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Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

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Photo: Smithsonian
This quilt, “Solar System,” was created by E.H. Baker in 1876 and is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Astronomy was a field of science that was more open to women historically than other fields were.

Women have always been interested in science, but they have not always been welcomed as equals. Consider Beatrix Potter, who was more knowledgeable about botany (mushrooms especially) than most men of her time.

But a determined woman could still learn and contribute. It seems that many were interested in astronomy, sometimes translating that interest into the art form they knew best.

At the Smithsonian’s website American History, you can read about Ellen Harding Baker of Cedar County, Iowa, and the quilt of the solar system she completed in 1876 after years of research to make it as accurate as possible.

“The wool top of this applique quilt is embellished with wool-fabric applique, wool braid, and wool and silk embroidery. … The lining is a red cotton-and-wool fabric and the filling is of cotton fiber. The maker, Sarah Ellen Harding, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, June 8, 1847, and married Marion Baker of Cedar County, Iowa, on October 10, 1867. They lived in Cedar County until 1878, and then moved to Johnson County.  …

“The design of Ellen’s striking and unusual quilt resembles illustrations in astronomy books of the period. Ellen used the quilt as a visual aid for lectures she gave on astronomy in the towns of West Branch, Moscow, and Lone Tree, Iowa. New York Times (September 22, 1883) mentioned this item from an Iowa paper: ‘Mrs. M. Baker, of Lone Tree, has just finished a silk quilt which she has been seven years in making. It has the solar system worked in completely and accurately. The lady went to Chicago to view the comet and sun spots through the telescope that she might be very accurate. Then she devised a lecture in astronomy from it.’ ” More.

Good news, bad news. Maria Mitchell of Nantucket garnered international recognition for discovering a comet, but her female students were generally shut out of work in the field.

Smithsonian reports, “Mitchell was born on Nantucket in 1818. Her family was Quaker, which meant that they believed both girls and boys should go to school. Her father, a teacher and an astronomer, taught her about the skies when she was very young. In terms of equipment, at-home astronomers weren’t at a disadvantage; Harvard’s telescope was roughly the same size and power as the Mitchells’. When she was 12, she and her father observed a solar eclipse.

“From there, Mitchell’s ascent as an astronomer was swift. In 1847, the prince of Denmark awarded the 29-year-old Mitchell a medal for reporting a comet that was too far away to be seen without a telescope (the comet became known as ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’). The next year, she became the first woman elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. …

“[Mitchell] used the rhetoric of the time to argue for more women in the sciences. ‘The training of a girl fits her for delicate work,’ Mitchell wrote in 1878. ‘The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman’s eyes are trained to nicety of color. The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer.’ ” More.

Quilters! Be sure to check out other solar-system quilts at Barbara Brackman’s blog on blogspot, here.

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Love your universe. Here’s how.

First, as we discussed, there is forest bathing (note the comment on the June 15 post about regular forest-bathing excursions in Lowell, Mass.). Now we turn to star gazing. For both, you need to leave behind superfluous stuff like social media and bright lights.

Margaret Regan writes for the Guardian, “Take a nighttime drive into Arizona Sky Village, in a remote valley in south-east Arizona, and the only thing you can see clearly are the millions of stars twinkling overhead. Beyond the light show, the sky is a deep inky black, and the ground below is nothing but shadows. Dimmed car headlights might pick up spooked jackrabbits hopping through the desert brush, but the village’s unlit houses are all but invisible in the darkness.

“That’s the way the residents of this astronomy-loving community like it. The less light, the better their view of the universe.  …

“Arizona Sky Village is home to a quirky community of stargazers. Shielded by the nearby Chiricahua mountains from urban sky glow – scientists’ poetic name for light pollution – nearly every house in the rural 450-acre development has its own domed observatory, complete with an array of telescopes.

“Outdoor lights are strictly forbidden; blackout shades are required in every window of every house; and nighttime driving is discouraged. Most residents don’t want to be bothered with driving at night anyway: they’re too busy scanning the skies.

“ ‘This is what we do,’ villager Frank Gilliland says cheerfully one starry night as he peers through the community’s biggest telescope, a 24-incher belonging to neighbor Rick Beno. At the moment, the scope is aimed at the Milky Way through an open hatch in the dome of Beno’s personal observatory, giving Gilliland a crystal-clear view of the Orion nebula, a remarkable 1,344 light years away. …

“Most of the Sky Villagers had technical or scientific careers – Dr Fred Espenak, a bona fide astronomy pro, is a retired Nasa astrophysicist known as Mr Eclipse – but [Arizona Sky Village founder Jack] Newton spent his working life managing department stores in his native Canada. He always made time for the sky though, rambling miles into the countryside outside his hometown of Victoria. …

“When Jack retired, the Newtons wanted a break from rainy Victoria and its murky skies. After a first retirement stop at a sky village in Florida, Newton and development partner Gene Turner came out to Arizona to scout dark places.

“The isolated stretch of treeless desert they found outside Portal was perfect: it was sparsely populated, 150 miles distant from Tucson, the nearest city, and velvety black at night. Now some 21 households live there peaceably under Newton’s Law: they cover up their windows and they turn off the ‘goddam’ lights. …

“Even Arizona’s state government – not known for progressive policies – has restricted electronic billboards. The flashy placards are allowed only in several designated sites at least 75 miles from the venerated Grand Canyon and from the Kitt Peak and Mt Lemmon observatories. In 2012, the then governor Jan Brewer vetoed a 2012 attempt to light up more of the state’s highways with dancing electronic videos, declaring that she refused to put astronomy in jeopardy. As she noted, the industry contributes $250m annually to Arizona’s economy and employs more than 3,300 people.” More here.

Seems a shame to have to make economic arguments to do good, but whatever works. We do need to keep seeking common ground when addressing challenges.

Photograph: Rick Beno
Emission Nebula in Aries. Arizona Sky Village is one of the best places in America to see the stars.

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Every once in a while reporter Ted Nesi adds a tidbit to his valuable “Saturday Morning Post” that doesn’t seem to fit with the news from Rhode Island and yet fits everywhere. This link from the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), a “national journal of literature and discussion,” is one such example.

Amanda Petrusich writes in part, “Darkness is a complicated thing to quantify, defined as it is by deficiency. … Unihedron’s Sky Quality Meter is the most popular instrument for this kind of measurement, in part because of its portability (about the size of a garage-door opener) and also because it connects to an online global database of user-submitted data.

“According to that database, Cherry Springs State Park — an eighty-two-acre park in a remote swath of rural, north-central Pennsylvania, built by the Civilian Conversation Corps during the Great Depression—presently has the second darkest score listed …

“The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit organization that recognizes, supports, and protects dark-sky preserves around the world, designated it a Gold-tier International Dark Sky Park in 2008, only the second in the United States at the time, following Natural Bridges National Monument in San Juan County, Utah.

“Earlier this year, I drove the six hours to Cherry Springs from New York City to meet Chip Harrison, the park’s manager, his wife, Maxine, and a park volunteer named Pam for a 4:30 p.m. dinner of baked fish. Afterward, Chip had promised, we’d go see stars.  …

“On a clear night, from the proper vantage, watching constellations emerge over Cherry Springs is like watching a freshly exposed photograph sink into a bath of developer, slowly becoming known to the eye: a single crumb of light, then another, until the entire tableau is realized. Pam pointed the telescope toward Jupiter, which had risen over the east end of the field. The four Gallilean moons—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto—were clearly visible through the lens. …

“When I got back to New York, I visited with Matt Stanley, a beloved colleague at the university where I teach. Stanley … has a particular interest in how science has changed from a theistic practice to a naturalistic one. He leads a seminar called ‘Achilles’ Shield: Mapping the Ancient Cosmos,’ and another called ‘Understanding the Universe.’

“ ‘I’ve found that probably 95 percent of my students come from either an urban or suburban environment, which means they can only see a dozen stars at night, and no planets,’ Stanley said. ‘When you say the Milky Way to them, they imagine a spiral galaxy, which is fine, but that’s not what the Milky Way looks like — it’s a big, whitish smear across the sky. I have to do a lot of work to orient them to what human beings actually saw when they looked at the sky. They don’t know that stars rise and set. Their minds explode.’ ” More here.

In Rhode Island, New Shoreham offers a pretty good look at the night sky. There are shooting stars in August. I feel lucky about that and hope that the five nearby offshore wind turbines don’t change anything.

Photo: Gary Honis

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I’m turning to Maria Popova again as she reviews a book on classic scientific illustrations for her blog.

Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library … [spans] five centuries of anthropology, astronomy, earth science, paleontology, and zoology representing all seven continents. Each highlighted work is accompanied by a short essay exploring its significance, what makes it rare — scarcity, uniqueness, age, binding type, size, value, or nature of the illustrations — and its place in natural history. …

“What makes many of these illustrations particularly fascinating is that they represent a brief slice of history in the evolution of visual representation — after the advent of photography in the early 20th century, many of these lavish artistic illustrations were supplanted by photographic images, which shifted science to a much more aesthetically sterile approach to describing and depicting species.

“They’re also a heartening and enduring example of the magic that lies at the intersection of art and science as scientists not only sought out the best artists to illustrate their articles, but also versed themselves in drawing and produced exquisite artworks of their own.”

More at Brain Pickings. Hippos, crabs, owls, whales, monkeys, frogs, trilobites!

Illustration: Louis Renard (1678-1746)
Although there are coloration and anatomical errors in these drawings, all the specimens can be identified to genus, and some even to species. 

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Joe Palca, at National Public Radio, recently had a nice report about astronomy and optics.

I thought of John and his OpticsForHire team.

“It used to be that if astronomers wanted to get rid of the blurring effects of the atmosphere,” says Palca, “they had to put their telescopes in space. But a technology called adaptive optics has changed all that.

“Adaptive optics systems use computers to analyze the light coming from a star, and then compensate for changes wrought by the atmosphere, using mirrors that can change their shapes up to 1,000 times per second. The result: To anyone on Earth peering through the telescope, the star looks like the single point of light it really is.

“The reason the atmosphere blurs light is that there are tiny changes in temperature as you go from the Earth’s surface up into space. The degree to which air bends light depends on the air’s temperature.

“With adaptive optics systems, telescopes on Earth can see nearly as clearly as those in space.” More at NPR.

Photo: Heidi B. Hammel and Imke de Pater
The near-infrared images of Uranus show the planet as seen without adaptive optics (left) and with the technology turned on (right).

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