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June 30, 2004

Cassini-Huygens Arrives Tonight!

Six and a half hours from now an engine will fire on the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, causing it to make the transition from solar to Saturnian orbit. The craft has taken seven years to get to Saturn, and it's set to provide us with the most spectacular images we've ever seen of the ringed planet, not to mention unprecedented scientific data.

You can watch live NASA TV coverage online starting at 9:30 EDT/6:30 PDT. The engine burn begins just over an hour later, lasts ninety-six minutes, and ends just after midnight (EDT). A PDF is available containing a detailed timeline.

Park Update

The park was calmer today. I saw on the lawn with my lunch and the most unusual thing I saw was a woman practicing handstands with the help of a male companion. No statues, no Lost Tribers. The statues, by the way, turned out to be a piece of performance art by a woman named Michelle Handelman. I discovered a small sign to that effect after I'd already posted here about them.

June 29, 2004

The Power of a Good Book

Never having read it, and deciding that I ought to before seeing the movie (which waits at home) I brought my copy of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird with me yesterday, and began reading it as I sat down to lunch. I'd read perhaps twenty pages when two teenaged girls paused near my table. One walked right up to where I sat. "

You're reading To Kill a Mockingbird!?," she enthused. "That's such a good book!" Not knowing what else to say, I thanked her, allowed that I'd certainly heard the book was excellent, that it had been well recommended, and that indeed I was enjoying it so far. Her friend stayed back a bit and smiled quietly at us.

The conversation continued briefly in this vein; then the two headed over to examine the nearby carousel, and found a table of their own. Not five minutes later two more young women approached, and I heard one say to the other "To Kill a Mockingbird! We were just talking about that book!" Beat. They came closer.

"Excuse me. Are you reading To Kill a Mockingbird?"

"Yes I am."

"I love that book. We just read it this year in school. And we were just talking about it a little while ago. Why was that?"

"We'd met someone named Atticus," her friend reminded her.

After talking with me briefly and turning away these two spotted the first two girls a short distance away and called to them in greeting. The society of Harper Lee readers is close indeed, and perhaps I should have followed them to their table to visit. But I was fewer than thirty pages along, and I returned to my reading.

Back to the Park

After eight weeks at home with my wife and our new son, I returned to work and am back to my warm-weather habit of eating lunch in Bryant Park. The park has been busy with the usual things (jazz, movies, etc.) but it seems to be becoming zany in some new ways.

Park Oddity Number One: The north side of Bryant Park, today at least, is the new home of the Lost (and apparently still wandering) Tribes lot, who were preaching loudly through a public address system each time I went by.

Park Oddity Number Two: Human statues. In the southeast corner two men shared a table. They wore crisp longsleeve Oxford shirts and long pants, all white, their hands and feet dusted in something that looked like plaster. West of them at two adjacent tables sat three women, plastered probably to their navels to preserve the effect despite their white tank tops. All appeared motionless, although I did notice that the men, who sat closer by, shifted poses when I wasn't looking. More strangely, all wore black sunglasses with broad neon orange dots covering the middle of each lens. If the hawks return this year I wonder whether they'll find these statues suitable roosts.

June 08, 2004


I just got back from observing the Transit. Dozens of us had telescopes set up on a nearby mountaintop overlooking the Manhattan skyline, and perhaps a hundred other people showed up to look through them.

It was very hazy at first, and we saw the sun rise out of that, rather than over the horizon. But the moon was nice and clear higher in the sky, so we had reason to hope. At first I was (carefully; don't try this at home) looking through an unfiltered telescope, as the sun's red light was so attentuated that nothing could be seen through the filters. Clouds drifted across the sun revealing limited swaths of it at any one time, but suddenly we could see Venus in one of those swaths. Over the next twenty minutes the sun brightened to a yellowish orange, and later it suddenly and dramatically shifted to white as it came fully out of the haze.
In addition to Venus two small sunspots were visible at the center of the solar disk, and later on I noticed a lighter solar region near Venus which sounds like it was a solar storm. A local museum offered the use of a solar telescope with a hydrogen alpha filter, which showed this storm more clearly, as well as revealing a small prominence flaming on the solar limb.

I did not witness third contact and so did not see any of the predicted optical effects, but a casual survey did not turn up anyone else in attendence who observed them, though many were looking. I did watch fourth contact, as Venus finally slipped off the edge of the sun, to return again in eight years.

My wife came to see the Transit, and brought our little boy, now five weeks old. He may or may not get to see such an event again during his lifetime, but we'll be able to tell him that he saw the Transit of Venus today.

Heading Out

Incredibly, I'm up, the coffee is made, and I'm about to put my gear in the car. More later.

June 07, 2004

Fingers Crossed

I'll be getting up in less than seven hours, making a thermos-full of coffee, and leaving home at 5:00 AM to set up for the Transit. I've got my fingers crossed that the only clouds between the sun and my eyes tomorrow will be those in Venusian skies. I wish the very best of luck to everyone who'll be having a look!

Safe Viewing of the Transit of Venus

Safe viewing instructions from NASA.

June 06, 2004

Transit of Venus on Tuesday, June 8

OK, I've been on Daddy time and have much to tell, but I want first and foremost to make sure you all realize that the Transit of Venus will be occurring on Tuesday, June 8 in much of the world, and this is the first chance anyone has had to see such an event since 1882. You'll get one more chance in 2012 (if the weather is good), and then that's it for another 105 years. There's lots of information online but this site seems like a good one to start at.

In short, Venus will pass between the Sun and the Earth, presenting a small black silhouette on the face of the Sun. You should not [ever] stare at the sun without proper protection, but there are lots of safe ways to observe, and there will undoubtedly be lots of excellent coverage in the media online and elsewhere.

However, any of us would be lucky to get this opportunity just once in our lifetime, so it's well worth the trouble of taking a look with our own (protected) eyes. Personally, I'll be getting up before sunrise and heading to a nearby New Jersey hillside. The transit will be well underway when the sun rises over New York City at 5:30 or so, and it will be over completely around 7:30 AM. People farther east will have more time to observe, but I'll be glad for any chance at all. Cross your fingers for clear skies!

Update: Sky and Telescope, of course, has one of their usual excellent guide articles on the Transit.