Monday, November 16, 2009

If You Build It, They Will Discover: The Top 5 Most Amazing Engineering Accomplishments in Astronomy & Space Exploration


Of all the engineering accomplishments in astronomy and space exploration, does it make sense three out of the top four chosen happened to be telescopes? It amazes me the shuttle barely made the top five. I remember trying to create a working version of the space shuttle for an Estes model rocket competition in the mid 1970’s. I had a pretty hard time of it, especially the part about getting the booster engines to ignite the shuttle engines. I can’t imagine the real thing presented any easier a task.

On the other hand, when I opened my official IYA2009 Galileo Telescope and tried to put it together, I discovered I was all thumbs. Maybe that’s why my studies focused on theoretical – as opposed to observational – astronomy. It turns out, tapping a computer keyboard (or, in all honesty, punching cards) rather than manipulating wrenches and pliers better suited my motor skills.

In the spring of 2009, AstronomyTop100.com accepted 21 nominations for the greatest engineering accomplishments in astronomy and space exploration. The Mariner’s Astrolabe rose to the level of my favorite (for more info, see the article “The Age of Exploration Might Not Have Happened If…”).

In the summer of 2009, using such Web 2.0 tools as Twitter and LinkedIn, AstronomyTop100.com polled professionals and interested amateurs from all across the world to vote for their favorite engineering accomplishments in astronomy and space exploration. AstronomyTop100.com is an official IYA2009 outreach project designed to increase interest in the best of astronomy and space exploration among all age groups. Over the course of these last few weeks of this fun venture, we will discover the greatest image and imagination in astronomy and space exploration. You can vote your #1 choice from the list of the top ten by going to AstronomyTop100.com. Still don’t get it? Try picturing what happens when you mix Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Fox’s American Idol. That’s AstronomyTop100.com!

We now proudly unveil the top five (in reverse order based on weighted votes) greatest sights in Astronomy and Space Exploration:

#5 Space Shuttle (1981)
#4 Mount Palomar 200” Mirror (1948)
#3 Galilean Telescope (1609)
#2 International Space Station (1998)
#1 Hubble Telescope (1990)

Each of these mechanical marvels has a great story behind them. Perhaps we can attribute the dearth of space vehicles to the continuing phenomenon known as “Apollo Fatigue” – the “been there, done that” apathy that arose following the seven moon missions. On the other hand, maybe observational astronomers dominated the respondent universe in this particular survey. If you also wonder about this, feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section below. What’s more, vote your #1 choice from the list of the top ten by going directly to AstronomyTop100.com.

The greatest sights in astronomy and space exploration represent only one of eight categories in our quest to identify the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration. How do these five events compare to the top five in the other seven categories? Would you like to see the complete list of the Top 40 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration? Just go to this site: http://astronomytop100.com/Top_40.html to discover them all.

Which of the top 10 will become the #1 greatest image and imagination in astronomy and space exploration? You can help us by voting your opinion at our surveymonkey poll located here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=19I2G_2bnG3l_2baNlosFci3Xg_3d_3d

Have fun!

From now until December 4, 2009, followers of AstronomyTop100.com on http://www.twitter.com/astronomytop100 will get the first opportunity to answer a new survey. Next, members of the LinkedIn AstronomyTop100 Group will be invited to answer. Finally, members of some relevant LinkedIn groups will also be invited to complete the survey. All surveys will be conducted through surveymonkey.com.

If you’re interested in viewing all the nominations and voting in the Round One surveys, visit AstronomyTop100.com to see all the best of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to take a survey, go to the relevant category page on AstronomyTop100.com.

Just interested in keeping tabs on everything about AstronomyTop100.com and astronomy in general? Then follow it on Twitter (@AstronomyTop100).

Explore the unexplored. Discover the undiscovered. Know the unknown. AstronomyTop100.com

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Top 5 Most Memorable Sights in Astronomy & Space Exploration


Hubble Eagle Nebula (M16) Pillars of Creation. Image Source: NASA (Public Domain); Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University); A Star is Born; Release Date: April 1, 1995

Top 5 Most Memorable Sights in Astronomy & Space Exploration

So many images, so many memories, but which stand out as the greatest sights in the history of astronomy and space exploration? Have you ever just looked up at a clear night’s sky and simply wondered? Stars, planets, nebulae and even a galaxy or two lay within your unaided eyesight. What object do you first remember seeing? Was it Venus rising in the morning? Jupiter shining brightly at night? The magnificent Pleiades? A faint fuzzy spot in Orion’s Belt (M42 – The Great Nebula) or Andromeda’s chains (M31 – The Andromeda Galaxy)? Or how about the Big Dipper, the North Star, the Summer Triangle or Orion itself? Maybe it was the red of Mars or its counterpart Antares?

Do you still remember that very special feeling you had the first time something totally amazing in space? Instead of your own eyes, you might have been enthralled by a picture. After all, the eyes can only see a single instant of photons, while photographs can accumulate them over time, yielding much more impressive images, filled with color and even a sense of dimension. Moreso, once we unleashed our technology into space itself, our probes produced impossibly beautiful results. Remember Voyager’s images of Saturn’s rings or Io erupting? Where were you when you first saw those likenesses?

In the spring of 2009, AstronomyTop100.com accepted 26 for the greatest sights in astronomy and space exploration. Like those listed above, some of these images appear every night with no additional technology while others required everything from long exposure photographic plates to advanced aeronautic and integrated circuit technology.

In the summer of 2009, using such Web 2.0 tools as Twitter and LinkedIn, AstronomyTop100.com polled professionals and interested amateurs from all across the world to vote for their favorite images in astronomy and space exploration. AstronomyTop100.com is an official IYA2009 project designed to increase interest in the best of astronomy and space exploration among all age groups. Over the course of the next several months, we will discover the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration. Still don’t get it? Try picturing what happens when you mix Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Fox’s American Idol. That’s AstronomyTop100.com!

We now proudly unveil the top five (in reverse order based on weighted votes) greatest sights in Astronomy and Space Exploration:

#5 Hubble Pillars of Creation in Eagle Nebula
#4 Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
#3 Saturn’s Rings (Voyager)
#2 Earthrise (Apollo 8)
#1 Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Each of these has a great story behind them. That all these images save one (M31) reflect the age of mass media shouldn’t be viewed as a negative. Perhaps we’ve forgotten our youthful astonishment at discovering the Big Dipper, Orion, the Pleiades and all other naked eye objects to place them anywhere beyond the familiar. Not only does this apply us individually, but metaphorically to us as a civilization. In the end, the experience, accentuated by the novelty, is often greater when it’s shared by more people, and television and the internet certainly encourages such broad sharing. Still, one can’t help but wonder if the Hubble Ultra Deep Field has a face only a mother could love (assuming she was well versed in astrophysics).

The greatest sights in astronomy and space exploration represent only one of eight categories in our quest to identify the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration. How do these five events compare to the top five in the other seven categories? Would you like to see the complete list of the Top 40 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration? Just go to this site: http://astronomytop100.com/Top_40.html to discover them all.

Which of these top 40 will become the top 10? You can help us by voting your opinion at our surveymonkey poll located here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=cCBjXb3VpviPP43wXczkMA_3d_3d

Have fun!

Each week from now until December 4, 2009, followers of AstronomyTop100.com on http://www.twitter.com/astronomytop100 will get the first opportunity to answer a new survey. Next, members of the LinkedIn AstronomyTop100 Group will be invited to answer. Finally, members of some relevant LinkedIn groups will also be invited to complete the survey. All surveys will be conducted through surveymonkey.com.

If you’re interested in viewing all the nominations and voting in the Round One surveys, visit AstronomyTop100.com to see all the best of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to take a survey, go to the relevant category page on AstronomyTop100.com.

Just interested in keeping tabs on everything about AstronomyTop100.com and astronomy in general? Then follow it on Twitter (@AstronomyTop100).

Explore the unexplored. Discover the undiscovered. Know the unknown. AstronomyTop100.com

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Io Erupting – Evidence of Life Beyond Earth Discovered

On March 4, 1979, Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter’s closest Galilean moon Io. As NASA scientists scrutinized the many images produced, they discovered what appeared to be a plume spewing from the rocky surface of the red-orange satellite. They couldn’t believe their eyes. For the first time ever, mankind had recorded an active volcano (seven in fact) outside our own Earth. This planetoid was alive!

I remember devouring this image and the associated science when I received the June 1979 issue of Science. Having completed only my first year of undergraduate work studying physics and astronomy, the picture tantalized me beyond what one might expect (you see, I intended to – and did – specialize in stellar astrophysics, not planetary geophysics). Still, I once had a youthful obsession with all things volcanic. I once spent several third grade days nestled closely to a tome detailing the ten worst volcano eruptions – and gladly repeated (over and over) each disaster to my innocent parents. This image rekindled that love affair for the penultimate time. (The ultimate time? – that’s another story).

For me, a living moon was more significant than the other famous Voyager discovery (Jupiter has rings!). So much of the story amazed me. Not just the science, but the technology. Remember, this was only the second group of spacecraft to venture outside the asteroid belt. I recall waiting with bated breath for NASA to give the thumbs-up signal that the first two probes – Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 – successfully traversed that dreaded obstacle course six years earlier. Well, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 both made it past the pieces of rock and iron, too, but they had something else. They possessed a much better imaging system (and a greater awareness of the radiation belts near Io). Indeed, the fact we could receive such detailed pictures over such a long distance awed me.

The year was 1979. Just ten years earlier we had conquered the moon. Now, NASA – and America – was leading the human race further than the local orbits of the terrestrial planets and soon would fly to Saturn – and beyond. And I was entering my sophomore year studying the very same subject, one that I had loved since I was old enough to understand.

I was young. The space program was young. It was a beautiful world – er – universe to be a part of.

Why is Carl Sagan Among the Top Five Greatest People in Astronomy & Space Exploration?

Credit: Jenny Rollo (Public Domain); Galileo’s elaborate tomb in the Basillica di Santa Croce, Florence.

Who are the greatest people in the history of astronomy and space exploration? From these specific heads came every idea mankind has ever had regarding astronomy and space exploration. Indeed, the very thought of imagination requires people. These represent, with apologies to Walt Disney, the imagineers of Astronomy and Space Exploration. Without them, we’d be nothing but apes throwing bones at an alien black monolith (wait, wasn’t that in our Popular Culture category?). In the spring of 2009, AstronomyTop100.com compiled 44 nominations – the most in any category – for the greatest people in astronomy and space exploration. These ranged from a gaggle of Greeks starting with Anaximander (c610-c546BC) – the pre-Socratic philosopher credited with the first known attempt to model the universe – to Carl Fredrich von Weizs├Ącker (1912-2007) – whose work added tremendously to our knowledge of the energy engine of stars as well as the origin of our solar system.

We had two simple rules when it came to nominating people: 1) Don’t nominate anyone you’re related to; and, 2) Don’t nominate anyone still alive. In a moment, you’ll see why we should have probably added a third rule.

In the summer of 2009, using such Web 2.0 tools as Twitter and LinkedIn, AstronomyTop100.com polled professionals and interested amateurs from all across the world to vote for their favorite greatest people in astronomy and space exploration. AstronomyTop100.com is an official IYA2009 project designed to increase interest in the best of astronomy and space exploration among all age groups. Over the course of the next several months, we will discover the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration. Still don’t get it? Try picturing what happens when you mix Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Fox’s American Idol. That’s AstronomyTop100.com!

We now proudly unveil the top five (in reverse order based on weighted votes) greatest people in Astronomy and Space Exploration:

#5 Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
#4 Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
#3 Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
#2 Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
#1 Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

I’m sorry, but I have to respectfully disagree with our esteemed voters. Clearly, Carl Sagan does not belong on this list. So many others have added more to the science of astronomy and to the development of the space exploration program that I question whether he even belongs in the top ten.(I can easily place Aristotle, Ptolemy, Charles Messier, Tycho Brahe, Edwin Hubble, and Werner von Braun ahead of Mr. Sagan.) His inclusion may be due to the phenomenon of “recency” – a term in behavioral psychology which says folks tend to overweight things they’ve most recently witnessed.

In retrospect, we should have had a third rule – any nominee must have been deceased for at least 25 years. This would have been long enough for the direct generational experience to have faded so the individuals could have been viewed in proper perspective.

The greatest people in astronomy and space exploration represent only one of eight categories in our quest to identify the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration. How do these five events compare to the top five in the other seven categories? Would you like to see the complete list of the Top 40 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration? Just go to this site: http://astronomytop100.com/Top_40.html to discover them all.

Which of these top 40 will become the top 10? You can help us by voting your opinion at our surveymonkey poll located here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=pQ2Yo1VgJ00TDgnFXyYFRQ_3d_3d

Have fun!

Each week from now until December 4, 2009, followers of AstronomyTop100.com on http://www.twitter.com/astronomytop100 will get the first opportunity to answer a new survey. Next, members of the LinkedIn AstronomyTop100 Group will be invited to answer. Finally, members of some relevant LinkedIn groups will also be invited to complete the survey. All surveys will be conducted through surveymonkey.com.

If you’re interested in viewing all the nominations and voting in the Round One surveys, visit AstronomyTop100.com to see all the best of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to take a survey, go to the relevant category page on AstronomyTop100.com.

Just interested in keeping tabs on everything about AstronomyTop100.com and astronomy in general? Then follow it on Twitter (@AstronomyTop100).

Explore the unexplored. Discover the undiscovered. Know the unknown. AstronomyTop100.com

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Top Five Greatest Events in Astronomy and Space Exploration

Image credit: NASA

Title: Telecast of Astronaut Neil Armstrong descending ladder to surface of the moon (7/20/69)

Description: Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander, descends the ladder of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module prior to making the first step by man on the moon. This view is a black and white reproduction taken from a telecast by the Apollo 11 lunar surface camera during extravehicular activity. The black bar running through the center of the picture is an anomaly in the television ground data system at the Goldstone Tracking Station.


What are the greatest events in the history of Astronomy and Space Exploration? These moments lay frozen in time, their significance magnifying as they pass through the generations. More than a dozen nominations for the greatest event in astronomy and space exploration compiled in the spring of 2009 by AstronomyTop100.com ranged from the Star of Bethlehem (7-4BC) through the Battle of Hastings (1044AD) to the dramatic rescue of Apollo 13 (1970AD).

What marks a “great” event? We can recognize the significance of any singular moment when, after a period of time, it seems all other actions flow back to it. When this occurs, that solitary instant that becomes a new benchmark, a new standard... at least until the next one. Each of these nominations represents a unique event that shall endure the ravages of time, but only a select few merit inclusion in the top five.

In the summer of 2009, using such Web 2.0 tools as Twitter and LinkedIn, AstronomyTop100.com polled professionals and interested amateurs from all across the world to vote for their favorite greatest event in astronomy and space exploration. AstronomyTop100.com is an official IYA2009 project designed to increase interest in the best of astronomy and space exploration among all age groups. Over the course of the next several months, we will discover the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration. Image a cross between Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Fox’s American Idol. That’s AstronomyTop100.com!

We now proudly unveil the top five (in reverse order based on weighted votes):

#5) World’s First Liquid-Propellant Rocket (3/16/1926)

#4) The Space Race (1957 – 1969)

#3) Sputnik Launch (10/1/1957)

#2) Yuri Gagarin’s First Manned Space Flight (4/12/1961)

#1) Man on the Moon (Apollo 11 – July 20, 1969)


Centuries from now, cultural historians and social archeologists will look back and judge the merits of our civilization based on events like these. What do you think they will conclude?

But the greatest events in astronomy and space exploration represent only one of eight categories in our quest to identify the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration. How do these five events compare to the top five in the other seven categories? Would you like to see the complete list of the Top 40 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration? Just go to this site: http://astronomytop100.com/Top_40.html to discover them all.

Which of these top 40 will become the top 10? You can help us by voting your opinion at our surveymonkey poll located here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=vFf8cKIE9AOwkigBQkv_2bHQ_3d_3d

Have fun!

Each week from now until December 4, 2009, followers of AstronomyTop100.com on http://www.twitter.com/astronomytop100 will get the first opportunity to answer a new survey. Next, members of the LinkedIn AstronomyTop100 Group will be invited to answer. Finally, members of some relevant LinkedIn groups will also be invited to complete the survey. All surveys will be conducted through surveymonkey.com.

If you’re interested in viewing all the nominations and voting in the Round One surveys, visit AstronomyTop100.com to see all the best of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to take a survey, go to the relevant category page on AstronomyTop100.com.

Just interested in keeping tabs on everything about AstronomyTop100.com and astronomy in general? Then follow it on Twitter (@AstronomyTop100).

Explore the unexplored. Discover the undiscovered. Know the unknown. AstronomyTop100.com

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Greatest People in Astronomy and Space Exploration

Who are the greatest people – the thinkers, tinkerers and imagineers – in the history of Astronomy and Space Exploration? The nominations for the best people in astronomy and space exploration are in! Poll #7 (of 8) of Round One of AstronomyTop100.com has officially begun! AstronomyTop100.com is an official IYA2009 project designed to increase interest in the best of astronomy and space exploration among all age groups. Over the course of the next several months, we will discover the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration. Image a cross between Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Fox’s American Idol. That’s AstronomyTop100.com!

With nearly 40 names spanning the centuries the Nominations include the men and woman whose imaginations spurred mankind to look to the skies. This list includes many people who might surprise you. Did you know the most famous observer – the man who provided the data that put the final nail in the coffin of the geocentric theory died before the telescope was even invented? Were you are the final proof of the validity of the heliocentric theory was completely written before Caesar was born, but abandoned due to lack of observable confirmation? Who was the woman whose discovery forever changed the universe?

This challenging Survey invites you to tax your powers of judgment to pick only the top five people who possessed the most influential imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. Are you up for the task? Will you even recognize every name? (Don’t worry if you don’t, because that is part of the selection process!) Go to the Survey and have fun!

Each week, followers of AstronomyTop100.com on http://www.twitter.com/astronomytop100 will get the first opportunity to answer the survey. Next, members of the LinkedIn AstronomyTop100 Group will be invited to answer. Finally, members of some relevant LinkedIn groups will also be invited to complete the survey. All surveys will be conducted through surveymonkey.com. If you’d like to see the schedule of all the Round One surveys, go to this blogpost.

If you’re interested in viewing all the nominations and voting in the Round One surveys, visit AstronomyTop100.com to see all the best of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to take a survey, go to the relevant category page on AstronomyTop100.com.

Just interested in keeping tabs on everything about AstronomyTop100.com and astronomy in general? Then follow it on Twitter (@AstronomyTop100).

Explore the unexplored. Discover the undiscovered. Know the unknown. AstronomyTop100.com

Monday, August 24, 2009

Vote Your Top Favorites in Astronomy and Space Exploration


It’s here! The nominations for the best in astronomy and space exploration are all in! Round One of AstronomyTop100.com has officially begun! AstronomyTop100.com is an official IYA2009 project designed to increase interest in the best of astronomy and space exploration among all age groups. Over the course of the next several months, we will discover the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration. Image a cross between Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Fox’s American Idol. That’s AstronomyTop100.com!

Here is the schedule and the rules for Round One:

Week #1 (ends 7/24/09) Popular Culture (Click here Nominations; here for Survey)
Week #2 (ends 7/31/09) Engineering (Click here for Nominations; here for Survey)
Week #3 (ends 8/7/09) Events (Click here for Nominations; here for Survey)
Week #4 (ends 8/14/09) Theories (Click here for Nominations; here for Survey)
Week #5 (ends 8/21/09) Discoveries (Click here for Nominations; here for Survey)
Week #6 (ends 8/28/09) Sights (Click here for Nominations; here for Survey)
Week #7 (ends 9/4/09) People (Click here for Nominations; here for Survey)
Week #8 (ends 9/11/09) Ancient Artifacts (Click here for Nominations; here for Survey)

Each week, followers of AstronomyTop100.com on http://www.twitter.com/astronomytop100 will get the first opportunity to answer the survey. Next, members of the LinkedIn AstronomyTop100 Group will be invited to answer. Finally, members of some relevant LinkedIn groups will also be invited to complete the survey. All surveys will be conducted through surveymonkey.com.

If you’re interested in viewing all the nominations and voting in the Round One surveys, visit AstronomyTop100.com to see all the best of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to take a survey, go to the relevant category page on AstronomyTop100.com.

Just interested in keeping tabs on everything about AstronomyTop100.com and astronomy in general? Then follow it on Twitter (@AstronomyTop100).

Explore the unexplored. Discover the undiscovered. Know the unknown. AstronomyTop100.com

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Astronomy and Popular Culture


Evidence of Mankind’s Evolving Self-Perception

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From the beginning of time, the untouchable stars above controlled man and he lay prone to their eternal mercy. They could rain death and destruction. Yet, for all the punishment they delivered, the evening sky also represented man’s greatest reward – earning an immortal place among those distant lanterns scattered in the dark dome of night.

While ancient religions may have left man a mere servant to the gods above, they also left an enduring legacy the science of astronomy uses to this day. We can trace much of our epic advances – from planetary motion to stellar distances – to the mathematics and geometry that make up an important part of both astrology and the constellations.

Still, it’s hard to erase the psychological scars wrought by centuries of mythology. For all the revelations during the Age of Reason, and despite the growing intellectual awareness spawned by the Age of Enlightenment, space remained a mysterious place for the popular imagination. H.G. Wells transformed the gods of mythology into the monsters of science with the publication in England of War of the Worlds at the end of the nineteenth century.

Orson Welles Americanized the classic story of the Martian invasion by changing the physical location (from London to New Jersey), the medium (from literature to radio theatre) and, most significantly, the style (from a scientific journal to a live action news report). Still, the monsters remained. More importantly, the lessons also remained: The first, and most satisfying given what those nasty Martians did to our species (at least until you realize it’s a metaphor for mankind), even the mighty can fall to the smallest of microscopic organisms. Hooray! David beats Goliath! Of course, we learn this only after the blunt message (for those who would inevitably fail to understand the metaphor of the first lesson) that man, for all his glory, stands as a tiny grain of sand against the naked might of the universe.

And so science fiction stayed – mortal Earthlings battling various unbeatable space-borne monsters. For the most part, the fine arts literati snubbed the pulp genre until 1951, when The Day the Earth Stood Still brought an entirely new dimension to the field. Notwithstanding Orson Welles radio interpretation of War of the Worlds, the stories written and produced during the Golden Era of Science Fiction could have easily been mistaken as westerns if only chaps and leather replaced the tinfoil suits and glass helmets. You know, good guys versus bad guys, white hats versus black hats, damsel in distress, lots of action, happy ending,… that sort of thing. The Day the Earth Stood Still went where no science fiction production had gone before. It successfully employed the genre to metaphorically explore a grave contemporary issue. Within two decades, Gene Roddenberry would use the television series Star Trek to accomplish the same thing.

Of course, even though The Day the Earth Stood Still represented a watershed of cinematic import, it merely brought our popular culture theme back to the idea things in outer space governed the destiny of man. Only now, we’ve jettisoned the idea of all-powerful monsters and gone back to concept of the all-powerful gods. Well, at least we no longer considered them gods. There were aliens. The turning point came with Forbidden Planet. The 1956 science fiction movie made two significant contributions. First, it showed the dramatic story of space can be told using a conventional drama. In this case, Forbidden Planet borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Second, the movie ends with a dramatic reversal of man’s place in the universe. Yes, god-like aliens and omnipotent monsters may inhabit the universe, but the ultimate creator of either good or destruction – the true god or monster – is man himself! Holy Bambi, Batman! Man has entered the universe!

But, if the human race was destined to rule – or destroy – space all by its lonesome, one might presume the species would first have to live there in comfort. And what better way to portray this inevitability with a palatable situation comedy aimed primarily at children? More precisely, a cartoon. Hot on the heels of The Flintstones success, Hanna-Barbera decided to reach for the other end of the chronological scale by producing The Jetsons. Though this 1962 series lasted only one season, its twenty-four original episodes continued in syndication ad infinitum (and some would say ad nauseum). A generation learned to treat space as just another Mayberry. Well, OK, that might be a stretch. How about at least as just another Bedrock.

Astronomy in popular culture perhaps hit its highest point with the classic television show Star Trek. The show brought drama, action and morality tales together for one hour each week from 1966 to 1969. Oh, and did we mention it took place in space? With the series, man no longer automatically cowed to various gods and monsters. Man rode starships as a peer – sometimes better, sometimes worse – with all the other critters in the universe. After all, in space, we learned, you have to deal with the same sort of problems you have to deal with in, say, Iowa.

So, if space represented the final frontier, what existed beyond it? Star Trek tried to address this with a can-do optimism. On the other hand, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey strived to reveal an epic answer. The movie suggested, much like most of the author’s other works, the answer to man’s ultimate question lay somewhere in the dark depths of the universe. While The Jetsons and Star Trek painted space in much the same way Hollywood normally pictures everyday life, 2001: A Space Odyssey combined great storytelling with believable NASA-like representations of space and space exploration.

Then, something amazing happened. All that imaginary speculation of space travel and walking on distant worlds became real. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon on July 20, 1969, mankind’s questions most vexing questions were answered. No, the lunar module did not sink in the super soft moon dust of the moon like a baby in a ball pit. Yes, we had the technology to get there and back. No, the moon is not made of green cheese. After nearly a decade of space as a normal environment, is it any surprise that Alan Shepard became a hero to duffers worldwide when he took several swings with a six iron on the sands of the Fra Mauro highlands?

The public fascination with all things spacey and astronomical led to the popularization of astronauts, aeronautical engineers and, amazingly, even astronomers. Johnny Carson took a liking to an eccentric astrophysicist from Cornell University, and Carl Sagan became the de facto spokesman for the space age. The professor parlayed his celebrity into a thirteen episode venture called Cosmos. This PBS show brought the wonders of astronomy and space exploration into the homes of all Americans throughout the fall of 1980. After years of watching the drama of the universe, the science of the universe had finally entered the popular culture.

Over the next two decades, from The Right Stuff to Apollo 13 to October Sky added to a growing portfolio of drama-in-real-life space ventures. Sure, we had our share of ETs and Aliens, but the public long ago recognized science fiction merely used space as a convenient backdrop. This trio of wide screen wonders weave memorable space sagas not from the realm of fantasy, but from the chronicles of history. The each tell their stories not in the faux-news style of The Day the Earth Stood Still or Orson Welles' War of the Worlds, nor in the faux-science journal style of the original War of the Worlds, but more in the dramatic flavor of Forbidden Planet and the best of the Star Trek episodes.

Most significantly, these recent movies do not show nature conquering man, like astrology and the constellation mythology long ago started and later science fiction emphasized, but demonstrated reality-based tales of how man overcame both himself and nature; thus, faithfully capturing the promise of Star Trek and the hope of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Finally, their critical acclaim and box office appeal proves, when it comes to astronomy and space exploration, mankind is fast approaching the day when the “space is where we live” mentality of The Jetsons will become truth.

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And the Nominees are...

Which popular culture nominees do you feel best represent the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration? To find out...

Click Here to take survey


Explore the unexplored. Discover the undiscovered. Know the unknown. AstronomyTop100.com

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Woman Behind The Discovery That Forever Changed The Universe...


Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)


Image Source: Wikipedia, Image Credit: American Association of Variable Star Observers, This image is copyrighted. The copyright holder allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that the original image author and image description are credited

The Discovery That Forever Changed Our Universe…

… came from a deaf American woman born on the 4th of July in 1868. Shortly after her graduation from what we now call Radcliffe, an illness caused Henrietta Swan Leavitt to lose her hearing. The Harvard College Observatory eventually hired her as a human “computer.” Her job: review the hordes of glass photographic plates and calculate the brightness of the stars in them. While reviewing a study of variable stars in the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (small satellite galaxies orbiting our own Milky Way) she developed a fondness for the many Cepheid Variable stars within those two galaxies. A Cepheid Variable star dims and brightens over a regular period, so named because, in 1784, John Goodricke identified the first such example with the star ╬┤ Cephei in the constellation Cepheus. Leavitt became an accomplished variable star hunter, cataloguing 2,400 such stars during the course of her work – more than half the total known at the time.

In analyzing the plates, Leavitt began to notice the brighter Cepheids exhibited a longer period of variability. Four years later, after further analysis, she surmised the brightness of Cepheid Variables had a direct relationship with their period of variability. She deduced this relationship because all the stars in the Magellanic Clouds have the same distance from Earth. Since their distance is known to be constant, their relative brightness can be directly compared. She published her results in 1912. Unknown to all at the time, her discovery would forever change our understanding of the universe.

Cepheid Variables (and their kin RR Lyrae) have since become “standard candles” used to measure intergalactic distances. This discovery allows us to more precisely measure the distance of globular clusters and galaxies. Ironically, at the time of Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery of the period-luminosity relationship, astronomers did not know the galactic “nebula” they saw lay outside the boundaries of the Milky Way. It wasn’t until 1923 when Edwin Hubble conclusively proved for the first time one of these galactic “nebula” was indeed another galaxy – the Andromeda Galaxy. He did this only by discovering a Cepheid Variable within the 2.2 million light year distant galaxy. Unfortunately, Henrietta Leavitt never saw the cosmological implications of her stellar discovery. She died of cancer in 1921.
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Henrietta Swan Leavitt has been nominated on AstronomyTop100.com under the People category as a candidate for one of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to make a nomination, you can do so for free on AstronomyTop100.com.

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The Discovery that Changed Our Universe...

Public Domain Image: Cepheus in the robes of a Persian king, depicted in the Atlas Coelestis of John Flamsteed (1729)

Cepheus, an otherwise unremarkable king, sits at the pantheon of the mythological royal family at the heart of the famous Andromeda-Perseus story. Yet, the nondescript area of the sky assigned to him produced an amazing discovery. How did a faint constellation change the way we look at the universe?

Nothing But the Facts About the Cepheus Constellation reveals this and many other amazing facts about this legendary constellation.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Chandra Finds Relativistic Pinball


Image Source: NASA (Public Domain)
Credit: NASA/CXC/MIT/UMass Amherst/M.D.Stage et al.
Image of Cassiopeia A - The Youngest Known (Visible) Supernova Remnant
Release Date: November 15, 2006

If we learn how electrons accelerate, can we know...

...the engine moving the ions and protons buzzing around the universe? The source of the acceleration of these Cosmic Rays has long baffled astrophysicists. An analysis of data from the Chandra Observatory may have provided an important clue to the answer the mysterious behind Cosmic Rays.

For fifteen months during the years 2004 and 2005, scientists pointed the Chandra Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) to a remains of what was then believed to be the youngest supernova remnant in the Milky Way – an expanding debris field of a the explosive finale of red superstar around 1667AD. [In 2008, astronomers discovered a 140 year-old supernova whose close proximity to the dust shrouded galactic center made it impossible for Earth-based observers to see back then (source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080514131118.htm).]

According the official release (http://chandra.harvard.edu/photo/2006/casa/), data produced by ACIS allowed astronomers to detail the acceleration of electrons within the fast expanding nebula wrought forth by the cataclysmic devastation during the star’s violent demise. They discovered these particles were being accelerated at close to their theoretical speed limits (that’s where the “relativistic” part comes in). But, more interesting has been the apparent source of this acceleration. Like a slow moving pinball ricocheting from the bumpers of your typical arcade machine (that’s where the “pinball” part comes in), each electron bounces off the magnetic fields in the shock wave. With each bounce, the electron gains acceleration. With enough bounces – a few as fifty years worth and as many as two hundred years worth – these miniature charged particles can zoom through the universe at relativistic speeds.

Since its discovery by Henri Becquerel in 1896, radiation has captivated, first, terrestrial scientists and then, both astronomers and the public when, thirty years later, Robert Millikan proved their origin to be extraterrestrial and originated the term “cosmic rays.” Later, we would find cosmic rays pose problems to humans aboard long space journeys. Millikan himself, though, came out on the losing end of an argument as to what exactly these little buggers were. He thought they came from the “birth cries” of newly created atoms – the same kind of spontaneous creation that evokes similarities with cosmology’s steady-state theory. Ironically, the ACIS data suggests cosmic rays come not from the birth of atoms, but the death of stars.

Cassiopeia A Relativistic Pinball has been nominated on AstronomyTop100.com under the Discovery category as a candidate for one of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to make a nomination, you can do so for free on AstronomyTop100.com.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Galileo Galilei


Portrait Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain); Portrait of Galileo Galilei, by Justus Sustermans, 1619

Where does one begin...

...to describe the many amazing adventures, earth-shattering discoveries and inventive creations of this one incredible Italian. A renowned scientist in an era when such people often engineered their own tools, he used his own improved version of the telescope to discover of the moons of Jupiter, Saturn’s Rings, lunar mountains and the phases of Venus. Each of these are worthy of their own separate nominations in the 100 Greatest Ideas and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration.

Yet Galileo did not silently labor in some laboratory. He used his unique personality and gifted communication style to not merely report his findings, but to promote a rather radical interpretation of them – the heliocentric theory posthumously published by Copernicus.

No stranger to politics and intrigue, he escaped harsher punishment to serve a rather tame sentence, but invoked the wrath of the Pope when he defied his agreement and published Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems) in 1632. Significantly, he chose to publish this book in the vernacular language (Italian) rather than the language of science (Latin); thus, exposing the heliocentric theory to the masses. Sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life, he continued his scientific writings (although outside the jurisdiction of the inquisition) with his opus Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche, intorno a due nuove scienze, (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences), 1638. From this masterpiece we get the early laws of motion we now call “Galilean Transformations.”

In many ways, Galileo represents the true heir of Aristotle (poetically ironic given he spent his entire life fighting the Aristotelian view of his day). Like the Greek philosopher, he doggedly challenged the nuances of rhetorical word play and instead focused on the reality he observed. But, unlike Aristotle, who exiled himself rather than have Athens “sin twice against philosophy,” Galileo had the courage to remain a player in the battle until he peacefully passed away. No greater authority echoes these accolades upon this son of an impoverished musician than Albert Einstein (in Ideas and Opinions).

“Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics -- indeed, of modern science altogether.”

For a more comprehensive, yet light-hearted biography of Galileo, go to A Wrangler’s Tale.

Galileo Galilei has been nominated on AstronomyTop100.com under the People category as a candidate for one of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to make a nomination, you can do so for free on AstronomyTop100.com.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Apollo 7 First Live TV Broadcast from Space

Image Source: NASA (Public Domain)


Mission Control watches the first live TV signal beamed by an American spacecraft


October 14, 1968


If one picture is worth a thousand words...


...than how many words does a live video merit? Think about it. Are you more likely to remember the radio broadcast of a championship game or a live television broadcast of that same event? As with many things, the Apollo program presaged our love for video – no wonder why the producers of MTV chose an image of an Apollo moon man as its logo!


Ironically, it took four years for a camera to make it inboard a US manned spacecraft. With the need to remove any unnecessary weight from the crew’s cabin, NASA engineers – with the nodding approval of the unwary astronauts who piloted those rockets – found the camera a luxury too heavy to carry. Still, with the moon landing approaching, William A. Lee wrote in the spring of 1964, “It may be assumed that the first attempt to land on the moon will have generated a high degree of interest around the world… A large portion of the civilized world will be at their TV sets wondering whether the attempt will succeed or fail.” (source: history.nasa.gov/SP-4205/ch11-4.html) Unfortunately, the tragedy of January 1967 may have only attracted more viewers. With Apollo 7 representing American’s first manned flight since the loss of Grissom, Chaffee and White, interest in the mission grew more intense. Once space borne, though, the professionals in the cabin placed work before play, and flight plan changes led spacecraft commander Walter Shirra to cancel the first of several planned broadcasts. However, when the red light finally turned on, what a show it turned out to be! With cue card one-liners (“Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming In, Folks” and “Hello from the Lovely Apollo Room High Atop Everything”) provided courtesy of Michael Kapp, (producer of the Bill Dana “Jose Jimenez in Orbit” record album in the 1960s), the crew left America – and the world – with a fond smile in their hearts and NASA with a public relations coup.


From that point on, TV cameras no longer looked too heavy and NASA has equipped every manned space vehicle with them since. Television viewers across the globe saw the human story of space, and many astronauts – at least for a short time – became folk heroes. Today, NASA even has its own channel, NASA TV.


Apollo 7’s first live TV broadcast has been nominated on AstronomyTop100.com under the Events category as a candidate for one of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to make a nomination, you can do so for free on AstronomyTop100.com.


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