On the Road: American Astronomical Society May 2011 meeting, Monday recap

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Tuesday, May 24, 2011

There was something for everyone Monday at the first full day of the 218th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Boston, Massachusetts, held jointly with the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). Fittingly, both AAVSO Director Arne Henden and AAS President Debra Elmegreen handled the first talk, the Welcoming Address (which is about as close to the “official bell” I still naively expect at the opening reception). As it turned out, the scientist/amateur (not that Henden is any kind of amateur!) connection lasted almost all day.

American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) Director Arne Henden popped up numerous times throughout my first day of the American Astronomical Society’s 218th meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. Here, he’s in the midst of a press conference, explaining the AAVSO’s contribution to a NASA project to have the Hubble Space Telescope observe the star Hubble variable 1. // Elizabeth Andrews photo
Immediately after the welcome, Elmegreen introduced Malcolm Longair of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, who discussed some of the subject’s long-term goals in his talk, “The 2050 Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics.” He advised, “Be persistent and patient and never give up,” and keep trying to persuade the government of “the societal benefit of the astronomical enterprise.” He also gave a subtle shout-out to the importance of smaller and midscale telescopes, a perfect prelude to the next session I attended.

Led by the AAVSO, “Astrophysics with Small Telescopes” discussed, well, the astrophysics possible through small scopes. Many of Astronomy’s readers would have felt at home during these talks, which extolled amateur observers and their dedication, ingenuity, and even technical skills. Henden returned for the first science talk, “Contributions by Citizen Scientists to Astronomy,” which outlined the essential ways amateurs can help, including long-term deep-sky imaging, variable-star observing, and planetary monitoring (such as Australia’s Anthony Wesley’s numerous discoveries of odd phenomena on the gas giants). Henden also discussed some indirect ways the lay public can advance science, too, such as with the ever-popular Galaxy Zoo and as potential sources of visually pleasing simulations (after all, who better to get something to look nice than an experienced astroimager?). One particular project that garnered a lot of attention, and even its own talk, was the Epsilon (ε) Aurigae eclipse, which has relied on public participation to achieve fantastic results. “And the good news is, the eclipse is not over!” said the speaker, Robert E. Stencel of the University of Denver Observatories in Colorado, in a semi-call to action.

Not everything highlighted the importance of non-professional astronomers, though. The morning’s big talk, titled “Stars, Planets and The Weather: If You Don’t Like It Wait 5 Billion Years,” was not quite as public-friendly as the others. Luckily, presenter Jeremy Drake of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the title hints, was an amusing (and often amused) speaker. He regaled the crowds with a thorough look at how stellar weather (both of our Sun and the host stars of distant exoplanets) evolves and how it can affect the development of any nearby planets. For instance, the concept of a star’s habitable zone — where temperatures would be just right for liquid water, and thus life as we know it, to form — is but one factor to consider when judging the true habitability of any planet. Mars technically lies within our Sun’s habitable zone, but its small size and correspondingly weak magnetic field allowed the Sun’s emissions to strip the Red Planet of much of its water. Similarly, if an exoplanet lies within the habitable zone of a red-giant star, it will have a dramatically closer orbit than our world, leading to other potentially fatal stellar weather problems. He closed by mentioning some of the controversial research linking cosmic rays to cloud formation, and how such a relationship would interact with our Sun’s output to help explain some of the weather on Earth. After talking about our local star, our home planet, and the possible living worlds around other stars, Drake finished, “It literally doesn’t get any sexier than that.” How true.

The other fairly technical talk was by Ronald L. Gilliland of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, “Stellar Astrophysics from the Kepler Mission.” Yes, the famous exoplanet-hunting Kepler orbiting telescope has also produced “a real treasure-trove of results” in terms of stellar data, in particular for Sun-like stars and red giants. Before Kepler, astronomers had just about 25 good targets for this kind of research; now they have more than 500. Clearly, Kepler’s been pulling its weight.

The rest of the day’s events, however, did seem especially geared to non-practicing astronomers. First, a press conference titled “The most important object in the history of cosmology” discussed recent Hubble Space Telescope observations of the eponymous object: Hubble variable 1, a Cepheid variable star in the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). It was this star’s varying light that allowed Edwin Hubble to calculate a more accurate distance for Andromeda — and prove that it was not just another nebula in our Milky Way Galaxy, but a galaxy in its own right. As Hubble winds down its operations, it’s a fitting tribute that it observe this famous object for the first time, with the AAVSO’s help (Arne Henden showed up once more), this past winter.

Boston University’s Alan P. Marscher brought down the house with his original songs at an already-packed session discussing novel ways to raise interest in astronomy. // Bill Andrews photo
Heartwarming as that is, it pales in comparison to perhaps the liveliest AAS session I’ve ever been to (in all my long year attending). “Astronomy Unexpected! Innovative Strategies for Reaching Non-Traditional Students” featured lively, animated speakers talking about fun, interesting ways to reach unwilling astronomy students, whether it’s actual college students, a fifth-grade class, or your neighbors. The “Galileo Impersonator" put on a great show, and poetry, personal simulations, and even science-fiction movies (yay!) all proved their worth as possible entry points for a good discussion on astronomy. But the final speaker, Alan P. Marscher of Boston University in Massachusetts, brought the house down with two of his original songs, “Relatively Weird” and “Another Planet.” (Check out these and others at http://www.bu.edu/blazars/songs/index.html.) As promised, he delivered interesting facts and ideas through the medium of rock ballad, and even got a few standing ovations. By the session’s end, the crowd was standing-room only.

In fact, that session’s moderator and first speaker, Noreen Grice, also has a book coming out about a different kind of astronomy outreach: making sure to include the disabled. After Astronomy honored the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit for its similar efforts, it seems only fair to mention Grice’s work, Everyone’s Universe. She even had a special press reception highlighting the book, featuring chocolate chip cookies! Naturally, it was a crowded room — everyone enjoys indulging both their sweet tooth and their humanitarian side.

The day ended with a couple of field trips, or, at least, it was supposed to. Again, both were more about the importance of moving astronomy beyond practicing astronomers. The first, a press night at the Boston Museum of Science’s Charles Hayden Planetarium was just so much fun that I never made it to the second, an open house at the AAVSO’s headquarters. It’s too bad, because I was really curious to see the home of this century-old organization (especially because, as it turns out, I lived four blocks away from it for about a year). But that’s just a testament to the power of the planetarium, which recently finished some serious renovations.

I recall seeing a few shows there in my collegiate youth, but the memories pale in comparison to the dizzying new visual heights the place is now capable of. Guided by the nimble hands of Astronomy Contributing Editor Martin Ratcliffe, we saw in unbelievable clarity the visual processes behind the Moon’s phases, the solar system’s orbital plane, a 3-D rendering of the constellations, and a powerful zoom-out that left the Milky Way Galaxy just a speck within a speck. Ratcliffe gave us a half-show/half-demo mix because so much of the audience was already aware of, say, how lunar eclipses work. If you happen to find yourself in Boston anytime soon, I definitely recommend you check out the newly opened planetarium.

And that was my first day at AAS! Whew! Again, it was a super-crowded and unusually full day, so don’t expect Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s recaps to be similarly extensive. Be sure to check those out right here, though, and remember to follow @AstronomyMag’s live coverage on Twitter (#AAS218).

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