Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Google Sky and Astronomy for the Masses

So some lady just called me looking for the Political Science department .... I told her that I am in the Astronomy department, not Political Science. So she asked me if I believe the universe is expanding. Yes ... "That's because of the redshifts, right?" Yeah ... "So who owns the Hubble telescope?" Uh ... "The US Government owns the Hubble telescope, right?" Well, I wouldn't put it quite like that. "The French government doesn't operate it, so it must be the US." Does that really follow? "Astronomy is a science, right? What's the phone number of the chair of the science department?" Uhm ... It's 6pm... I don't think anyone is going to be in their offices right now.

Sigh. I clearly need more practice talking to crazy people while still allowing them to remain "interested" in astronomy, though this one seemed rather well-informed, albeit with big warning bells going off all over the place. In other news, Google announced today that the Sky is now part of the Earth, in that Google Sky is now part of Google Earth. This was enough of an incentive for me to finally download Google Earth and waste lots of time looking at pretty galaxies and galaxy clusters and nebulae and other such fun things. Constellations and planet orbits are included. Much like Google Earth, Google Sky is much more in the hokey fun category than the useful category, and unfortunately the objects I'm prone to looking at first are the ones I know well enough to be annoyed at how poor some of the data is. The entire sky has been mapped by the Digital Sky Survey (DSS), and a fourth of it by the more recent and absolutely fantastic Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). The Sloan images include all of the delightful astrometric precision of SDSS, as well as all five wavelength bands of the survey. Then, for the popular select few objects, the Hubble Heritage project has kicked in with "informative" blurbs about "zoom lenses" (also known as "the Virgo Cluster") and other such things, though one useful bit about these is the links to outside sources like ADS for said objects. The Hubble Heritage project by itself is a pretty interesting archive to nose around in if you haven't already, as well as the recently released Hubble Legacy Archive (which is actually good for scientific purposes).


Blake Stacey said...

Maybe your caller was worried that "redshifts" mean that the distant galaxies are falling under Communist control. Or would that be Republican control, nowadays?

(Oh, for the yesteryear when "Red Fascism" was mildly oxymoronic.)

Miguel V. said...

Yep, You right. At this point, Google Sky is mainly interesting for amateurs and sky lovers. However I find that it has a huge potencial grow using the layer arquitecture of googleearth.

I wrote a little bit about it using my new blog ;-)

Miguel V.

Trevor said...

I'm not exactly sure if I'm understanding this correctly. What point was the woman making that it was operated by the US and that Astronomy is a science? Should I be trying to make sense of that?

mollishka said...

Trevor: yeah, I'm not really sure either. Maybe she thinks that the US is trying to spy on people with the HST? Nevermind that the HST isn't suited to that and there are other satellites (Google Earth, anyone?) that are more well-designed for such a situation. It was also kind of confusing trying to explain that no one actually "owns" the HST per se; it's more about operating it now, and the European Space Agency is helping NASA out with that. As for astronomy being a science ... I think she was just trying to get me to give her another phone number to call so she could talk to someone else. Maybe she was just really lonely.

Stephen said...

Years ago, when kstars came out (free - linux at least, and you can pop a knoppix disk in your Windows box to check it out), it was pretty interesting. When you right click on an object, a galaxy or something, you get internet links to more info on that object. It just didn't get the press that Googgle Sky has gotten. kstars, though, will run without an internet connection, just without the links working.

One day, i'll replace the Messier object photos with ones representative of what one sees through a typical backyard telescope, visually. There isn't enough light for color, and there isn't enough resolution for HST like detail. The idea is to provide the visual clues needed to actually find stuff. I have no problems with pretty pictures, in general.

Of course, having had the idea, someone else has probably already done it...