Crowdfunding a space science startup

It doesn’t appear that our investment in NASA is going to change anytime soon, and that’s a shame because about 10% of NASA’s budget goes to funding research and education. In other words only about 0.05% of the entire federal budget goes towards actually funding the research that leads to scientific and engineering breakthroughs or educating the next generation of scientists.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of money to be spending on a resource our country – indeed, the entire world – needs.

And so, a team of astronomers and educators got together to fund Uwingu, a private company that will use its profits to fund research and education projects. The amount of annual funding it can provide is, of course, dependent on how well the company does. But the business model seems pretty straightforward; develop and sell educational products (after all, that is what the founders of the company are good at already) and use the profits to fund more research and education projects.

It’s so crazy, it just might work!

But like any company, Uwingu needs startup capital, and this is where we come in. So far they’ve raised a little more than the $65,000 of the $75,000 they need, but they need that final push to get them there. Check out their fundraiser page and kick in a few bucks. Every bit helps!

Here are a couple of videos to give you a better idea of what they’re all about:

I wish them the best of luck geting this venture off the ground.

Symphony of Science – Climate Change

John D Boswell at Symphony of Science created a beautiful video that describes our greatest challenge to date – climate change. Yes, the subject is a downer, and I would love to believe that it really isn’t happening as much as the oil industry would like us to. But the reality is that it is happening, and it’s getting worse.

Boswell’s video features the late Isaac Asimov, speaking out on climate change way back in the 1980’s. It’s a reminder of the fact that human-caused climate change is nothing new; we’re only now starting to feel the worst effects of it.

There is, however, some hopeful news. The climate change we are experiencing is caused by us, and that means we can do something to reverse it. Boswell emphasizes this point in his video, and turns what could have been a depressing commentary on rapidly diminishing polar ice into a message of hope; we can correct this problem.

If we choose to.

The Universe, now in collectible trading card format

Saturn, with statistics depicted
Saturn, from the The Solar System deck

Over the years, I collected some trading cards and even played a few games to a rather obsessive extent, hoping that my opponent trading partner wouldn’t have the cards I had and would be dumb enough to trade his rare card for a handful of my common ones.

But thanks to the Internet, and to people willing to do the hard work to make them available, you can download the entire set, print them out, and hoard them impress your friends.

And that’s just what Stephen Wilkins at Oxford University has done by creating an Astronomy card game. It’s still in the proofing stage, but you can download, print them out on card stock and trade away!

Card sets like these are a great way to engage the public. Of course, you can hand out links to websites but people may not remember to check them out later. But if you can give them something they can hold in their hand, it makes an immediate, physical impression.

Game play and other uses

Stephen Wilkins envisions the cards can be played in a manner similar to Top Trumps. Being an American, I haven’t heard of or played this game before, but it sounds like it would be a great game to play with kids. Here are a few other ideas:

  • Use the Solar System deck to create a model of the solar system by arranging the planets in order of distance, and using the information on the cards to set the distances to scale.
  • Create a Hertzsprung–Russell diagram with the cards from the Stars deck
  • Work out the lifecycle of stars from the Stars and Nebulae, Clusters, & Exotica decks
  • Create a logarithmic scale of the universe from all the decks!

Looking sharp

And by the way, the production values of these cards are slick! I love the typography and graphic design. Below is a sample from each deck:

Gemini North
Gemini North Observatory from the Observatories deck
Antares from the Milky Way: stars deck
NGC 3603 star cluster
Young star cluster NGC 3603, from the The Milky Way: Nebulae, Clusters, & Exotica decsk
image of Centaurus A with stats
Centaurus A from The Universe deck

Needless to say, it’s hard to summarize all of the awesomeness of the universe into a few card decks, but this is an excellent effort. I can imagine expansion sets to include stuff like the Kuiper Belt, Brown Dwarfs, Binary Stars, Exoplanets, Black Holes, Quasars, Dark Matter, Cosmic Microwave Background, etc.

After all, you have to do something to keep the collectors busy!

Galaxies, the Universe, and Everything in Reading, PA

Title slide for the talk "Galaxies, the Universe, & Everything"

Tonight I had a great time speaking to the Berks County Amateur Astronomical Society at the Reading Public Museum in Reading, PA, which on the whole wasn’t too far from where I grew up. It was nice being in my home state once again, even for an evening!

Despite it being a school/work night, I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout of the Berks club members and general public. After my presentation people stayed for a Q&A session that went on for about a good half-hour or so. I was worried I was keeping folks up past their bedtime, but I kept getting great questions, especially from the kids who haven’t grown up to learn they shouldn’t ask “dumb” questions like:

If a black hole were heading toward Earth, could we detect it so we would have time to escape?

Can a Gama Ray Burst be because two black holes collide?

What caused galaxies to form in the first place?

and this one, which had me thinking on my feet a bit:

If the Sun were to suddenly disappear, how long would it take for the Earth to stop orbiting it?

To those kids, let me just say, don’t grow up! Keep asking those “dumb” questions because they actually some of the most important questions we can ask!

First Light

Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope, seen here after release back to orbit following the end of its final servicing mission in 2009

Astronomy is the only investigation into nature that demands at least one arm tied behind your back. Unless you’re into meteorites or comet samples, the only method of studying the greater universe beyond our home world is by examining the light from distant suns. To do that, we must turn of course to our telescopes.

Every telescope’s inaugural moment is known as first light – that first image or observation taken by the newly commissioned telescope. If a telescope were a ship, first light is its maiden voyage.

I’ve been fortunate to work on one particularly interesting telescope, as well as a few others. But my greatest joy has been sharing the excitement of what we’ve discovered about our universe using these wonderful machines.

I’ve been giving public presentations since I was a teenager, and even made a video or two. But writing has always been a bit of a challenge for me, which is ironic since I’m best friends with a brilliant writer and editor, the son of an English Professor, and husband to an incredible (and beautiful) author. You’d think some of that would rub off on me.

Of course, there are a few other astronomy and physics blogs out there (including some pretty bad ones), and perhaps even a nice space science site or two. But one thing I’ve come to understand is that to teach is to learn. I hope that by doing more writing, I’ll get the hang of it and also force myself to spend a little more time doing what I love to do in the first place – learn about the universe.

Another thing I’ve learned is that science is a collaborative effort at all levels, from our best theorists to the technicians in the trenches, to amateurs who pursue their subject purely for their love of it.

And so my new blog has seen its own first light. I hope to present the light of many more telescopes, and observatories in these pages, and perhaps shed some light on a few other topics as well. And of course I’ll be tinkering, tweaking, and eventually probably redesigning this blog from time to time as it – and my abilities – evolve.

I hope you’ll enjoy the voyage with me.