with a gift canteloupe in my bag, i left for eliza's birthday brunch in boston. for some reason it wouldn't be at her new place in jamaica plain (which i still haven't seen) but rather at jerica's pad in mission hill. i took the E train all the way to the end to heath street and found the location without any problems (it doesn't hurt that i'd been there before). dave greeted me at the door and upstairs i found rob house (back from his european vacation), along with the usual cast of characters. i grabbed some food and ate in the sunny living room, watching rob and sarah go head-to-head in several spirited games of ultimate pick-up-sticks.
after everyone was engorged with brunch, after birthday cupcakes were dispersed to the guests, we played some games. besides pick-up-sticks, we also had operation. the light was working but the buzzer was broken, until dave managed to fix it. although i was the first doctor to successfully complete an operation ($300 for removing the wishbone), shauna ended up the big winner. next, this game that's similar to taboo where you try to guess a word but none of those taboo restrictions (it plays like hot potatoes). the last game involved picking celebrity names from a hat and trying to get your team members to guess who it is. everyone had to write names at the start of the game, and of course i managed to pick the most obscure characters like "tyler durgan" and "that little girl from small wonder." the team i was on seemed to be losing big, but after the final count our team was only a few celebrities shy of victory.
next, dave attempted to freak us out with several card tricks. i now think he's the devil. from the apartment window i could see the sunset, and what it was telling me was tonight's weather would be clear. instead of seeing a movie with these guys, i decided to go home and try my luck at astronomy. i bid them a fond farewell and walked back to the station where i caught the train to cambridge.
while i was preparing some quick dinner (reheating leftover chili) i was also digging out all my star charts and books and flashlights and planisphere in preparation for stargazing. i can't remember the last time i used the telescope but it used to be my new year's eve tradition (2001 and 2002, not 2003 though): instead of getting caught up in the disappointment of celebration, i go to someplace dark and cold and spend that night looking at the stars. seeing something a few hundred light years away puts things into perspective i think. i dressed warmly, and when my father came to pick me up, i left with all my equipment, including a pair of binoculars and the portable rechargeable car battery.
i've always just observed from my parents' backyard, but over the years the trees have gotten taller and now it's hard to get an unobstructed view. fortunately, they live next to a park, and with the portable battery i could take the telescope remotely for the very first time. so we packed the telescope into its original shipping box (lined with foam to perfectly fit the equipment) and put everything on a pushcart that we wheeled down the street into the park. it all seemed very suspicious and i was just counting the minutes before some concerned neighbor called the police. we found a good spot in the middle of the field, behind the tennis courts, right next to a baseball bleacher.
setting up the telescope would take 30 minutes. first of it, it was dark. i had a flashlight poking out of my mouth, but it had a red filter on it so the light wasn't bright enough to see clearly. second, it was cold, and my fingers were starting to freeze as i fumbled to assemble everything. first, the 30 lbs. telescope (an 8" schmidt-cassegrain, all metal and glass) had to be screwed onto the field tripod (20 lbs.). it took a while and i was starting to get fustrated because i couldn't get the screw to thread, but i was finally able to do it with my father's help. next, the telescope had to be aligned so it's completely horizontal to the ground. we raised and lowered the 3 legs of the tripod until the bubble in the leveler was dead-centered. with the hardware part over, it was time to set up the software. the software is used for tracking the stars once i have everything set up. i plugged everything in and turned on the telescope. first, i set the new location coordinates using my gps. second, i set the internal clock to the atomic time by calling the exact time number. finally, i align the scope by using two stars to fix it sky position. tonight it'd be sirius (in canis major) and regulus (in leo). viola! all set for observation!
i was already pretty tired from just setting up the telescope that there weren't too many things on my lists of things to see. we saw the comet machholz in the taurus constellation. in the scope it looks like a fuzzy greenish ball, no further details can be resolved. the comet actually looks better through a pair of binoculars, one of those rare times when you don't want something high-powered. next, the planet saturn, right below stars castor and pollux in the gemini constellation. tonight's seeing was especially clear for some reason, despite the cold and the strong winds. the cassini division was easily visible, align with faint traces of the other divisions. bandings can be detected on the planet surface. M42 the great orion nebula is a winter's favorite, and the four stars of the trapezium was framed perfectly in the greenish glow of the nebula. my father got all sentimental, said that the trapezium was a good analogy for the four members of our family. eventually the moon came up over the eastern horizon. through the telescope we could see the enormous circular plain of mare imbrium (777 miles across), with the crater plato (62 miles diameter) on the northwestern edge of its walls. the crater copernicus (58 mile) lies at the bottom, with rays that stretch out 373 miles across.
earlier renata had called me to let me know that she'd just gotten back from providence and was feeling too tired to come out. fortunately i didn't listen to her voicemail message before i called her, asking her to come out and see the stars. she was still on the fence about it and i told her i'd call her back later. after my father had seen his fill of stars, i called renata again around 11pm. i was afraid she wouldn't come out because i called her too late and she'd probably be asleep. sure enough, she was asleep, doze off while reading a book. to my surprise though, she was still game, and drove out to the park after my father went back home. i didn't realize it but it's actually nearly impossible to see anyone at night in the center of the park from the outside (although i can still see everything). i saw someone getting out of a car loudly whispering my name a few times, then started to leave. i ran out to flag renata down before she left. i told her to dress warmly and that she did, arriving in a large puffy jacket that i've never seen before, carrying with her a container of hot tea which i was thankful to have, along with some kleenex for my runny nose.
the telescope was pointing at the moon when renata arrived, and she took a peek. while trying to get the scope to go back to saturn, something happened to the electronics (too cold maybe?) and it wouldn't track anymore, no matter how much i fiddled with the plugs and the controller. so instead we looked at saturn manually, hands tweaking the fine adjustment knobs when the planet starts to move out of the eyepiece. for the finale, i turned the telescope to the orion nebula, which renata seemed to really like. having spent some time in texas and visited one of the large telescopes there, she's seen saturn before, but she's never seen a live nebula, and M42 is the best one out there.
by that time i'd already spent almost 3 hours standing outside in the cold. renata helped me pack up the equipment but nearly had a panic attack when she saw that the lining of the box was all foam, the one material she can't stand. i loaded everything onto the pushcart and renata followed me out of the park and down the street to my parents' place. most surprising thing of the night? the fact that the cops never came to investigate, i was sure i'd be mentioned in the police blotter for this week.
after carrying all the equipment back into the house, renata was kind enough to give me a ride back to my place. i was able to retrieve the candy that i'd accidently left in her car. i was feeling a little bit light-headed from being out in the cold for so long, and was happy to get back home to someplace warm. i watched a few episodes of the ongoing twilight zone marathon before going to bed.