six favorite posts of 2013*

An evening under the Milky Way in Marfa, Texas (C) Steph Goralnick 2011 (used by permission)

As you can see, Bicycle Astronomy has a new layout, new title, and a new focus that I’ll explain for readers in the next couple of posts. But as I cleaned out the cobwebs from the corners of my life in 2013 to make way for 2014, I went back to this year’s posts and tried to pick the five pieces of writing I am most proud of. Most of them are are timeless, ie, not just relevant for the day or week or month in which they were published.

#6. A year ago I wrote about how our knowledge of exoplanets has exploded in the last decade in a post called A Galaxy of Planets:

It’s an incredible time to be alive. I will never look up in the same way again. I will never again have to say to a gathering of the interested public, “Well, we believe there are lots of planets orbiting around those stars, but we don’t really know…” Now I can talk about evidence.

#5. Next I delved into a star atlas mystery, first brought to my attention in Dana Wilde’s collection of astronomy naturalism, Nebulae; 14 star names seemingly invented by Antonin Becvar when he drew up the Skalate Pleso Atlas of the Heavens, the standard star maps used by professional and amateur astronomers for almost five decades of the last century.

But there are a handful of curious things about the Skalnate Pleso atlas. 14 of them, to be precise. They are: Achird, Arich, Haris, Hasseleh, Hatysa, Heze, Kaffa, Kraz, Ksora, Kuma, Reda, Sarin, Segin and Tyl, and they are proper star names, many of which remain in common usage today. They seem to have originated in the Skalnate Pleso atlas…

#4. As an outreach astronomer, communicating the facts about the science to a general audience is important.  But conveying the excitement of discovery and the beauty of nature are also essential. In a post called Three Encounters with the Sublime, I told the story of three experiences I feel lucky to have had, and which continue to stoke the dual fires of curiosity and wonderment:

The sky was still twilight blue, but the stars were coming out. As we crossed a glade of thinner trees, something caught our eye overhead…the unmistakable silhouette of an owl in flight, and right over our heads. Like, a few feet above us. The owl glided almost completely silently, all we heard was a subtle swoosh of air, though in my memory I almost feel like we felt it rather than heard it.

#3. In the second post I wrote about astronomy songs in May, They Might Be Science, I used two songs from They Might Be Giant’s excellent album Here Comes Science that illustrate the changing nature of scientific “truth”. We understand things to the best of our knowledge, we learn more, and we adjust our understanding accordingly.

#2. In August, 2013, a Japanese amateur astronomer discovered a new Nova in the constellation Delphinus. Nova Delphinus 2013 was not easy to spot, but it was a great opportunity for me to explore the science of novae and supernovae, and try to explain it to a general audience. I did manage to photograph the Nova and was very proud of the graphic I created for the post:

NovaDelphini2013

#1. In May’s two-part What’s So Amazing that Keeps Us Stargazing, I explored the aesthetic experience of observing the universe through a telescope. Why do we do it, and why do we get so much out of little wisps of light at the edge of our vision? I’m really proud of this piece, and its a topic I hope to revisit in the future in greater depth. I also think it’s an interesting area of research for those into aesthetics and neuroscience:

Being a visual observer of galaxies, I’ve often told crowds before I show them a galaxy through a telescope, is a bit like being a connoisseur of cotton balls. And some amateurs have spent years engaged in thrilling hunts for the dimmest, hardest to see galaxies within reach of their instruments. Certainly it’s not the visual image that thrills them?

In the second part, I delved into some possible answers to the above question, using some ideas of my own (context effect, profound orientation) and the ideas of other observers. I think it captures the lure of observing with eloquence (at least, when I was quoting other people!). Here’s lifelong observe Don Pensack:

One night I suddenly got the idea of distance in my mind as I saw the bulge in the Milky Way extending to alpha and beta Librae, and viscerally felt the enormous size and distance to that bulge. For a brief moment I was a speck of dust on a small ball of rock orbiting a small star an immense distance from the core of the galaxy. It was enough for me to spend the rest of my life looking for that same feeling again.

Well, there they are. My favorite six from 2013. I’m proud of this year’s work; I am ambitious about 2014. Onward.

*(Why six? I couldn’t settle on just five.)

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