Zodiacal light

And now for something totally different. I have a tendency to accumulate small and obscure interests. I don’t talk a lot about them, since I have long since learned that few people are interested in going in depth on things like Wagner’s Ring Cycle and it’s mythical connections to Tolkien. If you try, you can get me going on some of these at a party, when we have parties again.

Anyway, one of my small obsessions is solar phenomenon. At least, specific solar phenomenon. For the last five or so years I’ve been totally obsessed with the Carrington Event, a Coronal Mass Ejection at the beginning of the industrial age that lit up and partially destroyed the telegraph wires (as well as painting skies across the world with vibrant auroras). I sort of fail to understand why this isn’t a bigger deal. It’s one of the most likely civilization disrupting events (right next to, uh, pandemics). Events of that size hit earth every couple hundred years, depending on a solar cycle much more complex than I realized. (We’re in solar cycle 25 right now, although it seems clear there is also a meta-cycle that lasts longer than our scientific observations and is hard to map to any permanent stuff here on earth.)

Anyway, I decided this summer to dig deeper into the aurora and the coronal mass ejection (and also Northwest Lookout towers) and read this great book called “The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began” by Stuart Clark. Towards the end of it, after the unseemly death of the title character (Clark seemed to hate telling that part, but dutifully dished up the promised salaciousness), you get some lovelorn English gents wandering to Egypt with the expected malaria, ill health, and bad neighborliness. They go to investigate the Zodiacal light. Given my obsession with all the other weird phenomenon, I couldn’t believe I had missed one. The Zodiacal lights are a pyramid shaped column of light seen at dawn and dusk roughly between the tropics. And those ill-fated Englishmen (did they die of dysentery/malaria? I don’t recall, but it seems right) couldn’t figure it out. In fact, the mystery stretched down to my reading of the book.

There was a pyramid of light in the sky, and no one knew why.

Until last week.

We launched a probe, Juno, a decade ago. And with it’s vast solar panels, it discovered something in space – a vast section of dust fiercely pinged and pitted the light-catchers. And that dust lined up perfectly with both the trajectory of Mars, and the Zodiacal lights. That pillar in the sky? Mars dust. So cool. Of course, in the manner of all scientific discoveries the answer to one question simply raises another: how did all that dust get into space in the first place? Interesting, but not quite as cool as the mysterious pillar of light in the sky.

Anyway, Zodiacal light has been on my mind this week, so I decided to make this, ahem, artist’s rendition of it. It’s SO CLOSE to what I wanted, without quite being perfect. Ah, the life of a person attempting to make art. Anyway, this picture is definitely an exaggeration. But I got these pearlescent watercolors, and they seemed just right for this dim and misty light. And pyramids are fun. If I’d had skills I would’ve added a camel. But I don’t have skills. I did add two zodiacal signs to either side of the pillar – can you spot or identify them?

What bizarre stuff are you interested in?

Actual image of the zodiacal light

Digging in

Grey made this cake from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe. At 9, he’s already a better cook than I was when I graduated from college.

So you might have heard that New England is looking at a wee bit of snow tonight. Just a trace. Hardly more than two feet, with hurricane force winds. I mean, barely hurricane force – no more than Category 1!

Tonight, the great city is quiet. The blanket of softening snow has begun to fall, but the vast dimensions of the sky have not yet opened their portals to loose the flakes upon us. In another hour, by law, we will be contained to our homes with those children who lay slumbering in guaranteed-snow-day anticipation upstairs. There is no sound of traffic outside – no airplanes flying overhead. There is the hum of the furnace and the creak of a hundred year old house settling in the cold night air. The winds are sliding past – not yet howling or moaning. The house is warm and slightly messy – scattered with Transformers, stuffed animals, cables & little boys’ socks.

The entire region on every side gives a great exhalation from the normal pace. We lay down our commutes and our schedules and our appointments. We forgo our childcare. We do not go into work. (Although – curse of the age – work we must tomorrow since our labors depend hardly at all on our physical location.) In the morning the world will be transformed into twisting snow, cutting us off from the burdens and comforts of our society and demanding that we take a few moments to think of who we are and what we are doing in this world. We will shut the doors against the icy gale, but open the curtains to see the power of the storm. Before the world resumes anew there will be shared meals, laughter, sledding, video games, board games and baked goods. Some of those moments will soak into the souls of my young sons, and become the definitions of winter, of storm, of blizzard.

Assuming the power stays on (we’ve never **knocking on wood** in the seven years we’ve been there had the power go out in any meaningful way), this storm will be for us an interregnum. A gift. (I know it won’t be that way for everyone. We are very lucky in our circumstances.) For us it will be a time set apart.

Tomorrow, I’ll probably live-blog it for you – not so much because I think you’ll be fascinating, but because our era allows us to feel most connected when we are most apt to be isolated. I’ll tell you whether it’s a lark, or getting a bit scary. We’ll ponder together the likelihood of school on Wednesday (low). We’ll be joyful and funny and snowbound together. Tonight, I feel great gratitude for the circumstances of this storm, that brings us together even more than it keeps us apart.