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

Humble Requests:

If you found this informative (or at least entertaining), help me pay my bills and check out my Examiner pages for space news, cleveland photography, national photography, and astronomy for more great stuff.

If you think this was cool, why not tell a friend?

For something even better, follow this blog.