Redux: Auditing Astronomy Class


This was first published in Dec 6, 2011 — it was originally a guest post, Cameron wasn’t yet an LWONer — and was honorable-mentioned for the American Institute of Physics’ 2012 science writing prize in the New Media category. Her mom sounds like a doll.
I’m not sure exactly where this story begins, but maybe it’s here: Sometime this summer, my mom decided to take an astronomy class. She had taken drama and philosophy classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley  and audited a history of theater course. She’d heard that this particular astronomy class was aimed at non-science majors, and that the professor, Alex Filippenko, had won all sorts of teaching awards. She emailed him to see if it was okay for her to sit in – it was – and then convinced a few friends to join her.

Maybe what I should say next is that my mom has never been that interested in science. I actually didn’t know how much she didn’t like it until we talked about it recently.  In college, she filled her science requirement with comparative anatomy, a class that required dissecting frogs and cats. “I hated the smell of formaldehyde,” she said. “Dinner was right after that. I just hated it.”

Astronomy had also gotten on her bad list. “Whenever I saw something in the paper about a comet, a supernova—I just didn’t read it. I thought, I’m never going to understand this anyway.”

This class had no formaldehyde, just a professor who has enough astronomy-themed T-shirts to cover three afternoons a week for a whole semester without repeating a shirt.  Before each class, he played a piece of music that somehow related to the theme of the lecture—Clair de Lune, Stardust, Dark Side of the Moon, “popular stuff, like by Moby,” my mom said.

That’s how I first heard about what was going on in class. My mom called one day and asked if I knew what shepherd moons are. I didn’t (although I did know the song by Enya) so she explained. Continue reading

Last Word


QuillsBoxerFaceSeptember 1-5, 2014.

This week, Helen discovered a late summer symphony of peal bells and cicadas. Listen! 

Ann discovered an unexpected but welcome pattern in the pronouns that the astronomers are using to describe their colleagues — “she.” 

Richard introduced a new occasional LWON series — the Bad Science Poet. (Motto: “It’s not the science that’s bad—it’s the poetry!”™)

Cassie overhears a couple of insufferable doctors fat-shaming their patients, and wishes they’d better acquaint themselves with scientific evidence. Also, if stigma were an effective weight loss tool, everyone would be skinny by now.

Finally, I wondered what it would take to teach my dog that porcupines are not her friend.

Photo by Elaine Moore via Flickr.

Lessons Not Learned


QuillsBoxerFaceThe dog emerged from the aspen grove with straw on her face. At least, that’s what my husband Dave first thought when he saw Molly reappear on the trail he was running with a couple of friends. But it turned out that those weren’t threads of straw. They were porcupine quills, protruding from her lips and ears. Before she could object, he grabbed her and pulled the quills out. She yipped — porcupine quills have backward-pointing barbs that grab and scratch when they’re pulled out — but there weren’t too many, and he had two running companions to help restrain my naughty dog. (Dave always refers to her as my dog when she’s misbehaving, which is often).

The first porcupine encounter was unpleasant for everyone, and I hoped that it had taught Molly Dog that porcupines are not her friend, and they’re no fun to chase either. Dave wasn’t buying it. You probably already know what happened next. Continue reading

Bad Science Poet



Please join LWON today in welcoming a new occasional contributor, Bad Science Poet. (Motto: “It’s not the science that’s bad—it’s the poetry!”)


Is that uncertainty I see?

Its position known to only me?

Is that uncertainty I hear?

Echoing (or not) from ear to ear?

Said Heisenberg, “Yes.”

Niels Bohr said, “One guess.”

And Einstein?  “A mess, I fear.”

Continue reading



640px-Sandboarding_in_DubaiMy first interviews for this current astronomy story were with the astronomers I’ve known and known of for decades — whose research I’ve followed, whose talks I’ve attended, whom I’ve interviewed, as I said, for decades.  The astronomers were what they have been likely to be:  men.

Astronomer:  Werk looked at other metal lines.  She found . . .

Me (thinking): She?

Another astronomer: Rudie found extended CGM around z = 2.0.  She does. . .

Me (thinking):  She?

A third astronomer:  Martin has a similar data set.  She detects . . .

Me (thinking):  She?

A fourth astronomer:  Somerville has a good overview.  She’s worked on . . .

Me (thinking):  She?

A fifth astronomer:  When Putman looks at 21-cm lines, she . . .

Me (thinking): SHE?

A sixth astronomer:  Rubin might see a hint for some.  She. . .

Me (thinking):  SHE?   

A seventh astronomer:  Peeples finds it in the CGM.  She’d know . . .

Me (light filling brain):  Is there a pattern here? Continue reading

Two Docs Walk Into A Bar


DIGITAL CAMERAThe bar in question is inside an upscale Italian restaurant in northern Wisconsin. The men are middle-aged with graying hair and glasses. But they’re both fit. They look like they might spend their spare time sailing. One wears a blue button-down shirt and jeans. The other is dressed in a polo shirt and camouflage shorts.

Button Down arrives first with a blonde woman. They grab stools, and he orders a beer. A few minutes later Camo Shorts joins the party. He clearly knows Button Down. There are some handshakes and back slaps, and then the two men start to talk shop. They’re both doctors.

I am seated next to them, and I catch snippets of their conversation. But then they start swapping stories about patients who are overweight and refuse to slim down. These patients won’t listen to their doctorly advice to cut calories no matter how many times they give it. I am a science journalist, and also very nosy. So now I am eavesdropping in earnest. Continue reading

Sounds of Summer


washington national cathedral (with earthquake damage)After my voice lesson Sunday afternoon, I heard bells. Eight bells, ringing on and on. My voice lessons are in the bowels of Washington National Cathedral – a real live Gothic cathedral, hand-carved over the last 107 years by bearded Englishmen, or at least the group included one bearded Englishman who lives in my neighborhood. The cathedral’s tallest tower holds 10 bells known as peal bells, because they’re for playing peals like this one.

Peal bells are used for mathematical playing, not melodic; as the website of the North American Guild of Change Ringers explains, a peal goes through the bells by number, switching the order each time, so a four-bell “method” – apparently the little bits of music are called “methods” – might start like this, where each number is a bell: Continue reading

The Last Word



August 25 – 29, 2014

The week began with a flight of fancy from Richard. Or was it his lived reality? Only YOU can know the truth.

If you never saw a toy robot shape-shifting into a toy vehicle, you might think a movie called Transformers was about this.

Cameron follows her nose up to the International Space Station and down into the ocean in an exploration of smell.

As Nature releases a global map of roadless areas, Michelle celebrates the role of the Wilderness Act in protecting American landscapes from the American automobile.

I recount a key episode in aboriginal history, the 1976 Berger Inquiry about a proposed Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline.