Launchpad Day 3: At the Top of the World

The first two days of Launchpad have been long days and nights. I’ve been doing my best to take advantage of the time, so despite the fact that I was pretty tired, I was still up at about 5:20 am. I spend the first hour of the day writing up my Launchpad Day 2 blog post. Then I showered, and started in on the fiction writing. At 7 am, I once again headed over to the student commons with Chaz Brenchley and Doug Farren, and spent the next hour or so writing. I managed about 600 words of fiction, making it my 140th consecutive day of writing. Here are two-thirds of the writers at work (the other third is busy taking pictures):

Writers at work

I headed back to the dorm at 8:15 to meet the gang for breakfast. We once again walked over to the Turtle Rock cafe. The weather was just about perfect and we once again sat outside, eating our breakfasts and talking. It was wonderful. And not just the weather. There is a camaraderie that is growing within the group. Writing is a lonely business and is a wonderful just to be able to talk to other writers about writing, because you are talking to people who know. They’ve been through the same things you have and have complete empathy. And you can learn a lot from them, too.

Lectures started at 10 today, and as it turned out, today was a kind of brass tacks day for science fiction writers. We began the day learning about exoplanets, which meant starting the day with binary stars. Binary stars rotate around a common center of gravity and can occlude one another when seen from earth. This occlusion is one way in which exoplanets are discovered (it’s called the “transit method”). Getting exoplanets right is a very practical matter for science fiction writers because we often write stories set on worlds that are not within the solar system. There was a time when we had no idea if such planets even existed. We now know different (there are over 3,000!) and it’s useful to have real information about them.

After a short break, we went downstairs for a lab on planet hunting. We learned to read the data from the light output of stars and so we went to this lab room which had computers for all of us, and set about using a website called planethunters.org, a citizen science project, to attempt to classify stars and identify possible occlusions. This was a lot of fun, to say nothing of practical. And, as it so happened, one of our group, Doug Dechow, discovered a star that had a very regular occlusion–and it further turned out that he was the first to identify them. So who knows, maybe Launchpad 2013 will have discovered another exoplanet.

When that lab was over–no one really wanted for it to be over because it was too much fun–it was lunchtime and we headed to the cafeteria.

LP Lunch

After the lecture we had a break and then headed over to another building for a demonstration of astonomical image processing by astronomer Chip Kobulnicky. The room we were in had computers for each of us to use. The computers had software for image processing, as well as some images from both Hubble and the University of Wyoming. The photos were taken in several different filters and the software is used to combine and manipulate the results.

Chip is an animated guy and you can tell from his enthusiasm just how much he loves astronomy. Chip explained how the CCD cameras that take pictures of stars work. The cameras in our phones are the same type of camera and work in the same way. The way the camera functions affect the quality of the images, and Chip explained the “noise” that can creep into the photos. We looked at raw images from the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as images taken here at the university. Chip then showed us how to use the software to combine images taken in different filters, and how to adjust them in different ways to get the maximum amount of information out of them. After playing around with the images, here is the results I got:

Image processing

The image processing class gave us a real sense of how astronomy is done. We also got to see raw images, with all of their flaws included. It is amazing how much cleanup work takes place on some of these images to produce the posters of amazing Hubble views of the universe.

When the image lab was over, we headed back to the Turtle Rock cafe for a snack. We had a half hour break, and I finally got to see the Little Man and Little Miss on FaceTime. I miss them so much and it was great to see them.

The late afternoon stretch was long, a two-hour lecture that compressed a lot of information into a relatively small amount of time, but Christian Ready did an excellent job and there was some great discussion. The lecture was on stars, and I believe it was called “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Stars.” And we did cover nearly everything. We talked about stellar evolution, and mass, and attributes of stars that can be parsed from what we can see and measure. We discussed stellar parallax, and absolute magnitude and brightness and flux. We classified stars into their classes and types, discussing main sequence stars (like the sun) and gas giants and everything in between.

The group seemed lively in the discussion, despite the fact that it was some of the most technical discussions we’d had thus far. Once again, it was practical, brass tacks information that helps us ensure we get the science right (or at least, make valiant efforts to get it right) in our stories.

After lecture we headed to the cafeteria for dinner, and then back to the dorms to rest for a few hours before heading up the mountain to WIRO. I was exhausted. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t blog. I think everyone was pretty wiped out. Each day of Launchpad has gotten longer and my brain was pretty much mush by the time I got back from dinner.

So I relaxed. I read some stories written by my fellow Launchpad attendees. I highly recommend them, for instance:

  • The Parting Glass” by Andy Romine (Lightspeed). This story reminded me of the kind of stuff that was published in Science Fiction Age in the mid-90s. It has a great voice.
  • 30 Pounds of Human Tissue” by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks (Daily Science Fiction). A kind of unconscious homage to “The Cold Equations.” The story made me miss my kids.
  • Shadow Play” by Liz Argall (Daily Science Fiction). The imagery and language here is wonderful.

I’m trying to catch up with more of my co-attendees stories. It reminds me of what amazing company I am in.

At about 8 pm, we gathered by the vans for the drive up to WIRO, which stands for the Wyoming Infrared Observatory. The observatory is about an hour away, at the top of a mountain accessible by a long and windy dirty road, with sheer drop-offs. We split up into vans and then headed up the mountain. I rode with Christian, Andy, Caren, Doug D. and Anna. Christian and Andy talked about the movies and the visual effects business, and it was fascinating just to sit and listen. I think they also successfully distracted folks from the precarious drive up those narrow winding roads.

The observatory is at the peak of the mountain, some 10,000 feet above sea level. The sun had dropped below the horizon by the time we arrived, but there was still plenty of light in the sky. We’d been warned that the altitude might take some getting used to, but it didn’t bother me at all.

It was absolutely amazing up there. We walked around the observatory and watched the light drain out of the western sky. To the southwest, a storm was brewing and we could see brilliant flashes of lightning. But the air felt different.

There was a breeze like nothing I’ve ever felt before, not even the trade winds in Hawaii. And if you stand perfectly still, there is absolute silence. No birds, no insects, no motors or ambient city noise. It was viscerally stunning, almost what I imagine it would be like to be on an Earth completely empty of people.

The observatory itself was equally amazing. Inside was almost like home. There was a nice eat-in kitchen, and a living room just on the other side. Many of the doors warned to keep the noise down because of “day sleepers.” Just off the living room was the main computer room where the real science was done, and just beyond that was the dome with the telescope. We got to see all of it. We climbed up onto a ledge and looked into the aluminum primary mirror. We watched the dome open and the telescope be calibrated against a white background.

Outside, the sky was clear and the stars were bright. We saw what seemed like a dozen satellites pass overhead. The moon was bright and washed out some of the stars, but we stayed in the shadow of the observatory and that helped. The view was breathtaking.

It was 11 pm when we finally started down the mountain, with Christian once again distracting us with discussions of Star Trek: Into Darkness. We arrived back at the dorms at about midnight and I was utterly exhausted.

I took a lot of pictures at WIRO, too many to post here, but if you’d like to see the, I’ve posted them on Flickr.

 

3 thoughts on “Launchpad Day 3: At the Top of the World

  1. Thanks for these wonderful re-caps of your days at Launch Pad. I’d love it if someone organized a Launch Pad Alumni Reunion week… 😉 Please say hello to Mike Brotherton and Jim Verley for me!

    (Has your brain melted yet?)

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