A Darker View

It was not until much later that I realized what we had stumbled upon. One of those interesting places that makes Hawaiʻi special. One of those places that is now gone forever. It was a few years ago now, just travelling around the island with my sister-in-law, on island to visit for a week…

Aloha Shirts

Nene’s aloha shirts on display in the shop

Wandering up the street ahead of the gals I saw it. A shop full of fabric is a problem, the bright colors would attract my wife like a bee to flowers. The little shops along main street of Honokaʻa all had colorful window displays designed to attract tourists. I expected there would be delays as the gals wandered in and out of the shops, just to be expected. Among these Nene’s Sewing Corner was definitely a problem. I casually blocked the door as my wife strolled up.

She, of course, realized what I was doing. Despite her attraction to the bolts of cloth, we were hungry and it took little to convince her to move on in the direction of food. Our stop in Honokaʻa was for lunch, not fabric shopping.

On the way back to the car we again wandered past the little shops, this time there was nothing to do but give in to the inevitable and go in.

Continue reading Nene Aloha Shirts…

The bright dot on Ceres has the UFO community all a twitter.

Ceres

The Dawn spacecraft observed Ceres for an hour on Jan. 13, 2015, from a distance of 238,000 miles (383,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/ DLR/IDA

As the Dawn probe approaches Ceres each day brings ever higher resolution photos. The bright dot first showed up as a large white blotch on the disk. Not a huge surprise, even Earth based images showed areas of the dwarf planet were much brighter.

As the spacecraft neared the dot has been revealed to be quite small. Indeed the images are quite intriguing, a very bright dot with a smaller dot directly beside it. The two features are near the center of a fairly large impact crater.

Ceres

This image was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/ DLR/IDA

Of course the images are intriguing. Whenever something this odd shows up in a NASA mission image there is a group of folks who go off the rails entirely, the UFO/alien community. I looked at the image and went “Hmmmm?”. Then as I sat for a moment I wondered what the UFO websites were saying about this photo. A quick sampling showed that the UFO/alien community has let speculation run rampant.

The articles and YouTube videos are popping up, fueled by the latest Dawn mission image releases… It is an alien city, a giant spacecraft, and, of course Ceres is a fragment of the destroyed planet Phaeton. After the buzz about the UFO in orbit around asteroid 2004 BL86 the UFO community is ready for something new. Even the British newspaper The Daily Mail has let this “alien” speculation seep into its reporting.

The planetary science community has a more likely theory for the dot, a cryo-volcano. It is known that Ceres harbors a great deal of water. A vent of some sort allowing water to escape into space from a subsurface deposit is not that unlikely. The process would not be that dissimilar to what we have observed on comets. The location of the feature at the center of an impact crater is also interesting. Note that there is another light colored feature at the center of another impact crater on the lower left of the latest image. An older, less active or dormant cryo-volcano?

When looking at the image you have to remember that the surface of most asteroids and comets is actually quite dark, about the same as charcoal. Ceres has a v-band albedo of 0.09, thus only 9% of the sunlight is reflected by the surface. Anything bright white, like fresh ice, is going to be stunningly bright in comparison.

When Dawn arrives at Ceres and settles into orbit we will have our answers, the images should show the phenomena in exquisite detail. We just have to wait a few months. It would be totally cool if the bright dot did turn out to be some sort of alien artifact. But I have to agree with the mission team, it is probably some form of cryo-volcano, also cool.

Today Mercury will be at maximum western elongation, as high in the morning sky as it will appear for this current apparition. After today the planet will slide back into the dawn, passing through superior conjunction on April 9th to reappear in the evening sky around the end of April.

Continue reading Mercury at Maximum Elongation…

More than once I have gotten “The Question“.

Standing in front of the crowd under a starry sky, I spend an evening answering questions. There are many versions of “The Question”… God, UFO’s, anything where astronomy crosses with the unknown, or imagined.

There are things we just do not know. When faced with an unknown many people prefer to simply make something up, or adopt a common belief that may have no basis in fact. This is where belief and science clash… A critical skill for a true scientist it the ability to be comfortable with the unknown.

Having answered the usual questions so many times I do get better at it. I also enjoy watching other folks answer these same thorny questions, I learn and borrow some of the good lines. The trick is to somehow convey the proper skepticism of a scientific view without directly confronting the closely held beliefs of your audience. Not an easy task.

No one is better at explaining science than Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of Chicago’s Hayden Planetarium. Watching him field questions from an audience is pure gold to anyone who does public outreach. He is personable, he connects well with the audience, and he nails the science with perfection.

Note: This article originally posted July 7, 2011 on the old Darker View blog.

Don’t take my word for it, watch the video as Neil answers “The Question”. At the end of the video Neil gives the answer I use most often for the UFO version of the question… Amateur astronomers, like myself, do not generally report UFO’s, because we have seen, and understand many of the interesting things nature can display in the sky. Education is the key.

Twice in the last week I have gotten The Question. Anyone who works around the public and telescopes will get this one, and you need to be ready to answer it. There is so much history and myth around the subject that the answer can be challenging. For this one, a simple, short answer will not suffice, you need a good, concise and clear response. This is made no easier by the problem that the answer I give is not the one they want to hear.

“Have you ever seen a UFO?”

Day The Earth Stood Still

Scene from Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Of course by UFO they mean some sort of alien spacecraft, visitors from another star or dimension. I have seen things in the sky I didn’t know what they were, unidentified objects. But I have always been able to figure out what they were with a little checking. While the answers are usually interesting they have always been natural or human phenomena.

Note: This article originally posted Dec 13, 2008 on the old Darker View blog.

Take a breath, look the person straight in the eyes, and say it…

No.

I have never seen any evidence of an alien visitor, nor has any of the many, many other astronomers, amateur or professional I know ever mentioned anything to me. We have all seen odd things, but no good evidence for alien visitors.

I am pretty certain there is life out there. Given the sheer odds of hundreds of billions of stars in each major galaxy and hundreds of billions of galaxies, there are simply too many chances. We now know that there are planets around just about every star, we have discovered over three hundred, and that is just around nearby stars within the reach of our instruments. There is life out there, but complex, intelligent life? That is another level of question.

They are not visiting us.

Most people who ask The Question have no concept of just how big space is, or how difficult travel among the stars would be. We have seen too many episodes of Star Trek, where the next planet is reached after the ad break and warp speed solves all of the problems. If it exists, interstellar travel will be rare and difficult, involving titanic amounts of energy. An alien ship coming into our solar system will not only been seen by every instrument we have, and there are a lot these days, but everyone with a backyard telescope. The sort of energy needed to decelerate would be more than obvious.

I have more than a little trouble with many of the eyewitness accounts, they describe a wild array of craft, all different, yet the same, as if they are just elaborating on previous stories. UFO’s with lots of lights that fly in strange ways, suddenly changing directions like the pilot has just left the bar after a heavy night. Advanced technologies will still obey the laws of physics, intelligent beings will act with purpose, what is so often described does not make any sense at all. Descriptions of little grey men are far too familiar, a head, two eyes, two arms, and two legs… far too much like us. If we ever do meet aliens they will look nothing like us, they will be truly alien.

I don’t base this answer on just circumstantial evidence, but on the lack of any reliable evidence that anything has visited. The concept of alien visitation is too extraordinary, the level of proof required is similarly extraordinary. The burden of proof lies on those that say there are aliens, and so far they have failed in that respect. I have a lot of trouble with the concept of aliens that haunt the boondocks and abduct hapless farmhands. Sorry, just not believable.

Who would I believe?

Not certain about that, but I am not sure I would trust any eyewitness. As any police detective will tell you, the human mind is simply too easy to fool, we are horrible witnesses. I would expect the best possible witness would be those who watch the sky regularly, astronomers and the far more numerous amateur astronomers, a community to which I belong.

Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, put it very well indeed, his point is one I know well and bears repeating. The amateur astronomy community spends more time under the stars than almost any other group. We keep good optics and cameras handy, if there is anything to be seen, this large group of people would see it.

We don’t.

On any clear night, particularly weekends, there are thousands of amateur astronomers sitting with telescopes under dark skies. We see lots of things, but we know what they are. This community is educated in the many beautiful and arcane phenomena that sky can produce. We make a point to see these things and recognize them for what they are. Flickering planets low on the horizon, aircraft flares, high altitude balloons, the bright flash of a bursting meteor, satellite flares and many more. Those of us who have spent time around civilian aviation, or the military have seen even more.

If you are sure I am wrong… Show me the evidence!

Sorry, bad photos, odd Mayan carvings or unreliable eyewitness accounts don’t do it. Been there, read and seen it. When an alien ship lands on the Ellipse in front of the White House, or some other solid proof is produced I will re-examine my conclusion. But until then…

No.

You do not need to visit some remote Serengeti plain to see wildlife being wild. Our front lanai can be quite wild on occasion. In this case a pair of male carolina anoles having a territorial tiff. It was quite fun to watch, in the presence of another male they can puff themselves up to twice the size and deploy a bright red dewlap.

Carolina Anoles

Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis) in the midst of a territorial threat display.

I have a growing collection of wreck photographs, to which I added another this week. What is it about the local roads that causes this?

Waikoloa Road Wreck

A overturned car resulting from a single vehicle accident on Waikoloa Road 12Feb2015

Many of the wreck photos in my collection came from the old saddle road. That road was truly dangerous, I did not even photograph every wreck I encountered. Not so much anymore, the rebuilt road is much safer. there are still wrecks, just not nearly as often. It is usually tired or drunk drivers running through the guardrail at the end of the road. That has happened four times now.

The latest wreck on Waikoloa Road seems to have been a single vehicle affair, encountered while returning from work. Best guess is that the driver put a couple wheels on the gravel shoulder for some reason, from there they lost control and flipped the vehicle. There was gravel all over the road just above the accident site.

Aside from the old Saddle Road, island roads are just not that bad. In comparison to the winding country roads I grew up on these should be much safer. Yet the accident count seems much higher in proportion to the cars on the road. It is also not that unusual to witness some really bad driving.

Checking the data shows Hawaiʻi is not the worst state. The traffic fatality rate is right in the middle for the states, about 1.01 deaths per 100 million miles driven for 2013. Data for Hawaiʻi County would be interesting to compare, a different situation than the other islands with our more rural nature. Hawaii is noted to have the largest proportion of single vehicle wrecks in the same set of data.

This morning there is news of three more fatalities, a fiery crash down in Kona that closed the Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway all morning. A reminder to be careful on the local roads.

Ke Ola Mau Loa Church

Ke Ola Mau Loa Church in Waimea

Hui Okinawa Kobudo Taiko

Hui Okinawa Kobudo Taiko performs at the 2015 Waimea Cherry Blossom Festival

Like most electronic hobbyists, I have an odd relationship with Radio Shack. In our youth it was the one local place you could buy basic components… Resistors, connectors, wire and other parts could be found there, without waiting a week for an order from a mail order catalog. The selection was always pretty sparse, the quality was hit or miss, and the prices were too high. But, if you needed something quickly it was the place.

Radio Shack Waimea

The Radio Shack location in Waimea in the KTA center

I even worked in a store for a summer in high school, learning what it was like on the other side of the counter. An experience that left me wondering why anyone would want to work in retail sales.

Then for many years, through the 90’s and the early part of the 00’s Radio Shack neglected the hobbyist business, concentrating on cell phones and accessories. Recently they have returned to their roots, restoring the kits and components section of the store. This time with Arduinos and other more modern technology. It was a move that many in the electronics community greeted with some enthusiasm.

Still, in recent visits looking for a last minute component I have found the selection just too minimal to be truly useful.

Word that Radio Shack is filing for bankruptcy and closing 1,750 stores is no surprise. According to news report the corporation claims $1.2 billion in assets and $1.4 billion in liabilities.

Apparently our local store in Waimea is not slated for closure in this first round. The future of any particular store is far from certain. Sprint has agreed to purchase many of the closed stores, but details are far from complete. Certainly many of the stores occupy desirable locations and are ripe for acquisition.

What emerges from bankruptcy will be interesting to see. But my guess is that the Radio Shack that has long been a fixture in our lives is gone.