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Mercury magazine

Fall 2007 - Volume 36, Number 4

Fall 2007 - Volume 36, Number 4

Table of Contents



[12] A Book of Universal Proportion, Michael Chabin
Writing the story of astronomy is what we all attempt to do, but how we do it is critical.

[20] The Real Stars of Harry Potter, C. Renée James
Writer J. K. Rowling’s universe of Harry Potter and associates is colorful, complicated, and punctuated by some genuinely stellar characters.

[28] Our Whirling World, Joel Marks
Talk of days and years is fine, but we cannot disentangle our world's rotation and revolution.

[33] Out of the Past: Astronomy Books for the Young, Then and Now, Wayne Wood
Most of the allure of astronomy and outer space has always been what is unknown, not what is known.


[4] Editorial, James C. White II
Never Far From Home

[5] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
Sizing Up a Neutron Star

[6] Planetary Perspectives, Daniel D. Durda
A Horse of a Different Color

[7] Echoes of the Past, Katherine Bracher
Planetary Nebulae

[8] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
The Missing Satellites Problem

[9] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
Euler at 300

[10] Societal Impact , Michael Gibbs
Astronomy Education from the Ground Up

[11] Education Matters, David Bruning
Taking the Proof Out of Theory

[38] Sky Events, Richard Talcott

[42] Society Scope

[46] Last Word, James G. Manning
Growing into the New Century

A Book Proposal of Universal Proportion

by Michael Chabin

I want to write a book.

I want to tell the story astrophysics tells -- not how we came to know it or who made which discovery but the story itself...the beginning of time and space, the condensation of matter, and how that matter was processed into the stuff of which we, and even our dreams, are made. The story of simple rules and the even simpler objects they acted on and still act on and will act on, forever.

It should be engaging. After all, what mystery can be more baffling and fascinating than the concept of a field or the notion of flexible space?

It should be spare and beautiful and, most of all, it should convince. Astrophysics is one of the most compelling arguments ever made. To tell its story without changing the reader’s mind is to fail to tell it at all.

Clearly, I'm going to need a model and, of course, everyone with whom I've talked expects a text but, at the moment, I'm leaning towards a children’s book. They set a higher standard. After all, with so much to learn, children are unwilling to waste time on bad books.

The Real Stars of Harry Potter

by C. Renée James

Sirius. Regulus. Bellatrix. Arcturus. Say these words to an astronomer, and you will likely trigger the memory of a bright star list, quite possibly with spectral types and apparent magnitudes thrown in for good measure. Say these words to a Harry Potter fan, on the other hand, and you will evoke a range of emotions, from sympathy for the affable but risk-taking Sirius to downright hatred for Bellatrix, from whom evil seemed to ooze from every You-Know-Who-loving pore.

What's that? You're not up on your Harry Potter? You might consider leafing through the four-thousand-page series sometime soon, especially if you want to draw serious crowds at your next star party or planetarium show. J. K. Rowling might not have known it, but she provided a vast new avenue for astronomy outreach by doing some good research into mythology and by naming plenty of characters after things you can find in the night sky.

Our Whirling World

by Joel Marks

Everybody knows that Earth rotates 360 degrees each day, which is why the Sun comes back to the same place in the sky after 24 hours. Indeed, that is what makes a day a day. And everybody knows that Earth does this 365&1/4 times each year, which is why the Sun returns to the same place in the zodiac after 365&1/4 days. Indeed, that is what makes a year a year (although we round them out to three of 365 days followed by a leap year).

Yes, everybody knows these things, but "everybody" is wrong.

No, I am not suggesting that we return to the days of stationary Earth at the center of a cosmos that revolves around us. The point is rather that Earth turns more than most people think it does.

To understand what is going on, it helps, first, to realize that we live in a whirling universe: everything turns! Every star, every planet, every rock in space is spinning; moons revolve around planets, planets revolve around suns, suns revolve around galaxies. It’s a dizzying fact of existence.

Out of the Past: Astronomy Books for the Young, Then and Now

by Wayne Wood

The day that Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon, 20 July 1969, was a big one for two reasons: humans were landing on the Moon, and I got to stay up late. The whole extended family gathered around the black-and-white console set in my grandparents' living room and quietly watched as the grainy figure of Armstrong made its way down the ladder from the lunar module and onto the Moon's surface.

Being eleven years old at that moment meant that I had been almost three years old when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly into space and orbit Earth in April 1961. I can not remember a time when the current events of those days didn't include a regular diet of space shots and near-deification of astronauts.

There was a time in the summer and fall of 1969 when it was almost impossible to pick up a magazine or newspaper without seeing something about the astronauts who had landed on the moon. Their faces looked down from a million bedroom walls of young dreamers who thought they were going to follow their trail to the stars. I was one of those dreamers, fueled in part by the books on astronomy that I was devouring at the school and public libraries.

What did those books say, and how is that different from the content of children's books on astronomy published now? The differences chiefly fall into three categories: advances in knowledge; cultural changes in depiction; and a less tangible attribute best described as a change in the "sense of wonder."