Category Archives: Writings

October Skywatch

Sorry this is a bit late folks, but here’s my local astronomy column for this month:

This month, the skies favor the early riser. As Saturn slips toward the western horizon in our evening skies, Jupiter, Venus, and Mars take center stage throughout October in the skies before dawn. If you are someone who prefers to rise early, you are in luck. If you’re someone who tends to sleep in, set your alarm and treat yourself to a view of these bright objects at least a few times this month to see the steps in the eastern sky. I’ll give you a breakdown of the performance so you know what particular dates to watch for.

First though, a quick re-cap of the biggest celestial event of last month: the total lunar eclipse, which brought the current tetrad of total eclipses to a conclusion. Last year I had to bribe my astronomy students to rise before dawn to see the eclipse, but this time it was easily visible in the early evening sky. We shut off the lights on our side of campus, set up telescopes around the perimeter of the planetarium, and then waited for the sky—which had been cloudy all day—to clear. It did just in time, and we were able to view the duration of the eclipse in clear, dark skies from the heart of Bourbonnais. It was a sight, I trust, that few students will soon forget. (Several took pictures of the eclipse and have been posting them to social media under the hashtag #OlivetAstro.)

Time-lapse of the lunar eclipse taken by ONU student Nick Rasmussen.

Now that the Moon is past full, it’s slipped from the evening skies and does not rise until after midnight. Its display isn’t over though, as it moves to the morning sky to join the planets before daybreak as a slender crescent. And that’s the first movement of this act you should catch these October mornings: set your alarm and rise before dawn on either Thursday, the 8th, or Friday, the 9th (or both). If the sky is clear, you’ll see three bright planets strung out in a line pointing down toward the eastern horizon.

The highest and brightest of these is Venus, which rises at about 3 AM and is high in the eastern sky before sunrise. Mars trails it to the east, and below them both is bright Jupiter. On the morning of the 8th, a thin crescent Moon rides just above Venus. By the next morning the Moon has dropped to join Mars and Jupiter as an even thinner crescent lower in the east. The slanted line of the three planets in the morning sky is a powerful illustration of the disk of our solar system, viewed from our tilted angle on the planet Earth.

Moving forward through the month, Venus falls eastward against the background stars each month, while Jupiter and Mars rise farther into the west. Jupiter passes by Mars on the morning of Saturday, the 17th, for the closest conjunction of this planetary arrangement. The bright giant planet passes within half a degree of the ruddy red planet. That’s about the diameter of a full Moon. At that distance, both planets could be visible in the same field of view through a telescope eyepiece.

It’s that ruddy red planet on which NASA scientists last month found the best evidence yet of running water on its surface. They studied the composition of dark tracts on Martian hillsides that change with the seasons and concluded these formed by briny water seeping out and staining the Martian surface.

Finally, as Venus continues its eastward motion against the background stars, it passes by Jupiter on the morning of Sunday, the 25th. Though the two planets are within a degree of each other (twice the diameter of a full Moon), this may be the most conspicuous conjunction of the month, as Jupiter and Venus are the two brightest planets in the sky. On the morning of the 25th and the following morning, they’ll form a brilliant pair with Mars trailing below them to the east.

Of course, their apparent closeness is only an illusion in our sky, the same way the light from a nearby lighthouse might appear close to a ship passing along the horizon. It’s only a matter of perspective. In reality, millions of miles of empty space separate those bright lights in the night.

This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal.

On blood moons and tetrads

lunar eclipse
“Lunar eclipse April 15 2014 California Alfredo Garcia Jr1” by Tomruen – [1]. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

There is a lunar eclipse coming the end of this month, and depending on who you ask it is significant for different reasons. In fact, there has been a lot of hype about this particular eclipse (or rather, series of eclipses) in some Christian circles with the term “blood moon tetrad” often being used in conjunction with prophetic claims. I’m certainly not a specialist in Biblical prophecy, interpretation, or the history of Israel, but I can unpack some of the sensationalized terminology here and help sort out the science behind the hype.

Let’s start with the term “blood moon.” The popular press has recently started using this term to refer to a lunar eclipse. Lunar eclipses happen quite frequently, usually twice a year, when the full Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow. This causes the Moon to fade in brightness over the period of a couple hours and often take on a deep red hue due to the Earth’s atmosphere and the way it scatters light.

Consider how the sky looks during a sunset: even though the Sun is hidden beneath the horizon, the atmosphere bends the red portions of sunlight toward us. From the Moon, during a lunar eclipse, the Sun is hidden behind the Earth. The glow of a ring of sunsets casts that red light onto the Moon’s surface, making it appear duly reddish or “blood red.” This effect can be heightened if the Moon is near the horizon, depending on atmospheric conditions.

So what about “tetrad”? There are different types of lunar eclipses. If the Moon only moves partly into the Earth’s shadow, it’s called a partial lunar eclipse. The eclipse of this month is the last in a series of four total eclipses, in which the Moon passes through the darkest portion of the Earth’s shadow. A series of four total lunar eclipses without any partial eclipses between is known as a tetrad. This current tetrad includes the total lunar eclipse of last April as well as the eclipses of April and October of last year.

How rare are such series of eclipses? Glancing through my copy of NASA’s huge “Five Millennium Canon of Lunar Eclipses,” which included information on all lunar eclipses from 2000 BC to 3000 AD, I see that over the past thirty years there was a tetrad in 2003/2004 and 1985/1986 (as well as several lunar “triads”). According to the website, there will be eight tetrads in the twenty-first century, while the years 1701 to 1899 had none at all. There were five in the twentieth century.

So what does this all have to do with Biblical prophecy? According to some sources, this particular tetrad is unique because it lines up with specific Jewish holidays. Last year, the first lunar eclipse of the series fell during Passover, as did the eclipse of April of this year. Last year the October lunar eclipse was during Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, which again corresponds with this month’s eclipse.

The important thing to remember though is that the Jewish calendar (unlike ours) is a lunar calendar; its months correspond with the actual phases of the Moon. Both Passover and Sukkot begin on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month, which usually corresponds with the full Moon. And because lunar eclipses only happen when the Moon is full, it’s not strange there would be occasional line-ups between these holidays and a series of lunar eclipses. How occasional? Again, according to, this has happened eight times since the birth of Christ.

And here’s where the prophet interpreters come in, offering links between the years in which a tetrad of lunar eclipses corresponded with these holidays and important events in the history of Israel. But that’s the problem: history is a complex, messy business, and the human mind is hard-wired to find patterns everywhere, even where they don’t exist. Plus, these “significant events” are subjective: how widely do you want to interpret what events are actually important? The tetrad of 1493-1494 is linked to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, for instance, but the order for the expulsion wasn’t signed in these years and the persecution lasted for decades. Making 1493-1494 especially significant is arbitrary. And other events that would seem to be significant are ignored: there was no lunar tetrad, for instance, during the Holocaust. Finally, I should add that this whole claim of prophetic significance is offered by individuals outside the Jewish community with little insight or regard into what that community would actually consider culturally or historically important in their own past.

In my mind, searching for codes in the night sky is much less useful than simply appreciating the grandeur of astronomy for what it is. And this month, regardless of prophetic forecasts, we have the chance to witness one of nature’s most impressive spectacles. The “blood moon tetrad” will conclude with the total lunar eclipse beginning the evening of Sunday, September 27th. (If you’re still looking for cosmic coincidents, here’s another one: my birthday is September 27th.)

The full moon rises in the east at sunset that evening. By 9:15 the Moon has begun to enter the darkest portion of the Moon’s shadow, marking the most vivid phase of the eclipse. It will be at its darkest at about 9:45, and the moon will begin to emerge from deep shadow at about 10:20. The Moon will not be completely out of the Earth’s shadow, however, until after midnight. As far as visibility, this will be an easy lunar eclipse to observe—taking place when the Moon is high in the early part of the evening. (Last year I had to make students get up before dawn to spot the eclipse.) So definitely take the opportunity to wonder and ogle, but try not to prognosticate.

This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal, August 28th, 2015.

Iowa Food & Politics NCHC Faculty Institute: Day 3

I. AM: Inspiration

The most helpful thing I heard about interpreting the World Food Prize building was what our guide said just before we entered. “Ambassador Quinn was raised a Roman Catholic,” he explained, “and he’s used to buildings overwhelming and sort of wrapping the experience around you.” He seemed to say it almost as an apology, as though he was slightly embarrassed and needed to prepare us for what we were about to experience.

He was correct. The World Food Prize building was a cathedral to the importance of food and a shrine to those who have helped increase its “quantity, quality, and availability.” The architecture presented a clear narrative: the four pillars of rice, corn, wheat, and soybeans supported the building’s rotunda, but the four scenes painted beneath the rotunda, each portraying an agrarian landscape from a different society, showed that those crops in fact supported civilization itself. The availability of food equals civilization, and those who sustain and increase this are our civilization’s greatest heroes. This is what the building—as well as its various exhibits and inhabitants—was saying.

Ambassador Quinn touched on both the problem and the solution, as he saw it. The world population will reach 9.7 billion within decades. Our response to this challenge will define us as a society. Will we, Quinn asked, look to humanitarian heroes like Herbert Hoover, or will we continue on the path of politicians today who won’t even discuss food issues because they’re both too big (as we saw on our first day in Iowa) and too engrained in cultural values (as we witnessed yesterday at the fair).

Quinn has constructed a temple to inspire both the public and policy makers and make them believe food issues are essential (and formidable) but can be addressed successfully. Seeing the quiet grandeur of the building, which puts in mind the money and the power of those who come through its doors and are hopefully influenced to support the World Food Prize, makes it easier to have hope that issues of food can be addressed with influence, skill, and a good deal of inspiration.


II. Interlude: Lunch

I couldn’t eat another veggie burger, so I had pork tacos at a pub called The Continental. There was what appeared to be an ibex head mounted on the brick wall above the bar. I wondered about that more than I did where the meat in my taco or the corn in my tortillas came from.

III. PM: Despair

If our guide at the World Food Prize building gave us some hope in the midst of a display of heart-wrenching photographs, explaining we could tip the world out of poverty and toward sustainable population growth by simply providing school lunches, much of that feeling quickly evaporated in our discussion with Dr. Roth of the Center for Food Security and Public Health and the reality of emerging zoonomic diseases and ballooning population.

One got the sense that Dr. Roth would simply give a heavy shrug under the dome of the World Food Prize building and point out that increasing food quantity and availability will only make the population grow faster. Roth used the same figure of 9.7 billion that Ambassador Quinn did, and he even quoted Borlaug, the patron saint of Quinn’s basilica. Borlaug read by Roth, however, was a warning of the “frightening power of human production,” which threatened to make his Green Revolution ephemeral. Hearing Dr. Roth speak of emerging diseases put one in mind of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. We’re going to get more of these, and they’re going to cross over into human populations more easily. And the results of that, Dr. Roth seemed to be implying, would be tragic but ultimately inevitable.

Yet Roth also seemed to keep pushing up against the limits of his own discipline. He had the data, but whenever it became a question of what to do with that, he would fall back on the fact that he was a scientists, not an ethicist or philosopher, as though it was possible to be one without being in some respect the other. I think my turning point came in response to this during the van ride home, when one of our facilitators voiced something I had known all along: that it was our job as honors faculty to put our students into situations where they would be forced to learn and think outside their disciplines or across the disciplines. Veterinary medicine might help you understand how to prevent the spread of animal illness, but it won’t necessarily help you critique the system of animal production or reevaluate cultural or industrial concepts of “health” itself. Answers to these problems will be messy and complicated and spill beyond disciplinary divides.

Getting students to live in this tension and be comfortable in discomfort, as someone pointed out in our debriefing—that’s going to be key here. But how do I apply this to food and politics and the specter of Malthus? If I’ve learned anything about food this weekend, it’s that even in the center of the American breadbasket (or perhaps especially here) food and its production means different things to different stake-holders: culture, heritage, and commercialization at the Fair; investment and monoculture in the fields; inspiration and international cooperation at the World Food Prize; and a zero-sum game on Dr. Roth’s population graph. On my plate it’s still a tangle of riddles, but I’m learning to be comfortable in—and even to embrace—that discomfort.

Iowa Food & Politics NCHC Faculty Institute: Day 2

Iowa State Fair


People in Iowa are proud of their fair. That was something common to everyone we talked with today (though this was of course a self-selecting audience—perhaps Iowans ashamed of their fair stayed home). Everyone we spoke with came to the fair each year, and the vendors agreed that of the several fairs they went to every season, this was the best. When asked why, an answer they agreed upon was friendliness. It’s a friendly fair, rooted in the history (as evidenced by the size and solidity of the buildings) and heritage of Iowans.

Yet for me the fair was also a strange patchwork of competing narratives. It was often difficult, especially in places like the agricultural building and the food exhibits, to differentiate between what was agricultural or culinary exhibition and what was commercialization and advertising. They bled into one another and created what often felt like parallel but separate fairs occurring in the same space. When we visited the agricultural building, for instance, the section of produce and floriculture was roped off, preventing a close look at the products of agriculture. Instead, lines of visitors were tightly bunched along the peripheral vendors. There was a divide: the casual visitors milled around the edges or shuffled through the exhibition halls, while a simultaneous, largely unseen process of judging and competition occurred among fair participants. We had a similar experience in the food exhibits, where rows of refrigerator displays alternated baked goods for judging (products of fair participants) and packaged, processed foods (apparently for advertizing to fair visitors).

Which leads me to the question of audience, voiced by someone in our debriefing discussion at the end of the day. Who is the fair for? Is it simply for creating a self-congratulating identity for the Iowans who visit? And does it accurately reflect the true nature of farming in Iowa or an idealized, cultural version of the farm that may no longer actually exist?

Part of what prompts this question is the disconnect I experienced between what I saw yesterday and today. Yesterday I saw miles of corn and soybean, and I heard a farm manager talk about industrialized farming. Today the closest I came to the corn I saw yesterday was probably the corn syrup in the Coke I had for lunch. The diversity concentrated at the fair and displayed in the agricultural building or the horse, cattle, and swine shows seems a cultural margin not reflective of the actual Iowan landscape.

And maybe that explains in part the patchwork disjoint I felt. The commercialized exhibits, the vendors, and the deep-fried fair food—that’s all part of the industrial machine built on corn and soy. The varieties of corn, potatoes, and fruit on display and judged in the agricultural building, the FFA kids with their animals—that’s a cultural remnant celebrated as heritage. But they seem two very different worlds, and it’s unclear to me how they can continue to coexist.


Iowa Food & Politics NCHC Faculty Institute: Day 1

First Impressions



I kept waiting to be surprised. I grew up in the Midwest, so this rolling landscape of corn and soy dotted with towns and suburban spillover from larger cities—this is all very familiar. This looks like home. The economic patchwork is clear: soy and corn on a grid, nearly flat, to the horizon. The fields are quiet this time of year: no tractors or combines combing the rows. (Human figures would be lost on this scale.)

We stop in a town called Bondurant that in a nutshell illustrates the ebb and flow of the local economic tides. The concrete pillars of grain elevators dominate the center of town like monoliths. There’s a small train depot in their shadow that has now become a park. The railroad is gone, replaced by a bike trail running into the heart of Des Moines.

This was a farm town, and though still surrounded by corn and soy, it’s now clearly an appendage to Des Moines, which is a fifteen-minute commute away. This explains the glut of new housing developments. The downtown holds several buildings for rent, a hair salon, dentist office, and a single pub. There’s no commercial center, though there is a brand new library and community center, as well as a new high school and elementary school. It feels like a community being pulled into the suburban orbit of Des Moines.

“The farmer on a small farm,” a local farm manager tells us, “doesn’t make money because he isn’t disciplined or motivated.” Small farms grow or die. The same thing seems to happen to small towns. “Everything in this country comes back to income.” And yet he claims to manage many heritage farms, where absent landlords view their property as something more than simply an investment.

In all of this, I’m trying to understand the cultural ties to the land, be it small town, farm, or suburban. Who invests in the land for its cultural value? And what’s the value of culture when crops are seen as commodity?



My surprise finally comes when we pull off the road to a “Public Area,” a space carved out of the grid-work of corn and soy and allowed to revert back to prairie. What strikes me is the soundscape: birds and the various chirps, whirring, and buzzes of insects. We had stopped in a cornfield earlier, and compared to this the cultivated land was deadly silent, as the loud life around me now would be considered pests in the fields of corn across the street.

“They say,” my group’s facilitator tells us, “that when the first plows pulled up the prairie grasses, the roots were so deep and strong that it sounded like shotguns going off when they pulled them out.”

I try to imagine that sound, giving way to the absolute silence of growing crops. Monoculture is quiet. Diversity is loud.

The same thing holds true of neighborhoods, I think. We pass housing developments where the homes look like they’ve fallen from the sky into the subdivision that was recently a field. No sidewalks, no families on porches, no baseball in the street. There’s not much diversity in these neighborhoods, either of culture or architecture that I can tell. In these suburbs, where the houses push right up against the cornfields, whatever is growing inside is growing silently, like ears within the husks.

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.

New Horizons

108417main_image_feature_267_ajhfullImage courtesy

Fast, small, cheap, and putting us in touch with the outer reaches of the solar system, the New Horizons spacecraft, which will reach its closest approach to Pluto this month on July 14th, is billed by NASA as the “smart phone” of interplanetary robotic explorers. The fastest spacecraft ever launched from Earth, New Horizons is an example compact, efficient engineering opening the door to new discoveries. This month the probe, launched nearly a decade ago in January of 2006, completes its three billion mile journey, the longest journey ever to a particular object in space.

Besides the technological achievements this plucky probe represents, New Horizons is a step into a new solar system frontier, a glimpse of a region of our own planetary system where we have not yet ventured. The close look at Pluto afforded by this mission is an opportunity for the first time to study the place where the solar system gets weird. Since tiny Pluto was serendipitously discovered in 1930 by Illinois native Clyde Tombaugh, we’ve known that it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the planets. We have small, rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) in the interior of the solar system and large, gaseous planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) on the periphery. Pluto—usually beyond Neptune and much smaller than any other planet—is the odd man out.

Yet it’s only recently that we’ve realized Pluto isn’t alone in its strangeness. Rather, it’s the first known object from a whole new region of the solar system. This region—which is turning out to be filled with small icy objects like Pluto—is known as the Kuiper Belt, and we still don’t know much about it. We do know that Pluto was only the first dwarf planet discovered in this region. Recently Pluto has been joined by the discovery of other dwarf planets beyond Neptune like Eris, Makemake, and Huamea. New Horizons affords the first close look at this strange region of space. Once it passes Pluto, the spacecraft may be redirected to pass another Kuiper Belt object.

Besides the Kuiper Belt, Pluto is itself still an oddity. It will be the first icy planet studied closely, for instance, and may help answer the question of whether certain types of comets are simply objects like Pluto that fall into the inner solar system. Pluto also offers an example of a gravitational oddity: along with its largest moon, Charon, Pluto is technically a double planet. Pluto and Charon orbit a common center of mass between the two objects, making them unique in the solar system by forming a double planet instead of simply a planet and moon.

And then there’s Pluto’s complicated system of newly discovered moons besides Charon. Tiny Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberus have recently been shown to tumble about Pluto in a chaotic system. These miniscule objects have been studied using the Hubble Space Telescope, but New Horizons will provide the first opportunity to study them up close. Indeed, the presence of Pluto’s unexpectedly complex satellite system represents one of the large unknowns of the mission: is the space around Pluto empty or filled with debris that could pose a danger to the speeding spacecraft? The weeks leading up to New Horizon’s encounter with Pluto have been a time of suspense.

New Horizons is a fly-by mission, meaning that it’s not landing on Pluto’s surface (like the Mars rovers) nor is it entering orbit around the dwarf planet (like Cassini around Saturn or Messenger around Mercury). New Horizons will study Pluto from its closest distance of about six thousand miles on July 14th while barreling past the planet at nearly forty thousand mph. It has to be moving fast—it’s had over three billion miles to cover since leaving Earth almost ten years ago.

What sort of things do scientists hope to learn from this mission? For one thing, scientists want to better understand how Pluto “fits in” with the other planets of the solar system. What do its unique properties tell us about the origins and evolution of the solar system? For the first time this month, we’ll get a close look at the strange boundary region of the solar system that we’ve only ever been able to study from afar. As far as the solar system goes, it really is “the final frontier,” and we’ll get our first close views of it this month.

This article first appeared on Friday, July 10th, 2015 in the Kankakee Daily Journal.