Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.
This week’s Astro Biz is Corona beer. Corona Extra has been brewed and bottled in Mexico since 1925 and was introduced in the United States in 1981. According to the Corona website, it became the fastest growing imported beer in U.S. history, is the #1 selling imported beer in the U.S. and the #5 selling beer overall. In a way it’s a double Astro Biz: Corona is a product of Crown Imports, a division of Constellation Brands.
You may have guessed that we chose Corona this week because we will have a rare opportunity to view the Sun’s corona next week during the total solar eclipse!
There are people who have been planning for the August 21 total solar eclipse for 20 years or more. If you’re more of a procrastinator, there are still outstanding opportunities popping up for us ten days ahead of the much-awaited event.
The Big Eclipse Family Weekend will happen August 19–21 at Western Oregon University in Monmouth. In addition to viewing of the eclipse on Monday, August 21, the camp includes lodging and meals, a t-shirt, eclipse glasses, and copies of the book and activity book. The camp is best recommended for kids ages 5–12 and their families, and will include hands-on activities related to eclipses and space science.
Check out the website for tickets and more information.
The other event is a little more adult-oriented. The Wine Country Eclipse is a three-day music and wine festival that will take place at the Polk County Fairgrounds in Rickreall, Oregon. It is a benefit for Solar Oregon, a not-for-profit organization bringing solar energy to the state.
The best news for those in need of lodging is that a festival ticket can include a room at Western Oregon University or tent or RV camping accommodations at the festival site. Check the website for tickets and more information.
Planned activities include:
Live music all three days
A square dance lesson on Saturday
A sing-along to eclipse tunes on Sunday
Wine and spirits tastings
The Totality Tent – a 21-and-over wine garden near the concert stage featuring wine, beer, and special cocktails including Totality Punch, Sungria and Moonaritas
Local artisan fare and crafts for sale
Displays featuring solar and renewable energy
Educational seminars about wine, astronomy, and eclipse photography
That last item is especially exciting because it includes a talk titled “Get Offa My Cloud: Adventures in Seeking a Glimpse of Old Sol,” by Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer. You don’t want to miss that!
As with all things eclipse related, tickets for these events are likely to be snapped up quickly, so hurry!
The astronomically growing hullabaloo about this month’s total solar eclipse is threatening to outshine one of our coolest annual celestial events: the Perseid meteor shower. The shower has actually been going on for a couple of weeks now, but will reach its peak this weekend. The best viewing of the shower is expected late Friday evening, August 11 through the wee hours of Saturday morning, and again on Saturday night and into Sunday morning.
The Perseids are so named because they seem to originate from the constellation Perseus. The meteors are specks of material left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle that burn up as they hit Earth’s atmosphere.
There’s good news and bad news about this year’s Perseids. The good is that it looks like we’ll be going through a particularly dense part of the comet’s debris tail, so we could get more meteors than usual. The bad news is that the waning gibbous Moon will be casting its bright light in the early morning hours, washing out some of the fainter meteors. But even with a bright Moon out, the most robust of the meteors can be spotted, even from city skies.
I’m often asked where to go to see the Perseids. In answer to that, I’ve created a Stargazing Sites page on Seattle Astronomy. The page features maps of stargazing spots in Seattle and around the Northwest. This has been up in “soft launch” mode for a while now, so this is our first public call-out. Check the maps for a site near you, and please feel free to ping me with your own favorites.
The short story for Perseid watching: get as far away from city lights as possible. I first saw them when I was about 12 years old and on a backpacking trip in the dark wilderness near Holden, west of Lake Chelan. The show in pitch-black skies was spectacular. I didn’t know there was such a thing as the Perseids; it was just luck being in the right place at the right time. If you have to stay in the city, find a spot away from street lights for the best prospects.
Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.
This week’s Astro Biz is Rockstar Energy Drink. According to the company website, “Rockstar Energy Drink is designed for those who lead active lifestyles – from Athletes to Rock Stars.” They cater strongly to those involved in action sports, motor sports, and music. I didn’t find any references to astronomy on the site, and the hobby, which involves sitting outside at 2 a.m. looking through a telescope, doesn’t necessarily evoke images of “active lifestyle.” Still, someone in that situation might like a little pick-me-up. Usually it’s something warmer, though.
Seattle Astronomy‘s Greg Scheiderer was on the KING 5 television program New Day Northwest today for a segment about viewing solar eclipses! It was a fun time, and an enthusiastic studio audience had lots of questions after the recording. They just about had to drag me off in order to record the next segment!
Alas, fame is fleeting—they spelled my name wrong in the graphics on the program. That’s not what George M. Cohan (or maybe Oscar Wilde) suggested.
Science these days is often all about interdisciplinary work. It’s seldom just biology or just geology, and so it wasn’t surprising that the most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle had a heavy dose of chemistry. It was for a good cause, though, as Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein, a second-year graduate student in the University of Washington Astronomy Department, gave a talk titled “An Unbeerlievable Tale” explaining how the universe made us beer, and a glass to put it into. The event happened July 26 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard.
It turns out you only need five elements for beer:
Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein talks about celestial beermaking at Astronomy on Tap Seattle July 26, 2017 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)
We had the hydrogen about a millionth of a second after the Big Bang.
“It’s not until 10 seconds after the big bang that we can smoosh a proton and a neutron together and have deuterium and have that deuterium last,” Dorn-Wallenstein said. “Once we have that deuterium though, we’re off to the races.”
If you add a proton to the deuterium you make helium 3, or add a neutron and make tritium. Add the missing nucleon to either and you’ve got helium 4. It’s not in beer, but we’ll need it later. Much later. We have to wait about 1.5 million years, until stars start to form and start fusing new elements. Stars about two times the mass of our Sun can fuse hydrogen into helium, then toward the end of their life cylcles do what Dorn-Wallenstein called the “triple alpha reaction.” They smash three helium atoms into carbon, and add another helium nucleus to make oxygen. When the star reaches its red giant phase these elements blow off with the stellar wind.
“We’ve pollulted the interstellar medium with hydrogen, with carbon, with oxygen,” Dorn-Wallenstein said, “three of the things we need to make beer.”
Higher-mass stars, say ten times the mass of the Sun, can fuse things such as neon, titanium, silicon, sulfur, magnesium, aluminum, and calcium.
“It can unlock all of these additional stages of nuclear fusion,” Dorn-Wallenstein said.
Nickel beer night
The process leaves behind a stellar core of nickel 56 which decays into iron 56.
“Iron 56 is the end of the line for a star,” Dorn-Wallenstein explained. “There is no physical way to get energy out of an iron 56 nucleus. You cant fuse it with something else, you can’t fission it and turn it into two more things, you get nothing out of this nucleus. That’s a problem for a star.”
The outer part of the star collapses onto the core and explodes into supernova, blasting all of the elements it has made out into the interstellar medium.
“The environment around this supernova explosion is so energetic that you can make pretty much anything you want,” Dorn-Wallenstein said. “Pick any element in the periodic table that’s heavier than iron—it’s probably made in a supernova.”
Nitrogen is conspicuously missing from the list, and it is kind of hard to make. Dorn-Wallenstein said we get a little bit, but not enough, from supernovae or at the end of a smaller star’s life.
“The only way to produce enough nitrogen is via this thing called the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen, or CNO, cycle,” he said, explaining that this is how stars produce helium from hydrogen. Since nitrogen takes longer, it builds up in stars. In the universe at large there are about four or five carbon atoms for every nitrogen atom, but in a star that’s doing the CNO cycle there are more than a hundred times more nitrogen atoms than carbon.
“Via this process of converting hydrogen into helium, we actually make nitrogen as a by-product,” Dorn-Wallenstein said.
The beer glass
We’ve got the ingredients for beer. Where do we put it?
“It turns out the most complicated thing that goes into a beer is the glass itself,” Dorn-Wallenstein said, noting that your mug is mostly silicon dioxide, with a bit of sodium oxide, aluminum oxide, calcium oxide, and trace amounts of potassium, magnesium, iron, titanium, and sulfur. All of that stuff came out of a supernovae.
We have all we need for beer. Now we just need a planet to form, simple life forms like yeast to emerge, wheat and hops to grow, and someone to mix it all into a barrel and let it sit for a while.
“Look at that; we’ve made beer,” Dorn-Wallenstein concluded.
The second talk of the evening at Astronomy on Tap Seattle was given by Dr. Meredith Rawls, who spoke about “Weighing Stars with Starquakes.” Rawls employs asteroseismology—your word of the day!—to figure out the mass of stars.
Dr. Meredith Rawls discussed a new method for determining the masses of stars at Astronomy on Tap Seattle. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)
Rawls noted that one way to calculate the mass of a star is to observe binary systems. We can measure the blockage of light as the stars orbit each other, and the Doppler shift that occurs when they do. Combine those two measurements and you get a reliable measure of the stars’ masses.
The drawbacks, according to Rawls, are that not all stars are part of binary systems, and that this method is slow and uses a lot of limited telescope time. Rawls gets around this by using asteroseismology, measuring the oscillations, or starquakes, that occur in a star’s interior. They actually ring like a bell, though you can’t hear it because space is a vacuum, and the frequency is too low in any case. Like a bell, the more massive the star, the lower the frequency of the oscillation. You can’t see the oscillations because they’re inside the star, but they change the star’s brightness. This is something that can be observed, and astronomers chart brightness changes against the frequencies of the starquakes and see how they line up with other properties of the star.
“You fit a bunch of curves to a bunch of wiggles and you try to convince yourself you’re not making it up,” Rawls quipped. The method can give clues about a star’s surface gravity, density, and temperature, and with gravity and density you can calculate mass.
Does it really work?
Rawls said they like to study red giant stars for a couple of reasons: that’s the eventual state of our Sun, and red giants brighter and easier to see. After figuring masses of many red giants with asteroseismology, they went back and calculated them again using the binary method. Then they compared the two.
“Oh, crap!” was Rawls’s reaction upon seeing how they matched up. “It’s not one-to-one. I broke science!”
In fact, the masses calculated through asteroseismology differed from those returned by the binary method by about 16 percent, on average. It turns out that big, red giant stars are not quite so simply just huge versions of our Sun.
“They have their own weird convection stuff going on,” Rawls explained. “There’s different stuff happening in different layers of the star that isn’t quite the same as what happens inside our Sun, and it’s just complicated enough that you can’t compare them one to one, even though it would be super handy if you could.”
What do they do to reconcile the differences between the two methods?
“We have to apply empirical corrections in order to get accurate masses,” Rawls explained. In other words, “We have to fudge it a little bit! But it’s consistent. It’s fine, it’s fine. Totally works. Not a problem. Don’t worry about it,” she laughed, adding that asteroseismology works just great for smaller stars like the Sun.
“It’s actually really useful, even though sometimes it doesn’t always work perfectly, because you can measure a lot of stars’ masses really fast,” she concluded.
Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy from the University of Washington.
Some photos from recent Astronomy on Tap gatherings, and videos of the July talks:
Baron saw his first total solar eclipse from Aruba in 1998.
“I was just dumbfounded,” he said at the sight of the eclipse, which revealed stars in the daytime and Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus. “There, among the planets was this thing; this glorious, bewildering thing. It looked liked a wreath woven from silvery thread and it just hung out there in space, shimmering.”
It was the Sun’s corona, and Baron said the photos you’ve seen don’t do it justice. Soon, the eclipse was over.
“The world returned to normal, but I had changed,” Baron said. “That’s how I became an eclipse chaser.”
He said he decided that day, on the beach in Aruba, that he wanted to write a book about solar eclipses. He also figured 2017 would be the year to release it, with public interest in solar eclipses likely to be at its apex because of this year’s eclipse. So his book has been 19 years in the making. He said the work started in earnest about seven years ago, when he went researching for interesting eclipse stories to tell.
The American eclipse of 1878
Baron came upon a historical marker next to Battle Lake in the Wyoming Sierras, which claims that Thomas Edison came up with the idea to use bamboo as a filament for an electric light bulb while fishing at the lake in 1878. Baron found no evidence that this was actually true, but Edison was involved in eclipse watching in Wyoming that summer, for the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878. The eclipse ran from Montana south down across the American frontier through Texas. At the time, Baron noted, Europeans were the clear leaders in eclipse science.
“Here was America’s chance to shine—or an opportunity to slip up and embarrass ourselves—but if all went well we would show the rest of the world what we were capable of as a scientific nation,” Baron said, “and so the eclipse was a big, national undertaking.” The eclipse and the expeditions to observe it received in-depth coverage in the newspapers.
Edison was among a group that went to Rawlins, Wyoming to view the eclipse. The group included Norman Lockyer, who had discovered helium on the Sun and founded the journal Nature; and James Craig Watson, an astronomer at the University of Michigan, who was in search of the hypothetical planet Vulcan that could explain orbital anomalies of Mercury.
Author David Baron spoke about his book American Eclipse on July 19, 2017 at the Pacific Science Center. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)
Also out west was Maria Mitchell, professor and director of the Vassar College Observatory, who brought a group of Vassar students to Denver to show that women could do science, too. For Edison’s part, he was anxious to test an invention he called the tasimeter, intended to detect minuscule changes in temperature. Astronomers were interested in the device, which might reveal if the Sun’s corona gave off heat.
“These three main characters of mine had a lot on the line,” Baron said, and on the day of the eclipse they declared great success and the press was highly positive, though neither Edison, Watson, nor Mitchell really achieved their set goals.
“Maria Mitchell did help open the doors of science and higher education to women, but it’s not like male scientists suddenly embraced their female counterparts,” Baron noted. “It was the beginning of a long, hard, continuing struggle.”
Watson didn’t find Vulcan, of course; the precession of Mercury’s orbit was explained later through Einstein’s general relativity. Edison’s tasimeter never lived up to the hype. He did head home and start work on the light bulb, though not in the way the Historical Landmark Commission of Wyoming would have you believe.
“The eclipse of 1878 did not illuminate America in the way the historical marker claims,” Baron said. “However it did enlighten America, helping to push this upstart nation toward what it soon would become—the undeniable global superpower in science, a country that would, in this intellectual realm, eclipse the world.”
Learning from history
Baron sees an interesting parallel with next month’s total solar eclipse.
“Once again the Moon’s shadow will visit us at an interesting time in our intellectual development,” he noted. “Today the issue isn’t whether America can rise up and take on the world in science, the question is whether America can maintain its global lead.”
It will undoubtedly be the most widely viewed total solar eclipse in human history. We’ll see whether it has the power to change hearts, minds, and the course of history.
You can purchase American Eclipse though the link above or by clicking the image of the book cover. Purchases made through links on Seattle Astronomy support our ability to bring you interesting astronomy stories. Thank you!