A small rock in the Atlantic

All about the island of La Palma, in the Canaries.

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Friday, 29 January 2010


In aid of Haiti
There will be a fund-raising shindig for Haiti in the Plaza España of Santa Cruz on Saturday, from 10 am until 3pm. This includes a market, and a raffle. At least 6 local bands are turning out. The amateur astronomy group will set up telescopes for observing the sun (safely!), somebody's bringing "children's activities", and there's a "Recycle Art" workshop. (I wonder if that's Ruben Armichi?)

Anyway, this sounds fun, and obviously it's for a very good cause, so I hope lots of people come.

The island has an orange weather alert for Sunday, and possibly Monday, with a forecast of heavy rain.

The petrol station in Barlovento is closed, owing to a death in the family. This means that there is nowhere to buy petrol between Llano Negro, in Garafía, and Los Sauces. If you're driving around the north of the island, you'll need about a quarter of a tank to get between these places.

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Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Star Finders

Galaxy M100 taken with the Isaac Newton Telescope and Wide Field Camera by Simon Driver.
M100 (NGC 4321), a barred galaxy in the Virgo cluster

There's a really simple reason why the Royal Greenwich Observatory moved their telescopes here. It's one of the three best places in the world for astronomy.

A modern telescope could see the equivalent of a candle on the moon, so obviously they want to be well away from city lights. Even more obviously, they want to be somewhere that doesn't get many cloudy nights.

Much less obviously, they want to be somewhere the stars don't twinkle. This happens when the air's turbulent. It's pretty, but it really messes up your view.

There are three places in the world which are great on all three counts, and La Palma is one of them. (The other two are the peak of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and the Atacama Desert in Chile.)

The problem is to keep it that way.

When the observatory moved here, they asked for, and got, an agreement to limit things like street lights. Los Llanos has a street with lamps which remind me of 1950's hairdryers - the sort that go all around your head.

Recently the island government committed to spending over a million euros to update the streetlights to reduce the light pollution even further.

The result of all this is that La Palma is a great place for amateur astronomers, too. Even in a resort, people notice how many more stars you see here, compared to almost any English town or city. Here's another picture, this time of M51, taken by my friends in Franceses with an 80mm amateur telescope on their first night's astronomy since they moved here. Of course there's a lot of skill involved too. But they used to live in Streatham, and no amount of skill would produce that kind of result there.

If you want to recognise the constellations, the best solution is something called a planisphere. This is two special circles of plastic fastened at the centre. Twirl them until the date on one lines up with the time on the other, and you get a picture of the night sky for the right time, date, and position on the planet. (In fact you want to set the time for an hour later than GMT because clocks on La Palma are set just one hour behind Madrid, which leaves us in the same time zone as
London, but a long way west.)

If you bring a UK planisphere with you, everything will be shifted and it won't show the southern stars at all.

Perhaps surprisingly, the best one for the Canaries is titled "Hawaii, Mexico, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan." This is because you have to buy one for the correct latitude (your distance north or south of the equator) but the longitude (east-west distance from London) doesn't matter, because you compensate for that when you set the time.

Amazon.co.uk sells normally sells them for £6.99 (at left), although the last time I looked they only had a used one, (and it was more expensive). If you want a UK planisphere, it's slightly cheaper (at right).

Amazon.com also sell them. The one for La Palma is $13.87 (below)
Philips Planisphere from Amazon.com

Happy stargazing!

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Sunday, 24 January 2010

Almond Blosson on La Palma

Almond blossom in Garafia, La Palma IslandAlmond blossom in Garafia

The north-west of the island is home to great many almond trees, and at this time of the year, they're all blossoming.

The trees in El Paso and Garafía are beautiful, but the best display of all is at Puntagorda. In fact Puntagorda hosts an annual almond blossom fiesta. The date varies -- the Town Hall sets it a couple of weeks in advance, to (hopefully) coincide with the best blossom.

At noon on Sunday, February 1st, there's the traditional pensioners' almond cracking contest. The winner will be the person who produces the most shelled and unbroken almonds.

On Friday 5th there will be football competitions (for men and women)at 4pm, plus a disco in the community hall at 10 pm followed by and music in the street.

On Saturday 6th at 10 pm there will be a concert and dance in the Community Centre, followed by music and dancing in the street.

The main day is Sunday 7th.

Starting at noon, they'll have bouncy castles in the school playground, and a photo exhibition in the cultural centre (about the delightfully silly Battle of Lepanto fiesta in Barlovento), and dances in the cultural centre, the sports centre, and the street,

I expect they'll have the usual street market, and they'll be giving out free wine and almonds. Be warned that the wine may well have been stored in barrels made of tea (pronounced tay-ah) which gives it a resiny taste. Some people love it. I don't.

The programme is up on the web at http://almendros.puntagorda.es/.

Almond blossom in Puntagorda, La Palma islandAlmond blossom from the Mirador (viewpoint) de Millflores in Puntagorda

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