Thursday, July 2, 2015

Launchpad Astronomy Workshop

I'm still alive!

Yes, the blog has been woefully underfed lately, and I'm sorry about that.  The simple reason is that I've been swamped lately.  ZERO WORLD releases next month, which means I'm doing a lot of promotional work behind the scenes (this primarily involves me cowering in a corner biting my nails).  Plus, my deadlines can't wait for fun release stuff, so at the same time I am busily writing a new novel.  Actually, two new novels.  More on that soon, I hope!

But today I wanted to take a minute and share a bit about my experience at the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop last month, because it was awesome and deserves to be discussed!

What is Launchpad?  Simply put, roughly twenty sci-fi authors of all experience levels are invited to  a week-long series of lectures, workshops, and group discussion on all topics related to astronomy.  It's hosted at the University of Wyoming by a group of professors who really, really know their shit.  Not only that, they know how to teach.

But why do they do this?  To help us write better stories that are more grounded in science.  To improve our vocabulary and the accuracy of our content.  In short, to paraphrase one of the instructors, "if I teach a class of 100 students, I might be able to further science for those 100 students.  If I teach you, I might be able to reach a vast audience through the books you write, the games you make, the films you create."

Here's a quick diary as I remember things:

Day 0: Arrived in Denver, met up with other attendees, and we all hopped into a big rental SUV and drove up to Laramie, Wyoming (about 2.5 hours).  All of us were chugging water like crazy to combat the altitude.  It was even worse for me because I'd been in three different climates in two days (Phoenix, Seattle, then Denver & Wyoming).  We arrived in the early evening and settled into our accommodations: a beautiful place called the Honors House, replete with a full kitchen and dining area, a living room, an entertainment room, plus laundry and all the other things you'd expect from a dorm.  Some of the group did not get in until almost 10pm that night, but we all waited up and then did a round of introductions.

Day 1: The lectures begin! We spent most of the day talking about the scale of the Universe. "It's big. Really big."  Check out this amazing video that takes you through our solar system at the fastest possible speed: the speed of light. It's really eye opening, knowing how fast light is, and then being shown so clearly just how damn SLOW it is.

That night we went to the University's planetarium, then up to the roof of the science building to play with their 14" telescope.

Day 2: Today we talked about how astronomers do their research, and it mostly comes down to the analysis of spectra. I'd learned about all this back in school, but it was great to get a refresher and also to hear it presented in a different way.  Our teachers were amazingly talented!  To really hammer home the concepts we spent the afternoon in a lab looking at different light coming from gas emission tubes (as well as the lights in the room).  I discovered pretty quickly that holding the filter in front of my camera provided some neat pictures.  Also, despite this being a pretty well-known subject, this session was where I came up with the most story ideas.

That evening we had no official events, so everyone walked to the pub.  Irish Nachos FTW!

Day 3: Exoplanets! We spent a lot of time talking about how extrasolar planets are detected, and did some lab time on searching for some ourselves (I've done this before, and you should try it! Crowd-sourced interactive science is awesome).  

In the evening we drove an hour to the top nearby Mt. Something, where WIRO is (the Wyoming Infra-Red Observatory).  It was fascinating to tour the facility and speak with the current team up there who were doing sciency things.  Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate and we were unable to use the telescope.  We did however get to watch an incredible lightning storm that spanned the entire Northern half of the sky.  And, honestly, although the scope was not used, it was informative and interesting to experience the place and see scientists doing their thing.

Day 4:  Today covered star formation and the various types of stars, black holes, and space travel.  Seriously, my mind was reeling under the crush of information by the end of the day.

Dinner was spent in downtown Laramie, which is quaint and loads of fun.  Upon returning to the Honors House, I gave the group a demo of Kerbal Space Program, a game where you plan, build, and fly spacecraft on various semi-realistic missions.

Day 5: Galaxies, Galaxy clusters, and the elusive topic of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, were the topics on our last day.  Then we spent the afternoon reviewing questions people had been building up over the course of the week.  Finally, we spent a few hours talking about science education, and how we as creators could do better in our work.  Really, a fine end to a truly epic week.

I have to thank Mike Brotherton, Christian Ready, and Andria Schwortz for taking time out of their busy schedules to organize this whole thing, as well as basically donate their time to this cause.  They're remarkable people and I feel proud to have spent time with them.

In addition, I met so many amazing authors, editors, game developers, and all-around brilliant people that I can't even begin to name them all.  The organizers did a great job of bringing together a diverse group of students and it was heartening how everyone mingled, talked, and generally hungout together.

If you're an author, or really in a creative field of any capacity, I encourage you to apply to Launchpad next year!