Tag Archives: astronomy

The City Dark – on PBS

Coming to your local PBS station this week:

Is darkness becoming extinct? When filmmaker Ian Cheney moves from rural Maine to New York City and discovers streets awash in light and skies devoid of stars, he embarks on a journey to America’s brightest and darkest corners, asking astronomers, cancer researchers and ecologists what is lost in the glare of city lights. Blending a humorous, searching narrative with poetic footage of the night sky, The City Dark provides a fascinating introduction to the science of the dark and an exploration of our relationship to the stars. Winner, Best Score/Music Award, 2011 SXSW Film Festival. Produced in association with American Documentary | POV.

We showed this at one of our Mid Hudson Astronomical Association events this year, and it’s a great film. Hopefully it will make you rethink the lights we leave on outside, that do nothing more than pollute our night skies.

Transit of Venus

Yesterday I saw something with my own eyes that’s only been seen by humans 7 times in human history, and won’t happen again for 105 years: Venus moving across the face of the sun. That view, I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

The Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association and SUNY New Paltz pulled off a big event yesterday, with 250 – 300 guests showing up to see the Transit. While we had some clear skies at 5pm, by 5:30 there were clouds. As people streamed out from Dr Amy Forestdell’s talk at 5:45 we pointed people back inside to catch the NASA stream of fist contact.

Of course, 2 minutes before first contact, the NASA stream hung. We jumped instead to the Google Plus Hangout that Fraiser Cain and Pamela Gay were hosting, which included views from 4 amateur astronomers from around the US. I watched first and second contact virtually as the clouds had us pinned in.

But I roamed out afterwards and saw we were getting thinning sections. I ran back to my scope and waited patiently as the clouds shifted. About 20 minutes later we got a quick hint of shadows, and I nearly got my scope aligned. From the crowd our club VP yelled out “I got it!”, and then the clouds were back in. But they were thinning, and I was ready. A few minutes later shadows started showing up again, I dialed in my scope quickly, stuck my eye in to see if it was there. And…

Bam!

It just hit me like a load of bricks. There was the orange disc of the sun, which I’d seen so many times in my solar scope, and it had this giant hole in it. A big black hole, so much bigger than anything I’ve ever seen on it. So much more distinct. So very cool.

I quickly started to have people come through the line. There was one high school kid who’d been hanging out for a long time talking with me, so I made sure that he got to jump the line and get a view. We had about 15 – 20 minutes of these thinner clouds, and I think I managed to get about 30 people through on my line in that time. The new tracking mount helped, as I didn’t need to keep adjusting things. Then the clouds came back in, and we waited for another shot, which never came.

But for those brief minutes we saw it, with our own eyes. And it was amazing.

Timeline of the far future

This wikipedia page is just great, and includes such hits as:

Five Pointed Star Solid.svg 1 million Highest estimated time until the red supergiant star Betelgeuse explodes in a supernova. The explosion is expected to be easily visible in daylight.[11][12]
Five Pointed Star Solid.svg 1.4 million Gliese 710 passes within 1.1 light years of the Sun, potentially disturbing the Solar System’s Oort cloud and increasing the likelihood of a comet impact in the inner Solar System.[13]
Noun project 528.svg 10 million The widening East African Rift valley is flooded by the Red Sea, causing a new ocean basin to divide the continent of Africa.[14]
Noun project 528.svg 11 million The moon Phobos collides with the surface of Mars.[15]

Makes you think in a slightly longer time frame than what’s for dinner on Tuesday.

Nook Simple Touch as an Astronomy Tablet

This weekend I bought and rooted a Nook Simple Touch. The reason? I’ve been looking for an eink platform that one could make astronomy applications and data available for. Eink is ideal for a hobby where stray light destroys your ability to see anything.

Where is Io on Nook Simple Touch

Where is Io on Nook Simple Touch

Having written an astronomy application (albeit one that needs a lot more polish) I pushed it over. There are a few rendering issues with the buttons (which completely confuses me), and the fact that there aren’t any real location services means rise / set times are completely off, bother are fixable in software. Computational speed seemed on par with my HTC Evo, which means this is something I can work with.

Sadly, both B&N and Amazon have equivalently limited imaginations when it comes to making Apps for their e-ink platforms (my Amazon knowledge comes from email exchanges with the Kindle team), and don’t see the other possibilties for e-ink.

Fortunately, B&N seem to be lacking on having a crack security team, so the Nook ST can be wedged open to an open platform pretty easily. I’ll be making Where is Io optimized to run on it, and look at what it would take to get Google Sky Maps over there (now that it is open sourced). And, I’ll hold out a small amount of hope, that B&N one day figures out it might be useful to provide this additional value to their customers. Based on email exchanges with Amazon, I’ve completely written them off.

Key Takeaway: don’t let your own limited imagination, and need for control prevent your creations from meeting their full potential.

Update: now that the Android Market finally activated, I pulled down a number of apps to see how they all worked. The Mobile Observatory UI is actually really useful on this size and type of UI, and I think is worth the price of the Nook Simple Touch even if you only decide to run it.

IMAG0068.jpg

Stop and Pay Attention

During a late afternoon bathroom break on Feb 27th, I came across this:

IMAG0051.jpg

As the sun was setting it nearly aligned with the hallway on our building, creating this column of light almost all the way across the building (the next day we got there). I was the only person who noticed, though I did drag a few other folks out to see it.

Cool things like this are happening all the time, but you have to stop and pay attention otherwise you’ll completely miss them as you are rushing your way out of the office, onto the next thing in your busy schedule.

The Future of Libraries

The metafilter comment that’s been circling about what the massive cut to library funding in California really means:

Every day at my job I helped people just barely survive. Forget trying to form grass roots political activism by creating a society of computer users, forget trying to be the ‘people’s university’ and create a body of well informed citizens. Instead I helped people navigate through the degrading hoops of modern online society, fighting for scraps from the plate, and then kicking back afterwards by pretending to have a farm on Facebook (well, that is if they had any of their 2 hours left when they were done). What were we doing during the nineties? What were we doing during the boom that we’ve been left so ill served during the bust? No one seems to know. They come in to our classes and ask us if we have any ideas, and I do, but those ideas take money, and political will, and guts, and the closer I get to graduation the less and less I suspect that any of those things exist.

I’m a big supporter of libraries. We give annually to our local library (both financially and books and DVDs). I think Librarians are some of the few folks that really get what Copyright should be, and are very reliable advocates for sane copyright policy.

But at the same time I’ve got substantial frustration with parts of our libraries. I’m involved with multiple organizations that create really high quality educational content (MHLVUG and the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association being the topic examples). For 9 years we used the Mid-Hudson Library System space (for a fee) with MHVLUG. It was a great space, but there was a huge missed opportunity, as our relationship with MHLS was always just that of a tenant. At the end, MHLS cutbacks meant we had to find another space, where we moved to Vassar College.

Contrast this with the Astronomy events I’ve led at Vassar College’s Farm Preserve. Not only were we given space, but we were wrapped into their series of events on the Farm Preserve, with joint advertising by the College. That led to huge turn out, and lots of positive feedback for both the College and our group.

The Library could be this kind of thing. And if it was, it would have the Hubble effect, where the citizenry were so invested in the organization that they wouldn’t let it get cut. There are some libraries that are thinking about, and embracing these kinds of ideas. The Fayetteville Free Library is doing some amazing things with setting up a Fab Lab. Lauren Smedley is an inspiration to what the future library could be, and lots of kudos to FFL for hiring her to try to make this happen.

I’m hopeful by nature, and I think our libraries will transform, eventually. But I do think it’s going to take a new generation of librarians to think past just books, and think about community at a broader level.

Colbert and Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of my favorite speakers. I’ve gone on Tyson binges on youtube before, watching one video after another of talks that he’s given. You only end up smarter for doing so. And now there is a brand new, long form, talk to add to the list.

Stephen Colbert does a long form, over an hour, interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson on stage. There are bits you’ve heard other places (like his Titanic story), but lots of new perspectives as well. Treat your brain, and take the time to watch this.