Making Life Better Through Astronomy #SHaW

The first stirrings of what would become my interest in steampunk happened the year K.W. Jeter coined the word in a letter to Locus Magazine. During the summer of 1987, I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket, observing pulsating variable stars with an early twentieth-century telescope driven by a wind-up clock drive.

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I would go on to publish those results and present them at Harvard College Observatory. The idea that I could explore the universe with equipment built in the Victorian era stuck with me through the years and eventually blossomed when I started writing steampunk and weird western stories.

When I started attending steampunk events about five years ago, the maker culture reminded me of my introduction to astronomy. A few years before I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory, I joined an amateur astronomy club and was encouraged to build a Dobsonian telescopes. Designed by amateur astronomer John Dobson, these inexpensive, easy-to-build telescopes allow anyone with an interest to look at planets, stars, and beyond. This history combined with some extra motivation from one of my daughter’s science projects, led us to build a little steampunk Dobsonian telescope.

steampunk dobsonian

The telescope’s tube is, in fact, cardboard, but I gave it a coat of brass paint as a tribute to the Alvan Clarke and Sons telescopes I worked with on Nantucket and which drove so much science through the Victorian era. Having built this telescope, we have since taken it to steampunk and science fiction conventions where we’ve viewed planets and nebulae. Here’s my daughter setting up the telescope on the deck of the Queen Mary at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium in 2015.

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I’ve also conducted workshops, using the steampunk telescope as an example of how easy and satisfying it is to build your own small telescope.

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It’s exciting when people look through a telescope like this and realize they can peer into moon craters, see the rings of Saturn, or the ghostly Orion Nebula. For them, science has left the textbook and become something they can access. There’s even more magic when people realize they can get those kinds of views with something they built themselves. If you’re interested in building a telescope like this for your own enjoyment, I wrote two posts that should help you get started and include links to more detailed information.

This post is part of Steampunk Hands Around the World. Visit the Airship Ambassador for more information and to visit more great posts on the topic!

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Secret Science

A fictional trope I encounter frequently working at Kitt Peak National Observatory is the idea that I might have access to some top secret information that the general public doesn’t know. For example, I’m often asked whether there’s an asteroid getting ready to pummel the Earth or if aliens exist. I have indeed pointed telescopes at objects expected to pass close to the Earth, and even one that passed between the Earth and Moon. That object had already been on the news before I went to work. As for aliens—I work near the Mexican border. All the aliens I’ve met have perfectly terrestrial origins.

For all I know, this might happen after the aliens leave Kitt Peak.

For all I know, this might happen after the aliens leave Kitt Peak.

The fact of the matter is that science, by its nature, is remarkably open and transparent. We aren’t in the business of keeping secrets. Science progresses by presenting not only results but details of how those results were obtained so others can attempt to duplicate the results. What’s more, scientists actually require independent confirmation of results before they’re presented as discoveries.

This is why the president’s recent actions requiring that press releases and announcements from agencies such as the EPA and the Forest Service be vetted by the White House concerns me. It’s just like the fictional trope of the government deciding what science is fit for the public to hear. Of course, what’s almost worse is the impression that the White House wants all scientific results to match its political objectives.

Admittedly there are times when scientific secrecy is appropriate. A good example would be World War II’s Manhattan Project in which the atomic bomb was developed. That said, here’s a story my graduate advisor, Dr. Stirling Colgate, used to tell. He was a high school student at the Los Alamos Boys School, which was part of the land taken over for the Manhattan Project. He remembers seeing two mysterious strangers called Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones who toured the campus. He met up with some friends and they realized Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones were, in fact Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, whose photos were in their physics textbooks. They pondered why Oppenheimer and Fermi were visiting their little out-of-the-way school and realized that they were there to build the atomic bomb. The point of this story is that while the project was secret, the physics used was available to anyone, and even a high school boy in New Mexico could have sufficient theoretical understanding to know what was afoot. Of course, a boy smart enough to understand that scientists were about to build the atomic bomb was smart enough to know he’d get in a lot of trouble if he revealed what he figured out!

An element of secrecy that I deal with on a daily basis is that I avoid discussing results obtained by the astronomers I work with before they’ve had a chance to publish it. This is not because the data itself is necessarily secret, but because the observers need time to analyze their data and feel confident in the results before they announce it to the world. In this case, my role as an observing associate is not unlike my role as a book editor. As an editor, it would be inappropriate for me to post an author’s work without their permission. In much the same way, the data obtained at the telescope isn’t “mine” to share.

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In my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, I playfully use the trope of secret science when two characters encounter a creature at the observatory they don’t understand. The joke is that secret science doesn’t really happen and that astronomers don’t grow monsters in their mountaintop laboratories. While not everyone takes the time to understand science, the facilities are generally open and the results are available. Unfortunately, one of the dangers of a government releasing only the science it deems appropriate is that it throws a cloak over the whole process, which is no laughing matter. There suddenly becomes the possibility that results are selectively presented for political aims. This not only has the potential to invalidate scientific results, but also means the public doesn’t get to see what their tax dollars are funding. For all anyone knows, we might be growing monsters, harboring aliens, or keeping the next apocalyptic asteroid a secret for fear it might cause the stock market to plummet.

Ghostbusters

This week, I took my daughters to see the new Ghostbusters, a film I’ve been looking forward to despite several controversies. Of course, reboots and remakes always come with a certain amount of controversy. Will it be as good as the original? Why is this reboot necessary since the original is a classic? The thing is, to me, the 1984 Ghostbusters was itself a kind of reboot. Since 1975, I thought of the Ghostbusters as these guys:

Ghost Busters cast photo via Wikipedia

Ghost Busters cast photo via Wikipedia

The photo comes from the Saturday morning TV show Ghost Busters featuring Forrest Tucker as Kong, Larry Storch as Spencer, and Bob Burns as Tracy the Gorilla. The show typically featured the guys going out to a haunted castle to exterminate the ghost of some famous villain or monster such as Billy the Kid, Dracula, or Dr. Frankenstein and they had a set of gadgets not unlike those in the more famous movie about a decade later. It was cheesy, silly fun.

When the 1984 movie came out and proved to be a big hit, Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson became the Ghostbusters everyone knew and they’ve remained that way until this year, though I’d like to point out that at least for a little while in 1987, the Ghostbusters were these guys.

Ghostbusters

This is me and three friends from college who investigated a ghost sighting at the University of Southern California as part of a class taught at New Mexico Tech about the Paranormal and the Scientific Method. Our final project for the class was a research paper about any aspect of the paranormal. A friend at USC told me about a ghost sighting and our professors agreed that an on-sight investigation would be a good project.

In short, students at USC thought they saw a ghost in a basement room. After a few initial sightings, these students gathered together in the basement. That night, the ghost, who had been resting on a pool table, hopped off and pushed one the students in front of several eye witnesses. We interviewed all the people involved and saw a trend that the people who could give us the most detailed descriptions were the ones who believed the most in the paranormal. We visited the room and saw several interesting optical phenomena involving lights under the door. The upshot is that we came up with an explanation for the phenomenon that didn’t involve ghosts.

Really, that was the point of the exercise. Was our explanation correct? In fact, there’s no way to know. James Randi famously said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” We didn’t find extraordinary evidence for a ghost sighting, but we couldn’t actually say a ghost sighting didn’t occur. I rather enjoyed this experience and for a long time, thought about ways I could pursue paranormal investigations more professionally. The problem was, I couldn’t figure out a way to do it and be funded or without ripping off people. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts, but that wasn’t enough to make a career.

All of this brings me back around to the new Ghostbusters movie. One of the things I actually liked better about it than either the 1975 incarnation or the 1984 incarnation was that the Ghostbusters weren’t entrepreneurs taking money from people to hunt ghosts. They were civil servants—though admittedly civil servants off the official record books. Their research was publicly funded because it did a public good.

One thing both the 1984 and the 2016 versions did brilliantly was to poke fun at both popular paranormal research and academia. I related well to Dr. Erin Gilbert in the new movie as she came up for tenure review while her almost-forgotten book on ghost hunting was suddenly getting unwelcome attention. After all, I’m an employee at a prestigious astronomical observatory whose boss has expressed some concern about me being the author of a book about a haunted observatory. Fortunately, in the end, my boss has been more supportive than Erin’s were in the movie and I’m not looking for other work. At least not yet!

In the end, I enjoyed the new Ghostbusters. I can’t say it was perfect. I felt parts went over-the-top, but that happens for me with a lot of comedies. Still, it succeeded at telling a similar, yet not identical story. When it comes out on video, I’ll buy a copy and sit it on the shelf next to my copies of the 1975 and 1984 incarnations. Which one I drop in will depend on the particular story I’m in the mood for at the time.

Sharing Time

Susan over at Dab of Darkness gave me a shout-out in her post about being nominated for the Real Neat Blog Award. She has a wonderful review site and you can read her reviews of Owl Dance, SummersOwlDanceLightning Wolves, Culhwch and Olwen and even the very first edition of The Pirates of Sufiro. She also conducts author interviews and here’s her most recent interview with yours truly.

What I like about these award-type posts is that it gives me the opportunity to share some things I might not otherwise, plus I get to recommend some cool blogs. Although Susan didn’t “nominate” me outright, she did mention my blog and she came up with some cool questions. What’s more, one of the “rules” of this award is to bend the rules. So, I’m not treating this as the usual award post, just sharing some questions and answers, then recommending some blogs at the end of the post. Enjoy!

  1. If you could be an extra on a period piece (Outlander, Spartacus, etc.) what would it be and what would you be doing?

    Although I know the series finished a few months ago, I would have enjoyed appearing in Da Vinci’s Demons as someone working with period astronomical instruments such as astrolabes and armillary spheres who helps Da Vinci solve a mystery that required some knowledge of celestial motions.

  2. What makes you cringe?

    Recent wounds just starting to heal produce a strong cringe response in me. Good thing I’m not a doctor! Actually, new wounds usually don’t cause me to react that way, but I suspect that’s because the adrenaline from trying to help overrides the cringe response.

  3. What’s the most interesting gross fact you know?

    Despite what makes me cringe, I seem to have a high threshold for being grossed out and I’m not sure whether I find this fact more gross or more interesting. Apparently it’s quite natural for a woman to have a bowel movement while in labor—perhaps this shouldn’t be much of a surprise given the muscles involved in both activities. The interesting part is that it’s believed that this is actually an important part of the life process, imparting a baby with their first exposure to bacteria, helping to develop their immune system.

  4. It’s time for you to host the book club. Who do you invite (living, dead, fictional, real)? And what 3 books will you be discussing?

    I would invite Lafcadio Hearn to talk about his journey from being a newspaperman in New Orleans and collecting recipes for the first book of Creole cookery, La Cuisine Creole, to writing about life in Meiji Era Japan in Gleanings in Buddha Fields to collecting Japanese ghost stories in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. It couldn’t help but be a fascinating journey.

  5. If you had to choose someone to rescue you from the jaws of certain death would it be a superhero, supernatural creature, or a space alien?

    Vampires of the Scarlet Order

    The most interesting superheroes often have emotional issues they’re working through, and certainly in recent superhero movies, there’s a lot of collateral damage where those guys hang out. Not sure I want to be around those guys. Looking at the space aliens I’ve written about in the Old Star/New Earth series, a lot depends on the alien. Some have been friends in need. Others have had their own agendas. So, I lean toward supernatural creature, and specifically the Scarlet Order vampires. They work quickly and quietly and most of them have good hearts as long as no one is trying to screw them over. I just hope they aren’t too hungry when they rescue me!

  6. If you could, what book/movie/TV series would you like to experience for the first time all over again and why?

    The tricky part about this question is that when I think about the very best books, movies, and TV series, they’re great the first time and only get better in repeated viewings as I see things I missed before. The one TV series, though, that comes to mind is Star Trek: The Animated Series which was first on when I was about eight years old. The writing by such folks as David Gerrold, Larry Niven, and D.C. Fontana still holds up and I catch things in the scripts today that I didn’t then. Although many of the cells were beautifully drawn, it was animated with the limitations of a 1970’s Saturday morning TV budget. I would be delighted to go back and experience the episodes again where I’m more captivated by the magic of the animation and less critical of the execution.

  7. If everyone came with warning labels, what would yours say?

    Caution: Requires coffee to function properly.

    DLS with Pirate Mug

Here are some of my favorite blogs:

  • Lachesis Publishing is one of my publishers and has a regular blog featuring author interviews and helpful tips for writers.
  • Wyrmflight is a blog by Deby Fredericks covering any and all aspects related to dragons.
  • Earthian Hivemind is Steph P. Bianchini’s blog that covers topics of science and science fiction.
  • Karen J. Carlisle is a steampunk writer, photographer, and costumer in Australia who presents some great stories, writing tips, and sometimes even recipes.
  • Joy V. Smith is the author of the short story collection Sugar Time that I edited. She blogs and reblogs about topics of interest to writers.
  • eSpec Books published the anthology Gaslight and Grimm. Their blog not only announces upcoming publications, but gives some great behind-the-scenes insights into the stories plus author interviews, and they sponsor a monthly writing contest.
  • D.M. Yates is an author of paranormal romance who has handy tips about grammar plus some interesting crafting and cooking tips.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

The autumn of 1980 was perhaps one of the most difficult times of my life. My father died suddenly of a heart attack just about six weeks before my fourteenth birthday. One thing that helped pull me through that difficult time was Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos. It fostered my love of astronomy and set me on a course that would eventually earn me a degree in physics. Thirty-five years later, I’m now sharing Neil deGrasse Tyson’s updated Cosmos with my daughters. My youngest is the same age I was when I discovered Sagan’s original.

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Overall, I’ve been impressed with the series. I can nitpick some places where they’ve sacrificed precision in how a particular astronomical object or phenomena is depicted in the name of dramatic effect, but for the most part Tyson gets the important things right. The show has allowed me to better explain the importance of spectra in my work at Kitt Peak. I was delighted to see an episode featuring Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. I was able to discuss how they influenced both my work and how people they worked with directly inspired teachers of mine such as Emilia Belserene at Maria Mitchell Observatory. I also appreciated the discussion about how neutrinos can precede supernova explosions, though I noticed they managed to leave out mention of Stirling Colgate’s important contributions to that work.

Perhaps the most important thing about the series is that I see the same wonder on the faces of my daughters that I had when I watched Carl Sagan’s original series. My oldest daughter has already set her sights on a degree in mathematics and computer science. My youngest still has options wide open. I hold no strict expectation she’ll pursue a career in science, but I do expect she’ll come to respect the process of science and hold an appreciation of it no matter what she does.

Unlike Neil deGrasse Tyson, I hold no Ph.D. My career in astronomy diverged from a strictly academic path into more of an engineering and support path. Despite that, I feel it’s important to convey my love of science in classrooms as well as science fiction and steampunk conventions. In fact, I think there’s value in showing that you don’t need a Ph.D. to appreciate, use, and act on scientific discovery. Because of my interest in communicating about science, I’ve been paying close attention to Tyson’s presentations. He is a good, clear communicator and I’ve especially enjoyed seeing how he introduces subjects such as stellar spectroscopy, supernovae, and black holes.

In the most recent episode I watched, Tyson presented the sobering evidence for climate change. There’s been a lot of debate about it, but as he notes there’s well over a century of solid evidence that carbon dioxide is increasing and global temperatures are warming. He notes that weather is hard to predict and there are lots of minute variations. He demonstrated this by walking a dog. The dog goes all over the place, attracted by different things. However, climate is like the man holding the leash. There may be random variations, but there’s also an overall path. Although climate change is a sobering reality, I appreciated that Tyson showed that there is hope. We have to work hard and make solar and wind energy a reality and we need to do it much faster than we have been.

Now some will say addressing climate change is just too big a problem to address. I watched this episode after visiting New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina. Ten years ago, some people said rebuilding New Orleans was just too big a challenge, we should let the city go. Although Katrina still echoes in New Orleans, it’s returned to being a bright and vibrant city. Researchers at Tulane University are working on finding ways to restore the gulf coast and perhaps even find ways to make New Orleans much safer should another hurricane strike. We humans are amazing and we can solve the big problems when we set our minds to it.

I appreciate the effort Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane have put into bringing a new version of the show back. I hope it inspires a new generation to look at the world with wonder and to take the scientific process seriously.

LepreCon 41

Next weekend, I’ll be a participant at LepreCon 41 in Phoenix, Arizona. The convention will be held from Thursday, June 25 through Sunday, June 28 at the Embassy Suites Phoenix North. This year’s guests include David Gerrold, Jennifer Brozek, and Dayton Ward. It’s especially exciting since I’ve had the chance to work with or alongside each of those people in at least one project. For more information about LepreCon, visit their website at http://leprecon.org

My schedule at the convention is as follows:

Friday, June 26

    3-4pm – Suite E – Discovering New Worlds. A presentation about the techniques used to discover planets beyond the solar system and a look at the kinds of worlds discovered. This presentation will focus more on how new worlds are found. My presentation on Saturday called “Planets Outside the Solar System” will focus more on what kinds of planets are being discovered.

    5-6pm – Suite D – How to Make Your Own Telescope. I show you how you can make a simple and stylish Newtonian telescope from easy-to-find, inexpensive parts that’s easy to transport and set up so you can enjoy the night sky

    7-8pm – Suite C – East Coast Steampunk meets West Coast. How does Steampunk fashion and style differ from the east coast to the west coast? On the panel with me are Dee Astell and Ileana Herrera.

Saturday, June 27

    11-11:30am – Suite E – Autographing. Bring your books for me to autograph. I’ll also have a few of my own wares along to sell.

    2-3pm – Suite E – Planets Outside the Solar System. A look at how we discover planets outside the solar system, what kinds of planets we’ve discovered, what we know about them, and the future of planet hunting. This presentation will focus more on the actual planets discovered.

    10-11pm – Suite C – Steampunk and History. Steampunk blends elements of history, science fiction, and fantasy. How much historical research needs to go into your steampunk story? Can you completely reinvent history for your steampunk story? Does it even have to be set in history to be called steampunk? I envisioned this as a panel with multiple people, but it looks like I’m doing it by myself, so come equipped with questions. I’ll likely do a reading or two to show how I’ve approached issues of steampunk and history.

Sunday, June 28

    10-11a – Suite E – Mars: A Land Across the Aether. A presentation about Mars of the 19th century and how it became a place in the popular imagination. Where did the Martian canals come from? A look at the early debates about Martian life. Listen to Tesla’s recordings of extraterrestrial signals.

If I missed you at Phoenix Comicon, I hope to see you at LepreCon! Also, remember, the Favorite Heroines Blog Hop is still going on. Be sure to drop by my last post and enter to win a copy of Lightning Wolves.

Arizona and NM STEM Resources for Kids

At Phoenix Comicon, I was on a panel called “Growing Up With Science.” Our goal was to suggest ways to keep kids—and particularly girls and minorities—interested in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. This post attempts to collect several of the suggested places around Arizona and New Mexico parents can take their kids to investigate these fields. The photo below is from the Phoenix Comicon photo collection and shows the panelists: Dean Frio, Martha Alice Cassetti, Karen Knierman, David Lee Summers, and Aireona Raschke.

STEM-Panel

The categories below are presented roughly in the order we presented them during the panel.


General Education Resources

School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University “is training the next generation of explorers and citizen scientists.” They offer a number of field trips, teacher workshops and partnerships with local schools, exploring astronomy and earth sciences. For more information, visit: http://sese.asu.edu/outreach

Ask a Biologist is a program at Arizona State University where kids can ask questions, access age-appropriate science articles, and interact with activities and online games. http://askabiologist.asu.edu/

Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center. Museums and visits to science facilities are a great way to interest kids in science. Kitt Peak offers year round tours and even night programs where people can observe with docents expert at interpreting the night sky. Get more information at: http://www.noao.edu/outreach/kpvc/

Lowell Observatory is a center for astronomical research and works to bring the results of that research to the general public. They have an outstanding visitor center in Flagstaff and terrific online resources at: http://lowell.edu/

Biosphere 2 serves as a center for research, outreach, teaching and life-long learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe. They offer guided tours to individuals and schools, plus they also offer teacher training programs. Learn more at: http://b2science.org/

Asombro Institute for Science Education works to foster an understanding of the Chihuahuan Desert through programs given to schools in Southern New Mexico and West Texas, plus programs offered at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park. Learn more at: http://www.asombro.org/


Experiences and Camps

Astronomy Camp is held each year at Kitt Peak National Observatory and run by Dr. Don McCarthy of the University of Arizona. It gives students hands on experiences in both astronomy and engineering. More information at: http://astronomycamp.org

MathMovesU is a program hosted by Raytheon which has a number of on-line activities and provides scholarships so kids can attend math and science events. http://www.mathmovesu.com/

Phoenix Zoo Camp gives kids an opportunity to spend time during summer and winter breaks at the zoo engaged in activities learning about nature and animals. More information at: http://phoenixzoo.org/camps-programs/camp-zoo/

Young Women in Computing is a camp hosted by the computer science department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. In addition to the camp itself, they host after school programs, contests, and teacher-program collaborations. They work not only with young women, but young men as well. Get more information at: https://sites.google.com/site/ywicnm/


Citizen Science Projects

Citizen science projects are projects where you can contribute to projects and discoveries. Generally, you are given an on-line tutorial for the project then taken to a set of data that requires analysis. This is a great way for both adults and kids to contribute to real, on-going science projects.

Zooniverse is a literal clearing house of citizen science projects that can be done from your home computer with an internet connection. The projects range from astronomy, to biology, to climate. Find a project and get involved at: www.zooniverse.org

Amazing Space uses the Hubble Space Telescope’s discoveries to inspire and educate about the wonders of our universe. http://amazing-space.stsci.edu/

Gila Monsters at Saguaro National Park is a program where people can report Gila Monster sightings in and around Saguaro National Park and help preserve these amazing animals. http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/gila-monsters-at-saguaro-national-park

McDowell Mountains Citizen Science Program is the steward program that supports the McDowell Sonoran Field Institute by training and deploying volunteers on the various research projects. The program offers opportunities to Conservancy stewards as well as students and community volunteers. Get details at: http://www.mcdowellsonoran.org/content/pages/citizenScienceProgram#sthash.C1Eu2uUO.tvY4etUl.dpuf