When Carl Sagan’s miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage first aired in 1980 I was only three years old. Even though it has been replayed a number of times since then, I’ve admittedly not seen it. Unlike most of my colleagues who often site Carl Sagan as inspiration—and try to imitate his iconic mannerisms—I cannot say this show influenced my love of astronomy. What’s worst, I think (I’m not even positive) that I may have a copy of the thirteen part PBS miniseries sitting on a shelf in my office. I’m so ashamed.
I haven’t prioritized watching the Cosmos series because I know personally how fast astronomy changes. In the thirty plus years since the original airing, our views of the Universe have changed drastically. My (unfounded) expectations are that the outdated Cosmos episodes wouldn’t capture my CGI-needed imagination.
Luckily that will all change soon enough. Recently Fox Broadcasting Company (yes, that Fox) has announced that it will be remaking Cosmos. The updated version, which will be called Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, will in 2013.
As of right now, the show will air on Fox in a primetime slot. This is interesting in of itself. The original Cosmos aired on PBS which has a certain self-selected audience. Fox has its own audience and it’s one that I wouldn’t personally equate to PBS. So there is a possible concern here that maybe Fox will butcher a classic to align with its brand of entertainment.
However, there is some saving grace here. First off, two of the original three responsible for Sagan’s version of Cosmos will be involved in the production of the updated version (his widow and writer Ann Druyan, and astrophysicist Steven Soter). Second, although Sagan is not replaceable, Fox has gotten the next best option in Neil deGrasse Tyson to be the new host. In fact, it was from Tyson himself that I first heard this news when he recently announced it at the annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Currently Tyson is the host of the largely successful NOVA scienceNOW show on PBS in addition to writing popular books and being the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.
Now for the last twist in this story. One of the executive producers of the new series is Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Fox shows Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show. As someone that watches each of these shows, and I follow MacFarlane on twitter, I can say that he does occasionally sneak in some great science geek jokes. In reading about the recent news for the Cosmos remake (see here and here for example) I’ve come to also realize that MacFarlane is a fan of science and he’s concerned about the direction the US is heading in. In fact, it was MacFarlane’s doing that got the new version on Fox where it will get primetime exposure and will hopefully hit an audience that traditional science shows miss.
I know, I know, those LEGO trophies are awesome! But much more important than the trophies are why these three girls are holding them. They are the winners of the first Google Science Fair.
Earlier this year a panel of teachers reviewed over 7,500 entries from 90 countries into Google’s science competition. After identifying the top 60 semifinalist, voting was opened to the public to identify a People Choice Award. Simultaneously, the same 60 semifinalist were reduced to a field 15 by Google panel of judges. The finalist were then invited out to Google Headquarters in Mountain View, CA to be judged by a panel of science and technology experts. Although the competition was strong and vast, the three winners: Lauren Hodge, Naomi Shah, and Shree Bose were able to rise above the competition to wow the judges with their original scientific research.
From the NY Times article, First-Place Sweep by American Girls at First Google Science Fair,
Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist and one of the judges, said that gender did not play a role in deciding the winners. “This was a gender-neutral evaluation of all the work that was done,” he said. Nonetheless, “I was secretly very pleased to see that happen,” Dr. Cerf said. “This is just a reminder that women are fully capable of doing same or better quality work than men can.”
One of my biggest gripes with human history is how much certain ethnicities and one gender has been suppressed and often at times prohibited to contribute to the progress of society. Think how much further along we would be as a civilization if half the population—that being women—were always treated equal. Even of the half that have not been marginalized, only a smaller contingency has been granted the opportunities to play a role in progress because they were born on the right piece of land, of the right ethnicity, and even into the right socioeconomic status. The prevention of a proper education and equal opportunities to everyone, is an unfortunate black mark on human history.
This is why when I see stories like the results from the Google Science Fair I find a little comfort that things might be heading in a better direction. Science needs more women and minorities, not because they are women and minorities, but because they’re more minds working together for progress.
This week saw the last launch for the shuttle Discovery. Contrary to what some people may have heard, this is not the last shuttle launch ever. Endeavor (mission STS 134) is schedule for launch on April 19 of this year. As of now, Endeavor’s launch will be the last for the space shuttle fleet.There is an outside chance that Atlantis will launch one more time but this is dependent upon approval from the White House.
For me, I’ve always known nothing but having a space shuttle program. The first shuttle launch occurred on April 12, 1981 when I was only four. I even remember watching an IMAX movie about the shuttle program when I was a wee lad. I guess it’s because there were always space shuttles I never found them as a source of inspiration in becoming a scientist. I guess it was the first sign that I was destined to become a theorist.
This view did change slightly during my graduate school days. My advisor and I traveled to the University of Maryland for a conference on gravitational wave astronomy. The day after the conference ended I flew home while while my advisor stayed behind to do some collaborative research. Since my flight was late in the afternoon, we decided to spend the morning at the National Mall. This was kinda funny because my advisor is Australian and I’m American. However, since I had never been to the National Mall and he had, the Australian gave the American a tour of America’s national monuments.
Of course, as two astrophysicists, one of our stops was the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. While there we had all kinds of conversations about this or that. One that always stuck with me is the conversation we had while looking at the Apollo Lunar Module. While looking over the tiny module we talked about how amazing it was that the lunar module required so little thrust to escape the Moon’s gravity in comparison to the thrust required to leave Earth. To see for yourself what we were talking about check out these videos, the first of which shows the Apollo 17′s lunar module taking off, while the second video is Discovery’s launch this past Thursday,
Visiting the National Mall with my advisor was one of the most memorable experiences I had as a graduate student. (We also visited the National Gallery of Art, which was enjoyable, but not as inspirational.) It has stuck with me for the last eight years and is still one of those inspirational moments as a scientist.
Fast forward to this week. I celebrated the last launch of the space shuttle Discovery by watching the event live in my office with a few students. It was a great moment. The oohs and aahs, along with the conversations we had about what was going on made for a special moment. The roles were now reversed. I was now the professor and I was sharing science with students. I doubt they viewed the moment on a level as I did when visiting the Air & Space Museum, but it still felt good to share this historical moment with students.
It’s these isolated special moments when I have the opportunity to share my love of science with others that makes teaching so enjoyable. Maybe one day, a few of my students will have their own opportunities to do the same with their students.
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We are now less than two years away from our cataclysmic death. At least that would be the case if you believe the claims that the world is going to end on the 2012 winter solstice. Personally, I’m not one of them.
I’ve lost count, and don’t care to know, of all the ways we’re suppose to die. However there is one path to the afterlife that I am keeping my eye on—for nothing else but amusement—death by a black hole produced by the Large Hadronic Collider (LHC).
Do you remember this story, Asking a Judge to Save the World, and Maybe a Whole Lot More? Back in 2008, when the LHC first came online, there were concerns from certain individuals that microscopic black holes would be produced during the highly energetic collisions the LHC would produce. Extrapolating from there, the belief is that these black holes will devour the world, sucking all of humanity in.
At this point, I feel it’s my civic duty as an astrophysicists to explain that black holes are NOT cosmic vacuum cleaners. They do not suck (where sucking here means gravitationally attracting) any more or less than another object of the same mass. Yes, it would suck (where sucking here means something bad) to fall into a black hole. The gravitational pull of a black hole is so immense that nothing can get out. Worse yet, you’re doomed to follow a path that takes you to the center of the black hole. Once there who knows what will happen to you. Seriously, nobody knows. Our current understanding of how Nature works breaks down at the extreme conditions expected near the center of a black hole.
Death by a black hole is bad, um-kay. But is this our fate? Is the LHC going to be responsible for our grisly death? The answer, in short, is no. Although there is a very small probability of the LHC producing black holes, their physical characteristics are such that they’ll be harmless.
If the LHC does produce miniature black holes their size would be much smaller than an atom (see Particle Smasher’s Black Holes Would Be Tiny). With such a small stature, their region of influence would only be slightly larger than a proton, which is freaking small (0.000000000000001 meters to not be exact). And, since atoms are mostly empty, there really wouldn’t be material to feed these subatomic black holes—black holes are NOT vacuum cleaners. To make things even more reassuring, black holes evaporate, with smaller black holes evaporating faster. So even if a subatomic black hole would form, it would mostly like evaporate before digesting any surrounding particles.
If all that technical jargon doesn’t settle your nerves, there’s a website out there that answers the very important question, Has the Large Hadron Collider Destroyed the Earth Yet? Click on the link to find out. Notice the RSS feed? It’s for those that really want to stay on top of the issue.
It started with a brief email from a local news reporter asking if I was interested in speaking about the recent viral news for a 13th zodiac sign. Sure, why not I thought. So I immediately replied. No kidding, within 45 minutes of receiving the initial email I found myself in front of a camera, being interviewed about something I teach every semester in my Astro 101 class. (No I don’t teach astrology, but I do teach about constellations, the zodiac, and pseudoscience so naturally astrology comes up in the discussion.)
The interview went well. Lisa Edge, the news reporter, and her camera man were very polite and asked very intelligent and directed questions. I answered them to the best of abilities and tried to avoid technical jargon. After 15 minutes or so we were done. I thought things went well. So here’s what made the cut,
Okay, first off, I had no idea that they also interviewed a christian psychic. (WTF is that anyways?) I guess that’s okay because the news is suppose to be balanced. What gets me is all that great science material I gave her was lost to the editing floor. A bit of a consolation prize is that much of what she said as the story’s wrap-up is stuff we talked about.
The one question that she did ask that I wish would have survived the cut is, “Do you think this news of a 13th zodiac sign is good for astronomy?” My answer was two sided (and probably why it got cut).
On the one hand, scientists are continually trying to educate the public about what is and is not science. On a regular bases we try to demonstrate how certain studies—and I use the term loosely—act scientific but in fact are not; astrology being one of the oldest examples. For this reason, when astronomers see astrology getting face time in the media we tend to roll our eyes and think here we go again. (For some entertaining blasting of astrology check out Astrological Sign of the Times, Astrology is Still Bullshit and the Universe Doesn’t Care About You, and This is why Horoscopes are Full of Assfog.)
However, there is the flip side. Although astrology plays the roll of a child at an adult only party, there’s still a teaching moment that we as educators can seize upon. Here we have so many people listening and interested in learning about a topic closely related to astronomy and most of the professional astronomy and science educators communities are turning their backs. Instead we should take this time to educate and to demonstrate why the 13th zodiac sign is nothing new. Why astronomers have known for ages that everyones astrological sign is off because of the Earth’s precession. Why astrology is considered a pseudoscience. Ultimately this is why I did not hesitate to give the interview. While most of the science was lost in the editorial process, and I knew it would be, I still tried to get through a little bit of scientific knowledge.
For the record, I have also posted an extensive blog entry on this whole zodiac issue: The Zodiac Shuffle According to Astronomers. This entry is meant to briefly explain the science behind the 13th zodiac sign and why most everyone’s astrological sign has shifted. For another reference, check out An Astronomer Looks at Astrology by Andrew Fraknoi.
Have you heard the Earth shattering news (to be read with sarcasm)? Your zodiac sign may have changed! So if you were once a Pisces, like I was, you may now be an Aquarius. To make things worst, there’s now a thirteenth astrological sign, Ophiuchus, and it’s one that nobody can figure out how to say. I can’t imagine how many relationships are now in peril, how many new found jobs will be lost, or how many missed opportunities now exist. So what are we to make of this
nonsense change? Hell, why is this happening now after thousands of years of studying the stars?
The truth is, to astronomers this is old news. Very, very, very old news. Slow shifts in astrological signs and even a thirteenth zodiac member have been known for two millennia now. To understand why this is really nothing new, let’s break down all the players in the story.
We begin with a discussion on constellations. A constellation is really nothing more than arbitrary grouping of stars that lie in close proximity to each other on the sky. The stars that make up a constellation are not necessarily—and in fact rarely are—physically connected or even related to each other. For example, the stars that make up one of the most recognizable constellations Orion (shown to the right), are at all kinds of distances. The bright red star on the top left (Betelgeuse) is 429 lightyears away while the bright blue star on the bottom right (Rigel) is 777 light-years distant. If you were to travel to another nearby star in our galaxy, then Orion would look completely different. From a historical perspective, stars found their ways into constellations because ancient cultures would relate the apparent star patterns to mythological beings and tales.
The use of constellations have not been forgotten by modern astronomers. However, their purpose has change. Today constellations play the same role as borders do on Earth. Just as political boundaries are used to identify large regions of land, constellations allow astronomers to quickly describe sections of the sky. If an astronomer says they’re observing the star Beta Orionis, it’s immediately known that the object being studied is the second brightest star in the constellation of Orion (beta being the second letter in the Greek alphabet and Orionis designating the Orion constellation).
An obvious problem with this approach is that constellations are usually identified by a small number of bright stars. What about all those dim, overlooked stars that lie in-between the constellations? To resolve this problem, in 1930 the International Astronomical Union adopted the constellation boundaries suggested by noted Belgian astronomer Eugène Delporte. The constellation boundaries were chosen such that every patch of the sky falls within the jurisdiction of one and only one constellation. Today there are 88 official constellations recognized by the astronomical community. The below figure shows the constellation boundaries in the region around Orion.
During the daytime hours stars cannot be seen because the Earth’s atmosphere spreads the Sun’s incident light across the sky. (By the way, this is why the sky is blue.) If we could remove this atmospheric effect then we would observe the Sun “in” a particular constellation. The thirteen constellations that the Sun passes through during the course of the year are collectively known as the zodiac. Yes I said thirteen. During the early part of December the Sun passes through a region of the sky assigned to Ophiuchus. The figure below represents what the sky would look like at noon on December 11, minus that atmospheric effect. Notice that the Sun is not within the official boundaries of Scorpius, which is the normal astrological designation assigned to this time of year. The unidentified region of the sky is Ophiuchus. The reason it’s unidentified is that even in Starry Night, the program I used to produce these figures, there are only twelve zodiac members.
This brings us to the recent news stories about the zodiac shuffle. In a local story, astronomer Parke Kunkle of the Minnesota Planetarium Society, told reporters that the traditional astrological signs have shifted. In reality all that has been done is that someone took the time to calculate the exact dates the Sun passes through the zodiac constellations, including Ophiuchus, and compared them to the generally accepted astrological signs. This isn’t anything new. Astronomers have know for a long time about the existence of a thirteenth zodiac sign. At a minimum, you could argue it’s been known in the astronomical community since 1930 when the official constellation boundaries were accepted. It’s not a stretch either to argue that astronomers knew of this even before 1930 because some of the bright stars of Ophiuchus do dip down into the zodiac.
But that’s just the part of the story about the thirteenth zodiac sign. There’s still the bit about the shifting of most everyone’s astrological sign. For that we have to introduce some more science.
The Earth is continually executing three major motions: it orbits the Sun in one year, it rotates about its own axis in a day, and the Earth’s rotation axis wobbles (precesses). It’s the last type of motion we’re interested in here.
Precession is a slow wobble. Think of a child’s top like the one shown to the left of the below picture. A top will spin very fast about a central axis, but that axis will move around in a circle at a much slower pace. For the Earth, the precession rate is very slow. It takes approximately 26,000 years for the Earth’s wobble to complete one circle. The planet’s precession leads to two observable outcomes. The first is that the North Star changes in time. For now Polaris is the North Star, but in the future other North Stars will come and go. In 12,000 years, the bright star Vega will be the North Star.
The other result of the Earth’s precession is that the dates in which the Sun passes through the various zodiac constellations progressively changes. Because the Earth’s precession rate is very slow, this shift is likewise slow. Recall, that astrology has been around for thousands of years which isn’t the complete 26,000 year precessional rate, but it’s enough to offset the zodiac dates by a noticeable amount. In fact, the accumulative shift over the last few thousand years is about one whole constellation. The below figure is the same as before—noontime on December 11—but now the year is 4011. Notice how the Sun is now in Libra? In the two thousands years from today, the Sun has slowly drifted over one zodiacal sign as it has done in the thousands of years since the original astrological signs had been decreed.
Much like with the thirteenth zodiac member, the Earth’s precession has been known for two thousand years. So again, the shift in your astrological sign is old news to astronomers.
Astronomers now possess such accurate models of the Earth’s motions that they can tell you, or anyone that has or will ever live, their exact astrological sign. What you do with that information is up to you. Unfortunately the reason that these recent stories on changes in astrological signs have gone so viral is that a substantial fraction of the population seems to believe that the position of heavenly bodies have some kind of influence on their daily lives. Most any newspaper in America has a daily horoscope, but not a a regular science section. Ugh.
I’m currently attending the 2010 Conference on Communicating Science. Today was the first day of the conference which was kicked off by a panel discussion on “Crafting a Message” followed by the keynote talk, “Talking Science to Non-Scientists”. The keynote was delivered by Robert Krulwich, one of the hosts of Radio Lab. To be honest, before today I’d never heard of Radio Lab. During the morning drive to the meeting a colleague had me listen to the latest episode so I’d have a flavor of the style before hearing Krulwich speak.
Although I was not aware of Krulwich’s work beforehand I quickly gained a level of respect for his work. The thing that impressed me the most was how cognitive he is in his approach to communicating science. It was interesting to hear him describe his thought process in taking complex scientific ideas and translating them using common language and playful use of sounds (my impression is that this is a signature feature of Radio Lab). It was clear that this man puts a lot of thought into producing a product that was accessible to anybody interested in listening.
Following the keynote a colleague asked what I had gotten out of the conference so far. My answer was simple: it’s amazing how similar science journalism is to teaching. As an instructor one of my jobs is to transfer knowledge from my cranium to the student’s brains. Over the years psychology, education research, and the specialized fields of physics and astronomy education research has taught us a number of pedagogical techniques to assistant in the learning process. One of the central outcomes of this research is to replace the Sage on the Stage mentality with a learner-centered environment. This is achieved through various types of group activities in which students guide each other through the learning process.
Even with this novel approach to teaching, the partial role of the instructor is still to present central concepts and specific techniques dictated by the course material during isolated micro-lectures. Each learner-centered activity is separated by traditional lecturing that lasts anywhere from approximately five to fifteen minutes. During this time my role as the instructor is to be a storyteller, much like a science journalist. In a compact time span I have to convey complex science ideas in an attractive manner that will allow students to build off of.
To complete the science journalism analogy, a dull and boring teaching style leads to low interests while an entertaining style can spark positive student responses that leads into productive output during the learner-centered activities. Similarly, a well presented and crafted science news item can piqué the interests of the public and can lead to greater science literacy.
After listening to Krulwich I not only gained admiration for the amount work that goes into good science journalism, but I now also realize how similar a science teacher acts as a journalist in putting together an attractive course.
There’s something about astronomy that captures the imagination of the public. Unlike most other sciences, astronomy addresses some of the deepest and most cherished questions we have about ourselves. (I would also argue that evolutionary biology and recently neuroscience has also revealed a lot about human nature.) Collectively astronomy has given us a view of the Universe in which we’ve discovered that we’re not even justified in calling ourselves a speck. We’re located in an uninteresting corner of a great expanse. Through the subfield of cosmogony we’ve learned a great deal about how the Universe evolved after the Big Bang including how galaxies and stars form. Stellar astrophysicists have taught us that we’re all made of stardust. Even planetary scientists have discovered a number of essential features about solar system formation that may lead to life.
One of the foremost goals of astronomy has been to address the commonality of planets like Earth. Is our home special or are there many others like it out there? The reason we’re so interested in this question is that crawling all over the surface of Earth is life in many forms, some living in delicate ecosystems, others living under very extreme conditions (think extremophiles). If we could find other planets, and possibly a lot of them, then maybe there’s an abundance of life out there.
Hunting for earth-like planets around other stars is not trivial. The problem is Earth is relatively small both in size and in mass. Because of this the methods astronomers use to search for extrasolar planets tend to overlook earth-like planets. Despite the enormous challenges involved in looking for small planets, a collaboration of astronomers using the Keck Observatory in Hawaii discovered an earth-sized planet. (A preprint of their scientific paper can be found here.) This in and of itself is a special find—only a handful of other small planets have been found before. But what makes Gliese 581g, as it’s referred to, special is that it’s just the right distance from its parent star that the planet’s surface temperature should allow for liquid water. This is the first time an earth-like planet has been found in the habitable zone! Naturally there was plenty of news coverage. Not only that, one of the leading astronomers in the project went as far as to say, ”Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent,” during a press conference.
Now the fun begins. One of the great things about science is that it produces testable results. After a discovery other scientists are not only invited, but are expected to verify the results. In this case, other astronomers need to find Gliese 581g for themselves. Unfortunately so far there has been no luck. At a recent International Astronomical Union meeting another group of astronomers announced that they could not confirm the existence of Gliese 581g when they looked at their independent data.
I love this announcement. Not because I have my own doubts about the original findings but because it demonstrates how science works. It starts with the hard work of a scientist, or in this example, a team of scientists. They make a major discovery that could advance the field by a large leap. But for this to happen, their work has to be checked. Enter a second, or possibly many other groups. Their job is to confirm the original findings and even sometimes to improve our understanding of the situation. If the second study confirms the first, great. Now a third, fourth, fifth, … group can also confirm it. However, when no confirmation can be made, then things get even more interesting. Everybody will go back to the observations, scrutinize the data, reconsidered the analyses, and possibly make new discoveries in the process. In the end, science makes progress regardless of the outcome. This is what distinguishes science from pseudoscience.
You may not be aware of it, but for the last eight years or so astronomers have been listening to the Universe. They’ve been doing so using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or simply LIGO. Most astronomical telescopes that we’re familiar with are designed to collect electromagnetic radiation, which is just fancy talk for light. The output of these traditional telescopes are the familiar images we see on the news or popular websites like Astronomy Picture of the Day. Of course, many of the images released to the public have been enhanced or even adjusted to account for the fact that our eyes are only able to view a select kind of light, namely visible light (as opposed to the other kinds of light: radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma-ray). LIGO is an entirely different beast. It, or I should say they, were designed to detect gravitational radiation.
The idea of gravitational radiation is really straightforward. Just like shaking a charged particle produces light, shaking a mass produces the gravitational analog to light: gravitational waves. (Ok, they’re are some rules for how the mass has to be shaken, but that’s a minor detail here.) The production of gravitational waves is a natural consequence of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Even Einstein knew they were a trivial byproduct of his theory, but he and his contemporaries also recognized a severe problem. Gravitational waves are an extremely weak phenomenon.
When a gravitational wave passes through an extended object it induces a strain in that object. In other words, the passing gravitational wave actually causes a change in the dimensions of the object. For LIGO the change in size caused by the expected gravitational radiation is in the neighborhood of 10-16 centimeters. That’s about a billionth of the size of an atom! This is why only now, 95 years after the discover of general relativity, has technology advanced sufficiently to allow astronomers to build detectors sensitive enough to measure such a tiny effect.
For the past eight years LIGO has been attempting to detect gravitational waves. Unfortunately they, nor any other gravitational wave detector, has had any such luck. Astronomers have never detected gravitational waves directly, only indirectly. But that’s okay. When LIGO was initially pitched to the National Science Foundation (the main funding source for LIGO), the original design goal was set primarily to reach a given noise threshold. It was known—as well as these things can be known—that the initial LIGO design probably wouldn’t detect anything. So why was it funded? Because if LIGO could reach the designed noise threshold within the time frame, then future upgrades would improve LIGO’s sensitivity to where it should detect gravitational waves. And that brings us to today.
Just this week, on October 20, LIGO completed its last science run. Over the next few months and years, the data will be scrupulously analyzed in hopes of dredging out a gravitational wave signal. In the meantime LIGO is going to be overhauled into Super LIGO. Actually it will go by the less spectacular name of Advanced LIGO. The upgrades will lower the noise threshold on the instruments, bringing them down to the level where the expectations for detection are much higher. In fact, I’ve heard it said that if Advance LIGO doesn’t make regular detections it will cause astronomers to rethink the event rates and distributions for gravitational wave sources.
Oh, by the way, what is LIGO and its future incarnation looking for? Only the coolest things in the Universe. The collisions of black holes, the mergers of neutron stars, and supernovas along with a few other gravitational wave sources. The best sources of gravitational waves are situations were massive yet compact (i.e. highly dense) objects are moving at extremely high speeds. LIGO is really searching for the exotic.
When LIGO does find something, don’t expect to see a pretty picture slapped all over the internet or on the news. Gravitational wave detectors don’t output images. They output sound. Recall that gravitational detectors monitor the change in the sizes the detector as a gravitational wave passes through. These changes in size are translated into an audio signal because the frequencies of the gravitational waves are very similar to audible frequencies. You can hear a sample of simulated gravitational wave sounds here. Even though gravitational wave astronomers aren’t able to retrieve an image of the source, they can still figure out a number of details about the source by studying the changing pitch in the signals.
So keep your eyes on the news about LIGO while LIGO keeps its ears open to the Universe.
I don’t usually watch astronomy shows on television. It’s not that I think they’re perpetuating bad information or that they water down the science so much that there’s not much value left. In fact, it’s very rewarding to have one of my students come to class after watching shows like The Universe and to hear the excitement in their summaries of the show. It demonstrates that their interests carry outside the classroom enough that they’ll dedicate some of their personal time to learning more. To me though, having read too many textbooks on astronomy and having searched for what seems like forever to find perfect in-class teaching tools, I feel like I’ve seen it all.
However, there’s a new show coming this fall on the Discovery Channel that has caught my attention, Phil Plait’s Bad Universe.
Having read Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog for awhile I think his take on an astronomy show will not only be unique but it will go beyond just stating facts. Based on the preview it seems that one of the goals of the show is to teach critical thinking by debunking some of the common misconceptions related to astronomy. I really like this twist (if it holds true). Science education is so much more than just facts about extreme situations—which is what astronomy usually presents—it’s about thinking critically.