Tuesday, October 30, 2012

milky way's neighborhood

here is a lovely map of the close vicinity of our milky way galaxy, recently published in nature.  

click on this link to get a full-size version of the image and explore all the components.

our galaxy is a flat disk, consisting of spiral arms with billions of stars, gas, dust and some other stellar remnants.  from the southern hemisphere, you can see the dwarf galaxies, the magellanic clouds, with your naked eye on a clear night.   eventually these galaxies will interact more strongly with the milky way and become part of it.  this is what is happening to the sagittarius dwarf galaxy as revealed by observations of the sagittarius star stream.

all of this lives inside a huge spherical halo of dark matter.

nice neighborhood!

Monday, October 29, 2012

bic pen for her

i wasnt too sure about this new product: bic pens for her.  while the reviews on amazon have been refreshingly helpful, ellen has put everything in perspective for me.  i mean, i've been using man pens all this time!?!  

here is ellen's take:

my favorite line:   just think, over the last twenty years, companies have spent millions of dollars making pills that grow men's hair and fix men's sex lives, and now ladies have... a pen.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

time traveling

i'm getting ready to time travel again!   aboard the worlds longest flight, i leave sydney, and 17 hours later, i arrive in dallas 1 hour before i left.  too bad this flight still uses a 747 aircraft and not the much-more-comfortable airbus A380. hopefully soon. 

anyway, i'm ohio bound and very excited to enjoy some holiday time with my family.  

also, it's been a long time since i've spent halloween in the US!  i get to trick-or-treat with my niece and nephew this year!   woo hoo!!   i cant wait.

galaxies in the thick of it grow up fast

my first science press release came out this week!   it has been an exciting and frightening experience.  i'll get to that, but first, the science! 

you can read the full AAO press release, here and there was also an official release from the fresh science event i attended last week.  

we looked at one of the most massive galaxy clusters as it was 11 billion years ago.   such clusters of galaxies are the largest structures in the Universe held together by gravity, and are some of the first systems that formed after the Big Bang.  here's an image of it:

Galaxy cluster XMMU J2235.3-2557
Credit: Piero Rosati (ESO) and Chris Lidman (AAO)
almost all the little smudges you see in this image are entire galaxies, each harbouring hundreds of billions of stars.

you can see lots of red galaxies clumped together at the center of the cluster.   we found that the galaxies in the center of the cluster are all very massive and no longer forming stars.   they have reached "maturity."   but the galaxies outside that central region are still growing and forming new stars.  we are continuing to study what sort of physical processes within the cluster environment affect these galaxies.

do the galaxies in the center stop forming stars because the they live in a sea of hot gas that exists throughout the cluster, between the galaxies?   has all their gas been completely stripped away so that there is actually no fuel from which to form new stars?  or do they have internal supplies of gas that cannot cool, condense, and form new stars?  more to come....!

the interesting/frightening part of this whole press release business is that the material inside the news articles that have been posted in some australian print media, does not really focus on my actual research project much at all!  i wrote last week about my experiences with the media training i received as part of the "fresh science" program. it was very good training overall, but i still was not prepared enough, apparently.  

the articles that came out in the papers have had titles like "Our galaxy is going to crash. Everybody panic ... in a billion years, or two" and the not-quite-so threatening "Billions of years until galaxy collides." 

the thing that i failed to get across during my interview with the guy from the australian associated press was that my research actually looks at the processes that *stop* star formation, not potential causes of new star formation, like interactions between galaxies.  he got very excited about the interaction between the milky way and andromeda, even though i tried to emphasize, not strongly enough i see now, that my research focuses mostly on the very distant galaxies.  

so while i'm excited about having a press release and proud of the research i've done, i'm honestly a bit embarrassed by the resulting media stories, because they are so far off of what my actual research is.   luckily, this misinterpretation doesnt really matter in terms of our daily lives, as i dont work in the medical field or with major industry businesses, who might make the inaccuracy much more seriously.  as the journo quoted me "the sun is more of a worry than the galaxy collision."   sheesh. 

so... lesson learned - the hard way, despite all that training i went through!!

this research was published as:

Bauer, A. E.; Grützbauch, R.; Jørgensen, I,  Varela, J.; Begmann, M., 2011, "Star formation in the XMMU J2235.3-2557 galaxy cluster at z= 1.39," MNRAS, 411, 2009.

Grützbauch, Ruth; Bauer, Amanda E.; Jørgensen, Inger; Varela, Jesus, 2012, "Suppression of star formation in the central 200 kpc of a z= 1.4 galaxy cluster," MNRAS, 423, 3652.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

moving a grounded space shuttle

NASA's space shuttles have retired to nice homes in museums around the country.  last month, the shuttle endeavour landed at LAX airport and was then maneuvered on trollies along city roads to its final resting place 15 miles away at the california science center

this timelapse video captures the comedy and cuteness of the whole process!

Friday, October 19, 2012


i find this take on a photo of frida kahlo and one of her many self-portraits to be riveting.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

fresh science in the pub: galaxy limerick

the final event of the first day of the fresh science national competition was a science in the pub event.  each of us "freshies" had to stand in front of the audience and describe our research in the time it takes for a sparkler to burn - about one minute.   the surprise twist was that we couldnt use any of the words in the title of our project.  this was especially tricky for me because i couldnt use the word "galaxy!"   it was tough.   great challenge!

the other surprise part of the event was the poetic challenge.   we each had to come up with a haiku or limerick about our research, with some help from audience members sitting at our table.   i wrote a limerick (as opposed to writing and singing a song) that i thought i'd share here.  technical details aside, i think it's pretty fun :)

The universe was once made of gas.
Stars formed due to gravity and mass.
Galaxies are collections of these suns,
I found 50 new ones! 
but there are billions, as the universe is unfathomably vast.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

fresh science national final

i made it to the national finals for an australian competition called fresh science, which are taking place this week in melbourne!

the fresh science program selects one dozen early career researchers from all branches of science, gives us loads of science communication training and feedback, throws us in front audiences from students to politicians to journalists, and works with us to prepare official press releases during the finals week (look out for mine this thursday!).

some highlights from information obtained today:

newspapers make money from ads and always have.   ads they sell on websites generate a lot less money than in the printed paper, yet less papers are sold.   as a result, the online stories that get click-thrus are the ones that get promoted by producers, ie. stories with good photos and headlines.   so if you want more interesting news and less bullshit kardashian-type stories, stop clicking on the bullshit stories online (please).

regarding presentations:  

memorize opening and closing lines - they make the most impact.  actually, super-practice the intro to give yourself a confident start.

it doesnt matter the length of your presentation, the audience will only take away 3 pieces of info. so choose those wisely and focus on arguing/telling the story of those 3.

we speak at an average rate of 150-180 words per minute, but think at around 700 words/minute.

top tips for regaining audience attention, which will inevitably drift: change your focus every few minutes - vary the tone of your voice, use audience participation, pause, use the power point "B" key to provide a blank screen and bring attention back to you.

AMAZINGLY, only 12% of any audience is paying attention to you at any given moment.   20% is indulging in sexual fantasies, 20% is reminiscing, and the rest is worrying, daydreaming, thinking, etc... 

Friday, October 12, 2012

julia gillard steps up

this week i attended the annual "women in astronomy" workshop, held this year in melbourne, australia.   interestingly, the day before the workshop began, aussie prime minister, julia gillard, stood in front of the members of parliament on national tv and slammed the opposition leader, tony abbott, for his blatant sexism, misogyny, and hypocrisy on these matters over the years.   the video is well worth a watch:

it's too bad the conservative australian press has not been supporting gillard's statements as much as the international media has. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

be yourself

"be yourself.   everyone else is already taken."

- oscar wilde

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

if you meet an alien

this is sort of a public service announcement, filled with genuinely good and often humorous information about what you should do if you happen to be the human to ever make alien contact!

click to make bigger...

link: first alien contact

Saturday, October 6, 2012

science in the pub

last night i participated in a "science in the pub" event in coonabarabran near siding spring observatory.  the event brings together a couple scientists to debate and discuss a particular topic, answer questions from the crowd, and just generally have an entertaining time!

myself and fred watson

our topic last night was "the end of the world is night.  or is it?"  we spent some time debunking all the current doomsday nonsense (not much of a debate as the three astronomers all agreed on this topic) and then we talked about fun and exciting real potential fates of our little planet earth.  these are much more interesting, i think.   

a standing tradition at this event is for the astronomers to further entertain the crowd by reciting a poem or singing a song.  i decided to use the occasion as an excuse to finish a new astronomy song i've wanted to write for a while now!  luckily (you decide),  allison, from astropodcast, was in the crowd and recorded the performance.  back up guitar is provided by the endlessly talented fred watson.

with fred watson and brad schaefer

hopefully i can provide a better version of the song in the future (this is only the second time i've ever played it to people!), but in the meantime,  here is my updated version of twinkle, twinkle little star :)

at least it was the right audience for the song!

thanks to Pete Poulos from iTelescope for providing the photos! 

UPDATE:  link for the lyrics -  twinkle, twinkle little star: the modern version.

Friday, October 5, 2012

she walks in beauty

i've really enjoyed the graphic novels i've read recently.  and i like the idea of translating classic works of literature into contemporary graphic design.   the graphic canon volumes do just that! 

here is a sample - lord byron's 'She Walks in Beauty,' adapted by David Lasky.

spotted at brain pickings.  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

why is the night sky dark?

ever wonder why the night sky is dark?    if the universe is infinite, shouldnt there eventually be a star shining in any direction we look?  this concept is known as olber's paradox, and the solution is wonderfully explained in this video from minute physics.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

halo around the milky way galaxy

all the light in the universe that our eyes can see comes from stars.

but stars are only one constituent of our milky way galaxy, which also has gas and dust and a lot of other stuff that i've described before. we use wavelengths of light that our eyes are not sensitive to (X-rays, infrared, radio, etc...) in order to detect some of this other stuff. 

it's much more challenging to detect stuff in the universe that doesnt produce light that we know how to see.  for instance, dark matter makes up 25% of all the stuff in the universe, but we dont know exactly what it is yet because we dont know how to "see" it (although we can infer its presence in other ways).

all the "normal" stuff in the universe (planets, stars, gas, trees, humans, etc...) is made of what we call baryons, and it only makes up about 4% of all the stuff in the universe.    the problem is that we havent actually found all the baryons that our otherwise very successful theories tell us there should be.  this has been referred to as the "missing baryon problem" and has been studied for a while.

recent results released by NASA using the chandra x-ray telescope suggest that new observations may help solve this mystery, by detecting a hot halo of gas that surrounds our milky way galaxy. 

above is an artist's illustration of the results (since we cant yet fly away to get an outside perspective of our cosmic home, unfortunately).   the blue color shows a very diffuse, and therefore very difficult to detect, cloud of hot gas surrounding our milky way galaxy and our nearest neighboring galaxies, the small and large magellanic clouds.

if all galaxies are embedded in such diffuse clouds, this could account for much of the previously missing baryons.  the results will have to be verified with some other technique before they are completely believable, but this is a nice start!

Monday, October 1, 2012

the world will not end in 2012

i'm still astounded by how many people ask me about the (completely made up) doomsday claimed to take place on 21st december this year.   what especially disturbs me is the level of fear i've witnessed in some young school children who have adults in their lives spreading their own unfounded fear of this nonsense. 

this whole thing is a hoax.

please, believe me - there is NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE for any of the potential "killers" that have been proposed - nibiru ("planet X"), end of the mayan calendar, special planetary alignment, unusual magnetic pole shift, etc...

here's a nice video from david morrison summarizing the reasons why you have NO NEED TO WORRY.