Friday, October 7, 2016

Space Science & Astronomy Take Off In The Caribbean - Mainly Thanks To Isaac Asimov!

Even before leaving Peace Corps, and after having met  Janice, we both agreed that Barbados and the West Indies needed to be brought into the Space Age. To that end we decided to launch an astronomy column in The Barbados Advocate, Barbados' main newspaper at the time. We called it 'Discovering the Stars' and covered just about every conceivable aspect of observational and theoretical astronomy one could think of, including: seasonal constellations and their recognition, difference between refracting and reflecting telescopes, how to make each type, the origin of emission and absorption nebulae, the galaxies, expanding universe and Big Bang, the Sun and sunspots, the nature of stars, stellar evolution, and the dynamics of artificial satellites and development of space stations.

A sample of our work is shown below:

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The series, begun in the spring of 1975, captured hearts and minds and continued until we left the island for the States in January, 1992. We also realized that the way to realize our objective (of greater appreciation of the larger universe ) necessitated an involvement of The Barbados Astronomical Society, since no one at the regional university was interested, and even if they were they likely didn’t have the time. Other steps that needed to be taken included improving the physical plant of the Harry Bayley Observatory, the only astronomical observatory in the Eastern Caribbean.

By May of 1975, I took on the initial responsibility by offering a Technical Astronomy workshop for any members interested.  The workshop was emphasized as being hands-on with a minimum of theory. It was delivered in five parts and included: construction of a cross-staff and simple astrolabe to measure angular distances in the sky, as well as azimuth along the horizon, techniques of variable star observing, the computation of sidereal time and the use of a stellar spectroscope to interpret the chemical composition of selected stars.  The workshop attracted press attention and we presumed the attention of possible NGO funders

The biggest game changer materialized in early February, 1976, with the arrival of Dr. Isaac Asimov (long time astronomy popularizer, though trained in biochemistry) aboard the Queen Elizabeth II luxury liner.  After arriving on the island, one of Asimov’s oft-repeated jokes was that he never flew on planes because “I don’t see what holds them up! Yea, though I have traveled millions of light years in craft of advanced design, I dare not set foot on any human airplanes or jets!”

This revelation proved utterly ironic and hilarious to Astronomical Society members, most of whom had marveled at his writing craft in describing space ships traversing other worlds – yet he himself refused to travel on a jet plane!  But Asimov's lecture, entitled 'The Moon And What It means To Us', was a work of craftsmanship and genius given it not only touched on the Moon, but other areas such as the Earth's overpopulation. It held the audience, including many Barbados Astronomical Society members, spellbound for the duration.

Needless to say, he left people hungering for more, as we predicted. His lecture easily triggered the largest infusion of new, energetic  (not to mention, talented) blood into the B.A.S. members’ ranks in nearly 20 years. These were people who not only had the passion to contribute but also possessed the necessary qualifications via more advanced education.

The stage was thereby set for a full length (20 lecture) astronomy course at the  Harry Bayley Observatory. We all understood from this point on there’d be no turning back and the whole Society would be ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’. No halfway or half-hearted efforts would suffice! 

The course content, from a preserved handout, included the following topic lectures:
The Shaping of Astronomy, The Nature of the Sun,  The Inner Planets – Mercury and Venus,  The Planet Mars,  The Giant Planet Jupiter,  The Outer Planets from Saturn to Pluto, The Origin of the Solar System,   The Earth and the Moon,   Recognizing the Stars I,  Recognizing the Stars II,   Recognizing the Stars III, How Stars Live and Die: Stellar Evolution, A Survey of Peculiar Stars,  Supernovae, Neutron Stars and Black Holes, Double lecture: (a) A Survey of Messier Objects , (b) The Nature of Interstellar Dust and Gas, A Survey of the Milky Way and Other Notable Galaxies, The Evolution and Formation Of Galaxies, Theories of Cosmology: Quasars ,   Other Worlds, Other Beings (Exobiology)

To say the lecture series was a huge success would be to put it mildly. It paved the way for a mass of outside funding which ultimately led to the construction of a whole 2nd floor astronomical library, a new telescope (Celestron 14) see below:

And a new dome, as well as refurbished Planetarium. This meant even more new members were attracted and even greater public interest - leading to regular "open nights" for people to gaze at the wonders of the cosmos through the new scope.

An added fillip was the visit of Dr. Kenneth R. Franklin, Director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, in time to help us observe the occultation of the star Epsilon Geminorum by Mars, on April 8, 1977. On the night of April 7, the Observatory was closed to all except Dr. Franklin and those engaged directly in the observations (using the Observatory telescope and the timing signal from a radio station). Afterwards, an “Occultation Party” was held so that those attending the course could meet Dr. Franklin and learn more about the importance of the occultation. The results of which were subsequently published in the October 15, 1977 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Dr. Franklin delivered three lectures in all while in Barbados, and at different venues, including the Observatory, Queen’s Park Theater (mainly for school children) and The Paradise Beach Hotel. All were well received and each one stoked further intense interest in astronomy and the Society.

Near the end of the course, the first BAS Journal issue was published. For years we’d seen issues of the Trinidad & Tobago Astronomical Society Newsletter and been envious. But by the Annual General Meeting in June of 1976, it was decided that for the Society’s 21st year (1977), we’d have an inaugural journal issue. I agreed to write most of it, provided other members assisted – possibly contributing the odd short piece, or observation and also helping to run off the typed (page) stencils.

The actual technical first issue appeared in January, 1977, but was more a detailed Newsletter than Journal. Its centerpiece was one detailed study of a variable star (o Ceti)  using the Argelander step method, an interpolation technique for estimating variable star  magnitudes.  

The actual 21st anniversary issue (and the true inaugural issue) featured a humble, plain orange cover with hand written notation, and encompassed 24 pages in all.  It was the end product of an effort by nearly two dozen members, including editors, contributors and those actually charged with running off 24 stencils (100 copies of each) and collating the finished product in the first ever Journal.  The content included The Study of A Cepheid Variable' by student Stephen Hinds, recording varying magnitudes of the variable Zeta Geminorum over ten days and preparing a light curve from it, e.g.

Then using it to arrive at the star's physical properties.

Also included was a brief paper on gamma ray bursts, and another more technical paper by me dealing with transformation of celestial coordinate systems.  This was using matrix methods, e.g.

All of this marked the beginning of a year -long process during which the B.A.S. would exponentially develop in capability and human resources. This paved the way for it to be an important adjunct (as well as its Observatory),  to the introduction of astronomy into the syllabus of the Caribbean Examinations Council.

 The Caribbean Examinations Council was launched in 1973 to : “conduct such examinations as it might think proper and award certificates and diplomas on the results of examinations conducted”. (E.N. Lambert, ‘Integrated Science to O-Level: A Caribbean Case Study’ in Proceedings of the Science Education for Progress, 1979).   CROASE (Caribbean Regional Organization of Associations for Science Education) was formed in November, 1974. It was CROASE, in early 1977 which assigned me the task of astronomy curriculum creation, design and writing both Teachers and Pupils' Activity Books. In other words, astronomy would officially now be taught in Caribbean Secondary schools as part of the CXC Integrated Science Curriculum.

My focus was on first preparing a 43 page book of astronomical activities for pupils, after which a Teacher's book (with hints for carrying them out) was also written. In addition, solutions to all the problems - including working - were included.  British educational assistance and funding was also arranged and the British liaison, Colin Lancaster,   informed me that we needed to have this new subject taught to many of the teachers, especially in Guyana (South America) and the Leeward Islands, at special teacher workshops. The reason was obvious: most of the teachers either had never heard of astronomy, or they believed it was simple "star gazing". They had to be disabused and fast. Below is a photo of the Queen's College teachers assembled on Aug. 25, 1978  in Georgetown, Guyana - just before my astronomy workshop commenced.

Fretful expressions on the teacher's faces showed that they were clearly
concerned regarding their competence to teach a totally novel subject with which they’d had little previous acquaintance.

My "sell" had to be hard  for their buy in and it was.  I carefully noted how astronomy was a relevant subject for the Caribbean, referring to the  pristine skies. Also by virtue of geography we had observational access to objects, stars of both the northern and southern hemisphere. Lastly, like it or not, space technology (to which astronomy is related) played a direct role in our everyday lives via Earth stations and weather satellites.

Though reluctant at first the teachers bought in but said they needed astronomy texts, and reading materials for themselves and their students. Colin Lancaster arranged to get these sent to them via the British Council, and I gave them what articles, references I had - using the St. Stanislaus School photocopy machine.

The next stop was the island of St. Lucia to deliver another astronomy workshop to more skeptical teachers. The scene at the outset of that workshop is shown below:

As with the earlier workshop in Guyana the Pupils' Activity Books and their topics became the prime focus. These included:

      1) Astronomical distances and their measurements.

      2)  The Celestial Sphere.

        3) Timekeeping.

     4) Properties of stars (brightness, color etc.)

     5 Planetary motion, orbits, Kepler’s laws.

The core problem emerging at this venue became the many  religious objections to "probing into God's heavens".  My standard reply was to the effect, "Wouldn't you feel more inclined to glorify God on beholding his celestial handicraft?"  Once that objection was removed, dealing with the inherent difficulty of doing a novel activity set could be overcome. Much of this was helped by the teachers doing hands-on  practicals - in the morning and afternoon.

The teaching of astronomy itself began at four pilot schools in Barbados, and included regular exams given by teachers, as well as school-based assessments for student projects. One of the projects, in which a student constructed his own refracting telescope and astro-camera is shown below:

This student, from the Garrison Secondary School, was then able to enter his project into the island wide B.A.S.E. Science Exhibition held at Erdiston College where he received a top prize.

In the semesters following other students also entered their own projects many of which found their way into the B.A.S. Journal.

The students themselves were all excited and highly motivated to be doing astronomy and also relished the chance to do their own observations, including of the Moon's craters, star clusters and planets. Many of these were made possible via the Harry Bayley Observatory.

Within months of the initiation of astronomy classes at the four pilot schools the Student Team For Astronomical Research was formed with students from the four original trial schools holding their own seminars on some area of astronomy.  Below, one student gives his analysis of Kepler's laws of planetary motion.

All the seminars were well attended by the students, and one had to marvel at the depth and insight they displayed. The S.T.A.R. group would later prove to be an enormous and vital asset in carrying the teaching of astronomy forward via availability of knowledgeable students at the four target schools, as well as other assistance in the form of conducting student observing sessions, making telescopes, and other instruments including simple astrolabes and even astronomical calendars.

Students were also encouraged to submit their projects, research for publication in the Journal, as well as to the Barbados Association for Science Exhibitions for science  fair projects.

Unfortunately, school astronomy unraveled from the time the first CXC formal examinations arrived. At the heart of the unraveling, a conflict between the teachers who taught the subject and the examiners who devalued astronomical knowledge as an exam assessment criterion.  The latter opted instead for "inquiry" questions  to display creativity in the exams, while avoiding  testing of basic astronomy knowledge.  This strategy confused (and enraged) both students and teaching staff, since for a first time exposure to a subject knowledge testing would have better served students and teachers.

The error of the CXC examiners wasn’t so much in their pursuit of inquiry per se, but their willingness to accommodate utter scientific nonsense because their own lack of knowledge underscored and supported a minimal default position in what they were testing. Some of this, to be sure, may have been prompted by "rebellious" teachers in certain territories - after astronomy teaching had spread beyond the 4 CXC trial schools- and who remained too insecure about their knowledge. (Some of these teachers also happened to be CXC examiners.)

It wasn’t “inquiry” then that manifested in the exams, but the examiners’ own lack of astronomical knowledge, translating to lack of confidence in setting knowledge questions. This commenced with the very first exam (June, 1978) including a question on the shape of the Earth which actually validated a ‘flat Earth’ point of view by one of the subjects (the "Philosopher") when students were asked to put themselves in his position to argue for it.  No sane (or professional) philosopher in the world would advocate such. Indeed, the person who set the question wasn’t even remotely aware that Earth’s shape is not an area of inquiry for Philosophy! It is rather under the purview of Geodesy, but they probably never heard of it!

Despite the demise of school astronomy the seeds had already been sown for intense future fascination in the general population, including students and their parents. I can't recall how many trips I've made back to the island since we left when I've been stopped by former students, or people who attended our early courses. In each case, they related how we piqued their interest and prompted them to learn more about the subject and take up their own observational programs. Many also confessed that while they were originally "space skeptics" they now followed every new NASA venture, including the recent New Horizons mission to Pluto.

Today, the Harry Bayley Observatory is equipped with a brand new, computerized 16" Cassegrain telescope, a radio telescope, Malin NASA- designed astro-camera and dedicated solar telescope as well as ancillary  instruments. It stands poised to bring space and astronomy appreciation to the next level. This would be in terms of actual participation in astronomical research projects, including variable stars and solar observing.  The new Observatory dome also features a computerized system that allows any one of nearly 140,000 celestial objects to be not only instantly located but also displayed on a 5' wide screen with all the surrounding objects, constellations.

The future of space and astronomy appreciation in the island never looked brighter, especially if those who are now well trained in those subjects continue to share their knowledge and passion for further learning and research.  Below: a recent lecture given in the Observatory's remodeled Planetarium:

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