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Astronomy Q&A Live Stream

Astronomy Q&A Live Stream

On April 9 I hosted my first Astronomy Q&A live stream on Facebook. I responded to questions about the planets and then to questions made to me by viewers of the live stream.

It was fun but wore me out. If I do another live stream in the future, I may reduce the time or have a moderator/interviewer to make the stream more dynamic. If you have any other suggestions, feel free to let me know.

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Astronomy Q&A Live Stream Announcement

Astronomy Q&A Live Stream Announcement

After getting your feedback, I’ve scheduled my first Astronomy Q&A live stream for Monday, April 9, at 6:45 pm Pacific Time via Facebook Live.

I’ll start out by answering questions about the planets that middle- and high-schoolers of Summit Academy in Cottonwood asked me recently when I spoke to them about the Origin of the Universe. Then I’ll take on any questions that viewers of the live stream submit. I expect about ten to fifteen viewers, so there is a good chance I will be able to respond to all questions. Hope you can join!

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The “We’re Not Special” Ideology

The “We’re Not Special” Ideology

“We’re not special” is not a scientific statement. It’s an opinion. It’s a simple way of expressing what has become known as the Copernican principle. Copernicus himself did not explicitly hold this when he realized Earth was likely not the physical center of the universe. In the generation after Copernicus, isolated thinkers like Giordano Bruno interpreted this as a demotion of Earth. It did not become such a widespread view until recently.

Carl Sagan asked in the original Cosmos, “Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” Sagan had requested that, as Voyager 1 left the solar system in 1990, it turn its camera around to take one last picture of Earth. Presenting this image before an audience at Cornell, he reflected on all the people that have lived on Earth, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” His speech is worth reading in full. Interwoven in the beautiful prose, however, is the assumption that the Earth is unimportant since it’s just a dot in this image.

Just because the Earth is small when it is compared to the vastness of space does not make it insignificant. Assumptions of the homogeneity and isotropy of the universe lead to accurate scientific cosmological models. Making the step from these principles to the Copernican principle, however, is an unjustified ideological leap.

The fact that “the Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life” rather speaks to me of its importance. If the Earth were not as small as it is, then its surface gravity would be too strong for life as we know it. If the Earth didn’t orbit a G-type star, the circumstellar habitable zone could easily be less stable. If our Sun were a member of an elliptical galaxy or closer to the center of our spiral galaxy, or even in the spiral arms rather than between them, interactions with other stars would be more likely, which could more easily disrupt the stability of our solar system. So many places in the universe are inhospitable to life. We live on a planet where life is possible. I think that is enough to challenge Sagan’s claim that we are deluded to think “we have some privileged position in the universe.” Authors Jay W. Richards and Guillermo Gonzalez of The Privileged Planet challenge Sagan and the Copernican principle with a thesis that not only is our planet well suited for life, but it is also well suited for discovery. Although I am unsatisfied with its presentation of the “intelligent design” view as scientific, I highly recommend watching the thought-provoking documentary and even reading the book.

The fact that in the Pale Blue Dot image the Earth lies in a sunbeam is indeed, as Sagan says, an effect of geometry and optics. Just from that, however, there is no way to prefer one philosophical view over another. The worldviews that clash over the Earth’s significance or insignificance are entrenched enough that I do not expect any amount of scientific discovery to settle the dispute. The science we discover certainly inspires wonder, and we need to keep doing science. We also need to reason more rigorously and integrate the different ways we can come to know things. By doing this, we can sort fact from opinion and identify any unjustified leap before falling for a conclusion that could lead us down a dark or deluded path.

I believe it is pertinent to close this post with a related quote from St. John Paul the Great: “If knowledge of the unmeasured dimensions of the cosmos has erased the dream that our planet or our solar system could be the physical center of the world, not by that is man diminished in his dignity” (translation from Italian).

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Total Lunar Eclipse on 1/31/2018

Total Lunar Eclipse on 1/31/2018

Interested in seeing the Earth’s shadow fall on the Moon on the 31st of this month? Here’s a simple and elegant representation by timeanddate.com showing where on Earth it will be visible from. This is a lunar eclipse. It will be total roughly 5-6am Pacific Time. Because a lunar eclipse can only happen at Full Moon, you can only see it if it’s nighttime where you’re at. Western North America, Pacific, Australia, and Eastern Asia, mark your calendars!

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Connecting Space to Village

Connecting Space to Village

NASA and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have teamed up and have brought the world an initiative called SERVIR. Using satellite images of the Earth and other technology, SERVIR works with organizations in developing countries to forecast climate risks and land use. People in Africa, Hindu Kush-Himalaya, Lower Mekong, and Mesoamerica have already been benefiting for years from SERVIR’s outreach. But who in the US has heard of this good work we are doing?

Last week at the American Astronomical Society’s 228th Meeting in San Diego, NASA’s Daniel Irwin gave a plenary talk on SERVIR and how he came to help start it. For many of us astronomers, it was the first time we had heard of SERVIR, and we agreed that more people should know about it.

It began with Irwin simply showing the people of Guatemala satellite images of the deforestation that was occurring without their knowledge. SERVIR has developed a lot since then, and is now present in over 30 countries. Hundreds of lives have been saved thanks to the knowledge and action brought about by SERVIR in the face of floods and earthquakes, especially in Central America and Bangladesh.

To learn more, please visit SERVIR’s website, where you can read about each of the 36 (and counting) success stories. Also visit  NASA’s pages about SERVIR. SERVIR doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet (except one about its Mekong Project), but that will change soon.

 

 

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Recalling the Importance of Wonder

Recalling the Importance of Wonder

Last night I had the privilege of speaking about astronomy to the boys at Sacred Heart Apostolic School in Rolling Prairie, Indiana. After telling them a bit about myself, I narrated the story of the cosmological revolutions of the past century, answering the question how we know the Universe is expanding. Afterwards, I explained the current understanding of our Solar System in order to justify why the classification of Pluto as a dwarf planet is justified. I left 20 minutes for questions and was glad I did. The boys asked all sorts of great questions about astronomy and about my experiences. As I then prepared to do some observational astronomy with the seniors, I kept thinking about how marvelous a group of boys these were. Although I had barely gotten to know them, I could see their authentic wonder at how the world works. It made me think that wonder is the best attitude with which to keep the mind sharp. As we gain more experiences in life, wonder can fade, but like a bonfire, it doesn’t have to; we just need to keep feeding the fire and fanning the flame. Out on the soccer field under the night sky, we were then able to look at the crescent Moon and Jupiter (and its moons) through a small telescope and a couple of pairs of binoculars. One shooting star capped off a wonderful night of summer astronomy.

Tomorrow I fly to San Diego for the 228th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Stay tuned for updates.

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