Current Events

Current Events: Formal Education, The Fun They Had, and Plan B

By Adam Johnston

This week, we have a guest post from a colleague at Weber State University. In addition to teaching at Weber State, Adam Johnston is also the author of the blog First Drafts in which he writes about education, science, and personal experiences. In the post below, Adam discusses the shift in our methods of teaching brought about by COVID-19, stresses the importance of managing our personal expectations, and suggests using this moment to think about what our overarching educational goals should be. Click here to access the original post.

 

In the face of pandemic and social upheaval, what teachers and families and students are doing right now is nothing short of heroic. They’ve been sent away from their buildings and communities yet are told to still conduct school, and a steady stream of accolades are being appropriately shouted from our socially distant social media streams. Teachers I work with in the K-12 settings and my colleagues in university programs are building new vehicles and plans and schedules and methods on the fly, while they’re flying, and it’s all quite extraordinary. And our students — the two in my house are navigating all of this newness in the face of trauma as they try to finish a senior year of high school and a second year of college, respectively — are wading through completely new arrangements, unfamiliar structures, and major tectonic shifts. Daughter 1 still has belongings and a made bed in a dorm room hundreds of miles away that she essentially evacuated at the start of spring break; Daughter 2 is facing the reality of graduating from our K-12 system without a formal graduation ceremony with the people she’s essentially shared her entire lifetime with. These are just the two student stories right here before me, in our privileged home. There are literally millions of others, each with their own story.1

These are difficult times; I admire all that everyone, everywhere is doing.

And yet, I am quite certain that we’re going at it all wrong, for understandable reasons.

To be clear, I don’t think this education roller coaster was avoidable and I don’t have an immediate solution. School is in a massive mode of triage, and we’re doing the best we can in the moment with what we have in front of us. Let’s finish the year with that in mind, no judgements. And please, let’s not beat ourselves up when our teaching and our learning isn’t the same in these formats. In fact, let’s not even pretend that they could be.2

Schools are sacred spaces, places we’ve designed specifically to bring people together to learn, for their current selves and for our future citizenship and society. Sitting among the very greatest human inventions like poetry, science, democracy, beer, libraries, and music, I think that education should top the list. The problem is that we don’t realize that it is, in fact, invented — it didn’t come from out of the blue, after all, not handed to us on stone tablets — and that this means that we also have the ability to change it. At the same time, I think that schools are incredibly beautiful and beneficial and egalitarian and, overall, good, even as there’s always room for improvement and reform.

The latest model of education, a century old at least, is a vision of all children in America all walking up concrete steps and into congregating classrooms and spending roughly 180 days in these spaces among friends and caring teachers and chalkboards and frog dissections and readers and math manipulatives and recesses and maybe a unit on square dancing that doubles for both PE and music.3 Teachers love their students, and I don’t say this as a throw-away, trite line. I see this firsthand in classrooms. And, I know firsthand that students love their teachers. For all of the pains that we might associate with school and schooling, kids are walking up those steps into rooms where they are loved for who they are, where they collaborate and work with peers, and where they have a system that, for the most part, is designed to focus on the needs of each human. This may sound as if there should be rainbows and butterflies and fairy dust sprinkled about this fantasy scene, but I’ve worked with enough teachers, students, and classrooms that I can verify this is as true as my love for my own children.

In that genuinely caring context, schools and teachers create and cultivate community. There are reading circles and discussions; teachers know how to pair students together, and they know how to separate them; students share with teachers, in one way or another, that they’re excited or scared or having a tough go of things. I’m confident that every teacher worth their salt has a story of when a student, Kindergartener, 4th grader, high school senior, or pre-med major came to them crying. And I’m confident that each of those teachers knows about the celebrations in their students’ lives. And even when they don’t know the details they know when the kids walking through the door carry excess burdens or are lifted by extra joys in their lives. And in the mix of all this, teachers adapt to their students. Like I said, these are acts of love, hosted in brick buildings paid for with taxpayer dollars all over the country.

                                        

A couple years ago I reviewed the finalists for our university’s major teaching award. In the process, the other committee members and I pored over nominations and piles of supporting material, but the real joy of the task was in visiting these teachers’ natural classroom habitats.4 They were all expert in their fields and engaging in the classroom, well organized and clear. They were centered on students’ ideas and guided them not just through the details, but the big picture and purpose of a given teaching episode. I saw this in chemistry as well as in social work, in economics and education as well as in journalism. Yet, the teaching expertise and classroom seemed secondary to something else. The subtle but clear commonality in each of these extraordinary instructors was how they related to their students on a personal level. They revealed details about themselves and they knew their students, the personal stories, affects, efficacies, and histories. The connections and interactions were vibrant and joyful, simultaneously gluing and stimulating the class. In all this, it wasn’t merely a dissemination of information, but the building of relationships.

In contrast, I recently remembered and re-read Isaac Asmiov’s classic kid’s story, The Fun They Had. This was a futuristic vision when it was written in the 1950s, and still was when I read it as part of my reading packet around 1980. Set in the year 2157, the premise is that two kids are contrasting their version of a “teacher,” essentially a computer as envisioned before computers (or even microprocessors) were commonplace, with our human version. The children had to have their teachers tuned and occasionally repaired to deliver lessons in their own homes; and students turned in handwritten work that these machines evaluated. The plot twist here is that Tommy has found “a real book” in an attic and they talk about how ridiculous these pages are and how it comes from a time when schools were places children would gather and teachers were real people. As Margie considers the arithmetic lesson for the day at the close of the story:

 

She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.

And the teachers were people . . .

The mechanical teacher was flashing on the screen: “When we add the fractions 1/2 and 1/4 —”

Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.

 

I suspect there are students, now, thinking about the fun they had only weeks ago. And they have real people as teachers, on the other end of an internet connection that even Asimov hadn’t imagined two centuries of technology could create. These are the same loving teachers, dedicated instructors, who host students in the learning environments in our neighborhoods schools when the doors are open. And surely, I know, they do all they can to sustain these relationships in more meaningful ways than Margie and Tommy’s “teachers.” But I also know teachers who, daily, break down in tears because they cannot possibly connect with their students in the ways they can when they’re all sharing the same physical space.

Besides interpersonal connections, there are clear advantages to working with students face-to-face. These are interwoven with the way that we’ve deliberately crafted our school system. We have lab benches and sinks, performance spaces and whiteboards, recess spaces and reading circles. The simple act of walking down a hallway as a class is an act of collaboration; singing together in the music room is a community celebration. Walk by an old elementary school on a warm spring day and listen for the joy that seeps out of open windows.5 If all that there was to learn could be had by reading, then we’d simply teach the kids to read and then send them home with a collection of books. When you’ve finished those, come back and get more; and when you’ve finished all the books then we’ll give you a piece of paper that you can put on your wall and gain yourself admission to a new school with new books.

This is, at its face, absurd. We know that there’s more to learning than just reading books, or at least that the reading of the books or the listening to the lectures or the watching of the presentation doesn’t itself turn into learning. There’s a working with and among one another that creates new meaning. Application and practice create new levels of understanding. Gaining a sense of self and making connection to something greater are important, if not critical, pieces of what we aim for in our schooling. Students talk about this in their graduation speeches, that there’s greater meaning and application and synthesis, and that schools aren’t really about the delivery of information into students’ cognitive processors. We’ve all had the privilege of experiencing this in our schools, and our students talk about these learningful outcomes and how they result from being on a debate team, a basketball team, a historical debate, a physics lab. They talk about what they’ve learned through all of the connections they’ve built and interactions they’ve had, with teachers and students and others.

The community, relationships, direct interconnections with one another—these are all the things we can’t expect from online education, now or ever, simply because this isn’t what online education has to offer. Rather than wring our hands and lament this, we should celebrate it. Let’s look at all that our in-school education does for us and herald this as one of society’s great accomplishments; and then let’s not expect online to do the same.

                                        

But maybe we can do something fundamentally different with online education in the future. It can’t be the same as the schools we now have, but it could be something else, something additional, not a replacement but an altogether different system with an altogether different goal.

As an analogy, let’s take trains.

I love to ride the train, big or small, near or far, and in so many ways it’s the ideal form of transportation for me to get from my town to another that could be 30 minutes, an hour, or two hours away. I have to plan ahead and be conscious of the schedule and a few various regulations. The infrastructure for the train, right-of-way and tracks, employment of the operators, and all that background operation have to be engineered and arranged, but once it’s there I have an ideal way to get myself from point A to point B. The arrangement is so ingrained into a community that I could easily take it for granted.6

So I imagine the painful scenario that follows if, one day, trains are suddenly closed. After a brief pivot, everyone scrambles and looks for the alternative transportation mode, and while I am really upset about the lack of my smooth and fast transport, I have faith that I’ll be given an alternative, a “plan B.”7 I imagine being handed a backpack and some walking sticks, and perhaps someone checks to see if I have the right shoes on my feet and they offer an alternative pair of sneakers in case mine aren’t quite up to the task. Am I then setup to succeed?

I have all the tools of transit, albeit substitutions. But it should be obvious that I’m not going to walk the entire length of the tracks. And no one could expect me to go at the same pace as the train. With this new mode, I have limitations. I need to change my destination and expectations. And, I’d change my perspective and gaze.

This would be a completely new experience. I like walking. I love putting stuff into backpacks. I might even appreciate the new shoes to try. I won’t cover the same distance, and it won’t be as fast, but with each step I’m going to see different things than I would on the train. Everything goes by slower but the concentration on specific features would be more intense. I won’t get as far, but I’ll get somewhere. Details will be crisper, the pace will be my own, and there will be choices about how I make my way.

These walks won’t replace the train; they’ll make me appreciate it all the more. But they’ll also help me see what the alternatives will bring if, if, I’m so willing to use the new mode in a way that matches what it’s good for. At-home learning could be self-paced and introspective, the chance to break away from the regular commute. There are opportunities to take notice of what might be in my backyard or where the sun sets at night8; my writing could take on a different form, focus, and structure9; I’m going to make a lunch from scratch instead of brown-bagging it or waiting in the cafeteria line. These things are all small, but they still provide opportunities to know my world and build experiences in a different way.

All the while, I’ll miss school and appreciate that community, the collaboration, the love inherent in that space. I’m confident we’ll get the train running again — a faith I have simply because I can’t imagine our society or my own personal world without it. So, this introspective, self-contained time away from the formality and congregation of our school buildings might be a good chance for us to appreciate what traditional schools do for us as people, individually and collectively. We might have a better perspective on what we value and prioritize for schooling in the future — the things we can’t otherwise replicate.

For now, and for any other moment in the future when we don’t have our schools operating normally, let’s not try to replace the system. We can value alternatives for what they are, use them for what they are, even draw from them for additional resources and learning opportunities. But let’s not expect ourselves, even with fancy shoes, to walk at the pace or with the inherent community of a train. Let’s not expect new tools, unlearned and mostly untested and most certainly un-utilized until now, to attempt to be all that we really value about education. Let’s forgive ourselves. Let’s expect less of ourselves, our families, our teachers, and our students right now. Let’s appreciate the walk, and, next time, in the future, let’s think about how any “plan B” is not just a different tool, but something that has an altogether different purpose.

Much later, when there’s room to breathe, let’s think again about what we want from education in the first place, “the fun they had,” and if we’re using all our tools and modes in meaningful ways to reach those goals. But right now, in this moment, in these times and with these conditions, let’s breathe, give ourselves a break, share some compassion and empathy, and just get through the school year as best we can.

                                        

 

 

1 The other human member of our home, my wife, Karyn, teaches knitting classes. As I’m writing, she just walked by exclaiming how much more work she is putting into new formats for her students who are dialing in online. They’re appreciative, but replicating what she can do face-to-face is arduous, and actually impossible.

2 Watching the various classroom practices whirling around me as though I’m in an educational tornado, I asked a colleague if they’d let me into their now-online class, just to observe and understand various strategies. They were initially open, but then thought twice and said they weren’t happy enough about what they were doing to want anyone else to peek inside. I can’t blame them. 

3 The meaning of “all” and our dedication to it continues to have some inconsistencies. In spite of court rulings and legislation, schools are still segregated and unequal, and we can’t ignore this. I’m envisioning a shared ideal here, that we want all children to get a K-12 education and graduate. That traces back to the early 20th century, though the legacy of our schools goes back much further, still.

4 My favorite professional task is teaching, but my second favorite is observing others teach.

5 I know that “modern” schools are often sealed up and air conditioned, but I’ve been happy to get to live next to some older buildings with no such amenities.

6 Here in Ogden, Utah, while we don’t have the same rail infrastructure as people back East or in other countries, we do have a smooth commuter rail that extends up and down the Wasatch Front and connects to light rail systems in the Salt Lake metro area. More interesting, maybe, is the fact that Ogden is a traditional hub of railroad history, being the junction near the joining of the transcontinental line 150 years ago. This brought prosperity and interesting characters (and oh so many stories and legends) to Ogden, and we’re still built on that foundation even as the rail system has been supplanted by the interstate system.

7 A dear friend and backpacking companion tells me, “Plan B is the same as Plan A, but with rain gear.” This seems simultaneously so wise and dumb. And it feels universally familiar, in backpacking or otherwise.

8 It changes position every day, and as the seasons change the amount and direction it moves changes as well. Standing on an east-west running street as the sun goes down can give you some orientation, and watching this from the same place (though different times!) on different days will provide a good comparison.

9 Let’s admit that writing in the midst of a pandemic isn’t easy, though. There have been a lot of blank screens staring back at me these days. Giving myself the diversion to write in footnotes has been a good lubricant.


Current Events: Milky Way’s Warp Caused by Galactic Collision

By Stacy Palen

According to this article published by the European Space Agency, the extremely precise mapping being done by the Gaia satellite shows that the warp in the Milky Way Galaxy is moving far faster than expected. This implies that it is caused by interactions with another galaxy rather than by magnetic fields or the dark matter halo.

Below are some questions to ask your students based on this article.

1) What is unprecedented about the data that Gaia is taking now?

Answer: Gaia is taking more precise position and velocity data on a very large number of objects.

2) What do astronomers mean when they talk about a “warp” in the disk of the Milky Way?

Answer: They mean that one side of the disk is twisted up, while the other side is twisted down.

3) Where else in your study of astronomy have you run into the term precession? How does that use of the term compare to the one used here?

Answer: Precession was also used to talk about how Earth’s pole points in different directions over a 26,000-year period. It’s similar to this usage because if you imagine an axis perpendicular to the warped disk, that axis would likewise point in different directions over time. The time scale here, however, is much longer.

4) What is it about the warp that makes it possible for astronomers to rule out all causes but one?

Answer: The speed of the warp matters. It moves too fast for anything but an intergalactic collision to be causing it.

5) Consider what you have learned about galaxy formation and interactions. If you were an astronomer, what might you look for in other spiral galaxies in order to confirm this result?

Answer: If warps are caused by interactions, then every time I see one, I should also see small companion galaxies that are very close—with orbits close enough to pass through the disk of the larger spiral galaxy.

6) The Sagittarius dwarf galaxy may be the cause of the Milky Way’s warped disk. What is the ultimate fate of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy?

Answer: The Sagittarius dwarf galaxy will ultimately be absorbed by the Milky Way.

7) Speculate: after the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy meets its ultimate fate, what do you expect to happen to the warp in the Milky Way’s disk?

Answer: The warp should slowly disappear, once there is no longer a galaxy tugging the disk around.


Current Events: "Not Just A Space Potato": NASA Unveils "Astonishing" Details of Most Distant Object Ever Visited

By Stacy Palen

According to this article on The Guardian, when the New Horizons spacecraft arrived at Arrokoth, it revealed a surprising world. Now, planetary scientists are beginning to reconsider their conclusions about the formation of the Solar System. This new discovery appears to favor a gentler model of planet formation than the hierarchical model.

Here are some questions, inspired by the arrival of the New Horizons probe at Arrokoth, that you can ask your students:

1) Where is Arrokoth located?

Answer: In the Kuiper Belt.

2) Why can observations of Arrokoth yield information about the early Solar System?

Answer: Objects in the Kuiper Belt remain essentially unchanged since the Solar System formed. They do not have the same history of impacts and geologic processes as objects in the inner Solar System.

3) In your own words, state the hierarchical model of planet formation.

Answer: Small bodies smash together to form progressively larger bodies.

4) In your own words, state the cloud collapse theory of planet formation.

Answer: Slightly denser regions of dust and gas clump together and then, all at once, collapse under gravity.

5) What would astronomers expect Arrokoth to look like if the hierarchical model is correct?

Answer: They would expect to see evidence of collisions, like fractures and varied composition across the body.

6) What would astronomers expect Arrokoth to look like if the cloud collapse theory is correct?

Answer: They would expect to see uniform composition and no evidence of smashing.

7) Which model of planetary formation is supported by the actual appearance of Arrokoth?

Answer: Because Arrokoth is relatively smooth and uniform, it supports the cloud collapse theory of planet formation.


Current Events: 7 billion-year-old stardust is the oldest stuff on Earth

By Stacy Palen

I recently stumbled upon this article from The Washington Post about stardust on Earth. Mineral dust in the Murchison meteorite shows traces of neon produced by cosmic rays as the dust traveled through space. The abundance of neon atoms indicates that the dust was formed 7 billion years ago—before the Sun formed.

Here are some questions to ask your students based on the article:

1) What produces neon atoms in grains of interstellar dust?

Answer: Cosmic rays smash into the grain and convert silicon into neon.

 

2) How does the rate of cosmic rays striking the dust change with time?

Answer: It doesn’t. This rate is constant.

 

3) Suppose that one grain of dust has twice as much neon as another grain. What can you conclude about the relative time each grain spent in space?

Answer: The one with twice as much neon was out there twice as long.

 

4) In your own words, describe how astronomers determine the age of a grain of interstellar dust.

Answer: Astronomers count the number of neon atoms and compare that number to the number of neon atoms in a grain of known age. If there are more neon atoms, the dust grain was roaming the galaxy longer.

 

5) How old is the Sun, and how do we know?

Answer: The Sun is about 4.5 billion years old. We know this from measuring isotope abundances in moon rocks.

 

6) Are these dust grains older or younger than the Solar System?

Answer: These dust grains are 2.5 billion years older than the Solar System.

 

7) Is this result consistent with the idea that stars recycle material from the interstellar medium when they form? Explain.

Answer: Yes! Because the Sun and planets formed from material lost from earlier stars (we know this because of the abundance of other materials. Some of that material is still floating in the Solar System, and some of it was lost from stars that died long before the Solar System formed.


Current Events: Image Release: Giant Magnetic Ropes in a Galaxy’s Halo

By Stacy Palen

A new composite image released by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory superimposes radio data on a visual image of a galaxy. Magnetic fields here are shown in blue and green, indicating alternate directions.

Here are some questions that you can ask your students based on this image:

1) What is the Hubble type of this galaxy?

Answer: A spiral.

2) How do you know?

Answer: Because there is a disk, viewed edge on.

3) What is the Hubble type of the large galaxy directly above the primary galaxy in this image?

Answer: Elliptical.

4) How do you know?

Answer: There is no disk.

5) The blue and green false color “hair” represents the magnetic fields of the galaxy. Blue indicates that the magnetic field points roughly away from us, while green points roughly toward us. These magnetic fields are described as “spiraling” and as “ropes.” Make a sketch of the magnetic field lines of the galaxy that fits these descriptions and observations.

Answer: This is a genuine question, not a test of their understanding. I am picturing a spiral for each blue/green pair that is roughly perpendicular to the disk. I wonder what students “get” from these descriptions?

6) Are the magnetic fields above the disk of the galaxy symmetric with those below the disk? What might cause this?

Answer: They are not. It could be because the magnetic field is being generated differently, or it could be because the observations are more resolved above the disk than below. That could happen if the galaxy disk was tilted so that the top of the disk is tilted toward us.


Current Events: Probe Gets Close to the Sun—Finds Rogue Plasma Waves and Flipping Magnetic Fields

Sun nasa pic_12_20_2019
Credit: NASA/SDO

 

By Stacy Palen

Just in time for the close of the semester, we get a present from NASA! According to this article on NPR, the Parker Solar Probe has arrived at the Sun, and it’s sending us back some big surprises.

Here are some questions, inspired by the Parker Solar Probe’s recent discoveries, that you can ask your students:

1) In 2025, the Parker Solar Probe will come within 4 million miles of the Sun, which is 1/10 the orbital distance of Mercury. To date, it has passed within about 15 million miles from the Sun (almost 4/10 the orbital distance of Mercury). Make a sketch of the Sun and the orbit of Mercury, and then draw circles that show the closest distance of the Parker Solar Probe so far, and its distance in 2025.

Answer: A sketch.

2) The Parker Solar Probe has observed unexpected spikes in the flow of solar wind, where its speed suddenly increases by 300,000 miles an hour, which is nearly double its normal, steady speed. These spikes last for varying amounts of time, from a few seconds to hundreds of seconds. Convert this information into a graph of the speed versus time for an outflow over five minutes of observation. Assume that two spikes occur, one of 5 seconds and one of 100 seconds.

Answer: A graph.

3) The Parker Solar Probe may answer a question that’s been around for decades called the “solar corona problem.” From the context of the article, or from some general research on Google, describe this problem in your own words.

Answer: Why is the corona so hot?

4) The article repeatedly mentions that the magnetic field “flips” without thoroughly explaining this process. What exactly does this flipping of the Sun’s magnetic fields mean?

Answer: This means that the north end of the magnetic field switches locations with the south end.

5) Why did astronomers think that their equipment might be malfunctioning?

Answer: Because the changes in the speed and direction of the magnetic field were happening much faster than expected.


Current Events: A Missing Neutron Star May Have Been Found after 30-year Hunt

Stsci-h-p1708a-m-1823x2000
Credits: NASA/STScI

By Stacy Palen

Supernova 1987a may be the most well-studied supernova in history. But the “corpse” had not been found! However, this may have changed according to this article from Scientific American.

Here are some questions you can ask based on this article:

1) How long ago was this supernova first observed on Earth?

Answer: 30 years.

 

2) How long ago did the supernova actually occur?

Answer: 163,000 years

 

3) Why do astronomers typically not worry about the discrepancy between the times in question 1 and question 2?

Answer: We can’t know about anything that happens until the light gets here. As far as we are concerned, the moment we observe it IS the moment when it happened.

 

4) What is special about supernova 1987a?

Answer: Supernova 1987a is so unusually close that we can see it in detail, and watch it evolve in real time. It is also the first supernova observed for which we had seen the progenitor star.

 

5) Why had astronomers argued that a neutron star (as opposed to, say, a black hole) should result from this supernova?

Answer: The progenitor star was about 20 solar masses. This is in the range between 8 and 25 solar masses, which is expected to result in a neutron star.

 

6) What is the evidence that has been presented for the detection of a neutron star?

Answer: A bright blob within a dense dust blob.

 

7) What will astronomers do to strengthen their conclusions from this evidence?

Answer: Get more data, of course!


Current Events: Moonrise at Sunrise

Moonrise
Credit: NASA/Christina Koch

By Stacy Palen

The image above was taken from the International Space Station by NASA astronaut Christina Hammock Koch and could form the basis for a nice final exam question.

 

1) In this image, what is the phase of the Moon? How do you know?

The moon here is a Waning Crescent. The image was taken looking East, into the sunrise, so north is to the left in this image. Therefore, the Moon is “leading” the Sun across the sky and illuminated on the eastern half. This means it is in the Waning phases.

 

2) If you had only this image to go by, with no caption, how would you know that it was an image of Earth?

The planet shown has a solid surface and a shallow but significant atmosphere. Earth is the only terrestrial planet that fits these criteria.

Other potential answers:

  • It could not be Venus or Mercury because neither planet has a moon.
  • Mars’ atmosphere is too thin to refract blue light in this way.
  • There appears, possibly, to be a hint of colors other than red on the surface.

 

3) Based only upon the image, would you think this planet might be a good place to look for life? What other information could you gather from this viewpoint that would make you more certain of your conclusion?

This planet may be a good place to look for life. The solid surface and the presence of an atmosphere would make me want to investigate further. I would especially want to get a closer look at the surface, or get a spectrum of the atmosphere in order to be totally sure.


Current Events: Naming the Moons of Saturn

By Stacy Palen

I long ago stopped keeping track of the number of moons around Saturn and Jupiter. It often feels like there is a contest going on among astronomers—who can find the most moons around “their” planet! In early October, a report hit the news of 20 new moons discovered around Saturn, many of them in retrograde orbits.

This brings the number of moons around Saturn to 82. The number around Jupiter? Only 79. Neener-neener, Jupiter devotees!

Seriously though, if you are now discussing moons, planets, or planetary formation, this is a timely discovery to talk about with students. Or if you are about to start talking about dark matter, it may be a good time to remind students about Keplerian orbits and Newton’s version of Kepler’s Third Law.

But wait! There’s more!

These moons are not yet named, and Scott Sheppard has decided to have a contest to name them all.

Here are the general rules from the Carnegie Science website:

https://carnegiescience.edu/NameSaturnsMoons

  • Two of the newly discovered prograde moons fit into a group of outer moons with inclinations of about 46 degrees called the Inuit group. All name submissions for this group must be giants from Inuit mythology.
  • Seventeen of the newly discovered moons are retrograde moons in the Norse group. All name submissions for this group must be giants from Norse mythology.
  • One of the newly discovered moons orbits in the prograde direction and has an inclination near 36 degrees, which is similar to those in the Gallic group, although it is much farther away from Saturn than any other prograde moons. It must be named after a giant from Gallic mythology.

Full details are available on the website along with a link to a list of names already used and a little video that describes the contest.

It would be great fun to make a class project or competition (even for college students) to choose a name to submit as a group. It’s the kind of experience that students remember for a long time. Submissions are due via Twitter by December 6.


Current Events: Supermoons and Other Nonsense

201306230004HQ_orig
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

By Stacy Palen

In July 2019, I received a few queries about a “black supermoon.” Since I had no idea what that was, I decided to track it down. It comes from a group of click-bait articles like this one, which are apparently taking off from a random article in Travel And Leisure magazine.

In brief, there is a new moon. It’s the second one in a month. Apparently, the Farmer’s Almanac calls this a “black moon.” This new moon occurs at perigee, when the moon is closest and has a (technically) larger angular size.

This has lately become known as a “supermoon.” The astute reader will note that you can’t even see this supermoon because it's a new moon. (Cue GIF of Kermit the Frog flailing his hands wildly in despair.)

In the last few years, “supermoons” of various kinds have suddenly become news.

A quick query of Google’s Ngram Viewer reveals that the word isn’t even in their database up through 2008, which is somewhat reassuring; it certainly feels like the term suddenly started popping up just a couple of years ago! But this was the first I had heard of a “black moon.”

Why does this matter? More astronomy in the news is better, right? Well, sort of.

Suppose everyone gets all excited about going out to observe the “black supermoon” and it’s nowhere near as interesting as they expect. Thereafter, they are less likely to follow up when something truly exciting happens, like the total solar eclipse that is coming to the US in 2024. (Have you made your plans yet? I have.)

Competing for the attention of the public, at this point, is a remarkably difficult prospect. I see why some outlets would seize on the popularity of astronomy to try to get a few seconds of that all-important attention. But in the long run, this is a failing strategy if the “news” fails to deliver what it has promised.

This particular article provides a good opportunity to help students see when they are being “click-baited” since there is literally nothing unusual happening.

A student who really understands the lunar orbit and phases of the moon will react to this article much like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, when he receives his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring and realizes the whole thing is a marketing ploy.

“A crummy commercial?” he exclaims as he throws away his long-awaited prize.

Given the last few years, I expect to see two or three articles like this over the course of the next academic year. Each time a student (current or former) asks about it, I will use it as a “teachable moment” and recommend that they fully engage their baloney detection kit when reading their news feeds!