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Meteorbytes: Excerpts from the ASP Blogosphere

Big shifts for all of us

Re-posted from My Head is in the Stars by ASP Astronomy Educator Vivian White.

Original posting date: October 10, 2014

I don’t usually teach classes like this, in so many ways. I am used to talking astronomy with the general public in short bursts, at star parties with a telescope, or doing activities at festivals, or maybe a visit to a classroom. I think that gives me some advantages and also presents some challenges. I’m used to questions from all ages and backgrounds, but rarely have much time to explain things in depth. Structuring a course over 2 weeks has given me the luxury of delving deeper into the history and exciting details of planets and stars. The biggest challenge by far has been assessing their prior knowledge. Such as…

I explained the life cycle of stars today, equating the stages to the life of a butterfly (thanks, Marni). They seemed to be following until the last few sentences. I ended with what is usually an “ahhh-ha!” moment about how all of the calcium in our bones and iron in our blood had been created by stars. All good, but no “ahhh-ha” this time. The story was great but they had never heard of these elements (or atoms at all) it turns out. Whaa-whaa.

Spontaneous telescopes

On the other hand, these guys spontaneously picked up some supplies for other classes and made telescopes, noticing when they got inverted images and testing out different combinations. Cool!

Back to the challenges. A few monks took 3 days and 4 attempts to convince that people in Australia did not have to hold on for dear life in order to stay on the planet. It required a deep look into gravity, pictures of kangaroos and penguins, mind models with dropping balls, and I’m still not sure they buy it.

Yesterday we made guesses about the timeline of earth, placing single-celled organisms, the first animals, and such on a timeline stretching back almost 5 billion years. This one gives most everyone trouble, but this is the first time I’ve seen anyone place humans as the first living thing to appear on Earth. Their completely sensible reasoning? If someone wasn’t here to observe it, how do we know it happened? They had never heard of evolution.

Earth timeline debate

So many subjects that I don’t feel prepared to teach well! I’m sure there are engaging ways to introduce evolution, the periodic table, and fusion. The new part is that they’re just not questions I usually get from adults with the reasoning skills to really understand the concepts fully, like these monks and nuns have. They are so curious, open to new ideas, and have the attention spans to really delve deeply into a subject. It’s been hard to reconcile their keen ability to grasp complex concepts with their lack of exposure to any of the basic building blocks of science. I’m making these new connections in my own head every day, thanks to them.


The Moon in My Palm

Re-posted from My Head is in the Stars by ASP Astronomy Educator Vivian White.

Original posting date: October 3, 2014

I started this post claiming that the questions from the monks have been my favorite part of teaching. But I had to revise. By far the best part of this trip so far was showing 20+ monks and nuns their first view through a telescope. It was mostly hazy but we looked at the moon and it was magical. Instead of the usual wow! and ooooh!, they made this small throaty grunt and then hisstled through their teeth. Some of the comments:

  • I feel I could hold it here, in my palm.
  • I wanted to write a poem about the beautiful moon. But I see it is so empty. I like the earth much better with birds and trees. I shall write a poem about this instead.
  • It looks smooth like glass. Do the astronauts slip?
  • Have you been to the moon?


We couldn’t have observed on a better night. Today in class we talked about how the moon changes shape. The monks held the common misconception that Earth’s shadow causes phases. The Tibetan culture follows a lunar calendar, so there was no confusion about how long it took the Moon to orbit the Earth. We modeled the sun, moon, and earth system with a bright light and small balls. Even having to take turns in a room that was slightly too bright, this activity was joyfully received, with the “ahhas!” transcending translation.


Yesterday, teaching wore me out so much that I barely made it to dinner. Today I’ve been energized. The rest of India is celebrating Dussehra with copious fireworks and the thick haze crept up the valley and covered the moon by 8:30. I’ll take my cue and turn in. I get up early tomorrow to make dough for another moon activity. I may have lugged a telescope and 40 bowls halfway around the globe but there was no way I was bringing 15 lbs of play-doh too.


Sometimes A Shirt Isn’t Just A Shirt

Re-posted from Completely Out of My Mind by ASP Executive Director Linda Shore.

Original posting date: November 23, 2014

Sometimes a shirt also becomes an opportunity to have an honest look at the gender inequities that still exist in science.

Of course, I am talking about the unfortunate fashion choice made by Dr. Matt Taylor, Project Scientist, of the Rosetta Mission who appeared on a live internet stream donning a shirt featuring very buxom women in highly seductive poses.

Here it is in case you live under a rock on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and missed it:

(NBC News)

After Dr. Taylor’s shirt ignited a firestorm of indignation, the British scientist did apologize for wearing it. It had been a birthday gift from a woman who is an artist and friend of Taylor’s. I don’t believe Taylor intended to insult hundreds of thousands of women, but wearing this shirt to publicly discuss one of the most significant achievements in aerospace engineering was thoughtless. Taylor’s own sister apparently described him to the British press as “brilliant, but lacking common sense.”

In the “shirt storm” that resulted, many (mostly men) declared that “feminists” were grossly over-reacting to what was just “cartoon images” printed on fabric. What harm can a few illustrations do to anyone? Sadly, a lot of harm.

I am a woman, a feminist, and 55 years old. I was a college student studying astronomy during the decade following the Women’s Rights Movement and I certainly experienced my share of sexism. When I attended professional science conferences, I could count the number of women scientists on one hand. I always felt out of place. Yet I was determined not to let the lack of role models defeat me. I felt that if I gave up on a career in science, there would be one less woman to be a role model for the next generation.

Eventually, I got a doctorate in science education largely because I wanted to understand how gender inequities in science might be addressed much earlier in a girl’s life. What I learned – and what most people know – is that images are immensely powerful in shaping a girl’s perception of herself. Young girls are bombarded with media messages all the time telling them that appearance is more important than intelligence; they are told that the size of their breasts is far more valuable to society than the size of their brains.

I am personally grateful that Dr. Taylor acknowledged the inappropriateness of his shirt and apologized. I hope he will also find a way to apologize to impressionable young girls who watched the press conference because of their interest in science, saw the images on his shirt, and now question whether there is a place for them in astronomy.

Truthfully, as scientists we ALL bear a responsibility to ensure our actions don’t inadvertently imply there are barriers to engaging in science based on gender, gender preference, physical ability, age, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or beliefs. Each of us wears a “shirt” of some kind that sadly is not as obvious as the one Dr. Taylor wore. It’s up to all of us to look hard in the mirror every morning and make sure we aren’t leaving the house dressed inappropriately.


Introduction to the Universe as I know it

Re-posted from My Head is in the Stars by ASP Astronomy Educator Vivian White.

Original posting date: October 2, 2014

I may have just hit the monks like the stars in Nightfall*. Imagine you know absolutely nothing about the science of astronomy. Never seen a TV show that showed the Earth as a sphere or learned in grade school how the Moon orbits around the Earth. Now imagine living in an often cloudy place where you are mostly inside studying philosophy so never really much looked up. Not to mention, science is a foreign way of questioning the world, so there’s no basic familiarity with concepts like evidence or making predictions as we know them in the west.

You can imagine that an overview of what science knows of the entire universe would be a lot to digest on day one.

class is always better outside

Overall, I’d say it went well. The points I usually make that get big “wow!”s mostly fell flat. The monks and nuns had no preconceived notions to disabuse. But the Sun-centered Solar System – now that was a big “ah-ha!” I felt a bit like Copernicus with a friendlier crowd. They had way more questions than I had time to answer and these showed a good understanding of at least parts of it. I stayed after classes with the tireless interpreter Nima to answer more. (“Nima ” means “Sun” so I use him a lot in my models.) Here we are exploring distances with monk-minutes as we worked up to light years.

measuring monk-minutes with stopwatches

I’m going to have to adjust some of my presentation tomorrow to first explain where we reside on Earth, that is on the surface. This confusion is common among children learning about space for the first time. I overlooked that one in my assumptions about the monks’ previous knowledge. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. (I hope it goes without saying that I am not calling them child-like. They are some of the most advanced thinkers I’ve ever encountered. They’ve just never seen this information before.)

One of the first activities we did was draw what we thought we would encounter if we put rockets under our mats and could go straight up, out of the roof of our building. Wind and emptiness figured in heavily from their Tibetan cosmology. Here is a representation of the cosmology the monks learn. I studied some of it but many of the concepts are foreign to me. I understand the monks’ confusion about my cosmology. Theirs makes my view of outer space seem almost quaint.

Okay, also this description of the monks is a gross generalization. A few of them have prior knowledge of the science and included planets and even a galaxy in their drawings. But all of them are excited to learn about astronomy and are approaching it with minds wide open. I have never talked with a group of such eager learners. They have simply never been exposed to the ideas before, just as I knew nothing of Mount Meru.

Now for some precious sleep before the monkeys barrel past my window at 6am like a canon blast. Nothing like that and a cold shower to really get your day started on the right foot.

* Didn’t get the Nightfall reference? Read it for free. It’s super short and arguably the best sci-fi ever written. Is nightfelled a verb? It should be. Synonyms: kyboshed and flabbergasted.


Monks and the Moon

Re-posted from My Head is in the Stars by ASP Astronomy Educator Vivian White.

Original posting date: October 2, 2014

Welcome! These posts are all about an adventure I took in October 2014.

I had the honor of teaching astronomy to a new cohort of Buddhist monks and nuns in Dharamsala, India. They also learned about neuroscience, physics, biology, and more. The students are Geshes, directly translated as “virtuous friend” and equivalent to having earned their PhDs in Buddhism. They are learning science because of the vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who believes that Science and Buddhism can enrich each other’s perspectives. This is happening as part of a larger science workshop under the direction of Science For Monks, an incredible organization. I learned so much more than I could teach.

The 4 week institute started today! The opening day consisted of much chanting, an introduction from revered Geshe Lokdor, and a great overview of the philosophy of science by our fearless leader, Bryce Johnson. It’s astounding how much I take the scientific worldview for granted. I suppose in the west we’ve had 400+ years of practice. I’ll share here a couple of quick stories and then I need to prepare for my classes tomorrow.

Bryce giving the history of science in 90 minutes with Nima translating

Thuptan Janyang, an older monk in the program, told me a sky story that “only the old monks remember” about the 7 brothers of the north. They woke up in the north, made a short journey and then came back to sleep in the north. I brought him a planisphere (the sky map that rotates) and showed him the Pleiades or seven sisters asterism that we know. If the map were designed for latitudes a bit further north, the siblings would indeed rise in the north and set in the north. Cool.

In a late night conversation around the telescope last night, a very thoughtful Tomden (the same fellow who picked me up from the airport. Turns out there are so many Tenzins that most of them go by their second name. Previous plan foiled…) asserted that surely one of the goals of science is to relieve suffering. Think of all of the medicine that has helped people live longer. It made me tear up a bit, his confidence that science was benevolent in nature. I mentioned the atom bombs, a brutal example to the contrary. We talked for hours and I’m afraid I couldn’t defend science properly, as much as I adhere to its principles. Sigh.

Here's where we are!

Tomorrow I’ll have loads to share after 3 hours with a translator talking directly with the monks. I can’t wait and surprisingly I’m not feeling nervous. Maybe the atmosphere of calm is contagious? I’m certainly sleeping and eating well. Every 2 hours there either tea or a meal! Scarcely time for a nap with all that sipping. Beautiful, simple life here. As much as I miss Ace, I’m really savoring all of the alone time. Also, I think he would love it here and hope to bring him someday. Two of the translators have a young son Pusan whose name means “good boy” and he’s very mischievous. I think they’d get along marvelously!


Partial Solar Eclipse – Coming To A Town Near You

Re-posted from Completely Out of My Mind by ASP Executive Director Linda Shore.

Original posting date: October 14, 2014

We are now just ten days away from a partial solar eclipse of the Sun that should be visible to everyone in the US and Canada. Mark your calendar for October 23. It should be a pretty good one for San Francisco – good being measured by how much of the Sun’s face will be shielded from our view by the interloping Moon. In San Francisco, the Moon will block a bit less than half of the Sun. Weather permitting, we’ll see maximum coverage of the Sun at 3:17 pm (

Image courtesy

Here is some more helpful information for San Franciscans wondering what to expect:

Chart showing times of eclipse

Canadians living in the west and far north will get the best view. The Sun will be reduced to a mere sliver for them. Here is a NASA animation showing you what you might expect to see. The lighter shadow is the location of the Moon’s shadow as it passes across the Earth (the partial solar eclipse). The darker shadow is night on Earth.

Animation showing eclipse shadow over Earth

But no matter where you are, don’t look directly at the sun Really – don’t. DON’T!

It’s never a good idea to look directly at the Sun, but the problem with partial eclipses is you might think its safe to take a peek. After all, half the Sun’s face is covered up so it must be safe to look, right? WRONG.

Truth is, the Sun is so bright that even when you cover most of it, there is plenty of energy left to burn your retina and cause permanent eye damage. SO DON’T LOOK DIRECTLY AT IT.

Good news. There are lots of safe ways to look at the Sun during a partial solar eclipse. Here are a few methods for looking at the Sun INDIRECTLY you can try on October 23.

1. Find A Tree: This one is my favorite. Find a tree with lush foliage and look at the ground in the shady areas just beneath the branches. On any sunny day, you might see the ground or a nearby wall sprinkled with round patches of light. Each of the round light spots is an individual image of the Sun made by the tiny spaces between the leaves that act like pinhole camera apertures. During a partial eclipse, you will see hundreds of images of the crescent Sun. It’s absolutely stunning!

Pinhole images of a partial eclipse under the leaves of a bamboo tree. Image credit:

2. Use Your Hands: Don’t have a tree nearby? No problem. You can also use your hands and fingers to to make a “pinhole grid”. The holes between your fingers will act just like the spaces between the leaves of the tree. Hold your hands high above your head and look on the ground. You should also see multiple images of the eclipsed Sun.

Image credit: Lisa Kunze

3. Put a Box on Your Head: Find a cardboard box that is large enough to cover your head and allow you to comfortably look at a sheet of white paper that you will tape to the inside of one of the interior walls. Cut a postage stamp size hole on the opposite side of the box and cover it in aluminum foil. Using a push pin, make a hole in the foil. Point the pinhole at the Sun and you should see an image of the eclipse on the sheet of white paper. If the image is too dim, try making the hole a little big bigger.

Diagram showing pinhole projection box

For other ways to observe the eclipse, see Sky and Telescope:


The Eclipses of October

Excerpted from Musings on the Planet by ASP Lead Formal Educator Brian Kruse.

Original posting date: September 30, 2014

Image credit: Diane Fisher

Twice a year, the geometry of the Sun-Earth-Moon system brings the three bodies into alignment, causing the circumstances leading to solar and lunar eclipses. For viewers in North America, October 2014 features the chance to see both: a total eclipse of the Moon on October 8, and a partial eclipse of the Sun on October 23.

On Thursday, October 23, the Moon will pass between the Earth and Sun, obscuring a portion of the solar disc. Conveniently timed in the mid- to late-afternoon, almost everyone in North America will have an opportunity to view this partial solar eclipse. Starting at 1:52pm PDT for San Francisco, the eclipse will last until 4:32pm. The maximum eclipse is at 3:15pm, with 39% of the Sun covered by the disc of the Moon. The centerline of the Moon’s shadow on Earth follows a path almost due north from Alabama through Indiana and Michigan up to Hudson’s Bay, then curving across the Canadian Arctic, over the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, then across eastern Siberia and heading out to sea at the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Observers in the Canadian Arctic will see the Moon obscure over 70% of the Sun.

Modeling Eclipses

Try this: Take a 1-inch diameter ball (the Earth), and a ¼-inch diameter bead (the Moon). Attach them 30-inches apart on a yardstick or other object. In the middle of a darkened room set up a single light bulb or flashlight in candle mode to serve as the Sun. Line up the “Earth” and “Moon” with the “Sun” to make a lunar eclipse where the bead is in the shadow cast by the larger 1-inch ball. Try using a piece of white paper as a screen behind the bead so you can see where the shadow is so you can make an alignment. How much of the Moon is potentially covered by the Earth’s shadow? Try making a partial lunar eclipse. If the Moon were not in the Earth’s shadow, what phase would you observe from Earth?

Image credit: Brian Kruse

Now reverse the model and try making a solar eclipse where the shadow of the bead falls on the 1-inch ball. Is everyone on the Earth able to observe a solar eclipse? What phase of the Moon do you observe at the time when a solar eclipse is possible?

A couple of other interesting questions: why do lunar and solar eclipses only take place twice during the year? And, why do solar and lunar eclipses come in pairs with two weeks in between each event?

This fall’s eclipses only serve to whet our appetites for the total solar eclipse taking place on Monday, August 21, 2017. The first total solar eclipse visible from North America in many years, even those not in the path of totality will see a partial solar eclipse. Note that the May 2012 solar eclipse visible from much of North America was an annular eclipse, where the Moon was closer to apogee, thus smaller in the sky than the Sun, only partially obscuring the Sun, leaving a “ring of fire” around the lunar disc.

Image credit: NASA/Kevin Baird

You can find additional information, diagrams, and tables of eclipse times for your location at the NASA Eclipse Website at:

or on Fred Espanek’s website at:

***Be sure to use safe solar viewing practices!***

You can find information on how to safely view the Sun (even during eclipses!) at:



October, and thoughts turn to baseball and astronomy day

Re-posted from Completely Out of My Mind by ASP Executive Director Linda Shore.

Original posting date: September 30, 2014

Full Moon. Image credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Giants play the Pirates in a one-game, all-or-nothing, wild card elimination game. The baseball playoff season is about to start in earnest. Astronomy day is this Saturday.

To commemorate all of it, here is an edited excerpt from an article I’ve recently written for Mercury Magazine (an amazing publication of the ASP which will be digitally sent to our members shortly). Enjoy.

Every September, my attention focuses on baseball and the playoffs that are just a few weeks away and this year is no different. Allow me to confess to one of my late summer baseball fantasies: my dream is to lead an astronomy activity with 30,000 fans attending a night game at a major league stadium (it also happens to be a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, but that’s completely irrelevant I suppose).

Fenway Park. Image credit: Francesco Crippa

In my fantasy, everyone attending the game has received a set of binoculars as a promotional gift. It’s the seventh inning stretch and the stadium announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, it is our pleasure to welcome Linda Shore of the Astronomical Society of Pacific, who will lead us all in some stargazing. Please take your seats and get out your binoculars as we turn off the stadium lights.” Once 500,000 watts of ballpark lights are extinguished, some of the brighter stars would become visible, and maybe the fans would be able spot a planet or two. Had this opportunity been possible this summer, I would have taken advantage of “International Observe the Moon Night” on September 6th. I would have instructed fans to take a close look at the terminator line along the lower portion of the Moon’s disk. The binoculars would have afforded the fans with an astounding view of some of the Moon’s surface features that are much easier to appreciate near the transition between lunar day and night. I would have helped fans locate the Kepler and Tycho Craters and their spectacular dandelion rays of ejected material that extend for hundreds of kilometers. I would have pointed out the huge, dark patches of hardened basalt, once molten and filled lunar basins, that we see as the facial features of “The Man In The Moon.”

While I may have missed my opportunity to bring “International Observe The Moon Night” to a major league stadium in 2014, as we often say in baseball, “there’s always next year.”