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January 13, 2005

Comments

Tommaso Dorigo

Well, well, a smudge... Objectively I have to agree (see my picture of the Macholz comet in my blog).
However, it's not what you _see_, but rather your imagination what makes the thing a remarkable experience. That "smudge" has traveled from the outskirts of our solar system (the Oort cluod) to become observable from you. It would not be observable if it wasn't for the emission of gases from the icy core. I agree, visually it is not anything bright, no flying colours. It is the _fact_ that you see it what makes it interesting.
Another visually wanting experience is observing far galaxies: TINY smudges. I do that with my 25x100 binoculars. I see just barely lit clouds of light. But their light has traveled for millions of years to reach your retina. Imagine a photon, traveling for a million years, wanting to reach your eye, magically directed to the 1/100000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000(roughly 1/10^43) of solid angle spanned by it, and finally getting close to it... Closer... And you can close your eyelid... Imagine those things bumping into your eyelids, just an inch from detection out of their oblivion. Don't you think this is something, after all ? Yes, tiny smudges...

David

Are you from Ireland?

David

Oh, sorry, just read your bio! You've got irish roots though?

Caolionn O'Connell

Yes, Caolionn is a very Irish name with the traditional Gaelic spelling and all -- it is actually pronounced "Key-Lyn." My father's side of the family is Irish, but my mother is mostly Italian. So I have a very Irish name, but at home we eat well and I have a moderately less chance of burning in the sun than my dad. Unfortunately, I still can't work a good Irish brogue.

Caolionn O'Connell

Tommaso - No, that doesn't do it for me. I want color, I want fireworks, I want the Hollywood version of a comet. Not a smudge. Smudges don't excite me enough to hang out in the cold for hours. Saturn, on the other hand, was worth every minute. It exceeded my Hollywood expectations, saw multiple rings and shadings on the planet. It looked beautiful. Smudges don't inspire, but Saturn certainly does.

Tommaso Dorigo

I understand. I well understand, having withstood the frustration of showing celestial niceties to lots of first-timers on my backyard telescope, receiving all sorts of disappointed remarks in return. I also know that Saturn, the Moon, and maybe Jupiter are about the only things you can show to a novice in anything less than Lick Observatory's refractor if you want them to get close to grasping why on hell you spend your time with your eye tied to the eyepiece on any given clear night.
I need to stress my point: it's not how you see it, it is what you see what makes it fascinating. And you pictured it well: you are spoiled by American movies, hollywood-style explosions of colour, nothing less can catch your attention... A bit more of Tarkowskij, a bit less of Spielberg, please.
Ah another thing. I mistakenly said the odds for a photon from a 1 million light years away to reach your retina were 10^-43: it is wrong by a small margin (only overestimated it a thousand times in the hurry of computing it by heart, a minor mistake). The calculation runs as follows:
1 million light years = 300000 km/sec * 10^6 years * 86400 secs/day * 365 days/year = 10^19 km.
Area spanned at 1MLY: 4*3.14*(10^19 km)^2= 10^39 km^2.
In squared centimeters that is 10^49 cm^2. Your telescope in the photo seems like a 14 inch or something, so that is about 10^3 cm^2, so the total result is 1 in 10^46.

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