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Planet jackpot

ASU prof: Understanding the skies helps us understand where we've come from.
No equipment needed to view rare five-planet alignment — except an alarm clock.
Next ASU astronomy open house — free telescope viewing! — is Feb. 5.
January 25, 2016

Best time to view five-planet alignment is yet to come, according to ASU scientist — who shares why Arizona is such a top spot for stargazing

Have you made it up before dawn to see the alignment of five planets in the skyline? If not, don’t worry — the best is yet to come, according to Arizona State University scientist Rogier Windhorst.

The morning alignment is visible through Feb. 27, though the moon will be crashing the party through Feb. 6. Some photo hounds might like the lunar juxtaposition, but Windhorst said the planets will be easier to see when the moon — and its glow — moves on to the other side of the sky. He recommended viewing the rare sky show Feb. 7 or later.

The five-planet lineup — Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter — happens only about once a decade.

“We don’t actually discuss this in our labs, because it’s so rare an event, but my TAs and I are talking about making this an extra credit,” said Windhorst, a Regents’ and Foundation Professor of astrophysics in the School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is a unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and James Webb Space Telescope interdisciplinary scientist who teaches many of the labs for AST: 114: Astronomy Lab II.

No fancy equipment is needed (other than a good alarm clock) to see the five planets, but Windhorst said a pair of binoculars will make it easier to view Mercury.

For those who want additional reference materials, a star chart (around $3) and the National Audubon Society’s “Field Guide to the Night Sky” ($21.95) are the materials students use in his astronomy labs, and are available at the ASU Bookstores. Windhorst's lab website also offers a number of resources in the "Links" section.

A diagram shows the five planets that will be visible before sunrise.

Windhorst said those who live in the East Valley have an advantage — “Get up at 5, drive half an hour east toward the Superstitions, get off at Sossaman and drive toward Queen Creek; you’ll have a much stronger chance of seeing it” — but anyone in Arizona can enjoy the state’s advantages.

“Arizona is — there’s competition from Hawaii — but Arizona is still called the astronomy capital of the U.S.,” Windhorst said. “Our desert environment offers some neat advantages: 3,400 to 3,600 hours of sunshine a year, an average of 10 hours a day. Which means you get almost the same fraction of clear sky — though that’s not entirely true anymore because of climate change.”

Some of the cities in Arizona have made big strides toward protecting the skies. Windhorst in particular praised the efforts by Tucson and Flagstaff to switch to sodium (yellow) lights, which cause less light pollution interference.

“Dark skies, like clean air and clean water, are very precious. Once you lose it, you can almost never get it back,” Windhorst said.

ASU offers a number of resources for skygazers: among them, the Marston Exploration Theater on the Tempe campus, which offers a range of 3-D astronomy shows; the annual Earth and Space Exploration Day; and the upcoming ASU Night of the Open Door, when all of the campuses roll out the welcome mat for visitors.

For those who want to put an eye to a telescope, graduate students from the School of Earth and Space Exploration welcome the public to a free monthly open house in Tempe that includes several hours of telescope viewing, weather permitting. The next one is from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5 (telescopes open from 8 to 10 p.m.) and will feature lectures about ASU research in the Himalayas and launching balloon experiments in Antarctica.

Windhorst, whose group at ASU has contributed significantly to unraveling the formation and evolution of distant galaxies with the Hubble Space Telescope, said familiarity with the skies is important for everyone, not just those in science careers.

“At the basic level, we want to understand where we come from,” he said. “We want to understand why there are stars and an Earth that is good enough for humans to live on, and the rest of the animal kingdom. It’s not so obvious why that should be the case. And it’s not so obvious how many habitable earths there are in the universe. … We want to understand where we come from, and how often this might have occurred.”  

The new NASA telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, will focus on that, Windhorst said. He has been involved with that project since 2001 and said the telescope will study the first galaxies and be very good for characterizing exoplanets.

“For farmers and sailors, it was important to know where the stars are in the seasons, and predict the seasons and predict the harvest times and sea routes,” Windhorst said. “For people today, it’s important to know because it’s part of our scientific knowledge, to know where we come from and where we’re going.

“To understand global warming … someday we’ll be able to measure carbon dioxide with telescopes like James Webb. Venus has excess carbon dioxide, which is natural. But much of our carbon dioxide is human-made — [it’s important] to look at planets to see where life can be sustained, and for long enough to develop intelligent life. And that’s not such a simple question.”

Top image: The Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 image is a composite of separate exposures taken in 2002 to 2012 with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3. Learn more here. Photo by NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

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The future doesn't have to be scary

Futurist brings realistic optimism to ASU.
How to get a good view of the future? Embrace the dystopian fear.
Brian David Johnson surveys the future of tech at ASU.
January 25, 2016

Brian David Johnson joins ASU as futurist who isn't afraid to confront the fears of a dystopia to build safe tomorrow

Brian David Johnson is smarter than you are. 

Don’t feel threatened by that statement. Find hope in it. Because Johnson’s job isn’t to run around the globe gloating in his intellectual superiority; rather, he’s a frequent flier whose greater purpose is to help people confront their fears by surveying the future.

This is why Johnson is smarter than you or I: He doesn’t hide from the fears of tomorrow’s dystopias; he embraces these concerns in hopes of helping us avoid them. 

Brian David Johnson

Johnson (pictured at left) will continue that mission at Arizona State University this semester as its futurist in residence at the Center for Science and Imagination, and as a Professor of Practice in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

His greatest asset in this fight is people’s imagination. The author and technologist — who’s best known as the futurist at Intel — wants to challenge the students at ASU, and the people of the Valley community, to use their creativity to construct a better vision of the future for all.

Johnson’s time at ASU will be focused on two things: His Future of the American Dream project and 21st Century Robot, which aims to give every child the ability to build his or her own robot. He recently took time for a phone interview to talk about these projects and how fear shouldn’t be a motivator to regulating technology.

Question: Let’s start with the obvious question for a futurist working at Intel — what technology will we want in five years?

Answer: Well, as we move to the year 2020 ... the size of (a computer) chip begins to approach zero. As we approach the year 2020 we get to 5 nanometers. That is 12 atoms across. It means we will be able to turn anything into a computer. My desk. My jacket. My body, into a computer. This radically changes how we need to look at the world. Then the problem isn’t asking the questions of what we can do, but can we get it done? It's a holdover to the industrial revolution. Now we know we can turn anything into a computer and can make it intelligent. What do we want to do? That's another reason I came to ASU. How can we use all of this intelligence? All of this connectivity? How can we use it to make them healthier and happy and more sustainable? Once we do that then it's just engineering. We can go and build it. Really, imagination is the number one most underutilized tool. Everybody has imagination, but we don't have a culture that supports it, that values it as a business tool, as an educational device. In five years, if you can imagine it you can build it. But you have to imagine it.

Q: I see your point about imagination, but history has shown that government and bureaucracy are often blocking innovation. How do you get past those potential roadblocks?

A: If we set the bar high enough and we're using it to solve problems. Technology is just a tool. It doesn't get to decide what it does; we do. A tool isn't really interesting until you can talk about what a tool can do. So I think if we start thinking about the science and technology and the work we're doing ... this will lower the bar (of government oversight/regulation). 

Q: Assuming we get past the limits of imagination and oversight. What can we do expect from this technology breakthrough?

A: I think there are a couple of things we can do. It's absolutely ridiculous that we have all this technology around us and it doesn't know us. I have to introduce my smartphone to myself every time I pick it up. I spend more time with my phone than my family. It's kind of ridiculous that it doesn't embrace our humanity. We need to understand we imbue our technology ... with our hopes and dreams. These devices should understand us. They should be our proxies. Now there are certainly security concerns and data concerns ... but we will see a time when our technology embraces our humanity and allows us to be more human.  

I'm a nerd. I'm a completely self-professed geek. For the past 10 years I've been working on the 21st Digital Robot ... it's one of the reasons I came to ASU, that we see robots not as something scary but as something social. Robots that should be easy to build and program, as easy as smartphones. Everybody should be able to build their own robots, having them imbued with imagination and personality and quirks. So we're going to be going into underserved schools ... and working with students to build robots.

Q: These projects, and your past work has had a recurring theme of using information or imagination to defeat the fears of technology overtaking us. Why is this such an important issue to you?

A: Fear is a very dangerous thing. When your brain is frightened you can do one of three responses: fight, flight or freeze. Nobody ever had a genius idea out of fear. A colleague of mine once said, "Brian, fear makes you stupid." What I spend a lot of time doing is I don't shy away from (fearful outcomes). But I also think we have to be responsible for our dystopias. The future doesn't just happen; it's built by people every day. The future is intensely local, as well. I work with people and tell them they have to be responsible for their dystopias. Tell me about your fears, then what you are going to do about it. That to me is very insidious and worrisome, when people do have those fears about technology and robots taking over the world. People are worried about the safety of their families and neighbors, and that's a good thing. But I try to empower people and tell them they can build their own futures.

Q: How do people respond to this?

A: Usually they're very angry with me, in the beginning. I spend most of my life on the road. Again, the future is local, so I go where the future is being made. I take this very serious. You have to go talk to these people. And often people stand up and get angry with me. I try to make them calm down. I tell them, you're worried technology is stealing your daughters from you and that's a good thing. You love your daughters ... we need more of that. Technology doesn't get to decide. We build (technology). A gentleman I was saying this to was getting bothered with me. I said, "Do you watch TV when you eat dinner?" He said it was turned off. I said, "Good, you get to decide. The TV does not."

Q: What are your fears?

A: I have just one. It ties back to that humanity piece. I do believe we do imbue our technology with humanity. We have different religions and beliefs. That's fine. The future involves everybody. The future involves people you don't agree with and people you don't like. That's OK. We thrive on our diversity. So I have no problem with conflict. It's our job to figure out how to make them right. If we embrace that our technology and business and organizations can become better angels they don't have our hubris, they don't have our flaws. We can actually design them to be our better angels. To take care of the people we love and make our organization better. The flip side of that is evil. I wrote a book called "Humanity and the Machine." I did some research ... evil isn't some demonic force ... evil is not understanding the consequences of what's going on. What that means is if we're creating these machines and not putting our humanity in it ... then we're creating machines of evil. That is a thing that worries me.

Q: Here's what I find interesting about the American Dream: Its DNA is built on nostalgia. The dream isn't to go where we haven't been, but to achieve what's already been done — success, happiness, wealth, etc. So when we talk about the future of the American Dream, we really are discussing the present or near past. So why look into the future for this dream?

A: That's a great question. That's specifically why I framed my project, my class, my book, “The Future of the American Dream.” It becomes a conversation about the future. Whose America and whose dream? It's not only limited to the population of America. It turns out there's more talk about the American Dream outside of America. I found that there's a hole in the collective imagination of America. This is the great imagining. Imagining the future of America and the world. It's a micro and macro question at the same time. Why I like the question is that it allows us to talk about the bad ... a whole host of things we need to work on. But we first need to talk about our dreams. If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm an optimist. I'm a declared optimist. I think we should get together and create a future that doesn't suck. So much of this is about a dialogue. I will never get it right. But the only way I get it less wrong is if I go out and talk to people.

Top photo: Brian David Johnson is shown sharing his smartphone with students. Photo by Sara Lavoie/Mater Christi School, Burlington, Vermont