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Thursday, June 16, 2011

An eclipse and two comets I won't forget (pt 1)

pt 1 << you are here | pt 2 | home

Seeing Johnny Gee’s pictures on FaceBook today of last night’s eclipse of the moon reminded me of two remarkable experiences I had with a moon eclipse and two comets (and by the way, bro, I don’t really think your excellent pic is a low-res image of an orange on black paper!)

    The first was when we saw Halley’s Comet on its last dally with the solar system in 1986. (Oh and while I can, let me be the school teacher and say that ‘Halley’ rhymes with ‘dally’, not ‘daily’. That fabulous old rocker from the 1950s, Bill Haley, and his bloody Comets, have much confusion to answer for!)

    Halley’s Comet had been a bit of a disappointment, as some of you will recall. Several times I had got up in the wee small hours to view it, only to see this very unremarkable little object with its little tail hanging motionless in space well above the horizon, not even swishing across the sky like a meteor.

    Then came the night of the lunar eclipse.  We were 10 km out of Armidale, on the 25-acre property we had at the time. Out there, the night sky was always wonderful on a clear night, where no city light could interfere. Just velvety-purple blackness and a river of brilliant stars through and beyond the Milky Way – Whey, I wrote. I like that better, but words are democratic in spelling and there’s poetry about Way’... so ‘Way’ it is. 

    The hills on the property were bathed in light so like the early dawn that willy-wag-tails and magpies were singing their daybreak songs.

    That night, the moon was high in the sky and very bright, making even the most splendid stars and planets and galaxies pale. Then came the eclipse, when it turned slowly into that remarkable soft-salmon-orange ball in the sky. The moon’s light dimmed till the hills became silhouettes, with little more than starlight to illuminate them. The birds fell silent.

    But out of the blackness of the sky, so close to the sullen moon, something beautiful happened. Halley’s Comet emerged. Yes, it was still small and static, but larger than before, perched like a delicate feather in the darkness beside the moon now eclipsed in the earth’s shadow.

    It was so unexpected that I gasped in astonishment and awe.

    What a photo that would have made? Where’s the evidence, you ask. Surely something!

    Well no. That was 1986 remember, not 2006, and no equipment I had at the time – a Pentax K-1000 SLR, even with my best telephoto lens and super-slow film could have captured that. Not that I had it set up anyway. Digital cameras hadn’t really been invented then.

    As the moon regained its light reflected from the sun, Halley’s Comet faded into obscurity. I never saw it again, and nor am I likely to in this existence. I don’t care. What I saw compensated a great deal for its not looking the size it was on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Bayeux Tapestry from the Middle Ages. Halley's Comet looks like an enormous sunflower in the sky!
    The second brush I had with a comet was even more spectacular; on the other side of the planet Earth, and as different an experience from this one as I could have had. I was going to write of it here and now, but I’m at the limit of my strength for the moment; I’m cold, and I need to eat and sleep.

    So Kahoutek is coming very shortly. I can hardly get out of that now, can I? The tar would soon be boiling, and the feathers plucked from the breast of an unfortunate chicken.

    At least I hope you’d care that much!
pt 1 << you are here | pt 2 | home


  1. Haley's Comet? That would be Haley's Coma, wouldn't it? Nothing compared to Hyak Utake, the comet Carl and I watched in stunned amazement from our deck sometime in the late 1990s. Such a fuss was made over Haley's Coma, and there was absolutely no mention in the media about this huge cockshuttle or badminton birdie in the sky at 2:00am on several clear nights. We knew about it because we'd read about it in the New Scientist. Even the astronomer at UNE and our amateur astronomer friend missed it. When we told them about it later, they dismissed it as irrelevant.

    Now that was a comet, much like the drawing of Haley's Comet from the middle ages.

  2. You're joking about the spelling of Halley's Comet, aren't you Joan??? Please say yes, you, the lady with the Ph D in ancient Egyptian Astronomy! :) How strange that Hyak Utake got no publicity at all. It should have sacked its PR Agent. I would love to have seen that. Both my sister Lyn and my bro-in-law John also saw comets much more impressive than our little view of faraway Halley's, but it was its conjunction with the moon's eclipse that made it memorable for me.

    Now go and write out 'Halley' 100 times. HANDWRITTEN!!!

  3. Throughout my entire PhD thesis, I quoted Elsie Baumgartel, who is one of the big movers and shakers in Egyptian Prehistory. Well, was my face red when I was corrected -- Elise Baumgartel. Just goes to show that we see what we think is there, not what is there. Or at least, I do.

  4. PS

    As for Hyake Utake (spelling uncertain), the redness of my face over Halley would be nothing compared to the incandescent luminescent end-of-the world red glow from the faces of real astronomers, who did not know about Hyake Utake.

    My PhD was in predynastic Egyptian figurines. The archaeoastronomy connection was a discovery I made while doing my research, and if I can blow my own trumpet here, the specialists in this area did not know about it. That's why I had such a hard time getting that piece published.

  5. We certainly see what we think is there and not what really is. The number of people who spell my name 'Dennis' instead of 'Denis', even though my signature might be right in front of their eyes, is amazing. [Or 'Denise' for that matter!] We see what we think is there. Plato's shadows on the wall analogy, hey? Nothing like turning a spelling lesson into one of philosophy!

    I knew your thesis was on art that you brought astronomy into, and I remember from one of your seminar papers how well it fitted in, and that no-one else in your field seemed to be joining the dots [in the sky!] Time sorts out these things, but it doesn't help publication till some published 'authority' catches on. Sadly, they sometimes turn it into their own 'discovery' and make it appear as if you're the one hanging on to the coat-tails.

    Such are the joys of being the first. [I have to add that in linking computers, research data online, and teaching, I was always the Cassandra!]

  6. Den you are the only person I know who got a decent look at the "coma" as Joan aptly put it. It is amazing that, despite all the heavy lifting computers can do, astronomers routinely do not correctly predict the visual impact of these events.

  7. Carl gets Merton rather than Merten all the time. In fact, it's immortalised on a bronze plaque on one of his public sculptures. I've been known to be John Pelke, and in fact, was introduced as John once because the speaker (a well-known gay politician) could not believe a woman could be involved in such a macho enterprise as public sculpture and read "John" instead of "Joan" on the material I had prepared for him.

    The Halley's :) Coma comes from the New Scientist, and I cannot claim such an apt pun as my own.

    By the way, I did finally get that article published.


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