Thursday, May 24, 2007

The legacy of Astro 100

Last time I team-taught Astro 100, we started every class with the Astronomy Picture of the Day. We wanted to excite them, and hoped a few of our students might adopt the daily ritual of visiting APOD. That astronomy might become a small part of their daily lives.

In that spirit, here's our Galaxy from APOD, seen from the southern hemisphere, featuring the Coal Sack nebula and Southern Cross.

The legacy of Astro 100 came up twice during my recent trip to a Chilean observatory:

First, on the Dallas intra-airport train -- 2 terminals to go, my collaborator's at the gate trying to hold the plane for me. The next guy over asks why I'm going to Chile. He's impressed, but it's another passenger who pounces. "So, what the heck is dark matter, anyway? And is there really an anti-gravity pushing the universe apart?" So in 30 seconds, as the train accelerates toward my terminal, I explain Dark Energy, and try to convey both the solidity of the evidence and the nuttiness of the concordance universe. Train pulls up, I make apologies and take off running, make it to the gate with a minute to spare.

Second, on the light rail journey home, jet--lagged, I start talking with the 40-ish businessman next to me. Turns out he took a college astronomy class from George Abell -- he not only remembered not only his professor's name, but that he'd discovered important clusters of something. I laughed, said something about Abell clusters of galaxies being among the most massive bound objects in the universe, and that I'd just finished observing four of them.

Despite travel exhaustion, I need to remember that astronomy evangelism is part of my job, and usually great fun.


Karen said...

I still remember with fondness the time I was on a return flight from home and got to talking with the older couple next to me. I was excited to have someone to gush to about getting HST images, just about right then, and they were thrilled to hear about it. I even got to drawing pictures for them. :)

Chuck said...

That is a fantastic photo. I especially like the way you can still see the color of the bright foreground stars, despite the monster exposure required to show the rest of the galaxy.

Incidentally, is Proxima in that picture, or is it too faint?

astrodyke said...

Alpha centauri is the monster- bright star at lower left. Proxima should be below and to the right of it -- I don't have a detailed finder chart handy, but Proxima should be right on the lower edge of the image, or possibly a little below.

Twice said...

I love the picture a day idea - I bet the students remember this long after the course is over.

astrodyke said...

well, the optimistic idea was, that some of our students might make astronomy a small part of their daily lives: checking APOD once a week, or bringing a planisphere on camping trips. i will cling to the illusion that some of our students actually did.

Supernova said...

Last time I went observing, I chatted with a guy on the airport shuttle who was very interested in what I was doing and wanted to hear all the details. He was one of these people who loved astronomy as a kid but ended up going into marketing or some such... Anyway, he gave me his business card and I emailed him from the control room that night with a report on how the run was going (as well as some links to APOD and other astro-related sites). He thought it was the greatest thing ever to get an email from a REAL astronomer using a REAL telescope. It was a fun bit of astro-evangelism. :)