Category Archives: lectures

Seattle as sundial capital of North America

“I am passionate about sundials,” says Woody Sullivan, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. “I have a goal to turn Seattle into the sundial capital of North America.”

Most of us don’t think of Seattle as the capital of anything related to the Sun, and we’re especially grumpy about it in the midst of a relentlessly gloppy March. But Sullivan points out that the second half of our year has long, clear days, and he observes that while people in, say, Phoenix often seek to escape from the Sun, we celebrate it.

“In Seattle, when the Sun comes out you go running out to see your sundial!” Sullivan says.

Sullivan gave a talk titled “Sundials Around Seattle and Beyond: Fascinating Mixtures of Astronomy, Art, Design, and History” at a recent meeting of the Eastside Astronomical Society in Bellevue. While the designation of sundial capital is hardly an official one, Sullivan thinks Seattle is on the way because of its large collection of interesting, well-cared-for public sundials.

The sundial on a SW-facing wall of the University of Washington Physics/Astronomy building was the first Sullivan helped build and design, 20 years ago.

The sundial on a SW-facing wall of the University of Washington Physics/Astronomy building was the first Sullivan helped build and design, 20 years ago.

Sullivan’s academic interests include astrobiology, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the history of astronomy. His passion for sundials came about almost by accident. When the UW was constructing a new physics/astronomy building in the early ’90s, he suggested that a sundial should be placed on one of its large, outside walls. The architects went for it, and Sullivan spent a couple of years supervising the design and installation of the sundial.

“This is what got me into sundials, and ever since my life has been changed,” he says.

Inspired by the design of a sundial at the Sorbonne in Paris, the UW dial is on a wall that faces southwest. That means it’s design is asymmetrical, “which I think is more interesting from an aesthetic point of view,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan notes that all good sundials have a motto, and the one for the UW dial is “What you seek is but a shadow.”

“I thought that was good for a university,” he says. “It feels like it’s making progress.”

In a nod to our northwest weather the dial also is inscribed with a little poem:

I thrive on the Sun
Can’t work in the rain
So if I’m beclouded
Please come back again.

There’s a wealth of information about the UW dial on the web, including a webcam.

If you visit a Seattle sundial you will notice that the it doesn’t agree with your watch.

“Sundials do not tell you clock time,” Sullivan explains. “Your watch is off because we keep the same time as the people in Spokane. That ain’t right! Solar noon”—the moment when the Sun is due south and highest in the sky—”happens there 20 minutes before it happens here.”

Mars dials.

Sullivan helped design pancam calibration targets like this one that also serve as sundials on the three rovers on Mars.

Sullivan gave us a look at numerous other sundials in the area, and he’s had a hand in the design and construction of many of them. They’re in parks and at schools and even on picnic tables. He supported the Battle Point Astronomical Association in its successful effort to fund a new sundial on Bainbridge Island which is scheduled to be completed this summer.

In addition to all of those here on Earth, Sullivan also helped design three sundials that are now on Mars. The rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity all have targets that are used for color calibration of their cameras in light and in shade. Bill Nye the Science Guy, who is now CEO of the Planetary Society, saw a mockup of the target, a disk with a post in the middle of it, and immediately thought it should be a sundial. Nye got Sullivan involved in the design. Coincidentally, Tyler Nordgren, astronomer who keynoted the Seattle Astronomical Society‘s annual banquet in January, was also part of the team that put it together.

Woody Sullivan

Woody Sullivan brought a variety of small sundial samples to his talk, and the conversation continued well past the end of his formal presentation.

There’s also a bit of baseball on the Red Planet. As Sullivan and Nye share a passion for baseball in addition to their love of sundials, they made weight-saving cutouts in the bases of the Mars dials in the shape of home plate. Seattle’s Museum of Flight has Sullivan’s copy of the Mars dial on display in its space gallery.

Sullivan’s talk was tremendously well received. One EAS member noted that she switched her scheduled night at the opera to be at the talk instead. Staff at the library at which the talk was held booted us out well after closing time, and even at that the discussion continued in the parking lot for a good 45 minutes more.

Check out Sullivan’s sundial trail website for a guide to visiting Seattle sundials.

Other reading:

Share

The destruction of Hogwarts and other science goofs in fiction

If Harry Potter’s Hogwarts existed in the real world and Professor Minerva McGonagall turned herself into a cat, it would blow the place to smithereens, according to Charles Adler, professor of physics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Adler, author of Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction, spoke earlier this month at Town Hall Seattle. He said the school for wizards would be toast because author J.K. Rowling didn’t follow one of the basic laws of science.

“By transforming herself into a cat, she is not conserving mass,” Adler noted, figuring that the cat probably weighs at least 90 pounds less than does McGonagall.

“If you convert that into pure energy, what ever that means, how much energy does she have to get rid of to turn herself into a cat?” he asked. “The math is pretty easy: e=mc2. It turns out that basically you’ve got about 50 H-bombs of energy liberated when you do this. BOOM! There goes Hogwarts.”

Adler cuts Rowling some slack because the Potter books are pure fantasy. He is a big fan of science fiction and fantasy writing and says thinking about the accuracy of the science boosts his enjoyment of the genres. He doesn’t expect it to be completely accurate—it is fiction, after all—but he believes authors and their stories need to need to be reasonably grounded in reality.

“If you’re going to introduce something which is in variance with the laws of science, you have an obligation to explore how that idea is going to affect the world, how that idea is going to affect the story that you’re writing, how to make it consistent with everything else in the story,” Adler contended. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not really playing fair with the reader.”

Chuck Adler

Chuck Adler. Photo: St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Adler agrees with the approach of Poul Anderson, one of his favorite sci-fi writers to whom Wizards, Aliens, and Starships is dedicated. Anderson felt authors should use the laws of science to devise plausible settings for their stories.

“If you try to actually make your story obey the laws of science, at least mostly, you will have a better story, and it will also serve up ideas for how the story can go,” Adler explained.

Science fiction often runs into trouble with economics, according to Adler. In Star Trek, it would be preposterously expensive to produce enough antimatter to run just one starship, much less a fleet of them. There’s a practical problem, too.

“If we build a spacecraft like this anywhere near the Earth, merely turning the starship on will destroy the Earth” because of the gamma radiation it would emit, Adler said.

Even the food service raises questions. Adler said that making a cup of Earl Grey, hot, in the replicator for Captain Picard  would burn up enough energy to brew about two billion cups of tea.

“I’m not sure why they’re doing it this way on the Enterprise,” Adler said. “It looks cool, I will grant you that.”

We asked Alder to talk about authors who he thought got it right, who were almost visionary in coming up with gadgets or story lines that became fact. His top-of-the-head list included Larry Niven, who came up with the notion of the cellular phone in his 1974 story The Mote in God’s Eye; Arthur Clarke, who came up with the idea of the communication satellite; and Olaf Stapledon, who turned out to have a great grasp of the scope of cosmological history.

Adler’s fascinating talk included lots of analysis of space travel and human exploration, the engineering challenges of building space elevators, and a lot of math behind the science and magic of sci-fi and fantasy. The book includes even more analysis of the science in science fiction.

You can purchase Wizards, Aliens, and Starships from the Seattle Astronomy Store.

Share

Half the park is after dark

Tyler Nordgren wears many hats: astronomy professor, author, artist, photographer, national park curriculum designer, and night-sky ambassador. The author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks was the keynote speaker at the recent annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Tyler Nordgren

Tyler Nordgren

Nordgren, a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Redlands in California, pegs his early interest in astronomy to his suburban-Portland grade school principal, who happened to be the uncle of astronaut Bonnie Dunbar. Mr. Dunbar used his connections to bring NASA folks to the school for talks. Nordgren decided then that he wanted to be an astronaut, too. Then he was amazed by Carl Sagan’s TV series.

“When I saw Cosmos I realized why I wanted to be an astronaut, or if not an astronaut, to be an astronomer,” Nordgren said.

Coincidentally, Nordgren attended graduate school at Cornell University when Sagan was on the faculty. He never took a class from Sagan, but in one of his first teaching gigs Jeremy Sagan, Carl’s son, was in Nordgren’s class. He said Jeremy sat in the front row, asked a lot of questions, and then talked over the lectures with his famous dad. No pressure there.

“I learned to be on my toes!” Nordgren joked.

Chaco poster

Nordgren’s posters like this one for Chaco Culture National Historical Park help call attention to the importance of dark night skies in the parks.

A couple of events inspired Nordgren’s work in the national parks, which includes marvelous photography and a series of travel posters based on the style of the 1930s WPA graphics. The first was a visit to Palomar Observatory.

“My very first telescope was an eight-inch Celestron my father bought for me when I graduated from college,” Nordgren recalled. “My second telescope was the Palomar 200-inch” which he used in research about dark matter in spiral galaxies. When he returned 10 years later he was taken aback by the increased light pollution fueled by a housing boom in the area.

“It had been like a tidal wave of light had just swept out around the mountain,” he said. “It was stunning just how bad the skies now were at Palomar.”

Shortly after that trip, Nordgren celebrated gaining tenure by taking a trip to Yosemite National Park and attended an evening ranger talk about astronomy.

“For many, many people this was the first time they had seen a night sky, a truly pristine night sky,” Nordgren marveled.

He decided to spend an upcoming sabbatical in the National Park system helping rangers develop programs for park visitors to experience the night sky. He spent time in a dozen different parks over the course of 14 months, and came to realize that the preservation of the land that prevents development in the parks also, almost by accident, preserves the precious resource of truly dark skies. It’s a growing part of the appeal of the parks, articulated by the slogan “Half the park is after dark.”

“In those parks that offer night-sky programs the attendance they have is equal to if not better than the next two types of programs added together,” Nordgren noted. “Far and away these are the most popular ranger programs that are offered.”

Mars poster

Nordgren’s Mars poster

Much of Nordgren’s work is to link what people can see in the sky to what they see in the national parks. For example, he compares Mars to parks in the American Southwest; both Earth and the Red Planet have similar geology and chemistry. Yellowstone National Park has numerous geysers, similar to those on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.

One of Nordgren’s favorite parks is the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, which was recognized last year as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. He noted that many of the ancient structures there serve as astronomical markers ala Stonehenge.

“People paid attention to the sky, people have been doing that for centuries, millennia,” Nordgen said. “Unfortunately we’ve made it tremendously difficult to keep doing that.” As evidence he showed a photo of the sky above Chaco, which is still impressively dark and starry, but all around light pollution is encroaching from the cities of Gallup, Crownpoint, Albuquerque, and a nearby coal mine. Thus a big part of his aim is to get communities near the parks to recognize that the night sky is an attraction, and to encourage them to be good stewards of the dark sky. His spiel goes just as well for any city, regardless of its proximity to a national park.

“All that light that shines above the horizon doesn’t do anything useful,” Nordgren said. “So why are we lighting up the sky? There is nothing we need fear up there, so why are we paying for that light? Why are we generating that light? Why are we burning the natural resources to create that light?”

There really aren’t great answers to those questions, and Nordgren said the solutions are within reach.

“This can be a win-win situation for all of us,” he said. “We can get the stars back, we can save money, we can save natural resources. It really doesn’t have to be stars versus safety.”

Stars Above, Earth Below is available at this link or from the Seattle Astronomy store. Check out Nordgren’s posters and other artwork on his website.

Share

Someone you know will travel in space soon

Leaders of four private, Northwest-based commercial spaceflight companies got together earlier this month at the Museum of Flight to talk about what we will see in their industry in the coming year. While they have some fascinating events on the docket for 2014, the conversation got most interesting when they talked about the not-much-more-distant future.

“I think we will expand out into space faster than people might realize,” predicted Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, Inc. “It’s less than five years, I think, before everyone in this room will know someone who has been higher than 100 kilometers.”

Panel

L-R: Erika Wagner of Blue Origin, Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources, Roger Myers of Aerojet, and Phil Brzytwa of Spaceflight, Inc. spoke Jan. 18 at the Museum of Flight about the future of space exploration.

Erika Wagner, business development manager of Blue Origin, said the destination is cool, but the passenger list is even better.

“Where we’re going next is more exciting than ever because space and the whole frontier is becoming democratized,” Wagner said. “It’s no longer the realm of billion- or trillion-dollar economy nations, or even of millionaire tourists; it’s getting to the point where everyone in this room can have access to space in their own way.”

Wherever anyone is going Aerojet Rocketdyne is probably helping them get there. Dr. Roger Myers, executive director for advanced in-space programs at the company, noted that “rockets from Redmond” have powered many space missions, including Cassini at Saturn and the New Horizons spacecraft that will arrive at Pluto next year.

“There’s a lot going on in 2014 and beyond,” Myers said. “There’s a great future in this business.”

Myers said that true exploration of space is going to require a variety of rockets, other propulsion systems, and transportation options.

“If we’re going to expand the human economic sphere, if we’re going to become a species that exists beyond low-Earth orbit, we’re going to have to have a transportation infrastructure that mimics what we have on the Earth,” he said.

Aerojet has rocket engines on the recently launched MAVEN spacecraft headed for Mars, and also designed engines for the Orion craft, which is scheduled for an unmanned test flight this year. Blue Origin is busy testing its BE-3 liquid-hydrogen engine. Planetary Resources anticipates the launch of its first ARKYD space telescope this year, thanks in part to a Kickstarter fundraiser last year. While others build rockets, Spaceflight, Inc. is working to get your package delivered to orbit.

Photo (1)“We want to become the kayak.com or the UPS providing delivery of cargo to space,” said Phil Brzytwa, head of sales and business development for the company. “We want our customers to be able to pay by the seat not pay for the entire launch vehicle.” Spaceflight, Inc. works the details and can send up numerous small satellites, cube-sats, and other smaller projects as part of a single payload, making things less complicated for everyone.

Many folks still find personal spaceflight and asteroid mining to be pretty far-fetched concepts, but Lewicki said we should not be so shocked at the rapid advance of technology.

“One hundred fifty years ago there wasn’t an internal combustion engine, and the idea of a steam-powered train was high-tech, and was getting us rapidly across the countryside faster than a horse could,” he noted. It didn’t take so long to get to horseless carriages and lighter-than-air flying machines. Lewicki doesn’t think affordable space travel and mining the solar system for resources are alien concepts.

“If we can conceive of it we can make it happen,” he said. “There’s nothing in the laws of physics that says these things aren’t possible. It’s just a matter of bit-by-bit finding the best use of them, finding the markets and the economies that drive the need for them, and then making them scalable enough so that everyone can benefit from them.”

“We are living during extremely exciting times, the likes of which will be written about in the history books,” Lewicki added, because “this is the time when our species got off the planet.”

Share

Happy third birthday to Seattle Astronomy

Bust out the cake and champagne! Seattle Astronomy turns three years old today!

Our first post was made Jan. 9, 2011—it was a calendar listing previewing the meeting of the American Astronomical Society, held in Seattle that winter. The AAS will be back in town next year. The post also listed an upcoming exhibit by renowned photojournalist Roger Ressmeyer, and a talk by Dr. Connie Walker of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory for the Boeing Employees Astronomical Association.

As a birthday celebration, let’s look back at our favorite stories of 2013.

The Year of the Comet

Moon probe sketch

This sketch of a “Moon probe,” probably NASA’s Lunar Orbiter, is in my space scrapbook with other article from 1966. It was probably my first astronomy “post” at age 8.

Last year was touted as The Year of the Comet mostly because of the discovery in September 2012 of Comet ISON, which would graze the Sun at Thanksgiving with possibly spectacular results. Despite the unpredictability of comets, many couldn’t resist speculating that ISON would be the comet of the century.

ISON disintegrated during its encounter with Old Sol, and while some intrepid early-morning observers spotted it, ISON never became the spectacle many had hoped. We chronicled the coverage of ISON in this post in December.

While ISON disappointed, the year opened well with Comet PanSTARRS, which we saw well from Seattle for a few days in March.

The Year of the Fundraiser

Seattle Astronomy participated in a couple of crowdfunding campaigns during 2013, both of them local efforts that achieved their goals by attracting widespread interest.

The Battle Point Astronomical Association ran an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to build an equatorial bowstring sundial near its Edwin Ritchie Observatory on Bainbridge Island. While the effort fell well short of its goal to raise $17,000 for the sundial, it attracted enough attention to bring in significant contributions outside of Indiegogo. The club’s board has given the go-ahead for the sundial, which it hopes to complete by summer.

Meanwhile on Kickstarter the asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources, Inc. was aiming to raise $1 million to launch an ARKYD space telescope. The June ask proved wildly successful, ultimately bringing in more than $1.5 million from more than 17,000 backers from around the world. The ARKYD will hunt for asteroids and contribute to education, research, and outreach. Eventually the company plans to launch a fleet of ARKYDs. We’re looking forward to receiving our “space selfie”—a perk for contributing—some time next year.

The Year of Great Talks

We covered more than a dozen talks during 2013 by astronomers and authors who were brought in by local astronomy clubs, Town Hall Seattle, the Museum of Flight, the Pacific Science Center, and the University of Washington Astronomy Colloquium.

Two of our favorite talks were by Paul Bogard, author of the fine book The End of Night, and by Mike Simmons, founder of Astronomers without Borders who keynoted the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Other interesting lectures were given by astronauts Chris Hadfield and Jerry Ross; professors Bernie Bates and Dennis Danielson; Galileo Astronomy Unclub founder Jon Bearscove; asteroid hunter Don Youmans; Mars rover driver Melissa Rice; and authors Mario Livio, Lee Smolin, and Neil Shubin.

Links above go to our articles about those events. Books by the authors are available in our Seattle Astronomy Store, a new feature of the blog this year.

The Year Table Mountain Was Somewhere Else

A forest fire in September 2012 damaged part of the site of the annual Table Mountain Star Party, the Northwest’s biggest annual astronomy shindig. Last year’s party was held at a site other than Table Mountain for the first time since the event was established in the 1980s. The Table Mountain site remains unsafe, and the Star Party again will be held at the Eden Valley Guest Ranch near Oroville, Washington in 2014.

The Year We Were Published

It’s one thing to run your own astronomy blog, but quite another when someone else thinks your writing ought to be seen by more people.

Back in May we posted an essay about getting “the kids” interested in astronomy. We also submitted the piece to Astronomy magazine, which posted it on its Local Group Blog. The Astronomical League also spotted the essay and ran a version of it in its magazine, Reflector, in September.

Thank you for your interest and support. Onward to 2014!

Share

Tyler Nordgren to keynote SAS banquet

Astronomer, photographer, and dark-sky advocate Tyler Nordgren has been announced as the keynote speaker for the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society. The event is scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26, at the SeaTac Red Lion Hotel.

Tyler Nordgren

Tyler Nordgren

Nordgren, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Redlands in Redlands, Cal., is the author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks, which also will be the subject of his talk. For most Americans, the national parks have become one of the few remaining places to see a natural, star-filled sky. In the book Nordgren ties astronomical sights to Earth-bound sites, and each chapter includes a guide to viewing the night sky from particular parks. Many park rangers now use Stars Above, Earth Below to plan their evening astronomy programs, which have become a popular attraction for park visitors.

Reservations for the banquet can be made by visiting the Seattle Astronomical Society website. Cost is $40 for SAS members. Reservations for non-members are scheduled to become available for $50 beginning Jan. 12.

Stars Above, Earth Below can be purchased by clicking this link or by visiting the Seattle Astronomy Store.

Share

Scanning atmospheres for signs of extraterrestrial life

Giada Arney thinks that life likely exists somewhere besides Earth. Arney, a third-year Ph.D. student in astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington, gave a talk at November’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society about the search for the origins of life in the universe.

“Some of us like me who are astrobiologists think it’s likely that life has arisen elsewhere in the cosmos and perhaps elsewhere in our own solar system,” Arney said. “But so far the only evidence we have for life that actually exists is on this singular planet.”

UW planetarium

Ph.D. candidate Giada Arney is planetarium coordinator at the University of Washington, and used the facility, refurbished a couple of years ago, to illustrate her talk about astrobiology. This shot of Earth was part of the talk. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It’s hard to extrapolate from a single data point, but Arney is on the case. The educated guess that there’s some form of life out there stems from the fact that the raw materials are all over the place. Asteroids, for example, are loaded with water and carbon molecules—and much more.

“We’ve looked at the composition of various types of very carbon-rich asteroids, and we’ve looked at the specific types of carbon molecules that exist in those asteroids,” Arney said. “We found sugars, we found amino acids—the building blocks of proteins in our cells. We found nucleic acids, the building blocks of our DNA.”

“What this suggests is that these building blocks of life are easy for nature to synthesize and they’re cosmically common,” she said.

On top of that, Arney said study of the interstellar medium reveals lots of sugars and alcohols. This had me thinking, “Well, what else do you need?!” Arney said that the significance of these is that they’re the building blocks for amino acids. Astrobiologists have yet to pinpoint amino acids in the interstellar medium—it’s exceedingly difficult to pick out their spectral fingerprints—but Arney bets they’re there.

“This suggests that this complex carbon chemistry, that at least life on Earth requires, is cosmically abundant,” she concluded.

Arney’s research bailiwick is planetary atmospheres, and that’s where astrobiologists are going to look for evidence of life on other planets. There are plenty of potential places to investigate. Arney said that around eight percent of low-mass stars have an Earth-size planet in their habitable zones. She said a recent analysis of Kepler data that put this figure at close to 20 percent came in too high because of what she feels is an overly generous definition of the zone. Even eight percent, though, gives scientists a lot of planets to explore. The ultimate test will involve direct imaging and spectroscopy of the exoplanets’ atmospheres, something we can’t really do yet.

“Once direct-imaging missions become possible, we’re going to look for gases like water vapor and oxygen in the atmospheres of exoplanets,” Arney said. “Maybe that will give us evidence for life on these planets.”

The effort will require use of another rare element: cash.

“It will be a very expensive mission because it’s going to require a very big telescope,” she said, bigger even than Hubble or Webb. “You need to collect a lot of photons in order to measure the spectra of an exoplanet to have a high enough signal-to-noise ratio to be able to confidently say, ‘Hey, there’s oxygen in this planet’s atmosphere.’”

Arney expects life is out there.

“Microbial life is probably common, but the general consensus in the astrobiology community is that complex life and certainly intelligent life is probably remarkably rare,” she concluded.

The search continues.

Share