The Art of the Star Party

The Art of the Star Party

starparty.jpgLast night I attempted to give a star party for a group of about 50 girl scouts. It was a noble effort, but I have to admit that it devolved into learned old(ish) person speaking before a group of seated in rows youngish people. I’m generally opposed to this type of teaching, but I had run out of plans.

Plan A: Lots of telescopes all pointed at different objects allowing people to go from scope to scope, and binoculars with volunteers so that people can get a hands-on-guided tour of the sky. However, since I had only 1 scope and 1 helper, this was not an option.

Plan B: Bring a bunch of star wheels and red-flash lights and teach everyone how to find their way around the sky, and then have one person man a scope while whoever else is available circulates answering questions and giving pointers. Unfortunately, since it was cloudy and we could see exactly 1 Moon, 2 planets and 9 stars, this too was not an option.

Plan C: Pamela (that would be me) hands out star wheels and red flash lights, teaches everyone how to use them, and then apologizes profusely for the weather. Pamela’s wonder assistant shows kids the Moon through the telescope. Pamela does tap dance involving “If you look here and pretend real hard, you might be able to see the big dipper and you can arc off the big dipper to Arctaurus, which is here, and if it was clear you could spike to Spica (which is hidden in this cloud).” This particular dance number was followed by a soft-shoe involving Saturn, a merengue on how to measure the distance to the Moon with lasers, and then a quick retreat.

Clearly, I need more plans.

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No Child Left Inside Plan

Today, while in a meeting for the International Year of Astronomy, someone mentioned hearing someone state that we need a goal of no child left inside. Instead of just showing them imaged stars with robot telescopes across the Internet, we need to send them outside to look up. Instead of just giving them synthetic experiences in virtual realities, we need to send them outside to lookup. Instead of just bringing them real data that comes from data archives, we need to send them outside to look up.

There are places for Internet-based learning tools, but while we prepare our virtual experiences and aim for large impact, we also need to get everyone – everyone – to just go outside and look up.

Leave no child inside. When the skies are clear, take a little one by the hand and go outside and look up.

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1st International Sidewalk Astronomy Night

Tonight, all across the world, guerilla astronomy will be waged on the public as amateur and professional astronomers inflict their hobby on individuals in random locations. Today is the 1st Annual International Sidewalk Astronomy Night. There is a nice article (written by yours truly with great editting by David Tytell) on the Sky and Telescope website. Check it out and get involved!

Image by: Claudio Lopresti

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A Few Caveats regarding Day Length

I have to admit I have spring fever. I seem to have moved to a part of the country where the seasons actually follow the solstices and equinoxes, and politely divide themselves into 4 fairly equal parts. My crocuses are blooming, shorts are starting to appear on some of the more robust males on campus, the Canadian geese have paired off (which is actually very freaky), and tonight the Sun crosses the equinox at 7 minutes after midnight in Greenwich (that’s GMT-0). The Sun, when it rises over Edwardsville and campus tomorrow, will be hanging out over the Northern Hemisphere.

When I teach about equinoxes and solstices in class, the observant student may notice a slight discrepancies between what is taught and what they find in their newspaper. For instance, I’ll say that on the Equinox, the Sun rises exactly in the East and sets exactly in the West (totally true). I’ll say the Sun passes directly over the Equator at the Equinox (also, totally true). And, I’ll say the day and the night are equal on the Equinox (kinda sorta true). What I don’t do is define sunrise and sunset, and this is where that last “kinda sorta, huh?” moment comes into play.

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Honesty in Observing:
The Crab Nebula & an 8.2-m telescope

Honesty in Observing:The Crab Nebula & an 8.2-m telescope

The Crab Nebula as seen by SubaruAs I’ve mentioned before, press releases that don’t really contain science are one of my pet peeves. That said, one such press release came across my inbox this morning and made me giggle happily. The image was of the Crab Nebula (above left: credit: NAOJ); a nearby supernova remnant formed in 1054. The telescope in question was Subaru; an 8.2-m telescope in Hawaii operated by Japan’s National Institutes of Natural Science. Subaru isn’t a facility that buries reporters in press releases. This pretty picture was just press release #4 for 2007, and the other three were solid new results (as were all the non-instrument or education related releases of 2006). So why did this non-science press release from such a respectable press office make me giggle?

Here is a quote from Toru Yamada, one of the observing team’s members: “We just wanted to look at something beautiful.”

I love honestly.

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In Search of Darkness

In Search of Darkness

IC 342Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…First star? Hello? You’re supposed to come out now. Stars? Someone? Shine? Please?

While I was a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin I watched the Ring Nebula (M57) disappear. When I first arrived in 1996, this former stellar atmosphere was clearly visible in binoculars from the roof of the building I worked in (RLM). In 2000 I could no longer see it, but some of my more owl-eyed students could see it faintly contrasting against the background glow of too many city lights. When I graduated in 2002, it was just gone. No pair of 10×50 binoculars was going to find it. According to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce the city grew from 846,227 people in 1990 to 1,452,529 people in 2005. With that growth came lights, and with those lights came star consuming light pollution. As the world population grows and becomes progressively more industrialized, our entire planet is losing its ability to see faint stars and galaxies in the night skies.

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