Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fun Things to Do in the Middle of the Night

(at least when there is an eclipse---as there soon will be)

We have a total eclipse of the moon coming up, and here in the Antelope Valley, we have great skies for just such an event.

I am always a big fan of spectacular experiences, especially when they are free. Mark your calendars because we have a big, fun, spectacular, free sky show due to come our way next week.

Courtesy of Griffith Observatory (and more about them in just a moment), here is the schedule for what we can expect.

If you have binoculars or any kind of beat up telescope, that's even better. But just with one's own eyes, this will be overhead, and this time of year, odds are, it will be a clear night. For the best effect, go a few minutes out of town, away from the brightest lights. If you're in your own backyard, be sure to turn off the house lights (or close the blinds) and turn off the porchlights. Give yourself a few minutes so your eyes adapt, but soon you'll be able to see just fine. Most people way over-illuminate their nighttimes; as primates, we evolved to see fairly well in the dark, if we can just give ourselves a chance to try it out.

As you can see from the chart, the best action is around midnight. Unlike during a solar eclipse, no filters are needed: it's safe to look at the uneclipsed or the eclipsed moon all you wish.

There is a lot of debate about the exact mechanics of how eclipses happen.

Here is a diagram from a book called Discovering the Universe by Neil Comins and William Kaufmann.

Looking closely you can see the process is basically like this: the sun is a very round, ripe lemon; the Heavenly Father / Mother shines a flashlight down, causing the dragon to swallow its tail. When enough people beat pots and pans in their front yards, the dragon gets scared and runs off, knocking over the flashlight. The eclipse is then over.

For an alternate perspective---oh geez, everybody has to get out an opinion---you can go down to Griffith Observatory that night and use the telescopes there. They will no doubt have some fairy tale about the shadow of the earth and all of that: well, it's a free country and you may believe whatever you wish. From their website, here is more information:

Griffith Observatory Hosts Public Viewing of Lunar Ecipse
April 14-15, 2014 / 7:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
Admission is Free 


  •     Building, roof, and Zeiss telescope OPEN
  •     Lawn telescopes, binoculars, and naked eye viewing from lawn, sidewalks, and terraces
  •     Shows in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium (7:45 p.m., 8:45 p.m., 10:15 p.m., 11:15 p.m.)
  •     Café at the End of the Universe and Stellar Emporium OPEN (starting at 7:00 p.m.)
  •     LiveStream of the eclipse live from the Zeiss dome on Griffith Observatory's LiveStream page.
  •     Special presentation about the Moon with Griffith Observatory Curator, Dr. Laura Danly, and Griffith Observatory Astronomical Observer, Anthony Cook. Joint program with the Los Angeles Astronomical Society.
What if there's a snow storm or a sudden flurry of dragon poop? See their website for more contingency plans, but trust me, they've thought of everything. One prediction I can make is that it will be crowded; you can see more details about which access roads will be open on their web page, but be prepared to have to park a bit of the way down the hill and walk up to the summit. Given the possibility of a marine layer in Los Angeles proper (and the huge amount of light pollution), if you have binoculars and a lawn chair, this might be a fine event just to watch from home. It's too soon yet to know what the weather will be like: both L.A. and Palmdale show a 10% chance of rain on Monday.

The eclipse will be visible across almost the entire continental United States, most of Canada and Central America and parts of South America.  You could always go out to Death Valley --- if we are statistically more likely to be clear than L.A., think how much better Death Valley's odds are compared to ours.

We may be in a drought year water-wise but not for eclipses: if you sleep through your alarm for this one, you have another shot this coming October.

To repeat what Alan MacRobert said in the Los Angeles Times, "Whether you have a small telescope, a pair of binoculars or even just your naked eye --- you'll be seeing part of the geometry of the cosmos happening right in front of your eyes."

I do agree with him on that, but of course we have another vantage point to imagine. At some point in the future, humans will be watching a different series of eclipses . . . from the surface of the moon.


The AVC Blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and he can be reached at This blog does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees or the District as a whole. To leave comments, you need to be logged into some kind of blogspot or gmail account, or so it seems. Sorry about that: it's just how the system is set up. Hood also can forward comments through email.