Dark and Clear Skies

Slowly, the Scorpion emerged from the horizon, into the heavens, just in everyone’s plain sight. It was gigantic, with burning orbs for pincers and armor; in the night’s darkness the Scorpion was unmistakeably recognizable. The Moon has long set and the Hunter has been gone even longer. The sky was for the Scorpion to crawl.

We lay on the white sands waiting for the Scorpion to reveal itself entirely. First came its pincers. Then its long body with its burning red heart. Then its tail, the stinger. But it was not really for the Scorpion that we waited hours for. Near its tail, as if stuck with its stinger dragged around as the Scorpion prowled, is a sight more beautiful, more majestic than a celestial scorpion—a sight I have made it my life goal to see. At the end of this particular Scorpion’s tail flowed forth not poison but milk.

Fun fact: Being that our Solar System is located in one of the arms of the Milky Way, we can view part of it from our outpost here at Planet Earth. As our night skies stand presently, the Milky Way is situated at the “tail” of constellation Scorpius; should you let the myths have their way, also known as Orion’s archenemy. As an additional marker, the Milky Way flows from the teapot asterism in the constellation of Sagittarius.

(So does the Teapot coat the Scorpion’s tail with Milk? Or is the Scorpion pouring Milk from its stinger into the Teapot? Is not the Teapot a Milkpot maybe? Is Sagittarius trying to avenge Orion? Reader, I leave you to decide.)

In case it is not yet obvious, I have been a fan of astronomy all my life. In fact, one of my main motivations when I got myself an expensive camera (the SLT A35) was to photograph the night sky. Much so that I christened my A35 “Getsurikai”—a BLEACH-inspired name which translates roughly to “moon grasp”.

Alas, contemporary life is not exactly friendly to night-sky shooting. Add the fact that, as a hobby, I only get a handful of chances throughout the year to try out my experiments. My progress in this interest has been slow.

I’ve experimented more than a few times just to learn how. I have tried it on the kit SAL 1855 lens when I bought a tripod. Needless to say, my attempts—done from our rooftop on the darkest nights our area will allow (which still isn’t that dark by the way)—ended with faint, out-of-focus traces of Orion. Else, you would’ve heard from me before now.

My luck proved better with the SAL55200. At 200mm focal length, shooting the moon became quite doable. That, combined with my XPeria Z and my Celestron 70AZ (codenamed “Lippershey”) produced some images I’m quite proud of.

A Hole in the Sky
Taken with the SLT A35 + SAL55200
The Sattelite Shooter
The Celestron 70AZ
The Subtle Lights of Our Sattelite
Taken with a combination of the Celestron 70AZ and the XPeria Z.

And suddenly, Getsurikai started to live up to its name.

But I wanted more! I wanted the stars. “Aim for the stars so if you miss at least you hit the moon” right? Well, I’ve somewhat hit the moon. I want my stars.

Enter the gorgeous SAL 1650. When I bought this lens, I did not really plan to use it for astrophotography. I have been laboring under the (wrong) impression that what makes astrophotography is a kick-ass telephoto lens (reasoning that you need a telescope to do astronomy so to do astrophotography, you need a telephoto lens. Seriously.)

What gave me the idea to use the 1650 was this shot, taken last summer.



Compared to the other shots in this post, I know this one does not offer much merit. But look: it got a few stars and one planet, sharper than I ever got them. And that is with all the light pollution from where I stood and with a shining moon to boot, not to mention the exposure time of a mere 5.7s. If that does not win any photographer’s faith I don’t know what will.

But still, the opportunity for dark and clear skies has yet to present itself.

Until a few weeks ago.

Say what you want about the Philippines but we have a friggin’ Philippine Astronomical Society (PAS). I’ve been lurking in their group for some time now but I never really got the opportunity to join one of their events. That is, as I’ve said, until a few weeks ago.

In PAS’ 2015 stargazing event at Puerto Galera, I finally got this shot. What it lacks for in exposure, it makes up for in photography lessons learned and sentimental value. I dipped my toes in the hot sands of Puerto Galera not expecting that I’d have an appointment with the lovely Milky Way, wearing stars for jewelry.

The Light in Dark Skies
The Light in Dark Skies

In a moment of trial-and-error, I realized what I have been doing wrong all this time. Ironically, what got my ass is the fact that I tinker with my camera’s settings far too much. I should have left my white-balance at Auto. Color-correction is really no help here.

And of course, repetition is what builds skill. Fortunately, PAS held another stargazing event barely a month after the one at Puerto Galera, this time at Big Handy’s Grounds at Tanay, Rizal. And I got this shot which will now always keep me in awe and wonder about things way larger than myself.

Delight in Dark Skies
Delight in Dark Skies

(Mandatory disclosure: I almost did not get this shot because, again, I tinkered with my camera’s settings too much! This time around, the culprit is my aperture setting.)

Of course, these adventures have more stories than what I have just related. I’ve met some interesting people along the way but they don’t make it into this story as that risks making the narrative incoherent. Maybe, someday, I get to write about that and them.

Isn’t astronomy a nice reason to travel?

Our Interstellar Wonderlust

There was a time, during my undergraduate, when I stumbled upon Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The name aside, I found it amusing how this principle on quantum particles also holds true for people if maybe in a weaker form: you can never really observe someone in their natural state as you, the observer, will always affect the observed. This lead me to a fascination with pedestrian Physics, something to go with my all-time fascination with stars and outer space.

So, imagine my excitement when I found out about Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. Screaming Physics sci-fi from its title to every bit of its promotional material and with Christopher Nolan’s name [1] for an endorsement, this is definitely one film I am not going to miss.

Interstellar starts in an agricultural town beset by constant dust storms. Ex-pilot, ex-engineer Cooper works the fields harvesting corn. We are also introduced to his daughter Murphy and her “ghost”, a poltergeist, who displaces books from her bookshelf. With her penchant for science and Cooper’s background, she decides to scientifically prove the existence of her ghost.

During a particularly violent dust storm where Murphy forgot to close her room’s window, Cooper and Murphy witness a bizarre manifestation of Murphy’s ghost: the dust, instead of uniformly covering the floor, settles in patterns of thick and thin lines. Cooper soon decodes the message which leads them to an underground camp, the “world’s best-kept secret”, or rather, what remains of NASA in a devastated world more in need of farmers than scientists. And so begins their adventure.

With the whole film nearing three hours in length, I find the opening of Interstellar to be rather uneventful and winding. Nolan’s way of laying down the setting of this story is subtle and, I think, unconventional but there are acts—like the one where they chase down a rogue drone—which I find to be unnecessary. The film’s story will not be affected by its absence nor is it particularly remarkable as a visual experience. If you go into Interstellar feeling like you’d need a toilet break sooner or later, do it at this scene. Your cue is the line that goes something like “It’s a parent-teacher conference, not grandparent”.

But when the film starts to find to its tempo stars, indeed, fly (puns intended). I’ve done my share of science and although I am no astronaut/physicist, I appreciate the film’s attempts at scientific realism. I am sure that the realism isn’t 100% (those space-assistant robots, for one, have AIs several decades—if not centuries—ahead of what we have) but at least this is a world where science advances in incremental steps, not huge leaps [2], where interstellar journey is a high-risk venture, not a video game.

Good science fiction isn’t really about science but about humanity and Interstellar delivers well on that though you may have to wait a bit, even after the winding intro. There is the expected drama of the characters dealing with the spatial, temporal, and emotional distance brought on them by this space venture but the film has lots more to offer than that. Soon the characters are waxing poetic on love, gravity, higher beings, and human destiny. Those were pleasant moments for me, akin to my undergraduate Heisenberg-principle moment.

And just when I’ve given up on the film having a happy and conclusive ending (it could hang the way Inception did), the engines of Nolan’s story goes into full throttle and throws its audience in gravitational slingshots. In contrast to its slow opening, the defining conflict rose fast and well to slide gracefully into the film’s denouement.

If you ever want to silence my logical/scientific-critical voice, one of the best ways to do it would be through a romanticized sci-fi tale. Biased as it may sound, I was expecting something beautiful along those lines from Nolan. However, true to his genius, Nolan tackles the inconveniences of real-life science and still manages to find a relatable human angle to it. As I said, Interstellar might not be 100% realistic [3] but it is definitely not romanticized or sugar-coated and it is beautiful because of that.

I have not managed to find a way to squeeze this in the main review but I feel that Hans Zimmer, the film’s music composer, also deserves mention. Stay mindful during the film and listen to the music and see your emotions rise and fall along with it. Zimmer’s melodies is a good complement to Nolan’s plot.

  1. And Anne Hathaway. []
  2. Hello there Iron Man. []
  3. Though what exactly is realistic in a film that throws quantum principles in the equation? []

A Warning: A Look Into Physics

UP is like an invitation-only swimming pool on a blazing summer day. The moment you learn that you have received an invitation, you get so excited you’d want to jump straight in. And jump straight in you do, not minding the initial discouragement provided by long queues. Your body makes a cold splash into the surface and underneath you go. The water is cool. You smile in between segments of underwater respiration. You cherish the smooth feel the enveloping water gives. Wonderful.

And when your lungful of air is over, you break through the film of the surface once more, this time around attacking it from below. You look back and you realize that you’re already quite far from the shore. Must’ve been quite a dive eh? Then someone taps you and points forward. You see sharks. You try to turn back but then this person who pointed the sharks points to a sign saying “No swimming backwards”. Most likely, your parents are sitting near this sign as well, egging you on. You look at the sharks. You look at the sign. Repeat until satisfied. Repeat until you arrive at the conclusion that there is no other way but to get out of this pool in the proper state, id est, unmangled by the sharks and still breathing, still capable of continuing LIFE. This is where you realize that your initial excitement is nothing but the manifestation of hidden feelings of self-hatred and disgust stemming from the sociopathic urges you’ve had and repressed as a child. Not wonderful.

If my imagery allows, Physics is like another pool inside this UP-pool. Physics IS NOT a shark. It is another pool (inside this this pool, yes) which you are just so excited to toss yourself into at first glance but realize that you want to get out of this freaking hell alive as soon as possible. Erm no…Physics is an eddy current that seemed wonderful at first sight, further reinforcing the conclusion that your initial excitement is nothing but the manifestation of hidden feelings of self-hatred and disgust stemming from the sociopathic urges you’ve had and repressed as a child. Who else, aside from an atoning sociopath, would find the idea of tossing himself into an eddy current exciting? Dante shouldn’t have bothered describing the grotesque, the disgusting. He should’ve made them study Physics.

Despite that, Physics remains to be a wonderful foil for our intuition as well as for mathematical induction. Mathematical induction won’t always work in Physics. Mathematical induction is a poor way to conclude your experiments in Physics. Physics defies first impressions and base cases.

Physics is one of the things we should be thankful for. When was the last time you thanked gravity for rain fall? I thank friction for making rappelling possible, angular momentum for spinning kicks and electronics for computers. One of the good things inside this eddy current is that you get the right perspective to appreciate these simple gifts from natural laws.

Thank you friction!

What is the direction of the induced electric field in the reference frame of the rod shown in the figure at the right?

  1. Upphysics_diagram
  2. Into the page
  3. Out of the page
  4. To the left


Nonetheless, with all the gratitude it makes me realize, I must admit that Physics is one subject that I’d like to get done with as soon as possible. And can someone please help me with the problem mentioned above? I do not need a solution just an answer. I have a guestbook ya’ know…

Or I have better idea:

Physicists I’m warning you (and mathematicians too). Ours is the final laugh.

Okay. Must make a sign now.