Merry-Go-Round Mayhem

The Safari Park’s merry menagerie

In the midway of the wonderful San Diego Zoo Safari Park in California, you’ll find a colorful attraction called the “Conservation Carousel”. Unlike traditional carousels teaming with horses, the Safari Park merry-go-round boasts giraffes, rhinos, zebras, cheetahs, and other “rare and endangered creatures”, just waiting to be taken for a spin. It’s a full-on circle of animals. It’s like riding a zodiac.

Wheel of Fortune

Speaking of the zodiac, what’s your sign?  I’m an Aquarius (born in late January), which makes me water-bearer to the gods.  As much as I don’t subscribe to horoscopic astrology – a visual representation of the heavens to interpret the inherent meaning of life – I can’t deny water’s played a significant role in my world.  I spent childhood summers in the Pacific Ocean and the backyard pool.  I lazed away hours in Northern California’s Lake Tahoe, swimming and water-skiing.  I’m enjoy a lively display of water, whether Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls or the fountains of Vegas’s Bellagio Hotel.  A gentle rain is nature’s therapy.

He’s not as great as he looks…

But then there’s the hell-or-high-water side of things.  Literally since our wedding night (when my bride and I awoke to dripping from the bed-and-breakfast room above us), the two of us have endured all manner of water problems.  A fully flooded basement.  A backed-up septic system.  Drinking water with a PH so out-of-whack we had to install a conditioner and a neutralizer.  Our well water quit pumping one time – for days – when a squirrel chewed through the electrical connection.  It’s like those gods have nothing better to do up there than play games with their little water-bearer down here on Earth.  If it were up to me I’d spin the zodiac wheel and land on another space instead.

Turns out my wish may have already been granted.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the earth maintains a wobble in its orbit around the sun, caused by gravitational pull on its not-so-perfectly-round midsection.  That wobble (called “precession”) – projected over the last several thousand years – shifted the alignment of the Earth with the zodiac constellations as the Sun passes through them.  Long story short, everything astrological advances one month on the calendar.  In other words, you rams out there (Aries) are actually fishes (Pisces).  You maidens (Virgo) are now lions (Leo).  And us water-bearers (Aquarius) – mercifully – are now mountain goats (Capricorn).

… but they don’t fall down.

With more passing of time, the earth’s Weeble-wobble will redefine basic astronomy as we know it today.  Take Polaris, the “North Star” at the end of the Little Dipper, and the starting point to locate the more distant constellations.  A few thousand years from now, Polaris will give up its position to Vega, another bright star.  All because our planet is a little fat in the middle.

With talk of a “changed world” after a curbed pandemic, I think it’s high time for me and you to adopt our newfound zodiac signs.  Goodbye Aquarius.  Hello Capricorn.  To preview my new persona, I looked at today’s horoscope in the local paper: A conversation with a female acquaintance will be important to you today. This is a good time to share your hopes and dreams for the future with someone to get his or her feedback.  Bless my lucky stars – I’m to check with my wife before moving one position on the astrological merry-go-round.  Seriously?  What does she know, holding court from under the sign of Cancer?  Whoops – make that under the sign of Gemini instead.  Either way, she can finally refer to me as, “you old goat, you”.

Some content sourced from the 2/21/20 Wall Street Journal article, “You’re a Scorpio?  Why the Earth’s Wobble Means Your Zodiac Sign Isn’t What You Think”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Smallest and Innermost

Mercury

Last month, I spent an entire post lavishing love and affection on Earth’s beautiful space neighbor, the planet Venus (see here). I was quick to point out – from Earth – you can occasionally see the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as well. Turns out that list is, ahem, incomplete by at least one planet. Clearly miffed by my post, our solar system’s Mr. Smallest and Innermost – the planet Mercury – decided to speak up this week.

Don’t burn yourself, little one (image courtesy of NASA)

For those of you who missed it, Mercury passed in front of the Sun on Monday.  For five hours or so, Mercury looked like a little black mole on the bright cheek of a much larger creature.  His orbit took him almost directly across the center of the Sun.  You may think Mercury’s show is no big deal; after all, he circles the Sun every 88 Earth days.  However, consider Earth, Mercury, and the Sun must be exactly lined up (put a ruler on it) for humans to witness a Mercury “Sun transit”.  We only get fourteen Mercury transits every Earth century.  The next one won’t happen until 2032.

I missed Monday’s Mercury transit myself, because a) I wasn’t up at sunrise in the Northern Hemisphere (when it happened), and b) I didn’t have the necessary eye protection to give it a direct look.  Instead, I enjoyed the online photos and videos from NASA and the world’s other space agencies (like this one).

Mercury’s the tough little guy on the left

The truth is, you don’t have to wait for a Mercury transit to observe the first rock from the Sun.  On several early mornings last month, you could’ve seen Mercury rising in the east (same as Venus), and you’ll see him again early next year – no telescope required.  Guess I got caught up in the allure of Venus and completely ignored her nearby brother.

If Mercury and Earth were side-by-side

Mercury – like all the planets – has some interesting facts.  He completes three rotations about his axis (days) for his every two orbits of the Sun (years).  Pretty slow for the smallest orbit in the solar system.  He has no moons.  He’s only about a third the size of Earth.  He’s pretty beat up, with the most craters of any planet, and “wrinkles” caused by the cooling and contracting of his iron core.  Only two of Earth’s spacecraft have ever visited Mercury, and even those stayed far away from the surface for obvious reasons (800.6°F on the sunny side; -279.4°F in the shade).

The Roman god for which Mercury is named is a lot “cooler” than the planet itself (ha).  Young Mercury wears a lot of hats, including (god of) financial gain, eloquence, and divination.  (Side note: perhaps Mercury should’ve been my blog mascot.  “Eloquence” was the theme of my very first post).  He also serves as the guide of souls to the underworld. Curiously, all these responsibilities take a back seat to Mercury’s most commonly known role – as speedy messenger to the other gods.  This role explains the naming of the planet, the fastest of the eight to circle the Sun.  Maybe we should also consider Mercury as messenger to the other planets, in case something gets weird with the Sun.  After all, Mercury will be the first to know.

I can’t talk about Mercury without a reference to the late, great Ray Bradbury.  Of all his wonderful science-fiction short stories – and there have been at least a hundred – my Bradbury top five includes “The Golden Apples of the Sun”.  “Apples” followed an exploratory rocket ship heading past Mercury to the Sun.  The crew is tasked with collecting a sample of the Sun’s golden fire.  I can still imagine the ship’s giant scoop as it extends from the hull and grabs a bit of the Sun.  The story’s real drama comes just after the collection, as the ship overheats and the life-support systems begin to shut down.  With respect to Bradbury, I won’t give away the ending.

Well then, enough about Mercury (probably too much).  I’ll conclude with a great tweet from Katie Mack, who was quick to note about Monday’s Mercury transit: “The official song of #TransitOfMercury is, obviously, ‘King of Pain’ by the Police.  But please note that the ‘little black spot on the Sun today’ referenced in the song is a ‘sunspot’, not Mercury, since ‘it’s the same old thing as yesterday,’ and (Mercury) transits only last a few hours.”

Keep on a-circling the Sun, Mercury.  I won’t forget ya next time.

Some content sourced from the BBC.com article, “Planet Mercury passes across the face of the Sun”, the Space-Facts.com article, Mercury Facts – Interesting Facts about Planet Mercury, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Girl Crush

The Goddess

Last Sunday, our corner of the night sky was graced with a full moon called a “Tiny Hunter”. Tiny, because the moon was at the furthest point in its elliptical orbit. Hunter, because this time of year harvested fields leave few places for animals to hide. (Add a full moon and the hunting’s even easier). When our Tiny Hunter rose in the east that night, it was as if a giant flashlight switched on in the heavens, blotting out a typically starry night. But I know it didn’t blot out everything. Venus, beckoning brightly to the west, was saying hey, this is my party too.

Next to the moon, Venus is the brightest bulb in the night sky. Even if you don’t know where she sits, you can find her by simply scanning the western horizon at dusk or eastern at dawn for the most brilliant pinpoint of light. As if outshining all of the stars isn’t enough, Venus is also the most vivid planet. Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter occasionally make an appearance, but Venus always seems to be there. Even in broad daylight.

“Morning Star” or “Evening Star” – take your pick

I’m not gonna lie; Venus gives me a bit of a girl crush. After all, she’s the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Now consider her other “outstanding” attributes:

  • She’s the only planet in our solar system to identify as female.
  • She’s referred to as our “sister planet”, not only because she’s our closest neighbor, but because she’s virtually the same size.
  • She rotates in the opposite direction of seven of the eight planets (including Earth).
  • She hosts two continents: Ishtar Terra (named after the Babylonian goddess of love), and Aphrodite Terra (named after the Greek goddess of love).
  • Her rotation is so slow, a day in her world is longer than a year in ours. But, a year in her world is shorter than that same day. Say what? You read that right: Venus completes a trip around the sun faster than she completes a rotation on her own axis.
  • Her orbit is closer to the shape of a circle (vs. an ellipse) than all other planets.
  • She has no moons or rings. Naturally, why would the goddess of love and beauty need adornments?

No wonder the Babylonians referred to Venus as “bright queen of the sky”, eh?

Given her allure, it’s a wonder our earthly culture hasn’t done more to embrace her. I went in search of homage to Venus and here’s all I could come up with:

  • Sandro Botticelli’s iconic “The Birth of Venus” (top left), with our girl posed unashamedly naked on a seashell.
  • Vincent van Gogh’s post-impressionist “The Starry Night” (top center), with Venus as the bright “star” just to the right of the cypress tree.
  • The Bible’s Song of Songs (fitting, if you know the book’s subject matter), Chapter 6, Verse 10.
  • John Gray’s bestselling relationship guide, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.
  • Gillette’s “Venus” line of women’s shaving products.
  • The “Venus” women’s clothing line (catalog arrived for my wife just last week).
  • A nasty-looking fly-trapping plant.
  • Frankie Avalon’s adoring anthem “Venus” (Hey, Venus… oh, VENUS…).
  • Shocking Blue’s psychedelic rock hit “Venus” (I’m your Venus… I’m your fire, at your desire…).

If that’s the extent of our tribute to Venus, no wonder we have the phrase “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. Venus shows her not-so-lovely side if she wants to. She’s the hottest planet in the solar system (including Mercury), with an average surface temperature of 863 degrees F (462 C). Her atmospheric pressure is 92 times stronger than Earth’s (which is why her surface is beautifully crater-free). She’s covered in a thick layer of sulfuric acid clouds. Her wind speeds are extraordinarily high. And she’s explosive, with a long history of volcanic activity.

The second rock from the Sun… and the brightest of all eight.

Scientists believe – 700 million years ago under drastically different conditions – Venus was temperate enough to host oceans of water and life itself. So…, what in God’s name happened to make her so nasty now? Whatever it was, even our most advanced spacecraft can’t land on her surface today (though we’re working on it).

Considering this brief education on Venus, I suggest you ignore her siren song and simply admire her from afar. Even if you could speed your car along an interstellar highway, you’d need over forty years to get to Earth’s twisted sister. No; stay on her good side lest she show her surface temperatures and atmospheric pressures. That wouldn’t go well for you. I’d rather look Medusa in the eye and be turned to stone.

Some content sourced from the 9/22/19 Phys Org article, “Could Venus have been Habitable?”, “Venus Facts:…” from The Planets website, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.