Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bloomfield's sidewalk astronomers catch a galaxy

I advise the Bloomfield High School Astronomy Club--we are sidewalk warriors, fighting the glare of streetlights, security beacons, and gaudy church steeples. A few times each night flashing emergency lights roar past us a few feet away.

We live under 3 runway lengths from Newark Liberty International Airport. (To be fair, runway 4L/22R is about two miles long.) One of our games is called "catch the plane"--students attempt to get the plane in the telescope's field of view, not as easy as it sounds when you're just a few miles from the airport.

I get a handful of kids every clear Tuesday night, chasing Jupiter and the few stars we can see naked eye. Even with the light pollution, though, a peek through an 8" scope changes their view of their universe.

We finally caught the Andromeda Galaxy a few days ago, using an 8" telescope on a manual mount. We have a computerized mount somewhere, but I keep pretending I don't know how to use it. The budding astronomers are getting to know the sky the old-fashioned way, which is to say, they are getting to know the sky.

I've been covering cell energetics the past few weeks. How does life get its energy, its "stuff"? I have a time-line in the classroom, a meter for ever billion years.

(OK, the time-line stops at 4.5 billion years ago, just short of Earth's birthday, but I've swept along the imaginary portion of the time-line so many times I'd bet you'd get a dozen kids to testify times that we have a time-line that goes back 14 billion years or so. I really need to get another roll of paper.)

I start at the beginning. I call it our creation story, and it is a story. It has a name--Big Bang model. I'm careful not to call it a theory.

How do we know, Dr. D?
Well, we know this much. The visible galaxies around us keep going farther and farther away. Where will they be next week?
Farther.... (It's amazing to hear kids roll their eyes with their voices)
Where were they last week?
Well, doh, closer
Last year?
A thousand years ago?
A billion years ago?

And they get it, at least they get the impetus for the model. It's our creation story.

I speak carefully, but the words are the right ones--it is a creation story. It's a model. It's a good one, but by acknowledging that we cannot know as a fact (apparently the gold standard in sophomore debate) the origins of our universe keeps their own creation myths safe.

For most of my students, Genesis is the myth they believe in, but most of them could tell you as much about Genesis as they could the Big Bang model. I've taught both, but never in the same place. They're both useful stories. They're both human stories.

Neither explains why an apple tastes so good.

The Andromeda galaxy is the only object beyond our galaxy we can see naked eye.

First time I saw it without glass was a week before Hallowe'en, many years ago, right after we took our two youngsters on a haunted hay ride in the Jersey skylands. It hung out there even beyond the stars, a puff of fine mist hovering beyond my known universe.

You will not see Andromeda without a scope in Bloomfield.

When we did find it, we saw an oval smudge. I worried that the kids may feel let down, and started to pontificate about how long it took the light to go from that smudge to our eyes.

I should have stayed quiet--they thought it was cool. They kept going back to look at it.

Besides, turns out I couldn't remember exactly how far the galaxy is--I thought it was a bit over 3 million light years away, but the experts changed their minds and calculated it to be "only" 2.5 million light years away.

And that's the point.

My grandfather was in his late 20's before Edwin Hubble convinced other astronomers that these blobs of stars lay outside our own galaxy. That wasn't so long ago.

And it's hubris to think any of us can know the difference between 2.5 and 3.2 million light years.


Cosmology rests on light. Cosmologists study light in its various forms, but unlike biologists, have no need for their noses, for their skin. Cosmologists work with the intangible.

Our modern creation story has been written by a very few men with very big brains who trust their eyes more than their tongues. It is thus written.

The Big Bang model, like Genesis, is ultimately incomprehensible. It's important that my kids know this, at least about the cosmological models. I leave Genesis to their parents.

Once science becomes known "as a fact", once it becomes frozen in mythology, it becomes useless.

Even worse, it becomes boring.


John Spencer said...

I love the first few chapters of Genesis. Hell, I love the entire book, for all its innacuracies and confusion and brokenness. I love the lyrical poetry of a postmodern style narrative, all out of order. I love the notion that it began with music, quiet and first and then exploding. I love the mystery and the paradox of the story.

I also love the Big Bang. I love the vastness of the story. In many ways it seems to be a contemporary retelling of the same story. The order changed and so did the language, but it feels like it's the dance that matches the music of Genesis.

I wouldn't pretend that Genesis belongs in a science classroom or that the Big Bang belongs in a cathedral. But I also wouldn't pretend to keep them separate in the mind of a child . . . or a twenty-nine year old trying to figure out his universe.

Charlie Roy said...

@ Doyle
Great post. It reminds me of our first trip to the OBX in North Carolina. It was the first opportunity for my sons to look at the sky from a non urban setting. My 7 year olds could see the array of stars for the first time. It was pretty amazing to see the staring and pointing and jumping up and down.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I love Genesis as well; I think it's our modern pride that keeps us from recognizing that folks a few generations ago were not as daft as we believe--they recognized the inconsistencies, and kept the story true.

(I have an English translation of Rashi's commentary with the book of Genesis; it's one of my favorite books--the Hebrew is laid aside the English.)

Dear Charlie,

Thanks for the warm words and the story--truly dark skies take us back to something that matters, or maybe just reminds us that we get confused on what matters.

Every child should get a chance to jump in joy upon looking at the night sky the way our ancestors saw it.

This Brazen Teacher said...

Your blog seems to embrace the incomprehensible... that's reason NO. ONE why I love reading your stuff.

Sometimes I love how Science tries to explain the incomprehensible- and other times I get frustrated. And I guess it's refreshing to see you feel the same way.

ps~ Had a 3rd grader ask me if "Art had anything to do with Science" the other day. Those words verbatim. And while I believe the answer is... ABSOLUTELY... I was stumped. How can I find the words to describe this to an EIGHT year old? Yikes...

doyle said...

Dear Brazen,

Thanks for the words,

That an 8 year old is already separating two very human, entwined activities into distinct categories makes me want to wave the white flag--the 21st century humachines are winning.

I'd ask the child how he thinks they are different. I was very confused about art back in elementary school--the emphasis on drawing this way one week, and gluing that way the next, made me bonkers. Didn't help that I was left-handed and maybe a tad ornery as well.

I loved art but sucked at it, at least I sucked at assigned art assignments.

Industrialized art is about as much fun as industrialized science.

Find a book by Jean-Henri Fabre, the amateur entomologist. I think he drew beautiful pictures (if my memory's working). Now there was a man who did not allow himself to be partitioned.

Or maybe read some William Blake to him--Blake's a mystic, true, and an artist, but I daresay he was a bit of a scientist as well.

(Maybe Blake's a stretch--read him some Blake anyway. Kids need Blake more than they need DARE programs and other modern nonsense.)

Count Iblis said...

The Andromeda galaxy (M31) is not the farthest galaxy visible to the unaided eye. The galaxy M33 is also visible to the naked eye if your sky is dark enough,
see this article.

And if your sky is that dark, you may be able to barely see the galaxyM81 with the naked eye.

doyle said...

Dear Count,

Well knock me over with a feather--first I lost a half-million light years, now I learn I might see something even farther with my nekkid eye.

Next time I see Andromeda, I'll peek for M33. At my age, I think M81 is out of the question, even if I were stone cold sober on a moonless night on top of Mauna Kea.

Thanks for the corrections!

Patrick Higgins said...


Saw this today while waiting in the doctor's office and thought you would appreciate it:

doyle said...

Dear Patrick,

I love the idea of astrolabes--my erstwhile virtual name was almucantar (.aol, back when aol mattered).

My Dad was a pilot--a few decades ago, the cockpits of jetliners still had access to the sky, in case of catastrophic instrument failure--he could still navigate by astrolabe if he needed to do so.

Time is dictated by our sky. The US made an attempt to disconnect this a few years ago, partly to save money (it's expensive to keep resetting the satellites every time the int'l clock is reset), and I suspect partially to annoy the French, who control the universal clock.

I do not yet own an astrolabe, though I may go look for one again soon.

We are forgetting who we are. We are rushing to master the clock.

If we remember our link of time to the endless sky, maybe, just maybe, we'd take a breath.


Kathryn J said...

This is an old but interesting video about cell evolution in the fossil record and how oxygen came to be. I can't wait to show it to my students, I get to teach cells and fossils this year!

I'm impressed that Genesis pretty much got the whole thing in the correct order. I definitely have a place for both in my life. My interweaving of the Big Bang and Genesis it to think that when God said "Let there be light", it was a bit more than bargained for.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

It's all so overwhelmingly remarkable when we stop a moment.

I love Genesis, particularly for its internal inconsistencies.

I grew up in an Oirish clan that never let facts get in the way of truth.