Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, July 23

For once, a comet that didn't disappoint

I’ve spent the last several nights chasing a comet, in part because I know how difficult they are to catch and in part because I just needed the escape.

The comet is called Neowise, and it has been in the northwest sky at night since early last week. (Prior to that, it had been an early-morning fixture.) I’ve been out away from lighted areas — of which, we have too much of, even here — with binoculars, a telescope and a camera to take this fleeting moment in. (I’ve also captured images like this.)

Millions of people have seen Neowise, which is in some ways surprising. From my experience, most comets are generally comprised of ice, dust, gases and disappointment.

Someone asked me last week how many comets I’ve ever seen. There have been a few, and Neowise will stand out along with 1997’s Hale-Bopp among the best. But the duds and letdowns have outnumbered the standouts.

For instance, Comet Kohoutek in 1973 was hyped as a potentially great sight — echoing longtime comparisons I’d always heard about Halley’s Comet. But Kohoutek was decidedly a fizzle; I don’t think I ever caught a glimpse of it.

The return of the legendary Halley’s Comet in 1986, which has had several memorable appearances throughout human history and therefore generated years of buildup, was a sad disappointment in more ways than one. It was barely visible — the earth and the comet were on different sides of the sun this time around — and didn’t come close to the stories of its previous visit in 1910, when it was said to be visible even in daylight. For me, the worst thing was that my grandfather, who saw the comet as a boy in 1910 and was looking forward to seeing it twice in his lifetime (which most people never do), never caught a glimpse of it. That magnified the letdown.

There was also a comet last December called 2I/Borisov that was hyped in some articles as a potentially great Christmas spectacle. But it took me a very long time to find it with binoculars, and when I did, it looked like a small, discouraging smudge in the bleak winter night.

A lot can go wrong with comets. Often, they can break up before they reach their potential, and that caveat was riding with Neowise since its discovery in late March. (I suppose it could fairly be remembered as the “COVID comet.”) I was reflexively expecting it to fizzle out, so I never really got interested in it until about two weeks ago — until I knew for sure this was going to be something.

Neowise hasn’t disappointed, and I’ve been looking at it most nights. Here’s why: I may see another comet come along in, say, six months or a few years — or I may never see one again. They’re fickle, unstable phenomena, so I wanted to enjoy it as much as I could.

This comet brought back memories of Hale-Bopp, a once-in-a-generation comet, from the spring of 1997. I recall being in the countryside one late-March night with a 9-year-old niece in tow tracking down the comet. It was a perfect early evening, and the world was silent as Hale-Bopp soared in the fading northwest twilight. I said to my niece, “You remember this.” And last week, she did, as she went out watching Neowise with her baby daughter along.

But this comet brought back another memory from Hale-Bopp — as well as from the solar eclipse in 2017 and, honestly, from most every time I stop for a while and just look up at the stars.

As I watched both comets (and the eclipsed sun), I felt totally alone — other than that object in the sky, that aforementioned escape that both electrified and soothed my mind. I felt unfettered, removed from the debris of everyday life, and was instead locked in on this thing sailing in the heavens. Nothing else mattered in those moments; nothing else got in the way. It was a sense not only of wonder but also of peace, both of which are simply too elusive in this noisy age.

In fact, in any age and at any age.

Neowise is fading quickly, and the light of the rising, waxing moon will also gradually compromise the darkness one needs to really see what’s left of this show, which will return in about 6,800 years. But these memories will glow bright for a relatively long time to come. So will the peaceful feeling that came with seeing a cosmic display that lived up to its promise, for once.

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Madison Daily Leader, July 23

Back-to-school plans are hardest to make

Making plans for the K-12 fall semester is among the hardest things this generation of school administrators have ever had to do.

There are so many people to consider: students, parents, teachers, staff, day care providers, and after-school program operators. The health and well-being -- physical, mental and social -- of all of them is at the top of their minds, but decisions are extremely hard to make.

Yes, some people see the issue as clearcut: send children to school or keep them home, but the issue is much more complicated than that.

Let’s discuss just a few of the many issues:

Physical health -- Preventing spread of the virus requires people to stay distanced, but it isn’t always clear how much isolation is necessary. Six feet apart? Wear masks or not? How much hand-washing and sanitization? How much testing? What if family members are sick?

Mental health -- Most observers are recognizing that complete isolation is not good for mental health, especially among young, developing students. Staying home for months at a time can be serious.

Unique health conditions -- Public schools have many students who have underlying health conditions, some of them known to district staff, some not. While the coronavirus typically doesn’t harm children as much as older people, those with special conditions are susceptible.

Faculty and staff -- It isn’t clear about the transmission of the virus from seemingly healthy children to adults. Could a healthy, active student give the virus to another student or teacher?

Care of youngsters -- Madison Central has about 1,165 students. Let’s say the youngest third of them need to be supervised if they aren’t in school. That’s nearly 400 students who would need to go to day care, need a parent to stay home or need another friend or relative to supervise them. That’s a substantial stress on a community.

There are many more issues that complicate decisions. But we feel strongly that school administrators are doing their absolute best to decide how the fall semester should go. While not everyone will agree with their decisions, these administrators certainly have the best interests of all concerned in their minds.

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