Archive for August 1st, 2008

7/31/08: Launch Pad, day 1

Jay Lake coming back from the shower, singing “Cinnamon Girl” while holding his glasses in his mouth, sounds very very odd. Kind of like Czech.

Breakfasted on a real New York bagel hand-carried by Mary Robinette Kowal, then walked to a nearby grocery store in search of kleenex and other necessities. However, the store seemed to consist of nothing but a meat counter (and why, pray tell, did the sign say “Groceries” and not “Meats”?) and the nearest full-service grocery was too far to walk.

All the Launch Pad people gathered in the lounge (they have all the men on one end of the 5th floor, the women all the way on the other end, and married couple Steven Gould and Laura Mixon sharing a room near the middle) then walked in a group to the classroom, which is about 15 minutes’ walk away. Very much like Clarion, back in the day, except that breakfast, lunch, and snacks are provided.

First day of classes was very full, beginning with introductions all around, filling out forms about our math expertise and what we want out of the workshop, and an initial test of our astronomy knowledge. I’m fairly confident I knew almost everything on the test. (One exception: “which color of star is hottest, red, yellow, blue, or white?” I knew it was either white or blue.)

Mike Brotherton led off with a lecture on the scale of the cosmos, including a viewing of Charles and Ray Eames’s short film Powers of Ten. Apparently, astronomers prefer to use numbers between 1 and 10 (sometimes up to 100) and use different units (kilometers, astronomical units, light-years, parsecs, redshift units) to keep the numbers in that range. I was surprised to learn that, using satellite-based telescopes, we can now use parallax to measure the distances to stars up to 1000 parsecs away.

Discussion of the size of the universe got a little weird and metaphysical. The observable universe is 28 billion light-years across, because the big bang was 14 billion years ago and we can’t see anything farther back than that. However, the universe as a whole is much larger and definitely doesn’t have an edge, but may or may not be infinite. Questions like “how can the universe be bigger than all the way back to the big bang?” proved to be difficult to answer for this audience at this time. Maybe more later, when we discuss cosmology.

Jim Verley then gave a lecture on public misperceptions of astronomy, starting with the film A Private Universe which reveals that even Harvard graduates can’t explain why we have seasons (one popular false explanation is that “the Earth is closer to the sun in summer”) or why the moon has phases (“it’s the shadow of the Earth falling on the moon”).

The basic problem is that students don’t come to school as blank slates. Many people have incorrect private models in their heads, which must be identified and confronted on an individual basis before the student can really internalize the standard model. Even if they learn the standard model well enough to pass the test, if the private model isn’t explicitly displaced it may return years later after the standard model has been forgotten. We then looked at a bunch of different pictures purporting to explain the phases of the moon and identified how they could mislead the student if the student doesn’t already understand the standard model. For example, the illustration in the Wikipedia article on the phases of the moon could easily be misinterpreted as saying that the moon goes through all of its phases every 24 hours.

It turns out that understanding moon phases, which involves simultaneously considering the Earth-Moon system as seen from above and the moon as seen from the Earth while keeping in mind the separate 28-day lunar orbital period and 24-hour Earth day, is remarkably hard. One solution proposed for elementary students is Kinesthetic Astronomy in which the students move their own bodies to help understand astronomical phenomena. As ad-hoc science educators, we SF writers have only words at our disposal, but we can still “show, not tell” to help get the concepts across and be damn sure we’re getting it right.

Jerry Oltion then gave us a whirlwind tour of the solar system, including information about what you can see through various types of telescope (illustrated with photographs he took through his own scopes) and some of the latest data from Titan. I took copious notes.

We went from there straight to dinner at the vegetarian Sweet Melissa, which responded to an unexpected influx of almost 20 people with rapid service and exceptional food. Highly recommended.

After dinner we decided that, rather than poking fun at the bad science in Armageddon (“nearly one mistake per minute”), we would watch the Twilight Zone adaptations of “The Star” and “The Cold Equations”. Both adaptations were flawed, but prompted some interesting discussion.

I really should be asleep now…