Friday, October 29, 2010

halloween begins

we had a bit of its-nearly-halloween fun dressing up for work today!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

buckeyes or conkers?

i'm originally from the state of ohio, USA, which is known as the "buckeye state." buckeyes are the common local name of a type of tree that are more generally called horse chestnuts.

ohioans have been inspired to make make necklaces out of the seeds of the buckeye tree in support of the ohio state buckeyes:

the region is also known for sweet candy treats called "buckeyes" which are made from peanut butter balls dipped in melted chocolate and left to dry. mmmmmm... buckeyes!

the british, on the other hand, have developed quite a different tradition using the seeds from the horse chestnut trees, which they call conkers. the game of conkers is a moderately violent affair where you string up your conker and try to knock an opponent's conker off his or her string.

a couple years ago we held a conkers tournament among the astronomers and physicists in our building... the brits wanted to initiate all us foreigners to the tradition, you see. we were warned of a few of the rules, which mainly revolved around forbidden methods to potentially strengthen your conker: soaking in vinegar, drying in an oven, etc...

what surprised me is how painful this game can be when your shot is not accurate. if you miss your opponent's conker altogether, which i did quite often, the conker flings around on the end of the string and slams into your forearm. my unskilled conker flicks continued to hit the same spot on my arm and built up quite a painful bruise! ouch! of course i lost my conker during my first battle.

brady haran, who produces sixty symbols, has produced an interesting video about horse chestnut trees for his trees project, which explains a bit more about the game of conkers (but doesnt mention "buckeyes" at all :(

Sunday, October 24, 2010

the optical delusion of our consciousness

small worlds

the results are out for the 2010 nikon small world contest. here are a few of my favorites! the descriptions below come from the big picture.

Magnified 400 times, this is a 2-Photon fluorescence image of glial cells in the cerebellum. Glial cells provide support for the brain's neurons. This image was made by Thomas Deerinck of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego.

Two human cancer cells seen just before they divide into four cells, viewed at 100x magnification. This image of Telophase HeLa (cancer) cells expressing Aurora B-EGFP took 11th place and was made by Dr. Paul D. Andrews of the University of Dundee in Dundee, Scotland.

Patterns of light are seen in soap film, magnified 150 times in this 18th place image by Gerd Guenther from Dusseldorf, Germany.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

observing: the story via twitter

some of you may use twitter, and some of you may not see the point of trying to communicate thru 140 character phrases. personally, i find twitter to be entertaining, interesting, and quite useful in my professional life. my opinion is that twitter can be worthwhile for anyone, you just have to follow only those people who post things of interest to you and ignore everyone else!

anyway, i have tweeted consistently throughout this observing run on mauna kea and i think those tweets tell a unique play-by-play story of the experience that i have not otherwise captured on this blog. each line is a single twitter entry. so you know, hashtags (#) are used to organize and identify various topics throughout twitter, and i've left them in this compilation... i hope you enjoy!


i'm sitting in hilo surrounded by big-leaf plants and incredibly loud chirpy creatures!

breakfast of fresh papaya, fruit juice, and smooth kona coffee while watching the rescue of chilean miners.

i have a few hours this morning before i head up to mauna kea. i'm going to go swim with turtles, obviously.

sitting in hale pohaku at 9000 ft feeling a bit wobbly... and tired even though the sun hasnt set yet and i want to stay up past 2 am...?

wow, i just blew my nose and got incredibly light headed. high altitude does funny things to the body.

i've managed to stay awake past 1 am.... running out of things to do. what should i watch online?

NIGHT 1 AT SUMMIT (14000 ft)

managed to sleep for ten hours! now i'm excited to get to the summit, but still have to wait a few hours. work until dinner.

sitting at the summit of mauna kea! clouds make for a crappy observing night, but a lovely sunset. i'm feeling ok at 14000ft... for now!

in a hole right now/ clouds are on the horizon/ will be a long night #observinghaiku

major clouds, sucker holes, dying computers, and high-altitude wooziness - time for night lunch.

what we're trying to do is find find loads of new distant galaxies, but the clouds are not letting us!! :(

on an extinct volcano: (blog post with pictures)

no wonder y'all are so quiet... its saturday. weekend observing is the worst. no, marginal weather observing is the worst. d'oh!

it takes water a long time to boil up here, and the kettle doesnt seem to know when its boiling!

the computers here talk to us sometimes: the male voice is like stephen hawking, but the female voice has a realistic british accent. huh?

oh no! i assumed lost season 6 was on hulu and i could watch it while observing... but its not! foiled.

the bad weather is holding steady :( we'll wait for 1.5 hrs more then head down.... unless the clouds clear, of course.

"Being a graduate student is like becoming all of the Seven Dwarves. In the beginning you're Dopey and Bashful."

"In the middle, you are usually sick (Sneezy), tired (Sleepy), and irritable (Grumpy)."

"But at the end, they call you Doc, and then you're Happy."


slept like crap; woke up in a thick cloud. should be an interesting and long night.

uh- oh. i'm bored and we're scheduled to be up here for another 8 hours.

my partner in astronomical crime for the evening just offered to make cappuccinos. divine.

meanwhile, we're collecting data in hopes of finding the smallest stars and/or the most distant quasars!

just went outside for ten minutes and saw six meteors whiz across the sky! its a crisp, cool, clear night illuminated by a bright moon.

also, i thought gemini's adaptive optics laser was green, but it looks red tonight...? ( ) anyone know?

i'm watching old josephine baker clips on youtube to stay awake.... wow could she dance!

clouds just came rushing in incredibly fast. guess thats it.... shutting down, packing up, and heading down the mountain.


the doorbell just rang. who knew observatories had doorbells?!?

ringing the doorbell was a lovely (~70 yr old?) aussie who claimed to be an "astronomy student" and asked politely to see the telescope.

so far every system we are using has failed and needed fixing... we've been in the dome for 27 minutes. we good for the night? or doomed?

"panspermia" is an oddly descriptive name for what it means

the telescope is touchy tonight.

clouds over mauna kea make for very frustrating observing, but absolutely gorgeous sunsets!

really bright star in this field whose light is reflecting all over inside the scope, causing crazy light streaks and artifacts. offset!!

the humidity has risen above 75%.... closing the dome for a bit to see if it drops again.

the gauge currently measures 102.5% humidity. hmmmm...

still over 100% humidity. dome is frozen in place. packin it up and callin it a night.


just woke up after a good sleep. getting ready to eat dinner - weather at the summit doesnt look good: humidity, high wind, maybe snow?!!

there's always potential for a random reunion when observing at mauna kea. my undergraduate professor is here!

visibility is about 30 ft at most on top of mauna kea right now. poor tourists wont get much of a sunset.

random reunion: at dinner i saw jonathan fay who i met last year at @dotastronomy in holland!?! #dotastro #smalluniverse

stuck in a cloud and this room ( ) for at least 7 more hours, unless the road starts to freeze and we have to descend.

the weather is teasing us now.... humidity has dropped to 90%, where it sits. we cant open until its consistently below 75%.

clouds have cleared, humidity has dropped, the air is still.... let the data collection commence!

looks like we will be up here all night after all.... time to make use of the super fancy espresso machine!!

it turns out 3 am at 14000 ft is not the best time to try to learn a new program.

was a mistake to leave my night lunch out in nature's refrigerator. its below freezing. d'oh!

soggy sandwiches and frozen fruit.

looks like we'll be working straight to the sunrise. thats a full 14 hour work night. #worthit


well, after the 14 hour work night, i slept 8.5 hrs and was woken up by my alarm clock so i could make it to dinner in time! whew!

its 5pm tuesday evening here, and 2 pm wednesday afternoon for collaborators in australia. what is "tomorrow" ?

cant say i was terribly impressed by the dinner offered tonight at hale pohaku. oh well, it will be another lovely sunset from the summit!

i keep asking "how faint" is it? he keeps telling me "how bright" it is. is this the astronomical "glass half full" conundrum?

clouds swept up over the mountain incredibly fast! we're sitting in supersaturated air, again. guess that means i should do real work...

it's as if we're Li'l Abner's Joe Btfsplk with this rain cloud perched above us!

ugh, i have a headache tonight. is the altitude finally getting to me? or am i sick of trying to finish this paper i'm working on?

so far this evening the humidity has ranged from 3.4% to 105.8%. crazy clouds.


last night on the mountain! clouds are wild, but hopefully they clear enough to let me see some orionids later!

right now the earth is passing thru the debris left by halley's comet, resulting in the orionid metoer shower. too bad the moon is ~full

collecting data for the first time in three nights. woohoo!!

when we are focusing the telescope to see if conditions are good enough to observe, sometimes i get the urge to yell "survey says...!"

mauna kea always offers interesting views:

the moon is SO bright! watched for 10 minutes and only saw two orionid meteors near peak hour.

just found two instances in this paper where i typed "in this pork" instead of "in this work." the 1st really confused me!

nope. i cant see/find comet hartley with binoculars or IR monocular :( i blame the moon.

the full moon finally set, so i went outside to see several orionid meteors and to say goodbye to the stars of the northern hemisphere.

that's all folks, this observing run is over. i get to sleep for a few hours, then begin the two-day journey back to robin's hood. mahalo.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

views from mauna kea

as this observing run on mauna kea draws to a close (tonight is my last night), i share another round of views from the volcano.

i never really get tired of these sunsets.

the nearly full moon is on the rise.

just a short hike from the telescopes takes you to that actual summit of mauna kea (on the right of the photo above, and shown below). some brave folks marched over to see the small monument built by hawaiians.

clouds in front of the sun can create some really interesting shadows and rays. when taking this shot, the sun was setting behind me and i couldnt see it at all thru the thick cumulus clouds.

below is an early morning photo with the sun rising behind me. the telescopes from right to left are the NASA infrared telescope facility (IRTF, where my old undergraduate professor is currently observing, small universe), the two keck telescopes (the biggest mirrors on the mountain), the japanese suburu telescope, and the submillimeter array. the little island peaking out of the clouds on the right is maui!

this is a sunrise view of the cabin at 9000ft where sleep happily greeted me after a 14 hour work night.

if you click to see the full photo below, you can see some telescope domes on the top of mauna kea! its rare to be able to see the peak from the ever-cloud-covered town of hilo.


mandelbrot fractals

benoƮt mandelbrot died on october 14th, 2010 at the age of 85.

he was the mathematician who invented fractals: rough (not smooth) geometric shapes that have the cool property that if you look at small parts of the whole, they look (almost) exactly like the whole, only smaller. here is the famous mandelbrot set:

fractals occur all over in nature including clouds, snow flakes, crystals, mountain ranges, lightning, river networks, cauliflower or broccoli, and even our blood vessels.

in july of this year, mandelbrot gave an interesting TED talk called Fractals and the art of roughness describing how he came about the idea of fractals, and how they are used in a wide variety of ways today:

ps. someone sent me this fractal which could sort of maybe loosely qualify as dirty space news.

nebula print clothes

here are some pieces from christopher kane's resort 2011 collection of nebula print awesomeness! this is my favorite...

... but i really like the one on the bottom, second to the left too.

spotted by the style rookie.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

where do good ideas come from?

a new book by steven johnson is out now called Where Good Ideas Come From. he argues that most ideas do not come from EUREKA! moments, but rather slowly simmer over time and usually come to fruition under the influence of external stimulation. as he says, "chance favours the connected mind."

here's a short visual summary of him describing where good ideas come from:

i think this is an interesting concept to consider because its easy to get frustrated when inspiration doesnt show itself quickly, yet we see other people coming up with good ideas and achieving success**. especially in the US, people seem to be on the lookout for a "million dollar idea" that will allow them to live the profitable "american dream." certainly that is possible and happens, but that is not the way most of our lives operate. i think that the "quick fix" mindset inevitably leads to disappointment, which can easily destroy our motivation to maintain the effort necessary to achieve any sort of goal.

the concept that some ideas need to marinate in my system for a while until they are agitated by the right force is somehow comforting. more good ideas are yet to come! i just need to be patient and continue building momentum by reading, talking to other people, exposing myself to new experiences, and maintaining an observant, empathetic mind.

i had never heard of steven johnson before reading an interview with him on the guardian, but now i think i will read his book.

** of course everyone has their own idea of "success." is it attaining lots of money, or having a family, or helping others, or maintaining a career, or simply feeling happy?

what are special and general relatvity?

the newest installment of sixty symbols shows a discussion of the difference between special and general relativity. brady also asks what physical constant we might change if given the opportunity.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

sunsets over mauna kea

clouds over mauna kea make for very frustrating observing, but absolutely gorgeous sunsets!

Monday, October 18, 2010

off on a tangent...

this is a truly cringe-worthy cartoon by luke surl, but i must admit that it made me laugh, cos it's funny. is that a sin?

not to go off on a tangent, but i wonder how many find her sec(c).

(confused? click here)

OK Go's 'White Knuckles'

here's another winning video from OK Go.

you can donate to animal rescue: here

Sunday, October 17, 2010

NASA and etsy: space craft contest!

NASA and etsy have created a creative contest to commemorate the end of the NASA Space Shuttle Program: the Space Craft Contest. to enter, "share an original handmade item or work of art inspired by the NASA Space Shuttle Program and space exploration at large."

what a great idea!

prizes for the winners include etsy shopping sprees, stuff from nasa and etsy, and a trip to see the final space shuttle launch ever as NASA’s VIP guest!! and if that isnt enough awesome, your artwork might even be flown on the space shuttle.

the final space shuttle mission is currently scheduled for launch in february 2011 and will voyage to the international space station.

what's great about this contest, in my opinion, is that this contest ideally reaches an audience that science organizations like NASA should be making more of an effort to engage. of etsy's 5.9 million members, 96 percent are women, and most are under the age of 35.

no matter who you are**, submit your creative entries by november 2nd, 2010 (and post them here to so we can all see your work!).

i'm finding myself attracted to the wearable art, like the orbital earrings below, but there are many cool entries so far.

** the contest is open to legal US residents only.

floating in the stars

via this isnt happiness

Friday, October 15, 2010

on an extinct volcano

aloha from the top of hawai'i!

i'm sitting at the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) and will be here for the next 5 nights. my last visit was about a year ago and i posted a few descriptions that you can read for more pictures and stories: scenes from mauna kea and twinkle twinkle little star (about adaptive optics).

the peak of mauna kea is at 14000 ft, which is really really high (about 3 times higher than the tallest peak in the UK). the potential effects of such a high altitude on the human body have forced this observatory to limit the amount of time that people are allowed to stay at the summit to 14 hours. which is fine with me - 14 hours is a long work day/night, especially at high altitude!

during observing runs on mauna kea, astronomers sleep at hale pohaku which is at 9000 ft. i spent one night there in order to acclimate to altitude, before coming up to the summit the next night. the photo below shows the buildings where we stay, the visitor center, and some cinder cones from the extinct volcano.

tonight is my first night on the summit, and i just reread the safety material they gave me which describes some of the minor symptoms of high altitude: headaches, drowsiness, nausea, loss of balance, altered mental state, and impaired reason.

i had a headache earlier, but it's gone now. the bathroom is down a flight of stairs and i have to remember to walk back up to the control room veeeerrrrrryyy ssslloooooooowly, or else i get light-headed and dizzy. the altered mental state and impaired reason is annoying when i cannot remember the right word for something, but slightly amusing when i mix my words up into some humorous mutation of what i actually mean to say.

the clouds are coming and going pretty rapidly tonight. we start an observation series and by the end the weather is too bad to result in useful data. i cant even go outside to enjoy the night sky because its hazy and too fuzzy. so for tonight, and the next five nights, this is my station:

the three screens on the right allow me to choose targets and control the observations. the middle three allow me to monitor the weather and quality of the data collected. the four screens on the left display the data after preliminary processing so i know whether things are running smoothly.

time for my night lunch...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

sixty symbols: star classification

our sun is classified as a "G2V" star, but what does that mean? here's a new sixty symbols video to explain how we classify stars.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

the gift of art

soon after i arrived in ohio last week, my older sister told me she was excited about giving me a surprise that was brewing. i was intrigued, but didn't dwell on figuring out the mystery, because i like the anticipation before such an event! but seriously, i had NO idea what was coming!

my first night in town, we went to see a band and at the show she excitedly introduced me to her friend, pierre, saying "he reads your blog!" for the next week, i ran into pierre and his tiny dog all over town, which seemed strange because i had never met him over the many many many stays i've had in yellow springs.

on my final day in town, she seemed eager for us to walk to the coffee shop, which made me happy because i was very much in the mood for a tasty coffee treat. while i watched my niece and nephew run around like crazy people, in walked pierre carrying a painting. he handed it directly to me with a grin on his face and i was stunned.

my sister had commissioned this well-known local artist, pierre nagley, to paint something for me and this is what he created!

she talked over some ideas with him, but gave him creative freedom in the end. even though he and i had never met, he created this beautiful piece of art - and i couldn't be more pleased!!

the colors are fantastic and the details of the storm bands in jupiter's atmosphere are incredible. there are a few galilean moons floating around and in front of jupiter, including a close up view of callisto. when he saw that i enjoy seeing comets in the night sky, he included the dark features near the bottom of jupiter, which represent the temporary features created by the impact of comet shoemaker-levy 9 in 1994.

if you want to hear more, i actually described a lot of these features in the sixty symbols videos on jupiter and mysterious new spots on jupiter and venus.

here is pierre and my fabulous sister :)

so a big huge THANK YOU to lara and pierre!!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

circle puzzle

here's a clever little puzzle for everyone to ponder. without measuring and using only the information on the image, can you figure out the radius of the circle?

please dont give away the solution in the comments, but feel free to share how long it took you or other puzzles you have enjoyed!

via The Marcos Kirsch Experience®

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

nobel prize in physics 2010: playing with tape!

this year's nobel prize in physics has been awarded to two scientists based in the UK: andre geim and 36 year old konstantin novoselov "for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene."

of course, brady was prepared for the announcement this morning, and put together a nice sixty symbols video explaining the science behind this year's award.

i like that such a simple idea, that was essentially "let's stick tape to pencil lead and see how thin a layer we can pull off," turned out to be an incredibly successful experiment! interestingly, the two winners have been known throughout their careers as being quirky and creative scientists. geim is no stranger to winning prizes, as he also won an Ig Nobel award in 2000 for levitating a frog with magnets. amazing!

cheers fellas, for proving that creativity and fun should be applied to all aspects of life, including science!

Monday, October 4, 2010

ohio in the fall

i have begun a serious round of travel.

i'm currently in ohio, usa, in the city where i grew up. no matter how long i've been away or from how far away i come for a visit, i feel instantly comfortable and at ease in this house where i grew up. yesterday, i saw loads of family and old friends at my little sister's college graduation party. it was very fun, exhausting, and completely energizing to see so many familiar and supportive faces. everyone giggles at every word i say with any hint of a british accent, but it sounds to me like my midwestern drawl is back full force since i've been here nearly a week! in the flurry of continuous conversation, i managed not to take a single photo during the party :(

here are a few shots i've captured showing hints of the beautiful fall colors that so gracefully cover this part of the world each autumn.

this is my gorgeous niece's "birthday whippy!"

Saturday, October 2, 2010

white chocolate pumpkin cookies

today is the 3rd birthday of this little miss. her big brother and i made some white chocolate pumpkin cookies to celebrate. she approved :)

in fact, the cookies have been such a success that i thought i'd share a recipe.

apologies to the brits who weigh flour and such with kitchen scales, but most people (that i know) in the US do not own them, so i couldnt measure the gravitational pull of the earth's mass on the individual ingredients.

white chocolate pumpkin cookies

8 oz fresh pumpkin (~2 cups)
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/4 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
1 cup self-rising flour
3 1/2 ounces white chocolate chunks

yields ~25 cookies

preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).

scoop out the seeds** of the pumpkin. cut away the skin and grate the flesh.

beat together the butter and sugar until creamy (i used the back of a spoon). add the grated pumpkin, then the egg, oatmeal, flour, and chocolate chunks.

grease cookie sheets. place spoonfuls of batter on the baking sheets and flatten them with a spoon. bake for 20-25 minutes until golden and no longer shiny. leave cookies on baking sheets for 2 minutes then move to wire rack to cool.

eat while they're warm and enjoy... then eat more after they cool!

** separate goop from seeds, dry seeds, and roast the seeds!