Saturday, January 26, 2013

Exploring the Universe Together

NGC 4594, the Sombrero Galaxy
Recently Kaleesha put up a pretty fantastic couple of posts. The first, Creation, the Big Bang or Both? is one in which she shares her current attempts to better understand the Big Bang. It has been very interesting to read about her intellectual journey since her rejection of Christianity several months ago and inspiring to see her push on in her search for truth. In her second post, Astronomical Scattershooting (what a great phrase, eh?), she provided a wonderful description of her current explorations of the universe as an amateur astronomer. My  post here is something that grew out of my initial comment to her on her blog.

What I enjoy most about being an amateur astronomer is learning about the Universe through a blended process of observing distant objects  and then reading about those objects in the Wikipedia which is usually supplemented by a related episode of Astronomy Cast.  It adds so much to my life to be able to look up through a telescope and view the Sombrero galaxy, to really take it in and ponder its existence.  I wonder, who may be there and are they looking out in this direction?  In my last viewing of that galaxy I spent nearly 30 minutes allowing my eyes to adjust and taking the time to notice the details. After a time of looking through the scope and seeing so many beautiful objects, supplemented by the research, I can say that now when I look up with my naked eyes I see it all very differently. There is now a deeper awareness brewing in me, fermenting knowledge, of the details and I more fully appreciate what I see and the emotions I experience as a result.

But of course we don't explore this Universe alone do we? At the forefront we have a global community of scientists cooperating and collaborating and challenging one another through this amazing process we call science. This open community, based on finding the mistakes and correcting the theories and adding in the details as they are discovered with newer, better instrumentation, sets the example for how we can better get at the truth. It is a never ending process, an ongoing adventure and exploration of our Universe and one we can all take part in. Those of us that are not scientists have a role as well.

As citizens of our planet it is our responsibility to make our own effort to learn and to explore. It is our responsibility to reach out, to share and engage with one another and with the knowledge being produced. The internet is allowing for increased communication between the public and the scientific community. For those interested in astronomy and related fields there are the sites I mentioned a couple days ago: CosmoQuest,  the Planetary Society and the Citizen Science Alliance, all of which have at their core mission an attempt to engage the public and even to create a space for them to participate. Most of these groups are also involved with Google+ hangouts which allow for real-time video conferencing with the scientists doing the work. If you can't be around to watch live they are all archived on YouTube. For example, here's the Planetary Society's Channel.

There is an essential trait that we need to borrow from the scientific community before we can move forward: a willingness to embrace our mistakes and our ignorance. It seems to have become a common cultural trait to fear our fallibility but such fear holds us back from moving forward as individuals as well as collectively. Not so in the scientific community which is based upon a willingness to fail and a recognition that with failure comes knowledge and a better understanding of the Universe. It is in the moment of embracing failure, mistakes, and ignorance that we grow.

It is perhaps one of the great failings of the past 60 years that we have come to think of ourselves as alone and with that we have come to feel isolated, alienated. In that kind of world it is easy to become fearful and when we live in a culture of fear and insecurity we tend to avoid failure. We avoid growth out of fear of failure and we avoid accepting our mistakes because to do so is to admit we are fallible.

Fortunately, for us, the Universe that we actually inhabit is not one in which we can ever be alone or alienated, at least not physically. We might come to feel separated and alone in our minds due to our perception and our culture, but as far as the reality of the physical Universe that we live in, we are all very much connected:
When I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than most of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, because they’re small, the Universe is big — but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity — that’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings on and activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.” - Neil DeGrasse Tyson
It is natural for us to share what we know or think we know and it is natural for us to be curious. It is these natural desires, coupled with critical thought and the scientific method that we can lift ourselves up and, just as importantly, lift one another up. We have great challenges before us but in teaching one another and encouraging one another we can do remarkable things. In our cooperation we have the opportunity to co-create something beautiful: each other.

We truly are in this together. There is no such thing as alone in this Universe and the sooner we remember that, feel that, and understand that, the sooner we can get on being whole again. We are but one species sharing this planet sharing this cosmos. I did not know Kaleesha or her husband or children until just a couple months ago and am thankful to Bill (another of our community and local librarian) for sending them my way when they indicated interest in astronomy. As a result they have become an important part of our little outpost of science advocates in this out of the way rural community. As long as I'm expressing my appreciation I think I'll also mention how happy I am to have connected to Frances, Russ, Angie and Karen, all humans with which I am grateful to have met since moving to this little corner of the Universe and who have shared the exploration with me.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Eastern Ozarks Astronomy Society First Night!

A brief report on what was happening in Madison County Missouri last night. It was one of those nights that just seemed... perfect. This was our first group viewing session since forming the Eastern Ozarks Astronomy Society which kinda makes it seem official and made it seem something of an occasion.

My friend Russ Middleton got some great photos and one of our new members, Kaleesha, and her girls had a look at a nice variety of nebulae: Orion, Pac Man, Eskimo and M1, the Crab. We also took a look at Jupiter and ended the group viewing with Bode's Nebulae, M81 and M82. Lots of great astronomy talk about the Cosmic Microwave Background, the Bing Bang, and how astronomers (and science in general) come to know things through the scientific method.

After everyone left I warmed up inside for a couple hours and went back out after the moon set. I logged 13 galaxies, a planetary nebula and a globular cluster, M68. Five of those were Messiers bringing my total on that list to 103, just 7 more to go! Messier 104, the Sombrero, was really impressive and with averted vision I was able to make out the dust lane. M68, was really beautiful with many of its stars nicely resolved. I also added nine more to my list of viewed Herschels, bringing me up to 241 out of 400.

The last object viewed from 4:20-5am was Saturn. This was, by far, the best view of the planet I've ever had in my life and honestly, I think I could have cried but it would have ruined the view so I didn't let it happen. It was so otherworldly, and yet, so familiar an image. Viewing Saturn is always special but when it is so perfectly clear, it can be much more.

I saw at least 5 of the moons as well as the Cassini Division in the rings, a first for me. Also saw clouds/color bands, another first for me. Sometimes language fails me.

I can think of no better way to spend a night than this.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Advocating for Science Literacy and Reason

I've always been a big fan of getting at the truth of things no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable we may be getting there. It's something I've insisted on and many times in my life it has caused me a good bit of trouble. That said, I don't feel I have much choice in the matter. It's the activist and the radical in me. It is, perhaps sad, that insisting on the truth might, today, be considered radical. I suppose when you look at the definition of "radical" it does speak to the search for truth. According to the New Oxford American dictionary, radical is: "relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough."

In recent months my small town life got a bit rough in terms of some of my relationships. Specifically, those relationships which I'd developed with local conservatives. It was my intent to cross lines, to try to relate to my fellow humans as humans regardless of their political or cultural leanings. As a result, I'd gotten to be "friends" with quite a few folks that I tended not to agree with on many things. They knew and I knew those differences existed but we made a go of it. But eventually those differences presented themselves front and center and some of those friendships ended in turmoil.

What I am coming face to face with in rural Missouri is the hard truth that many rural residents are not comfortable with having their beliefs challenged, most notably their religious beliefs. Some are able to co-exist with science and accept the possibility that their belief in a higher power can be retained along with an acceptance of science. Others don't seem able to bridge the gap but tend to remain neutral. Some are resistant to the point of hostility.

I have pondering for some time what seems to be an innate tension that exists between religion and science. This is a very real and very serious problem and manifests itself in important and basic elements of science education, namely the teaching of the Big Bang, evolution and climate science. Creationism and intelligent design (a version of creationism promoted by the Discovery Institute) are not, in any way, valid alternatives to evolution. Nor does the fundamentalist Christian community provide any kind of explanation or description of the origin of the universe and yet, they have established an influence in public education on this as well. While the U.S. has downgraded and simplified math and science education other countries are making great progress.

My intent here is to explicitly advocate for science literacy and reason. Evolution, the Big Bang, climate change are all areas of science that have been, to a great degree, settled. While there are many in this and other rural areas who do understand the importance of science as a method for understanding the world and as a basis of progress, there are many who do not. A part of the problem comes from the churches, from organized religion who are crossing lines in terms of social and political advocacy which cannot be tolerated. Another part of the problem is the confused and sloppy thinking that comes from religious belief. I would argue that religion, as it is based on faith, actually requires a level of rejection of reason and the scientific method. At the core, science is the search for truth while religion is advocacy of a belief in something that can never be shown to be true.

I'd like to explicitly support a few organizations that are doing important work that you can support and in some cases actually participate in via citizen science projects.

CosmoQuest is one of my favorites. From their website:

Our goal is to create a community of people bent on together advancing our understanding of the universe; a community of people who are participating in doing science, who can explain why what they do matters, and what questions they are helping to answer. We want to create a community, and here is where we invite all of you to be a part of what we’re doing.
There are lots of ways to get involved: You can contribute to science, take a class, join a conversation, or just help us spread the word by sharing about us on social media sites.
Like every community, we are constantly changing to reflect our members. This website will constantly be growing and adding new features. Overtime, we're going to bring together all the components of a research learning environment (aka grad school), from content in the form of classes, resources, and a blog, to research in the form of citizen science, to social engagement through a forum, social media, and real world activities.
Another is the National Center for Science Education.
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a not-for-profit, membership organization providing information and resources for schools, parents, and concerned citizens working to keep evolution and climate science in public school science education. We educate the press and public about the scientific and educational aspects of controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution and climate change, and supply needed information and advice to defend good science education at local, state, and national levels. Our 4500 members are scientists, teachers, clergy, and citizens with diverse religious and political affiliations.

Last but not least is The Planetary Society, co-founded by Carl Sagan and currently headed by Bill Nigh.
The Planetary Society sponsors projects that will seed innovative space technologies, nurture creative young minds, and be a vital advocate for our future in space.

Why we do it
Our Mission is to create a better future by exploring other worlds and understanding our own.

Current projects include:
  • Fighting for funding in Congress
  • Developing new technologies to deflect asteroids
  • Hunting for Earth-like planets
  • Searching for intelligent life in the Universe
  • Creating a global network of EarthDials
  • And flying our very own solar sail spacecraft, Lightsail-1.

Interested in getting your hands dirty with some citizen science? Of course you are! Check out the Zooniverse which is a project of the Citizen Science Alliance.
The Zooniverse began with a single project, Galaxy Zoo , which was launched in July 2007. The Galaxy Zoo team had expected a fairly quiet life, but were overwhelmed and overawed by the response to the project. Once they'd recovered from their server buckling under the strain, they set about planning the future!

Galaxy Zoo was important because not only was it incredibly popular, but it produced many unique scientific results, ranging from individual, serendipitous discoveries to those using classifications that depend on the input of everyone who's visited the site. This commitment to producing real research - so that you know that we're not wasting your time - is at the heart of everything we do.

Real Science Online
The Zooniverse and the suite of projects it contains is produced, maintained and developed by the Citizen Science Alliance. The member institutions of the CSA work with many academic and other partners around the world to produce projects that use the efforts and ability of volunteers to help scientists and researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them.
My favorite thus far is Planet Hunters which I have participating in. It's very easy and exciting to know that I'm actually doing some of the preliminary work required to find planets around distant stars.

Of course there are others but these are the ones I wanted to mention today.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Second night with the Z12

Little Dumbbell
My planned highlight for Sunday night's chilly adventure was the Crab Nebula, but, though it was nice, it was not much improved over what is visible with the 8".  The highlight of the night, as it turned out, was the Little Dumbbell Nebula. While it is less impressive in what it is (when compared to the Crab), it was a bit more interesting to look at! While the Crab presents a fairly large object in the eyepiece it is mostly just a nebulous cloud with no structure. I have read that with scopes of 16" structure and detail begin to emerge but at 12" it's still just a gas cloud. The Little Dumbbell presents a nice object with a very interesting, much more compact and defined shape.

There were several nice open clusters in the constellation Monocerus and a whole slew of galaxies in Leo. 14 objects knocked off my Herschel 400 list plus just for fun looks at Andromeda, Jupiter and the Orion Nebula. Almost 7 hours, 21 degrees when I came inside and started a fire at 2am! A great night!

Monday, January 07, 2013

12" Zhumell Dobsonian Review and First Light

Pardon the rope, the Telrad was not permanently
attached at the time fo the photo!
This post will serve both as a review of the new telescope as well as a report on the previous two nights of viewing with it. So, yes, unexpectedly I purchased a new scope. I'd planned to purchase a 16" this spring/summer but upon seeing the current prices of the Z12 I decided that, based on my budget, spending $750 now would be much wiser than $2,000 later. As much as I would appreciate the added light gathering of the 16" the 12" is a substantial upgrade from the 8" and should be enough for now.

The scope arrived in good shape in undamaged boxes. I had it put together in an hour and that was taking my time. This is a huge scope for one person to safely maneuver. I'll be happy to have it in a permanent location with shed that will get rolled back during use.

Collimation before first light was a bit tricky. I'd read that the laser collimators that ship with these are out of collimation themselves and are of no use until they are collimated first. I set about doing that but adjustment screws are of a size (allen wrench) I do not have. Luckily my observing buddy Russ had his. Getting the secondary aligned was easy enough. The primary mirror, on the other hand, not so much. It seems that the tension springs in the adjustment bolts are pretty weak. As I turned them this way and that it became clear that I was going to have a hard time getting the mirror where it needed to go. Then it occurred to me that the lock screws, while not intended for adjustment, often do effect the mirror when tightened down so I tried turning a them a bit and presto, I had a collimated mirror.

This is a big mirror that will often need cooling down which is why they include a fan. I have not used it yet because I had it out in the shade on the first day and in the well house the second day so it was cooled off and ready to go at dark.

A few words about the hardware on the scope before I delve into what I saw with it. Everything seems very solid.  I've not used the finder scope yet because I ordered a Telrad and have used it both nights. That said, the finder seems decent in terms of construction. The big plastic cover for the OTA (optical tube assembly) is a pretty loose fit so I'll have to do something about that. Of course the stand is particle board like all of these mass production units but seems solid enough for now. Movement of the scope is very smooth and it is very well balanced. I WILL upgrade to a home built birch plywood stand at some point. All in all, the scope seems very well built. I've encountered no problem other than the above mentioned weak tension springs on the collimation screws that I'll replace and the loose cover.  As you can see from the photo, this is a huge scope and not something I want to move much.

The dual-speed Crayford focuser is very smooth and a nice upgrade over the focuser on the XT8. Being able to fine tune the adjustment is a very nice benefit of this focuser.

First Light for the new scope was Friday night and it was perfectly clear for it! My intent was to spend some time just getting familiar with the bigger scope and compare some of the views with what I've seen with the 8". There's no doubt it is impressive.

First object viewed was Jupiter and it looked great. The main difference, given good seeing conditions, is a sharper image. The 8" struggles with the 5mm EP but provides a fairly crisp image with really good seeing conditions. The 12" provides an even sharper image with a few more details  in the cloud bands and also seems to have a little more tolerance of poorer conditions though I won't know for certain until I've used it more. Of course the same eyepieces also provide higher magnification due to the different focal length. The 5mm needed for detailed planetary viewing gives me 240x in 8", but 300x in the 12". So, not only is it a sharper image but it is also more magnified. Even better, I could, push it to even higher magnification if given the right eyepieces/barlow whereas 240x is the upward limit for the 8".

Next up for comparison was M31, M32, M110: The Andromeda Galaxy and it's satellites. This is a big and very bright object so what I was hoping for was some detail. With the 8" I get a big and beautiful view but no detail. With the 12" I am seeing some structure. It is especially noticeable with the 11mm Explore Scientific 82 degree (provides a wider field of view than standard lenses). At that level of magnification I am seeing a smaller picture but I do see the dust lanes which I don't think I'm seeing at lower magnification. In all the EPs the 3 objects are beautiful and the more faint M110 is much more defined and easy to see.

Next on the list, the Orion Nebula which never disappoints! In the 8" the nebula presents a fantastic view and in the 12" it is a fantastic view. More detail is visible and some of the dark areas are more pronounced. I'll have to spend more time observing before I can offer any more detail.

Now we are getting closer to those things which I expect will really benefit from the 12". Specifically, globular clusters, faint nebula, and distant galaxies. A great example would be something like NGC 2158 which is very rich open cluster in Gemini which almost seems like a loose globular cluster. In the 8" it presents as a nebulous sphere with little to no resolution of stars. In my first attempt to see it back in September I failed with the 8" due to deteriorating atmospheric conditions. The second attempt the next night was a success but the view provided little detail. By contrast, the 12" presented  this cluster as very easy to see and with much greater detail as many stars are resolved. Through the 12" this cluster of stars is now exactly that, a cluster of stars and not just a nebulous sphere.

My next target was the Pacman Nebula, NGC 281 in Cassiopeia. With the 8"  I had no success finding it even with the NPB nebula filter. With the 12" it was easy to see.

After that, a trip to Bode's Nebulae, two easily visible galaxies in Ursa Major. These are easy to find, I was hoping for greater detail. Unfortunately I didn't get much but more than likely that was due to my not taking the time. The night was getting on and I wanted to get some of my remaining Herschel 400 so this is by no means conclusive. I fully suspect that when I revisit and spend more time on these I will indeed see some new structure.

Last on the list were my remaining Herschel 400 galaxies in Ursa Major, 11 to 12 magnitude. While the 8" would make these visible they are often incredibly faint. With the 12" they were easy to find with little to no effort... it was so easy I almost felt like I was cheating! They don't provide much in the way of detail but certainly more than is visible with the smaller scope. I'm sure I'll have more to say about viewing these fainter objects as I spend more time with the Z12. Suffice it to say that the light gathering capability of a 12" scope is fantastic.

I'd intended to offer up the second night's viewing but I'm going to save it for the next post as this is getting quite long! Stay tuned.

Just to let you know

A couple posts today... this first is just to let folks know that I WILL get back to permaculture/homestead related writing at some point! But the simple reality is that in the winter there's not a whole lot going on in that area. At the moment my day-to-day routine consists primarily of reading, occasional freelance web work, starting fires and keeping them going, tending to critters, and getting the telescope out on clear nights. As we get closer to spring I'll update a bit on the garden and food forest plans.