astronomy outreach report: days 1 & 2

(NB: These are about my personal experiences in my own words, and shouldn’t be taken to reflect any official position of CAASTRO, whom I’m representing out here as Astronomer-In-Residence.)

Night 1 (Sounds of Silence)

I join outgoing CAASTRO Astronomer-In-Residence Iraklis Konstantinopoulos and the local Star Talker outreach team at “The Shed”, and drove with them there to a remote site for an event called Sounds of Silence. This is a trademark resort product — open-air dining in the middle of the desert, followed by a popular astronomy presentation and the opportunity to look at Saturn through a small telescope (an 8-inch Celestron). Arrangements with the team are much less formal than I expected from the official materials I was provided; I apparently don’t have to prepare anything, just go along and have a nice time answering people’s questions.

This particular evening, it seems like what we had was a failure to communicate. There are nearly 200 people present, and they’ve booked out the area for their own function — a benefit dinner with multiple long speeches, auctions, and an open bar. The guests are drunk, and seem to have trouble finding the location of the toilets despite the wooden walkway. After about the third time someone uses the bushes as their privy, I decide to just ignore them. The fellow who figured he’d have a smoke (out in the very dry, flammable brush) was somewhat harder to ignore.

More to the point, it isn’t clear that these people expected or even wanted any kind of astronomy-related outreach. I can’t fault them, but I wish they’d told us; our presence seems like some kind of mistake. The usual 25-minute Star Talker presentation is truncated to 10 minutes. The battery to the telescope goes dead and we have someone else run another one over while we wait for the charity auction to finish. Of the two hundred, no more than ten walk over to our telescope. After doing due diligence, we get out of there around 11 pm, more than an hour after our nominally scheduled departure.

The Star Talkers assure me this is not how it’s usually supposed to go.

Throughout the night, Iraklis and I trade war stories about grad school and the eccentric personalities of academics (including ourselves).  He’s great company and on the whole we keep relatively high spirits, considering. I’m all too happy to collapse into unconsciousness on arrival back at home base.

Day 2

I meet up with Mike (a CAASTRO-affiliated Star Talker) in the public square to run the solar telescope. He’s run off to the IGA to pick up supplies for CO2 rockets — baking soda and vinegar. I help him out by eating M&M’s out of a tube which eventually becomes the body of one of the rockets. It turns out to be exciting and messy, i.e., great for kids.

I’ve studied up on solar structure — the radiative zone, the convective zone, granules, prominences, the tachocline, and so on. Now I get the chance to audition some explanations on people: Solar prominences trace magnetic field lines much as iron filings on a table do. The radiative zone is like a hot plate which lets gas bubble up to the surface, forming the granular structure of the Sun’s surface. Some sense of scale is important: Each granule is about the size of the Earth. The Sun’s radius is about 100 times larger than the Earth’s. It takes light a million years to get out of the Sun’s core, but only eight minutes to get to us afterwards.

It turns out we have some work to do even to get this information out. What people are most confused and worried about is whether looking through the little three-inch telescope at the Sun will burn their eyes and blind them. One young woman continually insisted, no way! but we managed to coax her into having a look. I explained that the H-alpha filter removed harmful radiation (and indeed all radiation except at the H-alpha wavelength, 656 nm, but that’s another detail).

Not everyone was interested, of course — but the ones who were, were very interested. I got some good tweets for the account.

Night 2

I head out on another Sounds of Silence tour tonight at Mike’s request. The Star Talker in charge this evening is Emma, who has many, many questions about supernova cosmology and compact object structure. Her physics education has been rather informal and autodidactic, so I find myself stretching for some hilarious new metaphors to discuss electron degeneracy: Normal gas pressure is like a rock concert with people bumping elbows. In a sold-out concert, there’s no room to move and you’re packed in like sardines; this is like a white dwarf interior (all energy levels are full). Squeeze hard enough and some people will merge, becoming conjoined twins; this is electron capture. Keep squeezing and you’ll get a neutron star: an Argus-like monstrosity with a few hundred eyes and as many arms, made out of unfortunate former concert-goers.

The crowd is much more astronomy-focused than yesterday, and I see more or less how it’s supposed to work: Emma delivers a polished 25-minute presentation, and keeps the audience in the palm of her hand, ooh-ing and aah-ing at all the spots where they should be properly amazed. The night sky is clear as glass and you can almost see the Magellanic Clouds with your central vision. I also learn that the indigenous Australians see negative space in constellations: the Coal Sack Nebula, near the Southern Cross, is the head of the Emu, made up of the dust lanes running through the Milky Way. Look up and you can just see it — it’s really there.

Other things discussed: the fact that red giants aren’t the only red stars (though it’s hard to see M dwarfs from Earth); the cosmological principle, that the laws of physics shouldn’t depend on where you are or where you’re looking; the anthropic principle, that the fact of our existence imposes a strong constraint (or selection bias) on the kinds of universes we can have evolved in or observed. The capstone of the evening is a kid who wants to volunteer to be the first to dive into a black hole. I tell him to google “colorado state black hole”, intending to bring him here — when I visit the page later myself, I see the old GIF animations have been updated with something much more impressive.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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