Tag Archives: astronomy

Vernal Equinox – how we know it’s the first day of Spring

Lots of folks in the U.S. are celebrating the fact that today is officially the first day of spring.  After a very rough winter, a good portion of the country is hoping for no more ice, snow, nasty storms, or sub-zero temps.  Another chunk of the country is desperate for rain and anxiously anticipating a rough fire season.  Either way, we’re all ready for a change of pace, and so with spring comes great hopes for some improved weather.  So how do we know it’s now spring?

Our seasons are marked by our orbit around the sun.  Winter and summer are marked by the solstices, and spring and fall are marked by the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, respectively.  The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, the summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and the equinoxes are those in-between points where the day and night are the same length (the root words help you remember this one – equi/equal, nox/night).  Equinoxes happen when the plane of the earth passes through the plane of the sun, which happens twice per orbit (year).

Remember that our planet isn’t perfectly upright in our orbital plane – we’re tilted.  As the planet travels around the sun, for half of the orbit our pole will be tilted away from the sun, and for the other half it will be tilted towards the sun.  This is also what makes the seasons opposite in the two hemispheres.  When we are tilted towards the sun (summer), Australia is tilted away from the sun (winter), and vice versa.  Spring begins at the vernal equinox, when the sun shines right on our equator.  From here until the summer solstice in June, our days will just keep getting longer!

And now I’m going to shut up and just let this National Geographic video explain it better than I can with just typing words and trying to do hand gestures you can’t even see…


Also, look at today’s Google doodle if you haven’t already.  It’s pretty!

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Review of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Ok, finally managed to get through the episode – it was worth waiting until I could get through it all with my daughter, as she sat totally transfixed in my lap to watch it.

Overall, I enjoyed it.  They have updated the show from the Sagan years with modern CG, and the graphics and music are lovely.   It’s more basic than most adults with any kind of STEM enthusiasm or background need, but far more advanced than some really, really bad STEM-related shows in recent years (I’m looking at you and your oversimplification, The Planets).  It’s not overly simplistic, but presented in a way that’s accessible to everyone, which is exactly the point of a mainstream science show.  I think they found a nice balance – at least in the first episode.

Also, I’m not going to complain at all that a science show is on Fox.  I appreciate how great that is!  It doesn’t begin to make up for canceling Firefly or any of their other terrible decisions, but it shows that maybe, just maybe, they’re taking a step in the right direction.  So, on to the review, of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I liked the ‘cosmic address’ analogy that Neil deGrasse Tyson used to describe how to locate Earth in the Universe.  It works for those who are used to mailing addresses, but also for the younger crowd who speak in IP addresses.

DidI mention the graphics and music?  Boy, we’ve come a long way in computer graphics and animation in the last few decades.  Love it.  They also did a great mix of what is clearly real satellite imagery (I recognized a few famous Hubble shots in there) and computer-generated.  This is a very visually-appealing show.

It can keep the interest of both an adult aerospace engineer and a 3-year-old.  That’s a tough thing to pull off.  My daughter’s main concerns where whether Neil de Grasse Tyson was harmed in the filming of the Big Bang scene, and what exactly happened to the dinosaurs.  Luckily, she didn’t really understand the scene with The Inquisition.

The ‘Cosmic Calendar’ they used to show the scale of the age of the universe was very well done.  It really helped break something that enormous into chunks small enough to wrap the human brain around.

The personal story of Neil deGrasse Tyson meeting and being inspired by Carl Sagan was also a very nice touch.  Adding the current human interest element to stories that can sometimes feel impersonal – like the forming of galaxies and a long-ago story of an early astronomer – helps attract and keep a modern audience.

All that said, what was up with the weird little spaceship thing that flew around in a lot of the space scenes?  It looks a lot like the a bottle opener I have.  I also took issue with the ‘blowing clouds of cosmic dust’ or whatever that was supposed to be that Voyager seemed to be flying through – which is the kind of thing would have demolished the poor satellite decades ago.

The caption is “The Ship of the Imagination, free from the shackles of space and time, can go anywhere.” But the ship is seriously weird-looking. From: http://www.cosmosontv.com/photos/album/standing-up-in-the-milky-way

My OXO bottle opener looks suspiciously like the "spaceship of the imagination"

My OXO bottle opener looks suspiciously like the “ship of the imagination”

The weird cartoon of Bruno’s story with cheesy accents and creepy arrow-shooting cherubs.  And then flying through space scenes with cape and hair waving in the wind.  Just plain bizarre.  Also, the whole thing was a little too drawn out and dramatized with the name-calling and book-throwing and flashes to shots of torture instruments.

The good in this show far outweighed the bad.  I like the new Cosmos, and I really, really hope it doesn’t become another reason I have to buy one of those “I’d rather be watching shows canceled by Fox” t-shirts.  Fingers crossed.

What did you think of it?  How does it compare with your memories of the original?  Will you continue to watch?

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Filed under Geek parenting resources, Geeking out, Movie & TV Reviews, STEM outreach

I Miss Carl Sagan – But I’m Still Excited About The New Cosmos

Have you seen the new Cosmos yet?  I haven’t, but I’m about to.  And I’m pretty excited about it – if for no other reason than that there’s a science show on prime-time network TV.  A remake of the show that made so very many of my generation love science and learning about the universe.  Also, Neil deGrasse Tyson = pure awesome.  He’s not Carl Sagan, but if anyone can pull of redoing Cosmos, it’s him.  As long as he doesn’t try to say billions and billions.  No one can do that like Sagan.

If you missed it, you can watch it here:


So I’m off to go watch it right now – it’s been a crazy week and we don’t get TV in our house that doesn’t come free from the internet, so this is my first opportunity.  Stay tuned for my full review of it tomorrow.  With spoilers!

Share what you think about the new version in the comments, or favorite memories of the original.

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Caroline Herschel

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was an extraordinary woman in many ways.  The fact that she accomplished so much in the 18th and 19th centuries makes all of it even more impressive.  It makes me wonder what she might have accomplished in an age more receptive to scientific advancement and successful women.  What she did accomplish is nothing short of astonishing.

Born in Hannover, Germany in 1750, she overcame much to become a professional astronomer.  She was the 5th of 6th children, and born a girl in an age where she would always be a second-class citizen at best.  She survived smallpox and typhus, and was disfigured by the former and had her growth badly stunted by the latter.  Her father, a military musician, gave her a basic education in math and music, but her mother did not approve.  Her mother planned for her to become a household maid, assuming no one would want to marry her.  Little did she know her daughter would end up a famous, incredibly successful astronomer instead, widely accepted in scientific and high-class social circles alike.

The Seven Years’ War drove her older brother William to England, and many years later she joined him there as his housekeeper.  William was an organist and choir master, and Caroline became a well known professional singer.

William’s hobby of astronomy and telescope making soon became his career as he gained more success there than he had in music.  Caroline became his apprentice in telescope making, and, despite no formal training, learned complicated mathematics to help him develop new approaches to astronomy.

In 1781, William Herschel discovered Uranus, and a year later became royal astronomer to King George VII and was granted knighthood.  Caroline went with William to continue as his assistant, but also began to branch out on her own.  She is credited with discovering three nebulae in 1783 and a comet in 1786.  In recognition of her own accomplishments, King George started paying her a salary as well, in the official capacity of William’s assistant – this was the first recorded time a woman was paid for a scientific position.

After William married in 1788, Caroline was able to do even more independent work, finding seven more comets and revamping a star catalog.  After her brother died in 1822, Caroline went back to Hannover and finished his job of cataloguing 2500 nebulae.

In 1828, Caroline was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, something that would not be awarded to another woman until 1996.   And she was accepted as an honorary member into the British Royal Society in 1835, along with Mary Somerville.  Sadly, they could not be regular members as women.  In 1838 she was invited into the Irish Royal Society, and the King of Prussia gave her the Gold Medal for Science in 1846.

If you’ve been following all these dates, she worked in astronomy from her twenties up until her death at age 98 in 1848.  This small, disfigured woman with no formal education made a tremendous impact on the science of astronomy.  She blazed trails for women and science, and lived longer than just about anyone in that period.  Her brother, Sir William Herschel, may be much more well-known, but I have to wonder what more she could have done with more schooling, earlier access to scientific peers to work and discuss with, and the access to so many things granted to men in that era.

This is, once again, one of the reasons for this blog – if we can inspire and educate people at a young age, give them opportunities to succeed and clear away the kind of barriers that Caroline Herschel faced, just imagine what the children of this country could do.










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