Tuesday, December 24, 2019

 

Merry XMAS 2019! Uncle Rod's Astro Blog Slight Return...


Seems like it was just Christmas 2018 a little while ago, and not so long before that it was Christmas 2017.  At your old Uncle’s slightly advanced age, the years have begun to come thick and fast, muchachos. It’s almost unbelievable, when I think about it, how long the 10 days from the beginning of Christmas vacation to Christmas seemed when I was a little nipper. One reward, I suppose? Long-ago Christmases don’t seem so far away anymore.

Enough of that. While I hope to crank the blog back up in the coming year, that is not happening just yet. Nevertheless, I thought those of you who used to enjoy my little epistles would like an update on my doings in 2019.

2019 began rather momentously for me with two book contracts. One for the long awaited second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT. And one for a new volume on backyard deep sky observing for the BBC. My preliminary title for which is From City Lights to Deep Space--we’ll see what the publisher chooses to call it when it comes out next year. January also brought another Sky & Telescope assignment, a Test Report on Lumicon’s new and (much) improved OIII filters.

It seemed as if my astronomy game was on a definite upswing after a year, 2018, when I hadn’t done much observing for a variety of reasons. I didn’t go to many star parties that year, either. After a momentous season in 2016 when I traveled far and wide, speaking, teaching, and observing at star parties north, south, east, and west, air travel had finally gotten to me. I decided it was time to ring the curtain down on my speaking engagements. A friend and I began calling 2016 “Uncle Rod’s Farewell Tour.” It wasn’t till January 2019 that I realized just how inauspicious that description would turn out to be.

So, anyhow, I found myself on the roof of our suburban home on January the 9th of this year adjusting a new HF radio antenna. I was home alone, and normally don’t do that sort of thing without Miss Dorothy around in case I need assistance. But I was bored and wanted to get the work done. UP I went.

While I might not quite be over the hill, I am older now, and about halfway through the evolution I began to feel a little shaky up on the top of the house. I said to myself, “You know, this is really stupid. Get down and call one of your ham buddies to come help you.” I descended. And if I’d left it at that, all would have been well. Alas, I began thinking, “Everybody’s at work. Might not be able to get somebody to help me for a few days. Left some tools up there. Better get ‘em down.” Up I went without incident.

The spot I needed to be on the roof was adjacent to the deck, so I (foolishly) placed the extension ladder on that deck instead of the ground. I knew the ladder would be less likely to slip on the ground, but, heck, I’d gotten away with it numerous times. Not this time. I retrieved the tools and just as I put my weight on a rung down it went, landing on the deck about 14-feet below. I landed on top of the aluminum ladder.

Was I out for a while? I believe so, but everything was hazy then and now. What I do remember clearly was realizing I’d really gone and done it, that I’d really put my foot in it this time. Next thought was I’d better get my cell phone out of my pocket and call Dorothy or maybe 911. No can do, Rap. It was obvious when I tried to move my right arm that it was badly broken, that my upper arm was badly broken. Naturally my iPhone was in my right pocket. So, there I lay vaguely hoping Miss D. would be home soon. I recall being cold at first, but then just kind of being out of it and feeling faintly, fuzzily comfortable.

And there I was for some time. How long? The paramedics thought at least half an hour if not longer had passed. Finally, I heard Miss D. get out of her car in the carport and came somewhat to my senses, “Dorothy, HALP! HALP!” Dorothy took one look at me aghast and wanted to know what she could do to help me, “Just call 911!” In a thankfully short period of time, several EMTs were standing over me—there’s a firehouse just a mile or two from us. What do I remember most? The Chief EMT got out his HT radio and called the University Medical Center. His words scared me a little, even in my out of it state: “Look I don’t give a (expletive deleted) if you’re full. You’re the trauma center and we’re bringing him there!”

Next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance with the siren screaming. Mostly what I remember from that trip is how cold I was. When the EMTs asked me if I were hurting, and I answered truthfully, “No, I’m just so (expletive deleted) cold!” They covered me with an electric blanket, and began giving me blood (which I later learned is unusual during an ambulance ride unless you are in pretty bad shape).

The ER, surgery, and the recovery room at the hospital are hazy at best. I began to come back to myself when I was finally moved to my (large, modern) room at the University of South Alabama’s hospital. What was my status? The surgeon didn’t sugar coat it. I’d suffered a compound fracture of my upper right arm, I’d lost a large amount of blood, broken several ribs, sustained serious kidney damage, had nearly lost my right ear, and was pretty much a mass of bruises and swelling. He further remarked, “You know, Rod, you were in pretty good shape for a 65-year-old man. If you hadn’t been…well, you likely wouldn’t still be here.” It seemed the physical fitness kick I’d been on for the previous couple of years had served a purpose other than my vanity.

So much for the accident. The next couple of months saw me go from hobbling around the house, to getting about with a cane, to being able to drive again, to getting back to work teaching at the University, to spending blessed Monday nights at Heroes, again. Astronomy-wise, things were for sure at all-stop. It was just a darned good thing I’d done the observing for my S&T Test Report before the accident. I was able to get my copy to my Editor, Sean Walker, who was very understanding, almost on time despite everything.

My eventual recovery was largely due to the efforts of Dorothy and a couple of good friends—you know who you are—who kept me on the straight and narrow and gave untold moral support.

As I began to at least be able to get around—I was not my old self and still am not—two thoughts entered my mind: those two book manuscripts. I’d done little on the backyard observing book and nothing on the second edition of New CATs. I knew I had to get to work even if I didn’t feel like it.

The backyard deep sky book actually went fairly easily. I have logbook after logbook filled with urban and suburban deep sky observations going back over 30 years. All I had to do was pick some good ones of objects suited for observers in the British Isles and, well, put my butt in the chair and write. Once I got into the groove, it wasn’t bad, and with the aid of ace proof reader Dorothy, the MS went out right on time.

Now, however, I had the CAT book to do. Once I started going over my original text, I realized I had a lot of work ahead of me. The telescope buying guide chapter would have to be almost entirely rewritten. So would the chapter on imaging. Things have changed so much in the eleven years since the book came out. Not just in that Celestron and Meade have almost totally revamped their lineups. The cameras we use for imaging and the way we use them have changed every bit as much or more. When I wrote the original book, a big topic, for example, was modified webcams. That seems like ancient history now.

And so, I started the long slog through chapters four and eleven. When they were done, I had a look at the rest of the book. It was obvious there was plenty of work to be done on everything else as well. Changing the two big chapters inevitably changed things in plenty of places in the rest of the book. And there were also lots of problems with my original prose that needed to be fixed. An additional decade of astronomy writing had done a lot to improve my skills. Also, many of the photos in the book would have to be replaced, and I’d need to get with Celestron and Meade and secure images of their current models.

About halfway through, I began to despair. One of the lingering aftereffects of my accident, and one that still plagues me occasionally, is difficulty concentrating and a sometimes-short attention span. However, I persevered and the new CAT book actually went out the door a month ahead of schedule. Dorothy was again a huge help with the MS, and I’m sorry for what I put her through. That difficulty concentrating meant I’d forget what I’d said and how I’d said it a few paragraphs earlier and make mistakes. Thanks are also due to the good folk at Celestron and Meade who graciously furnished me with the pictures I needed.

In all this time, about eight months, I had done exactly no observing with a telescope. I will admit I wasn’t anxious to do any, either. I felt—and still feel—the cold more intensely than before. I have a metal plate in my right upper arm, too, and when it’s cold I can find myself in considerable pain. Combine that with a somewhat nagging fear of falling in the dark and reduced endurance, and I just didn’t want to spend any time at the eyepiece. Nevertheless, I accepted an assignment from Sky & Telescope to do a review of Meade’s LX85 ACF Schmidt Cassegrain.

Maybe I just needed a deadline hanging over my head to get me outside with a scope. That did the trick, anyway, and I was soon out back happily observing and even doing long exposure imaging with the pretty Meade SCT and goto mount. I was not just happy with the resulting Test Report; I was happy I’d got out in the dark with a telescope and done something.

And that brings us to the now. Where do I stand with astronomy as the year fades? I’m continuing my teaching at the university, and have even been able to get the students out with their telescopes a few times. And I have a beautiful Losmandy GM811G that’s gone unused (or even powered on) for well over a year. I’m hoping that as spring comes in, at least, I’ll be hitting the backyard regularly. I actually have an observing program in mind that I might bring to you here:  a (simpler) successor to the vaunted Herschel Project.

As for those pesky wire antennas crossing over the house at W4NNF? They are gone. Replaced by a Hustler 6BTV vertical antenna for 80 – 10. It has a tilt base and I can stand with my feet planted firmly on the ground should I need to work on it. I have learned my lesson in that regard, at least.

Be all that as it may, merry Christmas to you, my friends, and thanks to those who’ve mentioned how much they used to love this blog and how much they miss it.

Oh, almost forgot. How about my yearly Christmas Even ritual? My Christmas Eve look at M42? The sky wasn't looking good all Christmas Eve day. In fact, we were mostly socked in until late afternoon. But then it began to clear. Oh, there was high cirrus in the sky prophesying bad weather to come,  but while not perfect, it looked as if I might even so get a look at that grandest of all Christmas ornaments. Crossing my fingers, I maneuvered my 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher achromatic refractor on its alt-az mount onto the deck. Not only is the scope easy for me to move out in my current state, it's easy to move back in if the weather does not cooperate. It's not a bad little telescope, either.

At 8 pm the hunter had risen far enough to fool with, and--there it was--the Great Orion Nebula shining bravely in the haze and suburban light pollution. The best I've ever seen it? Not hardly. But beautiful still, and, I hope, an omen signaling a better year for your old Uncle.

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