Posts Tagged ‘Astronomy at Mount Holyoke’

Stars in My Eyes

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
Ada Lovelace in 1838

Ada Lovelace in 1838

Today, March 24, is Ada Lovelace Day.
Organized by Suw Charman-Anderson, a British writer and social-software consultant, the day pays tribute to women in technology and science.
It is named after Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), who is credited with writing the first computer programs. She created them for the Analytical Engine, an early computer prototype thought up (but never actually built) by Charles Babbage.
Suw has gathered bloggers from all over the world to write today about their heroines in science and technology.
I minored in astronomy at Mount Holyoke College. My original concept for Ada Lovelace Day was to interview a young astronomy student at the college. (Mount Holyoke is a women’s college so she would certainly have been female.) I wanted to ask her about her attitude toward astronomy and her career aspirations.
A few days ago I got in touch with Darby Dyar, the chair of Mount Holyoke’s astronomy department. Darby informed me that the college’s spring break was underway. Alas, no students were available for an interview. (Next year, I’ll obviously have to get organized for Ada Lovelace Day a little earlier!)
Instead of abandoning Suw and her cohorts, I thought I’d write briefly about my own reasons for studying astronomy during my time at Mount Holyoke in an attempt to honor female astronomers everywhere.
Part of my love for astronomy stemmed from the sense of history I felt working in the Williston Observatory. Built in 1881, it is the oldest academic building in use on the Mount Holyoke campus.
This homey wooden structure welcomed my mother and my grandmother and generations of other young women who studied at Mount Holyoke. All of them—all of us—used the observatory’s original Alvan Clark Refractor telescope, although it has since been joined by newer telescopes.
My love of astronomy goes beyond my affection for that building, however. I firmly believe that everyone should study astronomy. It’s the perfect liberal-arts subject.
At its grandest—in its subfield of cosmology—astronomy is literally the study of EVERYTHING. It attempts to answer the deepest philosophical as well as scientific questions that confront humans. Where did we and our world come from? What motivates us (that is, what are the basic forces of nature)?
At its smallest—in its subfield of quantum mechanics—it asks what we are made of and how we can predict the future.
Astronomy and its sister field of physics answer both small and large questions in people’s daily lives. They help us lift groceries and steer our cars through curves. They also help us fly the Space Shuttle and design computers such as the one on which I’m typing this essay.
In addition to touching on other branches of science and history, astrophysics has had a huge influence on many other academic fields. It’s hard to picture humanism without the principles and work of Darwin, modernist literature and art without relativity, or postmodernism without quantum mechanics.
On a less academic and more personal scale, I find the night sky both challenging and reassuring. In some ways, the stars daunt us humans. They present evidence of a huge impersonal universe that doesn’t care about us.
Celestial bodies are also our friends, however.
I amuse myself looking at the constellations and thinking about the ancient souls who traced their shapes and named them. I enjoy knowing that the position of the stars can tell me where I am on the globe.
And the moon—well, to me she’s like a beautiful cousin. Her moods come and go, but she’s a constant in my life, whether I’m in Hawley, Massachusetts, or Paris, France.
I hope you’ll take a few minutes this evening to look at my cousin (she’s just beyond the quarter moon phase right now, on her way to the full moon that will bring us Passover and Easter) and her stellar companions.
Think of young women (and men) exploring the past and future of our universe—and of Ada Lovelace and all her sisters in scientific endeavor.
For a list of blog posts participating in Ada Lovelace Day, visit its official site. And for a delightful set of historical postcards of Mount Holyoke’s Williston Observatory put together by an alumna, please visit this online photo gallery.
The Williston Observatory in Earlier Day (it's bigger now!)

The Williston Observatory in Earlier Days (it's bigger now!)

Galaxy Clusters
It took me a while to come up with an appropriate recipe to publish with this post. Darby Dyar informed me that today’s students at Mount Holyoke enjoy “Edible Comets” at astronomy functions. She sent me the link to a recipe for the comets, which, as the recipe notes, “taste suspiciously like ice cream.”
The comets are a cool idea in both senses of the world. Unfortunately, the recipe calls for liquid nitrogen, which I don’t have in the house.
I ALMOST made raisin bread, which my Mount Holyoke professor Tom Dennis cited in Astronomy 101 to help students understand the expanding universe. He suggested that our situation here in the Milky Way galaxy is comparable to that that of a raisin in a rising loaf of raisin bread.
It looks as though all the other raisins (the rest of the universe) are receding from us, and we get the feeling that we’re in the middle of the loaf. We aren’t necessarily, however.
I love the raisin bread analogy because I adore food analogies—and because it brings up a major question of science and indeed of humanity: Who, if anyone, is baking this loaf of bread?
I just posted a bread recipe a couple of days ago, however, so I decided to save the raisin bread for next year’s celebration of Ada Lovelace Day.
Today I am instead delighting my nephew Michael by making cookies that include Milky Way® candy bars. Ada Lovelace sounds like a smart cookie so these treats seem appropriate for her as well as for the topic of astronomy.
The folks at Mars USA insist that the original 1923 candy bar was named after a popular malted milk shake and not after our home galaxy. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure the shake must have been named after the galaxy so I feel comfortable using the candy in this post.
The internet is rife with Milky Way® cookie recipes. Most of them use a peanut-butter base. I wanted to let the subtle flavor of the candy shine, however, so I combined the bars with standard chocolate-chip-cookie dough. I tried cutting the candy up into tiny pieces and mixing it directly into the dough, but my family preferred the method below, in which the candy is completely surrounded by cookie.
The resulting cookies were—naturally!—out of this world………
1 cup (2 sticks) sweet butter at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
2 eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
2-1/4 cups flour (I used King Arthur white whole wheat flour to counteract some of the sinfulness of the candy bars, but of course you may also use all-purpose flour or a combination of the two!)
1 bag (11.24 ounces) fun-size Milky Way® candy bars (18 small bars), cut in half
The day before you want to eat the cookies cream together the sugar and butters. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, mixing well after each addition. Beat in the salt, soda, and vanilla; then gently stir in the flour until it is completely incorporated.
Chill the dough for 24 hours. (You may chill it for less time, but it will cooperate better if you leave it for 24 hours.)
When you are ready to bake the cookies preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.
Form the dough into 36 balls, each a little over 1 inch in diameter. Flatten each ball; then place a half candy bar in the center. Wrap the cookie dough around the candy bar so that it forms a ball again, completely covering the candy.
Place the balls on the cookie sheets, being careful to make sure there is dough (not cookie) under the surface of each ball.
Bake the cookies until they are golden brown (about 15 minutes). In some of them you may still see the outline of the candy bar; this phenomenon didn’t bother my family at all.
Let the cookies cool on the sheets for just a minute or so. As soon as you can lift them without causing them to fall apart, remove them to wire racks to cool. If they cool much on the cookie sheets, they will be difficult to remove from the parchment or silicone.
Allow the cookies to cool before you eat them. Makes 36 clusters.


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