Strange Universe | WAMC

Strange Universe

Sundays, 9:35 a.m.
  • Hosted by Bob Berman

Astronomer Bob Berman sheds light on the mysteries of space and time. Always fascinating and fun, Strange Universe will take you places you never knew existed. Learn why Betelgeuse sometimes goes weirdly dim and how after the totality in 2017 in places like Wyoming and the Carolinas, millions finally got to see a total solar eclipse.

Strange Universe 9/6/20

Sep 6, 2020

This weekend we take a look at Neptune, which is now at its brightest and closest of the year. Neptune is an enormous blue gassy ball 58 times larger than Earth by volume. It’s the only planet invisible to the naked eye, and currently lurks among the dim stars of Aquarius.  It's now out all night long.

Strange Universe 8/30/20

Aug 30, 2020
NASA Saturn
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

In our culture of publicity and hard sell, it's easy to exaggerate, but one planet never disappoints. Through any telescope with more than 30x, Saturn elicits gasps. Strangely enough, photos of the ringed world do not pack the same visceral punch. You have to see it for yourself and now is the time. Saturn is at its closest and biggest and it will remain perfect for viewing for the next several months. Those fabled rings are still nicely angled for our viewing, far from edgewise, revealing exquisite detail, like the inky black gap that separates the narrower darker outer ring from the broad white inner one.

Strange Universe 8/23/20

Aug 23, 2020
NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)

Jupiter came closest to Earth a few weeks ago, so it will dominate the sky all this month and for the rest of the year. Jupiter is in Capricornus, the Sea Goat, but you don't need to know what a Sea Goat is, or anything else to find it. Just look around the sky any time before dawn, for the very brightest star. It’s astronomy made simple.

Strange Universe 8/16/20

Aug 16, 2020

We just saw the finest comet of the past 23 years. It brings up the topic of what constitutes a true celestial spectacle. When it comes to objects of terrestrial beauty, people travel around the world to get a glimpse of the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal. So what are the true sky spectacles? Tune in this Sunday to hear the top five celestial sights that never disappoint.

Strange Universe 8/9/20

Aug 9, 2020

The year’s best meteor shower is now underway. So far you’d see just a few extra shooting stars per hour. But when we reach the nights of August 11th and 12th we will see a meteor every two minutes or so, especially if we’re away from the lights of town.

Strange Universe 8/2/20

Aug 2, 2020

That's Venus, popping out at you just before dawn. It's the single brilliant star low in the east as twilight brightens. If you’re up and out, you can't miss it. And in case you do, it'll stick around right there the whole rest of the year. You probably already know that this nearest world to Earth has shiny overcast clouds that brilliantly reflect the sun. Maybe you also know that it's the slowest spinning object in the known universe. It barely rotates at all. One Venus day lasts as long as 243 of ours. You could walk faster than it spins.

Strange Universe 7/26/20

Jul 26, 2020

Is the moon out of fashion? Well, beginners in astronomy are usually disappointed by the full moon, which looks boring because the sun then shines straight down like a flash camera to erase all shadows and highlights. But all moon phases are not created equal. The year's best moon for observers is happening these nights. That's when it suddenly explodes with breathtaking detail for anyone with binoculars or a small telescope and the phase responsible for these sudden riches is the first quarter.

Strange Universe 7/19/20

Jul 19, 2020

Sunlight is good for human health. And even the small percentage of it that’s ultraviolet is good, because it makes our skin generate vitamin D. But as you know, too much UV can give you a burn. And too many burns can spell skin cancer down the road. Right now, the sun’s UV is at its strongest of the year. About 1 percent of the light hitting a sunbather is UV, which translates into a million trillion photons per second. All are capable of altering DNA and epidemiologists have found that every 1 percent increase in lifetime UV exposure produces a 1 percent hike in skin cancer incidence. Obviously the bottom line is: avoid most of it.

Strange Universe 7/12/20

Jul 12, 2020

Everyone knows the terms waxing and waning, but relatively few of your friends could look at a moon and instantly tell which it is. So let's make it easy. The waxing moon is lit up on the right. It's the moon you see during the weeks before full moon. It's also the moon that's already out when darkness falls, so it's the one seen by the most people: the dinnertime moon.

Strange Universe 7/5/20

Jul 5, 2020

The lowest full moon of 2020 happens during the opening minutes of Sunday, July 5th. This will be the most amber or honey-colored full moon of the year, especially when it rises, at sunset Saturday evening. This full moon may be the true origin of the word “honeymoon” -- since it is amber or honey-colored, thanks to its light shining through the maximum amount of thick horizon air, which reddens the sun and moon whenever they’re low. In actuality, the term "honeymoon" was first recorded in 1552. The idea back then was that a marriage is like the phases of the moon, with the full moon being analogous to a wedding; meaning, it's the happiest and "brightest" time in a relationship.

Strange Universe 6/28/20

Jun 28, 2020

We’ve always noticed that winter is cloudy. But now we’ll experience the year's sunniest period in our region. We went from being 62% cloudy from November through April, to 63% clear now through October, so let’s focus on this relatively short blue sky period. It lets us enjoy stargazing and moon watching – with the very best time to view the moon happening this weekend, when the half-moon provides stunning contrasts on craters through even the smallest telescopes. 

Strange Universe 6/21/20

Jun 21, 2020

This is not just Father’s Day and the solstice weekend, but also the New Moon. It starts what astronomers call a new lunation – day zero of the lunar month. A new moon is utterly invisible because it displays only its dark side and also sits near the sun in the daytime sky, lost in glare. But in popular speech many define "new moon" as the skinny crescent, first seen two evenings later. Millions around the world will then look for the reappearance of the moon as a thin crescent.

Strange Universe 06/14/20

Jun 14, 2020

Now that warm weather is here, we're leaving windows open, which brings up the topic of our planet’s atmosphere. 

The air is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, which leaves just one percent for everything else. Very few know that this is almost entirely argon – an inert gas our body has no use for. 

More interesting is the air’s tiny bit of carbon dioxide, since climate change has made it into a villain.

Strange Universe 6/7/20

Jun 7, 2020
Solar eclipse
A Owen

A total solar eclipse can make people weep, that's how awesome it is; but the total part is important. Only during a solar totality do pink flames leap from the sun's edge, and animals go crazy, and stars come out in the daytime. None of that happens during a partial solar eclipse, which can't even be safely observed without eye protection. So if you want to be swept away, it's totality or nothing. 

Strange Universe 5/31/20

May 31, 2020
Wikimedia Commons

This coming Wednesday, details gets skimpier, but the moon starts brightening explosively, doubling its brilliance in just two nights until we reach next Friday’s full phase. The nights are now warm, and the air scintillates with magic. If you own any old telescope, now is the time to check out the Moon.

Strange Universe 5/24/20

May 24, 2020

Einstein believed in locality. That’s the common sense principle that an object is influenced only by its surroundings. A kind of supplementary principle is local realism -- that all objects have actual properties independent of any measurement of them. Tune in this week as we observe the reason why large objects like Saturn do dwell in specific places and have motion.

Strange Universe 5/17/20

May 17, 2020

It’s common in journalism to present two sides to every story. So every bad news bulletin should have some good news. And this motif actually applies to the entire universe. Now in mid-May, for example, we’ve entered the three-week period when the dazzling Evening Star is largest and most interestingly crescent-shaped though binoculars and small telescopes. The bad news is that when this happens, it means Venus will disappear in less than a month.

Strange Universe 5/10/20

May 10, 2020

The sun is getting high up and strong, yet we take it for granted. Not many regard it with primitive awe, or find it amazing that a ball of fire crosses the sky every day.

Strange Universe 5/1/20

May 3, 2020


Gaze up at nightfall, around 8:30. There, in the last fading blushes of twilight, you’ll see Venus, which has dominated the West for months. It’s also called The Evening Star. Take it in, because big changes are starting to happen and you don’t want to miss the show.

Strange Universe 4/26/20

Apr 26, 2020

This weekend, especially Sunday night, the dazzling evening star hovers near the crescent Moon. It’s a stunning sight, but there’s even more to it than meets the eye. If you point a small telescope or even binoculars at brilliant Venus, you’ll see that, it too, has a crescent shape.   

Strange Universe 4/19/20

Apr 19, 2020

After the Moon, Venus is the brightest thing in the night sky. Nothing else even comes close. No wonder civilizations through the ages worshiped it. These days most people seem unaware of our sister planet, the nearest celestial body after the Moon, which is also called The Evening Star. Right now, Venus has reached its greatest separation from the sun while standing high above where the sun set. These are rare, perfect conditions that make Venus appear as high up as is ever possible. 

Strange Universe 4/12/20

Apr 12, 2020

You’ve probably heard that the famous star Betelgeuse has gotten weirdly dim. In past autumn it faded and faded until it was no longer an eye-catching object in its constellation of Orion. Nobody quite knew what was going on or how long the dimming would last. Nobody had seen it this faint since 1941. Added to the fact that Betelgeuse is the type of supergiant that will eventually explode into a supernova, well, that made many folks nervous.

Strange Universe 4/5/20

Apr 6, 2020

Who hasn’t heard of the Seven sisters – also known as the Pleiades?  It’s the most beautiful star cluster, and the most famous. It’s obvious to the naked eye and stunning through binoculars, and these nights it’s unusually easy to find.

Strange Universe 3/29/20

Mar 29, 2020

A major display of the northern lights is unforgettable, and if you've ever seen an exploding meteor, you've never forgotten it. But one natural celestial sight tops all of those, a total solar eclipse. Not a lunar eclipse and certainly not a partial solar eclipse. After the totality in 2017 in places like Wyoming and the Carolinas, millions finally got to see one. 

Strange Universe 3/22/20

Mar 22, 2020

Follow Orion's belt downard to the left, it points to Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky. Orbiting it every 50 years is a tiny star, and nothing about it is ordinary. 

Strange Universe 3/15/20

Mar 15, 2020
Larisa Koshkina

Spring, marked by the vernal equinox, will occur on March 19 in all U.S. time zones. This has not happened since spring 1896. Host Bob Berman covers leap years and why we have this early start to spring.

Strange Universe 3/8/20

Mar 8, 2020
Arek Socha

With the clocks now changing, it brings up the subject of time. The question of time's reality has boggled philosophers and scientists for centuries. We see two opposing views: Isaac Newton who recognized time as inherently real, and Immanuel Kant who claimed time is not an actual entity, but a framework devised by humans. 

Strange Universe 3/1/20

Mar 1, 2020

If you enjoy vocabulary items you'll probably get pleasure in the word subitize. Some elementary school teachers now use that concept. It's the ability to immediately perceive how many objects you're looking at without counting them. Those who know constellations also subitize as well. When we see Orion, the three belt stars are an obvious formation; we don't have to count one-two-three to determine if they are hidden behind a cloud.  

Strange Universe 2/23/20

Feb 23, 2020

The new moon, low in the West, is taking the shape of smile. Watch the western horizion at dusk the next several evenings, and if its clear, you'll spot that slender, smiling crescent.

Strange Universe 2/16/20

Feb 16, 2020

Things in the night sky are radically changing their brightness. Of course, we all know that the moon alters its phase and its brightness, but the big inconstant headline maker these days is the famous star Betelgeuse because it’s dimmer than anyone has seen in a century.