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October, 2008 : Con Report:

Launch Pad 2008

Out of this World

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—and, of course, astronomers both amateur and pro. We had people who had done calculus and understood it, and people who hadn't had a math lesson in over two decades. We had a bunch of people who had somehow, via paths often twisted and convoluted, all ended up self-identifying as "writers," to some degree or another; some of us household names, others rising and award-winning young stars, and still others barely stepping on the first few rungs of our chosen career.

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—and better—science, reaching outside the classroom to raise awareness of science in the wider world.

On Day One of the workshop, the Class of 2008 went over the basic principles—starting with the fact that most scales in the realms of Astronomy are well beyond everyday experience, and are almost impossible to grasp without a sense of bogglement. As Douglas Adams once put it,

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—the units used for distance are light years, and one light year is equal to the distance traveled by light in one year, which is 63,000 AU or just under 10,000,000 kilometers. You can go 1,000 light years in either direction from here, and you'd still be in the Milky Way—and we aren't even the center of the galaxy, which is approximately 75,000 light years across. The distances to the nearest large galaxy in the neighborhood is in the realm of several MILLION light years. Yup, space is BIG.

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—it finds the misconceptions out there, confronts them, and reveals the truth of the matter according to our current knowledge of science. For example, an astonishing number of people (graduates and even faculty of Harvard University, no less!) apparently believe that our seasonal changes are caused by the Earth swinging close to, and then further from, the sun.

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—the Solar System. You'd think we would know most of this stuff, but there are still surprises and fascinating insights—from the idea that a sunspot can in fact be bigger than Earth, to sulfuric acid rain on Venus, to the fact that we have found pieces of one of the largest asteroids in the Asteroid Belt (Vesta) on Earth after something BIG smacked into it and disintegrated much of it, to the possibility of methane- or ammonia-based life on Saturn's moon Titan, to the poor demoted planet (now "plutoid") Pluto and its sad dark moon Charon, to the comets of the Oort cloud. And we are still within a stone's throw (metaphorically speaking) of Home.

And that was Day One. After that, things got weirder—and more wonderful—fast.

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—and the fingerprints that individual elements leave in the electromagnetic spectrum (these would be important, later). I never knew—but I guess I should have—that the element Helium was in fact discovered in absorption spectrum data from our sun (Helios, therefore Helium´┐Ż). I learned there were more kinds of telescopes than I thought, how they work, what they can see or measure, where they are best situated—names from the legends of our genre spilled like gems from this narrative, Green Bank, Arecibo—we were supposed to be the writers, and they were telling US the stories. And from there we looked up, into NASA's missions past and current and future, giant telescopes hanging in the heavens staring at galaxies through X-ray eyes, and the soon-to-be-launched Herschel Space Observatory.

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—tiny, miniscule, sub-microscopic, often literally molecular. Interstellar dust made of silicates and carbon; circumstellar dust composed of silicon carbide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PHAs, water ice; asteroidal dust full of carbonaceous chondrites. Dust is constantly being created, shed from stars and other cosmic sources.

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—for instance, the long, narrow, white-light galaxy M82, known as the Cigar Galaxy, which (when observed with IR) can be seen spewing huge billows of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PHAs, ten kiloparsecs into space.

We heard about the Stardust probe that went out to gather up dust and information from passing comet Wild 2—the heart-stopping things it did and how it came back home with its treasure. We learned about the surprises it returned with—the finding of much larger and more complex molecules than were 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—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. (More about the Stardust mission at its website, with pictures and video.)

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—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 were any larger, the outermost planets would have to be placed miles away, sometimes MANY miles away. The Universe is BIG.

We ended 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 essentially had Moon gravity, and then went back to double check whether the denizens of the station "moon-walked" along the corridors (which they didn't). It was a good place to wrap up, so we did. That night was the first real visceral experience of the workshop for me, walking outside during a party 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.

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—exploding into a supernova (the higher mass stars) or expanding into a red giant which will eventually release its outer layers in a burst of dust and energy and hot gases and collapse into a white dwarf inside a planetary nebula.

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—if it rained, the observatory dome could not open. The cloud cover, according to the satellite weather maps running on three of the observatory lab's computers, wasn't looking like it was going to lift sufficiently for us to do anything much other than go into the dome and stare bright-eyed at the huge telescope (well, for certain values of huge—I've certainly never seen bigger), and see how its mirrors opened, and get explanations of how if functioned. They did open the dome, briefly, earlier, and I got some pictures of the telescope against that night sky as the roof eased open above us but pictures don't really do it justice at all because they are missing the dimension of broad grins that could not be contained as people lifted their eyes to watch, and the racing heartbeat of seeing it all happen. "Does the thrill of opening the dome ever go away?" one of us asked the two resident student observers. Their expressions as they smiled mysteriously and shook their heads ever so slightly said it all. You cannot possibly get bored with this instant, opening the dome, opening the umbilical between you and the deep stars.

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—the sky was full of stars.

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—they picked the Ring Nebula as a suitable object and took several exposures of it, with which we would be doing the computer manipulations back in class on Monday.

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—unfortunately, it was in somewhat bad repair so that we were literally stuck at "noon," and could not move the night sky temporally at all.) Then it was back to the seminar room and more star talk.

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—I never knew that). We explored the end of our own Sun and the fate of the Earth. We talked about the deaths of massive stars, or supernovae—resulting in either a neutron star or a black hole. We spoke of pulsars. We discussed black holes in some detail, including general relativity effects around them, such as time dilation. We discussed gamma ray bursts, and how they are created—in a collapse of super-massive stars, called a hypernova, which takes a star from supermassive giant star to a black hole in a matter of seconds.

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—and then segued into how galaxies are mapped and measured today.

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—our Sun is about 20,000 LY from center, out on one of the galaxy's spiral arms. The total mass in the Milky Way galaxy is approximately 200 billion solar masses—and that's within the actual disc. Additional mass in the halo gives a total of approximately 1 trillion solar masses. But most of this mass is not emitting any radiation. What we have dark matter!

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—witness the names: we have WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), predicted to morph to and from photons in the presence of a strong magnetic field, and MaCHOs (Massive Compact Halo Objects), detected largely through a phenomenon known as galactic lensing, where a distant star is "lensed" by the passage of a MaCHO between it and the observer.

But the question of whether dark matter is real was not definitively answered until the advent of two things—gravitational lensing and the smoking gun provided by the aptly named Bullet Cluster. The image of the Bullet Cluster collision, an integration of optical (visual spectrum) and X-ray images, shows an interesting disconnect. The mass distribution of the matter in the galaxy can be seen by looking at the lensing of background galaxies observed in the optical images; the X-rays trace the movement of the hot gas, the dominant source of baryons in the cluster merger. In other words, gravitational lensing will trace total mass; hot X-ray-emitting gas will trace baryonic mass. But in the image of the Bullet Cluster collision, these two don't line up in the image! Why is that? Well, dark matter does not seem to interact with itself the way a diffuse gas does during a cluster collision. In the Bullet Cluster post-collision image, we can clearly see that the gas experienced drag during the collision, with the two colliding clusters having a definite effect on one another. The dark matter did not slow down in the least, and is now AHEAD of the gas cloud—it doesn't interact with itself or affect itself.

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—it works out to about 14 billion years. But the rates of expansion have NOT been constant throughout time, so this is only an approximation. The point is that there is an observable universe—looking farther and farther away we see further and further back into time—and the limit to this observation is about 14 billion years. There is a reason for this limit, but we have to assume for now that there might be a lot of universe BEYOND those 14 billion years which we are unable to observe.

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—open parabolic curvature—no gravity. At a density greater than critical, the universe collapses back under the influence of gravity—circular geometry—closed universe. There are problems with the classical decelerating universe, but 21st century cosmology has found solutions to these by postulating the theory of inflation, or expanding faster than the speed of light. New calculations show that far from decelerating, the universe is actually ACCELERATING—and things become more complicated by an order of magnitude.

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—galactic-scale astronomy goes away) and the Big Rip (acceleration eventually becomes so great that it tears apart the atoms themselves and all is destroyed).

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—except that it was more of an exercise about what we would say to an extraterrestrial passing by as opposed to a serious discussion about what the SETI program is or was, and what its processes and achievements were.

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—we clearly observed its shadow crossing the planet). We saw the space station transit overhead. We saw several satellites, one of which showed us an "Iridium Flash"—Iridium was a phone company that put up a bunch of satellites to ensure coverage anywhere on earth. The company went bankrupt, but of course their satellites are still up there, and one point in their transit they turn at a particular angle and flash a brief and bright shaft of reflected sunlight earthwards; when the angle of the satellite and the sun and the observer are perfectly synchronised.... Some people make it a hobby to calculate when and where, precisely, an Iridium Flash can be observed.

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—in a critical launch window, essential for the eventual arrival of the Rovers to where they were supposed to be—the software for them was not yet ready, so they were launched anyway and the software was uploaded later, remotely, to another world....

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—from here on, it's all DATA. But, we were reminded, the ideal sequence of events for developing a scientific idea requires a certain element—the Tycho Brahe (data collection), the Johannes Kepler (looks at data and sees patterns—don't know why it's true but it happens and we can make a case for it, or see it), the Isaac Newton (looks at data and at patterns and says, I can EXPLAIN that) element. We still need the human mind, the human insight, the human inspiration.

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—air, food, water, shelter. Things can go downhill fast—air circulation and recirculation to prevent the deterioration of air quality is an ongoing problem, as is the predicament of making food actually taste good up there—you can get a little stuffed up for physiological reasons, which makes things taste bland. (It might be different for kids born in space.) We were also given some tips on using astronomy in space, from the great editor Stanley Schmidt who reportedly said, "Tell them that it's unlikely to have a habitable planet around stars that have names"—these stars are easily visible, and have been so for long enough to have recognisable names, because they are really really hot or have gone into red giant stage and are incinerated everything in their path.

The final formal presentation of the workshop, subtitled "Quasar absorption lines—studying gas that you can't see using (UV) light that isn't there," was given by University of Wyoming post-doc Ranjib Ganguly. We were given no quarter, no hints. A slide would be presented, and then Ranjib would look at the class with a wicked glint in his eye and ask to know what happens next. And we WORKED IT OUT. From the lectures that had gone before, from the discussions and observations that we had had over the course of the week, from having sat there with minds wide open and drinking in knowledge—we figured it out. There were a few stumbles on the way, but the class of poets and artists and writers and microbiologists and anthropologists and copy-editors and theatre people and amateur astronomers figured it out after a single week of being immersed in star-stuff. It was a proud moment.

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—it will require a whole new state of mind. It's a fascinating universe out there, ready to be traveled, assimilated, and understood.

Some useful websites:

Copyright © 2008, Alma Alexander. All Rights Reserved.


Oct 7, 05:29 by IROSF
Express opinions on the Con or the article here.

Find the article here.
Oct 22, 22:30 by Mike Brotherton
Launch Pad 2009 will be July 14-21, featuring Joe Haldeman as guest instructor, and we'll also have another special guest for a couple of days from the astro side.

Applications will open in February or March.
Nov 14, 03:45 by
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