Space Shuttle Endeavour visits Austin, Part Deux

On September 20, the Space Shuttle Endeavour did a fly-over of Austin and I caught a really cool photo of it with the UT Tower. You can see my original blog post about it here.

The weird thing was that for the next few months, after the initial rush of the first few days, I still saw a trickle of retweets, views, and comments.

Then, I got a tweet from someone at Twitter saying that they would like to use the tweet/photo as part of an official Twitter project. I was intrigued, but figured it would show up somewhere buried in a 2012 wrap-up. Well, I was partially correct, it was in a 2012 wrap-up, but buried it certainly wasn't! Imagine my surprise when it showed up here:

Only on Twitter

And here:

And here:

And in the video itself:

(Below the Curiosity rover and next to Barack and Michelle Obama. Seriously?!?!)

And here's the whole video:

And one of the more amusing places that the photo and tweet showed up was this blog entry from the TexasExes: UT Tower Lands on Twitter’s Most Popular Posts of 2012

Compared to Barack Obama's most re-tweeted tweet ever, my little photo and tweet of the Space Shuttle Endeavour was nothing. But to an average person like me it was a big deal!

The stats as of today, the last day of 2012, are: on Flickr - over 5500 views, 100+ favorites and 39 comments. The actual tweet directly from my account was retweeted about 800 times, but I also sent it to several local news outlets and *their* tweets also got a lot of traffic so the twitpic is edging towards 35,000 views! There were also several shares and about 800 likes on Facebook (I think, it's hard to track stuff like that on Facebook) and there were shares on Google+ and on blogs. I did a search on the link to the Twitpic ( and saw all sorts of links that I didn't even know about before! And I've gained about 150 followers in the past few weeks - I'm sure most of them are people hunting for follow-backs or are spambots, but still, it's kind of cool. :)

I did post a couple more pictures of the fly-over, although they weren't as special as the Tower shot, I did like this one of it coming in:

While I doubt 2013 will bring anything like this, I'm still excited to see what happens in the new year!

2012 was a pretty amazing year

I knew going in that 2012 was going to be a pretty busy year for me, and it was! Personally the highlights were the AAS meeting in January, successfully pulling off the very popular public viewing of the Venus transit in June, and seeing the Space Shuttle Endeavour in September (more about that later...). But in the broader world, there was some pretty incredible stuff this year. There were also some sad good-byes and heartbreaking tragedies, and I know it was a rough year for some of my friends and acquaintances, but I want to focus on the good things.

Humans literally went to the extremes - James Cameron solo dived to the deepest part of the Earth's oceans, while Felix Baumgartner jumped from a balloon in the stratosphere. And we got to see both occur live on our computers.

Physicists have probably discovered the Higgs boson, one of the key points of modern Standard Model of physics. (I'll refrain from grousing about how it could have been discovered 15 years sooner and here in Texas if the Congress hadn't been so short-sighted in canceling the Superconducting Supercollider in 1993.)

I saw a man run in the Olympics on two artificial legs. Wow.

Private spaceflight is becoming a reality and SpaceX is proved it can do the job of the low-earth orbit tasks and leave the big stuff, like going beyond Earth orbit, to NASA.

And the highlight, in my opinion, was the amazing landing of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover on Mars. I *still* can't believe that worked...

On a more personal and far less scientific note, this was a great year for one of my favorite places on Earth - London. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee was a great warm-up to their hosting the Olympics just a few weeks later and I loved every minute of watching both. I realized while watching the Olympics - in particular the cycling at Hampton Court Palace - that of all the cities that have hosted the Olympics, London is the one I've spent the most time in. (And I've only been in 2 other cities that have hosted - Rome, which hosted the games before I was born, and Atlanta. Well, technically I've been in St. Louis too, but only the airport!).

From my history side - the possible discovery of the remains of Richard III. The historical detective work that went into if was amazing enough, but the fact that they have found remains that, circumstantially at this point, might be what they were looking for is astounding. It still gives me chills!

On my geeky side - "The Avengers" was amazing and I'm still so impressed that Marvel has been able to put together such a good string of movies and was able to bring it all together into a movie that was even better than the sum of its parts. The finale to the Batman trilogy was perfect as well. And we got to go back to Middle Earth! But the tops for me was the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney and the announcement that we would indeed get episodes VII, VIII, and IX. This is a kind of Holy Grail of my childhood, to see all 9 episodes of the Star Wars "Skywalker family" saga actually happen. And I'm looking forward to some of the other Star Wars projects that have been mentioned outside of the 9-part sage. Personally I'd love to see some stuff set in the Old Republic days.

I'm sure there are things I'm missing, but these are a few of the things that will make 2012 special in my memories!

Well... we're still here

Do I get to say "I told you so" now?

I haven't blogged about it much (if at all?) but I have occasionally ranted on Twitter about the questions, usually in phone calls, that I've been getting for YEARS about the so-called Mayan apocalypse coming on December 21, 2012.

I think the first calls started coming around 2006 after one of the many programs that have since been repeated endlessly the on cable channels first aired. I remember in particular a dad who was concerned about his 11 or 12-year-old son who was getting depressed after watching some of these programs. After talking for a while with the dad, I could suss out that there were other family issues (a divorce or separation in particular) and this was probably feeding an already stressful situation. My main recommendation then, after assuring him that the stuff in those programs were mostly nonsense, was to have his son talk with a school counselor. I think I talked with him a couple of times, but I don't know for sure how it all turned out.

Edited to add: While I was looking through some unpublished draft posts (that's what I get for switching around blogs so much - stuff gets accidentally left behind!) I found a bit more that I had written several years ago about this particular caller:

I got a call from a guy who had watched some wretched History Channel show about how the Mayan calendar was predicting the end of the world in 2012. The man's son (who I think was about 11 years old?) was so freaked out by it that he was having trouble sleeping, wouldn't eat and was generally withdrawing from life over it. I basically told him that it was all stupid mystery-mongering and it was no different from our calendar switching to 2000. He ended up calling back several times and we talked about how to be skeptical about those types of programs. (I also recommended that the son at least talk to a counselor at school since I think there might have been other issues that were at play). He ended up talking to the assistant of one of the authors shown briefly in the program and she told him that the author was very upset at how they had totally taken his work out of context and misreprensented it. I think I had used those exact words when I was describing to my caller some of the tactics that those programs use. I also recommended some books to him and we also talked a little about skeptical thinking in general and I think that I might have made a new skeptic by the time all was said and done.

I had forgotten about the rest of that conversation!

I've gotten a few random questions over the years, but there has been one guy who has called many times over that stretch. In a way, it was actually a good thing that he kept calling since through him I was able to find out what the latest claims were that were being tied to what I started calling "the kitchen sink" of doomsday conspiracy theories. And boy were there a lot of claims. I sometimes fell down a rabbit hole of stupid by looking up on YouTube the terms or people he was asking about. I haven't heard from him in a while but I *think* I was finally getting through to him, especially after he asked for telescope recommendations! I think that stemmed from the common claim that some bright object in the sky (usually Jupiter or Venus) was the mythical Nibiru/Planet X that was supposed to either hit us or pass close enough to flip us over on December 21. I would tell him that it was either of those planets and he would say "how do you know?" or would edge towards some of the "NASA is hiding stuff" arguments. So I told him, you can look at it yourself and see that it is Jupiter or Venus if you don't believe me. And maybe, just maybe, he did.

Then there were a couple of guys who actually came in person to the astronomy department wanting to talk with people, and in those cases, ended up in my office. These were the ones that had the potential to be pretty scary and the thought crossed my mind that I should ask for a panic button in my office (the problem being - I'm a complete klutz and would likely hit the thing accidentally if it was in an easily accessible place when I actually needed it.) One of the guys was, I think, more of an Electric Universe guy (and that's a blog post for another day, but there are other astronomers who have already done some good take-downs on that stuff). But the second one was one of a few people I've talked with who were buying in to the conspiracy talk about "gaps" in the Google Sky maps or things that show up in the IR but not in the visible, etc. Some of those were part of the Nibiru/Planet X stuff, but it was all pretty easily debunked. Unfortunately I completely messed up the answer on what one of those objects was, but since he was actually there in my office, at least I showed him in person the methodology I was using... it just ended up pointing to the wrong answer. But the answer *still* wasn't Nibiru/Planet X!

I don't anticipate that I'll hear from any of those people again or that they will call and say "Yep, you were right!". And I know that we'll still be dealing with versions of these claims for many years to come - the Mayan calendar thing was just a convenient date, but most of the claims were around before and will be around after. I've already seen rumblings about a comet that has a chance to be really spectacular next year, similar to the non-story that was Comet Elenin last year. (And I'll note that all of the "see, nothing happened then, did it?" arguments didn't disabuse most people of their 2012 beliefs, so I don't anticipate the non-pocalypse of 2012 will keep people from buying in to future claims.) But if we're lucky, the comet will be another bright Hale-Bopp-like show, but hopefully without a cult suicide this time. I have to admit that the main reason I waited until today to post this was on the outside possibility that a story broke late yesterday of some Jonestown or Heaven's Gate incident, but thankfully it seems none was forthcoming. Whew.

So December 21, 2012 turned out to be just another day, like I and many other people said it would be. Solar activity was low, there were the usual number of earthquakes, no supervolcano eruptions, asteroid impacts, etc. I personally used it to catch up on laundry because I've been sick for a week and a half!

And before I forget - a BIG thanks to for creating the best place for sending people to get good, scientific answers to these claims and giving people a place to air their concerns and be reassured. I know they are planning to re-tool the site into a place that will be useful beyond this 2012 "expiration date" and I'm sure I'll be sending people to the new site too.

Since this is getting long, I'll save the "wow, 2012 actually turned out to be a pretty amazing year" stuff for another post!

* * * * * * *

The picture at the top is of the Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Since that was the image that most people seem to include in their 2012 posts, I figured I'd at least pick on with me in it. Yep, that's a 15-year-old me in the green shirt and straw hat in the middle of the photo. I still have that hat! Not pictured: the crutch that I had used to help me get up the pyramid because I had broken my ankle about 6 weeks earlier and was just then getting my muscle back in my leg to walk without support. The friend that took the picture carried the crutch back down so I could inch my way down along the chain that runs on the side you can climb to aid people going up and down - those stairs are thin and steep!

McDonald Observatory and West Texas 2012

I traveled out to McDonald Observatory for work back in July and I'm just now getting around to posting the photos! This was the first time I'd been out in 5 years, and the first time since I had ventured into playing with HDR photography (more about that here, with my first HDR photo) so I figured I would have fun taking photos in what little spare time I had. That's the one thing about going out there for the board meetings - it's pretty much two days of travel and two days of being really busy! And to top it off, I managed to catch a cold shortly before leaving, so I was fighting the fatigue from that the whole time too. But it is always nice to get out to the dark skies and mountains of west Texas!

The area is recovering well from the horrible fires of 2011 and had even had a little rain in the week before I was there, so things greened up a little. The weather was great while I was there, and as usual, I was caught off-guard by how chilly it can get after dark, even in the middle of summer. (Seriously, I've been out there several times in July, you would think I would have learned my lesson by now!)

I had a chance to look through the 107" and the 36" telescopes this year, and it really brought home how much I am missing with the 16" in the middle of Austin (and with a very dirty mirror at the moment). When you aren't used to it, it can be a bit of a shock to be able to look into the eyepiece and see the Ring nebula straight on and without any of the tricks (filters, averted vision, etc.) that we have to do in the city. Perhaps the most astounding was the Whirlpool Galaxy and easily being able to see the spiral arms. And of course, Saturn was its usual gorgeous self!

On the way out Sunday morning I decided to leave a different way so I could swing through the Sierra Madera impact crater. I had done it once before when I was out in 2003, shortly after writing a paper on the impact craters in Texas for a geology class. I knew that at some point fairly recently they had put up signs on the highway to tell people that they were driving through it. It would be nice if they eventually put up a historical marker or some sort of information plaque, but just the acknowledgement that it was there at all is pretty cool!

The picture at the top goes to my Flickr set from the trip. You'll see that I went a bit overboard with the HDR on a few of the shots, but I was having fun!

A few thoughts on college education

Since I'm trying to get back in to blogging and writing more, I thought this would be a good place to jot down a few rambling thoughts I had today - mostly so I would have a place to refer back to it in the future!

(Anyone who stumbles across this and actually reads it - keep in mind that I've never taken an education class and am not very familiar with pedagogy and that most of the education I've done is in the informal outreach setting.)

One of our professors is planning to implement a "flipped classroom" approach for his introductory astronomy class next semester and part of my job will be helping him put together the materials. One of the "evangelists" of the technique in our college gave a seminar about it today and I tagged along to learn a few things - although I was hoping they might get a little more into the technology (which is what I wil mainly be doing). Still, I found it to be an interesting discussion of teaching and learning in the modern day university.

Near the end he was talking about some of the student feedback, both good and bad, after taking a class taught that way. The bad feedback was a comment from a student who said they wanted the professor to give clear lectures and spell out exactly how and on what materials they would be tested. I was nodding along with that so the seminar presenter asked for thoughts and pointed to me, and I mentioned, although I am not personally a faculty member, I have heard our faculty complaining about students having this attitude. Basically, they want a cookbook class - a set of numbered instructions that they need to follow to get the results they are looking for (a good grade, presumably). One of the actual faculty members chimed in and said "basically, they don't want to think". I wouldn't have put it quite that bluntly, but I think she was kind of right. At least I don't feel that the students want to have to think outside of a pre-instilled idea of how education is supposed to work. And that gets me to the epiphany that I had one the walk back to my office - this is the fallout of the state testing that the students who are now in college (if they grew up in Texas) have been doing all their school career. I realize that this is a broad generalization, and it might not even be the right conclusion, but it the idea just seemed to 'click' with me. Teachers are told the topics that they need to teach because those are the topics the students will be tested on. And in some cases, the students are basically told "these are the facts you will be tested on, learn them". And then at the end of the year (depending on their school grade) they are tested on just those concepts and facts. So when these students get to college, they kind of expect the things to be laid out the same way. The university does require a syllabus to be handed out to the students on the first day and that they will know what goes in to calculating their final grade, and I don't have a problem with that. But the feeling I'm getting is that students just want to be given a list of facts and concepts (or problem types) that they will be tested over and then that is all that will show up on exams. I've *literally* been told by a student "just give me the answer". But I, and others, don't think that is the end-all-be-all of education - to just be told a bunch of info by a professor and then regurgitate that answer back to them on homework, quizzes, and exams. You're not really LEARNING.

The example I alluded to above was up at the telescope one night. I run a public night that students also go to in order to do observing assignments from some of the professors (from our university and from the local community college and high schools). So, they often come in with a worksheet with little blanks to fill in (already getting a little too "cookbookish" for my taste for the college students, but these are mostly non-science majors) and come to me to get the info to fill in to those little blanks. Sometimes the answers are straightforward - the size of the telescope, things like that. But sometimes the questions give me a chance to make the students work for it a little instead of just *giving* the answer. In the case I'm remembering, we were looking at the binary star system Albireo in Cygnus, which is a pretty double with one golden star and one blue star. One of the students was writing down the info in order to write it up for a class assignment and needed to write down why the stars are different colors. I asked what class they were in and surmised that it wasn't going too far to expect them to either know or at least be able to guess what the correct answer was (they have different temperatures). After one or two half-hearted guesses the exasperated student said, in a not-too-kind tone "just give me the answer!". My immediate thought was to say "no, at least go look it up for yourself", but instead I asked around to the other students, one of whom knew the answer (and who I think was in the same class as the original student).

I'm sure there are - and always will be - lazy students who just want to follow a prescribed regimen and give a stock answer to straightforward questions. And I don't think any new teaching techniques will get to those students. But for the students who really want to learn and are really interested in the subjects, taking advantage of the new technology available to us - that the students are very comfortable with since the kids now in college grew up with it - is something at least worth trying. One of the speakers described the teacher as "coach" in the flipped classroom model, and I really liked that idea. You can teach them technique and give pointers to improve performance, but ultimately the student has to perform on their own.

Space Shuttle Endeavour visits Austin

The shuttle Endeavour left Florida on its way to Los Angeles where it will be housed at the California Science Center and on the way it has made a few stops and flybys. It stopped over in Houston last night and I knew that a re-fueling stop in El Paso was on the schedule, so I was hoping that it would make a fly over Austin as well. And it turned out that they had scheduled a low pass over the Capitol, which I knew we'd be able to see really well from my office building on the UT campus. So (even though I was up on the telescope last night) I decided to come in early and try to get a picture. Funny enough, the ones I got of it over the Capitol and city weren't all that great, but as it flew past the UT Tower, I got this shot:

(Click over to Flickr for the larger version)

I posted it to Twitter and copied the tweet to a couple of local news organizations, thinking they might want to use it for online galleries. But of course, as things often do on the internet, it took off and I've been flooded with replies, emails, Facebook comments, etc! I got a call from the Director of Public Affairs at UT and they will be handling any of the licensing that may arise. He said they were going to contact the AP (!!) so who knows? Since I took the photo at work it really is UT's to do with as they wish, I just want credit (which I know they will honor) - I can't wait to see where the image pops up!

Still kind of blown away by the reaction... And ultimately I'm just really happy that I got to see the shuttle!!

A summer to say goodbye to heroes

Although I think both Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong shied away from the label 'hero' both were heroes to me.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Sally Ride when she gave a talk at UT a few years ago. She was a great inspiration to me and many other young girls who at some point dreamed of being an astronaut. After leaving NASA she founded Sally Ride Science which is dedicated to getting young people interested in science, a mission very close to my heart!

Sadly I never had a chance to meet or even see Neil Armstrong in person, but I have seen many artifacts of his astronaut career over the years. And pretty much every time I look at the moon I stop and think - people have walked there!

In that vein, I loved the final paragraph of the statement from the Armstrong family:

For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.

Not surprisingly that resonated with many people and the hashtag #winkatthemoon took off on Twitter and has spawned several websites and galleries of people submitting photos of the moon. It was a great way to honor not just Neil Armstrong, but the whole Apollo program. I can only hope we'll be seeing humans follow in Neil's footsteps soon.

Per ardua ad astra

Transit of Venus

Now that I've had time to recover a little, I thought I would write up my experience organizing and running the public viewing of the June 5, 2012 Transit of Venus event.

Based on my experiences with the "Mars Close Approach" event in 2003, I knew going in that it would almost certainly be a very busy day and prepared for it. The transit of Venus happens in pairs 8 years apart every 100+ years and after the one in 2012 the next chance would be December 2117. Who knows what advances in medical science will do to increase our longevity over the next 100 years, but regardless, the majority of us won't be around to see the next transit of Venus. Since the one in 2004 wasn't visible in Austin, this was basically my only chance to see it with my own eyes. And pretty much ever since the 2004 transit, the 2012 one had been on my long-term horizon as something to plan for at work.

As we got closer to the day, I was contacted by the local amateur astronomy club, the Austin Astronomical Society, and the Astronomy Students Association (our undergraduate group, which I was a charter member of back in the day!) to do a joint event. This ended up working out well since it meant a lot of instruments and volunteers - and in the end we needed them all!

We didn't really know how many people to expect since we weren't requiring reservations or RSVPs. I had received a few phone calls and emails but since we had the information posted on the web it was hard to predict how many people would actually come. We estimated about 1000 people came to view Mars at the 2003 event that I was using for comparison, so I wasn't too surprised that we got swamped. One of my fellow organizers was expecting a few hundred over the three hours it was visible in Austin, but in the end we estimated that about 2500 people came through the various lines. At one point the line wound its way down the stairwell from the 17th floor to the 4th floor (the ground level for my building)!

The weather was the big concern going in to the day and the forecast looked a little dodgy for a while. But in the end the clouds mostly stayed away and we saw all but the last 15-20 minutes that the transit was visible in Austin.

I started the day in the room that our solar telescope projects in to, but only about the first 90 minutes of the transit was going to be visible there. I was actually happy to be the person to run that since it meant I got to stay inside in the air conditioning for the hottest part of the event! The image at the top is of the view we had from the solar telescope - it's about a three foot image on the wall.

Once we closed up the heliostat I set up a live stream in the auditorium and checked on the state of the line. We knew after a point that there was no way that people joining the line would be able to get to the roof in time, so that's when we started sending people to the live stream. They wouldn't get to see it with their own eyes through a telescope, but at least they got to see it and ask questions of astronomers!

I went up to the roof for the last 45 minutes or so and stayed with the undergraduates (and sneaked a peek through our 8-in telescope with solar filter they were using) until the sun ducked behind the clouds about 20 minutes before sunset. I also looked at it unmagnified through a welder's glass and the dot of Venus was easily visible.

I stayed around to take down signs, etc. and finally left around 9:30 p.m., completely exhausted (I logged over 12,000 steps on my pedometer), but so glad that we were able to pull off a pretty successful event!

Sherwood Forest Faire 2012

I've posted my photos from last weekend's trip to the Sherwood Forest Faire over on Flickr. I didn't get quite as many good photos from the joust this year since the area where I took up close photos last year (and got a face full of dust) was very muddy this year. No complaints though, we need the rain. I also managed, on a mostly cloudy day in a space mostly covered by trees, to get a little sunburned. Quite a talent!

See the photos here

Thunderstorm from summer 1998

While I was going through some old video transfers at work, I found the one I did of a video I shot at Enchanted Rock State Park back in 1998. I was out there to give a talk about meteor showers during special events they were having to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Texas Parks and Wildlife. I didn't get any video of the meteor shower, but I did get these shots of a nearby thunderstorm before sunset (things did clear up nicely for the meteor shower itself). The quality isn't great, but it was a fun test of the process and I was able to make a 20x version so you can see some of the movement of the storm.

Historical Astronomy exhibit at the HRC

Heliocentric diagram from Nicolaus Copernicus' "De Revolutionibus"

I mentioned in a previous post that I went over to the Harry Ransom Center on the Friday at the end of the AAS meeting to see the small exhibit of astronomy texts and items that they had set up for the week. I had already seen several of the items (and I really wish they had brought out the Tycho with the etching of the coats of arms of his ancestors - including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) but it was neat to see them again. There were also a few items from the Herschel collection that I don't think I've seen before. And this was just a small fraction of the stuff they had out for the International Year of Astronomy exhibit back in 2009.

You can see the full set on Flickr here

AAS Day 5

The final day - and it was a busy one!

It's kind of ironic that the one day I was actually able to make the 8:30 a.m. talk was the final day of the conference. I guess part of it was that I skipped the apparently epic party the night before. :)

I'm glad that I was able to make it to the talk since it was one that was about something that I think about a lot "The Evolving Context for Science and Society", presented by Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Interestingly, before Leshner, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Tx) spoke for a few minutes (he wasn't on the program and came over at the last minute from a nearby function). I wish I had a recorder with me since I would like to be able to quote some of the stuff he said so I "un-spin" the politics from it. Also, I would to have had a chance to ask him why, if he is the science fan and champion he claims to be, he authored a bill that would have broken the internet.

A lot of what Leshner was talking about was stuff that I already know about and think about, but I'd be willing to bet that some fraction of the audience hadn't. I posted a lot to Twitter about this, so most of what I'm writing here was compiled from those tweets.

Leshner started out by laying out the case for why the general public needs to have some fundamental understanding of science: because it is in every part of our lives now. Then he moved on to the conflicts between science and society. He first looked at legitimate problems that science has such as ethics violations, exaggerated claims, etc. that cause poor views of scientists. There are also problems that scientists face, such as poor funding (he had an interesting remark about how he hears people now saying they are happy when they have flat funding as opposed to taking budget cuts). Leshner did have nice words for how astronomy does decadal surveys and that most other science fields don't.

Leshner then moved on to the conflicts between science and the public, including what the causes behind those conflicts might be. Part of it is that people have little understanding of what is and what is not science, giving examples such as ESP, evolution denial, astrology. Another factor is tension of science conflicting with political and economic issues, the prime example being global warming. There is also when science conflicts with core human values, such as research on embryonic stem cells. In addition, generally speaking, the public does not feel immediate consequences of science denial, although scientists to (for example, public opinion calling for elimination of stem cell research - the funding gets axed but the public might not realize that the research was beneficial to them until it is too late).

So, how do we fix this?

Leshner said that education is important, but that we can't just educate our way out of the problem. We need to change our approach and engage with the public - talk WITH instead of just TO the public. Personal engagement works best, let people actually see what you do. (Possibly not as big a deal with astronomers, but I could see how this would be particularly important in the biological sciences.) One of the more quotable lines (and it got me several re-tweets) was "some scientists are bad at speaking, but some also aren't good at listening.". His core point at the end: "the science-society relationship needs constant attention."

Some thoughts I have on the talk - I definitely agree with Leshner's approach, but sometimes those initial conversations of trying to talk WITH (as opposed TO) the public can be difficult when the people you are trying to engage don't have some basic level of understanding. When I tweeted to that effect, I was mainly thinking of people who have been literally calling for years who are scared of 2012 doomsday nonsense. When I try to deconstruct the claims that they have heard it can be quite difficult because the caller doesn't have a basic grasp of astronomy or how the sky works. I don't necessarily have the time to break it down to the basics and give them an introductory lecture on astronomy. And I've found that just as soon as I start trying to explain one claim, it brings up another! (Yes, I'm afraid my frustration is coming through...).

I certainly don't have all the answers for how to fix these problems, and unfortunately there will be some people that will be unreachable no matter what (due to strongly-held religious beliefs, retreating into conspiracies or what have you...). I don't recall Leshner addressing the media's role in the equation much, and that is certainly something else to consider. One of these days I'll try to write some more of my thoughts on all of this, but suffice to say the talk got me thinking about it even more than I already do!


After Leshner's talk I went to one of the Exoplanets sessions. I had expected this to be the last science session I would get to, but it turned out my tear-down duites didn't take the whole 5 hours I had been scheduled for. So, I grabbed a sandwich and ate (as quietly as possible) during my co-worker Don Winget's talk "White Dwarf Stars from the Telescope to the Laboratory and Back Again: Exploring Extreme Physics". The white dwarf team here at UT does a lot of neat work and they've hooked up with people who are able to simulate white dwarf atmospheres in the lab. Cool stuff!

I checked in with the organizers and they didn't need help at that moment, so I managed to sneak in to another science session: "Kepler Observations of Exoplanets and Systems". While there I spotted Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute! One of the talks in that session was about my new favorite term: exomoons. Yes, moons around planets in other solar systems. Kepler hasn't found any yet, but it's only a matter of time! There was an interesting question as to whether that project was also looking for evidence of rings around the Kepler planets. They aren't but they are flagging potential candidates for other researchers to follow up with. One of the final talks was on circumbinary planets (think Tatooine), given by Bill Welsh whom I knew when he was a post-doc here at UT. Here's the press release on the research: NASA Discovers New Double-Star Planet Systems


Well, that's it for AAS 219! The next time the general session meeting comes back to Texas it won't be here in Austin, so I'm not sure whether I will go or not. I have a few years to decide though!

AAS Day 4

I had the best of intentions to get to Robert Kirshner's talk on "Exploding Stars and the Accelerating Universe" (an interesting topic to begin with, but I also know he's a good speaker) but I had to get gas and money before going in to the convention center so I didn't make it in time. The work he discussed is the research that led to the discovery of "Dark Energy" and was honored with the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. I knew that was research that would eventually be awarded a Nobel but what I wasn't sure of was how they were going to choose *who* to award given the large number of people who contributed to the discovery (a lot of projects are done by research teams). In the end it was awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam G. Riess as team leaders. Hopefully someday I'll be seeing some of my co-workers getting that prize after figuring out what dark energy actually is with HETDEX!

I didn't have volunteer duty in the morning so I went to the "Solar System and Extrasolar Habitable Zones" session. Because the majority of planetary (in *our* solar system) research is presented at the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences and the American Geophysical Union meetings, there isn't usually that much of it at the AAS general meeting. (I really need to start trying to convince some of my co-workers that it's time for the DPS to come back to Austin - it's been here three times including the first unofficial one organized by Carl Sagan and Harlan Smith.)

The first talk from the session was about the Habitable Zone Gallery project that tracks the orbits of planets discovered around other stars and how they related to their parent star's habitable zone. There were also talks about the impact that formed the Moon, Kuiper Belt Objects, atmospheres of "Super-Earths" and Saturn's weird moon Iapetus.

I did another round of lunch and posters and grabbed stuff at some of the booths (including some interesting freebie journals) and then when to the NASA Town Hall. I went a little early, which turned out to be a good thing since it ended up packed. The first to speak was former astronaut John Grunsfeld who was just appointed as Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA (I wonder if that all fits on his business card?). Grunsfeld flew on five shuttle missions, including three Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions so he's another one of my heroes. :) He has a PhD in physics and has served as NASA Chief Scientist and as Deputy Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. The second speaker was Dr. Paul Hertz, the new NASA Chief Scientist. Unfortunately I once again had a low laptop battery so I didn't take notes at this session either.

One of my co-workers was part of a session titled "Astronomers: Teach Climate Change" and I wish I could have attended it but I had to work at another session. I had a nice chat with him at lunch about the topic though and I was really pleased to hear that he's been incorporating climate change topics into his introductory astronomy classes at UT!

The session I was working was on Spiral Galaxies and it ran over, so I was a little late to the last talk I was working "Galaxy Formation Star-by-Star: the View from the Milky Way" by Kathryn Johnson. Thankfully they didn't really need much in the way of volunteer help!

Also today, the Kepler Mission team made even more great exoplanet announcements (there are always great press releases during these meetings and the exoplanet people really had some good ones this year!) including: NASA's Kepler Mission Finds Three Smallest Exoplanets. So basically we're finding planets in habitable zones and finding Earth-sized planets so it is only a matter of time until we find the holy grail: an Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone around a Sun-like star. (If I was a betting person, I take a chance and say we'll find one before the end of the year.) More about exoplanets tomorrow!

AAS Day 3

I started off the day a little late (again) but had a chance to get a few photos of friends at posters before heading to my first session.

Drs. Mary Kay Hemenway and Chris Sneden and the SOFIA Teachers with their research poster.

I designed the poster above, so I had to get a photo of the authors with it!

The first session I worked was also one that I was interested in anyway - "Professional Ethics in Astronomy: An Ongoing Dialogue". One of the panelists was a professor at my university many years ago, but I'm pretty sure he didn't remember me. The discussion was very interesting and it makes me really glad that I don't have to deal with a lot of the issues that some of my colleagues do! I wish I had taken more detailed notes on the actual talks and resulting questions and conversations but my laptop battery was low. Anyone interested in the topic should check out the Sigma Xi ethics publications. Unfortunately the session that is probably most related to my own work - "Education, Outreach and Citizen Science" was at the same time so I wasn't able to attend.

The next talk I attended was the Annie Jump Cannon Prize lecture by this year's recipient, Rachel Mandelbaum. The Cannon Prize is awarded to a young woman PhD astronomer residing in North America. Looking over the list of previous winners I realized that I personally know several of them!

After a quick lunch and stroll through the posters, I worked a session on "Pulsars and Neutron Stars", which thankfully ended a little early so I could run over to catch the end of the "Working in Science Policy" panel. This is another one that I wish I could have attended, partly out of interest but also because one of the panelists was an old friend. I got a brief chance to say "hi" at the end of the panel, but moved aside so he could talk with people who were actually there to learn about jobs. :) While I was there I ran into another old friend that I had been meaning to catch up with and ended up sitting around and talking with her for the next few hours instead of attending more talks.

After catching up for a while we decided to go out for dinner at one of my favorites - Threadgill's (her choice since she's the one who doesn't get to Austin much, but there wasn't an argument from me!), along with her editor from Astronomy Magazine. We popped back over to the convention center after dinner and then I bailed on the UT Astronomy alumni party and the Saving Hubble film screening (which were both going on at the same time) and went home. I really don't have the stamina for these meetings that I did back in the 1990s!

One other thing from today, the NRAO announced that the VLA in New Mexico has been renamed the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in honor of the founder of radio astronomy. A very appropriate choice!

AAS - Day 2

This was the first full day of the meeting after the previous night's opening reception (which I decided not to attend). I skipped the 8:00 a.m. welcoming address and 8:30 a.m. invited session this day in favor of a few extra minutes of sleep.

My first volunteer session was on "Exciting Astrophysics: Supernovae, Relativistic Astrophysics, and Other Results I" and it was my first introduction to the system they have devised for getting the talks into all of the rooms from the central "speaker ready room". The idea is to have all of the speakers pre-load their talks in one central location and they are then piped to the appropriate room that is already set up with a laptop and projector (I was pleased to see all of the machines were Macs - both in the ready room and meeting rooms!) There were a few hiccups in that first session, but the a/v staff were able to get it ironed out before we were scheduled to start. Having run the a/v for MANY astronomy meetings, I was impressed by the set-up, which seemed to work really well (at least in all of the sessions I attended or worked).

After lunch I went to the James Webb Space Telescope town hall, which turned out to be as interesting as I expected, but not at all as contentious as I thought it might be given budget issues. One of the neat things mentioned in one of the talks was the live JWST construction webcam where you can see into the clean room. The final talk in the town hall was how the telescope could be used in the effort to detect and characterize the atmospheres of all of the planets we're finding around other stars. I'm still kind of amazed that we even have detected the planets, much less their atmospheres!

Model of the JWST in the Northrop Grumman booth

I worked a second volunteer session - "Exciting Astrophysics: Supernovae, Relativistic Astrophysics, and Other Results II" and I then went to the "Challenges and Achievements in 50 Years of Human Spaceflight" talk by retired NASA astronaut Steve Hawley. The talk was basically an overview of the US (and some of the Soviet/Russian) manned space program, with Hawley discussing some of his own flights. Hawley has a PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics, so he is "one of us", but it was still nice to see the standing ovation from 1000+ astronomers for an astronaut who has literally risked his life for our field.

Retired astronaut Dr. Steven Hawley speaks at the AAS meeting.

As a NASA astronaut, Hawley flew on a total of five space shuttle missions, including the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope (STS-31), a servicing mission to Hubble (STS-82) and the deployment of the Chandra X-ray observatory (STS-93). STS-93 was Hawley's final flight and has the distinction of being the first shuttle commanded by a woman - Colonel Eileen Collins. Hawley showed this neat photo and pointed to the streak saying: "That's me!". I have my own photo of that re-entry, since it was visible over a large part of Texas.

Image: NASA

Probably one of my favorite things from Hawley's talk was that space sickness is "Space Adaptation Syndrome" in NASA speak. He also had some interesting comments about how much quicker things progressed in the early space program (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) vs. now. Of course there is a lot more of an issue with getting and keeping funding then there was in the heady early days of manned space flight and the competition with the Russians.

After Steve Hawley's talk, the Historical Astronomy Division awarded the Doggett Prize to Woodruff T. Sullivan who presented a talk on "Cosmic Noise: The Pioneers of Early Radio Astronomy and Their Discoveries". I stayed for that talk but I was getting tired and decided not to attend the 8:00 p.m. public talk by Steven Weinberg on "Big Science in Crisis". I kind of wish I had, but I know that he is writing up the talk as an article for the New York Review of Books.

AAS 219 - Day 1

Before I get too far away from the actual event, I thought I would write up my experiences at this year's AAS meeting, the first I had fully attended since the late 1990s.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting returned to Austin earlier this month and I was able to volunteer for free registration. Because I fall in to a weird gray area in the astronomy profession (undergraduate degree and 15+ years employment in the field, but no PhD) I haven't been a member of the organization and even with membership the meeting costs are high. (They now have an educational affiliate membership category that I qualify for and I'm planning to join under it soon.) So working at the meeting seemed the best way to get a chance to attend. The trade-off is, of course, that I would have to work some sessions that I might not really be interested in and might miss some that I was. But given the way these conferences are scheduled it's pretty hard for everyone to get to everything they want to, so I would have missed stuff no matter what.

On Sunday I had to attend the mandatory orientation session, which was actually a good thing since it meant that I would already be around for the "Transit of Venus" special session put on by the Historical Astronomy Division of the AAS. Part of my reason in attending was just out of interest - I love history of science topics - but also for ideas in how to do our public outreach events for this year's transit. As exhausting as the 2003 close approach of Mars events were, I'm glad for the experience heading into this June's transit. Part of the popularity of the Mars event was the large amounts of press coverage stressing the "rarity" of the event. I'm putting "rarity" in quotes for the Mars closest approach because while *technically* Mars would never be that close again in our lifetimes, it will get nearly as close in 2035, still quite within the lifetimes of people who saw it in 2003. But, in the case of the transit of Venus across the sun, it's a pretty fair bet that anyone alive now will not get the chance to see it again since the next won't be for another 105 years. Although I don't want to make any predictions about advances in medicine, so who really knows for sure. But it's pretty safe to say that most people alive now will not get another shot.

Three of the talks were mostly about the history of the transits in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874 and 1882, but the final talk was an overview of outreach activities for the 2004 transit and what is already underway in planning for this year's. I got several good ideas out of the presentation, so now I just need to start the actual planning!

Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored

I went over to the Harry Ransom Center last week to see a small display of historical astronomy texts (more on that later) and finally also saw their larger exhibition Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored shortly before it closed.

The exhibition focussed on the years between the world wars and the various organizations and methods that were employed to "to rid the country of offensive literature". I often find it hard to believe that things like this happened in our nation's history, but then I remember that during this same period, alcohol was banned by Constitutional amendment.

It seems that the rise of fascism, the outbreak of WWII and public Nazi book burnings took the wind out of the sails of organizations who had previously advocated doing the same thing in the United States. I loved this poster with a quote by President Roosevelt condemning book burning:

Of course, banning and/or challenging books, particularly in schools (e.g. this previous post), is still with us, but thankfully not to the extent it was in the period the exhibition focussed on. There were certainly works that were still "scandalous" and certain standards of "decency" were still imposed in movies and television for several more decades. (One could certainly make an argument that is still the case given restriction on certain language and nudity on broadcast television and the movie rating system and age-restrictions it carries. Not to mention fines for "wardrobe malfunctions".) For the most part though, the challenges on grounds of morality, decency, etc that arise today are by private organizations or individuals, and not government censorship.

This was the only other photo I snapped in the exhibition, since the proud label on the cover amused me and all I could think of was "The Library" episode of Seinfeld.

It was a fascinating collection of materials and I was glad that I had a chance to see it. Now I'm eagerly awaiting the next big exhibition coming to the HRC - The King James Bible: Its History and Infuence.This will be the only other US venue for the exhibition that just concluded its run at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. The main thing I'm looking forward to is the material on the Bible before the King James edition, which of course is closely related to my interest in Tudor History!

Stop SOPA and PIPA!

I decided not to blackout any of my blogs or sites today mainly out of laziness (and fear that I'd totally screw something up) but I support those who did. I wrote my congressional representatives and I hope those of you in the US will do the same. I also want to take issue with those who claim that people who are against SOPA and PIPA are by default FOR piracy. Of course that is not the case, it's a false dichotomy. They (and I) are for reasonable IP protections that don't break the internet and prop up old business models that don't want to be dragged into the 21st century.

BTW, Lamar Smith (R-Tx), author of SOPA, was at the American Astronomical Society meeting last week and spoke for about 10 minutes before the "Science and Society" talk. Unfortunately he didn't take questions, but I was sorely tempted to yell out while he was trying to tell us how much of a nerd he was "Then why did you write a bill that could break the internet??".

If you want to learn more about the issue here are some great places to start:

Google: End Piracy, Not Liberty

EFF: Strike Against Censorship

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

My First Creation Debate

As I was migrating everything back to this site from the science and skepticism one that I'm shutting down, I came across a few draft posts that I had never finished and published. This is one of a creation/evolution debate that I attended in April 2009. Thankfully I have notes that I typed up close to the event, so hopefully not too much is misremembered.

Well, my first live and in person creation debate, since I've watched them through the internet before. Unfortunately I didn't get around to typing up my notes until more than a month after the actual debate, so some of my recollections might be a little fuzzy now. Head over to Skeptiblog for Michael Shermer's write-up. (One small correction that I would make to Shermer's write-up is that the arena is primarily used for volleyball, not basketball... but that doesn't really have any relevance to the debate!)

My first reaction was to be a little surprised at the turnout. I know some people were organized church groups, as well as students who probably were there to get extra credit for a class. And I'm guessing there were some folks there from the CFI Austin. I also saw some of my co-workers from Astronomy (which wasn't too surprising). I was also delighted to see one of my former physics professors, Austin Gleeson, on the Q&A panel (at the far-left in the photo below).

Another surprise was that the content of the debate actually had nothing to do with its advertised title of "Was Darwin Wrong" (I think... I can't be 100% positive now that that was the exact title, but I know it was something similar to that). The science and skepticism side was primarily represented by Michael Shermer from the Skeptics Society, and that was one of the main reasons I was there (I've been a member for a few years now). The other side though were two people from "Reasons to Believe" (shortened to "Reasons" from here on out), which I wasn't as familiar with. I was expecting someone from Answers in Genesis or Discovery Institute (at this point I should admit that I didn't look up the names from the poster beforehand to find out more about the non-evolution side of this debate). I was only familiar with the Reasons folks in passing, so I wasn't as up to speed with their "brand" of creationism/intelligent design (although they refute those labels for their organization).

Reasons's main approach seems to be to try to shoehorn science into the Bible, and vice-versa and that rather than arising through natural processes, God has driven the creation of the Universe, our solar system, life, and man. Unfortunately I don't have a whole lot of specific examples they gave, but see Shermer's post (and the other he linked to within his post) for how they go about it.

Interestingly, a lot of the things that were covered in the Rare Earth lecture that I attended a month before came up in this debate, but the Reasons group sees those factors as proof of divine guidance of creation. Of course, they basically have it completely backwards. They approach it as "life on Earth is the end product, so these factors must have been necessary" as opposed to, "these are the factors, what is the end product that could arise from those initial conditions?".

As I expected, the Reasons folks threw out a lot of claims, out-of-context quotes and outright fabrications that would have been impossible for Shermer to completely refute in the allotted time. I was actually kind of surprised that he didn't just come out and say "you're doing it backwards" - since really that's all he had to do. Reasons calculates that the odds against life on Earth forming are (at the time of this debate in 2009) 1 to 10^-556 due to the potential variables in nature (temperature that water freezes or boils, the gravitational constant, etc) so that must be proof that God has driven our creation. Well, no, we evolved under those conditions, but if there were slightly different conditions, who's to say that some other form of life wouldn't have arisen? (And I'm sure if they evolved into a life form with civilizations they would have individuals who were equally convinced of their special place in the Universe and that it was created especially so their form of life would arise.)

I don't have any notes from the panel part of the debate, but I recall that science was well represented by the UT folks (yeah, I'm probably totally biased about that!).

If I get a chance to attend another event like this, I'll take along a digital recorder so I can write-up a more comprehensive post, but I hope anyone who made it through this gets a feel for what the event was like.

Importing posts from old blog

Apologies to anyone who follows this site with an RSS reader - you're going to get bombarded with a bunch of old posts I'm importing from my science blog that I'm merging in to (back in to, technically) this one.