Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘citizen science’

Just a few days to go…

Let the record show that, nearly a year ago, I predicted the hype over the Great Eclipse of 2017. I just thought it might start a little sooner than the week before the big event. However, we Americans have notoriously short attention spans. Eclipse on the 21st of August? By the 31st of August, it will have been completely forgotten, and everyone will be focused on Britain’s royal family.

I know that, come next Monday, I’m not going to be in the path of totality. Yeah, I wish I could. However, this past weekend my car decided that it could eat its own radiator and alternator for Sunday brunch. I paid the $773 bill, but I won’t have spare change until next Friday. I can do a lot of things, but changing the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Moon to suit my bank account isn’t one of them.

Once before, I was in the path of totality. You may recall the eclipse of July 11, 1991 — it passed right over Mauna Kea. That summer I had an internship at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, but I arranged to take a trip with three undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Arizona down to Mazatlán, Mexico, which is about as far south as the tip of Baja California, but on the mainland instead of the peninsula. Unfortunately for our traveling quartet, while the tip of Baja California had a grand view, Mazatlán seemed to be the only major Mexican city that was completely overcast. The thick clouds did get very dark for five and a half minutes around noon … but, yeah, it wasn’t the same as an actual view.

And since the closest part of the path of totality to my current Maryland residence is in South Carolina, which seems to have a pretty good chance of clouds and/or rain … yeah, I think I’m better off staying put and waiting for April 8, 2024.

Anyhow … before the eclipse hits Monday, I urge you to educate yourself about eclipse-watching safety, first and foremost … and also what to expect wherever you are, and where to find the cool pictures online. Here’s my curated list of links:

  • The two sites I mentioned last year, and, are still up and running.
  • The two major U.S. magazines for amateur astronomy, Sky & Telescope and Astronomy, each have a comprehensive guide to solar-eclipse viewing, eclipse science, and eye safety.
  • The American Astronomical Society (AAS), an organization primarily for professional astronomers, nevertheless has assembled an eclipse site for the general public.
  • Not to be outdone, NASA has another pretty comprehensive eclipse portal, and my local friendly space center’s visitors’ center will have programming for the masses.
  • One of the DC-area TV stations advises viewers on procuring those crucial solar-eclipse glasses.
  • Plug your zip code into this page to see what percentage of the Sun’s disk will be covered in your area.
  • Wondering whether the weather will give you the same totality-blocking heartbreak that I felt in 1991? My friend at the Associated Press summarizes the forecasts.
  • Somebody who knows how to use GIS software has figured out the eclipse traffic choke points. I like the notion of a “driveshed,” which is to roads what watersheds are to bodies of water, and wonder about its applicability to other events.
  • More solar-viewing safety tips. (I remember that my father brought home some welding glass from his workplace so that I could view a partial solar eclipse when I was a youngster. I don’t know the “number” of that glass, but it must have worked, because I don’t have eye damage from that experience.)
  • Courtesy of Newsweek and Mother Jones, a handy guide to eclipse photography.
  • Finally, if you want to watch the total eclipse from the comfort and safety of your television or computer, here’s a guide to that experience.

Remember, SAFETY FIRST!!!


Just. Do. Science.

This past weekend I went to a science-fiction convention named Balticon, where I attended a couple of presentations by an astronomer named Pamela L. Gay, who co-hosts the “Astronomy Cast” podcast and tweets as @starstryder. She is really, really big on citizen science — she is the driving force behind, where ordinary people like you and me can contribute to real planetary-science projects.

Dr. Gay’s enthusiasm prompted me to sign up for an account on CosmoQuest and to start passing judgment on photographs of the craters on our Moon and the asteroid Vesta. Such tasks, individually small in the grand scheme of things but nevertheless important to solar-system investigators, also helped me get through the weekend with my emotions on an even keel.

You see, today marks one year since a stargazing friend of mine died of a massive stroke. I can’t even begin to imagine what the past 365 days have been like for his widow (also a friend of mine). Last month I went to a planetarium show that she staged — it was supposed to be her husband’s show, but she finished the work on it, and I could tell that her desire to excite young people about science was every bit as strong as his.

So, I’m going to honor my friend’s memory by doing some science. Yeah, there’s that whole bit about not having gone all the way to my Ph.D. However, the world now has incredible opportunities for participating in actual science that were not even in anyone’s imagination 20 years ago when I was discovering HTML and studying for my qualifying exams.

There’s not only CosmoQuest but also Zooniverse, which has a huge range of available projects, from classifying tropical cyclone data to tracking California condors. There’s Eyewire, a neuroscience “game.” There’s SciStarter, which has an even broader range of projects going on. The Smithsonian has a transcription center where “digital volunteers” can type up the handwritten words of long-ago explorers and nature observers.

Even when you’re not sitting at the keyboard, your computer can do science for you — just install the BOINC software and let it crank away during those otherwise idle times. I’ve got my laptop running two different BOINC-based projects: SETI@Home and EON. One of these days I’ll have to try something similar for my Android tablet.

Now you have no excuse. Just check something out. Play. Discover. Learn. Do science.

Great citizen science

Want to bring the science of light to the masses? This week I found a fascinating example of demonstrating Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment with a big cardboard box, an eyepiece and bright sunlight. The ScienceDump blog got the video from Veritasium.

Yes, to those of us who actually have studied physics, the competing theories of light as waves and particles might be old hat. But, as you can see in the video, it’s not old hat to the passersby  who haven’t thought about the subject since grade school.

I’m certainly going to check out these websites to see what other interesting demonstrations of “citizen science” are out there. If you have had a chance to bring science to the masses, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Another GLOBE at Night observing period starts soon

GLOBE at Night, a worldwide effort to measure light pollution in the night sky, starts another observing period tomorrow night (March 13).

Participating in GLOBE at Night couldn’t be simpler. Just find one of three constellations an hour or so after local sunset. (I’ll probably pick Orion, but you could also look for Leo or Crux, depending on your location.) Match what you see of that constellation to the pictures that show how the constellation is affected by varying levels of light pollution. Then report your findings to the GLOBE at Night program. (Be sure to report your location too — that is, your latitude and longitude.)

For people equipped with smartphones and tablets, GLOBE at Night provides apps in English, Spanish, German and Polish. You can also download “teacher activity packets” and “family activity packets” in nine additional languages.

This observing session runs through March 22. The final session will be open April 11-20.

Clear skies!