In the beginning, a dozen or so people gathered in a seminar room. We had an artist, a puppeteer, an inventor of clockwork universes, a couple of well-known and award-winning authors (one of them with a recent movie deal under his belt), a playwright/actor/director with a math/physics background, a microbiologist, a poet, people deeply involved in computers (both software and hardware), a freelance copy editor with a stellar reputation, an engineer—
At the end, the same dozen people dispersed across the length and breadth of a continent. Some went straight to Worldcon, some to an airport where they boarded planes departing in all directions, and several took the nation's roads in private cars or trans-continental buses. What this disparate dozen had in common now was the word falling from their lips when asked about their experience: "Amazing!" We boarded planes and buses, starting conversations with complete strangers about the wonders of stars and galaxies, the nature and identity of quasars and black holes and white dwarfs, the age of the Universe, and dark matter.
What happened in between these two snapshots in time?
In a nutshell, LaunchPad can be described as "Astronomy 101 in a Week." Workshop attendees are literally fed a semester's worth of college-level astronomy in six days, in the form of lectures and activities that stretch both minds and imaginations. However, the goal of the NASA-sponsored workshop is not to learn everything about astronomy in a week, but rather to learn enough to enable intelligent research into backgrounds of stories set in science fiction universes. In the words of Professor Michael S. Brotherton from the Astronomy Department of the University of Wyoming, also known as SF writer Mike Brotherton (Spider Star, Star Dragon) and founder of LaunchPad, "People learn through story more easily than in the classroom." The objective of this project is to give writers the tools to learn, use, and pass on to their readers more—
On Day One of the workshop, the Class of 2008 went over the basic principles—
Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.
Human minds simply shut down when numbers get too big. The way around that is to re-set the parameters to something we can more easily comprehend (i.e. "it took the Apollo mission a few days to get to the moon"), or play around with the units involved so that even though things are getting very very big we can still count on our fingers. For instance, the distance from the Earth to the Sun, 150 million km, is called an Astronomical Unit, which is an acceptable unit of distance within solar systems. Outside of a solar system we jump another time-scale—
Big enough for a whole jungle of misconceptions to take root in, and flourish. This is why, as discussed in another presentation by educator Jim Verley, a workshop like LaunchPad is so important—
Just before we hauled anchor and cast off on our journey into the furthest reaches of outer space, Jerry Oltion took us on a quick whistle-stop tour of the real-estate in our own neighborhood—
And that was Day One. After that, things got weirder—
Day Two started with a session that might as well have been entitled, "Light, the Universe, and Everything." We started out with basic high-school physics of the electromagnetic spectrum; then we segued into Kirchoff's laws and the idea of continuous, absorption, and emission spectra—
After they let us catch us our breath, they hit us with dust.
Ladies and gentlemen, apparently the universe is full of dust.
Dust is everywhere—
We saw pictures of distant galaxies as seen in the visible light spectrum and then in the infrared (IR) range, and for the first time I got an inkling of how pitifully limited my natural senses are. IR sees through the dust that obscures features in the section of the EM spectrum that is visible light and produces breathtaking false-color-enhanced images—
We heard about the Stardust probe that went out to gather up dust and information from passing comet Wild 2—
Later, I learned 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—
We ended with a cool little exercise—
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.
The next day Mike Brotherton took over with a lecture that should have been subtitled, "All you have ever wanted to know about stars (and were justifiably too afraid to ask)." I took copious notes on the spectra of stars, the classification of stars based on their temperature, the mass of stars, the life-span of stars as directed by their mass (high-mass stars tend to end their lives explosively after about 30 million years, low-mass stars can live for 100 billion years). We discussed star surveys, and talked about different kinds of nebulae; we talked about how stars were born, about protostars, and about the ways that a star could die—
The highlight of the workshop was a visit to the Wyoming Infra Red Observatory (or WIRO) at Jelm, at an altitude of some 9,500 feet. We arrived there in time to witness a truly spectacular sunset, complete with an impressive display of forked lightning on the horizon against the burning sky. And then it began to rain. This was not good news—
But then they closed the dome, and we stared up at the sky outside disconsolately. The clouds were there, and they were thick, and they didn't seem to be moving anywhere that night. We began discussing plan B and how and when we would make the trek down the mountain again. I had pretty nearly given up hope when someone bounced in and said, "We have a hole in the sky." We were in business.
The dome irised open and my God—
They injected liquid nitrogen into the camera box to cool everything down to the max and reduce vibration to a minimum, and the telescope swiveled on its gimbals until it was pointed straight up. Then we were all shooed off because, since the thing needed to be kept cool, we could all go into the lab and take our body heat with us.
Inside the lab, numbers on a screen scrolled by to show us where it was looking—
I could not stop smiling.
Outside, the skies had cleared (hole? that was one big hole...) and if the Milky Way was spectacular down in the Laramie suburbs up here it was breathtaking, sharp, glowing across the night sky. We'd brought the night vision goggles we'd played with in class the previous day, and watching the sky through these was mindboggling.
We got back very late, and spent the next morning on a hike among the tumbled rocks at Vedauwoo, a scenic site just outside Laramie. We returned, after lunch, to the Physics and Astronomy building for a show at the little planetarium in the sub-basement (complete with an old-fashioned, almost cyberpunk starball, all clockwork and gears, nothing digital in sight—
We covered binary stars (of which there are a surprisingly large number out there) and the possible solar systems that could exist around them, stable and unstable Lagrangian points, stellar evolution, nova explosions (they only happen in binary systems—
The day after, our focus shifted to galaxies, beginning with the somewhat incredible factoid, given our current location and context, that the first attempt to survey a galaxy (our own) was done through one of those simple "Arr, matey" piratical telescopes by Herschel way back in the 1700s—
The Milky Way turns out to be about 75,000 light years across, as mentioned, with a nuclear bulge in the middle, an outer disk (arms, halo) and globular clusters on the outskirts—
Dark matter was proposed way back in 1933 by Fritz Zwicky, and confirmed a few decades later by Vera Rubin. Things get interesting when the math proves that not only is dark matter out there, it's the MAJORITY of the stuff that's out there, and what's more, most of it is non-baryonic (i.e. not composed of ordinary protons and neutrons) in nature. Even what we would consider the "ordinary" baryonic component of dark matter is weird, though—
But the question of whether dark matter is real was not definitively answered until the advent of two things—
We covered more fascinating stuff about galaxies: every massive galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its center; galaxies generally exist in clusters rather than in isolation. We learned about galaxies with Active Galactic Nuclei (or AGN) and particular subclasses of those, such as Seyfert Galaxies; radio galaxies; we touched on the nature and properties of quasars.
We then shifted from actual material stars to cosmology and the nature of the universe itself, and talked about the beginning and the end of everything, from the Big Bang on down.
It is possible to estimate the age of the universe: knowing the current rate of expansion we can estimate the time it took for galaxies to move as far apart as they are today—
The fate of universe depends on the matter density of the universe. Expansion should be slowed by mutual gravitational attraction of the galaxies. You can define a "critical density," which is just enough to slow the cosmic expansion to a halt at infinity. If the density of matter equaled the critical density, then the curvature of space would be just sufficient to make the geometry of the universe flat. If the density of matter is less than critical density, the universe expands forever—
Cosmic acceleration can be explained with a cosmological constant: Λ. Energy corresponding to Λ can account for the missing mass/energy needed to produce a flat space-time = "dark energy." Dark energy appears to account for some 70% of the known universe.
The Universe began by decelerating after the Big Bang but at some point dark energy overcame gravity, and acceleration began about 6 billion years ago. This new information leads to new and different models of the universe, known as the Big Empty (everything moves away at >c [critical density] and eventually we can't see anything any more except the local cluster—
We took some time off for a computer imaging session, learning how astronomical data produced by advanced telescopes is processed into the kind of breathtaking image we have become accustomed to seeing from Hubble and other telescopes both planet-based and in orbit. I got a kick out of learning that the imaging and data collecting software used by astronomers in the gathering and processing of these images is called DS9, after the Star Trek universe space station.
After that, it was time for a talk on SETI—
That night we went up to the roof of the Physics and Astronomy building with a couple of small amateur telescopes and had another night of stargazing. The light pollution here is naturally quite a lot worse than it was up at WIRO, but we still saw some fascinating things. We looked at Antares. We looked at the Wild Duck cluster, and at the same Ring Nebula we'd seen at WIRO. We sought out the Andromeda galaxy through night goggles and binoculars. We saw Jupiter and three of its moons (one of which was in the process of transiting the planet—
The next day was also the final day of lectures and presentations. We started out with a talk on computing in astronomy (by visiting lecturer Ruben Gamboa), which included such mind-blowing tidbits as this: when the original Mars Rovers were launched—
The degree to which computers can, and do, model and process scientific information has led a number of people to postulate that this is the end of science as we know it—
We segued from the topic of computers in science to the topic of humanity in space, and discussed a few not-so-salubrious facts. Out there, everything is our enemy, and we'll have to take everything we need with us—
The final formal presentation of the workshop, subtitled "Quasar absorption lines—
None of us will ever be able to look at our world or the incredible universe it is set in and take it for granted ever again. LaunchPad is a place where misconceptions are straightened out, new knowledge is gained, and a sense of wonder is awakened into a whole new dimension. We could not hope to invent the strange and wonderful things that already exist all around us, but we, as writers, can pass the truth on to those who haven't had a chance to see it yet, or who have been too afraid of the "science" to reach out and touch the stars.
I would recommend the workshop unreservedly to anyone who has ever loved to raise their eyes to the sky and wonder what lay beyond it. LaunchPad does so much more than possibly inform and transform a participant's writing in terms of both inspiration and knowledge—
Some useful websites:
- The LaunchPad website: http://www.launchpadworkshop.org/index.html
- The WIRO website : http://physics.uwyo.edu/~amonson/wiro/wiro.html
- "LaunchPad Debriefing" (my own workshop summary of a week of intensive
- blogging): http://anghara.livejournal.com/328012.html
- Mary Robinette Kowal's summary: http://www.maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/launchpad-final-post-online-astronomy-resources-for-writers/