Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sagan's Lesson: Learning from the EPO Masters at the DPS

The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, as photographed by Matthew Field in 2007 (http://www.photography.mattfield.com). A mecca for astronomers and planetary scientists old and young alike, this place embodies the contact between science and the public.

Not every presentation at the DPS is on planetary science, there is also a limited subset of posters, talks and booths which deal with education and public outreach. While this component is much less developed than it is at LPSC, which has featured an EPO session, it is present nevertheless in the exhibit hall. Some of these are education of the scientists themselves, for instance, there was a poster on the PDS, the planetary data system, which a scientist who happened to be attending and who had never used spacecraft data before would have found very informative. Others announced
new journals, such as Springer's “Planetary Science” which, no doubt intends to try and give the Division's own journal, Icarus, a run for its money. Still others advertised services and products of use to the planetary community.

But there was also material presented on how we can better go about educating our students and getting our message out to the broader public. The fact that these presentations are here at all are a testament to a famous planetary scientist named Carl Sagan who believed strongly that as scientists and recipients of public funding that it was imperative that we share our knowledge, our experience and our enthusiasm with the broader community. In his honour, the DPS each year awards the Sagan Medal to the active planetary scientist who has done the most over their lifetime to
advancing planetary science amongst the public. This year's recipient was Carolyn Porco, Voyager mission veteran and Principal Investigator for Cassini's ISS (Imaging Science Subsystem), now located at SSI (Space Science Institute) in Boulder, Colorado.

Carolyn was a friend of Carl's, and the award was originally planned to be given to her by his wife, Ann Druyan. Sadly, Ann was not able to attend, but a touching letter was read in her absence. Carolyn then took the stage in the bright lights of a camera crew, and delivered a brilliant speech. This in some respects is a testament to today's most famous scientists: they are also masters of media and minor stars in their own rights. For instance, in addition to her appearances in documentaries about Cassini, Science and Space Exploration, Carolyn was also a science advisor on
movies, including “Contact” and contributed to the portrayal of Titan in “Star Trek.”

These are all interesting interfaces where education, media and planetary science touch. But EPO is also reasonably big business. Your typical NASA Spacecraft contract since the early 2000s requires that 1% of money be spent on EPO. For a mission like Phoenix, that works out to several million dollars, and we were lucky enough to have funding for a separate media/public affairs officer (Doug Lombardi then Sara Hammond) and an education/outreach director (Carla Bitter). We had a full size mock-up
built, many very professional presentations were given, a publicity trip to Alaska for educators was held and so forth. With so much money at stake, this is an area at which we need to excel.

Beyond this component were some activities which were not, on the surface, meant to be educational but from which I learned some immediately applicable lessons. There were trips to two world famous locations. The first was the Griffith Observatory, which despite the name was never a research observatory, but instead was directly intended by its founder, Griffith J. Griffith as a place where the public could come and learn about astronomy and get the chance to use the smaller telescopes. While
the urban sprawl of Los Angeles has severely restricted what is observable from Griffith, its educational aspect is top notch. I was lucky enough to attend two planetarium shows and take a look through one of their Schmidt-Cassegrains at the Wild Duck Cluster. I was particularly impressed by their use of live presenters. While they didn't demand audience participation (in fact it was more of a performance) they were seamlessly able to show us how the stars looked at different places on the Earth by using Norse Mythology and "The Lord of the Rings" to grab the audience.

I also must admit that I'm a bit of a sucker for Art-Deco architecture, so how could I resist? A colleague who accompanied me to the observatory described my reaction as "a kid in a candy store."

Next was the final activity of the conference for me, a visit to the largest telescope in the world from 1948-1975 and in North America through 1998 (an interesting piece of trivia, at 6m the LZT is the largest telescope on Canadian soil and the largest liquid-mirror telescope in the world). Mount Palomar is easily worth the trip to the mountains inland of San Diego. The structure is amazing; a 200" (5m) mirror is cradled within a 500-ton RA/Dec rig and balanced on a gigantic horseshoe. Heck, the secondary mirror is 42" wide! They were even kind enough to move the dome around for us, with my group poised on the edge! Since I help to give tours at the York Observatory, it was useful to pick up a few tricks of the trade from the docents who have been working at this amazing piece of technology for decades.

An interesting note: both Griffith and Palomar are steeped in history and chance. Griffith almost didn't happen as the City of Los Angeles originally did not wish to accept the gift of such a distant site (at the time LA was a small town of 100,000 residents, now you might describe Griffith as almost being downtown). At Palomar, the epic pouring of the mirror (it took months to cool) at Corning in New York in 1936 had to wait for the end of WWII for installation. Originally, the operator occupied a cage near the prime focus, high above the floor, where glass slides would be installed. Of course, some folks decided to put their own heads at prime focus and one described it as the most religious moment of his life. Fascinating stuff!

1 comment:

  1. wow john what a great post!

    two things

    1) The educational outreach award, the Segan Medal, is grand idea and I'm glad steps are taken every year to make sure those people are being recognized.

    I think there are many reasons for outreach, Segan was absolutely right that the public is paying for it so they have a right to know. But we both know that Segan wasn't doing it because he thought it his duty, he was doing it because he loved it. And I think that's why both you and I do it.

    I get a rush out of explaining the universe to people, and I feel that if I can get them to be so interested as to ask me a question then I've done my job. If I can be excited enough to get other people excited, then they will take that away and science will become slightly more positive in their life!

    2) we have to discuss the Griffith and the Palomar some time. I must hear more!