Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Comet Viewing Helpers

I haven't seen it myself yet, but Comet 17P/Holmes has gotten bright enough to see with the unaided eye, and I'm hoping we can see it through telescopes at a Saturday night star party that Aldrich Astronomical Society is doing with a scouting group.

I also have an indoor event Friday evening at the Hopkinton Public Library which they have titled "Explore Space Without Leaving Home" (PDF). It will be my typical web site/Stellarium/Orbiter computer space/astronomy show, customized as I always do for current events in space. For this week, those will of course include the shuttle/ISS mission (STS-120) and Comet 17P/Holmes.

I wanted to add the comet to the solar system in Stellarium to make it easy to explain where it is in the night sky. A quick Google search for "stellarium adding objects" gave me exactly what I needed for the PC version of Stellarium (Mac is a little more complicated since the files are hidden, but see here). Note that if you zoom in, you will see a default moon-like texture, not a comet image. You can add bitmap objects to Stellarium too, but I don't have time to track that down now! has good information on the comet including a photo gallery. There's a simple star chart showing the comet's location here.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

More Free Education

In addition to the MIT OpenCourseWare materials I wrote about the other day, there are many other explicitly educational web sites and web-based programs out there. A few recent finds in space technology, astronomy, and physics:

The Past and Future of Rocket Engine Propulsion - This is labeled as an "online seminar" with six sections, each of which is basically an illustrated web page. It's a pretty good semi-technical overview of the history of rocketry (Robert Goddard shown here) and of the technology of conventional and electric propulsion (electrothermal, electromagnetic, electrostatic). It is part of the Fathom Archive, a collection of free content developed by member universities.

The Search for Life: an Introduction to Astrobiology - Another good seminar-type offering, with six brief sections.

The Mechanical Universe and Beyond - This video-based course is a bit older (circa 1985), but classical physics hasn't changed much in 22 years, and based on watching one 30 minute segment, this is quite good stuff with really clever demonstrations in the lab and in the real world. There are 52 lectures at the level of an undergrad college physics course for non-majors.

For astronomy in general, there are many on-line tutorials and even degree programs, some listed here. One of the best is Astronomy Notes by Nick Strobel, which I have written about before. And finally for space flight, JPL's Basics of Space Flight is great, especially if you do it on line and take the chapter quizzes to make sure you are paying attention!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Harmony Achieved on ISS

The STS-120 and ISS crews quickly got down to business and installed the Harmony Node in its temporary location on Friday. Some things will be shuffled a bit after Discovery heads for home to allow the new module to be installed in its permanent location (basically where Discovery is now). Once it is there, the European and Japanese science lab modules will have a place to connect, and the ISS will grow even larger.

I've installed the STS-12o flight supplement pack provided by "David413" for the Shuttle Fleet 3.9.4 add-on for Orbiter, and just ran some scenarios to have a look and snap a few pictures, in part to understand the geometry of what they are building up there (it's great to be able to spin the things around in 3D, change viewpoints, zoom in, etc.). Dave has already provided scenarios for planned events through flight day 8.

BREAKING NEWS: I looked back at the Orbiter forum and noticed a post by "texasf1racer" about a new Orbiter video he put together using the Shuttle Fleet with the STS-120 supplements. This video has some great shots and excellent music, and it really shows what you can do with this stuff. After some dramatic launch shots and the installation of Harmony, he compresses the rest of the mission into just a few minutes including re-entry and landing. Fair enough since the real mission is still in progress! Check this out if you want to get an idea of what a free space flight simulator can do - the video is produced with real skill, but the physics-based animation is all done by Orbiter itself.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Free MIT Education

That's not quite accurate, but "free MIT educational materials" is quite accurate. The MIT OpenCourseWare program (OCW) places course materials from a huge number of MIT courses on the web for free download by anyone. Some of the 1700 courses even include video lectures and demonstrations (e.g., Physics I: Classical Mechanics).

There are dozens of courses I would like to explore and study if I only had the time. I have heard that these materials are used all over the world to teach real college courses, while students, teachers, and enthusiasts everywhere use the materials to supplement their studies in various ways. It's really pretty amazing that all this stuff is out there.

One excellent improvement is that many (all?) of the courses have a direct download feature. This is a zip file that contains all the materials structured into folders that follow the on-line web structure for the course. Simply unzip with "use folder names" to preserve the folder structure, and you've got it all in convenient local form. Of particular interest to astronomy and space enthusiasts are the following courses I just downloaded to check out:

Introduction to Astronomy (12.402J, spring 2006)
The Solar System (12.400, spring 2006)
Hands-On Astronomy: Observing Stars and Planets (12.409, spring 2002)

Note that while there are many readings, worksheets, and other materials in PDF or XML form, there is still quite often a text or other book(s) required for assigned readings, and these are not (in general) on line.

P.S. In addition to the interesting comment added about other sources of free science learning materials, I stumbled on The Stingy Scholar who posted in March 2007 about some of the top MIT OCW courses. Your mileage may vary, of course, but at least there are reasons for the choices- see here and here ("turnkey" courses with no need for a textbook etc.). "Stingy" also discovered Orbiter.

NASA Rocks!

The shuttle Discovery docked with the ISS this morning, and while it's not the main point of the mission or anything, I think it's cool that both of the now-joined spacecraft are commanded by women, shuttle commander Pamela Melroy and ISS commander Peggy Whitson.

While human space flight like this is NASA's most visible activity, and some of its robotic spacecraft (Mars Rovers, Hubble, Cassini) are quite well known, NASA does a lot of other great stuff too. A case in point is this story about how a NASA unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called Ikhana is using its sensitive thermal imaging sensors to monitor and send back false-color temperature mapping imagery of the wild fires in southern California. The imagery is processed on board and sent in real time to a ground station for integration with Google maps (example here) that managers can use to better plan their fire fighting strategy. The research UAV monitored seven different fires in its first 10 hour flight yesterday, making multiple 30 minute passes to track the fires' progress.

NASA gets a lot of flak. It's a government agency with a lot of missions and a lot of people, and sometimes they make mistakes and bad decisions. They could probably do a lot of things better (me too). But on the whole, I think NASA has to be the best use of any 0.58% (1/172) of the Federal budget that we are funding with our tax dollars. I mentioned this to a colleague at work yesterday, and he was shocked that this is such a small figure. He thought they got maybe "a few percent" (that was true for only for a couple of years in the late sixties Apollo period).

On the whole, I have to say, NASA rocks.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Rocketeers Video

I recently read Michael Belfiore's book Rocketeers, a great behind-the-scenes tour of the young but growing private space business. The book introduces you to some of the highly driven people like Burt Rutan, Elon Musk, and Robert Bigelow who are leading these companies and making things happen. There's now a 4-minute promotional video for the book with nice clips of some of the private space hardware in action (or at least in testing). Cool stuff.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Go Discovery!

I was in a meeting and didn't get to watch it live, but the shuttle Discovery launched at 11:38 am this morning after a smooth and apparently trouble-free countdown and launch. STS-120 will be a busy mission with five space walks and a lot of construction activity on the ISS. I have been tied up with other things and have not followed preparations nearly as closely as I did for STS-118 back in August (when I was going down to attend the launch, which did wonders for my sense of involvement).

As usual, "David413" has kindly and diligently updated the shuttle fleet add-on packages to allow Orbiter users to simulate the STS-120 mission including its payload and planned changes to the ISS. I've downloaded but have not had a chance to try out the new stuff yet. Thanks Dave!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Making an Impact

I helped out with a middle school astronomy event on Friday evening - it would have been a star party except for the solid clouds and rain. So it was all indoors, and my activity was crater making rather than my usual "exploring space with a computer" show. Crater making involves a bin with a thick layer of flour topped with a thin layer of cocoa powder (for the contrast and the nice smell), plus a few rocks of various sizes - impactors. Drop rocks into the planetary surface and make impact craters.

This may sound a bit silly, and it's not completely realistic since the projectiles are moving pretty slow and don't vaporize or explode (safety first!). But you can see the effects of the mass and velocity in terms of the crater size and depth as well as its shape and the ejecta pattern. Eighth graders are surprisingly involved with this, especially if they get to drop the rocks. I show some photos of Moon craters, and some of them look remarkably like our flour/cocoa ejecta patterns. I ask a lot of questions and try to get the kids to think about the possible importance of impact craters and the objects that made them, as well as the fact that the Moon seems to have more craters than the Earth. Why would that be? Where did our craters go? (Most say in the ocean - pretty good guess on an area basis.) It's more fun and thought provoking than I first thought it would be (I've done it about 3 or 4 times now, so my setup and delivery are getting better).

I looked around for some impact crater information on the web for backup and preparation, and there's quite a bit you quickly find with Google. One that I especially like is this University of Arizona site, "Terrestrial Impact Craters and their Environmental Effects." The material is interesting and reasonably detailed without being too technical. The animated GIF above is linked from this site - very cool (click on the image for a bigger version - you may have to shift-reload this page to force the animation to play or replay). Explanation and connection to dinosaurs can be found here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

New England Soaring

Tow Plane Pre-Cable Release
Today was a perfect New England fall day - cloud-free blue sky, countless maple trees turning to brilliant oranges and reds, and pleasantly warm to boot. Noticing this as I walked the dog this morning, I went into one of my periodic "why do I have a pilot's license yet I never fly except for economy seats on United" self-critical rants. Then I remembered an email I had seen about a special gliding day at Sterling (3B3) for Worcester area pilots - hey, isn't that today?

It was! So I drove over to Sterling (about 12 minutes from home), paid my $75, and joined the GBSC (Greater Boston Soaring Club) waiting list for an introductory flight. There were about 10 pilots from the Worcester pilots' association, but with the great weather, private glider owners were also out in force, and with only two tow planes, there was quite a line of gliders waiting for launch. But there were plenty of other pilots hanging around talking about flying and stuff, so it was actually fun to spend the afternoon outdoors at this classic little airport. Other planes were coming and going as well, including a beautiful Boeing Stearman biplane in vintage Army PT-17 colors (blue and yellow - see Flickr) and a helicopter (Robinson R22 I think).

I finally got my turn around 4:00 pm, and by a complicated but lucky fluke, I got to fly in a sleek, high performance, retractable-gear Schempp-Hirth Duo Discus glider rather than in one of the club planes (which certainly would have been fine). My pilot was one of the owners, and we got a tow up to about 3500 feet (about 3000 feet above ground level). He first had me try my hand at staying in proper position with the tow plane, which is harder than it looks. I over-corrected, he repositioned, and I did a little better, but soon it was time to pull the cable release handle.

I've flown gliders 2 or 3 other times, so I was expecting it to be very quiet and peaceful - just the wind noise. You don't even need a headset, you can just talk in the cockpit. The scenery was great as expected, though still mostly greens - the foliage won't peak for a couple of weeks I suppose. But Mount Wachusett, the Wachusett Reservoir, and the nearby towns looked great anyway (I took a few quick pictures but mostly wanted to focus on flying and enjoying the experience). I made a few turns to try to get a feel for the handling. As is typical with power-trained pilots, I didn't use enough rudder at first, and I was shy with the bank angle, which is typically 30-45 degrees for gliders. This is considered a steep turn in a powered airplane where you usually tend to stay around 20-30 degrees. Steep turns are really more fun.

My pilot felt and heard (audio variometer) signs of some rising air , but it was too localized and we didn't gain appreciable altitude. We tried a couple of areas where there had been rising air earlier, but they were pretty dead. We stayed within easy gliding range of the airport, and after about 20 minutes, we were overflying the airport in preparation for landing. Total flight time was about 23 minutes. It was really fun.

I really like soaring and I'm thinking of joining GBSC in the spring and taking the lessons needed to solo and get a glider rating (I could join and maybe start sooner, but they basically pack up the gliders at the end of November, hopefully before the snow flies). Powered-flight pilots usually only need a couple of hours of lessons, but I'm pretty rusty, so who knows? It's not a race, and I enjoy the learning process as much as anything.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sorting Out Space (Carnival #25)

The 25th Carnival of Space is up at Sorting Out Science, and it's an especially readable and well organized carnival post. Well worth a visit and a few side trips. Sorting Out Science (SOS!) is a new blog for me, subtitled "Science for people who never realized that science could be interesting." It looks like a good one.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Post #584: Figuring Out Myself

"Figuring out myself" sounds like it could be something deep and philosophical. Maybe another time. In this case, I simply noticed that since I started blogging on October 18, 2005 (two years ago today!), that I have blogged more in certain categories than others. Of course this is a heavily biased result, since I originally started the blog to talk about the Orbiter space flight simulator, and I defined the categories myself. But being an engineer, I decided to make a chart anyway.

Although it remains quite spacey and techy, I have expanded the scope of the blog, talking about space and astronomy in general, as well as education (especially when I started to do educational outreach events as a JPL Solar System Ambassador). I even used the ambiguous title "Music of the Spheres" to justify talking about music from time to time. "Technology" came to include my iPod and Prius and other cool stuff, and I added a video category when I discovered how to embed YouTube videos in blog posts.

The chart covers only topics with more than 25 posts. It shows that out of 584 posts including this one, my original theme (Orbiter) accounts for 153, followed by NASA (113), books (113), astronomy (105) and a bunch of other topics, mostly space related: Mars, space history, shuttle, Moon, private space. Music doesn't do so well (32, one out of 18 posts), and flying even worse (27). So much for old obsessions.

I tried tracking numbers of visitors for a while, but that got to feel like an obsession about an obsession, so I went back to my original idea that I write this geeky stuff because I like to write, and I hope that those who share some of my interests will enjoy reading it, no matter who, where, or how many you may be, and that you'll occasionally comment on something, or just say hi.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Seeker and Orbiter

I just got the November issue of Sky & Telescope, and it includes a review of a new software product called Seeker, from Software Bisque (maker of TheSky6 and other astronomy products). Seeker is dedicated to 3D exploration of the solar system, including some spacecraft. You can fly instantly to any planet, moon, or included spacecraft and enjoy the views. It sounds pretty cool, and it costs $129 (introductory price of $99).

That's all great, but I also want to point out that a small subset of Orbiter (which is a free space flight simulator) can do what Seeker seems able to do (touring the solar system), and a lot more besides. Orbiter's 3D graphics are certainly as good or better (click on the samples above to see bigger images, the top one from Orbiter, the lower one from Seeker).

How Google Maps the Earth

There's a great little article in today's Technology Review update on how Google manages to do what it does in Google Earth and Google Maps. Even in this simplified explanation, it's clear that there's a lot going on under the hood when you type in some address and Google Earth flies you there almost instantly. The article links to some nicely illustrative video clips and still images.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Music of the Ears (and Eyes)

As long as I'm spending more time with music than with space these last few weeks (damn that new iPod!), I thought I'd write about some music I've discovered recently. Nothing to do with space, but it's "music of the spheres," OK? I don't know how to link directly to iTunes, but that's where I've bought most of this stuff. So I'll link to Amazon instead.

The Village Sessions - Last December, John Mayer recorded acoustic versions of six of the songs from Continuum and it's really great stuff. He's an amazing songwriter and I'm really jealous of how cleanly he plays the acoustic guitar (forget his lead guitar, I'm not even in the same universe on that). The songs really stand up well to this simple treatment.

Iron & Wine - Iron & Wine is basically singer/songwriter Sam Beam, though he's recorded with a few different people. I've only downloaded a few songs from his four or so albums so far, but they have a quiet beauty that is really mesmerizing. He has a new album called The Shepherd's Dog which came out a few weeks ago.

Lisa Hannigan - You can't really get much music by Lisa Hannigan, but I am totally in love with her voice. She's an Irish singer who has recorded and performed mostly with Damien Rice on O and other CD's and videos, and on a song called Unplayed Piano which I found on iTunes. I read somewhere that she's recording a solo album but I don't know when it will be out.

Bruce Springsteen, Magic - I'm mostly a fan of his first 4 or 5 albums from the 70's plus a few songs from his later periods, but his new CD with the E-Street Band really grabs me like that early stuff.

Gone Gone Gone - Robert Plant and Alison Krauss? Who'da thunk? But wow, it really works. This is the first single from their CD Raising Sand, which is coming out in a couple of weeks. I love Alison Krauss and Led Zep and I love the groove and the harmonies on this rockabilly tune.

Jeremy Fisher, Goodbye Blue Monday - This is one I just found the other day on the new Paste Magazine sampler CD (#36) with a song called Scar That Never Heals. Another cool song is Cigarette (there's a funny video for this on YouTube, embedded herewith).

There's more, including some old Steppenwolf songs that I forgot I used to love in high school! They were an awesome band. And the new KT Tunstall CD is great too, Drastic Fantastic. I'm also reading Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One. My musical tastes are all over the map. No, the solar system.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Ambassador for Space

I just noticed an interview/article with a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, posted by NASA as an educational feature the other day. David DelMonte is an ambassador in the District of Columbia, and I think his comments on the reasons for and rewards of being involved are shared by many of the people who volunteer in the ambassador program (including me).

Googlearning the Moon

As I was preparing last week for my Friday evening middle school presentation on exploring space with your computer, I took a closer look at the educational features that accompanied the launch of the Google Lunar X-Prize a month or so back. There's some pretty nice stuff, much of it created by the Saint Louis Science Center, including excellent grade-specific learning guides.

One thing that I added to my presentation was the scale solar system based on Google Maps. This activity assumes that the Earth is the size of a basketball and places the sun at any address you specify. It then displays a series of rings representing the orbits of the planets in the scale of the map. So with the sun at my office in Westborough, MA, Mercury is just outside our office park, Earth is 2 miles down Route 9, Mars is in Southborough, Jupiter is in Natick, Saturn's in Newton, Uranus is in Boston Harbor, Neptune's in Plymouth (south shore), and Pluto ends up in Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. I've driven to and flown over these places, so it's big but still familiar. Of course a walkable scale model is even better for the kids if you've got the time and space for it.

There's a lot more there, so have a look. The video "Earth's Offshore Island" (part 1 linked above) is a great explanation of the Moon's importance and potential. There are more videos in the X-Prize YouTube Channel.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Engineering the Future

I know I'm not alone in my concern for the future of science and especially engineering in America. It seems that so few young people are interested, and that with the test-score-driven agenda required by "no child left behind," it seems that most kids are not getting to do the kind of exploration and imaginative activities that might help them believe that science and technology are really exciting and potentially fulfilling things to pursue.

That's one of the reasons I do space-inspired educational outreach events, hoping to spark some interest in science and technology for at least a few kids. I'm doing a middle school astronomy event tonight with a couple of my astronomy club and Solar System Ambassador colleagues, so I was thinking last night about some things to talk about on my virtual tour of the solar system. With recent Cassini radar findings of even more hydrocarbon (ethane/methane) lakes on chilly Titan, I plan to talk about the idea that Titan, like Mars, Venus, and the Moon, is a place we humans have been. We've landed robot eyes on those places (and human ones on the Moon) and had a look around. Of course we've also driven around Mars with Spirit and Opportunity, and looked at more and more of Mars with high resolution orbital cameras, making the red planet seem even more like the distinctive and increasingly familiar place that it truly is. We've flown close to even more places in the solar system, and the point is, they are places, not just abstract ideas or points in the sky.

To me this is up-close involvement through mostly robotic eyes is exciting stuff, even though as a child of the Apollo era, I thought there would be human eyes and footprints in more of those places by now. But no matter. We're stepping out into the solar system, we've set some goals, we're even seeing private companies start to move toward space. It may not be happening as fast or in quite the way some of us would like to see, but it's happening, and thanks to the internet and other technologies, we can have a ringside seat on the next frontier. Why more people aren't excited about this and wanting to be involved in this and many other scientific and technological developments, I don't know. Too many other distractions, I guess.

But this past week I learned about two engineering education programs that give me reason to be a little more optimistic. One is a high school and middle school curriculum for engineering called Project Lead the Way (PLTW). It's all about hands-on learning and problem solving and it is already in a number of schools all over the US. The other is a new engineering school, the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. This is a small school (around 300 students so far) but the exciting thing is that it is taking a truly innovative approach to engineering education and to preparing the next generation of engineers and leaders for our technological society. Founded in 2001, it's already rates as one of the top schools in the country.

The picture at the top is courtesy JPL, showing in false color all the areas of Titan's north pole that have been explored by Cassini's radar. I added the Google Earth inset image of the northeastern USA as a scale reference - it's approximate but pretty close. Those hydrocarbon lakes are big.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Dawn's Ion Light

Dawn at Ceres - Ion Engine Firing
I got a mission status report from JPL on the Dawn mission, which launched successfully back on September 27. The report said that JPL engineers had tested the spacecraft's ion engine for 27 hours this past weekend, a drop in the bucket compared to the 50,000 hours they are expected to thrust over the life of the mission. I wrote about Dawn back in July when it was originally expected to launch, and I simulated some parts of the mission in Orbiter using the excellent add-on package by Brian Jones. The Orbiter picture here shows the ion engine firing in close proximity to Ceres, which Dawn will not actually reach for a few years (2015, after Vesta in 2011).

Monday, October 08, 2007

So Don't Use the A-Word

Sam Harris is a writer and thinker I really admire. While Richard Dawkins (whom I also admire) has an aggressive "take no prisoners" approach in his writing against religion, Harris is different. He is blunt yet subtle, divisive yet inclusive, as paradoxical as those word pairs may seem. In his book The End of Faith, he argues that faith itself is a great danger, that giving a privileged place to irrationality if only it is labeled as "religion" is crazy. As he says in that book, "As long as it is acceptable for a person to believe that he knows how God wants everyone on Earth to live, we will continue to murder one another on account of our myths." That certainly is happening today.

I discussed The End of Faith more extensively in a 2006 post, but tonight I found a great new essay by Harris, based on a speech he gave recently. The points he makes really hit home for me, helping me to better understand the troublesome word "atheism" and what it means to me (and to others). The article is called "The Problem with Atheism," and Harris says it's very much a problem with the word atheism itself, and with what that word most often does, which is to polarize discussions and to tar the person who is labeled an atheist with all sorts of unwarranted assumptions (even if the label is willingly self-applied). It's more productive to think and talk in terms of what one does believe rather than what one does not believe (which for me is a rather long list of the usual imaginary suspects, from Zeus to the Flying Spaghetti Monster as well as God and his/her immediate and extended family, not to mention astrology and extended warranties on small electronics). I don't even believe in "science" - science is a system of knowledge and an approach to understanding the world. It's not a religion or a substitute for it and it doesn't need to be worshiped or believed, just appreciated and applied.

What Harris suggests is what I think I have been doing, or trying to do, all my life - trying to apply reason and evidence and to oppose bad ideas, wherever they may arise. Not as a crusade, and not only "against" religion, but simply as an approach to life. This doesn't mean trying to be Mr. Spock and to apply nothing but logic. There's plenty of room for (and need for) love and compassion in the world. We primates have evolved as social animals, and love and compassion are as important as intelligence and reason in the success of humans in this world. But organized religion, not so much.

In his speech, Harris also returns to and clarifies another topic from The End of Faith, his own interest in matters referred to as "spiritual" or "mystical" - things that are usually associated with religion, but need not be. I won't attempt to summarize his arguments here, except to say that practices such as meditation are well known to have benefits in terms of feelings of well being, reduced stress, and greater insight into your own mind. His point is that even if you reject religion, you needn't reject these sorts of practices as "religious by association."

Harris strikes another blow for reason in this thought-provoking speech - I strongly recommend it whatever your personal beliefs may be.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

“Stars,” Space, and Education

I’m in something of a blogging rut, which happens sometimes. Work and travel have been taking up a lot of time, and even with the help of Bloglines (which is great), I’ve been having trouble keeping up with all the space and astronomy news and blogs that I might like to comment on. Plus I have to admit that having a new iPod is also pretty distracting. I’m embarrassed to find myself doing marginally crucial things like creating new playlists and making sure I have album cover artwork for most of the songs (this is mainly so they look cool in the new Cover Flow view). Can something be lame and cool at the same time? Yes.

I haven’t done a “what’s it all about” post for a while, and I just found a note to myself reminding me of an interesting conversation I had on a Boston-LAX flight back in August. My seat mate was a retired science and art teacher who was also a Vietnam vet. He even had a Mercury-era space connection. I wish I had written about this sooner or at least took some notes, because he had a lot of great things to say. But let’s see where it goes anyway.

I was reading a space-related book, and he asked me something about it. This led to me mentioning that I was doing educational outreach using space and astronomy themes as a JPL Solar System Ambassador. He mentioned that he had been a science teacher in public schools (Los Angeles area) for a number of years, and he had even hosted an after-school science TV program for a couple of years. He later switched to teaching art (he’s also an artist). We also spent a lot of time discussing Vietnam and the sixties – he had served in the Army in the unit that is featured in the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once… and Young (1st Cavalry, 7th Battalion, 1965), a fascinating discussion in itself. But I want to talk about the science education stuff.

We talked about what really happens in classrooms, about “stars” and regular students, about motivation, about why kids are not that interested in science and math, about the role of money and our society’s cues about what’s important and valued. It’s messy and more than a little discouraging.

I told him about my experience with a math teacher at my tiny high school in 1968-69, the guy who took a special interest in me and helped me get some computer experience that led to me getting into a good school so I could study computer science and eventually physics and optics (I ended up working for most of my career with software for optics and other things). He said I was obviously a “star” student – he also had a few of those, some of whom still keep in touch with him after many years. He said the stars are easy – it’s the regular kids you worry about. And the teachers.

He said that many teachers just don’t have the training, ability, or inclination to really teach science well. If they’re not very knowledgeable or excited about it themselves, it’s hard for them to inspire and engage the students. Of course this isn’t a big revelation, but his point was that the “stars” will find a way to progress in spite of poor teachers, as I did with my outside reading and activities like Civil Air Patrol when I was in school. Most of the other kids will muddle through (if that) and conclude that science is boring, useless, and irrelevant.

Another thing we discussed is the way that kids today are obsessed with money, material goods, and status. Of course media and marketing provide a steady stream of messages reinforcing the idea that money and status are firmly linked and highly desirable, and defining the cool and fast ways to get money and status. Needless to say, science, math, and engineering are not on the fast track to coolness among kids of today.

Finally there is the idea that school is about knowing the answers to sets of specific questions (an idea that is reinforced by the standardized tests that define success in today’s schools – success for school administrators and teachers if not for the students themselves). Science comes across as rather annoying when you often have to say “do the math, do the experiment, figure it out” rather saying “the answer is D.” Science is like life - messy, but potentially very satisfying.

So how does this affect me as an informal educator? I’m trying to provide some sort of enrichment activities that engage students and perhaps get them to think that at least some of this science stuff is cool and is worth the effort to do the math or the experiments or observations, to stick with work that can be genuinely hard and sometimes frustrating, but to sometimes experience the thrill of mastering something whose answer is not A, B, C, D, or none of the above.

But it sounds like when I talk about stars, it’s the “stars” I am most likely to reach with my message, the few kids who already have more unusual interests, who are already interested in science, math, and technology. The others will either not get it or not bother to show up if it’s an optional event. I guess I had already calibrated that in my plans – not that I’m giving up on anyone, but I have said many times that if even one or a few kids end up getting interested in science, math, or technology in part as a result of my space cadet activities, it will have been worth it.

But another question is, how did the “stars” get that way? Something inspired them, made them different (and willing to be different, which I can attest is sometimes not the greatest thing to be). What was it? Probably their parents and their home environment (and genes) for starters. Reading and adult-level conversation from an early age were important for me, and then somewhere around age 9 I caught the space bug (I think it started with John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Mercury orbital flight in February 1962, and especially the photo stories in LIFE magazine, supplemented by “NASA Facts” and posters that I soon started writing to request).

I don’t remember any educational outreach people from my early childhood who influenced me, and aside from Mr. Call in high school, I don’t remember any teachers who specifically encouraged my interest in science and math, though I’m sure I was praised for doing well in these subjects. There were some early museum trips (Museum of Natural History and Hayden Planetarium in NYC around age 7 is all I really remember). There were a lot of books. I especially remember the Random House “All-About” non-fiction book series for young readers, and I watched a lot of Disney science and nature specials, which my mother also enjoyed. There was a rock collection and later a chemistry set. The usual nerdy indicators.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m preaching to the converted in my outreach activities (not to mention this thing – who reads a “space blog” besides other space bloggers and space geeks, which I mean as a term of endearment, not scorn). But you never know. You just never know. And I apparently like to write and talk about and play with space stuff, so it’s not like it’s a hardship for me. But I would like to know how we can get more “stars” in our schools – can it happen without another Sputnik, JFK, or Apollo? I don’t know.

But finally back to the space connection for my interesting seat mate on the LA flight. He was a “body double” for spacesuit testing for one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts (I wish I took notes - I think it was Gordon Cooper). As a college student, he somehow heard of a part-time job which involved standing in for the astronauts at a company that was testing the original space Mercury spacesuits (I think it was AiResearch Manufacturing Division, Garrett Corporation, Los Angeles). They took a lot of detailed body measurements, and it turned out that his body dimensions were a perfect match for one of the seven, so he was the stand in for various tests on the suits made for “his” astronaut. He never met any of the astronauts, but it was a pretty interesting and unusual part-time job for a college student and future science teacher!

Sometimes it's cool to talk to the person next to you on a flight. Fortunately I had not yet replaced my iPod at that point!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sputnik Day (and Space Carnival 22)

Sputnik 1 in Orbit Sep 10-4-57
The Space Age started with a bang 50 years ago with the launch of Sputnik 1. The Space Review has published a special edition today focused on Sputnik. One thing I didn't realize was that while Sputnik itself was small and quite difficult to see from the ground, many people reported seeing it as a very bright and flickering object. But what they actually saw was the separated upper stage of the booster which had also achieved orbit. It was quite large and was not stabilized so it tumbled and flashed in the sunlight during its three month orbital lifetime. The picture (from Orbiter) shows Sputnik shortly after separation from the upper stage seen in the background.

I'm also happy to report that Carnival of Space #22 has launched today over at Advanced Nanotechnology. While it includes two articles inspired by Sputnik, the others cover a wide range of space related subjects, reflecting the diversity of space flight as a human endeavor fifty years out of the starting gate.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Inspiring Talk on Exploring the Saturn System

Titan is a place - a rather weird place, it seems, but we know it as a place and not merely as an object because of the amazing Cassini/Huygens mission. We have landed a spacecraft on Titan, a beachhead on a distant corner of the solar system. We don't know Enceladus quite as well, but Cassini has given us some intriguing looks at that icy little world as well.

Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco is the leader of the imaging team for the Cassini mission. She gave an 18 minute talk on the Cassini/Huygens mission and on some of the amazing results from Titan, Enceladus, and Saturn itself at the TED conference in Monterey last March. A video of that inspiring talk was released on the TED web site today. It highlights the excitement and the importance of exploration.

Cassini is making another close pass over Titan's southern hemisphere today.

Mars-like Aerial Photos

Looks Like Mars
Last night I also looked over some pictures I took on an August flight from Los Angeles to Boston. I had a wing-free window seat and it was a pretty clear day from LAX to Denver, so I took a bunch of pictures. The glare on the window washed out the contrast in lot of the pictures, and they aren't too sharp either. But I saw some cool stuff, including Solar Two, a now-retired solar energy research facility with a bunch of tracking mirrors illuminating a collection device on a central tower. It's 16 km east of Barstow, CA (see Flickr) and has been converted into some sort of gamma ray telescope called MAGIC.

One of the coolest areas I photographed from that flight was southern Utah, parts of which look very much like images from Mars orbiting spacecraft. The picture here was processed quite a bit using Picasa2 and PaintShopPro to play with the luminosity, shadows, contrast, saturation, etc. I don't know exactly where it is but it seems to be near Glen Canyon and Lake Powell.

Astronomical History in the UK

Peter Harrison Planetarium Exterior
I transferred my UK pictures from my digital camera onto my computer last night, and I uploaded a few of astronomical/historical interest to my Flickr site. Although it was mainly a business trip, I was happy to get the chance to meet Orbiter's author, Dr. Martin Schweiger, and my Go Play In Space co-author, Andy McSorley on my weekend in London. I also managed to find time for two astronomy-related "field trips" that I have mentioned in previous posts. The first was the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and the other was the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. I have pictures from both visits at Flickr, and I've added some explanatory comments for several of them.

One thing that I didn't realize while I was seeing it is that the modern exterior structure of the Peter Harrison Planetarium pictured here is an astronomical instrument itself! It's a tilted and truncated cone, with the main axis of the cone set north-south and slightly east of the Prime Meridian. The inclined angle of the south side of the cone is related to its latitude (51° 28’ 39” North) such that the sighting line along the south side points at the North Star. The northern side of the cone points to the local zenith, again based on its latitude. Finally the cone has been truncated at an angle such that the exposed surface is parallel to the Earth's equatorial plane. Quite the little astronomical visual aid!