Friday, January 8, 2010

still in space

Have you ever wondered how amazing total eclipses are? Some weeks ago I ran across this photograph taken last summer during the total solar eclipse that was visible in southern India and parts of China and wondered, not for the first time, about the possible meanings of something we marvel at when it occurs locally but generally don't consider much at all. I remember hearing it said that if one found a watch one immediately knows it was made by a watchmaker and if one found a watch on Mars we would look for a watchmaker there.

It is very strange that the disc of the Moon should seem, from an Earthly perspective, to be exactly the same size as the Sun. Although we take it for granted that the two main bodies seen in Earth's skies look the same size, it is actually something of a miracle. Most people are fully aware that the Moon is tiny compared to the Sun but that it is much, much closer to us causing them to appear as equal discs. To be precise the Moon is 400 times smaller than the star at the center of our solar system, yet it is also just one 400th of the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

The odds against this optical illusion happening at all are simply huge - but how bizarre that both values are the same, perfectly round number. It's very puzzling. Isaac Asimov described this perfect visual alignment as being:

"The most unlikely coincidence imaginable".

This perfect fit of the lunar and solar discs is a very human perspective because it only works from the viewpoint of someone standing on the Earth's surface. I'm sure there are many wonderful sights in the galaxy but it seems to me that if there were aliens doing a Grand Tour of this particular spiral arm of the Milky Way stopping by the earth to watch a total solar eclipse and that magical diamond effect might be a high point. Perhaps we should watch out for 'people' wearing very bulky suits or viewers who stay inside large vehicles next time there's one occurring in the neighborhood.

An even more amazing thing that's true about the Moon's movements above our heads is that by some absolutely strange mechanism of nature, the Moon also manages to very precisely imitate the movements of the Sun. The full Moon is at its highest and brightest at midwinter, mirroring the Sun at midsummer and at lowest and weakest at midsummer when the Sun is at its highest and brightest.

I don't know about you but I'm beginning to think something weird is going on around here. I may have to go and look for a Watchmaker.. or maybe I'll go and do something useful like making chocolate brownies.


  1. I'd be only too happy to help you eat those brownines while we discuss the conundrum presented here. Perhaps we could find a room with a fireplace, for toasting cold toes, and a view of the heavens? ( next house will have to have such a room.)

    I am drawn to solving the riddle of the 1/400th measurements, too. Is that in Asimov's book, "The Measure of the Universe?" I need to find my copy and re-read it. Too many years since I last opened it.


  2. thank you for making the universe magical, susan.
    i need to be reminded sometimes.

  3. interesting. i googled 1/400, but i didn't see anything about the moon and the sun.
    instead, it seems to be a popular scale for airplane/airport models, kits and dioramas.
    so i searched for 1/400th, and was amazed there was a 1400th draft choice in baseball. really?
    and somebody has a 1/400th scale model of the titanic.

    also this:
    MISSION CONTROL: What's there?...malfunction (garble)...Mission Control calling Apollo 11...
    APOLLO 11: These babies were huge, sir...enormous...Oh, God you wouldn't believe it! I'm telling you there are other spacecraft out there...lined up on the far side of the crater edge...they're on the Moon watching us... "

  4. the crow - That sounds like a very wonderful idea. I must admit I'm rather hoping for a room with a fireplace and a window hopefully looking out at the sky and the sea when we move to Halifax (sooo much better than television).

    I have an old book by Asimov - part of a series of science books for children called 'What is an Eclipse'.

    sera - We all make it magical :-)

    If you want you can check out the 1/400 ratio on wiki under 'total solar eclipse - types'. There are other places you can google that mention it too.

    Now I'm going to have to check out that Apollo 11 discovery. Yow.

  5. Fascinating. Wow. I don't believe in coincidence, so... hmm, I'll ponder this a while...

  6. Hi Susan
    As usual you have provided an interesting post about a fascinating subject to wet the appetite about our marvelous solar system. In fact the reason why all of our planets systematically revolve around the sun is in itself miraculous, being a left over magical relative system from previous massive implosions. However I’m not sure if I agree that there is any mystery in relation to the last sentence though since the moon and sun occupy a space which is opposite at different time to cause the mirrored opposite effect due to their relative positions.
    A full moon occupies space which is opposite to the Sun so the path through the sky that the Sun follows in the summer is followed by the full Moon in the winter, and vice versa. Outside of the tropics, a summer Sun is higher in the sky, but in the winter it stays lower. Accordingly a winter full moon must be higher in the sky, just as a summer full moon must stay lower. The winter full moon appears brighter because the sky is darker and the night is longer, and, since the moon is higher for longer it appears brighter. That is all marvelous but I gather it’s also rational.
    Best wishes

  7. I love your post! I'm really big on sky watching and the best memories I've had with my kids was sitting in the middle of a corn field (away from the city lights) to watch the most magnificent meteor shower I've ever seen. It looked as if the huge fireballs were going to fall right on top of us...simply amazing!

    We also had the opportunity to enjoy a lunar eclipse when we were at the cottage in Michigan. We gathered the kids in a boat and went out to the middle of Glenn Lake. It was amazing how bright the stars were during the eclipse, we could see multiple shooting stars and the milky way was crystal clear. Good times. :-)

  8. Brownies + Eclipse. That's a gentle spiritual experience waiting to happen.

  9. nancy - As one of my favorite authers, Paulo Coelho said: When we're interested in something, everything around us appears to refer to it (the mystics call these phenomena "signs," the sceptics "coincidence," and psychologists "concentrated focus," although I've yet to find out what term historians should use).

    lindsay - I know the whole thing is miraculous and it's even a marvel that the Moon is there at all because without it it's very likely there'd be no us to see it ;-)

    nunly - You're right that there's nothing so wonderful as being away from city lights during night-times that are comfortable. I remember reading somewhere that if the stars came out only once in a century everybody would go outside to watch them but because they appear every night most of us just watch television.

    joss - The gentle ones are usually the best, aren't they?

  10. Good post as usual! The moon is integral to our existence here on this planet. What I still want to know is why the US military is bombing the moon? It just seems like such folly to me.

  11. eclipses are amazing and so are you.

  12. It truly is a wonder. I have never seen a complete annular eclipse, only a partial one in London in 1999. It still looked impressive

  13. liberality - The only explanation I've seen is that they wanted to see if water molecules would appear in spectrographic photographs afterward. I agree it doesn't make much sense.

    sera - We live to learn :-)

    jams - I saw one as a child in Canada and have never forgotten how utterly amazing it was.

  14. ah brownies...i wonder if it would kill me if...i just saw mac &cheese and now this... sigh

    anyway, this was a fascinating post and the number measurement thing was very odd..i found myself wondering-could it be gravity pulling each of them, or other planets or...who knows..very odd indeed!

    also, thank you for your very interesting comment about losses--more time to practice--what a thought! well, actually, guess what all this has caused me to do more of? of course...the going gets tough, the tough start sitting:) or something like that♥

  15. linda - Astronomically speaking the relationship is a short term occurrence because the moon is slowly moving further away but considering it will be 5 million years before it's noticeable I won't let it bother me. The right here, right now aspect is interesting in itself.

    Lessons of life aren't always pleasant but I'm convinced each pain makes our hearts a little richer and our journey a bit more clear.

  16. We take so many things for granted, like the sun rising everyday, for instance. When you think about it in terms of science, nature is the only thing that makes any sense at all. I like to see how far North and South the sun travels across the horizon at sunrise at different times of the year. So far south now in Winter, so far North in June, at least from where I'm looking at it. Neat stuff.
    Now, how about one of those brownies. Nuts, I hope, walnuts, lots of them, and a good cup of coffee.


  17. spadoman - Yes, I've been a sky watcher for many years as well. I remember one time a conservative doctor I worked for lecturing me about stability and I told him his view was very limited on a planet that spins around at 900 mph and also wobbles :-)

    I hope you're not disappointed but the brownies were made with pecans (as well as eggs, sugar, vanilla, chocolate, butter and just enough flour to hold the batter).

  18. Chocolate brownie making is very useful, especially if you share the brownies with friends.;-)

    Delighted to see the heights of consciousness that you and crow are flying to in 2010.

  19. sometimes you make my brain hurt.... or maybe it's just too tired from year end financials to think about anything bigger than revenue per square foot in the smallest ReStore in the world. your world seems so much bigger than mine.

    the brownies i can understand, though.

  20. belette - I'd be happy to share them but they don't travel well. Besides, they have pecans so Crow ate most of them.

    Yeah, neither one of us likes to be planet bound for long :-)

    cr - Sometimes we have to take the long view to appreciate what's close.

    gfid - I don't like financials either - being spaced is much more fun and making brownies gives me time to think about the next weird thing. Sometimes I sit up all night coming up with this stuff :-)

  21. even without the year-end, it's abundantly clear that, neuron for neuron, you run on more cylinders than me, luv. but i'll titter foolishly now, when you wax eloquent on something completely unknown to me, as i imagine you sitting up all night thinking of it.