Last week I ventured across the country to Laramie, Wyoming to participate in the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. It’s a one week crash course in modern astronomy, and it is grand.
My first impression of Wyoming was much like my first impressions of Colorado: vast plains, the Rocky Mountains in the distance. And while my experience of Colorado is slim, and I hadn’t been there in almost two decades, I had never been to Wyoming before. So when we ventured across the border and we saw nothing for miles except prairie and grass, I grew excited. You see, I live in a city with an estimated population of 11 million. Subway seats are hard to come by, unused lots are either “guerrilla gardened” or fenced off. Open space, unless one considers the oversculpted city parks, are mostly unheard of. So when we drove across miles of grassy, treeless plains I could only smile.
The first thing I saw were windmills. This picture doesn’t capture how large these behemoths are:
We were set up in the dorms of The University of Wyoming, the only four-year school in the entire state. We each got our own room, internet access, towels, and a fan. This is what the rooms looked like (note: some rooms were no doubt more tidy than mine):
My room faced east and so at the bright and early time of 6 am every morning the sun would poke right through my window. Being that this was, because of my change of time zone, 8 am according to my circadian rhythm, I had no problem rising with the sun. In fact, I enjoyed getting up early (a problem I have normally since I’m self employed). It allowed me to explore the campus before class.
Here’s a little glimpse of what UW looks like:
As you can see it’s quite beautiful, owing partly to the semi-arid climate which allows an array of plants not seen in the northeast. And due to a lack of occluding dust in the sky, my god the blue! Here’s a picture of the Wyoming sky. No wonder they decided to put a telescope here.
And the sky is in fact what we came here to learn about. The night sky.
1) What is the closest star to Earth? (Hint: not Proxima Centauri). Answer: the Sun.
2) What causes the Earth’s seasons? (Hint: we are not closer to the Sun in summer). Answer: Earth’s axial tilt.
And that’s just what we were greeted with on the first day. A quiz! No, we weren’t being graded. The instructors, Mike Brotherton, Jim Verley, Geoffrey Landis and Christian Ready just wanted to gauge what knowledge the students came to the course with. Besides Ellen Datlow and Christie Yant, I hadn’t met anyone here before (besides a few online interactions). The experience was a little unsettling for me. Despite occasionally erupting in fits of extroversion, my natural state tends to be towards the quiet. Being thrust into a situation where I knew no one forced me to confront my introverted nature. To good, I think.
Each day class began at 10 am and ended at around 6 pm, with about three or four lectures per day. We got two short breaks and ate lunch in the classroom. We were as well fed (thanks in no small part the efforts of the astronomy department staff Nicole Wade) and there were jokes that we were being fattened up a la The Twilight Zone’s “To Serve Man.” Here’s Christian Ready teaching us about stars. What is not shown is me munching on a doughnut.
Typically there would be something scheduled for the afternoon of each day. Once, we looked through diffraction gratings to observe atomic spectra. Here’s one (please forgive me for forgetting which element we are observing here).
I chose this one not because it’s the prettiest but because the spectral lines are clearest. Every element, when excited (or energized), gives off specific wavelengths of light. By studying these wavelengths emitted by distant stars and galaxies astronomers can determine (among other things) what these far off objects are made of.
What struck me about the whole workshop (and something I knew intuitively but never really considered in its entirety) is that all of astronomy, everything we know about the Cosmos, comes from studying wavelengths of light. Not sound (though Cosmic sounds can I think be measured using light), not smell, and certainly not touch (unless one is hit by a meteorite). How odd that we are so dependent of our knowledge of the universe on only one sense. And how marvelous that we discern so much from it. Let there be light indeed.
The highlight of the trip for me was a visit to WIRO (Wyoming Infra-Red Observatory). Laramie is itself at some 7000+ feet above sea level. I did notice a slight shortness of breath from time to time, and myself and several other people were plagued by insomnia, which I believe in part was due to the altitude. But WIRO sits at some 9000+ feet. I drove in the car with Mike Brotherton, partly because I’m a geek and wanted to ride with an astronomer up to the observatory and pick his brain, and partly because we received this ominous message via email earlier in the day that the roads up to WIRO had been “washed out” and were dangerous. I chose the driver more familiar with the terrain. 😉 But Mike, veteran of these roads, bounded up the mountain unperturbed by any such warning. At one point my breath caught in my chest, I’m not sure from fear of driving off the mountainside or from the altitude, and I suspect both, but we all made it up just fine.
And then we were there. And I saw this.
Did I not mention how much of an astronomy geek I am? The sight was amazing. I imagine this is what Dorothy felt when she saw Oz for the first time.
Mike led us on a tour inside, where four undergrad astronomers worked to set up the equipment for the night’s observing. While my fuzzy head adjusted to the new altitude, we walked into the chamber where the telescope was housed. The students had attached some kind of hose to the telescope and were filling the instrument with liquid nitrogen. White gas was being expelled from the unit which hovered monstrously over their heads, with wires and instruments hanging down. It was all very mad scientist. Photos do not do this scene justice.
After they had filled the unit we got to walk around and touch things. Here’s Tiffany Trent giving us her best Mad Scientist face.
And here’s me smiling too often.
We then went outside, after it got fully dark, to look at the sky. Mike had brought his night vision goggles, and — it is impossible to describe the experience, but I’ll try. We had been sitting in class all week learning about the scales of the universe, its ineffable size, the impossible distance to other galaxies. Using the goggles I saw the Andromeda galaxy, some 2 million light years away. It was just a white blur, and this is our closest galactic neighbor! I saw the dark bands of the Milky Way’s dust with my naked eye, and I looked towards the center of the galaxy some 35,000 light years away.
Science has for centuries told us we are not the center of the universe, and I always knew that intellectually. I had glimpsed Saturn and Jupiter through a few telescopes and watched the phases of the moon turn in the sky. But never before had I really understood how big the universe really is, and how small Earth is in comparison to that. And despite feeling small, dwarfed, infinitesimal, I felt grand, because I knew, We are all a part of this.
To top the night, we went inside (some people had to leave due to the altitude affecting them) and we watched the students take a spectrograph of a distant galaxy. Mike said he will use this data to determine the mass of this distant galaxy’s central black hole. Remember those spectra I talked about before? The peaks on this graph below are hydrogen spectra. A digital version of the colored lines I showed above.
And here are the young astronomers hard at work (or trying to work as we pester them with questions):
But it wasn’t all work. There was a party. We went to a few local bars. There was even a hike around Turtle Rock!
Here’s a group photo. This was taken with Ellen Datlow’s camera by Glen Lehmitz, a local student, (
whose surname I never learned).
Front row, from left: Geoffrey Landis, Christian Ready, Mike Brotherton, and Jim Verley
Second row, Doug Farren, Mary Turzillo, Nova Ren Suma, Farah Mendlesohn, and Ellen Datlow
Third row: Jody Lynn Nye, Christie Yant, Tiffany Trent, Robin Wasserman, Linda Nagata, and Sandra McDonald
Fourth row: Robin Christian Peters, Matthew Rotundo, Merrie Haskell, Me, Jake Kerr, and Michael Kurland
Despite knowing only one person when I arrived, I left with a bunch of new friends knowing I’d miss every one of them. I also believe the workshop succeeded in its goal, which is to give writers, editors, filmmakers, etc. (those who have influence on culture) a background in astronomy from which they can then insert correctly into their own work. People’s ideas about science often come from movies, video games, television, and they often get the facts horribly wrong. Hence why people frequently have incorrect views about science. It is our duty as graduates of the workshop to make sure the science in our writing (or at least the astronomy) is as accurate as possible. Why? Because ignorance of science, my friend, is one of the great ills of our time.
I’ll leave you with a picture which you’ve probably seen a thousand times. We did not take this picture at the workshop, but I think it’s the one that had the most profound effect on me while there. Do you see those little spikes coming out of the very top of the structure? (They are hard to see in this zoomed out version) They look a little like cactus spines? Well the tip of each of those is a little larger than our solar system. So ponder that for a moment, and then think that inside each of those tips, a star is forming, and that there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy, and there are more than 500 billion galaxies in the known universe. And somewhere, in all of that, here we are, at our computers, reading a blog, pondering it all. Kind of makes you feel like an astronomer, at least for a little while.