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Mercury magazine

Spring 2008 - Volume 37, Number 2

Spring 2008 - Volume 37, Number 2

Table of Contents



[14] Sharing Astronomy with the World, Mike Simmons
Astronomy connects us in a way no other science can. Astronomers Without Borders draws on this common interest to link stargazing enthusiasts worldwide.

[20] GLAST: Exploring the Extreme Universe, Robert Naeye and David J. Thompson
NASA's Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) will give scientists an unprecedented look at active galaxies, supernovae, neutron stars, and even solar flares.

[24] So You Want to be a Professional Astronomer!, Duncan Forbes
If you're going after a career in astronomy, be warned: It is extremely competitive! But if you want to join the elite ranks of professional astronomy, here's what to do.

[29] Astronomy in the News
Doubt about recent water flows on Mars, an organic molecule on an exoplanet, and the smallest known black hole -- these are some of the discoveries that have recently made news in the astronomical community.


[4] Editorial, Paul Deans

[5] First Word, James G. Manning
Snapshots in History

[7] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
Pinning Down Quasar Lifetimes

[8] Planetary Perspectives, Daniel D. Durda
Outstanding in the Field

[9] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
To the Beginning of Time

[10] Echoes of the Past, Katherine Bracher
75 & 50 Years Ago: The Solar Cycle

[11] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
A Keplerian Horoscope

[12] Education Matters, David Bruning
The Luxury of Teaching Science

[13] Societal Impact, Michael G. Gibbs
Advancing Science Literacy Through Astronomy

[35] Society Scope
Society Awards

[40] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
The stars of May, June, and July

[43] Reflections, Simon Winston-Macauley
Sir Arthur C. Clarke: A Quiz

Sharing Astronomy with the World

by Mike Simmons

Away from city lights, beneath a blanket of stars, the child in all of us comes alive. Something basic, perhaps primitive, beckons our gaze skyward. After a lifetime spent in the fog of light pollution, a glimpse of the stars as our ancestors knew them evokes awe at their beauty and grandeur. It's the same wherever, or whoever, we are. A fascination with astronomy connects us in a way no other science can.

Connecting the World

Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) draws on this common interest to link astronomy enthusiasts worldwide. Sharing is an integral part of appreciating the cosmos. It shows up on a local level when amateur astronomers take their telescopes to public sites and invite others to explore the sky with them. AWB extends this concept to people around the world. After all, we share the same sky.

In isolated countries, contact with fellow astronomers in the West is often nothing short of a miracle. When the Amateur Astronomers Association of Kurdistan (AAAK) in northern Iraq heard that I would be visiting them to research an article for a US publication, the bold headline of their newsletter read, "WE ARE NOT ALONE ANYMORE!" The visit of a lone American astronomer was historic for this active local group. The amateur astronomer who first befriended the group also cherishes the relationship that allows him to talk directly with his new friends in Iraq.

GLAST: Exploring the Extreme Universe

by Robert Naeye and David J. Thompson

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the core of a massive star implodes under the crushing force of gravity. As the core scrunches down into a black hole, magnetic fields channel infalling gas into two blazing jets of subatomic particles. As the beams punch out of the dying star, protons collide at incredible speeds, generating shock waves that send a burst of gamma rays screaming through the universe.

Fast forward 10 billion years. The photons from this gamma-ray burst have raced across immense tracts of mostly empty space. Cosmic expansion has literally stretched their wavelengths, sapping their energy. But they still pack a powerful punch. Just one of these gamma-ray photons carries a billion times more energy than the light we see with our eyes.

Eventually, the photons smack into the thin atmosphere of planet Earth. The photons have traversed an unfathomable distance unscathed. But when they smash into gas molecules, they go splat and decay into a shower of particles and photons. It's a pity for Earth's astronomers that the information carried by those photons is lost forever.

But soon that situation will change.

So You Want to be a Professional Astronomer!

by Duncan Forbes

Wanted: Astronomer. Must be willing to work occasional nights on the top of a mountain in an exotic location. A sense of adventure and nomadic lifestyle is a plus. Flexible hours and casual dress code compensate for uncertain long-term career prospects and average pay. The opportunity for real scientific discovery awaits the right candidate. Apply now.

In many ways, professional astronomers are very fortunate. They have an opportunity to continue their passion (one that many people share) and they're paid to do it. Some of the reasons given by PhD students for becoming an astronomer include: it's fun and exciting, there are great opportunities for travel, it's a cool job, and it's possible to make significant discoveries.

Universities, observatories, government organizations, and industry employ astronomers who, contrary to popular belief, don't spend all their waking hours at a telescope. Instead, most of their time is spent teaching, managing projects, providing support services, and performing administrative duties. A typical astronomer might spend just a week or two a year on an observing run, following by months of data analysis and article writing.

So how do you join the elite ranks of professional astronomy? Here are some suggestions for how to get a job in astronomy.

Astronomy in the News
Does Alpha Centauri Have Planets?

University of California, Santa Cruz

A rocky planet similar to Earth may be orbiting one of our nearest stellar neighbors and could be detected using existing techniques, according to a new study led by astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The closest stars to our Sun are in the three-star system called Alpha Centauri, a popular destination for interstellar travel in works of science fiction. UCSC graduate student Javiera Guedes used computer simulations of planet formation to show that terrestrial planets are likely to have formed around the star Alpha Centauri B and to be orbiting in the “habitable zone” where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface. The researchers then showed that such planets could be observed.

To study planet formation around Alpha Centauri B, the team ran repeated computer simulations, evolving the system for the equivalent of 200 million years each time. Because of variations in the initial conditions, each simulation led to the formation of a different planetary system. In every case, however, a system of multiple planets evolved with at least one planet about the size of Earth. In many cases, the simulated planets had orbits lying within the habitable zone of the star.