Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The good old days

I had lunch yesterday with a hockey buddy who plays on our Old Geezers team. The discussions, of course, started with hockey, but then went all over the map and eventually ended on our mutual interest in astronomy. This reminded me of the days that I used to enjoy spending under the stars.

As I get older, I find it more difficult to make time for things that I enjoy because work takes up more of my life. Recently, I accepted two editorial posts, which together do not take a whole lot of time, but when combined with my other responsibilities, consumes day and night. I keep on kicking myself for constantly making choices that bring me angst, but I always feel compelled to provide service in my area of expertise.

During our lunch conversation, I recalled one particular night on which I observed a spectacular meteor. Early that evening, long ago, I viewed familiar objects with my new 10" Dobsonian such as the Pleiades and the Andromeda galaxy. Then I focused on M31, M32, and M110. The night was warm and dark, and as midnight approached, the skies got darker as the lights went out one by one all around my neighborhood.

My log book (my memory is too unreliable these days), dated September 26, 2003, reads "Later that night (about midnight) I went up on the upper deck to take in the wonderful sky. I was looking at the Milky Way with its clean dust lane down the center when a meteor shot right along its length through the middle of the dust lane. It started somewhere above 45 degrees from the horizon, maybe near Perseus, and beyond the zenith before it broke up into pieces. It looked like fireworks with maybe 4 obvious fragments. This was one of the brightest meteors I have seen. This wonderful evening made me realize that I want to spend more time under the stars."

Almost 10 years later, I still recall the deep satisfaction of seeing nature at work, the meteor silently streaking across the sky along a smooth arc until it broke up.

In my next entry, dated December 17, 2003, I wrote, "I read my last entry and am ashamed at how long it's been since I went out observing! Though, I did get some nice pictures of Saturn a few nights back (and also the moon)." (See an older post at http://unknownphysicist.blogspot.com/2010/12/nostalgia.html)

Sadly, my last entry in my log book was on 5/8/04, the day after I bought a large 12.5" Dobsonian (I had sold my 10" scope to raise some cash). It ends with "When looking for M81/M82, I found a very dim and broad patch at 50x. At 212x, I could not see it. It was in the vicinity of Caddington Nebula, and it fits the description, so I believe I was looking at IC2574."

Life got too busy to do much observing. I have occasionally (perhaps 5 times in total since 2003) taken out a telescope to show a friend the wonders of the night sky. Though I really enjoy my research, I think I spend much too much time on related service activities to the university and my profession. I continually break promises to myself to take out my telescopes in order to meet my work commitments.

(To the right is a photo I took with my digital camera and telescope back in 2002 of M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules.  This is a spectacular cluster to view in the eyepiece of a telescope, appearing as a scattering of diamonds on black velvet.)

So, next time you visit me, if the skys are clear, ask me to show you the wonders of the heavens. I would appreciate the kick in the butt to take out my telescope. Perhaps such a reboot will get me into the habit of occasionally enjoying some quiet time under the stars.

Clear Skies!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Fame for its own sake

After giving a talk in Milan, my host, another visitor from the US, and I had lunch. Discussions meandered from our work to our profession and then to the topic of how trailblazers often do not get credit for their discoveries. A book that I am now reading, "The Infinity Puzzle," describes this phenomena in the development of the standard model in particle physics.

In 1783, the geologist John Michell wrote a letter to Henry Cavendish proposing the existence of a super-massive body whose gravity was so great that even light could not escape. The letter was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society in 1784, yet this incredible human mind is not generally recognized for the very reason that it should be - it was way ahead of its time.

People who end up getting credit for a discovery usually live at a time when others are around to appreciate the work. Being a good communicator also helps. Our conversation at the outdoor cafe culminated in an interesting question. Would it be better to enjoy fame and fortune in this life for work that is posthumously found to be wrong; or, to make a discovery that is only appreciated long after we are gone?

I would rather play a part in the development of a new paradigm of thought that is right than to get credit for a transient fad that ends up being wrong. What would you prefer?