Blogging from Launchpad Workshop: Science!

All this week, I’m one of the participants in Launchpad Workshop, a week-long intensive astronomy course in Laramie, Wyoming, designed to put the science back into science fiction, a handful of creative types at a time. Launchpad is a mixture of astronomy lectures, hands-on labs, stellar observation, and every other science concept that ever scared an English major. (For me, that would be all of them.)

I’ll be checking in every few days with some conceptual highlights, resources for the curious, and fun facts about things like the Kepler supernova. (It exploded on October 9, 1604 and is still going strong; by now it’s 14 light years wide and expanding at 4 million miles an hour. Science!)

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

This Douglas Adams quote was the first slide in our introductory lecture. Turns out, Douglas Adams was not lying! The volume of information involved in making heads or tails of the universe is incredibly intimidating.

What Launchpad does is make its participants question what they already know, and explore what they don’t, which are two complimentary and essential concepts.

A Private Universe: Misconceptions and You
One of the most startling (and embarrassing) parts of the introductory lectures was the examination of the state of science education in the United States, and how even benign or accidental misinformation can have serious consequences, in fiction as well as in the classroom.

The documentary A Private Universe exposes Harvard grads as ignorant of why summer is hotter than winter (the grads each insisted it was because of the Earth’s irregularly elliptical orbit), and were unable to explain the phases of the moon. Tracking the education system back to a nearby high school, the summer/winter misconception is already in place (one student provides an orbit for the Earth that looks like an elaborate figure-8; the rest subscribe to the elliptical theory). The phases of the moon also seems to be a universal stumper; one explanation offered is clouds.

It turns out that a major culprit of the summer/winter misconception is the elementary-school textbooks that present the solar system and its orbital paths from a three-quarter perspective, which registers to children as a series of irregular ellipses. Teachers unaware of this misconception don’t know to contradict it, and by the time they reach high school, even given the proper explanation of the nearly-circular orbit/axis tilt that is the real reason for the change of seasons, several students continued to answer with the elliptical-orbit response, too deeply ingrained to shake so quickly.

The phases of the moon question fared a little bit better; once given a hands-on demonstration of the relative orbits of the Sun, Earth, and Moon, students were able to explain the principle as long as they had the objects in front of them.

(Full disclosure: while I knew that clouds and the Earth’s shadow were not the causes of the phases of the moon, looking at the lunar phase diagram on Wikipedia still took me about three seconds longer to understand than it should have. Science!)

The idea of common misconceptions is both heartening and terrifying for writers and readers alike: it means that if you’re unsure of your science, clearly you’re not alone, but it also means that you might have to go back and question your science from the ground up in order to make sure you’re not carrying a misconception, or believing one. (Feel free to blame your elementary school textbooks, which were clearly out to mess with you from the beginning.)

Space Is Awesome, Or, The Origin of the Moon
However, once your science basics are solid, the cosmos is your playground. In the last thirty years, technology has made the universe more available than ever before; the imagery we’ve collected from telescopes like the Hubble, the Chandra, and the Spitzer has created a multiwave map of the sky; and the information we’ve drawn from these images has helped us paint a dynamic picture of our universe.

One of the most Michael-Bay-friendly hypotheses that has benefited from increased technological resources is the Giant Impact Hypothesis, which posits that the moon was created with a planetoid named Theia collided with the Earth approximately 4.6 billion years ago; the angle of impact was shallow enough that instead of obliterating one another, only Theia (the smaller planetoid) was demolished.

Earth treated this like the Wall Street sequel and absorbed Theia’s material. The debris that was knocked off the Earth formed a Saturn-esque ring that was eventually drawn by gravity into the solid sphere we know as the Moon.

The hypothesis is an old one, which has gotten occasional boosts from evidence like the composition of moon rock brought back by Apollo 11. (Turns out the composition of Moon rock is suspiciously similar to the composition of Earth rocks.) However, in 2008, the Spitzer Space Telescope detected a planetary body that had also been deeply impacted, surrounded by a cloud of silicates that has the same general makeup and behavior of the imagined origin of the Moon. The hypothesis is far from being proved, but with the advances in technology, observational evidence can be pulled for analysis from 95 light-years away. (SCIENCE.)

There’s a long way to go before Launchpad is over, and I’ll be checking in to bring you whatever information I can fact-check enough to be willing to post! In the meantime, check out some of the links below, which will inform, entertain, and probably intimidate.

Light and Other Forms of Radiation, a lecture by Mike Brotherton (it explains the spectacular multiwavelength image of Cygnus that heads this post).

The Very Large Array (VLA): 27 radio telescopes, each 25 meters across, with “the resolution of an antenna 36km (22 miles) across, with the sensitivity of a dish 130 meters (422 feet) in diameter.” More impressively: also the scene of X-Files episode “Little Green Men.” (Don’t miss the image gallery.)

Origin of the Moon: An examination of the Giant Impact Theory of the Moon’s formation. (Because nothing gives you the feeling of awe and amazement of planetary formation like .gifs!)

The Cassini Equinox Mission: Every question you ever wanted to ask about Saturn, but didn’t know had answers.

Genevieve saw Saturn last night. SATURN. She nerds out about movies, life, and other things on her blog.


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