Up in the Air

Festival’s for future science stars

March 17, 2013 

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University.

With comet Pan-STARRS faint in our rearview mirror and spring finally visible ahead, we turn our attention to not just what’s up in the air, but what’s all about us. It will soon be time for the North Carolina Science Festival!

In its third year, this is a statewide coordinated festival of science outreach events for the public, and runs April 5 through 21. You can find all the information on festival events at www.ncsciencefestival.org.

As part of the festival, dozens of institutions are hosting a Statewide Star Party on April 5. We will be having an event that Friday that night at our Dark Sky Observatory at Appalachian State. This comes about a year and a half after we opened the Jo and Don Cline Visitor Center and began to hold monthly public nights. For April we add a special, additional night for the festival.

These events are generally for people of all ages but it is especially important to get kids there! Astronomy is what I call the “gateway science”: It attracts a lot of attention – you are reading this! – and generates interest in nature and our investigations of it. I’ve gotten inquiries from the public for years before we started our outreach program, and people occasionally drive into our facility if the gate is open, just to see what it is all about. With all due respect for my colleagues, I don’t think chemists or biologists have as many people knocking on their lab doors.

We do get a lot of kids who get excited by seeing the astronomical objects we look at, and the telescopes and other technology used in this area of study.

Some may become astronomers, but it is likely more of them will follow their interest to other disciplines. At our observatory we are planting the seeds for future geologists, chemists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, doctors and engineers. They will be the ones who will determine the future of our country, developing innovative new products and services and finding cures for diseases still with us.

It is also important for all of us, young and old, to get back into these natural environments – whether it is a coastal marsh, the seashore, a Piedmont river basin or mountain meadow. Or, the dark skies many of us have lost sight of in our urban back yards. It reminds of us of our place in the big picture and our responsibilities as stewards of the environment.

We have the ability to both destroy and to save these landscapes and skyscapes.

So, be sure to take in some festival events and to – as the 1970 Crosby, Stills Nash & Young song puts it – “Teach your children well,” so they can “make a world that we can live in.”

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this month’s column: www.upintheair.info.

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