Explore: December 2010

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5 posts from December 2010


January Observing Highlights

Hope for cloud-free skies on January 3 and 4 as a number of astronomical events occur within hours of each other.

After sunset on January 3, Jupiter can be found in the southwest looking like the brightest "star" in the sky. Through binoculars or a telescope, you can find Uranus just to Jupiter’s upper right, less than half a degree away. The two are still a half degree apart on the 4th, and over the following week they will remain within a degree from each other.

The Quadrantid meteor shower reaches its peak over the night from January 3 to 4, with up to 90 meteors an hour possible. Quadrans Muralis is the name of a now-defunct constellation that was once between Hercules and Bootes. Because a new moon occurs on January 4, there will be no moonlight to interfere with spotting the fainter meteors.


On January 4, a partial solar eclipse is visible for observers in northern Africa, Europe, and eastern Asia. For more on the event and other January observing events, see the Night Sky Observing Guide for January 2011.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter attwitter.com/Astronomommy.


The Hyades Cluster of Taurus

The most famous cluster in Taurus is probably the Pleiades, the tiny dipper-shaped collection of stars above the head of Taurus the Bull. Through binoculars, the view of the Pleiades explodes from six into dozens of stars.


But a much larger star cluster resides nearby and is even easier to see. The head of the bull itself is a star cluster known as the Hyades. Taurus’s head is marked by a V-shape of stars that lies on its side. This V-shape is rather easy to pick out in the night sky, just below the Pleiades star cluster.

The Hyades is a group of 300 to 400 stars that lies about 151 light-years away from us, making it the nearest open cluster to Earth. With the unaided eye under moderately good seeing conditions, the main stars an observer will see are the five that mark the two sides and juncture of the V-shape.
The five brightest stars in the Hyades are all red giants, but you’ll notice one of the stars shines much brighter than the others. The brightest star in Hyades (and in the constellation Taurus) is Aldebaran, which marks the top left side of the bull’s head. Although it is also a red giant star, Aldebaran looks markedly brighter than the others in the group; therefore it is no surprise to learn that Aldebaran is not a member of the cluster but a star that happens to lie in the same line of sight. Aldebaran lies two-and-a-half times closer to Earth at 65 light-years distant.

The name Hyades comes from Greek mythology. The Hyades were five daughters of Atlas and half-sisters to the Pleiades. Their name means “rainy ones” and their appearance marked the beginning of the rainy season for some lands.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


December’s Lunar Eclipse

12-17-10 Partial Lunar Eclipse Leon Chen
A partially eclipsed moon. Credit: Leon Chen

December 20, 21, and 22 bring together a few big astronomy events. The first is a total lunar eclipse that occurs on December 20 and/or December 21, depending on where you live. Observers who live in the western United States will get to see the event begin on December 20, during late evening hours. Anyone on the eastern half of North America will have to rise in the middle of the night to watch the eclipse. Totality begins at 11:41 p.m. PST and ends at 12:53 p.m. PST on the 21st. For more observing information and times for the eclipse, read the December Night Sky article.

As lunar eclipses can only happen during a full moon, when the sun is opposite Earth and fully illuminating the side of the moon facing us (with our shadow occasionally passing over the moon), it is no surprise that the full moon for December comes on December 21, with the precise moment that the moon is full occurring at 3:13 a.m. EST. The December full moon is sometimes given the name Long Night Moon, which is especially appropriate this year as the full moon falls on the date of the winter solstice for us in the Northern Hemisphere. The solstice occurs at precisely 6:38 p.m. EST on the 21st, ushering in those long, dark, starry nights of winter.

The last big astronomical event over the course of these three days is the Ursid meteor shower on December 22. While not quite as active as the Geminids, which peaked overnight on December 13 and 14, the Ursids still perform admirably, and anyone out a couple nights earlier for the eclipse may spot some Ursids that night too. Comet Tuttle is responsible for this meteor shower, and the "shooting stars" seem to emanate from the constellation Ursa Minor, or Little Dipper, home to the North Star.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


Time to Celebrate?


My family has lived in Yosemite National Park for a grand total of 16 months. Oddly enough for such a short sojourn, some things already loom large in my mind as established tradition. One of these is the divvying up of holidays among the tiny populace of Wawona, where we live. One family hosts Halloween, another Cinco de Mayo, and still another New Year’s Eve. Because my daughter is originally from China, I called dibs on Chinese New Year, and in homage to my own background, Hanukah . . . at least last year I did.

Continue reading "Time to Celebrate?" »


Lazy Organic Gardener: Mr. Green Touts Edible Landscaping (with Video)

Last month, on a drizzling Sunday afternoon in Berkeley, the Lazy Organic Gardener sat down with Mr. Green, Sierra's answer man, to talk about the new release of Rosalind Creasy's Edible Landscaping.

We had planned to talk in Mr. Green's garden, but the rain chased us into his makeshift greenhouse, where we sat across from each other, a table of thriving basil seedlings between us. (You can jump directly to the video here.)

First some introductions — can't tell the players without the program. Mr. Green is Sierra Magazine's Answer Guy, a.k.a. Bob Schildgen, who grew up on a Wisconsin farm, lives and gardens now in Berkeley, California, and was Sierra's managing editor for many years.

Here's Mr. Green in his garden in between the showers, and below that a couple more angles on the garden.

Author and gardener/landscaper Rosalind Creasy, from Los Altos, California, wrote the groundbreaking "Edible Landscaping" in 1982 and has spent the last 6 years thoroughly revising, updating, and adding new material (including scores of color photographs) to create a brand new edition for publication this fall. Schildgen contributed to the revised edition as an editor. (Creasy's book and her ideas were with us in Mr. Green's backyard, but she wasn't.)

The Lazy Organic Gardener — that's me — I'm trying to grow a pretty good garden without too much work, money, time, or water. I'm a friend and neighbor of Mr. Green. His backyard is a five minute walk from mine.

(Full disclosure: I have only browsed the book, which is pretty hefty. But I do have a dog-eared copy of Creasy's Cooking from the Garden, published in 1988, also by Sierra Club Books, and I've followed some of her gardening guidance as well as recipes.)

I brought my cheap little video camera with me and I've got a few clips below. Minimally edited, and only peripherally about Edible Landscaping. (I'm no more disciplined editing video than I am gardening.)

Since neither Mr. Green or I are formal gardeners by any yardstick, I started with the obvious question: "Edible Landscaping. The two-word title tells the story. Why does such a sensible idea need a book? Why isn't everybody already doing this?"

If you know Mr. Green, it won't surprise you that he answered this question with a three-part rant about the odiousness of lawns, though we eventually circled back to Creasy and her landscaping ideas.

"Lawns drive me crazy, especially when they stretch out for acre after boring acre," Mr. Green said, "My father used to hitch my brother and me to the lawnmower with wire around us to cut the grass. One time the grass got so high a mule team of two Schildgen boys couldn't cut it, so he borrowed a power mower. Well, an old harrow tooth the size of a railroad spike that my brother and I had left in the overgrown grass got caught by the lawn mower and destroyed the engine housing. My brother also almost lost his finger cleaning the mower."

(There was more invective about lawns, but you get the point.)

During World War II, Mr. Green said, the government encouraged "victory gardens" and American households and communities grew 40 percent of the nation's vegetables in home or community gardens. That practice dropped precipitously with postwar prosperity, and gardening tended more toward beauty than utility. Instead of growing squash and beans, gardeners grew flowers and grass lawns.

Over the years, lawns got bigger and bigger, and farmers wound up with power mowers that had more horsepower than some of their original tractors. Lawns were a symbol of wealth — vast expanses of green that didn't produce food or sustenance. Many farmers had backyard gardens, but the front was reserved for flowers and lawns.

It wasn't until Mr. Green grew up and visited Europe that he saw the kind of edible landscaping that Creasy is promoting.

Creasy's audience isn't really people like Mr. Green or the Lazy Organic Gardener, but folks whose priority for a garden is beauty.

Early in the season plants like tomatoes can look pretty, but once the fruit is ripening, they start looking bedraggled.

Like Mr. Green, I'm a proponent of Creasey's ideas, if not occasionally a practitioner. There is a difference between a gardener and landscaper, though I suppose I've done some landscaping too, since I've put in a flagstone pathway that winds through my garden. (It's not edible.)

Creasy is not a formal gardener, but she's way more on that end of the spectrum than I am. She values the aesthetics of a pleasing garden enough to put in the hours. I applaud her for that. Someday, I may have the time and motivation to follow her sage advice.

Go to Sierra Club Books to buy Edible Landscaping.

You can read more Mr. Green at Hey Mr. Green.

And here's more of the Lazy Organic Gardener.

--John Byrne Barry

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