Stars and Friends

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The year is 2015. A handful of months fresh from a change of jobs that was, safe to say, not planned as thoroughly as I would have preferred, I (along with my sister who tagged along) joined a curious crew into the beautiful beach of Puerto Galera. This small vacation was both a temporary respite from the sweltering summer heat and an item of curiosity off a pipe dream bucket list. For as long as I’ve started taking an interest in photography I’ve always looked up at the night sky wanting to capture what my eyes saw and maybe even more.

Fast forward to 2018, a trip/adventure that I thought I would only make once has been a more-often-than-annual reason to take vacation leaves. I’ve met some very interesting people, some of them even became friends that I wanted to personally say goodbye to, given my then-looming departure for Germany. I have photographed the beautiful sight of a galactic core from the vantage point of a fringe planet several times—might as well be countless, considering that I thought I would only see this once, maybe twice.

Sci Fi

And to my friends and coworkers, I’ve become that guy with one eye always at the night sky, who can be excused from immediate replies if there’s a super moon on the horizon, and who, with a bulky telescope, prove the science schoolbooks correct. Mars is red. Venus is beautiful. Saturn has a ring. Jupiter has spots, streaks, and satellites.

Lumos!

I remember in January of 2018 when a rare and curious phenomenon graced the Philippines: not only was it a super moon, it was also a total lunar eclipse. It was, of course, something I would not ever miss. What I did not count on was my reputation preceding me at work. In a few Facebook messages, Abie has persuaded me to organize a viewing for anyone else interested in the office.

Despite my aversion to coordinating logistics for just almost anything1, from a heap of inputs and suggestions, I’ve managed to scrap together a workable plan and conveyed those spur-of-the-moment schemes into instructions people could follow.

The night of the eclipse, the taxi we booked was unfortunately stuck in traffic so we had to walk to where he was to save time. On the radio the news broadcast covered the eclipse as it started to take place. We finally arrived at the park about an hour or less away before totality. It was crowded and festive in the pleasant January evening air; we might as well be shooting a music video for Toploader’s Dancing in the Moonlight.

After finding the group of my coworkers who have arrived earlier I prepared to mount my binoculars to my tripod. I remember saying out loud to no one in particular, “I am not prepared for this”.

“For the eclipse?” asked Aser.

“Emotionally,” I clarified.

This will sound kitschy as a German garden gnome but seeing the moon in shades of red is like seeing your lover on your wedding day2. You already know she’s beautiful but seeing her made up and extra pretty just for this one day is sweet intoxicating infatuation all over again.

As I expected, a crowd of strangers queued up to have a look through my binoculars. I normally tend to introversion but I love sharing and talking about things that make me wonder and smile and even more so when my audience appreciates why I am in awe and wonder. Needless to say, I think this passion for the sights of dark and clear skies is something I managed to convey that night.

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Uncharacteristic of me, I did not get to take a lot of pictures that night. The reason being, this was still several months before I bought the compact A6000. By then I only had the A35; though already small for its time, it just doesn’t compare to the new generation.


Moving to Germany, I knew that I would leave more than just my astrocamping gear behind but also friends and this loose collection of acquaintances that’s become an astronomy family/club to me.

Team Stargazing

Still, you can strip a man of all his astrophotography gear but you can’t strip a man of his passion and resourcefulness. One of the first photos I took after arriving in Hamburg is, predictably, of a beautiful spring night sky.

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That’s taken without a tripod and in the still-bitter cold of a Northern German June night. Not bad I would say. Not at all.

Hamburg, for all its virtues, is just not ideal for astronomical observations, unfortunately. In the spring/summer when the skies have slightly better odds of being clear, the days are long. In the autumn/winter, when the nights are an imposing presence even over people’s moods, the weather is cloudy at best.

Still, you make do with the circumstances. Experience so far suggests that spring is the best time for observations in Hamburg. For all the bad things that transpired last year, there were two astronomical events that I was able to observe.

The first is the conjunction of the lovely Venus with my favorite asterism, the Pleiades.

An Offering of Light

This was taken from my apartment’s window, blown up and post-processed from a 50mm f2.8 shot. I did not use a tripod and this would not have been possible if my unit’s heater was not directly under the window.

The second one was harder to observe and not only because of cloudy Hamburg nights. It was also fainter and the lines of sight from my apartment did not afford a direct view into this beauty. For what it’s worth it was visible for far longer as it was no mere coincidental conjunction of sky lights—though I only actively tracked it for almost a week . But for the whole time it was visible, it was also “moving” at least faster than usual for celestial objects.

I am talking, of course, about the Comet Neowise.

The Comet Neowise

Hunting Neowise in late July meant that I had to take some very late-night (or early-morning, depending on how you want to frame things) bike rides. And then staying out in the cold night alone in a dark Stadtpark Eimsbüttel, with only my hoodie jacket. I even feared that I might be mistaken as a vagrant, and would have to explain myself in German (“Herr Polizei…leider habe ich kein Deutsch genug für eine Erklärung.”) but then what vagrant has an interchangeable-lens mirrorless digital camera and a bike with a smartphone for GPS guidance?3

That Neowise moved across the skies4 also meant that each night I tried to shoot/observe it, I first had to track it, a task that ate into the precious little hours of darkness—not to mention the precious few minutes of cloud clearance—that I had. In the picture I took above, you can already see the clouds creeping up on my view. I planned to take proper long exposures of this—I even borrowed a tripod from work—but I just never had enough time. Thankfully, I can stabilize myself pretty well and the A6000’s sensor is fantastic at low light to say the least.5

It’s not the picture I envisioned I would take but it’s something. At least until Neowise returns after roughly 7000 years.


In the midst of perhaps my busiest spell so far in my current job, another lunar eclipse happened in the Philippines last Wednesday. I wasn’t even aware of it; the first time it was brought to my attention was while my family was attempting to set-up and use Koopman-Hevelius, the German Equatorial Mount Telescope that I left in the Philippines.

The Koopman-Hevelius

I was actually rather indifferent to missing an opportunity to witness a lunar eclipse. Perhaps to my mind I had bigger fish to fry in the form of the tasks queued up at me at work; the past couple of weeks hasn’t exactly been smooth-sailing and a timely long weekend has been my only opportunity to decompress.

Imagine my surprise upon seeing a message from a friend telling me they took a picture of the eclipse for me, because I wasn’t there, and sorry they only had a phone, none of the fancy gear I might be used to. A touching gesture as much as it was unexpected. In the crazy reality that’s started in 2020, it’s also quite a nostalgic reminder of times gone by.

I subscribe to the idea that people won’t remember you for what you said but for how you made them feel. That’s why I always try to acknowledge even the smallest gestures of kindness. From a random “Hi” while I’m queued up at the grocery cashier with a heavily-bandaged left arm pushing my grocery cart to taking a picture of an eclipse so that I can see it even if I wasn’t there. They are all very appreciated and I want you to know, you lifted up my mood.

Here’s to the kindness of friends and of strangers, who are just friends we haven’t made yet.

  1. And, as a matter of fact, it was Abie’s job to coordinate events. As usual I’m just your humble but well-paid software engineer. []
  2. Not that I have ever married. In this simile I am relying on Hollywood’s depictions of marriage. []
  3. A vagrant who just robbed a better-off citizen, that’s what! I apologize for my sense of humor. []
  4. Let’s not be physics-pedantic with the definition of movement here, okay? []
  5. And I never really updated the firmware so I don’t have to worry about the dreaded star-eater algorithm. []

A Companion Named Desire

In the space of a few seconds–a handful of heartbeats, a few hundred meters covered, some hundreds of revolutions of an engine–the rumbling gray clouds made good on their promise of heavy rain. Even in that tranqulity induced by driving at cruising speed on spacious roads, the transition is difficult to miss: just roughly half an hour ago I marveled at how my car, just less than six months old, can’t be kept completely cool against an overbearing afternoon sun by its air conditioning. Now a sudden downpour drastically lessens the visibility and makes me turn my aircon down by a notch.

The rain puts me in an odd feeling of being neither here nor there. Earlier that day I was at UP, and I am currently in transit through a heavy downpour with Jason Mraz for a background music. The circumstances remind me strongly of a particular summer spent studying physics and yet…I am so far from being that student anymore. A car now is no longer an element of a kinematics word problem but is something I can name among my earthly possessions. And driving…heh, driving isn’t even something I wanted to learn back then.

The lookback is even more interesting once you consider the blog. I’ve been blogging far earlier than the summer mentioned in the last paragraph and I know I made a couple of posts during the summer concerned; posts about a budding photographer, beginning his observations of light and its drama, attending debut parties with the hefty University Physics for a date. But those posts are, unfortunately, among those I axed when I turned this blog over to WordPress. So I can’t link them.

I have vague recollections of the time I decided which posts stay, and which don’t. Up until then, the blog has been through a couple of (technical, not literary) rewrites where I painstakingly migrated each and every post. The decision to prune was, as far as I remember, based on the fact that the posts axed no longer reflect my views. And also to spare my blushes for my blunder years, where I tried to sound knowledgeable of the world–mostly by using long words like “knowledgeable” where vowels and consonants do not merely alternate–when I was, in fact, writing something worthy of Buzzfeed, minus the GIFs.

If I had to characterize the posts I hid from the public it would be that they are too emotional. “I write,” I would say back then, “to exorcise my demons”, all the while feeling like a tortured genius who has found reprieve and salvation through his muse, through his art. Maybe, a hundred years after my inevitable yet all the same tragic demise, that particular quote would find itself adorning a planner given for free by some book store, after a minimum-value purchase during the holiday season. And that’s if I’m lucky. If I’m really lucky it will even be attributed to me.

Because after all that, I have realized that the hardest part of talking about feelings isn’t about finding the courage to even be open about it. In some ways, that is the easy part. Human. What’s difficult when talking about feelings is in coming out with the maturity to handle them in all their nuance, and to not end up with a piece Buzzfeed would gladly put on their front page.

Or Thought Catalog. No one wants a mopey twenty something. Not even a mopey twenty something.

Which is maybe why projects like PostSecret and The Strangers Project move me so. Whereas tortured-genius Chad would overgeneralize and sweep his adolescent neural firings under a blanket of over optimism and flashes of wordplay, these revelations from people I have no idea who achieve authenticity despite their anonymity1. Raw and unfinished, you would not find them spouting a forced positive angle because sometimes, sometimes, there is just no good ending, at least not yet, and you could just barely keep it together.

Yet sometimes, life is not just good but also beautiful; a good ending would be unfortunate because, no matter how good, it is still the end of something as warm as hope.

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(At this point, it all ends rather abruptly, as this has been gathering dust for months inside my drafts. Back when I started this whole rambling, I guess I had a plan, an outline, of how and where this all leads to. But not anymore. It gets published by virtue of the fact that it has, nonetheless, achieved its primary purpose, which is to get things off my chest, regardless of whether or not it ends up read by the intended eyes. I guess, after all that’s said and written, I remain the same, seeing words as some sort of magic to trap demons with. Some things change and some things don’t. Thank you very much for reading through and I hope you have a good one.)

  1. PostSecret founder Frank Warren was once asked whether he worries that the secrets he receives are fabricated. To which he replies that the secret is not necessarily true for the person who wrote it; it is true for the person who reacts to it. []

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.

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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.