What Will Happen?

April 30, 2005 at 19:16 pm | Leave a Comment

One of the things that has always fascinated me about public understanding of science is the question that somebody asks, and then immediately apologizes for asking a dumb question. Folks, there is NO such thing as a dumb question, but there are people who think they’ll LOOK dumb by asking something they think everybody but them knows the answer to.

One of those questions is “What’ll happen to the Sun?” Well, it’s a valid one. We’ve all heard that the Sun is about halfway through its life, that it’s about 4.5 billion years old. So, that suggests that in another five and a half billion years, something will happen. But what?

To tell you the truth, that’s a question we’ve been grappling with on this project I’m writing for. The current story is that the Sun will end its days as a white dwarf. Somewhere between now and that time, however, it might go through a giant phase and then a planetary nebula phase before it approaches white dwarfdom.

It’s a nice, orderly progression that satisfies our sense of science marching onward, but is it really going to happen? Maybe yes. Maybe no.

Not exactly what you want to know, is it? Well, science is like that. Based on the best available data, we try to give answers. When the data and models change, then the answers change. It doesn’t mean the original answer was wrong. It just means the data changed what we think is going to happen. If you give somebody directions down to the nearest shopping center or gas station and they come back and tell you that the stores are not there anymore, you weren’t wrong in your directions. You just didn’t know the truth of the matter.

So, what’s the truth of the matter when it comes to talking about the ultimate demise of our star? The current storyline could be written something like this: in about five billion or so years, the Sun will stop burning hydrogen in its core and start burning helium. The outer layers will expand with the added heat that is given off in the nuclear process, and the Sun may well become some sort of giant star. It may engulf Mercury. The orbits of Venus, Earth and possibly Mars could get shifted outward a bit. Then, after some amount of time, the outer atmosphere will blow off, and maybe (maybe!) there will be a planetary nebula surrounding the slowly shrinking (but still very hot) core of what’s left of the Sun. If there’s enough mass left over, the Sun will become a white dwarf.

That all sounds pretty iffy, but that’s the way it goes. Science aims to get us enough data to understand (and explain) these things. Right now the data point toward our Sun going through this set of steps in the far distant future. It’s a great story and I’d love to be around to see it happen!

However, keep in mind that some new data and observations could come in that will change this storyline—maybe subtly, maybe in a big way. That’s the way science works, too. And that is it’s greatest strength!

Where Were YOU 15 Years Ago?

April 25, 2005 at 18:49 pm | Leave a Comment
A Pillar of Creation

A Pillar of Creation

It seems like not too long ago we were all waiting for the first images from the newly launched Hubble Space Telescope. April 26, 1990 was a date that so many scientists and engineers had looked forward to for so long. HST was officially “started” in the late 1970s, when a group of scientists brought forward a proposal to build an orbiting observatory that would far outpace anything that had been flown. It wasn’t a new idea. The German rocket scientist Herman Oberth had written about an orbiting mirror back in the early decades of the 20th century. But, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the momentum to loft an observatory like HST really began to pick up. The Challenger disaster certainly delayed the launch of the telescope, so by the time it left the pad at Cape Canaveral, everybody in the astronomy community was ready for great things.

Of course, we all know what came after HST’s launch—the heartbreak of the discovery of spherical aberration in the optical system. That marked the beginning of many dark days for HST scientists and staffers. But, remarkably, they pulled through and the telescope has been transformed from what Barbara Mikulsky (D-Md) called a “technoturkey” to one that she and others have hailed for its many and varied discoveries.

The image posted here is one of the more than 700,000 photos taken with this incredibly productive telescope. It’s a view of another pillar of gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula (M16), a starbirth nursery some 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Serpens.

Take a few moments to browse the Hubble Space Telescope outreach site and celebrate the amazing 15-year odyssey HST has taken us on across the cosmos.

She Went Where?

April 16, 2005 at 21:33 pm | Leave a Comment

It has been a few days since I wrote last. I have a good excuse though, since I now find myself in New York City working on a tres cool project! The Griffith Observatory (read more about it here: the Griffith Observatory renovation project) was looking for a person to do some writing for their exhibits and I thought it sounded like an interesting challenge. One thing led to another and here I am, putting all that astronomy knowledge to work for an institution I’ve long admired. No, I haven’t moved permanently to NYC, in fact, I’ll be spending a lot of time between home (in Massachusetts) and NYC over the next few months. Through the wonders of the Internet (thank you, Al Gore), I can post from anywhere, and so I’ll resume my blog entries as I can. I have a lot of time on trains and planes…

Domological Ch-Ch-Changes

April 3, 2005 at 10:32 am | Leave a Comment

A group of us were talking about the evolution of planetariums last night over a nice dinner at the Outback Steak House. I’ve mentioned before how the whole planetarium community is facing a great many challenges in the digital age, and to the outside eye they may look like technological challenges only. But there are associated sociological changes that are starting to crop up, some within the community and a few outside of it.

One of the topics on the table (along with dinner) last night was a press release we all saw within recent weeks put out by a group in a university trumpeting a new “planetarium” show they had created with NSF funding. Among their claims was that their show wasn’t like the old-fashioned planetarium shows (implied to be dull and dry), with “voice of god” narrators and the like. I had somewhat mixed reactions to their commentary for several reasons: they aren’t associated with the planetarium community (the group isn’t, the planetarium they’re using as a test bed is though), their show isn’t about astronomy (which isn’t bad, more on that in a moment), and they seem to be rebelling against a show style that hasn’t been in vogue for a while as many of us have moved to more creative approaches using single narrators and well-written scripts along with multimedia visuals. More to the point, none of the planetariums in their immediate vicinity have run shows like that in quite a while.

The style (single-narrator science show) they inherently slapped in the face (because I suspect that one of the team leaders once saw a show like that a long time ago) is used along with many other show styles across the community, and in fact, in many IMAX and Discovery Channel films. I chalked their boasting up to just that: boasting. There’s no doubt the group has created an inventive program and for that I applaud them. But there’s no need to take down the rest of the community in order to build up their own institutional ego. They may very well have to depend on the rest of the community’s good will to get their show into other domes.

Aside from that, the technological connection of their show to the dome is that it runs on a fulldome system, and while it doesn’t have a tie to astronomy, the show is a perfect use of the new fulldome technology. And this does open up planetarium theaters to other science presentations. Some may argue that using a planetarium dome for anything other than astronomy is something of a perversion of the historical use and development of the planetarium. And they’d be right. But they’d also be wrong, since astronomy is so interconnected to so many other sciences, I don’t think it’s at all inappropriate to show other science presentations in there.

Of course this changes the definition of the word “planetarium.” Mark Petersen goes into this in a lot more detail in his recent musing article posted to a planetarium listserv called “What the Heck is a Planetarium, Anyway?” And that’s a definition we’ll all wrangle with for a while.

Related to the hubris of the press release I cited up above, we’ve heard tales of museum administrators so totally buying into the new fulldome technologies that they’ve issued edicts like “We don’t want to see anything like a planetarium show in there anymore! We want razzle-dazzle.”

Ooohhhkaaaayyyyy… it’s a valid viewpoint. It may be a bit misguided, since science is not always about razzle-dazzle. But apparently science museums are more than just about razzle-dazzle. They’re also about fannies in the seats, how many folks can we get into an exhibit/show/lecture/etc. and fulfill the museum’s mission statement (and satisfy the bottom line)? These are tough issues to bring together if one wants to run a successful museum and planetarium complex. But, to say that a show must have razzle-dazzle is putting style above substance. In my mind the two should be co-equal, because I’ve also seen what happens when substance is put above style. You get dry and dull offerings, and even the most exciting science results can be rendered impossible to understand by a boring presentation style.

So, one of the sociological divides in the planetarium community could well get boiled down to “Hollywood-style entertainment” vs. “Your Father’s Planetarium Show Style.” If you’ve been to the movie theater lately, you know what Hollywood style is like. To my mind there HAS to be a way to take the best of Hollywood style and the best of science and make it into an educational and entertaining piece of work. Not necessarily razzle-dazzle for its own sake, but solid work that satisfies on many levels.

Guess what? I’ve done it for many years, and so have others in the field. We don’t always get the recognition we deserve, except perhaps in letters of thanks from our colleagues for creating shows that appeal to the public. And we didn’t have to run anybody else’s work down in the process.

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Inama Nushif!
Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)

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