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Herschel Space Telescope Opens Eyes July 10, 2009

Posted by CGR Section Chair in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Cosmology, Gravitation, and Relativity (CGR) , add a comment

The newest addition to the space telescope crew is the Herschel, which is designed, deployed and run by the European Space Agency. Herschel, which can see in the infrared, is joining our much-beloved Hubble (which observes in the visible) and Spitzer (which can see in the infrared). After a month of preparation in space, Herschel opened its eyes in June. Today a sneak preview of the images it will be taking was released:

You’ll notice that the image on the left is from Spitzer. Thanks to the hard work of optical engineers and atomic and condensed matter physicists, technology is improving, and the higher quality image from Herschel is the result. We here at Vector say to Herschel: Welcome! And to its hard working team: Thank you 🙂

But improved technology isn’t the only exciting element of Herschel’s release into the wild. Herschel is also the first major telescope to be named for a female astronomer. It is named for Caroline and William Herschel, the award-winning brother-sister team who lived in 18th and 19th century Germany and England. As time goes on, we hope to see more and more recognition of the contributions of people traditionally underrepresented in science. Kudos to ESA for making strides in this area.

Historian of Science, The Solstice, Hubble’s Diverse Universe July 7, 2009

Posted by ASTRO Section Chair in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), History, Policy and Education (HPE) , 1 comment so far

by Jarita C. Holbrook

While visiting Cardiff, I met Dr. Seymour Mauskopf who was visiting a mutual friend. Dr. Mauskopf is a historian of science at Duke University. We had a discussion of the program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Duke. It is a certificate program and a graduate concentration. It is similar to how I am trying to set up the program in Cultural Astronomy at the University of Arizona. I got the feeling that Dr. Mauskopf now thinks that at some point Duke should have built this up to a full graduate degree program. I suggested that to build a program you had to have someone willing to see it through from start to finish including getting funding for students and building a viable network where graduating students can get postdocs. I used the term “empire builder”. He felt that such a person has yet to join their faculty.

Our conversation got me thinking about what a postdoc in cultural astronomy could be. If I keep my current model of graduate students having a traditional major and a minor in cultural astronomy, then they can get a postdoc in their major as long as their work fits in with the current intellectual debates. If they focus only on cultural astronomy, people in their field may not see their work as relevant. Unlike in the physical sciences, the goal of the first postdoc is to transform the dissertation into a publishable book. Because my dissertation is in astronomy & astrophysics, when I began my first postdoc at UCLA I had to start with doing research before even considering writing a book. As a result, I had a rather long postdoc and finished writing the book in 2004 after being a professor for two years. However, the book has still not been published – this is my book on navigation by the stars. Meanwhile, I have begun several other projects and am actively collecting data while my book bounces from publisher to publisher looking for a home. I had hoped to have a second book completed on new research by this point of my career, but it hasn’t gone as smoothly as I expected. However, African Cultural Astronomy – my unexpected book – is quite an achievement which I am proud of: It is an edited volume that is also a textbook written for undergraduates and available from Springer. Also unlike in the physical sciences, postdocs are expected to teach at least one class per year. And, a postdoc can be taken at any time even after getting tenure.

More on postdocs, I had several conversations with postdocs in astronomy in Leiden, Garching, and Cambridge. The mood was somber. Because of the economic crisis worldwide, most academic astronomy positions have been frozen or withdrawn. The hiring freezes are into the foreseeable future, so those astronomers starting postdocs are facing the real possibility of having to do three or more postdocs before applying for an academic or even any kind of permanent position. They will have to adopt a holding pattern and go into survival mode. This is the time for NSF to increase its support of postdoctoral fellows especially of women and minorities if they want them to remain in astronomy. Women and minorities are disproportionately impacted during cut backs and lay offs in general, but every effort should be made to keep this from happening to our fledgeling astronomers. If NSF was really farsighted they could set up joint professorships where NSF will pay their salary for three years with the guarantee that the University will pay the last three years which will get people through to tenure and overall help universities at the very least replace retiring professors. Attaching women and minorities to it would gently force astronomy departments to finally diversify. OK, maybe not so gentle.

The solstice 2009 went well. I witnessed several rituals and spoke to many people about the 2010 Cultural Astronomy Field School which will take place June 2010. It looks like in 2010 there will be a large group at dawn, and Morris dancing at sunset. I learned that a group does rituals at midnight on the solstice (the night before), too. During the day, the rituals included smaller groups compared to the dawn activities. In general, those folks that I spoke to about having students witness their rituals in 2010 were enthusiastic. I was surprised at how amenable people were to the idea considering that they choose to do rituals at this much smaller and less well know stone circle rather than at Avebury and Stonehenge. It looks like all the elements of the 2010 Cultural Astronomy Field School are in place, it is time to set a price and start advertising!

I returned to the USA via San Francisco in the middle of the week, and drove via Los Angeles back to Tucson. This morning my husband and I met with Lisa Boags, the head of Boags Productions. Hubble’s Diverse Universe is the name of our film on African American and Hispanic American astronomers funded by a NASA Education and Public Outreach grant. Everyone in the film is a member of NSBP and NSHP. We chose to work with Boags Productions because they did a fantastic documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen. They are doing a great job on our film which will premiere on July 11 & 12th at the Museum of African American Technology in Oakland, CA. Lisa Boags, George Carruthers, and I will be available for Q & A after the viewing the film. This morning we went over the science section of the film which is 15 minutes of the 45 minutes. We suggested a few more HST images and animations to include. The film is one of the IYA2009 projects for the Cultural Astronomy and Storytelling group.

This may be my last blog this year for NSBP and I hope NSBP students have learned a bit more about cultural astronomy, useful information about astronomy and being an astronomer, and what a few of us NSBP members are up to. I will end with a big IF: NSBP member Hakeem Oluseyi and I are waiting to hear if we have gotten a NASA E/PO grant to do solar physics experiments in the Marshall Islands during the July 22, 2009, total solar eclipse. IF we get the grant we will take student assistants and make a documentary film about the whole experience including: 1) the solar physics experiments, 2) the experiences of minority students traveling to an amazing location to do a high pressure task, 3) Marshall Islander cultural astronomy including folklore and navigation, 4) local people’s responses to the eclipse, and 5) profiles of the scientists. We hope to hear from NASA this week.

Don’t forget to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy 2009. The Universe: Yours to Discover!

Dr. Jarita Holbrook is a research scientist in cultural astronomy at the University of Arizona. She received her undergraduate degree in physics from Caltech and the Ph.D. degree in astronomy from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She was a postdoctoral research scholar in history of science at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. She is the co-editor or the recently published volume, African Cultural Astronomy.

Pre-Summer Solstice in the UK July 6, 2009

Posted by ASTRO Section Chair in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO) , add a comment

Cosmologies, Institute for Astronomy, and Lampeter
by Jarita Holbrook
June 19, 2009
Bristol, UK

June 6 I gave another lecture on the results of my survey project “The Sky in Our Lives”. Things were a bit tense, because my student Darlene Villicana had still not arrived from the United States and she was scheduled to present her 10 minute film on our research last year at the conference. Backing up – Location: Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute, Bath, UK. Event: the annual conference of the Sofia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture, Topic: “Cosmologies”.

From my last blog, I was in Garching, traveled in the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics car to the Munich airport and flew to Gatwick Airport in the United Kingdom. There we picked up a rental car and driving on the left side of the road headed to Bath for the “Cosmologies” conference. We managed to get to Bath without taking any wrong turns and only had a problem locating our Bed & Breakfast where we were staying. We arrived too late to catch the Friday evening lecture at the Bath Royal Institute which was on the astronomical interests of the Lunar Society, a group of scientists that existed in mid to late 1700s. Though I knocked on the door at 8:15 pm, the talk had begun at 7:30 and no one answered the door.

The weekend conference included scientists I knew from the Societe Europeene pour l’Astronomie dans Culture (SEAC) Nick Campion who runs the Sofia Centre which is at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and Lionel Sims, a professor at the University of East London, and several students. For June 2010, I have been working with Nick Campion of Lampter University and Clive Ruggles of Leicester University to create the first Cultural Astronomy Field School which will take place in the United Kingdom. As part of that field school, I have had to do a lot of reading on the local Druid and Pagan communities. I was thrilled to see two of the experts were giving presentations at the conference: Ronald Hutton of Bristol University and Jenny Blain of Sheffield Hallam University.

What do people talk about at a cultural astronomy conference focused on cosmologies? The presentations included data from a variety of sources: archaeological data, textual data, internet data, ethnographic data, and survey data. The time period spanned from the Neolithic with Stonehenge to today looking at the cosmology of the internet. Some of the projects were completed and others were works in progress.

What did I present? I mentioned my survey project in my last blog. The goal of the survey is to on the one hand learn what is common basic sky knowledge and sky watching behaviors in the United States, and on the other hand to learn about interesting sub-populations that have something special about their sky knowledge. Since this is a project grounded in statistics, averages are skewed by ‘outliers’. The potential outliers in my survey population are astronomers, amateur astronomers, and astrologers. So, there is a question on the survey for them to identify themselves as such so that they can be handled accordingly in the statistics. At the Cosmologies conference I presented some of the data specifically on the outliers and I encouraged discussion of how the groups compared to each other and possible interpretations. Since, the presentation included only simple statistics I will not give details of my results. Anyway, I was too successful to the point of having to silence the audience – discussion was very lively! Many people agreed to take the survey and I collected about 15 completed surveys by the end of the second day of the conference.

Also in preparation for the 2010 Cultural Astronomy Field School, I visit a certain stone circle every June 21st. In 2008 I took two student research assistants with me, both UA Anthropology majors: Darlene Villicana and Sunny Albright. Darlene actually films many of the June 21st events which she edited into a 10 minute film for the conference. I had viewed an earlier version of the film with my Anthropology of Astronomy class in the spring and we had decided to approach my colleague Drexel Woodson, also in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at UA, to do the narration. He agreed, but I had yet to see the completed film. Half an hour after my talk, in walked Darlene. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Her flight had been delayed four hours, she had no place to stay, but she was in the UK until Monday morning. She did not have enough funds to stay longer.

During the break I prepped her for her presentation. The best thing I said to her was that the audience would want to know why she made the film and who was her intended audience. Sure enough, even though she included this information during her introduction, it was asked again during the Q & A. The film looked and sounded very good, limited only by her cheap filming equipment and the fact that it was raining when she shot the film. It was warmly received and I was the very proud professor. It is always a great thing to have given a presentation at an international conference while still an undergraduate. I hoped that doing so will help Darlene achieve her goal of going to graduate school to study visual anthropology.

Where did Darlene sleep? It is impossible to find housing in Bath on the weekend. We knew several people from attending this same conference in 2008, and a couple of folks graciously offered for her to sleep on their couches as only a college student could do. She was well taken care of and I was glad she didn’t have to sleep in the airport.

On to Cambridge, my husband and I drove to Cambridge where we visited the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. The year before we had stayed in a three bedroom flat at Churchill College, this year we asked to stay in town. We had a two bedroom townhouse on Albert Street. We were visitors of the director, Robert Kennicutt, who I had met at a conference when I was still working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center before I went back to school to get my Ph.D.. Before moving to Cambridge, Rob had been a professor for many years at the University of Arizona in my husband’s department, astronomy.

Cambridge has a physics department with astronomers, the Institute for Astronomy (IoA), and the Kavli Institute for Cosmology which is under construction. The Kavli building is supposed to be completed in July. Once completed, the many of the astronomers from the physics department will relocate to IoA or Kavli. IoA and Kavli are on the grounds of the old observatory, whereas the department of mathematics and theoretical physics is located on the other side of town. The observatory dates from a time when observatories were not placed on the top of a hill or mountain. It is on flat ground just outside of town to the west, on Madingley Road.

In 2008, several of the astronomers and students had completed surveys for my project and on June 10th, as will the other two talks, I presented my preliminary findings. However, unlike at MPE, I included a short introduction of cultural astronomy and cultural astronomy research methods. The Q & A was very different from MPE as a result. The questions focused on asking questions about the other outlier communities. Several people took the survey afterward but felt funny about it, since they had seen some of the early results. I told them to make a comment directly on the survey if they felt that their answer was influenced by what they had seen.

The Institute for Astronomy began taking Ph.D. students during the last decade, so their program is fairly new. Like other programs in Europe, no coursework is required but your Ph.D. project has to be well-developed and tested by the end of your first year. Like other European Ph.D.s in Astronomy, it is pretty normal to complete it in three years. Three years and no classes! I don’t know why more USA students don’t go to Europe to do their Ph.D.s in astronomy….probably the tuition. In Germany, graduate school was free until the last decade, but in the UK there has always been tuition. As a foreigner the cost is higher than for a European Union member. Nonetheless, aspiring astronomy students should consider this accelerated path to a Ph.D..

In preparation of the June 21st activities, I am now in Bristol near the Neolithic Stone Circles. While in Bath a few weeks ago, I took my husband to Avebury for the first time. Avebury is much larger than Stonehenge and has a village in the center of it. My husband was suitably impressed. On the 21st, both Stonehenge and Avebury have huge crowds, too big to take a group of students. Thus, we chose to study a less well known circle that attracts a manageable number of people. The circle will remain a mystery since studying it will be the final exam for the 2010 field school. The UK has hundreds of Neolithic standing stone sites that have been studying by archaeoastronomers: see the works of Clive Ruggles, Alexander Thom, William Stukeley, and Gerald Hawkins. I would say that only Ruggles’ work is without controversy, but I am no expert on these sites. I just listen to the complaints of the other archaeoastronomers.

At the University of Arizona I have been working to establish a graduate minor in Cultural Astronomy. I have been meeting with the directors of other cultural astronomy programs for several years to learn how they did it, what their goals are, etc., and to get advice and suggestions for UA. As a result, I have developed close ties with the programs in the UK and think of these in some ways as our sister programs though the core focus of each program is different. The Sofia Centre at the University of Wales, Lampeter, studies from a historical and sometimes contemporary perspective the more esoteric, divinatory, and magical aspects of the relationship between humans and the sky. The Sofia Centre has been in Lampeter for two years and I had never visited their campus. June 18th, I rode with the director, Nick Campion, from Bristol to Lampeter – three hours on small roads. The environment was rural farmlands, rolling hills, and small villages. The part of Wales that I traveled through seems very agricultural but not in the big “agro-business” sense. Upon arriving in Lampeter, I immediately spotted the Co-Op! The source of organic foods and vegetarian fare. There was a second health food store in town, too. The west of the UK is Cider country – alcoholic cider. I was able to purchase couple of bottles of organic cider made right there in Lampeter!

We visited the Anthropology & Archaeology Department under which is the Sofia Centre. The professors did research all over the world and as a group they were very friendly and welcoming. Lampeter is a liberal arts college without much physical science, so perhaps would not be of interest to NSBP members. However, they are partnering with UA for the 2010 Cultural Astronomy field school.

The next couple of days, I will be preparing for the June 21st summer solstice at the mystery stone circle.

Dr. Jarita Holbrook is a research scientist in cultural astronomy at the University of Arizona. She received her undergraduate degree in physics from Caltech and the Ph.D. degree in astronomy from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She was a postdoctoral research scholar in history of science at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. She is the co-editor or the recently published volume, African Cultural Astronomy.

News From The Front, VII: What is Fundamental, Anyway? July 4, 2009

Posted by CGR Section Chair in : Cosmology, Gravitation, and Relativity (CGR), Nuclear and Particle Physics (NPP) , add a comment

Editor’s note: The following excerpt comes to us from theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson, a professor in the University of Southern California Department of Physics and Astronomy. Professor Johnson’s work primarily focuses on (super)string theory, gravity, gauge theory and M-theory. — CPW

One of the words I dislike most in my field – or more accurately, a common usage thereof – is “fundamental”. This is because it is usually used as a weapon, very often by people in my area of physics (largely concerned with particle physics, high energy physics, origins questions and so forth), to dismiss the work of others as somehow uninteresting or irrelevant. I don’t like this. Never have. Not only is it often allied to a great deal of arrogance and misplaced swagger, it is often just plain short-sighted, since you never know where good ideas and techniques will come from. A glance at the history of physics shows just how much cross-pollination there is between fields in terms of ideas and techniques. You never know for sure where valuable insights into certain kinds of problems may come from.

Fundamental physics is a term I used to hear used a lot to refer to particle physics (also called high energy physics a lot more these days). This was especially true some years back when I was an undergraduate in the UK, and it persisted in graduate school too, and is still in use today, although I think it is declining a bit in favour of less loaded terms. Somehow, a lot of particle physics is regarded as being all about the “what is everything made of at the very smallest scales” sort of question, first discussing atoms, and then atoms being made of electrons surrounding a nucleus, and the nucleus being made of protons and neutrons, and those in turn being made of quarks, and so on, in this was arriving at a list of “fundamental” particles. There’s the parallel discussion about the “fundamental” forces (e.g., electromagnetism and the nuclear forces) being described in terms of exchanges of particles like photons, gluons, and W and Z particles and so forth. There’s no real harm in the use of the term fundamental in this context, but this is about where the word gets elevated beyond its usefulness and starts becoming a hurdle to progress, and then a barrier. Somehow, “fundamental”, meaning “building block” gets turned, oddly, into “most important”. The issue of what the smallest building blocks are gets elevated to the most important quest, when it is in reality only a component of the story. It is rather like saying that the most important things about the Taj Mahal are the beautiful stones, tiles, and other components from which it is constructed.

Perspectives have evolved a bit since my salad days, with the rise of wider recognition of the connection between particle physics, and astrophysics and cosmology. I think that things are (these days) more widely seen to be the more rich interconnected and beautiful landscape of phenomena that they are, but I still find, especially among younger people, the “building block” attitude to be prevalent.

I raise this since sometimes I find that people don’t understand that there are fundamental and vital questions in other areas that connect to so many interesting areas of physics. […]

Read the rest of the article on Asymptotia here.