Home Page

Valley Skies

Newsletter Home Page

Editor's Corner...

"Keep your fingers crossed for clear skies on March 19th".

So much for superstition and luck!

'Twas not to be...After two glorious weeks of summer-like sunshine, the week leading to March 19 brought increasing clouds and downpours. By Wednesday, with forecasts of 60% probability of rain for the weekend, we decided to pull the plug.

When we originally settled on March 19 for the big star party at Micke Grove, we also made contingency plans for April 30 as the backup date. So, here we go with Plan B!

Even at the end of April we have no lock on perfect weather, but the odds of having clear skies are a whole lot better than mid-March. We can but hope...and be ready.

There are trade-offs, however. There will be no Moon, so no lunar craters...but the sky should be darker. We will have Jupiter and Saturn, but few of the show pieces of the Winter Six. We'll have Venus after sunset instead of Mercury.

With the switch to daylight saving time, this will be a later evening affair. Sunset will be at 7:56 p.m. We'll open the gates at 8:00 p.m. and run till 10:30. (The museum grounds will close whenever the last telescope gets put to bed...whatever time it takes.)

Last year's star party at Micke Grove was phenomenal, with an orderly and enthusiastic crowd of viewers estimated at 700-800 people, including lots of families. All of us who participated came away elated with the results.

To be prepared for an even bigger crowd, we need the full support and attendance of as many SAS members as possible. We're hoping we can have 30 scopes set up. That means everyone who has their own telescope plus a few members who would be willing to keep one of the club's telescopes pointed at Saturn or Jupiter.

We also need members without telescopes there to staff an information table, to point out constellations, to direct people, answer questions, and generally provide a strong SAS presence.

In other words, WE NEED YOU, if you can possibly be there.

This is an opportunity for those members who don't ordinarily participate in star parties to help with the club's public outreach. Try it! You'll be glad you did. You can be part of sharing the wonders of the night sky with hundreds of eager visitors.

We're counting on you...Please be there.

...Trevor Atkinson

Scale Model of the Solar System

Any of you who have been involved with Project Astro, or have been involved in teaching astronomy at schools have undoubtedly worked the Solar System Walk, where you make a scale model of the solar system outside your school. If you haven't, here it is, and it's is pretty cool.

An age-old project that teachers would have their students do is to make a scale model of the solar system. Students would make planets out of Styrofoam balls, paint them and put rings around them, then set them on the table in the classroom or make a mobile of them that situates itself in the corner of the room. The teachers and parents would ooh and aah and the students would feel very good about their project. This is fun and allows the students to show off their artistic skills.

Logically, when you look up in the sky at night you would think that, if the solar system were actually like the model, we ought to see a large part of the sky blocked out by these planets. After all, if you were an ant on the Earth's Styrofoam ball, you would be able to look over at Saturn and SEE the rings, the large ball, and you wouldn't need a telescope at all. But when we look at Saturn, it is a tiny dot, and even in a moderate telescope, it isn't the biggest thing to see.

Planets are really small in comparison to their orbits about the Sun. So, even though the kids' solar system model isn't to scale correctly, it is easier to see because it not only fits in the classroom, but you can also see the planets. The sizes of the planets may be to scale, but distances are grossly distorted.

When you build a solar system model to scale in both size and distance, you run into this problem. Either the model fits in the classroom but the planets are too small to see, or the planets are easy to see but it won't fit in your classroom. You can't have it both ways, an unfortunate aspect of the diversity of size and scale that follows the entire universe from small to big. Chemists will have the same problem trying to make a scale model of the atom or of molecules. Same problem with stars in a galaxy, galaxy clusters in the Universe, cells in a body, etc.

So, you have to compromise. You have to make a scale that will allow you to get a grip on the size of the planets and the size of the solar system, neither of which are perfect for the observer of the model. A scale that works well for me in my astronomy classes is 1" = 100,000 miles. I like to let the students come up with the scale, and there will be different suggestions and ideas, and I try to guide them towards 1" = 100,000 miles. That makes the Sun a bowling ball or a soccer ball, the Earth is now a BB, as is Venus; Jupiter is now a Quarter; Uranus and Neptune are now peas, Saturn is now a Nickel; Mercury, Mars and Pluto are meaningless pieces of whatever little things you can find, such as 0.7 mm pencil lead. These items make the model appear imposingly tiny. However, at this scale the distances between these objects is equally imposing, only on a large scale rather than a small scale.

The inner solar system at first appears manageable, Mercury at 10 three-foot steps away, Venus at 19 steps, Earth at 26 steps and Mars at 39 steps. These distances aren't too great, but considering that these planets are the sizes of BBs or smaller, that makes the solar system mostly empty space. Not only does the distance from the Sun (a bowling ball) to the planets suddenly seem large when compared to their little sizes, but you also have to visualize the fact that they go AROUND the Sun. The linear distance is only a small part of the size of the model.

The inner solar system is only the beginning though. When you walk off the distances to the outer planets, it really hits. Jupiter, the closest of the outer planets, is an amazing 135 steps out there. The Earth is the size of a BB and Jupiter is 135 steps away. Gads, that's a serious amount of empty space. Saturn walks out to about 247 steps, Uranus about 500 steps, Neptune about 800 steps, and Pluto (we never get around to doing Pluto) is about 1000 steps. It's easy to see why we haven't gone to Pluto yet, it's the size of a 0.7 mm pencil lead and it's a half a mile away. It's amazing we can even see the little dude in a telescope. Again, the true nature of this scale comes to life when you realize that the linear distances are only a small portion of this, the ellipses they make around the Sun makes this thing HUGE.

Making Styrofoam balls and fitting them on your school desk isn't even close to the true nature of our solar system. However, scientists use log paper to show things on graphs that have such a huge magnitude from tiny to large. Photographers use unsharp-masking to close the gap between extremities in brightness of nebular objects. So it's OK for school kids to make their models fit on a desk. Really, anything that stirs an interest in astronomy in a kid at school is fine, even if it isn't perfectly right. But, the older the kid, the more accuracy one ought to expect in their work.

OK, let's move it out a hair. Let's look at the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, about 4.1 light years away. By our scale model, this next bowling ball out ought to be about 3800 miles away, and Sirius would be about 15,000 miles away. Imagine traveling to Sirius: we live on a BB and we would have to travel 15,000 miles to get to Sirius. Oh, here's another one for you, the speed of light would be 1.86 inches per second!

This is always a fun project for school kids from young to old, even college astronomy classes. Given the sizes of school grounds and parking lots, it is usually only done out to Jupiter or Saturn, and in my case, Uranus. Neptune and Pluto usually have to be pointed at rather than walked out.

Next time you're at the beach in San Francisco with your family, walk it out. It'll fit there.

Clear skies everybody! JBald

The Science Directorate at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center sponsors the Science@NASA web sites. The mission of Science@NASA is to help the public understand how exciting NASA research is and to help NASA scientists fulfill their outreach responsibilities.

Was Einstein a Space Alien?

By Dr. Tony Phillips

One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein revolutionized physics.

March 23, 2005:  Albert Einstein was exhausted. For the third night in a row, his baby son Hans, crying, kept the household awake until dawn. When Albert finally dozed off ... it was time to get up and go to work. He couldn't skip a day. He needed the job to support his young family.

Young Albert Einstein at the patent office.

Walking briskly to the Patent Office, where he was a "Technical Expert, Third Class," Albert worried about his mother. She was getting older and frail, and she didn't approve of his marriage to Mileva. Relations were strained. Albert glanced at a passing shop window. His hair was a mess; he had forgotten to comb it again.

Work. Family. Making ends meet. Albert felt all the pressure and responsibility of any young husband and father.

To relax, he revolutionized physics.

In 1905, at the age of 26 and four years before he was able to get a job as a professor of physics, Einstein published five of the most important papers in the history of science--all written in his "spare time." He proved that atoms and molecules existed. Before 1905, scientists weren't sure about that. He argued that light came in little bits (later called "photons") and thus laid the foundation for quantum mechanics. He described his theory of special relativity: space and time were threads in a common fabric, he proposed, which could be bent, stretched and twisted.

Bushy-haired superthinker ... ordinary man ... or both?

Oh, and by the way, E=mc2.

Before Einstein, the last scientist who had such a creative outburst was Sir Isaac Newton. It happened in 1666 when Newton secluded himself at his mother's farm to avoid an outbreak of plague at Cambridge. With nothing better to do, he developed his Theory of Universal Gravitation.

For centuries historians called 1666 Newton's annus mirabilis, or "miracle year." Now those words have a different meaning: Einstein and 1905. The United Nations has declared 2005 "The World Year of Physics" to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Einstein's annus mirabilis. (Nobel prize winners and other top scientists will meet with the public next month to discuss Einstein's work. Would you like to join them?)

Modern pop culture paints Einstein as a bushy-haired superthinker. His ideas, we're told, were improbably far ahead of other scientists. He must have come from some other planet--maybe the same one Newton grew up on.

Einstein's High School Diploma. Contrary to urban legend, Albert did well in school.

"Einstein was no space alien," laughs Harvard University physicist and science historian Peter Galison. "He was a man of his time." All of his 1905 papers unraveled problems being worked on, with mixed success, by other scientists. "If Einstein hadn't been born, [those papers] would have been written in some form, eventually, by others," Galison believes.

What's remarkable about 1905 is that a single person authored all five papers, plus the original, irreverent way Einstein came to his conclusions.

For example: the photoelectric effect. This was a puzzle in the early 1900s. When light hits a metal, like zinc, electrons fly off. This can happen only if light comes in little packets concentrated enough to knock an electron loose. A spread-out wave wouldn't do the photoelectric trick.

The solution seems simple--light is particulate. Indeed, this is the solution Einstein proposed in 1905 and won the Nobel Prize for in 1921. Other physicists like Max Planck (working on a related problem: blackbody radiation), more senior and experienced than Einstein, were closing in on the answer, but Einstein got there first. Why?

It's a question of authority.

"In Einstein's day, if you tried to say that light was made of particles, you found yourself disagreeing with physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Nobody wanted to do that," says Galison. Maxwell's equations were enormously successful, unifying the physics of electricity, magnetism and optics. Maxwell had proved beyond any doubt that light was an electromagnetic wave. Maxwell was an Authority Figure.

Einstein didn't give a fig for authority. He didn't resist being told what to do, not so much, but he hated being told what was true. Even as a child he was constantly doubting and questioning. "Your mere presence here undermines the class's respect for me," spat his 7th grade teacher, Dr. Joseph Degenhart. (Degenhart also predicted that Einstein "would never get anywhere in life.") This character flaw was to be a key ingredient in Einstein's discoveries.

"In 1905," notes Galison, "Einstein had just received his Ph.D. He wasn't beholden to a thesis advisor or any other authority figure." His mind was free to roam accordingly.

In retrospect, Maxwell was right. Light is a wave. But Einstein was right, too. Light is a particle. This bizarre duality baffles Physics 101 students today just as it baffled Einstein in 1905. How can light be both? Einstein had no idea.

That didn't slow him down. Disdaining caution, Einstein adopted the intuitive leap as a basic tool. "I believe in intuition and inspiration," he wrote in 1931. "At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason."

Although Einstein's five papers were published in a single year, he had been thinking about physics, deeply, since childhood. "Science was dinner-table conversation in the Einstein household," explains Galison. Albert's father Hermann and uncle Jakob ran a German company making such things as dynamos, arc lamps, light bulbs and telephones. This was high-tech at the turn of the century, "like a Silicon Valley company would be today," notes Galison. "Albert's interest in science and technology came naturally."

Einstein's family: Albert and sister Maja (bottom left), father Hermann (top), and mother Pauline (bottom right).

Einstein's parents sometimes took Albert to parties. No babysitter was required: Albert sat on the couch, totally absorbed, quietly doing math problems while others danced around him. Pencil and paper were Albert's GameBoy!

He had impressive powers of concentration. Einstein's sister, Maja, recalled "...even when there was a lot of noise, he could lie down on the sofa, pick up a pen and paper, precariously balance an inkwell on the backrest and engross himself in a problem so much that the background noise stimulated rather than disturbed him."

Einstein was clearly intelligent, but not outlandishly more so than his peers. "I have no special talents," he claimed, "I am only passionately curious." And again: "The contrast between the popular assessment of my powers ... and the reality is simply grotesque." Einstein credited his discoveries to imagination and pesky questioning more so than orthodox intelligence.

Later in life, it should be remembered, he struggled mightily to produce a unified field theory, combining gravity with other forces of nature. He failed. Einstein's brainpower was not limitless.

Neither was Einstein's brain. It was removed without permission by Dr. Thomas Harvey in 1955 when Einstein died. He probably expected to find something extraordinary: Einstein's mother Pauline had famously worried that baby Einstein's head was lopsided. (Einstein's grandmother had a different concern: "Much too fat!") But Einstein's brain looked much like any other, gray, crinkly, and, if anything, a trifle smaller than average.

Detailed studies of Einstein's brain are few and recent. In 1985, for instance, Prof. Marian Diamond of UC Berkeley reported an above-average number of glial cells (which nourish neurons) in areas of the left hemisphere thought to control math skills. In 1999, neuroscientist Sandra Witelson reported that Einstein's inferior parietal lobe, an area related to mathematical reasoning, was 15% wider than normal. Furthermore, she found, the Slyvian fissure, a groove that normally extends from the front of the brain to the back, did not go all the way in Einstein's case. Might this have allowed greater connectivity among different parts of Einstein's brain?

No one knows.

Not knowing. It makes some researchers feel uncomfortable. It exhilarated Einstein: "The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious," he said. "It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science."

It's the fundamental emotion that Einstein felt, walking to work, awake with the baby, sitting at the dinner table.

Wonder beat exhaustion, every day.

Utterly Alien

by Dr. Tony Phillips

There's a planet in our solar system so cold that in winter its nitrogen atmosphere freezes and falls to the ground. The empty sky becomes perfectly clear, jet-black even at noontime. You can see thousands of stars. Not one twinkles.

The brightest star in the sky is the Sun, so distant and tiny you could eclipse it with the head of a pin. There's a moon, too, so big you couldn't blot it out with your entire hand. Together, moonlight and sunshine cast a twilight glow across the icy landscape revealing . . . what? twisted spires, craggy mountains, frozen volcanoes?

No one knows, because no one has ever been to Pluto.

"Pluto is an alien world," says Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. "It's the only planet never visited or photographed by NASA space probes."

That's about to change. A robot-ship called New Horizons is scheduled to blast off for Pluto in January 2006. It's a long journey: More than 6 billion kilometers (about 3.7 billion miles). New Horizons won't arrive until 2015.

"I hope we get there before the atmosphere collapses," says Stern, the mission's principal investigator. Winter is coming, and while it's warm enough now for Pluto's air to float, it won't be for long. Imagine seeing a planet's atmosphere collapse. New Horizons might!

"This is a flyby mission," notes Stern. "Slowing the spacecraft down to orbit Pluto would burn more fuel than we can carry." New Horizons will glide past the planet furiously snapping pictures. "Our best images will resolve features the size of a house," Stern says.

The cameras will also target Pluto's moon, Charon. Charon is more than half the size of Pluto, and the two circle one another only 19,200 kilometers (12,000 miles) apart. (For comparison, the Moon is 382,400 kilometers [239,000 miles] from Earth.) No wonder some astronomers call the pair a "double planet."

Researchers believe that Pluto and Charon were created billions of years ago by some terrific impact, which split a bigger planet into two smaller ones. This idea is supported by the fact that Pluto and Charon spin on their sides like sibling worlds knocked askew.

Yet there are some curious differences: Pluto is bright; Charon is darker. Pluto is covered with frozen nitrogen; Charon by frozen water. Pluto has an atmosphere; Charon might not. "These are things we plan to investigate," says Stern.

Two worlds. So alike, yet so different. So utterly alien. Stay tuned for New Horizons.

Find out more about the New Horizons mission at pluto.jhuapl.edu/. Kids can learn amazing facts about Pluto at spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/pluto.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

2005 Desert Sunset Star Party

Pat and Arleen Heimann will again be hosting the Desert Sunset Star Party May 4-8, 2005, at the Caballo Loco RV Ranch southwest of Tucson. Caballo Loco is located east of Kitt Peak and nestled against the Sierrita Mountains. Whipple Observatory on Mt Hopkins is located to the east. Lots to do during the day and great skies at night. There will be speakers and door prizes on Friday and Saturday evenings. Check our website for details: http://www.chartmarker.com/sunset.htm

Pat and Arleen Heimann

ChartMarkers and More

Copyright © 2005 by Stockton Astronomical Society
Last Updated: 4/7/2005