Planets putting on a show for the new year

Moon, Venus, Jupiter & Mercury in conjuntion

In case you missed it over the last few nights ( See this, this and this ) the planets Venus, Jupiter and Mercury, along with the Moon, are putting on a fantastic show in the South-East (for us in the Northern Hemisphere) at sunset for the start of the International Year of Astronomy 2009.   So get outside tonight, December 31, 2008 and enjoy the show!

Most impressive, of course, is Venus at Mag -4.27, and nearing it’s maximum elongation (which occurs on January 14th) and maximum apparent magnitude (which occurs between January 30th and February 8th at Mag -4.45).     Venus will pop into visibility almost as soon as the sun sets.  Because of the elongation (tonight it will be 46° 34′ 4″ away from the sun) it will appear about 34° up from the horizon.  Depending on sky conditions, and your eyes, you may be able to pick it out in daylight by using the moon as a guide.

The moon will be a waxing crescent just above Venus, shining at Mag. -9.22.

Jupiter and Mercury will be down close to the horizon, so you’ll only have a few minutes to catch them.  Jupiter will be the brighter of the two at Mag. -1.50, and Mercury will shine at a none-too-shabby -0.78 (brighter than all stars except two; Sol and Sirius).

If you have a telescope handy, you can also catch Uranus and Neptune in the sky close to Venus.

Tavi Greiner has photos from Monday here, here and here.

UPDATE: The sun is getting into the act.  See the prominences here.

Happy IYA Eve!

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating 400 years since Galileo first turned his telescope to the sky.   The IYA 2009 is a global initiative by the International Astronomical Union and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the Universe through the day- and night-time sky.

A series of global events is planned, some in real life, some on the web.   2009 is the year to get out and discover the universe!

I’ll be participating in the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast (February 13).  If you’re an amateur astronomer, this is just one of they ways you can get involved.   Other ways include Project Astro, or volunteering to provide astronomy related resources to local schools.   Here in California astronomy is taught in the 5th grade, so start calling the schools in your area and asking the teachers if they’d like you to get involved.

I’ve been doing classroom talks for almost three years now (Since January 2007) and I’ve found them to be fun, and the kids to be attentive and involved, and found the teachers to be gateful. Be prepared to be asked questions like “What would happen if you fell into a black hole?”  (the single most common question I’ve ever gotten either in classrooms or at Fremont Peak).

One of the changes here will be the addition of a ‘resources’ page where some of the material I’ve used in classrooms will be posted, as well as a link to my 365 Days of Astronomy podcast episode (my first ever podcast…woot!) and transcript.

So remember, the Universe is yours to discover in 2009!

Beyond Belief

No, this isn’t a statement about religion or spirituality, it’s a statement about how to communicate astronomy to the public, but more importantly how *not* to communicate astronomy to the public.

In the September 2008 issue of  “Communicating Astronomy to the Public” astrophysicist Wallace Tucker tackles the too-frequent use of the word ‘believe’.    You can read his opinion piece online here [PDF].

I admit that I am guilty of using this word too often: i.e., “Astronomers believe there are as many as three black holes lurking in the Andromeda galaxy.”  Here are the problems: It communicates an unwarranted uncertainty, and it borders on the definition of ‘faith’.   Tucker points out that the word is used as shorthand for “Based on the evidence at hand, this is what most scientists think is going on, and there is no good evidence to indicate  otherwise.”  This is the same kind of disconnect that surrounds the word ‘theory’: In scientific circles it means something completely different than it means to the public.

I’ve often used ‘think’ for the same kind of shorthand, and while it removes the ‘faith’ aspect, it still communicates an unwarranted uncertainty.   It is far better to use something like   “The evidence indicates…” rather than ‘believe’ or ‘think’.

Precision is essential in preventing confusion.

11/24 Classroom Visit

As amateur astronomers are wont to do, I spend quite a bit of time doing ‘outreach’ projects in my “spare” time.   On November 24th I visited the 5th-grade GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) classroom at Rucker Elementary School in Gilroy CA.  Here, a bit belated, is my report.

I’ve been doing this for 3 years now, and you’d think I’d be a bit less nervous.  I mean, they’re a bunch of 5th graders, right?  Are you smarter than a 5th grader?  Are you sure?  Because these aren’t ordinary 5th graders.  These are GATE students, and they’re probably as smart, or smarter, than I am.   I’m continually amazed by my GATE-identified daughter (now in 7th grade).

I have a PowerPoint I’ve been using and tuning for the last 3 years.   It has evolved along the lines of what the kids found to be ‘cool’, judging by the ‘oh wow’ moments.   Stuff like how dense white dwarf material is ( 106 grams (1 tonne) per cubic centimeter) which of course introduces lots of other related topics: scientific notation, the life cycle of stars, what makes a white dwarf, a neutron star, a black hole, etc.

I gave my standard presentation (I’m working on publishing it to flash with narration) and then I ran a powerpoint published by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and set to the song “Shoulders of Giants” by Astrocapella.   ( You can download the powerpoint here. By the way, the ‘low resolution’ version is just fine for most computer displays or projectors ).

I think some of the kids found the music to be a bit hokey, but Ms. Hennessy said “The hokey-er, the better”.

The Q&A focused (as it always does) on the weird or attention-grabbing aspects of the presentation.   “What would happen to you if you fell into a black hole?”, “What will happen to the Earth when the sun turns into a red giant?”, “Which would kill you faster, a gunshot to the head or a supernova?”.  There were some really good ones too:  “How do we know how far away other galaxies are?”.  That led into a good 2-3 minute explanation of parallax and standard candles.  I’m going to have to work that into the powerpoint now.

The thing I feel is missing from my presentation is an activity, and I’m thinking of doing one on distances.  I’ve done one like this before, at a presentation at Fremont Peak.  I used simple scale-sized cut-outs for the earth and moon, and had the kids try to guess how far apart they should be (the answer was about 12 feet, way further than they guessed).  Worked like a champ, maybe I’ll do that next time.

I’m trying to get my ‘outreach foot’ in the door at another local school as well.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

Classroom Report

The classroom visit went very well. I spoke for a few minutes (I kept it short because we had a nice, sunny day to do our solar observing in) on Fremont Peak, the Fremont Peak Observatory Associationscientific notation, and the evolution of our sun. I skipped over a lot of the material I had, because it was ‘backup’ in case it was a cloudy day. The most ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ I got were when I described the density of white dwarf material and neutron star material.

Then we went outside and looked. The kids came out in small groups of four or five, and we were able to use both telescopes. My daugher Hannah helped out with traffic control. The TeleVue had the larger image, and the small sunspot region on the western limb of the sun was clearly visible.

The most fun for me was the Q&A period. Did I mention that this was a GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) classroom? These kids are sharp! Try answering questions from 33 10- and 11-year olds who are probably smarter than you are.

Some typical questions: How long do really big stars last? Will our sun ever explode in a supernova? Will the red giant stage affect the weather on earth? How long would it take to get to Mars? (one I was really impressed by was a followup to that last one: How long would it take for the *astronauts*? )

The teacher signed the observation log with the following:

“Mr. Hudson presented information on the life cycle of the star and scientific notation to 33 5th graders. He then took small groups outside to view the sun through the solar telescopes.

The students were very interested and engaged. We all appreciated his time and expertise very much.”

(See a scan of the original here)

It was a great time, and if you are an amateur astronomer, I highly recommend offering your expertise to your local school. I’m thinking ahead to my next visit already.

(Edit: Cuz I kant splell verry gud)

Astronomy in the classroom

This Monday (the 22nd) I’m going to be in my oldest daughter’s classroom at her school.  I’ve reserved two solar telescopes from FPOA; A TeleVue Solaris telescope (like this one) as well as a Celestron C90 with a solar filter.

I’ve also prepared some brief background information on stellar evolution, as well as some comparisons between sizes of stars, the H-R diagram, etc.  It ought to be a lot of fun, for the students and for me.  This is a 5th grade GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) classroom, so the kids are very sharp.