Tag Archives: Field Museum

Dispatch from Chicago: ALCon, day one

Happy Independence Day, and greetings from Chicago, where we’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of amateur astronomy in the United States and the first day of the annual convention of the Astronomical League.

It’s pretty likely that people who do not have Ph.D. degrees in astronomy have been participating in the hobby for more than 150 years. But the Chicago Astronomical Society, a co-host of this event, was founded in 1862 and is still going strong as the oldest such organization in the Western Hemisphere.

Michael E. Bakich, a senior editor of Astronomy magazine, opened the day’s talks with a retrospective of the last century and a half in amateur astronomy. Bakich touched on a number of milestones of that time, notably the birth of John Dobson in 1915, and his creation, in 1967, of the Newtonian reflector mount that bears his name.

“Amateur astronomy really hasn’t been the same since,” Bakich said of the invention of the Dobsonian mount, a telescope that’s easy to use and easy for an amateur to build.

Three key developments occurred in 1980: The release of the Coulter Odyssey I telescope, a 13.1-inch Dobsonian scope that sold for just $400 (a 17.5-inch went for $600), and that Bakich said was the first commercially available Dob; the debut of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series on PBS; and the first sales of the TeleVue 13mm Nagler, which Bakich called “the eyepiece that changed observing.” It offers both sharp images and a large apparent field of view.

Bakich noted that four transits of Venus happened during this time, though the one last month will be the last until 2117.

“The last 150 years have been a blast,” he said. “Here’s to the next 150!”

Mike Simmons, president of Astronomers Without Borders, also spoke in the morning session. The motto of the organization is “One People, One Sky” and Simmons explained the efforts to get past geopolitical differences and find common ground through astronomy.

“We’re all looking at the same thing everywhere,” Simmons said, making frequent references to trips to what he feels is a most misunderstood country: Iran.

“Iran is the most pro-American country I’ve ever been to, and I travel a lot,” Simmons said. “Whatever ideas you get from the news… you can’t trust the sound bites.”

He added that the people of Iran are typically delighted to be in contact with Americans.

“They love everything about America except what goes on between our governments,” he said.

Jan van Muijlwijk and Daniela De Paulis talked about their artistic endeavor, Moonbounce. It’s an interesting concept in which images are converted to sound, which is broadcast and bounced off the Moon. The return signal is caught on the rebound and then converted back into an image using the same software. The distortion of the image, resulting from the imperfect return of the data, is sort of the Moon’s take on the original.

Dr. Hasan Padamsee, a playwright and physicist from Cornell, closed out the morning’s lecture sessions with a talk about Edwin Hubble and various others involved in the physics of 100 years ago. We’re fortunate to be headed out Thursday to see Padamsee’s play about Hubble and Einstein, “Creation’s Birthday,” out at Fermilab. I expect we’ll also get some first-hand dope on the Higgs boson.

Adler planetarium

Astronomical League conventioneers mull about outside the Adler Planetarium in Chicago during a field trip July 4. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Our afternoon consisted of a fabulous roadtrip to the Chicago lakeshore to visit a pair of great institutions: The Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium.

At Field we had special presentations from Adler’s Mark Hammergren about asteroids and meteorites and from Field’s Philipp Heck about cosmic dust. Seattle Astronomy asked Hammergren about Seattle-area company Planetary Resources and its plan to mine asteroids for natural resources. Hammergren gave a mixed opinion. He called the notion of getting precious metals from asteroids a “red herring.”

“They’re not present in meteorites in high enough concentrations that would make it economically viable.” he said. “In the present day you’d be far better off looking at recycling materials. Concentrations of precious metals are much higher in today’s dumps.”

Hammergren did allow that space miners could find water and turn it into rocket fuel and other resources needed for future space exploration, but even with that was somewhat dubious.

“We don’t have enough infrastructure in space to justify that kind of investment,” he said. “The only thing that makes any kind of sense, economically speaking, is that if we move, in the next few decades, toward the mass colonization of space. Maybe that’s what they’re going for. You’ve got some eccentric billionaires who are trying to live the childhood dream. This is one way to jump start the colonization of our solar system.”

Also at Adler we were treated to the work of Jeff Talman, who has converted acoustic resonances of stars into musical compositions that are fascinating. It was great to see the spectacular imagery in Adler’s Grainger Sky Theater; the auditorium was closed for renovations when I last visited the Adler in 2010.

Friday’s agenda includes a trip to Fermilab for a tour and the “Creation’s Birthday” play, and then a tall ship sail on Lake Michigan for a cruise and a look at navigation by starlight.

Until then, I sign off from the Windy City.

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Astronomy, theatre, baseball, and the blues

In addition to gazing at stars, Seattle Astronomy loves theatre, baseball, and the blues. So when I found out today that this year’s Astronomical League convention in Chicago includes visits to the Yerkes Observatory and Adler Planetarium, a play, and a gig by the rockin’ Astronomy Magazine Blues Band, I started making plans to visit the Windy City on the Fourth of July.

Astronomy Magazine Blues Band

The Astronomy Magazine Blues Band will play a couple of sets on the final day of this year's Astronomical League Convention in Chicago. The band, L-R, is Mike Soliday, Jeff Felbab, Keith Bauer, and Astronomy editor Dave Eicher. Photo: Astronomy Magazine Blues Band.

I have to admit that AlCon 2012 wasn’t even on my radar until this item turned up in my newsreader this morning. The notion that Astronomy magazine staffers have a blues band covering the likes of Hendrix, Cream, The Band, Koko Taylor, Muddy Waters, and more was just so mind-bogglingly cool that I immediately started investigating the event. It turns  out that there is a lot of fun stuff to do in connection with the convention. I love a good astronomy lecture more than most guys, but the real fun is in the extracurricular activities.

July 4 features a field trip to the Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum of Natural History. We paid a visit to Adler in November 2010 during a Chicago layover on a cross-country train trip, and I wrote about it on Examiner.com. It’s chock full of great stuff, including lots of Apollo 13 memorabilia from Jim Lovell, who is a trustee of Adler and now runs a steak house in the Chicago area. The planetarium itself was closed for renovations during our last visit, so I’m looking forward to a longer stay, to seeing a planetarium show, and to tacking the Field Museum onto the itinerary.

The next day features a road trip to Batavia and Fermilab, where conventioneers will learn about particle physics and dark matter, and then see the play Creation’s Birthday, which is all about understanding the science and philosophies of 100 years ago. Characters include Edwin Hubble, Henrietta Leavitt, Father Georges Lemaitre, and Albert Einstein. The convention materials describe presenter Hassam Padamsee as a “playwright and CERN scientist”, a description that puts me in mind of today’s drive to educate scientists and engineers at the expense of education in the arts. As noted above we love science and arts, and don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.

July 6 is the day for the field trip to Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, and a look at the famed Alvin Clark 40-inch refractor. About eight years ago I attended a business meeting in Lake Geneva, just a hop and a skip away. Unfortunately, Yerkes was closed during my entire time there. The observatory is only open for public tours on Saturdays, so we’re lucky to get a look on a Friday with the AL group.

Finally on Saturday the Astronomical League holds its awards banquet and the Astronomy Magazine Blues Band plays a couple of sets. It all happens July 4-7 at the Lincolnshire Marriott Resort in the North Chicago suburbs. Registration materials are online here. If you can’t make it, Seattle Astronomy will likely be on hand and will post dispatches (if there’s time amid all the fun!)

Oh, yes, and there is baseball. The Cubs are on the road during this week, but the White Sox are at home. I expect I’ll sneak away for a ballgame.

Seattle Astronomy may well be a dork, but this sounds like a heavenly trip. And Astronomical League, take note: the sale was made by a blues band!

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