Free Planetarium Show This Saturday (and See Some Planets!)

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This Saturday, August 18, at 8 PM is our next regularly scheduled free public planetarium show. Afterwards, if the skies are clear, you might be lucky enough to view three planets through our observatory telescope – Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars!

For more information, consult our website.

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Got Binoculars? Channel Your Inner Galileo

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Have you ever wanted to be Galileo for a day? If you own a pair of binoculars (or a small backyard telescope), now is the time to channel your inner Galileo! Galileo’s 17th century telescopes were very small by today’s standards, with a similar magnification to a pair of common binoculars today. So why not dust off those birdwatching binocs and turn them skyward over the next few weeks?

Our first stop is the planet Venus, now hard to miss in the western sky after sunset. Galileo noticed that Venus shows phases like the moon. The phases won’t be as obvious as shown in the above diagram, so you need to be patient, and hold your binoculars very steady. Use a camera tripod, or try steadying your arms by resting your elbows on a hard surface like a picnic table. Another trick is to hold the binoculars near the far end, where the light enters, rather than putting your hands close to your eyes. This will hold them steadier, because most of the binoculars’ weight is on the far end where the main lenses are.

 

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Our second stop is more towards the south, a “star” that is a little dimmer than Venus, but still rather obvious to the unaided eye. This is Jupiter. Galileo discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter (as shown in a page of his observations reproduced above), which we now collectively call the Galilean moons in his honor. Again, holding the binoculars steady is key here. Watch the moons appear to move relative Jupiter from night to night!

Finally, if the moon is out, don’t forget to train your binoculars in its direction. Galileo studied the craters on the moon, and so can you!

Put on Bohemian Rhapsody, grab your binoculars, and before long you’ll be singing “Galileo, Galileo” as you reproduce the groundbreaking observations of more than 400 years ago. It’s an experience not to be missed!

Space Rock CSI

[Students at East Hartford High School try to sort out meteorites and tektites from “meteor-wrongs’]

Most years at least one member of the public will come to my office with what they believe to be a meteorite they’ve found. In all but one case, they were wrong. Last night, it was my pleasure to help students at East Hartford High School try their hand at identifying meteorites and tektites. About 30 students attended the workshop, sponsored by the Connecticut Science Center Teen Science Café program. After a short introduction to the three main types of meteorites and how tektites form, the students got hands-on experience with actual meteorites and tektites, as well as common rocks that can be confused with meteorites by the general public. The students were then given ten unknowns and they had to pick out the three meteorites and two tektites from the “meteor-wrongs.” Two young ladies successfully picked out 2 of the 3 meteorites and both tektites. I hope they continue to hone their science skills in the future!

— K. Larsen

Life of Science Writer Delia Godding Highlighted in Upcoming Lecture

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[Hand drawn illustration of a mastodon from Delia Godding’s 1847 book First Lessons in Geology]

Reconstructing the important historical contributions of women to science has been a passion of CCSU astronomy professor Dr. Kristine Larsen for several decades. In her 2017 book The Women Who Popularized Geology in the 1800s she focused on women who wrote popularized works on geology for an audience of women and children. On Sunday, April 29 at 9:30 AM she will give a free public talk on one of these woman, Delia Godding, at St. John’s Church in West Hartford. Delia taught at the school associated with this church for several years, so it is good to see her memory returning home. For more information, see https://cthistoryevents.com/event/delia-woodruff-godding-1812-1861/#.WtdOAcsUnX6.

Don’t be afraid of Friday the 13th!

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Okay, maybe you can be a little afraid of Jason, but the day Friday the 13th is no scarier than any other. Fear of this day (called paraskevidekatriaphobia) has its roots in legend and superstition. While there is nothing truly unlucky about this day in particular, it does create some interesting trends in human behavior, as people try to avoid the supposed bad luck associated with it. The most superstitious among us stay home, resulting in millions of dollars in lose sales in stores, restaurants, and other businesses. On the other hand, this lightens the traffic on our roads, and at least one study ties superstitions about Friday the 13th to a reduction in traffic accidents on this day.

Just like superstitions concerning eclipses and moon phases (there really aren’t more admissions to hospitals on full moons!), superstitions concerning Friday the 13th don’t stand up in the face of facts.

The Universe Loses a Brilliant Star: Stephen Hawking

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Stephen Hawking wrote that the boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary. The same can certainly be said of his influence on our world. This goes far beyond his direct scientific legacy, his ground-breaking research into black holes. In the 1970s he predicted that black holes aren’t always strictly “black;” instead, under the right conditions they can “evaporate” away, a process known as Hawking radiation. In particular, minuscule subatomic beasties called primordial black holes were predicted by Hawking to have been associated with the birth of our universe, and observations of their tell-tale final explosions in a shower of gamma rays have been sought for many years.

But Hawking’s influence certainly transcends his equations and his scientific papers. In the mid-1980s, Hawking decided to tackle an equally difficult task, to pen a book on theoretical physics for a popular audience. The result, A Brief History of Time, sold more than 10 million copies, although he himself admitted that a significant number of copies were never read from start to finish.

Hawking’s ability to motivate the general public to attempt to understand the mind-bending marvel that is our universe is arguably his most important contribution to science. For as his readers struggled to understand singularities and boundary conditions, event horizons and virtual particles, even at this so-called nontechnical level, they were mirroring the very same process that scientists go through every single day as they strive to understand reality. In this way, Hawking made science “real” even while trying to describe the properties of so-called imaginary time.

It is unknown how many of the upcoming generation of scientists were encouraged to go into the field by Hawking’s popular-level books, documentaries, or appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Futurama, The Simpsons, or The Big Bang Theory. Among them could be a future Nobel Prize winner in Physics, the one major prize that eluded Hawking. But as he clearly demonstrated, one does not need a Nobel Prize to have an impact on the world of science, just as one does not have to be able-bodied. Despite losing his ability to walk, talk, or take care of his basic individual needs by the time he was in his early 40s, Stephen Hawking made an indelible impact on our world. It has been argued that it is precisely because of these challenges that he became so famous, as the public image of a brilliant mind seemingly trapped within an immobile body became burned into our collective consciousness. Hawking himself, however, preferred to consider his mind to be free, unfettered as it explored the cosmos using only his imagination and the power of mathematics.

We should never forget, however, that Hawking’s long life very publicly and honestly educated us all on what a cruel, cruel disease ALS is, and the very real challenges facing the differently-abled in our society (especially those without the resources available to the famed physicist). Having lost a cousin to this heartless ailment, it would be easy for me to ask why Hawking was able to survive for so long and not Dennis. Instead, I take comfort in Hawking’s five-decade-long delight in enthusiastically thumbing his nose at the grim reaper.

Although his computerized voice is forever silenced, Stephen Hawking finally knows the answer to life, the universe, and the theory of everything. His life path was not an easy one, but he accepted it with humor, courage, curiosity, and an unabashed gusto for life that we would all do well to emulate.

— Kristine Larsen

View Dr. Larsen’s contributions to the History Channel’s article on Hawking and listen to her live interview with a New Zealand radio show on Hawking’s life and legacy.