3600 and Some Photos

Yesterday we were supposed to get a big thunderstorm pass through the city. Unfortunately, it passed well south and my girlfriend and I knew we were going to be out of luck.

Knowing that she had storm chassed a little in the past with some friends, on a whim I asked if she wanted to try and chase the storm. Her eyes light up and we grabbed our cameras and took to the road.

I had the task of suggesting where to go as she drove her car. I had little idea of what I was doing, but I could see from the radar images in Environment Canada’s app that we needed to head south and east of the city. She coached me a little on how you want to get close to a storm but not be in the rain. With her advice, I plotted a course out to the perimeter and off an access road not far from the city’s water reservoir.

We set up by a culvert and had an okay view of the storm. The last time I took my camera out was in the winter when we went meteor watching. I did get a single meteor that time, so I was hoping that I would have better luck with the lightning that afternoon.

I used a wild west technique with the intervalometer from Magic Lantern. Short, fast, continuous photos! With 50 photos in rapid succession, I was still missing the lighting bursts. The storm was moving away from us and we also ran into a bathroom and snack problem, having left the house without thinking about how long we’d be out photographing.

Thankfully, the truck stop known as Deacon’s Corner wasn’t too far and that would also put us on the Trans-Canada Highway and take us south-east again. Hopefully, we could catch up with it.

Back in the car, a short hop and a brief bathroom break we were back on the road, regrettably without snacks. I’ve begun to realize that there are few options for lactose intolerant people as quick road snacks. It’s either covered in chocolate or has lactic acid or whey powder. Our small thermoses of tea and coffee would have to sustain us.

We raced along the Trans-Canada making sure to stay in the speed limits and found ourselves passing a train. It was an odd feeling to be outpacing a leviathan of the rails. A quick turn off the highway put us on the opposite side of the tracks and beside a beautiful field of yellow canola.

As we set up, we had the odd drop of rain, but we never had more than a few drops at a time. The perfect distance from the storm. This time I just let my camera take pictures until it ran out of memory or battery, whichever occurred first. After a while, the train caught up with us and I turned my camera to have it visible off to the side. Mother nature was not kind enough to create any lighting as the train rumbled gently passed us. Can’t win them all.

After a while, my camera stopped taking pictures. My memory card was full. 6300 and some photos. I could only hope that I had captured some of the beautiful lighting strikes that we had seen. My girlfriend had a fraction of that, having stayed with taking 50 pictures at a time.

Back at home we slowly sifted through our photos, sipping on tea as we snuggled on the cough. Our eyes fixed on our respective computer screens. I realized that my lenses were incredibly dirty and in desperate need of a cleaning.

Thankfully though, there we did get some nice lighting shots. We would let out exclamations of excitement when we’d find one in our photos and the other would lean in to see.

In all, I managed to get 12 strikes, but only three really stood out. I combined two together because they were back to back in the sequence of photos and the combined photo turned out okay.

Not bad for an afternoon out and on the spur of the moment adventure. I hope we get to do it again this summer.


When a Theory is not a Theory

I was reading an article online from the Express when I read the following: “Black holes are often found at the hearts of galaxies and up until April this year have been purely theoretical.“ The statement threw me for a bit of a loop, mostly because black holes have been an active part of astrophysics since the discovery of Cygnus X-1 in 1971. Using the day to day word theoretical misleads the general public into thinking that black holes were not confirmed in science until this past April with the discovery of M87*’s shadow. This is a dangerous statement to make.

In day to day language, theory is used to mean a hunch or an educated guess. However, in the sphere of science, a theory is an explanation of what something is or how it works. Theories are often large bodies of work and research and are quite detailed.

Take gravity for example. Newton’s law of universal gravitation does not explain what gravity is, it only shows mathematically how two bodies affect each other through gravitational attraction. It is the theory of general relativity that explains how gravity works and what it is (a result of mass curving space-time). Black holes are part of the general theory of relativity. To start they were a mathematical quirk of Einstein’s field equations, but the discovery of Cygnus X-1 showed that black holes were not a mathematical quirk.

Further observations about black holes have been made over time adding to the theory and supporting the existence of these massive objects. Accretion disks, relativistic jets, active galactic nuclei, gravitational waves and other observations were all documented well before the Event Horizon Telescope document M87*’s shadow.

None of these observations, including the observation of a shadow, have moved black holes out of the realm of scientific theory. Instead, they help keep black holes as active parts of the general theory of relativity.

Science writers and communicators need to take extra caution when using terms like theory, theoretical, law, fact, hypothesis or conjecture. They have different meanings inside and outside of the sphere of science and using them inappropriately can build a false impression of what science does; that in turn can cause misunderstandings and mistrust of science as a whole.

I am not without fault and am often rereading and refamiliarizing myself with the different terms. It is part and parcel of the job as a science communicator. One of my go-to’s is this article from liveScience.com. Writer or reader, it is probably worth a second look and remember to give critical consideration when you see those terms in an article.