Tuesday, October 30, 2007

fuzzy smudge comet

comet 17p/holmes looks great in the evening sky! night by night it looks more like an extended smudge and less like a point-like star. some of the kids who visited the telescope impressed me with their description of the yellow color, brighter center and fuzzy looking halo. one kid of maybe 10 years seemed confused by the diffuse image, after we had just finished looking at the crisp details of the craters of the moon... but i think he liked the diversity :)

here are a couple nice images of the view thru a 4.4 inch telescope from igor chekalin.

second day after outburst:

day 4 after outburst:


applying for jobs
requires patience and time
please give me something!

applications suck
each must be place-specific
details always change

after submission
i wait here impatiently
where will i end up?

should be working now
in two days seven are due
i'm writing haikus

Monday, October 29, 2007

quantum gradnamics

genius, this one. i had a good hardy laugh over "p-ons"!!! hahaha!

PhD comics

big bang cosmology

i was just reading about the big bang theory of how our particular universe began and thinking about how well this cosmology explains our universe.

the most successful test of the theory is the measurement of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation (see nobel prize in physics, 2006). The CMB is the very first light we know how to "see" after the big bang, and it only became visible 300,000 years after the big bang happened. it's fantastically exciting that the big bang theory matches so well to the experiment we performed (remember: science it works, bitches!), but there remain many unanswered (and currently unanswerable) issues to understand!

what existed before the big bang? what is dark energy? immediately after the big bang, why were there 10,000,000,000 (ten billion) anti-particles for every 10,000,000,001 (ten billion AND ONE) particles? i keep reading and learning more, trying to understand life, the universe, and everything, but i'm left with unsatisfactory justifications to explain away problems.

the WMAP cosmology tutorial states,

It is beyond the realm of the Big Bang Model to say what gave rise to the Big Bang. There are a number of speculative theories about this topic, but none of them make realistically testable predictions as of yet.

well, that sucks!! i mean, maybe there are other universes, just as there are surely life forms elsewhere in our universe... we just can't prove it (yet?). we dont know how to prove it because we havent developed the ability to find it.

creating "speculative theories" about these lingering questions over a few beers is quite fun, but in my mind it always comes back to the question of "how do we test the theories?" in order to know whether the big bang model of the universe is completely correct, we must develop ways to detect other remnants from the earliest parts of the universe.

but i got nothing.

what are the tests? how can we "see" anything earlier than 300,000 years after the big bang? will dark energy give us a clue? what the hell is dark energy? it's the stuff that is 70% of all the stuff that is our universe, but how does it manage to accelerate the expansion of the universe? (... if it does?) we're currently developing the technology for experiments that will potentially be able to detect the bizzaro entity called dark energy... but are there any other tests we can perform? how does gravity work at humongous distances?

the large hadron collider (LHC) experiment is a good start for understanding the conditions of the universe just after the big bang. i look forward to the results near the end of 2008!

but for now, i still feel somewhat unsatisfied about the finer points of big bang theory. the answer 42 seems way easier to just accept, doesnt it? but it's ultimately even less satisfying.

first art work by vista arts.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

best zombie film. ever.

'cause this is thirller!

8:20 starts the quintessential michael jackson dance scene... followed by a fantastic ending.

UPDATE: i havent been able to get this song out of head for two days now!! hahaha!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

comet holmes

i'll definitely be checking this newly bright comet out with the 70 year old 9-inch refractor tonight!!! (and i'll be wearing my halloween costume during the entire star party ;)

probably finding the sideways "W" of cassiopeia high in the northeast and looking down to perseus is a good way to find it. it's bright and yellow. it'll be visible low near the horizon after sunset and rise to overhead after midnight!


Friday, October 26, 2007

bright comet alert!

all this applying for jobs, giving talks and finishing papers stuff has kept me pretty busy.... but not too busy to notice the unexpected brightening of comet holmes! this comet has gone from very very faint to detectable by our naked eyes literally overnight!

you can read all about it at sky and telescope here and get some finding charts for where to look here.

it's low in the north-east after sunset for those of up in the united states and it rises high overhead during the night. the images through a telescope dont look like the common idea of a comet with the big flashy tail flowing off the to side.

instead, it looks like a point of light with an off center fuzz ball around it! this is because the tails of all comets always point away from the sun due to solar wind. since this object rises in the east just after sunset, the sun has just set on our western horizon.... the opposite side of the sky! so the comet does have a tail, its just pointing directly away from us right now!

ok, gotta run outside to catch the ISS passing overhead


Thursday, October 25, 2007

view from the disk

a few days ago, the astronomy picture of the day featured an image taken by photographer, Larry Landolfi, near the mcdonald observatory in west texas. i've never seen the milky way look this crisp with my eyes with the foreground so illuminated... he uses a neat "composite" trick where he takes several images and puts them on top of each other to get a really neat effect. he has some other amazing photographs that you should really check out!

last month i introduced the following picture of our milky way and described some of the features of our flat galaxy. this might be a confusing image of what our galaxy looks likes, but remember that we're inside the big disk looking out thru it.

now, imagine if we could jump in a space craft and fly away from our galaxy, but still sit in line with the disk. we take our trusty hubble space telescope (of course!) and fly 50 million light years away... then turn around to take an image of the milky way.... our view might look like this picture of the "edge on" galaxy, NGC 4013... you can still see the star light shining around the central line of dark dust clouds that block some of the light produced by the stars.

if we fly even farther away, in order to get the whole of the galaxy in the view of our telescope, we might see something like the "needle galaxy" (NGC 4565) that even shows a concentration of bright light at the very center. its difficult to tell exactly what the very center of our galaxy looks like since we're sitting inside it (did you ever see that movie inner space?). maybe the needle galaxy has a lot of stars at its center, or lacks the dust there that would block the starlight from escaping, or maybe there's a massive black hole in the center energizing the surrounding gas to the point of glowing!

now we're out in space and we decide to sit back and look around. we spot this crazy disk galaxy... we call it the pizza dough galaxy, but learn that astronomers on earth all call it ESO 510-G13.

it looks like it could consist of a flat disk of stars and dust like our milky way, but there's a big warp in it. it almost looks like pizza dough as it spins through the air above some brave person's head! thin disks are actually rare and very fragile. a small gravitational bump could cause a disk to distort just like this! they're hard to find in the universe since galaxies are so far away... we're lucky to have such good telescopes to find such cool looking galaxies!

think about what it would look like across our sky if the milky way's disk had a big warp in it like the pizza dough galaxy!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

manda banana

from my lovely sister...

(embarrassed, i say: hee hee)

god or fraud?

"There are two kinds of smart people:
the ones who think they're gods,
and the ones who think they're frauds."

-Ed Olszewski

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


did anyone see the orionids meteor shower over the weekend?? i saw a couple meteors fly across the sky just after midnight saturday night before i fell asleep!

it's raining right now in austin, but if it clears up tonight, i might try to set up my tripod and see if i can capture any pictures..... this one comes from APOD showing the orionids over turkey last year!

Saturday, October 20, 2007


i could never have too many good bananas!

save paper, save the planet

neat idea from the saatchi & saatchi company for the World Wildlife Foundation paper towel dispenser... reminding us the effect our paper usage has on the environment.

Friday, October 19, 2007

exploding stars in an accelerating universe


there's a neat public lecture tomorrow by j. craig wheeler called exploding stars and the accelerating universe!

if youre on campus for that, you might as well come see me at painter hall afterwards to see jupiter and the moon and maybe some of the orionid meteors if you stay up late enough!

Friday, October 19, 7:00 pm (Central Time)
Reception and activities 5:45 pm, come early and see the exhibits!
Welch Hall (WEL) Rm. 2.224
Teacher Workshop 6:00 pm, Welch Hall 2.246

DESCRIPTION: Dr. J. Craig Wheeler, renowned astrophysicist and author,
will lead an exploration of ideas at the cutting edge of astrophysics.
His extraordinary lecture investigates the explosion of supernovae, and
the resulting neutron stars, black holes, and gamma ray bursts. These
exotic objects make up the life cycle of stars, show the sources of the
elements and planets, and measure the history and fate of our Universe.
Dr. Wheeler^?s lecture follows the formation of supernovae, their
characteristic shape and their significance, as well as the resulting
celestial objects formed by the collapse of a star. Dr. Wheeler
examines evidence that the Universe is actually accelerating.

Details can be found at www.esi.utexas.edu.

orionids meteor shower

this weekend welcomes the peak of the annual orionids meteor shower. meteor showers occur when the earth passes thru a spot in space where a comet once passed. comets have long tails made of gas and dust (shown above is halley's comet), and some of that stuff gets left behind as the comet shoots close to the sun and back out to the edge of the solar system (kinda like how a kid who plays in a sandbox manages to track sand onto almost everything until he or she takes a shower!!). if the earth passes thru one of these debris trails of a comet, then those little left-behind particles of dusty material go thru our atmosphere and burn up from a pressure front! they are traveling very fast when they hit earth's atmosphere, so as they burn up, they shoot like fireballs across the sky producing what we commonly call "shooting stars"... what astronomers call "meteors." if they dont burn up completely in the atmosphere and they reach earth's surface, we call them meteorites.

on its orbit around the sun, the earth happens to pass thru a place where the famous halley's comet once passed! it takes us one year to orbit around the sun to return to this same spot, so we always see the orionids meteor shower during the same time each year... in late october. the name, orionids, comes from the direction we see the meteors in the sky... towards the constellation orion, as shown below.

if you dont remember seeing orion in our evening sky recently, thats because you havent from the northern hemisphere! orion rises in the east around midnight. so if youre awake this weekend, preferably sunday or monday nights, go outside between midnight and dawn to see 12-20 "shooting stars" per hour!!

here's a bit more history about the orionids meteor shower if youre interested!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

blogs about space

the newest edition of the carnival of space is up at sorting out science. there's quite a large variety of topics to peruse. my contribution describes why venus, saturn and regulus are aligned in the morning sky when they formed a tight triangle in the evening sky just a few months ago!


forward in time

you know how it takes a little while to adjust to the new year and you accidently write the previous year after your signature a few times before your mind and hand eventually remember...? well for some reason i've been consistently signing my signature followed by the date of 2008!? weird. i'm not sure why my mind has jumped ahead a few months!

mozart and bond?

notice anything unusual about this mozart piece?

check out more on igudesman and joo. they have some pretty funny performance pieces! i also like Rachmaninov had big hands.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

lacking responsibility

i just read a very interesting blog entry by effect measure, bush doctrine: no child travels ahead. young US students did not perform very well against students from around the world in math and science tests (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). so what is the department of education's solution to this challenge? they decided that US students wont take the tests anymore and therefore we won't look bad against the rest of the world!

ugh! what a horribly lazy way out! way to set an example for competitive improvement in the world forum!

i decided to test myself....

You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 9/10 correct!

i wonder which one i missed.

left or right?

which direction is she spinning?

if you see her turning counterclockwise, the test claims you are left-brained, and if you see her spinning clockwise, you are right-brained. some people can see her spinning one way, then focus and switch directions.

i've always thought of myself as strongly left-brained with some right-brain capabilities, but i cannot at all see her spinning counterclockwise! i've spent (a bit too much) time trying to see her going the other way, but i cannot.

can you? if so, how??!

UPDATE: i just did it!! woohoo! i managed to switch directions while watching her bottom foot...

Monday, October 15, 2007

saturn, venus, and regulus together again?

last week i described the early morning alignment of venus, saturn and regulus, and dr lemming observantly commented that those exact three objects were close together in the evening sky just a few months ago! how did that happen?

the first thing to note about our solar system is that all the planets orbit around the sun in one flat plane... imagine the sun at the center of a thin pancake and the planets all moving around the sun in nearly circular orbits on the surface of this pancake. when you look at the pancake from above, you see a circle but from the side view... you see a very flat line. so from earth's point of view (inside the pancake), the planets all line up to follow a single line across the sky, called the "ecliptic" (say it out loud... it's a fun word to speak!). this name comes from eclipse, since the planets and sun will all pass very close to each other, and sometime pass in front of each other, causing eclipses from our perspective as they move across the sky.

the picture below (from 2003) shows a nice demonstration of the ecliptic. a picture was taken every 6 minutes and then superimposed together to show the paths of (left to right) the sun, venus, the moon and jupiter along the ecliptic plane. the "line" looks curved across our sky and you can see that all planets follow this path pretty closely.

so how is it that venus, saturn and regulus are together again in the morning sky now when just 3 months ago, they formed a similar triangle in the evening sky?? it all has to do with the movement of saturn, venus and earth around the sun, and the relatively stationary position of regulus far away from our solar system.

below is a picture of the locations of all the planets in their orbits around the sun on july 13, 2007 (created at solar system live) at the time that i reported the triangle alignment. the relevant planets for this discussion are earth (third rock from the sun), venus (the white planet so close to the earth that it looks like we're on top of it), and saturn (6th in line, with the rings, outside the gas giant jupiter's orbit).

the blue/green circles are the paths the planets follow as they orbit around the sun (the distances between each planet and the sun are shown in logarithmic scale). the planets orbit counterclockwise from this perspective, with the planets moving more slowly as you go out from the sun. it take venus 219 earth days to go once around the sun (its sidereal period). earth takes 365 days and saturn creeps along at about 11,000 earth days per orbit (once around the sun every 30 earth years!).

saturn moves along its orbit very slowly. in one earth year, the earth has progressed all the way around the sun and back to its location in the diagram while saturn has only move 1/30 of the way around its orbit, or 12 degrees.

now imagine you are standing on the left side of earth looking out towards the sun. the sun begins to set as the earth rotates (counterclockwise in this picture). when the sky darkens, you can see venus and saturn very near each other and close to the sun as it sets in the sky (on the left of the sun in the image). you also see the star regulus that happens to lie close to venus and saturn in our sky, even though it is very far away at a distance of nearly 80 light years!! you see a close grouping of venus, saturn and regulus in the sky.

3 months pass... it is october 14, 2007 and all the planets have moved for 90 days, counterclockwise, along their orbits. that means a quarter of the way around the sun for earth, not quite one half the full orbit for venus, very little movement for saturn and seemingly no movement for regulus as shown below....

now, looking out from earth's point of view in the pancake, venus and saturn are on the right side of the sun, but still very close together from our perspective. the two planets are on the opposite side of the sun, which means as earth rotates counterclockwise and the sun rises into view, venus and saturn are near it, rising just before the sun... in the early morning! cool stuff. everything is relative.

enjoy the very bright venus close to saturn and regulus for the next week!

tiny fingers

i miss areya already. spending time with a tiny baby is therapeutic... even more so when you dont have to change her diapers ;)

setting sun from space

this picture of the sun setting over the pacific ocean was captured in 2003 from the international space station.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

mmm... bananas

those of you who know me (or my email address) know how much a like a good banana. i want one of these awesome fruit vessels by helena schepens...

can you spot mercury?

jupiter keeps sinking lower and lower in the early evening sky, but it is still bright and clearly visible in the southwest for a few hours after sunset. tonight, the new moon is three days past new and is just visible above the horizon at dusk as it sets just after the sun. if you have a clear view of the horizon, look for the waxing crescent moon and see if you can spot mercury to its lower right.

you'll need a pair of binoculars and a very clear view of the horizon, but its worth looking, because mercury is rarely visible to us on earth! mercury is the closest planet to the sun so from our perspective on earth, the little planet always remains very close to our bright star as it follows its orbit around the sun. in fact, in our sky, mercury never appears farther than 28 degrees from the sun, so it's only visible just as the sun sets or rises. the angle shown in the image below is about 90 degrees, but it gives you an idea of what i mean. mercury never moves in our sky farther from the sun than about a 3rd of the angle shown below.

in the image below (generated at solar system live), you can see the sun, mercury's orbit next, then venus, earth and mars. these 4 inner planets are also called "terrestrial planets" because they are solid and rocky. you can see that as earth orbits around its orbit, it always sees mercury close to the sun.

star gazing

"Rational and innocent entertainment of the highest kind."

- John Mills, 19th century amateur astronomer

Friday, October 12, 2007



saturn, venus and regulus

if youre an early riser, look to the east tomorrow (friday) morning as the sun rises. the very bright planet venus makes a triangle with a fainter planet saturn and the star regulus, of the constellation Leo.

this alignment will remain in nearly this configuration for a little while, but see if you can notice the movement of the planets relative to each other and regulus over the next few mornings. while regulus's position is relatively constant, the planets move around the sun in the same way the earth does, so they move much more quickly across the sky.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

super kaboom!

you may recall the announcement in may that astronomer robert quimby discovered the most powerful stellar kaboom. ever...? well, he's done it again! he has found the new(est) most luminous supernova. ever!

in the image on the left, you can see 4 galaxies labeled A, B, C, and D. the image on the right was taken only 2.5 months later and there exists a bright point of light... a star exploded... in a galaxy that appears close to diffuse galaxy A but too faint to have been seen in the first image.

congrats again, quimby! caltech better be treating you well! or else the remaining austin contingent will come steal you... so you can buy us beer with your stellar postdoc salary ;)

Friday, October 5, 2007

baby areya jade

a big welcome to my little niece, areya jade. born tues, oct 2, at 9lbs. 3 oz!!!

she has a very proud big brother, keldan!

Monday, October 1, 2007


things that are not fun about losing my voice:

-not being able to answer my phone calls.

-listening to music and trying to sing along every now and then because i forgot... again.

-not being able to call people when i want to... like the doctor's office to make an appointment... or my friend who's supposed to pick me up at the airport.

-not being able to escape the "what was that? i couldnt hear you" joke.

-not being able to call the dog back inside.

our home, the milky way

I've been searching for a good picture of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, for a couple years now and today the astronomy picture of the day provided the exact shot i saw in my mind!

thank you john p. gleason for your astrophotography!

this image doesnt seem like the classic galaxy picture you might have in your mind, swirling arms of speckled stars dancing around in a spiral twirl. that's because our earth is floating right next to one of those arms inside the big disk of the milky way. as you see in the picture below, we sit inside the pancake galaxy disk. When we look out in most directions, we see dark space with scattered star and distant galaxies. but when we look out thru the thick disk, we see the detailed arms of stars, gas and dust that you see in the image above.

all the light you see comes from stars like our sun shining brightly. the intensity of their light causes the clouds of gas glow! the dark patches are thick dust storms that block any light from passing through to our eyes and telescopes. The glowing red patches also reveal glowing gas, but this red version is all the same type: hydrogen!