All The Universe in a Few Words



July 16, 2006 at 12:39 pm | Leave a Comment

Later this year I’ll be going out to see the new exhibits at Griffith Observatory. It should be an interesting experience, seeing all our work up on the walls of the newly expanded exhibit space. Lately I’ve been thinking about astronomy and public interest in it, and how museums and planetariums and observatories do the job. We went to a planetarium meeting in Florida a few weeks back, and one of the evening festivities was a contest where planetarians volunteered to stand up and give a star talk. The idea was that we’d vote on the best star-talker. It was an interesting experience. As you might imagine, the range of public speaking and storytelling ability spanned from pretty good to adequate (and allowing for nervousness because most of us don’t give talks in front of our peers too often).

I find the same span of quality in science writing, ranging from articles in the paper to exhibits at museums. Certainly having spent more than a year now writing exhibits for the Griffith project, I have way more insight into the challenges caption writers face in museums than I used to. And, frankly, I used to NOT read too many of the exhibit captions. That’s changed now, mostly because I want to see how what I did stacks up against other museum exhibits.

Interestingly, just as no two planetarium lecturers do their thing quite the same way, no two museum exhibit captioning approaches are alike. That stands to reason, since each museum has its curatorial outlook and “voice” (just as every lecturer has a preferred “MO” when giving public talks). I’ve seen captions written so densely and confusingly that it’s amazing anybody can figure out what they mean. The curator in charge of those captions felt that the audience needed to be “lectured to” and told what to think about the exhibit. In other places, the language has been very conversational, or in at least one exhibit I visited, the language was terse to the point of being little more than labels without interpretation.

All fodder for those of us who palpitate over how best to inform people about astronomy. I’m in the “tell them the story, but explain the language you’re using” school of thought. This leads to such things as a planetarium show about Mars where I used as many Mars place names as I could so that people could get used to “thinking on Mars” during the show. So, I got away with Vallis Marineris and Ares Valles, along with Olympus Mons and Utopia Planitia. But, I didn’t get to use Margaritifer Sinus. Now that I’m writing a new show about Mars, however, I get to use MORE place names, like Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum. Even though those names are in the news, however, I still need to explain them.

There’s a lot of really cool stuff to talk about in astronomy and planetary science. It does require defining a lot of terms, especially the ones the scientists toss around in their press conferences. Some of the hottest news in astronomy these days is in the area of cosmology, where research is focused on the era of “epoch of reionization”&emdash;a time in cosmic history beginning around 150 million years after the Big Bang when the first stars began to shine. “Epoch of reionization” is very precise but it doesn’t tell the lay person what it means, unless you can decode the language (epoch=”time” or “era” and reionization=”a complex process whereby the first stars and quasars emitted radiation that reionized (basically heated and therefore caused more radiation (and light) to shine) the universe”). It’s actually easier to explain (if not quite as precise) by calling that the time of “first light.” But it does get the idea across.

The evolution of the universe

The evolution of the universe

And sometimes, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Here’s a graphic representation of the early universe (courtesy of Haystack Observatory).

That complexity of the language of astronomy is what I face as a science writer every day. But hey, it’s a complex universe out there, and all the processes and events and objects are described in the language of physics and astrophysics. And, somebody has to translate all that into plain English so the folks who are doctors and lawyers and teachers and bus drivers and airline pilots and nurses and school kids and preachers and politicians and computer programmers and moviemakers and actors and&emdash;you name it&emdash;can understand what the astronomers and astrophysicists and cosmologists are discovering out there in the universe.

So, when I visit Griffith, I will look at our exhibits and my words and see how well they get the ideas across. We’ve packed a LOT of astronomy and planetary science into 158+ exhibit panels, and I hope our approach is one that works for the public.





To Boldly Video…



July 14, 2006 at 16:46 pm | Leave a Comment

I think I’m usually pretty blasé about stuff. I mean, I can log in every day and see new pictures from Mars and Saturn, almost as if we had webcams at those planets. And, during shuttle missions, I routinely have a little window open on my computer, showing the astronauts on the shuttle or ISS doing spacewalks or whatever. But, the other day I ran across a listing of shuttle launch videos that blew me away. These were taken during the launch of STS-121 from the vantage point of cameras mounted near the solid rocket boosters from launch up until the boosters separated from the shuttle and main tank. These really DO take you where no one has gone before! GO check them out!

Launch videos (under the heading “STS-121 Solid Rocket Boosters videos).





Unseen Influences



July 9, 2006 at 19:40 pm | Leave a Comment

I was standing in the checkout line today at the grocery store and the title of one of those little pocketbooks caught my eye: Cat Astrology. And, I thought to myself, “I am in the wrong business. Here’s somebody making money selling completely inane stuff in supermarket checkouts.”

And I wondered just how many scruples I’d have to shed before I could actually write and sell such stuff. Too many, but obviously somebody without a shred of understanding of science and the laws of physics, gravitation, or (as my grandmother used to say) “a lick of sense” did check their scruples at the door when it came to writing something that makes absolutely no common sense, just in order to write a book for a few bucks.

When it comes to debunking astrology and all related nonsense, I turn to my old friend Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy for a clear explanation. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific also has a fine page on astrology debunking, as well as treatises and resource materials on such interesting (but hardly scientific) things as crop circles, UFOs, the Face on Mars, and so on.

There’s a lot of malarky out there in the “sphere of ideas” masquerading as “real science” or “truth” or “one true way” trains of thought. People who are interested in or work in science or public explanations of science do encourage questions. Most of us understand that we’re always going to get the “whack” questions, but if we’re good, we also understand that those questions do stem from a very real human need to understand what goes on around us in the universe.

Thus, our answers need to encourage people to understand science as a way to understand the physical universe. The questions that come up time and again about astrology and UFOs and energy rings and all the other nonsense that crops up again and again as “weird science” or “magic” or what have you, are grounded in ignorance of how things work in the cosmos.

There’s usually a good explanation about how things work (i.e. using the actual mechanics of planetary orbits and the inverse square law governing the force of gravity to explain why astrology doesn’t stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny). But, public misunderstanding of how things work, and even worse—the wilful promulgation of ideas that are physically incorrect and impossible under the current laws of physics that govern the universe—can get people into trouble. Serious, physical trouble. (And, don’t get me started on the harm that silly political and social ideas can do…)

Back when I was writing for a newspaper we had a woman write a letter to the editor about a nuclear weapons facility that had been shut down. There were a number of lakes in the region that had been contaminated with plutonium-laden runoff from the plant’s holding ponds, etc., and there was great concern that housing developments built in the areas of the lakes would stir up the plutonium dust in the soil and in the lakes (which would be particularly egregious if the lakes were drained in order to make room for more homes). The letter-writer sent in a note complaining disdainfully that the treehuggers who were so concerned about the environment were so stupid to worry about the lakes because, as everybody knew “plutonium is a heavy element, and that means its weight will make it sink to the bottom of the lakes.”

Never mind that a particle of plutonium-contaminated dust can travel on the wind, be inhaled into a lung and do great damage (and even cause death). This woman’s REAL problem started because she was SO ignorant of science that she confused atomic weight for the kind of weight you measure when you get on the scale (which is really the pull of gravity on your mass).

I often wondered if she ever tried to mix chlorine bleach and ammonia at home…

So, as you can see, most misconceptions about science stem from ignorance and misunderstanding. As students of science (hell, as students of life!) we all start out in a position of ignorance. That’s the nature of our minds. We have to learn how the cosmos works, all of which can be measured and explained scientifically. It’s certainly tempting to believe in magic, particularly at points in our lives when unicorns and UFOs and fairies and all sorts of other fantastical beings are attractive to us. That’s human nature. But, science isn’t about wishful thinking and astronomy isn’t about using imaginary powers of planets to explain why a cat shreds a carpet or nuzzles up against us when it’s hungry. It’s infinitely more exciting and wonderful than any fairy tales the folks who write books about cat astrology for sale at the checkout counter can tell.

I wish more people understood that about science.





The Lazarus Telescope



July 7, 2006 at 11:49 am | Leave a Comment

I have to hand it to the folks at the Space Telescope Science Institute. They’ve gone and done it again—bringing a critical part of the system back online after a wild few days of diagnosis. The Advanced Camera for Surveys (one of the telescope’s main “eyes” on the sky) suffered a power supply problem. They took it offline to avoid damage, did some quick tests, and managed to bring it all back late last week.

This episode brought back some memories of the first “fix” the telescope faced. Back when I was first in graduate school, HST had just been launched and scientists were eagerly awaiting the first views through its portals. The bad news of spherical aberration was terrifying, especially considering how much we’d spent on the thing, and how many peoples’ careers were entwined with the instruments onboard (including my advisor’s!).

HST on orbit

HST on orbit

Now it’s 16 years later and this venerable telescope is up there still ticking after a few refurbishment and repair missions, and cranking out incredibly great science. My first well-received book (Hubble Vision, now out of print in both editions, but I know you can still find it at Amazon) dealt with the technical issues and also the science as it started coming in.

HST left behind the “techno-flop” label a long time ago. I was glad to see those terrible times end because most of us who were on the teams or knew people on the teams knew that the scope could be made to work. It took a lot of ingenuity and sweat, but it got done.

A chart of HSTs targets. Solar system objects are shown as yellow dots; stars are blue; star clusters are orange; nebulae are green; galaxies are red; galaxy clusters are pink; and other targets such as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey are the white dots.

A chart of HST's targets. Solar system objects are shown as yellow dots; stars are blue; star clusters are orange; nebulae are green; galaxies are red; galaxy clusters are pink; and other targets such as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey are the white dots.

I was intrigued to see a chart of where HST has looked in the sky during its years on orbit. It seems to have looked literally in nearly every direction, and out to the most distant reaches of the observable universe. It has made more than 700,000 exposures and looked at more than 22,000 targets.

Despite the accomplishments, HST isn’t out of the woods yet. It is way overdue for a refurbishing mission. This week’s successful shuttle mission may put an HST “upgrade” mission back on the books. We can only hope. This is one darned fine instrument, and it deserves to be brought back to life as often and for as long as we can do it, or until the James Webb Space Telescope is a reality.





Cloud-Be-Gone



July 6, 2006 at 9:30 am | Leave a Comment

I need a star fix. It’s been cloudy or mostly cloudy nearly every night this past week or so. Not so great for stargazing, but better for staying inside and writing. And writing is what I’ve been doing. There are the paid projects, which have me researching everything from cosmic distance indicators to astronomy tutorials. I have a couple of scripts to write, one of them about Mars. And, there’s the writing I do for “fun”—which is usually some sort of blog entry (like this), or short stories that I share with an online writers’ group. So, I keep the old writing muscles flexed.

But, I’d sure like to do some stargazing! I have a great telescope I’d like to drag out and set up and check out some deep-sky objects. Heck, I’d even go with binoculars; just give me a sucker hole in the clouds and I’ll be there!

Speaking of writers, I had the chance to meet a writer last weekend whose work I’ve watched grow and improve over the years. He started out writing as a default when he felt his other career (acting) had come to a standstill, I think. But, the more he wrote, the more he found the muse to suit his nature. I got a copy of his book and read in it that he found his way to writing, only to realize that he’d always wanted to be a writer but had hidden it under the basket of his other ambitions and life goals. That happens. And, it turns out he’s talented at writing because he’s a creative, funny guy and he can get his ideas across really well. He works to improve both his crafts—writing AND acting—and I think he’s doing pretty well.

This is SO unlike some writers who come to the muse wanting to write but not being particularly good at it. (I won’t name names, but I’ve read a few books and heard shows written by people who must have decided that “Oh, anybody can write” and then set out to prove it, only to prove that perhaps anybody CAN write, but only those who are good at it SHOULD write.)

That set me to thinking about my writing career. In sixth grade I remember making a “calling card” that had my name on it, and underneath, the word “Writer.” That was also the year I wrote my first script, an embarrassingly bad little playlet about teenagers in ancient Egypt. I even staged it for my history class project, which was pretty audacious of me. But, it did foretell my eventual entry into script writing. Luckily for the dramaturges of the world, I’ve focused mainly on science documentaries, thus sparing the stage of any further attempts at characterizing people.

Like the fellow above, however, I pursued some other career interests before settling into life as a fulltime writer. They included newspaper reporter, teacher, student, astronomy researcher, and editor. I still do bits and pieces of all of that today, but have found the writing muse the strongest, particularly when I can use it to share astronomy and space science with people.

What Spirit Saw

Well, the clouds are still overhead, and it looks like the stars won’t be out tonight. Which leaves me free to pursue some more writing. For now, I’ll leave you with a great pic from the Mars rover Spirit. At least the skies are clear on Mars!





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

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