A Quick Reference Guide for the Launch Pad Lectures

Rachel Swirsky recently attended the Launch Pad lectures (hosted and organised Mike Brotherton and Jim Verley of the University of Wyoming, and funded by NASA), and was good enough to blog them at Jeff VanderMeer’s Ecstatic Days. Astrophysics has always fascinated me, leaving me aghast at the complex order in the universe and the fact we tiny bags of mostly water can work all this out, sitting on our special little blue-and-green marble.

Rachel’s blogging of the lectures has left me in awe of the universe we’ve found ourselves in. The idea of the lectures is to give writers some Good Science to use in our stories, but at the moment the sandbox feels far too large for me to go playing in.

I’m putting links to the lecture notes here, along with a very brief bit about each one. It’s as much for myself as anyone else–when ideas do start to sprout, I’ll be able to find and revisit the source without scanning through all the entries.

The lectures can be found here.  (I’ve not included a couple of the very short ones below.)

FWIW, I’d like to thank Rachel for the service she’s done by writing up her notes and sharing them with the world. She didn’t have to spend her time doing it and I very much appreciate her hard work for us, for no other reward than sharing the information.

I’ve also identified what I’m calling the, ‘G’nur? limit’. This is the maximum size an idea can be and still fit inside your head. Any idea larger than an individual’s G’nur? limit will simply roll of the individual like water off a duck’s back, leaving the individual in a state of confusion and in need of a hug.

I reached my G’nur? limit when I was reading Mike Brotherton’s first lecture on galaxies. Galaxies are very, very big and very, very old and in order to absorb any information about them, I had to stop thinking about them as real things. Galaxies are currently sitting in the same part of my brain as Superman’s powers and static warp shells

Anyway, on to the universe…


Who We Are, and Why We’re Here

Mike Brotherton Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Wyoming, specialising in quasars. . Author of two sci-fi novels, Star Dragon (2003) and Spider Star (2008), and the man who organises the Launch Pad workshops every year.

Jim Verley, fellow professor at the University of Wyoming

Kevin R. Grazier, professor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and scientific consultant on Eureka and Battlestar Galactica.

Mike Brotherton, The Scales of the Universe

How distances in the universe are measured and how close things in the universe are to each other. It all comes down to light, and light takes time to travel from one place to another. The further we look out into the universe, the further back in time we’re looking…

In the past, when cities weren’t as big and light pollution wasn’t as bad, people had a more natural connection with the sky. You may not be able to assume people have had experiences with the stars because of where they live.

Jim Verley, The Seasons, the Moon, and the Misconceptions

The misconceptions a lot of people hold about science, including why aeroplanes fly, why the Earth has seasons and why the Moon seems to change size. People pick these misconceptions up and they’re hard to dislodge, which is why it’s so important to get things right(ish) when creating something.

Showing students the scale of the universe, he says, is tricky because people don’t hold the numbers in their heads… he tells the story of a student who, on understanding the magnitude of the universe, began to cry.”

Kevin R. Grazier, Solar System and Cassini

How our Solar System formed, why our star is far from average and where it gets all its energy from. Also, where our Moon came from, what we can see of the other planets and what scientists think it means.

Every second, our sun converts 600mil tons of hydrogen into 596 tons of helium with the resulting 4mil tons being converted into energy.”

Mike Brotherton, Electromagnetic Spectrum, Light, Instruments and Telescopes

Everything we know about the universe we’ve found out by observing the electromagnetic spectrum. How can we get so much information from a single medium?

The way we watch is by collection photons. We have to understand light. We need to understand the processes that create and modify light so that we can understand distant objects.”

Kevin R. Grazier, The Space Environment, (or Gravity, Newton, Kepler and Orbits)

A broadside at the basic physics of space: Mass; gravity; escape velocity and why it’s very, very hard to reach the sun. And also why the matter in the universe is not spread out evenly, but clumped together. Interestingly, the clumpy universe mirrors the clumpy quanta in particles.

[O]n BSG we used bullets in our vipers instead of lasers… When you understand the concept of energy, you realize that wasn’t a bad choice.”

Mike Brotherton, Everything You Wanted to Know About Stars

The mass of stars, their brightness, luminosity, place in the universe, chemical composition, life expectancy, and how you work all that stuff out. And a look at the interstellar mass–nebulae and gas clouds–that occasionally collapse into stars. Did you know that Jupiter and Saturn are proto-stars that are too small to achieve fusion, and thus are effectively still-born stars?

Stars are the bread and butter of astronomers. They’re the building blocks of galaxies.”

Kevin R. Grazier, The Space Environment (for reals this time)

What’s space actually made of? Charged ions, magnetic fields, and not much heat. And what would happen if you found yourself floating in space with no protection other than your red shirt?

[T]hey’ve done experiments with animals breeding in space.”

Genevieve Valentine Writes about Jim Verley on Science Education

The importance of, and the troubles with, teaching science to people. Science needs to engage and inspire people, and often children are confronted with dry book-learning, religious opposition, and anti-intellectualism from their parents and society in general.

What a scientific belief means: “This is what we know so far, this is what he don’t know, this is how I’m thinking about the information right now.”

Stephanie Slater, If Galileo Had Known Cognitive Psychology, They Wouldn’t Have Locked Him Up

People’s brains come pre-wired with ideas and beliefs–p-prims–and when you challenge them they tend to become angry, defensive or upset. When you’re tying to teach people, this is a problem because people don’t believe things which contradict their p-prims. This is especially a problem with astronomy, because the concepts are very challenging to us tiny humans… So, how can fiction help?

People wouldn’t listen because they had emotional/moral/philosophical reactions to Galileo’s claims… They believed the moon was perfect, and it was resonant with other beliefs, so they would not revise this belief in the face of facts”

Mike Brotherton, More on Stars

A star is a core of fusion reactions that are in a constant fight with gravity–the energy given off by the reactions wants to escape, but the gravity generated by the stellar mass wants to collapse. Stars evolve and change over time, becoming white or red dwarfs, exploding and going cold, becoming nebulae and eating planets.

There’s an instability that ends up blowing off the outer layers of the red giant and exposing the white dwarf core.”

Kevin R. Grazier, Science in Science Fiction

General relativity, special relativity, artificial gravity, faster-than-light travel, laser beams, cloaking devices, force fields, and why the original series Cylons were so damned shiny…

So say we have small gravity generators. So small we can put them in the floor… So your hallways in your spacecraft might be shaped like flared cylinders.”

Mike Brotherton, Summing Up Stars, and Moving On To Galaxies

An awful lot on black holes and galaxies. How they form, what they do, how we can observe them and how we can make conclusions from those observations, looked at from a ‘local’ point of view–i.e. how it affects us, how the interactions of galaxies leads to star formation and what it’s like to live in the heart of the galaxy.

[I]magine quantum foam on the edge of an event horizon, you get particle and antiparticle appearing and before they can come together and vanish, one gets sucked into the black hole. The other one is stuck. It’s stuck and it can fly away form the black hole…given enough time, a black hole can evaporate”

Kevin R. Grazier, Fermi and Drake

How likely is there to be life on other planets and how likely are we to find it?

[W]e learned about the greenhouse effect by studying Venus. So now what we’re doing is taking what we know about earth and applying that externally.

Mike Brotherton, Resources on Exoplanets

Links to websites which have current information

We see artist renderings because the way we detect the planets is with eclipses and little wiggles, which are great news stories, but hard to visualize.”

Kevin R. Grazier, Extrasolar Planets

What it is about our planet that means life can and has evolved, and are we likely find anything similar out there in space?

So: the moon impacts earth, and that blows off our first atmosphere.”

Mike Brotherton Leaves Us with a Lecture

A different look at galaxies, about how we think they from, why they form and how they fit in with the grander structure of the universe. Does dark matter exist? Apparently it does because the gravitational distortion of a galaxy is greater than possible for its mass, and there’s even a picture to prove it. And then there’s dark energy, which is kind of like the momentum to gravity’s friction. And then, what we know, what we think we know and what we’d like to know about the Big Bang.

Time exists so everything doesn’t happen at once, and space exists so it doesn’t all happen to you.”