Science Through Backyard Astronomy

With so many of us home or not venturing far from home in these COVID-19 times, it’s a great time to do some local backyard astronomy. And you can contribute to valuable citizen science efforts by submitting your observations to GLOBE at Night. This year’s campaign extends through the entire calendar year, so take advantage of any clear skies, do some observing, and be included in this study of light pollution worldwide!

As of July 2020, citizen scientists from around the world have contributed 20,442 night sky observations to help quantify light pollution around the world. Participating is simple: go outside about one hour after sunset and locate the constellation(s) identified for that month.

August: Cygnus, Hercules
September: Cygnus
October: Cygnus, Pegasus
November: Pegasus, Perseus
December: Perseus

(For star-hunting tips as well as Southern Hemisphere constellations, view the GLOBE at Night website.)

View of Cygnus the Swan in the northern sky, Creative Commons image from Till Credner.

Once you’ve found the constellation in the sky, compare your observation with a brightness magnitude chart, and report your finding along with your latitude and longitude on the website. You can look at the GLOBE at Night results to see how the light pollution of your skies compares with that in other locations around the world.

This year’s observing period continues through December, so visit the website to learn more, get out there and marvel at the stars, and submit your observation to be counted and contribute to learning more about light pollution, both locally and globally.

Earth Science Resources – A Sampler

Spinning up new projects at work, which means learning about new topics, which means fun! Every night this week I’ve gotten to bring home a geology textbook, and let me tell you, I’m so enamored with science books. Especially ones with lots of cool pictures. And this one has many! The book is Physical Geology (11th ed.), by Plummer, Carlson, and McGeary. It seems to be intended for an introductory survey course at the college level, but motivated high school students could certainly glean a lot, and it’s got the photos and diagrams to draw in non-student science geeks also. Or maybe I shouldn’t generalize that way—but it at least drew in this non-student science geek.

Having been through lots and lots of science textbooks over the course of my academic career and in the time since, well, the books I tend to pick up the most often really are those introductory type texts. Maybe it has to do with the nature of working in education and exploring ways to teach a wide variety of topics, not necessarily at an expert level. Maybe it’s all those pretty pictures. At any rate, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Earth science resources, and see if you wish to add any as well. Your recommendations are always welcome!

General Earth Science:
Dr. Art’s Guide to Planet Earth (Sussman). It says right on the cover that this book is for Earthling ages 12 to 120. That covers, well, lots of the population. Dr. Art takes the Earth system approach, looking at how the different components are interconnected. It’s effective. It’s basic information that a science literate public should understand. The font size is large and it’s divided into short topic sections so that even a non-science geek could get through it. I know it says 12 to 120, but maybe it should be bedtime reading for kids. Both you and they might take away a new understanding and appreciation of our planet.

Earth Science (Spaulding and Namowitz). This one is a high school textbook, but has a surprising amount of gems and nuggets of information on a full range of topics. I find it very entertaining and sometimes even enlightening reading, but we have already established that I am geek.

Astronomy:
Turn Left at Orion (Consolmago and Davis, 3rd ed). No, it’s not a textbook. But having taught night-sky programs for a lot of years, this one is a book I’d definitely replace if my dog ate it. [Actually, he did eat the binding, but the talented folks at Kinkos were able to remedy that for me.] I like it because it has the essential observing information (what to see, and where/how to find it) but also adds some science bits so if you’re trying to explain to someone what that cluster represents, or the ages of the stars in it, it’s all in that one place. Handy. Essential.

Geology:
Physical Geology (Plummer, Carlson, McGeary). Yes, already said, love the photos. And the really clear explanations with real-life scenarios. Maybe it’s because geology—like other Earth sciences—is just…relevant. Earth, it’s where we live. All that part and why I bother trying to teach, write, etc. about it. This book gave me a sense that the authors really shared that philosophy. Did I mention the awesome photos?

Meteorology:
Essentials of Meteorology (Ahrens). Alright, this one is actually on the bookshelf at work, so I can’t look up specific details right now, but it’s the introductory resource I point people to when asked. It’s another undergraduate introductory survey course text and explains the essentials (as its name indicates) without the math. And that can be refreshing for people who want to try to understand the concepts but don’t need all the equations for fluids and heat exchange etc. etc.

The Stories Clouds Tell (LeMone). I’ve already linked to a couple of Dr. LeMone’s backyard science articles on this blog, but this book actually dates back to a talk she gave in the late 1980s. It was first published by the American Meteorological Society and recently updated and re-released and it is beautiful. Like watching clouds? Want to know what they mean in terms of weather? This book has that information, plus very clear descriptions and diagrams of how clouds form, plus some amazing photos. If there’s ever to be a multimedia tutorial produced from this book, I want to be the one to do it, yes indeed.

Web resources:
Of course this category should be filled in, but I fear that would be an endless task. Check out the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE) and the National Science Digital Library (NSDL). You can search for resources by topic and grade level. A visit to the Windows to the Universe site could show you some cool stuff, and will again provide information customizable to a specific grade level. There are oodles more: Google can help you get there, and I’ll post resources here now and again as I come across them.

In the meantime, happy reading and exploring!

Sunrise, Sunset, and Moving Swiftly Through the Days

A new month in a new year and it’s gone by far too quickly. I thought I’d close out the lengthening days of January by sharing some interesting sources of information. The pick for today is the NOAA Sunrise/Sunset Calculator, developed by some talented former colleagues. It is a resource used by people in all walks of life—from scientists and sky watchers to film makers and event planners—and a great way to explore what’s going on in terms of the number of hours of daylight received in a day.

According to the calculator, at 40 degrees latitude in the approximate middle of the mountain time zone, the apparent sunrise on January 31 is 7:09 a.m. and apparent sunset is 5:19 p.m. What’s “apparent” sunrise, you ask? Let’s use this graphic from the solar calculator Help Guide (really guys, great work putting this resource together!) to illustrate:

schematic showing reflection of visible light by atmosphere
Gases in Earth\’s atmosphere refract visible light from the Sun.

Earth’s atmosphere refracts (or bends) incoming light from the Sun. Because of that refraction, we see the sun “rise” shortly before it actually crosses the horizon. Likewise, we see the setting sun for a short time after the sun has actually “sunk” below the horizon at the end of a day. (If this part sounds like desperation from a person eager for any at all additional daylight, well, consider that mid-latitude winters sometimes just seem…long.) Apparent sunrise and sunset times are different than actual sunrise and sunset times, adding just that little bit of additional time to the number of hours of daylight in a day.

The nice thing about the end of January sunrise and sunset times is how they differ from the dark, dark days of December. Did we talk about the solstice on December 21? On that day, the apparent sunrise was at 7:18 a.m. but the sun was gone a full 40 minutes earlier, at 4:39 p.m. For those of us desperate enough to grab those few minutes based on apparent sunrise and sunset, 40 minutes seems quite a cause for celebration, or at least acknowledgment. Go ahead, play with sunrise and sunset times for your location, and check out what happens at the summer solstice too.

The State of Science Knowledge, and Water on Earth & Moon

demographic breakdown of science knowledge survey results

This Science Knowledge Quiz from the Pew Research Center first entered my radar when Ian over at AstroBlog posted about it back in August. Even then, I knew it was destined to become blog fodder here at ScienceSpeak, and at last I am returning to the topic.

Ian’s correct: the questions are quite easy and the very large percentage of people who couldn’t correctly answer them is somewhat disheartening. However, because keeping up with and blogging on the science literacy topic can oftentimes be disheartening, I’m going to try to look at the bright side here. About 44% of people answered at least 9 of the 12 questions correctly, and that includes quiz takers with a high school education or less. I suppose it’s difficult to consider less than half of population receiving a passing grade as something other than bleak, but when it comes to recent scientific advances, news, discoveries, etc., sometimes you have to wonder, how *would* people know? It’s not covered in the media, or only very superficially covered in the media, and that’s a whole other topic (one covered very well in the book Unscientific America. Indeed, it’s almost enough to make a person not want to blog.)

So where are people supposed to learn about science? Well, in school, of course, but what if it’s been decades since you were a student? And what if you didn’t pay attention in science class? There’s this idea that if we keep putting the information out there, people will find it somehow. But those of us embarking on this experiment can testify that only people looking for the information will find it.

If you take the quiz on the Pew site, you can see the demographic breakdown of results, by question. There’s a clear age differential for some of them. Only 30% of people over age 65 correctly answered that an electron is smaller than an atom, for example. (Of course, electrons were discovered in the late 1800s, so age can’t be considered an excuse.) Just over 50% of all quiz takers correctly identified how stem cells differ from other cells, which is sad considering that stem cell research is something that has been politicized and so is often in the news, but again, how often do news anchors or politicians or even the researchers themselves actually address what a stem cell is?

Oh, it’s difficult. Maybe the only bright side is that there’s so much room for improvement. So I am going to begin posting scientific facts for my readership, and perhaps those who seek out the information will find it. Then, if they are someday surveyed on science knowledge by the Pew Research Center, they’ll perhaps be able to earn a passing score. If nothing else, maybe they’ll get darn good at getting that green pie in Trivial Pursuit.

For today’s simple science lesson, in honor of water just having been discovered on the Moon (yes, make a note of that, people!), let’s learn about water and the planet Earth. You can find some useful materials here and here. And if you want to learn more about how valuable water on Earth is becoming, look here.