The Other Astro Word (February, 2023)

Written by Anthony Will

Happy (belated) New Year, and welcome back to “The Other Astro Word” – everyone’s favorite Astro Society Astrology Update! I’m sure all of you reading missed this article deeply last month – I spent January acting on my New Year’s Resolution to stop letting some silly stars guide my every move, but the horoscopes are calling, and I must write.
For zodiac devotees and nonbelievers alike, this blurb serves as a fun rundown of what’s going on in the sky, and how it may affect you, your friends, or the Fortnite Item Shop.

Monthly Update

For those a little more astrologically inclined, you’ll know it has been ROUGH the past couple months, with the sky littered with retrogrades and overall harsh vibes. February looks to be the opposite of that, as ALL planets will be direct, or awakened. The result of this is a month perfect for new endeavors, through your professional, creative or social life. Even in the drab grey of Columbus in February, you should feel a burst of energy pushing you towards your goals. Make it count!


With the February Astrology Update being the first of 2023, the horoscopes for this month will talk a little about what this month brings for your sign, along with what 2023 will bring your sign!

Aries: This month may show a change in your social life. If the vibe’s off, use this month to expand your social net and find others that match your energy.
2023: The year Aries… thinks before acting.

Taurus: You may find that February brings all of your professional goals and projects to the forefront. Don’t let it overwhelm you, everything that you need to crush it is already there.
2023: The year Taurus… cooks literally anything other than their comfort food.

Gemini: This is the month for action, Geminis! You’ve spent way too long chilling in that comfort zone. Use these 28 days to finally cross that one thing off your bucket list.
2023: The year Gemini… deletes Twitter.

Cancer: It’s a really great month for you to spend some alone time. Take a minute to touch base with yourself, and chart a course for your own development. Go easy, change takes time.
2023: The year Cancer… has more than like 4 artists in their Spotify Wrapped.

Leo: You know, I wouldn’t think that your confidence could be raised past its already extreme level, but here we are. Expect some luck in your relationship with others. Confidence is the joker in your hand. Use it.
2023: The year Leo… finds more role models than solely Sharpay Evans.

Virgo: The master of time management strikes again this month! This is a perfect period for you to prune your professional project plant (Got a little alliteration-crazy, sorry). I don’t need to tell you twice about wasted time- if you aren’t getting out what you put in, move on.
2023: The year Virgo… doesn’t backseat drive (as often, I know it’s hard to quit).

Libra: The time has come for you to embody your role as the life of the party. Your ability to shine in social situations will take the spotlight this month. Use your carefree energy and natural charisma to take some risks and have some fun. It’ll be worth it.
2023: The year Libra… stops falling in love with musical artists.

Scorpio: February brings a perfect opportunity for you to examine your home life. Look at what works and what doesn’t. Improving the unsatisfactory bits will help in the long run, just remember to think before you act. Avoid elevators. Please.
2023: The year Scorpio… shifts their cult leader dreams to running for Astro’s e-board.

Sagittarius: Alright, hero! You’ve travelled the realm and slayed the dragons of 2022. Now’s the time for the “return” of your journey. Reconnect with your metaphorical home village, whether that’s family or an old friend or an album from your childhood. The journey’s a blast, but having a place to return and call home is just as important.
2023: The year Sagittarius… spends at least one day without making plans with friends.

Capricorn: Now is a perfect time to tap dance out of your comfort zone. You may be tested when it comes to finances. Is the meaning of life found in your $2 extra Chipotle guacamole, or the person you’re splitting it with?
2023: The year Capricorn… gets a new haircut (cuts 2 mm of hair to make “bangs”).

Aquarius: Your real self is feeling claustrophobic under the mask you show to the world. This is the time to find the real you, and show it! Lean into a little rebellion, as long as it falls within university guidelines, I really can’t advocate crime on my second astrology article.
2023: The year Aquarius… doesn’t sacrifice absolutely everything for the “bit”.

Pisces: you may find this month gives a voice to your subconscious, whether through weird dreams, strange coincidences, or the ability to lift objects with your mind. Make a bulletin board of the connections with pushpins and yarn, just don’t freak out your roommates with it.
2023: The year Pisces… gets over their fear of being happy.

Juno and Jupiter: An out-of-this World Pair

Written by Alexander Torres

Even with astronomers discovering extraordinary exoplanets like the massive j1407b, a young exoplanet with rings 200 times larger than those of Saturn, we still have some amazing planets in our own backyard. For instance, the Juno probe orbiting Jupiter recently made headway on the cause of mysterious flashes occurring in Jupiter’s atmosphere first detected by the Voyager mission. Scientists originally thought these flashes indicated water occurring in its solid, liquid, and gas forms at least 45  kilometers below the surface. However, the Juno probe discovered that these flashes, supposedly caused by lighting not too dissimilar to that on Earth, occurred much higher in Jupiter’s atmosphere, leading scientists to believe that the thunderstorms raged in clouds made up of a 2:1 water to ammonia ratio. The ammonia acts as a sort of antifreeze allowing for the clouds to remain liquid at their high altitudes despite the extremely cold temperatures. These clouds and the incredibly violent thunderstorms that they host don’t have a counterpart on Earth, so it is hard to imagine just how amazing they are. All this to say, I am excited for Juno to continue making amazing discoveries until it is decommissioned in 2025. The information presented here is from Astrum’s “Juno Year Six Update” video.

Planet Series III: Saturn

Written by Matt Lastovka

Here, in the third installation of our Planet Series, I will discuss Saturn. Known for its stunning beauty and dazzling rings, Saturn is perhaps the most recognizable object in our Solar System.  I hope I can convince you that Saturn is the most interesting planet in our solar system.

It is the farthest planet from Earth that can be seen with the naked eye, and thus the earliest recorded observation of Saturn date to about 700 BCE from ancient Assyria. The Greeks named it after Kronos, the god of agriculture and father of Zeus around 400 BCE. The Romans later changed the name to Saturn when they rebranded the ancient Greek gods. Most ancient astronomers, however, could not see Saturn’s rings, with the possible exception of New Zealand’s Maori, whose name for Saturn translates roughly to “surrounded by a headband.” Even when Galileo first trained his telescope on Saturn, he did not recognize the rings. He thought Saturn was some kind of triple-planet system. It wasn’t until 1655 that Christiaan Huygens first described and sketched Saturn’s rings.

Saturn’s internal structure is similar to Jupiter’s. It contains a dense, rocky core surrounded by a large atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. Interestingly, Saturn is the only planet in our Solar System whose average density is less than water, meaning Saturn would float in a sufficiently large bathtub. Saturn’s atmosphere is characterized by intense winds, which can reach up to 500 meters per second (about 4.5 times faster than the strongest hurricanes on Earth). Saturn also has a massive, hexagon-shaped storm at its North Pole measuring 20,000 miles across.

Saturn’s rings are made of small ice and dust particles, most ranging in size from tiny grains to chunks as big as a house. They are incredibly thin, only measuring about 300 feet in height. That might seem like a lot, but if you blew up a sheet of paper to the size of Saturn’s rings, it would be a thousand times thicker than Saturn’s rings. They may have been formed by when the planet’s strong gravity shredded one or more of its moons about 100 million years ago, making Saturn’s rings a very new phenomenon in our Solar System. Some astronomers also suggest that they will disappear in about 50 million years when they are swallowed into Saturn itself.

Arguably the most interesting parts of Saturn are its moons. Saturn has at least 83 different moons, ranging in size from a few hundred miles in size to larger than Mercury. Mimas is known for having a large crater making it look suspiciously like the Death Star. Phoebe is located within the rings and carved out an empty band within the ring structure. The largest moon, Titan, has a thick atmosphere, and liquid lakes and rivers on its surface. However, Titan is too cold for water to be a liquid; instead, it has liquid methane on its surface, and it even rains methane. Enceladus is believed to have subsurface water oceans and features jets similar to geysers that were found to have organic molecules in them. These jets may be powered by hydrothermal vents in the oceans, which are significant because those are the places life is believed to have started on Earth. The presenc of the building blocks of life in such a place makes Enceladus a potential home for microbial life.


Planet Series II: Venus

Written by Anya Phillips

Welcome to installment II of Planet Series; today I will discuss Venus. Thesis statement: Venus is a boiling brownish rock that we can basically never ever visit, but Venus is nuanced, and it deserves our love. Please love Venus. Let’s get into it.

We’re all astronomers here, so let’s start off with speed running some planetary science facts before I pretend to be a WGSST major at the end. In general, the planets in our solar system have average surface temperatures that drop off with increasing distance from the Sun. It follows that Mercury is the warmest planet, right? WRONG! We’ve failed to consider the effects of a planet’s atmosphere on its temperature! Earth has a nice substantial atmosphere, which keeps us toasty with trapped radiation from the Sun, even from 150 million kilometers away. But Earth’s atmosphere is put to SHAME by that of Venus. Atmospheres like ours (in which carbon-based molecules trap heat from the sun) are kept in check by something called the Carbon Cycle. It’s sort of like the water cycle. Basically, carbon gets outgassed from the beneath Earth’s surface (think volcanoes and geysers), is absorbed by water in the atmosphere which rains down, ultimately causing the carbon to be deposited from the oceans back into the Earth’s crust, and the cycle repeats. It’s actually way more complicated than that and also involves organic matter processing carbon but for our purposes know that large bodies of water are important for carrying carbon back to the ocean floors where it reenters Earth’s crust.

The idea is that Venus started out like Earth—with liquid oceans and a respectable but not inescapable atmosphere. But, being so close much closer to the Sun, Venus’ oceans evaporated. Without the ocean to dissolve carbon-based molecules and let them reabsorb into the crust, Venus’s carbon cycle spun out of control. All of Venus’ carbon was outgassed into its atmosphere, and that along with all of the water vapor is what makes the atmosphere the greenhouse we know today, trapping heat from the Sun, and giving Venus an average surface temperature of 900 degrees F (~475 C), hot enough to melt lead. Missions that have landed on Venus’ surface (google the Russian Venera program!) have lasted less than 2 hours before dying completely.

Okay enough science. Let’s briefly get into some cultural references to the planet Venus. For a lot of us, the saying “men are from mars and women are from Venus” comes to mind, demonstrating traditional stereotypes of masculinity and femininity as Mars is the Roman god of war and Venus that of beauty and love. Perhaps a bit more scientifically, we can look to the fictional astronomer Ellie Arroway from Carl Sagan’s Contact, who is written to view Venus as “a planet that had let itself go,” disappointed at its seeming inhabitability. Or there’s my favorite reference, in the artist Mitski’s song “Nobody,” in which she sings “Venus, planet of love, was destroyed by global warming, did its people want too much too?” Mitski both references Venus’ ties with femininity and desire, and its place in our minds as a cautionary tale if we let Earth’s atmosphere get too thick by extracting, or wanting, too much from our planet.

So, there are some things to unpack here. First, Venus as a failed Earth, a disappointment. I don’t think Venus’s hostile surface should disqualify it from being your favorite planet! Is it not so incredibly interesting that our neighbor is so similar and yet so different from our home planet? Even if we can’t live there, is it not interesting to imagine the types of creatures who might, either floating in the balmy upper atmosphere or toughing it out through the metallic-frost-covered mountains?

Second, Venus as a cautionary tale—what could happen to Earth humans continue to burn fossil fuels, effectively outgassing carbon faster than it can be reabsorbed, thickening the atmosphere, heating the Earth, causing the oceans to evaporate, and halting the carbon cycle… perhaps a bit depressing, I’ll give you that. But consider this view of Venus an opportunity to examine the entanglement between the scientific and the social spheres. It forces us to understand that the action of a society wielding power over which it has little control and with capitalistic intentions has the ability to geologically alter an entire planet! Venus’s spiraling into a sulfuric hell world was the fault of the sun, but Earth’s doing so could be the fault only of a people who wanted too much.

Lastly, Venus and the feminine. What a contradiction, but also my favorite thing about Venus! The juxtaposition of a planet culturally associated with softness, tenderness, sensuality, and womanhood which beneath its clouds is in fact so hostile that the arrival of humans to it would mean instant death for those humans…I just find it so compelling. Perhaps Venus’s existence speaks to the experience of being perceived one way and feeling completely out of step with that perception. I’m thinking of hashtag femme in stem moments like quietly taking notes about magnetostatics while a male classmate antagonistically interrupts the only woman physics professor you’ve ever had to tell her that she’s using the right-hand rule incorrectly. Or gender-neutrally laughing along as a male classmate announces that “today we’re joined by a female.” Or nodding while a professor brings up the cool paper by “what’s his name?” that you read last weekend before extensively stalking the woman who wrote it to see if she’d be a good Ph.D. advisor. Or calmly listening to professors at Astro coffee discuss the latest space controversies the week Roe v. Wade is overturned by the supreme court, completely torn apart inside but unable to externalize it in this context…

Actually, maybe that’s a little too much for Planet Series, but here’s to the boiling rage that comes with trying to assimilate! I guess Venus exemplifies

  1. being yourself even if yourself isn’t what others want you to be
  2. The hostility that can be contained in a single harmless-looking body

That’s why I love it and why you should also love it.


image credit:



And google searching “carbon cycle diagram”


What’s Up? Constellations, Planets, and Astronomical Events Visible in December 2022

Written and compiled by Alyssa Whalen

The days grow shorter and colder as we enter December, but that just means we have more nighttime to go out and observe! The winter solstice occurs on December 21st this year. The winter solstice is the astronomical start of the winter season and the shortest day of the year (for the northern hemisphere). This year, the sun will rise on December 21st at 7:51am and set that evening at 5:09pm, resulting in 9 hours and 18 minutes of daylight on the winter solstice. From that point on, the days will grow gradually longer until the summer solstice next year.

This month’s full moon occurs on December 8th. Native Americans called this moon the Cold moon as this time of year is when the cold weather comes in force. The new moon will occur near the solstice on December 23rd. This new moon provides wonderful observing conditions (weather permitting) for stargazing during the winter holidays and the meteor shower occurring later in the month.

In fact, there are two meteor showers occurring this month. The Geminids are the crown jewels of meteor showers, occurring annually from December 7-17. This meteor shower peaks December 13th and 14th with an incredible 120 meteors per hour! The nearly third-quarter moon will make the faintest meteors difficult to see, but the high rate will surely put on a show regardless. This meteor shower will radiate from the constellation Gemini, so the best viewing will be close to 10pm when Gemini is on the eastern horizon and the moon is still below the horizon. The second meteor shower is the Ursids, which run annually from December 17-25. This year, it peaks the night of the winter solstice on December 21st, producing 5-10 meteors per hour. The meteors will originate from the constellation Ursa Minor. The nearly new moon will aid in the viewing, but light pollution from cities could make the shower difficult to enjoy.


Mars is in opposition this month. On the night of December 8th, the red planet will shine brightly from sun down to sun up. Opposition means Mars will be on the exact opposite side of Earth than the sun, so it will be fully illuminated and above the horizon all night. This will be the best time to view mars with and without a telescope, although a telescope will still be needed to view the martian surface. This month also provides an opportunity to view Mercury at its greatest eastern elongation on December 21st. Greatest elongation is when a planet interior to Earth (either Mercury or Venus) is at its apparent furthest distance from the Sun. This allows decent visibility either right before sunrise (during western elongation) or right after sunset (during eastern elongation). The Sun typically makes viewing interior planets difficult, but viewing at maximum elongation provides the best conditions. Eastern elongation means Mercury will be visible for nearly an hour in the western sky after the sun has set.

Venus is close to the sun most of the month, but will be visible in the evening sky close to the horizon right after sunset. It will become easier to observe later in the month, but it will remain difficult to observe. Jupiter is visible for approximately half the night, as it sets at 1am; however, it will still be easily observed with the naked eye. Saturn continues to rise earlier and earlier, soon it will be below the horizon during the night. For this month, it rises in the late morning and sets around 9pm. Neptune is near Jupiter for much of the month, setting near midnight; however, its distance makes observing even with a telescope difficult. Uranus is up for most of the night, setting near 4:30 am this month.

The winter season officially starts this month! Therefore, it’s time to highlight the most popular winter constellation: Orion (and Taurus). The full constellation of Orion will be above the horizon around 7:30 pm, but it will be best observed after 9 pm when it is higher in the sky. The constellation Orion is most recognized by the 3 stars that make up his belt, and by the bright red star that burns on his shoulder: Betelgeuse. To find the constellation Taurus, follow Orion’s belt westward in the sky until you find the bright star Aldebaran. This star is the bull’s forehead. Drawing a line between Aldebaran and the constellation Gemini (found by the twin bright stars Castor and Pollux slightly north of Orion) will highlight the easternmost horn of the bull. While Orion is an iconic constellation, the Hunter and the Bull are also home to many celestial objects. The most notable are the Pleiades, and the Hyades, two star clusters located within Taurus, as well as M42: the Orion Nebula which is located just under Orion’s belt. This nebula is one of the brightest in our sky, and it can be seen with the naked eye if the sky is dark enough. There are many other objects of note within these two constellations: NGC 1662, Messier 78, and NGC 1647 to name a few. So get out your telescopes and see what you can find!

Happy Observing!


Image Credits:

Orbit Diagram:

Geminids Shower:

Ursids Shower:


How the Christians Stole Christmas

Written by Matt Lastovka

Many of the holidays we celebrate today have connections to ancient celebrations. The timing and customs of these ancient celebrations were often determined by astronomical events, like solstices and the phases of the moon. The holidays we celebrate today that can trace their roots back to those ancient celebrations can still retain their connections to those astronomical events. Ever wondered why Christmas is celebrated on December 25, or why the Chinese New Year will start on January 22, 2023? Here, we’ll look at some commonly celebrated holidays and festivals and how they are influenced by astronomical events.


Christmas was born from pagan origins. The winter solstice in December is the darkest day of the year. The pagans in Europe lit candles and bonfires to keep the darkness at bay. They also brought evergreen trees into their homes. Evergreen trees stayed green even through the darkest and coldest parts of the year, so they were thought to hold special powers to repel the darkness and bring back the light. The Romans incorporated these traditions into their own celebrations. The Romans celebrated two holidays around the winter solstice: Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invictus. Saturnalia is a celebration honoring the Roman agricultural god Saturn and incorporated many of the older pagan traditions. It was celebrated for several days around the winter solstice. Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, also known as the “Birth of the Invincible Sun” was the celebration of the birth of the Roman god Sol, or the Sun. It is the celebration of the sun renewing itself and defeating the cold winter. It was celebrated on December 25. As Christianity spread across Europe, pagan festivals were replaced with Christian holidays. The date of Jesus’ birth was placed on December 25 and many of the traditions of the ancient Roman festivals it replaced were incorporated into the celebrations of Christmas.

New Year’s Day:

We celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1st of each year. That is the first day of the Gregorian calendar, in use in most of the world today. Like most solar calendars, this day occurs near the winter solstice. One solar year is equivalent to the time it takes for the Earth to complete one revolution around the Sun. However, unlike other holidays, the specific date of the new year was set by law, not by any specific astronomical event, making it unlike many of the other holidays on this list.


Halloween occurs midway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, also called a “cross-quarter date.” The Celts in the British Isles used cross-quarter days to mark transitions between the seasons. They considered Halloween to be the transition between summer and winter, the transition between light and dark, or life and death. According to Celtic folklore, people who had died the previous year returned to their former homes for a final visit the night of Halloween. People would set out food for those spirits to help them on their journey. This tradition morphed into the celebrations of Halloween we celebrate today.


Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar consisting of 12 lunar months. A lunar calendar relies on the phases of the moon to determine the lengths of the months. The Islamic calendar sets the beginning of each month by the first sighting of the moon’s crescent shortly after sunset, which happens just after the new moon. This contrasts with other lunar calendars, which use the new moon as the beginning of each new month. Ramadan commemorates Muhammad’s first revelation, an event where the angel Gabriel revealed to Muhammad the beginnings of what would later become the Qur’an. Ramadan is marked by fasting from dawn until sunset.

Chinese New Year:

The Chinese New Year is commonly referred to as the Spring Festival. It marks the end of winter and the beginning of the spring season. It is celebrated at the beginning of the new year on the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar. A lunisolar calendar combines features of both lunar and solar calendars. A lunar calendar uses the phases of the moon to determine the lengths of months and a solar calendar uses solstices and equinoxes to determine the length of the year and is consistent with the seasons. The final month of the Chinese calendar contains the winter solstice. The first new moon following the winter solstice marks the first day of the Chinese New Year. This usually occurs during late January or early February in the Gregorian calendar (In 2022, it was February 1).


Passover is a major Jewish holiday that celebrates the Biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. It occurs on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew calendar. The Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar, where there are twelve lunar months with the length determined by the phases of the moon and the year based on the solar year. Since Passover is a spring festival, so the 15th day of Nisan typically begins on the night of a full moon after the northern vernal (spring) equinox. However, since the twelve lunar cycles together are shorter than the solar year, leap months are added periodically to bring the calendar back in line with the solar year. These leap months sometimes make it necessary to start Passover on the second full moon after the vernal equinox, as in 2016.

The Other Astro Word (December, 2022)

Written by Anthony Will

Hello, hello helloooooo, and welcome to “The Other Astro Word”, the first-ever, Astro Society Astrology Update! Fun fact: Astro Society actually stands for Astrology Society, and you have been mislead this whole time! (Don’t fact-check this, I swear it’s true). Whether you base your outfit on the planetary positions, or just learned your big three to impress a crush (it happens), this will serve as a fun little read to see what strings the stars are pulling, and if you’ll make it through finals…

Monthly Update

The month of December may start with some fogginess due to Neptune, planet of dreams and confusion. We also get a full moon in Gemini on the 7th of the month. The location of this full moon points at change in relationships to those close to you. Then… Venus goes retrograde! This transit late in December serves to reveal hidden issues that you may have ignored. As with all retrogrades, use this as a time to reflect and shift your focus inward. Even with the craziness of the charts, Jupiter enters Pisces right at the end of the month, and this transit signifies the return of some luck after a retrograde-packed end of 2022.


DISCLAIMER: These were created on the general zodiac knowledge of an astrophysicist, and features roughly the same amount of research as simply “vibes”. It’s your life- don’t let anyone tell you what to do! Except when Natalia says to go to Greenbank, because Greenbank is unbelievably dope.

Aries: Dig into your hobbies and extracurriculars this month! Oh yeah also try not to do that thing where you get mad, and then forget why you were mad, and then get confused. You got this.

Taurus: Your direction in college is getting clearer Focus on and really learn what you love in your major, except maybe that dumb lab you have to take.

Gemini: I won’t sugarcoat it, there’s going to be points this month where you’re gonna have to hang in there. Don’t worry about that formula you forgot for your final- just draw a little cat on the problem and move forward.

Cancer: Time to focus on family and friends this December. Maybe it’s finally time to put your “free hugs” booth into action – that kid that just pulled a Thompson all-nighter might need one.

Leo: This is a big month to work with others. Collaborate, study hard, and bring some great snacks to your finals reviews. Also, Kate Bush is a Leo, FYI. Not advice, but a cool fact to tell your friends.

Virgo: Remember all that talk about change in December earlier? This is a great time for you to capitalize on this and seize the day, and I mean more than just putting all the food you own in Tupperware labelled by the date they were packaged and organized by color and portion of the food pyramid.

Libra: This month hinges on your ability to chillllllll out and go with the flow. No need to stress, you can do it!! And by “it” I mean decide on what ice cream flavor you want in less than 6 free samples.

Scorpio: You may feel some tension this month, whether that is due to continuous retrograde of Mars, or the results of your last midterm. Hang in there. Also buy that leather jacket, you totally look cool in it.

Sagittarius: For all of you December Sagittarius goofballs, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! This is your time to shine- smile, and keep rockin’ on. Maybe use this time of personal strength to convince Wayne to go to Astro Society meetings. We would love him there. The stars would love him there.

Capricorn: The end of the semester may feel rough. Don’t be the all-nighter Thompson kid- take time to rest and resist the burnout. Work towards your birthday season, starting on the 21st.

Aquarius: Make a point to signify the difference from being lazy and taking time to rest. That mile-long movie list you’ve barely started on isn’t going to start itself, and the sidewalks will most likely be icy, so get that hot cocoa cookin’.

Pisces: This month will find you bouncing from friend to friend, and spending time with everyone you know. Explore new spaces, and maybe use this time to find the best place to study on the whole campus. Hint: it’s not the mustard-tinted tile walls of Smith. Sorry, nothing against the building, but maroon and pastel yellow? REALLY?!


Neutrinos! An Undergrad’s First Run-In with Research

Written by Maya Legersky

As we traverse our undergrad years, we hear about people getting involved with research. At first, research seems daunting, or something only the most academically accomplished can achieve, but this is simply not true—research is a great experience for anyone who has a little patience and a lot of motivation!

I am a second year student who was lucky enough to land a research position at the beginning of the summer. I work with Professor Amy Connolly on the GENETIS (Genetically Evolving Neutrino Telescopes) group where I code (a mix of bash terminal commands, C++, and python) to aid in the creation of programs that optimize designs for telescope antennas that will detect neutrinos in Antarctica. When I first started, I had minimal knowledge of coding or even what a neutrino was beyond what I had learned through Discovery Channel documentaries on space. I was quite lost and had no idea what research even was or entailed, but my advisor provided all the training I needed, and I was able to ease into the skills necessary. Since the summer, I have taken a more active role in the group, working closely with my advisor to code the effects of birefringence into the Askaryan Radio Array (ARA) simulation that plays a crucial role in our research.

Even now, of course, I still find myself wondering “what am I doing?”, but I have learned to rely on those around me for help when I get stuck; whether it is Professor Connolly, one of the grad students I work with, or a more experienced undergrad, everyone is always more than willing to help, and I learned very quickly that in research, none of us really know what we’re doing at first. We struggle together, and it is a learning experience for everyone. Research is one of the best ways to build an invaluable skill set that cannot be obtained just through classes, even if you aren’t planning on going to grad school or furthering your education.

All in all, joining a research group was one of the best decisions I have made so far in my undergrad years; it has allowed me to build my skills in communication, working with others, problem solving, coding, and is just fun in general! Regardless of where you are in your path as a student, if research sounds interesting to you, go for it! OSU has countless opportunities aside from the SURPs and REUs that you can apply for over the summer. Go out there, find a group you’re interested in, and don’t be afraid to send multiple emails to show your interest. Remember, professors are busy and sometimes getting a response takes many emails, but keep at it, and you too can get involved in the world of research!

Beefing with the Fermi Paradox

Written by Anya Phillips

It is 1950. Physicist Enrico Fermi is hard at work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. On a lunch break, discussing UFO’s with his colleagues, he starts to wonder… how common is extraterrestrial intelligent life? And if it’s common, why don’t we know about it yet? (Famously, he exclaimed at the lunch table “but where is everybody?”) Later, he performed a calculation which is often misconstrued as estimating how common intelligent civilizations are in our galaxy (if you read Matt’s piece last month, you’ll recognize this as the Drake Equation). Thus, many astronomers think the “Fermi Paradox” says “intelligence should be common, so why haven’t we heard from anyone yet?” In reality, Fermi’s calculation was of how quickly the Milky Way could be colonized by a single civilization. He found, even at modest interstellar travel speeds (think ~5-10% of the speed of light), that thanks to exponential growth, our galaxy could have been colonized hundreds of times over in its lifetime (to first order, of course). So, in reality, the Fermi Paradox asks “intelligence colonizes quickly, so why has it yet to do so on a galactic scale?” I am here to offer you my solution to this “paradox” and to problematize its premise of colonialism.

There have been MANY solutions proposed (click here for the Wikipedia article I’m drawing from, some of them are pretty cool). Here is the non-exhaustive list that will get presented in your intro-to-astrobiology GE, though:

  1. Intelligent life is actually very rare.

Maybe we’ve been using the Drake Equation too liberally—perhaps humans are actually the only intelligent civilization in the Milky Way. This is a sad thought. I will not dwell on it for too long.

  1. Intelligence destroys itself

Also known as the “doomsday hypothesis,” this solution posits that intelligent civilizations naturally destroy themselves before expanding from their home worlds. This is not unimaginable from a human standpoint—we are constantly at war with one another and are causing rapid climate change that has brought on a mass extinction event and could eventually make our own world uninhabitable to us.

  1. Aliens are already on Earth, undetected…or unacknowledged…

It’s possible that either the Aliens are sneakily blending in with humans or that ~the government is hiding them from the general public in Area 51… THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE! >:)

  1. Intelligence becomes disinterested in the cosmos

Perhaps metaverse-like technology can naturally be developed faster than rapid space travel. In that case, extraterrestrial intelligence might be able to upload its consciousness to virtual worlds before it reaches the physical heavens. Now, obviously, Mark Zuckerberg is evil and the metaverse makes me extremely uneasy, but the way this solution gets framed (as a bunch of lazy young aliens, caught up in the cheap thrills and instant gratification offered by their technology) feels like a boomer take. Maybe it’s the astronomy major in me, but I find myself wondering how an entire civilization could lose interest in outer space.

So those are the main solutions, but what is missing—what is problematic here? I posit that, before Fermi began his calculation, he made the implicit assumption that the natural trajectory of intelligence is to colonize, to dominate others, and that this assumption is solidified in the labeling of his findings as a “paradox.” First of all, as is briefly mentioned in the linked Wikipedia article, maybe COLONIZATION IS NOT THE COSMIC NORM?! Personally, I would think that a civilization with the collective decision-making capabilities necessary to send representatives on interstellar journeys also has the collective understanding that COLONIALISM IS BAD! Our equating intelligence to colonial inclination seems extremely backward to me (not to mention problematic, seeing as we’re explicitly naming the colonized as less intelligent than the colonizers)! I think that a truly intelligent society understands the ethical implications (genocide, slavery, exploitation…) of galactic colonization, and chooses not to execute it.

I can understand “intelligence is rare” being the first solution offered. I can even understand the doomsday hypothesis as a second-most likely solution. However, I am literally baffled at how “colonization is not the cosmic norm” is not at LEAST the third solution on everyone’s list. It incorporates the doomsday hypothesis with a healthy understanding that maybe humans are not the end-all be-all model of intelligent life. Civilizations who evolve out of their aggression quickly enough to keep from destroying themselves realize that they should not destroy others either. Easy. Basically, the Fermi Paradox is CLASSIC western scientific “empiricism.” It gets stuck in its tiny, sanitized bubble, flummoxed over problems in its blind spots that are easily solved if you just step back and touch grass.

Here’s the kicker. Remember Fermi eating lunch at Los Alamos in 1950? He was on his lunch break from the FREAKING MANHATTAN PROJECT. DESIGNING NUCLEAR WEAPONS WITH THE CAPABILITY TO END HUMAN LIFE AS WE KNOW IT. And he thinks to himself. “This is peak intelligence. I wonder why the aliens aren’t doing this to us.”

I have to send out this newsletter soon, and I’m not really sure how to conclude. My blood has boiled during the two lectures I’ve sat through about how it is inconceivable that we have not been colonized by aliens if they exist, but am I overreacting? I can’t tell. On one hand, I’m not here to say astronomy is problematic just because I send out the newsletter and I can write whatever I want in it. On the other hand, though, Astronomers may present as a liberal crowd, but we still put telescopes on Hawaii even when Indigenous Hawaiians asked us not to. Is that not in itself colonialism still attached to our community? Another question I still have: does believing in my solution mean I hope we never meet aliens? Well, do I want to know whether humans are alone in the galaxy? Yes, of course. But do I worry about the societal ramifications about learning that we are not? Also yes. I don’t think we’re mature enough as a species yet for that information, seeing as the idea of not colonizing the aliens is apparently paradoxical to us.

Okay, I’ll end with an anecdote, actually: after hearing a Fermi Paradox lecture for the first time, I asked the professor who delivered it “why do we assume that the trajectory of intelligence is toward violence?” to which he responded something like “well, maybe aggression is not common, but it only takes one civilization, and the galaxy has been here a long time.” I said “…I guess I don’t like that,” and he said, “I don’t either.”

Planet Series I: Pluto

Written by Kaia Atzberger

Once upon a December, the story of Anastasia was made popular when a woman claimed she was the believably dead princess. Years of controversy brought attention to her story from the public. As it turned out, the woman was an imposter. However, historians have argued that the intriguing commotion she created caused people to care about the Romanov’s story which they wouldn’t have without the claim. One could argue this is what happened to Pluto. If Pluto hadn’t been a planet first would we care? I’m here to argue why Pluto’s story does make it so fascinating but why it is incredibly interesting on its own merit as well.

How many planets are in the solar system? Eight, nine, hundreds? It depends on who and when you ask. The ancient Babylonians could detect Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn with just the naked eye. The development of better telescopes and overall technology led to further discoveries of Uranus and Neptune. Building off of Percival Lowell’s search for a Planet X, Clyde Tombaugh examined pairs of photographic plates using a blink-microscope comparator. Then, on the momentous day of February 18, 1930, the planets and the fates and all the stars aligned when Tombaugh discovered a moving object now known as Pluto in the Kuiper Belt. He had done it!

Not only was this the first planet to be discovered in almost 100 years, but it was also the only one to be discovered in the United States and the only planet to be named by a child. Venetia Burney was well versed in Greek mythology and upon Pluto’s discovery, suggested the name to her grandfather. He was friends with a member of the Royal Astronomical Society who passed it forward to the astronomers at Lowell Observatory. They unanimously voted in favor of her choice.

Pluto lived in glory for less than one full Plutonian year. In 2005, a man named Mike Brown discovered Eris which appeared larger than Pluto. This led astronomers to officially consider the definition of a planet, which until then had not been formalized. In 2006, the IAU was asked to determine whether Pluto, Eris, and potentially hundreds more celestial bodies would be classified as planets. They decided a planet must orbit a star, have enough gravitational force to attain a
spherical shape, and clear its orbit of similar size objects. Pluto failed the third criterion and was redefined as a dwarf planet. Eris did as well and Mike Brown recalls in his memoir that he was sad his discovery would never achieve planethood. However, can we discuss this IAU definition? It is incredibly vague and scientists continue to argue over it. As astronomy is a constantly evolving study, I’m of the opinion that we shouldn’t blindly accept that the IAU’s decision will never change. In fact, Pluto is still legally a planet whenever it passes over the skies of New Mexico where it was discovered.

Pushing past history, Pluto has many wondrous features. First of all, Pluto has an adorable ice valley in the shape of a heart. It’s a world with blue skies, mountains the size of the Rockies, and red snow. Pluto’s moons Hydra, Kerberos, Styx, and Nix are quite small but its fifth moon, Charon, is quite impressive. It is of similar size to Pluto and its gravitational influence tidally locks the two creating a nearly binary system. In 2015, the New Horizons mission took beautiful pictures during the first-ever spacecraft visit to Pluto. Among New Horizons’ exciting discoveries, it found that Pluto is surprisingly geologically active. Interestingly, the principal investigator of this mission, Alan Stern, is one of the more notable advocates against the IAU’s reclassification.
Ultimately, there are so many reasons why Pluto is the best planet. It has a compelling story, unique characteristics, and scientific appeal. Learning about Pluto is what made me want to study astronomy. It may not be an official planet (for now), but it will always hold a special place in my heart.

“I Was Anastasia” by Ariel Lawhon
“Plates, Pluto, and Planets X” by Clyde Tombaugh in Sky & Telescope April 1991
“The Girl Who Named Pluto” by Alice B. McGinty and Elizabeth Haidle
“How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming” by Mike Brown