Science jargon and the all-there-is

Sometimes when scientists speak nobody has the foggiest idea what they’re talking about. Even other scientists can have trouble decoding the lingo of colleagues from other specialties.

Roberto Trotta thinks that’s a problem. A theoretical astrophysicist with Imperial College in London, Trotta is also passionate about good communication about science. As science communicators ourselves, Seattle Astronomy was excited to hear his recent talk at Town Hall Seattle.

The Edge of the Sky“I’m very much interested in sharing the mysteries and the outstanding questions that cosmology raises with the public at large,” Trotta said. “It’s only fair that we share our ideas and the reasons why we do what we do with the people who are actually funding the work. To me, talking about science in a way that’s understandable and utterly engaging for the public is a very important concept.”

Trotta’s new book, The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is, uses just the 1,000 most common English words to explain what he does in his day job. That’s a tall order; Trotta had to write about cosmology without using words like telescope, galaxy, Big Bang, universe, and dark energy, none of which made the list.

“This book came out of a little idea that it should be possible to talk about very hard things in a straightforward way that all people can understand,” Trotta said.

It doesn’t always happen that way. Trottoa told the story of Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson working at Bell Labs in New Jersey in 1964. The two were using a new antenna to detect radio waves, but were having trouble eliminating persistent background noise. Eventually they wrote a short paper titled “A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 MC/S.”

Roberto Trotta

Roberto Trotta talked about his book “The Edge of the Sky” Sept. 30 at Town Hall Seattle

“What these two gentlemen were trying to say is ‘We picked up the echo from the Big Bang!’” Trotta marveled. They had found the cosmic microwave background and eventually received a Nobel Prize for the work. Trotta gave other examples of scientific papers with language that he called “impenetrable” and “incomprehensible.”

“Jargon is in the way,” he said. “Jargon is one big obstacle in having a dialog with the public.”

Trotta’s first shot at the 1,000-word concept was describing his own job in this simple, straightforward language during a public lecture. It received a positive reaction at that talk, as it did at Town Hall, and so he decided to take the concept further.

“The book began very much as an experiment because I wanted to see how far I could stretch this language,” he explained. “Would it break? Would it become boring? Would it become impossible?” He wondered whether complicated concepts such as dark matter could be explained in such simple terms.

It worked, and early reviews of the book have been positive. Trotta said that writing the book was almost like learning a new language. There were a few hiccups along the way. He first thought of translating “Big Bang” to “Hot Flash.” This turned into “Big Flash” for obvious reasons. Other terms in The Edge of the Sky:

  • Universe: The all-there-is
  • Galaxy: Star crowd
  • Telescope: Big seer
  • Dark energy: Dark push
  • Earth: Home world

Trotta said that since the book began as a thought experiment he really didn’t have a target readership in mind, but that he hopes it will appeal to readers from young adult on up who want to get a better grip on the sometimes challenging but always fascinating topics of cosmology.

The Edge of the Sky is worth a look.

Other reading:

Roberto Trotta’s website
The 1,000 word list

 

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

New mystery novel set at Jacobsen Observatory

The University of Washington’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory is the setting for some of the scenes in a new mystery novel from local author Bernadette Pajer. A celebration of the release of The Edison Effect, the fourth title in Pajer’s series of Professor Bradshaw mysteries, was held recently at the observatory.

Pajer’s protagonist Benjamin Bradshaw is a fictional professor of electrical engineering at the UW and solver of mysteries involving electricity. Seattle needs his expertise; the books are set in the early 1900s, and electricity is still something of a puzzle to people and the police. The tagline for the series is “Seattle in the time of Tesla.”

“It’s a very exciting time period to research,” Pajer says, “not only the city where I was born and raised, all of those details, but the scientific history, where we came from and how quickly.”

A happy coincidence brought Professor Bradshaw to the Jacobsen Observatory. In 2012 Pajer participated in a panel discussion about mysteries at the Taproot Theatre in Seattle, which was performing a stage version of the Dorothy Sayers story Gaudy Night. One of the people who attended the event was George Myers, whose great-great-grandfather was Joseph Taylor, the UW’s first math professor and first director of the observatory. After the discussion Myers emailed a photo of Taylor to Pajer.

Joseph Taylor

Joseph Taylor, the first director of the UW’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory, is a character in Bernadette Pajer’s new mystery novel The Edison Effect.

“I just knew instantly when I saw that photo that professor Bradshaw knows this guy, and, not only that, they’re friends, so I wove him into The Edison Effect,” Pajer says. She notes that no astronomy happens in the book, but several key scenes occur at the observatory.

Myers and other relatives of Taylor attended the book launch at the observatory, and enjoyed learning a few new things that Pajer’s research turned up about their ancestor. For example, Taylor laid the cornerstone at Denny Hall, which was the first building on the current UW campus, known then as the Administration Building. Its basement is where Professor Bradshaw has his electricity lab. Interestingly, the Jacobsen Observatory was constructed of materials left over from the building of Denny Hall.

“It was fun!” Pajer says of the launch event. “I had the ghost of Bradshaw, and the real ghost of Joseph Taylor that were at the observatory. It was a really cool way that fact and fiction were mingling.”

The character of Bradshaw came to Pajer in part because of her own interest in science. She studied civil engineering at the UW, but dropped out to get married. Twenty years later she went back and earned an interdisciplinary degree in culture, literature, and the arts at UW Bothell.

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“It just turned out that I was much better at writing about science than actually doing it,” Pajer says, adding that she finds it fascinating to blend art and science. “I think it makes it more entertaining. Peer science can often be very dry, but when you can present it in an entertaining way, it’s a great way to learn.”

Pajer takes pride in the scientific accuracy of her books. She consults experts during her research and writing, and the volumes have earned the stamp of approval after peer review by the Washington Academy of Sciences. She also works hard to get the historical details of Seattle and the UW right.

The first book in the Professor Bradshaw series was A Spark of Death, published in 2011, followed by Fatal Induction in 2012, Capacity for Murder in 2013, and then The Edison Effect this year. Pajer is just beginning to noodle on her next story, which she thinks may be set in 1907 at the time of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition.

The books are great for lovers of mysteries and science. Check ‘em out!

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

Tessering around the universe with A Wrinkle in Time at OSF

It is a bonus when our interests in theater and astronomy intersect, and that is happening this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with its production of A Wrinkle in Time, based on the 1962 novel of the same title by Madeleine L’Engle. The OSF play is a world premiere adapted and directed by Tracy Young.

A_Wrinkle_in_Time

Alejandra Escalante as Meg Murry in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of A Wrinkle in Time.

In A Wrinkle in Time math whiz Meg Murry (Alejandra Escalante), her über-genius little brother Charles Wallace Murry (Sara Bruner), and pal Calvin O’Keefe (Joe Wegner) zip around the universe in search of missing papa Murry (Dan Donohue). They accomplish their travel by bending time and space in a tesseract, or “tessering,” as explained by the helpful science fair project by Science Girl (Jada Rae Perry).

Kids traversing the universe make for some imaginative and wonderfully silly stage effects and costumes, and we think especially of the multi-tentacled Aunt Beast (Daniel T. Parker), for whose costume a good half-dozen vacuum cleaners must have given their lives, or at least their hoses.

The performances are top-notch. We single out Escalante and Bruner especially, as well as Judith-Marie Bergan, who was much fun as Mrs. Whatsit, something of an intergalactic tour guide for the adventurers. Bergan, we think, can play anything, from the comic to the manic (as we note my Sweetie, the official scorer’s, recent review of last year’s production of The Tenth Muse.)

For all of its goofiness, the play takes on some serious themes about the mysteries of the universe, the nature of time and space, the dangers and advantages of technology, and of the strength and importance of family ties and love. The science isn’t so heavy that you need to be a cosmologist or physicist or a math geek like Meg to get it, though a bit of sci-fi familiarity with the concept is helpful.

According to the program notes the book took criticism from all sides when it came out, some charging it with being too religious and others saying it is too secular. That feels like it hit the right spot! The book also has some Cold War undertones about how things would look under a totalitarian society.

We’ve not read the book but plan to pick it up when we return home from Ashland. The play runs at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through November 1. It’s great fun; check it out!

***

This review is republished from the West Seattle Weisenheimer.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

October is eclipse month

The new issues of Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines arrived in the mail over the last couple of days with reminders that a couple of cool events should be visible from Seattle in October. There will be a total eclipse of the Moon in the early morning hours on October 8, and a partial eclipse of the Sun in the afternoon on October 23.

The lunar eclipse October 8 will begin in Seattle at 1:15 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time with the onset of the faint penumbral eclipse. The real show starts about an hour later when the Moon enters Earth’s umbral shadow. The eclipse will reach totality at 3:25 a.m. and the Moon will remain in complete shadow for just under an hour. The umbral eclipse will be over at about 5:35 a.m.

As an added attraction during the eclipse, the planet Uranus will be close by the shadowy Moon, passing about one degree south of it during the event. You will need binoculars or a telescope to spot Uranus, which is at the best point for observing it this year. It will reach opposition to the Sun October 7, and thus is up all evening and is at its closest to Earth.

Animation showing the moon’s penumbral shadow sweeping from west to east across the Earth’s surface on October 23, 2014.

Animation showing the moon’s penumbral shadow sweeping from west to east across the Earth’s surface on October 23, 2014.

The partial solar eclipse October 23 happens at a much better hour for those of us in the northwest. In Seattle the eclipse begins at 1:35 p.m., will reach its maximum at 3 p.m., and be over at 4:20 p.m. All times are Pacific Daylight Time.

It is not all that unusual to see a partial solar eclipse, but this should be a particularly good one, as about 64 percent of the Sun’s disk will be covered by the Moon from our vantage point.

We’re lucky to be in Seattle, as the eclipse will cover more of the Sun the further north you go. The maximum for this eclipse is some 81 percent up in northern Canada. On the other hand, we’re unlucky to be in Seattle, as we average only five clear days during October, when the Sun’s rays reach us during only about 37 percent of daylight hours. So we’re rolling the dice a bit when it comes to actually having breaks in the clouds so that we can see the eclipse. Ever the optimists, we note that October is not our worst weather month, and we have the dates for both eclipses marked on our calendar.

Please remember never to look at the Sun without proper eye protection. The eclipse glasses at right are a good a low-cost choice. They and a number of other options are available from the software and accessories section of our Seattle Astronomy Store. If you’re using a telescope or binoculars, make sure they’re fitted with solar filters; looking at the Sun through an unfiltered magnifier can cause serious eye damage in a big hurry. If you don’t have the right equipment, it’s a good bet to try to find out if an astronomy club near you plans a viewing event. As of this writing, we know that the Tacoma Astronomical Society plans a free public solar eclipse watch at Pierce College and the Pierce College Science Dome. We know of no others at the moment, but imagine that plans will be made in the coming weeks.

Seattle Astronomy will probably be out somewhere about town with our telescope and some solar shades if the weather looks favorable on eclipse day. We’ll keep you posted about our plans.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

Pops, the Perseids, and a trip back in time

August always makes me wistful these days, and its all because of my father and the Perseid meteor shower.

When I was 12 years old, about to turn 13, I was on a backpacking trip in the Washington Cascade Mountains with my Boy Scout troop and my dad, who was an avid hiker and later our Scoutmaster. By coincidence the hike was in early August. We had some heavy rain during the early part of our adventure, but one night, camped near the small village of Holden, the weather was glorious, the night was crystal clear, and we slept out under the stars. As the sky darkened to the pitch black of the deep wilderness, far away from population centers, we marveled at the near constant stream of shooting stars; it wasn’t planned, and I don’t think any of us even knew they had a name, but Perseid meteors of many colors sizzled through the sky. I don’t think I could have counted them; there must have been a hundred or more every hour!

Greg and Dad at Miner's Ridge

The author, at right, with his father near Image Lake after climbing Miner’s Ridge on a hike in August 1970. Rain and clouds went away later in the week, enabling the best possible view of the Perseid meteor shower.

It was a sight like none any of us had ever seen, coming from the Seattle suburb of Renton, light polluted even then. It was a night I will never forget.

Part of the magic of astronomy is the perspective it gives us about time. We see the Moon as it looked about a second ago, the Sun as it was eight minutes in the past, and M31, on a collision course with us, as it looked 2.5 million years ago. The Hubble Space Telescope brings us views of things as they looked close to the birth of the universe.

Every time I see a meteor I’m transported back to 1970, in my sleeping bag in a wilderness clearing, watching hundreds of meteors shoot through the sky, on a hike with my father, who is young, vital, and alive.

Dad passed away in mid-August of 2000, just a few days after the peak of that year’s Perseid shower. The anniversary always makes me look back, and up.

My backyard in West Seattle isn’t ideal for meteor watching. For one thing, it’s in Seattle, where it’s usually cloudy, and if it’s not the city lights wash out all but the brightest of the Perseids. Still, ever the optimist, I always go out and look, just in case. This year was worse than usual for Perseid viewing. The Moon was near full, and though we’ve had a stretch of favorable weather this summer, there were thunderstorms and heavy rain the early morning of the Perseid peak. Shut out again.

The next evening was mostly clear, though, and I went out, grabbed a chair on the deck, and waited just to see if any stragglers would show up. It took about 20 minutes before a fabulous, bright Perseid blazed across the sky.

The astronomy buff in me knows that this meteor was just a little chunk of the ancient comet Swift-Tuttle, itself possibly a piece of the stuff of which the solar system is made. My inner 12-year-old viewed it as a signal from Pops. Things are all right, buddy. Keep looking up.

I have a great life. My wonderful wife tolerates and encourages my astronomy hobby, even though she’s not about to come out and freeze her tail off for a glimpse of the Cassini Division. We have a nice consulting practice, and sometimes people publish my writing. I don’t want to be 12 again. But I like having a time machine that takes me back to spend a little more time with the old man every once in a while.

I miss you, Pops.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

Book review: Marketing the Moon

Public relations practitioners and space nuts alike should check out the new book Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program. If you’re both, like myself and authors David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek, you’ll enjoy it doubly so. The book details the public relations and marketing efforts that supported the Apollo program and the race to the Moon during the 1960s.

Especially interesting to me from the PR standpoint was the extent to which NASA and scores of contractors were able to pull in the same direction while helping to tell the tale of the people and the equipment that made the Moon landings possible and popular. Whether their particular piece of the quest was a rocket booster, a wristwatch, or a powdered breakfast drink, participants in the space program were able to share in the attention generated by Apollo without going so far as to say that Neil Armstrong endorsed Tang.

Also fascinating to me, as a former radio reporter who worked for mostly resource-strapped stations (is there any other kind?), was the tale of one small-town station reporter’s efforts to cover the Moon shots on the cheap. He filed his stories using the broadcast equivalent of baling wire and bubble gum.

Marketing the Moon is a large-format volume and a handsome, highly visual one, with lots of Apollo-era photos, print advertisements, and samples of public relations materials used by the various participants in the space program.

I’ve long been of the opinion that NASA public relations has been top-notch. I’ve spoken with former NASA administrator Michael Griffin and space historian Roger Launius about the notion that NASA PR may actually have been too good. Polling shows that people support NASA, but they also believe that its budget is too high, at least in part because they also have a greatly exaggerated impression of what the agency’s budget actually is.

That said, Marketing the Moon is also the story of public relations failure. While the race to the Moon was staggeringly popular, and Armstrong’s giant leap was watched by billions of people around the globe, the buzz didn’t last. Once the race was won, interest flagged among both the media and the public. One can debate which got bored first, but ultimately the attention span wasn’t there. The final three scheduled Apollo missions were canceled, and while missions such as the Mars rovers, and particularly the amazing landing of Curiosity on Mars two years ago, have generated some interest, we haven’t come close to the mania achieved by the effort to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.

Marketing the Moon is a recommended read. Pick it up in the Seattle Astronomy store.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

Ride, Sally, ride

Journalist Lynn Sherr was good friends with astronaut Sally Ride for more than thirty years, but when Ride died in 2012 Sherr said she knew neither of Ride’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, nor knew for certain of her twenty-seven-year relationship with science writer Tam O’Shaughnessy.

“Sally was very good at keeping secrets,” Sherr said during a recent talk at Town Hall Seattle while promoting her biography of the astronaut, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space.

Sherr met Ride in 1981 when she was on track to fly on the space shuttle and Sherr was newly appointed to the ABC Television News team covering space missions. Sherr laughed at the notion of joining Frank Reynolds, who covered NASA from the beginning of the space program, and Jules Bergman, whom, she said, “practically invented the field of science journalism.”

“Then there was me—who took botany in college to get around my science requirement!” Sherr joked. “I was the color guy.” Ride was among her first interviews, and Sherr said they soon became fast friends.

“We shared a very healthy disregard for the overblown egos and the intransigence of both of our professions, and beneath her very unemotional demeanor, which some found icy, I found a caring and a witty friend,” Sherr said.

Sherr explained that she understands why it took a quarter century of the space program before NASA finally put a woman in space. In the beginning, the need was for military pilots with security clearances, which meant virtually all of the candidates were white men. But when the shuttle program came along, they had bigger crews and needed scientists, so NASA created the position of mission specialist.

“That’s what they started looking for when they reached out to women and minorities starting in 1976,” Sherr said. “All of this, of course, opened the door for people like Sally Ride.”

Ride originally wanted to be a tennis pro but was headed for an academic career when she saw a notice in the Stanford Daily that said NASA was recruiting women. She applied for the gig, and a year later was part of a thirty-five-member astronaut class that included six women, three African American men, and one Asian American man.

“NASA was suddenly looking like the poster child for multiculturalism,” Sherr said, “and all credit to them.”

Ride flew on the shuttle in 1983, and upon her return from being the first American woman in space received a call from President Ronald Reagan, who told Ride she was the best person for the job.

“Millions of other women agreed,” Sherr said. “I think what they did was translate her bold journey into their own tickets for success. Sally became an icon; the can-do symbol of what we can do in the world.”

Photo (9)

Journalist Lynn Sherr spoke about Sally Ride and her new biography of the first American woman in space during an appearance at Town Hall Seattle.

Sherr said she never fully appreciated the “psychic price” her friend Ride—an extreme introvert and naturally shy person—paid for her celebrity, and felt especially sorry that Ride didn’t feel able to go public with her romantic relationship with another woman, O’Shaughnessy.

“I think it’s also part of her story, because hers is a story of a particular time and a particular place and a woman who had the brains and the agility to sieze the moment,” Sherr said. “When Sally was born in 1951 outer space was science fiction and women’s rights were marginal. The social advances and the lucky timing that would enable both to intersect with this life of a very gifted young scientist I think makes hers an inspiring lesson in modern American history. She took full advantage of the ever-widening definition of a woman’s place, and spent much of her life making sure it was everywhere. That she could not or would not openly identify herself as a gay woman reflects not only her intense need for privacy, but the shame and the fear that an intolerant and ignorant society can inflict even on its heroes.”

Sherr said Ride’s life is one for the history books.

“She proved that you don’t need the right plumbing to have the right stuff, in any field or any endeavor.”

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare