Astro Biz: Ceres Roasting Company

ceres roastingMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Ceres Roasting Company. Ceres Roasting features glazed almonds and pecans as well as locally roasted coffee. Their flagship shop is in the Seattle Center Armory, formerly the Center House and even more formerly the Food Circus (for Seattleites who go way, way back.) You can also find them at Century Link Field and Key Arena, and several other locations around the area. They also frequent farmer’s markets and festivals.

We chose Ceres Roasting this week because we’ve been thinking about the cool news about lots of ice on the dwarf planet Ceres, found by the DAWN mission.

More info:


SU Search for Meaning Fest includes three talks with astronomy themes

If you’re looking for meaning you may be able to get some clues in February at Seattle University. The university’s annual Search for Meaning Festival is set for February 25, 2017, and will bring more than 50 authors and artists to campus to tackle topics surrounding the human quest for meaning and the characteristics of an ethical and well-lived life. Three of these talks may be of particular interest to astronomy enthusiasts.

ShetterlyMargot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (William Morrow, 2016) will give a keynote talk at the festival about race, gender, science, the history of technology, and much else. She will show us the surprising ways that women and people of color have contributed to American innovation while pursuing the American Dream. Hidden Figures has been made into a feature film that opens in theaters in January.

Marie BenedictMarie Benedict, author of The Other Einstein (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016) will talk about her novel and explore the life of Mileva Maric, who was Albert Einstein’s first wife and a physicist herself, and about the manner in which personal tragedy inspired Mileva’s possible role in the creation of Einstein’s “miracle year” theories. She’ll also discuss how Mileva’s story is, in many ways, the story of many intelligent, educated women whose own aspirations and contributions were marginalized, or even hidden, in favor of those of their spouses.

CoyneRev. George V. Coyne, SJ, former director of the Vatican Observatory and currently the endowed McDevitt Chair in Physics at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, is author of Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning (Crossroad, 2002). Father Coyne will talk about the history of the evolution of life in the cosmos—a history which may lead us to a deeper understanding of what many secular physicists say themselves about the cosmos: that a loving creator stands behind it.

The full schedule for the daylong event is available online. General admission tickets are $12.50 and are also available online.

Get the books in advance:

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Solstice sunset watch and LIGO info on our calendar this week

The calendar year is winding down, and astronomy clubs are hustling to get a last few events in before we plunge into 2017.

Rose City AstronomersThe Rose City Astronomers eschew their usual formal meeting for their annual holiday potluck at 6:30 p.m. Monday, December 19 at the OMSI auditorium in Portland. Leftovers from the event have traditionally been donated to a homeless shelter, and this year the astronomers are also collecting warm clothing for donations, figuring that astronomy folk may have a supply of such to bring comfort to those late-night sessions at the eyepiece.

The Eastside Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, December 20 at the Lake Hills Library in Bellevue. NASA Solar System Ambassador John McLaren will give a talk about the history of scientific exploration of the Sun, and look ahead to future efforts to learn even more about our nearest star.

Seattle Astronomical SocietyThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 21 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Joey Key, a professor at the University of Washington-Bothell, will talk about the next LIGO run searching for gravitational waves, which will also involve astronomical collaboration is search of an elusive “multimessenger source,” a signal that could be detected both in gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation. Interesting stuff!


VMMEPPThe Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project plans an informal information session for 4 p.m. Tuesday, December 20 at the Hillsdale Library in Portland. This family-friendly event will feature artifacts from the Viking mission, activities for kids, and lots of information about Viking history. Check out our recent article and podcast about the project. The year end is a good time to lend a little financial support to this great history project, too!

Solstice sunset watch

Join Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info and watch the first sunset of winter at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, December 20 at Solstice Park in West Seattle. The solstice is at 2:44 a.m. PST on Wednesday. Sunset that evening is officially listed as 4:20 p.m., but Enevoldsen says they’ve noted that it’s typically about ten minutes early because of the horizon at that spot. She gives a fun and informative presentation about the mechanics of the seasons, and is persistent about it—this will be her thirty-first seasonal sunset watch. That’s a lot of solstices and equinoxes! Come by even if it’s cloudy, because the Sun sometimes sneaks through anyway, but driving rain makes it a no-go.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. The page also features a full schedule of planetarium and stage science shows at Pacific Science Center.

Up in the sky

The Ursid meteor shower peaks this week. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy offer more observing highlights for the week.


Dava Sobel and the ladies of the Harvard Observatory

If you don’t know the names Williamena Fleming, Antonia Maury, Henrietta Leavitt, Cecilia Payne, and Annie Jump Cannon, you’re not alone. Many people working in astronomy don’t recognize these women who have made enormous contributions to the field.

Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel talked about her new book “The Glass Universe” Dec. 15 at Town Hall Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“They’re making a splash now,” laughed Dava Sobel, author of the new book The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016). Sobel talked about the book Thursday night at Town Hall Seattle.

There is an impression that the women who worked at the observatory were trivialized or marginalized, Sobel said that really wasn’t the case.

“They really were well treated, they were given this tremendous responsibility, they made valuable discoveries, and they were well regarded—and some of them even world famous—in their own lifetimes,” Sobel said. She pointed out that Cannon, for example, held a number of honorary degrees, was a member and officer of the American Astronomical Society, and also was an honorary foreign member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Interestingly enough, even Sobel, whose bailiwick is science history, hadn’t heard of Leavitt until her name came up during an interview for a magazine article she was writing 20 years ago. Her curiosity was piqued, and the seed for The Glass Universe was planted.

Cheap labor

Sobel noted that when Edward Pickering took over as director of the observatory in 1877 there were already a half a dozen women working there, many of them relatives of the resident astronomers. He liked working with the women. They did good work, and they were inexpensive.

“Women cost less,” Sobel said. “This is an old story about women earning less than men for doing the same work.”

But she added that it wasn’t just dollars and cents for Pickering.

“He was very open minded, broad minded, and felt that higher education for women was a good thing even at a time when this was questioned,” Sobel said. “There were people who really thought that college was bad for girls and could affect their ability to have children.”

Pickering recruited alumnae of women’s colleges who studied astronomy, asking them to make observations and contribute their data to the work of the observatory.

“That would be a way to prove to the world that women could make a contribution to science and that their education wasn’t wasted,” Sobel said.

Financial support from women

The observatory was a separate entity and didn’t receive any money from Harvard. Much of the work at the observatory was possible due to significant financial support from women.

Heiress Anna Palmer Draper and her husband, Dr. Henry Draper, had done some of the earliest work on photographing the spectra of stars. Henry Draper was a medical doctor, but he was, according to Sobel, a passionately engaged and inventive amateur astronomer. They built their own observatory and Henry created many of his own instruments for the work on spectra. Unfortunately, Henry got sick and died at the age of 45. Anna eventually donated much of their gear, and a lot of money, to the observatory to continue the work on stellar spectra.

Philanthropist Catherine Wolfe Bruce donated $50,000 to help the observatory set up a telescope in Peru for observing the skies of the southern hemisphere. Data from this instrument informed Leavitt’s work on variable stars.

Major achievements

The contributions by the computers were significant. A few examples noted by Sobel:

Leavitt studied variable stars and discovered that the brightest ones took longer to cycle through their changes, and that the length of the cycle correlated to the true brightness of the star. Knowing this, one can calculate how far away a variable star is based on how bright it appears from Earth.

Harvard women 1918

Some suggest this 1918 photo of Harvard College Observatory women in “paper doll” pose marginalizes them, but Sobel says they were regarded and treated well in their time. Photo: Harvard University Archives.

“This work was fundamental to distance measurements all over the sky,” Sobel said. The discovery, most often called the period-luminosity relation, is more often these days being referred to as “Leavitt’s Law.”

Cannon, a renowned observer, came up with the star classification system still in use today.

Fleming first came to the observatory as a maid, but later found astronomical success, too.

“She was the first woman to get a university title at Harvard,” Sobel said. “She was the curator of astronomical photographs.” Her analysis of some ten thousand stars were critical to the publication of the first Henry Draper Catalogue.

Maury, Draper’s niece, studied at Vassar, graduated with honors in astronomy and physics, and went to work at the observatory, where she came up with a system of identifying stars.

Payne was Harvard’s first Ph.D. in astronomy. It was no surprise that a woman earned the top degree first; all of the early graduate students in astronomy were women because the only money the observatory had for the graduate program came through fellowships established for women to study there. Payne studied spectra of stars and found that hydrogen was far more prevalent in stars than any other element. She wrote about her findings in her dissertation, but it was so counterintuitive that it was downplayed. Within a few years, however, her findings were confirmed.

Given the stature of the accomplishments, it seems astounding that these women are not more well known.

“A lot of history gets buried just because there are so many people, so many characters, so much time goes by,” Sobel noted, adding that the women didn’t feel marginalized at the time. “They really loved what they did and were credited for it, but over time I think it has been downplayed.”

They’re making a splash now

There’s been a lot more attention for the women astronomers in recent years. A decade ago George Johnson penned the biography Miss Leavitt’s Stars (W.W. Norton and Company, 2006). A couple of plays have been written about them, including Silent Sky by Laruen Gunderson, which was produced earlier this year in Seattle by Taproot Theatre. You can go back to read our coverage of the play. The 2014 reboot of the television series Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson featured a segment about the computers.

“This got the attention of a lot of young women,” Sobel said. The Harvard women are also featured in the web series Insignificant.

“It’s great fun to see their story being remembered in so many ways. There are even Lego figures,” of Cannon, Leavitt, and Payne, Sobel said. “You know you’ve made it!”

Several other recent books have highlighted the work of women in space and astronomy. Sobel singled out The Rise of the Rocket Girls (Little, Brown and Company, 2016) by Nathalia Holt, a story about the women who made contributions to space science at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab; and Hidden Figures (William Morrow, 2016) by Margot Lee Shetterly, a look at the African-American women who worked at Langley in the 1940s and ‘50s. Hidden Figures has been made into a feature film that is scheduled to open in theaters in January.

An important story for our times

Sobel said she enjoyed getting to know the personalities of the ladies of the Harvard College Observatory and feels that their story is an important one in the era of fake news and anti-science attitudes.

“All of us need to be telling true stories about science,” Sobel said. “I feel especially good about this one not only because it’s true, but because I hope it will be inspirational to young women to have models like these ladies and to show that women have always been interested in science.”

More books by Dava Sobel:

Purchases made through links on Seattle Astronomy help cover our costs of bringing you interesting space and astronomy stories. We thank you for your support!


Book review: Sun Moon Earth by Tyler Nordgren

Tyler Nordgren’s new book Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (Basic Books, 2016) is a must read for anyone with even the slightest interest in the heavens, or in the total solar eclipse that will sweep across the United States on August 21, 2017. It’s far more than a where-to-go and how-to-see-it tale, although those pointers do show up at the end (don’t stare at the partially eclipsed Sun without proper, certified shielding, folks.) The fun part is the history lesson suggested by the subtitle.

Indeed, total solar eclipses have been happening for millennia, and Nordgren travels the world to examine what ancient cultures made of this unusual phenomenon. The complete blotting out of the Sun was seldom considered a good thing by people who didn’t understand what was really going on. It has only been in very recent times that the total solar eclipse has been embraced as a tourist attraction. Nordgren’s explanations of how scientific thinking developed and helped explain what was happening during eclipses are engaging and fascinating, as are his tales of the science that has only been possible during these rare events.

Nordgren has become an eclipse chaser himself, and I enjoyed his accounts of his travels to view eclipses, especially his trip to the relatively remote Faroe Islands, between Scotland, Iceland, and Norway, for the eclipse of March 20, 2015. The islands are not exactly the world’s leading tourism destination, and yet they were on that day because it was one of the few dry-land locations from which to see that particular eclipse. It was an interesting tale of the lengths to which people will go to get into the path of totality of a solar eclipse, and how the communities within that path prepare and react to the event.

Most people seem to agree that next year’s total solar eclipse will be seen by more people than any other in history. Often times the path of totality mostly passes over water, as it did for the Faroe Islands in 2015. The last time a total solar eclipse crossed the U.S. like this was in June of 1918. The 2017 eclipse will cross a huge land mass with a large population, many opportunities for tourists, and easy access to the path of totality all along the way.

Sun Moon Earth is a delightful read and would be a most welcome gift for anyone on your list with an interest in astronomy. We included it in our recent gift guide for astronomy buffs.

Tyler Nordgren

Tyler Nordgren

Author Nordgren is a renaissance man of sorts. He’s a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Redlands. He’s also a photographer and an artist and has done a variety of beautiful travel posters for the eclipse as well as for other tourist spots around the solar system. They’re available on his website and also referenced in our gift guide. He’s done a great deal of work on night sky astronomy programs in National Parks. He’s the author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks (Praxis, 2010) and spoke about the topic at the 2014 annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society. He’ll be in town again to talk about Sun Moon Earth January 14 at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 and are available online.

Purchases made through links on Seattle Astronomy or through our store support our efforts to bring you interesting astronomy stories. We thank you!


Astro Biz: Northstar Trading Company

Northstar Trading CompanyMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Northstar Trading Company of Whidbey Island. Northstar has been in business since 1978, running a retail shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market and making its handcrafted sheepskin products in their workshop on Whidbey Island. Northstar now does online sales as well. They offer slippers, hats, and a variety of other sheepskin products, all of their own design.

Northstar is in an area of the market with high Astro Biz density; Neptune Furniture and Moon Valley Organics are right nearby.

More info:


Dava Sobel talk highlights week’s calendar

A talk by author Dava Sobel is the highlight of this week’s astronomy calendar. Sobel, whose new book is The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016) will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 15 at Town Hall Seattle.

The book is the story of the contributions of women at the observatory who made major advancements in the science, often without getting proper credit or recognition. From Williamina Fleming, originally hired as a maid, who identified ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars to Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, appointed as the first woman professor of astronomy at Harvard in 1956, this group of remarkable women disproved the notion that “the gentler sex” had little to contribute to human knowledge.

Tickets to Sobel’s talk are $5 and are available online.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle

December’s edition of Astronomoy on Tap Seattle will consist of three shows at the University of Washington Planetarium on Wednesday, December 14. The program will be a guided tour of the universe. Unfortunately, all of the seats for the three shows were snapped up quickly, but you might watch the AoT Facebook event page to see if any openings occur.

Public night in Pierce County

The Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its public nights for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 17 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor program will be a viewing of a movie about the Christmas star. If the weather is clear they’ll break out the telescopes for some observing, too.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. The page also features a full schedule of planetarium and stage science shows at Pacific Science Center. Recently added events include:

Up in the sky

The Geminid meteor shower peaks this week, but will have to compete with the full Moon. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer more observing highlights for the week.