Launch Pad Day 1

After a short astronomy quiz to gauge our pre-class baseline, Mike Brotherton started Launch Pad with a discussion about the scale of the universe. For instance, a single astronomical unit (AU) is the distance between the Earth and the sun, and a light year is 63,240 AUs. But Proxima Centauri — the star nearest our own sun — is 4.2 million light years away. Keep on trucking outward if you want to look at the full Milky Way galaxy, its neighbors and the diameter of the visible universe.

Way to make you feel really small and insignificant right off the bat.

Astronomy For Beginners

I’ve been surprised to find a number of attendees who are working this week in addition to attending the intensive workshop. I was very nearly one of them. Just before I left the house on Sunday headed to the airport, I made the snap decision to unpack the manuscript I was carrying in my bag, intending to work on revisions during the evenings. I’m glad I left it at home — freeing up space and weight in my laptop bag, and freeing up my mind and time while I’m here.

We’re wrapping up our lunch break now. Next up we have author and long-time Analog editor Stanley Schmidt as our guest instructor… Stay tuned for more updates!

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Post lunch, Stan led us through an attempt at building a scale model of the solar system. It was an immediate no-go — a mustard seed, representing Mercury, couldn’t even be placed inside the classroom with the scale model of the sun (represented by a desktop globe). Instead, we imagined building our scale solar system in the nearby football field of the University of Wyoming.

For our scale model — using mustard seeds, poppy seeds, marbles and peppercorns — we’ve also scaled down the speed of light to about 2.8 inches/second, or 71 mm/sec => ~ 1393 miles/year as a scaled down light speed. Using this scale — and the model sun in our classroom — Alpha Centauri would be located somewhere just outside Tokyo, in terms of distance.

One of the things I’d not thought of before — at least quite so concretely — when it comes to bodies being so spread out in our (or any) solar system, is that a space explorer would have a hard time recognizing straight away that s/he had stumbled onto a solar system. You’re not going to see all of the bodies at the same time, because they’re so very far apart. You’ll have to sit and wait to see how things move.

You want another perspective on scale? Try watching this video on YouTube: “No, you are not the center of the Universe.” Or do a search on animated representations of the power of ten, going out into the universe and back inward into the centers of atoms. I’m not sure why, but movies like this always freak me out a little. I’m hoping to walk away from this week with being able to embrace this overwhelming sense of scale rather than being discouraged by it.

Later in the afternoon, Jim Verley joined us to talk about misconceptions, seasons and lunar phases. This last is one of the topics I’m most interested in here at Launch Pad. Even though you may think you know how the phases of the moon work, it’s quite probable that you really don’t. We watched a few rather disturbing videos about how even the “best and brightest” minds can harbor some really outrageous scientific misconceptions. (It has nothing to do with how smart or apt you are, by the way.)

A big part of why we’re here at Launch Pad is to make sure we aren’t entertaining these same misconceptions, so we don’t unintentionally pass them along to our readers.

“If we don’t have a literate public… this nation will be in decline,” Verley warned.

We may not always be perfect in our writing, but we should at least strive for the greatest possible accuracy.

I’m still in the midst of the “Witches’ Brew” rewrite — I switched up my publishing schedule for the remainder of the year, publishing the “Rhythm” ebook ahead of schedule so I could spend more time with the WB story — and lunar phases figure prominently in the progress of the book. But I’d wanted to know a good bit more, so that I could have these phases, and possibly the moon itself, become something approaching more of a true character in the story rather than simply the backdrop for the action.

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Staying hydrated at this altitude is one of the big challenges for me this week, and I’m already attacking it to the best of my ability. Thus far today, I’ve consumed nearly two 28-ounce bottles of gatorade from powder, one can of soda, two bottles of water, a bottle of apple juice, and a bottle of liquid gatorade. And it’s only 4 p.m. (And, yes, I’m having to take frequent bathroom breaks. I don’t like having to miss parts of the discussion, but it beats hospitalization for dehydration. And I’m getting a bit of extra exercise high-tailing it back and forth to the ladies’ room.)

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In the late afternoon, we had Jerry Oltion — who holds the record for the greatest number of short stories in Analogy — talk with us about amateur astronomy: “The most fun you can have in the dark. Really!” We got a short history of telescopes and explanations on different designs. A pair of binoculars is just a pair of refracting telescopes side-by-side, and some amateur astronomers will build binocular telescopes, pairing two telescopes together.

“The coolest thing in the world is to show somebody something they’ve never seen before,” Oltion said, emphasizing that one of the hooks of astronomy is that as soon as you’ve seen something amazing, you immediate want to share it with someone else. However, he warned against investing in what he called “hobby killers” — poor telescopes sold at budget stores promising great results that are beyond their specs.

(Unfortunately, the telescope I had as a kid fell into this category.)

After a lovely dinner at Sweet Melissa’s — accompanied by a heated and unexpected debate over religious identity and exclusivity — we gathered in the parking lot for a bit of telescope action. The skies weren’t completely cooperative, but we caught nice glimpses of the moon and the double-star Albireo (one yellow star and one blue star) between the clouds. Saturn, however, was definitely the belle of the ball.

I left the parking lot star party early. I’m worn out and am looking forward to some deep sleep tonight. We’ve got another full day tomorrow…


(Creative Commons photo by AndyRob / Andy Roberts)

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