Cycling astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz
An Adler astronomer's ambitious new public outreach plan shoots for the stars by cycling to them. Symbolically, at least.
On Friday, Lucianne Walkowicz will hop on her Japanese road bike and embark on the Galaxy Ride, a quixotic 300-mile bike trip/science roadshow across the state of Illinois mapped out to provide a sense of cosmic distance. Downtown Chicago's Adler Planetarium represents the Earth and the final destination, the Saint Louis Science Center, roughly equals our nearest neighboring galaxy, Andromeda. She'll lock up her bike in a handful Illinois towns along the way and provide free hands-on demos for the public using themes based on their approximate distance from the "earth." Joliet, for example, acts as the moon, and Bloomington-Normal becomes Pluto for a day.
The ride was inspired by the Planets on the Path, a temporary exhibit the Adler installed last summer on the lakefront path to provide a visible scale model of the solar system, but Walkowicz says she had to abandon those measurements for practical purposes.
"Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away—that's pretty far," she said. "If we used Planets on the Path as a scale model of the solar system, the nearest star would be across the entire globe, so we had to use a special scale."
That scale is logarithmic, meaning that each step is ten times as long as the previous one. If that sounds complicated, don't worry, Walkowicz is ready to patiently explain it on the trip. At each of the seven stops on the eight-day journey (she'll take a break in Normal to recover from a 70 mile-in-a-day bike-a-thon), she and the small Galaxy Ride team from Adler plan to discuss their logarithmic map at pop-up astronomy events using household materials like toilet paper, balloons, and string. Walkowicz hopes that the Galaxy Ride will make space a little less, well, remote for the general public.
"Cosmic distance is hard to wrap your head around and so a lot of what motivates me is taking something abstract and difficult to get your mind around and making it familiar," Walkowicz said. "I want people to have the message that science is inclusive, science is for them; we at the Adler are willing to meet people where they are, physically or metaphorically. If I can bike to your town, you can come up and see me sometime."
The public isn't invited on the ride itself (Walkowicz says it's a possibility in the future), but they're invited to follow her progress on social media and on the Adler's website
. She and her small team will be blogging and posting videos from the road and will even be relaying footage of the ride taken from an accompanying drone.
The Galaxy Ride is an unusual project, but 36-year-old Walkowicz—who moved to Logan Square from New York City last year—is something of an unconventional scientist. She moonlights as an artist who works in media ranging from oil paint to sound, and plays guitar in a indie-punk band called Ditch Club
. Her previous weekend wasn't spent peering into a telescope but rocking out at Riot Fest. She's also accustomed to long bike camping trips, which means the 300-mile trek to the Gateway to the West isn't unreasonable.
She even has a fanciful goal of expanding the Galaxy Ride's horizons to go from Chicago to New Orleans someday. It's a trip that even Carl Sagan might marvel at.
The Galaxy Ride begins Fri 9/18 at the Adler and ends on Fri 9/25 at the Saint Louis Science Center. You can follow along on Adler's website or interact using the #AdlerGalaxyRide hashtag on Twitter.