There’s a great new website about our solar system that will blow your socks off! The Planets Online introduces viewers to a broad range of subjects in a unique, innovative, and entertaining way. The site naturally interweaves information on science, engineering, music, visual design, and technology—it could be a showcase for STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math).
The site is the creation of visual artist Adrian Wyard. Followers of Seattle Astronomy may recall that we wrote about Wyard’s show The Planets Live about three years ago (story here). The concept is that Wyard uses images of celestial objects to accompany and enhance classical music. He’s done it with Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Dvorák’s 9th Symphony.
The core of The Planets Online is a video of a performance of The Planets by the Auburn Symphony Orchestra directed by Anthony Spain and featuring the Seattle Pacific University Women’s Choir and Wyard’s visuals. This is no ordinary video, however. If you remember when we used to get our video on plastic disks, think of The Planets Online as a video loaded with special features. As the video plays, a sidebar describes the images and who created them, offers facts about the music, pulls up Wikipedia pages and other sources about the science, throws in tidbits of trivia, and more. You can switch any of these info streams on or off depending on your interests.
Here’s a little preview video of The Planets Online.
We expect you might spend a good deal of time with the site.
There are live performances of Wyard’s work coming up this spring in Florida, Virginia, and Texas. The last northwest live performances were back in April, May, and October last year. If you missed those, you can have a little fun—and learn a few things—with The Planets Online.
Henrietta Leavitt blew up the universe. It’s amazing that so few people know about her. The numbers of the informed grow with each performance of Silent Sky, a play by San Francisco-based playwright Lauren Gunderson running through this weekend at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood.
Leavitt is the early 20th century Harvard Observatory astronomer who, while examining and cataloging photographic plates of stars, discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. This breakthrough enabled astronomers to calculate the distances to these stars, some of which turned out to be at vast distances from Earth. What were then called spiral nebulae were actually other galaxies and not part of our own Milky Way. The universe suddenly became a far, far bigger place.
The play, directed by Karen Lund at Taproot, explores Leavitt’s life as she moves away from home to work at Harvard, examines the struggles she and her colleagues faced as women in astronomy, and delves into the ways in which art and faith influenced her life and work. There’s also a sad tale of love.
Hana Lass as Henrietta Leavitt in Taproot Theatre’s Silent Sky, running through Feb. 27. Taproot photo.
The show features five actors, and all did a marvelous job. Hana Lass played Henrietta. Kim Morris played Willamina Fleming, who was actually the housekeeper for Harvard Observatory director Edward Pickering until he hired her, at a pittance of a wage, as a human computer to measure and catalog the brightness of stars on the observatory’s photographic plates. Nikki Visel played Annie Cannon, another computer who developed the stellar classification system still in use today. Candace Vance played Margaret Leavitt, Henrietta’s sister. Calder Jameson Shilling portrayed Peter Shaw, an assistant to Pickering and a faculty member at Harvard.
Toiling in obscurity
Even many people close to astronomy did not know of Leavitt.
Director Karen Lund and Adrian Wyard of the Counterbalance Foundation drew a large and engaged crowd to Taproot Theatre on a recent Tuesday for a discussion about Silent Sky and the interplay between science and faith. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.
“I am a historian of science and had never heard of any of these people,” said Adrian Wyard, director of the Counterbalance Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit educational organization working to promote the public understanding of science and how the sciences relate to wider society. We did a story about our interview with Wyard earlier this month, in which we discussed the interplay between art, science, and faith. Taproot held a conversation at the theater last week for discussion of similar topics as they relate to Silent Sky. Wyard gave the play a nod of approval, noting that it was highly entertaining and that the science was right on.
“It’s so rare to see great art where the science is represented faithfully,” he said. “Henrietta Leavitt played a major role in an important discovery in the 1900s. It’s fair to say that she blew up the universe.”
Telling the story of Silent Sky
Lund, the director, said that the actors did extensive research about the people they were to portray, and turned up some facts that were not depicted in the play. For example, both Henrietta Leavitt and Cannon were hearing impaired, but only Leavitt was depicted as such for Silent Sky. Lund pointed out that the playwright Gunderson really captured the personalities and the times.
“It’s beautiful, in a composite way, how accurate she is,” Lund said, adding that their own research helped a great deal. “We use the information that we gather as a way of supporting the characters that we build and create.”
The set pieces of the work stations the computers used are faithful reproductions of the gear the women used at Harvard more than a century ago. Lund also brought in an astronomer from the University of Washington to talk the cast through the science of the play, which Lund said was a rewarding day of rehearsal.
“We wanted to be able to speak with authority as those characters,” she said.
Science, faith, and art
Faith came into the story because Leavitt was the daughter of a Congregational minister, and art entered because Henrietta was inspired to recognize the patterns of the Cepheids in part because there were similar tonal relationships in her sister’s piano playing. Art informed and nurtured the scientific mind.
Wyard pointed out that there are some pretty bright lines around what science is supposed to do.
“The job is to understand the natural world that we can measure, and to establish mathematical theories which could be falsifiable,” he said, adding that science must tackle some pretty narrow questions. “Purpose and meaning and value are things we need to eject from science if science is going to do a good job.”
These days many folks would have the sciences go it alone. Education advocates repeat their mantra of STEM, STEM, STEMMMM while schooling in the arts is reduced or eliminated. Some scientists decry the so-called magic of religion. People of faith shun science because God is the answer. Adrian Wyard—software engineer, artist, astronomy buff, and Christian—believes science, art, and faith get along just fine.
“As a child I always had those three elements in my life,” Wyard said in an interview earlier this month. “I grew up going to church back in England, I had a strong science and engineering interest, which sent me on a straight line into computer science, computer software design. That was my first career.”
Wyard fesses up to a certain level of single mindedness about computers in his youth.
“I had very little time for anything else,” he said, though he had some interest in art in high school, and that crept into his work.
“There was always a design element,” he said. “I was never that good at coding but I loved the big picture, I loved solving problems for real people, so I ended up focusing on designing user interfaces.”
He was the program manager for Word 1.0 at Microsoft.
“I was lucky enough to be there when all the good stuff happened at the beginning,” Wyard said. “That took a lot of my time,” he added in something of an understatement.
After leaving Microsoft Wyard decided to reboot and attended Seattle Pacific University.
“I went to SPU to essentially do exactly the opposite of what I did the first time. So I took liberal arts, I took theater, I took English, I took sociology,” he said. “I just got totally enamored by these connections between different disciplines.”
Wyard wanted to learn more about those connections. The research was out there, but it was hard to find. He started the Counterbalance Foundation in 1998 as essentially an online library exploring the intersections of science and faith. The site now has in the neighborhood of 300,000 links and 200 hours of video. The site helps readers of multidiciplinary texts find resources to understand the particular disciplines with which they may be less familiar, and facilitates discussion and education.
“The idea of using interactive technologies to teach, to help people understand multidisciplinary subjects, just struck me as an obvious move,” Wyard said. In a way, he sees counterbalance as pennance for his lack of multidisciplinarianism as a youth.
“The one subject I disliked the most was history, because as far as I was concerned everything happens starting with Turing in 1950 or thereabouts, and that’s it, and I did not want to be distracted from my main interest,” in computers, he said. “Counterbalance is basically me coming to realize the error of my ways.”
He also overcame his dislike of history, eventually going to Oxford to earn a master’s degree in the history of science, studying under John Hedley Brooke. While at Oxford Wyard specialized in the study of the tension between creation and evolution. His adult education gives him a better foundation from which to approach these knotty questions.
A search for the truth
Many people like to depict science and faith as warring factions, but Wyard sees both as having the same goal of seeking the truth.
“There is no religious person, as crazy as they may appear to other religious people, or athiests or scientists, who does not in their heart of hearts want to find what’s true and would be horrified to think that they were being misled. That will forever bind the religious inclination and the scientific inclination,” Wyard said. “On balance, what you find is just a compulsion to find out the way the world works, and almost always be in awe of that. There’s so much common ground, it’s hard to imagine it ever conflicts.”
Yet it almost has to at times. The tension between science and religion is a complicated one, Wyard said.
“If you want to talk about all the sciences and all of the religions, you can easily find examples among that huge landscape, of overt conflict, where one says this is the case and the other says the opposite,” he said.
Conversation at Taproot
Wyard will be giving a public presentation to discuss these ideas at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16 at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood. The theatre is running Lauren Gunderson’s play, Silent Sky, about the Harvard astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. The drama tackles some of these same questions, and Wyard said he’s been thinking about delving a little into postmodernism for the conversation.
“Sometimes that can be a rabbit trail that you really don’t want to go down,” he said of postmodernism. “For some people it’s a keyword for a lot of troubling things.”
But Wyard said that the modernist concept of knowledge, which was very much in play during the time in which the play is set in the early 20th century, held that knowledge accumulates, you reach a conclusion, and then you have the answers. Religion, he noted, sometimes operates in much the same way.
“At least what postmodernism has done is show that in the sciences, that does not work,” he said. “There are precious few lines of scientific inquiry that don’t require you to also understand the perspective” of which questions are asked and the context in which any experiment is being conducted.
Postmodernism, Wyard said, “recognizes that science exists in a socioeconomic political framework, and there is nothing that happens that doesn’t have some connection through to economics or politics or even just social mores and preferences.”
Wyard suggests a couple of books that may be of interest to people wishing to delve into this line of inquiry. One is The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2007) by Francis Collins, who was lead of human genome project and is chair of the National Institutes of Health.
“That is a nice introduction because he takes us on the journey throughout his own story, which starts off as an athiest” though now Wyard said Collins identifies as evangelical. “He goes all the way through without losing any speck of his scientific interest and aptitude.”
The other book isIncomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter(W.W. Norton & Company, 2013) by Terrance Deacon, an anthropologist and neuroscientist at Berkeley. Wyard said it’s a fascinating book, though a bit of a heavy lift at more than 600 pages. He is working with Deacon and his research team to try to bring it to a more accessible level. There are a couple of lectures about the book in Counterbalance’s Bridging the Gaps section.
The Planets Live
Wyard started doing art again about five years ago. He is getting into greater touch with his artistic side, collaborating on a multimedia presentation of Gustav Holst’s composition The Planets. The work, which Wyard describes as a live, choreographed video accompaniment of the piece, was first performed in 2014 at the Highline Performing Arts Center as a project with the Northwest Symphony Orchestra. It hit all the right notes with Wyard, “combining my knowledge of computers, computer technology, space, and also the photography side came in too,” he said.
While The Planets Live stands on its own as art—see the trailer below—Wyard is also excited about it as a “killer educational tool.”
“The Planets suite is a very accessible piece of music,” he said, noting that even kids who came in thinking that classical music is boring dug it at the premiere.
“They loved it because not only were the visuals interesting and stimulating, but it allowed them to access the music,” Wyard said. “It was a positive introduction to classical music, plus an introduction to astronomy.”
They did several other performances of the work in Sioux Falls last year with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, one of which was recorded and later aired by PBS. Several other performances are on the schedule for this year Lakeland, Fla. and Ann Arbor, Mich., and Wyard said they hope to bring The Planets Live back to the Seattle area again sometime soon, though this has not yet been set.
Adrian Wyard is an interesting person taking on some big questions. We expect you’ll hear more from him on Seattle Astronomy.
Happy Presidents Day from Seattle Astronomy. We celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln this week. Perhaps, though, we should observe Astronomers Day, because some big-name birthdays fall this week as well. Nicholas Copernicus was born Feb. 19, 1473—he would be 543—and Galileo was born Feb. 15, 1564—452 years ago this day. Maybe it is because of these two most important scientists that there are so many great astronomy events on the calendar this week!
Show me a rose
We’re planning a road trip to Portland, where the Rose City Astronomers will hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15 at the OMSI auditorium. Dr. Gregory Bothun of the University of Oregon will give a talk titled, “Astronomy, Big Data, and the Future.” The premise: we’re collecting astronomical data at an astronomically increasing pace, but human processing and thinking about all of this information can’t keep up. Is astronomy in danger of becoming a “pixel archive science?”
Silent Sky and These Things Abide
Taproot Theatre in Greenwood continues its run of Silent Sky, Lauren Gunderson‘s play about astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, through Feb. 27. This Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m. the theatre will host a special conversation with the play’s director, Karen Lund, and Adrian Wyard of the Counterbalance Foundation as they discuss the search for truth by both science and religion, the history of the conversation between faith and science, and the possibilities for future dialogue. It’s free, but seating is limited, so contact the theatre if you wish to attend.
Watch for a post about our conversation with Wyard coming soon!
There are two good events coming up on Wednesday, Feb. 17, but alas, you can only be in one place at a time, unless this whole multiverse thing is true.
The fine folks from Astronomy on Tap Seattle, organized by astronomy graduate students from the University of Washington, will host their monthly confab of astronomy, trivia, prizes, and beer at 7 p.m. at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard. This month UW astronomer Dr. John Parejko will give a talk titled, “Detect the Ancient Universe Like a BOSS,” and Dr. Fabio Governato will speak about “Dark Matter, Black Holes and other reasons to work with NASA’s fastest supercomputer: Pleiades.” It’s free, but bring beer money.
Meanwhile the Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the UW campus in Seattle. Astronomy Ph.D. student Phoebe Upton Sanderbeck will give a presentation about how measuring the temperature of the universe can help us understand its development.
Saturn’s moons of promise
Pacific Planetarium in Bremerton will feature its monthly third Friday astronomy talk this Friday, Feb. 19 with hourly presentations at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. NASA Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs will share the latest findings about the environments on Saturn’s moons Enceledus and Titan, where liquid water and methane flow, which might provide the necessary conditions for life to develop. Tickets are $5 and are available at the door or in advance online.
The Mercury 13
Sally Ride became the first American woman in space when she flew on a space shuttle mission in 1983. More than two decades earlier 13 U.S. women were training for flight in the Woman in Space program. Of course, the Mercury 13 never got off the ground. At 2 p.m. this Saturday, Feb. 20 at the Museum of Flight aviation expert Philip Tartalone will explore the genesis of the Woman in Space Program, the personalities involved, the testing, and the social mores of the early 1960s that ultimately doomed the program. The presentation is free with admission to the Museum.
Up in the sky
Jupiter will be at opposition next month, but it’s already placed pretty well for viewing in the late evening these days. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.