Thursday, August 31, 2017

It has been a long time since I blogged, but the August 21, 2017 eclipse makes me want to share my experiences.

My first tactic concerning the eclipse was to avoid crowds by targeting Nebraska over Carbondale, IL. Alliance, NE with its Car-Henge sculpture looked like a good spot. It would be a 835 miles trip from Villa Park, IL  We considered taking Amtrak to Minnesota so that we and our son could drive due west and approach Nebraska from the north. Hopefully highways would be less traveled than the southern approach which could be flooded with people from Denver. As I monitored sky cover predictions, I looked for other sites a little closer on the eastern side of Nebraska. Ravenna, NE was only 628 miles (9 hr 21 min travel time) from home, had a population of 1300 and was selling $10 tickets to their baseball fields. I especially like Nebraska because Interstate 80 went east-west through the total eclipse zone for at least a couple hundred miles.This would allow for last minute shifting due to any predicted clouds.

That all changed on Aug 19. I had been monitoring "sky cover" conditions with SkippySky and NOAA's National Digital Forecast Database for a few days. With the 8AM Aug 19 prediction, NOAA "sky cover" percentage was 45% for Ravenna and 55% for Alliance in Nebraska, Carbondale was 32% and Tennessee was 18%. I quickly started to check out 11 towns in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The city of Gallatin, TN, about 30 miles northeast of Nashville and 463 miles from home (7 hr 26 min travel time), seemed to have the best plans with an event called "Eclipse Encounter" in a place called Triple Creek Park. Even though there was no charge, they had an online EventBrite site to make an RSVP for an electronic ticket.With only 2 days to go, I reserved three tickets and was surprised that only several hundred tickets out of 1500 had been requested.

I continued to monitor "sky cover" predictions until 6 AM on Sunday, Aug. 20th. It wasn't great news. Tennessee had degraded to 26% but Nebraska was 46-62% and Carbondale was also 26%. We left with my son driving his truck at 10:30 AM with the intent of getting as close to Gallatin as possible. Eventually our stopping place was the Four Point Hilton hotel in Louisville, KY. We still had about 160 miles to make Gallatin and if we wanted to arrive at the park at 5 AM, that meant a wake up time of 12:45 AM.This might have been the most expensive hotel stay on an hourly basis. The room cost $200 and we were only there for 8 hours of which only 3 hours were sleep.

We left the hotel at 1:35 AM and I immediately was concerned that the powers to be didn't want us to make it to the eclipse. One interchange down the road, Interstate 65 was closed due to an accident. We exited, travelled side roads for a couple of interchanges and got back on.Our only other stop was at a Waffle House when we started taking state highway109 at the Kentucky-Tennessee border. It was freezing in the restaurant and service was sloooooow!

We arrived at Triple Creek Park at 5:05 AM and we were maybe the 50th car into the park. I looked at the stars in the sky to determine our compass directions. Using my SkyGuide app on my phone, I determined the position of the sun at eclipse time. We waited in the truck until daylight broke and some of the dew burned off the grass. Rather than carry our chairs any distance, we decided to set up just on the edge of the 300 car parking lot. We pitched our chairs only about 50 feet from the truck.

The partial eclipse started at 11:59:04 CDT. I was surprised that the 7 hours of waiting went pretty fast. It helped to make a few indoor bathroom breaks which was a several block walk but better than the port-a-potie option. Carol and I purchase three Gallatin Eclipse shirts for $15 each. Lucky we had the exact $45 or we would have had to wait for the lady with change. I struck up a few conversations with a gentleman and his daughter from Dayton, Ohio, a lady wearing a Bar Harbor, Maine t-shirt and a couple of guys with a sun projection device and a large pair of binoculars with solar filters on it. Our solar glasses from Triton came in handy to monitor the progress of the partial eclipse.

Temperatures were rising to about 90 degrees with high humidity. The three of us did our best to stay under our two umbrellas. Lucky our son Curt brought the bigger umbrella. A few clouds started to form in the sky. At one point the sun was covered for a few minutes.As the partial eclipse progressed, looking around the park, it seemed that things were taking on a darker tint like if you were wearing sunglasses.

It was another hour and a half until totality started at 1:27:25 PM. What a cosmic and emotional moment. I got a lump in my throat as the crowd oh'ed and ah'ed as darkness decended.What a cool effect to see the last bit of sun called the "diamond ring" disappear. Now, no eye protection was needed. We were going to get the full 2 min and 40 sec of totality with no cloud near the sun. The center line of the eclipse path went right through the north end of the park, so we were within a mile of that. I used a hand held finder scope with 9x to look at the sun but it was too jittery to get a decent glimpse of the sun. Just staring with my eyes, I saw three spikes in the corona. Two were on the west and one on the east. The sky had a strange pearlescence color to it. Looking at the people near by, they seemed like cardboard cutouts moving in front of a flat background. What a strange feeling to look up and see a round black ball where the sun used to be.

It was a very quick two and a half minutes. Once again the "diamond ring" appeared on the western edge of the sun. You knew that signaled the end of totality. Sky & Telescope said you could look at this phase of the eclipse for only 5 seconds before risking eye damage. Back on with the eclipse glasses. We didn't dawdle and began to pack up our stuff. Being so close to the truck, we thought we'd beat the crowd out of the park.

By 1:40 PM we were pulling out of our parking spot but so were many thousands of the 50-60,000 people in the park. It took 20 minutes to exit the park. Driving went well for a while until we go to I65. Stop and go traffic with the stops lasting 15 minutes. Waze my traffic app on my phone send us on a couple of goose chases trying to save some ficticious minutes. Some of the back roads were so narrow, two cars barely fit and the corn was growing 3 feet from the edge of the road.

We drove a few hundred miles to the west on the William Natcher ParkWay and the Audubon Parkway from Bowling Green to avoid the traffic on I65 but heading north on HW41 we again came to a complete standstill. We gave up and stayed at a hotel in Evansville, IN. Moral of the story: it pays to hunker down for at least a day after the eclipse.The next morning we zigzaged our way to I57 and back home. What a wonderful life memory!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Just one more update to make my list of courses complete before I start rating them. I've recently completed 4 more courses (19 to 22 in the list). Since the last of these four courses was completed on April 18, 2016, it seems I have burned out on the science and math classes. The only class I've taken since then was one on the Music of the Beatles from Rutgers University. It was a refreshing change and gave me a reason to listen to all the Beatles songs on Spotify.

I've kept copious notes on my classes and now have two spiral binders to help me review the content of the classes. Reviews of the classes should be coming soon. Otherwise, my recollection of them will be too vague to be of much use.

Here is my list so far.
  1. Imagining Other Earths; Dave Spergel; Princeton; Astronomy; Sep 17, 2014-Dec 31, 2014; 16 weeks; 5-7 hours/week; coursera.
  2. Emergence of Life; Bruce Fouke; University of Illinois; Biology; Oct 20, 2014-Dec 14, 2014; 8 weeks; 4-6 hours/week; coursera.
  3. Introduction to Astronomy; Ronen Plesser; Duke University; Astronomy; Dec 1, 2014-Mar 16, 2015; 15 weeks; 6-12 hours/week; coursera.
  4. Astrobiology & the Search for Extraterrestial Life; Charles Cockrell; University of Edinburgh; Astrobiology; Dec 10, 2014-own pace; 9 hour total effort; coursera.
  5. Galaxies & Cosmology; S. George Djorgovski; CalTech; Cosmology; Jan 6, 2015-Mar 15, 2015; 10 weeks; coursera.
  6. Super Earths & Life; Dimitar Sasselov; Harvard; Astrobiology; Feb 10, 2015-Mar 22, 2015; EDX.
  7. The Science of the Solar System; Mike Brown; CalTech; Astronomy; Mar 30, 2015-Jun 9, 2015; 9 weeks; 2+ hours/week; coursera.
  8. Origins - Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth & Life; team taught; University of Copenhagen; Astronomy & Astrobiology; Apr 28, 2015-Jul 20, 2015; 12 weeks; coursera.
  9. Astrotech: Science & Technology Behind Astronomical Discovery; Andy Lawrence & Catherine Heymans; University of Edinburgh; Astronomy; May 18, 2015-Jun 28, 2015; 6 weeks; coursera.
  10. Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe; Brian Schmidt & Paul Francis; Australian National University; Jun 23, 2015-Aug 25, 2015;Astronomy; 9 weeks; 3 hours/week; EDX.
  11. Calculus 1; Jim Fowler; Ohio State; Aug 9, 2015-still have 3 weeks to go, own pace; Mathematics; 16 weeks; coursera.
  12. Planet Earth & You; Stephen Marshak & Eileen Herrstrom; University of Illinois; Geology; Sep 14, 2015- Oct 20, 2015; 5 weeks; coursera.
  13. Analyzing the Universe; Terry Matilsky; Rutgers; Sep 14, 2015-Nov 19, 2015; Astronomy; 6 weeks; coursera.
  14. Astrophysics: Exploring Exoplanets; Brian Schmidt & Paul Francis; Australian National University; Sep 15, 2015-Nov 17, 2015; Astronomy; 9 weeks; 3 hours/week; EDX.
  15. The Evolving Universe; S. George Djorgovski; CalTech; Sep 20, 2015-Dec 25, 2015, own pace; Cosmology; 5 chapters; coursera.
  16. From the Big Bang to Dark Energy; Hitoshi Murayama; University of Tokyo; Cosmology & Physics; Nov 2, 2015-Dec 25, 2015, own pace; 5 weeks; coursera.
  17. Astronomy: Exploring Time & Space; Chris Impey; University of Arizona; Oct 15, 2015-Dec 23, 2015, own pace; Astronomy; 11 weeks; coursera.
  18. History of Rockets: Part 1 - from Goddard to Apollo; Burton Dicht; IEEE; Rocketry & History; Nov 24, 2015-Dec 23, 2015; 4 modules; coursera.
  19. Confronting the Big Questions: Highlights of Modern Astronomy; Adam Frank; University of Rochester; Astronomy; Feb 1, 2016 - Mar 7, 2016;  4 weeks; coursera.
  20. Astrophysics: the Violent Universe; Brian Schmidt & Paul Francis; Australian National University; Astronomy; Feb 9, 2016 - Apr 12, 2016; 9 weeks; EDX
  21. CosmologyBrian Schmidt & Paul Francis; Australian National University; Cosmology; Jan 15, 2016 - Apr 16, 2016;  9 weeks; EDX
  22. Conquest of Space: Space Exploration & Rocket Science; 9 instructors; Universidad Carlos III de Madrid; Rocketry & History; Feb 9, 2016 - Apr 18, 2016; 7 weeks; EDX

Monday, December 28, 2015

It has been almost 2 years since I've posted to this blog. Most of my time has been spent on the MASS web site notes and MOOC's (Massive Open Online Courses). I'd thought I'd distill some of my experiences with the 18 courses I've taken between mid September 2014 and the end of December 2015. The MOOC's are a fabulous resource for learning about various subjects.

I give a tremendous thanks to Dean who identified this resource to me. We were both going to take the second course, "Emergence of Life" together but his schedule didn't let him start the class.

There is quite a range of difficulty to the courses. Some courses are very heavy on homework and very stingey on calculations to get the correct answer. That is where the inter-personal section of "forums" can be quite handy. Some of the courses follow a strict weekly format of releasing the weeks video lectures and a test on the week's material. There can be a fairly severe penalty if you don't complete the homework and tests by the deadline. Other classes also have essays of up to about 700 words. As a youth, I hated essays. But it seems that since I enjoy the material, the essays aren't the pain that they used to be.

In my first entry I thought I'd list the 18 courses, the name of the instructor and his/her affiliation, the subject, when I took the course, its length, the estimated effort, and the course platform. Later posts will rate the courses and their difficulty by subject.

Here is my list so far.


  1. Imagining Other Earths; Dave Spergel; Princeton; Astronomy; Sep 17, 2014-Dec 31, 2014; 16 weeks; 5-7 hours/week; coursera.
  2. Emergence of Life; Bruce Fouke; University of Illinois; Biology; Oct 20, 2014-Dec 14, 2014; 8 weeks; 4-6 hours/week; coursera.
  3. Introduction to Astronomy; Ronen Plesser; Duke University; Astronomy; Dec 1, 2014-Mar 16, 2015; 15 weeks; 6-12 hours/week; coursera.
  4. Astrobiology & the Search for Extraterrestial Life; Charles Cockrell; University of Edinburgh; Astrobiology; Dec 10, 2014-own pace; 9 hour total effort; coursera.
  5. Galaxies & Cosmology; S. George Djorgovski; CalTech; Cosmology; Jan 6, 2015-Mar 15, 2015; 10 weeks; coursera.
  6. Super Earths & Life; Dimitar Sasselov; Harvard; Astrobiology; Feb 10, 2015-Mar 22, 2015; EDX.
  7. The Science of the Solar System; Mike Brown; CalTech; Astronomy; Mar 30, 2015-Jun 9, 2015; 9 weeks; 2+ hours/week; coursera.
  8. Origins - Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth & Life; team taught; University of Copenhagen; Astronomy & Astrobiology; Apr 28, 2015-Jul 20, 2015; 12 weeks; coursera.
  9. Astrotech: Science & Technology Behind Astronomical Discovery; Andy Lawrence & Catherine Heymans; University of Edinburgh; Astronomy; May 18, 2015-Jun 28, 2015; 6 weeks; coursera.
  10. Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe; Brian Schmidt & Paul Francis; Australian National University; Jun 23, 2015-Aug 25, 2015; Astronomy; 9 weeks; 3 hours/week; EDX.
  11. Calculus 1; Jim Fowler; Ohio State; Aug 9, 2015-still have 3 weeks to go, own pace; Mathematics; 16 weeks; coursera.
  12. Planet Earth & You; Stephen Marshak & Eileen Herrstrom; University of Illinois; Geology; Sep 14, 2015- Oct 20, 2015; 5 weeks; coursera.
  13. Analyzing the Universe; Terry Matilsky; Rutgers; Sep 14, 2015-Nov 19, 2015; Astronomy; 6 weeks; coursera.
  14. Astrophysics: Exploring Exoplanets; Brian Schmidt & Paul Francis; Australian National University; Sep 15, 2015-Nov 17, 2015; Astronomy; 9 weeks; 3 hours/week; EDX.
  15. The Evolving Universe; S. George Djorgovski; CalTech; Sep 20, 2015-Dec 25, 2015, own pace; Cosmology; 5 chapters; coursera.
  16. From the Big Bang to Dark Energy; Hitoshi Murayama; University of Tokyo; Cosmology & Physics; Nov 2, 2015-Dec 25, 2015, own pace; 5 weeks; coursera.
  17. Astronomy: Exploring Time & Space; Chris Impey; University of Arizona; Oct 15, 2015-Dec 23, 2015, own pace; Astronomy; 11 weeks; coursera.
  18. History of Rockets: Part 1 - from Goddard to Apollo; Burton Dicht; IEEE; Rocketry & History; Nov 24, 2015-Dec 23, 2015; 4 modules; coursera.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Episode 13 Who Speaks for Earth?


Carl returns to familiar topic with his disdain for the nuclear arms race. He gives mankind a pass on our quest of mutual destruction by blaming our fool hardy logic on baggage left over from the territorial aggressiveness of our cave-man heritage.

He implores us to channel and pool our resources on the positive advancement of science and space exploration. And not squander them on destructive pursuits like military programs and war. He wishes we could make a straight line of scientific progress and not the zig-zag of factions fighting amongst themselves and destroying the accomplishments of others.

I was just reading in the Chicago Tribune today that the Chinese military has an estimated $200 billion budget and is second only to the United States. I wonder what we could accomplish if these two pools of money were added and spent on space exploration.

Since Cosmos came out in 1980, the military competition with the USSR has been replaced with the "war on terrorism". To me it is such a waste of resources to have our super computers analyzing cell phone records rather than trying to find new chemicals to fight cancer.

I try to be positive but it seems war and distrust of thy neighbor will always morph into some new expensive program that drains the resources of positive progress. Hopefully we will become enlightened and head to the stars rather than destroying ourselves or wallowing in the filth we create on Earth.

Watching the 1980 Cosmos TV series and reading the book has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I was surprised that astronomy was only one facet of the discussion. History and psychology seemed to be as important to the conversation. I can't wait to see what topics the 2014 version with Neil DeGrasse Tyson discusses.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Episode 12 Encyclopaedia Galactica


Some topics seem like they haven't changed much over the last 33 years. Whether we have been visited by extraterrestials is one of those topics. I agree with Carl that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So far, there doesn't seem to be any credible evidence that contact has been made.

The Drake equation that estimates the number of civilizations within the Milky Way galaxy has also stood the test of time.The fact that we have found over 1000 exoplanets has increased the validity of the estimates for the leftmost factors in the equation. I've seen estimates that there are 33 billion Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of their stars. Carl calculated that there were 100 billion planets with life.

The moon systems of Jupiter and Saturn have also proved that planets are not necessarily the only places to look for life. The chance that Mars had or has simple life has increased with the rovers discovering rocks that could have formed only in liquid water. The moons Europa, Enceladus and Titan all have their proponents for current life because they have liquid lakes and oceans.

The more uncertain factors are on the right side of the equation. The most uncertain one is "how long do civilizations last?" and that is a political question rather than scientific one. Carl calculated that there has been 1 billion planets with civilizations with radio communication. But when you use the fact that mankind has had radio communication capability for only a few decades of the Earth's 4.5 billion years, you have to multiply those 1 billion civilizations by (45 years / 4.5 billion years) 1/100,000,000 with a result of 10 civilizations currently in existence.

The observation that there should be aliens all over the place but we haven't seen them yet, is called the Fermi paradox. Carl proposes a couple of reasons for their absence. Possibly were the first ones on the block and the others are still in development. Another possibility are that they are here already. Observing us discretely without letting their presence be known. A third possibility is that civilizations become complacent and lose their drive to explore. Sometimes with the reduced support for science in the US, I'm worried that could be the direction we are headed in. A future with people so preoccupied texting what they had for breakfast with their smart phones they don't have any interest in looking at the stars in the sky anymore.

One of the recent topics up for debate is whether we should attempt to communicate by sending signals from Earth. Stephen Hawking thinks it is a bad idea. The odds are that any civilization we contact would be far more advanced than we are. Historically things haven't gone well when a backward civilization meets a much more advanced one, Aztecs vs the Spanish for example. I still remember the Twilight episode entitled "To Serve Man". The Earth thought it was a book on how the aliens would teach Mankind about all their great scientific discoveries but it turned out to be a cookbook. Maybe we can intercept that signal we sent to the globular cluster M13.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Episode 11 The Persistence of Memory


Life is complex and Carl assumes with the vastness of the cosmos, other instances of intelligent life must exist. And yet we have the Fermi paradox that we have not seen or heard any other civilizations. My feeling is that the civilizations are so far apart in the cosmos, we are effectively all in separate cages in a cosmic zoo. Everyone is effectively trapped through space and time from contacting one another.

It is an interesting concept to connect the information in genes with the information content of the brain and finally the information stored within our books. Each step exponentially increases the amount of storage capability.

I've heard one theory that man is not the top of the pyramid of life. We are merely the means that DNA uses to keep its message replicating through time. DNA has been at it for several billion years. We may come and go as a life form. DNA will find another host to keep its immortal chain letter continuously being replicated through time.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Episode 10 The Edge of Forever


There are some great galaxy pictures in this episode especially considering that the corrected Hubble Telescope was more than a decade away.

I thought the flatland segment was way overdone and I never heard of the tesseract which is a 4-dimensional cube. I guess a lot of this discussion was the precursor to string theory and its additional dimensions.

The current theory on the universe is that it has just the necessary amount of mass to be flat with only a .4% margin of error. If the universe had more matter it would have curvature of a sphere and less matter would create a saddle shape.

Carl has really done his analysis of various cultures. I find it amazing that the Hindu religion has Brahma cycles that last 8.6 billion years.

Another amazing fact is that all the energy intercepted by all radio telescopes from non solar system objects would not equal the energy of a single snowflake hitting the ground.

The last fact is hard to visualize. When you think of the arms of a spiral galaxy rotating, it is not a constant group of stars comprising the arm. The arm is actually defined by a density wave that creates new stars at the leading edges of the arms. The sun as it rotates around the Milky Way actually goes in and out of the spiral arms. The sun is traveling at 486,000 mph so that it can make one galactic revolution in 240 million years.

Carl did a great job of bringing his own perspective to this cosmology episode. I'm really looking forward to Neil De Grasse Tyson's handling of this material in the 2014 version of Cosmos.