Tag Archives: astronomy

The Solar System from The Smithsonian

Smithsonian Exploration Station: Solar System by Jon Richards is similar to the previously reviewed Exploration Station: The Human Body. This is part of a new series of STEM learning toys from the Smithsonian, and they are just now available for purchase.

As is the case with the other kits, the Solar System includes a book, a large format big flat thing to which one might attach stickers, stickers, and a unique on-topic object, in this case, those cool stars you can attach to your ceiling or walls, and they glow in the dark.

Also, there are figurines including an two astronauts and a few rocket related items. The rocket items include a Saturn V launcher, a Gemini capsule, and a space shuttle (not to scale). I think one of the astronauts is Gemini/Mercury era and the other is post space-walk probably Apollo era.

Like this:

The book is a good reading level for kids between 6 (better readers) and 12 or so. The science is solid. The price is fair. The materials are good quality. The box is nice. All systems go, a holiday gift for some kid you know.

You might consider some Glow in The Dark Planets too.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Accessory to War

Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang is a good and interesting book, and I recommend it.

This is not a book that fully explores the alliance and overlap between war and makers of war on one hand and science and scientists on the other. Authors Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang focus on one part of that relationship, the link between astrophysics and related disciplines (really, astronomy at large) and the military.

Even as I recommend Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, which I do, I want to broaden the conversation a little with a couple of thoughts about the relationship, from my own experience. Then, I’ll give you my strident critique of the book (there is One Big Problem), and then, again, tell you to buy it

Back when I was working in or near the Peabody Museum, in Cambridge, the museum’s assistant director, Barbara Isaac, hired me to work with the NAGPRA database. NAGPRA was the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Ultimately, large swaths of the Peabody Museum’s collection would be turned over, or some other thing done to it, as per the wishes of the various Native American groups associated with that material. Most of the work had already been done. But, Barbara is a meticulous person and wanted to make sure the dotting of each i and crossing of each t was double checked. So, I was one of two people charged with going over the printouts, on that old green and less green striped paper, bound in large blue cardboard books. Each line (or two) was an item or collection of items, with notes, and an indication of what was going to happen to the material. There were just a few options, but the basic idea was this: An item listed was either going to be returned to a tribal group, or not. My job was mainly to look at stuff that was not going to be returned and, given my ongoing scan of what was going to be returned, and my knowledge of North American prehistory, ethnography, and archaeology, to earmark things that said “do not return” but where maybe we should be returning it. So, for example, after noting that a particular South Dakota Lakota tribe would have this, and that, and this other, soapstone tobacco pipe returned to them, when I saw that the ninth pipe on the list, several lines down and all by itself, is labeled to not be returned, I’d earmark that. Nearly 100% of the time, that ninth pipe was just something that nobody wanted, or it didn’t really exist (not all museum databases are exactly accurate). But, it would be earmarked.

Many items on the list had information as to how the item had originally gotten to the museum.

Many, many items, especially items taken from Native Americans living in what was the frontier between about 1840 and 1900, were taken by medical doctors who, as we all know, also stood in for naturalists, or some kind of traveling scientist, on military and quasi military expeditions (Like Darwin).

And many of those items were taken for use as medical specimens.

We initially learned that Native Americans have a particular blood type because, in part, of studies done on blood stains on shirts of slain warriors, collected after various battles with the US Army units accompanied by such scientists. There are a few famous cases of Native American bodily remains, mostly but not all skeletal remains, sitting in the anatomy teaching rooms of this or that college. But a lot more, a lot not noticed by either historians or even the all seeing all knowing Wikipedia, are or were sitting in museums around the world. Collected, by scientists wearing military uniforms, on military ventures, with a scientific twist.

So the science-military link is not exclusive to astronomy and astrophysics.

I wrote elsewhere about the person I met who was taking Pentagon funding to build an object that would help cure cancer. An example of a scientist subverting the military funding process. And so on.

OK, my complaint.

The authors have two long chapters (and references elsewhere) covering the early history of human endeavor in general (not limited to military) and the evolution of astronomy, mainly as it related, over a very long period of time, to navigation. One chapter covers land, the other the sea.

Staring somewhere along the way in each chapter, we get a very nice, well done, and pretty full description of the process of humans learning about the stars, about the earth and how to find one’s way, etc. But prior to that, the authors do what so many authors do and I so much dislike. I’ve written about this before. We get a version of human prehistory, and indeed, current human variation (or at least, ethnographically recent), that is bogus. For example, the authors speak of the first modern humans wandering around in the Rift Valley of Africa. There is no evidence that modern humans evolved there. Using just the archaeology, southern Africa is a more likely origin, and the physical anthropology record is simply incomplete. There are early fossils there, but that is because the rift valley is and was a big hole that made fossils. The entire rest of the continent is big, and the evolution probably happened there, not in the rift.

Similarly, ethnographic variation we see in the present and recent times is stripped out. For example, most rain forest dwelling foragers are not known to have a sky oriented cosmology, or to use the sky for much information about seasonal change in ecology, or navigation. And, there have always been a lot of rain forest dwelling foragers.

Putting that criticism aside, however, Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military is a very enjoyable and informative read, and makes all the important points about the sometimes uneasy, sometimes too easy, relationship between science and the military enterprise, with a careful look at politics, government, and powerful industrial interests.

Now we also need a book on the broader issue of military-technology links. And, we need a personal ray gun that zaps out of control robots:

Earth like exoplanet story telling

As more and more exoplanets (at first) and earth-like exoplanets (eventually) have been discovered, the way thy are described to us has become increasingly sophisticated. Below are embeds of diverse video descriptions that have been very quickly developed and distributed given the freshness of this latest scientific discovery. Note that the practice of very clearly stating that a particular depiction of something that no human has ever seen, or will ever see, as being an artist’s reconstruction has largely fallen by the wayside. Exoplanets are no longer physical features of the universe occassionally glimpsed by astronomers with very fancy Big Science Gear. They are now stories, where almost all the details and even implications are made up.

From the Telegraph:

From the Guardian:

From NASA via CNN:

Additional small exoplanet discovered in alleyway:

Oh, no, wait, that’s a plastic bag, never mind.

#Cosmos with @neiltyson – The first episode is a win.

If you missed the first (or later any) episode of Cosmos 2014, you can get it on Amazon Prime streaming (for a fee). It’s worth it. Here are a few comments I jotted down (then lightly edited) while watching the first episode.

Neil does have his own spaceship, like Carl did. That’s important because it lets him fly to interesting places. It is one of those spaceships of the imagination. Everybody should have one.

The visuals are amazing and informative and seem to be scientifically accurate to the extent possible. There is quite a bit of attention to scale, and how perspective shifts with changing scales, throughout the episode.

The predominant metaphor is that of a journey, starting with Earth which Neil takes little time to leave, where he quickly covers the details of the solar system. He spends a lot of time on Jupiter but barely touches on Uranus. Uranus and Neptune are the outermost planets. Then “beyond the outermost planet there is a swarm of tens of thousands of frozen worlds. And Pluto is one of them.” (Made me laugh.)

Then Voyager One, which reminds me of a story. Neil notes that this spacecraft, the one that has gone farthest of any we’ve launched, bears a message to distant and future possible recipients that includes “the music we made.”

One day in the Ituri Forest, living in a camp with the Efe Pygmies, we had a tape player and a few cassettes (a pre-iTunes device using plastic ribbons on which sounds could be stored). The music was playing, and Happiness Is A Warm Gun by the Beatles came on. About the time Mother Superior jumped the gun, the Efe guy who was one of our main informants, who also turned out to be something of a shaman, came running over.

“Turn that off, turn that off,” he said. He was perturbed.

“Why?” I replied, switching off the machine, thinking that he had heard something out in the forest, perhaps a herd of elephants heading our way, which had been a concern lately since they were in the neighborhood.

“That music is evil. It will make it rain, really bad.”

“Oh, OK.”

“Thunder and ligtning and floods!”

“OK, Ok.”

“Don’t play that again!”

I never played that tape again while in the Ituri.

But it occurs to me now that something similar could happen a billion years from now when Voyager One is finally discovered by intelligent beings from some other planet. How do we know that what we think of as music, with all it’s meaning and lack thereof, a thing that expresses cultural depth but usually enjoyed with no reference to meaning at all, will be seen in the same way by the Blorgons, or whoever it is that discovers it? Maybe they will think it is powerful magic and they will want more. Maybe they fight with music and will see it as a challenge. Maybe to them it will be a mating call. Either way, we could be screwed.

OK, back to Cosmos.

I’ve noticed that so far Neil has used the terms “countless” and “numberless” and “trillion” but not yet Billions. Just sayin’

Wait wait there it is! Approximately countdown 34:33 from the end. Billions of something. Orts.

Now on to other stars’ planets, and the new post-original-Cosmos scientific fact: Planets outnumber the stars. Carl may have guessed that but he didn’t know. Now we know. Also, that there are rogue planets, that are not in orbit around any sun. There are billions of them in our galaxy. Another post-Sagan fact. Possible places for life.

Life: What is it? We only know about Earth Life.

And now on to the spectrographic analysis of the universe. This is a theme Neil has written about and that we chatted about in our interview in 2011 (here). How astronomers see. Very interesting stuff. I’ll bet he’ll do a lot of that in the series.

Eventually, we’re outside the Milky Way Galaxy, and looking at other galaxies. Helpful text overlays give us the key terminology. And more with scale; the tiny dots are stars, then the tiny dots are galaxies. Then all this wiggly wobbly stuff that is the stuff of the universe. Super mind blowing cosmic fact: There are parts of the universe that are too far away to see because there hasn’t been time for the light from those regions to reach us. So how do we see cosmic background radiation which comes from the entire universe? Aha. That will probably be covered later.

Then the Multiverse. Looks a bit like Niagara Falls.

Now back to a brief history of human thinking about the cosmos. All that wrong stuff that we eventually climbed out of. Giordano Bruno, back to earth, Neil is on the streets of Italy.

Here we see animated cartoon graphics. I love the fact that the basic style of the cartoons is a serious version of the Scooby Doo style.

Copernicus, Giodna Brno, Galileo, the search for a better understanding of the universe. Reference to Lucretius, “On the nature of things” which includes the metaphor of shooting an arrow out beyond the edge of the universe. That reminds me of a story.

Again, back to the Ituri Forest. My friend Steve Winn told me this story, while we were both in the Ituri. Most of the researchers who went there had a similar experience in that we were expected to tell the story of our journey from home to the forest. One of the elements of that journey is, for most, crossing the ocean in a plane. But in the Ituri, there are only tiny planes that are rarely seen and the largest bodies of water are medium size rivers and large swamps. It is almost impossible to convey the vastness of even a mid-sized ocean like the North Atlantic.

So one day Steve tried this, when talking about the journey across the sea.

“Imagine standing on the edge of the Uele river,” pointing down to the nearby, rather small, river. “And shooting across an arrow. That would be easy.”

Nods of assent from the Efe men listening to the story.

“Now imagine a larger river that most people couldn’t shoot across.”

Hmmmm.

“Now imagine the strongest archer with the strongest bow shooting the straightest arrow across the water and it can never reach the other side.”

Eyes widening.

“The ocean is much much bigger than that.”

Personally, I don’t think that conveys the size of the ocean, but it does serve to begin to break the barrier at the edge of knowable experience. Did the Efe men really understand the size of the ocean from that story? Do the watchers of Cosmos really understand the vastness of the Universe by Neil’s reference to some of it being so far away that the light from it has not reached us yet?

Anyway, Brno had a hallucinogenic dream that the sun was only one of many stars. Got in all sorts of trouble. I guess he didn’t expect the Italian Inquisition. Good version of the story of the first realizations of the nature of the universe.

And now, finally, the Cosmic Calendar, Neil deGrasse Tyson style. Here comes the Big Bang. Better put on sunglasses.

It would be interesting to do a day by day comparison between Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar and Neil’s to compare what we now know vs. then, what is emphasized, and the styles. Any volunteers?

Anyway, “We are made of starstuff.” Scrape that moment out and put it in Memeland.

Tides. Turns out you can explain them. Life. And sex is invented. It must be getting December.

The KT extinction event totally made me laugh. Contingently.

Sagan did not have the Laetoli footprints but Neil does.

And the introductory episode, which is bookended by appropriate references to Sagan, ends with a very quick summary of human history, the invention of astronomy, writing, and science. And finally the Sagan-Tyson link is made, which you would know if you read Neil’s autobiography but if you don’t you’ll enjoy hearing about it here. You’ll get all choked up.

Galileoscope. 400 years in development, only about 50 bucks.

The #LearningSpace Google Hangout was talking today about the Galileoscope project. Galileo invented (I’m sure the story is more complex) the telescope and all that, and the Galileoscope project is HERE.

The Galileoscope is a high-quality, low-cost telescope kit developed by a team of leading astronomers, optical engineers, and science educators. No matter where you live, with this easy-to-assemble, 50-mm (2-inch) diameter, 25- to 50-power achromatic refractor, you can see the celestial wonders that Galileo Galilei first glimpsed 400 years ago and that still delight stargazers today. These include lunar craters and mountains, four moons circling Jupiter, the phases of Venus, Saturn’s rings, and countless stars invisible to the unaided eye.

You buy a Galileoscope Kit and build it. I’m told it is not hard, and in fact, you can take it apart and put it back together again repeatedly. For that matter, you can

If you want, you can go to the Galileoscope project and pick a teacher somewhere, like your local grade school, and send them one. Check out your own workplace first to see if they match donations; you can send TWO galileoscopes to your local school. Or, just buy one and have fun.

If you point your PHS camera into the Galileoscope while it is looking at saturn, you can do this:

Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 6.36.46 PM


Kit Photo Credit: druid labs via Compfight cc

Liquid Wrench: Profanity in a Bottle

It was May, 1992, and I was in a stupor of post thesis-completion cortisol letdown and alcohol-induced lethargy, and Mark Pagel was talking to me as I slouched in a large comfortable chair in the Peabody Museum’s smoking lounge.

“It’s obvious what they need to do,” he was saying, and I could tell from the look on his face, even in my foggy state of mind, that a morsel of wisdom marinated in humor was about to be served up.
Continue reading Liquid Wrench: Profanity in a Bottle

Totally Rude Comet to Visit Earth. Briefly. Green. And Backward.

Just who does this comet think it is? The comet Lulin, discovered last year by a Chinese teenage amateur astronomer, has never been here before. This is its first pass around the sun. It will, owing to a number of different poorly explained by science journalists effects, fly at the sun backwards, spewing green gasses. Only first time comets spew the green gas. Then it will fly around the sun and back out into the far reaches of the solar system. The comet will actually capture enough energy from this one single trip around the sun to escape the gravitational space time warp of our solar system. Escape with the energy.

Take take take. That’s all this comet seems to be able to do.

Apparently it will be visible next monday. Details here. I assume that my brother in law, Glen, will be photographing the interloper, and I’ll keep you posted on that.