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Hayden Planetarium and Me

October 17, 2008 Leave a comment

Earlier today, upset by John McCain’s continued mockery of the “overhead projector” at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, I wrote about how McCain’s lack of appreciation of planetariums is at odds with his avowed interest in providing “opportunities from elementary school on for students to explore the sciences.” The role a planetarium can play in exciting a child’s imagination is not abstract to me. I experienced it directly growing up in New York, thanks to the Hayden Planetarium, a part of the American Museum of Natural History.

I fell in love with the skies early on. When I was 4 or 5, to feed my interest, my mother would read astronomy books to me. I can now name only a bare handful of constellations, but back then I could name them the way some young kids can name dinosaurs. And nothing was more exciting than a trip into Manhattan to see the current planetarium show, look at the exhibits, and wander through the gift shop. My memory of all this is faint, but I remember the awe with which I looked upon the Zeiss (“overhead”) projector, able to project the skies of any season onto the dome. And I remember the large meteorite on display in the exhibit space. It must have been the 15 1/2 ton Willamette Meteorite.

Willamette Meteorite, American Museum of Natural History

Willamette Meteorite, American Museum of Natural History

I also recall that on one visit, the lady in the gift shop was surprised by all the astronomy I knew. I was probably talking non-stop to my mother about various astronomical facts.

My love for astronomy didn’t last. I liked math too, and when I got the Golden Book of Mathematics at 8, that pretty much did it. Astronomy was pushed to second place. Or maybe lower — I had to make room for baseball too. Still, I pursued astronomy on the side for many more years. I got a 6″ reflector telescope from the Edmund Scientific catalogue when I was in junior high school, and a beautiful Questar telescope in August 1967, before starting 11th grade. I collaborated with a friend in Chemistry class that following year on trying to get spectra of sky objects with my Questar and his Nikon. We even took our images to Hayden Planetarium to discuss with one of the staff scientists, who gave us the bad news that there wasn’t much there. Our attempt to run the light gathered by the telescope through a little spectrosope I got from Edmund’s and then onto the film in the camera had basically failed. Then, in the summer of 1968, I studied astronomy at the Summer Science Program in Ojai, California. (The program still exists and is still awesome. We attended a 50th anniversary reunion in July.) And in the summer of 1969, before going off to college, I attended another summer program in astronomy. At the Hayden Planetarium! I commuted to the city with my father each morning and took the subway up to the museum. Some days, I’d walk down to 72nd St. and have lunch with my grandmother. She would have been 76 then, and a great cook.

Well, that was pretty much it for astronomy for a few decades. I would still use my telescope on occasion. And in grad school I started reading some astronomy books for fun. But I never studied it again. Yet, astronomy returned to my life unexpectedly 5 years ago when I became a member of the board of the Astrophysical Research Consortium, the entity that manages the Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico on behalf of a group of universities. I’ve traded in my 3.5 inch Questar for a 3.5 meter telescope and the 2.5 meter telescope of Sloan Digital Sky Survey fame. Pretty cool.

We visited the observatory in April and took some pictures. Here’s a look into the primary mirror of the 3.5 meter telescope.

Primary Mirror, 3.5m Telescope, Apache Point Observatory

Primary Mirror, 3.5m Telescope, Apache Point Observatory

And here’s where the 2.5 meter Sloan survey telescope lives. The building slides on tracks to expose the telescope to the sky.

Housing, 2.5m Sloan Telescope, Apache Point Observatory

Housing, 2.5m Sloan Telescope, Apache Point Observatory

And there’s a heck of a good view from the observatory down to the white sands of the Tularosa Basin.

Tularosa Basin, New Mexico, from Apache Point Observatory

Tularosa Basin, New Mexico, from Apache Point Observatory

All of this is part of my life thanks to that overhead projector in the Hayden Planetarium.

Categories: Education, Science

That Overhead Projector

October 16, 2008 Leave a comment

In last night’s McCain-Obama debate, Senator McCain referred yet again to the earmark for a $3 million overhead projector that Senator Obama supported:

MCCAIN: … But I would fight for a line-item veto, and I would certainly veto every earmark pork-barrel bill. Senator Obama has asked for nearly $1 billion in pork-barrel earmark projects…

SCHIEFFER: Time’s up.

MCCAIN: … including $3 million for an overhead projector in a planetarium in his hometown. That’s not the way we cut — we’ll cut out all the pork.

The morning after the first McCain-Obama debate, I wrote about McCain’s other pet earmark peeve, the $3 million allocated for a study of bear DNA in Montana, noting that I was troubled about “his continued use of this expenditure as an example of self-evident waste, without making any effort to educate the audience (or perhaps himself) on why it’s a waste.” The same remark applies here, as does my suggestion that underlying this is an appeal to traditional anti-intellectual, anti-science currents in this country. Read more…

Categories: Politics, Science, Today's News

Perpetual Motion

September 24, 2008 Leave a comment

In my post last night on Neil Diamond, I wrote about my stay at the Barrington Court Hotel in Leeds in the summer of 1977, describing in particular evenings spent in the lounge watching BBC on the TV. I recalled two highlights: broadcasts of the final round of the Open golf championship and of a Neil Diamond concert. Let me tell you about another televised highlight, the live demonstration of a perpetual motion machine.

I am neither a historian of science nor a physicist, so I am not well positioned to describe the centuries of effort to build perpetual motion machines or the reason that such efforts are doomed to failure. Roughly, such machines can’t exist because of the principle of conservation of energy. A perpetual motion machine, if it were to exist, would be a mechanical device that moves in some ordered way forever. After construction, one would apply an initial force to get it moving, then one would sit back and watch it move in the same way unceasingly, without further application of energy. In normal everyday life, we know that when we start something moving, it eventually stops, due to other forces acting on it, such as friction. A perpetual motion system would somehow be free of the effects of friction, or other forces. It would just keep moving along. This is what’s impossible.

Nonetheless, I saw such a machine on British TV in July 1977. It was demonstrated on some sort of comedy revue, a sketch show. I marvel at the idea that one would have a physics demonstration on a mass appeal television show, a comedy at that. Clearly the producers had great respect for the audience, recognizing that it would understand, at least intuitively, that a perpetual motion machine is silly, and even something worth laughing at.

Here’s how it worked. A picture would help, but I’ll try to describe it with words alone. Read more…

Categories: Culture, Science, Television