On October 19th, President Obama opened the White House lawn to host an event for thousands of stars. These stars were not celebrities, however, but those actual giant balls of gas and dust found throughout our Milky Way galaxy.
The event, dubbed the White House Astronomy Night, was intended to help promote the president’s commitment to advancing the United States’ position in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (commonly referred to as STEM). Dozens of satellite events were held around the country, each allowing members of the public to connect, for free, with the stars above and the universe beyond.
Astronomy is an enticing portal to the greater constellation of STEM, particularly for the young and the curious. The notion of black holes and dark matter, and the discovery of new planets or the potential for life on Mars, not only quicken the pulse and fuel the imagination, but also incorporate a variety of related disciplines including math, physics, chemistry, geology, and more.
There is, however, an even more powerful scientific concept that not only informs every area of STEM, including astronomy, but allows us to see well beyond those twinkling balls of gas in the night sky. That concept is light.
We have a personal connection to astronomy in particular and light in general. The two of us have worked for the past decade and a half (plus a little more) to promote the results of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to the public. The first step in introducing the fascinating discoveries from this space-based telescope is to explain that there are, indeed, other types of light than what we can detect with our eyes.
Those of us who work in many fields of science may take the concept of the electromagnetic spectrum and its many forms as a given. Over our careers, however, we have discovered time and time again that this is not the case for many people.
This is one of the reasons that we were very excited when we heard that 2015 would become the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. Our first idea was to put together a public science exhibit that could distributed around the world that would showcase the amazing things that light can do. Along with our partners at SPIE, we were able to create the “Light: Beyond the Bulb” (LBTB) project. To date, there have been over 650 LBTB exhibits around the world thanks to the dedicated efforts and the creativity of IYL 2015 volunteers – and many of the programs are continuing through the end of 2015 and even beyond.
Our other major effort for IYL 2015 is our new book, “Light: The Visible Spectrum and Beyond.” This book, inspired by IYL 2015, went on sale on October 27th and we hope that it provides some representation of the wonders of light for both experts and non-experts.
We are deeply inspired by all of the efforts of IYL 2015, including the attention that STEM fields receive by related events like those at the U.S. White House.
We are surrounded by light, even if it is the darkest hour of the night. We might not all be celebrities, but we are, in no uncertain terms, all creatures of light.
Kimberly Arcand (left) directs visualizations for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Megan Watzke (right) is the science writer for Chandra. They were the project creators and co-leads for the award-winning From Earth to the Universe open exhibition project of the International Year of Astronomy 2009.