One of the greatest things about science fiction is that it inspires new and interesting areas of scientific inquiry. One example is in Carl Sagan’s Contact, where Sagan proposed a traversable wormhole as a means of transporting his heroine across the galaxy. It was this sort of idea that led Kip Thorne and his colleagues to actually come up with solutions to Einstein’s field equations that might make such wormholes a theoretical possibility. That’s an example of science fiction at its best.
On the other hand, poorly written science fiction not only makes for bad storytelling, but can further propagate misconceptions in the public’s mind about the universe (don’t get me started on all of the horrible science in Star Trek Into Darkness). That’s why Mike Brotherton, an astronomer at the University of Wyoming and a science fiction author himself, came up with a nifty idea – what if science fiction writers, editors, and filmmakers got together for a week and took an astronomy 101-level course? The result is the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop.
Last year, I was invited to be a guest instructor at Launch Pad and I was amazed at how enthusiastic the students were. It was a lot of work, but it was great to see the attendees getting so much out of it. I’m thrilled to be asked to be an instructor again this year, but this year’s workshop will be very different from previous years.
You see, the previous workshops were funded through grants from NASA and the NSF. After all, if the storytellers’ work helps educate the public (and since most writers are notoriously underpaid for their work), it would be nice to cover their travel and tuition costs. Unfortunately, with all of the cutbacks in funding, the only alternative left was to ask students to pay tuition and to see if we could raise funds to cover the rest of the costs. Happily, several did apply and we are having a workshop this year despite the lack of funding!
However, their tuition only covers part of our costs and so we’re seeking donations to help make up the rest. To that end, Uwingu kicked in with a generous donation which will really help us out this year. And we also set up a crowd funding campaign over at Rocket Hub (yes, we hosted there because of their name). Here’s the promotional video we created:
Our Solar System – Exploring Strange New Worlds in our Cosmic Back Yard
Our understanding of our Solar neighborhood has fundamentally changed over the last few decades. What used to be just the Sun and 9 planets is now a celestial city of gas giants, rocky planets, ice giants, dwarf planets, asteroids, water worlds, and primordial comets all in orbit around a single star, our Sun. In this talk, astronomer Christian Ready will discuss the similarities and differences of these worlds and what they can tell us about the formation and history of our Solar System.
There really is a lot going on in our Solar System nowadays, with active missions to Mercury, Venus, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, Saturn, and spacecraft on their way to Jupiter and Pluto. So what used to be considered an elementary topic in astronomy is being updated at a pretty remarkable rate. And of course there’s the whole Pluto controversy that will probably need to be discussed.
I enjoy giving these talks and if you’re in the Reading area, please feel free to drop by the Reading Public Museum on Thursday, June 13 September 12 2013 at 7:30 pm.
And since we’re still talking about Pluto, here’s a video I made explaining the whole mess:
Lightning talks are fun to watch and even more fun to give (if your definition of fun is figuring out how to discuss a potentially complicated topic in under 7 minutes). The rules of engagement are that talks must consist of 20 sides which automatically advance every 20 seconds. The result is a 7-minute geek fest where the speaker attempts to keep up with the slides while still trying to convey something that resembles the points he was trying to make (at least that’s how it felt for me).
Finally, I have to say a huge thank-you to the folks at cf.Objective() for organizing a great conference, and for having the insight to offer the opportunity to talk about something fun and interesting outside of our regular day jobs. And to my friend David Epler for capturing the video of me, and to the folks at Codebass Radio for the world-class audio recording.
Oh, and here is the lightning talk I gave at this same conference last year on the lifecycle of stars:
Sequestration is having a horrific effect on Americans from one coast to another (except, of course, for those that enacted it) and it’s only going to get worse as time goes by. We’re watching it unfold before our eyes – cuts in funding for schools, airport towers shutting down, federal employees and contractors being furloughed, and some rather horrible cuts to NASA.
But the news is decidedly mixed.
The Bad News is that NASA has had to suspend its Education and Public Outreach funding, which is funding that the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop depended on for some time, followed by National Science Foundation funding, which also has been sequestered. There is much I could write about this, but the folks over at Sci Show have done a great job summing it up for me very nicely:
Not mentioned in the video is an exciting new BRAIN Initiative announced by the White House today. This could bear some very beneficial fruit in understanding just how we’re wried and how we can treat traumatic brain injuries and possibly psychological disorders.
Such as who the hell thought sequestration was a good idea?
Lest I get too snarky, I have to say that the BRAIN program is exactly what government should be doing to promote science. If it can benefit all of us and/or no private enterprise can justify investing in it, government funding should get it started. Just ask any company that uses technology pioneered by NASA, for example.
I confess I haven’t blogged nearly as much as I expected to this month, and perhaps that’s because I’ve allowed the events in the news to consume more of my attention than I wish it had. Still, there is an amazing universe out there to explore.
And there’s also this:
There are several parodies of Gangham style out there, but this, for some strange reason, is my favorite 🙂