the year turns largely unseen. We skim along the skin of it, but we don’t reach deeply and touch what it means.

For an Orthodox Christian gardener like Guroian, the claim might go deeper: most Christians today are like the non-gardeners, out of touch with the deeper turnings in the liturgical life of the Church. We see Easter and Christmas come and go like non-gardeners see certain fruits and vegetables appear and then disappear (though they don’t even really do that anymore) from the markets. But there’s a deep connection between the two, and Guroian believes– in keeping with mystical Orthodox theologians– that the story of the Church, the entire story of redemption and deification, is written in the soil. He would have you know this when you garden as well as when you sing or speak the liturgy.

For all that I agree with Guroian’s message here, I was disappointed with the book. It’s a slender volume that despite the richness of his prose and borrowed texts felt woodenly didactic. The cosmic significance of gardening was spelled out writ large, but what was lacking was the specificity that makes such sweeping analogies and metaphors truly powerful. I learned the significance of gardening, but what of the significance of tomatoes? What of cucumbers or mulch? What of the back bent in labor? They’re all here but passed over, unexplored. I was hoping for something more along the lines of Chet Raymo’s Soul of the Night; whereas Raymo’s theological claims are far vaguer, his treatment of natural (in this case astronomical) phenomena are compelling, concrete, and sublime. For all the truth Guroian is touching here, the execution came off a bit too trite.