February 29, 2008 at 13:29 pm | Leave a Comment
Learn What’s a Planet… and What’s Not.. and Why
A couple of years ago you might recall there was a huge uproar about the supposed “demotion” of Pluto from its status as a planet and its re-characterization as a “dwarf planet.” The International Astronomical Union adopted a definition of the term “planet” that continues to be batted around in science and public debates about the meaning of “planet.”
In the wake of that decision, and because it’s one that captured public attention, NASA, The Planetary Science Institute, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have teamed up to offer a special two-day science conference and educator workshop August 14-16, 2008, called the Great Planet Debate: Science As Process.
Its purpose is to discuss science as a process, and use the ongoing debate about what should or should not be a planet as a framework for discussion. It looks like an excellent way for science teachers to get an inside look at the working processes of science that don’t always get enough attention in the classroom. If you’re interested, check out the web page and contact information. As an added bonus, there will be continuing education credit offered for teachers who attend.
February 28, 2008 at 23:26 pm | Leave a Comment
This Speaks for Itself
On February 20, the Center for Education Policy released a follow-up report providing a second, and more in-depth look at the magnitude of changes in school curriculums since the passage of “No Child Left Behind.” In a report published in the summer of 2007, the CEO found that school districts are cutting back on the teaching of subjects like science and music in order to stress math and reading arts. Now, the follow-up report is giving a deep look at just what’s happening among the schools that were surveyed (which make up a “typical” survey of schools in the United States). It shows that 62 percent of school districts had increased time for English language arts and/or math in elementary schools since school year 2001-2. (The full report is available here.)
Ordinarily this would be good, but it comes at a cost that’s not good for science education because, at the same time, 44 percent of the reporting schools had increased their ELA/Math coursework, while at the same time decreasing the amount of time in other areas, notably science, social studies, art, music, physical education, recess, and lunch.
The “money” quote from the report is especially daunting for those who want to see MORE science education going on. In school year 2006-7, the school districts that reported increases or decreases in certain instructional activities had to make some remarkable changes:
“Among the districts that reported both increasing time for ELA or math and reducing time in other subjects, 72% indicated that they reduced time by a total of at least 75 minutes per week for one or more of these other subjects. For example, more than half (53%) of these districts cut instructional time by at least 75 minutes per week in social studies, and the same percentage cut time by at least 75 minutes per week in science.”
For a country that prides itself on being technologically savvy, the results of NCLB are part of a disturbing trend that really needs to be reversed.
February 26, 2008 at 12:23 pm | Leave a Comment
A Swift Look at Starbirth in M33
Star formation is a hot topic, in more ways than one. When you look at an ultraviolet (UV) view of starbirth, you can see why. Hot young stars light up their birth clouds in ultraviolet light. In turn, the clouds radiate UV, a starbirth nebula’s equivalent of a baby monitor in a nursery. So, if you want to see where the hot action of star birth is taking place in a galaxy, look at it with a special UV-sensitive instrument. The star nurseries just stand out like beacons.
That’s basically what the Swift satellite did. It’s a multi-wavelength orbiting observatory, tuned to gamma-ray, x-ray, and UV/optical wavelengths of light. Between December 23, 2007 and January 4, 2008, Swift took a look at the galaxy M33 in the constellation Triangulum. The image mosaic it returned pinpoints the UV tracers of starbirth in exquisitely high resolution. It shows a galaxy ablaze with starbirth regions more active than the Milky Way or Andromeda galaxies.
Image credit: NASA/Swift Science Team/Stefan Immler. This image was created by combining 39 different frames taken during 11 hours of exposures. The bright areas are starbirth regions.
February 25, 2008 at 23:50 pm | 2 Comments
I’ve Got a Thing for Astronomy Decor
I have lots of it. My office is full of astronomy books, which are a form of decor that also serve a useful purpose. And, I have a gorgeous set of black-and-white astronomy images taken in the 1960s at the Observatory Tautenberg that I have hanging here and there.
But, I also have some whimsical things, like this constellation lamp I found at Lowes Hardware a few days ago. I also have a Moon in My Room, which Mark gave me as a holiday gift.
I like it when astronomy gets used in products like this because they lend a nice, cheerful, “fun” air to the stars. And, when it comes to science, people sort of need to be “coaxed” into liking it. Our culture has this weird sort of disconnect about science: we use its technology and “ooh” and “aah” at the pretty pictures from Hubble Space Telescope, and even read in wonderment about things like the Human Genome Project or the latest advances in medical science. But, some people also make fun of science, and sometimes even discard it or dismiss it when it challenges long-held politico-religious beliefs or feelings. If you don’t believe me, look at the debates that sizzle around the edges of the global climate change and environmental issues of our day. (But don’t get me started on cre@tion “science.”)
What I don’t like are things purport to be “scientific” but really are not. There are trends in media for example (including advertising and movies) where science, if it gets mentioned at all, is either misquoted, misused, or just plain flat wrong. My friend Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy.com has made a career out of finding these mistakes and debunking silly rumors and pseudo-science.
A couple of examples of misuse of science come to mind. First, a catalog for makeup products that we get in the mail has taken to using the word “scientific” to sell soaps and creams. I read these things quite carefully, mostly because I know that no matter how much you pretty up the language to sell this stuff, it’s still just cream in a bottle. And, in this particular catalog, it’s olive oil in a bottle that sells for about four times the price of the same olive oil you can get in the grocery store. But, stick the words “scientifically formulated” on the sales material and suddenly it’s somehow more than just olive oil. Don’t get me started on the irony of using science to sell stuff to women, a population that (until a few decades ago) was largely excluded from science and still finds itself today fighting glass ceilings in research institutions. (Although, it is getting better…)
My second example comes from the mall. Specifically, a store that caters to selling expensive little baby clothes. This spring they’re selling toddler togs festooned with constellation patterns. Great, I think to myself, they’re getting kids started in astronomy early.
Well…. not so much, it turns out. It’s “astrology time” at the baby store, dressing the little ones up in their birth astrological symbols (which, if you don’t it by know, are keyed to positions of the Sun in the zodiac that aren’t the same as they were when astrology was first “devised” several thousand years ago, rendering the most essential aspects of astrology incorrect from the get-go).
Oh, the clothes ARE darling. But, they’re pushing a pseudo-science, not a science. About the only thing that astronomy has in common with astrology is a skyful of stars. So, for the folks who wanna know more about the difference between the two before you head out to the Mall, go to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and read all about it.
February 24, 2008 at 18:10 pm | Leave a Comment
Why I Do It
Talking and writing about astronomy is a fun gig. I’ve been doing it since the early 1980s, when I got to write a few things for The Denver Post. That was an exciting time. I started out there as an editorial assistant, but ended up writing things almost as soon as it occurred to me ask if I could. Several years later I decided it was time to head back to school and learn more astronomy. The fact that I ended up not only DOING astronomy but also getting a masters’ degree in science journalism is, in some measure, attributable to my love of both subjects.
If I could, I’d go back for that PhD in astrophysics (given enough time and money), but I have found a niche subject I like to write about and, thanks to a number of undergraduate and graduate classes in astronomy and planetary science, plus the chance to work first-hand with a couple of space missions, communicating astronomy is a full-time career. It has taken me from writing articles for newspapers to working as an editor and writer for Sky & Telescope; writing documentary scripts for planetarium shows to creating copy for an entire observatory full of exhibits (at Griffith Observatory). Lately, the rise of “new media” (podcasts, etc.) has taken me off in some new directions, creating podcasts (which you can see on my Video and ‘Casts page and also at Haystack Observatory.
I like to keep tabs on what’s new in astronomy communications–what they like to call “outreach” these days. Last fall I went to Athens, Greece for a meeting called “Communicating Astronomy to the Public.” It was an eclectic mix of people from around the world, all gathered to talk about how writers, producers, and astronomers can go about spreading the word about the sky and what we study in it.
Okay, so why communicate about astronomy? I’ve given that a lot of thought. In a time when there are so many things claiming our collective attention around the world (war, politics, religion, environmental concerns, and so on), it’s a fair question to ask. Sure, astronomy’s got a built-in “cool” factor that you can’t discount unless you’re a cost-cutting senator from a state that has no observatories. But, looking beyond that obvious fact, astronomy is also one of those sciences that gives you a toehold on a whole range of scientific interests. Want to know more about how stars work? Physics will get you started on the journey of discovery in stellar anatomy. Want to know about how planets form? You need some more physics. And geology–lots of geology. And chemistry, since planets (and stars) form out of mixtures of chemical elements in various states. What about life on other worlds? Put in a call to the astrobiologists (who combine biology, life sciences, and astrophysics for their work).
A distant version of the solar system? Astronomy tells us perhaps so.
How to study all this? Well, you need to know something about how to build the instruments of science (telescopes, radio dishes, orbiting satellites, geological sensing equipment, and so forth). Just about any science has a backwards-compatible link to astronomy. This is why we often refer to astronomy as a gateway science. And, beyond the pretty pictures that make science communicators’ lives easier, there are some really compelling stories in astronomy that blow people away (once they hear them).
That’s why I communicate astronomy–to tell really excellent stories about the cool stuff in the universe, and the people who discover and explain them. And, like I said, it’s a fun gig!
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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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