Thoughts from Totality or Seeing the Only Star We Can Truly ‘See’

The Solar Eclipse of 21 August 2017

Starting at 5:00 a.m. we drove South: 415 miles in 8 hours. Two days before Google Maps had said it could have been done in 6 ½ hrs. (without the Eclipse traffic).  We used Google Maps to tell us how bad the traffic jams were, and to watch the developing Infra-Red and visible satellite view of the sky so we could attempt to avoid clouds at our destination.

– there was disturbed weather (colored areas on the map above) to the West of our path but we found a lovely little public park in Bowling Green KY, just 6 miles inside the totality path and just short of the Tennessee border (a white X marks the spot in the map above). They were having a very friendly eclipse party there and happily had room for us on the grass and under the trees.  That was fortunate because the highway police were making great efforts to prevent people from stopping on the hard shoulders of the interstates.

The eclipsing moon was just starting its path across the sun when we arrived under clear blue skies.  As during the annular eclipse I’d seen decades ago in Toledo, I once again felt slightly uneasy as an ever increasing greyness of the sunlight became more apparent.  It was like someone very slowly sliding a dimmer switch to our prime source of light (and life), but with a steadily increasing speed.  The change in light quality is very different from that in our daily sunsets.  The typical evening setting sun has a warmth to its reducing light.  During the eclipse there was a coldness to the illumination as it dimmed – I tried rubbing my eyes to fix it.

The easiest watching tool was my bird spotting scope on a tripod.  A science school teacher from Illinois took over focusing and tracking the moving image on a white screen, while I worked on mirrors and cameras:

My straw hat made more pinhole images on my collar and on the telescope screen when I looked down on it:

The ‘pinhole mirror’ was a 3 inch (75 mm) square sample of one quarter inch (6 mm) thick front surface mirror: 80% reflection Pilkington Mirropane™. It has incredible float glass optical flatness.  Taping over half the sample provided a bright reflection light to allow easy steering of the mirror, while the exposed 1/16 inch (1.5 mm) top left corner of the taped half, provided a ‘pinhole mirror’ image alongside – all it needed was a screen.

The smaller the pinhole – the sharper the image, but also the fainter.  The further back the mirror is from a white projection screen – the larger the image, but the harder it is to hold the mirror steady.
(Next time I should put the mirror on a pan/tilt head on a tripod, and incorporate an operating iris diaphragm, if I can find one).

Both images attracted lots of attention as the light inexorably dimmed.

Meanwhile John Muggenborg in Brooklyn (see Muggphoto on Instagram) had amazing results with his similar front surface mirror, just under one inch square.  He had the great idea of fixing the mirror 200 feet (50 meters) away and shifting his screen to track the moving image.  His screen was a beautifully effective open box, dark on 4 sides and white at the back:

Susan spotted Venus brightly shining even though the sun was only about 90% covered at the time (near the top right corner in the photo below):

And in the lobby of his Vancouver apartment, Keith projected an image from his small front surface mirror sample, with a hole in a piece of paper over it to reduce the aperture, onto a screen to delight the residents and guests.

Then with an alarming suddenness, and no sound from the sky (apart from people’s cries in the park), the sun went out!

The Corona was too dim to see through the very dark eclipse glasses, and yet it felt too bright to try my binoculars to search for corona details.  Rushing with camera and iPhone camera in manual overdrive to try to get an appropriate exposure at full 20 x zoom using new add-on lenses, while dripping sweat on the equipment, I did get the following with full zoom on a Canon G-10.

The corona was too bright to see details.  It looks much better in digitally enhanced images as in the APOD site:

In the excitement I forgot to look through polaroid filters but doubt they would have shown anything.

One minute, 10 seconds later into the darkness, a diamond ring burst into view with a startling brilliance – it was the way kids might think that diamonds should appear if all the advertisements were true – the ‘stone’ in the ring was bright as an arc welders spot.  You could not look at it even if you tried.

My iPhone could only get:

I don’t seem to have burnt out any receptors in the iPhone but it must have been close!

Then 90 minutes of slow and steady return to the sky we once knew.


So we clearly saw that the overhead sun, and the moon, are truly circular and most probably spherical.  Our sun is the only star we can truly ‘see’, meaning whose shape we can ‘discern’ or ‘discriminate’.  All the other stars in the sky are so far away that their images, even through the best telescope, do not even cover ONE pixel in a camera.

The popular images of star fields seem to show big, medium and small size stars, but those images are ‘false news’.

The big, bright white circles are simply relatively close stars (more than 30,000,000,000,000 miles (5 light years) away).  The reason we see them ‘big’ in the camera is that their light is so incredibly bright that even though it is only shining on part of one pixel receptor, it reflects off it and overexposes many pixels around it.  (And, of course, the horizontal and vertical ‘spikes’ coming off the brighter stars are telescope reflections/refraction side effects and don’t really exist!)

So we cannot say for sure, from observation at least, that stars (other than our sun) are not square ﬦ , triangular Δ, or even star shaped   ҉ . . But now we have seen our overhead sun to be circular ⃝    and from some elementary astrophysics we can now safely assume that most stars really are spherical!


Spare a thought for the exoplanet hunters. They use this eclipsing method we just saw, along with others, to find planets around distant stars.  But the geometry never allows for ‘totality’ to be seen from distant earth, so those astronomers must work with only a very faint effect of partial eclipsing.

Perhaps my biggest surprise was that before the occulting moon had fully moved out of alignment with the sun, the very friendly eclipse watchers in the park packed up and drifted off – like leaving a great movie before the credits have even played.

We waited for the credits to roll, or the bloopers to play (none did), ate the strangest BLT ever for dinner and then joined the crowd for the drive home.

Well, if the traffic was heavy as people converged over 2 days on the 100 mile or so band of totality across the country, when the show was over, they ALL went home at once.  Google Maps traffic showed a wonderful screen of a network of red lines (choked roads) heading North and South away from the East-West path of totality.  Sadly we were too emotional to think of taking a screen-shot but Leslie and Glen, watching their syzgy just a little South of us in Tennessee did get one of the ‘eclipcalyptic’ traffic (Thank you):The drive home took 9 hours, but we’ve already started making plans to watch the next one!




Caterpillar Cuisine: How to Grow Bugs and Feed Birds

Professor Douglas Tallamy came to town last summer and gave a great lecture, with stunning bird images, at Toledo Zoo on the valuable role we can all play in providing clean, native garden spaces for butterflies, which lay eggs, which hatch into what I call picky-eater caterpillars, (they much prefer to eat certain native plants), which are then fed to hungry baby birds.

Native bugs have evolved over time, along with native plants, to co-exist with their toxic defenses.  Such bugs are called ‘specialists’ by the entomologists.  Native plants, such as Milkweed which has a special relationship with the Monarch caterpillar, are vital to the survival of these specialist insects.  Other plants, like the native Oak tree can host over 100 different species of caterpillars.  But 90 percent of butterfly and moth larvae eat only particular plants or groups of plants.  Desiree Narango, a doctoral student with the University of Delaware says: Nonnative trees may support insects, but they do not support the insects that the native birds want and need to feed to their young.
So I’m sorry to be losing my spectacular alien Tree of Heaven bug (Ailanthus Webworm), see photo below – such is the price of progress!

The key fact is that we need to have native plants if we want native insects to survive.
Tallamy says: While adult birds may eat a wide variety of seeds and insects, their babies only thrive on fresh insects and caterpillars.  According to Dickinson (Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1999), 96% of the terrestrial North American bird species feed their young with insects and other arthropods.  So if we plant only lawns of alien green grass, or if we spray a hybrid cultivar flower garden with insecticides, we will have no butterfly eggs, no caterpillars and hence no food for the next generation of baby birds, and therefore no more adult birds.

Some of the butterflies are spectacular, as are some of the caterpillars.  Here are a few that I found in my native garden last summer:

Incidentally many of these hairy ones should not be handled. Their hairs are like glass or asbestos fibers and could reportedly harm us!

Some are very hard to find, but when you see holes in leafs, or empty chrysalis cases, then you know some nibbler, or its metamorphosis, can’t be far away.

This little one went totally unseen, until it moved – like an inchworm – along the flower stalk.

The caterpillar camouflages itself with flower parts stuck to its back.

This colorful caterpillar was not so lucky:
While I was trying to get a good photo, a wasp (alien European Paper I think) landed, stung it, stripped off and rolled up the caterpillar’s skin, leaving the digestive system full of fresh leaf juice on the leaf, and then flew off with the meat, presumably to its nest, all in the space of a few minutes.
There is no end to the variety:


I’m told this one is an Ohio native Giant Silkworm Luna Moth caterpillar.  It was at a nature show and not in my garden. I’d love to see it there:
Farmers are prisoners to the economics of cost-effectively producing the food that we so selectively and cost-consciously purchase.  They fertilize and spray as needed to produce a commercially viable crop.  By contrast, we home-owners have a totally free choice as to what we can do with the little bits of vacant land around our houses – or perhaps it is not a ‘free’ choice but rather a huge moral obligation to do the right thing: stop poisoning the earth and stop driving species into extinction at a rate greater than that of the great asteroid impact crater: Chicxulub, Gulf of Mexico, about 66 million years ago, and start saving our native species before they are lost forever.

The answer is simple: make room for native plants by removing the aliens.  The native plants will grow native bugs which will be fed to the native baby birds. You don’t need artificial fertilizers (nobody is measuring the cost effectiveness of your yield) and you certainly do not need insecticides.  Yes, there will be considerable manual work involved but we will all be physically and mentally the better for doing it.

So I’m extirpating (by hand) Myrtle, Chinese Tree of Heaven, Japanese Honeysuckle, English Ivy, Wild Strawberry and more before they cover my garden.  Replacements with Jewel Weed, Milkweed, Wild Senna, Cardinal Flower, Jacobs Ladder and others are slowly taking deep root.  Another blog will show some more of the colorful fauna they have already encouraged.

This moment made all the work worthwhile.  A local Junco was so happy to find native Prairie Dropseed grass seeds in the snow covered garden:

If you need more details I happily recommend Doug Tallamy’s classic book on the topic: “Bringing Nature Home” or “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants”, published by Timber Press.

A Bewildering Barometer

I bought an old aneroid barometer at a local estate sale many years ago.  It still works well.
Full barom_0723 (2)The convex glass cover was cracked so I replaced it with a piece of very old window glass, after slowly drilling a hole for the pointer.

The aneroid mechanism became popular in the early 1900s.  It uses a sealed and flexible bellows chamber that changes size with variations in atmospheric pressure, instead of the mercury filled fragile glass tubes of older designs.

I thought the case must have been changed at some time because the face references a thermometer (“Thermomètre selon Réamur”) and yet there is none present.  There are no markings on the wood case other than a cryptic “#61” engraved in the back surface. But the dial is very interesting:Dial_0721 (2)

For many years I wondered, and have repeatedly asked guests, what the scale reading from “28” to “31”, and in divisions of 1/12s, could represent?  It must surely be inches of mercury – sea level atmospheric pressure is about 29.5 inches of mercury – but why would the scale be subdivided into twelfths instead of the usual tenths?  None could explain.

The language on the face is surprisingly all in French, although the fine print says “P. F. Bollenbach” and “Barrington, IL”– not a known US francophone location.

At last Philips’ friends, Geoff and Dave, with a little help from King Google, have cracked the code: Before Napoleon’s time, and France’s great conversion to the metric measurement system, it seems the French used an inch measure, called a “pouce” (not the similarly sounding “puce”. That is a French flea!) which they subdivided into 12 “lignes”.  A ligne began about 1,200 years ago with German button makers and was “…the measurement of a round wick, folded flat…”.  It is still used today by some button and snap makers, and a few French and Swiss watch people, according to Google.  Around the same time England was actually dividing their “inch” into 10 subdivisions.  The English inch was then defined as 3 medium size dry barley corn grains laid to end to end, but that turned out to be about 12.6% longer (depending no doubt on the year’s harvest!) than the French inch.

A recent estate sale (it’s hard work being retired!) yielded a fine 1969 Nicholas Goodison 388 page book, “English Barometers 1680-1860”, for a few dollars.  It shows a 1772 Ramsden mercury barometer with a dual scale of quote “..both English and French inches divided into 1/10in. and 1/12in. (i.e. 12 ’lignes’) respectively..”

Ramsden 1772_0728 (2)

The other scales on it are Fahrenheit and Réamur thermometers and a conversion scale.

The earliest example of 1/12 divisions that I can find is the scale on this beautiful Robert Hooke 1665 wheel barometer. The scale here somewhat mysteriously reads “M, N, O, P” for the main divisions, but each gap between letters is subdivided into sixths and twenty-fourths.  Hooke was not French but he did come from the Isle of Wight so perhaps there was a little vin rouge nearby to help his studies?
Hooke Wheel 1665_0725 (2)
The final evidence comes from eBay where a few hundred $ might get you this very fine 1749 Louis XVI instrument.  It also has 1/12 divisions in the scale.Ebay old Barometre 27-29 12 div_0584 (2)So it seems that very old French barometers used the 1/12 divisions when most of the English ones were using the 1/10 parts of their fine scale.  My, perhaps 50 to 100 year old, Illinois instrument appears to have used French wording and one twelfth divisions to give an antique air to a modern aneroid mechanism.  I note too that the face is simple printed paper rather than the engraved metal of genuine antiques. I shouldn’t complain, Goodison’s book says that for accuracy an old mercury barometer needs periodic maintenance by “boiling” (sic) the mercury to remove absorbed water and oxygen!

Isn’t it ironic that despite being partly decimalized before continental Europe (as shown by the tenths divisions on their old mercury barometers) England stubbornly held on to their colorful, but so confusing to me in my school days, non-decimal: fathoms, firkins, furlongs, fortnights, farthings, etc., etc.  (Did you know there are about 5,600 “scruples” in one “strike”, whatever they may be measuring?).  France dropped it’s “lignes” in Napoleon’s time and went metric, or so they claim.   But they have yet to fully adopt the ‘true’, internationally agreed decimal system, “S.I.” (System International).  Although France does agree with the rest of the world that the current inch is now exactly 25.4 mm, many French people will insist on writing it as “25,4 mm”  This can be very confusing if you want to write a dimension of say 1 meter plus 1/4 millimeter (or metres and millimetres depending on whereabouts you happen to float in the Atlantic ocean) in millimeters (thank you very much David for pointing out the ‘mm’ omission) into an international technical drawing:  in SI it should be written “1 000.25 mm”; in France it is often written “1.000,25 mm”; and here in the US it is typically shown as “1,000.25 mm”.  So no wonder that international space probe crashed into Mars a few years back, while trying to land, because its computer thought the planet’s surface was further away than it really was! When flying above the surface of planet Earth it is very important to know what your barometer is actually measuring because that is the instrument which gives you your height above ground.  On the ill-fated trip to Mars I imagine other types of instruments, than mercury filled barometers, were used but sadly they did not give correct final values!