I mentioned last time that I’d seen MATLAB before, many years ago. Oddly, that was not the only encounter with an old friend I had this week. The other one was more surprising, because it was a friend I knew from civilian life, not one of my previous times as a student.
For reasons discussed earlier, I ended up in the online section of the AST 110 laboratory course. This means that the actual curriculum of the course is very different – there isn’t, for instance, any direct exploration of optics, because the students can’t be expected to have optics labs at home. The observation project still applies, so those who live too far from campus to visit the observatory have to make some other arrangement (the university helpfully provides a list of people around the state who have telescopes and are willing to help remote students with their obs projects), but apart from that, things are different in online-land.
The most significant difference: Instead of futzing around in the optics lab in Bennett Hall and/or visiting the planetarium during lab hours, the online students have to do simulated observations using a piece of astronomical software. And, weirdly, it’s a piece of astronomical software I’ve used before.
It’s called Starry Night, and it’s hugely cool. With it, one can simulate the view of the sky from anywhere in the world, at any time of day, on any day within a ridiculously wide range of years (4713 BC to AD 9999, according to the website). In fact, one can simulate the view from places other than anywhere in the world. Which is where I know it from, so to speak.
See, a few years ago I was working on a story that was set on a (perhaps improbably) terraformed Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and I wanted to know what the night sky would’ve looked like from there on a particular evening in the early 25th century. On the face of it, that’s perhaps not information the average citizen could reasonably expect to have available. Nor would it have been a big deal if I’d just made it up – this was a story set on a terraformed Titan in the early 25th century, after all, so it’s not like scientific realism was a high priority – but for some reason it annoyed me a bit, and I grumbled about it in the online chat room where most of the brainstorming and collaborating got done.
“Oh,” said my friend Phil, “you need Starry Night, then.”
I tracked it down, and indeed it did do exactly what I wanted. This was deeply gratifying. We even used a screencap as the backdrop for an illustration connected with the piece that Phil drew.
Fast-forward, oh, ten years or thereabouts, and there I am downloading a much newer version of Starry Night for an online astronomy lab course. The interface has changed quite a bit from the old days, but the visuals are familiar.
I do still want to get to the planetarium, though. The display is bigger.