February 28, 2011 at 19:29 pm | Leave a Comment
Leif J. Robinson, 1939-2011
It was about this time of year some 15 years ago that I was working hard on my masters’ thesis at the University of Colorado when I happened to send an email to a friend of mine who was a science writer for Sky & Telescope Magazine, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the email, I was decrying the slog of work I had to do to analyze my data and get it all written up in time for my defense, which was scheduled for late April. My friend offered his sympathies and said to let him know when I defended. I assumed he wanted to hear how it went.
The day I defended (and passed), I sent my friend an email. A day or so later, I got a reply that said something like this: “Congratulations! I passed your news along to Rick and Leif.”
I thought, “How nice.” And, it was. I had written a few articles for S&T over the years, and while I wasn’t quite “one of the family”, I felt like I knew the guys at the magazine a little and if they wanted to rejoice over my degree, that was great with me.
A few days later, I got an email from Rick Fienberg and another from Leif Robinson, both asking me if I’d be interested in joining the staff of editors at Sky Publishing Corporation. I was astounded. For astronomy writers, at the time, that was like being asked if you’d like to join a shuttle crew on a launch. Of course I did!
Well, one thing led to another, and a little less than a year later, I found myself sitting at a desk at Sky Publishing Corporation, ensconced as Books and Products editor. I spent four years at Sky, in time also taking on the role of principal editor of SkyWatch magazine, and associate editor at S&T (one of the very few women to have made the masthead as an editor of some kind). We all wore a number of hats there.
One of the more more interesting and lengthy experiences I had at Sky was in getting to know Leif Robinson, who had been at the magazine for 38 years and served as its editor-in-chief for 20 years.
He was crusty-seeming, could be incredibly critical of a writer’s (and editor’s) work, and was fiercely dedicated to doing things right in journalistic terms.
The magazine prospered under his editorship. He started SkyWatch and, unbeknownst to me, decided right after I’d joined the crew, that I’d be a good editor for that fledgling magazine that he hoped would attract new readers to the S&T fold and to the field of amateur astronomy. At one point, he even worked for ME as an editor and writer on SkyWatch.
He offered good advice, incisively sharp criticism (when it was due) and just as incisively, he offered encouragement. During my second year at Sky, I was among many who joined Leif and his wife Caroline on a cruise to see a total solar eclipse. We got to know each other a bit better socially then. A year later, we attended a couple of astronomy meetings together as representatives of the company.
I wasn’t one of “his” flock of editors at the beginning of my tenure at the company, since my original job was to shepherd astronomy-related books and products through to publication and sale. But, when I did finally did put on the associate editor hat for S&T, he set about (perhaps belatedly, along with my “real” boss Rick Fienberg) to help me learn the ropes that all the other editors at S&T had learned early in their careers. I had joined a brotherhood of astronomy writers and editors, and it was Leif (along with Rick) who welcomed me in.
Along the way, I got to know Leif, especially his penchant for birds and birdwatching. It turns out he could tell a bird simply by a few notes of its song or the way it flew or landed on a branch. And for stargazing? He knew the sky the way we all know the backs of our hands. He had other passions, too. For example, we found out we both liked Chinese food, and so would make occasional forays together to a little restaurant not far from the offices. He enjoyed music, and kept asking me if I was ever going to get to a Boston Symphony concert (I never did, even though I did make it to several jazz and ethnic concerts during my 12 years in the Boston area).
One area where Leif and I had interesting discussions was in the growing field of professional-amateur astronomy collaborations. When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, I shepherded a world-wide flock of amateur astronomers who made comet observations at the behest of our research team. It was my job to tell these dedicated observers what to look for, and when, and then gather their images and data. Then, I’d do science analysis of their images, and for the most part, these people were turning out first-rate imagery. So, I knew for years that there were excellent amateurs out there who could be very helpful to professional astronomers. In fact, when I mentioned to Leif that — based on my experience in research astronomy — I thought there were some amateurs out there who could give some professionals a run for their money, he agreed with me completely.
In late 2000, I decided to leave Sky Publishing to join an Internet startup company. The day I made my announcement to leave (at an editorial meeting), Leif was out of town. But, no sooner than he got back into the office, he was calling me for a lunch date. We decided to go to our favorite Chinese place. The instant we were seated and given menus, he leaned across the tiny table and said, “I don’t understand why we have such a hard time keeping gals at the magazine.”
It was such an unexpected statement that I laughed right out loud. It was also the start of a fruitful conversation that lasted a couple of hours. Somewhere during that time, he told me he was retiring at the end of the year, which surprised me greatly. I just figured Leif and the magazine would go on together forever. We laughed about how we could go out in a blaze of glory together. He kidded me that if I stayed only another 16 years, I’d get an asteroid named after me. I told him I thought I should get one for all the millions of people who have seen my planetarium shows and read my books, AND for my tenure (albeit short) as an editor at Sky. That comment led to another equally lengthy discussion about planetariums and book writing–subjects with which Leif was also familiar. He wasn’t just passionate — he was knowledgeable.
Well, it wasn’t the last lunch we had together, but it was probably one of the most memorable.
A few weeks later, Leif Robinson and I left Sky at the same time — he to a retirement filled with birdwatching, stargazing, and taking care of his wife Caroline, who had cancer, and I on a new pathway for my career. He left behind a solid magazine, with many achievements to his name. I left knowing that I’d learned some valuable lessons, some of which (particularly in editing and writing) mostly stand me in good stead today.
The Internet startup job didn’t last long, and I moved on as a freelance science writer and editor, and into my current job as vice-president for Loch Ness Productions. Leif and I kept in touch over the next couple of years. He would call or write to me, or I’d drop him an email to see how Caroline was doing. When she died, he called me to let me know. And, a few months later, when we all gathered in a very public memorial for her, we watched as he gave a wonderful tribute to her.
It’s been a long time since I heard from Leif. We both moved to other places. The last time I saw him was shortly after he got married to his new wife, Ollie. He was exuberantly bragging about the birding and skywatching opportunities available to him in his new home in Costa Rica. We passed a few emails after that, and I often wondered how he was doing in Costa Rica.
This morning, I woke up to an email from one of my “editorial brothers” at S&T, letting all of us “in the family” know (before the press release came out) about how Leif died yesterday after a long illness. He died doing what he loved to do, in a place he came to like as much or more as anywhere else he lived. He left behind a wonderful legacy in the pages of Sky & Telescope Magazine — one that I was proud to be a part of for a few years, along with all the other projects I worked on there.
Rest in peace, Leif. And, the rest of us will keep looking up at the birds and the stars you loved to watch.
February 26, 2011 at 13:57 pm | 1 Comment
An Era is Slowly Ending…
Those of you who were born in the early 1980s and after have always had sights like these to define what “near-Earth” space exploration looks like. For the past 30 years, shuttle launches and delicate orbital ballets have been standard fare for us all to watch.
But, as we all know, that time and those missions are coming to an end. The last space shuttle flights are taking place in the next few months, and after that, the orbiters will fly no more. At least, that’s the current plan.
I’m not going to weigh in here on the relative merits of the next stage of U.S. space exploration hardware and missions, other than to say that we don’t have much tin being officially bent to take PEOPLE to space again anytime REAL soon. Yes, there is the private sector activity, which I watch with great interest. It will be interesting to see just how it all plays out. And, if it’s possible, I’ll try to make my way to space on a future “tourist flight” since I’m not likely to be picked as a “citizen journalist-astronaut” or “blogger-naut” or “Tweeter-naut” or whatever it is they’ll call them (if they come into being). Access to space, even 60 years after the first human flights, is still deemed a pretty risky and expensive proposition for all but the most fit (or, in the future probably, the most politically connected or wealthy).
But, for all of us who “grew up” watching space shuttles loft to space, dance in orbit, take astronauts to the space station, deliver repair parts for Hubble Space Telescope, and many, many other important missions, these flights ARE the end of an era. So, what can be more profound than to note that change in space flight status with a few views of today’s docking of Discovery with the International Space Station? Enjoy!
As the shuttle slowly put itself into position for the docking, which took place at 1:14 CST today, I was reminded of a plane coming into the gate at an airport. For all the hundreds of times I’ve landed at airports, and watched as the retractable jetway was steered out to nestle next to the plane by a gate agent, it never occurred to me how familiar it would look as our own “space plane” would cuddle up next to the ISS.
But, there it was, earlier today, gliding into position just as if, for all the world, it was another flight landing and delivering a planeload of passengers and cargo. In fact, as I watched, the lyrics to the Alan Parsons Project song “I Can’t Look Down” from On Air, ran through my mind: Another passenger, “Your baggage thank you sir”… even though I’m not afraid to fly and would just about give anything to go to space. I wish it were as commonplace as flying to LA or London or Paris is for many people. And that it cost about the same. I’d so be there.
As I write this, the shuttle and ISS are docked together, and the astronauts will soon begin their work of ferrying new modules and equipment to the space station. Right now they’re waiting while some relative motions and shaking die to down — a teachable moment in physics, actually, for anyone who wants to live and work in space some day (or has ever pondered what it would be like). Objects have mass, they gain momentum, and when you work with them in space, you have to take those factors into account.
In a sense it’s an everyday “fly to work, deliver the goods” kind of mission. But it’s also momentous. It’s the last time Discovery flies to the space station. It’s the last mission for this venerable orbiter, which will return to Earth in a few days’ time and probably take up residence as an exhibit somewhere. And, for those of us who grew up in its era, it’s a surreal and unreal time — we know that this is all coming to an end. And, at least some of us are eagerly awaiting the next level of exploration. Space travel is inevitable; the idea has mass and it’s gaining momentum. Now, how do we take them into account as we plan our next steps to space?
February 24, 2011 at 11:52 am | 2 Comments
The Zodiacal Light
For the past few nights, we’ve had clear weather here AND the chance to see flyovers of the International Space Station. For a couple of evenings now we’ve stepped out and watched as the astronauts flew over, and then happened to notice a faint sort of cone-shaped band of light in the west, with Jupiter embedded in the middle of it.
Here’s what it looked like. The picture below is with annotations to help you get your bearings in the sky.
What you’re looking at is sunlight scattered by dust in the zodiacal cloud — that is, a thin, rather disk-shaped cloud of dust that surrounds the Sun. It is thought that this dust comes from fragmentation of so-called “Jupiter Family Comets” — that is, comets that approach Jupiter in their orbits and take less than 20 years to go once around the Sun.
As they travel through interplanetary space, comets release very fine particles of dust that get scattered out along the path. These are thought to create that cloud. The best time to see the effect of sunlight on these dust particles is when the zodiac (that is, the plane of the ecliptic through which the planets move) is at a steep angle to the horizon. I think it’s rather neat to know that cone-shaped glow we have been seeing is the collective glow of sunlit dust particles.
If you want to try and see the zodiacal light from your location (and you have a clear view to the west after sunset), here’s an annotated version of the image above for reference. It may look brighter than what we saw, or it could be faint. The important thing is to look after sunset or before sunrise (if you happen to be up), since at those times, the Sun will be blocked by Earth, but its light can be seen glinting off the dust. Happy dust-chasing!
February 22, 2011 at 23:56 pm | 1 Comment
Or Is It?
I had to do a bit of a long drive today and while I was tootling along in the car, I heard the old Three Dog Night song written by Harry Nilsson called “One is the Loneliest Number”. And as is my usual case, that set me to thinking about all kinds of things, including… the number 1.
Mathematically, 1 is an interesting entity. First, it stands for a single thing. Sometimes we refer to it as “unity”. It’s the first non-zero whole number, and if you multiply any other number by 1, you get that number. You get an “identity”. So 1 x 1 = 1, 1 x 50 = 50, and so on. It’s an odd number, meaning it can’t be divided evenly by 2. There’s lots to know mathematically about 1, which you can read here.
1 (one) gets a lot of play in cultural references — like in the song I mentioned above. Who hasn’t heard of Neo being “the one” (in The Matrix), or calling someone your “one and only” in a romantic setting?
In binary code, 1 is one of two pieces in a base-2 system of counting (the other being zero). The binary system is used by all computers, which is where you often see the term “ones and zeros”.
In astronomy these days, all the digital imagery and data you see streaming from various instruments is in the form of “ones and zeros” which get encoded into the pictures and graphs we see. Astronomers use fairly complex computer programs to decode the images, apply algorithms to remove errors and data dropouts, and colorize, sharpen, mask, or other imaging processes to help them understand what they see in their images and data.
Astronomy brings me to an interesting element: hydrogen. Yes, it’s also part of what we study in chemistry when we learn the elements. In fact, hydrogen is the chemical element with the atomic number 1. But, when you start to study the universe in astronomy, you very quickly run into hydrogen, which means you quickly learn about it as a chemical element.
The most abundant isotope of hydrogen (think of “isotope” as “form”) has one proton in its nucleus and no neutrons. Hydrogen, element number 1, is the most abundant chemical element in the universe. An astounding 75 percent of the normal matter in the universe (not including dark matter) is hydrogen, and 90 percent of the atoms in the universe are hydrogen. When you look at stars, or nebulae, or the planet Jupiter for that matter, you’re seeing LOTS of hydrogen. In clouds of interstellar gas and dust where stars are born, for example, the hydrogen is in the form of a gas — H2. It’s in what’s known as the “molecular state”, where atoms of hydrogen bond to form molecules of the gas. Hydrogen also exists as free atoms, and also in an energized (think: heated) and magnetized state called a plasma.
As befits an element whose number is 1, hydrogen was the first element created in the Big Bang. Within moments of that creation, heavier isotopes of hydrogen came about (like deuterium) and then forms of helium and lithium. But hydrogen was number 1 in the beginning. And, judging by its abundance throughout the cosmos, it’s still number 1. It’s what you need to form stars (from those gas clouds), it is an essential component of many chemical compounds like water (H2O), or amino acids (see the image to the right).
YOU are largely made of water, and thus your body has a great deal of Element Number 1 in it. All life on this planet dabbles in water, evolved in water, and uses water to survive. There are billions and billions of life forms on Earth, and they all depend in some way on water, which is mostly hydrogen.
That hydrogen link gives us a common bond with the rest of the cosmos — the single atomic and elemental link that stretches back across more than 13.7 billion years to when the first atomic particles of hydrogen came into being and began the dance of cosmic evolution.
So, in a sense, while 1 may be the loneliest number, because of hydrogen, we are all one with the universe in a very elemental and scientific way.
February 19, 2011 at 13:00 pm | 6 Comments
Welcome to this week’s Carnival of Space
And, welcome to my humble blog. This week, my science-writer colleagues and I have multiple servings of tasty cosmic carnival fare for your delectation and intellectual curiosity. So, grab a brass ring, a refreshing beverage (more on that in a minute), and let’s get started down the space midway!
First into the center ring is Astropixie, with an a look at Determining Redshifts, a quick peek at how astronomers figure out just how far away things are in the universe. Amanda Bauer takes you step-by-step through the ways that astronomers determine distances in the cosmos.
Next, the folks at Cheap Astronomy from Canberra, Australia, weigh in with a pair of podcasts about alien biology The first talks about the role that water plays in the formation and sustenance of life. The second makes the case for carbon as the basis for life, particularly on our planet. If you’ve ever wondered about the chemical basis for life on Earth, these make a good introductory listen.
Parallel Spirals explores the publication of information about the recent Chandrayaan water discovery mission idea a bit more in Hubble Supports Chandrayaan Water Discovery. The formal science paper about how Hubble Space Telescope confirmed the presence of water on the Moon while looking at the LCROSS impact site will be published very soon.
Over at Steve’s Astro Corner, in On the Horizon What is the Next Big Thing? Steve Tilford brings you a look the technologies for exploration outlined in the Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics. If it all gets built and funded, we’ll be studying everything from dark energy to the warm, dusty universe that will seen by the James Webb Space Telescope.
The future is also the subject of an essay called Population Limits of the earth and the solar system factoring in improved technology over at Next Big Future. It’s about how the modern issues of how much population Earth can support (reasonably) and the growth of technological power and knowledge. Can we put these two together to optimize our chances for the human population of space? Head over and find out!
Materials science and understanding the effect of vacuum and thermal friction on rotating particles may be very relevant to astronomers as they seek to understand cosmic nanoparticles such as interstellar dust and the optical spectra of rotating molecules. This is the subject of a short blog entry called Vacuum has friction from an effect similar to the casimir effect, also available at Next Big Future.
If the past is present, then it’s important that we understand the history of space exploration. At Vintage Space, you can read an historical flash from the past in an article called Landings, NASA, and the Soviet Space Program, that explores the Soviet methods of getting astronauts safely back to Earth.
This week’s flashy news story (that turned out to be all mainstream-media handwaving, smoke and mirrors) about a Jupiter-like planet in the outer recesses of our solar system is Weirdwarp’s subject of discussion in Jupiter-like Planet Lurking Just Outside our Solar System is Extremely Unlikely. Guest poster Andrei (from ZMEScience) is a more sane and rational look at what the stories REALLY should have been about.
Next Big Future also presents a reasoned look at the outer solar system planet story in Tyche Planet X is still just a theory. Find out about the scientific paper by two respected scientists who posit the reasons why some long-period comet trajectories seem to have their comets coming from the wrong direction. Here’s your chance to go “behind the scenes” of a story that the MSM didn’t quite get right.
Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today talks with astronomer and planet hunter Mike Brown about that hypothetical giant planet lurking at the edge of the solar system to get his take on Tyche in About That Giant Planet Possibly Hiding in the Outer Solar System.
This week’s OTHER flashy news story, which covers events closer to Earth, turned out to be quite fascinating. It was the news about the Stardust-NExT mission to Comet Tempel-1. I talk about the mission in a pair of back-to-back entries called Waiting for Tempel-1, written on “flyby night” and The Face of a Comet, posted the next day after some of the first images had been made public.
At the center of our solar system, the Sun just keeps pumping out energy. Over at Vega 0.0, Francisco Sevilla writes about how coronagraphs enable astronomers to study the outer structures of the Sun’s superhot atmosphere. (Note the page is in Spanish, but you can translate using Google toolbar.)
Note: due to a software glitch, Astroblog’s entry didn’t make it in by the time I posted this. So, here is Ian Musgrave’s entry called The Kepler Bonanza: Making Sense of over 1,200 Extrasolar Worlds. Enjoy!
Finally, I mentioned a tasty beverage at the top of this entry. In that spirit, let’s raise a toast to National Geographic’s Breaking Orbit blog for its entry Space Beer Ready for Tasting. It’s about Australia’s 4 Pines Brewing Company and its human experiment involving tasting beer that is meant for drinking on commercial space flights. Find out why some beers you may like here on the ground wouldn’t be so great in space.
That’s it for this week’s Carnival of Space. As you can see, there are many and talented writers who blog each day about astronomy, space science, and all the topics related to these. If you like what you see, visit their blogs and let the authors know what you think!
Thanks for dropping by and keep looking up!
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Copyright 2013, Carolyn Collins Petersen
Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)
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