Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Science Fiction and Astronomy

As regular readers of my blog may know, I have a special interest in science fiction, and often recommend stories in my astronomy and physics classes. I even keep a webpage of science fiction stories that use accurate astronomy, at:
Recently, I joined a writing group, and started writing science fiction myself. After receiving many eloquent rejection notes from some of the finest science fiction magazines, one of my stories was published in a small-press anthology about colonizing Mars, called "Building Red," edited by Janet Cannon.
This coming weekend, I will be a guest speaker at BayCon 2016, a science fiction convention in the San Francisco Bay Area (in San Mateo, to be precise.) I have spoken at such conventions before, but this will be my first time speaking not only as an astronomer, but as a science fiction author. The full program and information is on the website:  Please say hello if you stop by.
For those of you not in the area, I discussed my story (and scientists who write science fiction) on the syndicated radio show “Big Picture Science” with host Seth Shostak this week. Here is the page: . Note the things in red are links on this page. If you click on the red “Science Fiction” under download, you will be taken to the audio for the show. The interview that mentions my story starts at about 19 minutes into the show and ends at about 30 minutes into the show.
Seth will also be a speaker at BayCon, as will several NASA scientists. I will even be on a panel on scientific science fiction with two of my favorite science fiction authors, Paul Preuss and G. D. Nordley.
For a person whose life has been mostly about teaching the facts of science, it's a lot of fun to be able to speculate in the realm of fiction. So many of my students tell me they were drawn to astronomy by a science fiction story, TV show, or movie they saw; so I know fiction can help draw new audiences toward astronomy. And with the political news the way it is these days, we all need to find ways to take our minds off our home planet and think about the "bigger picture" of the universe.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mars: Close and Easy to See (And Wet Long Ago)

Tonight, if you look southeast, you can see Mars as a bright red dot next to the full Moon. Mars is in one of its closer positions, about 48 million miles away. Mars is in what astronomers call "opposition" right now (which is not a term related to the Bernie and Hilary situation!)
When Mars is in opposition, it is on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun. This means that when the Sun goes down, Mars comes up in our skies, and Mars will be up all night long. (Looking at our diagram from Sky & Telescope magazine, you should also be able to find Saturn this evening or tomorrow night, lower toward the horizon than Mars.)
In recent weeks, even more evidence has been accumulating that ancient Mars, billions of years ago, had a much thicker atmosphere and water was therefore liquid on its surface. Astronomers now believe that there were once lakes and even perhaps seas on the red planet. Recently, planetary scientists even found what seems like evidence of two episodes of tsunamis that happened on Mars a long time ago, when a big chunk of rock or ice from space hit a larger body of water.
For details of this investigation, see:
(Also check out a great new Hubble image of Mars at: )

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Special Opportunity to Support the SETI Institute

Some of my regular readers know that for years, I have had the privilege of serving on the Board of Trustees of the SETI Institute, a non-profit organization devoted to the search for life in the solar system and in the universe at large.
As a non-profit organization, the Institute depends on scientific research grants and on donations from members of the public who value its work. This coming week, the Institute is participating in the 2016 Silicon Valley Gives campaign and looking for 500 new donors and friends who want to help underwrite its work -- and be part of the quest to find life elsewhere. We Trustees have provided a $17,000 matching grant – to double any contribution you care to make.
You can be part of the campaign at:
What kind of projects does the Institute do? You may have heard of the Allen Telescope Array (see the image), a connected group of radio dishes that scans the skies, hoping to eavesdrop on radio signals from an alien civilizations. But Institute’s 80 scientists are also involved with the search for planets orbiting other stars using the Kepler space telescope; with the search for water in the solar system, including on Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa; with the exploration of Pluto (the Institute’s Mark Showalter discovered two of Pluto’s moons) and other worlds; and much more.
In addition, the Institute’s weekly syndicated show “Big Picture Science” brings humorous, accessible news about scientific ideas and discoveries on radio stations around the country and around the Internet. The Institute has frequent outreach activities in Silicon Valley and beyond. (You can see me explain black holes in six minutes at one of these at: )
So won’t you join me in becoming part of the team that works to answer the ancient and beguiling question, “Are we alone in the universe?”
Donations of any size are gratefully accepted at: