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All posts for the month November, 2009

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.

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!

Veteran’s Day, 2009

J. H. Collins, proud veteran of the U.S. Army

J. H. Collins, proud veteran of the U.S. Army

Sunspots, with the Earth for a size reference.

Sunspots, with the Earth for a size reference.

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!