Goldendale, Washington


Goldendale is a town in Washington state, in Klickitat County not far north of the Columbia River. The sign at the city limits used to read like this (maybe it still does):







When we made our yearly visits to my my paternal grandmother, back in the 1960s and 1970s, Goldendale was the last real town we passed through before we arrived at her house. We usually stopped for a burger. I wish I could remember the name of the burger place, because it was excellent.



Partner and I have passed through Goldendale a few times over the past fifteen years. It’s bigger than I remember, but I see from Wikipedia that it has less than four thousand residents, so it’s still pretty small.



In June 1918, astronomers William Campbell and Heber Curtis came to Goldendale to view a solar eclipse. This was an especially important eclipse, because Einstein’s theories predicted that the light of stars close to the sun would be deflected slightly, and everyone wanted to see whether or not it was true.



The Goldendale data (which wasn’t terrific) did not confirm Einstein’s theories. Luckily, other viewings over the next few years confirmed that Einstein was correct.



But Goldendale turns out to be a great place to have an observatory. The air is clear, and the weather is mostly cloudless. There’s a permanent observatory there now, in its own state park.



And here’s the thing: my father (who was six years old at the time) was only a few miles away from Campbell and Curtis, on his parents’ ranch, as Campbell and Curtis performed their observations.



The world is a very small place after all.


Naming Pluto’s moons


Astronomers just found two new moons orbiting Pluto. I’m sure they’re very dismal little rocks, but that’s not the point. The point is: those dismal little rocks need names! And you can vote on those names!

Astronomy has very strict rules about naming things, however. New names have to follow specific patterns and rules, and they have to be approved by the International Astronomical Union. What fun is that?

Sometimes it’s a good thing. William Herschel discovered the seventh planet in 1781 and wanted to call it Georgium Sidus, “George’s Star,” after King George III of England. Terrible! That got voted down, and we ended up with the much more entertaining “Uranus,” which makes me giggle no matter how I pronounce it. (Actually, the seventh planet also got called “Herschel” for a while, which is also pretty terrible.)

On the other hand, the discoverers of a large trans-Neptunian object called it “Planet X” first, and then “Xena,” which I think would have been fabulous. “Xena” got voted down, however, and now it’s Eris. Yes, you heard me: dull, dull Eris.

The ex-planet Pluto was named by its discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, who rationalized it very carefully: it’s very far away from the sun, so naming it after the god of death seemed appropriate, and it begins with the letters PL, which is also the monogram of famous astronomer Percival Lowell, who predicted Pluto’s existence.

Given all this, the rules for naming Pluto’s moons are simple: their names have to be connected with Hades or the Underworld in Greek mythology. The first three moons are Nyx (the personification of Night), Charon (the gentleman who paddles the boat that crosses the River Styx), and Hydra (a very unpleasant monster who got chopped up and barbecued by Herakles). Among the proposed names: Acheron, Eurydice, Erebus, Cerberus, Obol.  “Cerberus” would be cute; Cerberus was the dog who guarded the gates of Hell, and I love doggies. “Obol” was the name of the coin put into the mouth of a corpse, so that the dead soul could pay the ferry-toll to the abovementioned Charon.

The rest of the suggested names are very appropriate and mythological and very dull.

But go vote anyway.

Let’s reset everything, and change the rules, and add a little fun to the nomenclature in the outer solar system.

Pluto can stay Pluto.

Let’s name the moons Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, and Goofy.

Wouldn’t this brighten up outer space just a teeny bit?

The stars last weekend


I don’t know if you were out after dark last weekend, or looked out a west-facing window.  If not, you missed quite a show.  The very young crescent moon, Venus, and Jupiter were all together in the western sky shortly after sunset.  On Friday it was (top to bottom) Jupiter-Venus-moon, in a long curving line; then, on Saturday night, the moon and Venus were making out, right next to each other, with Jupiter looking on from above; Sunday evening, it was moon and Jupiter, with Venus glaring down below; on Monday, another long curve, top to bottom Moon-Jupiter-Venus.  (Mercury was supposedly down there somewhere, but, as I’ve noted before, I am evidently destined never to see Mercury.)



It was beautiful, and scary, and brilliant.  I actually took pictures of it, and if you’ve ever tried to take pictures of the moon or stars, you’ll know that the photos usually don’t turn out.  You can see in the photo above how bright the conjunction was, and how remarkably beautiful.



It’s a cosmic optical illusion.  The moon is only a quarter of a million miles away. Venus is – what? – maybe thirty million miles away.  Jupiter is hundreds of millions of miles away.  But they all happened to be in the same line of sight at the same time .



We were watching a game of cosmic Skee-Ball.  All these planets and moons whizzing around in our line of sight!  Beautiful, eerie, mysterious.



From Diane Ackerman’s book “The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral,” the last few lines of “Asteroids”:



But now

                        They lumber

So wide apart

From each

To its neighbor’s


                                                                        Slant millions

                        And millions

                        Of watertight miles.

                                                            Only in the longest view

Do they graze

            Like one herd

                                                On a breathless tundra.


The planet Mercury


As a kid, I devoured books about astronomy. My brother Leonard actually gave me a telescope for my tenth birthday. But I was handicapped: I was afraid of the dark. Not good for a budding astronomer.



Over the years, I’ve gotten out more, and I am no longer afraid to get out under the dark sky and look up at the stars and planets. I only wish I still had that old refracting telescope; it was only 60x, but it wasn’t bad. I saw some wonderful sights with it: the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter (dim little stars ranged out along the planet’s belt, just as Galileo saw them), and the phases of Venus. The Moon, huge and cratered. The Pleiades, a flower-garden of stars. The Hyades, ditto. The Orion Nebula, a dim mysterious flickering patch of light.



I tried fitfully to see some of the rarer sights – nebulae, the Andromeda Galaxy, etc. – but I was handicapped in several ways:



  • The Pacific Northwest is not a good place for viewing, as the air’s usually pretty thick.

  • Remember how I said I was afraid of the dark?



I’ve seen a lot, though.



But I’ve never yet seen Mercury.



Mercury is elusive. It never gets far away from the sun; you can only see it in early evening or early morning, just before sunrise or just after sunset. It’s just another star that dims with the sunrise, or sets quickly after the sun.



Every year I buy an almanac and look for the times of year when Mercury will be most visible.



And to date – after almost fifty years of on-and-off looking – I still have not seen it.



I’m sure it’s lovely. I like thinking about it: that bright hot little orb buzzing like a crazy hornet around the sun, showing itself low on our horizon only once in a while.



Maybe if I actually got up before dawn one of these days . . .



And what are the chances of that?



Everyday life in the Milky Way Galaxy

Scientists recently reported that there may be as many as 50 billion planets in our own Milky Way Galaxy alone.



I, for one, am delighted.



An astronomer named Frank Drake came up some years ago with an informal way of calculating how many civilizations there might be in the galaxy. It depends on a lot of variables: how many stars, how many planets, etc. If you put in the new number of planets – well, boy howdy. I twiddled around with the calculator on the above link, and I came around a thousand intelligent civilizations!



Stephen Hawking, among others, has warned that this might not be cause for celebration. If any of these civilizations has mastered interstellar travel – well, we’re probably done for. Our own terrestrial explorers spread nothing but trouble from continent to continent on Earth over the past few thousand years; can you imagine what advanced extraterrestrials might do to Earth’s civilization, wittingly or unwittingly, if they came to visit us?


But there are other scenarios.



For one thing, the Drake equation allows that life doesn’t always produce intelligence, or civilization. Gorillas are perfectly nice, but they’re not building skyscrapers, or death rays for that matter. Ditto border collies. Ditto paramecia.


Science fiction authors have portrayed lots of different kinds of extraterrestrial life, both intelligent and unintelligent (and in-between, like us). Talking plants. Humanoid geese. Slow-moving heaps of liquid nitrogen. Lumps of telepathic protoplasm. Giant delicious superintelligent slugs. (If you’ve read science fiction, you may be able to guess which stories and novels I’m thinking of.)


I’m sure there are lots of freaky geese and slugs and plants out there. They’re just planetbound, the way we are: trapped in our fishbowls, not ready (or able) to jump over the side yet.



I am encouraged to think that, with science constantly improving our ability to see afar, we may be able to detect signs of life on those far-off planets without actually visiting them.



We don’t have to visit. We can just wave hello from a (safe) distance.



It’s a shame, though. I bet those slugs are really delicious.




Solar system brings us wisdom

I loved astronomy when I was a kid. I devoured all the star books in the school library. But I didn’t make a career of it, for two reasons:

  • I was desperately afraid of the dark until my mid-teens;
  • I was (and still am) intellectually lazy.



Science takes dedication. I knew a girl in grade school who was desperately devoted to geology and paleontology; no matter what schoolwork she was supposed to do – read a book, do a report on Lewis and Clark, color Puget Sound blue – she drew dinosaurs, or did a presentation on Neanderthal Man, or built a diorama of the Paleozoic Era. The rest of us just rolled our eyes and giggled. And do you know what? She became a geologist. And I’ll bet she’s very happy.



Partner likes to watch TV programs about cosmology: galaxies, the Big Bang, the origin of the solar system. I like to watch them too, but they make me a little queasy. What if, I keep wondering, a mini-black hole comes sailing through the bedroom tonight, just as I’m falling asleep? Will it zap me so quickly that I don’t feel a thing? What would it feel like if a medium-size asteroid were to fall to earth and hit me right on top of the head?  And can I be absolutely certain that our lovely yellow sun isn’t going to suddenly flip out and go supernova?


But the CGI images in those programs are lovely. I like the big flares like tentacles coming out of the stars, and the nice fluffy-looking nebulae. I like the icy landscapes they show on Pluto. I am partial to all of those chilly distant Kuiper Belt bodies; they sound nice and peaceful, and I don’t mind cold weather as long as I’m bundled up, and astronomers are having altogether too much fun naming them. And they get no publicity at all. Just so you know, there’s Eris out there too, and Haumea, and Makemake, and Quaoar, and Orcus, and Sedna.


I do have a little problem, as I’ve said here before, with scientists who portray themselves on television as The Life Of The Party. Most of them are just schnooks like the rest of us, after all. But those science programs wouldn’t be able to go on without their participation. So we listen to them yammer, the skinny ascetic-looking ones with huge ears, and the big Santa-looking ones with funny hats, and the older Ivy League-looking ones with bow ties and nasal voices.



I respect them for caring about their work.



Hell, I respect anyone who can come up with a name as good as “Quaoar.”




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