Science in schools, in church, in the sky

Our Universe Today seems to be earning its readership.

Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall

Here’s how you can tell if people read your columns.  Based on prior experience writing for a publication whose name rhymes with Periled Tanner, I call this the “Snap Guy” hypothesis and it goes like this: Whenever you are out and about in the community, you will invariably meet someone who glances in your direction, does a double-take and then snaps their fingers, saying, “I know you from somewhere.”

Since I’m an author, not associated with a visual visual medium like television, it’s amazing to me that folks actually read these columns and have the patience to look at the author’s information along with a photograph and can remember what they saw.

In the past two weeks there have been five “Snap Guy” encounters, which if you knew how very little I get out and about, you would understand that this is a non-trivial data point.  So thanks for reading.

SMART Night at Sharon Shannon Elementary School

Speaking of getting out and about in our community – Rockwall, Texas – I have been getting out a bit more lately and have noted that there are several issues that have people justifiably upset.  Additionally, we have some good people who are not afraid to be bold and audacious in the fulfillment of their duties.  Unless your head has been completely buried in a hole, you know that our public schools in Texas have had to absorb considerable budget cuts.  No matter how the political spin masters spin this, our public schools are in trouble in Texas, the same kind of trouble that is beguiling most of the rest of America.

During my last military assignment, as a member of the nation’s Intelligence Community I began to see perilous statistics of how few America’s sons and daughters would study STEM topics.  STEM is the abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  This lack of students studying the STEM disciplines is affecting our ablility to provide U.S. citizens who can work on classified projects so allowing public education to decompose has a very real negative component that impacts our national security.  This very reason was one of the major drivers that brought me to the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program.

Despite the budget challenges Rockwall’s schools and the people who turn a building into a school, the teachers and staff are doing a great job with their students.  On Thursday, Feb.  23 I supported an event called SMART Night at Sharon Shannon Elementary School. I was the “S” for Space Guy in SMART night which stands for Science-Math-Art-Reading-Technology.  For this presentation I hoped to take it easy and let the night sky do the talking by locking one of my telescopes and a webcam onto Jupiter and projecting an image onto a screen.

It seems that whenever you plan for an outdoor astronomy outreach activity, you are merely inviting the weather beasts to mess with you.  To this end, there was a last minute change of plans that was dictated by high clouds.  So I presented my favorite presentation that I call “How Big is Big.”  This was one of my first original presentations and it takes you from our home, the Pale Blue Dot (anyone who knows the origin of this term post it below….and don’t use Google to find it please), to the edges of the known Universe.  Then it finishes up with a nod to the number of extra-solar planets we have discovered. Many thanks to Mrs. Stephanie Hickman for her outstanding sponsorship at this activity. I have had many public school hosts and Mrs. Hickman is top notch all the way.

Although I really enjoy this presentation, my experience shows that the young people really enjoy the Celestial Atlas (Planet Quest) of planets beyond our Solar System. Thanks to a single purpose scientific satellite called Kepler that was launched nearly three years ago, in March 2009, we now have a list of over 3,000 planets outside our Solar System.

The last time I gave this presentation was 11 months ago when there were only 500 or so planets.  Kepler detects the planets as they cross the face of their home stars and the light from the star dims slightly, allowing Kepler’s Photometer to record the slight dimming caused by the planet shadow.  A photometer measures the amount of light or how bright and object is.  In particular, there were a few “WOW” moments when I showed the three audiences how dramatically the planet count has increased thanks to Kepler’s contribution.

We are not just detecting planets for the sake of detecting planets, although that is a worthy purpose.  Kepler’s target area is in the area around the constellation Cygnus the Swan which is near a moderately highly populated region of our Spiral Barred Galaxy. In the catalog of galaxy types in our Universe, spiral barred is a common galaxy type that is about in its middle age of evolution.  So from this data, we should be able to extrapolate and develop a valid estimation of the number of planets in not only our galaxy, the Milky Way, but also in the rest of the galaxies based on their type and age.

The Kepler satellite’s discoveries are particularly exceptional when one considers that the Dominican Friar and astronomer Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in the year 1600 for Heresy of Pantheism.  Just 400 years ago after proposing that the Sun was essentially a star like the other stars in the sky, and that our Universe contained an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by other intelligent beings, Bruno was put to death because what he said was upsetting to the church.

FUMC presents ‘Are Science and Theology Compatible?’ 

Speaking of church (I thought this was a column about Space…), the First United Methodist Church of Rockwall recently hosted an outstanding lecture on science and religion and why they don’t have to be at odds.  In support of full disclosure, I am a member of the First United Methodist Church of Rockwall but I do not speak for, nor have my written words been examined by the church leadership.

During the opening of this column I recognized that there exist bold people who accomplish their calling in life and our community with audacity and a certain boldness.  In my opinion, the clergy at Rockwall’s First United Methodist Church exercised a bold audacity by inviting a scientist turned theologian to speak on a topic titled, “Are Science and Theology Compatible.”  On  Thursday, Feb.  16, 2012 at 7pm, Dr Eilene Theilig Ph.D. presented and excellent program to a group of about 80 people in the Sanctuary of FUMC in Rockwall.  Ironically, Dr. Theilig was a program manager on the Viking misison and the Galileo program, the same NASA program that provided the stimulus for the JPL Solar System Ambassador program to which I belong today.  After leading her audience through an excellent explanation of how the mechanics of science and religion interact and integrate, Dr. Theilig provided the necessary context for a discussion on science and religion.

The attendees were mostly an older crowd but it was great to see more than a few younger people in attendance.  In terms of full disclosure, I contacted Dr. Theilig prior to the lecture and we developed an excellent rapport. What was unfortunate, but not unexpected was the presence of a few people who were looking for a ammunition to speak badly of science.  I’m a Christian whose faith has been tested in a way that I pray no one will know and I have not waivered from my faith beliefs.  However, I’m also a person of science who understands what we observe in our Universe and the likely origin of  the space in which we live today and that which Earth will likely occupy for the foreseeable 4.5 billion years into the future.

I’m not sure how many times in Rockwall’s history that any of our many churches have invited a legitimate scientist/theologian to speak on such a potentially contentious topic as Dr. Theilig’s.  I believe that with education an open mind and a willingness to learn the truth, more people would appreciate science.  However, I have been at star party functions in nearby communities during which I showed a guest the nearest galaxy to our Milky Way, the Andromeda galaxy.  While the guest was peering through the eyepiece I used a calming voice to explain that the fuzzy galaxy contained about 250-billion stars (Suns) and that if I shined my green laser at the galaxy it would take about 2.3 million years for the light from the laser to reach that closest galaxy.  Light travels at 186,000 miles per second.  For added perspective that means that same little laser would travel around the Earth (at the equator) in  0.1344 seconds, given conditions that the Earth is 25,000 miles around. The man looking through the eyepiece eased quickly away from the eyepiece and never let that evil telescope leave his sight until he was well clear of the instrument.  I felt so sad for this man whose mind was locked so tight and he had so little faith in his own faith that he did not want to allow it to be challenged by phenomenon beyond his normal paradigm.

It would be great if we could have more science and religion discussions in Rockwall to encourage people to learn more about balancing their faith, values and what makes the sky blue, the Earth spin and why the night sky is dark instead of bright.

Leo Trio of Galaxies

Finally, this weekend I concluded a long-term astronomy project I started back in December.

Here you will find a photo of the Leo Trio of galaxies.  These galaxies are fairly close at about 36 million light years away.  This image was captured from my Oklahoma observatory and contains 8 hours 20 minutes exposure time to collect a lot of photons of light.

Imagine how much we see with our eyes that capture light for 1/60 of a second and realize that this image contains 2.1 million times more light than your eye can detect.

Ok, it’s really not that bad if you divide by 2 because we have two eyes that provide stereoscopic vision….which means that our light is 1.05 million times less than this image.  One of the reasons I love this image is that each of the three galaxies is at a  different angle to Earthly observers in the Milky Way Galaxy.  Amazing!

To see the full size image and learn more, please visit my website:

Read more by Max Corneau: 

Our Universe Today is a column written by Blue Ribbon News special contributor, Max Corneau, who has lived in Rockwall with his family since 2000.

Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator.  He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes.  Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at

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