On September 29, 1988, over two years after the United States manned space program had been grounded due to the Challenger tragedy, mission STS-26 launched into space. The space shuttle Discovery, now retired, took our hopes and dreams back into space with it.

A few weeks later (I forget the exact date although I suppose I could look it up somewhere), I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Sally Ride, America’s first woman astronaut who went into space. Dr. Ride had been scheduled to give a talk at Radcliffe, and as the talk was open to everyone, including Harvard students, I made a point of attending. I was a sophomore Physics major, and also a space enthusiast, even if I had been born too late to appreciate the Apollo program and the Moon landings. Like many of my generation, the shuttle program was ours, and we followed it with the fervor a previous generation had followed Mercury and Gemini.

The auditorium was filled, of course, but not overflowing, and I was surprised that an astronaut of her stature had not brought out even more people. As it was, Dr. Ride was there to speak about the role of and opportunities for women in science, and her visit had been advertised mostly by posters in the Yard. It’s possible that some who might have attended just didn’t know, or weren’t interested in the topic. It’s too bad for them, for they missed an amazing and enthusiastic talk.

The first thing I remember about seeing Sally Ride was how incredibly, well, slight and tiny she was. Her presence had loomed large when the media reported on her. I recall that she was featured on the cover of People magazine, with huge 1980s-style hair, and I guess in my mind she was this towering figure. I was shocked to discover that she was so much smaller than I, given how insignificant I felt in her presence. But she more than made up for it with her eyes. One look into her eyes and you could tell this was an astronaut with the sharpest mind in the program.

Ride began her talk by apologizing, but given recent events she was less interested in sticking to the topic advertised and more interested in discussing the space program. And she did, using the launch of Discovery as a springboard to explain how important a manned space program was for the country and the human race in general.

There was a Q&A session at the end of the talk, and somehow I gathered up the courage to approach the microphone and ask her a question. I even recall my question, one quite fitting for the science fiction geek that I am. I asked Ride why NASA hadn’t chosen to refurbish Enterprise instead of spending the money to build a brand new shuttle; wouldn’t it have been cheaper? Ride gently explained to me that the Enterprise was actually little better than a balsa wood model and it would have taken even more money to make it ready for space.

After the talk ended, Dr. Ride said she would stick around for more questions, and I was one of a group that gathered closer for more conversation. Now comes the part I’ve always been proud of. Among the group of us was this guy, much larger than either Dr. Ride or myself, who kept trying to get her attention by calling her “Sally.” This annoyed me on her behalf. Perhaps he felt a certain familiarity with her because he felt he knew her from the media, but I thought it was disrespectful. This was a woman who had earned a Ph.D. from studying astrophysics and lasers; she deserved to be addressed properly. I spoke over this man, called her “Dr. Ride,” and I was pleased when he followed my lead and began calling her Dr. Ride as well. When that happened, she flashed me a quick smile, and I like to think I did a tiny bit that day to promote the cause of women in science.

I never met Dr. Ride again, but I continued to draw inspiration from her life story. I’ll be sure to share it with my daughters when they are old enough. I might not be a woman, but Dr. Ride was just as much as role model for me.

May she soar in peace.
Nomi and will miss the Transit of Venus this evening. We saw it back in 2004, and so the novelty is gone. We figure we'll catch the next one. :-)

In the meantime, here's my notes and observations from when we saw it eight years ago at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; they had opened up their roof for viewing, and had a 9-inch refractor in a dome for us to use.

Nomi and I got on line at 4:38 AM. We were soon joined by [livejournal.com profile] farwing. They brought us upstairs at a little after 5 AM. Nomi witnessed the sunrise first at 5:14 and then we started to observe Venus as a little dot on the Sun, at around the 4:30 position, at 5:21. At 5:28 AM I saw it projected onto a piece of paper with a telescope. At 5:37 AM I saw it through a refractor, and noted a lot of atmospheric haze. At 5:44 AM I saw it through the 9-inch refractor in the dome.

At 5:47 AM they sent us back downstairs. At 6:08 AM I saw it through eclipse shades. At 6:13 AM we saw it with binoculars, but by 6:35 AM the Sun was hidden by clouds, and remained that way for the rest of the transit.

At 7:02 AM we watched the webcast in Phillips Auditorium, live from the Canary Islands. They switched to the NASA feed from Athens, Greece at 7:15 AM. We saw Third and Fourth Contact, and the times were different for optical and the H-Alpha filter. By 7:23 the transit appeared done.

And here's the link to Nomi's post from that day:
As I noted over on the [livejournal.com profile] savepluto LiveJournal blog, six years ago today the New Horizons spacecraft was launched toward Pluto. Hard to believe we're only three and a half years away from seeing Pluto up close...
Over on the [livejournal.com profile] savepluto blog, the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet (or SP3) marks the fifth anniversary of Pluto's demotion:

Five Years Ago Today, Pluto Was Demoted

Go read it and contemplate the universe we live in.
Last night, thanks to the Boston Skeptics organization, Nomi and I got to meet Mike Brown, the man who discovered Eris and indirectly led to the demotion of Pluto's status as a planet.

Nomi S. Burstein, Mike Brown, Michael A. Burstein Nomi S. Burstein, Mike Brown, Michael A. Burstein
Photo ©2011 D. Moskowitz. All rights reserved.

The Boston Skeptics had arranged for Mike Brown to give a talk last night at Tommy Doyle's in Cambridge. We had only found out about the talk on Tuesday morning, but thanks to a good friend who volunteered to put our kids to bed, we managed to clear our schedule to attend. But when the National Weather Service predicted a significant snowfall starting yesterday afternoon, we weren't sure if we were going to make it to the lecture.

The roads turned out to be clear, and we made it to the pub just as things were getting started at 7 pm. Brown was already there, and willing to sign books even before his talk began. We brought our copy of his book over to him and introduced ourselves. It turned out he had already heard of us and was as delighted to meet us as we were to meet him. He was very gracious and personable, and his talk demonstrated quite clearly why he had won a teaching award.

The space was somewhat small and crowded, and not designed very well for his talk, I'm afraid. The screen for his presentation slides didn't face the main body of the room, so it was hard for us to see. Having arrived just at 7 pm, Nomi and I had difficulty finding seating, but a nice scientist named Jason allowed us to sit at the table with him and his two friends.

Brown discussed his research in the outer solar system. He had a graphic that showed just how big in comparison all the planets are to each other and to the objects in the Kuiper Belt, making it clear why Pluto is such an outlier. He talked about the telescopes at Palomar Observatory that they use to photograph the sky, and how they look for those tiny objects that are so far away. Back when Clyde Tombaugh found Pluto, Tombaugh used a blink comparator, a device that allowed him to compare two photos of the same portion of sky from two different nights to see if any points of light had moved. Brown relied on something similar, except in his case a computer went through a slew of photos and would present him with likely candidates in his morning email. I wonder what Tombaugh would have thought of that.

Brown seemed very respectful of those of us who still feel that Pluto should be considered a planet. He understands where the impulse comes from, and in a way, if Pluto were still a planet it would be better for him. After all, he'd be able to go down in history as the discoverer of the tenth planet (and eleventh, and twelfth, and thirteenth, etc.) Instead, he's going to be the discoverer of a lot of astronomical bodies that he himself points out are rather insignificant to the solar system.

Although he feels that Pluto should not be a planet, it turns out we do have a few points of agreement. He and we both feel that the term "dwarf planet" is a bad one, and he also has issues with the way the term "planet" is currently being defined by the IAU.

Brown also spun a brief tale of alternate history that, as a science fiction writer, I found fascinating. He pointed out that the discovery of bodies like Pluto, Eris, and Sedna relies a lot on the good luck of looking in the right place at the right time. He suggested that had Eris's orbit been different, and had it been discovered only a few years after Pluto, that perhaps we wouldn't have this controversy over Pluto's status today. After all, when Ceres was discovered in 1801 it was thought to be a planet, but as soon as many other small bodies were discovered nearby it got demoted as well and became known as the largest asteroid instead. Had Tombaugh or others managed to find other Pluto-like objects in the outer solar system in the early twentieth century, then perhaps we wouldn't have this debate today. But, Brown acknowledges, he does prefer what really did happen, as otherwise he wouldn't have been the discoverer of Eris.

All in all, a lovely evening, and it was wonderful to have the chance to meet him.

Mike Brown's Message to Supporters of Pluto Mike Brown's Message to Supporters of Pluto
Photo ©2011 M. Burstein. All rights reserved.

As I noted over on the [livejournal.com profile] savepluto blog, Nomi and I plan to be at the Mike Brown lecture tomorrow night in Cambridge, assuming the weather cooperates.

Mike Brown, the astronomer who discovered Eris and who didn't necessarily want to kill Pluto but ended up doing so, will be speaking at Tommy Doyles Irish Pub & Restaurant at 96 Winthrop St. in Harvard Square tomorrow night starting at 7 pm. He will be lecturing on his new book "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming." The president and vice-president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto As a Planet will be there to show our support for Pluto...and to get our copy of the book signed. :-)

People tend to assume we go to these talks with large signs protesting the demotion of Pluto. In reality, we know that in the end, people like Mike Brown and Neil deGrasse Tyson are on the same side as we are, at least for the important part, which is promoting astronomy among the general public. Tyson can testify to how respectful we were at his talk a few years ago, and how delighted we were to meet him. We're looking forward to meeting Mike Brown tomorrow night.
On this day in exactly 115 years, there will be a Transit of Venus visible from Earth.

If you can't wait that long, there will be one coming up on June 6, 2012.

Here's what Nomi and I did for the last Transit of Venus.
Last week, in the midst of all the other things keeping Nomi and me busy, we managed to have lunch with Brother Guy Consolmagno (LJ: [livejournal.com profile] brotherguy) when he was briefly in town. He asked us if we knew of any Jewish sources that mention the star of Bethlehem, or anything about Judaism and astrology of that time, and I'm drawing a blank. I've done some searching, but I can't find any Jewish sources that discuss or mention the star of Bethlehem. Brother Guy is looking for this information for something he's working on; can anyone help us out?

ETA: Brother Guy clarifies what he's looking for in this reply to this post.
Tonight's Nova episode, "The Pluto Files," follows Neil deGrasse Tyson around as he discusses Pluto's status with various people all over the country. I thought that it would be a good time to link people back to my post a year ago, when Nomi and I confronted Dr. Tyson in our role as the main officers of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet:

Mabfan's Musings: Talk: Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Demotion of Pluto (February 27, 2009)

If you don't want to go back to the post, here are some of the relevant pictures from that fateful night:

Back, back! Back, back!
Neil deGrasse Tyson defends himself from the defenders of Pluto. Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

Dr. Tyson's Message to Supporters of Pluto Dr. Tyson's Message to Supporters of Pluto
Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

But We All Share a Love for Astronomy! But We All Share a Love for Astronomy!
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Burstein, and Nomi S. Burstein may disagree on Pluto, but we all agree that Dr. Tyson is a gentleman. Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

A friend of mine asked me what the deal is about Birkat HaChamah, which is taking place tomorrow. So for those of you who are interested, here's a very basic primer.

Basically, Jewish tradition holds that the sun was created on the fourth day of creation, which was a Tuesday night leading into Wednesday morning. (Remember that Jewish days start on sundown the night before.) The theory as I understand it is that every 28 years, the sun returns to its position in the sky where it was when it was created. When this happens, tradition calls for us to recite a standard blessings of experiencing wonders of nature, which in English says, "Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who does the work of creation." This blessing is also supposed to be recited when one experiences an earthquake, sees lightning, witness a comet, etc. (The Transit of Venus also counts.)

Anyway, tomorrow morning Jews all over the world will be reciting Birkat HaChamah, connecting us with generations past and generations to come. We last recited this blessing on April 8, 1981, and we won't do it again until April 8, 2037.

This year is even more special, as the blessing is being recited on Erev Pesach, or the day before Passover. According to one of the references I found, the only previous years in which this happened were 609, 693, 1309, and 1925 (C.E.). The same reference says that there's a tradition that the final redemption will occur after an Erev Pesach Birkat HaChamah, so who knows? Maybe Elijah will bring special tidings on the night of the first seder.

For more and probably better information on Birkat HaChamah, please see:
Birkat Hachamah: Blessing the Sun
Wikipedia: Birkat Hachama
Quick Guide to Birkat Hachama
Sean P. Fodera, the New York Regional Coordinator of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as Planet, visited his son's classroom to discuss Pluto and blogs about it in My Presentation on Pluto's Planetary Status:

I briefly explained the history of how planets get discovered, and how improving technology has made it easier to find objects in space. They were amazed that anyone could have spotted Pluto from Earth with 1930s telescope technology, or that comparing fuzzy photos could work for detecting the far-off planet....

I discussed the controversy over Pluto's demotion, explaining how the new definition of planet is not accurate, and how less than 5% of the IAU actually voted on the matter. The students had trouble understanding the voting part of it, since they all seem to assume that if something is voted on, it must be fair. So, I presented an example. "Let's say that when your teacher and I went to this school, it was decided that every year the 6th grade class would get to go to the circus. Now, years later, someone decides to take a vote about whether to keep going on the circus trip. Instead of all 50 of you voting, only three of you vote. One votes 'yes', and two vote 'no'. 'No' wins, but it's not exactly a fair vote, is it? That's what happened to Pluto." Eyes lit up, and lot of heads started shaking.

Go read!
Last night, Nomi and I met Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, for the second time. As I noted earlier, Tyson was speaking at the Newton Free Library to promote his new book The Pluto Files, which is all about his role in the controversy that led to the demotion of Pluto. Since Nomi and I are, respectively, the vice-president and president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, also known as SP3, we felt compelled to attend.

Back, back! Back, back!
Neil deGrasse Tyson defends himself from the defenders of Pluto. Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

Read more... )

I shook hands with Dr. Tyson after we were done, and I could tell that he'd been signing a lot of books. It kind of reminded me of my own publication party back in November.

We said good-bye to Melissa, and Andrew drove Nomi and me home. All in all, a nice start to my birthday weekend.

As for Dr. Tyson and Pluto... well, the IAU has another General Assembly this summer, in Rio de Jainero, Brazil. I suspect Dr. Alan Stern will be there to push for a restoration of Pluto's status. We'll see what happens.

But We All Share a Love for Astronomy! But We All Share a Love for Astronomy!
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Burstein, and Nomi S. Burstein may disagree on Pluto, but we all agree that Dr. Tyson is a gentleman. Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

Copyright ©2009 by Michael A. Burstein.
From 10:19 pm to 10:26 pm EST, [livejournal.com profile] gnomi and I went outside and observed the lunar eclipse. (We might have stayed longer but it is below 0 degrees Celsius outside.) From the left, most of the moon was covered in shadow with a hint of orange; the right still shone fairly brightly.

(Nomi has placed a photo here for anyone who wants to see it.)
For those of you just tuning in, the NASA Messenger spacecraft will be doing its first flyby of Mercury today. It's the first spacecraft from Earth to visit Mercury since Mariner 10 in 1974.

I've been seeing contradictory reports about when the closest approach will take place; I've seen both "around noon" and "2:04 PM EST." If anyone has more accurate information, I'd appreciate it.

Messenger is supposed to settle into orbit around Mercury in 2011, but it's scheduled to make two more passes of the planet before then. I'm looking forward to the new science – and the new pictures!
On September 5, 1977, thirty years ago today, Voyager 1 began its journey to explore our solar system. Today, it continues to fly through space, bringing a message of humanity's existence to the stars.

I remember the excitement of growing up during this mission, as we got to learn about the planets of the outer solar system and what they looked like up close. The first good pictures of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune all came from the Voyager missions.

Godspeed, Voyager 1.

(For more information, see NASA's Website on Voyager.)
Exactly one year ago today, the International Astronomical Union, at their General Assembly in Prague, voted to demote Pluto from planet to dwarf planet.

(An excellent post about the public's reaction since can be found at The Enduring Power of Pluto.)
On this day exactly ten years from now, a total solar eclipse will be visible over much of the continental United States. The eclipse's path will start in the Pacific ocean, and will pass through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, the northeast corner of Kansas, Missouri, southern Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, northeast Georgia, and the Carolinas. Millions of people will be able to see the eclipse, assuming the weather holds out.

The duration of the eclipse will be about two and a half minutes at maximum, at the center line. The width of visibility will be about 115 km.

This will be the first total eclipse to pass over any part of the United States since 1991, when a total eclipse passed over Hawaii. Plan your trip now! (Ten years into the future is not as far out as you think...)

USA Total Solar Eclipse 2017, everything you need to know to plan to see the eclipse, including links to details maps, courtesy of Dan McGlaun
Hermit Eclipse: Total Solar Eclipse: August 21 2017 (with some excellent maps)
Path of Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 Aug 21 (a NASA website with coordinates, which links to a map of the globe with the eclipse's path)
Wikipedia: Solar eclipse of August 21, 2017
Yesterday, Science published a paper by Michael E. Brown and Emily Schaller, reporting that Eris is actually more massive than Pluto, which would imply that if Pluto were to be considered a planet, Eris would have to be one as well. Anne Minard wrote an article on this discovery for the National Geographic News, and as it so happens she called me to get my opinion as the president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet (SP3).

Minard's article can be found at Pluto Smaller Than Nearby Dwarf Planet Eris, Study Finds. I'm actually found on page 2, and the article pretty much sums up where I stand:

Michael A. Burstein is president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, which goes by the acronym SP3. The group of astronomy buffs formed in the spring of 2006, when rumors first started circulating that Pluto was in trouble.

Burstein preferred the IAU's initial idea for a planet definition, which was never voted upon at their solar-system-shattering meeting last August.

By that definition—that a planet should directly orbit a star and be massive enough to be round—Pluto would still be a planet, as would dwarf planets Eris and Ceres, a large, round asteroid orbiting near Jupiter.

It's fine if we end up with 50 or even 100 planets as new objects are discovered, Burstein said. We could keep the math easy by calling the old guard, including Pluto, "classical planets," he added.

For now, Burstein's group is laying low to see what the pros do—under the guidance of New Horizons' Alan Stern. Stern is leading the charge of professional astronomers to dismiss the IAU's ruling.

"People just aren't using the IAU definition because it's so substantially flawed," he said. "Even their own members, and I'm one, aren't using the IAU definition."

The debate over a better definition was a hot topic at the April meeting of the European Geophysical Union. And it's already part of the agenda for the February 2008 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A year ago today, NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto. Therefore, this is a good time to remind folks about The Great Pluto Debate coming up on February 4.

I know that sometimes this journal might seem like all Pluto, all the time, even though we have the [livejournal.com profile] savepluto LiveJournal for Pluto news. But I want to mention the Debate here, because the event will be of interest to anyone fascinated by astronomy and our solar system. It's not just for Pluto supporters, but for anyone interested in the question of how we should classify Pluto.

The flyer for the event is posted at http://savepluto.livejournal.com/10943.html. I have to say that I am very impressed by what the Clay Center Observatory managed to do. Panelists for the debate include Owen Gingerich, the chair of the IAU Planet Definition Committee, and Brian Marsden, the Director of the Minor Planets Center. Both of these gentleman have agreed to come over from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to participate, which boggles my mind as much as it delights me.

I'm asking for your help in publicizing it, especially if you're local to Boston. If you're a teacher or a parent, please bring this event to the attention of your school. The Debate is appropriate for ages 8 and up, and schools may find it valuable to send their students.

And if you're interested in attending, please go to http://www.claycenter.org/astro and make sure to register for the event. Seating is limited, so register as early as you can.
As I mentioned recently, I was just interviewed for a podcast.

Paul Levinson, who does the Light On Light Through podcast among others, decided to devote Episode 17, released on Saturday 1/13/07, to the status of Pluto. Paul asked me if I would be willing to come on in my capacity as the president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet to discuss what the International Astronomical Union did to Pluto and what might happen next.

Even if you've read some of what I've written before on the subject, you might want to download the podcast, since Paul does a good job of asking the questions that are on everyone's mind. You can click on the link above, or you can go directly to Light On Light Through: What on Earth Are They Doing to Poor Pluto?. Both SF Signal and Locus picked up the news for their "SF Tidbits" and "Blinks" sections respectively, so I guess it has some significance.

Also, on the podcast, I make the first public announcement regarding the lineup we have for "The Great Pluto Debate!" taking place at the Clay Center Observatory in Brookline, Massachusetts on the afternoon of February 4. I'll be posting more about this soon, but if you download the podcast, you'll get the news sooner.

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