Thursday, May 30, 2013

vivid sydney

for the last 5 years, sydney has been lighting itself up for a festival it calls vivid sydney.  conveniently, the light show starts right around my birthday each year and lasts for two weeks :)

the main highlight of the extravaganza is the incredibly detailed light show projected on the side of the iconic opera house.  this year's show that plays over and over each night is called "play."

but the projected animations are not limited to just the opera house.  major buildings lining the harbour front are lit up with changing colours.

there are detailed light shows on several buildings in the city.  my favourite is on the face of the museum of contemporary arts.

this video highlights these shows and some of the other interactive installations found around sydney right now.

also, for the first time this year, they light up the harbour bridge as well.

it was nice to sit in the park outside my flat and watch the sun go down as the lights turn on :)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


i saw this painting by sydney long (1899) at the art gallery of new south wales over the weekend.   i like the color and moodiness and looming full moon halo.  

thinking back on it today, i was reminded of this piece that i saw not too long ago.

and ultimately, this moon kiss graphic.

Monday, May 27, 2013

lunar eclipse on the horizon

love this photo.

UPDATE:  this image is probably not an actual true-to-reality photograph, but i still like the feel of the image created.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Thursday, May 23, 2013

the planet hunters

i caught myself staring at this image of the 2009 total solar eclipse that was skillfully put together by miloslav druckmuller and crew.

to create the image, they stacked 38 individual images together and captured the fine structure of the sun's white corona, a far-reaching layer of the sun that we rarely get the chance to study because it is hugely out-shined by the blinding photosphere - except during a total eclipse. 

it amazes me just how far out the corona reaches - at least three times the width of the sun away.  and its light flickers and changes as super-heated hydrogen bubbles up through the layers of the sun to be released into space, if it escapes the traps of the rolling magnetic fields.

there exists an interesting mystery about our sun's corona.   while the regular surface of the sun, the bright yellow bit hidden by the moon in the image above, has a temperature of about 6000 degrees celsius, the corona reaches a temperature of over one million!  no one really knows how this happens, although "magnetic braids" might give a clue.

we can see evidence of the sun's strong magnetic activity all the time. using specially-designed telescopes, we see solar flares, prominences and other activity happening closer to the sun's surface. 

to gain a feel for the size of our star - you can fit one hundred earths across the middle of the sun.

this last photo is a still from the movie of the "tree of avatar" solar flare - well worth a watch.

the surface of the sun appears alive with activity.  every normal star out there in the universe also experiences these surface bursts and flares, but we cannot study them in as much detail because the stars are so far away.   

this realization makes me appreciate the work of the planets hunters, both professional and citizen scientists, even more.   not only do they have to measure a miniscule dip in the light from the star because a planet passes in front of it and blocks it, but they have to try to be sure that the light dip isnt caused by normal stellar surface activity, nearly impossible to resolve at such large distances.  

despite the recent end of the kepler space telescope's lifespan collecting data of potential planets around distant stars, there is much astronomers have yet to learn from the telescope's plentiful archive.  

as of today, we have found between 719 and 889 exoplanets.   i'm sure more and more will be revealed as the kepler data is explored.  exciting times!

Monday, May 20, 2013

care for a cuppa?

this is an amazing skill that i would practice it i had an appropriate pot!

Friday, May 17, 2013

pockets of the internets

i dont do this very often, but i've been building up a collection of cool links which dont necessarily warrant entire entries on their own.   so, check out these fun corners of the internet if you have some time to enjoy:

- if you want to know what it's really like to live in australia, check out 26 daily occurrences in australia.  all totally true.  

kangaroo chillin at a pristine beach
- for a fantastic digital representation of time, please visit here is time.  very well done site.

- i havent actually read any of these, but the NY Times recommends these science books.  i've wanted to read quiet by susan cain and the power of habit by charles duhigg for a while.   let me know what you think of any you have read.

- my birthday is on may 26th, in case you needed an idea.   i also really like hand-written notes and postcards!  (thanks, ST ;)

- we all could learn a lesson from this couple on how to let loose and have fun!  also, i chose the second song last weekend for a (too late) evening of karaoke with friends!

- if you've ever wondered why the sky is blue (spoiler: it's not because it reflects the ocean), listen to our titanium physicists podcast on this question and also, what skies on other planets might look like!

- i was wondering why so many people were finding this blog by searching for "space whale."   i think i finally found the answer, but i can't believe it. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

ring of fire timelapse

this wonderful timelaspe of last week's annular eclipse over australia presents a rare sight.   what an opportunity to catch an eclipse at the horizon and capture all the funky atmospheric effects of such an occurrence! 

the smushed sun (and moon) occurs because the light passing through so much of earth's atmosphere gets bent upwards.

Ring of Fire - May 10 2013 Annular Solar Eclipse, Pilbara, Western Australia from Colin Legg on Vimeo.

the video is created from images taken by geoff sims and colin legg.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

expedition 35 crew returns from the ISS

three men who have been on the international space station for the last several months, including commander chris "space oddity" hadfield, arrived safely back on earth's surface today via the russian soyuz capsule. 

it's a great vision to watch so many nations work together, people as humans, to make such a reality possible.

Monday, May 13, 2013

space oddity

sadly, commander chris hadfield is leaving the international space station (ISS) and wont be sending down his regular awe-inspiring images for us to enjoy.  see some of his previous posts: space nacho, nuts in space, space rock damage, or towel-wringing in zero-g.

but the guy sure knows how to go out with style.  he made this video, a space station cover of david bowie's space oddity, and i think it's pretty much the most awesome thing in the universe right now:

Sunday, May 12, 2013

mars and its robots

planetary astronomer and clever data visualisation enthusiast, alex parker, posted this cute little cartoon of mars on twitter this week with the caption "mars isnt much of a 'sharer'."

it's true, there arent any responsive rovers roaming around other planets or moons, but that doesnt mean mars cant have fun with its robots ;)

Friday, May 10, 2013

annular solar eclipse - on the news!

there was an annular solar eclipse this morning, visible along a thin strip in northern australia.  luckily, most of australia could see the sun partially blocked by the moon, and i went on live TV to talk about the event to ABC reporters!

live on the news, talking about the solar eclipse!  (photo credit: henry lee)
big thanks to henry lee for putting together the above image, which includes a screen shot of the ABC news program and a pinhole camera shot of the partial eclipse in progress.   

after my news spot, i rushed outside with my eclipse glasses to see the event for myself.  here's a shot of the maximum partial eclipse that we could see in sydney. you can see a dark sunspot near the top of the sun!

Credit: Anthony Horton
last night i made a simple pinhole camera to play with today, by poking holes in a postcard.  if on any day you poke a small hole in a piece of paper and project sunlight through the hole onto a surface, you will see a small circular image of the sun.  normally the image of the sun will be circular (because of the shape of the sun, not because of the shape of the hole!), but during an eclipse, while the moon is eating away at some of the sun, the projected image looks like little pacmans.  do you see them? 

so far my favorite photo of the event comes from sydney astronomer and photographer geoff sims, who traveled out to western australia to capture the distorted, squishy sun as it rose just above the horizon, covered by the moon.  

Credit: Geoff Sims

and finally, a peaceful shot of the eclipse over the ocean.

Credit: Stuart Harrington
fun day so far!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

annular solar eclipse: 10 may 2013

this friday morning there will be an annular solar eclipse.   an annular eclipse occurs when the moon passes exactly in front of the sun and covers it up, but not completely.   there will still be a small fraction of the brightly glowing sun around the full new moon, preventing the sky from going that ghostly dark that it does during a total solar eclipse, unfortunately.  (see eclipse video here)

credit: forrest tanaka
the maximum eclipse will be visible across far north australia and out into the ocean, but all of australia and much of oceania will be able to see a partial solar eclipse.  don't forget to wear protective solar filter glasses when viewing!   or else build yourself a simple little device to view a projection of the event.

from sydney, the eclipse will be visible this friday morning from 7:50 - 10:15 am, reaching maximum coverage at 8:58 am.  enjoy!  

map from

UPDATE:  for sunrise shots of the eclipse tomorrow, follow #ase2013 on twitter or watch a live video feed from gerard lazarus here.

Monday, May 6, 2013

black hole paint

attach a long piece of metal to a drill, drip on paint, power on, and take photos super quick!!  gorgeous results...

 does the shape remind you of anything in the universe?

this project was created by fabien oefner.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

An Ode to He

He is everywhere, in the heavens and earth,
He makes the stars shine yet He cannot be seen.
He is noble, abundant, and fills the universe.
He can lift you into the sky and bring you gently down.
He can take many forms.
He can help heal, He can help kill.
He can help create, and He can help destroy.

Praise be unto He,
he he :) 
UPDATE: unfortunately, i didnt write this clever piece, it was sent to me by a friend.  not sure of the source. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

what does the ISS have in common with a 2.7m telescope in texas?

earlier this week, international space station (ISS) resident chris hadfield posted a photo of a hole in the solar array attached to the earth's orbiting domicile.  see it?

a small space rock shot through the solar array and created that hole.   it was lucky that the rock didnt go through the main compartments of the ISS. 

unexpectedly the photo reminded me of my phd days observing with the 2.7meter telescope in west texas at mcdonald observatory. this telescope is a beast - with a casing built by a company that also built submarines!

the primary mirror has an interesting, unexpected history, that also involves holes, but of a different origin.  in 1970, a new employee at the observatory in west texas was struggling to settle into the quiet life experienced by those living in the isolated region. 

one night, he entered the telescope dome, went to the well-known astronomer operating the telescope, pointed a gun at him and told him to bring the telescope down to the horizon.  

when the telescope is lowered all the way, you can walk right down along the metal telescope tube and stand next to the thick mirror.   this guy was unhappy about something that i dont understand, and it caused him to walk up to the telescope with the gun and shoot directly at the primary mirror at point-blank range.

much to his dismay, the powerful gun shots did not shatter the telescope's mirror!   the stories i've heard describe how he then picked up a mallet in his frustration and tried to hit the mirror repeatedly in order to damage it.  no luck. 

he was stopped quickly after that by the security on site at the observatory, but the damage to the telescope was done, and you can still see it today.

bullet holes in the 2.7m telescope at mcdonald observatory (credit: bill keel)
it turns out that the bullet holes did not cause very much damage to the thick fused silica, which is definitely stronger than your average glass mirror.   the engineers and astronomers at mcdonald observatory at the time did several tests and determined that the holes only blocked 1% of the total amount of light that bounces of the mirror into the rest of the light path.  

they sanded off the inside of the holes and painted them black in order to prevent light from bouncing around inside the system, and otherwise, nothing changed.

whenever anyone visited me at the observatory, my tour would include lowering the telescope and showing off the bullet holes, because they're just so crazy!   here i am on the top of the dome that contains the 2.7m telescope (i wasnt officially allowed to be up there so ssshhhhh, dont tell anyone...).

i should say something here about the ridiculous US policy on gun control.   i've tried to write posts about this issue a couple times now, once after the shooting of representative gabby giffords in arizona in 2011, then after the sandy hook elementary school shootings last year, and another after the boston marathon bombings last month.  but i havent been able to finish those posts, for various reasons. 

instead, i'll just link to the daily show's series about the issue, which highlights the fact that australia instituted effective gun control policy three months after a major massacre occurred about a decade ago, and the policy has been 100% successful. the number of both gun-related homicides and suicides had decreased dramatically.   the evidence is obvious.   US politicians must stop pandering to lobbyists.   when did policy become about getting voted in during the next election and not about the best results for the people in the country?   it's despicable

Thursday, May 2, 2013

saturn's hurricane

thanks to the cassini spacecraft, that is in orbit around saturn, we've known for a while that saturn's north pole features a massive storm in the shape of a hexagon, instead of earth's common circle-hurricane-storms.  check this out from november 2012:

saturn's north pole hexagon (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
now look at this infrared image taken by cassini late last year.  the red shows low clouds deep in the atmosphere, and green reveals high clouds floating above on the outskirts of the storm.  the depth of the image has a dizzying affect.... especially when you consider that the red storm covers an area of 2000 kilometers (1200 miles) across!

saturn's storm (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

if you have a telescope, or access to one, saturn is visible in the night sky right now.  it's always worth the effort to see it with your naked eye, enhanced by binoculars or a telescope, fluttering through our atmosphere.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

announcement: new job

big news: i've accepted a new job!

i'm thrilled to announce that i'll be staying in sydney for at least several more years, officially splitting my time as a research astronomer and the head of a new outreach office at the australian astronomical observatory (AAO)!

i'm very excited about the possibilities in this new role.  i look forward to continuing to investigate the unknown aspects of the universe that intrigue me most, while helping my colleagues translate their research for general audiences, and creating exciting events for us all to enjoy together.  there are scientists who don't enjoy talking to about their research to the public or students or politicians or the media, and that's ok, but i find myself completely energized by it. 

i've recognised over the last several years that my motivation and passion for astronomy is not just communicating research to seasoned scientists around the world.  i also want to inspire people to harness their inherent curiosity about the world around them by sharing the thrill of scientific discovery.  luckily, my super science fellowship and current employers at AAO have been incredibly supportive of this desire. 

the challenge i have faced in my recent search for the next satisfying stage in my career is that science communication is not a largely supported component of a scientist's professional responsibility.  the academic realm demands high publication rates in professional journals, the successful acquisition of (more and more) external funding, and maybe teaching or other departmental work.  positions are few and the competition is fierce.

researchers are expected to give back to their community through science communication, visiting schools, giving public talks, etc., and the US's national science foundation even requires an outreach component in grant applications, but these outreach activities are rarely acknowledged, measured or valued as more than an "added bonus" by potential employers. 

in order to commit to outreach activities on a large scale, a scientist often has to "drop out" of research roles, which i apprehensively suspected i might have to do this year.   there are desperately few positions available that officially combine research and outreach (there were exactly two world-wide that i found in astronomy in the last 6 months).  i see this as a shame.  aside from the experience, passion, and deep understanding of the science being communicated by an active researcher, lasting value comes from visibly encouraging researchers to interact more with the public.

in addition to having well-prepared teachers in classrooms to teach occasional astronomy lessons to students, a memorable experience meeting an active scientist, looking through a telescope or participating in a public event with family can have an incredible impact, as i hear over and over from people of all ages around the world.

a recent US sequester has pressured NASA to critically evaluate all public outreach and education programs.   as far as i understand, all NASA's outreach activities are currently suspended, but the extent of full cancellations are yet to be determined.  this is such bad news.   and this situation added an extra challenge for me this job round because i was originally hoping to move closer to my family in the US (to be fair, "closer" is anywhere that is not australia!).  lucky for me, i will be able to see my family regularly, and thankfully, i have their full support, but you can see how these career decisions only become more difficult with time, and the entire field suffers the consequences.

i'm proud to hold this new position because i think it has the potential to set a positive example for the professional astronomical community by demonstrating the added value of a position involving both public outreach and scientific research.  props to the AAO for creating such a position!

At the Stories from Siding Spring Observatory photo exhibition opening

astronomy provokes the potential of human imagination.   we can share beautiful astronomical images and science discovery stories to inspire people of all ages to harness their inherent curiosity about the cosmos and our place in it.  i will do my best to share this with as many people as possible. 

but sadly, my time as an official super scientist will come to an end later this year.  i feel like i've made the most of it though, sciencing with other supers and wearing my cape  whenever appropriate (or almost appropriate?).  i still have a ton of business cards so i might save them to give them out to anyone i might especially want to impress.  ;)

so, aside from the fact that i'm not actually going to be the science correspondent on the daily show, this is as close to a dream job as i can imagine getting.   thanks for your support, everyone!