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Mercury magazine

Winter 2010 - Volume 39, Number 1

Winter 2010 - Volume 39, Number 1

Table of Contents



[14] Ten Commandments for Presentations, Tijana Prodanovic
Here are 10 simple ideas that can help you create, and deliver, a superior presentation that will be remembered no matter the level of your audience.

[18] The Uses of Astronomy, Mary Crone Odekon
How do you explain the uses of astronomy? On a summer day in 1856 in Albany, New York, the answer came in a two-hour manifesto delivered by famed orator Edward Everett.

[23] Low-Level Observing, Brian Oetiker
You can observe interesting celestial sights near big cities and at low elevations. In fact, astronomical discoveries are being made at sites other than at remote, high-elevation observatories.

[28] Astronomy in the News
A baffling eclipse, Kepler finds exoplanets, and galactic dark matter mapped -- these are some of the discoveries that recently made news at the January 2010 American Astronomical Society conference.


[4] Editorial, Paul Deans
New Columnists; Survey Results

[5] First Word, James G. Manning
Apocalypse (S)Now

[7] Echoes of the Past, Katherine Bracher
90 Years Ago: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

[8] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
Was Copernicus Really First?

[9] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
Climate Change and Spiral-Arm Crossings

[10] Planetary Perspectives, Daniel D. Durda
A Brilliant Observation

[11] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
Gamma-Ray Burst Engine Revealed

[12] Education Matters, David Bruning
Treasures for Astro 101 Instructors

[13] Reaching Out, Bethany Cobb
Dance as Astronomical Outreach

[34] Society Scope/ASP Supporters
Thank You to our Supporters

[38] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
Mars in Cancer and the Beehive

[41] Reflections
Avatar's Moon Pandora Could Be Real

Ten Commandments for Presentations

by Tijana Prodanovic

It always amazes me, often in a negative way, how few people know how to create, and deliver, a good presentation. For many scientists, it's often their Achilles' heel. Some get so caught up in their work that, when they present it at a scientific meeting or to the general public, their talk is often confusing, boring, or sometimes even scary. The good news is that there are some simple rules that can work magic with presentations.

1. Know Your Audience

This rule may seem so simple, but it is the most crucial point and can make a world of difference. Even before you commit to giving a presentation to a group of people, you need to know their demographics. Is your audience young? Are they old? Well-educated? Sometimes it might also help to know their nationality or religious background.

Of course, you don't need to know all this every time -- decide based on your subject matter. For instance, when I give a public science lecture to a high school audience, I try to be more hip, use slang, and refer to things that the students are interested in. However, when I give the same public science lecture in a local cultural center that will be attended mostly by senior, well-educated people, I use more subtle language and don't try so hard to make it fun (but still keep it interesting). So, adjust your presentation according to the audience.

The Uses of Astronomy

by Mary Crone Odekon

How do you explain the uses of astronomy? On a summer day in 1856 in Albany, New York, the answer was a two-hour manifesto by famed orator Edward Everett. Everett was not an astronomer. He had recently served as both President of Harvard University and US Secretary of State, and was the main oratorical heavyweight to mark the opening of a new observatory funded by heiress Blandina Bleecker Dudley. He also delivered the Gettysburg Address -- not the succinct version of Abraham Lincoln, which was scheduled for the same day at the last minute, but the full-blown, two-hour main event.

The dedication of the Dudley Observatory, along with a new Geological Hall (inaugurated the previous day with a speech by Louis Agassiz that lasted only one hour), was part of an eight-day extravaganza of lectures linked to the tenth annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Most prominent American scientists were in attendance, joined by political leaders, donors, and thousands of local citizens.

Low-Level Observing

by Brian Oetiker

"First Direct Detection of an Extra-solar Planet" reads the New York Times headline. A glance at the article might leave you assuming that the planet was discovered using a large telescope at a remote, high-elevation location or perhaps by a multi- billion dollar observatory in Earth orbit. Reading on, you may be surprised to find that astronomers actually discovered the planet with a small telescope located not too far from the city of Tucson, Arizona.

Intrigued at the prospect of an exciting discovery being made right in the "backyard" of a large city, you suddenly remember that old telescope sitting in the attic and wonder if you should dig it out and turn it skyward. But then you think: "I live in a larger city than Tucson and at a much lower elevation. I can't even see the stars from my driveway. There's no point trying to do serious astronomy where I live."

Well, don't give up, because you can observe interesting celestial sights near low-elevation big cities. In fact, astronomical finds are being made at sites other than remote, high-elevation observatories.

Astronomy in the News
2010: Year of the Baffling Eclipse


In August 2009, amateur and professional astronomers reported that the bright star Epsilon Aurigae had begun to lose brightness for the first time in 27 years. It is believed that the dimming of the star’s light is caused by an eclipsing object of an unknown nature.

The first phase of the eclipse involved a dramatic drop in brightness over the course of a few months beginning in August. Professional and amateur astronomers teamed up to monitor the eclipse and have announced that this critical phase ended around New Year’s Day 2010.

"We have increasing evidence that a dark disk of material has moved in front of our view of Epsilon Aurigae," said Dr. Robert Stencel, scientific advisor for the project. "But the exact shape and make up of the disk has been unknown, but will be better defined soon."

Even during the eclipse, the star is so bright that sensitive equipment in professional observatories can have trouble monitoring its brightness in the optical wavelengths. Furthermore, large telescopes cannot afford to monitor one star continuously. This is where amateurs and citizen scientists step in.

"Amateurs are the ideal astronomers for this project. Either with their naked eyes or with digital cameras, they have proven that they can record professional quality data," said Dr. Arne Henden, director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) and principal investigator of the project.

If past eclipses are any guide, this dark stage will last nearly 18 months, followed by a rapid return to its normal brightness in the first half of 2011.