Saturday, October 24, 2015

Jabir's Observatory

Jabir consulting the planisphere in his Tree House Observatory
A few years ago I built a high platform secured to three redwoods close to my house and have been sleeping up there on warm summer nights. Most of the sky is covered by trees but there is a 15 degree slot in the southern horizon which is open to the sky. Since living outside gives me a continual view of the night sky I decided to turn my tree house into an observatory in the spirit of the medieval Muslims who accurately mapped the stars and gave them Arabic names, most of which persist today.

Sometime in the 1980s I caught wind of the Moorish Orthodox Church through the writings of Hakim Bey and in 1986, in his apartment near the Nicholas Roerich Museum I was initiated into the MOC by Hakim Bey himself and later received in the mail a scroll declaring me an "adept of the seventh chamber". Orthodox Moors are supposed to take Muslim names and since at that time I knew hardly anything about Arabic culture I asked Bey for help. "Well you could do worse than Jabir, the Eighth-Century Arab alchemist," he said. So Jabir it was. To which for euphony and reverence I added 'abd al-Khaliq.

Jabir's Observatory is equipped with two 7 x 50 binoculars, one 10 x 42 monocular, a planisphere , a bunch of astronomy books (including Stephen J. O'Meara's  Observing the Night Sky with Binoculars and A Field Guide to Stars and Planets. Plus a red head lamp to read these books without destroying night vision.

The planisphere is the modern descendant of the Arab astrolabe which was a star-based mechanical computer, the iPad of the Islamic Golden Age. One treatise on the astrolabe (by the medieval star scientist who discovered the Coathanger) lists 1000 uses (1000 astrolabe apps), including telling time, locating the constellations, and finding the direction of Mecca. My planisphere only shows which stars are visible at my latitude and where they are located for any date and time of night.

Recently I've acquired an iPad whose Sky Guide app can mirror the heavens in any location. Hold up the iPad and the stars on the screen are in the same position as the stars in the sky. You can even set the iPad on the floor and look through the Earth at Southern Hemisphere objects such as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Sky Guide is a planisphere on steroids.

Even though I only possess a viewing slot of 15 degrees, each month brings a new zodiacal sign into my observatory window. Late October's hottest attraction is the appearance of Orion and his hunting dogs high in the predawn sky.

In addition to relearning the constellations, I am trying to collect Messier objects which are 110 fuzzy objects in the sky which French astronomer Charles Messier listed as nuisances in his search for comets. Today no one remembers any of Messier's comets but Messier's non-comets are some of the most remarkable and well-studied objects in the night sky. M1, for instance, is the Crab Nebula, the remnant of a supernova explosion recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054 AD. M45 is the Pleiades.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Is Jack a Tacit Muslim?

Jack Sarfatti, celebrity physicist

When al-Sarfatt at night emerges
Into Herb Caen's Baghdad by the Bay
Seeking fortune, frivolity and fame
The stars that shine upon his aging brow:
Most bear medieval Arabic names.

Lacking algorithms, his Mac and iPhone
Would simply fail to compute.
And Jack frequently resorts to algebra
Despite its well-known Arab roots.

Like Omar Khayyam before him,
Jack depends on Arab alcohol
To soothe his cares away.
And we know Jack faces Mecca
Several times a day.

Do you spurn our Roman numerals, Jack
Because you hate the West?
"I love my Muslim numbers, Nick
Arabic numerals is the best."