Posts Tagged ‘astronomical!’

Public Speaking: The Odyssey Continues

October 4, 2010 Leave a comment

For the past three class days, and for at least one more, we’re doing our informative speeches in CMJ 103.  Some of my classmates’ speeches so far have been interesting; some have been tedious; two have been downright tiresome, because the people delivering them have had clearly visible axes to grind and it’s not appropriate to grind them in what was supposed to be an informative speech.  That’s what persuasive speeches, which we start working on next week, are for.

I delivered mine last Friday.  It went pretty well, I think.  My delivery could’ve been smoother, but hey.  This is a general public speaking class that everyone hoping to receive a degree from the University at some point is required to take.  The bar is not really all that high.  And that’s not to say I’m not trying – I’m making a concerted effort to take the whole thing as seriously as possible and do the best I can; just that I needn’t get that down on myself about any stylistic fumbles I may have committed along the way.

Our instructor records all our speeches with a Flip video camera, then uploads them to Flip’s private video sharing site and sends us the links (only to our own) after the class, so that we can watch ourselves and file a self-evaluation for next time.  (This is folded into our grade in some mysterious way.)  FlipShare’s private sharing site is a YouTube-ish streaming Flash video thing, and I just figured out over the weekend how to capture the streams and convert them into something more generally useful for archival purposes.  I’ve got last week’s, and indeed the introductory speech I posted a transcript of a while back, on my laptop’s hard drive now.  The link from Moonbase Dad is too slow for me to upload them anywhere tonight, but maybe if you’re good boys and girls I’ll post them later.

On Friday, once the informatives are out of the way, we get to start thinking about the first of our two persuasive speeches.  The first is intended to be delivered to a neutral-to-friendly audience, the second to a hostile one.  I’m not sure how that’ll be accomplished, since in both cases we’ll be addressing the rest of the class.  Perhaps it will involve some roleplaying.  I have a few ideas for persuasive speeches I might develop, but I haven’t made any decision yet, and I won’t have to until next week.  Our topics for Persuasive 1 were going to be due Friday, but since some of us won’t actually have done our informatives until Wednesday, the instructor decided to give those people a bit more time by pushing the topic deadline until the next Wednesday (since there’s no school on Monday).

In other news, we attempted to have our second rounds of observations for AST 110 tonight, but were largely thwarted by cloud cover.  We got one telescopic object in (sort of), I managed to point out two constellations (and I would’ve gotten a third one, except that the clouds ate Cygnus before I could get hold of a TA), but we threw in the towel an hour early because we were getting socked in and our weapons were useless.  When you’re in a spot with as much light pollution as the Maynard F. Jordan Observatory, you don’t need the added handicap of near-total overcast.


Okay, That Was Good

September 21, 2010 3 comments

I was a little nervous going into my first AST 110 observation session this evening.  For one thing, I didn’t have one of the essential tools the course wants me to have, a little cardboard wingus called a planisphere.  The online class modules sort of blithely assume you have one, without any particular reference to how or when it expects you’ll have acquired such a thing.  Without one, it tends to be difficult to find things like constellations other than the very most obvious ones.  I asked the first TA I encountered at the observatory where we online students were supposed to have acquired one; she directed me to the other TA, who gave me a what-planet-are-you-calling-from look and said simply, "You’re supposed to order it online."  So I guess that’s one of those initiation-rite sort of things.  I’ll be investigating further tomorrow.  I think you can buy them at the planetarium gift shop, assuming it’s open during the week.

(Ed. note: Yes you can! For $6.)

Anyway, I didn’t have one, and I was a bit worried about that.  Plus, the crowd that developed as the clock edged closer to 8 PM was quite large, large enough that it started triggering my Wallflower Instinct in a big way.  This was made worse by the fact that one of the three expected TAs didn’t turn up, meaning that the 40 or so of us students who were present had to split a pair of them between us, and one was always busy making sure the telescope was pointed correctly.

But all of that sort of melted away when the actual session began, because, well… whatever is going on to complicate the official-bookkeeping part of the exercise, it’s an astronomy lab.  It’s looking at the night sky for credit.  If you have a temperament like mine, it’s hard for any circumstantial encumbrance to mess that up.  I may change my tune as we get deeper into the semester and the evenings turn from chilly to outright cold (they don’t open the observatory if the overnight low is expected to be below 10° F, which still leaves the possibility of an open evening when it’s well below Zerex*), but right now not even the cold or the sore feet value of standing around on concrete for two hours is dimming my enthusiasm for this class.

About the only thing that could do that, I think, is the size of the crowd, and the fact that there are a few people in it who are clearly not taking the whole thing seriously.  I don’t want to come off all Sam the Eagle about this – it’s not as if I’m saying I don’t want people to enjoy themselves in class, quite the opposite – but there are a few people in the Monday group who come off like they’re taking astronomy simply because they figure it’s an easy pass, and they aren’t at all attuned to the… I don’t know, the grandeur of it all.  I’ll take another pass at this in a minute and see if I can make my meaning plainer with an example.

The time-consuming part is pointing out constellations (actually asterisms, but I didn’t want to be That Guy on observation day one) to the TAs through the use of horizon landmarks and rough azimuth-and-elevation headings ("OK, start at the student union chimney and go straight up about 30 degrees to a bright star.  From there, about 10 degrees away at 2 o’clock you’ll see another," and so on until you’ve described, say, all the prominent stars in the Big Dipper).  This is time-consuming mainly because you have to get a TA’s undivided attention for the 30-60 seconds it can take to do all this describing, which is tricky when the ratio is 20:1 and someone has to keep the telescope aimed.

Still, I did fairly well.  We’re expected to have at least 10 constellations logged (we can go up to 15) by project’s end, and I scored four tonight.  Without the aid of a planisphere, you may recall – although I’ll be honest at this point and admit that I did have Google Sky for Android to help me.

An aside: Once you convince the magnetometer in your Droid that north really is over there, and not in whatever direction it noticed the magnet on your Bluetooth earpiece’s carrying case was in while it was in your manpurse, Google Sky is a deliciously handy little app for the astronomically inclined.  It’ll even show you what’s on the other side of the Earth.  Several of my classmates were using it as well, though I was interested to note that apparently none of them realize it has a night mode.  (Why it doesn’t default to night mode, I’m not sure.  You would think that was logical.  It’s an astronomical program, after all.  While using it at lunchtime to show you what stars you would be seeing except for that pesky atmosphere is amusing, one doubts it’s the usual use.)

Anyway, yeah, four constellations, despite the fact that my aged eyes couldn’t pick out most of the stars in Aquila and Ursa Minor.  That is quite good going for an evening as crowded and glaretastic as last night was.  Six to go.  Or 11, depending on whether I want to be Mr. Completion and go for the maximum extra credit.

The other half of the observation project is a bit less tricky, but involves more standing in line.  Basically, during the course of the obs sessions, the TAs will point telescopes at Interesting Sky Objects and then the students will queue up to have a look and draw a little diagram depicting what they see.  That’s it.  You don’t have to identify what you’re looking at – the TAs tell you what it is and where in the sky you’re seeing it.  You draw what you see, draw a horizon reference, and make some notes.  Tonight we did the Moon and Jupiter.  Sadly, we didn’t use the observatory’s Proper Telescope, the one mounted inside the dome – too many students and not enough TAs – so we did tonight’s observations with a Dobsonian reflector telescope that seems to have been built from a big ol’ sonotube (like you’d use to pour the concrete column to hold up a deck).

Disappointment about the Big Telescope or no, it was still the coolest thing I’ve looked at through a tube in a long time.  Jupiter was clear enough that I think I could make out at least one of the darker cloud bands, though it might just have been because I knew they were there.  The real "ooo, wow" feature of the Jupiter obs was the Galilean moons – all four of them strung out in a bright line, two on either side of the planet.  (Alas, we just missed a transit of Ganymede, which happened Saturday night.)   I’d never seen them directly before.  For someone with an armchair appreciation of science history like me, it was a real chill-up-the-spine moment.  I wanted to grab a couple of my more jocular classmates and shake them. "Don’t you realize what that means, what you’re looking at there?  It’s not just a bunch of bright dots, it’s Galileo’s proof that Copernicus was right!  It’s the crowbar that pried the shackles of Aristotle from the wrists of Western thought!  How can you not be excited about that?!"

Ahem.  Do excuse me.  Of course I don’t do any such thing, because they would just shake themselves free and walk away muttering, "Psycho."  But I’m thinking it.  And I think I had a moment of eye contact with one of the TAs that indicated she was thinking it too, but that might just have been wishful thinking on my part.  She was really nice.

Anyway.  Man, I hope we do Saturn later on.  Saturn is my very favorite sky object.

The lunar surface was also impressive, doubly so because the Moon was so close to full.  That was bad in other ways, but it did make for nice crater viewing (though I’m told it’s even better when the Moon is at, say, one of the quarters, and the day-night terminator is right in the middle of the frame, as it were).  I quite clearly saw that one large crater with the bright ejecta rays all around it.  Can’t remember what it’s called right now, and am unable to look it up.  Will get back to you on that.

(Ed. note: Tycho.)

When I say the Moon being nearly full was bad in other ways, what I mean is that the glare from it rather messed up the seeing (as we astronomers say) for the rest of the sky.  When the moon is full, it’s difficult to see anything in the sky other than, well, the Moon.

It must be admitted that the seeing from the Maynard F. Jordan Observatory isn’t too terrific even on the darkest of nights, simply because – as was, I suspect, not the case when it was built – it’s right slap in the middle of campus now, surrounded by take-back-the-night Pedestrian Safety Streetlights, the bus turnaround in front of the cheerfully lit Memorial Union, and particularly the Godawful garish lights of the Union’s loading dock.  (Why the hell does that need to be illuminated at 9 PM?)  it’s all a little bit depressing if you’re trying to get lost in the wonders of the cosmos, or point out the dimmer members of Aquila** to a TA.

I do love the voicemail message that tells you whether the observatory is open that night when you call, though.  Sometimes it’s recorded by one of the TAs, but sometimes a computer does it, and so you get the delightful illusion that you’re being told that the Maynard F. Jordan Observatory is closed tonight due to overcast by Professor Stephen Hawking.

We’re on the hook for eight telescopic objects over the course of the obs project, but we only got two tonight because of the TA shortage.  Hopefully in future sessions either the herd will thin out a bit or they’ll get that third TA back on task.  It’s pretty clearly going to take at least three sessions at this point to get everything in – not that I mind.  As long as the weather holds out, I’m there.  I can’t imagine why I didn’t do this in 1993, but I’m glad I didn’t.  I don’t think I’d have appreciated it as much back then (though I was still an astronomy junkie even then, I wasn’t the full-on Saganite I am now).

It is making me wonder now if I’m barking up the wrong tree with this electrical engineering malarkey and should, in fact, just say the hell with Career Prospects and become an astronomer.  But that’s probably the endorphins talking.

OK, to bed.  Math in the morning.  I’m at Moonbase Dad tonight, since I didn’t clear campus until about 10:15 PM, and he’s shut off the wireless router for some reason, so I won’t actually be able to post this until I get back to school.  Fortunately laptops are welcome in MAT 122, and since I’ll have written it already I won’t actually be goofing off in class if I upload it while I’m pulling up the virtual textbook.

* In WPI gweepy lore, Zerex is the temperature below which John Todd will put on a jacket.  You probably don’t know him, but he had a high tolerance for cold.  Zerex was at least in the low twenties Fahrenheit, if not colder.

** "The dimmer members of Aquila" sounds like I’m being uncomplimentary about a Latin American rock band.

Back to the Future

September 19, 2010 1 comment

One of the consequences of my extremely late start on this school year is that my financial aid package, though adequate, is extremely rudimentary.  It’s basically a big pile of Stafford loans on top of a decent-sized Pell grant, but there are no bells or whistles at all.  I didn’t even qualify for workstudy, which meant that getting an on-campus job wasn’t a given.  Almost all jobs on campus are workstudy-funded, which means the departments offering them have to leave them unfilled if they can’t get any workstudy students to apply.  They don’t have the money to pay for them any other way.

Compounding the frustration here is the fact that the Office of Student Employment’s online job search system isn’t reliable about its listings.  You can search for "non-workstudy only", but of the six interesting jobs I found by searching that way at the beginning of the semester, all of them were misfiled, such that when I sent off messages to the people in charge expressing my interest, I got back only polite expressions of regret.

As such, when I noticed yesterday that the school newspaper, the Maine Campus, was looking for a columnist, I figured that was probably mislabeled as well – but what the hell, I mean, it’s not like I didn’t have writing samples lying around.  So I fired them off my 2004 Better Newspaper Contest entries and a later piece I wrote about the WPI Fountain of Useless Knowledge, along with a copy of my résumé in all its tattered splendor, thinking the worst that could happen was another no.

Instead, I seem to have been hired to write a biweekly column, and invited to attend the regular news agenda meetings with an eye toward picking up some slack (if there is any) in the news department.  Apparently they don’t get many applicants who’ve worked for several years at "real-world" newspapers.

I would not have predicted that I would find myself working for a newspaper again in this setting.  No word yet on whether the new column will be the return of Off the Top of My Head or something new, but the editor-in-chief did say "on the topic of your choice".  We’ll be meeting tomorrow afternoon.  I’m looking forward to it.

In other news, the weather forecast is good (but cold!) for tomorrow evening, so I should be obliged to visit the observatory.  That’ll be my first visit to the facility; I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be doing, despite having read over the Observation Project spec sheet a dozen or so times.  Hopefully it’ll become apparent once I’m on the scene.  Either way, I’m looking forward to that, too.  I mean, yes, I’ll be freezing my butt off, but still, I mean – observatory!

Unexpected Meetings

September 17, 2010 2 comments

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.

Astronomy Is Hard

September 13, 2010 2 comments

At least it is when you live someplace where it’s cloudy a lot.  Tonight was my first scheduled observatory night – something I was rather looking forward to, even though I expect my first session will be a symphony of bumbling – but, alas, it was canceled on account of the cast-iron overcast.  I’m told this is a relatively common event, and it is not completely unknown for whole semesters to go by without particular weeknights being available for observation (at which point the grades of the students who signed up for that weeknight are computed entirely from their lesson performance, as they will have been unable to complete the observation project).

I don’t recall if I mentioned this earlier, but I bungled my signup for this class originally – pushed the wrong button on the automated signup page and enrolled in the wrong evening’s section – and I was unable to get permission from the physics department office for my college’s dean’s office to correct the problem before the deadline to drop classes (today) passed.  As a contingency plan, I did get my dean’s office to switch me out of Tuesday night (when I would not have been able to attend) and into the online class.  My plan was to switch again if I could get permission to join the Monday section, but that didn’t happen, so it looks like (apart from observatory sessions) I’ll be doing this one remotely as well.

I’m a bit bummed about that, because it means I’ll miss out on the two sessions the on-campus sections do in the planetarium.  The planetarium is cool.  Does your university have a planetarium?  ‘Cause mine does, and it rocks.

Sorry.  Got a bit sidetracked there.  I think I’ll send the Wednesday section’s instructor an email and ask if I can sneak into their planetarium sessions.  Be a shame to miss out on that.

Also, I may run into a bit of a problem with having done the accompanying lecture class in 1993.  The lecture and lab aren’t close-coupled like, say, Chemistry, and you don’t have to take them in the same semester, but they do rather expect that if you’re taking the lab, you’ll still have the book (and, more importantly, the software) from the lecture – and while I do in fact still have my book from AST 109, it’s, uh, not the same one they’re using now.  So I’ll need to sort that out.

All this technology is getting on my nerves a little.  Today’s ECE 100 seminar involved members of the ECE faculty talking about the classes they teach and the research projects they’re working on, and everything one of them talked about was some kind of AI project or other computer programming thing.  It seems like the “computer engineering” part of the department name has largely consumed what used to be considered computer science back in my day.  According to Prof. Eason, the CS department is mainly concerned with Java programming and web/Internet stuff (what, in turn, used to be called IT back when) these days, leaving the serious computer stuff – AI, operating systems, all the heavy lifting in C – to the CEs.  The vibe I’m getting about the department culture so far almost feels like the electrical engineers are starting to be considered quaint.  This doesn’t make me happy.

It’ll be nice to get into the observatory, therefore, where the centerpiece is a telescope made by hand from brass in 1901.