Saturday, June 11, 2016

Beautiful Evening

Mars and Saturn

After more than three rainy cloudy weeks weather finally cleared on June 8th. The evening sky was cloudless. Winds died down. Humidity was low and temperature mild. Overhead a thin crescent Moon, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn were on display from west to east. I couldn't ask for better conditions for some planetary imaging. 

Unfortunately, my laptop chose this night to malfunction. Everything worked normally just hours before, but, for some incomprehensible reason, the keyboard and touchpad were unresponsive when I started the computer. More than an hour of prime observing time was wasted searching for solutions to the problem. This keyboard problem happened once before. I foolishly failed to record the solution I found at that time. So I had to once again wade through a jungle of irrelevant tips on Google before chancing upon the right fix. The keyboard malfunction happens sometimes after updates are installed. I think some updates fail to complete, and there's no warning this has happened. I had to disable the "fast startup" option (hidden under several menu items), then restart. Eventually, the keyboard came back to life, but by then the Moon had set and Jupiter was low in the sky.

I began imaging bright Mars at 11:50 pm with a newly acquired 4X Barlow lens. Then I switched to a 3X Barlow lens. The best results are below. The first image was made with the 4X Barlow. The second image was made with the 3X Barlow. Which do you think is better?
Both images show the same Martian features, although the bright white south polar hood on the bottom seems more visible in the second 3X image. North is up and the polar axis is tilted to the right. A very tiny north polar cap is barely visible as a slight brightening on the 3X image but not on the 4X image. The dark boot-like feature in the north is Mare Acidalium. One thing is certain: these processed images show much more detail than my naked eye could perceive in the eyepiece!

I moved on to Saturn next. Once again, the 4X image is first below, 3X image second.
The north polar region of Saturn is on top casting a bit of shadow on the rings behind. The outer gray A ring and bright white inner B ring are separated by the dark Cassini Division. This time, the 4X image seems slightly better to me because the Encke Gap is barely visible on the left and right sides of the A ring. The Saturn images came out fairly well considering how low Saturn was in the sky.

Near midnight I removed the camera, put in an eyepiece, and did a bit of visual observing. Temperature had dropped rapidly into the mid 50's in the dry, clear air. After looking at some globular clusters, open clusters, and double stars, I got chilled and felt exhausted, so, reluctantly, I had to give up. I would have done more visual observing if I hadn't spent more than an hour earlier solving computer problems!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Historical Houses

Although we often drive past several old plantations along the James River near our home in Williamsburg, we've never managed to visit one until recently. A knowledgeable local friend recommended Westover Plantation, so we began our exploration there. The first picture below shows a tree-lined portion of the long dirt entrance drive approaching the main house.
Plantation seems to be a fancy word for farm. Westover is still a working farm, as you can see from the crops growing on both sides of the road in the previous picture. This is a very lovely farm indeed, with many beautifully kept verdant fields all around.

After paying the entrance fee we walked along a shady path towards the side of the house facing the James River.
This was our first view of the house.
The next view from the south lawn shows the full extent of the house. The center portion was built in approximately 1730 by William Byrd II.
Next is a view of the river from the south lawn. I want to say this is the back lawn, but I'm not sure which side of the house is considered the front.
A walk out toward the river reveals this scene along the western riverbank.
The opposite side of the house, the north side, has a more elaborate door and an impressive gate at the entrance. So, maybe, this is the front of the house. The gate has William Byrd's initials in the iron work over the gate - a bit more impressive than the unremarkable welcome mat by my front door.
An elaborate garden lies next to the house with paths for a shady evening stroll. Wouldn't that be nice, you think, to stroll through your own private garden like this one on a pleasant day? Wait a minute! Who built and maintained this garden? Who constantly weeded, trimmed, and planted? Certainly not William Byrd II, master of the house! He and his guests just strolled through the garden conversing after dinner while slaves and servants responsible for the garden hoped to get a few hours rest after a hard working day.
One garden path leads to the centrally placed tomb of the house's builder, William Byrd II, who lived from 1674 to 1744.
Carved on the tomb is a barely legible epitaph containing flowery prose so fascinating and alien to me. Here are two examples:

"Being born to one of the amplest fortunes in this country, he was sent early to England for his education, where, under the care and instruction of Sir Robert Southwell, and ever favored with his particular instruction, he made happy proficiency in polite and various learning;"

"To all this was added a great elegance of taste and life, the well-bred gentleman and polite companion, the splendid economist and proudest father of a family with the constant enemy of all exorbitant power and hearty friend to the liberties of his country."
How many of us would describe our education as "happy proficiency in polite and various learning"? Here is a portrait of the tomb's occupant, William Byrd II.
Apparently, William Byrd II was not a paragon of moral virtue despite being described as a "well-bred gentleman and polite companion." His behavior toward women and servants was particularly bad. Some humility might have been useful. Here's a guy who has a monument to himself on the grounds of his own house. I find this bizarre!

The old Westover Church once existed a quarter mile west of the house along the river. We walked down the original carriage path to that site where an ancient cemetery still remains. One of the graves there is from 1637!
Roughly two miles up river from the Westover Plantation is the Berkeley Plantation where we visited next. Berkeley has made more effort to accommodate visitors than Westover. Berkeley charged a higher admission fee, but the house was open. Berkeley had guided tours, a gift shop, restrooms, and more visitors than Westover. The Westover mansion was closed, and we walked around the Westover grounds in quiet solitude guided only by a brochure.

Berkeley has been the site of much American history beginning with the first settlers in 1619 before the present house was built. Later, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were guests in the house. Two American presidents and a signer of the Declaration of Independance came from the Harrison family who built, owned, and lived in the house. Benedict Arnold looted the house during the Revolution. Abraham Lincoln visited when the entire Union army was camped here during the Civil War.

The north side of the Berkeley mansion, completed in 1726, is seen through the gates below.
A long path starts from the south side of the house as seen in the next picture.
The fine gravel path leads away from the house down toward the river.
At the end of the path the view opens to a magnificent scene.
Imagine this is your lawn, and you sit here on a bench while cool summer breezes blow from the river ahead. How lovely! But after a while you think, "Hey. Who mows this enormous lawn? Who maintains the crops and the many gardens, trees, and shrubs?" In modern times the answer is a crew of workers who must be paid and managed - a nightmare to my mind. In colonial times it would have been many slaves and servants - a moral nightmare. This is a nice place to visit, but I'd rather live without servants in a modest small house where I can take care of most chores myself!

People say I'm crazy doing what I'm doing
Well they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin
When I say that I'm o.k. well they look at me kind of strange
Surely you're not happy now you no longer play the game

People say I'm lazy dreaming my life away
Well they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me
When I tell them that I'm doing fine watching shadows on the wall
Don't you miss the big time boy you're no longer on the ball

I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

John Lennon