The Star Talk Effect

March 30, 2007 at 14:47 pm | Leave a Comment

Back when I worked at the planetarium (before I went back to grad school), I used to dread the arrival of spring. Not the nice weather or the flowers. But, at the planetarium, spring meant increasing numbers of field trips. Now, the attendance numbers jumping up was good news. We wanted to see that. But, late in the spring, just when we got more attendance, our student helpers and lecturers were smack in the middle of studying for finals and/or getting ready for graduation. So they weren’t available to do all the star talks I’d trained them to do.

So, what that meant was the lecturing duties would be divvied up amongst a smaller pool of lecturers, or often enough, it was my sole duty to do them. Some days that’s all I did—give lectures to the school groups who came in for star tours and planetarium shows.

Don’t get me wrong—a startalk in the planetarium can be a thing of great beauty and a whole lot of fun to do for a lecturer blessed with a good sense of humor and receptive audiences. Two in a row is interesting. Three in a row is starting to take a toll. Doing six or seven in one day is a marathon. That’s six or seven HOURS of nonstop talking, answering questions, shepherding the students in and out, taking 10 minutes to gulp down lunch, and hopefully running out for a potty break during a pre-recorded show. So, I’d pace myself, and try to make each show as interesting as possible, but by the end of the day, I was definitely not on top of my game. Back when I taught in the classroom (briefly, early in my career) it was the same way. You spend the day in the classroom, with 20 or 30 kids, tending to every need, including the educational, and by the end of the day it was Miller time!

Still, the kids don’t know a planetarium lecturer is tired or talked out or badly need a bathroom break or a cup of coffee. They’re so taken by the whole environment of the planetarium and its cool shape and the equipment and the differentness of it all that they don’t notice the lecturer’s bedragglment late in the day. Which is a good thing. The magic of the dome somehow hides all that.

I was thinking about those days a couple of weeks ago when I was making arrangements to record a couple of narrators for a new set of shows that Mark and I have just released. They’re basically pre-recorded star talks for use in fulldome video planetarium systems. I was explaining the concept to one of the narrators, and I told her about my days in the planetarium and just how draining it could be, even though I was totally turned on about teaching under the dome. The memory of that theater experience was part of the impetus for these shows, in a way. Another was a request from a planetarium colleague who had NO staff to help give shows, and he needed a product to help him meet the demand for star shows. So, we created our stargazing show project to provide totally consistent shows that fulldomers can use, regardless of how well-staffed or prepared they are.

I wish I’d had them back in my own halcyon days of lecturing. I could have used them as stand-alones, or coupled them with Q&A sessions, which were some of my favorite times. A Q&A let me sort of “peek” inside the visitors’ heads to see what their understanding of astronomy was. They never let me down and a lot of times I got into some really cool conversations with attendees.

Which reminds me of a great star talk I heard at a star party in Ontario one time. It was really late in the evening and a group of us were sitting around one guy’s telescope talking about our first visits to planetariums. One of the guys gave a great imitation of a startalk presenter as if he was Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. The puns were awful, and we went away with our bellies aching from laughing so hard. But,for me, it was interesting to see that somebody got something out of the star talk, and remembered enough of it to do a credible imitation a few years later. That’s the beauty of any star talk—if it touches a person and makes them want to go outside and look up, then the effect is good, no matter how tired the lecturer might be.

No Planetarium Left Behind?

March 27, 2007 at 9:46 am | Leave a Comment

One of the listserv mailing lists I read frequently is populated by planetarium folk. As you can imagine, with planetariums being spread across the world and a variety of projector and institution types, the conversations could be pretty widespread in their outreach.

Well, maybe. Lately the discussion has turned to several topics that keep getting revisited:

  • Pluto is/is not a planet (and why that’s good, bad, ugly, or otherwise)
  • Global warming (why it exists/what to do about it)
  • How No Child Left Behind affects planetarium facilities

This last one is downright scary, although the other two topics are good for generating lots of sound and fury. No Child Left Behind is a confusing maze of legislation that is supposed to generate (as far as I can tell) a better education in U.S. schools. I don’t know how much good it has done because all we seem to read (and talk) about is how it has left many schools with unfunded mandates and generally fuzzy expectations about what it means to test students for what they’ve learned. In many cases, the law seems to get cited when schools want to reduce unnecessary funding and focus on “the basics.”

Okay, you say, that sounds fair, right? Well, maybe. Some listserv participants say that schools are reducing school field trips to the planetarium. This is likely a cost-cutting move to save on fuel prices and cost of bus trips, etc. It is unfortunate, but easily understandable if the district is really strapped for cash. And fuel prices are high all over. But, I suspect that the “focus on basics” argument is thrown in to satisfy some political or otherwise non-educational need.

A planetarium visit is actually quite an educational activity. The students get to learn about astronomy in an environment conducive to it. Since the early 1960s, students have been going to planetariums to learn about astronomy and it seems to have worked. And, astronomy is a science that is a gateway to other sciences; it encompasses people in such varied disciplines as physics, math, computing, biology, chemistry, geology/geophysics, and life sciences. In addition, it has spurred many people to go into careers in science writing, policy, and education.

So, if there’s some educational reason why suddenly the planetarium is NOT working as an educational venue, I’d like to see it (and the documented evidence). Because otherwise, what we’re really doing by cutting back on trips to the planetarium, zoo, etc. is cutting back on kids’ educations in the name of something other than education.

Yes, saving fuel is important. But, there are alternative fuels and methods of transportation. And alternative planetariums that actually travel TO the schools (or reside therein). Several companies make and sell them (you can see lists of planetarium system suppliers here and here) for more details).

Why so adamant about planetariums? After more than 20 years working with and in them, creating more than two dozen shows for such facilities, I’ve seen first-hand evidence that they work quite well as a learning experience. And, anecdotally, when I talk to scientists at meetings, if I ask them how they got interested in astronomy, a visit to the planetarium is often mentioned as something that spurred them on to study the subject.

I suspect that if planetariums continue to get cut out of the curriculum (whether or not “No Child Left Behind” is cited as a reason, we’ll be cutting off our educational noses to spite our faces. And at least in the U.S., we can’t really afford to continue dumbing down our kids for political reasons. Particularly in science, where we need more expertise than ever before, not less.

R.I.P. Albert V. Baez

March 24, 2007 at 10:42 am | Leave a Comment
Albert V. Baez, courtesy Richard and Mimi Fariña web page

Albert V. Baez, courtesy Richard and Mimi Fariña web page

In 1992 I traveled to Spain for an award ceremony honoring the best science communications projects for that year. A few months earlier, in a move of unabashed optimism, Mark and I submitted our very first video project, “Hubble: Report from Orbit” for consideration of a committee of judges based at the Casa de las Ciencias in La Coruña, Spain. We figured that even if we didn’t win, maybe we’d get some valuable feedback on our project. Months went by and we didn’t hear anything.

Then, one morning we got a fax from a gentleman in Spain inviting us to come, at their expense, to La Coruña for the awards ceremony. They said we were among the finalists! Mark couldn’t get away, but I had some time (even though I’d just begun graduate school) and could get away.

So, off to Spain I went. First time I’d been to Europe on my own, and I figured my rusty grade-school Spanish wouldn’t get me too far, but heck. I could always try French, right? I got there by midday and a driver from the museum picked me up and delivered me to a lovely hotel in town overlooking the bay. My room was filled with flowers and was beautiful. I walked around a little bit before dinner, had an early supper, and then went to sleep.

Next day I had a message waiting for me from the front desk that my escort to the awards ceremony was waiting for me in the lobby. I went down and was greeted by a gentleman who introduced himself as Albert Baez, and introduced me to his wife Joan. She looked very familiar to me, but I couldn’t figure out where I might have met her before. We hit off immediately.

We all sat down for a cup of coffee and he explained that he was the head of the committee on judging and that it was his pleasure to inform me that our video had won the grand prize. I was completely amazed and more than a little emotional about it. He and his wife were very charming; their job was to take me anywhere I wanted to go, translate for me, and see that I had a nice time in the town. Since we had a few hours before the ceremony, they offered to drive me around the town and see the sights.

So, we piled into a little car and as we drove around, he told me about the region, and the science center. He asked about my background, what we did with Loch Ness Productions, and about my graduate studies. Very kind, very generous with his time. Eventually I got over my dazzlement about the prize and asked him about himself. He said he did some work in x-ray physics, had worked to develop x-ray reflection technology (that is still used today in both microscopes and telescopes). He described working with the United Nations in spreading more information about science and improving science education, which was how he came to be working with the Casa de las Ciencias on the awards for science communication. Then, with a little wink, he told me that I might have heard of his daughters, Joan Baez and Mimi Farina. The light bulb went off in my head and then I knew why his wife Joan looked so familiar! She and Joan looked very much alike, almost like sisters. I was completely dazzled (not to mention still a bit jet-lagged) with the stellar company I had stepped into.

Late in the morning we headed over to the town hall for the award ceremony. On the way, Albert suggested I write an acceptance speech, so we stopped for a small snack and he and Mrs. Baez waited while I wrote out two copies of my acceptance speech for the grand prize. He took a copy and said he’d translate for me as I spoke.

When we arrived at the ceremony site, I joined a procession of richly dressed guardsmen and town and museum officials. We filed into a huge, beautiful room and I was seated in a large, ornately carved bench with Albert and Joan. The ceremony was gorgeous, and when I received the award, my little speech was met with a very warm reception. Albert was with me the whole time, encouraging and kind.

When I got back home I asked around about Albert and learned that he was very well-known, very well-respected for his research and his principled stand against weaponizing his research. He was a Quaker (the first I’d ever met), and I could see where his daughters Joan and Mimi got their political consciousness from. It was a pleasure and privilege to have such a distinguished guide during my short stay in La Coruña, Spain. Even more than the award (which came with a substantial royalty payment for the use of our program in Europe), I treasured the chance I had to spend time with a man of generous spirit and accomplishment. I’ve never forgotten that experience.

Albert V. Baez died this week at the age of 94. Although I wrote to him after my stay and thanked him profusely for his time and “guide duties,” I want to thank him again, in remembrance. Go in peace, Albert. Your inner light showed in everything you did.

Speeding Through the Universe

March 22, 2007 at 10:11 am | Leave a Comment
Bullets in the Orion Nebula, courtesy Gemini Observatory

"Bullets" in the Orion Nebula, courtesy Gemini Observatory

For those of you (family AND friends) who wonder what I do sometimes, this picture is where I spent some of my time the past few days. It’s an image of wakes created by supersonic-speed “bullets” of gas boring through a starbirth region in the Orion Nebula. It was taken at Gemini Observatory North on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i, using a laser guide star-equipped adaptive optics system to help remove the effects of atmospheric turbulence. (You can read more about this system here.)

I work with Gemini Observatory as a writer and I am the associate editor for their twice-a-year GeminiFocus magazine. When their public affairs office sent me this image last week, I started immediately working on some language for a press release, along with Peter Michaud (their Public Affairs Officer). It was a whirlwind of activity, involving the two of us, several scientists, and astronomerTravis Rector (University of Alaska at Fairbanks), who did the major work on the image. We worked on the language over the weekend and went through several iterations of the language. Finally the directors of the observatory gave their blessing on the version you can see here.

For me, the project entailed doing a little bit of a literature search to see just when these “bullets” were first discovered (1983, defined in 1992), and then figuring out how much of the science background was relevant to put in the story. Peter and I swapped several versions via email and chat, then sent the story on to one of the scientists (Tom Geballe) for a sanity check. Another scientist, Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales in Australia, had done some work on the bullets a few years back, and his advice was also thrown into the mix. In addition, we had Gemini astronomer Scott Fisher and Jean-Rene Roy, Deputy Director and Head of Science, look it over as well. (It’s always best to have as many eyes as possible look these things over before they go out.) By late yesterday (Wednesday, March 21), we had a version we could all live with. It went to the webmaster in Hilo, who posted the final version late last night.

It’s a lot of fun to work with these stories “behind the scenes” and talk with the people who are doing the research in the areas the Gemini images cover. Hope you enjoy the image and story!

Lord of the Rings

March 20, 2007 at 15:29 pm | Leave a Comment

I spent last weekend in Middle Earth. More correctly, I spent the weekend watching the extended DVD editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies, something I’ve been wanting to do since I got the set for Christmas. Great movies, lots of action and beautiful scenery and incredible CG work on the battle scenes. I was in hog heaven.

Saturn, courtesy Hubble Space Telescope and Space Telescope Science Institute.

Saturn, courtesy Hubble Space Telescope and Space Telescope Science Institute.

Today I got to check out another Lord of the Rings—the great and beauteous planet Saturn. Thanks to Hubble Space Telescope, it’s now a movie star. Today the Space Telescope Science Institute released its own set of movies about Saturn, all based on images taken by HST over the past few years. They show ring plane crossing, some of the Moons, and some atmospheric features as the planet spins on its axis.

Astronomers took dozens of images of Saturn over the years, using the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys. These images were strung together and animated to give us these three wonderful videos.

The best part about this ongoing survey of Saturn is that it shows us the planet changing over time, at least in the atmosphere. It gives us all a chance to see Saturn’s rings in different orientations as it (and we) orbit the Sun and our changing positions change our point of view. Go check ‘em out and collect the set!

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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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