Colbert and the Astronomer

March 31, 2009 at 11:51 am | Leave a Comment

Colbert Nation and Derrick Pitts

Stephen Colbert had my good bud and all-around astronomer Derrick Pitts on the show last night.  Derrick’s at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and he curated an exhibit about the astronomer Galileo Galilei.  Derrick’s a funny guy, a good sport, and I’ve known him in planetarium circles for a number of years. Check it out — Derrick scores some good ones with Stephen Colbert.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Derrick Pitts
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Visit 80 Telescopes in 24 Hours

March 31, 2009 at 9:00 am | Leave a Comment

Around the World in 80 Telescopes

Ever wonder what it’s like on top of all those mountains and in the institutes where astronomy gets done? I know I always did — until I actually spent time observing on Mauna Kea back in the 1990s.  It was everything I expected, and more!

If you’re interested in knowing what it’s like in those places, the European Southern Observatory is doing a free 24-hour public video webcast called “Around the World in 80 Telescopes.” This event is part of “100 Hours of Astronomy” which is part of the International Year of Astronomy. It’s designed and produced to let everybody who logs in to the site to visit some of the most advanced observatories on — and above — the planet. The stream begins on April 3 at 09:00 GMT (that’s 5 a.m. on the U.S. East Coast) until April 4 at 09:00 GMT.  During that time you’ll see new images of the cosmos, find out what observatories are doing, and have the opportunity to send in questions and messages to the folks doing Big Astronomy.

A map of observatories participating in Around the World in 80 Telescopes.  (Click to embiggen.)

A map of observatories participating in "Around the World in 80 Telescopes." (Click to embiggen.)

Participating telescopes include those at observatories in Chile such as ESO’s Very Large Telescope and La Silla, the Hawaii-based telescopes Gemini North and Keck, the Anglo-Australian Telescope, telescopes in the Canary Islands and the Southern African Large Telescope. A number of space-based telescopes such as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, ESA XMM-Newton and Integral are also taking part in this 24-hour “Observatory-a-thon”.  Around the World in 80 Telescopes will take viewers to every continent, including Antarctica!

Read more about this great chance to visit the world’s observatories at the event’s website. There, you’ll find links to the webcast and a whole lot of background on the production.

On a personal note, Mark’s music is being used on the Gemini Observatory webcast for this event. Right now, it’s the first one up in the rotation, which means we’ll need to get up early to catch it!  For you folks in Europe, you can start enjoying the full-day event over morning tea or coffee!!   So, wherever you are, check it out!

Get on Down to the Carnival (of Space)

March 30, 2009 at 21:17 pm | Leave a Comment

There’s Good Readin’!

Need your space fix?  Then, this week’s Carnival of Space #96, hosted at, is the place for you.  Our intrepid host (Ian O’Neill) introduces each entry (including one of mine) with a sagacious question — 25 of them, to be exact.  So, get on over to Ian’s place and have fun surfing through a bunch of fascinating entries. And, he promises to have the first “live” Carnival of Space on April 1. I’ll have to check that one out, myself.

How Far Away is Your Star?

March 29, 2009 at 21:58 pm | 1 Comment

It Traveled How Long?

Distant stars as seen by Hubble Space Telescope.

Distant stars as seen by Hubble Space Telescope.

Want a unique thing to slip into a friend or loved one’s next birthday card?  Try for a birthday star!

The concept of a birthday star isn’t a new one — but it’s a cool one, nonetheless.  In 1996, I explored the idea in a planetarium show called Sky Quest that we created for the Smithsonian Institution’s Einstein Planetarium, where we have a young girl looking at her birthday star. It turns out to be Sirius, almost 9 light-years away,  and she’s almost 9 years old.  And, a planetarium colleague of ours came up with a birthday stars book some years ago, telling kids how to find the star whose light left on its journey toward Earth on the day of their birth. It’s something you can do if you have access to star charts and reasonably accurate distances to stars — which means it’s an astronomer’s take on a unique birthday gift.  Not everybody can get their hands on the most correct star positions and distances (usually taken from the Hipparcos Catalog, the Yale Bright Star Catalog, and the Gliese Catalog — all information that is pretty much an astronomer’s basic tool, but isn’t too well known to the general public.

Well, if you’ve ever wondered what star might be YOUR birthday star and you don’t happen to have star charts handy, the folks at European Southern Observatory have put up a “Birthday Stars” calculator on their web page. Input a birth date and voila!  It generates a star chart and shows you where your birthday star is.  You can print it out and you can even visit your star’s coordinates in GoogleEarth.

I think this is a VERY clever way to get folks interested in astronomy — and it’s free. It does a complete end run around those companies that charge you money to “name” a star (like anybody’s gonna take THAT seriously) and then send you a photocopied page out of an old star atlas and tell you that some dot on the page that could be a toner cartridge accident is really “your” star.

So, run over there and check it out. Find out what star is exactly the same number of light-years away as your age.  I dare ya…

BLAST and the Balloon

March 29, 2009 at 12:19 pm | 2 Comments

The Crazy (?) Life of Scientists

For the longest time, the stereotype of scientists as “loners” and “geeks” and “odd people struggling against the universe to discover new things” held sway in the media and Hollywood films. When I worked as a researcher in grad school, and even before that, really, I knew that these stereotypes were really pretty silly. They are a sort of “shorthand” that writers and filmmakers use to categorize people.  Yet, they’re wrong about as often as they’re right.  The scientists I know are pretty much decent human beings with families and jobs and they worry about the same things everybody else does — shopping, doing taxes, paying the bills.  At work, they are focused on their tasks, just as teachers and doctors and lawyers and bus drivers are.

It’s tough to find newspaper articles and films that get it right — particularly the films.  I’ve noticed that more writers are focusing on the people behind the science and usually we don’t see TOO many gross generalizations, although they’re out there. I’m guessing those stem from a) an unwillingness by the writer to dig a bit deeper to do a good job (or perhaps lack of time to do so), or b) a misunderstanding by the writer about the person who’s doing the science he/she is writing about, or c) laziness.  Blockbuster Hollywood films, on the other hand, just about NEVER get it right.  Drama is important, facts sometimes seem less so. The scientist is often so stereotyped that it’s not even laughable; I mean, aside from Contact or a very few others, I can’t recall too many movies that didn’t portray a scientist as something other than “one of them weird people.”

The BLAST instrument on a launch gondola in Antarctica. Image by Done Wiebe. (Click to embiggen.)

The BLAST instrument on a launch gondola in Antarctica. Image by Done Wiebe. (Click to embiggen.)

So, I was delighted the other night when I watched a ‘screener’ of a very cool film called “BLAST!”.  It’s about a group of scientists who figure out how to launch BLAST — the Balloon-borne Large-Aperture Submillimeter Telescope — an instrument they used in 2005 and 2006 to let them look at galaxies at submillimeter wavelengths. It was a pretty ambitious mission, and the film (made by Paul Devlin, brother of one of the mission PIs, Mark Devlin) follows these folks and their graduate students through Sweden, Canada, and Antartica as they build and launch the telescope. As I watched this film, I felt like I’d known these people all my life even though I’d only met maybe one of two of them in person. They weren’t different in philosophy and outlook and dedication to hard work from the scientists I’d worked with at CU, and from the scientists I know and work with today at MIT, in Hawai’i and elsewhere.

Heck, the way they solved the challenges they faced reminded me also of planetarium folk, who face equipment challenges in the service of science education. They’re a real-life example of the kind of excitement and terror that Hollywood can only make pale imitations of in trumped-up dramas (and, lest you think I”m some sort of snob, I DO enjoy a good movie, but when they’re about scientists, I’d love to see them portrayed less like evil geniuses and more like the human beings they are).

BLAST! is a film about scientists and the challenges they face that sometimes turn their lives crazy.  Sounds interesting. Sounds human. Sounds like fun!

You probably aren’t going to find this movie in your local cineplex, but it is showing in a variety of special venues (see this list). The producers are also making it available for screenings right now at universities and other facilities and events. And, starting this fall (2009), you can buy a copy of your own. For more information on BLAST! visit the project web page.

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