Tag Archives: TV

Astronomy’s Wonder Woman

2017 saw a major uptick in interest in “Wonder Woman” as the result of the movie where Gal Gadot played the role of the Amazonian princess.  Others remember the character as portrayed by Lynda Carter in the late 1970s TV series.  However, 2017 also saw the first American appearance by a real-life astronomical wonder woman – Pranvera Hyseni.

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Pranvera Hyseni at the 2018 Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF)

 

While both versions of the fictional Wonder Woman came from an exotic island, Pran (as she prefers to be called) came from an unusual location as well – a small part of what was once Yugoslavia and is now known as the Republic of Kosovo.  Kosovo came into existence as the result of the wars that ensued as Yugoslavia disintegrated.  In the final part of the conflict, Kosovo broke off from Serbia and became independent in 1998.  However, Kosovo is only recognized by 115 countries, including the United States, which is held in very high regard over there.  American flags can be seen in government offices and pictures of Bill Clinton (U.S. President at the time Kosovo became independent) are a frequent sight.

Pran was born on April 25th, 1995 in town of Vushtrri.  The first step in her destined path took place in 1999.  Kosovo was in the path of a total solar eclipse.  The news was received in the country with panic and much superstition.  However, Pran’s parents took no stock in that nonsense.  Instead, at the appointed time, they got a large bucket and filled it with water.  Then they and their children, including 4-year-old Pran, looked at the Sun’s reflection on the surface of the water.  This is a surprisingly effective technique when done correctly as the water surface reflects a fraction of the Sun’s visible light and virtually none of the non-visible wavelengths, enabling safe viewing.

The next significant event, astronomically, came in 2011.  Pran had been on Facebook for a time and one of her friends in Macedonia learned of her interest in the night sky.  So he decided to give her a small telescope.  While the 1999 solar eclipse set up the fuse, this telescope lit it.  Pran was so impressed by how much she could see in the night sky using the telescope that she decided to devote herself to astronomy.

Then, a major problem arose.  Pran soon discovered that there were no astronomy books, magazines, software, or websites in Albanian, the language of Kosovo (Kosovo has close ties to Albania).  Rather than give up or sit around and wait for astronomy stuff to appear in Albanian, Pran tackled the problem by teaching herself English.  This feat is not to be underestimated as not many people who come to the United States permanently from other countries are willing, able, or want to do it, instead preferring businesses and the government learn their language.  Pran soon wound up with a very good command of the language for a self-taught non-native speaker.

This opened up a world of astronomical information, allowing Pran to learn about all aspects of space science as well as developing contacts in the astronomical community, both amateur and professional, throughout the world.

Pran soon decided that it would be in the best interests of Kosovo and its population to spread astronomical knowledge and interest.  As a result, she created Astronomy Outreach Kosovo (AOK), the first astronomy club in the whole country.  The primary activity of AOK is hosting outreach events at in towns, cities, and various schools.  Due to this work, Pran was asked by the Ministry of Education to develop an astronomy curriculum to be used in schools throughout Kosovo, which she did.  She also trained schoolteachers in the use of a number of telescopes donated by the German outfit GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, GmbH)

Pran’s fame soon spread throughout Kosovo and the astronomical community.  Because of this, she became quite a traveler, representing Kosovo at conferences in locations as diverse as Milan, Italy, Zurich, Switzerland, and even the International SUNday event in Australia.  While on those trips, Pran toured numerous astronomical sites and built up her contacts in the astronomical community – something that would pay off in the near future.  But her greatest trip was yet to come – a visit to the United States.  This came about when Robert Reeves of the Texas Star Party (TSP) invited her to speak at the event.
But it almost didn’t happen.  Despite Kosovo’s good relations with the United States and the fact that Pran’s abilities were well-known to many in the space science community, she was initially denied a visa for her trip (mainly due to the influence of someone with bad hair and supposedly small hands).  But, complaints from the astronomical community as well as many of her social network contacts prompted the State Department to see the light and give Pran her visa.  The trip was on.

Despite a near-total lack of coverage by the mainstream American media, she wound up getting invitations from all over the country.  Joe Bergeron of the Grand Canyon Star Party invited her to his event.  While in Arizona, she got to see many attractions as well as some of the famous observatories there, including Lowell Observatory.  Later she toured part of New England, visiting Rhode Island (no, she didn’t waste her time trying to find Quahog – she knew it wasn’t real) and Brown University, as well as MIT and the Harvard Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts.  There were a number of speaking engagements, including one at Spacefest in June at Tucson, Arizona.  At this event was that Pran got to meet almost all the surviving Apollo astronauts except for Buzz Aldrin, who was out of the country at the time.

Also on this trip she got to visit some of NASA’s spaceflight centers, Kennedy in Florida and Marshall in Alabama.  While at those facilities, Pran was granted very high levels of access, including a visit to the roof of the Vehicular Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy.

During trip, Pran received numerous gifts from astronomical organizations, clubs, and admirers.  These ranged from telescopes to meteorites, including a lunar and Martian one.  This raised questions how they would be shipped back home to Kosovo as well as how to handle customs.  But Pran solved that problem and now has the largest meteorite collection in Kosovo as well as having increased the number of telescopes in the country.

It was fitting that Pran, whose interest in astronomy began with a solar eclipse, got to witness the totality of the August 21st solar eclipse.  After some discussion at the Kosovo Embassy in New York, she got an extension on her trip to allow this.  In another stroke of good fortune, a fan who happened to own a plane came forward, allowing her to fly to Springfield, Tennessee, near the path of totality, which she witnessed using much better equipment than the bucket of water she used back in 1999.

In one of their few moves that even AAI member and noted IAU critic Laurel Kornfeld would agree with, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) named an asteroid in Pran’s honor.  It is 45687 Pranverahyseni and, like 9967 Amastrinc (AAI’s asteroid), is a small (about 13 kilometers in diameter) body in the main asteroid belt.  Pranverahyseni can be observed through very large amateur instruments from dark locations or via astroimaging.

These days, it seems every major success inspires a sequel, Pran’s American tour was no exception.  This time, it is a six-month tour (let’s hope she never goes on a three-hour one – we all know how that ended up for one group of people).  It started in April and the first major stop was NEAF (North East Astronomy Forum) at Rockland County College in Suffern, New York.  She was a speaker at the event, but she had to share the stage with two other astronomers in a group that was billed as “Celestron’s Young Astronomers”.  She deserved her own billing, something I discussed with Stephen Ramsden of the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project (one of Pran’s best American friends) and we both agree on this.  But as a consolation, Pran was the best prepared speaker of the three (she never used index cards, doing it all from memory) and the only one who got a standing ovation.

The most recent project AOK has embarked on is setting up, with the cooperation of the government, the first ever observatory in Kosovo.  At NEAF, Corey Lee, the president of Celestron announced that his company would be donating a 14-inch telescope with associated hardware to this project.  I heard this from Pran herself very shortly after she was informed of this.

The ongoing tour is expected to visit many astronomical locations all over the United States, including some of the more noteworthy events such as ALCON (the Astronomical League Convention, not the Weird Al Yankovic fan event of the same name).  One major highlight already was that Pran finally got to observe her asteroid through a telescope at the Texas Star Party.  Those who want to keep up with the tour can follow Pran and AOK on Facebook.

And Pran has an even bigger and longer trip to the United States planned in the future.  Due to the lack of advanced astronomical education opportunities in Kosovo, Pran is hoping to get a PhD in planetary science at the University of Arizona.   So we will probably be hearing more about Pran for some time to come.

Though Pranvera Hyseni is no Gal Gadot or Lynda Carter, as far as space science goes, she is definitely a wonder woman.

(Trivia note: Lynda Carter does know about Pran and is impressed.)

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The Traffic Jam They Don’t Talk About

 

This coming Monday, August 21st, is the Great American Eclipse, the first total solar eclipse to pass through a large part of the United States since 1979 and the first coast-to-coast American total solar eclipse since the Woodrow Wilson administration.

The narrow zone of totality crosses from Oregon to South Carolina.  And many eclipse observers who can afford it and can get the time off will travel to the area.  As predicted, the airlines have jacked up their fares substantially.  Other observers will drive to the path of totality.  Even if they get to the path ahead of time, in most cases, they will have to drive quite a bit more to dodge cloud cover.

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The interstates may not be the only superhighway clogged with eclipse traffic.

If lots of eclipse observers do this simultaneously, there will be huge traffic jams on the highways reminiscent of what happens with those mandatory evacuations that they have for coastal storms.  But, aside from the photo illustration, this post will concentrate on the other traffic jam – the one nobody talks about as well as how effective a possible remedy would actually be.

 

It has been known for quite some time that NASA-TV will be having quite a bit of coverage of this event.  Sounds like a good idea.  But due to the fact that very few, if any, cable services and only one satellite network carry NASA-TV (the reasons for this will be the topic of a future post), this means that NASA-TV is pretty much an Internet-only TV channel.  This works under normal conditions, but is a major problem for events like the eclipse.  For those who are a bit unfamiliar with how the Internet works, NASA-TV uses web servers to put their content online.  And these servers can only handle up to a certain number of people hooking up to them to view the content.  As the number of people viewing increases, the performance of the server in delivering the content deteriorates.  If the number gets high enough, it malfunctions.  Historically, this has happened to NASA quite often during major events.  Not surprisingly since their computer hardware, like everything else, was put in by the lowest bidder on a government contract.  While this isn’t too bad for rockets as the engineers at those contractors work with physical things and they generally do a reasonably good job building rockets, when it comes to computers, those people are a different breed.  In physical engineering, it is common practice to build things a bit stronger than they actually need to be so there is some reserve capacity and also to cope with the unexpected.  However, when it comes to web servers, computer people tend to go with the minimum capacity for the job.  It would be better if they followed what I call “The Roebling Rule” (named in honor of the Roebling company that built the Brooklyn Bridge).  They insisted that, if a part on the bridge was supposed to support one ton, it had to be able to support six to ten tons.  As a result, the Brooklyn Bridge is a sturdy structure that is still around today.  Another company built a similar bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, but was told to keep the budget down.  Due to the corners that were cut, the bridge had to be replaced years later at enormous cost.

The other online eclipse coverage sites also suffer from the small server problem.  The Exploratorium in San Francisco has done eclipse coverage in the past and has had problems.  Compounding things are their rather amateurish production skills.

On top of all this, those people who do not have broadband Internet or have metered bandwidth (only so many gigabytes per month) will have problems accessing the online coverage.

If only there was a way to get video coverage of the eclipse that didn’t depend on bandwidth and server issues and can handle any number of viewers… wait, such a technology does exist and we have had it for years… television!

While this eclipse is well suited for television coverage as it does pass through quite a few cities and towns in the United States, the response from the mainstream (referred to hereafter as “lamestream” to use a term coined by Jim Kurdyla of Facebook fame) media has been extremely underwhelming.  The remainder of this post will discuss the TV eclipse options known to me as of the moment of this writing.  Some of this information may be subject to change.  Here goes…

One would expect that the lamestream broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and PBS) would have an interest in this.  Sadly, that interest appears to be rather small.

ABC: This network was probably the first national broadcast network to announce eclipse coverage.  The show will feature Sara Haines, Rebecca Jarvis, T.J. Holmes, Ginger Zee, Matt Gutman, David Kerley, Nick Watt, Adrienne Bankert, and Eva Pilgrim.  I suppose if you crammed all their astronomical knowledge together, you might get something equivalent to an entry-level amateur astronomer.  There are reports that some affiliates will go above and beyond this.

CBS: The national network seems to be taking the wimpy way out on this one.  They will only be having coverage online.  Some affiliates, mainly those along the path of totality, may take matters into their own hands.  One reason given by some wags is that CBS doesn’t want to preempt their daytime programming at eclipse time.  This consists of two daytime dramas (News flash: Daytime drama is a dying genre) and “The Talk”  Guess they don’t want to preempt “The Talk” or it might get Les Moonves in trouble with the wife at home.

Fox: Unknown.  They might decide to leave it up to affiliates.

NBC: Evidently realizing what ABC is doing, NBC will be doing a one-hour national show as well.  It will be hosted by Al Roker, Lester Holt, and Dylan Dreyer.  Not ideal, but it is better than CBS and Fox.  Wonder how these astronomical lightweights will manage?

PBS: Some PBS stations (not all) will be carrying a one hour program titled “Total Eclipse Live”.  I have no further details on it.  But, later that evening, PBS will show its talent for after-the-fact coverage of astronomical events with a special episode of “Nova” that will incorporate some footage from that day’s eclipse.  This is a rather rapid turnaround since it usually takes a few weeks at least for the “Nova” crew to put together something on an astronomical event.  As with the other networks, some affiliates might do something on their own.

Eclipse coverage is a lot like the Emmy awards in the fact that cable channels trounce the broadcast ones.

The Science Channel: This network is going to cover the eclipse completely in a program called “The Great American Eclipse”.  And in a departure from what the commercial broadcasters are doing, this program will be hosted by actual astronomers.  And, if that isn’t enough, there will be a recap show that evening.

The Weather Channel: The one channel on just about every cable system is doing quite a bit of coverage on eclipse day.  Their special “Total Solar Eclipse” will feature coverage from all over the eclipse track as well as from a ship off South Carolina.  And they are prepared.  In the event of bad weather at any location, NASA-TV coverage will be used as backup.

Of course, this information may be subject to change between now and the eclipse.  So, if you can’t see totality or are clouded out, keep an eye on the TV listings.  But, if you are where the eclipse is visible, don’t forget to see it for yourself (using proper safety methods).

The Video Some Newsletter Editors Didn’t Want People to See

Today, is September 13th (at least I am writing this on the 13th though it may be actually posted a little later as I am trying to get video embedding to work).  Back when my astronomy club still had a newsletter (as of this writing it has been dormant for months with no end in sight), I had a regular column and every September I would have an article pertaining to the Moon.  I am starting a similar tradition on this blog, but it will be on September 13th.

The reason for this is to honor(?) the greatest lunar explosion that never happened except in the imagination of the late Gerry Anderson (1929-2012), a British TV producer who had a thing for puppets that prompted him to devise (and be the only person to use) a technique called “Supermarionation” in no less than four TV series (“Captain Scarlet”, “Fireball XL-5”, “Stingray”, and “Thunderbirds”).  Anderson also had a fondness for blowing things up that might have inspired Michael Bay.  In addtion to his puppet work, Anderson also had two live action TV series: “UFO” and “Space: 1999”.  On the latter series, Anderson imagined that the Moon would be used as a gigantic version of the waste repository the U.S. government wanted to put inside Yucca Mountain.  And on September 13th, 1999, the whole kit and kaboodle exploded (evidently inspired by reports of a 1957 waste dump explosion in the Soviet Union) and launched the Moon and a dysfunctional group of humans on a crazy ride where every week they ran into aliens who were even more dysfunctional.  Since I like to connect seemingly unconnectable things, I figured a lunar article every September would be the perfect way to thumb my nose at Anderson and his special effects laden but quality-challenged series (or honor it – either way works).

So, in one of those lunar columns, I thought it would be fun to put in a link to a rather hilarious video that a group called “Ill-Conceived Productions” created that raked the series over the comedic coals by taking clips from the series and turning them into an old style black and white silent movie, complete with simulated film degradation, title cards and piano music soundtrack.  But, when the column ran in the actual newsletter, the link and explanatory text were missing.

Turns out this wasn’t an accidental omission.  It seems the newsletter editor at the time (actually it was the individual who gave him his marching orders) decided not to include it since they felt the humor would go over the heads of kids.  Evidently, this person has hung around Cub and Boy Scouts so long that they had this delusion that kids actually read the newsletter.  Actually, the newsletter had more readers among the Grays and Reptilians (non-existent UFO aliens) than it did among the kiddie set.  Come to think of it, it didn’t have a big readership, period.

Fortunately, that newsletter editor and his boss do not have any jurisdiction over this blog.  So, here is the video.  In case anyone is wondering, the cast of the series was evidently cool with the video, at least that is what I heard from Martin Landau (Commander John Koenig on the series) himself.  Enjoy.

In case the embedded video doesn’t work for you, here is the direct Youtube link as well as the Metacafe version