Today was the first session of this year's Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. I'll give my impressions in roughly chronological order.
Laramie itself is a nice place, somewhere on the borderline between "town" and "city." The University sprawls across the eastern side of town, there's an immense railroad yard cutting through town like a river, and overall the place is an appealing mix of college town and cow town.
The workshop convened at 9:30 a.m., and it's certainly an impressive group of people. Participants include Michael Albo, K.C. Ball, Cecil Castellucci, Me, Greg Fishbone, Liz Gorinsky, Shariann Lewitt, Shelly Li, An Owomoyela, Deborah Ross, Christopher Rowe, Eric Stone, Todd Vandemark, Jennifer Willis, and Danielle Wolff.
Our instructors were Dr. Mike Brotherton, Dr. Jim Verley, Dr. Stanley Schmidt, and the alarmingly polymathic Dr. Henry Stratmann.
Fortified with Pop-tarts and homemade scones we settled down to enlarge our minds. Dr. Brotherton started things off by trying to give us a sense of the scale of the Universe, taking us from a space the size of our classroom to the entire observable Universe in hundredfold jumps. He introduced us to some favorite units of astronomers, the Astronomical Unit, the Light-Year, and the mighty Parsec. Since his lecture took us outward from Dr. Brotherton himself, he modestly confessed that "I am the center of the observable universe, but it probably doesn't revolve around me."
The legendary Dr. Schmidt followed in the same vein, walking us through the creation of a scale model of the Solar System. If the Sun is a thirteen-inch globe in the classroom, the planet Mercury is a mustard seed out in the hall 45 feet away, Venus is a peppercorn outside the building, Earth is another peppercorn a block away (circled by its poppyseed Moon at a distance of three inches), and so on. On that scale the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, would be in Tokyo.
Dr. Verley spoke about common misconceptions and how to deal with them. As an illustration of how everyone is vulnerable, he showed some rather painful videos of Harvard graduates (and faculty) completely blowing the questions of what causes the seasons and the phases of the Moon. We all had a good laugh at the Ivy League idiots, but Dr. Verley's point was that everyone labors under scientific misconceptions, and it's very difficult to pry an idea out of someone's head once it's gotten in.
The final lecture was by far the most enthusiastic, as SF writer and amateur astronomer Jerry Oltion spoke about amateur astronomy -- how telescopes work, how to make them, what to look at once you've got a telescope, and how amateurs can sometimes do professional-caliber science.
With that, we broke for dinner and blogging, with the hope of clear skies for observing after sunset. Tomorrow: PHYSICS!