A couple of cool things to announce.  Remember a couple of years ago when I got to go to Launchpad, the cool astronomy workshop for authors and artists?  Well, Launchpad is now holding a fundraiser so it can continue its educational mission.  I know very well how worthwhile this project is, because I’m using it to make my YA space opera better, right this very minute!  (Seasons on Mars?  Why yes, I can figure that out and have it be accurate!)  Do check it out.

I’ve also posted the first chapter of KITTY IN THE UNDERWORLD, available online and in PDF form.  The book is due out July 30.  Not long now!  Enjoy the preview!



The very first lecture on the very first day of Launch Pad started with a discussion of the size of the universe, and yes, the Douglas Adams quote (“Space is big.  You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is.”) may have come up once or twice.

We have invented new units of size and distance to deal with how big it is.  AU’s.  Parsecs.  Light years.  There comes a point where you sort of nod, understanding it on a purely intellectual level.  But it remains abstract because we’re better at dealing with distances we can actually, you know, deal with.  Miles are good because we can walk a discrete number of them in a day.  Start getting much bigger than that and things simply fall into the category of big, bigger, really big, and COSMIC.  Earth is really big.

Wait a minute — no it isn’t.

Prof. Mike Brotherton pointed us to this video, which I really like because it shows that a) we’re really small and b) it uses music from Disney’s The Black Hole.  Remember that one?  Scariest movie I’d ever seen, until The Empire Strikes Back came out.  (Hey, I was 7, give me a break.)

Link to video, which I tried and failed to embed.  I may try again later.

Hey look, I got it!  Also, it should be noted objects in the universe aren’t really floating, most of them are locked in some sort of gravitational arrangement and traveling at very high speed…

Launch Pad #4: An answer

August 2, 2010

I bet you’re finally wanting to know what was up with my experiment of several days ago, hm?  Well, it was a smashing, roaring success!  Thank you all for the many, many responses!  I had no idea so many people would play along with me, and I appreciate it.

I haven’t run detailed stats or anything on the answers I got, and I don’t plan to.  This is mostly to illustrate a point.  But a rough breakdown:  Almost everyone got it right.  Gold stars for everyone!  Throwing out the creative and snarky answers (turtles, indeed!), there were about a half dozen wrong answers, and about as many half-wrong answers.  The interesting thing is, there are reasons people have wrong answers to this question, which I’ll get to.

The answer:  the Earth’s tilt on its axis causes the seasons.

The wrong answer:  the seasons have nothing to do with the shape of the Earth’s orbit and the distance of the Earth from the sun.  Yes, the Earth’s orbit is slightly elliptical, but it’s so slight as to  have no noticeable effect on the planet’s climate or temperature.  It all has to do with the tilt, and which hemisphere has greater exposure to the sun during which part of the orbit. Here is a full and detailed explanation from NOAA.

Now, the explanation for why I did all this.  I basically wanted to rerun someone else’s experiment to see what happened.  To wit:

Launch Pad included quite a bit of discussion of pedagogy:  how we teach, how we acquire and retain knowledge, and so on, since big part of the whole point of the workshop is to teach writers like me to be better educators when it comes to science.  As part of the discussion, we watched a short, eye-opening film:  A Private Universe.  In it, researchers ask a group of Harvard graduates — and a couple of professors — what causes the seasons.  And most of them answered wrong — that seasons are caused by the Earth’s distance from the sun.  The researchers then went to a junior high classroom and did the same thing, thinking these kids haven’t had a chance to learn wrong information — well, they had come up with wrong answers too.  So where was everyone getting the wrong answers from?

It turns out a lot of us have a lot of assumptions about the things we think we know, and those assumptions — preconceived notions and misconceptions — can run smack dab into reality. And they can be hard to get rid of.

We are never teaching clean slates — people come to learning with a lot of assumptions already in place, and part of good teaching isn’t just imparting knowledge, but confronting wrong assumptions and overcoming them.  A lot of misconceptions come from experience:

In our daily lives, we all know a basic truth:  if you move closer to a heat source, you get hotter.  You feel more energy.  Therefore, if you knew absolutely nothing about the Earth’s orbit, and axial tilt, this would actually be a pretty good assumption about why the Earth gets hotter in summer.  This is the reason why pre-Copernican astronomy was so insistent that the Earth was the center of the universe — of course the Earth can’t be moving because we can’t feel it.  And we all see the sky turning overhead.  Therefore. . .  But that’s wrong.  Observational data doesn’t support that assumption.

There’s another item that researchers discovered:  many textbooks when discussing the seasons and the Earth’s orbit draw the Earth and sun from a side-on view, mimicking 3-D.  Like this one.   The trouble is, those diagrams turn a near-circular orbit into an ellipse and make the Earth appear to get significantly closer to the sun at various points on its orbit.  Unwittingly, in an effort to teach one concept, these diagrams plant a misconception in students’ minds.

Now, what does all this mean for me as a writer?  How do I deliver information, knowing that I may be dealing with readers’ misconceptions?  How do I deliver information that doesn’t cause new misconceptions?  What’s the best way to overturn someone’s faulty preconceptions?  I’m still mulling it all over.  It’s pretty heavy stuff.

I want to run a little experiment.  (You see?  Science!)  I’m going to ask a question, and I want you to answer in the comments without reading any of the previous answers, and without googling it.

Question:  What causes the seasons?

Launch Pad #2: Imaging

July 25, 2010

This is a really blurry picture because I was taking it without a flash.  But I thought it would be cool to see what this stuff looks like in process.  What we’re looking at:  this is an image of the Ring Nebula taken at the Red Buttes Observatory, which houses the University of Wyoming’s 24″ telescope.  Remember I said there were two computers?  This is the one collecting data from the telescope.  I have to confess, it’s a little disappointing not actually looking through an eyepiece on the big huge telescope to very distant astronomical objects.  But it turns out in a lot of cases our eyes just aren’t good enough to see them.  So while it’s easy to think this is just another picture of a well-known astronomical object, I had to remember that this particular picture was taken just a few minutes previously.  So while I’ve seen lots of prettier pictures of the Ring Nebula, I will never see one cooler than this one.

The right-hand image is the raw data, the left-hand image was made with color filters to bring out different features of the nebula — different kinds of light have varying wavelengths, which can provide lots of information and help astronomers determine how hot a star or other object is, how far away it is, what kind of object it is, and so on.   Also, it turns out astronomers really do play around with the colors of various images in arbitrary fashions to make really pretty pictures for press releases and the like.  Like this:

On Saturday we got a quick tutorial in the software astronomers use to manipulate images and various filters on astronomical objects.  Here’s the awesome picture I made of galaxy M51.  Just to reiterate, the colors don’t actually mean anything here because I was kinda messing around.  But I made a picture!

Here’s the telescope used to view the above image of the Ring Nebula:

The WIRO telescope looks a little like this, only bigger.  Much much bigger.

Launch Pad #1: WIRO

July 22, 2010

These posts are going to be rather unscientific I fear, which is terribly ironic given I’ve been in science mode for a week.  I’m going to post stuff, I’m going to talk about it.  My hope is you’ll get a good idea of the kinds of things we were doing for the week, and maybe learn something about space.

Last day first.  Saturday night, we went to WIRO, the Wyoming Infrared Observatory, home of a 2.3 meter telescope, about the same primary mirror size as the Hubble. Here’s the thing:  it was really hard getting a good picture of the telescope because it’s really big.  The pictures I did get, it’s impossible to tell the scale without someone standing next to it.  So I’m going to send you to the google image search.  Instead of a tube, it’s a big steel framework mounted on a fork (yellow and brown, University of Wyoming colors, natch), holding the large mirrors and instruments and aiming them where astronomers want to look.

Alas, the telescope wasn’t working last week, so we didn’t get to actually look at anything with it.  But here’s some things I learned about big telescopes.  They’re automated, which not only allows astronomers to move them to different points, but allows them to remain focused on the same object while the Earth rotates.  The automation includes the big metal dome over the observatory, which can stay in synch with the telescope.  Instead of having an eyepiece to look through like small at-home telescopes do, the telescope focuses the image directly to a CCD imaging camera and to a computer — or to some other instrument like a spectroscope, diffusion grating, infrared detector, etc.  The telescope has a couple of computers dedicated to it — one to control the telescope, and one to control the instrument and collect the data.

More about that in a later post.

At WIRO, I learned something about the daily lives of astronomers working at observatories:  They usually happen at night.

disgusting, isn’t it?

July 20, 2010

May I present Wyoming’s cutest ground squirrel: