Current Events: Supermoons and Other Nonsense

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!

Classroom Stories: Psychology and Underrepresented Groups

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B.O'Kane / Alamy Stock Photo

By Stacy Palen

This week in Physics Seminar, we had a psychologist come and talk to us about a number of studies that indicate how stereotypes impact the performance of underrepresented groups. Generally, this refers to women and minorities (although other categories also intersect). The take-home message is that when underrepresented groups enter an environment in which they are the minority, they show a physical autonomic nervous system response. Really—heart rates and sweaty palms and all!

Dealing with this “fight or flight” response taxes their working memory, and they do not perform as well. Several other cleverly designed studies have investigated “stereotype threat” and have shown that when the stereotyped group is engaged in a task in which they are stereotypically bad, they are extremely sensitive to signals that confirm the stereotype.

For example, these groups will have a stronger negative reaction to a poor score on a first exam, and they are more likely to see that score as a signal that people like them are not “meant” to study science.

This is all very fascinating, but the speaker went further and gave us some concrete examples of specific interventions that help level the playing field. Interventions such as in-class discussions about the contributions of women in science may be obvious, but others were less obvious.

For example, one study had women engineering students wait briefly in an office full of items that evoke the male stereotype of an engineer (Star Trek posters dominated by male faces, gaming consoles, piles of soda cans, etc.). A second group waited in a very similar office which had slightly different posters (still science fiction, but less firmly associated with the male stereotype). This room also lacked the pile of soda cans and had an abstract picture of a flower on the wall.

Shockingly, the difference in performance on a subsequent math test was statistically significant, with the women who waited in the stereotype-evoking office performing more poorly. (Men’s performance was not affected.)

Astronomers are lucky. We have lots of examples of a diverse population contributing to our understanding of the universe. Highlighting those examples has been shown to improve performance by those who identify with the specific groups mentioned.

Conversely, highlighting the accomplishments of the majority group negatively impacts performance for the underrepresented group.

Interestingly, the majority group is not impacted in either case because they are not carrying the distracting mental burden of stereotype threat into the classroom!

The take-home message of these kinds of studies is that no matter how well the test instrument is designed, and no matter how much or how well the student knows the material, there are external factors affecting performance. These factors can be lessened by specific (small) interventions, like hanging up a different poster, highlighting diverse scientists, or intervening after an exam to point out that “this material is hard because it’s hard, not because you aren’t good at it.”

Kids in the Classroom


By Stacy Palen

I teach at an open-enrollment university with a very large number of non-traditional students: nearly all of my students have jobs with large time commitments. Many of them are parents of young children. More than half of them are married.

This semester, something interesting has been happening that has not happened before and it started with just one student. I suspect that the time of the class has something to do with this as it’s at 2:30 in the afternoon, rather than in the morning or evening when I typically teach.

A young mother, in the first week of class, emailed me to let me know that she was having trouble with her child-care arrangements for her 9-year-old daughter, and she wouldn’t make it to class. And also to ask if we were we doing anything “important” that she would miss. LOL. Fortunately, I received this email in advance, and was able to suggest that she just bring her daughter with her. So she did. And her daughter was quiet, but attentive, and even “took notes” on a sheet of paper. She even asked a good question!

So then another young mother, in week four, asked if she could bring her daughters to class, for a similar reason. These two are 8 and 6. Both sat and listened quietly. The 8-year-old raised her hand to contribute to the conversation. Her comment was not entirely on point, but she was brave to do it, and I didn’t mind.

This past week, in week five, I’ve had another bring her daughter to class. I don’t know her age, but she looks to be about 12. This young girl also sat quietly, was not disruptive, and then came to ask me a few questions after class.

This week, the first mother came to see me, and now the 9-year-old who started it all, will be coming to class every other week on Wednesday, which solves a complicated co-parenting problem for her mother, and enables the mother to come to class on those days.

Other students in the class have reacted really well to this, and I think it puts them on their best behavior a little bit, when the little kids pay attention, focus and ask questions. I suppose it’s possible that I may wind up with a class half full of little kids, but actually think that’s unlikely. The mothers have always asked permission, and are very much aware that their kids could be disruptive. It’s probably a little distracting for them, but better than not being in class at all.

This week in Physics Seminar, we had a psychologist talk to us about ways to make STEM fields less intimidating for women. I suspect this is one of them; being a little bit flexible about accommodating the complicated lives of students with multiple obligations.

I’m interested to see how this develops as the semester continues…

Reading Astronomy News: Our Galaxy’s Black Hole Suddenly Lit Up and Nobody Knows Why

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By Stacy Palen

Sgr A* is flaring to twice peak historical levels, possibly because of gravitational disturbance from S0-2. This particular article from Vice News provides a good opportunity to help students see when they are being “click-baited,” since “Nobody Knows Why” is a bit of a tease. There are actually several explanations for why this might happen, as the article later explains.


1) “Flux” may be a new vocabulary word, particularly in this context. Look it up and summarize the definition that is relevant to this article in your own words.

Flux is the light emitted per second per square meter.


2) The article states that we have been monitoring Sgr-A* for about 20 years. What technological improvements made a monitoring campaign like this one possible?

We needed to be able to observe in the infrared at high enough resolution to avoid confusion of sources in this tightly packed region of the Galaxy.


3) What possible causes for the flare are given in the article?

A close pass of SO-2 may have disturbed the gas near the black hole. We may be seeing a delayed reaction from a dust cloud that passed by and was torn apart.


4) Notice the article’s title: “…and Nobody Knows Why”. Do you think that this is an accurate characterization of what astronomers know about this flare? Why do you think the article’s title was written in this way?

Answers will vary for the first question; the second answer should include something about baiting people to click on the story.

Reading Astronomy News: Lost Cities and Climate Change

By Stacy Palen

Remnants of the lost city of Cahokia. Credit: Steve Moses/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


In this article from Scientific American, a climate scientist talks about why she is not reassured by the idea that “the climate has changed before.” This is an opinion piece, but it is worth a read if you have students who raise this argument.


1) The author points out that climate has changed many times in the past. Does that imply that Earth’s climate is sensitive to small changes or insensitive to small changes?

It implies that Earth’s climate is very sensitive to small changes.


2) This scientist is making the case that historical climate change has had dramatic and long-lasting effects on human communities. Do they provide evidence to support this argument?

Yes. The author mentions many examples, from both prehistoric and historic times.


3) The author also makes the case that many factors contributed to these effects. Identify an example of a pre-existing condition that was made worse by natural climate change.

Answers vary, but the overextended Roman empire or inequality in France might be mentioned.


4) Do you see any evidence for a similar pre-existing condition in the country today? Explain.

Answers will obviously vary depending on where you live. This is a small test of how well-informed students are about what’s happening in the larger society.


5) Describe how climate change might impact the condition you noted in (4).

Answers will vary, but should be consistent with their answer to 4. So, for example, if they mention immigration, they might include here a mention of how drought drives migratory patterns.


6) In your own words, explain the argument this scientist proposes that historical climate change should be seen as concerning rather than reassuring.

Answers will vary based on the students’ comprehension of the post.


Posters Celebrating Women in STEM


By Stacy Palen

This set of nifty (free!) posters came through my inbox over the summer. We printed some of them to hang around the Physics Department, and the College of Science more generally.

In addition to raising awareness of the contribution of women, they raise awareness of the contribution of other marginalized groups as well.

Take a look!

Classroom Stories: A Useful Reminder About Names at the Start of the School Year

Credit:Tony Tallec / Alamy Stock Photo

By Stacy Palen

Here in August, just as we are getting ready to go back to school, this Teen Vogue article that came across my desk was a useful reminder that people care deeply about their names.

I have a name that is not very hard to pronounce, but it is apparently easily confused with other names. For the longest time people would randomly call me “Tracy.” Then, in 2008, I started to get “Sarah” ALL. THE. TIME.

So I sympathize with my students and their genuine desire to be called by their actual names!

Before class begins every semester, I scroll through the list of students registered for the class and sound out any names that I’ve not seen before. Utah is particularly famous for unique spellings that take a moment to sound out like “Aunistee,” which is pronounced “Honesty.”

It has served me well to take a moment to look through these names ahead of time. In fact, I believe this is one of those “top ten” teaching tips on some website somewhere.

I am completely up front on the first day with my 120 introductory astronomy students that I will not know their names until about week three. After that, I will only know their name if they come to class all the time. They are generally surprised that I think that learning their names is an important thing to do at all.

In order to learn their names, every Friday, while they are working on their in-class activities, I hand back the past week’s activity by calling out their name and then handing the activity directly to the student. (This is arguably required by laws protecting student privacy. Students should not be able to see the scores of other students. There are other ways to handle that problem, but that’s a different blog post).

If I don’t know how to pronounce a student’s name, I will ask them to help me practice saying it. Then, I will make sure to practice it again after class. When I’m inputting grades on their written work, I’ll practice saying their name once more, alone in my office, until I’m pretty sure I’ve got it right.

Knowing your students’ names is a surprisingly simple and effective way to make your students feel like you see them and value their contribution to the class. It’s important to realize that you don’t have to be perfect. I find that if I know about a quarter of the names in the class, the students think I know them all. Then, when I call on a student whose name I know, I use their name every time.

Some names I never learn. At this point in my career it’s usually because I can’t remember if this guy is “Joe,” “John,” or “Jim.” I’ve seen those names attached to so many different people that it’s hard to keep track. I simply call on them with “Yes?” and a nod or tilt of my head.

I often get a comment in my evaluations like “I can’t believe she knew all of our names.” I was surprised the first time I saw that, but in retrospect, it makes sense to me. Students can feel lost in a large lecture classroom. Hearing their name out loud helps them find their place.

Reading Astronomy News: Japan (Very Carefully) Drops Plastic Explosives Onto An Asteroid

By Stacy Palen

Summary: Hayabusa2 has been investigating the asteroid Ryugu. This is a sample-return mission, which has implications for Solar System formation and may cast light on the origins of life on Earth.

Article: Japan (Very Carefully) Drops Elastic Explosives Onto an Asteroid

1. Consider what you know about the origin of the Solar System. What are astronomers hoping to learn from Hayabusa2’s mission to Ryugu?

Answer: They are hoping to learn about the composition of matter in the Solar System when it formed. This could confirm or refute our ideas about Solar System formation and the formation of the asteroid belt. The precursor molecules for life are also present on the asteroid, which may give us clues about the origins of life on Earth.

2. The article states that Hayabusa2 “physically touched down” on Ryugu in February 2019, and took a sample of dust kicked up. Go online and read more about it. Describe this event in more detail. Do you consider “physically touched down” to be an accurate characterization of what happened?

Answer: The spacecraft approached the surface and shot a small projectile into the asteroid. A sampler horn collected the kicked up dust and the spacecraft moved on. This is not quite what’s implied by the summary sentence in the news article.

3. Ryugu is less than a mile across, in an orbit between Earth and Mars. Using an average orbital radius between those two planets (1.25 AU), find the orbital period of Ryugu. Convert this orbital period to seconds.

Answer: This is a review of Kepler’s third law. The period is 1.16 years, which equals 3.7 X 107 seconds.

4. The circumference of Ryugu’s orbit is 1.2 X 1012 Divide this distance traveled by the period to find the speed of the asteroid in its orbit. This is the speed that Hyabusu2 must be traveling in order to rendezvous with the asteroid.

Answer: This is a reminder of the definition of the properties of an orbit (what is the circumference, and what is the period). The speed is 32,000 m/s.

5. When was the spacecraft launched, and when is the sample return mission expected to arrive back here on Earth?

Answer: The spacecraft launched in December 2014, and will return a capsule to Earth in December 2020.


Image Contributor: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library, 1 March 2013

Classroom Stories: Sky Maps and Apps

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Credit: Vadym Drobot / Alamy Stock Photo

By Stacy Palen

Everyone has their favorite sky maps, planispheres, and apps. I am no exception! Here are two resources that I go back to again and again as I prepare for class or for observing sessions.

Sky Maps is my favorite source for star charts. The star charts are free, have the right amount of detail for introductory students, and they photocopy well. The back page has a list of objects that can be seen with the naked eye, with binoculars, and with a telescope.

At the beginning of each semester, I bring a stack of these star charts to hand out. I explain how to use them (pointing out, for example, that East and West are switched and asking the students why this might be), and then explain that during the semester, we’ll be figuring out all of the object types on the back.

I then tell them to go observing. I suspect that few of them actually do, but for some reason, they do not thereafter complain that I didn’t teach them the constellations! Go figure…

At various times and in various classes, I’ve used different planetarium programs on the computer. At the moment I teach in the planetarium, so this is not as critical a question as it has been in the past.

When students ask me for a recommendation, I recommend that they look at Celestia, which is open source and runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. Celestia is a 3-D program so students can use it both as an Earth-bound sky simulator and as a space simulator.

It’s not the easiest planetarium software to use, but the price tag more than makes up for getting lost in the universe once in a while!

I’m not particularly fond of using phone apps for looking at the sky because I find that they are too sensitive to the tilt of the phone. This makes sharing them difficult, even with someone standing next to you. As well, I’ve always been disappointed at what I can find out about the objects in view.

Perhaps I’m just grumpy, but if I can click on something, I really want to be able to click on something and find out all about it. I don’t miss that functionality with a paper star chart, but I do miss it when such a vast informational repository is already available in my phone!

What maps and apps have you found useful for your students? Feel free to comment with your own favorites!