Astronomy wizard gears up for 'Spooktacular'

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2003

I'll be volunteering at the visitors center at Portage Glacier on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for their annual Spooktacular.

The employees there will be busy dressing up the exhibits with Halloween themes with the intent of getting a lot of visitors on that day to enjoy the festivities sand to inform the public about the science that is geology, glaciology, botany, zoology and anthropology in Portage Valley and the Chugach National Forest in an entertaining way.

Call the Girdwood office at (907) 783-3242 for more information.

On Saturday, I will be the wizard astronomer in full garb presenting yet another science astronomy, with this topic: "Harry Potter and the Trappings of Reporting on Astronomical Subjects in Children's Liter-ature."

This, by the way, was my exam topic for the degree in MWA (Master of Wizard Administration) that I just completed at the AIW (American Institute of Wizardry).

Astronomy seems to be a minor subject at Hogwarts, although it's highly interesting, but I guess transfiguration, potions, defense against the dark arts are quite a bit more engaging and very unique to this high school.

So when Rowling (the "Harry Potter" author) describes the astronomy exams in "The Order of the Phoenix," in chapter 31, I felt compelled to examine these passages with unfledged scrutiny. I thus cite from her book (in my TRASCL research paper):

1. "When they (Hermione, Ron, Harry and the other students) reached the top of the Astronomy Tower at eleven o'clock they found a perfect night for stargazing, cloudless and still.

2. The grounds were bathed in silvery moonlight, and there was a slight chill in the air. ... Half an hour passed, then an hour.

3. "As Harry completed the constellation Orion on his chart, however, the front doors of the castle opened directly below the parapet where he was standing, so that light spilled down the stone steps a little way across the lawn.

4. "He had quite forgotten Venus' position jamming his eye to his telescope, he found it again and was again on the point of entering it on his star chart when, alert for any odd sound, he heard a distant knock that echoed through the deserted grounds, followed immediately by the muffled barking of a large dog.

5. "Hermione jumped and returned at once to her star chart; Harry looked down at his own and noticed that he had mislabeled Venus as Mars. He bent to correct it."

Of course, my exam paper describes the scientific facts purported in these passages at length. Here is a summary of my questions:

1. Is it reasonable that the astronomy students should meet at 11 p.m., given that the month is May, when they attend to their end-of-year exams?

2. Although our moon is a pretty sight in the night and day skies, why would it have been better to choose a moonless night for observing and charting stars?

3. Big blunder! Orion is a beautiful constellation but why would Harry not be able to chart Orion on a May evening around midnight?

Which other pretty constellations should the professors have chosen for the exam? (Answers may vary.)

4. Almost as big of a blunder: What is it about Venus that makes it extremely easy to find when it is in the sky? Which planet would have been appropriate for the task? (Answers may vary.)

5. Admittedly, that can happen. How do Venus and Mars appear differently, so that it's easy to label them correctly? Rowling in her books never mentions during which years her stories play out.

Interestingly, with the information given that Venus and Mars are both visible during May nights we could find out in which year Harry and the others take their Owls.

I would love to answer these questions, but I think I ran out of space. So come on over on Saturday and enjoy the fun and the science and find out about the answers.

Or you may do your own research check my Web site at ~ifafv or wait until next month's column.

Andy Veh is the physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College. He writes a monthly column for the Clarion.

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