Cometary Tales Blog Avoiding Hyperbole

Avoiding Hyperbole

OK, right, it’s been so long since the last post that even my backup program is writing me off as too far gone. Too bad, Updraft, back to work, you lazy batch of code.

True, some comets hare off to interstellar space on hyperbolic orbits. However, two or three things:
1) There’s much to be said for the sweet homey stability of an elliptical orbit.
2) On a hyperbola, there are two arms, and who’s to say if you’re on the right one?
3) My top speed is less than 2 m/sec whereas an escape trajectory on Earth demands moving at about 11,500 m/sec.
4) I’m not actually a comet, I’m a human being who is interested in comets both as astronomical objects and as metaphorical images.
5) That’s four or five things.

Aiee Hyperbola Wiki

Redlining on a hyperbola. Aieeee!

Stuff happens, and it’s not exactly a huge crime to neglect a blog that no-one is reading. Last year, I whined about the inconveniences of having a broken arm. Well, there’s worse stuff than a broken arm. Besides, I needed time to read other people’s websites. Like catching up on the doings at Gunnerkrig Court. Like reading anything about robots that turns up on IEEE Spectrum. Or reliving grad school days on Jorge Chan’s Ph.D. comic. Or vacillating between reading Allie Brosh’s hardcopy book or her online stories at Hyperbole-and-a-Half.

In the meantime, I’ve managed to keep up a little better on the easier-to-maintain Facebook & twitter side of things, under the Pixel Gravity moniker.

But it’s time to dump more stuff out on the world and see if anyone who isn’t a spammer notices.

Here’s the deal:  I’ve got a year’s worth of science projects for kids that I want to share.  Maybe they’ll be a book too, some day.  (Insert self-knowing laugh here.)  I’m a year behind on delivering my Grand Canyon stories & pictures, which I promised my fellow-travellers would be “up” by the end of last summer.   But there’s other stuff I want to address as well.  So there will be a little discipline applied, in a way that would help any of my imaginary readers look ahead for the next entry in a category of interest.

First week of the month:  One “Messy Monday” project

Second week:  One “Grand Canyon” entry–either a half-day of storytelling or a photo album.

Third week:  Science & fiction stuff–the science fairly topical, the fiction

Fourth week:  An extra week to play catch up, first on the Grand Canyon, and later on Messy Monday, but also a piece of flexible time for interesting stuff of the moment.  For instance, Memorial Day Weekend will yield four days of BayCon 2014.

Next up:  Comets in orbit…

 

 

 

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Friday at BayCon 2013Friday at BayCon 2013

As exemplified by Thursday evening’s brief exposure to the timesense-warping effects of Triskaidekaphobicon, clearly the theory of attending BayCon is direct and clear, albeit a little boring, while the practice thereof is circuitous and exciting.  Here we will continue our study of these contrasts by once more comparing plans and realities with a half-day experience on Opening Day:

Time Frame What the Plan was What really happened
Friday afternoon Arrive early, go to opening ceremonies, then “Irreproducible Results” panel, then to a reading by Lois McMaster Bujold. Just couldn’t get out the door.  Forgot reading glasses, then key, then left door slightly ajar while trying to find my sunglasses (for driving), then became convinced (older/medical-issues) cat had sneaked out, so searched out front and called out back and looked under furniture.  Finally discovered cat hunkered down behind a chair.Arrived halfway through Irreproducible Results panel, but got a front-row seat & enjoyed panel, from nuts and bolts revelations such as that the staff of JIR are unpaid to the audience teaching JIR’s editor the song “There’s a Hole in My Bucket” and locating for him several online sources for flexible rubber with which to make graph paper.

I took a quick look at the Art Show, where they were nice enough to take care of my bag for me.  Theresa Mather‘s dragons were there.  Which one is it that I bought for Tirion?  I wondered, Should I bid on one of these dragon-butterfly prints?  I decided to come back later and sign up as a bidder.

All of the cat-oriented artwork reminded me that I was worried about my cat (not to bore anyone with a pet’s medical issues, but no-one was home to check on Manta that day), but didn’t want to miss the reading.  So stayed put for that.

Bujold read a piece she doesn’t really plan to publish at present, a work-in-progress that may or may not become part of something, but it’s a “Miles” story, so she knew it would please her fans.  The humor bits got big laughs.  And she was good about doing a little Q&A while waiting for late-comers to arrive. Turns out that one intellectual goal for “Curse of Chalion” was to work out a society in which religion had a basis in physical reality.

By then, it was after five, but decided to drive home to check on the cat –through Memorial-day weekend traffic.  The freeway was a parking lot from San Thomas Expressway to, probably, LA.  So, enjoyed elaborately costumed Fanime fans thronging streets of downtown San Jose on the unfreeway route home.  Made pretty good time, actually.  Oh, yes, and the cat was fine.  Time for a quick freezer-cleanup dinner and half an episode of “Castle” before evening sessions.

Friday evening Find out what a “boffer weapon” is and make one in the new DIY Room.  Then go upstairs and learn some Regency dancing.  Maybe get in to panel on talking to people. Boffer-making was not in the DIY room.  I had to go alllll the way to the “Ballroom” and creep past the big room where they were having the “meet the guests” reception.  Way too scary in there.   In the farthest room, kids were whapping each other with foam objects.  Aha, that’s boffing.

But no one was making weapons.Wandered about. Became “brave” and strolled nonchalantly through the reception.  Darn, there had been food.  Extroverts were  happily chatting each other up.

Wandered back to boffers room to watch the swordplay.  Maybe the “make your weapon” thing is over?  I wondered.  The program said they started at 6 and it was already nearly 8.  Suddenly, someone called out, “Who wants to make a weapon?”  Apparently, I had arrived at exactly the right time.

Two hours later, I was working on the trickiest duct-taping tasks on three swords at once, after two teen sisters frantically realized they must dash off to what they described as “Mom’s Concert” and begged for coverage while they were away.   Another hour later, and they were back in time for adding the blade tape and the final decorations.  Clever girls.

So finally 11:30 rolled around and I had myself a lovely PVC and pipe-insulation and duct-tape sword.  But not prepared to wield it yet–too exhausted.  Parked my sword in the car and wandered about a bit.  Regency dancing was already up to a lesson on the Congress of Vienna waltz, which I can’t do with my broken shoulder yet, and which they use as the final dance.

Oh, well.  Time to go home.  Big plans for tomorrow.

 

There are anime fans at BayCon, too.

There are anime fans at BayCon, too.

Walking to Pluto: Step 3Walking to Pluto: Step 3

Step 3: Making the Journey

If you skipped Part 1, then you need to know know that in this activity, you will build a scale model of the Solar System as far as Pluto. You will use familiar objects and easy, approximate measurements—mostly simply pacing off distances. This is not a project about being extremely precise; the goal is to develop a strong perception of just how big the solar system is and how small the planets are within that system.

For preparation, you need only to assemble the collection of properly-sized objects listed in the requirements table (See Step 2) and print out the “cheat sheet” you’ll carry on the Walk. A glance at a map of your local area will help you decide which way to take your expedition and to identify some landmarks to stand in for more-distant things like the far edge of the Oort Cloud.  To build your own interest and enjoy some discoveries of your own, check out some of the links I’ll include in the references section (Step 4).

You can feel free to substitute alternate model planets, using the scaled sizes as a guide; however, most of the items called for can be found in an average family home, borrowed from classroom parents, or purchased at a very modest outlay. While modern kids may not find the contents of kitchen spice jars terribly fascinating, using an allspice or peppercorn seed as your “Earth” model will give them a lifelong reference point–they’ll be smelling pumpkin pie or watching a chef grind pepper and that spark of memory will remind them of this project.

Because the scaled planets range from the size of a pin point to the size of a jacks ball, it also makes sense to attach each object to something larger, such as an inverted cup or a 4 by 6 index card. If you have access to sports equipment, the bright-colored cones often used for laying out a temporary playing field are helpful. You can position the planet-holder and also tape a “Please Leave Our Experiment Here” sign to the top of the cone. And the bright colors and signs help the explorers to look back and spot the distant planets. Again, be creative! There is no need to run out and buy sports equipment—any handy rock or a brick will do to keep your objects and notes in place.

Here's my Walk kit, ready to go.

Here’s my Walk kit, ready to go.

When reviewing the Cheat Sheet, you’ll see that this model describes our solar system as far as the outer edge of the Oort Cloud. However, to go all the way to the Oort Cloud in this model is a journey of 75 miles (100 km), so don’t expect to travel that far. Instead, as part of your preparation, identify a few local landmarks 1 or 2 miles from your start point and also pick some regional and further-off destinations to match the scaled distances for such key locales as the Oort Cloud, the heliopause, the estimated positions of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, the far edge of the Kuiper belt, and our further neighbors in the Universe. If you’re too short on time, the Cheat Sheet includes some general destinations, but your own localized ones will be much more meaningful to the group. If your group won’t have time to walk all the way to Pluto, find out where Pluto would be in that locale and point ahead to that location before you do turn back.

Once in the classroom, before launching your exploratory mission, start with a quick review of the concept of scale. Regardless of your target age group, toys which are also scale models of cars or airplanes or trains are helpful examples. Quickly walk through a sample of numerical proportions to give a sense of how it goes when you are creating your own scale model: for instance, sketch on the board or a sheet of poster paper a rough scale drawing of the classroom room at 1 inch per foot (5 cm per m). Rather than slowing down the project with extra work, prepare for this session by making your own rough measurements of the classroom dimensions in advance—simply pace off the length and width and note any additional features to the room. Remember, the idea is to illustrate your point, not to create an architectural drawing.

Moving on to the Solar System, start with the Sun…an 8-inch-diameter playground ball or an ordinary soccer ball fits our scale. Ask if anyone can guess what size the Earth should be to go with this “Sun”. The guesses are very likely to be way off, because most “models” used in classrooms and the pictures in the textbooks are not at all to scale. In those, Earth is shown as a recognizable ball appearing as much as a tenth the size of the Sun.

Once you have a few guesses on record, share the key data. Write on the board or a flip chart as you go, to keep the presentation lively. (Nothing kills attention like a PowerPoint!) The Sun’s diameter is about 800,000 miles (1400 thousand km), and we’re using an 8-inch (18 cm) ball, so each inch stands for 100,000 miles (or, a cm stands for 75,000 km). The Earth’s diameter is only 8,000 miles (12,700 km). So how big will the model Earth be? It turns out we need something less than 1/10th of an inch across, only 0.08 inches (0.17 cm). So now you can pass around your “Earth”…a peppercorn will work, so will an allspice seed. (And, yes, you can get away with crumbling up a bit of paper and claiming it’s a spitwad you found.) If you have a spice-jar worth of seeds, everyone can have their own Earth to keep. Let the students take a moment to actually compare the sizes of Earth and Sun. It’s a dramatic difference, nothing like what their textbooks show.

Now it’s time to figure out where the Earth and Sun should be to fit in with this scale. Start by inviting students to guess…they will likely assume you can fit the Earth-Sun model easily inside the room. So now, add the distance data they need and we can “step” through the necessary calculation:

  • The Earth is roughly 93 million miles (150 million km) from the sun.
  • In our scale model, that’s 930 inches (2000 cm)
  • or 78 feet (20 m),
  • or 39 steps of about 2 feet (40 steps of 0.5 m)

Notes:

  • In our model we’re using a pace distance reasonably close to the average woman’s step length and not too far off the step length of a child who is supposed to be walking but can’t resist running. If your group is adult men or tall women, you can use the worksheet to adjust the number of steps accordingly.
  • Our scale in SI (Système international, or metric) is slightly different than in English units, so that those using the SI version can also use simple round figures.

At this point, try to keep a straight face while pretending to start building the model inside the classroom. Dramatically place the “Sun” at one end of the room and try to pace off 39 or 40 steps. Unless you’re doing this activity in a large lecture hall or a cafeteria, you will quickly run out of space (pun intended). By now, it should be clear to the students that this is to be an outdoor activity.

If the group is not too insanely anxious to get outdoors, you can take one more minute to assemble a part of the model which will fit in the room—the Earth-Moon system. Our Moon is nearly ¼ the diameter of Earth, so it’s actually an important body in its own right. And it’s close by. In our scale model, the Moon—which can be represented by a single nonpareil or cake “décor” candy—is 2 3/8” or 5 cm from Earth—so Earth & Moon can be stuck to a card or piece of paper. Keep in mind that if your group is too anxious to get outside, you can choose to save this step for your arrival at the Earth’s position in the model outside.

Earth and Moon are stuck together

Earth and Moon are stuck together

Set the very few ground rules for the mission plan. The model is built by counting steps—the students will be the ones to do the counting and you (the project leader) will expect them to try hard and in return will not be too fussy about precision or how the measurement accuracy may be affected when leadership shifts from short to tall students.   The group will remain cohesive, so no-one misses out on any important discoveries—and no one will charge ahead lest they get “lost in space”. And everyone should understand the time constraints.

When the group is large, I’ve had success assigning small subgroups to accompany one adult leader as the “vanguard” to each planet, leaving the rest behind until they have “landed,” then allowing the followers to run full-speed to catch up. If you do this, it’s important to ensure everyone has a turn to be in the vanguard at least once. If the students have been studying the planets, the vanguard students can also be asked to provide just a few key bits of information to the other explorers as features they have “discovered” about the planet they just reached. However, resist the urge to turn each stop into a seminar—the goal is to travel as far as possible across the system quickly enough to return before class time ends.

Remind the group that it’s a long walk across the solar system and then get started for real. Carry your Sun to a central location outside. If you can park Sol near a tall landmark (such as a flagpole), you’ll find it easier to point back to the “center of the Solar System” as you move further away. Take your Cheat Sheet in hand (the page from the resource kit listing your step-off distances) and read out the number of steps from the sun to Mercury. Send the Mercury explorer team ahead to place Mercury in its position, and quickly join them with the rest of the group. If the vanguard has some cool facts to share about Mercury, give them time to speak. And move on to Venus and the rest of the inner planets.

The asteroid belt portion is the first region containing many objects. If you pause at Ceres, the biggest dwarf planet in the inner Solar System, it helps reduce the stigma of Pluto being “only” a dwarf planet. The fun part in these “belt” regions is to pretend to dodge the small asteroids or other objects—while you may mention that there really isn’t any significant risk of running into an asteroid, that is no reason to turn down the chance to pretend you’re in a crowded mess of obstacles just like in the movies. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson, in his reboot of Cosmos, includes a sequence in which his Ship of the Imagination zigs and zags through, first, a crowded Asteroid Belt and later a densely-packed Oort Cloud.

If time is short or you are working with younger children, it is reasonable to make it to Jupiter (don’t forget to dodge the asteroids on the way out) point out roughly where the outer planets, Pluto, and the further objects would be found and then head back to Earth.

In any case, carry some ordinary first-aid supplies and be sure to have extra adults on hand to slow down those who want to jump to lightspeed. Don’t worry if you don’t have a straight route to use…twisting and turning your way around the streets of a neighborhood is equally impressive. If time will permit, participants can bring lunches and picnic in the Kuiper Belt before returning. And remember, as you return to collect the planet models, it is just as fun to rediscover the distances on the way back.

 

 

 

Walking to Pluto: Step 1Walking to Pluto: Step 1

 

Compare the sizes of Earth and Pluto & Charon Image Credit: NASA

Compare the sizes of Earth and Pluto & Charon (Pluto’s shadow isn’t that big on Earth!) Image Credit: NASA

It’s been a super-fantastic #PlutoFlyby day (see the video for a Pixel Gravity simulation of New Horizons’ close approach path on 7/15/2015), and I can’t resist going to one of my favorite astronomy projects:  building a scale model of the Solar System that takes you out of the house, out of the classroom, and under the sky.  (Where maybe Pluto’s shadow, cast by a distant star, will pass over you.)

As a reminder, you can look for the following in any Messy Monday project:

  1. A set of notes for project leaders, sketching the key elements of the project and the science topic it is meant to address
  2. A detailed supply list, structured to make it simple to purchase supplies for either a one-shot demonstration or for a classroom-sized group activity.
  3. A set of instructions for working through the project with students, including commentary to help cope with common classroom-management issues, questions that are likely to arise, and issues to keep in mind from safety to fairness.
  4. A rough estimate of the cost to run the project.

 

As before, I’ll break down the presentation into four postings, to spare readers trying to scroll through a 5000-word document, but I’ll post them quickly, so you can jump ahead if you are raring to go or want to access the reference materials first.  In other projects, we built our own comets. In this project, we travel out into the solar system, hoping to reach the source of that comet.

 

Step 1: Space is Big

It’s a long way to Pluto. But as far as the Universe is concerned, Pluto’s in our condo’s tiny back yard. What would it be like, though, to take a hike to Pluto? Like the New Horizons Spacecraft spacecraft buzzing past Pluto and its cluster of moons, but, well, maybe taking a bit less time about it. Nine years (the explorer was launched in early 2006) is longer than even the above-average student’s attention span. What if we could shrink the Solar System down to a reasonable size for nice walking field trip?

Paths of the nine planetary objects orbiting the Sun for many years.

Paths of the nine planetary objects orbiting the Sun for many years (A Pixel Gravity simulation result.)

No surprise here: it’s been done. Six ways to Sunday, in fact. While no one person claims to own the idea of building a scale model of the solar system, my favorite advocate of such models is Guy Ottewell, who likes a scaling factor that makes the model a reasonable size for the average person to walk. You can buy his book on the subject (now with cartons!) at the books page on his website. As a bonus, you’ll also find the most current editions of all of his other books on astronomy and much more.   (He self-effacingly describes his annual Astronomical Calendar as “widely used”; a more-accurate description would be “fanatically used by serious amateur astronomers”.)  No disclaimer necessary;  we’re not friends, I’m just one of his (many) Twitter followers.

The goal of this project is for everyone involved to obtain a personal sense of the feature of Outer Space that is hardest to conceptualize by reading books and trolling the internet: Space is BIG. (Yes, you may pause to reread the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.)  Indeed. Really Really Big.

Our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda (Image Credit:  ESA/Hubble)

Our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda (Image Credit: ESA/Hubble)

On top of that, the places you can stop—the non-empty bits—are few and very tiny compared with the distances between them.  And it takes a long time to get from one stop to another.

So, when assembling materials and presenting this project, keep these two key goals in mind. It’s not important whether you model Earth as a peppercorn (Ottewell’s model) or an allspice seed (easier to find in my own kitchen) or a spitwad from the ceiling that happens to be about a tenth of an inch across.   What’s important is that the Earth is not only extremely teensy compared to the Sun, but you can’t even fit the Sun and Earth into an ordinary classroom. And you have to hike at least a half a mile (a kilometer) if you want to make it to Pluto. With any luck, you can make practical use of the excess energy in a classroom-full of kids and also amaze them. If you’re doing this as a classroom helper and the teacher is used to taking advantage of the time to catch up on infinite paperwork, this is a time to persuade that teacher to shove the paperwork aside and join the expedition. There will be no regrets!

The objects used to represent planets and other bodies should be chosen for familiarity, because you want the participants to absorb the scale comparisons effortlessly. “Everyone knows” how big a jellybean is, a pin is familiar—both the pushing end and the painful poking end—a soccer ball is a known object, and so on. It doesn’t matter if the object you use is not exactly the design diameter—and no one is going to care that jellybeans or coffee beans are bumpy ovoids, not spheres. The next time you’re eating a jellybean (or slurping a Starbucks), at the back of your mind will be “I had to hike a half-mile just to get to this little Neptune here”.   Plus, “Yum, astronomy is delicious.”

If you’re interested in the underlying concepts, I encourage you to stop by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s website and read Guy Ottewell’s original 1989 description of his Thousand Yard Model; however, if you consider yourself a mathphobe, don’t let the arithmetical computations worry you. I’ve made you an Excel worksheet to do that task. Running a mind-expanding science project should help relieve that condition, not make it worse.

If you have visited a museum’s scale model, read Ottewell’s book, or done a similar project in the past, there are a few differences you may encounter in this project. In particular, I suggest you avoid having planets represented by peanuts. Including nuts in school projects, can be problematical if any student (or parent helper) with nut hyper-allergy could possibly be affected. (I have relatives with this allergy, and there is nothing quite like coping with anaphylactic shock to ruin a day’s outing.)

Dwarf Planet Ceres Image Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dwarf Planet Ceres Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

I’ve included a few more “destinations”—such as the ever-popular asteroid “belt” and my personal favorite of Pluto’s fellow dwarf planets. The number of steps taken between planets (and other destinations) is greater, because kids take shorter steps than grown-ups. (Also, other models I’ve seen assume a stride length more typical of men—and the majority of teachers and parent volunteers are still women, with shorter strides than men.) And I’ve included the current (for now, at least) locations for a few more distant “destinations” that we can look out towards from our turnaround point at Pluto.

The tables I’ve provided are in both English and SI units. The scales are slightly different between the two, in order to yield intuitively-scaled results in either set of units. And I’ve provided a “cheat sheet” of the key data for a teacher or other presenter to carry as a reference source on the walk. If anyone would like to get completely precise and build their own model matching their pace length exactly, or adjusting to a different scale, you can request a copy of my Excel workbook for this project to create your individualized pace-off. Or if you know a Senior Girl Scout or Boy Scout in need of a Gold Star or Eagle project, a community solar system model would be a very cool service project. (C’mon, Scouts, do you really want to build another park bench?)

Speaking of space, and coolness, and peanuts, and bigness, by the time your group finishes this project—everyone who participates should wholeheartedly agree:  Space is Big

A Sign From NASA

A Sign From NASA

 

 

 

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