Astronomy and Clafoutis

One of my big goals for being an “Astro VIP” for the Park Service this summer was to do as much public outreach as I could. Well, I can safely stand in front of that “Mission Accomplished” banner without fear of later historical revisionism. Astronomy outreach is a mixed skill set that involves simultaneously talking (which for me, with Italian genes, implies considerable flapping of the extremities) and manipulating a sensitive optical instrument so that an entire heterogenous group of 10-50, pint size to double-wide, has a chance to view whatever it is I’m talking about. It’s a bit of a trick. The upshot of this particular kind of teaching, and this should make most professional teachers jealous, is that my students for the most part want to be there. No tests, no grades, no compulsion, just a nerd and his telescope and the night sky and quite a bit of honestly-expressed enthusiasm and curiosity on all our parts.

As an Astro VIP at Capitol Reef National Park, I am out reaching a plenty. For the most part the sky has been a good team member, only recently getting a little persnickety with the onset of what they call out here in the Southwest “the monsoons”. Now, all you children of the subcontinent, don’t exhale your chutney out of your nose when you read this…the Southwestern Monsoon is about what us New Yorkers might call a relatively dry summer.

We’ve had a few downpours and overcast days, a few flash floods in the canyons, and some pretty impressive seasonal waterfalls coming off the cliffs surrounding the park’s center at Fruita. Honestly it’s a nice break from the perpetual sun, and has kept me busy inside a bit taking advantage of the reason Fruita is called Fruita, namely orchards bursting with fruit. Here’s a clafoutis I made with some fresh-picked tart cherries.

Tart Cherry Clafoutis. There's a reason I travel with a cast-iron frying pan.

Actually, my head has been in the universe so much that I can’t help looking at that French-derived custard pancake…thing…without imagining how it might be used to help illustrate some astronomical concept. Could the clafoutis be an earthly analogue for the milky way? I guess, if I could cram some 400 billion tart cherries into one. The stuff of the universe is so ridiculously huge that I struggle to bring it down to earth.

The other night, there was this five year old at the nightly stargazing session. He was remarkable. Many five year olds can’t manage the odd eye/brain coordination to successfully look through a telescope. I bet when it comes time to train androids to look through a telescope, it will be a long, hard lesson and again will prove what nimble computers our brains really are. Anyway, this kid had no trouble seeing Saturn and its rings. When I asked the group question, he was one of the people with his hand up the most. He was often not wrong with the answers, either.

At one point I traced the band of the Milky Way across the sky with Light Saber (green laser pointer). What’s that, I asked the group. “Milky Way!” someone said. The little boy said something about a plate.

What?

“It’s like a plate. Like we’re looking into it.”

Now this is funny, because that was just what I was about to say. It’s a common metaphor to help understand the structure of a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way. It goes like this: imagine the galaxy is a dinner plate. In the middle of the plate is a ball-shaped bulge…this is the core of the galaxy. The rest of the plate is the spiral arms. The plate is spinning in space, with everything orbiting the center of the plate. Our solar system is a particle of clay inside the plate, about 2/3 to the edge from the center. When we see the Milky Way in our sky, we are looking through the plane of the plate. When we look far above and below the plane of the plate, we see fewer stars. We’re looking out of the plate, maybe at the giant chef about to drop a giant prime rib on us before he slides our galaxy under the red heating lamp for some sous-chef to start dressing with garlic smashed potatoes and a sprig of rosemary.

You see a theme connecting food to astronomy here, don’t you?

Anyway, this little boy’s understanding was pretty advance for five years old. When the clock neared midnight and he had to go, I said “Thanks for sharing all your knowledge with us!”

He turned and said, non-plussed “I’m really smart.”

Indeed!

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One thought on “Astronomy and Clafoutis

  1. Great entry, and great story. I am jealous of your opportunity to regularly touch so many people with the astronomy mallet ….er …. wand.

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