Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Grand Canyon: A Star Party


Another long and adventurous day ended just after sunset when I arrived at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon just in time to see total darkness fill the the massive hole as if it were being filled with crude oil. The South Rim lights were, uncharacteristically, barely visible as a steady flow of California forest fire smoke made its way east through the chasm. Upon taking a seat at the Roughrider Saloon I learned that a man's body had been helivaced out of the canyon earlier in the day.

A smoke filled canyon that had experienced another death was not what I was expecting as I drove down from Moab. Two nights of Star Party star gazing, hiking, writing, and a pint or two of that Sweet Devil Stout were what I envisioned. The beer seemed slightly bitter that night, but my palate might have been seasoned by the conditions.

The Star Party did not disappoint the crowd of people who had gathered on the Grand Canyon Lodge veranda. There were only six telescopes this year, but they were all operated by knowledgeable and friendly people. Star Party hosts from the Phoenix Saguaro Astronomy Club brought in amateur astronomers, and their telescopes, from all over the country. Lines formed at each telescope while the stars and planets gradually appeared to the naked eye.

New friends were made in each line. Picture the scene; Whispers in near total darkness between silhouettes hailing from all over the world.  Conversations varied from the meaning of it all to the existence of God to the limits of man's unifying theory. If you know me, then you know that I love to share and learn in these situations.

Telescopes of various sizes (up to 18 inch) and types (refractor, reflector, compound) were angled and focused to allow us to see the Moon, Venus, Saturn, star clusters, and galaxies. I will cherish vivid memories of Saturn's rings and moons, the craters of the Moon, and the whirlpool galaxy M51. Seeing them in pictures is one thing, but really seeing them is, for me, more rewarding.

Going to an observatory or getting the opportunity to look through telescopes like those at the Star Party provides a better understanding of the size of the universe. There are massive stars and intriguing galaxies like M51 among the estimated 70 billion trillion (70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!!) stars in the universe. Most of us have so much light pollution that we can only see dozens or hundreds of stars in the night sky. A dark place like the North Rim allows us to see thousands of Milky Way stars clustered so closely that they overlap into what looks like a cloud. Still, that represents a minuscule portion of the 300 billion (300,000,000,000) Milky Way stars. And note that the Milky Way contains only 4EE-10% (0.0000000001%) of all stars.

And our home, Earth, is a comparable tiny mass in our own solar system which is a tiny part of the Milky Way. The information is overwhelming to our brains since we cannot adequately comprehend extremely small or large quantities. Go here to find an awesome interactive description of the size of the universe. It will help, but it is still mind boggling to think about.

Before I turn this post over to the photos from my long weekend at the North Rim I will turn the focus back to that 70 billion trillion mentioned above. In my chemistry classes I am blessed with the task of teaching students about atoms, which are unfathomably small. To make this point I deliver a talk about Avogadro's Number holding a small vile of water. That water is measured to have a mass of 18.016 g (less than a fluid oz). I tell the students that the vile contains Avogadro's Number of water molecules. Then I ask how large a container would be required to hold the same number of M&Ms. Avogadro's Number, 602,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, is written across the board. Note how similar it is to number of stars estimated to exist. Again, our brains do not translate these huge numbers in to observable, accountable reality, so my charge is to make them less abstract.

Guesses come in. The room? The Ford Center next door? The Grand Canyon? Nope. None of these are large enough. Avogadro's Number of M&Ms would cover the entire surface of the Earth to a depth of fifty miles. Let that sink in. And note that Felix Baumgartner used a space suit to jump from a height of about 24 miles above the Earth. Avogadro's Number of M&Ms is a heavenly LOT of M&Ms! Now reflect upward in size to the number of stars in the universe. Is your head spinning?

On a side note, our New Horizon spacecraft reached dwarf planet Pluto while I typed this post. It took New Horizon nine years to travel more than 3 billion (3.000,000,000) miles to the outer reaches of our solar system which is but a dot in the Milky Way.

From atoms to galaxies, this universe is a wondrous place. Our infinitesimal sphere of existence is so large compared to us and so filled with various features that we do not have enough time to possibly experience them all. A lifetime is fleeting and precious whether is lasts a few or a hundred years. And that is why some of us find it impossible to sit inside looking at walls or screens for long periods of time.

It seems logical when following this chain of thought that we should get out there to meet people, see things, create experiences to fill our inestimable time.

Here are a few of the shots I took recently while pausing to absorb the sights and sounds at the Grand Canyon. I sat and pondered. I wrote. I talked to dozens of friendly people. I hiked around the North Rim, where it was cool, and into the canyon until I reached a depth where the air temperature hit 100F in the shade. (Yes, I took a Kestrel weather meter). It was, indeed, another grand visit! ST

Looking up at the Kaibab Limestone Layer near the rim
Descending the Supai Group Layer in the cool shade
The haze is smoke from CA wildfires
See the bridge? The hot sun moved across it before I reached it.
Late start due to too much partying!

Looking back up through the Supai Group and Hermit Shale Layers
The hope was to at least reach this bridge. Done and then some.
Unfortunately, the sun had also reached it.
Evidence of the forest fires.
Obligatory rim shot
Cycles of Life

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