Social media, like all things on the internet, can provide great benefits or be a total cesspool depending how it is managed. On the plus side, a teacher can funnel new discoveries directly to students. This is much preferable to waiting a few years for that to be published in textbooks. On the downside there are the usual trolls waiting for you. And obviously, we don’t want the classroom to resemble a website comments section. For this post, I’ll focus on Twitter and Facebook.
I was reluctant to sign up on Twitter with its 140 character limitations. However, I teach astronomy, and NASA is a Twitter machine. This is particularity true with ongoing missions. Once a mission has ended, but the data is still being processed, NASA seems to prefer Facebook to make those announcements. In Twitter culture, there is an emphasis on acquiring large amounts of followers. Unless you work in mass media, I would recommend looking for high quality of interaction over quantity. The Twitter landscape is populated by trolls and bot accounts. Target certain accounts that are subject related and be quick to use the block feature to prevent an interloper from ruining the experience. If Twitter is being used in a class, using a private account may be a good option.
Twitter is at its best when researchers are disseminating and reviewing results. At times, you may get to see the scientific process at work when scientists debate their results. In the class, this can be a demonstration of the dynamics of scientific discovery. Sometimes it’s messy! It can be used to display professionalism when researches volley back and forth over the meaning of their data. It can also be used to demonstrate that even professionals can stumble and personalize their arguments. In science, its the argument, not the person, that wins the day. Used wisely, Twitter can be a useful mechanism to bring current research results into the class.
Facebook is a different animal. With greater privacy settings, it is easier to contain the trolling element without going completely private. Once a mission has ended, NASA’s twitter accounts tend to go silent while further discoveries are announced on their Facebook accounts. For example, after the Messenger mission ended, the discovery that Mercury was shrinking was released on Facebook but not on Twitter. For astronomy, this makes Facebook a key supplement to Twitter. Unlike Twitter, Facebook does not have a character limit allowing for more descriptive posts. Also unlike Twitter, you are not likely to see scientific debates on Facebook. However, Facebook has a higher quality interface for images which is especially helpful for astronomy. To start off, below are some links.
For Twitter, you do not need an account to access a public Twitter feed. The blue check marks next to an account name verifies this is a legit feed.
Of course, as you explore various Twitter accounts you’ll find others that strike your fancy. Like Twitter, Facebook allows accounts to verify themselves as legit with a blue check mark. Facebook requires an account to view other feeds. Some good Facebook feeds to start with:
Over a thousand years ago, the Silk Road served to transport knowledge and ideas between Central Asia, China, India, and Western Europe. The internet serves the same purpose today and social media is a key component. With a little experience and time to manage it, social media can play a constructive role in the classroom.
As Apollo 11 sat on the launch pad, ready to complete what is arguably the most impressive technical achievement in history, a group of protesters marched towards Cape Kennedy. Had he not been assassinated a year earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. would have led the march. In his place was his best friend, Ralph Abernathy, who took over King’s role as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As Abernathy put it, the protest was not against the Apollo program per se, but to “protest America’s inability to choose human priorities.” As we live in a democracy, proponents of space exploration should be prepared to answer the question, how does the space program benefit the poor and the general public?
These thoughts came back to me while watching I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary on James Baldwin. There is a tendency to think of the 1950’s and 60’s as when America was great. Certainly, the economy was booming and middle class wages were rising, but as the documentary detailed, America was suffering from terrible social strife. Progress was made legislatively on civil rights, but there were race riots in the cities claiming scores of lives along with a general spike in violent crime. It was against this backdrop that the Apollo program existed.
There is the standard argument that the funds spent on the space program are minuscule compared to the overall federal budget. And that is true, NASA’s spending is about 0.5% of the budget and peaked during the Apollo era at 5%. Current spending on NASA comes out to $60 per person per year. So is NASA just a highly publicized target for protest? I think we have to look at the problem in a different light. That being a policy of resource/education deprivation certain portions of the American population have endured in our history.
Resource deprivation is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. If people are struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis, it makes it more difficult to sustain political resistance. The history of African-Americans is certainly one of life under authoritarianism, from slavery to Jim Crow era lynchings and segregation. And while significant improvements on that front have been made the past few decades, African-Americans continue to experience the impact of historical resource deprivation in terms of household wealth.
A key historical component of segregation was job discrimination. During its early years, NASA ranked at the bottom of all federal agencies when it came to minority hiring. While the book and subsequent movie, aptly named Hidden Figures, reveals crucial contributions to the Apollo program by African-Americans, the public face of NASA, the astronauts and mission control, were all white. It was this facade that led Gil Scott-Heron to record Whitey on the Moon.
So where do we go with this? NASA has improved the diversity of its workforce greatly. Kennedy Space Center employees are currently 27% minority. While that helps those employed by NASA, what about Americans who live in poverty? If one is segregated from the space program, you have no reason to support it, but that is true of any endeavor. It’s no different than building a shopping mall without access to public transit, or a museum, or schools that are inaccessible to minorities. The key to long-term sustainability is to integrate the benefits of the space program to all corners of society.
The Apollo program lacked this sustainability. Once the political aim of beating the Soviet Union to the Moon was achieved, the Apollo program was cancelled during the recession of the early 1970’s. Lost was the science phase of the program – Apollo missions 18-20. In fact, support for the Apollo program among the American public was tepid. The only time more than half the public approved expenditures on Apollo was briefly in 1969 during the first Moon landing. And even then, approval was only 53 percent. The key to changing this is to turn space exploration from a “spectator sport” to one the public can actively participate in.
One obvious way of achieving this is integrating NASA research in K-12 education. The amounts of data pouring in from NASA missions often require the efforts of citizen science to sort through it all. Such an effort also requires educator training since many teachers, especially in high-need districts, teach outside their specialty. And this effort should seek to aggressively reach out to the districts highest in need. If successful, a public actively engaged in space exploration will tend to be more supportive of it. Is exploring space worth this time and effort?
Perhaps the most important aspect of space exploration is understanding how the Earth fits in the universe. Right now, there are no other planets where humanity can commence a mass migration. Colonizing Mars, while feasible, is much more difficult than living in Antarctica, where only a few dozen scientists live at any given time. We may discover Earth-like planets around other stars, but traveling to them as seen in Star Trek or Star Wars will not occur in our lifetimes, if at all. Understanding this, and the fragile protections Earth offers humanity from a universe largely hostile to life, underscores the urgency in solving key environmental issues such as climate change.
Astronomy is among the most ubiquitous of the sciences. Across all the continents and spanning throughout history, civilizations have sought out answers to what lies in the sky above them. Nations that have been economically and socially healthy have been ones who have made the greatest advancements in astronomy. Recently, the Trump administration has floated ambitious plans to return to the Moon by 2020. By nature, space enthusiasts have jumped on the bandwagon. However, as history has shown, if the United States also embarks on a program of resource deprivation such as repealing ACA, cutting Medicare, and turning education over to for-profit interests, public support for space exploration spending will not only be weak, but hostile. The protest led by Ralph Abernathy in 1968 will look like a Sunday picnic by comparison.
During the Apollo program, it was often suggested that the management methods of the space program could be transferred towards solving poverty. The space program cannot solve poverty, nor should it claim to be capable of that. However, the space program can play a partnership role with the rest of the government and private entities toward that goal. If we really want a sustained effort to go to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, it will have to be within an overall framework of a civilization that values inclusiveness and equality. As Ralph Abernathy stated after watching the launch of Apollo 11:
“This is really holy ground. And it will be more holy once we feed the hungry, care for the sick, and provide for those who do not have houses.”
*Image atop post is Apollo 11 on the launchpad during the early morning hours of July 16, 1969. Credit: NASA.
We tend to think of the Earth as apart from the rest of the universe. That is natural as astronomy is the science of looking away from our home planet. While there are many things in space we do not experience in our daily lives such as relativistic effects and black holes, there are other phenomena in space that are closely related to our day-to-day lives. Some introductory astronomy texts lump the Earth and Moon in a chapter with all the other inner planets. I think this is a mistake. A separate section should be dedicated to the Earth and Moon as a starting point to understanding space.
There are many Earth to space examples to pick from and below I’ll describe a few.
I’ll start on the ground level. The Earth experiences plate tectonics along with resultant earthquake and volcanic activity. Lets take a look at shield volcanoes. These volcanoes vent liquid lava rather than explosive pyroclastic material we typically associate with such events as the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1981. Shield volcanoes are gently sloping (Hence, they resemble shields) as liquid lave runs downhill quickly preventing the buildup of steep slopes. A prominent example are the Hawaiian Island chain situated above the Hawaii hot spot. Why is there a chain rather than just one island? As the Earth’s tectonic plate slides over the hot spot, a chain of islands are formed.
The largest shield volcano in the Solar System is Olympus Mons on Mars. This volcano stands 16 miles high (Mt. Everest is 5.5 miles high) and has a base the size of Arizona. The low gravity of Mars, a third that of Earth, allows for the extreme height of Olympus Mons. And why is Olympus Mons a single volcano rather than a chain like Hawaii? Mars does not have plate tectonics as Earth does. Hence, the crust of Mars never slid across the hot spot as the Hawaiian Islands did on Earth. Understanding the nature of shield volcanoes on Earth can be integrated into an comprehension that Mars has smaller mass, thus, smaller gravity than Earth and no plate tectonic activity either. Land features are not the only place to find planetary similarities.
The rotation of Earth affects air circulation via the Coriolis effect. In the Northern Hemisphere, air movement is deflected to the right. In the Southern Hemisphere, air movement is deflected to the left. What this means is in the Northern Hemisphere, low pressure systems rotate in a counterclockwise pattern. You can see this in radar shots of hurricane systems which are massive regions of low pressure. High pressure systems rotate in a clockwise pattern. The pattern is reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.
Now lets take a look at Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot from this time lapse video of the approach of Voyager I in 1979.
Jupiter rotates in the same fashion as Earth. That is, counterclockwise if looking down from the North Pole. At first glance, the Giant Red Spot seems to resemble a hurricane and it might be easy to assume it is an area of low pressure. However, it is in the Southern Hemisphere and rotates counterclockwise. By understanding how the Coriolis effect works on Earth, you can deduce the Giant Red Spot is actually an area of high pressure. Beyond this raging centuries old storm, understanding the nature of Earth’s magnetic field will help one understand the space environment surrounding Jupiter.
Most of the matter we encounter is electrically neutral. That is, their constituent atoms contain as many negatively charged electrons as positively charged protons. In space, the Sun is hot enough to break the atomic bonds between electrons and protons. The result is an electrified gas called plasma. Neon lights are filled with plasma. When plasma encounters a magnetic field, it’s electrically charged particles travel along the path of a magnetic field line in helix pattern seen below.
This can be visualized on the Sun which has a more complex magnetic field than the Earth. The Solar Dynamics Observatory images plasma traveling along the solar magnetic field lines in formations referred to as coronal loops.
Back on Earth, these charged particles move along the magnetic field lines until they hit the upper atmosphere in the polar regions. Nitrogen and oxygen atoms absorb the kinetic energy of the incoming particles causing electrons to jump to a higher energy orbit. When the electron moves back to its usual lower energy orbit, the absorbed kinetic energy is converted and released as light. This light is known as the aurora. Earth is not the only planet with an aurora, the gas giants have strong magnetic fields that produce the same effect, albeit mostly in ultraviolet. This presents a good opportunity to understand that light and ultraviolet are both electromagnetic radiation. The difference is our eyes are not designed to detect ultraviolet rays, but our skin can in the form of sunburn. The aurora of Saturn as imaged by the Hubble can be seen below.
Electrons, when accelerated, will emit radio waves. This is the principle behind radio transmitters. Electrons are accelerated up and down a radio tower causing the transmission of a radio broadcast. The same thing happens in space when electrons are accelerated along the path of a magnetic field line. Jupiter emits radio waves in this fashion that can be detected on Earth with ham radio sets. This process plays itself out in the deepest regions of the universe. For one such example, we’ll take a look a the galaxy Centaurus A located 12 million light years away. Below is an optical image of the galaxy.
In 1949, it was discovered this galaxy was a strong emitter of radio waves. Below is a radio image of Centaurus A.
The radio source emanates perpendicular to the mass of the galaxy. Each lobe is a million light years long (10 times the width of the Milky Way) and would appear 20 times the size of a full Moon if we could see radio waves. This suggests a massive stream of plasma being ejected from the galaxy. What could cause this to happen? In the core of Centaurus A resides a black hole 55 million times the mass of the Sun.
It seems counter-intuitive that a black hole could result in such a massive ejection of matter. We think of black holes as objects that suck in everything, including light. However, some of the matter in the accretion disk surrounding the black hole hits a magnetic field before crossing the event horizon. So instead of continuing into the black hole, the plasma is accelerated and ejected violently along the magnetic field line exiting the galaxy. Below is a composite image of Centaurus A with optical, radio, and x-ray imaging.
There is a tendency to think of Earth science and astronomy as separate fields of study, but as we live on Earth we are also living in space – under the protective cover of the atmosphere. The first step in understanding space is to learn the science behind what we experience in our surroundings. From there, we can explore and understand the universe.
*Image atop post – Earth and the Milky Way from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.