Sunday, January 26, 2014

Telescope Tourist - Mt. Wilson Observatory

One of my favorite things to do is to visit astronomical observatories. I have had the pleasure of making it to a few of the great ones, but I haven't shared many of my photos. So I am starting a new feature here that I am calling Telescope Tourist. The first entry (Well, I blogged about visiting Whipple Observatory back in 2011 so maybe that should count) is for the historic Mount Wilson Observatory.
The observatory was founded in 1904 by astronomer George Ellery Hale as the Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory. Often overlooked, Hale was a major figure in 20th Century science. The photo above is a bust of Hale that was in the observing room for the 150-foot Solar Tower telescope. As a comparison, here's the bronze bust of Hale that resides in the dome of the 200" Hale Telescope at Palomar:
Hale looks happier at Mt. Wilson, wouldn't you agree?
Speaking of the 150-foot Solar Tower telescope, it has been a workhorse in solar astronomy for over 100 years. Light from the Sun is collected at the top of the tower and beamed down to an observing room at the bottom where it is focused and analyzed. Here's what the projected image looks like:
By the way, there's a great webcam on the tower, which you should look at to take in the great view from the mountain. There are two other, older solar telescopes on the mountain - the Snow Telescope and the 60-foot Solar Tower telescope.

For my money though, the real gems on the mountain are the 60 & 100-inch telescopes.
The 60-inch telescope was finished in 1908. For a while it was the largest telescope on Earth. Many have called it the first "modern" reflecting telescope. Astronomer Harlow Shapley used this instrument to help discover our place in the Milky Way Galaxy. I've been to Mt. Wilson a few times but, I still remember how special I felt just to be able to stand in its presence and touch it.
While the scientific mission of the 60-inch has been over for some time now, it does not rest at night. This historic telescope is available for eyepiece viewing. I have not had the pleasure of looking through this instrument, but I have looked through others of the same size. On a good moonless night the views should be amazing.

More than a century ago, as the 60-inch telescope was nearing completion, George Ellery Hale was already planning for an even larger instrument.
 The 100-inch Hooker Telescope was completed in 1917 and stood as the world's largest until Palomar's 200-inch telescope was completed in the late 1940s. It was with this instrument the Edwin Hubble tackled the distance to the Andromeda "nebula," determining that it was akin to the Milky Way, a distinct galaxy in its own right. Hubble also famously discovered the expansion of the universe.

Here is the Hooker Telescope and what is reputed to be Edwin Hubble's chair:
It is a beautiful instrument from a bygone era.
Like the 60-inch telescope, the 100-inch is no longer used for science. I am told that eyepiece sessions will eventually be offered with the 100".

The Observatory offers guided tours, but not during winter. Check their website for details. I took these photos on a tour that was given by Mike Simmons back in 2005. Mike is the founder and executive director of Astronomers Without Borders. I haven't recently been on one of the public tours given at the observatory so I can't say if the photos I am sharing here are representative of what you might see if you take one.
There are a lot of good books written that cover some of the history of the Mt. Wilson Observatory. The most recent one that I know of to recommend is Marcia Bartusiak's The Day We Found the Universe.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Star Trek: Friday's Child

I can't imagine that Friday's Child makes anyone's top ten list of Trek episodes, but it is somewhat fun. It is kind of a Cold War tale between the Federation and the Klingons but it doesn't come really close to Errand of Mercy.

We begin with the Enterprise in orbit about Capella IV and McCoy, who has been here before, briefing everyone on what to expect. Their mission is to negotiate a mining treaty because, apparently, the Prime Directive doesn't apply here. They're after that "rare mineral topaline, vital to the life-support systems of planetoid colonies." They beam down and before the teaser is over . . . 
a Red Shirt bites the dust. Alas, the Klingons got here first, well, one of them anyway, and the Red Shirt overreacted by drawing his weapon. He was fast, but the Capellans were faster.
This isn't the best start for negotiating that mining treaty and it rapidly turns worse. The leader of the Capellans, the Teer, is killed and replaced by the guy in black with green sleeve and the gold tassels (as opposed to the guy in orange with the pink fur) standing next to the Klingon (above). As Klingons go, this guy's pretty dull. Where's Kor when you need him?

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are imprisoned in a cushy-looking tent along with the late Teer's very pregnant wife. 
Kirk and the gang overpower the guards when Kirk surprises one by throwing a pillow at him. Really. That must be why they are called throw pillows.
They escape and abduct the late Teer's very pregnant wife at sword point. Really.
Meanwhile Scotty is in command on the Enterprise when a distress call comes in. They bug out and leave the landing party to fend for themselves.
As if abducting the pregnant woman wasn't enough, McCoy slaps her around. Of course, she slapped him first. Twice.
The bad guys are in pursuit. Kirk and Spock don't have any weapons, but they do have communicators which they use to create a sonic disruption that explodes a canyon wall and sends down a deadly rain of Styrofoam boulders upon the Capellans.
 Our heroes flee and we learn that McCoy is a doctor, not an escalator.
Back in space, there was no sign on the ship that made the distress call. Scotty orders the Enterprise back to Capella IV and then another distress call comes in. He knows it's a fake intended to lure them away from the planet. As he says, "There's an old saying on Earth, Mr. Sulu. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Chekov says it came from Russia, but we know it really came from George W. Bush.
They head back to Capella IV and we get the series' look at a Klingon ship. Really. Not so special special effects.
Meanwhile, back on the planet, I still can't decide if these guys are warriors or a dance troop.

Anyway, Kirk and Spock shoot people with bows and arrows, the baby is born, the mother takes off, the Klingon gets a phaser and, for some reason, we get a big confrontation between the Teer and the Klingon.
It's kind of one sided.

It doesn't really make much sense, does it? There's a happy ending though, as Scotty arrives to save the day. In the end, we learn that the baby, Leonard James Akaar, will be the new Teer, his mom will serve as his regent and the Federation gets its mining treaty. Everyone on the dwarf planets planetiods will be very happy.

For me, the best thing here is the musical score by Gerald Fried. It 24 minutes of mostly action music, all of which is available in the awesome TOS music box set from La-La Land Records. You can hear a sample track, Distress Signal, from this episode here. The episode ends with the best Trek send off music ever, a track called Coochy Coo/Godfathers. It can be heard in other episodes and is instantly recognizable to any Trek fan.

If you are so inclined, you can watch Friday's Child right here from

Next up is one of my favorite episodes: Who Mourns for Adonais?

Friday, January 17, 2014


Wow! Check out this fantastic time-lapse video, Ancients. It was shot from the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile where the skies are amazingly dark and clear.

Ancients from Nicholas Buer on Vimeo.

The perspective of being much farther south brings out parts of the Milky Way Galaxy that aren't visible to those of us who live in the north. It is easy to see from the video that our perspective on our spiral galaxy is from the side. Compare the view to this pic from the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center's Adam Block of edge-on spiral galaxy NGC 4565.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Star Trek: Metamorphosis

I have been over due in getting to the next episode of Star Trek, so without further ado here is what I have to say about:
I suspect that Metamorphosis is a love it or hate it episode for many, as it has a very different vibe than most of the other episodes.
It begins with Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Assistant Federation Commissioner Hedford in the shuttlecraft Galileo (wait, didn't that burn up at the end of The Galileo Seven?) when a strange cloud pulls them off course and down to a small world which Spock describes like this:
Gravity is similar to Earth. Most unusual in view of its size. The bulk of the body seems to be iron and nickel. More than an asteroid. Like a small planetoid, I should say.
It is too bad the term 'dwarf planet' hadn't been invented yet, as this would have been a perfect use for it. Oh, well.
Once on the surface of the dwarf planet planetoid, they meet up with someone who Kirk thinks looks very familiar. The guy turns out to be Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive, even though he supposedly died 150 years ago. 
"You're all astronauts, on some kind of star trek."
He must have made the trip to the dwarf planet planetoid without the Meade LX-200 and his jughead hat.

Cochrane tells them that the age of 87 he headed out into space to die, but was brought to this dwarf planet planetoid by the cloud just as the Galileo was. Somehow the cloud rejuvenated him.
Spock decides to check out the shuttlecraft when the cloud comes to pay him a visit. Being the curious guy that he is, he decides to touch it. The cloud gives him a sizable electric shock and messes with the shuttle.

Cochrane tells them that the cloud, which he calls The Companion, will not let them leave. It has made some sort of power dampening field which keeps things from working.
None of this is good news for Commissioner Hedford who needs medical treatment on the Enterprise to keep her from dying, but if the cloud rejuvenated Cochrane, maybe it can cure the Commish too. 
Cochrane can call The Companion, and communicate with it on a non-verbal level. Alas, it can't help Hedford. As The Companion communicates with Cochrane both Kirk and McCoy are convinced that it loves Cochrane.

Kirk really wants to get off this dwarf planet planetoid and in spite of the fact that The Companion is an intelligent creature that loves Cochrane, his first tactic to fight. He has Spock build a device to effectively short circuit it.
Which doesn't work out so well.

So if fighting wont work, Kirk actually has to resort to talking with the intelligent creature. He gets Spock to working on adding an Intelligent Cloud Mode to the Universal Translator.
In spite of the fact that power systems don't work here, Kirk takes his lightsaber Universal Translator and talks to The Companion about why it should let them leave.

The conversation turns to The Companion's feelings about The Man and Cochrane doesn't exactly react well to the conclusions that everybody draws about their relationship.
Cochrane: I don't understand.
McCoy: You don't? A blind man could see it with a cane. You're not a pet. You're not a specimen kept in a cage. You're a lover. 
Cochrane: I'm a what? 
Spock: Her attitude when she approaches you is profoundly different than when she contacts us. Her appearance is soft, gentle. Her voice is melodic, pleasing. I do not totally understand the emotion, but it obviously exists. The Companion loves you. 
Cochrane: Do you know what you're saying? For all these years, I've let something as alien as that crawl around inside me, into my mind, my feelings. 
Kirk: What are you complaining about? It kept you alive.
Cochrane: That thing fed on me. It used me. It's disgusting. 
McCoy: There's nothing disgusting about it. It's just another life form, that's all. You get used to those things. 
Cochrane: You're as bad as it is. 
Spock: Your highly emotional reaction is most illogical. Your relationship with the Companion has for one hundred and fifty years been emotionally satisfying, eminently practical, and totally harmless. It may indeed have been quite beneficial.
Cochrane: Is this what the future holds? Men who have no notion of decency or morality? Maybe I'm a hundred and fifty years out of style, but I'm not going to be fodder for any inhuman monster.
Yes, Mr. Cochrane. This is what the future holds. It is called tolerance, acceptance and understanding. It is a realization that all of us are equal and that in this case, love is universal. It doesn't matter if you are The Man and an intelligent alien cloud, because it is okay. It is even okay with humans that don't fit the traditional roles. This was still one season before the big moment of TV's first interracial kiss where Kirk and Uhura are forced to kiss. To me this is a bigger deal and another example of how Star Trek has some big things to say for all of us.

Even the dying Commissioner Hedford gets it. She is mystified that Cochrane rejects love when she has never known love.
Kirk talks again to The Companion about The Man and love. He tries to get her to let him go but instead convinces her that she can't really love him unless she is human.

Here's where something odd happens. Recall that The Companion can't make Commissioner Hedford better, but all of a sudden it instead becomes one with her and in the process cures her in a way that we really shouldn't think about.

The Companion gaves up immortality for both herself and The Man in order to be able to even have a chance at real love with him.
Cochrane hasn't seen a woman in 150 years, so it doesn't take him too long to come around. With her in human form they decide to stay on the dwarf planet planetoid and grow old together. Even better, the communicators and the shuttlecraft will work again right as the Enterprise arrives, so everybody wins.
The episode was directed by Ralph Serensky, who has written a very nice blog post about it that you should read. He did some great things giving a sense of space on the set (which he discusses on his blog), he also had a great visual sense for grouping the actors on the set. This is just one example:
This was the first of several Trek episodes to get a musical score by George Dunning, who wrote just over 30 minutes of music for this episode. Like the episode, the score has a different feel to it, but it is good stuff. As I've mentioned before, all of it is available in the wonderful complete release of all the music from the original Star Trek from La-La Land Records

You can watch Metamorphosis online at Star

Next up is Friday's Child.