January 11, 2023January 10, 2023 by EditorM Help wanted, researcher in history of science Astronomy, CIDU, Science John Atkinson, Wrong Hands 21 Comments Your task, should you accept it, will be to decide whether these are just randomly selected dates, or are days (nights) when something of scientific significance could have been observed, at other locations or weather conditions. Related
The figure in the second picture appears to be Abraham Lincoln. Are the other three anyone famous, or just generic persons?
Although Lincoln in 1845 looked like this:
The obvious candidates for the two most recent dates would be the author’s birth- and wedding dates, but Atkinson seems to be extremely careful with his personal data. Since there’s nothing significant in GoComics or Wikipedia about him, it is difficult to determine whether any of these dates are generally or merely personally significant. On the other hand, it is possible that the unifying characteristic is geographic, rather than temporal: for someone located in Ottawa, overcast skies may be the overwhelming standard.
Apparently there was a major aurora event mid February 1730. I don’t have the energy to research the other dates.
Pete, there does seem to be a pattern in showing the person dressed as someone might be around the indicated date. The 1845 gent might be Lincoln, yes, but equally a generic figure in a tall top hat.
The 1845 figure cannot be Lincoln, because, as pointed out, Lincoln did not grow a beard until 1860/61. Lots of people wore top hats in the mid-18th century, including several presidents. There’s no reason to think that’s Lincoln specifically.
I can find nothing astronomically significant about the 1961 and 2012 dates.
“Historical records provide evidence of extreme magnetic storms with equatorward auroral extensions before the epoch of systematic magnetic observations. One significant magnetic storm occurred on February 15, 1730.”
“Saturn puts on quite a show in April . The ringed planet lies opposite the Sun in our sky on the 15th, which means it rises at sunset and remains visible all night long. An outer planet also lies closest to Earth at opposition and so appears brightest; in Saturn’s case, it peaks at magnitude 0.2. That makes it nearly a full magnitude brighter than Spica, the luminary of the planet’s host constellation, Virgo the Maiden.”
I thought maybe the 1961 date would be connected to the launch of Echo 1, but that was in August 1960.
Could be these events –
My first thought was it must be a comet, not Halley’s, the dates are wrong, but some lesser known one, because of the recurring pattern, but before I even bothered to try and work out the period (or lack thereof), I realized a comet would be no good, because they are visible for days to months, so any one night of cloudy conditions wouldn’t really put you off seeing it. So really it had to be something like an eclipse, and as I excitedly reexamined the panels, I realized that they are all at night, and a solar eclipse also isn’t usually grouped under “astronomy”, so maybe lunar eclipses? There might have been lunar eclipses on all those nights at any one location, but lunar eclipses really aren’t that exciting, and they tend to go on for hours, so maybe it’d be something more exciting. Solar transits of Venus and Mercury are day things again, but maybe sightings of Mercury? Things have to be aligned just so, but I think opportunities aren’t that rare that you’d need to go over 300 years to find some…
Being lazy, before I bothered to search lunar eclipses and Mercury viewing opportunities, I decided to look what other people had found; aurora borealis dates was something I hadn’t considered, but those events aren’t predictable, so you have to be at the right place at the right time under the right conditions, and so if it’s cloudy, especially back before instant communication, you would have been none the wiser had it been cloudy… So, I would conclude they are just random dates, no easter egg for astronomy nerds….
I think if Atkinson intended to refer to actual astronomical events, he would have made sure the dates were exactly correct, and that the event were significant to be found without any hint as to their name or type. The “aurora” in 1730 seems possible, but I really don’t think an opposition of Saturn qualifies. Even if the one in 2012 was better than most, such an opposition occurs nearly every year.
I can add to the list. Around 1979 a full solar eclipse was scheduled/expected in the Pacific Northwest, complete with hoopla and warnings not to look directly at the sun. But, in northwest Oregon on the morning of the event, the sky was completely overcast and so the effect of the eclipse was that it got dark for a couple of minutes during what should have been daylight. Some locals went east into the high desert and got the full eclipse experience, but I wasn’t one of them.
So, with just dates and not locations, I am ruling out eclipses as the intended astronomical event.
Occasionally, there are solar flares that create hyper-intense aurora even at lower latitudes, like the ones that people live at, as opposed to the usual ones that can only be seen at high latitudes near the poles.
In the fine print in the article linked to by Anon Astro, it mentions that the event led to visible auroras as far south as 18 degrees of latitude. This would comprise all of the United States (including Hawaii).
Every time I go to Iceland, there is always the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights. They have tours for doing so, but because of the unpredictable nature of the event, these tours are really only for type ‘A’ personalities that feel they must do something proactive, because if they Lights occur, you will see them in the city just as well, and you can even ask the hotel staff to wake you. (I think these tours get by by taking you to a really dark sky area and letting you be wowed by the normal wonder that is the night sky, and every now and then they might even get lucky and have the odd aurora.)
I was going to preface this by saying I have never seen the Northern Lights, but this is not true. Sadly, when I did get to see them, they were so underwhelming I initially thought that I was just seeing clouds in the sky lit up by the moon. The next night they all asked me excitedly if I’d seen the Aurora, and I was all disappointed that I’d missed it. The next night I realized that the wispy cirrus “clouds” was in fact the Aurora. No color. Perceptible movement, slightly more than had it been a cloud, but not very impressive, though we stared a good hour from a few locations. I was with my mother, and she’d been studying in Alberta in the 60s when she saw something she thought was the nuclear apocalypse — colors and movement and immediately obvious, so much so she thought it was nuclear war. The next day when people asked if she’d seen the Aurora, she was too embarrassed to admit what she’d thought and just enthusiastically agreed. She confirmed what we saw in Iceland was nothing.
(I once missed a solar eclipse in the Faroe Islands because of cloud cover, but that was pretty much to be expected; there’s a Nordic Noir drama from the Faroes that I will watch soon where one of the reviewers on imdb complained that they didn’t show off the Faroes location to much advantage, complaining that there was only one scene shot were there were blue skies, all the rest of the location shots were grey and rainy — well, that’s the Faroe Islands for you! At least you know the show is authentic, if not earth shattering drama; it’s actually amazing they got any blue sky shots! In any case, the Faroese are so outstandingly nice and friendly that they more than make up for the variable weather!)
(I was just recently in Iceland, and they were using Keflavic as a location for the new True Detective series, supposedly set in Alaska. They had one block cordoned off, set-dressed with American stop signs and the like, and ironically they had to make snow because there was none in Iceland.)
I think Anon Astro has reasonable guesses for 3 of the 4, but in 1845 the total lunar eclipse was May 21 and the solar eclipse was May 6. May 30, 1845 remains a mystery to me.
I don’t know. Lunar eclipses happen frequently enough and are low on the “spectacular” scale. Generally missing one due to clouds doesn’t generate much disappointment. There have been times when one was happening and I didn’t bother to go out and check – and I was an Astrophysics major.
I agree with J.P. on the (solar) eclipses and with Brian on the lunar ones, and reiterate my comment that planetary oppositions are even less significant than eclipses. That leaves us with one obscure, three centuries old aurora. I still think Atkinson was making a private joke about the weather in his home town, coupled with dates from his own family history.
He doesn’t actually say that the bad weather kept anyone from seeing anything of historical significance, rather, the bad weather kept anyone from seeing anything.
Another category that might be implied, novae. Although, again, they tend to persist for longer than a single night, (and, in some cases, are actually bright enough to be seen in daylight).
I seems here in New England we missed out on several celestial events last year due to clouds. Whether relatively common or not (depending on the event), it was still disappointing.
John Atkinson – “Mission accomplished. Searches were made in earnest and maybe a love of astronomy was inspired.” Submitted by a person in awe of all things up, sideways, and below.
My love for astronomical phenomena is tempered by my hatred of wild goose chases. I just hope that the upcoming comet is not as disappointing as this strip was.