Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

10.7 The Seventh Day: We Are All Made of Stars

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

iya_logo1This week’s selection of characters has covered a fairly broad range of astronomers and astrophysicists: historical, professional and amateur.

As I’ve tried to show, Astronomy is probably the only scientific discipline which is as accessible to a schoolchild as it is to an Ivy League research professor, because ultimately the sky is the same for everybody and changes little over time. The only limiting factor is cost.

Traditionally the level of technical equipment available to the professionals is generally much greater than the average amateur can access.  Whereas amateurs may typically use binoculars or small telescopes ranging from a size of 6 cm at $150 up to 30 cm for $4000 or more, professionals have access to huge telescopes of several meters in size, costing multiple millions of dollars (for example Keck with its dual 10m primary mirrors cost $231 million to build, and $47,000 per night to use at 2002 prices).

But as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, all that is about to change…

Because currently in beta testing are two exciting new software applications: “Google Sky” and Microsoft “WorldWide Telescope.”  These two free internet-based applications will provide access to photographs and other data recorded from many of the world’s top-level research telescopes.  Google Sky uses a web interface at, and WorldWide Telescope (which is currently a Windows-only application, but will launch a Web 2.0 interface soon) uses one at

Here are examples of Google Sky and WorldWide Telescope:

image from Google Sky

image from Google Sky



image from WorldWide Telescope

image from WorldWide Telescope













WorldWide Telescope is actually a continuation of the TerraServer project (originally formed by computer scientist Jim Gray at Microsoft Research), using the previous databases and infrastructure created for Microsoft Virtual Earth.  It has now been extended to include whole-sky digital maps which in some cases are updated as frequently as every three days (and if you do happen to purchase a “Go-To” telescope, these computer programs can even be used to point your own telescope at what you are seeing on the screen, so you have a live real-time view).

So, why do I think the development of these software programs is important?  Because for the first time since the days of Tycho Brahe and Galileo, the playing field is truly level; and Joe (and Josephine) Average have the same access to high quality astronomy data as professionals.

We are all made of stars, but not many of us take the time to stop and look up at them.  But now, without even owning a telescope, anyone with a computer and internet access can access near-realtime images of the same quality that professional scientists use for their research work.

And to Astronomy, I think that may become just as important as the invention of the telescope itself.

So, that’s it for my week on the blog.  We now return you to your regular programming, already in progress…

-Iain B.

Week 10: We Are All in the Gutter, but Some of Us Are (Literally) Looking at the Stars



A few photos from our trip to the Harry Bayley Observatory in Barbados; that's my husband looking through the telescope, and me with observatory volunteers/amateur astronomers Bill Sutherland and Clennell Redmon.

After a difficult few weeks preparing for a research paper, I have been in a metaphorical-intellectual gutter, my mind filled with the flotsam and jetsam of reading about Irish print culture in the 16th Century.  And I was a bit desperate about writing this blog, because I am fighting a paper deadline that is a week away, and haven’t been able to focus on the interesting blog topics that I’d promised you a few weeks ago.  (There’s one New Year’s resolution down the toilet.  Sorry, folks.)

Today, I hit a new low by announcing I was going to take a look at “bad hairstyles from the Golden Globes.”  I thought I had lost my blogging mojo.  And I’ve been avoiding writing the posts because I just didn’t want to.  As we are just a few days before the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States, the topic just didn’t feel aspirational enough–bad hair isn’t compelling to me at the moment (except as it might relate to 16th Century monastic scribes in Ireland, or looking at myself in the mirror.)

But then, on a whim, I asked my marvelous husband if he would guest author my blog for me this week.  Yes, the request is a little last minute, not to mention late, but I’m delighted to say that he’s accepted.  (Thanks, honey.)  

And talk about aspirational:  his topic for the week is going to be astronomy–people who are “looking at the stars” (to borrow from that excellent phrase from Oscar Wilde quoted in the title of this post.)  Astronomy has lately become a hobby of my husband’s–as well as for me, by association–and was largely inspired by our visit to the Harry Bayley Observatory in Barbados this past May, where we got to see some fairly amazing things in the cosmos, courtesy of local observatory volunteers and amateur astronomers Bill Sutherland and Clennell Redmon. We have since become members of the Barbados Astronomical Society (for real!)

Hopefully these posts inspire you to do a little stargazing, too.