January 29, 2014

"Can You Walk on the Rings of Saturn?"

There are no limits on the creativity of questions that a curious child can come up with:

“Why is Earth the only planet with life?”
“What would happen if the sun disappeared?”
“If you were to fly a spacecraft to Neptune and go through the gas, would the fire from the rockets ignite the planet?”
“How do we know that Pluto is icy if we've never been there?”
“What happens when you die in space?”

These are just a few of the many questions and comments I encountered last month during presentations about “Seeing the Solar System” that I gave to six 5th grade classes at Sailorway Middle School in Vermilion, Ohio.

Some of the questions allowed me to go into more detail on the subject at hand:

“Why is Pluto not a planet?”

Some were quirky, but oddly perceptive:

“Herschel's telescope looks like a guillotine, but without the blade.”

Model of the telescope William Herschel's used to discover Uranus. From the Herschel Museum in Bath, UK.

“Galileo's fuzzy view of Saturn looks like a pig's nose.”

Some of them allowed me to discuss related topics:

“Why does the Earth go in a circle around the sun?”
How do you measure the speed of light?”
What would happen if you fell into a black hole?”

But my favorite comments and questions allowed me--a representative of the Black River Astronomical Society, and the supposed “expert” in the room--to see the things I was talking about in a whole new light. When I showed Cassini's picture of Saturn viewed from its nighttime side, one student said:

“It's like if we had Saturn as a moon on Earth, and it was making a solar eclipse.”

image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

And after showing pictures of Mars' surface taken by Curiosity Rover that were reminiscent of the Arizona desert, a shy little girl came up and suggested to me that:

“Maybe a piece of Mars came off and formed part of planet Earth?”

image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Though her hypothesis was incorrect, the insight behind it led to a discussion about how similar elements and processes formed features on both Mars and Earth.

My talk's focus was that astronomy is a science based on observation, and that there are different things we can learn about our “local neighborhood” based on what we see through our eyes, and various technologies like telescopes, spacecraft, rovers, and even scientific illustration. My goal was to encourage students to visualize the places and ideas they were learning about in class, and to equip them with various means to actually observe some of these objects for themselves. I brought along two telescopes as visual aids—a borrowed BRAS Dobsonian (“That looks like a cannon!”), and a small refractor—and allowed the kids to take turns looking at the mirrors and through the finder scopes (“Whoa, the dots on the ceiling are really close!”). 

The sessions were great fun. There is nothing quite like standing in front of a young audience when they see something wonderful for the first time—hearing that excited intake of breath when the “lightbulb” goes off, or watching a forest of hands erupt when a tricky question yields a surprising answer. And when faced with their awesomely daunting array of questions ranging from “Is a supernova like the Big Bang,” to “Can you walk on the rings of Saturn,” I am encouraged by the engagement and interest such queries display. In a time when media warns of students falling behind in math, science, reading, and creative arts, and when the glitz of commercialism threatens to stifle participation with the natural world, organizations like the Black River Astronomical Society offer a valuable means for children of all ages to get involved with a creative and stimulating science as part of a welcoming local community. I am grateful to play some small part in that mission. Even beyond the enjoyment I get from learning the sky—from acquainting myself with its patterns and cycles, or resolving beautiful objects of unimaginable scale—I've discovered that the driving motivation behind my interest in astronomy is sharing and experiencing it with others.

I'd like to send a big “Thank You!” to Mrs. Julie Zelina at Sailorway Middle School for allowing me, on behalf of BRAS, to participate in her classroom...and an even bigger “Thank You!” to all of her students and their fascinating questions!

January 24, 2014


There's a beautiful clear sky this morning...waning crescent moon in between fast fading "stars" Saturn and Mars. It'll be a nice sunrise. Too bad the wind chill is -19.

It makes me miss Chicago. On a day like today I'd already have my layers on and would be speed walking down to the shore of Lake Michigan for a daily-sunrise photo session. 

It might've looked something like this...

December 19, 2013

7 great reasons for shoveling !#*%

Every Wednesday and Thursday I hurry out of bed and head over to the Oasis Animal Shelter where I spend the morning helping another volunteer clean kennels. My part of the job consists of shoveling big piles of poop out from the outdoor portions of each dog's run, while my coworker disinfects and hoses down the insides, sets down food, and fills each pail with fresh water. We coordinate our movements while allowing each dog some good quality run-around-the-yard, play-with-the-ball, sniff-around-the-fence, and bark-at-the-cats time (don't worry, the cats are outside the fence...and we put food and water out for them too).

This job has equipped me with a nuanced understanding of a range of canine excretions and how best to deal with them. Whisking up the really soft stuff on a humid July day requires a whole different set of techniques, for instance, than does scraping up frozen piles in sub-zero wind chill (the latter often helped along by a good kick from a heavy boot). All the "material" I remove from the pens is piled into a big plastic poop bucket and later washed down an outdoor drain in a soupy swirl of pungent goo. No bones about it: it's all pretty repulsive. When I start scooping I stop breathing through my nose, and generally don't start again until I'm out walking dogs. It's amazing the disgusting things you can handle if you eliminate their smell!

Despite what you might think from this description, the Oasis dogs are really well cared for. Their pens, which have space to move both inside and out, are cleaned three times daily. They do not go hungry or thirsty, they are warm in the winter, and music is left on for them when we leave. Veterinary care is given when needed. And unless the weather is REALLY bad, in addition to yard time, they get walked at least twice a week. Their lives would improve a lot with adoption, but until then they make do just fine.

Well that is all fine and good, but what really compels ME to return every week just to shovel more of their stinking !#*% for no pay? Ha!

Today I found 7 reasons:

#1. Chloe...

Quiet, intelligent, patient, disciplined, and great on a walk. When Chloe jumps up to give you loves, you know she really means it.

#2. Paddy.

A dedicated and exuberant player, she LOVES diving through the powdery snow.

#3. Buddy.

A booming voice and tough exterior belie a heart tender as a puppy's. Buddy is the perfect name for this big guy.

#4. Herbie.

Total sucker for a good belly rub...especially when it means he can also roll around in the snow!

#5. Ronnie.

A bit intense on a lead...especially when the ground is laced with deer track! You can always tell this girl means business.

#6. Sassy.

Scruffy little ball of fluff and affection...what's not to love? 

#7. Blade.

A big heart in a little body. When this feisty little chihuahua finally warmed up to me...transforming in weeks from a nervous introvert snarling in the corner, to my most eager and devoted Oasis friend...I was a goner. I ADORE this little guy!

There are lots more dogs at Oasis, and every single one provides another reason for me to put up with the early alarm, and the joyful need to scoop little piles of steaming !#*% for a couple of blessed mornings each week.

November 8, 2013

A Strange Courage

Working with color is a challenge for me--one I confronted head on in my latest drawing...

El Hombre

It's a strange courage 
you give me ancient star:
Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you lend no part!  

    ~William Carlos Williams 
   from his collection, "Al Que Quiere!"

I stumbled upon this poem while idly browsing the web a few months ago, and liked it enough to bookmark the page for later reference. Upon reading it again late last week, an image began to take shape in my mind. Things seemed easy enough starting from my comfortable home-base of black and white, but I realized early on that the piece would eventually require a more ambitious exploration of bright color.

As a kid I remember hearing somewhere--don't know where at this point--that in order to master color, an artist first needed to master black and white. It was a reassuring thought as I delved even deeper into my emerging preference for stark contrast, crisp lines, and austere form..."I'll get really good at black and white and then...just imagine the possibilities!" Maybe I got too comfortable. These days, if I use color at all, it's generally one shade, maybe two, and used without much nuance, blend, or shading--bold areas of color that mirror the distinction of their equally unambiguous frame.

 For El Hombre I envisioned a sort of middle road. I knew I needed a lot of color, but wanted to avoid ruining things with a sad attempt at shading or gradation. I just don't have that skill at the moment. I resolved instead to select a limited palette and apply it in big blocks--more in the style of mosaic or stained glass than a pencil drawing.

I'm more or less satisfied with the result...though I can't help but cringe just a little at its brightness whenever I look at it. It's like I'm practicing really loud excerpts on my trumpet and just KNOW that the neighbors are about to pound the door down with threatening expletives.

October 13, 2013

Full Moon Glare

A few weeks ago I stepped out onto my front porch and watched the full moon shine out from behind bands of rolling clouds. Because of an optical effect caused by my glasses, long glaring beams seemed to radiate from the moon's face and spread out over the sky like a ghostly flower. Though the thick clouds proved impenetrable to the moon's reflected brilliance, their edges still shone with feathered silver. This image stuck in my mind, and provided the inspiration for my latest astronomical abstract...

Here are some "in-process" shots (please forgive the TERRIBLE quality of the photographs)...

And a slightly zoomed in view of the moon...

...and the signature I remembered to add later...only after I took the photos above...oops.

Finishing an artwork always leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it's nice to have something that feels more or less "complete." But on the other, now I've just got another blank canvas taunting me from the sidelines.

So what's next?

September 19, 2013

Cutting into Copper

Some of you may remember that one of the things I loved most about my time in Evanston was its proximity to the lake shore. I became all but obsessed with making it to the beach in time for sunrise every day and was rewarded by witnessing a panoply of the most stunning vistas imaginable. Coming from Salt Lake City--a valley edged in by mountains--I wasn't used to seeing the sun break above a flat horizon. From this vantage, sunlight travels through a substantial amount of atmosphere and is scattered into displays of brilliant color that often change from minute to minute...the deepest reds, purples, and yellows thickening one moment and then vanishing the next. 

Each morning brought new surprises... 

...especially as temperatures dropped and the water began to freeze. Though one of my biggest worries before moving to the Windy City was its legendarily harsh winter, the excitement of observing lake ice actually made me jump up and down whenever sub-zero temperatures were in the forecast...

Don't worry, there is a reason for my nostalgic indulgence.

About a month ago Rob and I were wandering through the Ginko Gallery, a local art shop and studio, and I was startled to see among a stack of random art supplies...a whole sheet of bright new COPPER! I hadn't found an opportunity to exercise my engraving muscles in quite some time, and visions of ornately scrolling designs instantly began sparking through my imagination. I asked the cashier whether this was something they regularly stocked, but apparently it was kind of a one off.
My lucky day!!!

We bought it right away. 

The 6 x 12 inch sheet, prepared and cut by Chicago based K&S Engineering, sat on my desk for a few weeks as I allowed ideas to bubble and churn. A concrete vision finally took shape for me this morning, and I spent some time today experimenting with materials in preparation for the real thing.

At the very least I first had to make sure I could still handle a graver. There is no eraser for engraving. Every line is as permanent as a tattoo. It would be so PERFECT if I started in on my masterpiece and instead just scratched the whole thing up. Fortunately, I still had an old battered piece of copper I'd picked up from a machine shop at NU...perfect for practicing! Then I gathered up my sharpies (yep, that's right...even on the copper), scrounged around for some old nail polish (I know...this is getting a little ridiculous...and by the way what am I doing with such a crazy shade of RED in my collection...I'll just let you wonder:), and finally started in.

My creative mood was helped along by a playlist of "drawing music" that included Dawn of Midi's new release "Dysnomia," and LaMonte Young's "Well Tuned Piano."  I'd only made it through the first two and a half hours of the second selection when my project was complete.

I haven't decided on a name for it yet, but the scene clearly references my morning trips to Lake Michigan's western shore. I'm planning on elaborating upon this idea in the future, and might decide on a title for the series then.

Here are some up close views. One thing I've always loved about engraving is how it shimmers with every change of light...

To help preserve the copper's ruddy sheen, I lacquered over the top of the whole thing with two coats of clear polish. I eventually hope to mount the piece, but at the moment its dimensions are 6 x 12 inches.

September 10, 2013

First Quarter Moon

The Half Moon 
The half moon shows a face of plaintive sweetness
Ready and poised to wax or wane;
A fire of pale desire in incompleteness,
Tending to pleasure or to pain:--
Lo, while we gaze she rolleth on in fleetness
To perfect loss or perfect gain. 
Half bitterness we know, we know half sweetness;
This world is all on wax, on wane:
When shall completeness round time's incompleteness,
Fulfilling joy, fulfilling pain?
Lo, while we ask, life rolleth on in fleetness
To finished loss or finished gain.  
Christina Rossetti
It is impossible to deduce whether the half moon to which Ms. Rossetti refers in this poem is in its first or last quarter. And that's probably the point. Such ambiguity lends itself well to a metaphor of life's inevitable ups and downs, and our human inclination (whether chosen or fated) to view our changing lot as either half-empty, or half-full.

I'd venture a guess that most people today wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a first and last quarter moon. Up until a few years ago I certainly couldn't. Like most, I'd look up from time to time, notice a pale moon...maybe hanging out in the afternoon sky...and think, "Huh...there's the moon...cool." And that would be about it. Of course it doesn't take a whole lot more observation before you pick out a pattern or two. And then there are helpful tricks that can save you in a pinch. "DOC" is my favorite: A waxing "D" progresses to a full "O" moon, and then slowly shrinks away into a waning "C." Of course, the pattern is reversed for southern hemisphere observers. Fortunately "COD" is a word in either direction...at least in English.

The first quarter moon is a lovely sight. With its eastern edge illuminated and the terminator running straight down the middle of its face, a telescope or pair of binoculars will reveal the shadows of great mountain ranges spilling out over vast crater-pocked lava planes. Though my latest astronomy themed drawing interprets the lunar landscape with a good deal of artistic license, I did try to reference real features made visible at first quarter.

The Sea of Rains (Mare Imbrium) is the central focus. Framing some prominent craters (Archimedes, Aristillus, Autolycus, and Cassini), this ancient volcanic plain is edged from south to north by the Appenine and Caucasus mountains and capped by an "Alpine Valley" (admittedly exaggerated in my depiction). The northern Mare Frigoris (Sea of Cold) bleeds around Aristotle's crater and into the lakes of Death and Dreams, finally bringing the eye to rest on a Sea of Serenity at lower right. Forgive my wordy indulgence here. It's easy to get carried away by such tantalizing names. Exploring the lunar surface can feel like wandering through a poem.

September 8, 2013

A Morning Walk

On advice from an informed neighbor, I altered the course of my walk this morning to incorporate a network of wood-chipped trails that surround Oberlin College's large solar power array. These well-maintained paths trek northwest of campus and lead back into a serene area of woods and meadow...meandering back forth and around a stately field of tracking solar panels.

I was already somewhat aware of the solar array (had previously caught glimpses of it way out behind some houses while exploring the neighborhood one day), but had assumed the land surrounding it was private property or otherwise off limits. Thank goodness for friendly neighbors. Without their well timed advice, I might never have seen these luscious golden fields.

I'm such a junkie for big beautiful vistas...vast quiet spaces that provoke a sense of wonder...

...and nearly always harbor lovely surprises if you take the time to look closely.

Alien shapes hidden away in an otherwise conventional lawn...

...and painterly eruptions of color...

Even things that usually inspire a disgusted cringe can reveal luscious geometries...

...fantastical interiors...

...and spritely keepers that carefully patrol their furrowed refuge...

...glinting like emerald in the sunlight.