Launchpad: Days 1 and 2: Sense of Wonder Engaged, Cap’n…

Launchpad, Day 1

I didn’t sleep all that well but by all accounts it was endemic because people were wandering around at 4 or 5 AM all over the place this morning – the hard board-like mattress I can take, really, but the pillows have been overheard to be compared to a folded up towel over breakfast this morning, and the upshot seems to be that there are pillows coming in for us later – actual pillows, worthy of the name. That will be good.I can’t seem to get the room cool enough for me to sleep well in – if I leave the windows open the blinds kind of rattle all night which is annoying…oh, and in a nice development that came as a complete surprise to absolutely everyone they seem to be bent on resurfacing the parking lot just outside our residence this week – it came on sort of sudden because one moment it was a working parking lot and the next it was cordoned off and dug up and we’re bracing ourselves for the scent of fresh tar in the morning.HOWEVER. All that aside.Mary Robinette Kowal has been filing scarily prompt notes of all the Launchpad sessions today and seems to be taking much the same notes as myself so you can go on over to her blog and read what we did – in a nutshell we did a startup overview by Mike Brotherton (you know you’re in the right place when the lecture contains a quote from Douglas Adams – “The Universe is BIG…”) and we watched the original Power of Ten movie which takes giant steps out from the planet and away, giving us glimpses of Earth, of the Solar System, of the spiral arm, of the Milky Way, of a cluster of galaxies… “HOW big is the Universe?” somebody asked. “Where’s the edge?””There IS no edge,” we were told.And in my mind galaxies bloomed, stretching on and on into the distance, full of the light of distant alien suns…

This was followed by lunch, and then by a presentation on the teaching of science by Jim Verley – which was prefaced by the showing of a short film, “A private universe”, in which “…graduates, staff and alumni” of Harvard University were asked what caused the seasons or the phases of the moon and came up with things that were… frightening. The depth of ignorance – and most particularly by an actual *professor* clad in scarlet doctoral robes, bless his brass balls – was staggering. And this is the place that’s educating our future scientists, our future leaders. Eeeep. (Just so as not to get swelled heads, however, we were invited to look at some of our own misconceptions and private-universe theories and we weren’t entirely immune to goofs, ourselves. But this was a gathering of people whose backgrounds ranged from theatre to anthropology to physiology to linguistics – none of us were active professionals in the field – and goofs aside the depth of knowledge and understanding of astronomical matters in that room was astounding. Perhaps we ought to go and offer our services for a semester at Harvard…)

A short break, and then we were given a guided tour of our own back yard, the Solar System, by Jerry Oltion. From the volcanoes of Io to Mons Olympus to Saturn’s rings to the potential liquid oceans of possibly organic or pre-organic goo under Europa’s ice to poor demoted Pluto, the time just flew by and the afternoon vanished.

Several of us returned to the residence and the rest repaired to a downtown Laramie eatery called Sweet Melissa’s (my husband will be inordinately pleased to hear it was a vegetarian restaurant and I had a spinach lasagna…) and then came back for Bad Movie Night – or what was supposed to be Bad Movie Night but we were pretty thinned out by this time and elected, instead, to watch a Twilight ZOne adaptation of Clarke’s “The Star” (they changed the ending, the bastards, which changed the story completely…) and then another Twilight Zone episode called “The Cold Equations”, based on a well-known story still discussed and talked about decades after its initial appareance on the world stage. And after that it was simply time to flake out.

Launchpad day 2 – sense of wonder engaged, captain…

The first session of the morning might as well have been titled “Light, the Universe, and Everything”. We started out with the basics – the electromagnetic spectrum (everyone who is a sentient being on planet Earth should at least know the wavelengths of visible light, according to Mike Brotherton) and what it turns into once it passes out of our range of sight and turns into gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet, infrared, microwave, TV and radio frequencies. Much of this was basic high school physics.But then. Oh, but then.We went into the theory of Kirchoff’s laws, and into the ideas of continuous, absorption, and emission spectra – and the fingerprints that elements leave in the electromagnetic spectrum. I learned that helium was first discovered in an absorption spectrum from our sun – hence helium, from Helios. Should have known that one, dammit, how can it be any other way…? And we went into the intricacies of how telescopes work, where they are best situated, what they can see, how they show us what they can see. Names from legend – Green Bank, Arecibo. We were supposed to be the writers and they were telling US the stories. And from there, to NASA’s missions past and current and future, giant telescopes hanging in the heavens staring at galaxies through X-ray eyes,the soon to be launched Herschel Space Observatory, observatory airplanes riding on cushions of air high up in the stratosphere.A few practical fun things – a chance to stare through military-issue nightsight goggles, through which, we are told, you can actually see Andromeda in the night sky. And seeing the world through the lens of an infrared camera – watching people’s footprint heat signatures remain vividly clear on the carpets after they had passed by.Then they let us catch our breath, and they hit us with dust.Ladies and gentlemen, the universe is full of dust.

The Solar System appears to have dustbunnies. For some reason that idea makes me smile.

The dust lecture, by department head Danny Dale, was breathtaking. For the first time I got an inkling about how pitifully limited my natural senses are, with picture of distant galaxies as seen in the visible light spectrum and then in the IR range, which sees through the dust that obscures features in the section of the EM spectrum that is visible light and produces false-colour-enhanced spectacular images that are breathtaking,for instance the long narrow white-light galaxy M82, known as the Cigar Galaxy, can be seen spewing huge billows of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PHAs ten kiloparsecs into space – light from the galaxy’s stars picked up by dust and re-emitted by cosmic dust particles in the IR part of the spectrum.And then we heard about the Stardust probe that went out to gather up dust and information from passing comet Wild 2 – and the heartstopping things it did, and how it came back home with its treasure, and the surprises it returned with them, the much larger and more complex molecules than were expected being found than had ever been expected, including silicate crystals that can only form close to a sun – this, on a comet coming in frozen from cold and inhospitable outer space – Danny Dale called it the “fire and ice” theory, the fiery compounds born from an improbable star lying under the deep ice collected out in the Kuiper Belt – it is a tale fit to tell your grandchildren under starlight, about how comets get born, and live, and die.You can get more of Stardust at its website, there are pictures there, and video, and you can get lost and spend hours on that site. It’s the kind of thing that makes you sit up and breathe, “I believe!” and understand viscerally the tenets that underlie a faith.More swag – we got a wonderful poster with a bunch of galaxies that had been studied. It’s stupendous.The next thing was a hands-on activity that involved actually seeing those spectra which we had been talking about earlier, through a diffraction grating. We gazed on Hydrogen tubes, Helium tubes, Argon tubes, counted emission lines and drew them with Crayolas on blank template papers, and had more fun than I’ve had since I don’t know when.Break, and then “back of the envelope” calculations session. My thinnest area, this, the maths. And too many people knew more than I did, made leaps of intuition or guesses more educated than I could muster, and by the time I caught up to figuring out a step they were four steps ahead, and after a while I just gave up trying to follow there and then, took notes for later, and sat back and watched. I did learn that trying to do a scale model of the Solar System within the room we were in was physically impossible to do unless we took the sun, proportionally speaking, to be the size of a mustard seed – in which case even Pluto fit into our long seminar room, and Alpha Centauri would have been located in Cheyenne (another mustard seed). If the sphere used as a model for the sun was any larger, the outermost planets would have to be placed miles away, sometimes MANY miles away. Comes back to that original DOuglas Adams, “The Universe is BIG.”

The maths cowed me a little, and I was kind of relieved when at least one other participant wanted to know whom she could call if her novels ever needed such calculations to be done. But we did end with a cool little exercise – watching the “Blue Danube” sequence from “2001” and then calculating the G-force on the space station from the formulae just presented to us. We discovered that the space station had pretty much Moon gravity, and then had to go back and double check whether the denizens of the station “moon-walked” along the corridors (which they didn’t) – and then we walked back to the residence hall and relaxed for a short while until they came to pick us up for the party at Mike Brotherton’s place at 7:30 PM. At some point during the evening a couple of us went outside to stare at the perfect, clear night sky… with the Milky Way etched across it in all its glory, the first time I’ve actually seen it in something like twenty years, and then… and then… we had shooting stars. Streaking across the heavens. Leaving no trace but a memory in the heart.

I stood and stared up at the sky and nearly wept at the beauty of it all, at the pale star shadows of our galaxy’s arm hanging across the heavens, at the bright star that might have been Saturn or Jupiter, at the Big Dipper, at the star that must have been Polaris.

And my mind was fed, my heart was full, my soul was overflowing with these glimpses into beauty and power.

Good night, wherever you are. I am happy.

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Launchpad: Days 1 and 2: Sense of Wonder Engaged, Cap’n… — 2 Comments

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