Tag: astronomy

One Earth, one sky: the power of Twitter

This post was inspired by the beauty of the night sky and the interactions that followed down here on Earth.

A couple of nights ago, Venus, the Evening Star, hung a few degrees below a spectacular, 3-day old crescent Moon. I hesitate to paste in a photo here because it just won’t capture the breath-taking, awe-inspiring beauty of the evening sky. Like I often do when there’s a break in the clouds — something we Vancouverites try to take advantage of — I tweeted an alert to my followers

Down on Earth, people started retweeting my alert, forwarding it to their twitter communities. And people did look up, in Vancouver, Vancouver Island, Edmonton, and Winnipeg, sharing their experience with me and others through twitter @replies and mentions. Like a good tweep, I tweeted one last invitation to keep the conversation going (my apologies for missing a few RTs: that darn “Twitter doesn’t always show your RTs” bug)

Mission accomplished, I thought to myself.

It took someone outside my circle of astronomy friends to point out what had happened. (Thank-you, Marie-Claire @mcshanahan!) She wrote back

She made me remember what Twitter has done for “backyard astronomy,” a hobby so rewarding it can pull you off the couch and into your backyard and neighbourhood park just for a chance to glimpse something you’ve seen a hundred times before. In sharing our experience on Twitter, we connect with others around the World doing the same thing. I knew that at that moment, @LuckyStrz was standing outside in Winnipeg with one, freezing, un-gloved hand tapping away on her phone. I tried to sum up that feeling with

Her reply was one of the nicest and most-rewarding I’ve received:

This is the magic that Twitter has brought to astronomy. People around the World simultaneously look up at the night sky and share their experiences. Timezones, borders, politics, age, race, gender — none of that matters. We’re one Earth, one sky.

That’s a powerful phrase. Certainly not one I coined. It might have been @ThilinaH and @ObervetheMoon. Or @unawe. Maybe it was @VirtualAstro with his amazing, viral #meteorwatch. I’m not sure. But I am sure that if you’re on Twitter and start following these folks and the backyard astronomers in your community (in Canada, follow @rasc; in the US, check out the Night Sky Network) you, too, can experience breath-taking, astronomical events and heart-warming, global connections. And standing outside in your slippers or Sorels in the dead of winter, you need all the warming you can get!

The astronomy of Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year occurs on January 23 this year. The fact that we even have to announce the date reveals that it changes each year. That’s because the date for Chinese or Lunar New Year depends on how the annual cycle of the Earth orbiting the Sun interlocks with the roughly monthly cycle of the Moon orbiting the Earth. The event that lights the fuse on the celebrations is the December solstice.

There are some parts of the Northern hemisphere where it doesn’t get very cold in the winter, like Vancouver where I live. But talk to anyone living just about anywhere else, and they’ll tell you through chattering teeth, that December 21 is the middle of freakin’ winter, not its beginning, as our Western calendars proclaim.

On Western calendars, winter begins in the Northern hemisphere on the December 21 solstice, not when it starts to get cold out.

In other words, those freezing cold days on the Prairies in November? Fall, not winter. Changing the name doesn’t make them any warmer.

The ancient Chinese astronomers and calendar-makers knew their hot from cold, though, and recognized the December solstice is the middle winter, just like March is the middle of spring, June is the middle of summer and September is the middle of fall:

In Chinese tradition, the December solstice occurs in the middle of winter.

Chinese New Year marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring, the transition from dreary blue to vibrant green in the diagram above. Now the Lunar Cycle comes into play. Each season — winter, spring, summer and fall — is roughly 3 months long so there’s about a month and a half from the solstice to the New Year.

Or a lunar cycle and a half.

Here’s how it works: take note of the Moon’s phase on December 21 and let the lunar cycle play out. Last year, for example, there was a new Moon on December 24, 2011, a few days after the solstice. So began the last lunar cycle of the year which finishes on Monday, January 23, 2012, Chinese New Year.

Depending on the Moon’s phase at solstice, the date for Chinese New Year can vary by about a month. This year, we’re pretty close to the earliest possible date. For next year, though, there are new Moon’s on December 11, 2012, on January 11, 2013 (the end of the middle, winter solstice cycle) so that Chinese New Year won’t be until February 10, 2013.

If all this dependence on the phases of the Moon seems a little archaic and superstitious, let me ask you a question: When are Canada Day and Independence Day?

No brainers: July 1 and July 4.

What about Halloween? October 31. D’uh!

Okay, smarty-pants, when’s Easter this year?

Er, um, just a sec while I… [google google google] … Sunday, April 8, 2012.

You see, the phase of the Moon also plays a part in determining the date for Easter, which is defined as the first Sunday after the first full Moon after spring equinox. This year, the Moon is pretty close to new at the equinox and there won’t be a full Moon until Friday, April 6.  Easter occurs that Sunday, April 8. The fact that the most important date in the Christian calendar depends on the phase of the Moon, and that preparing for Easter depends on predicting those phases far in advance, are reasons why the Vatican has had an observatory for more than 250 years.

There is long and prestigious history and tradition of Chinese astronomy and time-keeping. I’ve only scratched the surface here, and my sincerest apologies if I’ve misrepresented that tradition through my over-simplification or just plain got-it-wrong-edness. In any case, be sure to take a moment next Monday to wish your friends a hearty Gung Hei Fat Choi!

Six-legged spiders

Here’s a quiz for you: what’s wrong with these pictures?

Black widow spider
Black widow spider
Advent calendar
Pyramids at Giza

Did you find anything wrong? Surely you noticed the black widow spider has only 6 legs, not 8.  Here’s the original – I amputated one leg with photoshop for the pic above. If you rolled-over the pyramids picture and saw the reference to National Geographic, you might suspect the pyramids are in the wrong locations. Not in this picture, though: there’s nothing wrong it. (source)

What about the picture from the advent calendar? If you’re at all familiar with this blog and my passion for teaching astronomy, you might have guessed I’m going to tell you about the Moon and its incorrect phase.

And you’d be right.

The November 25, 2011 edition of the Guardian carried the story, “Your moons are rubbish, astronomer tells Christmas card artists.” The offending advent calendar shows the Moon in the waning crescent phase:

As astronomer Peter Barthel correctly points out, this phase rises around 3:00 am and sets around 3:00 pm. No matter if this Moon is rising, setting or somewhere in between, you’re not going to find people caroling in the town square. The artist got the wrong phase. In fact, Barthel has done much more than point out this one flawed calendar. In an article submitted to the journal Communicating Astronomy with the Public, he finds errors in artists’ depictions of the Moon in everything from Dora the Explorer to Christmas wrapping paper, from the Netherlands to North America.

The responses to the Guardian story, and its offspring like this Globe and Mail piece, seem to fall into three camps:

  1. “Oh, puh-lease! It’s just a picture on a calendar! Gimme break, you grinch!”
  2. “Oh, c’mon! Everybody know the Moon cannot be in the waning crescent phase in the evening!” (I suspect the Guardian reporter might fall into this camp because he writes, “[t]he phases of the moon are easy to grasp.” As someone who teaches astronomy and studies astronomer education, let me tell you, for the vast majority of people, they’re not.)
  3. “Oh, dear.  Another case of scientific illiteracy.”

Me? I’m in Camp 3. Why can’t an artist do some fact-checking before drawing the Moon? Does the artist think to himself, “I wonder if that’s the right phase? Ah, screw it, whatever.” I doubt it. It’s more likely a lack of recognition that the phases of the Moon follow a predictable, understandable pattern. That is, most people don’t even realize you can ask a question like, “when does the waning crescent Moon rise?”

Or worse yet, there’s a distinct possibility that people (yes, now I’m talking about more than this one, particular artist — the problem is widespread) are completely unaware of the Moon, other than the fact that we have one. Why, just recently a colleague said to me, “I have no idea about phases. I never look at the Moon.”

Which brings me back to the six-legged spider. If you bought a book for your kid with a six-legged spider, you’d see the error. Would you draw in a two more legs? I would.  Even your kid would see the error and tell you the book is rubbish. Why the difference between spiders and the Moon, then?

“Because spiders are something everyone sees every day.” Uh-huh, like the Moon.

“Because spiders are icky and gross and awesome. And the Moon is, like, science-y. Boooorrrring…”  Damn.

What do I think we should do about it? I’d like people to learn some astronomy, sure. More than that, though. I want people to think scientifically. I want to live in a world where people have the awareness (and freedom) to stop and ask, “Really? Are you sure about that?”

That’s a tall order so let’s get on it. We can start by modeling scientific awareness for our kids,  students, friends. Show them it’s okay to be passionate about math. Show them it’s okay to step off the sidewalk onto the grass to look at a bug or an interesting stone. Read them stories that engage their brains. Don’t buy books, wrapping paper or calendars with incorrect science. And if you accidentally do, don’t laugh it off with a “whatever…” It only takes one or two of those for kids to learn the science is dumb and only grinches point out mistakes. Instead, take the opportunity to talk with them about how we should always be curious about how things work.

A society of scientifically-literate people? That’s a world I’d like retire in.

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