Launch Pad Day Two Catchup-Post, Spectroscopy and Goggles on the Roof

Rachel Swirsky • July 14th, 2010 @ 11:21 am • Launch Pad

Yesterday, we did two activities that were not conducive to laptop-taking and note-producing. One was a lab with Jim Verley on spectroscopy in which he gave us spectroscopes and had us look at argon, helium, hydrogen, and a few other elements, so that we could see how they broke down into color spectrums. Some were easier to see than others–neon, for instance, looked like a rainbow. Argon was very hard to see; the element itself glowed purple, but the vague hint of a purple line it sent out was hard to spot.

Jim Verley said something in the lab that I thought was fairly profound, and which a few people mentioned this morning at breakfast that they thought was profound, too: “Astronomers have learned everything they know with a single medium–light.”

That’s pretty amazing, when you think about it. All we have is light–from the ultraviolet to the radio wave–and yet we’ve been able to learn so much from that simple tool.

At 8:30 last night, we met on the roof to gaze at the stars. Unfortunately, cloud cover prevented us from seeing as much as we might have otherwise, but one of the staffers who helps run the astronomy department, Travis Laurence, took us into the dome on the roof to look through the telescope they had there–bigger than the kind you’d have in your house, but a lot smaller than the one we’re going to see tonight which is the size of Hubble. As the clouds shifted, he adjusted the telescope so that we could see the moon (in silhouette, so the shadows enhanced the craters), a binary star called Albireo from the constellation Cygnus with one blue star and one yellow star (380 light years away), and finally Saturn.

I wasn’t able to see the moon (the clouds shifted just as I got my eye to the telescope), or Saturn (I think I just screwed up that one somehow), but I did see the tiny blue and yellow pinpricks of Albireo.

Outside on the roof, we used night vision goggles to stare up at the sky. The stars shone clearly through the clouds, an amazingly bright speckling.

The night vision goggles were very cool at night, it was amazing to look at someone’s face in the dark and see them sharply enough to take a photograph.

But the most amazing thing was the New Yorkers in our contingent oohing and aahing over the stars.

I joked, as we lined up to see the moon through the telescope in the dome, that this was like a rite of passage for science fiction writers. Someone could write a coming of age novel about science fiction writers lining up to undergo The Ritual Seeing. As each person went up the stairs and saw the moon, they began to exclaim with real, contagious awe and enthusiasm.

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