Think Bigger Than A Supermoon

It's time to get back to the serious practice of science. The so-called "supermoon" of Monday, November 14, may be a darling of science-lite media, but it's time to understand and appreciate real science events of greater consequence. I offer four astronomy opportunities for you to engage big ideas.

First, in 2016 scientists announced a breakthrough in understanding the workings of the universe. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected and quantified the collision of two massive black holes, which was revealed through gravitational waves that tweaked the space-time fabric yet was sensed by human instruments. The feat sounds stunning, and truly is. What does it all mean?

Illustration shows the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other.  Image credit: LIGO

Tiffany Summerscales, Professor of Physics at Andrews University will present What Can We Learn From Gravitational Waves? on Thursday, November 17, at 7:00 p.m. at Centre Twp. Branch Library. Summerscales and her team mathematically analyzed the chirp from space that gave away the distant cataclysm. A witness to one of the great discoveries anticipated in physics, Summerscales had to keep the momentous announcement to herself until the team could verify the claim. Hear her talk, hosted by the Michiana Astronomical Society, for more stimulating and more important science than the "supermoon" can deliver.

Second, get in the act of science yourself. Prepare for what will likely be--without hyperbole or click bait--the most observed celestial phenomenon in US history. On Monday, August 21, 2017, the moon will pass in front of the sun, causing a solar eclipse visible across all of North America. But it gets better. If you observe from a narrow swath that bisects the United States from Oregon to South Carolina, you'll see a total solar eclipse--perhaps the spectacle of a lifetime! That, too, is far more rewarding and inspirational than a "supermoon."

Preparing for eclipse workshop.

If you're an education leader, please consider attending Here Comes the Sun- 2017 Solar Eclipse Workshop on Tuesday, November 15, at 6:00 p.m. in the Penn-Harris-Madison (PHM) Digital Video Theater. It will help you prepare to lead your community in observing the sun safely.

Third, quaff some beverages during a South Bend Science Cafe talk or, fourth, expand your mind at Our Universe Revealed lectures at Notre Dame. Be sure to ask challenging questions, for science isn't meant to be passive.

I'm already hearing chatter about the upcoming supermoon, supposedly the closest to earth between 1948 and 2034 . Those who celebrate the supermoon should heed the caveat spelled out by Dan Fisher. The size difference of this full moon is not even distinguishable to the human eye compared to other full moons around the end of this year.

Yes, the difference between a moon at perigee (closest to earth) and a moon at apogee (furthest from earth) is noticeable to the practiced eye ( However, the perigee difference from month to month of only a couple hundred miles out of about a quarter million miles is negligible. Fisher points out how a person can move closer to and further from the moon by thousands of miles just by rotating around the earth in a day or by being at a less favorable latitude.

The US election dialogue, with its lack of substantive debate about science issues, is behind us. The need to embrace science education is before us. I encourage you to join science happenings in the community and seek your own science opportunities to help beget a science-literate populace.

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