anghara: (travel icon)
Left Laramie amidst much hugs and fond farewells by 7:30AM - actually, it was a little more complicated than that, I was getting a lift in with Steve Gould and Laura Mixon and David Marusek, and I was supposed to meet them outside to load up the car at five to seven so we could go grab breakfast and then go immediately. Well, I couldn't sleep until some godawful hour - 3 AM or something stupid like that - so I got up, went on the net, and finally crawled back into bed about forty minutes later - and then fell asleep like poleaxed and woke up at 10 to six and it was a good thing I had packed the night before because I literally fell out of that room and started the day racing. Grab breakfast. Get into car. Okay, the next bit was restful because we went the back way and it was scenic to the max, but still - get into Denver airport. Ask if there are any earlier flights I could go on standby for. There were two, one at 11.44 and the other at 1:44, and I was put on standby for both but not checked into my actual booked flight which was supposed to leave at 2:50. So flight #1 turned out to be massively overbooked with supposedly ticketed passengers outnumbering the seats on the plane never mind any standby possibilities, and then flight #2 was delayed first until 2:30 and then until 3:00 which would have meant leaving LATER than I was supposed to so I raced back and got checked in to my flight - and it was playing ping pong with gates, I swear, there was a malicious force at work - first flight at gate 47 (THAT way) the second flight at gate 27 (Back in the OTHER direction), customer service (to get checked in - back across towards 47 again) and my own flight's gate (37 - back the OTHER way. I was halfway to looking for the candid camera.

No Internet at Denver. They have free WiFi, it told me I was connected and gave me an excellent signal, but I could not open a single thing in the browser. Twenty minutes with a tech support guy on the phone (they gave me a 1-800 number) yielded no joy. Growl. Didn't have time or the concetration to do anything much else. Fell onto flight, finally, which was on time. Am in Seattle, waiting for my final flight back to Bellingham. I will have been on the run at a furious pace for over 12 hours by the time I get into Bellingham. I am just... fuzzy around the edges by this time, dammit.

Tired. Tired tired tired.

Launchpad was worth it.

[ profile] maryrobinette beat me to what I had already thought about doing - and would have done if the Internet hadn't been so annoying today - and that is, do a final Launchpad post with links to all of my reports in chronological order for those who don't want to wade back all the way winnowing them out. So I'll do that tomorrow.

From HOME.

God, I can't wait to get a good night's SLEEP.

Hope the folks at Denvention are having a ball - will someone tell me how the Launchpad panel went, please?...

Back to work tomorrow, sorting out stuff I brought back/learned from Launchpad, I have a story to write and I have to get back to my novel (which I optimistically brought with me to work on while at Launchpad and, um, didn't do much with over there (when do you think I got the time to write those copious blog reports...?) So - back to, as it were, Earth tomorrow.

See you soon somewhere under glow of the Milky Way.
anghara: (stars)
The afternoon kicked off with a talk on quasars by Ranjib Ganguly, subtitled
"Quasar absorption lines – studying gas that you can’t see using (UV) light that isn’t there."

We began by discussing quasar absorption lines. )

That sound you heard right about at the end there, that was the sound of several minds imploding.

It makes SENSE, it all makes SENSE, but I will seriously need some quiet study time before it all really sinks in...

But we weren't done yet. [ profile] prof_brotherton was back at the podium with a fresh batch of slides.

Exoplanets )

[ profile] prof_brotherton took a moment to tell us about his own amazing research (how often do you get to hear someone say, "These are MY Hubble images" while pointing at a slew of astonishing quasar pictures that are doing nifty recombinational things...?) He is working on post-starburst quasars (starburst - lots of stars formed all at once). Was this the result of collisions? So telescope was pointed to the right coordinates to search the heavens for these quasars, and what came back were awesome photographs, some showing imminent mergers and others the aftermath of one, and one spectacular one perhaps in the midst of what is apparently a TRIPLE merger.

We had lots and lots of URLs flung about during this week, and [ profile] prof_brotherton has collected some of them together here for archival purposes. There a few more which have crept into my own reports. They're all worth a look, esepcially the ones with pictures of spiral galaxies. I think I am irretrievably in love with spiral galaxies. I swear I could go out and hug the Milky Way.

We took a group photo next to an antique telescope on display in the physics building - perhaps one of the others has linked to a copy already, I have yet to download mine and I might post it here when I do but right now we have a very early departure for Denver scheduled tomorrow and I haven't packed yet. So I shall end here - with my heartfelt respect and affection to those who shared this amazing experience with me, to the instructors who taught us, and my immense gratitude to Mike Brotherton for putting it all together. I am tired, and overflowing with information and star-passion, and ready to sleep now, and dream about newborn stars gleaming in the sparkling arms of spiral galaxies.

Tomorrow, home.
anghara: (stars)
We had two talks this morning.

The first was by visiting lecturer Ruben Gamboa, on the subject of computing in astronomy.

Computers and beyond )

Jerry Oltion returned to present the second session of the morning, on humans in space.

Human )

That's the morning. The final afternoon sessions - see next post...
anghara: (stars)
We had a hands-on session which showed us how those pretty coloured pictures of stars and galaxies and nebulae which we all so love are actually MADE - because telescope cameras produce these grainy black and white shots crammed with artifacts and noise all of which need to be accounted for and dealt with before the picture is remotely ready for public viewing.

We primarily worked with the image of the Ring Nebula which the nice fellows up at WIRO took for us - it is obstinately grainy, because of very short exposures, but it was electric watching that thing metamorphose and blossom into this wonderful deep-space coloured torus hanging out in darkest space. (Perhaps this would be a good place to note that the image capture program that astronomers use is called... DS9. Yes, after Star Trek. I am immensely tickled by this.)

That one was mine. [ profile] maryrobinette wound up with a better one, see below:

We also worked with some really cool images of spiral galaxies and globular clusters, playing around with the imaging programs IDL and tctools, where you combine three layers (red, green, blue) and then make a full colour image, and then you can manipulate the levels of each layer so you get more or less red, blue or green - and sometimes very small changes produce startling transformations.

Pretty Pictures Under Cut! )

In a nutshell, all telescope images are grainy B&W and they get manipulated into the beautiful colour images we have learned to know and love – need to take a dark exposure (to subtract from exposure) and a flattening image (focus on white, to even out pixel levels) and have to deal with artefacts such as cosmic rays and then you manipulate the resulting image with colour. The grainier, the shorter the exposure was.

This was SO COOL. I could have happily stayed there and juggled galaxies all afternoon.

But we had other things to do, and so we left the computers (very reluctantly in my case) and came back to the classroom for the lecture on SETI. That was the only thing in the description of the program - "SETI" - and given the hard-science focus of the rest of the workshop what I expected (and rather hoped for) was an overview of the SETI program, how it started, what it accomplished, the methods that were used, all that. Instead, we got... a lecture on how to communicate with ET. There was actually a vivid discussion on the matter both during and after class because there were differing and passionately held opinions on the matter, but down below is a summary of what we did in that class.


The five c’s that might motivate a writer to communicate with an alien

CRAFT – it would stretch the writer in ways that would possibly help in the rest of their writing (for humans) writing outside the comfort zone
CONSCIOUSNESS – deeper inquiry into explorations of themselves and the human condition – the message may never be sent, or received, or understood – but it puts across to another kind of intelligence what it means to be human
COULD HAPPEN – it COULD be sent, received, read, interpreted. Probability is very small but it is not zero – an element of immortality, influence, power, responsibility – an element of seriousness – you might well be the first ambassador to an alien culture
CULTURE – promote an appreciation of space science and space faring culture – science cradling the creative imagination of an artist

These came from a workshop the presenter did with writers

So did exercises with the writers

Assume aliens are passing through our system at really fast but still relativistic speeds giving time for one single brief encounter, enough time for five questions to be asked of them. We were supposed to come up with five questions we would ask.

1) what is the purpose of your journey?
2) what have you seen on your way here?
3) what do you hope to take/learn from this meeting?
4) do you dream?
5) what does “home” mean?

Then we all had to pick the best out of the five of the person next to us.

What does “home” mean?
What is the most important thing you have to tell us?
What would you like to learn from us?
What is your origin?
How does your work?
What life forms have you encountered?
Can we swap one of your beings for one of ours?
What is your biological basis?
How is your craft moved?
Is your consciousness housed in a physical body?
When will you come again?
How would you describe yourselves to us?
Will you send us images of yourselves?
Will you trade goods or information with us?

Second part of exercise – assume that as we were sending them questions they were doing the same back at us – and these were the questions WE received (with obvious omissions, concerning ship propulsion etc). So, now, choose ONE question and answer on behalf of humanity.

Here’s mine:

“What does ‘home’ mean?

We have physical senses through which we experience the world we live in, a place that is probably completely unlike anywhere else. Nowhere else will you smell the freshness of the air after a spring rain, or feel the roughness of granite beneath your hand, or hear an eagle’s cry, or see a sequoia. There may be similar things on other worlds, but “home” means the place where you instinctively know and understand the things that surround you and know yourself to be a part of something that needs to include these things and yourself in order to feel complete.

One more exercise
Complementary modalities
Two challenges

Craft a piece (poem, scene, meditation, whatever) about something about human beings that is prime, foundational – BUT you have to do it in terms of prime numbers


Fibonacci series

1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34, 55 (add two numbers to get the next one)

Or write about the importance of pattern, we are powerfully gifted at recognition of pattern


[the prime poem]
[1,2,3,5,7,11,13,17,23, 29, 31, 33]

1 I

2 Am not

3 Alone in this

5 Huge frightening empty starlit void

7 That presses down upon us when we

11 Raise our eyes to the sky. Rather, what I see

13 are the bright eyes of our ancestors, the stars from which we

17 first sprang. Each atom, every molecule in my body and my blood
and my bone once lived

19 deep within a sun, and sometimes in the silence of the starlit
night they remember where they came from.

23 The quiet star dreams that stir within me when I raise my eyes to
the brightness of the sky will always remind me

29 of my origins, and my destination, the places where I have been
and the places I am still to go, a road stretching out before me,
lit only by

31 the ancient light of suns remembered, living only within me, and
light that travelled far to spill itself at my feet, light from my
past that comes to light my future

(see how that compares to the one I wrote just before I came to Launchpad, minus the goad of the writing exercise...)

Other people came up with really spectacular stuff, in particular David Levine who blew me away and Mary Robinette Kowal

10 quick lessons that the presenter derived from teaching this course on extraterrestrial message composition:

“I don’t know” – in any other context I know what a “good” piece looks like, but I don’t know my audience (they are alien to us and they will not think the way we do) would a complete piece of garbage appeal to them far more than the most carefully crafted message we could come up with? I know what good writing is but what is a good message for an ET?

“Writing?” – why writing? How would we know that they even have a concept of writing as we know it, particularly of the kind of often rarefied offerings that come out of these exercises? Is there going to be a complete translation gap? Will they understand the concept of the written word? Art says something “interesting” rather than “just the facts, ma’am” about us. (Laura disagrees – she thinks that a technologically based species has to have a grasp of the fundamentals of the universe and anyone looking for us is looking for patterns of sentience and they might not recognize poetry as such)

“Absurdity” – the absurdity of writing, the notion that what I put on the page will be understood by whoever reads it? But what if stop short of aliens and write for each other – for people of different background or language group or in some other way strange – what do these people get out of a piece of writing? Is it possible to understand something even if you share nothing but the basic fact of being human? Metaphor can be divisive – the punchline of a joke can fall flat if the background culture is not shared in a common metaphor

“Alien” – alien is arguably one of the most modern concepts in modern culture. Why would communicating with an EXTRATERRESTRIAL alien be so iimpossible if we could figure out how to communicate with the aliens amongst ourselves?

“The 1st act of creation” – it’s the creation of your reader. Usually it’s a given but with the “alien” audience you cannot assume anything at all and it forces the writer to take a whole other look at ordinary (and often actively dangerous) assumptions or conclusions that might have been leaped to

“universal and particular” – what it means to be human is to experience the PARTICULAR – a philosophical treatise just doesn’t have the impact of the particular and direct – grief does not equal a philosophical treatise but one writer wrote a series of eulogies for different losses and different contexts – a newborn baby, an AIDS victim, an old man… (should try that)

“whole being” – nature of human is to be an embodied mind so you can’t leave out one of those two, being human is being integrated as mind/body

“serious play” – there’s a sense of responsibility – you might speak for humanity after all – but at the same time you’re playing with words, with concepts, with ideas, with the possibility of “translating” metaphor and what it can mean to an alien mind

“complementarity” – use modalities that complement one another – e.g. poems based on primes, or describing a scene without using vision but with all other senses – you really have to work at it

“prayerfulness” – the nature of faith. What is faith? Can our aliens be strict empiricists and have no concept of faith as we understand it?

“it’s entirely possible that the math won’t work; it’s probable that the poetry won’t work” david levine

The overarching lesson is that the challenge and discipline of communicating with the other makes people better writers by virtue of casting communication in this context.
But it ends up as a self developmental exercise. When we communicate with an alien what we say next depends on what their response was to our first communication – it will be a dialogue, not a presentation. You cannot anticipate this in any way. So any idea of “practicing” communication with aliens is absurd in the extreme because by definition we cannot possibly know anything beyond a first step and even that is often unknowable because the first step – offering up communication – does NOT mean full mutual comprehension and will start out, and probably remain, and probably remain for a long time and possibly forever, as mutual incomprehension. Is “practicing” just navel gazing?

A little disappointed in this session. I can do writing exercises any time. I wanted to know more about the SETI program or programs out there, SETI@home perhaps, what the science behind the idea of SETI is and how it is applied and where and what, if anything, has been achieved so far. I would have liked to see Arecibo data. I would have liked to see, in the context of this particular workshop of all places, a serious look at a potential alien encounter and what we are doing to look for another sentient race rather than doing arguably interesting but fundamentally overtaken in terms of importance and meaning to the writers in this room (writing exercises).

Okay, it was fun, but I wanted more from this one.


A night of amateur astronomy on the physics building roof – two nifty telescopes of differing types (one of them computerized tracking), night goggles and a pair of plain garden variety binoculars. Lots of light pollution here so the milky way not so bright and beautiful – but we did see several interesting things.

We looked at Antares. we looked at the Wild Duck cluster, and at the same Ring Nebula which we looked at when we were at WIRO. We looked at Andromeda through night goggles and binoculars. We looked at Jupiter, and saw it and three of its moons, one of which was in the process of transiting the planet and we clearly saw its shadow crossing the planet. We saw the space station transit overhead. We saw several satellites, one of which showed us what was described as an Iridium Flash, which has a story to it. Apparently Iridium was a phone company which put up a bunch of satellites to ensure that they had coverage anywhere you were on earth. The company eventually went bankrupt - but of course the satellites are still up there. At a certain point in their transit they turn at a certain 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 absolutely perfectly synchronised. Apparently some people make it a hobby to calculate when and where, precisely, an Iridium Flash could be observed. We also saw another couple or four shooting stars, and lots of bats (twinkle twinkle little bat…)

Then home, and bed.
anghara: (stars)
We were talking Cosmology.

These notes will probably have to be updated and rehashed later as I play catch-up - because by
this stage the astronomy train was moving so fast that I barely had time to grab any notes at all if I wanted to keep listening to what was coming next - and everything that was coming next seemed just as important if not more so than the presentation slide that just slipped by without my having time to catch more than a couple of keywords off it. Astronomy 101 in a week is a lot of fun but it's *hard work*.

We did start out with two URLs - Ned Wright's cosmology page, with sections on tutorials with lots of answers lots of questions and Java simulations and a cosmology calculator, and Wayne Hu's page, with more tutorials and FAQs, and I suspect I'll have to return there at some point before this all comes completely clear to me.

The Expanding Universe )

History of the Universe in Time and Temperature )

Cosmological principles )

The Fate of the Universe )

There you have it. The fate of the universe in a single blog entry. Dark energy, indeed.

I'll have to go over this session a bit more meticulously later to fill in gaps left by slides that whipped on and whipped off far too quickly, but this is the bare-bones version of it. And I'm still thinking about it all.
anghara: (stars)
Yes, I'm splitting this one. When you spend a morning playing with galaxies and dark matter, you kind of need to give them their own space.

Um. So to speak.

It was [ profile] prof_brotherton's day to lecture again and he picked up this morning more or less where we left off the previous night.

Galaxies are fascinating )

Dark Matter! )

History of the Milky Way )

So, what else do you want to know about galaxies? )

Pant, pant, pant...

Okay. That is QUITE enough for one night. Past midnight now, local time. I better get to bed. The rest of today I will catch up on tomorrow, which is also the last day of Launchpad.

But before I go - we got a book recommendation today, apparently one of the worst books ever written, with a "read it if you dare" warning. Now, of course, I have to go find that sucker. The title is apparently "Galaxy 666". I will have to hunt for that one - it was recommended by such GUSTO that I want to at least have a taste of it now, especially when I know all this stuff about galaxies now and can gleefully pick holes in the thing...


See y'all tomorrow.

Eye candy

Aug. 4th, 2008 11:12 am
anghara: (stars)

You can see the new star-forming regions in the spiral arms...
anghara: (Default)
Okay, but we'll get to that.

Our morning was spent up in the Vedauwoo area at something between 8000 and 8300 feet (heard conflicting reports on this from locals, will have to nail it down later). I was dithering about whether to go or not, what with the troubles I've had acclimating to the low humidity and high altitude of the place, but then finally decided to go anyway and try it and see how I felt when I got up there. They said there were picnic tables and if nothing else it would be pleasant to go and take some interesting photographs and just sit there in the shade of the pines.

Turns out Nancy Kress and I both decided, about one third of the way around the loop trail, that we had had enough, and returned to the staging area to wait for the others - we probably did a respectable two miles, counting there and back, but the sun was something fierce and despite the slatherings of sunscreen I didn't quite trust my Viking-pale skin not to turn on me - and there seemed to be a distinct dearth of oxygen in the air when it came to physical activity. So I took a lot of photos, had a nice walk, and then we all came back to the residence for a round of showers and went off to lunch at a nearby Mexican place.

[ profile] jaylake, [ profile] maryrobinette and I accompanied one of our instructors, Jim, back to the physics building for the set-up to the planetarium show. The planetarium is located in the sub-basement of the physics building, and we were regaled by the stories of the legendary flood when a water main broke up on the fourth floor of the building and naturally all the water pooled in the lowest spot it could - the planetarium. They had a foot of water in there, and it took some heavy-duty rebuilding and refurbishing to get the thing running again... but their star ball is the old-fashioned mechanical kind, a thing of beauty in a sort of technopunk way full of gears and levers, but it is ageing and requires serious maintenance and refurbishment. Several things simply no longer worked - including the possibility to show the phases of the moon on the planetarium dome. Pity, I would have liked to see that.

Then we threw the rest of the official schedule out of the window because we were running very late and [ profile] prof_brotherton still had a lot to cover on stellar matters.

We learned about neutron stars, how they form, what they used to be, what they do, how they behave, what they are made of.

We learned about hypernovae, when supermassive red giants 25 times the mass of our sun implode at the core and send out a burst of gamma rays as they collapse from supergiant to black hole in *less than a second*. Now you see it, now you don't.

We talked about black holes, Schwartzchild's Radius, the event horizon.

We talked about binary systems and how pairs of stars affect one another. Sufficiently distant binary stars might each have a planetary system, or there might be a supersystem which is orbiting both stars at great distances... or, conceivably, both... This stuff is not only fascinating, it's starting to MAKE SENSE TO ME which is, in a way, scary. I had a lot of ideas and basic knowledge but much of it was bare-bones or rather shaky - I am learning an incredible amount, but I barely have time to keep up with my notes which are chaotic and terribly disorganised - I will have to sit down and take a good look at everything later and let it settle before I test the new boundaries of my knowledge. But so far I am not only learning a thousand new things every day but I am having a ball doing it.

Tomorrow, we tackle galaxies. And then, in the afternoon, we get to hands-on fiddle with the images they took for us at WIRO last night, making them look like the pretty pictures that we've all come to associate with high-power telescope images. And we get to take those pictures home. And we get to tell people, if not that we personally took those photographs, that we were at the very least there when they were being taken.

TOmorrow night, weather permitting, we are going to go up to the roof of the physics building and scope out the heavens with small microscopes. Let's hope that the clouds that gathered this afternoon sail away by then. But we got so phenomenally lucky up at WIRO when the heavens opened for us to peer inside that I wonder if we've used up our share of the goodwill of the gods. Ah, well, we shall see.

Another thing on the agenda tomorrow - a talk on SETI. I am looking forward to that.

More tomorrow - good night LJ.
anghara: (stars)
This should all have been posted yesterday but yesterday was already tomorrow when we came back from the WIRO observatory at Jelm and I was far too tired to do the day justice. So - recap -

After lunch, We had Jerry Oltion back in the lecturer's saddle with a talk on amaterur astronomy - a subject he is knowledgeable and obviously passionate about. We learned about the different kinds of mounts available for amateur telescopes and the relative advantages and disadvantages of them - including the trackball mount, something invented and made by Jerry himself. He showed us pictures of what was there to see with these telescopes, including some fabulous shots of the Moon and its craters (Jerry appears to have several "favourite" craters).

Then [ profile] prof_brotherton followed him with a lecture on stars. Where they are born, how they are born, where they spend their lives, how they die, what happens inside a stellar core. We learned about the spectral classification of stars, different kinds of nebulae and what happens in them, the Chandrasekhar limit. It was a packed and fascinating couple of hours, and I really need to just go away and THINK about everything for a bit just to get it shaken down into solid knowledge and not just fascination and awe. But what happened next blew THAT resolution all to hell.

We picked ourselves up - in three separate vehicles - at about 6 PM to go up to the WIRO observatory at Jelm, at 9500 feet (or so, I forget the exact altitude). We drove across Wyoming's prairie with its wide open skies, and a spectacular thunderstorm off to our left which laced the sky with massive traceries of lightning - there were horses grazing in the fields, under these wide skies, under indescribable light - pure picture postcard. THen we turned off down a short stretch of paved road, and then turned again into gravel road that wound up the mountainside - and soon the obervatory became visible, up there on the mountain top, the classic domed building perched on the ridge, and the excitement began to stir as it grew ever larger and closer.

When we arrived there, it was in time for a truly spectacular sunset, complete with the presence of that thunderstorm we had been pacing on our drive up, or some cousin of it - everyone was out there on the viewpoint snapping away at a sky which was an improbable colour of orange-red fading into purple at the edges - and then it sort of kind of began to rain.

If it rained the dome would not open. It was not happy news. 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 (well, for certain values of huge - I've certainly never seen bigger) telescope, 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. SOme people began playing poker to while away the time, others settled at a chess board. Some of us haunted the computer room and asked questions of our hosts, who showed us the images of the galaxy survey which they are currently working on. The resident cat, Nu Boots, weaved in and out of the crowd being exceedingly pretty and laid back (so I got my cat fix, too, playing with the Star Cat...)

I had pretty nearly given up hope when someone bounced in and said, "We have a hole in the sky."

We were in business.

Off we all went to the dome again. And it irised open again, and my God, the sky was full of stars above us. They injected liquid nitrogen into the camera box to cool everything down to the max and reduce vibration to a minimum, and the telescope swivelled on its gimballs until it was pointed straight up. And then we were all shooed off because the thing needed to be kept cool and we could all go into the lab and take our body heat away with us.

Inside the lab numbers on a screen scrolled by to show us where the thing was looking - they picked the Ring Nebula as a suitable object and took several 5-minute exposures of it which we will be doing the computer manipulations of back in class on Monday.Then Jerry suggested Stephens QUintet, a cluster of five galaxies in a single field of view, and [ profile] maryrobinette was looking up data on her laptop like a pro while the astronomers typed in coordinates and turned the telescope towards our destination.

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. [ profile] prof_brotherton had brought along the night vision goggles that we had played with in class the previous day and watching the sky through these was mindboggling. I hit upon the idea of trying to take a shot of the MIlky Way by holding my camera against the goggles and much to my astonishment it actually worked - I have this eerie green-tinged photo of Saturn and the Milky Way which may not be great photography but it is spectacular to the max. We were treated to more shooting stars, and I just could not get enough of the sky. THere were stars, stars EVERYWHERE, and I think I am seriously in love (and now I want a pair of night vision goggles of my own...)

It was close to 1 AM by the time we arrived back at the residence hall, and all I could really do was fall over. But there you are, that was the day that was.

On to Day 4...
anghara: (Default)
Saturday August 2, AM

Got a lift down to “historic downtown Laramie” this morning after breakfast and spent a couple of hours photographing the place and its idiosyncrasies – like, for instance, the bleached cowskulls on display in an antique store, not sure if they were for sale or just for atmosphere, and a saddle with a tapestry-worked seat, and a buffalo on skis (you think I’m kidding don’t you) and the “cowboy this” and “cowboy that” motif everywhere. I bought a hat. Okay, so shoot me. It’s one of those foldable packable ones, not too large, and entirely cute – and now I fit right into the Cowgirl Scene.

Once photos were done and the shops opened at around 10, I made the tour of the town’s bookstores (three in downtown Laramie, not bad at all!) and although none of them HAD my books I left bookmarks, and told them about the books, and one shop owner gave me a present of a bookmark neatly wrapped up in its own little giftbox – and they’ll order the books, I’ll send in some signed bookplates when I get home, it’s another foot in another door.

Tried to connect to an unsecured network (called LARIAT Central. Of course it is.) with the laptop but it isn’t giving me much joy although it insists that I am connected – in spite of being connected it is still unable to find or open a single webpage. So this blog entry is going to be posted later.

Scott’s here now with the van to pick me up – lunch at the Library restaurant, where we had dinner the first night. It was memorable for the side order of the Rocky Mountain Oysters which were presented sliced up and deep fried with a small bowl of salsa. There are I believe pictures of some of the outlanders indulging in same, amidst much giggling. I, um, wasn’t so brave…
anghara: (stars)
The first session of the morning might as well have been titled "Light, the Universe, and Everything". We started out with the basics - the electromagnetic spectrum (everyone who is a sentient being on planet Earth should at least know the wavelengths of visible light, according to [ profile] prof_brotherton) and what it turns into once it passes out of our range of sight and turns into gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet, infrared, microwave, TV and radio frequencies. Much of this was basic high school physics.

But then. Oh, but then.

We went into the theory of Kirchoff's laws, and into the ideas of continuous, absorption, and emission spectra - and the fingerprints that elements leave in the electromagnetic spectrum. I learned that helium was first discovered in an absorption spectrum from our sun - hence helium, from Helios. Should have known that one, dammit, how can it be any other way...? And we went into the intricacies of how telescopes work, where they are best situated, what they can see, how they show us what they can see. Names from legend - Green Bank, Arecibo. We were supposed to be the writers and they were telling US the stories. And from there, to NASA's missions past and current and future, giant telescopes hanging in the heavens staring at galaxies through X-ray eyes,the soon to be launched Herschel Space Observatory, observatory airplanes riding on cushions of air high up in the stratosphere.

A few practical fun things - a chance to stare through military-issue nightsight goggles, through which, we are told, you can actually see Andromeda in the night sky. And seeing the world through the lens of an infrared camera - watching people's footprint heat signatures remain vividly clear on the carpets after they had passed by.

Then they let us catch our breath, and they hit us with dust.

Ladies and gentlemen, the universe is full of dust.

The Solar System appears to have dustbunnies. For some reason that idea makes me smile.

The dust lecture, by department head Danny Dale, was breathtaking. For the first time I got an inkling about how pitifully limited my natural senses are, with picture of distant galaxies as seen in the visible light spectrum and then in the IR range, which sees through the dust that obscures features in the section of the EM spectrum that is visible light and produces false-colour-enhanced spectacular images that are breathtaking,for instance the long narrow white-light galaxy M82, known as the Cigar Galaxy, can be seen spewing huge billows of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PHAs ten kiloparsecs into space - light from the galaxy's stars picked up by dust and re-emitted by cosmic dust particles in the IR part of the spectrum.

And then we heard about the Stardust probe that went out to gather up dust and information from passing comet Wild 2 - and the heartstopping things it did, and how it came back home with its treasure, and the surprises it returned with them, the much larger and more complex molecules than were expected being found than had ever been 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 - Danny Dale called it 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.

You can get more of Stardust at its website, there are pictures there, and video, and you can get lost and spend hours on that site. It's the kind of thing that makes you sit up and breathe, "I believe!" and understand viscerally the tenets that underlie a faith.

More swag - we got a wonderful poster with a bunch of galaxies that had been studied. It's stupendous.

The next thing was a hands-on activity that involved actually seeing those spectra which we had been talking about earlier, through a diffraction grating. We gazed on Hydrogen tubes, Helium tubes, Argon tubes, counted emission lines and drew them with Crayolas on blank template papers, and had more fun than I've had since I don't know when.

Break, and then "back of the envelope" calculations session. My thinnest area, this, the maths. And too many people knew more than I did, made leaps of intuition or guesses more educated than I could muster, and by the time I caught up to figuring out a step they were four steps ahead, and after a while I just gave up trying to follow there and then, took notes for later, and sat back and watched. I did learn 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 was any larger, the outermost planets would have to be placed miles away, sometimes MANY miles away. Comes back to that original DOuglas Adams, "The Universe is BIG."

The maths cowed me a little, and I was kind of relieved when at least one other participant wanted to know whom she could call if her novels ever needed such calculations to be done. But we did end 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 had pretty much Moon gravity, and then had to go back and double check whether the denizens of the station "moon-walked" along the corridors (which they didn't) - and then we walked back to the residence hall and relaxed for a short while until they came to pick us up for the party at [ profile] prof_brotherton's at 7:30 PM. At some point during the evening a couple of us went outside 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.

Good night, wherever you are. I am happy.

NASA swag!

Aug. 1st, 2008 09:47 am
anghara: (stars)
We just got handed a DVD of Hubble telescope pics and data. Say it with me: OOOOH! AAAAAAh!
anghara: (stars)
[ profile] jaylake has been running around with camera, with some of the results available here. He also has a FLickr pool for Launchpad, links to which are to be found on his blog. I will probably take a few pictures of my own at some point - but in the meantime, Jay has it covered.
anghara: (stars)
I didn't sleep all that well but by all accounts it was endemic because people were wandering around at 4 or 5 AM all over the place this morning - the hard board-like mattress I can take, really, but the pillows have been overheard to be compared to a folded up towel over breakfast this morning, and the upshot seems to be that there are pillows coming in for us later - actual pillows, worthy of the name. That will be good.

I can't seem to get the room cool enough for me to sleep well in - if I leave the windows open the blinds kind of rattle all night which is annoying...oh, and in a nice development that came as a complete surprise to absolutely everyone they seem to be bent on resurfacing the parking lot just outside our residence this week - it came on sort of sudden because one moment it was a working parking lot and the next it was cordoned off and dug up and we're bracing ourselves for the scent of fresh tar in the morning.

HOWEVER. All that aside.

[ profile] maryrobinette has been filing scarily prompt notes of all the Launchpad sessions today and seems to be taking much the same notes as myself so you can go on over to her blog and read what we did - in a nutshell we did a startup overview by [ profile] prof_brotherton (you know you're in the right place when the lecture contains a quote from Douglas Adams - "The Universe is BIG...") and we watched the original Power of Ten movie which takes giant steps out from the planet and away, giving us glimpses of Earth, of the Solar System, of the spiral arm, of the Milky Way, of a cluster of galaxies... "HOW big is the Universe?" somebody asked. "Where's the edge?"

"There IS no edge," we were told.

And in my mind galaxies bloomed, stretching on and on into the distance, full of the light of distant alien suns...

THis was followed by lunch, and then by a presentation on the teaching of science by Jim Verley - which was prefaced by the showing of a short film, "A private universe", in which "...graduates, staff and alumni" of Harvard University were asked what caused the seasons or the phases of the moon and came up with things that were... frightening. The depth of ignorance - and most particularly by an actual *professor* clad in scarlet doctoral robes, bless his brass balls - was staggering. And this is the place that's educating our future scientists, our future leaders. Eeeep. (Just so as not to get swelled heads, however, we were invited to look at some of our own misconceptions and private-universe theories and we weren't entirely immune to goofs, ourselves. But this was a gathering of people whose backgrounds ranged from theatre to anthropology to physiology to linguistics - none of us were active professionals in the field - and goofs aside the depth of knowledge and understanding of astronomical matters in that room was astounding. Perhaps we ought to go and offer our services for a semester at Harvard...)

A short break, and then we were given a guided tour of our own back yard, the Solar System, by Jerry Oltion. From the volcanoes of Io to Mons Olympus to Saturn's rings to the potential liquid oceans of possibly organic or pre-organic goo under Europa's ice to poor demoted Pluto, the time just flew by and the afternoon vanished.

Several of us returned to the residence and the rest repaired to a downtown Laramie eatery called Sweet Melissa's ([ profile] rdeck will be inordinately pleased to hear it was a vegetarian restaurant and I had a spinach lasagna...) and then came back for Bad Movie Night - or what was supposed to be Bad Movie Night but we were pretty thinned out by this time and elected, instead, to watch a Twilight ZOne adaptation of Clarke's "The Star" (they changed the ending, the bastards, which changed the story completely...) and then another Twilight Zone episode called "The Cold Equations", based on a well-known story still discussed and talked about decades after its initial appareance on the world stage. And after that it was simply time to flake out.

More tomorrow.

Having fun.
anghara: (travel icon)
Left home at 9 this morning, at something less than 59F. Arrived in Denver, to 95F. Yike. You gotta be kidding me.

On the way, the security folks at the check-in line took exception to the sweatshirt I was wearing and "invited" me to take it off or face a patdown on the other side of the metal detector. I was suddenly channeling "The King And I", where the Thai ladies giggled at the sight of Anna's crinoline and this was explained to her by the King's chief wife as, "They think you wear dress this way because you shaped that way". Yeah, it's a fleece sweatshirt. Yeah, it's a tad bulky. But it isn't solidly bulky and it is fairly obvious that beneath the folds of it is a very ordinary human body. Just what is it that I was supposed to have potentially had secreted underneath this garment? It wasn't as though I was wearing a parka...

Well. Anyway. Seattle airport refused to do WiFi for me, so no Internet while waiting for my Denver flight. Whiled the time away with a large latte, and reading a Katherine Kurtz Deryni book which I have not read before - "Childe Morgan". In some way it annoys me - if you name a book after a character you kind of want the character to have something to do with the book, and Childe Morgan is still being no more than being precocious and obnoxiously cute at three years old (THREE!) and I'm halfway through the book already. Growl.

The Miasma of Science Fiction Writers Approaching Critical Mass led me to the Launchpad group waiting in the food court at Denver airport - and we eventually picked up everyone we could pick up and loaded ourselves into the van - only barely - and drove the 2 hours to Laramie (with the inevitable "are we there yet?" from someone in the back as we approached the place) and along the way we saw a large (fake) buffalo that guards the boundary of Wyoming, and also a bunch of disconcerting live camels in a field by the side of the road. Camels. Yes. The kind that you usually see posing against the backdrop of the Pyramid of Cheops.

Go figure.

Anyway. Arrived in Laramie, had nice dinner at a restaurant called the Library across the road from our lodgings, got told that there IS breakfast tomorrow if we want it but it's from 7 - 8 and if we don't make that then we have coffee and snacks waiting for us before we begin work tomorrow (there's a test! Nobody told me there would be a test! Eeek!)

Under the Helpful Stuff I Might Have Packed If I Had Thought ABout It category - I really probably should have stuffed my calculator in my bag...

We're staying in a special floor in a student residence, which is interesting in a number of ways, not least that nobody's key card seems to easily open the bathroom area and we eventually resorted to stuffing a cushion in the door to keep it open because otherwise access to basic ablutions could be, um, a problem. We have to deal with that tomorrow.

Off to stuff my head with stars tomorrow. Hope I survive the heat. Will keep everyone posted - here and in email, apparently, because my little cellphone has been "Searching for service" ever since we got to Laramie. I'll take it out into the street tomorrow and see if I have better luck - but it looks like there's no coverage for little old me out in the wild wild west, sniff...)

May 2009

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