November 29, 2009 at 18:04 pm | 1 Comment
The Ocean of Space from the Ocean of Earth
I’ve been absent from my blog for a couple of weeks because I’ve been out doing astronomy lectures onboard a cruise ship. This is the second of three cruise gigs I’ve signed up to do and, just as with the first one, I’ve learned a lot from my passengers and the experience of lecturing on a ship. The lectures themselves go pretty easily — although lecturing on a stage on a swaying ship and trying to look sideways or backward at my slides can be something of a challenge.
Passengers always ask good questions when we meet on board the ship and they find out I’m the astronomy lecturer. As you might imagine, one of the most-often asked ones is about black holes. And that’s kind of interesting — black holes really grab people’s attention. Answering their questions gives me a chance to talk about a variety of subtopics in astronomy — from stellar evolution to galaxy evolution.
Another question that usually crops up is whether or not I believe there’s life “out there.” And, that one gives me a chance to talk about planetary formation and all the factors that make it possible for life to exist. A related question is whether I’ve seen little green men, to which I’ve often said, “No, but I’ve seen some big green-looking men when the ship is really rockin’ and rollin’ in a storm” (which doesn’t usually happen too often).
Most of the people on the ships I’ve lectured on have been quite interested in astronomy — and when we get a chance to do top-deck stargazing (not as often as I’d like due to weather, etc.) — people do show up and are fascinated with whatever I can point out.
It’s a fun experience and just one of the many International Year of Astronomy activities that I and astronomers around the world are doing. Cruise lectures reach an audience that runs across race and gender — and the experience always teaches me something new about what excites people about astronomy.
November 13, 2009 at 11:57 am | Leave a Comment
Watch for the Meteor Shower
One of the nice parts about observing the sky in November is that the sky is starting to turn pretty — the constellation Orion is rising later in the evenings, and we get the Leonid meteor shower. If it’s not too cold where you are, you can go out very late in the evening on November 16, or even better early in the morning on November 17. Look in the direction of the constellation Leo (which is where the meteors will appear to be radiating from) and just count meteors. It’s not clear how many you’ll see — the meteor count depends on what portion of the meteor-creating stream of particles Earth moves through. But, give it a try. And dress warmly.
A few years ago I stayed up through the wee hours to count meteors during the Leonids. I was laying on the hood of my car, wrapped in blankets and several layers of warm clothes. Only after I finished observing did it occur to me that I could have started my car, let it run for a short while, and then laid on the warm hood! That’s not as environmentally friendly as it could be, unless you have a Prius or something. But, you could bring out an electric blanket and power inverter and run off your battery for a while and keep warm that way.
It’s a thought. Whatever you do, though, check out the Leonids (and the stars) and stay warm!
November 11, 2009 at 8:00 am | 1 Comment
Veteran’s Day, 2009
Today, I’m going to write about a man who served his country. If it wasn’t for him and the other men and women who give of themselves through military service, I think that many of the freedoms that we enjoy in the United States wouldn’t exist. We might not even have the kind of space program we do. And, most personally, I owe my own interest and love of astronomy to a man who served his country more than 50 years ago and is still alive today to talk about it. He first went to Korea in the early 50s; he did his duty, suffered injuries, but came home safe and alive. And, spent the next decades raising a family — including me.
If he hadn’t taken me out to see the stars as a child, nor enc0uraged me to think about space, or come with me to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, or looked the other way when I pulled some truly stupid stunts in high school, or subtly pushed me to stay in college, or sent me frequent reminders of sunspot appearances, or sent me emails about solar flares, or any of the other things he’s done over the years to keep me pointed toward the sky, I wouldn’t be the writer and producer I am today. That guy is, of course, my dad. And, he’s a military veteran.
So, today, this one’s for you, Daddy. We love you and we’re proud of your service. There’s no way any of us in this country can thank you enough for the sacrifices you made — but we’ll keep trying. Happy Veteran’s Day!
November 9, 2009 at 11:57 am | 1 Comment
More Musings on a Career in Science Writing
A few years ago I was at a conference about communicating astronomy to the public and ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen in probably 15 or 20 years, back when we were both Young Turks in our community. We’d served on some committees together in various groups we belong to but really hadn’t chatted or kept up with each other recently. So, we had a good time catching up on each others’ lives and accomplishments.
My friend asked me what I’d been doing lately, and as I’d just finished working on some exhibit materials for Griffith Observatory and was about to start on the exhibits for the California Academy of Sciences, I described that work. We swapped some tall tales about exhibit designers and curatorial committees, and then got to talking about writing books. I’ve written and/or edited several astronomy books over the years since I worked with this colleague, and apparently this person wasn’t aware of the work I’d done. Nor was my colleague aware I’d gone back to grad school, worked at Sky & Telescope, or doing video projects about astronomy, or been teaching some workshops in script writing for planetarium folk. Totally understandable — we’re both busy people and don’t always have time to keep up on everybody we know all the time.
After I’d heard about my friend’s latest work and I’d described all I’d done, there was this sort of quiet moment as we both caught our breath. Then came a sort of plaintive question, “So, tell me Carolyn — how is it that YOU have gotten to do all this interesting work?”
It was a curious query and I had to think about it a moment. It’s like one of those questions you get during a job interview and the interviewer lobs it out there as much to find out how you’ll react to it as they do to find out the answer. Was my friend truly curious? Or, working from knowledge of me when I was younger and still starting out as a writer? Had a couple of decades of writing, graduate school, and more writing flown by so fast that I and my friend hadn’t realized it? I suspected that curiosity was really driving the question, so I replied, “Well, I’ve gotten to be really good at what I do and people recognize that. But, you remember back when I first started, I was going to become the best science writer I could be!”
It sounded really self-serving, but my friend nodded sagely and agreed and then said, “Well, you’ve earned every bit of it. Now I have to go read some of your work and see what I can learn from it.”
That was a couple of years ago, but I still think about that conversation. I like to write about science in as many venues as I can — as my friend Kelly Beatty said at dinner recently, “You’re omnivorous” when it comes what I write about and where my work appears. And, that’s cool. It wasn’t quite where I set out to be described as when I was a beginning science writer, but it has been an adventure to be a science writer and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
November 8, 2009 at 13:02 pm | Leave a Comment
Spotting Evidence of Human Exploration of Mars
Back in late (Earth) summer, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HIRISE Camera (MOR-HIRISE) took an image of an area near the north pole of Mars. It shows that the region looks like a frigid wasteland — which it is during Mars winter. But, smack in the middle of the image is something kinda neat — the Mars Phoenix Lander — standing out against the background terrain.
Phoenix was sent to measure conditions for a short time near the pole. It performed quite well before going to sleep during the onset of northern hemisphere winter. For now it is dormant and quite possibly dead. Scientists are going to try and communicate with it as spring approaches. In the meantime, though, the MRO continues to study the surface in the polar regions to help us understand what sorts of changes it goes through during the yearly freeze and thaw cycle.
In this portion of the larger image returned by the HIRISE camera, the large expanse of white area doesn’t actually doesn’t indicate the amount of frost surrounding the lander. Since this image was taken in a low-light situation, its bright and dark values have been stretched to bring out the contrast and allows us to see details in the surface near the lander. Many factors affect how the surface looks in an image. Scientists need to take into account the size of carbon dioxide ice grains mixed in with the surface soil, the amount of dust mixed in with the ice, the amount of sunlight hitting the surface, and different lighting angles and slopes. In addition, the winds blow here constantly, and their directions change all the time. Depending on how strong the winds are,they can move loose frost and dust around, changing the way the surface looks. Studying these changes will help planetary scientists understand the nature of the seasonal frost and winter weather patterns in this area of Mars.
I think it’s pretty amazing we can spot evidence of our robotic exploration on Mars. So far as the evidence from the various mappers and orbiters have shown us, humans are the ONLY ones to have explored Mars in its history — and that makes this pretty darned unique!
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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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