>> Friday, July 24, 2015
The first day of Launchpad lifted off with lectures about our local “neighborhood”: Earth’s seasons, the Solar System, and the phases of the moon—with an eye toward helping writers get all those night scenes right. The next day we talked about the electromagnetic spectrum, gravity, Newton, Kepler, orbits, and Einstein before getting into the rock stars of astronomy—exoplanets, supernovas, neutron stars, and black holes—later in the week. Our last day was spent covering the cutting edge of astronomy: quasars, dark matter, dark energy, and cosmological theory. Along the way, we took time out for rooftop stargazing, attending planetarium presentations, analyzing the spectrometry of different gases, and searching for exoplanets. A highlight of the week was a trip to WIRO, the University of Wyoming Infrared Observatory, home to a 2.3 meter telescope on top of Jelm Mountain outside Laramie.
Since the focus of Launchpad is on astronomy in fiction, our instructors also took plenty of time throughout the week to point out astronomical errors in books, TV, and films. Asteroid fields, we learned, look nothing like the treacherous one Han Solo pilots the Millennium Falcon through in The Empire Strikes Back—in real asteroid fields, the giant rocks are few and far between. You don’t listen to radio telescopes, as Jodie Foster does in Contact, you read graphs of light wavelengths on a computer screen. And it won’t be pleasant, but you don’t automatically freeze or explode when you’re exposed to the vacuum of space, as characters do again and again in fiction. All the air will blow out of your lungs, the saliva in your mouth will boil away, you’ll get the bends, and you’ll pass out in about 15 seconds…but you won’t explode.