Man, am I tired. But it’s a good tired. I’ve been away the past couple days in Minneapolis/ St. Paul, Minn. at the 2018 Astronomical League Convention (ALCON 2018). It was hosted by the Minnesota Astronomical Society (MAS), one of the friendliest and most engaged bunch of amateur astronomers anywhere. The yearly event brings in speakers from across the country and abroad to talk about topics that included dark energy, discovering star clusters in Andromeda using citizen science, the underrepresentation of women in astronomy, public outreach and the dust storm on Mars.
I spoke about ways to share views of the night skies with the public at all kinds of venues including one I hope to start working on here in my town: brew pubs. I enjoyed every single presentation but my favorite was by Pranvera Hyseni, founder and director of the Astronomy Outreach of Kosovo (AOK) which is the largest non-profit astronomy outreach program in the Republic of Kosovo. This young woman has done a tremendous job bringing astronomy to the people of her small country, and in turn, amateurs and professional astronomers across the world have supported and helped her in her mission. She even has an asteroid with her name — 45687 Pranverahyseni. Right now, she’s working with her government to fund and build Kosovo’s first observatory.
Pranvera now tours and speaks across the country. Her talk on Friday at the Society’s Eagle Lake Observatory, an illustrated biography of her astronomy outreach efforts, was heart-spoken and rich in humor. The crowd loved it. Afterword, Pranvera, Phil Plait (astronomer with a great sense of humor and author of the well-known Bad Astronomer blog) got to sign our names next to John Dobson’s (inventor of the Dobsonian-style telescope) on the observatory dome.
From sunset on, attendees — about 200 of us — could wander around and look through any of at least 20 different telescopes including a 26-inch reflector. Atmospheric seeing was nearly rock solid, the planets looked like paintings. Some observers could see Saturn’s polar hexagon (the shape made by dark clouds in the planet’s north polar region) and multiple cloud band through that big scope, but even my “little” 10-inch reflector revealed a new, red oval in Jupiter’s North Equatorial Belt.
Earlier in the day, I met 12-year-old Vivek Vijayakuma of California, an incredibly smart, soft-spoken kid with an intense interest in astronomy. When I set up my scope Friday night on the observatory grounds, we hung out together and looked at Saturn, Jupiter and double stars. Vivek knew his way around the scope and so well, I just handed things over to him. He attended ALCON 2018 present his project on measuring the expansion of planetary nebulae using photos taken a century ago and comparing them to current images. He discovered that several had expanded by a couple arc seconds.
The next day, Vivek won the first place National Young Astronomer Award presented by the Astronomical League. Good gosh, I felt almost as proud of him as his parents. A young person with a passion for science inspires everyone to believe that the future holds great promise. Good luck, do well Vivek!
I attended lots of wonderful talks, stayed up too late (a habit for us astro types), met friends and made friends and had good discussions with several people including Jonathan Poppele, author of The Night Sky and other books, and Ron Schmit, the only educator in Minnesota whose full-time job is to show students at Jackson Middle School (and others) the sky through the school’s telescopes. Ron is a master at making astronomy fun and accessible for all ages.
Jonathan, thoughtful and well-spoken, shared something I’ll share with you. One of the vendors at the event was promoting a book with his pet theory of how the planets orbit the sun in a different way from the Copernican view, the standard model for centuries. Not exactly flat Earth but fringe material without hard data that relied on a model of his own making. I spent some time trying to understand his point of view and he mine. We disagreed of course. Jonathan overhead the discussion and concurred that the pet theory was fatally flawed but related the following aphorism that reminds us of how our understanding of all things will always be imperfect: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
I looked it up and the quote is usually attributed to statistician George Box. Click here for a fun read and elaboration.
I want to thank the wonderful people of the MAS for putting the conference together and attending to every detail. All your efforts were greatly appreciated. And a special shout-out to Valts Treibergs and Ben Huset. Thanks guys for your guidance!
After the conference I drove back to Duluth and joined up with our local club, the Arrowhead Astronomical Society, for a couple hours of public observing in Duluth’s #1 tourist destination, Canal Park. Several hundred people stopped by to look through the scopes, talk astronomy, ask questions and join in discussion.
Finally, a small reminder. Don’t forget to face west starting about 40 minutes after sunset this evening — Venus, brightest planet in the sky, and a beautiful crescent moon will be in close conjunction! Take out your phone and try to get a picture.