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Groundhogs Day and February Nights

By: Dr. John Smetanka
Posted Fri., February 1, 2013

February is a month that gets short-changed.  With the fewest number of days and only a couple of minor holidays (sorry Valentine’s and President’s days), one may be forgiven for looking past it and forward to the week off at spring break and the vernal equinox in March. Groundhogs DayThe second day of this shortest month brings the western Pennsylvania created Groundhogs Day. While I have never had the pleasure to trek north to Punxsutawney to witness Phil the groundhog’s meteorological prowess, I have watched the movie Groundhogs Day several times.   

For those who have not watched the movie or have forgotten the plot, a self-absorbed and not very likeable Pittsburgh weather man, Phil Connors, portrayed brilliantly by Bill Murray, wakes up every morning, day after day, on February 2nd in Punxsutawney.  His life gets stuck in time and space repeating the same 24 hours over and over.  Only Phil Connors remembers all the previous consecutive second days of February.  After realizing he is trapped, he chooses to live these 24 hours in a variety of different ways, at first indulging his appetites (for instance, stealing, eating, and carousing)  then falling into fits of suicidal depression (including driving off a quarry cliff with Phil the groundhog). He explores the possibility that he is a god, but finds that even in this strange universe he is indeed mortal, not all-knowing or all-powerful. Each morning, no matter how he lived (or died) in the past 24 hours, he awakens to the same song at 6am on February 2nd. 

The movie provokes a number of fun philosophical exercises on questions of time, purpose, community, fate, and a progressive verse a cyclical view of life. At its heart, I believe Groundhogs Day presents an allegory for how to find happiness. In the end, Phil Connors decides to transform himself and in the process wins the affections of the town-folk and Rita his producer, who he has grown to love.  He focuses on self-improvement and doing good deeds for other. He finds happiness and a good life on February 2nd and thus escapes to a new dawn on February 3rd. 

Valentines Day Sky 2013  

Sky Map for February 14, 2013 at 8:00pm 

February nights are some of the best for stargazing. As the star chart below shows, the winter sky has more than its share of bright stars. This month the planet Jupiter also graces the evening sky near the zenith (the highest point in the sky).  In the southern sky, Orion will be close to the meridian all month and the brightest star (other than the Sun) Sirius shines brightly below Orion in the southeastern sky.  In the northern sky, the Big Dipper is beginning to climb higher in the sky above the horizon.  On Valentine’s day evening, a thick crescent moon will grace the sky. 

 OrionAs we look toward the constellation Orion, we are looking down the nearest spiral arm of our galaxy and directly away from the Milky Way’s center. Spiral arms contain star-forming molecular clouds.  In these clouds, clumps of cold gas and dust collapse until their centers heat to a temperature of tens of millions of degrees, nuclear fusion begins, and a star is born.  The Orion Nebula, the middle of three "stars" in the sword of Orion when magnified reveals itself as one of these stellar nurseries.  The image below provides a sharp view of the Orion Nebula from the Hubble Space Telescope. At its center four very massive, hot, blue stars ionize the edge of the giant molecular cloud causing the plasma to glow in brilliant colors.  Hundreds of other smaller, young stars are forming at the cloud’s edge.  In time a new cluster of stars will form and within the next three million years, the four most massive stars at the nebula’s center will explode – each in turn shining as brightly as the entire Milky Way for a few weeks as a supernova. 

 Orion Nebula 

 

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Dr. John Smetanka,
Academic Affairs

Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January, 2008.