Mac Lab Report

Astronomy, Macs, and Windows PCs

- 2002.08.08

For the past several years, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) has been promoting the use of actual research in the classroom through a program called Research Based Science Education (RBSE). Recently, they have begun restructuring the program to include an online class and a shorter workshop component.

This is a trend being shepherded by the National Science Foundation in all of its teacher education programs. The online class was hosted by a WebCT server, similar to that used by the popular Onlinelearning.net. The summer workshop was held in Tucson, Arizona, at the NOAO's Kuiper Space Sciences Building on the campus of the University of Arizona.

This summer, I had the great privilege and opportunity to attend the workshop, and in so doing I got to use large telescopes in the 1 to 2 meter class, a spectrograph connected to another telescope, and work with other teachers as we conducted a short research project on the characteristics of stellar novae in the Andromeda Galaxy.

The program is targeted at science teachers in K-12 schools. Several science education center folks were in this year's group as well. For more information about the program, check out the website at <http://www.noao.edu/outreach/tlrbse/>. There are several downloadable activities which simulate actual research projects. Participants in the program can contribute to ongoing research which is published in the RBSE Journal.

This is a column about using the Macintosh in science education. I am going to tell you about my experiences in using a Mac in this program - and several surprising observations I made along the way.

Class members were told they could use either Macs or PCs. During the online class, some used both, one at home and one at work. During the summer session, we could bring our own computer or have one rented for us. Out of 20 teachers selected for this year's cohort, 16 brought or chose PC laptops, and four chose Macs.

When we arrived, we were told we would have Internet access. Once the IP numbers were distributed and the other numbers, such as the router and DNS servers, listed on the board, we were asked to connect to the Internet just to test the setup.

In less than a minute, I was online and surfing (checking out LEM, natch). No restart required, as I'm sure you know. In fact, I rebooted into my OS X partition just to make those settings match, and I was done in less than 5 minutes. I noted there was an HP LaserJet 4050 in the room, so I printed its network configuration page using the onboard menu, then connected to it with OS X, which already included a driver. OS 9 did not have a driver for the HP already built in, so I downloaded the driver from HP and installed it.

Then the cry went up, "Has anyone connected yet?" As it turned out, two of us had - both of them Mac users. The PC users had yet to get online. Even though I am not a PC user myself (all I know about them I learned from helping others in workshops), I helped a few people enter their network connection information.

Once one of the PC users got online, they helped the others, and after a while (actually it took quite a while) we had to start the workshop and put off finishing all the others until later. Everyone was surfing with a variety of machines from Windows 95 to XP Professional. One laptop we could not get to connect; an expert PC user in the group had to intervene and do some deep Windows voodoo in the registry to get it to run.

The workshop proceeded, and eventually someone needed to print. "Is anyone able to print?" came the plaintive cry, and I was once again the first person to raise my hand. I was handed a floppy, which I quickly handed back, shrugging. "Don't trust 'em," I said. "I have an external USB Zip drive, though," and after a restart or two and shuffling of drivers within Win 98, I had a file on a PC-compatible Zip disk that I could print on my iBook.

By the way, did you know that "hot swappable" on a Windows machine means you have to "disconnect" the machine through a control panel before you unplug it? Neither did I.

Clearly, other folks needed to print. Whereas connecting a new printer in OS X was a breeze, connecting in Windows 98 and even XP turned out to be a pain. In Windows Me it was plain impossible - we never solved it.

For example, if you use the Printer setup Wizard in XP, you can choose to connect to a local printer or an " Internet or network" printer. The printer was clearly on the network and had an IP address assigned to it. Which option would you choose? We chose "Internet or network" and wasted a good half hour trying to get the printer to print. Finally, I said, "When all the logical choices are exhausted, use the illogical one," and selected local printer. Lo and behold, there is a TCP/IP port setting for local printers. So we finally got that one solved; and some time later, everyone could print - except for the Windows Me laptop, which didn't offer the choice of adding a TCP/IP printing port.

Windows users will point out that if someone was present with a thorough knowledge of Windows, we probably could have done this more quickly. My only defense is that we Mac folk were outnumbered 4 to 1 (not counting instructors), and no one else figured it out before I did. At least one Windows user present was as good with Windows as I am with Macs.

Then we all went to Kitt Peak to observe, requiring new IP addresses. I created a new configuration setting and boom, I was surfing again. The PC users were terrified of changing the settings - after all, we had to go back to Tucson soon and use the same room as before - but someone said you could "rewind" or "reset" Windows XP, at least, to a configuration it had a few days before, and therefore it was okay to fiddle around with the settings. I wonder what else got changed in the interim, and I got the impression the feature was not available in earlier versions of Windows. I told everyone the numbers would be easy to re-input, so if necessary, we could do that.

The printer provided was a venerable Apple LaserWriter Pro 630. Despite several attempts, I couldn't get any of the Windows users to print on it. It may have had odd compatibility switch settings in that little DIP switch panel on the side; I didn't want to mess with that for a four-day visit, and so once again only the Mac users could print. I know from past experience that the LaserWriter can print from a PC; Apple even has drivers posted on their website. We just never could get any of the Windows machines to locate the printer on the network.

Then we came back, reconnected everyone, and got printing running again. The workshop proceeded, and we all had a great time.

There are four other points I want to make about the use of Macs and PCs in this workshop. But they're a good deal shorter, so bear with me.

First thing was, out of four instructors seen to be using computers during the workshop, three used Macs, and one used a PC. We were told that many - perhaps most - professional astronomers use Macs as their personal machines, and that OS X is an even bigger draw because of its Unix underpinnings. I don't have any statistical data on the numbers of users, but that is what we heard. They were experienced Mac users, but, like myself, only peripherally aware of how to do things in the Windows world. That's why we had to help each other set up during the workshop. Most of the instructor presentations in PowerPoint were using a Mac. One instructor, Dr. Travis Rector, iBookhas made many of the famous deep-sky posters you see at the Kitt Peak gift shop and in magazines like Sky and Telescope. He uses a blueberry iBook to look up coordinates while working at a Unix control terminal at the telescope.

Second short story: Dr. Rector needed to log in to his Unix account to transfer some files to a download directory for us and had left his laptop up the hill in another location. I had OS X booted up, so he quickly opened the Terminal app, logged in to his account, and moved the files. Score one for OS X over OS 9.

Third short story: There are many software packages for manipulating images, specifically the FITS type images which telescopic CCD cameras provide. The most commonly used one in professional astronomy is called IRAF, which is a free program. You can see links to this software at <http://www.noao.edu/dpp/software.html>. This is a Unix-based program, and they've just come out with a version for OS X. IRAF is not as easy to use as some commercial software packages, but it is powerful and can run on mainframe computers, handle extremely large files, and is considered a standard in professional astronomy.

I know zip about Unix, but my experiences this summer have encouraged me to learn more. Despite the poorly named "PC-IRAF" version they have available, it is still strictly a Unix, Linux, and Mac OS X program. It doesn't run in Windows at all. If someone out there has successfully installed and used it on OS X, let me know how it went - and how to do it myself.

Fourth short story: So that we could all use the same software, we were given a copy of the National Institute of Health's Image software. There is a companion program called Scion Image for the PC. Theoretically, the programs are identical. It uses a macro language, and macros were given to us to be used to process FITS images for our projects on a personal computer. The main difference is that the Mac version worked like a charm, and the PC version 1) crashed frequently, 2) used an archaic file selection window that many of the Windows users couldn't figure out (Mac user to the rescue again) and 3) wouldn't run at all on Windows XP Pro. I'll be writing a separate article about Image later this summer. These problems prevented several of the participants from completing the online course before the summer workshop.

By the end of the workshop, I'm sure everyone was tired of hearing us say, "I can fix your Windows problem, but you won't like my solution," and, "At what point do you give up and come back to the Light Side?" But seriously, exactly how much is the savings from that cut-rate computer worth if you can't get your work done?

Macs aren't perfect - another iBook suffered a catastrophic crash and had to have its drive wiped and the OS reinstalled while we were there (and note I never got my hands on that machine before they had already wiped it, so that may have been a Windows user's solution to a Mac problem), but I have to say, if this experience didn't sway a few folks, I don't know what would.

For their part, I salute the NOAO instructors and astronomers for maintaining a professional, even keel throughout the workshop and attempting to help everyone with whatever they had to work with. They want to ensure you'll go home and use the software and do the activities; therefore they didn't force everyone to use a Mac but tried to provide a cross-platform experience without prejudice. It is unfortunate that they have to test their software on half a dozen flavors of Windows to make sure it is truly compatible, whereas they can test the Mac version on just two.

I've got a series of articles planned relating some of the nuts and bolts of processing FITS images on the Mac, so stay tuned!

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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