This photo is right side up—the projector is mounted at an angle.

This photo is right side up—the projector is mounted at an angle.

How many planetarium people does it take to change a light bulb?

If we’re talking about the bulbs in the projectors that run Morehead’s planetarium shows, the answer is 3:

  • 1 person to crawl into tiny spaces behind the walls of the planetarium theater and crouch for minutes at a time while dealing with hard-to-reach screws and bolts.
  • A 2nd person to keep parts of the projector from falling onto the 1st person’s head.
  • A 3rd person to ferry tools back and forth and to entertain the first two people by attempting (and completely failing) to come up with good light bulb jokes.

3 is also the number of hours it takes to change the four bulbs in the two projectors.

Careful! Each bulb costs $1,650. And can explode if not handled correctly.

Careful! Each bulb costs $1,650. And can explode if not handled correctly.

It takes 3 people to change the bulbs and then many thousands of visitors to enjoy the results.

Ferris Wheel in Liseberg, Sweden

Ever play science roulette? Me neither. In Gothenburg, Sweden, festival organizers had the brilliant idea to put a scientist on each of the cars of a ferris wheel. When you got on, you rode with a scientist and learned a little bit about what s/he does. You didn’t know which scientist was going to be in which car, hence: roulette.

Know anyone with a nerdy tattoo? I do. (Comes with the territory when you’re in the biz.) Last year, the Philadelphia Science Festival hosted Science Ink featuring Carl Zimmer and a body artist to talk about scientists with science-y tattoos as well as the use of tattoos in modern medicine.

Each year, the Bay Area Science Festival takes over an aircraft carrier in San Francisco Bay to host a Nerd Nite at Sea complete with food, drink and science demonstrations. Nerd. Nite. At. Sea. How fun is that? (Even if they do spell “night” wrong.)

I’m bringing these funky events to your attention as a challenge to the good people of North Carolina. The NC Science Festival is putting out the call for event submissions for our 2014 Festival. The dates are March 28 – April 13, 2014. Each year, we’ve been thrilled at all of the wonderful events our partners have come up with. This year, we’d like to see more. We’d like to engage new audiences. I’m convinced that we’re the best science festival in all the land. But we still want (need!) to be better. So I’m looking at all of you, you Ignites and SparkCons, you TEDx organizers and 5K fun run fundraisers. We want you! The Festival is the perfect time to captivate crowds and get people talking your language.

A science of beer event featuring beers with science-style names (Rocket Science with Rocket Scientists serving Rocket Science IPA, anyone?).

A Reverse Science Fair where scientists have to explain their research to kids?

A robot zoo?

A video game tournament with looks behind the scenes at computer programming?

How about an app off? Come pitch your new app in front of the adoring masses and get voted as the best.

So many ideas I start to forget what I’m typing about. What I do know is that we would love for you to get involved. We’re the first and one of the few statewide science festivals. There’s room for everybody.

For details on hosting official NC Science Festival events, please go here.

Keep those ideas coming. And by all means, contact me anytime with suggestions. The wackier, the better.

Jonathan Frederick directs the North Carolina Science Festival, an initiative of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

bar graph of evaluation data

Credit: Dr. Karen Peterman, Karen Peterman Consulting Company

Thanks to the support and foresight of the NC GlaxoSmithKline Foundation, we’re fortunate to be able to work with Dr. Karen Peterman, a leading expert on science festival evaluation. She has collected and analyzed data for our 2012 and 2013 science festivals. (Considering the statewide nature of what we do, this is no minor chore.)

On September 12, 2013, Dr. Peterman presented to the NC Science Festival Board of Advisors. We thought we’d share some of our favorite findings from that report.

1.  NCSCIFEST events have increased both in quantity and in quality – There’s more to do each year AND the activities people get to do get better each year.

2. Our Elementary School Science Night program is so good, we don’t need to evaluate it anymore, anytime soon. It’s true. That’s what Dr. Peterman told us. For context:  Each year, we provide kits to NC elementary schools to throw science parties. These kits are full of carefully selected and refined hands-on activities. They’ve been so well received and the evaluation numbers are so solid, we’re going to focus on other things to evaluate in coming years.

FYI:  this year our goal is to provide 110 Science Night Kits to elementary schools across the state.

3.  The more hands-on and the more experts, the better. People like science events. If you want people to LOVE science events, you add two things:  hands-on activities and include a scientist. That’s why we’re always encouraging scientists to get involved in all of our events. Our data clearly shows how much value experts add to the experiences!

(IMPORTANT SIDE-NOTE: Just as the word “Science” in NC Science Festival is meant to be a blanket term referring to STEM, we use “scientist” to refer to all STEM experts, including engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and medical professionals.)

4.  When people come to NCSCIFEST events, they do more science “stuff” afterward. They talk about it with others. They look for more information. They do more activities related to the Festival event they attended. This is exciting because 1. I’m a nerd; and 2. because we really want to be able to point to longer-term, positive outcomes of our annual celebration.

5.  Festival attendees were more racially and ethnically diverse in 2013 as compared to 2012. We still have a ways to go to meet our goals for participation, but we’re on the right track. We are committed to engaging increasingly diverse audiences and look forward to supporting events that do the same.

6. The Festival provides NEW OPPORTUNITIES for our partners. 62% of our hosts reported that they learned new public communication strategies as a result of Festival participation. 80% reported an increase in opportunities to communicate with the public. 68% gained greater confidence. 47% reported new partnerships with community groups. 44% reported new professional collaborations. 37% reported follow up visits or enrollment from Festival attendees. 13% reported new funding opportunities.

The Festival could not/would not exist without our hundreds of event partners across the state, so having these types of outcomes are great. They demonstrate the types of win-wins we’re going for when we invite new partners to get involved.

7.  The Festival is FUN. Our events are teaching about STEM careers. We’re increasing the awareness of how STEM is connected to our daily lives. We’re teaching something new about STEM. But most of all:  we’re making STEM learning fun, year in and year out. That’s probably my favorite fact.

Our long term goal is to have 1 million NC residents participating each year in Festival activities. To learn more about the 2012 and 2013 NC Science Festivals, you can review our final reports here.

The 2014 NC Science Festival will be March 28 – April 13, 2014. Stay tuned — or better yet — sign up for our e-Newsletter here: www.ncsciencefestival.org.

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Peterman’s report, you can listen to a slidecast of it here. For more about Peterman Consulting, please go here.

Jonathan Frederick is the director of the North Carolina Science Festival.

The Pleiades star cluster, aka “Seven Sisters” (Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech)

The Pleiades star cluster, aka “Seven Sisters” (Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech)

A giant grizzly bear chases seven little girls. In desperation, the girls scramble onto a low rock, but they know the bear will easily reach them there.

As the bear rears up on its hind legs, one girl prays to the spirit of the rock: “Rock, take pity on us! Rock, save us!”

The rock hears them. And it begins to grow.

The bear just misses the girls as it slashes out at them. Instead, its claws make deep scratches into the side of the rock.

Imagine that a giant bear scratched the deep grooves in this rock. (Credit: National Park Service, www.nps.gov/deto)

Imagine that a giant bear scratched the deep grooves in this rock. (Credit: National Park Service, www.nps.gov/deto)

As the girls keep praying and the rock keeps growing and lifting them, the bear jumps higher and higher, creating more deep grooves in the rock. The seven girls finally escape into the sky and become stars.

That’s a Kiowa version of how the Pleiades star cluster – also known as the “Seven Sisters” – came to be. You can see these stars, which look like they’re huddling together for safety, during most of the night this time of year.

The rock really exists, too, stretching more than 800 feet into the sky. It’s in Wyoming where it is known by various names, including Devils Tower. Blog readers of a certain generation may recognize this rock from the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It’s a good thing these girls escaped to the sky. (Painting by Herbert Collins, www.nps.gov/deto)

It’s a good thing these girls escaped to the sky. (Painting by Herbert Collins, www.nps.gov/deto)

To hear the full story about the scary bear, along with a few other star stories appropriate for the Halloween season, please join us for Scare-olina Skies:

  • Two evening shows are aimed at adult audiences (older teens welcome): Saturday, Oct. 26, and Wednesday, Oct. 30, both at 8 p.m.
  • Families with younger children should choose one of the afternoon shows: Saturday, Oct. 26, at 2:30 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 27, at 3:30 p.m.

A story about the Pleiades and Devils Tower will be told each time, but the Arikara version in the adult program will unfold quite differently from the Kiowa version.

Medusa also makes an appearance at Scare-olina Skies.

The Moon on Friday morning, Sept. 27, 2013

What the Moon will look like at 9 a.m. EST Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 – but picture a blue sky as the background. (Credit: “Dial-A-Moon”; NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

If you have not seen the Moon in the daytime lately, the next couple of mornings provide a good opportunity.

At its current phase — last quarter — the Moon rises roughly around midnight and sets around noon. Tomorrow (Friday, Sept. 27, 2013), the Moon reaches its highest point in the sky in the south around 7:30 a.m. After that, the Moon slides westward, finally setting around 2:30 p.m. It’s worth looking Saturday, too (add about 45 minutes to those times).

So you might step outside to look for the Moon after you wake up tomorrow, or during your morning commute (unless you’re the driver!), or during lunchtime. The Moon will appear about half lit, on the side facing the Sun.

But don’t wait too many more days to look for the daytime Moon. Although the Moon rises and sets later each day, providing more daytime hours to potentially see it, it also appears less and less lit each day from Earth’s point of view as the Moon’s phase heads from last quarter to waning crescent. On October 4, 2013, it’ll be New Moon – when it’s up all day (and only in the day). But it’s only the side facing away from Earth that’s lit. So you won’t see it.

Want to learn more about the Moon? Mark your calendar for International Observe the Moon Night, on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. That evening, from 7 to 9 p.m. (weather permitting), Morehead will host a skywatching session at Jordan Lake, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. The Moon will be just past first quarter on October 12 and visible in the afternoon and evening sky.

In addition to telescopes and binoculars, the session will feature a few Moon-related demos as well as Moon stories shared by storytellers from UNC’s School of Information and Library Science. This event is free. Join us!

Weather permitting, you have another skywatching opportunity: this Friday (9/27/13) from 8-10 p.m. at Little River Regional Park. No Moon but plenty else to see through the telescopes.

This is the view looking in the northeast sky from Chapel Hill at 4:30 a.m. on Monday, August 12.

Perseid meteors appear to radiate away from the constellation Perseus.

The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks on August 12, 2013. Viewing tips:

1. What you’re seeing. Although meteors are sometimes called “shooting stars,” they are not stars. Instead they are bits of cosmic debris interacting with Earth’s atmosphere and creating a streak of light. In the case of the Perseid meteors, the debris has been shed by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle.

2. Why the Perseids are called that. Trace the streaks of light back to where they started, and (assuming they were Perseids and not other types of meteors) you’ll find they appear to have radiated away from a point in the direction of the constellation Perseus.

3. When to look. The best nights to see the 2013 Perseid meteor shower will likely be the nights of August 11-12 and August 12-13. Check the forecast, and pick the clearer night.

If you want to see the most Perseids, go outside between 4 and 5 a.m. on Monday morning, August 12, 2013 (unless skies are overcast – in that case, sleep in). From a clear dark site you may see an average of up to one Perseid per minute. Because of light pollution, urban stargazers should expect to see fewer.

Did you wince in pain when you read that phrase “between 4 and 5 a.m.”? There are other options! You can also try going out after midnight on the mornings of August 12 and 13. Or you could even try as soon as it gets dark on August 11 and 12. But the later you go out, the more meteors you will see.

4. Where to go. Find a dark site away from unshielded lights; you’ll miss dimmer meteors if you are near badly designed lights that spray light up into the sky. You also want a reasonably open view of the sky, unobstructed by buildings or trees.

5. What direction to look. Look towards the darkest available direction, about halfway up the sky. You do not need to know how to identify the constellation Perseus to see the Perseids. The meteors can appear in any part of the sky.

6. What to bring. Your neck will thank you if you take a reclining chair or sleeping bag to lie on. That sleeping bag, or a blanket, will also help you stay warm. Lying outside in the dark can get chillier than you might think, even in summertime.

7. What to do. Look up at the sky! This might seem obvious, but people frequently miss meteors because they were looking at their friends, their phones, or the ground.

8. What not to do. Be sure to avoid white light (such as from cellphones or flashlights), and don’t give up too soon on your meteor watching. Your eyes need time to adjust to the dark to allow you to see the most meteors.

Now let’s hope we get some clear skies.

If you’re willing to do the 4-5 a.m. thing, you get a bonus: Jupiter and Mars low in the east-northeast.

Look closely at this Mercury crater – it is smiling at you! (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

For early birds, the next week or so is a good time to try to spot Mercury low in the eastern dawn twilight. Look about 40-60 minutes before sunrise. Mercury will appear close to reddish Mars and bright Jupiter.

If observing Mercury has you fantasizing about taking a trip there, you might consider what you should pack. Four possible items:

1)      A really good spacesuit. The high temperature on Mercury can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

2)      Long underwear. Although you would be absolutely scorched on the side of Mercury facing the Sun, Mercury doesn’t have a thick atmosphere to retain that heat. So the temperature on the nighttime side can drop to way, way below freezing.

3)      Ice skates. The MESSENGER mission has found compelling evidence that there is abundant water ice in permanently shadowed craters at Mercury’s poles.

4)      Birthday candles. If you take a vacation that’s long enough, you’ll celebrate a birthday on Mercury. This speedy planet completes a trip around the Sun much faster than Earth does. One year on Mercury is the equivalent of only 88 days on Earth.

You can learn more about Mercury at NASA’s Solar System Exploration site.

Since you can’t actually vacation on Mercury, you’ll have to settle for seeing the planet from Earth.

Forget about a sunny vacation on perpetually overcast Venus

Today’s forecast on Venus: Cloudy. And very, very, very hot. (Credit: NSSDC Photo Gallery)

Why might a vacation to the planet Venus seem like a fun idea?

  • There’s lots to see: Volcanoes! Craters! Sand dunes!
  • Just a single day would seem very long because Venus rotates so slowly. 1 day on Venus = 243 Earth days.
  • Unusual sunrises and sunsets. Venus’ rotation is backward compared with Earth’s. From Venus, the Sun would rise in the west and set in the east. (But forget about a sunny vacation on perpetually overcast Venus.)
  • It’s like going on an automatic weight-loss diet. Venus’ gravity would make you weigh 9% less than you do on Earth.

But as you pack for your Venus vacation, be sure to leave one thing at home:

Your last will and testament.

That’s because you will definitely not survive your vacation to Venus. Although Venus has been called Earth’s twin because the two planets have about the same size, mass, density, and composition, the similarities end there.

What will kill you first on Venus? Probably one of the following:

1)      Heat.

If you find 90 degrees Fahrenheit to be uncomfortably hot, try to imagine the approximate high today on Venus: 900 degrees. That’s hot enough to melt lead. And you.

2)      Toxic air.

The atmosphere of Venus consists mainly of carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulfuric acid droplets—the stuff in battery acid.

3)      Crushing atmosphere.

The surface pressure on Venus is 90 times that of Earth. Every spacecraft sent to the surface of Venus has been crushed by the intense atmospheric pressures.

4)      Strong winds.

Venus has super-hurricane-force winds, and the winds have been getting even faster.

Brilliant (but lethal) Venus graces our evening skies for the rest of the year. You can look at Venus safely from Earth, where it shines at nightfall low in the west.

There’s no place like home. Take a “staycation” on Earth instead.

On May 26, when the grouping is tightest, you can almost cover the triangle of planets with your thumb at arm’s length. (Stellarium.org)

A slow-motion planetary pile-up begins in the sky this week. From May 24 to 29, 2013, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter appear within 5 degrees of one another (half the width of your fist held at arm’s length), low at dusk in the west-northwest.

Why go out to look for these planets?

1) You won’t get another sight quite like this for 13 more years. This is the tightest grouping of three planets visible without binoculars until 2026, according to Sky & Telescope.

2) This is an excellent opportunity to spot the most elusive of the naked-eye planets, Mercury. Perhaps you are like my skeptical officemate and have become convinced that Mercury does not actually exist because you’ve never seen it. This is your chance to have two other planets—bright ones—to help point the way.

3) You’ll get the sense that planets really do move. Watch each night and witness the ever-changing configurations of Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter.

Tips for seeing this planetary grouping:

  • When: Any clear evening between May 24 and 29, from about 30 to 45 minutes after sunset. Choosing that time balances two considerations: a) the sooner it is after sunset, the brighter the sky will be, making it more difficult to pick out the planets, and b) the longer it is after sunset, the lower the planets will be in the sky, which can also make them difficult to see; if you really wait too long, these planets will disappear below the horizon.

Arrgh, a tree is in the way! To see the planet trio, be sure to find an unobstructed view to the west-northwest. (Stellarium.org)

  • What direction: Over the spot where the Sun set (west-northwest)
  • Where to go: Somewhere with an unobstructed view in the direction the Sun went down
  • What to bring: Just your eyes are needed. But if you have binoculars, you will probably be able to fit all three planets in the field of view. If you can hold the binoculars steady (or use a tripod), you may also glimpse some of Jupiter’s moons.

Of course, the planets aren’t really piling up on top of one another. Even when planets lie in roughly the same line of sight from our perspective on Earth, they are still many millions of miles apart.

Be part of North Carolina’s first-ever Statewide Star Party on Friday, April 5, 2013!

There are 45 star party sites across the state – hosted by astronomy clubs, parks, universities, planetariums, museums, nature centers, and others – who are providing telescopes and other activities for the public on April 5th.

Find a star party site near you at the NC Science Festival website (search the online calendar for April 5).

[Important: Before heading out to an event, we recommend confirming with the event host that the event is still on. Most events are weather-dependent. Although current predictions are for clear skies Friday evening across much of the state, at least one site decided to change to a later date based on earlier forecasts.]

So what are the top 3 reasons you should attend the April 5th North Carolina Statewide Star Party?

This sight—Jupiter and its moons through a telescope—is reason enough to attend the Statewide Star Party.

This sight—Jupiter and its moons through a telescope—is reason enough to attend the Statewide Star Party.

1) You can join others in enjoying the wonders of the night sky.

Virtually all sites are providing telescopes for you to look through. Many feature other activities as well. Depending on which star party event you choose, you may be hiking, canoeing, or making outer space crafts. Rumor has it that Galileo plans to attend one event.

1a) At a few events, you can also enjoy a wonder of the daytime sky: the Sun. Sites planning safe solar observing—if the weather permits—include Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center, Marbles Kids Museum, Medoc Mountain State Park, Pender High School (at Moore’s Creek Battlefield), and Yadkin County Park.

2) You can be a citizen scientist.

Thanks to funding from NC Space Grant and materials provided by GLOBE at Night, star party sites have been given kits that include a light pollution and shielding demo and information on how you can contribute to a worldwide map of light pollution.

How dark is your sky? Leo can tell you. (Credit: Stellarium.org)

How dark is your sky? Leo can tell you. (Credit: Stellarium.org)

By observing how many stars you can see in the constellation Leo the Lion, you can document the darkness of your sky—perfect timing for International Dark Sky Week, April 5-11. Learn more about the GLOBE at Night citizen-science project at a star party event, or on your own, and then go home to collect and report data on the darkness of the sky in your own neighborhood.

3) You can celebrate the kickoff of the 2013 North Carolina Science Festival.

The Statewide Star Party is just the beginning of more than two weeks of events celebrating science across the state. Check the NC Science Festival website for events near you happening between April 5 and 21, 2013.

Most star party events are free! Please note that some events require advance registration and a few are already at capacity.