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31 July 2008 @ 11:56 pm
7/31/08: Launch Pad, day 1  
jaylake coming back from the shower, singing "Cinnamon Girl" while holding his glasses in his mouth, sounds very very odd. Kind of like Czech.

Breakfasted on a real New York bagel hand-carried by maryrobinette, then walked to a nearby grocery store in search of kleenex and other necessities. However, the store seemed to consist of nothing but a meat counter (and why, pray tell, did the sign say "Groceries" and not "Meats"?) and the nearest full-service grocery was too far to walk.

All the Launch Pad people gathered in the lounge (they have all the men on one end of the 5th floor, the women all the way on the other end, and married couple Steven Gould and Laura Mixon sharing a room near the middle) then walked in a group to the classroom, which is about 15 minutes' walk away. Very much like Clarion, back in the day, except that breakfast, lunch, and snacks are provided.

First day of classes was very full, beginning with introductions all around, filling out forms about our math expertise and what we want out of the workshop, and an initial test of our astronomy knowledge. I'm fairly confident I knew almost everything on the test. (One exception: "which color of star is hottest, red, yellow, blue, or white?" I knew it was either white or blue.)

prof_brotherton led off with a lecture on the scale of the cosmos, including a viewing of Charles and Ray Eames's short film Powers of Ten. Apparently, astronomers prefer to use numbers between 1 and 10 (sometimes up to 100) and use different units (kilometers, astronomical units, light-years, parsecs, redshift units) to keep the numbers in that range. I was surprised to learn that, using satellite-based telescopes, we can now use parallax to measure the distances to stars up to 1000 parsecs away.

Discussion of the size of the universe got a little weird and metaphysical. The observable universe is 28 billion light-years across, because the big bang was 14 billion years ago and we can't see anything farther back than that. However, the universe as a whole is much larger and definitely doesn't have an edge, but may or may not be infinite. Questions like "how can the universe be bigger than all the way back to the big bang?" proved to be difficult to answer for this audience at this time. Maybe more later, when we discuss cosmology.

Jim Verley then gave a lecture on public misperceptions of astronomy, starting with the film A Private Universe which reveals that even Harvard graduates can't explain why we have seasons (one popular false explanation is that "the Earth is closer to the sun in summer") or why the moon has phases ("it's the shadow of the Earth falling on the moon").

The basic problem is that students don't come to school as blank slates. Many people have incorrect private models in their heads, which must be identified and confronted on an individual basis before the student can really internalize the standard model. Even if they learn the standard model well enough to pass the test, if the private model isn't explicitly displaced it may return years later after the standard model has been forgotten. We then looked at a bunch of different pictures purporting to explain the phases of the moon and identified how they could mislead the student if the student doesn't already understand the standard model. For example, the illustration in the Wikipedia article on the phases of the moon could easily be misinterpreted as saying that the moon goes through all of its phases every 24 hours.

It turns out that understanding moon phases, which involves simultaneously considering the Earth-Moon system as seen from above and the moon as seen from the Earth while keeping in mind the separate 28-day lunar orbital period and 24-hour Earth day, is remarkably hard. One solution proposed for elementary students is Kinesthetic Astronomy in which the students move their own bodies to help understand astronomical phenomena. As ad-hoc science educators, we SF writers have only words at our disposal, but we can still "show, not tell" to help get the concepts across and be damn sure we're getting it right.

Jerry Oltion then gave us a whirlwind tour of the solar system, including information about what you can see through various types of telescope (illustrated with photographs he took through his own scopes) and some of the latest data from Titan. I took copious notes.

We went from there straight to dinner at the vegetarian Sweet Melissa, which responded to an unexpected influx of almost 20 people with rapid service and exceptional food. Highly recommended.

After dinner we decided that, rather than poking fun at the bad science in Armageddon ("nearly one mistake per minute"), we would watch the Twilight Zone adaptations of "The Star" and "The Cold Equations". Both adaptations were flawed, but prompted some interesting discussion.

I really should be asleep now...

Deldel_c on August 1st, 2008 06:27 am (UTC)
The basic problem is that students don't come to school as blank slates. Many people have incorrect private models in their heads, which must be identified and confronted on an individual basis before the student can really internalize the standard model.

This is similar to the problem of writing original fiction. I've heard of would-be writers who try to solve the problem by reading nothing, in the hope that they will be "uncontaminated" by prior work, and so produce something startlingly original. The result is usually an adam-and-eve story or some other cliché.

As in the science problem, people aren't blank slates; they already have a head full of stories "contaminating" their art. If you read nothing, you won't produce something that no one else could have thought of, you'll produce something everybody else who doesn't read could have thought of. The real key to original work is a thorough grounding in prior art that you can use as a starting point for your own, striking out into somewhere really new.
prof_brothertonprof_brotherton on August 1st, 2008 06:45 am (UTC)
Orson Scott Card had an interesting story called "Unaccompanied Sonetta" or similar way back when with this premise. Worth the reed, although I think you're right about artists recreating the wheel when they don't stand on the shoulders of giants, just as in science.
jeffsoesbe: yeff yahoo avatarjeffsoesbe on August 1st, 2008 06:32 am (UTC)
Launch Pad sounds awesome. I am so jealous...

Have a blast! :-)

- yeff
martianmooncrabmartianmooncrab on August 1st, 2008 06:34 am (UTC)
did the sign say "Groceries"

its a werewolf grocery store.
prof_brothertonprof_brotherton on August 1st, 2008 06:43 am (UTC)
Sounds about right to me! I think we had a pretty good start this year and things will continue to be good to great all around. The group dynamic is strong, all my collaborators and support are outstanding, and if everyone catches up on sleep we'll be gold.
Jay Lakejaylake on August 1st, 2008 11:12 am (UTC)
He's talking about me in that last bit. Who is up at 5 am...
David D. Levinedavidlevine on August 1st, 2008 02:37 pm (UTC)
Me, I slept in until 8am.
maryrobinettemaryrobinette on August 1st, 2008 02:58 pm (UTC)
How do you do that? I woke up at 4:30 and finally gave up and got out of bed at 6:00.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on August 1st, 2008 03:00 pm (UTC)
I did stay up until midnight... The new pillow helped too.
maryrobinettemaryrobinette on August 1st, 2008 03:00 pm (UTC)
I just got my new pillow this morning. I'm looking forward to sleeping tonight.
A Wandering Hobbitredbird on August 1st, 2008 11:36 am (UTC)
The grade school science review books I work on not only explain seasons and phases of the moon, they do it with diagrams, and with "some people mistakenly think that" about the idea that earth is closer to the sun in summer. And emphasize that if it's summer in $your_state it's winter in the southern hemisphere. I hope it helps. (The sad part is, I've had to edit out the weird error about phases of the moon and earth's alleged shadow, from a lesson written by someone who had, a page or two earlier, coherently explained eclipses. Sometimes the writers are asleep at the keyboard.)
e_bournee_bourne on August 1st, 2008 05:10 pm (UTC)
Clearly explaining science is more challenging than one could wish. Everyone brings their own model of how things work to the table, and everyone has a different best of mode of learning.

So explaining how the earth orbits the sun (we do orbit the sun, I do have that right, don't I?) with a picture to someone who learns kinesthetically just doesn't work so well. Letting them build a model, that works great, but not so much for the visual learner.

And then, a personal "expert" can topple hours of hard labor by re-explaining it. I see it happen every week. It's fascinating and disheartening. But fascinating.
Katekateyule on August 2nd, 2008 01:51 am (UTC)
Damn, this all sounds so cool!! AND a real bagel, you bastard.

Kinesthetic astronomy--that's when we wave an onion and an orange around every winter solstice and you try to explain the plane of the ecliptic to me again, right?

A few more stars here (pike's peak) than at home, but no Milky Way. Damn. I can't even see PP -- too close -- imagine an ant clinging to a pleat of the tablecloth, looking for the five-tier weddng cake right above him.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on August 2nd, 2008 04:52 am (UTC)
Kinesthetic astronomy has the students using their own bodies to represent astronomical objects, for example walking around a lamp while leaning constantly in one direction (keeping the top of your head pointed toward the North Star) to help understand the seasons. I think it could be really helpful.

We saw the Milky Way (barely) and a couple of meteors from prof_brotherton's house tonight. We'll go up to the observatory tomorrow.
Amy Sissonamysisson on August 2nd, 2008 02:39 am (UTC)
I think it's funny they have women at one end of the hall and men at the other. Heck, I had a co-ed freshman dorm in 1986, with rooms alternating between men and women. And that's for a bunch of 18-year-olds who are expected to be in their experimental stage! ;-)

See you soonish.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on August 2nd, 2008 04:52 am (UTC)
Yeah! See you soon!