Monthly Archives: August 2015

August offers a look at Lyra

When I talk to people about observing here in town, they often bemoan the fact that light pollution makes stargazing all but impossible from within the city limits.

Though it is true that observing from an urban setting doesn’t compare to an experience under truly dark skies, it’s certainly not the case that there’s nothing to see from one’s own backyard or even sidewalk.This month I’ll consider some of the sights in the constellation Lyra, which is almost directly overhead throughout August in early evening.

Lyra is a tiny constellation, but it holds a wealth of lovely double stars that are bright enough to be seen without a pilgrimage to the deep, dark countryside.

The constellation Lyra is easy to find on clear nights. Vega, its brightest star and the brightest star of summer, is nearly overhead at sunset. Vega marks one apex of the famous Summer Triangle, an asterism of three bright stars high in the summer skies. Lyra itself though is small formed of a triangle of stars attached to a larger parallelogram. Classically, the constellation was seen as a harp or lyre.


My observations are made with a six-inch reflecting telescope from my own yard in Kankakee, but a smaller telescope will reveal these sights as well. You’ll want to use eyepieces that give a relatively low magnification. (I used about 40x. Calculate the magnification of your eyepiece by dividing your telescope’s focal length by the focal length of your eyepiece. A shorter eyepiece focal length gives greater magnification.)

Sometimes you want higher magnification, as when you’re viewing the planets or the Moon and want to see details, but for the following views a lower magnification is better.

Start your tour with Vega, especially if you’re new to stargazing. A single star doesn’t look much different through a telescope, but this will give you a chance to align your finding scope (if your telescope has one) and test your instrument’s focus. It will also give you an idea of the seeing conditions for the night. If you can focus Vega down to a brilliant, sharp point, and if you can see one or two of its dimmer companions in your telescope’s field of view, you should be able to spot the rest of the objects in this list.

Hop down from Vega to Zeta Lyrae, the dim star where the triangle meets the parallelogram. This is one of the many double stars in Lyra. Double stars are great targets for light polluted skies. Unlike nebulae or galaxies, they are fairly bright and thus easy to enjoy even from one’s own backyard. Through even a small telescope, Zeta Lyrae is revealed to be a wide, uneven double, and many observers report seeing a beautiful color contrast between the component stars.

Moving up to the third star of the tiny triangle that makes up the top portion of Lyra, we find Epsilon Lyrae, one of the most popular double star systems in the sky and an example of why some observers (like me) get so excited about double stars. At 40x you may simply see what looks like a wide pair of white stars. But if you increase your magnification (I used 130x), you’ll see that each of these stars is actually itself a pair of stars. The entire system is known as the “Double-Double.” You’ll need a steady eye and good seeing to split them, but you’ll know if you’ve succeeded by noticing the orientation of each tight pair: they’re inclined at ninety-degrees to each other.

Moving back to a lower magnification, each of the stars at the apexes of Lyra’s parallelogram is a treat.

Delta Lyrae is a wide double star in a diffuse cluster of stars. One of the components is a lovely orange in contrast to the surrounding blue stars.

Beta Lyrae also is a group of colorful stars. (The Ring Nebula is nearby, halfway between Beta and Gamma Lyrae. From my front yard, the Ring Nebula at 70x looked like a faint smoke ring, barely visible.)

But my favorite sight of all in Lyra is a bit off the beaten path and not terribly well known. It’s sometimes called the “Double-Double’s double,” but I think it’s actually nicer than the more famous Double-Double. It’s a pair of double stars, like the Double-Double, known as Struve 2470 and 2474. They’re dimmer than the pair that make up Epsilon Lyrae, but because the components are farther apart they’re easier to split. They also have more marked colors, the brighter components appearing yellow in contrast to the dimmer bluish companions. Moreover, by some cosmic coincident the pairs are orientated in the same direction so they indeed look like almost perfect twin double stars in a single telescope eyepiece. This view alone would be proof enough for anyone who says the city skies are too bright to hold telescopic wonders.

Struve 2470 and 2474, the “Double-Double’s Double,” image from

This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal.

The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book written by an engineer for engineers. I’m not an engineer. But I can’t lie and say I didn’t enjoy reading this one. I needed a beach book for my week in Michigan, and when this book appeared on the shelf (as books are wont to do on my wife’s side of the bookcase), I grabbed it. I had seen one of my honors students (an engineer) reading it and had read this fantastic quip on XKCD. And then I saw the movie trailer (which looks AWESOME), so that helped me finally jump on the bandwagon. (And I know this is a departure from my resolution to read fiction by minority authors, but– BEACH.)

Be advised, this is a book by an engineer written for engineers. Did I already say that? It is compelling. The idea is simple and devastating: in the near and pretty believable future, manned missions to Mars are a reality and as gritty and physical and dangerous as an actual mission to Mars would be. On one of these missions, an astronaut gets left behind, assumed dead. It turns out he’s not, and he has to figure out how to survive on Mars, NASA has to figure out what happened and what they can do to fix it, and the crew of his ship have to figure out whether they follow NASA’s lead or mutiny and risk their own lives to save him.

Most of the story was told in the form of journal entries made by the marooned astronaut, Mark Watney, during his time on the surface. Here’s where the whole thing at times felt like a long, science fiction McGyver episode. Mark explains in detail how he’ll provide water and oxygen for himself, how he’ll grow food, and how he’ll get around on the surface. These are gripping details for a few chapters, but they can’t keep a reader’s interest– even one who appreciates the thought and detail the author put into keeping this grounded in reality– forever. Mark himself is a sort of Everyman, competent, foul-mouthed, and with a dry sense of humor. His ordinariness at times though, in spite his incredible technical competence, seems hollow. Not once, for instance, do we find Mark describing the view of Mars out his hab suite windows or reflecting on the nature of his dilemma with anything other than a superficial “do or die” mentality. But then again, what are the chances NASA would be sending a philosopher into space?

Luckily, Weir– himself a software engineer– realizes that stories don’t work without people and that it’s going to be difficult to build suspense about whether Mark lives or dies with him reporting in at the end of each day. So the narrative switches up a few times and we get a glimpse into the lives of the people back on Earth working to send supplies to keep Mark alive and ultimately his shipmates as they learn his fate and decide what they need to do to save him (as well as occasionally some God’s-eye-view narrative of the lives of inanimate equipment parts and geological features about to fail, which oddly enough functions quite well to build suspense).

This is where the actual drama comes in, and for me the most exciting parts of the novel were where the crew of the Hermes had to wrestle with what it might cost them to return to Mars to save Mark. And this– the dynamics between crew members on a months-long voyage and the cost of rescue– is what I hope the upcoming movie plays up. This was the pivot-point of the novel, and it was enough pull to get me as a reader over the hump and into the second part of the book, which chronicles Mark again and all the technical challenges of piloting a rover across a good portion of Mars to arrive at the appropriate rondevouz point and make an orbital-return component capable to escape velocity.

Lots of science here. In fact, Mark’s not really the hero of the story so much as science is. Science, Weir is saying, can pretty much solve anything if we’re plucky enough to keep trying and make the sacrifices required. (He also says something about it being the nature of humans to want to help each other, which is quoted pretty much verbatim in the movie trailer.) Besides the scientific triumphalism (which SPOILER dictates how the book will end– there’s never any real question of Mark’s survival), he deftly sidesteps any deeper questions, such as whether there’s an appropriate cost for saving a single human life or whether humans belong on places like Mars at all. No sir, this is a book about engineering. But I have to admit a book that raises philosophical questions without addressing can be fine in its own right. Sometimes it’s okay to simply present the problem in a clear-eyed fashion and leave it to the reader to puzzle through like Mark had to puzzle through the reality of Mars.

It is a fun, compelling, riveting book, but it ultimately felt unfulfilling for me because the pieces that made it tick– the people, and particularly the crew of the Hermes— never got closure. That is, we learn Mark’s fate but we don’t any view of his reunions with the people who saved his life. That would all be a compelling follow-up novel: call it The Earthling. It could show Mark’s life returned as the most famous human on the planet and him interacting with the people who contributed to his rescue as well as his return voyage to Earth with his crew (as well as the implied hook-up with Mindy, the NASA worker who contributed to his recovery and about whom I can only assume there’s an in-joke here regarding “Mork and Mindy” with Weir’s proclivity for 70s television). But the book is still tight and cogent leaving all that up in the air, especially as messy inter-personal stuff like that would take the focus off the science.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching GodTheir Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One (completely inappropriate) way to read this book is as a zombie book. It’s a book about Patient Zero and the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. In fairness to this theory, it has several of the expected elements: the cataclysmic ending and the struggle for survival, the setting in the hot, thick swamps of south Florida, in the midst of the drama the fateful but at the time apparently minor bite, the strange symptoms, the descent into rage, and the possible spread of the infection. In this (absolutely incorrect) interpretation, Janie does not survive the fate of her husband Tea Cake; she carries the infection back with her to the village they left behind and the true horror begins after the book’s conclusion.

But that’s of course absolutely not what this book is about. I don’t think Zora Neale Hurston had zombies in mind when she wrote in the late 1930s. And even though rabies makes a brief and horrific appearance, Hurston isn’t that interested in exploring the terror of this infection (likely the inspiration for lots of zombie and zombie spin-off stories). Instead it’s simply the melancholy end of what for the novel’s main character has been a life of deferred hopes and frustrated imaginings.

Janie is a black girl living in Florida in the early days of the twentieth century. Her grandmother still remembers when the slaves were freed. But the book isn’t about the relationship between races as much as it is the relationship between blacks. The longest discussion on race that takes place in the book is a dialogue Janie has with a black woman who is prejudice against the more “negroid” members of their own people “holding them back” from integration with white society.

Janie’s world is a world on the periphery though, and that periphery is defined by race. Her childhood begins with being raised with white children and only learning to her surprise that she was black, at which point society dictates separation. Her second husband rises to power as the mayor of an all-black community and spends his life trying to create a society that mirrors white society, a separate community in the Florida wastes on the fringes but with all the trappings of a commercial white city: a thriving store and a large house, street lights, industry. To do so though he must constantly clamp down on the traditional black culture that keeps cropping up like a weed, to his frustration and Janie’s growing alienation.

Finally, Janie finds herself and her third husband on the absolute fringes, working cane fields at the edges of the Everglades, the “Muck,” staying over seasons while migrant workers come and go. It’s in this society though, a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures only an anthropologist could sort out (and this is exactly what Hurston was), that Janie finds the joy and freedom she never had before. Ultimately though, the racial lines are drawn most sharply in the final scenes, when Janie stands trial for her third husband’s fate.

The thread that weaves this all together is Janie herself: a woman who is searching for freedom. She wakes to herself beneath a pear tree (the cover of this edition and perhaps the most iconic scene of the book). She’s married off by her grandmother to a gruff old farmer and then runs away with a man who evolves into a small-town dictator. She finally finds the freedom she’s looking for in Tea Cake, with whom she shares years at the dizzy edge of existence before it’s turned upside down by a hurricane and a bite from a rabid dog.

It was an easy book to read, but it felt dated. I felt that Hurston went a bit too easy on me. That is, I was set up for the difficult twists and turns Janie would experience, and she does, but it’s all told in a sedate, matter-of-fact way. Even the eventual fate of Tea Cake, which in a modern book it seems would be full of riveting, harrowing detail, seems softened, like we’re with Janie remembering back on this years later now that the details have been blurred by time.

The language was stunning throughout. This was especially effective juxtaposed with Hurston’s dialogue. Her characters speak in thick Floridian accents (or what I have to imagine are Floridian accents), and she writes this out phonetically so that it actually takes a bit of getting used to to read what her characters are saying. But it means you know how they’re saying it. And her narration throughout is luminous. There are expressions that catch you with their beauty in the same way that Janie wakened to life beneath the pear tree.