Friday, December 28, 2012

Inspire Your Sci-Fi With These Four Night-Sky Ideas

Kitt Peak National Observatory
It's been quite a while since I've been on a professional observing run at a telescope.  When not writing spec-fic, I've been focused on astronomy educational opportunities.  So it is both fun and refreshing to once again find myself at a telescope actually doing some science.  (Well, I would be doing science instead of writing a blog post if it hadn't been snowing just two hours ago.  We're still waiting to see if the sky clears and the humidity comes down enough to open.)

Getting out under the stars can be a great way to inspire some writing.  With the constant encroachment of city lights and the general pace of life, we don't often take the time to put ourselves under a dark sky, let alone at the eyepiece of a telescope.  If you are looking for some inspiration for your next science fiction story, here's a list of things you can do to get your muse in motion.

1.  Attend a Star Party.  Astronomy clubs love to have visitors come to their open public events.  Amateur astronomers are often very enthusiastic and know a great deal about their telescopes and what they observe with them.  Even if you consider yourself an expert at astronomy it can be very motivating to mingle with amateurs and the public.  Conversations you have might spark your writing creativity or give you a new spin on an old idea.  To find a club you might try Sky and Telescope, the Night Sky Network, or the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

2.  Grab Your Binoculars.  Many people have a pair of binoculars they use for bird watching, sightseeing, and such.  Any pair of binoculars, however big or small, can be turned to the night sky.  It is amazing how much more is available to see with a little help.  Check out the moon in particular, then go on a hunt through the constellations and see if you can find things you never noticed before.  A web search on "free sky chart" or "free sky map" will give you a number of options for a reference for your personal tour.  

3.  Watch for Astronomical Events.  Every year there are eclipses, meteor showers, comets, and more that can be seen with little or no equipment.  Many of these events are highly predictable, so you can plan far in advance to be at a good location.  To find a list of events for 2013 you might try Sea and Sky, something like the Farmer's Almanac, or the exhaustive Astropixels.  Most importantly, keep an eye out for the coming of two potentially amazing comets in 2013!  Try the Planetary Society or this article at the Alamagordo Daily News for more info.  One of these events might find its way into your next story.

4.  Go to a Planetarium Show.  It isn't always possible to get to a dark sky.  The next best thing is a good planetarium.  Find a show that talks about the stars, constellations, and observing at night.  Sit back in a nice warm room and comfy chair as an expert guides you around the heavens.  Let your mind wander, if you like, and see what worlds real or imagined, demand your attention.  Some lists of planetaria can be found at the International Planetarium Society, or the always useful Wikipedia.

Side-note.  You may know that with science funding in its current state, some of the most amazing and productive astronomy telescopes on the planet may be shutting down over the next few years.  The Kitt Peak National Observatory (where I am right now) is expected to divest several of  its telescopes, which puts the future of the Observatory as a whole in question.  Several smaller, mid-sized, and older telescopes are being divested in favor of a small number of larger, newer ones.  This in itself is not unexpected, but as an educator, it is my personal concern that changes like this will make it harder for certain groups to get observing time - like graduate students, early career astronomers, astronomers from non-traditional backgrounds and minority institutions, and those with smaller programs. You can read more at Universe Today here, the NOAO site here, and the AZ Daily Star here.  I'm hoping some of these telescopes will be picked up by, say, consortia of small universities or science institutes, large amateur groups, and overseas astronomy agencies, rather than actually being shut down permanently.  Righto, enough of that serious stuff. 

Now, back to seeing how the weather is doing ... hmm.  Snow is stuck to the dome, and the humidity hasn't budged.  It's going to be a long night, I think ...

Image Credit:  NOAO Education Programs

Monday, December 3, 2012

Moving on from November and NaNoWriMo

It's been ages since my last post - but given that NaNoWriMo takes up all of November, I'm only going to count myself out of the blog posting for three months :)  Real life can be like that, as we all know.

But in spite of things being even more insane than usual, I did manage my fourth straight win with NaNoWriMo.  I was behind the whole time, but not quite as behind as last year.  I was also home more towards the end of the month, and usually I'm away over Thanksgiving.  So it was easier to come up the final stretch and finish off the 50K.

As usual, I think it is a good exercise, as well as fun.  I am always tempted to write and edit at the same time, and will sometimes derail myself if I do that.  NaNoWriMo helps get you into the habit of just writing the story down and seeing where it wants to go.  There are plenty of times it heads off somewhere new and better so long as I let it have that freedom.  Editing while writing seems to limit some of that mutability.

I love the badge with the "0 Excuses" part, but it isn't quite true.  I have plenty of excuses even when I win :)  November's a rough month to write half a novel.  But it does help to remind me that there really is no easy month to write a novel, after all.  And the lightning bolt is also misleading.  NaNo is not like motivation by lightning bolt.  It's like trying to charge yourself up by holding a D battery to your tongue for a month.  Still, I definitely enjoy it.  I always like lurking on the forums, seeing what interesting ideas folks have, the trouble they get into, and then eventually how things come out.  NaNo is like it's own little story every month.  The kind where everyone involved hopes they already know the ending.

Still, I'm about 20K or 25K away from finishing this draft, so I have some more December work cut out for me before the editing can begin.  I'm thinking I might let it mellow a bit and tackle that in the new year. 

Image Credit:  Winner's badge 2012 National Novel Writing Month.