Saturday, October 6, 2018

School of Rock

     Big mistake.
      I thought I'ld take a quick look at my school tax bill. Unfortunately, I wasn't sitting down. I remember letting out a gasp, saying "Holy..." and then everything went black. 
     It could have gone either way, but I guess it just wasn't my time yet. After heroic effort they were able to resuscitate me. Now, my doctors in consultation with the bank's loan officer give me a guarded prognosis of eventual recovery. But it will be a long road, they caution, with lots of tough financial therapy.
     Yes, it's that time of year when our big-box educational system is once again gobbling up children and sending out invoices for the privilege.
     Don't get me wrong. I'm all for learning. After all, that's what this blog is about - learning about and developing a relationship with place. It's just that I've always been wary of anything big. Big government, big corporations, bit unions, etc. Big wants to get bigger and it tends to use its size and power to butter its own bread. Does the meta-sizing of the public education system necessarily benefit students and society at large? I'm not so sure. And don't get me going about expensive, astro-turfed and night-lighted football fields. Given what we know of injuries and concussions, why is there such a thing as high school football anyway? To give the girls something to cheer about? Come on.
     That said, I have great respect for our best teachers and the difference they can make in a kid's life. The Schuylerville system well prepared my daughter for a demanding university environment where many of the other students came from elite prep school backgrounds. And I often think how fortunate young people from small, rural Cambridge Central are to have had mentors like Howard Romack and Steve Butz.

Steve Butz with students at Shays' Settlement - VPR image

     A recent Vermont Public Radio story on Butz's archeological field school at Shays' Settlement quoted student Alice Roosevelt, "I think it's just really interesting to find new things and just figure out what happened in our history..." Steve and Alice would agree: hands on learning wins hands down.

Alice in woodland - troweling for artifacts at Shays' Settlement - VPR image

     That's why I wanted to inform you about an upcoming opportunity for hands on learning in the natural sciences. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, October 12 - 14, the New England Intercollegiate Geological Conference and the New York State Geological Association will be holding a joint meeting based at the Fort William Henry Hotel in Lake George Village. Don't let the word 'meeting' put you (or your kids) off. This is three days of field trips throughout the Adirondacks, Taconics and Green Mountains with lots of rock, fresh air and fun. 

     The trips range from near the Canadian border to deep in the Adirondacks and as far south as Massachusetts. Several trips visit sites in Washington County. Typically they involve car pooling between a number of stops where the professors and scientists will talk about their research and recent findings. All while standing next to an outcrop. You can put your nose to the rock, ask questions and listen to lively give and take between geologists.

     Many of the participants are college students majoring in geology but everyone is welcome. It's a great way to introduce high school students to the field and allows them to interact with peers who have started down an earth sciences career path. On previous trips I've been impressed by how friendly, energetic and engaged everyone is.

Examining a black diabase dike along Rt. 4 

     Full conference details including trip itineraries and contact information can be found here. If the cows cooperate I plan to attend with my own questions and curiosity. Hope to see you there. 


Get Schooled...

     Who knew? I found out that there is an actual School of Rock with a location in nearby Latham (near Albany). I'm not sure how many parents want their kids to join a rock band but if your tyke prefers a guitar axe to a rock hammer here's the place. And check out this version of Gimme Shelter by School of Rock students. Not quite Keith, Mick and Merry Clayton but pretty darn good.

     It's a small world. Turns out there is also a movie titled School of Rock. I haven't seen it but Richard Linklater's 2003 comedy looks like fun. It stars Jack Black causing havoc as both a musician and teacher. After a hard day of traipsing from outcrop to ledge and back you might want to relax in the evening with some laughs and music. Watching School of Rock  might be just the ticket. 

Rock and Road - Limestone along Rt. 40



Tuesday, September 25, 2018


     Roam v. Responsibility.
     Sounds like a landmark Supreme Court case. Who knows, maybe some day it will be. But for the time being we each get to hand down the decision on how to spend our time. The urge to wander is part of our DNA. It's what lead us out of Africa to explore Earth's every nook and cranny. We are roamers by nature. But we're rather soft, fragile roamers in a world that can be uncomfortable, hard, dangerous. Seeking security (and a little cush), we've built homes, roads, electric grids. We've banded together in nations with governments, economies, safety nets. And taxes. Lots and lots of taxes. In shouldering the yoke of responsibility, our roaming instincts have been neglected.

Our home to roam

     I'm a prime example. I care for crops and animals. That's my small contribution to society. In theory, this should provide some degree of material well-being for myself and my family (although it doesn't always work out that way!). But the non-stop responsibilities of farming severely limits my ability to travel. Still, the desire to see what lies beyond the next hill persists. My inner roamer may be down, but he's not out. Maybe that's why every clear evening finds me outside, looking up. No matter how much our obligations anchor us, we can always make a little time to lift our gaze and let it drift thru the night sky.
     It's been a good summer for viewing planets, with four bright ones visible in the early evening. Driven by innate curiosity - that roaming thing again! -  people have sent missions to all of them. This post is a look at what we've found.
     First, let's locate them in the sky. Start by looking for a bright 'star' low in the southwest shortly after sunset. That's Venus, soon to be lost in the Sun's glare. Next up and a little higher is Jupiter. Moving left you'll find Saturn almost due south as the sky darkens. Finally, unmistakable red/orange Mars is in the southeast. Earth and the other planets are all in motion and this creates a constantly changing skyscape. 
     Get your bearings at This Week's Sky at a Glance.

From the Sky and Telescope website

     Note that I haven't mentioned Mercury, Uranus or Neptune. They are fascinating places and we've sent missions to each of them but they are not easily visible to the casual skywatcher. And then there is Pluto. Remember tiny, distant Pluto? It's been kicked out of the planet club altogether.


"I wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have me as a member."
- Groucho Marx

Groucho and Pluto: Worlds unto themselves
Web images



     You might think of Venus as Earth's 'hot' little sister. In many ways the planets are like siblings. They are similar in size and both are rocky with a core, mantle, crust and atmosphere. But, like most siblings, there are differences. Venus's day is 243 of our days which is longer than its year of 225 Earth days. It doesn't have a moon and there's no view in or out because it's completely cloaked in clouds of sulfuric acid. The surface temperature is 900 degrees F and the air pressure is 90 times that of Earth. Hot and heavy.

Web image of what Venus's surface would look like without its atmosphere 

     Scientists say Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect caused by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that has trapped solar heat. Fortunately, we don't have to worry about that here on Earth. President Trump has assured us that global warming is fake news.
     Obviously, Venus isn't going to be a popular vacation spot anytime soon. Still, we've been trying to visit since the early 60's. The Soviets sent over 30 missions to the planet. Many never made it. Others landed and (surprise!) melted shortly thereafter. A few survived long enough to send back data and photos from the surface. NASA has sent orbiters that use radar to peer thru the clouds and map the terrain below. Currently, Japan's Akatsuki space craft is orbiting the planet. Because there is no water and it's clearly uninhabitable, Venus hasn't seen a lot of missions lately. Some scientists think that is unfortunate. They believe there is much to learn here and would like to go back soon.

Web image: artist's rendering of Akatsuki orbiting Venus


     If Mars gets any busier it may need a traffic cop. We've sent many missions to the Red Planet and more are planned. Currently there are six craft orbiting and two rovers on the surface. Another lander heads up this year and four more are scheduled for 2020. Mars is the easiest planet to explore, although 'easy' is a relative term in spaceflight. It's the only planet humans may stand on in the foreseeable future. The present focus is for signs of past life and for water.

NASA's Curiosity rover and panorama of Vera Rubin Ridge on Mars

     Mars is a cold desert often wracked by planet encircling dust storms. It's smaller than Earth with much less gravity, not much of a magnetic field and a thin atmosphere. It has two tiny moons that look like lumpy potatoes whizzing close and fast around the planet. Frozen water and carbon dioxide create white polar ice caps but most of surface has a reddish hue from iron-rich dust. 

Web image of Mars 


     Jupiter has an entourage fit for a celestial god. Seventy-nine  moons (and counting) as well as a faint ring system. Many of the moons are tiny but the four Galileans are big and bright enough to be seen with binoculars.

Europa - one of Jupiter's moons

     Jupiter is what's called a 'gas giant' - a huge ball of hydrogen and helium. These are the same elements that make up the Sun. I've heard Jupiter called a 'failed star', meaning it doesn't have enough mass and gravity to create the interior temperatures and pressures to ignite fusion. Consider that the Sun contains 98 percent of all the matter in the solar system while Jupiter has most of the rest. Giant or runt becomes a matter of what you're compared to.
     The planet rotates on its axis once every ten hours (a day) and the visible cloud tops form colored bands that move in opposite directions to each other. Wind speeds can be up to 250 mph and persistent storms twice as big as the Earth (the Great Red Spot) have been tracked for centuries.

Jupiter - bands and storms

     Nine spacecraft have visited Jupiter. Most were flyby's using the planets immense gravity to slingshot them further out into the distant solar system. Galileo spent eight years orbiting from the mid '90's on and currently Juno is circling and sending back data. 

Artists concept of Juno orbiting Jupiter


     On September 15, 2017 Saturn swallowed Cassini without so much as a burp. That's the way you roll when you're a gas giant. After a nearly twenty year long mission NASA let Cassini orbit one last time before plunging the craft into Saturn's deep atmosphere. During its tenure Cassini had sent a probe to the surface of the moon Titan, captured striking images of other moons and investigated the planet's weather systems and ring structure.

NASA image of Cassini orbiting Saturn

     Saturn has a composition similar to Jupiter's but it is smaller, less dense and almost twice as far from the Sun. It would float in water, presuming you could find enough water. Cold ammonia-ice clouds give it a creamy, placid appearance but beneath are immense storms with high winds and powerful lightning. The poles have frequent aurorae and there is an odd hexagonal cloud sitting above the northern polar region. There are over sixty moons but at some point the distinction between moonlets and large chunks of the ring system begins to blur.

Enceladus - one of Saturn's many moons
     Ah, those rings! Think of Saturn and you picture its rings.They consist of water ice ranging from chunks as big as a house to tiny crystalline shards. Seen in close-up they differentiate into hundreds of concentric ringlets, all orbiting in a narrow plane above the planet's equator. While the structure extends many tens of thousands of miles beyond Saturn, it is remarkably thin. In some places only yards deep, they are still easily visible (and beautiful) when seen thru a small telescope.

 White rings around a crowned golden orb - Hubble image of Saturn

Final thoughts...

     I got to spend a pleasant late summer evening paddling the Hudson River at South Glens Falls recently. Tried out Licia's new Hornbeck canoe - seventeen pounds of lightweight fun! We saw ducks in the inlets, stopped at the Sandbar beach and then leisurely circled back across from Havilands Cove. The water was a still, mirrowed sheet reflecting a few lavender clouds at sunset. Folks were strolling the Betar Walkway, sitting by the shore and out on kayaks and paddleboards. 
     After taking out we lingered on the grassy bank enjoying beer and munchies (thanks to Licia!). As the sky darkened I spotted Venus twinkling between the trees on the Glens Falls side. Above was the crescent Moon, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars - nature's own string of chile lights hanging over the river. Maybe the beer had something to do with it, but a deep sense of belonging came over me. We have been given this amazing world. We are so lucky.


     Who but the B 52's? This post's theme song has to be their 1989 hit. Here's a link to their zany Youtube video should you be inclined to Roam with them.