Astronomy–Extraordinaire or Mundane?
By: Jim Virkler | © 2019
We conclude our short series of posts on astronomy phenomena with a few more cosmic wonders we have experienced in the past few decades. Interest in astronomy varies in our population along a spectrum. Some have extraordinary interest in astronomy; others find the topic dull or lacking in excitement—one definition of ‘mundane.’ A majority of folks may fall in the middle of the interest spectrum: They become especially interested when media publish noteworthy current or future astronomical events.
Some may perceive virtually all astronomical phenomena as extraordinary, including the daily trek of the solar sphere across the heavens, the moon phases and stages which gradually change throughout the 29.5 day lunar month while the satellite revolves around its parent planet, or the steady change in lunar position each day of the lunar month. Observers who find daily or monthly motions of the sun and moon extraordinary no doubt revel in statistics of sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times by the clock. These times are predictable many years in advance, one of the many indicators of a precisely ordered, divinely authored physical cosmic system.
Our ancestors spent thousands of years observing the sky before the invention of telescopes and modern visual media. Telescopes and modern instructional devices such as power point and video have curtailed direct study of celestial phenomena. Photography, video, and descriptive/explanatory literature have negated some of the necessity for original, personal discovery in astronomy. These discoveries have already been made and are accessible with little effort on our part. To repeat a well-known phrase, however—“There’s nothing quite like being there.” In that spirit we described our experiences with meteor showers and evening/morning star watches in our last two posts. There are many other in-person experiences to share with readers. Most of them did not require astronomical telescopes, desirable as they are. We recount many interesting in-person experiences…..
1997 Comet Hale-Bopp was visible for many months. Visiting Earth’s environs after the less spectacular Hyakutake in 1996, it may have been the most viewed comet of all time. Its blobs of ice and dust had a diameter of 19-25 miles according to NASA; other estimates report the nucleus to be even larger. It was easily visible in the evening across North America. I offered an optional “comet watch” for my students on the school soccer field. This comet’s large quantities of ice and dust occasionally emitted jets of gas as it rotated and exposed its surface to the sun. That phenomenon could explain the visible jets spiraling closely around and away from the comet on the night we observed it through a telescope. One personal family highlight: My father, age 88, viewed Hale-Bopp a few days later at his home through an Astroscan telescope. His eyes were failing from macular degeneration!
1997 In September of 1997 newspapers announced a good opportunity to spot the seldom visible Planet Mercury. Venus and Mercury were set to rise almost simultaneously from the eastern horizon on September 19. Again we offered an optional viewing opportunity to watch the two planets rise minutes apart from the clear, dark horizon. Simple as it was, the experience became “A Moment of Worship.” Read more details of this early morning, pre-dawn, “get up very early” experience with this link:http://jasscience.blogspot.com/2008/10/moment-of-worship.html
1997 Several hours later as students began to arrive on early school buses, we trained the district’s Astroscan telescope toward the southeast. The sun had risen, but we located the planet Venus through the telescope…in broad daylight!
2010 The Livingston (Wisconsin) meteor flashed across the sky on the evening of April 14, 2010. It created a stir of excitement as many meteorite hunters converged on the area hoping to find a piece of the meteor, a small chunk of ancient rock from outer space. That ‘chunk’ may have weighed several hundred pounds. It disintegrated and largely vaporized from the intense heat generated by its entry into our atmosphere. It was a clear night. We mistook the several flashes of light illuminating our living room window for an approaching thunderstorm. The next morning media reported that the flashes were caused by the disintegration of a large meteor. A few meteorite fragments were found. Livingston is 38 miles to our north. Read in more detail:http://jasscience.blogspot.com/2010/04/meteor-madness.html
2014 In 2014 and 2015 there was a rare series of four consecutive total lunar eclipses. The rare series is termed a ‘tetrad.’ Total lunar eclipses are not especially rare. The second tetrad eclipse ended as the moon set in our western skies. Lunar tetrads, however, are unusual. None occurred from 1600AD to 1900AD. The account of the second lunar eclipse in the tetrad is recorded here:
2015 The Supermoon lunar eclipse of October 2015 created substantial public attention. It was the last lunar eclipse in the lunar tetrad. It enjoyed the superlative “super.” Memories of this lunar event remain with us because of the noticeably larger size of the lunar body. More details for readers follow:http://jasscience.blogspot.com/2015/10/supermoon-eclipses.html
2015 Sometimes grandchildren provide their grandparents with opportunities for meaningful sharing of nature’s wonders. When children return the favor by making prudent observations about their natural surroundings, their forebears are pleased. So it was when our grandson offered his observation that a configuration of the Moon and Venus looked like a “Semicolon in the Sky.” Read further:https://jasscience.blogspot.com/2015/07/semicolon-in-sky.html
2017 Saving the best for last: I had made the assertion many times that prominent on my bucket list would be an in-person witnessing of a total solar eclipse. We invite you to share our joy at this “Everest Experience:”https://www.jashow.org/articles/eclipse-everest-experience/
When we observe the extraordinary wonders of astronomy we are often struck with an emotion of worship. Our worship is not for nature itself. Neither do we worship the astronomical bodies nor the natural laws that govern the movements of those bodies. Rather, we worship God Himself who created all things, authored natural laws, and sustains all things from moment to moment. Jeremiah 33:25 is often cited as a theologically prescient scientific concept. The prophet lived 2700 years ago. He cited God’s “…covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth…” Surely the ordinary daily, mundane movement of physical heavenly bodies as well as their extraordinary movements are governed by divine fixed laws originating from the Creator.
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.