Saturday, December 31, 2011

fireworks and goals

in honor of earth's celebration of a new calendar year, here is a galaxy image that i think looks like a big firework! NGC 1275:

and here was the massive fireworks display over sydney harbour. i love how the aerial views show the entire stretch of explosions. amazing!

hope everyone enjoys a happy and safe end to 2011!! i feel pleased as i reflect on the past year. a short summary of my twelve months of 2011:

22 talks given, 21 nights observing, 12 countries visited (depending on how you count what belongs to china), 11 papers published (2 as first author), 6 songs completed, 3 sizes lost, student loans paid off, and a flower on my frangipani tree!

what goals do you have for the next year?

i want to be able to do a pull up from a still hanging position. i want to publish 2 first-author scientific papers. i would like to finish writing a particular song that i've been working on for most of the last year. i want to write down a more coherent collection of travel stories. i want to get my heels down in the downward dog yoga pose. i want to hand-write more letters. i want to bake more bread.

here's to a successful new year, y'all! cheers!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

car color wheel

this colorful installation was created from 2,500 old toy cars by artist david t. waller.

more photos here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Monday, December 26, 2011

pure christmas morning joy

the excitement of a good book, christmas morning hair, swimming in a sea of wrapping, PJs, family :)

x-ray christmas tree

when i was a kid, i didn't often make too big of an effort to search for all my christmas presents before the big day. but one year my little sister and i searched with intensity all over every inch of my parents room. we looked in the closet, behind clothes, in drawers, and then, under the bed, we found it: a nintendo entertainment system! we were so excited that we cheered to each other and did our silly dances of joy because we were moving from the old joy stick atari system into the future!

the only problem was that i am horrible at keeping a straight, un-blushed face when trying to hide a truth. to this day, i am a horrible liar. i tried with all my might to look surprised on christmas morning when we opened an NES game and then the actual system, but i'm sure my faked look of surprise gave away the secret of our sneaky, successful searching. i actually felt bad that morning because my parents didnt get to see our original thrill and happiness.

i never searched early for my presents after that year.

on the other hand, nick veasey has figured out a clever way to use his x-ray imaging skills to discover some presents under the tree:

merry christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

transiting santa

inspired by his previous contribution to "dirty space news: transiting planets" and the present holiday season, joe created a deliciously geeky festive video...!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


i have successfully arrived in ohio for a bit of concentrated christmas a week before the big day. the US knows how to take this holiday season to the next level, even without the benefit of snow just yet!

i saw a dozen decorated trees at the airport, heard christmas songs on the radio and in stores (a blues tune called "santa claus want some lovin" was a highlight), drank a seasonal drink at one of the buhzillion starbucks on every possible corner (the eggnog latte is not as good as is might sound), played with tiny people until i couldnt take their cuteness any longer,

tried endless tins of shared homemade christmas cookies, and witnessed people wearing, without the fainest hint of remorse, gaudy christmas-themed clothing (i admit i used to make my own christmas sweatshirts and wear them with pride. despite years of hindsight-embarrassment, i now completely appreciate holiday themed clothes that go beyond the cliche santa.  i enjoy their total over-the-topness!).

but still...

calvin and hobbes
seriously, ohio.  rain?  

the temperature might cool enough later in the week for a bit of snowfall.   hope, hope...

Friday, December 16, 2011

testing new technology

i've been out at siding spring observatory for a few nights in order to help with the commissioning of a new instrument on the anglo-australian telescope (AAT).

tonight's weather was not looking so good from the start. here are the warrumbungles being rained on.

and lightning over the skymapper telescope:

Photo Credit:  Andy Green

despite the weather, we've had no shortage of activities to keep us occupied!

on to the AAT we are adding a new instrument, the Sydney-AAO Multi-object Integral Field Unit (SAMI), that lives in that black tube at prime focus.

in slightly technical terms, SAMI is a multi-object integral field spectrograph with hexabundle optical fibre feeds! i'll explain that a bit more later, but first, here are a few shots of SAMI in the tube:

as you can imagine, it's a bit challenging to do mechanical things in such a small space (especially at 3 am in the dark when it's necessary!). here they are fixing the hexabundles to the metal plug plate with magnets. the next version of SAMI might employ a small robot to plug the plates.

inside each of those hexabundles are about 60 optical fibers. each hexabundle is placed over a single galaxy so light from the different regions of the galaxy can be investigated independently. currently, there are 13 bundles, so 13 galaxies can be looked at during each pointing of the telescope.

once the light is collected, the optical fibers direct the light through a long path down two stories, to a room where the AAOmega spectrograph lives.

the amount of stuff that can go wrong when testing new technology is amazing. sometimes things go more smoothly than you ever imagined, and other times, the simplest things dont work, and it takes many people a lot of thinking and discussing to get to the bottom of a problem and figure out how to fix it on the fly. notice the duct/gaffer tape!

at one point, we had to point at a very bright jupiter to make sure our telescope pointing and focus were as we thought they were!

the whole process is frustrating, exhilarating, and exhausting all at the same time.

now to show you a bit of data. here is a single galaxy that SAMI collected data on during the first commissioning run several months ago.

the galaxy image on the left comes from a survey using the UK Schmidt Telescope. the red circle shows the area of the galaxy covered by the hexabundle (15 arcsec) and the colored circles on the right show information from the spatially-resolved optical fiber spectra. the colors indicate how the gas in each of those regions of the galaxy moves: blue is towards us and red is away. the gas in the galaxy is spinning around, revealing very nice disk structure in this system!

these early results and instrument design are described in a paper that has been accepted for publication and is now out on the arXiv: here!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sunday, December 11, 2011

silver bells: christmas in summer

i finally played my first christmas album of the season yesterday. it was nice to listen to, but it felt odd, not only because the sun was shining and the air was warm, but because i was making spicy salsa for a new dish: mexican sushi.

the song silver bells affected me more than any other. the lyrics of the song remind me sooooo so much of the holiday season i experience in my hometown in middle america, which is essentially the idealized version you see in all those old movies.

my huge family manages to take christmas to an even higher level of kitschy wholesomeness by singing carols together on christmas day, culminating in a cousin ho-ho-ho-ing into the room dressed as santa just as the von bauers end with a round of jingle bells! every year. (bourbon slushies recommended)

but i have to admit that i love it all, and as much as i rolled my eyes at the whole affair at different stages of my childhood (and adulthood), i truly feel the ultimate intimacy of home as the cold weather sets in to welcome these traditions.

listening to silver bells, which absolutely encompasses this mid-western holiday sentiment, made me realize just how absent this atmosphere is in sydney during the build up to christmas. i mean, yes, it's summertime, and people go to the beach regularly, and the sun shines warmly down on our skin, but i think its more than just the weather...

i'll quote some lyrics from the song to explain:

City sidewalk, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style.
In the air there's
A feeling of Christmas.

nope. in the air there's a feeling of SUMMERTIME! i have to admit, i do like that feeling, especially considering i'm about to spend six cold winter weeks in the US.

and when i notice wreathes and other holiday adornments around sydney (or melbourne where i was last week), they seem completely out of place and awkward. people know christmas is coming, but there is not really a feeling of anticipation. there is no snow falling or:

Children laughing, people passing,
Meeting smile after smile,
And on every street corner you'll hear:

Silver bells, silver bells,
It's Christmas time in the city.
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring,
Soon it will be Christmas day.

i actually havent seen a single santa standing outside a store, clanging his "silver bells" and asking for donations. and when i do see santas dressed up in their red suits and hats, i think to myself "that is one of the worst jobs in the world: sweaty santa in hot summer sydney."

City street lights,
Even stop lights,
Blink a bright red and green,
As the shoppers rush home
With their treasures.

i have seen exactly two houses with holiday lights, although i live close to the city and not in a suburb, so maybe that's the reason.   and maybe its because i havent really been into any stores to shop for presents this year, but i dont hear friends talking about shopping or tree-decorating, or see evidence of the stress that seems to surround some people in their bustle to "prepare" for the big days.

Hear the snow crunch,
See the kids bunch,
This is Santa's big scene,
And above all this bustle you'll hear...

seeing snow flutter to the ground; feeling that crunch of snow underfoot; getting all bundled up in sweaters and warm hats: these things act as catalysts for holiday anticipation. i know people here who have never seen snow.

ok, so maybe it does have a lot to do with the weather, and the fact that holiday "traditions" here are just simply much different than what i grew up with. although i definitely felt the winter holiday excitement when i lived in germany from august to december one year and experienced all their christmas markets and gluhwein.

Randall Munroe, the creator of the xkcd comics, produced a very interesting commentary this week stating that "every year, american culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the christmases of baby boomers' childhoods." it's pretty true now that i think about it, but in all honesty, it's also my childhood. the traditions might be relatively young, but i will always embrace them because they are mine, regardless of who instigated them.

the down side is that modern american consumer culture clings onto anything that might be a commercial success, and manages to suck every bit of genuine enjoyment out of it. as much as i love the holiday anticipation, when it starts all over US towns in early november, it becomes overwhelming and annoying very quickly.   will that ever change?  how can we change it?

luckily, this year i will go home one week before christmas, bake some cookies, experience concentrated christmas goodness until i reach a safe saturation, sing my heart out to some carols with my family, and then happily let the season pass.

i'm so looking forward to going home for a visit!! :)

ps. it better snow when i'm in ohio!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

total lunar eclipse - december 2011

there is a total lunar eclipse this saturday, december 10th, 2011!

as opposed to last year's total lunar eclipse which was only visible to me in australia as the red moon rose above the horizon (i watched from sydney's harbour bridge), this event will be fully visible from australia and asia!

parts of the lunar eclipse will be visible in the early morning from northwest north america and as the moon rises (evening) in some of europe.

happy viewing!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

timescapes preview

i'm ceaselessly impressed by tom lowe's visionary work. here's his newest timelapse, a preview of his feature film:

the sith that stole christmas

what happens when you combine star wars with one of my holiday favorites, dr seuss' how the grinch stole christmas? a well done little spoof called the sith who stole christmas ;)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

modern marriage

i think its just plain silly that a person cannot marry any person they want to, if they want to.    here are two videos that make good cases.  

the first is a 19 year old, very well-spoken zach wahls, who was raised with his sister by two moms. 

the second is a lovely short film with a powerful message.  it was filmed in sydney over the last month (see luna park's clown with its mo?) and shows off the city's beauty...


Thursday, December 1, 2011

spend time instead of money

very nice things to keep in mind this holiday season:

via julia blogs it like she sees it

some links:

etsy - "Buy directly from small creative businesses from all over the world. With over 11 million handmade and vintage items, there really is something unique for everyone."

kiva - "We are a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. "

UPDATE:  as pointed out in the comments, i advocate not creating debts, but then advertise Kiva ("loans that change lives").   i'll explain the reason for my seeming contradiction...  i learned of Kiva a couple years ago when my cousin donated money to it in my name for my birthday.  i got to go through the website and choose exactly whose project in the world my $25 went to support.   i chose to contribute to the $500 asked for by a cambodian woman who needed some equipment for her family farm.  after the $500 was raised, she repaid the debt to Kiva, who put my $25 back in my account and i got to choose someone else to support!   i have continued this pattern of choosing a person, getting repaid, and selecting again.  it has been interesting to learn what people around the world really need. 

thanks G4!  ;)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

christmas moon

despite the heat of the southern hemisphere, i'm starting to get in to the holiday mood thanks to this lovely photo by Joni Niemela.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

two astronomers walk into a bar...

i went to a favorite pub in sydney a few weeks ago with some non-astronomer friends, who started making fun of me immediately when i arrived, because i was wearing my star wars t-shirt. i defended myself, in vain.

when it was my round for drinks, i went up to the bar with one of these friends so we could decide what kind of beer we wanted. while in the queue, i thought maybe i recognized the silhouette of someone there. sure enough, despite the hundreds of bars in sydney, there were a few astronomers at the pub who happened to be attending a conference in sydney that week.

i walked up, tapped an astronomer friend on the shoulder, and when he turned around i happily pointed out that he was also wearing a star wars t-shirt :)

i'm not sure if that actually helped my case, but i felt somehow vindicated!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

math problem

i'd like to tell you that when i go out with physicists, this isnt a tough problem, but that would be a lie ;)

Monday, November 21, 2011

perth's pinnacles

i'm visiting the city of perth in western australia right now. i work on projects with a few different groups of astronomers here, so i decided to make an extended visit to progress those projects, give a talk, and explore a bit of western australia!

over the weekend we had a lovely BBQ at matilda bay, where you could see the city center in the distance.

we then set off the next day on a short road trip to visit the pinnacles desert area three hours north of perth.

it's unclear exactly how these rocks formed, but it happened after a series of events over a long, long period of time. it's also interesting that they occupy a relatively small area out in the desert of western australia.

we had a lot of photographic fun.

i forgot to bring my hat from sydney, so i purchased one at a shop on our way to the desert. the ribbon read "merry christmas!" this might be my holiday card this year :)

it was incredibly windy while we were out there and we were occasionally, painfully sandblasted! the benefit of the wind was the mystical atmosphere the sandstorms created.

some of the pinnacles reminded me of other things.

and if only i was a rock star, i'd have a nice photo to go with the CD, thanks to aaron's photography!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

southern skies and southern cross

a couple months ago, brady visited australia to shoot some footage for the periodic table of videos, a new project called deep sky videos and our old favorite, sixty symbols. in this new sixty symbols video, i get to explain all about my favorite celestial objects visible in the southern hemisphere!

one thing that this video reminds me is that i start talking really, really quickly when i get excited!

there is some extra footage available to watch if you want to know a bit more!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Perth beaches

not a bad way to spend a morning... especially where there is a BBQ to look forward to in the afternoon! :)

Friday, November 18, 2011

the sky over the anglo-australian telescope

an astronomy colleague of mine, Dr Ángel López-Sánchez, recently created a nice time-lapse film of images he collected while observing at the Siding Spring in Australia, where the Australian Astronomical Telescope sits.

he recorded some of the scenes while i was out observing with him, and i always worried that maybe the kangaroos would knock over his camera equipment as it sat clicking away throughout the long nights. apparently enough footage survived, because this video is great!

other scenes from siding spring:

tim tam slams
milky way over AAT
rainbow panorama
sunset over warrumbungle park
the invaders have landed
the UK-Schmidt telescope
determining redshifts
telescope domes and kangaroos

Thursday, November 17, 2011

stellar quilts

it's a wee bit out of my price range, but the pillars of creation quilt created by jimmy mcbride on etsy is incredible!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


is anyone else participating in this year's movember charity campaign?

the entrance of luna park on sydney's harbour is through the mouth of this slightly creepy old clown, who usually isnt sporting a mo.

my favorite times are when the clown on stilts comes out to floss the big clown's huge teeth :)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

lightning circles

i like the arrangement of these stormy night photos done by artist cassandra jones.

she has also created other shapes, but i like circles best.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

dirty space news: transiting planets

we havent had a good installment of dirty space news in a while, so i'm pleased to present a killer! the caveat is that this one was created on purpose, but that doesnt make it any less brilliant!

as of right now, there are 697 exoplanets known. of these, 185 have been detected by the transit method.

if a planet happens to pass in front of its star from our point of view, it blocks a tiny amount of light output from the star. sensitive telescopes can detect this dip and then we can attempt to model how big the planet must be! the kepler space telescope, for example, looks for such systems with transiting planets.

some observations of transits at different wavelengths do not exactly agree in their timing, so people have suggested that the planet might push a shock wave in front of it that distorts the geometry of whats blocking the star's light (ie. it's not just a circular planet, but could be a different shape due to the shock.).

in order to test this theory, an industrious student from the UK wrote some code to test out the hypothesis. before the code was used to model real data, this student made an inspired choice as to which geometric forms to use and thankfully, shared the results on youtube.

without further ado... (turn your volume up and click on the image below)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

just kids

during my train rides to and from work over the last week, i've been reading patti smith's memoir just kids.

she's a rock star poet. there are some incredibly memorable sentences throughout the book that have made me sit back and reflect - not about their meaning so much as the harmonious and clever way they are put together. this quote isnt from her book (that i've seen yet), but i saw it on the vast internets today:

i was lucky enough to see her perform during a book tour in england a couple years ago. i bought the book at the show after listening to her read a few passages, but i had to put it down the first time i tried reading it. she does a lot of name-dropping throughout, which is simultaneously fascinating and annoying, and a lot of the book focuses on her relationship with robert mapplethorpe. i couldnt take it at first.

but this time around i'm really enjoying her poetic phrases and i've been listening to more of her music as well. i love her passion and attitude.

here's a video of one of my favorite songs of hers, dancing barefoot. randomly, this is a version performed live with eddie vedder and johnny depp. it's a great version, aside from the person singing along during the choruses...

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sydney observatory

my plan for the evening ;)

maybe one day I'll think of a new title for a public talk, but I just like this one!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

a year in oz

we had a few people over this weekend to celebrate the fact that my flatmate and i both moved to sydney one year ago. time flies swiftly, and creeps along, simultaneously.

we had fun creating the spread, and a friend brought incredible flowers!

another friend brought yummy desserts and adorable meringue birds.

inspired by recent travels, i attempted to make a matcha and adzuki bean (green tea and sweet red bean) cake roll! it was my first attempt at the roll thing and i'm amazed it rolled up without any major cracks! overall i was pleased with how it turned out. the cake was a bit dry, but the flavours were nice and the colours were great!

i managed enough nerve to sing a few original songs for the very friendly audience. i should play in front of people more often. i can stand up and talk about science in front of an audience of hundreds without feeling as nervous as i felt playing live music in my own living room.

the sun treated us to a nice end to the lovely day.

it has been a good year here in sydney. took a while to get settled, but i feel at home now. it helps that the city is so ridiculously beautiful, i found a good person to live with, and our (mold-less) flat is a pleasant place to be :)

Friday, November 4, 2011

stealing candy from a baby

the challenge from jimmy kimmel was for parents to tell their kids that they ate all their halloween candy... and record the responses! the experiment sounded cruel and unusual to me so i very reluctantly watched the video, but the resulting footage is surprisingly funny!

at both halloween and easter, i had strategies laid out for how i would consume my candy, mixing the favorites with the okays in a very specific way so that i could trade with my sisters and enjoy the flavours, until all the candy was gone. this process would usually last for a week or so.

i totally would have cried if my parents (or anyone) had taken such sweet satisfaction away from me, but i think i never realized it until i watched these poor kids. there is a lot of anticipation and gratification surrounding the full candy acquisition and consumption experience!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


this pleasantly frustrating statistics question was recently seen on a chalkboard somewhere:

post your answer in the comments...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

deep sky videos

from the creator of sixty symbols, brady haran, comes a new video project and youtube channel called Deep Sky Videos, which is a collection of videos about objects in the night sky!

you'll see at least one familiar face in this preview ;)

on twitter: @DeepSkyVideos

Monday, October 31, 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

volcano shadow

this is one of the best sunrise mountain photographs i've seen in a long while. the image, captured by Nick Lippert, shows Mt. Rainier as the sun rises in the pacific northwest region of the US. gorgeous...

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Feynman Series - Beauty

the words of richard feynman narrate this insightful and beautiful video created by the sagan series.

i like listening to him because of the interesting flow of his thoughts: one observation creates a question which leads to another penetrating consideration, and so on.

also, i enjoy the nostalgia i feel from his voice because the way he speaks is similar to older generations of my family.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

miyajima: from one island to another

a true highlight of this epic trip around asia was a 26 hour stop on the japanese island of miyajima. when you take the ferry from hiroshima to the island, you are welcomed by an intriguing view of the itsukushima shrine.

a peak of the itsukushima shrine from the surrounding hills

part of the genius of this shrine is the beauty of how the design complements the tides completely. i arrived near low tide and could walk right out to this huge gate...

low tide at the gate, or torii, of the itsukushima shrine

a few hours later, the bottom of the structure is covered up with the rising water!

this is the major part of the itsukushima shrine and the high tide water rises right up to the platforms you walk along.

by sunset, the orange torii sits deeply in the water.

the torii at high tide

i love how the mountains in the background weave through the structure. this is ancient dynamic design, even though the structures dont actually move at all! gorgeous concept.

after this six week epic trip around asia, i'm now heading home to australia. one island to another.