Friday, October 31, 2008

happy halloween

from kawkawpa at flickr

costumes of my past

i tend to dress up more oftern during the year than just halloween. i dont know, i think its fun! here are some of the costumes for which i have pictures to share:

cereal killer

red hot chili pepper


i have some pictures of childhood costumes somewhere, but they're not in digital form and maybe not in this country.

we'll see how this year's costume comes together....

Thursday, October 30, 2008

dance your phd

at the beginning of this year, i was nervous about getting a job. finally, i received a few offers and was excited to have a choice about my future position! my life would continue after the phd! but then i noticed on the astrophysics job rumor mill webpage, that another postdoc was also hired. i wasnt aware that the position was for two people, and i immediately felt suspicious and self conscious... who was this person?

so, of course, i searched her out online. for some reason my immediate reaction was not to look up her scientific publication record demonstrating her research interests, rather, i went straight to google to search for her public personality profile! the only thing i found was this video, and an introduction to a fabulous project called dance your phd:

i was *so* impressed that i didnt even bother looking up anything else about her. i knew she would be cool because (a) she entered such a great contest, and (b) she finely demonstrated a full understanding of the subtleties of galaxy mergers! when their arms reach together as she passes by him, representing the trailing paths of disturbed gas... tidal tails! bravo!

and as it turns out... we're beer twins. perfect!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

spooky skies of halloween

this halloween night, friday october 31st, 2008, be sure to look at the southwestern sky to see a bright venus sitting above the crescent moon. to the lower right of the moon sits the bright star antares and far off to the upper left is a gleaming jupiter.

the following evening, saturday november 1st, the moon shoots 12 degrees to the left in the sky to appear to the left of venus.

sunday night, november 2nd, the moon continues its ascent and produces a lovely alignment. for a night, the moon perches between the bright planets jupiter and venus.

happy halloween!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

sounds of the universe

we've seen the images with our eyes, but many scientists are attempting give our ears an understanding of the universe by translating the information received from different astronomical phenomena into sounds! NASA released the sounds of saturn about a year ago, and now we are hearing the sounds of stars (including our sun), music of galaxies, and even the sound of the big bang!

the BBC had an article this week where they share the sounds of stars. astronomers have created these using a technique called "stellar seismology," (which i learned in classes as "asteroseismology"). following this link, you can hear the subtle sounds of several different stars, and our sun.

dr. fiorella terenzi ("a cross between carl sagan and madonna"!) has used radio observations to compose some unique songs. she has recorded many albums and toured for a while giving lectures and playing her music, but i can't find any recent tour information on her website.

a physicist at the university of washington, john c. cramer, attempted to recreate the sound of the big bang! you can listen to the sound of the big bang: HERE. the idea came to him after writing and article in 2001 called, BOOMERanG and the sound of the big bang.

i enjoyed the whole interesting story of creating the sound of the big bang, and wanted to share a little snippet here...
The idea of synthesizing the Big Bang sound fascinated me. It ran around in my head for a day or so, and I had a growing desire to hear just what the Big Bang sounded like. So one Saturday morning, when I should have been doing something else, I sat down and wrote a 16-line Mathematica program that produced the sound and saved it as .wav files. I downloaded the frequency spectrum measured by WMAP and used it as input data for the program. My PC has a good sound card and a substantial sub-woofer, so it reproduced the .wav file well. When I ran the program for the first time and the sound started in my office, our two male Shetland Sheepdogs, Alex and Lance, came running into the room, barking with agitation. After they had looked around and determined that nothing terrible was happening, they lay down on the floor and listened attentively, giving the Sheltie Stare to my sub-woofer.

Monday, October 27, 2008


just stick a "super" in front of it to make it seem more exciting (and/or confusing)!

there are even more examples... too bad "super" doesnt stand for anything consistent between any of those examples!

a dupe, or duper is someone who is easily deceived, while super-duper is an adjective describing something that is extremely good. of course.

comic source: talk like a physicist

a fateful election

with the US election looming on the forefront of my mind, i found what thomas powers had to say in the new york review of books article, a fateful election, very interesting. i cant seem to decrease his message enough to just share highlights, so i'll print the whole thing here.
The big task facing the next president will be cleaning up the mess left by the last president. How big the task may be is not yet fully appreciated. There is the economic mess and there is the mess we call "the war." Included in the larger mess of the war are active military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; a semiclandestine war of increasing intensity in the Pakistani tribal areas; and continuing military tension with Iran that could open a new theater of active warfare more or less at any time.

Who got us into this mess? The answer is the Republicans, and more particularly the Bush Republicans, who had control of both Congress and the White House for six years and did as they pleased. The Bush Republicans have no one else to blame and neither do Barack Obama and the Democrats. You would think that a presidential campaign could be built around this fact but so far it does not appear to have happened. The change Obama seeks remains oddly bloodless, as if the mess were a found object, not something that someone had done.

But the architects of the mess could not be plainer. The credit crisis, like the savings and loan crisis of twenty years ago, was the predictable result of changes in regulation of banking and financial markets. The rollback of regulations was driven by free-market theories put into effect mainly by Republican presidents. More than seven hundred S&L institutions collapsed during the first crisis and it cost the American public more than $120 billion to clean up the mess. The price of cleaning up the current credit crisis is going to be a lot higher than that. For this money, the public gets nothing but the bitter solace that still worse calamities have perhaps been avoided.

In both cases the government bailout undermines the bedrock discipline of markets—mistakes are supposed to hurt. Shoring up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has the effect of insulating mortgage buyers from the consequences of stupid speculations, and encourages future speculators to count on friends in Washington for a soft landing when the next frenzy begins to heat up. The Bush Republicans stuck to free-market theory while their friends were making zillions, then abandoned free-market theory when the whole financial system threatened to collapse. The bailout in itself condemns the policy of deregulation which made the bailout necessary. But who is holding the Bush Republicans to account?

The cost of the ever-growing credit bailout is no longer pocket change, and may equal the cost of the war when it is all totted up. Figures for Iraq have reached the trillion-dollar range; Afghanistan is heading in the same direction. All of this money, like the money for the credit bailout, and the money for the taxpayer rebate stimulus intended to soften the recession triggered by the credit crisis in the first place, is borrowed money. Some of it is borrowed from Americans, some from foreigners, all of it from future generations. What happened to the Republicans of yesteryear who preached a gospel of fiscal responsibility? Many years ago when the Reagan Republicans were setting the stage for the savings and loan crisis, my speechwriting friend Tom Lewis, an astute observer of politics, summed up the ethos of the Republican Party in a single word: more.

But the biggest legacy of the Bush years is not debt. It is the idea that the United States must, and can, control the political landscape of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. The American military is waist-deep in the first two, knee-deep in Pakistan, and threatening to wade right into Iran as well if the Iranians don't accept our demand to dismantle their nuclear program.

John McCain intends to press the attack on all fronts. Barack Obama, if elected, could march us back out of this suckhole but it will not be easy. I fear he would find himself trapped by our national need to appear to succeed in any contest where Americans have shed blood. It somehow fails to matter that we are trying to do what no country can ever do for long—force strange people in distant places to reshape their politics and society more to our liking. The effort passes as nation-building at the outset, but in the long run counterinsurgency always comes down to the same self-defeating strategy—killing locals until they stop trying to make us go away.

In seven years of war, public debate has never managed to get out in front of events, and it is still trailing behind. The thing to keep in mind is that this all can get a lot worse. The American presence in the greater Middle East is large, unwelcome, and disruptive. We have shattered an equilibrium that kept Sunnis and Shiites from each other's throats for centuries. We have conceded to Turkey the right to send its military into Iraq at will. We have disrupted the understanding between the government of Pakistan and its tribal areas; and we have granted ourselves leave to chase after our enemies in Pakistani territory, an intrusion no government can tolerate for long. Over time the number of our enemies in this expanding arena of conflict and the cost of trying to control them will grow until we are half-crazy with frustration, are on the brink of something dangerously like civil war from arguing at home, and have run out of places to borrow money.

Americans have an odd way of arguing about politics. We don't like plain talk about matters that call for harsh judgments or recognition of failure. But some things are too big to hide or explain away, and so in the end I think voters will decide by a whisker for change.

read more contributions: here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

perched peel

a few weeks ago as i was walking thru campus, i witnessed an odd occurence. a guy riding a bike toward me casually tossed something into the trees and rode on. the object caught one of the small branches, pulled the branch down, slung-shot it back up, but finally stuck to its perch. i wasnt sure what it was, but i quickly approached, and sure enough....

a banana!

it's not a london banana so i cant contribute to that project, but i was still amused.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

carnival galaxies

this gorgeous image of NGC 7331 comes from the 3.5-meter telescope at the calar alto observatory in southern spain.

click for full resolution image.

something about this image just makes me happy! i love the colors. the details of the NGC 7331 galaxy in the foreground beautifully demonstrate blue regions where stars are forming and dark, cloudy regions where dust blocks the starlight in spiral waves. NGC 7331 sits 50 million light years away from us, while the spiral galaxies that appear to be floating above it are really another ten times farther away!

vincent peris shares a full description of how he processed the data to produce this spectacular image! enjoy!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

a day in the life: astrophysicists

see a day in the life of rhaana starling and phil evans: two gamma ray burst hunters at the university of leicester (pronounced "lestah" - why??). not all astronomers have their cell phones announce when cool events happen in space, but its fun when to know some who do!

Monday, October 20, 2008

creating knowledge

this newly available, post-doctoral freedom in research feels as exciting as it does daunting. how does one create new knowledge? the process of becoming a (phd) doctor is to learn how to learn what no one has learned before. a strange goal.

some people create thru determination. johannes kepler certainly had some mathematical skills - he managed an amazing amount of data and repeated his calculations over and over in order to discover the shapes of the orbits in our solar system. persistence and time, trial and error, worked for him. he knew something non-circular was unfolding before him, but it took a while to identify the ellipses... what excitement to slowly see it happening!

others seem to be on a different initial plane of thought: albert einstein, isaac newton, charles darwin. the ones who looked at the questions and investigated the problems from completely new dimensions - literally!

it's rare to see researchers with such continuous insight. most of us plug away at interesting problems using our favorite techniques, hoping for clever insights to creep into our minds every so often. i like to ensure that my projects allow me to travel to mountain tops and use big telescopes, because i find those adventures particularly enjoyable.

but i wonder... what motivates researchers? the potential of discovering dramatic breakthrus? or merely producing publishable results? i guess we hope for the former while working towards the latter - to assure employment! ;)

i genuinely enjoy thinking about the complicated details of galaxy evolution theory, but i admit i get bored with the day to day statistical systematics. i'm not convinced any activity, job or hobby, completely lacks in tedium. i love cooking, but i still have to clean up afterwards. i'm alright with that though - the good things wouldnt be so good if there were no less-than-good things to compare them to.

we all have the potential to create new knowledge, new art, and new insight. in fact, each unique one of us does everyday... its just that we rarely remember to acknowledge it.

carnival of space #75

the big carnival tent of space is open at the lounge of the lab lemming.

enjoy your space reading!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

man's great ancestor

a comic from the perry bible fellowship (which i dedicate to my pops).

american psyche - "naive but bright"

from george saunders's column in this weekend's guardian:

Now is a kind of calm-before-the-storm moment here in America. We have the [...] financial crisis, we have two wars going on, we have a vice-presidential candidate who, in terms of how she talks, she just, what she does is, phrases are added, which what that means, in terms of her meaning? Is, what she does is, puts new ones on, or conjoining, in order so that she, when speaking, can glean closer into that thing, which, hopefully, she has been meaning?

So that's reassuring. It's been a long time since we were led by someone whose command of the language was, in terms of how good he is, or were, no, not so hot, basically ungood, when looking upon it.

But not to worry. America's fine. Although I have, these past two years, made a lot of fun of America, like the smart-mouthed kid in the back seat of the car making fun of his family. Of course he loves his family, of course he believes in his family: he is the product of that family; that family is all he knows. His criticism can be seen as a form of engagement, of intimacy, of love, even.

America is having an identity crisis. On one side: fear, aggression, banality, xenophobia. On the other: hopefulness, humour, confidence in human nature, critical thought. This battle is not being fought along party lines; it is not the case that one party or candidate holds a monopoly on these positive virtues. No: it is more existential and every one of us is fighting it internally. Which country are we to be? The terrified, torturing, isolated bully; or the tolerant, slow-to-anger, naive-but-bright protector-of-the-poor? It's not altogether a new battle: the American heart - hell, maybe the human heart - has been divided along these lines for a long time. But here, in our time, it feels like the battle is heating up. So, as they used to say on TV: stay tuned.

lovely little worlds

these lovely little worlds were created by walter martin and paloma munoz. oddly enough, they remind me of the perceived scale models of real video footage that i posted earlier this week!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

glowing-hot carbon nanotubes

a collection of the best microscopic images of 2008 have been put together at national geographic! my favorite is the glowing-hot carbon nanotube factory:

Glowing-hot carbon nanotubes form an expanding orange ball in this image by Paul Marshall of Canada's Institute for Microstructural Sciences, a winner in the 2008 Small World photomicrography competition.

The nanotubes are elongated, hollow cylinders of carbon atoms. To make a carbon nanotube--just 1/50,000 the width of a human hair--a piece of carbon (graphite) must be heated, for example by lasers or electricity. And sometimes, Marshall says, the heated mass of nanotubes grows like a bulb in the spring."

interestingly, the image reminds me of another object that contains glowing-hot carbon that is much much MUCH bigger: our sun! this is an image of the sun *today* from the SOHO spacecraft.

the sun is about 75% hydrogen and 22+% helium, but there is a bit (0.3%) of carbon in the mix!

specifically, i'm amazed at the similarity in the structure of the carbon nanotubes and the pattern of solar granulation seen at the "surface" of the sun. this image shows a sunspot and the surrounding granulation wth an image of the earth superimposed to give an idea of scale (you can fit about 100 earths across the diameter of the sun).

cool! I'm endlessly fascinated by the similarities and differences between the very large and the very small.

Friday, October 17, 2008

oxford, england - part 3 - the meadow

the final series comes from an afternoon walk to the meadow, where animals roam free for all us kids to enjoy!

happy dog!!

and in case you missed part 2 or part 1 of this adventure... or you want to view the whole oxford collection! enjoy!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

the moon, pleiades, and venus

they're not in the same part of the sky, unfortunately, but you can see them all over the next few nights.

tonight, the bright waning moon rises just beside the pleiades (tiny little dipper) star cluster, in the east.

just after sunset on the other side of the sky, venus sets close to antares.

northern hemisphere folks can still see the summer triangle quite clearly overhead these days... made up of the stars vega, altair, and deneb.

bathtub gin

here's a short piece by keith loutit showing sydney harbor in a unique way. its mesmerizing how the scenes look like scale models.

Bathtub III from Keith Loutit on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

observational astronomy: challenges and puzzles

a nebulous nursery lives about 7,000 light-years away from us and is known as the carina nebula.

the carina nebula encompasses such interstellar wonders as the powerful star, eta carinae, and the star-forming region, NGC 3324! the above 50 light year, wide-angle image comes from the hubble heritage project, and reminds me of one of my favorite aspects of observational astronomy; trying to find the particular patterns inside an image that you want to point your telescope to.

for instance, imagine you want to further explore the properties of a dust pillar in the carina nebula, by collecting special observations that no one has previously created. all you have are the coordinates of the object and the Hubble reference image that comes from the larger image above:

you have successfully written a proposal to do the research, you were granted the observing time on the telescope, and now you are sitting inside the telescope dome ready to commence observations. having completed all your calibration tests, you program the coordinates of the pillar into the computer, move the telescope, command the technology to take a data image, and a short bit later, a raw image pops up on your computer screen:

(please note: the raw image directly from the telescope would look black and white, have much lower resolution, and probably not show much more than the stellar points of light**, but stick with me during this simple demonstrative scenario... i simply captured these shots while interactively exploring a wide-field view of carina)

from your telescope snapshot, you expect to see something vaguely like the above hubble image you prepared before arriving at the observatory, but clearly you are looking at something else! oh no... it appears that the pointing of the telescope is not correct by some unknown amount and your job is to sort it all out: find your object in the sky, correct the telescope's pointing, and get on with the collecting data before you've wasted too much time in the night.

so you search around the original wide-field image for hints of the structure you see in the telescope image, keeping in mind that you may be comparing two images with different orientations, rotations, flips, and/or flops (the challenge for anyone interested is to find the two cut outs above in the first image of the entire carina nebula). finally, you think you've identified what you are seeing thru the telescope, so you estimate which direction you must digitally nudge the telescope in order to move it just the right way to exactly image the dust pillar!

most likely you iterate this process until you have found your object!! once the telescope is properly aligned, you excitedly start exposing your image, and sit back hoping nothing goes wrong with the whole setup while you wait to see your data!

each telescope seems to have different pointing accuracies, with each individual telescope performing less precisely when tipped over to more extreme angles. people who own their own smaller telescopes are probably familiar with these issues. the biggest (most expensive) telescopes in the world have teams of astronomers and technicians around, specially trained to understand their particular quirks and tendencies, which makes observing during a night much more time efficient. smaller telescopes (2-4-meter class) generally allow training students and regular astronomers to use them - left to individually discover the quirks and fix any problems that should occur during the night! personally, i find the latter opportunity to be quite fun, most of the time. sometimes its incredibly frustrating if something serious goes wrong, or you cant solve an issue and have to wait for the regular staff to fix the problem during the day!

** the quick acquisition images used to isolate a target in the telescope field of view are generally not able to detect any kind of nebulosity. usually i locate my target galaxies using patterns found in the the bright stellar points of light in the image... but i thought the nebular features were more visually stimulating for this discussion ;)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

nighttime timescape

tom lowe has just posted another great short timescape video. the whole thing was shot in california with timelapse motion photography. i particularly like the night sky scenes where the milky way floats across the sky, the clouds passing behind the old trees, and the shot of the very large baseline array (VLBA) dish as it dances back and forth between targets!

Timescapes: Digital Timelapse from Tom on Vimeo

mushy peas and mint sauce

i went to the 714th annual nottingham goose fair last weekend! thats probably the oldest festival i've ever attended! it was a huge carnival with rides, rain, fried foods and games like hook-a-duck. amazingly, i only took one picture, but it seems to summarize my experience:

the website describes mushy peas and mint sauce as a "local delicacy," so of course i had to try it. my serving didnt come slopped on top of chips (fries, to the north americans), rather i spooned it out of a tiny cup. it wasnt as awful as i thought it sounded considering that i really dont like peas - but i did not go back for a second serving!

Monday, October 13, 2008

dropping knowledge

dropping knowledge is an interesting internet project that welcomes people to ask questions on many topics relevant to current global issues, and then receive answers from a wide variety of people around the world. i love the motivational phrase they use: ask in order to understand, answer in order to share.

they provide a nice 8 minute introduction video, but i'd also recommend exploring the questions and answers for yourself. let me know if any particular question or answer especially strikes you.

a decade of the hubble heritage project

last week marked the tenth anniversary of the hubble heritage project, which consistently presents to the public the most spectacular images produced by the hubble space telescope (HST, read current hubble health status: here). to celebrate, the heritage project people released a beautiful image of the intergalactic landscape referred to as NGC 3324:

(explore a zoomable larger image: here.)

to create the color image, they combined a blue-filtered oxygen emission image, a green glow from the hygrogen filter, and a bright red-filtered image of sulfur gas. oxygen gas illuminated by star light glows in the background, while bright red glowing sulfer clouds and dark patches of thick dust clouds protect the factories of stellar birth that lie within them. this nebulous nursery lives inside a larger inferno called the carina nebula, about 7,000 light-years away from us.

Friday, October 10, 2008

jazz and cosmology

if you're near albany, new york on november 1st, check out the black book project by the ten 27 jazz trio.

"An eclectic mix of original jazz compositions and magnificent images of the cosmos from the Hubble Space Telescope are combined in this unique performance by TEN 27 featuring Monica Wilson-Roach on electric cello and bass, Michael Roach on keyboards and piano, and Paul Borrello on mallet-kat and drums."

according to the american astronomical society newsletter, Monica Wilson-Roach wrote the cosmology-based jazz composition in honor of vera rubin - one of my astronomical heroes! vera's perseverance to study the universe, despite being discouraged from studying science because of her womanhood (princeton said "no thanks" to her and all other women until 1975!), helped create a more benevolent atmosphere for me to pursue my studies today!

From Ken Croswell’s The Universe at Midnight (via cosmic variance):
Vera Rubin was ignored, in part because she was a woman. With a certain amount of pain, she recalls that, when she applied to Swarthmore College as a science major and casually told the admissions officer that she liked to paint, the interviewer said, “Have you ever considered a career in which you paint pictures of astronomical objects?” She recalled, “That became a tag line in my family: for many years, whenever anything went wrong for anyone, we said, ‘Have you ever considered a career in which you paint pictures of astronomical objects?’” When she told her high school physics teacher that she got accepted to Vassar, he replied, “You should do okay as long as you stay away from science.” She would later recall, “It takes an enormous amount of self-esteem to listen to things like that and not be demolished.”

vera rubin contributed immensely to our understanding of the composition of the universe. she provided clear observational evidence that something non-visible existed inside galaxies. in fact, she found that there was 5-10 times more of the non-visible stuff in side galaxies than the visible stuff that produced the light for our telescopes to collect!

to do this, she looked at spectra of many galaxies in order to calculate the speed at which stars orbit around their galaxy centers. the speed of the star around the center of the galaxy is proportional to the distance to the center and how much stuff is between the star and the center. this is similar to planetary speeds - neptune moves much slower around the sun than the earth does because it is much farther away. vera measured the speed of the stars at the outskirts of galaxies and realized they moved way faster than they should, after taking into account all the visible material inside the star's orbit. therefore, something else, something non-visible, something dark, "dark matter" existed inside the galaxy to gravitationally speed up the stars rotating around the edges.

i was lucky enough to meet vera at my first AAS meeting while i was still an undergraduate student. the woman who introduced me made it a point to tell me a bit about vera's history beforehand, and i remember being very excited at that moment! thanks for your inspiration, vera!

an ocean of clouds

it's beautiful how these clouds hitting the mountains create the same wave patterns that an ocean creates as its water reaches the shallow shores.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

our moon passes jupiter

did you see the bright object near the moon last night in the sky? that was jupiter. look to the south after sunset to see their close alignment again tonight!