AAS Meeting- Sunday Workshops

The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas- After traveling to Austin on Saturday, I found myself up early grabbing a free breakfast in the hotel Sunday and rushing over to the Austin Convention Center to catch the first of two workshops on the Virtual Astronomical Observatory. The first workshop was for educators, focused on the World Wide Telescope (WWT) and its potential uses in the classroom.

WWT is essentially a planetarium program enhanced with images from ground based telescopes, the Digitized Sky Survey, the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes as well as collections of satellite images from spacecraft around other planets.

The Ring Nebula (M57)
WWT is a powerful teaching tool. Users can create dynamic, interactive Tours of the Universe, which can be shared with friends, used in schools or as part of a public presentation and they can be shared online. The tour they used to demo this feature to us was created by a six year old named Benjamin. He did a tour of the Ring Nebula in Lyra, starting from his home in Toronto, Canada, zooming out past the moon and flying to the constellation Lyra, finally zooming in on M57, all the while with narrative supplied by Benjamin, who I must admit, had a cuteness factor off the charts.

The features I was mostly interested in were not available as standard tools in WWT, but could be added later as data sets. Things like variable star catalogs, supernovae positions and images, and star catalogs going much deeper then Hipparcos and Tycho. I spent most of the interactive period talking with the software developer about the possibilities of further data sets. We discussed the possibilities for using this virtual telescope for training new AAVSO members and observers concepts in stellar evolution, distances in the universe and stellar population studies. We could create tours that were specifically AAVSO branded that could be released publicly as part of an education and outreach effort.

The late afternoon session of the workshop was aimed at researchers and dealt with the powerful new tools available in the Virtual Astronomical Observatory (VAO). The VAO is part of a worldwide effort called the Virtual Observatory (VO) whose aim is to link astronomical data and services worldwide.

The VO environment is designed to facilitate astronomical research with a speed, efficiency, and effectiveness not previously possible, and it will be available to researchers around the globe regardless of their affiliation or access to observing facilities.  The VO has the potential to provide a powerful resource for initiatives in education and public outreach. The US Virtual Astronomical Observatory (VAO) is the VO effort based in the US, and it is one of many VO projects currently underway around the world.

I've been hearing about the potential of the VO and VAO for over a decade now, and I can understand how it is supposed to work, but it seems to be taking a long time to live up to its potential, and as far as I can tell, it is not heavily used in the ways it was intended yet. Some of it may have to do with the complexity of the tools and user interface. What I found out yesterday was that part of the problem may be that the people working on the project, while brilliant software designers and experts in their fields, are some of the worst presenters I have come across at an astronomy conference.

In spite of the fact I came a day early specifically to take in these two workshops, I had to leave after the second presenter. I was sure I was about to pass out from boredom, or die as my head imploded from the monotone delivery destined to shrink my brain. My disappointment in the oral presentation skills of astronomers in general will be the topic of another blog.

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