Saturday, March 12, 2016

Why Do We Spring Forward for Daylight Savings Time, Anyway?

At 2am tomorrow morning, the time change will place as America is set to spring ahead an hour as Standard Time is to be replaced with Daylight Savings Time, which will run through the first week of November. For most people, this will mean setting the clock ahead an hour before bed tonight. While most lovers of the great outdoors will rejoice, astronomers will not as, thanks to the time shift, dark skies will arrive an hour later than “normal.”
So, the controversy known, how did DST come about?
To trace the origins of DST, one must travel back to France of the 1700s. At that time Benjamin Franklin was serving as an envoy to the French government. Now, France is at a higher latitude than most of the United States, which means that the length variances of day and night are more extreme thanks to the higher latitude. In France, Franklin was somewhat disturbed by what he considered people living out of sync with nature and paying for it, literally, in candles. When most people got up, the Sun had already been up for several hours thanks to France's higher latitude. However, instead of people adjusting their schedules to the natural sunlight, they merely got up at the same time they always did and, as a result, stayed up well into the night, burning untold numbers of candles.
Franklin's solution? People should get up earlier (and thus go to bed earlier) during the summer and make use of the natural sunlight so as to economize on candle usage. In fact, Franklin published this idea, anonymously, in a 1784, somewhat tongue in cheek, essay. In truth, Benjamin Franklin is not the father of DST, but he was the first recorded person in history to suggest that people live more in-tune with the Sun.
After Franklin, the world would have to wait more than a century in order to get more advocates for living in sync with the Sun.

See also: Daylight Savings Time trivia
Around the year 1900, two different men would bring the idea of an actual time change (rather than the wake up/go to bed time change proposed by Franklin) to the public forefront. In England, prominent builder/outdoorsman William Willet, like Franklin, hated the idea that people were sleeping half their mornings away and, on a personal note, hated having to cut his rounds of golf short due to early nightfall. It is Willet who is commonly credited with the DST idea despite the fact that New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson also proposed a time shift, 10 years previously. Hudson's personal stake: extra daylight would allow more time for specimen collection.
In the years following the time shift proposals by Willet and Hudson, the thought of springing the clocks forward started to spread around the world but, like with most political matters, more important issues came to the forefront, at least until 1916.
By the arrival of 1916, Europe had been at war for 2 years. As the then-called Great War continued with no end in sight, governments were looking for ways to cut costs for the war effort in any way they could. Then, come summer 1916, the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies) agreed to set the clocks ahead for an hour as a means for saving coal. The other belligerents quickly followed suit. The United States, which entered the war in 1917, adopted a time shift in 1918.
Come the end of the war, though, DST was largely discontinued. However, with the advent of WWII, it would be re-instituted as, once again, an energy-saving measure. This time, though, it stuck around, although its advent wasn't formalized, at least in the United Sates, until 1966. Curiously, though, the Uniform Time Act was not binding in that localities could choose to ignore it and keep Standard Time if they so wished. So far, Arizona and Hawaii still don't observe DST. In 2007, at least in the United States, DST was extended on both ends.
Another curious fact about DST is this: throughout history and around the world, the shift has not always been one hour. In the past, time changes ranging between 20 minutes and 2 hours have been observed. Right now, there is debate in some countries whether to make DST the new Standard Time, as in having DST all year, while other nations are contemplating doing away with DST altogether. Also, there are pushes in some places to extend DST by springing ahead more than 1 hour, too.

In all, the whole business of time change an an interesting history lesson not found in most textbooks and is still history in the making.

Oh yes, if you think our method of time change stinks, at least we don't track time like the ancients did. Most ancient cultures always kept 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night year-round because they adjusted the hours' lengths accordingly. And you thought springing ahead and falling back was an inconvenience!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

True Young Moon at Dusk Tonight!

While the Full Moon is often considered natural light pollution, the same astronomers who hate the full version may plan, days in advance, the perfect spot to sight a Young Moon just past new. So why the change in attitude?

Young Moons are, besides quite aesthetic, rare, very rare. To sight a Young Moon under 24 hours old, all the conditions need to line up just right. If everything goes perfectly, on the day after New Moon, or even on the same day sometimes, just past sunset, a wire-thin crescent will pop out low on the horizon among the Sun's last rays. Needless to say, when dealing with a Moon less than 2% illuminated, binoculars are a must.
So here is why the Young Moon is so difficult to spot:

1. Timing. If New Moon is timed too close to sunset, it will be lost in the Sun's glare on the day of New Moon and will be way past a day old come the next night. A 36 hour Moon is no challenge, pure and simple.

2. Clouds. If it's cloudy, there's no seeing the Moon.

3. Light. Young Moon hunters are forced to fight twilight. With the Moon only 1-2% lit, just the act of spotting the Moon low on the horizon in such light conditions is a challenge because that is where the Sun is. A saving grace can be a nearby planet. If you can use a bright planet as a marker, it is a lot easier to estimate where the Moon will appear once the sky gets dark enough.

4. Haze. Even more so than during the day, haze makes its presence known at dusk, looking similar to wispy clouds on the horizon. While the biggest problem during the summer, haze can even appear in winter, too. Even a crystal-clear day can produce haze on the horizon at dusk. While the haze will quickly dissipate come dark, that's too late for the Young Moon.

These difficulties compounded with horizon issues and a limited window of time where it becomes realistic to catch them (February-May) showcase why Young Moons are the Holy Grail of lunar observers. 

Now for the good news: spring is Young Moon season. Because of the near vertical ecliptic at sunset, the waxing Moon will hang higher in the sky now than any other time of year, which is good. For Young Moon Hunters, February through May (even June depending on time of month) is an ideal time to look. By the time July rolls around, the ecliptic is undeniably flattening too much to make observing the Young Moon really feasible.
Get out while you can!

As some inspiration, here are some true Young Moons I've captured through the years. Note, there are only three of them, thus showcasing the rarity of everything going just right!

 17 hour Moon through Orion ED80, February, 2010
19 hour Moon, 300mm equivalent, May, 2006.
 23 hour Moon, heavily cropped 10Mp image, May, 2010

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Updated for 2016: Complete List of Weather-Resistant Nikon Lenses (Current and Discontinued)

It's been almost 5 years since I compiled my original list of weather resistant Nikon lenses. Well, as time goes by, it is only natural that Nikon will launch new lenses, many of which belong on the weather-resistant list. So, here goes: the updated (from 2011 and 2013) list of weather-resistant Nikkor lenses. New lenses are in red. Additionally, in the 5 years that have elapsed since the original list, Nikon has also discontinued some lenses as well, hence the current and discontinued lists.

Current Film/Digital 
14-24 f2.8 (2007-)
16-35 f4 VR (2010-)
18-35 f3.5-4.5 AF-S (2013-)
20 f1.8 AF-S (2014-)

24 f1.4 AF-S (2010-)
24 f1.8 AF-S (2015-)
24-70 f2.8 (2007-)

24-70 f2.8 VR (2015-)

24-85 VR (2012-)
24-120 (2010-)
28 f1.8 AF-S (2012-)
28-300 f3.5-5.6 VR (2010-)
35 f1.4 AF-S (2010-)

35 f1.8 AF-S (2014-)

50 f1.4 AF-S (2008-)
50 f1.8 AF-S  (2011-)

58 f1.4 AF-S (2013-)

60 f2.8 AF-S Micro (2008-)
70-200 f2.8 II (2009-)
70-200 f4 VR (2012-)
70-300 f4.5-5.6 AF-S VR (2006-)

80-400 f4.5-5.6 AF-S VR (2013-)

85 f1.8 AF-S (2012-)
85 f1.4 AF-S (2010-)
105 f2.8 VR Micro (2006-)
200 f2 VR II (2010-)
200-400 f4 VR II (2010-)

200-500 f5.6 VR (2015-)

300 f2.8 VR II (2009-)
300 f4 VR (2015-)
400 f2.8 VR II (2014-)

600f4 VR  (2007-)

Current DX Digital Only
10-24 f3.5-4.5 AF-S (2009-)
12-24 f4 AF-S (2003-)

16-80 f2.8-4 AF-S VR (2015-)

17-55 f2.8 AF-S (2003-)

18-140 f3.-5.6 AF-S VR (2013-)

18-200 AF-S VR II (2009-)
18-300 AF-S VR I (77mm filters) (2012-)

18-300 AF-S VR II (67 mm filters) (2014-)

35 f1.8 AF-S (2009-)
40 f2.8 AF-S Micro (2011-)
55-300 f4-5.6 VR (2010-)
85 f3.5 AF-S VR Micro (2009-)

Discontinued Film/Digital
70-200 f2.8 VR I (2003-2009)
200-400 f4 VR I (2003-2010)
200 f2 VR I (2004-2010)
400 f2.8 VR I (2007-2014)

Discontinued DX Digital Only
18-70 AF-S f3.5-4.5 (2004-2010)
18-200 VR I (2005-2009)

Huge list aside, there is one important catch: Nikon does not market these lenses as “weather-proof,” only “weather-resistant,” which means that they probably won't go servicing your camera/lens that got dropped overboard on that fishing trip when your buddy was reaching for his beer but accidentally bumped your camera instead. If you want true weather-resistance, go buy a tough P&S like my Olympus Stylus 550WP or, if you don't mind shooting film, a Jacques Cousteau-inspired Nikonos film SLR.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Man Killed by Meteorite in India

UPDATE: it has been determined that the rocky fragments in the bottom of the crater are not of extraterrestrial origin. However, it still remains to be determined what fell from the sky, though. 
For the first time in recorded history, a person is reported to have been killed by a falling meteorite. Authorities in India are reporting that the falling meteorite created a crater 4 feet deep and killed a man standing nearby. The culprit was believed to be a meteorite as rocky fragments have been found in the crater.

The event took place at a university campus in the Tamil Nadu state. A bus driver and some gardeners were standing near a cafeteria when the impact, which could reportedly be heard for 2 miles away, took place. The bus driver was killed in the resulting impact explosion and three landscapers were hurt. The explosion's shock wave also shattered windows in nearby buildings and cars.

NASA is also investigating the matter but has yet to make an official pronouncement on what happened as other causes, namely space debris falling from orbit, have yet to be ruled out as the rocks found in the crater have not yet been determined to be of extraterrestrial origin. In fact, the rocks could have already been there if something else caused the explosion.

It is estimated that, on the average day, over 60 tons of meteors rain to Earth. Despite such vast tonnage, very few make it to the Earth's surface as most incoming pieces of space rock are no larger than a grain of sand. Needless to say, as the size of a meteor rises, the frequency that earth will encounter them falls exponentially. Still, in all of recorded history, an impacting meteorite (or artificial space debris) has never been reported to have killed anybody as ancient reports of people being killed by meteorites are considered scientifically invalid. 

Until this event, the closest a meteorite came to hitting anybody was when a meteorite fell through the roof of a house, deflected off a piece of furniture, and hit a woman's led as she laid on a couch. This aside, no other scientifically confirmed example of a meteorite hitting anybody, either directly or indirectly, has been confirmed. Another close call took place in 1992 when a meteorite fell through the trunk of a car.

Stay tuned on this one as analysis of the rock fragments should be forthcoming.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

'Planet X' now 'Planet Nine?'

There may be a ninth planet in the solar system, after all. Earlier today, it was announced by astronomer Mike Brown of Caltech, among others, that there might be a planet 10 times more massive than earth orbiting the Sun in the far-off Kuiper Belt at a distance more than 20 times farther than Neptune. The existence of this dark, far-away world was hypothesized by analyzing irregularities in the orbits of distant Kuiper Belt objects, which seem to suggest that there is interaction with some large, as-yet unseen body.

For, Brown, this finding would be both ironic and vindicating as Brown was the astronomer who discovered Sedna, the body Brown initially believed to be the 10th planet at discovery. 30% more massive than Pluto but over 3 times more distant, Sedna never held the status of 'planet' despite being bigger than Pluto. Why? When it was discovered in 1930, Pluto was thought to be alone. By 2005, Sedna was known to be one of hundreds of Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs), which raised a question: how could the bigger of the two bodies not be a planet while the smaller one was a planet? End result: the word 'planet' was defined for the first time, Pluto was demoted to 'dwarf planet,' and Neptune became the outermost planet in the solar system.

Fast-forward 16 years.

This hypothetical Planet Nine, if confirmed, is no dwarf based upon the evidence being used to make a case for its existence.

According to the research paper, six KBOs orbit the sun on elliptical paths that all point in the same direction. The kicker that provides evidence for a massive planet? All six bodies are moving at different speeds and they all share the same tilt, roughly 30 degrees down relative to the ecliptic plane, on which all 8 planets orbit the Sun. According to the scientists, the odds of this occurring by random chance is 7/1000.

Additionally, the team used other possibilities to explain the orbits of these 6 oddball KBOs, namely interactions with other KBOs. In the end, such calculations didn't match up with the observations, but when the numbers for a 10-Earth mass planet were put into the equation, the model worked much better. In addition, the existence of such a large body could also explain orbital oddities in Brown's Sedna and another large KBO, 2012VP113.

In speaking to the press, Brown said that not only did Planet Nine kill two birds (the 6 oddball KBO orbits and oddities for Sedna and 2012VP113) with one stone, but also a third that they didn't even know about, namely the absence of a between Earth and Neptune-size planet, now known to be the most common size in the cosmos, in our own solar system.

As of now, the orbit for this hypothetical planet has been calculated and the hunt is on to spot it visually. Brown has said that he would like to be the first to make visual confirmation but will be okay if another team beats him to it because this finding could be the impetus for a whole new generation of planet finders to go to the telescopes and begin searching the skies.

Hopefully, someone will visually confirm this planet's existence sooner rather than later.

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Friday, December 25, 2015

What Was the Star of Bethlehem?

It is one of the most universally recognized images of all time but no one knows exactly what it was. For 2000 years, the Star of Bethlehem has captivated people the world over. Described in the Bible as the star that led the 3 Magi to the infant Christ, little else is related about the Star, leaving a lot of questions, and just as many possible answers to its true identity assuming that the whole story of the Star was not made up by the Biblical writer (the Star only appears in the Gospel of Matthew).

One problem that must be confronted right before we can even start to narrow down the possible identities of the Star is this: no one knows exactly when Jesus was born. Our current calendar is based on the birth of Christ in that His birth separates the B.C./A.D. eras. However, it is clear that the dating is wrong as the Bible describes how the Holy Family fled to Egypt to avoid the wrath of King Herod, a well-documented historical figure who died in 4 B.C. Thus, 4 B.C. is the last possible year in which Jesus could have been born. It is now generally thought that Jesus was born anywhere between 8 and 4 B.C.

Now that our time frame has been narrowed down, we can start looking to the sky.

There are two schools of thought about the Star of Bethlehem: it was either astronomical or astrological. Astronomical possibilities include supernova, planets, comets, and conjunctions. However, with historic records available from all over the world from the time of the Star, no such events were recorded anywhere by anyone, leaving astrology as the more likely explanation to the Star story.

People at this time were almost universal believers in astrology. A notable exception here were the Jews, who were forbidden to practice astrology at numerous spots in the Old Testament. As far as everyone else was concerned, heavenly bodies had special meaning.

One thing we know was that the Magi came from the East. Considering the geographical location of Judea, “East” almost certainly meant Persia. In Persian language, the word “magi” referred to Zoroastrian priests, who practiced medicine and magic (“magic” comes from “magi”), which could also include astrology, at which the Persians were very sophisticated. Coincidentally, it is this astronomical focus of the Persians that can cause the traditional astronomical explanations for the Star to be discounted. 

One particular passage in Matthew can greatly narrow down possible candidates for the true Star of Bethlehem. According to the Gospel, “the star which they had seen in the East went before them till it came and stood over where the young Child was.” If this is to be believed, the Star was a planet. Over the course of months, a star's position will change as it rises about four minutes earlier each night. Stars don't stand still, but planets do.

Observe a planet over the course of a year (Mars is best as it is closest), noting where it is in the constellations. For most of the time, it moves with the background stars. However, there are times where it stops, reverses course, stops again, then continues forward with the stars once more. This apparent change in direction called retrograde motion is an optical illusion caused by the Earth passing the slower planet as both orbit the Sun. A comparison can be made to passing cars on the highway. As you pass, the slower car seems to travel backwards. The same is true of planets.

Besides retrograde motion, there is more. Planets and constellations had particular significance. Jupiter was widely considered to be associated with kingship. The constellation of Aires the ram was often associated with Israel/Judea. Putting this information together with the knowledge that the Star of Bethlehem was almost certainly a planet allows one to start putting the puzzle together.

In 6 B.C., an astronomical/astrological event that fits the bill very nicely occurred. In that year, the planet Jupiter (planet of kingship) moved into the constellation of Aires (the constellation for Israel/Judea). Thus, this could be interpreted as a sign that a new king of Israel was born. To add even more weight to the hypothesis, Jupiter first appeared as a morning object in the East. At this time, the Sun was also in Aires (Jupiter was rising just ahead of the Sun). In astrology, any constellation is at its most influential when the Sun is in it. Also, it was believed at the time that planets were at their most powerful as they emerged in the East after a period of invisibility in the Sun's glare.

As it would have taken the Magi months to reach Bethlehem from Persia, this also explains the motion of the Star. As time progressed, the Magi could have observed Jupiter slow down and stop before going into retrograde motion. The stoppage could have coincided with the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem after stopping in Jerusalem and being told of the prophecy predicting the Messiah's birth there.

In the end, though, the Star of Bethlehem will probably remain a matter of faith.

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Monday, November 30, 2015

The Dark Side to Cyber Monday

Last Friday was Black Friday for brick and mortar retailers. The nickname comes from the fact that this one day will often put unprofitable stores into the black (profit) for the year. Next up: Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, which is traditionally the busiest day of the year for online shoppers. While the Internet is undoubtedly convenient for shopping and many online stores offer lower prices than can be found in real stores, there are some things worth considering before clicking on the “buy” button.

The most obvious, potentially irritating problem with online buying is returning something should a product be defective. For brick and mortar stores, the return policies for cameras and other high tech electronics is often shorter than for other merchandise. The same is often true online. Unlike a regular retail store, returning something to an online vendor is not as simple as taking the product back. Online retailers often have specific instructions for returning an item in regards to packing and shipping. Sometimes the customer must gain prior approval beforehand as well. So if you buy something online and then have to make a return, be sure to follow the directions carefully.

After the returning process should something go wrong, the fact that there is no hands-on with your prospective buy is the second main drawback of buying online. Generally, cameras should be a safe bet. However, SLR lenses can be a different story. While most lenses work as they should right out of the box, there is always a small percentage that have bugs, often amounting to focusing inaccuracy where the lens will front or back focus in relation to the intended subject. This is most common (although still rare) in third party lenses, but it can occur on manufacturer optics as well. While newer mid to high-end digital SLRs have a feature to compensate for this, older and entry level models do not, which means having to return the lens. In a brick and mortar store, the salesman will often allow you to bring your camera and try out the lens before buying.

Lastly, for people wishing to avoid sales taxes brought about by buying in-store, consider this: shipping charges. While you may save on the taxes, the savings there will probably be wiped out by the cost of getting the bought online item to your front door. The good news is that some online retailers offer free shipping on some items. Also, with the shopping officially season upon us, many online retailers are more likely to sweeten the deal with free shipping this time of year. Back to taxes, you may or may not have to pay. Generally speaking, if your product ships from a different state, you're off the hook to Uncle Sam.

Yes, online stores are great for convenience and saving money. Millions of satisfied shoppers will attest to this fact. However, it is only fair to point out the down sides to online shopping.

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