Celestial Sighting

Despite a fixation on things in and on the ground, I often marvel at the sky, especially when a friendly hiker passing me on a trail says, “Look up at the sun. Do you see that?”

Okay, so I had to abandon two childhood laws in that instant:

  1. Never talk to strangers
  2. Never look into the sun

In that instant, I was hiking along a steep canyon trail in Walnut Canyon National Monument, immersed in my ponderings about how people ever lived in the many dwellings tucked in the crevices midway up the striated cliffs AND planning the best way to fall from the trail without dying (like a loose rag doll or liked startled Wile E. Coyote).

I looked up and saw this:

The halo, nimbus, gloriole, icebow

“It’s a Sun Dog,” said the friendly hiker and her friendly companion in unison.

I did what I always do when presented with situations like this…tucked this cool term into my mental file of cool terms for natural phenomenon, snapped a picture and blurted an awkward reply to the couple, probably “cool.” Then, after the hike was done and I was back in the car with the family, I googled Sun Dog.

Even though, according to Wikipedia, the ring around the sun is not an actual Sun Dog, I’m glad I risked breaking two laws of childhood to witness it. Formed by refraction and reflection of sunlight on ice crystals in high clouds, the halo (aka a nimbus, gloriole and icebow) appears like a hazy mist around the retina-burning sun. Poets and Beatles fans might like to know that the ice crystals are also called diamond dust (tis true). The halo may be a kind of Airy Disc, which would be more poetic if Airy was an adjective, but it’s just the last name of a guy who studied them…George Biddell Airy.

p.s. Here’s how small the universe can feel sometimes. Turns out George Biddell Airy, like my great grandfather John Edensor Littlewood, was a Copley-Medal-winning mathematician at Cambridge and had things named after him (Airy had a disc, a point and a function, while Littlewood had a conjecture, a polynomial, an inequality and a grandson (if you believe the family gossip)). They probably never met, since Airy had already fallen from grace as the UK scapegoat for missing out on Neptune’s discovery before Littlewood was born.





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