Category Archives: lectures

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!


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.


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.


Hadfield talks guitars and other space oddities

Chris Hadfield may not be quite the household name among astronauts that John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, or Buzz Aldrin are, but he tops them all in at least one category: Hadfield’s video version of the David Bowie tune “Space Oddity,” recorded on the International Space Station, has been viewed more than 19 million times on YouTube. That’s by far the most hits among his many made-from-space flicks and eclipses on-line hits on Moon-landing videos.

Hadfield made a stop in Seattle earlier this month for a talk before a large crowd at Town Hall Seattle, where he signed copies of his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything.

Though YouTube didn’t exist during the Apollo era, Hadfield said he was nonetheless inspired by the space pioneers.

“I decided to be an astronaut when I was nine; that’s when Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon,” he said. This was especially challenging for a kid from Canada. “It wasn’t just hard, it was impossible. There was no Canadian astronaut program.”

He pursued the dream anyway, learning to fly airplanes as a teen, and picking up astronaut-type skills the best he could until, finally, the opportunity presented itself.

Hadfield at Town Hall Seattle

Astronaut Chris Hadfield spoke Nov. 12 at Town Hall Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Hadfield didn’t talk much about the book during his Seattle event, mostly limiting prepared remarks to an account of what it’s like to be launched into space. He said the first nine minutes bring the majority of the risk on any mission.

“You have seven million pounds of thrust and you are going… somewhere!” he said. “It feels like something crashed into your spaceship. There’s this big pulse of energy through the whole ship and then a big rumbling vibration. You can’t hear it, but oh, you can feel it, like a piston in the small of your back that pushes harder and harder.”

He said that on his first space flight he experienced an unexpected injury by the time they reached orbit.

“About this time I noticed my face hurt; my cheeks were all cramped up and I realized that I’d been smiling so broadly,” Hadfield recalled.

“I laughed at myself to think that I didn’t know how much fun I was having. Part of me was going ‘OK check the pressures, check this, call out the distances, all the ranges, black zones, all the rest of it,’ and part of me was going ‘WHEEEEEE!’”

Hadfield said that playing guitar in space is an interesting experience because of weightlessness.

“When you fret with your hands, the whole guitar just takes off!” he said. “Eventually you learn how to stabilize it.”

In addition, he said that playing with a weightless arm throws you off.

“When you try to do something quick up and down the neck you miss,” Hadfield explained. “You have to re-learn how to fret properly.”

There’s a West Coast connection to Hadfield’s space musicianship. He has a special guitar made by Roscoe Wright of Wright Guitars in Eugene, Oregon.

“He makes this really weird guitar that is just the fret board,” Hadfield said. “The guitar pieces are actually like a coat hanger, so that it gives the shape of a guitar, it feels like a guitar against your body, but it folds up really tiny, a really clever design. I got him to cut the neck in half so it would fit into a shuttle locker. He built one special for me.”

It’s not the guitar used in the “Space Oddity” video, which is an ordinary acoustic instrument.

Hadfield also fielded questions about the past and the future of space exploration. He, like most astronauts I’ve heard speak, thinks that shutting down the space shuttle program was the right call, noting that shuttles flew for the better part of three decades.

“You probably don’t drive a 30 year old car to work every day, you sure don’t drive one to space every day,” Hadfield said.

“There’s only so much money in the NASA budget, and you can’t fly an expensive vehicle while building a new vehicle unless you get a big whack of money from somebody else, and there was no somebody else,” he explained. “I think we did it just right.”

“Everybody should celebrate the space shuttle,” he added. “It was the most capable vehicle we’ve ever built and it served us superbly. I was delighted to get a chance to fly it.”

As for the future, Hadfield feels the next logical step in humanity’s continuing drive to explore will be an international effort to return to the Moon.

“We need to learn how to go live there,” he said. “We will learn an awful lot by setting up permanent habitation on the Moon over the next–who knows? 30 years, couple generations. From there hopefully we’ll invent enough things that we can go even further.”


The End of Night

Paul Bogard laments the loss of the beauty of the stars and the night sky.

“Walking out of your door and seeing the Milky Way for ever was one of the most common human experiences, and now it’s become one of the most rare human experiences,” said Bogard, author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. “Estimates are now that eight of 10 kids born in the United States will never live where they can see the Milky Way” because of light pollution.

“There’s been a real switch and, I think, with great cost,” Bogard said during a talk this week at Town Hall Seattle.

Paul Bogard

Author Paul Bogard spoke about The End of Night at Town Hall Seattle on Oct. 8, 2013. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Bogard, an English professor at James Madison University, first got interested in the stars as a kid. He grew up in Minneapolis and his family had a lake cabin in Northern Minnesota, where he spent summer nights looking up.

“Year after year of seeing that night sky in the summer made a lasting impact on me,” he said.

Even more impressive was a post-college backpacking trip in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, where he described a night sky so dark it was like a dream; the millions of stars looked like a snowstorm.

“I felt open to everything, as though I was made of clay and the world was imprinting upon me its breathtaking beauty,” Bogard read from the book. “Standing nearly naked under that Moroccan sky, skin against the air, the dark, the stars, the night pressed its impression and my life-long connection was sealed.”

Much of The End of Night relates Bogard’s experiences visiting the brightest and the darkest places we can get to, sometimes within hours of each other, such as the time he drove from the bright lights of Las Vegas to the pitch dark of Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada.

During the talk Bogard shared the familiar photo of the Earth at night, and observed that it’s a beautiful image, but that he doesn’t like what it depicts.

“What we’re seeing here is waste,” he said. “Nearly all of the light we see here is shining up in to the sky, it’s wasted, it’s not doing anybody any good.”

The End of Night

While the loss of the splendor of the night sky is terrible, Bogard noted that the other effects of light pollution may be more compelling reasons to do something, from a public policy standpoint. Poor lighting can actually reduce safety and security, and it harms wildlife. He also said there’s growing evidence of light pollution’s health effects on humans. Our sleep is disrupted and our circadian rhythms confused, and bright nights impede our production of melatonin, which could lead to breast and prostate cancer. In fact, Bogard noted that the World Health Organization now considers working the night shift to be a possible carcinogen.

He praised the work of the International Dark-sky Association; the chair of its local chapter, David Ingram, was part of the audience at the talk. Bogard hopes The End of Night inspires a better approach to night lighting.

“What I was trying to do with the book is to raise awareness about the issue,” he said. “Once people become aware of the beauty that we’re talking about, what we’re losing, the threats of light pollution, I think most people will realize that we can do a better job of lighting the night or leaving some of it dark.”


Earthlings on Mars

If scientists eventually discover strange new life forms on Mars, then Bernie Bates is going to be out about $4 to members of the Tacoma Astronomical Society. Bates, professor of astronomy at the University of Puget Sound, made a friendly wager with those who attended his talk at the club’s meeting earlier this month. He has a shiny new dime that says we will find life on Mars and that it will look awfully familiar.

Bates expects we will have a definitive resolution to the wager by around 2026. NASA recently announced a Mars mission for 2020, and the ESA and Russia are working on a slightly earlier mission, both with an eye toward eventually returning samples of Mars rock and soil for analysis.

Bernie Bates

Bernie Bates, astronomy instructor at the University of Puget Sound, spoke about Mars exploration at the August meeting of the Tacoma Astronomical Society.

“They’re going to get samples back, they’re going to find microbes in it, and they’re going to pull the microbes apart,” Bates says. “The microbes are going to have DNA that we recognize, nucleotides that we recognize.”

“Life will be there on Mars,” Bates bets, “and it will be Earth life.”

The reason: Earth and Mars have been exchanging rocks for billions of years. “Mars is so close to us that there’s been cross-contamination between the two planets.”

Bates is confident he won’t have to pay off on the 10-cent wager about this multi-billion dollar question. But he isn’t offering odds or compound interest!

Recent science has been pretty conclusive about the past habitability of Mars, according to Bates, though Mars hasn’t been very Earth-like for the last two or three billion years.

“All of the geology questions in a sense have been answered,” he says. “We’ve got every potential smoking gun you can ask for for life on Mars.”

He expects we will find it.

“If Mars had life on it then it’s still there, someplace, probably underground,” Bates says, noting that microbial life is tough and adaptable. “The planet itself never did anything so hostile so quickly that it could wipe it out.”

Exploration of Mars was bumped up a notch or two with the arrival there of Curiosity a year ago, Bates says. A big reason is its power source, a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that will keep the rover operable for many years.

“They know they have enough time to do the science, they don’t have to rush, they can actually think through what they’re doing,” Bates says.

Time means flexibility. Bates notes that Curiosity spent the better part of its first year on an unplanned detour to explore the geology of an area named Glenelg near its Martian landing site.

“The spacecraft has an almost unlimited lifetime, they trust it, and they can do something like that” without jeopardizing the primary mission, Bates says.

Finding life on another planet, even if it actually originated here on Earth, wouldn’t exactly be ho-hum. Bates believes, though, that the greater discovery will come from a bit further out than Mars.

“If you want to find what the real search is for in the solar system, what they call second genesis, a different type of life, the Jovian people are the people to put your money on,” Bates says.

Money is a key factor. Interplanetary exploration costs a lot, and there’s not much to go around. The bulk of it is being invested in Mars these days, but Bates and many astrobiologists are rooting for more funding for those who want to probe the systems of Jupiter or Saturn. Both gas giant planets have moons that have interesting possibilities for life.

“Europa, Enceladus, that’s where the answers are,” Bates says.


Brilliant blunders can be portals to discovery

Mario Livio takes comfort in the gaffes of the greatest scientific minds of all time.

“There is something very reassuring in the fact that even these giants made major blunders,” he said during a talk Wednesday in Seattle to promote his new book. “People would ask me what the book was about; I’d tell them it’s called Brilliant Blunders, and it’s not an autobiography.”

Mario Livio

Mario Livio spoke about his latest book, Brilliant Blunders, May 15 at Town Hall Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

In Brilliant Blunders Livio, senior astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, examines major mistakes by some of the greatest scientists ever: Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, Lord Kelvin, and Fred Hoyle. He talked about three of the examples during his lecture at Town Hall Seattle.

First, Livio took on Darwin and evolution, which Livio called “the single best idea that anybody has ever had.” Darwin’s blunder, though, was adopting a theory of blended heredity, which was a fairly widely accepted viewpoint of the time. Blended heredity held that the characteristics of a mother and father would be mixed, as one might mix a gin and tonic.

“Darwin did not understand, at first at least, that with blended heredity there is no way natural selection would have ever worked,” Livio said, noting that if you bred black and white cats, within a few generations you would only have gray. “In your gin and tonic, if you mix it with lots of tonic, in the end there is no gin.”

In Darwin’s time Gregor Mendel was coming up with the correct model for genetics, but Livio said Darwin didn’t know of Mendel’s work, and if he had he probably would not have understood it—“Darwin was very weak in mathematics,” he noted—but somehow Darwin had nailed evolution.

“When you have somebody who is a real genius some of the steps along the way may be wrong, but somehow their insight leads them to the correct result,” Livio said.

Brilliant blunders

The next big blunder considered was Linus Pauling’s attempt to come up with a structure for DNA.

“Pauling’s model for DNA had the wrong number of strands, it was built inside out, and there was nothing to hold it together. Worse yet, he tried to hold it together with hydrogens,” Livio marveled. The “A” in DNA stands for acid, which Livio explained means that when you put it in water it should release hydrogen. But in Pauling’s model hydrogen was holding the structure together, so it couldn’t release it.

“Here was the greatest chemist of the world proposing a model the violated the basic rules of chemistry!” Livio exclaimed. He discusses Pauling’s shortcoming at length in the book, but said it may have been a combination of a race to publish and a bit of egotism from previous successes.

“If I work out the basic structure,” Livio surmised Pauling may have been thinking, “all of the other details will work out.”

Finally Livio took on Einstein, whom he called “the embodiment of genius.” Livio noted that when Einstein developed the theory of relativity he assumed that the universe was standing still. But that couldn’t be, because its gravity would cause it to collapse on itself. So Einstein added what Livio called a “fudge factor”—the cosmological constant—to make things balance out.

Then, when Lemaître and Hubble found the universe to be expanding, Einstein concluded he didn’t need the constant and took the term out of his equation. Fast-forward to 1998 and the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating—because of the constant.

“Einstein’s blunder was to take the term out, not to put it in!” Livio said. “If he left that term in he could have predicted that the universe should be accelerating.”

The conclusion Livio draws from these brilliant blunders is that science can be messy and that there’s no straight line to the truth. Goofs are good.

“When you think outside the box you’re likely to make mistakes every now and then,” he said. “If you want to be certain all the time, your progress will be so incremental that you actually may miss the real breakthroughs.”

“This is not to advocate for sloppy science,” Livio continued. “This is just to say that you have to allow for these things that I call brilliant blunders. You have to allow for the possibility of making breakthroughs through processes that occasionally will actually hit upon various obstacles.

“Scientific blunders can be portals to discovery.”