Evening With the Stars, Spring 2014

The Johnson County Community College
Astronomy Department Presents our Spring 2014

Evening with the Stars!

“The Black Hole Conundrum”


This spring, JCCC’s Professor William Koch presents some of the latest thinking about black holes.  These theoretical testing grounds are forcing physicists to rethink some of our most fundamental principles of physics, principles that form the very foundation of our understanding of the universe.

After the talk, and weather permitting, several telescopes will be set up to observe the night sky at the Paul Tebbe Observatory, on the roof of CLB. Some objects of note that will be viewable are:

  • The Orion Nebula
  • The Beehive Cluster
  • Jupiter
  • The Moon

WHEN: April 5, 2014, at 8:00pm

WHERE: The Craig Auditorium, GEB 233

For more information, contact either Doug Patterson, dpatter@jccc.edu, at (913) 469-8500 x4268, or William Koch, wkoch@jccc.edu, at (913) 469-8500.

Black Hole Conundrum slides

My Visit to the Hiersteiner Center

Wow!  Talk about trying to recruit potential students early!  A week or two before Thanksgiving, I was asked by Lindsey Cramer, a teacher at the Hiersteiner Child Development Center, if I would be willing to talk to her kids about…space.    I finish reading Lindsey’s email and I sit quietly wondering what kinds of things I could share with kids so young that would both keep their interest and not be way over their heads.  Remembering what kids are like at such a young age, I thought, “This is nutty!”  If it were even possible, it seemed way out of my professional comfort zone.   Maybe partly because it was out of my comfort zone, I quickly realized that this was a challenge that I couldn’t let pass me by.  Nutty or not, I told her I would do it.

I spent some time trying to think of simple things that they might commonly see and wonder about.  The teacher sent me a list of questions they had about space and I looked it over.  They had questions about the Sun and Moon going to sleep (from storybooks no-doubt) and questions about space travel.  Since I was told that they would have another guest telling them about space travel a few days before I would go, I decided to tell them about how the Earth rotates why that results in the apparent daily motion of the Sun and Moon (and why the Sun and Moon “wake up” and “go to sleep” each day).  After that, they could just ask me random questions about space and I would answer the best I could.

On November 26th, I loaded up some props and drove over to the Center and we all went to the basement where it could be made fairly dark.  There were a couple teachers and some helpers, so classroom management wasn’t an issue.  One little girl had to do a potty break right as we got started (probably a delight to take on long trips).  I found the potty break and all the fidgeting in the now-darkened room so incredibly wonderful.  Those giddy sentimental feelings I had were one’s that I had earned after years of parenting kids through this age.  The best part was that I would then be allowed to leave and drive back to adulthood after an hour!

I brought props, including a mechanical model showing the Earth going around the Sun while the Moon went around the Earth.  The kids loved that.  In fact, it may have been my undoing when trying to then get them to focus on something else!  I had a light across the room and I had each kid hold a softball out in front of them as he or she spun around.  I wanted them to see how the light appeared and disappeared, like the Sun and Moon do, as they spun (I also tried to slip in a quick explanation of moon phases at that point).  One or two might have gotten something out of the demonstration of how the Sun rises and sets, but I think the moon phase lesson was a total bust.  After that, I was able to answer a few of their questions, but after only a few questions, they had sat still long enough.

I wouldn’t call my visit a success as far as any of my attempted lessons.  My attempts to dazzle them with the sizes of things and the vastness of space weren’t very successful as they had little or no concept of distance or time.  So, as with some Soviet space missions that were utter failures, I did as the Soviets did and I redefined my mission after my failure.  As I drove away, I had hoped that I may have planted a seed that might help them down the road.  Perhaps when they look at the sky and see some interesting things they will remember that, even though they may not really understand the explanations, that “sensible” explanations for the things they see do exist.  As they get older and more capable, they may decide to delve into what those explanations are.  Perhaps they will even explore deeply enough to learn that there are many things that we cannot yet explain.  Though it’s a stretch, maybe one of those kids will even decide to go after some of those explanations as a professional scientist!   Regardless of the outcome, the kids and I had fun.

Solar Eclipse May 20, 2012

Although the most spectacular part of this eclipse wasn’t going to be visible in the Kansas City area, I made a last-minute decision to go ahead and try to get some photos of the partial phase.  Since I didn’t plan ahead, I didn’t have a telescope at home with me.  All I had was a pair of Binomite solar binoculars, a Canon 50D and a cheap Canon 75mm-300mm telephoto lens.

I included not only a couple of photos of the eclipse, but also a photo of what I did with the telephoto lens to allow me to take them.  I went to Price Chopper and got an non-inflated Mylar balloon, cut the edges off so that I had a couple of round sheets of Mylar.  Then I used my wife’s fingernail polish remover (acetone) and wiped off the paint off its outer surface.  I covered the front of the lens and used a rubber band to secure it.  I then trimmed off the excess Mylar.  It was a total MacGyver job!

Aurora Borealis

I am sitting out on my deck in Olathe, KS admiring the pinkish glow of an aurora from a CME from the Sun ejected days ago.  Its not often one can see them this far south, especially with all the light pollution from Kansas City north of here.  Unfortunately, I did not have time to set up my camera to attempt any photos of the aurora.

We are heading toward a solar maximum and we can expect more such events in the near future.  There are many free iPhone and Android apps and web sites that give solar storm information, such as www.spaceweather.com.

2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

It was announced today that the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics is being awarded to three astronomers for their work on the nature of the expansion of the universe.  The following is an excerpt from nobelprize.org.

“The Nobel Prize in Physics 2011 was awarded “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae” with one half to Saul Perlmutter and the other half jointly to Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess.”

Dr. Patterson and I have been teaching our students about this discovery for years and we have been following the work and results for sometime.  It was a stunning and very surprising discovery that countered everything we expected about the expansion of the universe.

They measured distances to galaxies using the measured brightnesses of type 1a supernovae (exploding white dwarfs) and measured the redshift of these galaxies.   Using the apparent peak brightnesses of these supernovae, they could calculate the distances to the galaxies where these supernovae occurred.  The redshift is used in the Hubble Law to calculate the speed at which galaxies are moving away from us.  The finding wasn’t that the expansion of the universe was slowing down in its expansion, as one would expect, but is in fact speeding up!

The cause may be some kind of vacuum energy, often called “dark energy” or “the cosmological constant”.  The nature of this energy is a complete mystery and is often referred to as the most important problem in physics and astronomy today.

There is little dispute about the correctness of the measurements.  However, the finding all hinges on the idea that all type 1a supernovae explode with identical brightnesses and that nothing like the rotation rate of the white dwarf causes variations in these supernovae.

Do You Want to Help with Astronomy Research?

Today, there are astronomy projects out there that are designed to get the general public involved to assist in real research.  Two such projects are Galaxy Zoo, and Galaxy Zoo Supernovae.

At Galaxy Zoo, hundreds of thousands galaxies in Hubble Space Telescope images need classifying.  Astronomers need these classifications to help solve the puzzle of how galaxies form and evolve.  People wanting to participate are run through a simple tutorial.  After completing the tutorial they are given new images of galaxies to classify.

The Galaxy Zoo Supernovae project involves looking at images of galaxies where bright spots have recent appeared.  Supernovae are exploding stars and there are different types of supernovae.  Participants then compare the bright spots with older reference images to see if these spots are indeed supernovae.  Like Galaxy Zoo, a simple and brief tutorial is completed before they are set loose on new images.

If you love astronomy or just want to be a part of professional astronomy research, check these sites out.

ISS Flyover

I was out on the deck about 9pm when the ISS became visible, flying almost directly overhead.  Satellites become visible as solar panels catch Sunlight and reflect it back down to Earth.  They are visible just after sunset and just before sunrise.  This passover was very bright and with binoculars, one could see two lobes that were the two solar-panel arrays on the ISS.  Needless to say, I not only rushed to grab my binoculars, but also called my step-sons to come out and enjoy it with me.  It wasn’t long before it moved into the Earth’s shadow and disappeared from view.

If you want to see an ISS flyover, you can go to this site and put in your zip code and find the local times for flyovers and where in the sky to look.