AAS Boston! #aas218

The empty press office at #aas218.

Blogging at you live from the American Astronomical Society’s summer meeting in Boston!

AAS is the main scientific body for astronomers in the US, and as such, it’s one of the biggest in the world. It hosts conferences twice a year, a summer and a winter meeting. The winter meeting is by far the larger of the two—about 3000 astronomers show up; considering that there are only about 10,000 professional astronomers in the worldwide community, the winter meeting is one of—if not the—biggest news cycles for astronomy of the entire year. Some of the highest profile science results are announced there—such as the Kepler Mission’s finding of 54 habitable zone exoplanet candidates this past winter in Seattle.

The summer meeting is a bit smaller; I heard someone mention that registration numbered about 1300. Still, it’s a major event, a flat-out, balls to the wall extravaganza of science, talks, posters, and schmoozing. I’ve never been to one before, but it’s exhilarating (and already a bit exhausting). And conveniently for me, this year the meeting is in Boston, at the Westin hotel in Copley Square, just a 20 minute T ride from my apartment in Brookline.

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Scrap paper

What can a single piece of scrap paper hold?

Imagine going down to your local university library and coming across a piece of paper in the archives, long-forgotten, covered in the dusts of time. You pull it out and gaze upon the scribbles from the hand of a man from 400 years ago…

…who is drafting a letter to the prince of Venice. He’s trying to sell him something—a new military instrument. It’s called the “telescope”, and its seller, a man named Galileo, says it enables a commander to “discover the ships of the enemy two hours before they can be seen with the natural vision…and to judge their strength and be ready to chase them, to fight them, or to flee from them.” The pitch has the easy charm of a used car salesman and the bravado of a man who is attempting to profit off of an invention he did not, in truth, invent (he got the idea from lens makers in Holland).

But in the bottom margin, something else—something completely different—is recorded: scribbles, sketches, and figures. Observations from the same instrument—but of what? Stars, of some sort, evidently. Some are repeated with minor variations, as if the man who sketched them was driving himself mad attempting to tease out the secrets of what he’s seeing. And some are indecipherable—in particular, two figures mysteriously marked “10” and “11”…

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The wrong time to be alive

“Is it true that the starlight we see is millions of years old?” one of my students asked me this semester. “So that when we look at the sky we’re actually looking back into the past?”

It was a cold, clear night in Boston, and I was teaching a night lab session on the roof the department building, observing with a few 8-inch telescopes.

“Exactly,” I said, with a big grin on my face. He’d hit upon one of the most poetic truths of astronomy. I spoke loudly enough for the rest of the students on the roof to hear, switching into lecture mode. “Light can’t travel infinitely fast, so it takes some time to reach us. We’re not seeing the stars as they are now, we’re seeing them as they once were—years, centuries, maybe tens of thousands of years ago. The light from the galaxies you can see through the telescopes is millions of years old, or older.”

His response genuinely surprised me. “That’s so depressing!”

“Really?” I asked. “Why?”

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O hai, astronauts!

I don’t remember the first time I saw a satellite in the night sky.

In the stargazing of my memory, it is always late summer. I am lying on a dock on a lake in the woods of northern Wisconsin. It’s unseasonably cold; I’m in my pajamas, but wrapped in blankets. I hear waves lap at the rowboats, gently slapping the dock. Five feet beneath my head, crayfish crawl on the sandy lake bottom. Somewhere out in the blackness, a loon calls across the water.

But all I see is the sky before me—an infinitely cavernous, deep purple dome containing the universe. As the earth spins and the night gets blacker, the stars multiply before my eyes. The Milky Way arcs brilliantly across the sky, wrapping around my horizon as if it were about to hug me.

A meteor streaks overhead—a fireball, trailing smoke. The violent contrail is illuminated by the meteor’s own glow, millions of joules wandering the solar system for billions of years, transmuted to heat and light in the blink of an eye.

My eyes wander through the field of stars, each one seeming to bloom into ten more in my periphery. If I squint at one hard enough, can I make out the planets that must be surrounding it? The civilizations that must be inhabiting them?

And then, out of the corner of my eye—a moving star. Not blinking, not moving slowly like an airplane: a satellite, shining faintly on snatches of stolen sunlight, racing from one horizon to the next. How incredible, I think, that something from the hands of man could move among the stars.

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An ode to Dennis Overbye

Like many people, I’ve gotten in the habit of using Instapaper and its wonderful iPad/iPhone app to read a lot of my news. Unfortunately, the amount of material that I want to read in a day far outweighs the amount I can reasonably find time to read in said day. The articles have been piling up for months now—I’m creeping up on the 500 article limit on my queue in the iPad app. This means I end up reading a lot of old news.

For example, just now, I was reading this article in the New York Times from November of last year, written by one of my favorite science journalists, Dennis Overbye. In it, he previews the year 2011 in planetary science and cosmology. Overbye singles out what is one of the most anticipated results in the astronomical field in many years—next month’s announcement of the latest findings of NASA’s powerful Kepler satellite, which has been searching for the last year and a half for exoplanets the size of earth—and goes on to succinctly summarize the upcoming activity of many other astrophysical projects, including the search for dark matter at the Large Hadron Collider.

One of the reasons I like him as a journalist is that he writes in a breezy style that avoids the tersely anonymous factoid-regurgitation of a wire report without succumbing to the excessive rhetorical flourishes about the beauty and wonder of the cosmos that Carl Sagan could pull off, but few others can. His descriptions of complex scientific concepts are vivid, often anthropomorphized, and economical. He’s also capable of dropping an achingly beautiful fragment of prose onto the pages of the Times‘ Science and Technology section, as he does here:

Meanwhile, the Hubble Space Telescope, rejuvenated by on-orbit surgery a year and a half ago, will keep scrutinizing the heavens with its matchless clarity, sifting eternity pixel by pixel.

“…sifting eternity pixel by pixel.” When I read that phrase, I nearly choked on my food and said out loud in admiration, “Are you kidding me?!” I can only hope sometime in my life to write a sentence about a lifeless piece of metal and mirrors that’s half as lovely as that one. But it’s not just pretty for its sibilance and dactyl meter; its aesthetic beauty belies a technical knowledge of the workings of Hubble.

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Hanging on to childish things

Astronomy blogger, podcaster, professor, skeptic, and all-around science communicator–extraordinaire Pamela Gay has written a melancholy and rather lovely farewell to free time from AAS’ quadrennial Seattle meeting (which is in full swing this week).

In case you haven’t heard of her, Pamela is one of the most energetic and prolific advocates of astronomy outreach, particularly in the realm of new media. She’s hosted the popular Slacker Astronomy and Astronomy Cast podcasts, was the new media czar for the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, is active in the skeptic community, and—of course—writes on her blog and Twitter account. I have been a big fan in particular of Astronomy Cast, and spent many, many bus rides and long walks across campus during my undergraduate years listening to it.

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The future starts today: Thoughts on SpaceX

Elon Musk wanted to go to space.

So a few years ago, he sold the web startup he had founded (it was called PayPal; you may have heard of it) and started a new company to build spacecraft. And today, that company, SpaceX, just launched the first ever commercial spacecraft to reach orbit and return safely to the earth.

This means that after next year, NASA will probably never fly another astronaut to the International Space Station again—they will pay SpaceX to do it for them. The future starts today: for the first time ever in our history as a species, space is open for business.

In the movie Apollo 13, astronaut Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks, is asked by a Congressman why, having already beaten the Russians to the moon, we were bothering to go back. Hanks replies, “Imagine if Christopher Columbus had come back from the New World and no one returned in his footsteps.”

If the Apollo program was the equivalent of Columbus reaching the New World, then today was the day the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. We’re going back to space, but not this time for king or country. We’re moving out, as we always have: for ourselves, to find new lives, new ways of living, to extend the bounds of our presence. Today was the day that all begins.

It could be argued that comparing today’s successful test flight to a moment such as the Pilgrims’ arrival is hyperbole, but I contend it is not. True, the path of human history lies ahead of us, uncertain and unobserved. But it was the same for the Pilgrims. When they stepped off the Mayflower, there was no way for them to know that that day would be remembered the way it is today. There was no guarantee that they would be remembered at all. They couldn’t know if they would survive the winter, let alone that one day, a nation would appear on those shores that would become so capable that it could do things like send people to walk on that cratered ball hanging in the night sky called the moon.

But it did.

And so if you believe, as I do, that humankind will one day move to new worlds, that men and women and children will take up new lives on other planets, and that we will live and work and play and love and die and stay among the stars, then today is that day that we will look back on and say, This is when we left; this is when the journey began.

So if you’re still awake tonight, before you fall asleep, just think of how lucky we are to have lived and seen this day. When you wake up, it will be the dawn of a new era. The sun has set and risen on this small rock 93 million miles away for 4 billion years. But for the first time, it will rise on life that is moving out.

And then, the earth being small, mankind will migrate into space, and will cross the airless Saharas which separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. The earth will become a holy land which will be visited by pilgrims from all the quarters of the universe. Finally, men will master the forces of Nature; they will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds.
—Winwood Reade, 1872