The Sciences

Mysteries of the Cosmos

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitFeb 2, 2009 6:26 PM


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I think I'm recovered from being in Pasadena last weekend. I say "I think" because it was so cool that even the usual exponential decay of excitement after a wonderful event still runs strong. The panel, called The Mysteries of the Cosmos, was all about the limits of what we know in astronomy. The panelists -- Andrea Ghez, Mike Brown, Debra Fischer, and Saul Perlmutter -- all study things at those limits: extrasolar planets, supermassive black holes, Kupier Belt objects, and the eventual fate of the Universe itself. I was the moderator, an honor I am still chuffed over. The day of the panel was fun. Discover Magazine, aka The Hive Overmind, was one of the sponsors, and will have a full spread on the panel in an upcoming issue. They wanted still photos of of all of us, so I got to be a model. Full makeup (using an airbrush, which was partially awesome and partially bizarre), eyebrow trim, pimple spackling, the whole works. Then lots of photos of me looking dorky, happy, dorky, pensive, dorky, dramatic, and then, finally, dorky. I was whisked down to do a short series of video Q&A; the panel was to be taped, and they wanted some background material. That was fun, and having Mike Brown there behind the camera making faces at me helped. I then had a few hours off, and got some work done (no rest, ever, for the weary). Eventually the five of us were brought together for a splash picture for the magazine, done Vanity Fair style, which was fun. I don't think I've ever posed on a ladder with another astronomer before. There was that time in the 80s when I needed the money, but I hardly think that counts... Finally, it was time for the panel. I was surprised to find myself nervous! I give lots of public presentations, and I honestly haven't been nervous to go onstage in years. I get excited, of course, but c'mon, butterflies in my stomach? Please! On the other hand, there were quite a few friends in the audience, and the Overmind was depending on me to not totally screw this up, so yeah, I was nervous. Despite that -- and one or two fairly minor flubs on my part -- I think it went really well. The four panelists were relaxed, happy, and did a great job with the questions I tossed at them. We then went for an audience Q&A that lasted about an hour, and that was terrific. We had some fantastic questions, including several from little kids (like age 7 or so) that the panel handled wonderfully. My sense of the audience was that they really had a good time, got a lot of laughs, and learned a few things... which was precisely the point. There were at least 500 folks in the audience, including some BAtweeps, some old friends who came to see me, Jennifer Ouellette and Sean Carroll, and at least one actress. Who would that be, you wonder? Why, I'm glad you ask:

That's Brea Grant, from "Heroes", who is something of an astronomy junkie. I found out she follows me on Twitter, and haven't let my brother-in-law forget it ever since (he's a big fan). Sadly, I didn't take many pictures. There really wasn't much time for it, and most of what I have isn't fit to publish (people caught in the act of talking, or blinking, or out of focus). When the event is covered in Discover I'm sure they'll have great photos... and in fact, maybe I'm happy with that. I sometimes take too much time getting pictures when I should instead simply be enjoying the moment. That happened many times over the weekend, and I'm just happy to have been there and asked to participate. So, to Henry, Tricia, Jackie, Darlene, the folks from the NSF, Chuck, and of course Mike, Andrea, Debra, and Saul: thank you for everything. That was a fantastic day. I can't wait to read the Discover article and see the video! And hey-- if you were there and got pictures, put links to them in the comments!

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