Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

And Now for Something Completely Different...

...a man with a tape recorder up his nose.

Monty Python's Michael Palin as The Man with a Tape Recorder Up his Nose

I absolutely love Monty Python.  I can't help it.  I'm one of those bizarre people who finds British humor positively hysterical.  Human beings seem to come in two flavors: those that flip for British humor, and those that can't stand it.  And you don't get wafers with either variety.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Monty Python, however, is the fact that the members of the troupe are very well educated and inject that into their brilliant comedy.  There's something wonderful about that.  I mean, how else does one conceive of a comedy bit where a Roman centurion vehemently corrects a Jewish ne'er-do-well on the grammar of his Latin graffiti?  Romans you go the house?  It's still one of my favorite bits from Life of Brian.

Astronomy is not neglected by the Pythons either.  If you've ever see The Meaning of Life, you'll certainly remember The Galaxy Song, a jaunty little ditty written and sung by Eric Idle to convince an ordinary British housewife to donate her organs (and right now please).  The words are as follows:

Monty Python's Terry Jones as Mrs. Brown and Eric Idle performing "The Galaxy Song" in "The Meaning of Life"

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the 'Milky Way'.
Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go 'round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.

It's a brilliant song, all the more so because it's pretty much 100% accurate.  We'll forgive Eric the use of the word "revolving" when he really meant "rotating"...after all, it's a very common mistake.  But beyond that one slip in lexicon, the song is spot on. 

Our Earth really does rotate, on average, at 900 miles per hour.  Think about that.  Right now, as you sit reading this, you are IN MOTION at almost 1000 mph.  And that's just the Earth's rotation.  Our revolution around the Sun, at 19 miles a second, clocks in at over 68,000 mph.  Comparatively, the entire solar system trundles along at only 40,000 mph as it moves around the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

A second error, if you want to call it that, occurs here.  We now believe that our galaxy probably contains 200 billion stars...but of course, it depends a little on who you ask.  100 billion as an estimate back when the song was written would be perfectly acceptable.  All of the other measures concerning our galaxy are quite correct.

So the next time someone complains about you just sitting on the couch, watching TV, you can explain to them just how fast you're really moving when you do that.  No wonder you need to sit down!

Until next time,
Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Woohoo! It's Time to Star Party!

Greetings, astronomy fans!

Ah, the summer star party.  Sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it?

Actually, we're really excited about our summer star parties.  We'll have time in the early part of the evening to view the Sun, which is pretty awesome right about now.  We're in solar maximum, so there's almost always something cool to see.  And by cool, we mean about 8,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  That's the rough temperature of the average sunspot, a cool, dark region on the solar surface.  I know, it doesn't exactly sound cool...but with the rest of the solar surface hovering around 10,000 degrees, suddenly 8,000 doesn't sound so bad.

The Sun today, June 5, 2013.  Image courtesy NASA and

Once the Sun sets, we'll be treated to some wonderful sights in the evening sky.  Saturn is prominent right now, and looking awesome.  At a recent overnight event at the museum, we saw 4 moons (out of Saturn's many dozens), Cassini's division (a large gap in the ring system), and even some faint banding in the clouds of the giant planet (yellow and white clouds generally don't make for great contrast, so when you can see them, it's quite lovely).  Saturn is truly a sight to behold in a telescope, and well worth the wait for the darkness of night.  Beyond Saturn, expect to see some beautiful double stars, like Alberio, in the head of Cygnus the Swan...and perhaps a nebula or two, like the the Ring Nebula in Lyra the Harp.

Still from a video of Saturn shot June 2, 2013.  Image by Dash One using Raspberry Pi.

While you're waiting for the darkening sky to reveal it's secrets, we've got a special treat for you.  The United States Air Force Heritage Combo, the Blue Aces, will be rockin' it out in the Conservation Garden from 6-8pm (if the weather is inclement, they'll move into the lobby of the main museum building).  Trust me, you're going to enjoy that!  And did I mention that everything we've talked about so far is free? No really, FREE!

The Blue Aces.

Beyond the freebies, you can support the Virginia Living Museum and see some amazing stuff this Saturday night.  Only during the three evening star parties of summer can you visit our stunning summer exhibit, Bodies Revealed, without paying admission to the museum as well.  Stand alone tickets to Bodies Revealed will be available for $15 for adults and $12 for kids.  Members, of course, are only $7.  The exhibit is an incredible journey through the human body - you won't want to miss it.

Also available is an expanded slate of shows in the Abbitt Planetarium!  At 5:30pm, you can see Microcosm, our show about the parallel developments of space exploration and medical technology that will also propel you into a possible future where human beings can go inside the human body to cures diseases.  At 6:30pm, take a break and rock on with Laser Pop, featuring pop music across the decades.  At 7:30pm, catch a preview of the evening sky with Virginia Skies, a live sky talk with one of our staff astronomers.  At 8:30pm, the rock and roll goes on with Laser Vinyl, a mix of classic rock hits you won't want to miss. Rounding out the night is a Pink Floyd double feature - The Wall at 10pm and The Vision Bell at 11:30pm.  The Wall features selections from that classic album, while The Vision Bell is a fabulous mix of old and new Pink Floyd favorites inspired by the release of The Division Bell.  It's a double header you won't want to miss.  Shows in the planetarium are $6 each, or catch a double feature (any two shows on the same night) for $10.  Members are always half price!

Besides all this fun, the Wild Things Museum Store and the Wild Side Cafe will be open for your shopping and eating pleasure!  Plus enjoy the beautiful gardens as the Sun goes down and the evening cools off.  All in all, our summer star parties should be a blast!  Our first one is this Saturday, June 8, and will be your only chance to see the Blue Aces.  Come out and join us!

Until next time,
Carpe noctem!