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NOAA's Image of the Day

Norway: Celestial Ballet

Our plan for the next day (Monday? yeah, I think so): not much. Relaxing and some snowshoeing were on tap. After another wonderful dinner by Henrika, we joined two other Lodge guests to venture out hunting the aurora on our own, Patrik (our host from Magic Mountain Lodge, where we were staying) being occupied with transporting other guests to and from night dog sledding. We headed back to the same side of the island as Patrik had taken us the previous night, mostly because we’d had a good view of almost the entire dome of the sky. We searched for a dark spot on the road without streetlights, not in the same place as the previous night’s spot so we could have a different foreground. The turnouts are scarce around there, but we found one. And, as we pulled into it, I saw the Magic Mountain Lodge van, complete with Patrik and a few guests! We reckoned we were likely in a good spot, if the previous night was any indication.

We reckoned right.

Not only do words do this night’s auroral display an injustice, pictures do, too—for the aurora danced, undulated, spun and flew, shimmered, grew, shrank, ran a ring around Jupiter. It wasn’t quite as bright as the previous night’s display, but it was far, far more dynamic. At one point, as I mentioned, the aurora raced in a circle around Jupiter with a diameter of about 30º (three first-widths held at arm’s length), closing the circle in perhaps ten seconds. Another time, we watched it run up from the horizon past the Big Dipper and toward Polaris near the zenith (remember, fellow mid-latitude dwellers: at polar latitudes, Polaris is very high in the sky—at an elevation of nearly 70º in Lyngseidet), and then following itself up as it vanished along that stretch while opening elsewhere.

The dancing lights made some of the pictures seem somewhat washed out: the green glow of the aurora covered much of the sky over the course of an exposure (given the lens I had, which gave me an f/3.5 aperture at its widest). For the photogeeks among us, the captions on each of the next few aurora pictures give an idea of the exposure. In each case, the aperture was that f/3.5.

3454: ISO 1250, f/3.5, 20 secs

ISO 1250, 20 secs

3457: ISO 1250, f/3.5, 15 secs

ISO 1250, 15 secs

There were no extraneous lights where we pulled off the road. All the foreground lighting in the picture above is a result of the exposure duration and what available light there was, which mostly came from the sky. (The moon had long-since set, too.)

3461: ISO 1600, f/3.5, 8 secs

ISO 1600, 8 secs

3470: ISO 800, f/3.5, 15 secs

ISO 800, 15 secs

One night, a bridge to the gods. The next night, a celestial ballet.

In addition to the celestial beauty, Lyngseidet graces us with much beauty here on earth. As a fond farewell, here are a few pictures from in town.


The Fjord from upper Lyngseidet


Fjord Panorama


End of the day(light—which comes early in these parts this time of year!)


Norway: A Bridge to the Gods

Skiing near Lyngseidet

Skiing near Lyngseidet

Sunday brought pleasant weather: moderate temperatures, a nice, though not clear, sky, but windy. We took an enjoyable ski to Vartohytta, where we got tea and shared a waffle (with brown cheese and jam, Norwegian-style). The hut is owned and operated by Rottevik bygdelag (Rottevik Building Team) on a voluntary basis. (One may also stay overnight at the hut: bring food and warm sleeping gear!) The wind made it easy not to overheat: just open one’s jacket briefly, cool off as needed, and adjust. Into the teeth of the wind wasn’t always easy skiing, but the scenery and company more than compensated.

After dinner—our host, Henrika, is a great cook—we went out to hunt the aurora. The sky had cleared, and we were hopeful. After a drive of perhaps 30 minutes, Patrik (our other host at Magic Mountain Lodge, who was driving) stopped the van, looked up at the sky, and said that there was an auroral display and we should get out. We wasted little time. Those with cameras set up and the aurora built. And built. It changed slowly, but it changed, sometimes to the north over the mountain, sometimes to the south across the fjord. At one point, Patrik proclaimed, “A bridge to the gods!” as the aurora, green and scintillating, stretched from one horizon through the zenith to another.

Aurora with Dipper

Aurora with Dipper

Reflections on Aurora

Reflections on Aurora

Wow. I am not a good enough writer for my meager prose to do justice to the splendor of the display. Perhaps a better essayist than I could, though perhaps it takes a poet. Or, perhaps, words alone cannot suffice: pictures are needed. In this case, we needed a 360º × 180º complete vertical panorama to capture the full extent of this display, now green, now with red edging in places, through the Big Dipper and past Jupiter, diving down through Perseus and past the Pleiades, with fingers and strings and torches appearing and disappearing.


Aurora from the Mountaintop

Aurora from the Mountaintop

Norway: Ethereal Glows

Norway. Northern Norway. Troms county: Tromsø and Lyngseidet. Above the Arctic Circle, ~70º north latitude.

We were hopeful, but not so optimistic. The first day, Thursday, February 12, it was snowy and windy and overcast. In fact, it was snowing heavily. Still, we went, because we had booked a tour to see the aurora borealis. Our tour guide, Marcus, was good, and nothing if not persistent. Starting in Tromsø, we drove (well, our driver drove, we rode in the back of the van) down the Balsfjorden, past Skibotn, for about two hours, 130 kilometers, into Finland and past Kilpisjärvi, to Könkämäälven. We stopped, Marcus looked out, we continued, we stopped, Marcus looked out, we turned back to where we’d been, and Marcus once again had us stop as he looked out and declared this to be about the best spot. And it was: a small hole in the overcast, and an ethereally faint white glow in the sky.

Had Marcus not told us it was the aurora, I would not have recognized it.

All aboard quickly set up cameras and started shooting.

The viewing was fleeting before the clouds moved in and the near-translucent aurora hid behind the cloudy curtain. We adjourned to dinner at the campfire, which Marcus struggled to light because of the wind. But, he succeeded, and dinner was a fabulous traditional Norwegian stew made of dried fish (rehydrated for a full day), potatoes, tomatoes, and who-knows-what herbs and spices.

Disappointed? No: I saw the aurora, for the first time in my life. It wasn’t much, certainly not what I’d hoped for, but I had seen it. I even took a picture or few: they showed scant little, a very faint green curtain (Barbara’s were much better, but still not spectacular because the aurora itself wasn’t)—but it gave me a chance to learn.

Little did I know what was yet to come.

Barbara Plies Her Favorite Craft

Barbara Plies Her Favorite Craft

The view on the ferry crossing the fjord.

The view on the ferry crossing the fjord.

The plan was to head out from Tromsø on Friday morning, meeting our friends Craig and Denise, who live in Kiruna, Sweden, for a long weekend’s activities, including time in Lyngseidet. (Craig works at EISCAT, the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association, where they study sun-earth interactions as evidenced in the aurora.) The weather did not cooperate, and we spent Friday in Tromsø. It was still snowing hard on Saturday, with avalanche danger closing roads leading to the two nearby ferries across the fjord from Tromsø to Lyngen, but one was open—though it would be a four hour drive, instead of an hour and a half. We set off. About halfway up the fjord, the weather broke, the skies cleared, and we had a very lovely view.

Getting Good Doggie Scritch Time

Getting Good Doggie Scritch Time

Our plans for the day had included dog sledding with a racer, Tommy by name, in Lyngseidet. Despite the late arrival because of the closed roads and detours, Tommy was flexible and able to accommodate us.

After welcoming us and ensuring our jackets and pants were sturdy enough to handle dogs jumping on us (Tommy had oversuits for those whose clothes needed protection), Tommy introduced us to all the dogs, and the dogs to us, each in his or her own turn. The dogs were very friendly, exuberant, well-trained, and certainly obedient. They demonstrated affection for Tommy, and seemed to want only his (and our!) affection, food, and to run with the sleds.  Tommy taught us how to harness the dogs, which was a very simple thing (guide the dog’s head into the appropriate loop in the nylon web harness—each dog has his or her own, so Tommy can determine which ones, if any, are chewing their harnesses—and then maneuver the harness over the dog’s forelegs), and to connect each dog’s harness to the sled’s traces.

Who's Driving Whom?

Who’s Driving Whom?

The best part was, for me, a complete surprise: Barbara had made the arrangements, telling me were were going to “go dog sledding,” and I had not inquired or checked further. I had envisioned riding on the sleds pulled by the dog team, but we got to drive!

Barbara and Her Team Lead Mine and Me

Barbara and Her Team Lead Mine and Me

Tommy gave us brief, basic driving lessons (the brake, leaning a little to help turn the sled [but unnecessary on Tommy’s 1 mile track through the forest: the sled will follow the dogs, anyway, so turning is just to help things along], and holler LOUD if you fall off!) Tommy and his team led the way, then Barbara or Denise (we swapped off watching and driving with Denise and Craig), then Craig or me. What a hoot it was to drive. When Tommy started each run, it was all I could to keep my team from following immediately, rather than leaving room between them and Barbara, who, in turn, had to wait for Tommy to get a bit of a lead. The team of four dogs was very, very strong, and it took all my weight on the “parking” brake to keep them from taking off too early.

Once we’d all driven, though not to anyone’s content, as we all wanted more!, we unharnessed the dogs, helped get them in their respective individual quarters, and bade them farewell. Tommy invited us down to the fjord’s edge for some tea and coffee by the campfire. (After night sledding, if it’s clear, he and his guests often see the aurora.)

Tommy and his dogs is definitely a highlight of the trip!

While out for a brief night ski after dinner at Magic Mountain Lodge in Lyngseidet, Craig spotted another white auroral glow. We stopped and watched it as it shifted a little, then noticed a faint but distinctively evident green streaked glow in a different direction. Definite aurora, though none of us had cameras to record the event.

“You’re Almost There!”

We were out hiking yesterday in the Lake Tahoe area. The weather was spectacular for any time of year, much less for early November: ~70ºF (~20ºC), sunny with some high, thin clouds, very gentle breeze. (In many ways, I’d rather have had rain and stayed indoors—because we desperately need the water!—but, since I can’t control the weather, I enjoyed what we got.) The hike, to Five Lakes, was listed in the guidebook as 2.4 miles each way with about 960′ of climbing. I guess they came close: it was more like 3 miles each way and over 1,000′ of climbing, but if you stopped the measurements at the first of the five lakes in Five Lake, perhaps it would have been 2.4 and 960—but it seems like no one stops there. Still, a truly lovely hike.

Part of the Palatte

Part of the Palatte

The color shades along the trail covered a rich, broad palette. Not only where there many shades of green from the trees and bushes, blues from the sky, and even yellows from the changing leaves, but the rock ran the gamut from gray to tan to purple to nearly black to red.

As we neared the crest of the climb, some fellow hikers, on their return leg, said, “You’re almost there!” They, like many, were giving us useful information and providing encouragement.

Almost there. On a beautiful day and a wonderful hike. Almost there.

I wasn’t almost there. I had been there since nearly the beginning of the hike. The lakes, though the nominal destination of our hike, were not the purpose of our hike.

The hike itself was the purpose.

One of the Five Lakes

One of the Five Lakes

I first understood this about ten years ago, when backpacking in the Emigrant Wilderness for a week with our Scouts. Each day, the Scouts were in a hurry: they wanted to get there—wherever “there” was. On all the days except the last, “there” was another campsite, different from our other campsites, but still a campsite. We adults, though, weren’t in a hurry: we were there. We were, by the third day, there to be there, not to get there. That realization changed my entire perspective on hiking and backpacking.

The journey is the reward.

NASA Ames Research Center Open House

See my thoughts on the recent open house, celebrating NASA Ames Research Center’s 75 anniversary, at

Eulogy for Dad

Knoxville, Tennessee, December 29, 1929—
Manlius, New York, June 21, 2014
Delivered in Syracuse, New York, June 23, 2014

Dad taught me to respect.

The way Dad treated—and Mom treats—others was and is a lesson in respect. The way Dad treated Mom, my sister, Sue, and me was a lesson in respect. Dad and Mom didn’t try to teach me to respect by telling me: they did it by showing me, by living it every day. The way Dad treated others was all the lesson anyone who could observe and absorb would ever need. Dad taught respect of more than people, too: the way Dad treated machines and tools taught me to respect and to appreciate fine machines, to care for them.

Dad taught me to give.

Dad was not an outdoorsman, despite his father’s love of hiking in the Smoky Mountains in Dad’s home state of Tennessee. Nonetheless, Dad volunteered as a Scout leader, joining Troop 21 on a number of memorable hikes, camping trips, and backpacking trips. More than his making monetary donations, what he did with his time taught me about giving. Mom’s the one who’s know for being active in the community here, but Dad was active in his own community, the antique car hobby, a community that stretched around the country and beyond. Everyone, everywhere in that hobby came to know Stan Marcum as the expert on ’33 Chryslers. Everyone, everywhere in the hobby could ask Dad for help, for advice, for ideas, and he helped, advised, and brainstormed with them, often finding parts through the Internet that no one else could find, frequently scrounging or adapting something from his vast collection of spares and scrap and making what he found or fashioned available to the person looking for that part.

Dad taught me to conserve.

Dad was a consummate barnyard mechanic. He learned his craft at the University of Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station—the research farm—where he worked as a teenager. My Grandpa Sherm’s colleague Mr. Stanley ran that farm and, according to Dad, taught him how to fix just about anything with whatever you had. This was during the War, and on a farm, and, well, you just made do. Dad was a packrat, saving old printers and computers for their wire, assorted metal and plastic rods, and sheet metal, saving worn-out shoes for their leather—just in case he needed a make-shift gasket—saving the rubber o-rings from old oil filters—because you just don’t know when you might need that part or piece. More than this, though, Dad taught me to conserve money—not to be stingy, but to save and invest—and also to care for our planet through conservation.

Dad taught me to decide for myself.

Whenever I had an important decision to make while I was growing up, Dad—and Mom—let me make it myself. Certainly, they cared about the decisions I made, and they had their opinions, and they offered advice—when I sought it. They were not dictatorial, didn’t try to influence me unduly. They let me learn how to make decisions.

Dad taught me to live.

Dad was his own man, doing things his own way, giving life everything he had, getting from life all it had to offer that he wanted. His focus was very sharp, narrow, limited, but within that focus, he grabbed it all, and gave it his all.

Dad taught me to love, simply through the way he loved Mom, Sue, my wife, Barbara, my children, Joshua and Rayden, and me.

Family Bunny Ears

Family Bunny Ears