Kilometers cycled: 101
Our first day out of Basel was the first day on the Rhine River. It's a straight line, it's a downhill slope, it's a sunny day, this is the bike tour we were looking for. And the next three weeks promise the same kind of cycling!
In Muttersholtz, a rural French town on the way to Strasbourg, we meet our host for the evening. She says her daughters have a telescope that they don't know how to use. That's our specialty.
After some vegetable stew, we set up our TeleVue-76 right next to an Omegon 700 mm refractor. Hey! We just used an Omegon telescope back in Munich! Shout out to our friends at Astroshop!
Astronomy is a hobby filled with high end equipment. You need to grind the optics and perfection, and then mount them so that they can be pointed at objects that are millions of light years away - crazy to think that you can do it from your backyard.
Sometimes, I like to remember that Galileo didn't have galaxy hunting equipment in his hands. His telescope magnified 20X. The field of view was so small that, when he made his moon sketches, he couldn't see the entire moon all at once! Our Omegon refractor easily outperforms his instrument.
So, you can learn something about astronomy with any telescope at all. We replace the battery in their finder and teach them how to point using the red dot. Then, we invent some clever tricks to make the Omegon easier to aim. In no time at all, our host has the hang of it, and by the time her husband comes home, she is teaching him how to use it!
Of course, we also give them a view through our TV-76, and shocked them with the views through our Nagler 6 eyepiece. Next, we do something that may shock some readers. We take the Nagler 6 eyepiece, and place it into the Omegon refractor. It was fun to compare the differences! The stray light is different, the blurriness is different. Even more fun is to take a basic eyepiece and place it into the TV-76!
Astronomy is always about pushing the limit of the technology, and stretching out further into space. But the moon is our closest neighbor and actually quite easy to see. John Dobson made his telescopes out of cardboard. Using a 25 cent eyepiece with a top-of-the-line refractor may not impress you, but it may surprise you. After all, it still works. I think it's an important reminder that anyone can make a discovery whether or not they're using the best equipment. Galileo did. And now our hosts can share views of the moon with their daughters - with a telescope they told us was broken.
It's a world class observatory with over 600 members. It's in the middle of Munich, and a four-meter focal length is no big deal. It's the Volkssternwarte.
The Volkssternwarte is built inside a former WWII bunker, and the thick concrete walls mean a very stable rooftop for the telescopes. One of the members even showed us how the concrete is reinforced with railroad tracks, due to steel shortages during the war.
Before we look at the telescopes, we are invited to take a look at Germany's smallest planetarium! It seats no more than 15 people in a small dome maybe two meters wide. The setup is totally mechanical, that means the operator needs to manually insert cartridges that project the planets and constellations to the right part of the sky, depending on the season. Emil produced an awesome 360 picture of the room. It looks like we're all on a globe!
The sky darkens, and we head upstairs. We observe Jupiter, then Saturn, M82, and the double star Alberio. Brendan gets his start in astrophotography by hooking his iPhone up to a 100 year old refractor. Then, Tobias, one of the members, unpacks his camera and shows us what a proper DSLR can see: the last image is an actual picture of Andromeda that Tobias took this evening, from the center of Munich!
Volkssternwarte is situated directly above a nightclub. As we leave for the evening, people in their best dress are partying and yelling. It reminds us of South Street. I suggest that maybe sometimes the astronomers can set up a telescope on the sidewalk...
The 380 number is maybe not even accurate, it's just how many times I pushed the button, and I know that whole groups of people came and went before I noticed. We were so busy!
On our way to Munich, some great fellows at Astroshop.eu reached out to us and asked: do you need any help with your sidewalk astronomy event? We decide to take a train out to their headquarters in Landsberg, to take a look at their showroom.
After browsing around a room full of high-end equipment, we eventually settle on an enormous 12" Dobsonian telescope to borrow for the weekend. "Dobsonians" are named after the Vedantu monk who invented sidewalk astronomy in California. Elias, from Astroshop, also joined us for the evening.
We shared a calm, quiet dinner together before taking the S-bahn to Marienplatz.
Marienplatz on a Friday night is teeming with hundreds of people. The crescent moon hangs high in the sky, even before twilight at 8 pm. As soon as the Dobsonian touches the ground, a group of people comes over and asks what we're doing. It's the same thing we do every night. "Would you like to see the moon up close?"
We set to work. Lines begin to form. Dozens of people wait to see, even though it's only three of us for two telescopes. I ask Elias how he's holding up, and actually part of his job is to demo these telescopes, so he's dealt with crowds like this before.
Brendan announces to the crowd: "The year is 1610, and Galileo just finished tuning up one of his new telescopes. It's a clear night, and he points it at the moon... you're about to see what Galileo saw 400 years ago."
Munich has a very active astronomy scene. Close to the alps, you can access some of the darkest skies in all of Europe. The city itself, though nearly the size of Philadelphia, has excellent light pollution practices in place. You can see the constellations from Marienplatz. A group of astronomers from Volkssternwarte also reached out to us, and some of them drop by to see what we're doing. A few even linger to help share the astronomy and pilot the telescopes!
Jupiter rises in time for the moon to set, and in total, seven hours pass before we finally decide to bring the telescopes home.
The Moon Men have landed in Munich! In this city, every road has a wide extra lane for bicycles. Bicycles outnumber cars everywhere you look. Our host, Emil, says this was not always the case. Five years ago, drivers hated bicycles, just like in Philly. Now the laws have changed, and the environmentally friendly traffic is given legal priority over the motorists.
Our host for the week, Emil, is a virtual reality filmmaker. In a documentary where you might bring one camera, Emil brings four, all bolted together to capture 360 degree views of an entire scene. Tonight, we're able to bring Emil to Marienplatz to get a look at Jupiter's moons.
We arrive and meet our moongazers for the evening. Tonight, many people are walking past. Are they busy? Suspicious? It can happen on a night that not many people are curious, but there's a way to get everyone interested in the telescope, so we keep fishing.
One of the bicycle cabbies, towing a two-person cart, hops out to look at Jupiter. He's amazed, and flags down his other cabbie buddies. Now we have three carts parked in front of our telescope on a Tuesday night, and we spend the evening with these guys talking about extraterrestrial life.
Moongazers : 21
Kilometers cycled: 53
There's nothing like crossing a continent to see an old friend, even if it's just for an evening. Peter moved to Switzerland for PhD studies. He researches a type of solar panel called prevoskites, and is working on ways to make them ready to deploy around the world.
It's a joy of a day. Peter brings us to Lac du Neuchatel for an afternoon of grilling and swimming. Then he introduces us to the glory of Doner Kebab. We hang out with his scientist friends and have the same old conversation: science has the power to save the world but also destroy it.
It's our choice. We need to ask our scientists and governments to act responsibly with their technology.
The sun sets and Jupiter rises over the lake. Lakes are great places to observe, especially if you can pick a spot on the northern side. Lakes mean that, as you look South toward the solar system (the ecliptic, the line where all the planets and the moon orbit), for miles in front of you there are really no lights.
It helps an extra bit when the Alps are just south of the lake.
Our scientist friends share a love of communicating science, so they shout out in French to the people who pass us by.
A swiss town late on a sunday doesn't draw a crowd, but we still share Jupiter's moons with a few happy people.
Here's a big cliffhanger: Jupiter's spot may be disappearing. It's time for us to race to Munich, where we will meet members of the Bavarian Public Observatory, to see Jupiter's red spot for the first and possibly only time in our lives.
Einstein's used general relativity to make four predictions about the Universe:
These effects are incredibly small. For #2, astronomers needed to measure an angle of 0.0005 degrees. For #3, astronomers looked at 100 years of observations to determine that Mercury is 0.7 degrees away from where it should be. And #4 was only proven in 2015, 100 years after Einstein predicted it. Scientists at LIGO had to detect a change in their experiment of 0.00000000000000000001 meters, caused by the merging of two black holes on the other side of the galaxy. Woah.
Such incredibly small predictions. And he came up with it all from the desk of his patent office in Bern.
Einstein was a lifelong advocate of world peace, having to flee Europe for safety from the Nazis. After spending the second part of his career urging nations not to develop nuclear weapons, he was invited in 1952 to become the second President of Israel. Politics are complicated, which is why he refused, but imagine that. A world renowned scientist, with a conviction that peace is always possible, Israel might look different today if it spent some time under his leadership. Thomas Jefferson often said that if his country needed a scientist, he would have been one. A young America needed a statesman instead.
I was surprised to find Einstein had some connection to Philly! Check out his naturalization papers, he wrote to the Consulate in Philadelphia! Of all places.
Our host Stephan gave us an incredible look at Bern. And listen, this place is perfect for bicycles. There are green lights specifically for the bikes. You see trams come down the road more often than cars.
Look for the picture of us with our host Stephan, hanging with a brass statue of Einstein. He's made of metal, so he got really hot in the sun!
Every town and country seems to have a connection to space travel somehow. In the Bern History Museum, we found a letter from Neil Armstrong, addressed to the scientist Johannes Geiss. One of Dr. Geiss' biggest contributions to physics: a piece of aluminum foil!
Actually, Neil was writing about the success of an experiment where the Apollo mission flew a special foil that could absorb radiation from the Sun. Dr. Geiss was the first person to study the composition of the Solar wind, and he did it from Bern!
Then we traveled to a special place: It's underneath a train bridge, and it's a skate park where all the younger guys go to party hard. I know this happens in Philly, so you need to invite me sometime, but we had huge crowds of people dancing to club music in a parking lot underneath a concrete bridge! Graffiti everywhere.
We pointed our telescope at Jupiter, which is making a close pass with the Earth as we speak! Curious partiers came to check out what we were doing, and Stephan helped to explain in fluent Swiss German. In English, we explained the wonders of Galileo's moons, the fact that they change position every night, and reminded these guys that we live in a tiny reality compared to the vastness of the Solar System. We put a smile on their face, and maybe, tomorrow night, when they see Jupiter in the sky, they will have some new perspective about this planet we all live on. A simple bright spec, it brings happiness and peace to know what is actually there. You can see it in the pleasant smile on their face.
Why is our lodging always 600 feet above the train station! It shouldn't bother us, we're stronger cyclists since we landed in Italy. We wanted to pick up the tour from Milan, but of course, pouring rain again forced us onto the train. Even the short 8 kilometers up the hill made us soggy and tired.
We've stayed now for three nights in Como, and I want you to tell you about our little holiday. Since the moon is late in the waning crescent phase, it doesn't come out at night. Jupiter and Saturn are still a bit too late in the evening for weeknights, so the Moon Men entered a bit of hibernation, and enjoyed some long, pleasant bike rides around the lake. From above, Lake Como looks like a fractal (most things in nature do), and you can definitely feel it from the ground with the winding roads and turns. Some of the most beautiful riding I've made in my whole life. I want to return and circumnavigate the whole lake! In a day of riding, we didn't even come close.
Como names itself Citta` di Alessandro Volta. Volta wasn't an astronomer but his contributions to science are worth a visit. Volta - the unit of the Volt! In his time, scientists had achieved a very basic understanding of electricity. In the middle of the 18th Century, Leyden jars came on the scene. These glass jars store electric charge the same way you do if you rub your socks on a carpet. You would spin the jar around and around against brushes, and this builds up static electricity on the jar. Fun fact - all of the static electricity is stored on the surface of the jar, not inside. But the empty space inside these jars gives you the impression that scientists really thought the jars contained some sort of invisible energy inside.
The problem with storing electricity this way is the same problem with rubbing your feet on the carpet: it's a shock! All the electric charge inside the Leyden jar is released as soon as you touch it or complete a circuit. That's the importance of Volta's chemical batteries, and that's why we visited his burial site.
Volta's temple is a mini-pantheon, with a large-domed interior. Inside are the glass vials where he created the first Zinc acid batteries are kept. If you connect a wire to one of these zinc stacks, you get, instead of a shock, a slow, steady current. Volta even presented his invention to Napoleon!
On our last night to ourselves, we observed Jupiter, making more observations of its moons. Did you know that when you look at something low in the sky, you're looking at it through 10 times more air than if it was directly overhead?
Being on the road all the time, with cloudy skies, there's plenty of time to do listening and reading.
John Dobson, the inventor of the Dobsonian telescope, and of sidewalk astronomy, has some excellent lectures on cosmology. Want to contemplate how suns and galaxies form? Are gravity and electricity opposites? Beware, his interpretations about the big bang and dark matter aren't exactly Kosher, but he explains the physics in an every day way and blends it with some extremely interesting Vedantan philosophy.
Check it out!
Sometimes, it surprises you to come across a piece of history. Sometimes, it towers over you like a 40 foot tall telescope.
It's the Merz-Repsold telescope. Standing underneath Schiaparelli's half-meter refractor. I feel small. Small in the same way as when you see a suspension bridge or skyscraper from directly below. But there's something more mysterious about this massive structure, five meters above my head. It's the distance and the largeness of the telescope's targets. Details on Mars never seen before. Brass gears and dials, glass and refraction create a spaceship, zooming through the atmosphere in the center of a Milan that was not yet light polluted.
Schiaparelli spent four years mapping canals and oceans, what we now know are canyons and mountains. Once you've spent time trying to make out the detail on Mars with your telescope, you'd understand. 200 times closer, it looks like a smudge. The atmosphere actually more like a dense ocean, blurring the view. But with these machines, we continued that very human goal of decoding the sky above, somehow with the feeling that the answers we find could change humanity forever.
The cancals, was there water on Mars? Life? The debate rages today. These ideas fresh on the stage contributed to the age of science fiction in literature! Did you know that your telescope could write a book?
I want to tell you about Guido D'Arturo. I learned about him at Museo della Specola at the University of Bologna. He is the inventor of the largest telescopes in the world, but that's not what wikipedia says. Guido was born in 1879 to a Jewish family and in 1921 served as the director of the Observatory at the University of Bologna.
The size of a telescope's mirror is the size of its eyeball, a bigger mirror can see dimmer objects that are further away. While working in Bologna, he pioneered a new technology called the segmented mirror. This was a way to construct a very large mirror out of lots of small pieces. The challenge? Every piece needed to point in exactly the same direction.
His first prototype got close, but as a Jew, he spent years in hiding during the fascist period of Italy's history. After the war, he bravely returned to his work and created a new prototype.
Check out the picture with all the screws underneath those mirrors. 81 mirrors had 3 knobs each to tilt them in the right direction. 243 adjustments and they each needed to be exact. Guido stood at the focus of the telescope, three stories above the mirror, and by telephone, instructed his assistant which screws to turn.
"Ok, mirror 63, knob 2, a little bit up, no, too much! Try mirror 65."
This system worked well enough for him to take some photographs, but Guido died before patenting his work. The assistant, Dr. Jerry Nelson, brought the manuscripts to the University of Arizona, where the world's largest telescopes are made today, based on this exact technolgy. Dr. Nelson is still credited with the invention, maybe he felt underappreciated for sitting in a basement all those years turning knobs!
Another great find in the museum, we found a beautiful "family portrait" of the Solar System, painted and signed by Clara Eimmarta, when most of the time, a woman's father or husband would instead sign the painting. We're posing in front of these beautiful works of art.
That night, we biked to Piazza Maggiore for views of Jupiter. We invited our tour guide from the Museum, Luiza, to join us. We were so delighted when she did! Luisa works part time offering tours of the museums, but she had never seen a clear view of Jupiter before! We showed her as soon as it rose above the buildings, and she found it wonderful. For three hours, she stayed with us, and enjoyed the company of everyone we showed. Thank you Luiza for making our astronomy visit in Bologna a very special one!