Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Touching Science, and a bit of Sci-Fi, in the National Parks

Image: Postcard in French of Sci-Fi Titan Trip
I'm spending the week in Nante, France attending an international planetary science conference.  This year we are having a joint conference between the European Planetary Science Congress, and the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society.  I'm looking forward to getting updated on the latest mission results, but even more, I relish the chance to interact with people who over the years have become as close as family.  It's always a great geek fest.

I am a strong advocate of the involvement of scientists in education and public outreach, and have long been a fan of natural settings to bring science and people together.  Planetary science and public engagement has a perfect nexus point in the National Parks.  Many of us have looked upon the geology of Earth in these places and seen there the landscapes of other planets, real and imagined. 

I noted a poster presentation here at the conference by Tyler Nordgren that focuses directly on this subject.  I had not realized, but Nordgren published a book on just this topic last May entitled Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks.  I haven't yet had a chance to peruse a copy, but I'm looking forward to checking it out. 

The picture above is featured on Nordgren's poster presentation and conference abstract (1).  It is quite eye catching, and one of a series that uses a mix of old travel posters and a bit of science fiction as a hook to engage the viewer.  It also illustrates the ways in which science and science-fiction are merging in planetary sciences today.  This trip hasn't happened yet, but it is easy to imagine it.  Looking at the landscapes of Earth, it becomes that much more clear what visiting other worlds might be like.  Comparative planetology has always been a strong tool, and Nordgren notes the example of "the relationship between geysers in Yellowstone National Park with recently discovered geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus" as a way to create a touchstone between here and there.

The sci-fi fan in me wants to go on that trip in the poster.  Really really badly.  That's part of why I became a scientist to begin with, so I could get that much closer to such a dream.  In the National Parks we have another means to get "that much closer" - the dark skies and evocative landscapes of everyone's favorite planet, Earth.

Credit:  (1) Image and abstract - T.E. Nordgren, EPSC Abstracts Vol. 6, EPSC-DPS2011-1175, 2011 EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2011

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