Archive for the ‘astronomy’ Category


I just finished reading Songs of the Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult, which was her first book. It starts with a blow out fight between husband and wife, and tells the story of the wife and daughter as they travel across country and arrive at their destination, and of the husband as he tries to find them. 
This was probably my least favorite book that I’ve read of hers. The story wasn’t nearly as gripping as the others I’ve read, and the love stories woven within were not very believable.
But, there was one thing above all others that really bothered me: The complete misunderstanding of basic astronomy portrayed near the end of the book:
Do you know what a star is? I asked you. It’s an explosion that happened billions and billions of years ago.
“I pointed to the North Star, and said I wanted to name it after you. Jane, you said, too plain for such a bright one. I said you were wrong. It was the biggest explosion, obviously…”
Let’s count how many things are wrong in these two very short interactions:
– Stars are NOT explosions – that’s a supernova, and every star we see in the sky is not a supernova.
– Stars that we can see with our eyes are a few to ~15,000 light years away. Not even close to billions. We can see the Andromeda galaxy with our naked eye if it’s really dark, and that’s only ~2.5 million light years away. Billions and billions? No.
– The North Star (Polaris) is not a very bright star compared to others in the night sky. It’s the brightest in Ursa Minor (or Little Dipper) constellation, but is the 46th brightest star in the sky. For the record, it’s also only ~430 light years away. 
I realize this sounds picky, but really? This kind of stuff is really, really easy to look up. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, use something different for symbolism. It also makes me question all the other science incorporated throughout the novel (the husband is a marine biologist who studies humpback whale songs).
Does it bug you when books or movies get simple science (or other facts) wrong? I know sometimes it’s just fun to ignore reality and just enjoy a story, but sometimes – especially when it’s just thrown in there to make a character seem smart or something – it really annoys me.

I’m a Real Author!

And by “real”, I mean paid!
My first ever paid article was published in the current edition of Canoeroots magazine. It’s a short description of what can be seen in the night sky in the late summer/early fall, geared toward younger children. 

Fig. 1: The actual article in an actual magazine!

I’m very proud, and I hope this is the start of many similar projects!

Link Round-Up

I am really starting to like the idea of doing a weekly round-up of some of the more interesting things I come across. There are so many things I’d like to share, but don’t want to do an individual post for each thing (I do on Facebook/Twitter, but not all my wonderful readers are on them). Not sure if this will be a regular thing, but we’ll see.
Here is what caught my eye this week:
On Thursday, I went to a psychology lecture at the local library, and it was all about how our brains develop in relation to our experiences and environment. The speaker was asked a question about those “brain workouts” we see advertised on TV, and he highly suggested reading up on Adrian Owen’s work on the subject, which was published in Nature last year. (Short answer: no, they don’t work.)
How do you feel about a Somoa airline charging passengers by weight? Though this seems like a “logical” thing to do (this is what’s done for mission to space, for example), the idea clearly has some downfalls.

If you’ve been following what’s going on with government-funded scientists here in Canada, you’ll be interested to know that there will be a formal probe into the muzzling of government scientists. Let’s hope this pours some light on the subject!

Here’s a great post about how to put together a better conference talk by Emily Lakdawalla. It helped me have an epiphany this week: if I feel stupid during your talk (and I have a relatively decent background in the topic), it’s not because of my lack of knowledge, it’s because of your lack of explanation.

PBS’s NOVA did a great special about the recent meteor strike in Russia. Two researchers from my university are interviewed throughout the piece. Beware of some sensationalism though (like “Death rocks from space!!!”). Those outside the USA might not be able to view the above video, so here it is on YouTube.

Finally, a really cool DYI project for your kids!

What are your “must reads” of the week?

Wordless(ish) Wednesday

Check out the Astronomy Picture of the Day!

Mars Curiosity Landing

Back in November, the newest Mars rover was launched from the surface of Earth. Now, right on schedule, it will (finger’s crossed) be landing on the surface of Mars inside Gale crater on August 6th at 1:31am.
Here’s a great video explaining why it’s so cool*

NASA will be showing a live feed of the event on NASA-TV starting at 12am (Eastern) – tune in to witness history in the making!

*Sorry for the video not showing up in the post. For some reason it just won’t embed!

Venus Transit

If you are an astronomy buff – or even if you’re not – there is a very cool event happening in the sky today.
The planet Venus will transit directly between the Earth and the Sun, so will appear to travel across the disk of the Sun. It will start on June 5th at 6:04pm Eastern Time and will last for approximately 6 hours. 
The transit of Venus is a rather important astronomical event. It was actually one of the ways that the distance from the Earth to the Sun was initially calculated. At the time, astronomers new very well the relative distances of the planets, but they could not put it into km or miles. But, knowing those distance ratios and being able to accurately time how long it took Venus to transit the Sun, they were able to calculate the true distances between the planets. Transits of Mercury can also be used for this purpose.
I highly recommend trying to check this event out if you can – it’s most likely the last time in your life you’ll be able to see it! The next time it will happen is 2117.
Most observatories, astronomy departments, and amateur astronomy clubs will be hosting events. If you can’t find any, here are some tips on how to safely observe the transit (remember: looking at the Sun is not a good idea!). If it’s cloudy where you are, or you can’t get outside to view it for whatever reason, NASA will be hosting live streaming video of the event.
Here in London (Ontario) – we’ll be hosting an event at the Cronyn Observatory on campus, starting at 5:30pm. We’ll watch the transit until the sun sets, and will then turn our telescopes to other interesting objects in the sky. If you’re in town, I hope to see you there!

Space Exploration: Yay or Nay?

Last week, I did an outreach activity with a class of grade 5-8 gifted students. These events typically go like this: the first day the students learn about impact craters, how they are formed, etc.. They then learn about dependent/independent variables and are given a demonstration of a cratering experiment (dropping balls into a bin of flour). We tell them how they can design their own experiments (choosing to change one independent variable, keeping all others constant, they can measure a change in one dependent variable). The second day, they design and run their experiments. The final day, we come back to the classroom to find out what they did, what issues they had, etc., and then do a show-and-tell with impact rocks and meteorites.

This class, however, took things in a completely different direction. Apparently, during the second day, they began to talk about whether funding for space exploration should be continued. They got so wrapped up in this discussion that the teacher wanted them to act out a debate with us (the “experts”) there to add information as necessary.

So, on the third day, we ran this debate. Each student decided how they felt about the subject and were congregated by groups around tables (yes to human and robotic space exploration, yes to only robotic missions, no to everything, and undecided). Each group then got about 5 minutes to talk amongst themselves to decide which points they wanted to present during the debate. Then, one person from each group got about 1-2 minutes to list their points. After each group went, the debate began!

It was really interesting hearing their opinions (and what those opinions were based on), and how passionate they were about them. We tried our best to stay out of it, but we did interject facts if someone was way off (for example, gas on Jupiter is NOT the same gas we put in our cars). Many people actually changed their minds, so changed tables during the process.

During the debate, we took notes, so at the end we addressed a few points that were brought up a lot. For example, many talked about the economics of spending so much money on space exploration, so we let them know that NASA gets less than 1% of the American budget (we tried not to imply whether that is too much or too little).

At the end, there were still two students decidedly in the “we should NOT explore space” category — that is, until we brought up the fact that the iPod one of the girls was taking notes on wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for missions to space. Same with GPS, satellite TV, and cell phones (here’s an awesome site about spin-off technology). They moved over to another group pretty quick after that!

Even though the students need to work on their fact checking and debate skills, it was really rewarding to be a part of something like that. I feel good about the future of our world with these kids in it.

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