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Mercury magazine

Summer 2013 - Volume 42, Number 3

Summer 2013 - Volume 42, Number 3

Table of Contents



[19] Better Conference Talks, Emily Lakdawalla
I've been to a lot of conferences and attended a lot of talks, and the best advice I can give for presenting a better talk is: Respect your audience.

[28] Divine Animals: Plato, Aristotle, and the Stars, Stephen Case
The ideas of Plato and Aristotle on the nature of the stars gave rise to distinct traditions in the history of astronomy.

[34] The ASP at its Heart, James G. Manning
The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) is 124 years old this year, and while our vision has evolved, we are still working together to advance science literacy through astronomy.

[39] Astronomy in the News
A Moon mystery solved, a new kind of variable star discovered, and the Big Bang theory strengthened -- these are a few of the discoveries that recently made news in the astronomical community.


[4] Perspectives, Paul Deans
Where is the Long View?

[5] First Word, Jim Manning
Serendipity and NASA's Proposed EPO Cuts

[7] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
The Water Telescope

[8] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
The Amazing Red Spider Nebulae

[10] Planetary Perspectives, Emily Joseph
Curiosity Update

[11] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
Here Comes the Anti-Glitch

[13] Education Matters, David Bruning
Miles to Go and Promises to Keep

[14] Reaching Out, Bethany Cobb
Why Do I Engage in EPO?

[16] Societal Impact, James Manning & Jeff Mangum
ASP Scientific Publications: Going Strong Since 1889

[47] ASP Tidings
ASP's 2013 Award Recipients

[52] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
Don't miss the Perseids in August

[55] Reflections, Suomi NPP
The Americas by Day and Night

Better Conference Talks

by Emily Lakdawalla

I've been to a lot of conferences and seen a lot of talks, and it's amazing to me how a bad presentation can get in the way of really exciting science. This article is a response to my frustration about bad conference presentations. I do feel a little hesitant to set myself up as an expert on this, because I know I have a lot of work to do to improve my talks. Still, I think I have useful advice to offer.

I can summarize that advice in three words: Respect Your Audience. All those people in the room in front of you -- they are not you. But their time is as valuable as yours. Work to deliver them a presentation that is designed for them, to inform and interest them in your work, to leave them pleased that they spent that five or 10 or 50 minutes of their valuable time listening to you. Here are five key questions to consider as you prepare your talk.

Divine Animals: Plato, Aristotle, and the Stars

by Stephen Case

Speculation on the nature of the stars has, for most of history, operated at or beyond the edge of evidence. For the early natural philosophers, naked-eye observations of the night sky were the only way to reach conclusions about the heavens.

In the centuries before the telescope, the stars provided an unchanging vista for everyone of sufficient visual acuity. Yet from this seemingly uniform set of empirical data, astronomers and philosophers reached widely varying conclusions. On the question of the stars, the writings of the two founders of Western philosophy and science, Plato (427-347 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC), defined opposing schools that remained influential for a millennium. While the Aristotelian view of the stars as aethereal, unearthly bodies gained dominance in the medieval period, the rediscovery of Platonic writings in the late Renaissance contributed to early modern conceptions of the stars as rotating, fiery objects.

The ASP at its Heart

by James G. Manning

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) is 124 years old this year, and it all happened because of a January 1, 1889, total eclipse of the Sun. Astronomers from the newly opened Lick Observatory had encouraged the local amateur photographers club to go north and photograph, meeting afterwards to share their pictures and their experiences. At that meeting, the participants decided that: The cordial cooperation of many amateur and professional astronomers in the very successful observations of the Solar Eclipse of January 1, 1889, has again brought forward the desirability of organizing an Astronomical Society of the Pacific, in order that this pleasant and close association may not be lost, either as a scientific or as a social force.

As a result, on February 7, 1889, the Society was born with 40 founding members and a mission: to advance the science of astronomy and diffusing information concerning it. The passing years have tweaked the mission a bit, evolving into one of increasing the public understanding and appreciation of astronomy, and most recently: to advance science literacy through astronomy. We may be getting less loquacious as the decades pass, but the Society remains true to the astronomical focus at its heart, even as it responds and adapts to the challenges of an ever-changing world.

Stars Don't Obliterate Their Planets (Very Often)

NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Stars have an alluring pull on planets, especially those in a class called hot Jupiters, which are gas giants that form farther from their stars before migrating inward and heating up. Now, a new study using data from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope shows that hot Jupiters, despite their close-in orbits, are not regularly consumed by their stars. Instead, the planets remain in fairly stable orbits for billions of years, until the day comes when they may ultimately get eaten.

Eventually, all hot Jupiters get closer and closer to their stars, but in this study we are showing that this process stops before the stars get too close, said Peter Plavchan of NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. The planets mostly stabilize once their orbits become circular, whipping around their stars every few days.

The study is the first to demonstrate how the hot Jupiter planets halt their inward march on stars. Gravitational, or tidal, forces of a star circularize and stabilize a planet's orbit; when its orbit finally become circular, the migration ceases.