Thursday, August 16, 2007

shedding light on astronomy (Awenda)

the show - part 1

Delivered my astronomy presentation at Awenda!

This is the title and description park staff wrote up for my event:
Shedding light on Astronomy

A show of lights!  From pulsars to planets, join Blake Nancarrow for a fascinating Evening Program regarding astronomy.  Blake Nancarrow, no stranger to the Park, is a member of Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and has been involved in astronomy for 30 years.  He will be taking us star gazing at the Beach after having given us some key information in his presentation.  Binoculars are a great tool to have tonight, make sure you pack them for this program.
Reviewed and tuned my presentation during the afternoon. Had an early dinner. Got to the amphitheatre early, at about 6:30 PM, to set up. Dave (who I had met before) and Andrea were there. (Rebecca was off-duty for the evening.)

The amphitheatre is designed for rear-projection with the digital projector inside the structure. When the park staff pointed out that the cabling was not complete, I started to get nervous. I had built my presentation to be very dynamic with clickable hotspots, interactive hyperlinks to special slides and a pre-presentation. Also, I had sound bytes within it, for fun, for the kids.

It was not looking like I was going to be able to run the presentation the way I wanted. But we did some fiddling, and Dave kind of handed the reins to me, sensing I was experienced at this, and I figured out a working solution.* I was able to get the laptop on the stage. Dave then said, "Let's try this cable!" We got the sounds from PowerPoint working over the PA system. Yes!

Happily, I was able to run the mini "fun facts" presentation as people were milling in. It cycled two or three times...

I remembered to put out props: The Backyard Astronomers Guide, Observers Handbook 2007, a simple planisphere, and my binoculars. Next time include a flashlight with red cellophane. Perhaps a small notebook too. (Forgot a copy of SkyNews! Sorry!)

All tolled there were about 80 to 90 people at the presentation! Hilary counted 80; Dave said they were some additional people coming and going...

Overall, I felt the presentation went fairly well. Lots of questions during and after. The kids were enthusiastic. The Bramwell-Inwood clan arrived a little bit into it. Geoff Gaherty arrived about half-way through (although I did not see him enter and sit). I was surprised the kids were not restless.

It took about 1 hour. We started a little after 7 and I finished somewhere around 8. We had a delay when we worked on the sound system. So I was pretty close to my 45 minute target!

After answering a few questions from the stragglers, following the park staff, Geoff and I headed to the dock. 


It would have been very frustrating—no, worse—if I had not been able to operate PowerPoint the way I wanted! I don't know what I would have done... One thought was to get a helper to operate the computer upon my prompts... Ugh. This means there should be more gear you bring when delivering a prez at an "unknown" location: BYO long video cable and BYO long audio cable...

A microphone not set up at beginning. It was too hard to hear me, at the back, with the wind in the trees. I tried projecting but it was not working. No problem once it was configured. A good thing too. I probably would have blown out my voice if I had kept at it.

The more I thought about it, I should have carried the mic with me. It's a bit more flexible...

Also must remember that you can stand in front of a rear-projected image!

Hilary pointed out I responded badly to one child, upsetting him. This occurred when I asked, "Which constellation is that?" showing the Scorpius photo. The boy answer, "The Rocket." I stumbled and remarked, "You have a very active imagination." The crowd got a giggle but she said he was reduced to tears. Fortunately, he came down to the dock later, we chatted, he got some looks through the telescope, and I think all was forgotten. Still, I felt terrible. Next time, I'll talk about how different people see different patterns in the sky... And to add further relevance, I'll tie into Native American legends.

Partly because of the stage set up, positioning of the laptop, and microphone added late, I was not able to face away from the screen. So I could not act aloof during the mosquito-alien bits...

Also, I think there needs to be a fourth mosquito-alien piece. I think a fourth instance would be appropriate in terms of repetition. Ah, the mosquito could fire back! Apropos.

Finally, with these mosquito interludes, there needs to be a longer sound lead in. If the sound starts up for a few seconds, then people will get to recognise it... know what's coming.

I forgot to thank Malcolm and Liam for commentary. And equipment, nudge nudge wink wink say no more.

Forgot to mention astro books at camp store! Duh. I had gone to the trouble of visiting and written down all the titles...

Hilary reminded me the next day that I should repeat audience questions (through the mic) so everyone can hear it. I completely forgot to do this (even though I've remembered at some of the recent software demos to large groups). Perhaps I was thrown off a bit by the intimate size of the amphitheatre yet being outdoors and the mic added half-way.

Hilary also mentioned out that the red laser pointer was most difficult to see, during the presentation, given the ambient early evening light. I had the green one! 

the show - part 2

Arrived at the dock around 8:30 PM and there were already a few people raring to go.

Geoff was able to set up quickly with his 6" SCT GOTO on metal tripod.

As I tried to set up, the dock became packed. I never finished mounting my binoculars! I never properly aligned my mount! It was like a crowded city bus or subway car. Astronomical rush hour!

We looked at the Moon. It was a beautiful crescent at 3 or 4 days old.

Jupiter, unfortunately, was blocked by the trees. Damn trees!

Milky Way was glorious, as the sky darkened. I got the impression that some people had not seen it before, didn't know what it was, or didn't know where to look.

I pointed out many constellations: Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Andromeda, Lyra, Cygnus (The Cross), Aquila, Corona Borealis, Delphinus, etc. Pointed out notable stars: Polaris, Deneb, Albireo, Altair, Vega, Arcturus, etc.

ISS and Shuttle. I had my palmtop programmed for the 2 events. We saw both passes. The 9:31 fly-over was fantastic—everyone enjoyed that. The latter one seemed much longer than the predicted 24 seconds! It was a challenge, so low in the sky.

We viewed the Double Cluster in Perseus through Geoff's 'scope at 25x. It was beautiful. Later, I hit it at 3 times the power and it was too much.

We viewed a few double stars. Mizar, Albireo. I pointed out the Roman army eye test using Mizar and Alcor. Many people enjoyed the wonderful colours of Albireo.

Messier 31 (M31). Pointed it out by eye. Then looked through the 'scope. Gave everyone a taste of the "faint fuzzies."

Looked briefly at Messier 57 (M57). Straight overhead. It seemed quite bright. Is it possible with my 'scope at a dark sky site to see the central star?

Wild Duck cluster (Messier 11 or M11). Geoff targetted it in his 'scope. Dark lanes or clumps of stars. Later saw it in my telescope! Woo hoo!

Once again, someone asked if aurora could be predicted. Geoff intimated that he found the predictions very unreliable. I recounted my sightings last year.

Also, a couple of times the question of the number of stars in the galaxy was asked. Neither Geoff or I could remember. Need to look that up... (Wikipedia says: "The galaxy is estimated to contain 200 billion stars but this number may be as high as 400 billion if small-mass stars predominate.)

It was incredibly windy. I think I had seen a report that said 30 klicks gusting to 50. That meant no mozzies and no dew. But it shook the 'scopes terribly. I didn't bother to put on my dew shield (Geoff had his on). But it was still intense. Double stars swirled. In fact, I was getting cold near the end. I didn't even have time to put on my zip pant legs or socks!

The dock is a good spot on one hand, with it's north-west sightlines; but it is far too small for the number of people. The rough count on or around the dock was about 50. Wow. Kettle's would probably be much better, in the future. And we would have seen Jupiter!

I had made the decision in Toronto to not bring the step ladder. For lack of space. But we really needed it. I had considered using one of my crates, inverted, with which I cargo camp gear. It was the one thing I forgot. I did position my equipment beside the centre bench on the dock so the height-challenged people had something to stand on. It proved useful.

The loaner green laser from RASC National was invaluable. Absolutely indispensable. Even Hilary remarked on the educational value. The kids went a little freaky with it... heh. Almost more interested in it than the glory above.

The skies? Perfect! 

my own observing

Messier 81 (M81). Face-on spiral. Very nice.

Messier 15 (M15). Beautiful, rich, intense globular in Pegasus.

I left the dock around midnight.

The garden cart was amazing. One trip! Just have to be careful opening it, to not bend the sides. 

random thoughts

There was no signage in-place at the dock unfortunately. Maybe Rebecca forgot; or it never got relayed to my helpers. Occasionally a gaggle of people with bright lights would wander down so we'd have to bug them. Maybe I should just make my own signs...

The park had a cache of loaner binos! That was very cool.

A woman asked me a number of questions at the dock involving the zodiac constellations. I got the impression that she might believe in astrology. I suddenly realised that I have inherited the bias of RASC people regarding astronomy vs. astrology. Already, I have downplayed this in my presentation. But I should reconsider my wording. I want to minimise the chances that I may offend or upset people attending my presentations.

Geoff had high praise for the Super Polaris mount. Said it was rock-solid.

Hilary shot some photos and video. I'll have to get these.

I'll include the PowerPoint presentations (the main one and the fun facts pre-presentation) on my companion site... Originally, PowerPoint 2003 files; converted to Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF).

It finally came true. For a long time, I imagined doing an astronomy program at Awenda. And I did it.


* Instead of connecting the laptop directly to the projector with its cable, I connected the projector cable to the conduit along the back wall. I hoped that this would be connected to the outside junction box near the front of the structure via the internal junction panel and the big component dolly box thing. I used the long beige VGA male-to-male cable Dave found to connect the laptop to the external junction box. I also plugged in the stereo mini cable audio cable between the laptop's earphone jack and the junction panel.

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