Friday, August 1, 2014

The Milky Way over Lone Pine

In my blog CQA I wrote that one of the reasons I continue to blog is because through blogging, I've come to know some people I would not know otherwise. Last month I visited one such person in his desert lair at Lone Pine, California.

On the first night of our stay, the moon set early behind the Sierra Nevada. The skies were clear, and the remote desert location meant that there was minimal light pollution. When I ventured outside at around 2 am, I was treated to one of the most beautiful night skies I have ever seen.

The photograph I took captures only a small section of the vista that stretched out above us, but it has a number of interesting objects. The dominant feature is, of course, the Milky Way. You can also see (parts of) eight constellations, binary stars, a red supergiant whose diameter is nearly 900 times that of the Sun, and a number of deep-sky objects (star clusters, and nebulae – interstellar clouds of dust and gas hundreds of light years wide, where new stars are being born). The deep-sky objects have exotic names like the Wild Duck Cluster and the Eagle Nebula (and sometimes non-exotic names like NGC 6441). You can also see a star cluster 87,400 light years away in another galaxy, and a dark nebula in the shape of a black horse galloping through the heavens.

Perhaps coolest of all, the photo includes the galactic centre – the theorised location of a supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A* whose mass is over 4 million times that of the Sun. Sagittarius A* cannot be seen in the photo – or even through astronomical instruments from Earth, at least not at visible wavelengths – because of interstellar extinction by dust and gas. We know its location because it is detectable as a source of strong radio waves.

You want to know where all these cool objects are, don't you? Click on the photo for an interactive guide.

I would have unveiled this photo long ago, but Anasua coaxed me into making the guide, which took weeks of research and coding. "Reach for the stars," she said.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Survival of the Fittest Onion

Onions are biennial plants. This is how they work:

Life Cycle of an Onion Plant
Year 1, Spring:Seeds germinate and start to grow.
Year 1, Summer:First the leaves sprout, then the bulb at the base of the plant begins to swell.
Year 1, Autumn:The bulb, where the plant stores food reserves for the winter, reaches maturity, but the foliage dries up and dies. This is when the onion bulb is usually harvested.
Year 1, Winter:If left undisturbed, the bulb lies dormant all through the cold months.
Year 2, Spring:Answering the call of the springtime sun, the bulb sends forth a shoot which initially feeds on the food stored in the bulb, then sprouts leaves which aid in photosynthesis.
Year 2, Summer:The stem "bolts" (begins to elongate rapidly) and produces a bud. The bud blooms into a flower, which eventually "goes to seed".
Year 2, Autumn:The plant dies, but next spring the seeds can grow into new plants.

Last spring I bought some onions from the supermarket and stored them in my kitchen cupboard. The cupboard is a dark, airless place, but even in such harsh conditions, life prevails. A few days later I discovered that one of the onions had begun to sprout.

Impressed by its will to live, I decided not to chop it up, and instead planted it in a pot.

The plant was undemanding – I just watered it every other day and fertilised it with coffee grounds. Still it grew steadily, putting forth leaves and in May, a pair of buds. But its tribulations were not yet over.

While I was on holiday in the USA, the pot was blown over by the wind. The plant lay ignominiously on its side, but undeterred by this misfortune, it bent upwards at a right angle and continued to grow. When I righted it, the stems – always reaching for the light – again bent upwards at a slightly higher point, giving the plant an interesting shape, a bit like a modernist sculpture. Here are some photos of the flowers in various stages of development.

At the time of writing, the flower petals are drying up. If the flowers have successfully self-pollinated, they may soon produce seeds. I think it's pretty cool that an onion bulb can flourish and reproduce even after being uprooted, sold in a supermarket and lying neglected in a kitchen cupboard.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Lone Fox Dancing

I have previously posted about foxes in winter and foxes at night. In the interests of more well-rounded fox coverage, I now present a photo of a fox in summer, and in the daytime.

I took the photo inside our housing development, where red foxes have burrowed into the earth to make a den whose entrance is concealed by bushes.

The titles of my first two fox posts referenced a song (Fox in the Snow) and a book (The Foxes Come at Night). Last week at an outdoor cafĂ© in London I saw a notice which would have gone really well with the second post:

In case you were wondering, the title of the post you are reading now references a poem: a reader suggestion.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Flagging Demand

England car flags being sold for a discount at a supermarket in London, after England's first-round exit from the Football World Cup.

If I had any sense I would buy the lot, and sell them before Euro 2016 at a 700% profit.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Seasons: Island Gardens, London

Move your cursor over the image below, and it should change to another image of the same scene in a different season. (If it doesn't work, check that your browser has JavaScript enabled.)

Base photo:31 May 2014
Mouseover photo:13 November 2011
Approx. coordinates:51.487°N, 0.008°W

One day in the autumn of 2011, I mentioned to my cousin that lots of people walk their dogs in my neighbourhood park. She likes dogs, so she asked for photos. The mouseover photo in this post is one of the few photos I took that day which does not have a dog in it. Summer is my favourite season in London, but there's no denying that the sugar maple trees in the park are at their best in autumn.

The base photo was taken last month, but I thought summer solstice is as good a day as any for a Seasons post.

Happy solstice, everyone!