Learning to appreciate astronomy.

Snapshots of life at home.
Jan. 11 2010 6:54 AM

Learning To Love the Moon

Readers teach me how to appreciate astronomy.

Peruse an "astronomical" gallery from Magnum Photos. 

I recently embarrassed myself by admitting that I know nothing about astronomy and can't fathom my kids' passion for it, even when we are standing under the night sky with a super-telescope. I've written many mortifying family columns over the years, but the responses to this one stand out for their earnest and gentle efforts to correct my know-nothing ways. And so I'm passing along the best suggestions I got for appreciating the solar system beyond our own dear planet (and the best chidings from space lovers, too). Consider this a "Learn To Love the Moon" guide for everyone who thinks a Kuiper belt sounds like a nice fashion accessory.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

To explain the relationship of the moon to Earth, a reader named David sent me this moon mechanics link. Brian Crosby, an astrophysicist, points out that we on Earth rely on the moon in the most basic ways: "First, without the moon, terrestrial life on Earth likely wouldn't exist, as the lack of tides and tidal zones would have deprived the planet of a necessary transition point for life from the ocean to pass onto dry ground. Second, without the moon to stabilize the axis of rotation of the Earth, precession would regularly leave half the planet constantly exposed to the sun and half constantly in shadow. The environmental havoc would [be] immense, if not catastrophic to life." From reader Robert Railey: "Global warming would go unnoticed and ignored if not for the ideas and instrumentation invented while trying to understand the dynamics of atmosphere and climate on other planets."

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Michael Faison, director of the Leitner Observatory and Planetarium at Yale, where I took my kids, points out the huge metaphysical questions astronomy raises: "What is our place in the universe? How did life arise on the Earth, and what are the chances that life arose on other planets?" He also argues that "astronomy is a very accessible and democratic science (as opposed to say, particle physics), in that the sky is right there for anyone and everyone around the world to explore. Your sons, using a small telescope, can rediscover the moons orbiting Jupiter for themselves, as Galileo did, rather than take someone else's word for it. With some slightly fancier (but still relatively inexpensive, as hobbies go) equipment, your kids could make their own new discoveries." Like 14-year-old Caroline Moore did last summer.

Crosby, my new astrophysicist friend, also defends NASA with an example of "curiosity-driven research" into nuclear magnetic resonance. From this work came the MRI machine, but the original purpose wasn't commercial—it was about knowledge for the sake of knowledge, he says. Another historical example of the glory of sheer exploration, from Tevong You: Isaac Newton's deduction of the law of nature, which started with his observation that the moon was attracted to the Earth. Tevong also suggests the solar system walk, otherwise known as "The Earth as a Peppercorn," to help appreciate the enormous scale of our galaxy.

The reader named David urged me not to "conflate NASA and the politics of space exploration with astronomy as a whole." Good advice. (Though I can't resist pointing out that a couple of scientists wrote in to say they agreed with me that manned space missions are wasteful. Michael, an aerospace engineer, adds, "There is a new generation of telescopes being built that may eliminate the need for space-based telescopes. Maybe you son will work with one someday.")

Jennifer, who is an astronomer, points out that most astronomers work not for NASA but in research institutions or in education. She writes, "Please do not conflate our field of study with what you seem to consider a bloated government bureaucracy! (And as many Fraysters pointed out, that is a questionable position in itself)." Jennifer also says, "Astronomy as a field fares better than many other physical sciences in terms of the representation of women, but it could do better." Here's more from the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women.

I also want to pass along more space-related links and movie recommendations. From another scientist, Stephanie, comes a great quickie YouTube video, of the hammer and feather experiment that the astronauts did on Apollo 15. From Nick, free open-source planetarium software, Stellarium. From Michael, a Web site where you can enter your location and get the time and location of visible satellites passing over you. Also, this space weather site. Movie recommendations: For All Mankind (that one is from my colleague Fred Kaplan), The Right Stuff, Contact, and Carl Sagan's Cosmos series. Also, of course, Apollo 13, courtesy of my dad.

And to the reader who said her father would take my kids on a tour of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Los Angeles, yes, please, next time we're there!

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