The Cooling Tower

jbhnewscopeThe open star cluster in Cygnus known as M29 is also now nicknamed “the Cooling Tower” due to its oddly symmetrical shape, evoking the hyperboloid shape of the chimneys of a nuclear power plant. The principal stars form a box with an open top, sort of.

It’s considered the least-interesting entry in the Messier catalog. I thought it was kind of neat!

Either the last bit of twilight or the limitations of my telescope kept me from seeing the full cluster or its promised backdrop of the Milky Way. I saw a dark patch of sky with six tiny stars in a near-perfect geometrical configuration. They are magnitude 9.5, give or take–tiny but very clear in my telescope.

Cygnus is a great place to go to find nebulae and clusters, not to mention the grand sweep of the Milky Way. Its long axis from south to north parallels the flow of the Milky Way. It’s fun just to put in a wide-angle lens, or one of low-to-moderate magnification, and just go swimming.



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A Wonderful Summer

IMG_3790My second full summer in this beautiful place. It’s been wonderful. The magic of newness is still with me; there’s just so much left to discover, and country living agrees with me.

Today, for example: a rare day off on Sunday morning from my church job, so I jumped on the organ bench in the village and played for 8 AM Mass. (I had time for a toasted bagel at the new bagel place right on the main street first.)

Afterwards, a drive to Angry Orchard, home of the famous cider. A farm since the 1700s, orchard for 100 years, delicious and complimentary tastes of new products as well as mainstays. Left with two large bottles of a brew not yet available in stores.

Waiting for Garrison’s to open in Montgomery, a trip to a local thrift store. “We have very little for gentlemen, but there is one rack over here…” Wow. Two magnificent, perfectly-fitting camel hair jackets later, it was time for lunch. I had a hamburger stuffed with pulled pork and Roquefort cheese.

After lunch, across the street to the bakery. A lovely pastry for breakfast, and I had a cider doughnut for all of seventy-five cents. Delicious.

A quick stop at a farmstand on the way home: beets, corn, cantaloupe, tomatoes, zucchini.

Then a stop at a local farm that sells meat. It’s nice to know that these animals, at least, are treated kindly–and we’ve seen them up close and they have a good, traditional farm life. The barn smells strongly of animals, but it’s a healthy, happy smell. No stench, no urine reek, no fear, no sadness.  The drawback, of course, is price. Kindly-treated chicken is expensive chicken. Makes you appreciate meat. Ended up with strip steak, bacon, and a whole roasting chicken. It will last a while. Eat less, eat better, eat with appreciation.

Back home, time for some quiet reading and music listening. I found a digital version of an old Landowska album I’d loved in high school, and bought it cheaply on Amazon. I studied with a student of hers in Chicago–Gavin Williamson–and it was nice to listen closely to her musicianship again.

Now the sun is heading steadily towards the mountain, but the trees are still dappled with bright sunlight. Soon it will be time to start grilling something for dinner.

If the clear skies hold, I’ll do some stargazing tonight and look for meteors.

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Bruen Burgers

grillMy dad was called “Bruen” all his life. It was his middle name–an old name in our family, and I’ve enjoyed researching it–but that’s not my topic today.

Today we’ll talk about what I have dubbed Bruen Burgers. Hamburgers à la Dad. (It’s also a pun: Brew ‘n Burgers, get it? Brew is optional. I had seltzer.)

Dad was a hamburger whisperer, an encourager and massager of ground beef. He would painstakingly knead and shape the patties till they were perfectly shaped and ready for cooking. Not for him the strands of intact ground chuck visible at first bite. What a bore.

Here is a slightly updated recipe for Bruen Burgers, faithful to my late father’s taste. Remember that ground beef is supposed to be cooked thoroughly, for your safety.

Lean ground beef
Badía Sazón Completa™ (Dad would have approved–or a little salt)
ground black pepper
dash Worcestershire sauce (optional; Dad loved it)
dry parsley flakes (a quarter cup or so per pound)

Before lighting fire: On a cutting board or in a bowl, mix ingredients and knead till more or less even. Shape into immaculately round patties. Put on plate, cover and refrigerate.

Light fire carefully (of course! And practice safety–really–I just saw a “professional” squirting fluid into a live fire–stupid as hell.)

When coals are ready, start the burgers. Again, it’s recommended to cook thoroughly. Flip at least once per side, try to keep from going beyond the grill-mark phase. Put to a cool side of the fire to finish. Pro tip: let them sit long enough to come off the grill when gently lifted by spatula–it’s depressing to see cremated chunks of hamburger sticking to the grill. A hot fire tends to prevent sticking. (Ditto refrigeration!)

The picture also shows some unshucked ears of classic bicolor corn being roasted. As you can see, it is hard to moderate the heat on this cheap drugstore-marketed kettle.

Again: fire safety. Keep starter fluid away, and do not add any after fire is lit. Don’t get drunk. Don’t leave the fire unattended. Cover the grill right after cooking. The coals will quickly die and are reusable.

Enjoy the burgers on a toasted bun with any toppings you like. Dad would approve of capers and onions, with a dollop of mayonnaise. Bruen showed his zest for life in small things, such as the way he could demolish a really good hamburger. His wit and high energy in social situations were equally zesty.

So here’s the lesson from dad: When you cook, remember that life’s the best sauce.

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Ashes to Ashes

A break from the astronomy–though last evening offered really good seeing and high transparency, and I had the best views I’ve ever had of Jupiter and of M13.

The ash trees are dying. All of them. Everywhere. On this continent.

I’ve always liked ash trees. They have a rugged bark, white wood, long delicate fingers of foliage. And for about twenty years now, a hitchhiker from foreign parts, the emerald ash borer, has been patiently extirpating them.

I assume that’s why there’s a dead ash on the property, and another looking very peakèd right beside it.

Haven’t found S-galleries yet, but I have heard a rumor that the borer has come to town. (S-galleries:  winding S-shaped worm tracks on the surface of the wood, beneath the bark. Filled with sawdust and frass, which is a nifty synomym for larva poo.)

One of our other big ash trees had to come down a year ago, because its trunk was split along ten feet of its height and it was a matter of time before it fell on the house. The two had grown up and grown old together.

In other words, I could be wrong about the borer having arrived; but why would my tiny hacienda be exempt from a vast calamity?

The felled tree has slowly been turning into another kind of ash in the woodstove. It’s been heating us for almost two months now. I huffed and puffed with wedges, sledges, axes and gluts as long as I could yesterday. I’ll have it done this summer for sure. Do you like my free gym?

New York State has thrown up its hands and given up. Save the seeds (the samaras, another nifty word, meaning seed-pods)–preserve the species and hope for a better day. That’s literally all they can do. I’m going to try a soil drench just in case it’s not too late, but I think it’s probably too late.

American chestnut, American elm, and now several species of our beautiful Fraxinus. Three signature trees that defined the American landscape. Three iconic arboreal losses to… exactly what was it?

Selfishly, the losses will open up a large chunk of the ecliptic, increasing my somewhat limited view of the night sky by a large percentage. But I wish it weren’t happening like this.

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Of Pocket Cameras

joveEven overexposed and blurred by the movement of about one second of arc, it’s fun to share a picture of Jupiter and its moons. Very improvised setup, just an old Canon pocket camera put up to the eyepiece (for the record, a 25mm Plössl from the Celestron Omni series, with a 2× Barlow and a Baader neodymium filter).


From an image poorer than even this, Galileo (looking through his organ pipe fitted with reading glasses) deduced that Earth orbits the Sun just as Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto orbit Jupiter. The analogical imagination.1

The weather here has been terrible. February was warm, but in March temperatures plummeted. April was a bit better, but the first half of May has been chilly and rainy. The garden is complaining, and some leaves are looking wan and wilted. The infant sunflowers miss their namesake. The peonies are extremely promising but I don’t want them to end up a disappointment. The rose is doing great so far–frankly, everything is on schedule, even after that dismal March with its blizzard. Without sun, soon, that could change.

It’s been raining for several hours. I write this in front of a cozy fire–which I shouldn’t need!

Here’s to sunny days and starry nights, soon!


1 See David Tracy’s book of that name. Also see Thomas Aquinas, Summa, pars prima, quest. 6 art. 84. I’m told that an engineering institute on the East Coast offered a course titled something like “Atoms and Stars: a Joint Reality,” an insufferable name but essentially analogous.

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Early Days

jupiter 1970

Looking back over my life, I note the years 1969 and 1970 as high-water marks of my early fascination with astronomy.

In 1969 there was Apollo 11, and I was “over the moon” the whole time. I remained glued to the television set, watching recap after recap as nothing new happened for hour after hour.

That, plus memorizing Tang™ commercials.

I watched the first moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. In the minutes before he climbed down the ladder, I remember thinking “No one has ever set foot on the moon,” so I could ever afterward say that I’d been able to say that once!

That fall we moved to Long Island and I ‘discovered’ the Big Dipper while my father and younger brother were throwing a football around.

In early 1970 there were two wonders: Bennett’s Comet and the near-total solar eclipse in New York. The comet was magnificent, tiny but undeniably a bright, bushy comet, high over the trees across the road in front of our house.

The drawing above is one of a set I made, almost certainly that spring–our first spring in Port Washington. The pictures I still have run from Jupiter to Neptune…a personal guide to the solar system. Except for Saturn, which is a consistent yellow with one thin ring, the colors are quite fanciful, though the planet sizes are remarkably proportional.

By the end of that fourth grade year I could recite the constellations of the zodiac in order, with their approximate (i.e., common superstitious) dates. (I am “officially” a Sagittarius, but was born squarely in the middle of the six days each year when the sun is unquestionably in Scorpio, close to Antares.)

Antares: not only “the adversary of Mars,” but also “substitute for Mars,” or even “fool’s Mars.” I like to call it that–it can easily fool the observer. It’s hardly “opposite to Mars,” anti- in the geographical sense (Antarctic, Antipodes), as it lies just below the ecliptic–hence the ease with which its bright, reddish self can be mistaken for the planet of war.

Anyway, I wasn’t tried for heresy by my poky Catholic school in the suburbs. Religion and science aren’t at odds, though people with bad attitude can certainly be at odds. Fools’ Mars–false alarms, all of them.  As Addison wrote in his magnificent, courageous paraphrase of the 19th Psalm:

What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice or sound
Amid their radiant orbs be found?
In Reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

I have come to think that the following year, fifth grade, is when I dropped out of school– not literally, of course, and not forever.  Somehow, that has to do with science. As I plow through another decade of my life, I plan to work on this conundrum.


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Heavenward Ho

VenusSo, I have bought what I need, and am now going to enjoy it.

I have the new telescope, mount, extender, red-dot finder, barlow, 40mm Plössl, Baader neodymium filter, and still have my 25mm ED from Agena and BST 4mm. I even have a combination red flashlight and hand warmer–thanks, B & H!

Yes, a higher-mag eyepiece would be good. But it’s time to quit ogling the astro catalogs and get on with ogling the glorious heavens above.

One very important new thing has cost me virtually nothing: an observation log. Thanks to AAAA–the American Association of Amateur Astronomers–for a great template. Two dozen of those printed up, an old binder with a new label, a pencil, and voilà. I just need those Star Trek™ stickers!

I love note taking in general, so it’s high time. I have bravely taken my first steps in sketching. Ugh. Lots of room to improve there. For location, I’m indulging hubris and saying “Hall Observatory.” Hall, not Hale!

(My honorary Aunt Cynthia is a great-niece of George Ellery Hale, for whom the Palomar telescope is named. He was a founding professor at my alma mater, the University of Chicago, and a longtime denizen of Madison, Connecticut, which shines at first magnitude in my childhood memories. I’d like to be his honorary great-great-nephew.)

I find that having a log gives me a small ‘research agenda’ every time I go out, and motivates me to stay with an object for a longer time. I no longer just “get as much time as I want, looking at whatever I want,” but studying. Then, looking up some details like magnitude, dec. and RA (I like to estimate these and see how close I get), not to mention size and distance, I learn incidental details about the object or lunar feature.

This led me, recently, to a study of Pierre Gassendi, a philosopher and priest, opponent of Descartes and friend of Mersenne. The combination of ED eyepiece, filter, and barlow gave me a razor-sharp view of the small lunar features named for him.

Somehow, being an organist and an amateur astronomer fits together well. Scholarly, nay geeky, passions still make a renaissance man, even in this age. I can’t forget that Galileo fashioned his first telescope from eyeglasses and an organ pipe…or that the modes were associated with various planets and their spheres.

I note, too, that Gassendi was a priest, as were the early selenographers, and George LeMaitre, proposer of the Big Bang theory. Surely religious faith can fit in here too?

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New Toys, and Rain

rainThe mailman has been busy here. I’ve received my Orion mount extender, and once again I can stand more or less upright while viewing the heavens.

One big demerit for this fine product is that it comes with NO INSTRUCTIONS. I suppose I’m supposed to carry it into a meeting of a local astronomy club with a sheepish look on my face and ask for help. Alas, not my way of doing things (perhaps it should be).

Luckily, an Amazon reviewer explained the secret. The extender is now solidly in place. It’s covered in plastic, as rain continues from last night.

Today, the mailman brought a Baader neodymium-glass skyglow filter. This product is supposed to exclude the commonest wavelengths of urban light pollution. Starting at about 15° above the local horizon to the south, this becomes insurmountable. Maybe the Baader will help.

Also, my 40mm Plössl came. It’s a handsome, heavy piece, from the Celestron Omni series like the telescope it’s going into. At my one-meter focal length, it will give 25× magnification, fairly close to the lowest useful magnification of 17× but just what I need. Apparent FOV is 43° and at the given magnification we get 43/25 or ∼1.7° true FOV. I expect it will become my eyepiece of first recourse.

It will certainly help when I’m looking for something like Comet 41P, which is between Megrez and Kappa Draconis right now and is about mag. 7. Searching for it at 25mm/40× was like searching for a needle in a haystack.

An ultra-wide might be on my whimsy list in the future, but not yet. I am still trying to learn to use this telescope. It’s lovely but very different from the old one. Plus, it’s pouring rain right now, so it really doesn’t matter how good my new Plössl is.

That’s it for astronomy right now: new toys and rain. ‘Twas ever thus.


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The Family Scientist

me as boyIt’s true–I’m the family scientist, at least by temperament and inclination, hobbies and enduring passions. (Let me add–surprisingly for a religious believer, perhaps–my outlook on life.) I speak both of my biological family, and my family.

The only thing I don’t have is a degree in science. Someone else in my (genetic) family managed to graduate (last in the class, after six years) from a prestitious school, with an engineering degree; but this degree has stayed on the wall, as it were. (My degrees have gotten good and dirty from use!) The “official family scientist” has never done anything (scientific or anything else) of note.

I had the chemistry set, the armillary sphere, the microscope, the computer kit, the clock kit, the butterfly net, the UV lamp and rock pick and goggles, the books on dinosaurs and astronomy.  Good God in heaven, I’m an organist! What other proof do you need?

‘Science’ Person, on the other hand, had gender-appropriate toys like dolls/action figures, comic books, pop music, model cars, and sports idols. Not once–even once, by my recollection–was there a scientific toy or tool.

I lack patience at times, and didn’t always prove that the dots I’d connected actually did connect (they did, most of the time, and intuition loathes the bean counting process). My desk is still a mess of papers. What I needed to learn better was the careful documentation of every step of scientific learning. Organization is a virtue, generally.

Today, I passed some idle minutes online, looking at scientific toys and gadgets. I priced microscopes, slides, and stain; sorrowed over the closing of H. M. S. Beagle, a scientific store in Missouri; hunted for “chemistry sets for grownups” on Amazon, and so on.

Always, though, I came back to astronomy. I decided not to branch out any time soon, but to dig a lot deeper into my favorite scientific pastime.

My new Celestron refractor is doing well enough, though it needs several accessories. I ordered a Barlow lens–it arrived almost overnight from Agena; an Orion mount extender–it’s going to take another week; and have a skyglow filter and two more eyepieces on my want list, awaiting further paychecks. (I probably don’t have to wait, but I’m going to).

But there’s something I haven’t done, and that relates to the issue of patience I mentioned above. I haven’t started an observing log. So far, I’ve been dipping my toes into the water. Now my toes are wrinkled and I’m still not wet. Time for the plunge.

So I printed a few dozen observing logs courtesy the American Association of Amateur Astronomers and Astronomy magazine. I purged a binder of last Easter’s dreadful (pastor-chosen) music and recycled the sheets. Neatly hole-punched, the observing pages make a nice and inviting appearance. A jazzy printed cover slipped behind the clear sheet on the front and voilà, my Astronomy Log.

All I need are some Star Trek stickers and I’ll be all set to meet my inner boy on happy terms.

Tonight, I expect clear skies. I will aim for Algieba, as Leo is up earlier. Perhaps Almaak and M42 again, as they’ve been my buddies lately. With my new Barlow I may go for Polaris’ dim companion once more. But whatever I look for, I will make sure to enter the log information completely and carefully.

Next up, spherical trigonometry.


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The Good, the Bad, and the Damn Annoying

Ijbhnewscopet turned ridiculously cold, so my early experiences with this new telescope involved kneeling on an icy patio in a down parka.  But there’s much more to the transition to a new telescope than that.

Three big things have come up. All are normal and will be solved, but these are the three that I’m dealing with.

1. The finderscope is a 6×30 and (of course) shows an inverted image. I’m used to the idiot-proof red-dot finder plus reflector, so my brain isn’t used to going from an inverted image to a reversed right-side-up image (as I’m using a star diagonal). I’m used to a one-to-one finder image and a typical reflector image, reversed and inverted. Plus, I now have to look through a telescope in order to look through a telescope–I’m accustomed to pinpointing a region of sky, not star-hopping. So a few old chestnuts in the pre-dawn (even Albireo, for Pete’s sake!) proved highly elusive.

2. Narrow field of view. The scope came with a 25mm eyepiece, just like my last one. On my previous 650mm scope, that would yield a low magnification of 26×, and offer a “broad side of the barn” way of locating objects. On this 1000mm scope, 25mm yields 40×, significantly narrowing the field of view and making it harder to do a brute-force search (when, say, the finderscope has driven you batty).

3. Posture. Good grief, I’m going to need a yoga mat. I really wasn’t realistic about the amount of crouching and kneeling that a long tube requires.


1. Get used to the finderscope, and/or order a new laser dot.

2 Get a 40mm eyepiece to yield a lower 25× magnification.

3. Lose weight. (Or buy an Orion extender. Or both.)

4. Be patient.

5. Get disciplined about using star charts.

Oh, and get a filter for the violet fringe, and a filter for light pollution.

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