2019 SARA Western Post Conference Comments

by Eric Muhs, SARA guest speaker at the 2019 Western Conference


Well, I had a great time at the SARA West conference. Everyone was really nice and welcoming, and there were many amazing presentations.

Honestly, I didn't know quite what to expect. I've done a little bit, a very little bit, of radio astronomy with my students: some Project Jove, some meteorite detection using ionospheric reflection. But mostly, my astronomy work has been with neutrinos on the IceCube neutrino detector at the South Pole, and the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, and “regular” optical astronomy using telescopes that look like telescopes. In fact, I met SARA conference organizer David Westman more than 10 years ago, standing watches at the University of Washington's Manastash Ridge Observatory, using photometry to characterize variable stars as part of the ongoing effort to map the Milky Way. I ran into David at the January AAS (American Astronomical Society) convention in Seattle, and it was he who invited me to present. It was great hanging out with him, and he was a splendid host.

I like to think about new experiences in terms of “What did I learn ?” That's my teacher voice – I've taught high school physics and astronomy for over 30 years. So I'll tell you what I learned.

I learned about dongles and (new-to-me) low cost ways to collect radio information. This stuff sent me down several internet rabbit holes, looking at gear and suppliers, and imaging educational projects. I also learned of a 17 year old Colorado kid who was learning to bend these devices to his own will.  He was absolutely amazing, and it was thrilling to know he'd found mentors and nearly infinite project possibilities with the Plishner Deep Space Radio Observatory group.

I learned there was a group of folks who'd brought back an enormous piece of scientific equipment, the Plishner dish, back from the dead, and have coaxed real astronomy out of it. The enormity of this achievement must be unique on the planet. I also learned I don't fit very easily through the access hole at the top of the Plishner dish.

I learned of a new twist on the “message from aliens” trope that appears so much speculative fiction. What if aliens, looking at their own violent, non-cooperative, fighting-for-resources past, send a message that can only be interpreted if there is planetwide cooperation, and a sharing of messages received at widely separated places on a receiving planet? It's a brilliant idea, and it's brilliant that SARA folks are looking for this. That's a great new idea in SETI that I haven't heard before.

I learned more about the neutral hydrogen line that is so important to radio astronomers. Metaphorically, nature has provided us a way to observe the speed of hydrogen gas whirling throughout the near and distant universe. How convenient, and how wonderful to live in a universe where our curiosity is so richly rewarded with clues about how to answer our questions. We live in an age of discovery.

Along those lines, we heard about a (new-to-me) idea for detecting gravity waves. The LIGO Observatory is at long last, after 2 decades of sensitivity upgrades, finally detecting gravity waves. But new methods, using enormously larger volumes of space itself,  will be required for detecting lower frequency waves from other sources invisible to LIGO. Radio astronomy has long studied the clocks provided by pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars. Minute distortions in the frequency of these distant pulsars will one day be integrated into a map of spacetime to demonstrate ripples of inconceivable size.

And this brings us to my favorite revelation of  the entire conference, one that I've already shared with students. Einstein taught us to study time, as measured by clocks as a way to understand motion, acceleration, and spacetime. How fabulous is it that the universe is liberally seeded with pulsar clocks in every direction, to serve as probes of time itself?

And it is of course radio astronomers who figured this out. Bravo.

Also, my sincere thanks again to all of the folks who passed the hat after my talk about “Astronomy Education with Puerto Rico”. I appreciate your welcome, your science, your hard work, and your generosity.



Clockwise from upper left: a) Mothballed dishes on Table Mountain. I saw plentiful opportunities for power-washing. b) Selfie with dish at Table Mountain. This was very popular on Facebook, where my pal Michael commented, “Looks like God...on Monday morning.” c) At the top of the pier at the Plishner Radio Observatory dish. That was a small crooked hole for a large man at the top of a long, long ladder. I did NOT squeeze all the way onto the tiny platform, because I would have only had to squeeze back. But I still checked this off on my bucket list. I also note the “USS” logo: (United States Steel) just inside the hatch (not visible in the photo). The dish dates from the '60's, when steel made in the US was still a thing. d) Presenting on Sunday morning about the South Pole, the Askaryan Radio