>> Friday, July 24, 2015
I’m looking through a telescope at a bright dot the size of an aspirin. Spread out to either side of it in a perfect line are four tiny specks, like a glowing ellipsis. This is Jupiter and its four largest moons, and I’m seeing them the way Galileo first did in 1610, when he became the first person to prove definitively that there were things in the universe that didn’t revolve around the Earth or the Sun.
I didn’t build my own telescope, like Galileo did, and I’m not in Italy, like he was. I’m standing on the roof of the Astronomy Department at the University of Wyoming at Laramie on the first night of Launchpad 2015, a week-long astronomy camp for writers. Founded by University of Wyoming Astronomy professor Mike Brotherton in 2007, Launchpad’s goal is to teach writers with audiences young and old about the modern science of astronomy, with the hope that those writers will go on to educate the public and help inspire the next generation of scientists through their stories.
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.
When Launchpad came to an end six days later—far sooner than the heat death of the universe, but just as regrettable—my head and notebook were packed with astronomical facts. Even better, I had enough story ideas to last me as long as one of Pluto’s orbits around the sun (248 years). Launchpad was an incredible week of scientific discussion, inspiration, and camaraderie. And incredibly, through the help of grants and donations, everything at Launchpad is free—room, board, and instruction. They were even able to cover some attendees’ airfare.
If you’re a published author and interested in attending Launchpad, you can find out more at http://www.launchpadworkshop.org/. Like Galileo, you might get to see the moons of Jupiter up close and personal—without having to answer to the Inquisition for it afterward.