Halo, how ya doin’?

The entire universe in blog form
March 18 2005 4:44 PM

Halo, how ya doin’?

The other day I was walking across the campus here in California, and I saw a nice halo around the Sun. Well, really only the top half of the halo; the bottom half was cut off because of clouds. Halos are really pretty-- ethereal circles of diffuse light around the Sun caused by sunlight bending around inside of ice crystals in the air. It's getting late in the season for halos, because soon enough it'll be too warm for ice crystals. So it was a nice surprise to see one.

The best one I ever saw was a couple of years ago. I had just dropped my daughter off at school, and glanced up in the sky. The halo was vivid, as if it were etched into a crystal hemisphere. It was flanked by two teardrop-shaped flares of light called parhelia, or more often called sundogs. The sundogs stretched out to either side, focusing into lines of light that shot straight out, parallel to the horizon, nearly halfway around the sky. I had never seen the like.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Advertisement

I was stunned, mesmerized by what I saw. It was beautiful. See for yourself: I took the picture above of the event (click on it for a bigger version). You can see the sundogs and everything. It was a real stunner. To be honest, this image is actually a mosaic of several smaller shots, combined by an artist with whom I work.

Anyway, I ran back inside the school to grab the kids and show them the halo. They all "oohed" and "ahhhhed", and I explained how the ice crystals bent the light and all that. After a while they went back in, and I started home. On the way back, I saw a woman I knew vaguely (I see her a lot on the way to dropping off my daughter). I showed her the halo too. Her reaction was not what I expected.

She gasped, looked at it for a moment, and then asked me, "What does it mean?"

I gawked at her for a second. "What do you mean, 'what does it mean'?" I asked.

She looked right back at me. Her tone was more plaintive. "What does it mean?" she repeated.

"It doesn't mean anything," I replied. "It just is."

She watched me for a moment, then turned back to the sky. I waited for her to say something more, but when she didn't, I began walking back home again, leaving her to try to extract some sort of purpose from a random event.

Humans are pattern-seeking animals, and we constantly look for meaning in our lives. I don't think that halo really meant anything. It wasn't a sign, an omen, a harbinger, or a portent of anything.

What it was, was pretty. And interesting, in a scientific way, but really, it was just very pretty. Can't that be enough?

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 9:26 AM These Lego Masterpieces Capture the Fear and Humor of the “Dark” Side
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 8:46 AM The Vintage eBay Find I Wore to My Sentencing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.