Category Archives: lectures

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



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.”


Celebrating 10 years at Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft went into orbit around Saturn ten years ago, on July 1, 2004 in universal time. Ron Hobbs, a solar system ambassador of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, says some of the mission’s most exciting science has occurred quite recently.

10 years at SaturnHobbs spoke at the most recent meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society about Cassini’s decade at Saturn, and notes that recent measurements of the gravitational field of the moon Enceladus have yielded some interesting findings.

“We are very confident that there is body of liquid water at the south pole that extends at least to 50 degrees south latitude on Enceladus,” Hobbs says. “There’s a body of water that’s in contact with rock. We know that some of the ice particles that get shot out into the E-ring have salt and organics in them. This has become on a very short list of places in our own solar system where we might find life.”

Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa are two others on what Hobbs calls the “astrobiological short list.” Many scientists believe that life on Earth may have originated in hydrothermal ocean vents—a safe haven during the heavy bombardment era—and so it’s reasonable to suspect that life might thrive in similar environments elsewhere in the solar system.

Hobbs calls Cassini “the largest, most complex, and capable spacecraft ever built” and notes that we may owe its existence to persistent Europeans. There was some talk in the mid-’90s that Congress would scrap the mission before it got off the ground because of budget concerns. But the Europeans had already built the Huygens probe that hitched a ride on Cassini in order to do a study of the atmosphere of the moon Titan. Hobbs says word is that protests about the proposed cuts made it all the way to the vice president.

“The fact that we have Cassini, as far as I’m concerned, is in large part due to the fact that the Europeans had the guts to talk to the U.S. government and say, ‘You don’t renege on your promises,'” Hobbs says.

Like the Mars rover missions, Cassini has far exceeded the time allotted for its original scientific mission.

“The plan for Cassini when it arrived in July of 2004 was to study Saturn for four years,” Hobbs notes. “Cassini is still one of the healthiest spacecraft we have anywhere in the solar system. All of its instruments are working great, it’s got fuel.” Nonetheless, Hobbs says he occasionally hears talk that Congress again is considering pulling the plug on the mission. He says that would be a bad idea, as we still have a lot to learn.

The NASA video below gives a preview of the work they’re planning for Cassini over the next four years.


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:


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.


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.


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.”


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 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.”