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Mercury magazine

Winter 2012 - Volume 41, Number 1

Winter 2012 - Volume 41, Number 1

Table of Contents



[15] The Other Science from Planck, Nabila Aghanim, Clive Dickinson, Guilaine Lagache, Ludovic Montier, and Bruce Partridge, on behalf of the Planck Collaboration
Although its primary mission is to study the Cosmic Microwave Background, the Planck spacecraft has already made an impressive range of discoveries.

[20] How We Serve (or Underserve) Our Students Through 'Dumbing Down', Kate Follette and Don McCarthy
We need to improve student’s skills in quantitative literacy via introductory astronomy and avoid “dumbing down” the mathematics we do present in such courses.

[24] Extrasolar Planets: The Saga Continues, Paul Deans
Here are a few of the latest discoveries as astronomers seek the Holy Grail of extrasolar planets — an Earth-like world in a star’s habitable zone.

[29] Astronomy in the News
A subsurface “Great Lake” on Europa, Pluto’s twin Eris, and finding planets in decade-old Hubble data — these are some of the discoveries that recently made news in the astronomical community.


[4] Editorial, Paul Deans
Forty Years Ago

[5] First Word, James G. Manning
Speedy Delivery

[7] Echoes of the Past, Katherine Bracher
40 Years Ago: The Birth of Mercury Magazine

[8] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
The Tychonic System

[9] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
More Astronomy with Digital Cameras

[10] Planetary Perspectives, Daniel D. Durda
A Whole Different Solar System

[11] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
The Birth and Rise of X-ray Astronomy

[12] Education Matters, David Bruning
To Click or Not to Click

[13] Reaching Out, Bethany Cobb
A New Telescope for Public Outreach

[14] Societal Impact, Connie Walker
Dark Skies: Protecting Our Children's Heritage

[34] Society Scope/ASP Supporters
Board Member Awarded AAS Education Prize

[36] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
Venus Visits the Pleiades

[39] Reflections, European Southern Observatory
VISTA Views the Helix

The Other Science from Planck

by Nabila Aghanim, Clive Dickinson, Guilaine Lagache, Ludovic Montier, and Bruce Partridge, on behalf of the Planck Collaboration

Planck is a satellite expressly designed to measure small temperature fluctuations in the heat left over from the Big Bang, also known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). It's a European Space Agency mission, with support from NASA.

Planck was launched on May 14, 2009, and currently hovers one million miles from the Earth. It observes the sky in nine frequency bands covering 30 to 857 GHz, that is at wavelengths ranging from
1 cm down to ~0.4 mm. Once a minute it scans a circular pattern in the sky, with the orientation of that circle gradually shifting so that it covers the entire sky in about six months.

Planck's studies of the CMB will not be released for another year. The satellite has, however, already produced a wide range of scientific results — some from Planck's survey of our own Milky Way Galaxy, and others from the recently released catalog of compact sources detected by Planck. Planck's all-sky surveys at frequencies of 100 to 857 GHz are unique. Opening up that range of frequency space has allowed Planck to make a number of important discoveries about galaxies, the sites of star formation, and tiny dust particles spinning at 100 billion rpm. These constitute Planck's other science. Here are a few of the highlights.

How We Serve (or Underserve) Our Students Through 'Dumbing Down'

by Kate Follette and Don McCarthy

"Math is only useful to pass a test in math class," said the college honors student with authority. As a lover of all things mathematical, I was initially shocked, but it did get me thinking: How valuable is mathematics to the average citizen?

Am I just biased in its favor because, as a scientist, I use it in my day job? By emphasizing basic numerical skills in my introductory astronomy curriculum, am I subjecting my students to unnecessary angst and agony? If I avoid teaching such skills in my course, am I contributing to the dumbing down of a new generation? My students are definitely vocal with their complaints about it. Do they have a valid point? Could I teach numerical thinking in a more exciting way that inspires my students to improve their skills?

Extrasolar Planets: The Saga Continues

by Paul Deans

"Planet Population is Plentiful," says the European Southern Observatory in a press release from the January 2012 meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Austin, Texas. "A Wealth of Habitable Planets in the Milky Way," proclaims one more release, this one from the Niels Bohr Institute. "Milky Way Contains at Least 100 Billion Planets," says another press page from the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Amazing. In less than two decades, we have gone from extraterrestrial planets as the stuff of science fiction to an overwhelming abundance of extrasolar worlds.

Consider. Until 1998 and the first detection of an exoplanet (circling Gamma Cephei), there was no proof that other worlds existed. For all we knew, our solar system was a unique oddball. Of course, the assumption of our uniqueness, when it dealt with our place in the cosmos, has never stood the test of time.

Astronomy in the News
Evidence for Subsurface 'Great Lake' on Europa

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

In a finding of significance in the search for life beyond Earth, scientists have discovered what appears to be a body of liquid water the volume of the North American Great Lakes locked inside the icy shell of Jupiter's moon Europa — which could represent a new potential habitat for life.

Many more such lakes exist throughout the shallow regions of Europa's shell, the researchers predict in an online article for the journal Nature. Further increasing the potential for life, many of these lakes are covered by floating ice shelves that seem to be collapsing, providing a mechanism for transferring nutrients and energy between the surface and a vast ocean already thought to exist below the thick ice shell.

The scientists focused on Galileo spacecraft images of two roughly circular, bumpy features on Europa's surface called chaos terrains. Based on similar processes seen here on Earth — on ice shelves and under glaciers overlaying volcanoes — they developed a four-step model to explain how the features form on Europa.

While one of the chaos terrains appears to be fully formed, the other might still be forming — an indication that Europa's surface is still geologically active. "For quite some time, Europa geologists have been struggling figure out what these features are and how they form," says APL's Louise Prockter, a senior planetary scientist who has conducted numerous studies of Europa. "This is the first time that anyone has come up with an end-to-end model that explains what we see on the surface."

"If we're ever to send a landed mission to Europa, these areas would be great places to study," Prockter says.