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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Summer is for Science! Part 1: Astronomy

Posted by Alana T.

Warm weather is perfect for going out and DOING science, not just reading about it (although that's nice, too), not Googling it, nor getting social updates about friends liking it.  As a scientist, I am a strong advocate for everyone getting out there and doing science type things for themselves.  Sadly, many experimental science books are too simple to keep adults (and often the kids) engaged.  Over the next few months I'll be suggesting books and activities that will keep the brain cells churning, no matter what your age. We'll start big, with astronomy.

We missed the solar eclipse last week, but I'm looking forward to the transit of Venus on June 5th.  This is a big deal, and if you can, use one of the methods described on the link to view safely.  Cross your fingers and toes for sunny weather!  The transit is a one time event, but other astronomical observations can happen anytime the skies are clear, and you don't need a telescope to see them.  I recommend, Stargazing with Binoculars by Robin Scagell and David Frydman.  The book is simple enough for a novice, but can easily keep you occupied for many hours (or months).  If you have trouble finding objects in comparison to what's in the book, you might benefit from a custom starmap.  The software at this site may seem old-fashioned, but it's more fantastic than you think.  You can create a map for your exact date & location and choose to view only planets or stars of a particular brightness. If, after some practice, you've nailed star ID, watch the short Stargazers segment for the week (broadcast on PBS and NPR) for updates on upcoming heavenly events.

The downside of the previous book is that it glosses over the biggest and most easily seen item in the night sky, the moon.  My favorite book on lunar observation is Exploring the Moon Through Binoculars and Small Telescopes by Earnest H. Cherrington.  It's old (1969), but quite thorough and easy to understand.  A good addendum is The Astronomical League's checklist of 100 lunar items to observe.  By the way, The League has a variety of other observation programs and many are perfect for summertime evenings.

Maybe you're tired by 9PM, or the idea of letting the kids stay up until 1AM makes you nervous.  Well, we have a big, 'ole star of our own that we can watch each and every day.  Because of our orbit and tilt, the sun appears to move around in the sky quite a bit (modern folks are too busy looking at their phones to notice this).  Sundials track these movements and allow us to mark the months as well as the time of day.  I recommend reading  Sundials: Their Theory and Construction by Albert E. Waugh. This is another older book, but it is thorough and it describes a wide variety of timepieces.  Take note, there is math involved, but don't be scared away by this!  Following the instructions (and with patience), I've made six of the dials from the book. Unlike the dials you purchase at the garden center, your dials will tell the correct time for Edwardsville (or anywhere else you choose).

Additional online resources:
Astronomy Picture of the Day.  A new image every day (from all over the universe!), along with a brief explanation from a professional astronomer.
The Planetary Society.  Lots of easily accessible information about a wide variety of space-related topics.
The American Museum of Natural History has a variety of quality videos about astronomical subjects.
NASA has a series of activities and videos designed for kids.  If anyone in your household is a fan of Elmo, view his videos of a trip to NASA

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