Monday, March 30, 2009

Saturday, March 28, 2009

southeast asia or bust

i dont actually understand that phrase... [somewhere] or bust! but i coudnt think of anything better to say. anyway, i'm off on a voyage to southeast asia! my trip starts off by presenting recent research at a conference in malaysia. it's always exciting to hear what other extragalactic astronomers are doing, to receive feedback on my own work, and participate in the dialog about the future directions of the field.

my adventures continue with journeys to thailand and cambodia!

needless to say, i'm incredibly excited! i've been preparing to enter food heaven by doing yoga and eating the spiciest food i can find... in england... which isnt very spicy! my blogging rate will, of course, slow while i am away. i've scheduled a couple posts to appear while i'm traveling, and i'm sure i will find time to make a couple updates here and there, but i'm looking forward to a break from my regularly computer-dominated universe.

many pictures to come... ciao!

Friday, March 27, 2009

100 hours of astronomy

from april 2nd to the 5th, people all over the world will be celebrating 100 hours of astronomy. the goal is to get as many people to look thru a telescope as possible! the dates correspond with the first quarter moon, which is my favorite object to view thru small telescopes, and saturn is up right now as well! many local astronomy societies will be holding events, most universities have some sort of telescope they use for public observing, or visit the official site to see what is being planned around your town!

there will be several events you can follow online if the weather doesnt cooperate with your evening sky gazing: around the world in 80 telescopes allows you to see tours by professional astronomers of some of the world's most advanced observatories!

click here to view all the other online activities planned for both adults and children during the 100 hours of astronomy!


the extended history of astropixie

i've been asked a lot lately how i got interested in astronomy, what motivated me to study physics, and what brought about astropixie. so i thought i'd share the stories...

my official science career began when i was eighteen and decided to change my undergraduate major to physics, only to discover i was the sole female among the physics majors! i guess i didn't expect there to be many girls in the field, but that never influenced my decision. i suspect the lack of female students gives more insight into our societal influences and expectations than to my aspirations to figure out how the universe worked.

my unofficial science career began when i was young, although i didnt recognize it as such.

i always enjoyed little logic puzzles. i didnt understand the significance of it at the time, but my curiosities were completely aroused by finding patterns and figuring out how things worked! electronics never really interested me - our VCR always blinked "12:00" - but i loved solving puzzles. i played the piano from a young age and memorized the music by recognizing the patterns in the notes and chords and feeling the mood. as a present one year, i received a set of small metal puzzles. you had to separate two twisted pieces of metal that seemed permanently attached together and impossible to pull apart without using brutal force!

i got really frustrated by such puzzles at first when i couldnt solve them... sometimes to the point of tears. but then i figured one out! DING! there were always little tricks involved in the solutions and once i found them, the "impossible" puzzle seemed simple and obvious to solve. once i learned one trick, i could attempt to apply it to other puzzles. sometimes old tricks worked, sometimes i was challenged to find new solutions. this is exactly the process with which new science problems are solved... you apply all the tricks you've acquired, and if you run out of tricks, you learn new tricks (or give up on the problem if you dwell in the doldrums too long).

as for school, i was a pretty good student. i had an older sister who did very well in school, so i felt that i could get good grades, it was just a matter of studying and thinking about things until i understood them.

i didnt really "like" math, but i got decent grades. my last teacher in elementary school decided i was an ok student, but not capable enough to be placed in the advanced math and english classes upon entering junior high (~12 years old). my mother was furious when she found out about this and fought with the school for several weeks to convince them to move me to the advanced classes. i felt indifferent. i thought i would do fine in the advanced classes, but they would require more work which wasnt something i wanted to fight for!

while she fought to upgrade my status, i started the school year in the regular math class. to my immediate fascination, i entered the class of the most influencial teacher i ever had!! he was a young guy who didnt teach a regular math class. we spent a lot of time during the class solving riddles and puzzles. he introduced our innocent minds to zeno's paradox by asking whether a thirsty grasshopper would ever reach water if he could only jump half the distance to the water, then jump half of the remaining distance, then jump half the remaining distance, etc...? the class seemed confused; i was enamored... with the word problems, and with my teacher ;) he continued to do these interactive puzzles during class, and i found that i was thinking about solving problems in new and interesting ways. i also found that i was pretty good at solving his puzzles, and i've always enjoyed "winning" at anything and everything!

my mom eventually won her battle, and i was moved to the "advanced" math class, where i learned all the proper ways to solve basic algebraic equations for x. i was bored, and felt completely uninspired by math. until a few years later, when a great teacher and his geometry class inspired me again! our class bonded so much while solving the proofs that most of us, even some "cool kids," applied to join the math club at our teacher's insistence! so there you have it, i was in the high school math club for three years. and i really enjoyed it. i traveled around the US taking math tests and solving logic puzzles because i liked the challenges and i liked the traveling, even though i never felt i was very "good" in math.

my interests were quite varied throughout my teenage years; i always had after school jobs, i ran cross country, i was in the french club, i played futbol until i had to have knee surgery, i sang in a city-wide youth chorus, etc... i always harbored a fascination with the stars, and made up my own constellations in the skies, but didnt think astronomy was a feasible career. i mean, i'd never met an astronomer, or even a professional scientist for that matter! when i entered college, i wanted to travel, and i was a bit tired of all the hard work, so i majored in french. i quickly became bored without the challenge of problem solving, and my fascination with the stars never diminished, so i switched my field of study to physics, hoping i could focus in astronomy (there was no astronomy program at my university, and in hindsight, i'm very glad i got a degree in physics!).

attaining a degree in physics was hard work, i won't deny that, but i happily managed to do all the social, political, personal, and philosophical exploring that suits a young person when she leaves home for the first time. when i was nearing graduation, i felt proud of my accomplishments, but unsure of what i wanted to do with myself. the newly-appointed female professor in the department insisted i apply for graduate school. i wasnt sure why no one else had made such a suggestion and felt grateful for her interest in my career and well-being! my curiosity of astronomy had certainly not been satisfied while studying just physics, and i couldnt think of anything more interesting to do with myself, so i entered graduate school in austin, texas the next fall, without taking more than the summer off!

many years into studying for my astronomy doctorate, i wondered if i really wanted to continue along the typical academic path post-phd, and realized that i harbored a strong interest in communicating science to a popular audience, as well as to top-level researchers. around that time, i started to travel internationally to work with collaborators all over the world. i had no idea at the beginning that doing astronomy would provide so many diverse opportunities to travel all over the world!! in order to keep my family and friends updated on my travels, and to practice science writing, i began the astropixie blog in 2006. i did not know many other online science personalities at the time, especially female students, so i felt excited to develop my ideas and writing techniques within the relative safety of online anonymity. i felt amazed at how the readers absorbed explanations for real-world physical phenomena and noticed no gender bias among the readers who consistently commented and provided feedback.

i took a non-scientific poll a couple weeks ago and the results show that in fact, more women visited the blog (and voted) during the 6-day voting period! i was (pleasantly) surprised at how even these numbers were, because i had no real idea who was reading this blog!

the issue we face is that while women make up ~50% of the population of humans, in the working environments of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), women make up only 8.0% of all professors in science, engineering, and technologies. there are many complicated reasons for this, and no single solution exists. i dont think the point is to seek an even 50-50 split in gender, or an even distribution of people of all types in the workplace, but i think we have a responsibility to stop biasing ourselves and our children about what they "should" or can do in their lives. our society influences children from a young age - first thru consumerism (vehicles, battle toys, and blue for boys; cooking sets, dolls, and pink for girls), and then thru education by encouraging girls towards social sciences and boys towards sciences and math. of course not everyone follows these behaviors, but we can all try to actively *include* everyone in all of life's activities, instead of participating (consciously or not) to *exclude* certain types of people from doing certain activities.

i'm happy to know that i'm reaching a broad audience with this blog, because the fact that there are so few women in the upper echelons of STEM working environments, means that there are few role models to observe! what i do isnt what everyone wants to do, but if one person is inspired or intrigued to do whatever their little heart desires in this world, regardless of what types of people have done that thing in the past, then i'm satisfied.

as for the name astropixie... it found its origins long ago on the appalachian trail. its a dream of many people to spend the ~6 months it takes to hike the entire trail - from georgia to maine. i traveled to north carolina one year with friends to meet up with some guys who were attempting the whole trail! we hiked with them for a week. while hiking the trail, its customary to go by a trail name, and the fellas donned me with the trail name "pixie." i thought it was cute! several years later, when i arrived in austin and started signing up for various online forums and whatnot, i decided to spice up the obvious nickname of pixie by adding the astro, in honor of my new field of study!

and there you have it. the extended history of astropixie!

solid rocket booster camera

the shuttle discovery launched 15 march 2009. here is a video taken from the camera mounted on the solid rocket booster! the beginning shows the separation from the shuttle and the subsequent fall to earth - freaky sounds and great views! the second part shows the view from launch until shuttle separation. cool stuff - very raw!

from universe today.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

cantina song on harp

i've always wanted to play the harp, but it was an impractical instrument to get a hold of... maybe one day. meanwhile, this sports-jersey-wearing young fellow can play a mean harp! and he plays the cantina song from star wars to boot!

from cynical-c.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

inferior conjunction for venus

venus is now approaching the the sun in our sky. venus is currently on the same side of the sun as the earth, so it is close to the earth right now. the point when venus is exactly between the earth and the sun is called inferior conjunction, and occurs on 29 march, 2009.

after venus passes thru inferior conjunction, it will move to being the earth's "morning star" although for the next few days, you can spot venus in the early evening and in the early morning!

because of the relative positions of venus, the earth, and the sun, it goes thru phases, similar to the phases of the moon. the new moon occurs when the moon is directly between the earth and the sun, so you can understand why venus actually looks like a little sliver right now, even though it seems so bright in our sky! we will see a "new" venus at inferior conjunction.

here are photos as venus has approached inferior conjunction over the last several days!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

carnival of space - 95

for your weekly dose of space reading, head over to orbital hub and check out the 95th carnival of space!

somehow, this x-ray, chandra space telescope image of the interacting galaxy system called NGC 6340 looks upside down. really, its silly to think that anything in space looks upside down, because it's all relative, but still, it looks awkward to me... am i the only one?

Monday, March 23, 2009

carl sagan - cosmos series

those of you living in the USA can now view the entire COSMOS series online at hulu. COSMOS was a fantastic astronomy tv series produced by carl sagan and ann druyan in the 1980s. the animations look a little primative compared to today's standards, but the science is still largely applicable and the imagination demonstrated is exquisite!

here's the introduction to the series:

i hope i can view hulu videos from outside the US soon!!!! good thing i have the whole COSMOS series on DVD ;)

hat tip to the bad astronomer.

algebraic surfaces

nice visualizations of algebraic surfaces found at freigeist.

the explanations for methodology are in german, so i dont understand them. i think "freigeist" means "free spirit" though, which is a little ironic since all these surfaces, while beautiful and seemingly free-flowing, are strictly defined by algebraic equations. gorgeous stuff to look at.. very nice use of shading and shadow!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

random scenes from england

some are from london, some are from robin's 'hood.

a round street.

a bar called cosine on a round street.

i have to say it every time... "the best shop in the world dot co dot uk."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

samurai on the toilet

happy vernal equinox!

its nice to live again where the change of seasons somewhat coincide with the astronomical definitions! flowers are beginning to poke out of the ground and bloom! yeah springtime! and i hope all you southern hemispherians are ready for the summer heat to subside!

today is the vernal equinox. the hours of daylight and darkness are very nearly equal. why? the earth spins around once a day on an axis that is not perpendicular to the plane in which the earth revolves around the sun. if it were perpendicular, we would not have the seasons we feel. right now, the earth's spin axis is not facing towards or away from the sun.... it's exactly in the middle of those two extremes!

and no, it is NOT true that you can only stand an egg on its end during the vernal equinox!!! why does that idea even make sense to some people?

bienvenida la primavera!

Friday, March 20, 2009

pizza topping sudoku

some people love sudoku, some are bored by it, some can't be bothered enough to learn how solve it. i like to play an occasional round when i'm on an airplane or visiting my dad.

but one thing is definitely true - i am enamored by this sudoku method of spreading pizza toppings so that they are evenly dispersed on each piece! brilliant!

haha! i hate when all the toppings get concentrated into one section. i've only ever made round pizzas at home though (and never have the topping dispersion problem), but i might have to try a square crust just to play this game!

my nine toppings? spinach, feta cheese, sun-dried tomatos, red bell peppers, onions, basil, mushrooms, garlic, and something else....

Thursday, March 19, 2009

galaxy zoo - 15 million galaxy morphologies!

the galaxy zoo project, where the public can help classify galaxies for scientific purposes, is continuing to produce fantastic results! one month after the launch of zoo 2, zooites have classified over 15 million galaxies!!!! that is astounding!

read about the history of the galaxy zoo here.

follow the galaxy zoo blog here.

best of all, participate here!

what is a burrito - to you?

based on my dining experience this evening, and the great responses i've received on twitter so far, i ask you....

what is a burrito?

i'm interested in the idea of what a "burrito" is from people all over the world... go!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

discovery reaches the international space station!

sunday's successful launch of discovery sent the shuttle sailing towards the international space station (ISS). discovery had to get into orbit with the ISS and catch up to it in order to dock. during the approach, the two flew together thru the night sky very quickly and very closely! just before the docking on tuesday, marco langbroek captured this image as the two objects passed over the netherlands:

the brighter streak on top is the ISS and the fainter one below is discovery. they move quickly across the sky as you can see in this few second exposure.

once the discovery crew assembles the final solar panel on the space station, the ISS will become the second brightest object in the night sky, surpassing venus for the honor! my favorite time to spot the ISS is if it happens to be passing overhead at sunset or sunrise, because it is super bright!

you can figure out when the ISS (or many other orbiting satellits) will pass over your part of the earth at heavens above, or using google earth as described by orbiting frog.


balloon model astronomy!

here are a few photos from the conference i attended last week in london. i'm working on writing some reflections, but for now, some pictures will have to do!

at lunch, a balloon artist, Bubblz Ainslie, asked maggie philbin to challenge her. she responded: make a radio telescope!

very impressive! near the end of the conference, we all electronically voted on what other astronomical tool we wanted to see as a balloon model, and the international space station won!

shenanigans ensued.

here she is, the artist hard at work, trying to create a balloon spiral galaxy... bubblz the math clown!

this one isnt astronomically related, but too cute not to highlight!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

GLOBE at night - observe orion!

the 94th carnival of space led me to an article by the space writer asking: are your skies dark? i feel like i can see fewer and fewer stars with my eyes in the night sky, and that's not *just* because my eyes are aging or because i recently moved to the cloudy UK! most people on earth live in cities and most cities are completely lit up at night, as you can see in the image below of the earth at night!

a few years ago, i asked a class of 200 university students how many had seen the milky way across the night sky. not even half of them raised their hands! i admit that i didnt see the milky way in the sky until i was 19 and camping in the mountains of california. the sighting coincided with the year i switched my undergraduate major to physics.

in an effort to promote getting out and observing the night skies, the GLOBE at night project begins this week! the main activity is for people all over the world (you!) to go outside and look at the constellation orion between 16-28 March 2009. orion is one of the fun constellations that is visible from both hemispheres, but looks upside down when you visit the other hemisphere!

the GLOBE at night website provides nice explanations as to how to find orion from anywhere in the world, but it's definitely one the most recognizable constellations in the sky.

after you identify orion, you can continue participating in the project by comparing the nighttime sky you see with the GLOBE's magnitude charts, to see how dark your night sky is! you can then record your observations on their website until april 7th, 2009 and compare how dark your skies are to the rest of the world!

orion is up early right now, about 7-10pm local time. happy observing!

... and let us know if you find any exciting or unexpected results!

owl sweater

well this is just about the cutest sweater ever!

if anyone has the skills and wants to make one for me, i'll figure out something to create and trade! let me know...

Monday, March 16, 2009

rube goldberg machine!

rube goldberg won the 1948 pulitzer prize for his political cartooning, but i know him for his cartoons of machines that perform very simple tasks thru round-about paths and unpredictable means.

if you ever played the game, mouse trap, then you know what i mean!

for some reason, rube goldberg machines seem to be featured quite often in opening sequences of films!! my favorite rube goldberg moments in film are pee wee herman's breakfast machine in pee wee's big adventure, the opening scene from back to the future with all the clocks and the machine feeding einstein - the dog, the gate-opening scene near the beginning of goonies, and the opening sequence of wallace and gromit film, the curse of the were-rabbit.

here's one of the better at-home rube goldberg machines i've seen - designed to smash a creme egg.

video found at domino-yes-maybe.

what are you?

as i write this post, the poll on the right asking about gender is almost exactly even!? i find this really interesting and will hold further comment until the poll is closed. if you havent yet, take 2 seconds to vote! thanks!

human 3D model image from

shuttle discovery ready to launch - again

wednesday's scheduled launch of the shuttle discovery was delayed due to a fuel leak. the STS-119 launch has been rescheduled for tonight at 7:43 pm EDT. preparations for launch are fully underway and NASA reports that "more than 500,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen have been transferred to their respective containers inside the 154-foot tall orange tank" and no leaks are evident!

good luck to the discovery STS-119 crew!

poster credit to space flight awareness at nasa.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

the tides of london

i was surprised this weekend to discover how severely the river thames in london rises and falls with the tides... 5-7 meters!!

high tide:

low tide:

the tides occur because of the gravitational interactions between the earth, the moon, and the sun. the side of the earth facing the moon (closest to the moon) feels a slightly stronger force than the side of the earth farthest from the moon. the combined effect is to stretch the earth in the direction of the moon so that it is elongated slightly.

water feels the effect more than rock since it is more flexible. the earth rotates fully each day, so the bulged water parts that face towards and away from the moon, are changing as the earth rotates, and we witness the rise and fall of the earth's oceans (among other things). there are two tides each day as each part of the earth's surface rotates thru each bulged part.

the sun also plays this tidal game with the earth. the sun causes similar tides on earth, but they are half as strong as lunar tides since the moon is much much much closer! when the sun, earth, and moon are aligned, the effects of the tides from the sun and the moon add together and cause higher high tides and lower low tides. we call these spring tides and they occur twice a month (at the full moon and new moon phases).

the weakest tides occur when the moon is at a right angle from the sun, relative to the earth. in this case, the solar and lunar tides act in opposite directions and slightly cancel each other out. these are called neap tides and occur at the 1st and 3rd quarter phases of the moon. i dont know where the word "neap" came from.

i've seen tidal effects on oceans, but i dont remember previously witnessing such strong tides in a river! cool!

the shots of the tides i showed above were taken from the millenium bridge...

... which connects the tate modern museum (seen here on the other side of ruth)...

... and st. pauls cathedral (seen here from inside the tate modern!).

it only hurts when i exist.

i think the statement is interesting on its own, but the accompanying cartoon adds a whole new dimension of humor!

from kliban cartoons

Saturday, March 14, 2009

pi day

it might not be obvious to those who do not write the date as month/day/year, but today's date is 3.14 for those of us that do! pi day.

while reading the rest of this post, feel free to listen to this slightly mesmerizing little pi song.

pi is the ratio of any circle's circumference to its diameter, which is also equal to the ratio between a circle's area (pi*r^2) and its radius (in flat, euclidean space).

some people will celebrate today by eating pies.


today is also considered by many to be talk like a physicist day. what do you get when you cross talk like a pirate day with talk like a physicist day?? the punch line from a comic by brightly wound:

if you (d/dt) something then you are taking the derivative with respect to time. you are asking how the thing changes with time, which you call its rate. so (d/dt) of pi, or d*pi/dt, is finding the rate of pi, or pi-rate! hardy-harrrrrrrrr. ok, i'll stop now.