8/5/08: Launch Pad, day 6

Okay, this time I really will be brief. We have to make an early start tomorrow.

We started off the day with a talk by Ruben Gamboa on computing in astronomy. Modern astronomy is all about computers — the days of staring through eyepieces and developing film in darkrooms are over. Computers are used for controlling equipment, automating repetitive tasks, organizing data, and building scientific models. Computers are very good at boring tasks like looking for comets and supernovas, so most comets these days are named after discoverers like NEAT (Near-Earth Astronomical Telescope) rather than Hamner-Brown. The next generation of survey telescopes will generate 30TB of data per night (that’s half a Library of Congress or 1/20 of YouTube). Google is working with LSST to build a system to manage all this data. And scientific models (usually systems of partial differential equations) are now being used more and more with brute-force computational techniques rather than by being solved in the conventional way (many useful models can’t easily be solved). In the future, scientific models will be computer programs rather than systems of equations.

Jerry Oltion then gave a loose, interactive talk on humans in space and astronomy in fiction. A few tidbits:

  • The human body does not explode in vacuum. One NASA volunteer was exposed to hard vacuum in a space suit test accident; he passed out after 14 seconds (his last conscious memory was of the water beginning to boil on his tongue) but they restored normal atmospheric pressure quickly and he survived just fine.
  • Space capsules and space stations tend to stink badly, and this is a serious problem.
  • Air in free fall does not convect, which means that everything that heats up has to be cooled by fans; the space shuttle is LOUD inside.
  • Sex in space has almost certainly happened, but Jerry thinks that the reason nobody has talked about it is that it’s not all that good. In space your nose stuffs up, you smell, perspiration doesn’t evaporate, your blood pressure goes down, and experiments on the Vomit Comit have shown that even hanging onto each other and achieving penetration is a hassle.
  • Stan Schmidt warns writers that it is extremly unlikely to have a habitable planet around a star with a name. (Named stars are all bright, and the bright stars tend to be too hot or too large for Earth-like life.)
  • There is an “extra” day in the sidereal year (vs. the solar year) because the Earth rotates once per year due to its orbit around the sun, in addition to its daily rotation. For every 365 times the sun rises, the stars rise 366 times.
  • If the moon is visible in the West, the tide is going out (generally speaking). Similarly, if it’s visible in the East, the tide is coming in.

Mike Brotherton’s grad student Rajib Gauguly then gave a talk on quasar absorption lines (“studying gas you can’t see using light that isn’t there”) which was highly technical, but after six days of this we had the background to understand it. Mostly. I’m not going to try to summarize it here.

We finished up with a brief talk on the search for exoplanets (there are 228 known exoplanets around nearby stars, some as small as 5 times the mass of the Earth), an open Q/A period, evaluations, and logistics for getting everyone home. We all went out to Laramie’s only Thai restaurant for dinner, then went back to the dorm and packed.

All done. Whew. What a week. I learned a lot, hung out with some great people, and ate way too much.

We head off to Denver for the Worldcon bright and early tomorrow. My program schedule:

  • Wed 11:30: Launch Pad: Astronomy for Writers
  • Wed 16:00: Reading: David Levine
  • Thur 10:00: Short Fiction: On its way out or a way to break into the market?
  • Thur 14:30: Have blogs and listservs replaced fanzines?
  • Fri 10:00: Clarion West Writers Workshop: How it Helped My Career
  • Fri 13:00: Signing (45 minutes)
  • Fri 14:30: Kaffeeklatch
  • Sat 11:30: Clarion West Student Readings, the 21st Century

I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d show up for my reading and Kaffeeklatch. I can promise fun conversation and silly noises.


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