"… a ginger cat having a fit in a bowl of tomatoes."

Is this how Mark Twain described a painting of English Artist William Turner?

Slave ship by Willima TurnerBecause I am interested in the Sun, I have been reading  Chasing the Sun, The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life by Richard Cohen. Chapter 24 (“Drawing on the Sun”) relates to the Sun in art, something that normally would not be of great interest to me. I like art, don’t get me wrong, but much of what passes for art certainly does not fit my taste.  I remember once describing a piece of modern art as making me think that someone had thrown dirty dishwater onto a white towel and then framed it.

On the other hand, I do like certain pieces of Impressionism, and I came across a quote that intrigued me in on page 431 of Cohen’s book. It was a description of an unnamed painting by William Turner, who was obsessed with light, especially sunlight,  and color in landscapes. This painting, Cohen writes, was described by Mark Twain as “like a ginger cat having a fit in a bowl of tomatoes.”

As a fan of Twain, it did not take much to conjure up an image in my mind, and the quote gave me the giggles every time I read it. Certainly it sounds like Twain, but Cohen gave no reference for the quotation in his otherwise well documented work. He did not even identify the specific painting, which I now desperately wanted to view myself.

I thought that if I could find the context of the quotation I could determine which of Turner’s paintings it was. At  first I searched Google and came up only repetitions of the supposed quotation, with useless and vague references that were no good at all. Interestingly, many of the instances I found were unattributed repetitions of specifically phrased quotations apparently from other web sites. In other words, they were plagiarized quotations of the quotation.

Next I tried my own small collection of Twain’s work, in paper form, and found nothing. Finally, I decided to search as well as I could among the Twain offerings on the Gutenberg Project (http://www.gutenberg.org/). I never found the exact quotation, but I came pretty darn close in “A Tramp Abroad.”

It referenced a Turner painting, “Slave Ship” and this phrase: “A Boston newspaper reporter went and took a look at the Slave Ship floundering about in that fierce conflagration of reds and yellows, and said it reminded him of a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes.”

That was it. The quotation got mangled a bit, but the image in my mind was the same. So it was not Twain’s quotation per se, but rather his repetition of the words of an anonymous reporter. Still, was there really a “Boston reporter,” or was this fiction, as is much of Twain’s book? I guess we will never know, but at least now I know the painting and the correct quotation.

The painting is not quite as wild and psychedelic as I had imagined, but the description fits it well. Incidentally, just last evening I saw similar coloration in the sunset sky from Denver, although certainly not as busy and intense as in Turner’s painting. In the painting, the actual objects take second place to the mood and lighting. Even the Sun, our mighty day star, was reduced to a bright smudge. It took me a while before I even saw the ship itself, and longer to notice some, shall we say more “sinister” aspects. Take a look for yourself.






From Mark Twain’s “A Tramp Abroad”:

And then there is painting. What a red rag is to a bull, Turner’s “Slave Ship” was to me, before I studied art. Mr. Ruskin is educated in art up to a point where that picture throws him into as mad an ecstasy of pleasure as it used to throw me into one of rage, last year, when I was ignorant. His cultivation enables him—and me, now—to see water in that glaring yellow mud, and natural effects in those lurid explosions of mixed smoke and flame, and crimson sunset glories; it reconciles him—and me, now—to the floating of iron cable-chains and other unfloatable things; it reconciles us to fishes swimming around on top of the mud—I mean the water. The most of the picture is a manifest impossibility—that is to say, a lie; and only rigid cultivation can enable a man to find truth in a lie. But it enabled Mr. Ruskin to do it, and it has enabled me to do it, and I am thankful for it. A Boston newspaper reporter went and took a look at the Slave Ship floundering about in that fierce conflagration of reds and yellows, and said it reminded him of a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes. In my then uneducated state, that went home to my non-cultivation, and I thought here is a man with an unobstructed eye. Mr. Ruskin would have said: This person is an ass. That is what I would say, now.

Months after this was written, I happened into the National Gallery in London, and soon became so fascinated with the Turner pictures that I could hardly get away from the place. I went there often, afterward, meaning to see the rest of the gallery, but the Turner spell was too strong; it could not be shaken off. However, the Turners which attracted me most did not remind me of the Slave Ship.

A Tramp Abroad on Gutenberg.org:
Quote above near the end of Chapter XXIV (24), just search for “tortoise-shell”

The Slave Ship painting by Turner:
J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840). Oil on canvas. 90.8 × 122.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

chasingthesunChasing the Sun by Richard Cohen

Posted in Art, Color, natural history, optical illusion, Painting, Sun, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Do Flat Earth Believers Have a Mental Flaw?

The funny — and very annoying — thing about conspiracy theorists is that they are willing to believe in an intricate and complicated fabrication far more complicated, and far less supported by any reasonable evidence, than is provided by standard scientific interpretation. Here is a brief excerpt from “Are Flat-Earthers Being Serious? | Flat Earth Society” on Livescience.com (click on the name for the full article):

“First, a brief tour of the worldview of a flat-earther: While writing off buckets of concrete evidence that Earth is spherical, they readily accept a laundry list of propositions that some would call ludicrous. The leading flat-earther theory holds that Earth is a disc with the Arctic Circle in the center and Antarctica, a 150-foot-tall wall of ice, around the rim. NASA employees, they say, guard this ice wall to prevent people from climbing over and falling off the disc.

“Earth’s day and night cycle is explained by positing that the sun and moon are spheres measuring 32 miles (51 kilometers) that move in circles 3,000 miles (4,828 km) above the plane of the Earth. (Stars, they say, move in a plane 3,100 miles up.) Like spotlights, these celestial spheres illuminate different portions of the planet in a 24-hour cycle. Flat-earthers believe there must also be an invisible “antimoon” that obscures the moon during lunar eclipses.

“Furthermore, Earth’s gravity is an illusion, they say. Objects do not accelerate downward; instead, the disc of Earth accelerates upward at 32 feet per second squared (9.8 meters per second squared), driven up by a mysterious force called dark energy.”

I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist, but it is my opinion that someone who fabricates a ridiculous story like this – or simply believes it – has a serious deficit of rationality. That is, they are a little bit crazy. (Maybe a lot crazy.) They can be perfectly reasonable and intelligent about other things, but completely blind to what most of us would consider obvious truths when it comes to their pet irrational belief. I  understand that some Flat Earth proponents may be claiming it just for fun or for the attention, but sadly there are some who believe it sincerely.

Even further exposure to the facts does not typically help because they have built up (again, just my personal opinion) a mental block against any ideas contrary to their beliefs. In fact, I strongly suspect that they interpret in their minds any data related to their belief (pro or con) to make it seem to them to support the idea. This is a form of “confirmational bias.,” In other words, we look for things that confirm our opinion and ignore information contrary to it. According to researchers Jack and Sara Gorman (father/ daughter team), “…people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs. ‘It feels good to ”stick to our guns” even if we are wrong,’ they observe.” (Quoted in “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” by Elizabeth Kolberthttp://ow.ly/IjJe30ccUvJ)

Call it a mental flaw or whatever you want, but to some extent we all exhibit this tendency from time to time, and a percentage of us give into it on a daily basis. But when it distorts reality to the extent that is has with genuine flat-earthers , I personally feel that it should be considered a psychiatric disorder, just from my non-psychiatric, non-professional opinion.

The Earth is an oblate spheroid, and is decidedly not flat on large enough scales. But don’t bother trying to to a flat-earther. Nevertheless, the Earth is shaped like a ball, is not hollow, and although I have never been there, there is overwhelming evidence that Finland really does exist.

(The flat Earth graphic is an unattributed image found online here http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/flat-earth-theory
I make no claim of ownership and will remove at the copyright holder’s request.)

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Finland, the country that doesn’t exist

Finland_The_Baltic_Sea_-_MERIS_-_31_May_2002_node_full_image_2To a certain extent I can understand how rumors get started and how certain conspiracy myths spread. In some cases they start with a modicum of reality and stretch it into shapes that overly distrustful folks and/or those with overly active imaginations can latch onto. Take “chemtrails” for example. We can all see planes flying overhead and the long, white, cloudlike wakes they sometimes leave behind. The passing resemblance to crop dusting planes and the fact that the trails originate in jet-fuel guzzling and stratosphere polluting engines can, I suppose, confuse those with poor reasoning ability.

(Image of Finland and the Baltic Sea courtesy of the European Space Agency, 31 May 2002)

On the other hand, there are some conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific ideas that completely baffle me as to how they survive in this Internet world. “Flat Earth” and “Hollow Earth” myths being among them. The same technology that spreads such garbage should also quite easily provide abundant proof that they are so ridiculously wrong. Or it would seem.

And now there is one I have never heard of before, one that is so absurd I am stunned that it got spread in the first place. It seems that some folks do not believe that the nation of Finland actually exists. Despite a culture that goes back thousands of years, a fully developed and intricate language, and participation in international affairs, Finland apparently is a myth, a fake-state fabricated for political reasons in a collusion between historically unfriendly nations. It is hard to imagine a greater piece of stupidity.

I’ll let Brian Dunning fill you in on the details from his Skeptoid podcast:

And while you are reading, enjoy Finlandia by Sibelius:


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Never to poke your ear with your elbow

New Moon

Simulated image of New Moon in night sky, by famed Asian artist Ai Fuld Yu. (Sorry)

Trying to view the Moon tonight (Monday, March 27, 2017) would be like trying to poke your ear with your elbow — you can’t do it and it would not be very bright if you tried.

You see, the Moon is “new” tonight, meaning that it is in line with the Sun, very similar to the situation that occurs during a solar eclipse. In the case of a solar eclipse, the Moon passes directly in front of our central luminary and blocks out its light.

But in today’s situation, the Moon passes near the Sun, but not directly in front of it. So while the Moon is actually there in the sky, but more than 99% of its illuminated portion is turned away from Earth, and what is left is simply not bright enough to show, given the blinding blaze of the Sun.

“New” simply implies that the Moon will start a new series of phases, which happens every time the Moon passes near the Sun. This takes about a month, and is where we get the word “month,” which originally was “moonth.” Anyway, since there is no Moon in the sky tonight to contribute to the sky glow, it is still a good time to participate in the citizen science project called “Globe at Night.” The March observing period ends on Wednesday, though, so check it out soon:


Although you can’t see the Moon tonight, it will emerge in the westetrn twilight as a thin crescent later in the week. There may be a very slight chance of seeing it tomorrow (Tuesday) evening, Wednesday and Thursday evenings are better bets.

By the way, my reference to poking your elbow into your ear came from my pediatrician when I was very young. I don’t recall ever sticking anything into my ears, but I did have a serious ear problem when I was 8 or 10, and the doctor always reminded me never to put anything into my ears smaller than my elbows.

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Crater/Dome Illusion

Just a share of my post on Earthsky.org:
Please check it out there.


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Vesper Shines in the Evening Sky

5256732620_130024e956_bAny clear night through early March, look to the western sky shortly after it gets dark. You can’t miss that extremely bright “star.” Some have mistaken it for the landing lights of an incoming plane, and in the past it has even been reported as a UFO. It is very bright, and for folks who do not ordinarily look at the sky, it may seem unnatural. But it is very natural.

To the ancient Romans, this brilliant star-like object was “Vesper” when it shone in the evening sky as it does now. When seen in the morning sky, it was called “Lucifer,” the bearer of light.* To us, it is the planet Venus.

Venus is the third brightest astronomical object in the sky, after the Sun and Moon. It outshines all other planets and stars. Under the right conditions, it can even cast a shades. In fact, it is so bright that experienced observers can actually see it in broad daylight.

You really can’t miss Venus if you look in the right direction (West) and the right time (around an hour after sunset). Look soon, though, because its orbit causes it to oscillate from one side of the Sun to the other. Right now it is on the eastern side, meaning that it trails the Sun and remains for a short while after sunset in the western sky. But by late March it will be too close to the Sun to be seen, set to emerge in the predawn eastern sky in early April.

Venus is the closest planet to Earth, beating out Mars by about 10 million miles when each are at their closest points (about 25 million miles for Venus and 35 million miles for Mars). But the actual distance changes all the time. For example, on February 15, 2017, Venus is about 40.5 million miles from Earth. Mars, which currently appears nearby in the sky, is at about 181 million miles away at the same time!

Even when they are at nearly the same distance, Venus outshines Mars because it is covered by bright white clouds. And always being closer to the Sun, the reflected light is brighter.

[The image used here is by Tavis Jacobs and used under Creative Commons licensing. It shows a predawn view of Venus above Haleakala in Hawaii, on November 23, 2010. Although at a different location and time, it represents well its appearance in the western sky after sunset right now. The main difference is that you will not see the bright star above and to the right of Venus. That is Spica, one of the brightest stars in our sky. Right now, the planet Mars is nearby (slightly above and to the left of Venus), but much fainter and somewhat difficult to see unless the conditions are right.]

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How’s Your Altitude (and Azimuth)?

geograph-3960153-by-JaggeryAstronomers use several different coordinate systems to specify the location of objects in the heavens. Some are useful for use with small telescopes, but can be hard to visualize. The oldest and simplest, called Altitude and Azimuth, is no longer generally used by professional astronomers except in some very specific applications. However, because it is easier to visualize, it is the system used for my courses.

Azimuth is all about what direction (“cardinal point direction”) you are facing when you observe something. Analogies for azimuth usually compare it to a compass or clock face. Imagine that you have a large compass, maybe 10 or 15 feet across, laid out on the ground and aligned to North. The compass needle points North and the dial is turned properly to align the compass dial with the needle. Now imagine that you can stand right at the very center of the compass. If you align yourself with the North side of the needle, you will be facing North. In azimuth, we call that 0 degrees North, or more usually, just 0 degrees azimuth.

Then if you turn one quarter turn to the right (“clockwise”), you will be facing East. A one-quarter turn in a circle is 90 degrees, so we call this “90 degrees azimuth.” (As an aside, we say that the sun rises in the East, but only a couple of times during the year will it be exactly at 90 degrees azimuth as it rises. Here in Colorado it runs from about 60 degrees azimuth on the first day of summer to about 120 degrees azimuth on the first day of winter.)

Another quarter turn (90 degrees), brings you to due South. Now from North, that is 90 plus 90 or 180 degrees, so we are at 180 degrees azimuth.

Keep in mind that there are many intermediate values. For example, you could face 40 degrees or 55 degrees or 135 degrees 160 degrees and so on. I will expect your estimates to be reasonably accurate to the nearest 5 degrees, so something like 87.3978 degrees is simply beyond anyone’s ability to estimate just with the eye, and if I were to see an estimate like that, I would know that it did not come from this method.

OK, from due South, another quarter turn brings us due West, which is 90+90+90 or 270 degrees azimuth.

As our last turn, another quarter turn of the circle or 90 degrees, brings to 360 degrees azimuth back to due North. Now, a circle has only 360 degrees, so by convention we don’t refer to it as being 360 degrees azimuth, but 0 degrees azimuth. Every time you come back around to North, it reverts to 0 degrees azimuth.

So what does this mean? When we specify the position of something in the sky, we need four bits of information. Azimuth or distance along the horizon is one of them. Let’ say that you go out some night to observe the Moon, you will be turned a certain number of degrees away from North. Let’s say that when you are facing the Moon, the point on the horizon that is directly beneath the Moon is where you want to estimate the azimuth. If that was halfway between due East and due South, it would be 135 degrees azimuth (90+45 = 135).

Now the Moon at this point is not directly on the horizon, but up in the sky, so we have to specify how far. That’s what we call “altitude.” (Sometimes it is also called “elevation.”) while azimuth counts 360 degrees clockwise from the North, altitude counts degrees from the horizon (0 degrees) to the point directly overhead, the zenith (90 degrees). You can’t go higher than directly overhead, so altitude cannot exceed 90 degrees. Let’s say that you estimate that the Moon is one third of the way from the horizon to the zenith. That’s one third of 90, or 30 degrees. So at this time, the Moon is at 30 degrees altitude, 135 degrees azimuth.

But that is not all. Notice that I mentioned “at this time”? The third piece of information that you must include in a position estimate is time. Why? At a particular time on a particular day, the Moon rises. Then (very) roughly 6 hours later it is in the southern sky. And roughly 6 hours after that, it is setting somewhere in the western sky. The Moon, the Sun, planets and stars all move across the sky constantly, so a position at 8:35 pm will not be valid at 9 pm. So you have to supply the time as well as altitude and azimuth.

So if you made your estimation of the position of the Moon at 8:35 pm on April 22, 2018, the description would be:

April 22, 2018, 8:35 pm, 30 degrees altitude, 135 degrees azimuth

Oh, wait. Sorry, we’re not quite there yet. Actually, “there” is important. You have to specify your location on Earth. That’s because the sky, and the position of things in it, vary according to your location on Earth. The positions of the Sun, Moon, planets stars are different for say, Quito, Ecuador is different from Denver. Normally for your class I would assume that you make your observation in the Denver area, but since I have students in faraway places, you do have to specify your location. So, finally, the correct description of your observation of the Moon would be:

Location: Denver, Colorado (you could use GPS coordinates, but they are not necessary for this activity.)
Date: April 22, 2018
Altitude: 30 degrees
Azimuth: 135 degrees

Obviously you would not always have to state it quite like that. It could be formatted differently (as in a table), but this is the complete description.

Image used under Creative Commons Licence

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