Girls just wanna have sun: Confessions of a compulsive solar eclipse chaser

As a veteran eclipse chaser, I’ve seen eight solar eclipses in trips that have taken me around the world.

Why travel to the ends of the Earth for an event lasting only a few minutes, you ask? Astronomical objects lie far away and change very little from night to night or even from year to year. It’s true it’s always the same moon, same planets, same star clusters, nebulas and galaxies — all looking a bit fuzzy and tiny, even through a telescope. But a total solar eclipse is totally different; suddenly, astronomy becomes incredibly exciting and everything happens fast.

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Dr. Carolyn Sumners (bottom) photographing the HMNS group at the 2009 Total Solar Eclipse in China with fish-eye lens camera.

In a total solar eclipse the moon creeps in front of the sun, and then all at once covers the sun’s photosphere, plunging a tiny part of the Earth into darkness. Those lucky enough to be in this shadow see coronal streamers surrounding the black moon disk — like a glowing crown with red arcs of ionized gas dancing from behind the moon. Suddenly, there’s too much to see and it’s all happening way too fast.

Just as quickly as the darkness comes, daylight returns. As the moon moves past, light from the sun’s photosphere peeks through mountain ranges along the moon’s edge. Called Bailey’s Beads, these tiny flickering lights appear for just an instant before the famous “diamond ring,” when the first bit of the sun’s photosphere is visible once again. Then the protective glasses go on and the sun (with a piece still hidden by the moon) returns the world to daylight.

The Maya worried that the sun would not return after an eclipse, signaling the end of the world — an appropriate thought for an eclipse in the year 2012.

Total solar eclipses are special because they are so rare. The total solar eclipse occurring this Nov. 14 is the only one in 2012, and the only one in an accessible location until 2017. To see a total eclipse, you must usually become a world traveler, and this year is no exception. This eclipse occurs mostly over water at a time when equatorial oceans are largely cloud-covered.

The best viewing is along a strip of the Great Barrier Reef coast around the city of Cairns, Australia on Nov. 14, 2012, an hour after sunrise. And once again, that’s where I’ll be.

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HMNS Trip to View the 2012 Solar Eclipse in Australia: November 10-24, 2012

HMNS has included the 2012 total solar eclipse experience viewed from the coast of Australia near the Great Barrier Reef as part of a two-week tour of the South Pacific that includes Cairns and Sydney, Australia; and Christchurch and Queenstown, New Zealand, with an optional extension to Fiji.

There is an early registration discount of $250 per person for those registered for the trip by May 15! Pricing is $5,699 per person double occupancy with international air and 20 meals, or $3,449 per person double occupancy land-only package, with single and triple room packages available.

Click here for itinerary and registration information.

Travel Night – Australia: Monday, May 14, 6 p.m.

For interested travelers and those already registered, this evening allows you to meet trip leader Dr. Carolyn Sumners, who will provide an eclipse viewing overview, and see a slideshow of the trip itinerary. Our travel agents will be there to answer all questions about the trip.

Stealth Frog-oid in the Permian Ponds: The Panzer Mudpuppy and its Sonar

“Ping….ping…..p i n g…..”

We heard it in the U-boat movie Das Boot. And in Run Silent, Run Deep. And in the History Channel special about the Battle of the Atlantic. A single “ping” figures in a plot twist during The Hunt for Red October. The “ping” is the sound of underwater hunting.

It’s the sound of sonar.

When early U-boats threatened to cut off England in 1917, British scientists worked feverishly to invent a way of tracking submerged subs. The answers came in the between-war years.  A machine would emit a metallic “ping” into the water. If there was a large object underwater nearby, the ping would echo back and be amplified by the machine. The time between ping and echo-ping told the distance; the strength of the echo told the direction.

Sonar went to war big time in 1939. Combined with the code-breakers who deciphered U-boat orders sent by radio, plus anti-sub aircraft, the Allies defeated the new U-boat offensives in 1943 and 1944.

What’s that got to do with our new fossil hall?

Plenty.

Our field crews have brought back the largest single fossil ever dug from the Permian Red Beds of north Texas. Check it out:

judy block david temple

It’s the “Judy Block”, a slab of pond sediment 10 feet long and three tons in weight. Inside are dozens and dozens of complete skulls and jaws from a new species of Panzer Mudpuppy. These were bottom-living amphibians, distant cousins of frogs, who crowded onto the riverbeds and ponds all through the Early Permian 295 to 275 million years ago.

And our Judy Block is a dramatic lesson in Nature’s Passive Sonar.

Active Sonar is used by porpoises and whales — they make clicky noises underwater and use the echoes to find food and, in the mating season, each other.

Passive Sonar is more elegant and delicate. The sonar operator doesn’t ping or click — that would give away the operator’s position to enemies. Instead, the passive sonar operator listens with extremely sensitive microphones. The Hunt for Red October demonstrates how submariners avoid making any noise but just listen and listen and listen — every tiny sound being amplified by the best acoustic equipment. The fossils in our Judy Block show Nature’s equipment in the fossil amphibian.

Look at the skull:

hall blog trimtneurocanalcolor

Running across the bones are a system of sonar canals (technical label: “lateral-line canals”). Most fish have those canals today. Many frogs have a similar apparatus. Under the microscope you’d see a marvelous device. Tufts of tiny sensory hairs are clumped together inside jelly capsules (the jelly is secreted by the cells that hold the hairs). The capsules are connected to nerves that run to the brain.

Imagine you are a Permian Mudpuppy and glance at the three scenes here:

cbl-trimersonacolorsucksmll

You sit still on your pond bottom. You are passive. But your sonar is super-alert. The water is so murky that you can’t see anything. Doesn’t matter. A fish wanders by above your head. It suspects nothing. But the fish’s tail sends out vibration waves through the water. Minute vibrations bump into the sensory hairs in your sonar canals. You’ve got thousands of the hair clusters, and so your brain knows where the fish is swimming and how fast it’s going.

Your fire-control computer in your brain knows instinctively what to do. Wait. Wait … wait … then FIRE!

You twist your head up. You open your jaws wide. The sudden suction draws the fish into your jaws. Chomp! Yum.

Sonar canals were features of most early amphibians. You can see them in the giant Gator-Headed Amphibian, Eryops, that ruled the waterways in the Red Beds times. In the new hall, we will display a complete Eryops across the pathway from the Judy Block.

When you come to the new exhibit, pause at the Judy Block. Stare at the sonar canals. Get lost in a time-travel reverie. Multitudes of those animals lived their lives through millions of years, each generation being successful through the high-tech acoustic machinery.

Still yearning for Earth Day learning? Join us April 28 for HMNS’ museum-wide celebration!

Founded in 1970 to commemorate the birth of the modern environmental movement, Earth Day (April 22) aimed to capitalize on an emerging national consciousness about the natural world and channel the energies of anti-war protests in a new direction.

earth day

Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Senator, conceived the idea of a national holiday devoted to environmentalism after a devastating 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif. With bipartisan support, the first-ever earth day inspired 20 million Americans to hit the streets and pour into public parks to rally for sustainable living.

Earth Day eventually lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts — but the battle for our earth is far from over.

Keep the celebration going at HMNS this weekend with Mobilize the Earth, a museum-wide event that teaches participants how to make their lives more sustainable and do their part for the planet.

Register an act of environmental service and join with Keep Houston Beautiful and the Hermann Park Conservancy to clean up the green space just north of HMNS, play around in recycled art at the booths inside our Grand Hall and learn about recycling, energy and water conservation.

What: “Mobilize the Earth” Earth Day celebration
When: April 28, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: HMNS grounds at 5555 Hermann Park Drive.

To purchase tickets to Mobilize the Earth, click here.

To learn more about Billion Acts of Green, click here.

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HMNS thanks the Marathon Oil Corporation for their continued support of the HMNS Energy Conservation Club, which sponsors HMNS’ annual Earth Day celebration.

Putting the pieces together: Civil War exhibit helps marine archaeologist identify shipwreck artifacts

USS WestfieldTo prepare for an assault on the Confederacy by water, privately owned boats were purchased and converted into war vessels by the Union Navy. Among these were almost two dozen ferryboats that were converted into gunboats.

A particular Staten Island ferryboat named Westfield, originally owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, ended up down the road in Galveston Bay — for nearly 150 years. She wrecked at the conclusion of the 1863 Battle of Galveston, one of the most unusual battles of the Civil War.

After her purchase by the U.S. Navy in 1861, Westfield was armored and converted into a gunboat. Westfield saw significant Civil War action, participating in battles at New Orleans, Vicksburg and other places along the Gulf Coast. Her destruction at the Battle of Galveston on January 1, 1863, was one of the most important and dramatic events of the Civil War in Texas. The Confederate victory won back the port from Union forces. The port stayed in Confederate hands the remainder of the war, and saved Texas from the damaging effects of occupation and battle suffered by other southern states.

In the fall of 2009, a team of marine archeologists, working under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supervised the recovery of artifacts from this unique “fighting ferryboat.” It was a massive and challenging project. The team recovered tons of artifacts — including parts of the ship, a 4-ton Dahlgren cannon and personal effects of the crew.

Immediately after the artifacts were recovered from the bottom of the Galveston Bay, the conservation phase of the project began. Upon surfacing, artifacts undergo an immediate stabilization process to prevent further deterioration. This is the beginning of the long course of conservation work ahead. The desalination process, in which artifacts remain submerged in water, can by itself take six months to two years. After that, artifacts are treated with numerous conservation techniques, depending on the item’s material make-up.

Many of the artifacts that have completed the conservation process at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University are on display with the Discovering the Civil War exhibition at HMNS.

In March, several members of the USS Westfield Project were at HMNS for a lecture: Robert Gearhart, Principal Investigator; Amy Borgens, State Marine Archeologist with the Texas Historical Commission; Edward T. Cotham, Jr., project historian and author of Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston. With the group was also Justin Parkoff, who is currently working on conservation of artifacts at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University.

While at HMNS, Parkoff toured the Civil War exhibition and experienced a eureka moment while viewing the artifacts on display from the Nau Civil War Collection. He spotted a Union belt buckle with a familiar shape.

Parkoff had been working on conserving two seemingly unrelated artifacts from the Westfield wreck site, but no one had been able to identify what they were — until now.
“This is exciting because we have so few personal artifacts from Westfield,” Parkoff explained.

Below are the two recovered artifacts.

westfield-artifacts

Below is a photo of a replica buckle, identical to the one on display at HMNS from the Nau Collection.

replica-buckle

Want to learn more about excavating and conserving shipwrecks?

Join HMNS for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the Texas A&M Conservation Research Laboratory on June 16. After learning how researchers locate shipwrecks and recover items from the wreck site, tour the labs to see the different stages of artifact conservation. Starting with indistinguishable concretions, from small specimens to large sections of a ship, you will see how items are transformed in lab treatments.

Our guides are Dr. Donny Hamilton, director of the Conservation Research Laboratory, and Justin Parkoff, graduate student from the Texas A&M University Nautical Archaeology Program. Considered the leading research institution in the world for shipwreck archaeology, teams from Texas A&M have located, recovered and conserved shipwrecks from around the world.

Click here for more information and to purchase tickets. Tickets availability is limited. Advance ticket purchase is required.

Don’t miss the chance to see Discovering the Civil War before it leaves Houston. The last day on view is April 29.