Skywatch for the week of May 24, 2021
Mon May 24, 2021 THE VENERABLE BEDE FEAST DAY
On May 25th in the year AD 735 – that’s over 1200 years ago - Baeda, the Venerable Bede, died. He was an English monk who in the 8th Century was the first person we know of to have written scholarly works in the English language. He also wrote De Natura Rerum, which was a collection of works on geography and astronomy, much of it preserved knowledge from Greek civilization, but also knowledge gained by observation and deduction. He was aware that the earth was round, and that the solar year is not exactly 365 and a quarter days long, but roughly 365 days, 5 hours and 49 minutes, so that the Julian calendar (one leap year every four years) would need to be adjusted in order to keep the months in step with the seasons. (He was a man far ahead of his time – the Gregorian calendar which developed from this observation would not be implemented until 1582!) And he was the first to use the B.C. – A.D. designations in our modern calendar.
Tue May 25, 2021 FULL MOON AND LUNAR ECLIPSE
The moon is full. This is the Planting Moon of springtime, also the Milk Moon, the Hare Moon or the Frogs Return Moon. Since it’s May we also call it the Merry Moon. The Creek and the Seminole Indians say it is the Mulberry Moon. The Cheyenne call it the Moon When Horses Get Fat, but to the Sioux, it’s the Moon When the Ponies Shed. Other Native Americans have similar names that suggest the tending of crops, and the start of warm weather. To the Winnebago, this is the Hoeing Corn Moon; To the Salish, it is the Flower Moon, but the Osage tribes call it the Moon When the Little Flowers Die. Tonight there will be a lunar eclipse - or rather, just before sunrise tomorrow morning. By then the moon will be low near the west horizon, and it will set while the eclipse is still underway. If you’re outside at 5:45 am, you can watch its beginning, as a small bite is taken out of the moon’s lower limb. Totality is at 7:11 am, but by then the moon will be below our horizon and the sun will be up.
Wed May 26, 2021 THE MOON AND THE HORSESHOE CRAB
The moon is full; May’s full moon always makes me think of horseshoe crabs out in the Atlantic Ocean. Not a true crab at all, but a distant relative of spiders and scorpions, the horseshoe crab – scientific name: Limulus polyphemus- is often called a living fossil because its kind has existed unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. In the springtime, usually in the month of May when the moon is new or full, and the tide is high, the horseshoe crabs mate and lay their eggs in the sand at the water's edge, continuing the process that has brought them virtually unchanged to the present day. Far above, the moon shines down upon them from a distance of a quarter of a million miles. Horseshoe crabs can hardly see the moon, lacking proper eyesight for the task, but they are nevertheless driven to perform their mating ritual to the rhythm of the lunar spring tides.
Thu May 27, 2021 MT EVEREST ANNIVERSARY
On May 28th, 1953, Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, became the first explorers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain on earth. This great peak is over 29,000 feet above sea level – that’s almost five and a half miles up, the highest point on earth. And yet that elevation is a mere trifle to the largest mountain in the solar system. Mount Olympus is a gigantic extinct volcano on the planet Mars. It’s over fifteen miles high, about three times taller than Mount Everest! In order to reach the summit of Mount Everest, Hillary needed an oxygen supply at the top. On Mars he would have needed oxygen at the bottom too, as Mar’s thin carbon dioxide atmosphere is only one percent the thickness of earth’s air. Recently, Norgay and Hillary’s names were given to two mountain ranges on Pluto; but these mountains, rising two miles above the nitrogen plains on this frozen world, are made of water ice!
Fri May 28, 2021 THALES’ SOLAR ECLIPSE/A FORTUNE IN OLIVES
There was a solar eclipse on May 28th - no, not today; this eclipse happened way back in the year 585 B.C., which is a little before my time. What was noteworthy about the eclipse is that this celestial event brought two opposing armies to a standstill! As the historian Herodotus tells us: “Just as the battle was growing warm, day was suddenly changed into night. When the Lydians and the Medes observed the change, they ceased their fighting and were anxious to conclude peace.” The sun-worshipping armies recognized divine displeasure when they saw it, and a six-year war came to an end! Interestingly, this eclipse was accurately predicted by Thales, the father of Greek astronomy. Besides astronomy, Thales was knowledgeable on the subject of meteorology. When some folks told him that science would never make him rich, he went and figured out that upcoming fair weather would bring a good harvest of olives. So he bought up all the olive presses, and made a fortune in the olive oil market!