Friday, February 29, 2008

worldwide telescope

i'm super excited about the upcoming worldwide telescope (!! apparently this interactive service will be better than google sky, starry night, or stellarium for allowing students and regular folks to pan thru space ad discover our real place in the universe with the eyes of nearly any telescope you choose! from my understanding, you will be able to download actual images from any astronomical archive data base that participates... like the prototype,

an announcement was made about the worldwide telescope at the TED conference, so i'll be looking for more news soon!

here's an abstract from a talk last year given by Jonathan Fay

The WorldWide Telescope (WWT) project is designed to be an extensible learning and exploration environment which integrates hyperlinked rich media narrative with a seamless multiple survey virtual sky to enable guided and unguided exploration of the universe. WWT is a collaboration between Next Media Research (Principal Researcher and group manager Curtis Wong, Principal Research Software Design Engineer Jonathan Fay and Jina Suh Research Intern), Alex Szalay at Johns Hopkins University, Alyssa Goodman at Harvard's Center for Astrophysics, and Frank Summers at Space Telescope Science Institute.

The vision for WWT began in 1993 Curtis' production of a CD-ROM called "John Dobson's Universe" which was never completed but featured a number of narrated tours within a virtual sky and included a talk that John Dobson recorded at Table Mountain in 1993. Curtis worked closely with Jim Gray and Alex Szalay in 2002 to develop the SkyServer Website to facilitate public access to the images and data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. SkyServer was always conceived of as the foundation towards building the World Wide Telescope. In early 2005 Curtis developed the collaborations with Harvard and STSCI and hired Jonathan Fay in late 2005 to utilize his experience in astronomical imaging and building interactive visualizations for TeraServer to architect and build the technology for WWT.

oscars of space (#43)

an oscar-themed carnval of space (#43) is up at the starts with a bang! blog.


best fortune cookie ever

found at... (heehee)...

norway sunset at midnight!

if youre a person who needs deep darkness to sleep, then take a sleeping eye mask if you visit norway!! photographer Thomas Laupstad captured some beautiful pictures of a norway sunset.... at midnight!!

northern norway seems not to be the best place to move if you enjoy stargazing ;)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

mercury and venus - together!

tomorrow morning about 45 minutes before sunrise, look to the east to see a very bright venus about 1.2 degrees below the usually-difficult-to-find planet mercury!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

50 years of space science

the US space studies board has put together an international public seminar series called "forging the future of space science: the next 50 years." this year marks the 50th anniversary of the international geophysical year which saw the launch of the first satellites: soviet union's sputnik, the US's explorer 1; the creation of NASA, and the beginning of the space science board! while reflecting on the last (first) 50 years of human space flight, this seminar series attempts to activate young minds to consider the possibilities for what the next 50 years of space science could bring!

austin, texas hosted one day of events last wednesday! the first event was an afternoon panel discussion.

while the current generation of UT graduate students and postdocs were encouraged to participate in the panel discussion, the panelists definitely represented the previous 50 years of space science! here are three of the distinguished old white men panelists:

(i couldnt stop giggling in my seat as i sat there watching some of them closing their eyes and bobbing their heads, so i took a picture :)

on the left is UT astronomy professor, president of the american astronomical society and consistent bearer of a rocking 'stache - j. craig wheeler. in the middle is former deputy administrator of NASA and current UT aerospace engineering professor - hans mark. on the right is nobel prize winning physicist and current UT physics professor - steven weinberg.

the panelists spoke briefly about how space technology has prominently affected their research over the years, but i was hoping to hear a bit more about their visions of the future of space science. weinberg didnt disappoint with his candid negativity towards manned space flight, specifically regarding the moon-mars initiative proposed by G. W. Bush in 2004!

i thought the best part of the discussion began when the audience joined in. i jumped up to say that i wanted to hear more benefits about the science resulting from manned space flight. i didn't initially support the moon-mars initiative because i did not trust the motives of the man who proposed it, but more importantly, i did not like the way NASA'a budget would have to transform itself to meet the demands of this new plan while not fundamentally increasing. the direct drawback to my particular science would be decreased funding for the james webb space telescope: the only planned successor to the hubble space telescope.

a couple graduate students from the aerospace engineering school pointed out that science would come from going to the moon and/or mars: properties of fluid dynamics, for example. it was also pointed out that while robots are useful technology, it takes the mars rovers 2 days to turn around and dig a shallow hole into a rock face, where it would only take a human a matter of minutes.

their major claim was that it is arrogant to discount manned space-flight as not scientifically useful just because one's own "science" might not be benefited. this is a point i take to heart as it is directly pertinent to my apparently selfish astronomer views!!

but i am not convinced that sending humans to deep space will teach us more than the effects of deep space on humans. let's send 100 robots to mars instead of a human, because ultimately, that would be cheaper. weinberg claimed that if we had built many hubble space telescopes to launch into space, in the event that things went awry, instead of sending astronauts on servicing missions to fix the telescope/instruments, we would have saved a lot of money for performing just as much science.

and let's not forget that exploring space is COOL!! exploration is an exhilarating experience for human beings and necessary to learn more about our local solar system and the universe beyond. focused questions pertaining to the existence of life, the origins of earth, etc... should be asked and answers should be sought!! but i dont think our best immediate move is to send humans. lets send lots of robots of increasing capability and when/if they find something excitingly unexplainable.... then lets send humans! weinberg makes the statement that exploration of space is a good, beneficial thing, but NASA shouldn't tout manned space flight as a misleadingly strict "scientific endeavor."

all this being said, if i was invited to be an astronaut, i would go up into space to experience weightlessness in a second - without hesitation!!! however, i think this statement supports independent spaceflight and not manned, NASA-funded missions.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Friday, February 22, 2008

lonestar: the national beer of texas

lonestar in a tall can was the first beer i drank when i moved to austin, just on principle. reading the national beer of texas on the label made me laugh out loud! i still laugh, 6 years later, whenever i see signs, beers, and banners with this declaration!

sunday sunny sunday.

a giant yard arrow?
swimming in winter?
a leaning door to nowhere?
hovering mice?


Thursday, February 21, 2008

degrasse tyson and dawkins

astrophysicist neil degrasse tyson bluntly tells richard dawkins what he thinks about dawkins's style of confronting the public... and dawkins responds in a way i didnt expect!

solar eclipse from the moon

tonight as we gaze up to see the moon passing thru our earth's shadow... think that if you were standing on the moon, you would see the earth passing right in front of the sun! a total solar eclipse by the earth!

lunar eclipse and saturn

the moon is quickly approaching earths shadow and will pass right thru it tonight! starting around 8 pm (CST from austin, tx), look up to see the moon slowly turning orange. the shadow starts at the lower left of the moon and creeps up as the moon moves into the shadow. by 9:30pm, we will be at totality, when the moon is completely dark reddish, but make a note if the colors are different.

the additionally cool thing about this eclipse, is that bright planet saturn will sit just to the lower left of the moon and the star regulus to the upper right (yeah, saturn and regulus are still close together!

if you have a pair of binoculars or access to a telescope, this would be a good night to look at the moon and saturn with its rings. if the weather here clears up (its not looking too hopeful), i'll be going to a public lecture about life in the universe and then heading to the old telescope on top of painter hall! clouds, clouds go away... come again some other day!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

te recuerdo amanda

victor jara.

read how i was first introduced to victor jara and his soul-soothing song, te recuerdo amanda.

colbert as an astrophysicist?

all i'm saying, monsieur colbert, is that i could be your personal astrophysicist! could it get any better? you wouldnt have to go to school for n (>10) years!

it's just what your show needs.... and as it happens, i'm currently looking for productive employment! in fact, i could be the astronomy correspondent for both the colbert report and the daily show! and i wouldnt be bogged down with the responsibility of running an entire planetarium, like neil degrasse tyson!

call me.


total lunar eclipse this wednesday

hope for clear skies this wednesday evening... especially if you live in the americas... and wake up early with clear-sky hopes if you're in western europe or western africa! people in these locations on earth will see the moon pass thru the earth's shadow, creating a total lunar eclipse!

if you're in austin, then enjoy the free public lecture at 7:30 and then head outside to view the eclipse!

we wont get another total lunar eclipse from the americas until night of december 20–21, 2010... so enjoy this one if the weather permits!

Monday, February 18, 2008

50 years of space science

the first 50 years of adventures in space have taught us many lessons about the universe, technology, and humanity. it's amazing to think that while we've been sending things far away from earth for 50 years now, we've only been sending things far away from earth for 50 years! the voyager spacecrafts recently celebrated their 30th year traveling to deep space! my personal favorite experiment involved sending the little rover robots to mars. offers a nice retrospective of our 50 years in space including many interesting multi-media features, anecdotes, and quizzes to test your knowledge!

UT will celebrate our accomplishments in space with an exciting event this week! wednesday night, february 20th at 7:30pm, UT is hosting a free public lecture by macarthur fellowship ("genius award") recipient, chris chyba, entitled...

"the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe"


conveniently, there's also a total lunar eclipse wednesday night, reaching totality just as the talk ends! i'll probably go to RLM or painter hall to check out the orange moon thru a telescope... everyone is of course invited!

Saturday, February 16, 2008


leonard cohen's song, hallelujah, has to be one of the most beautiful songs of all time... although strangely enough, not so much when he performs it! i love his deep voice, but other people have really brought this often-covered song to life.

here's a band from my hometown, over the rhine. her voice harbors such a deep passion and perfects the necessary emotion to perform this song. i also love the piano.

my all-time favorite version is absolutely the one by jeff buckley. the images in this video are interesting, but a bit distracting from the beauty of the song.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

the moon and mars

the half-full, first quarter moon sits to the west of the pleiades star cluster tonight. the waxing moon approaches mars and passes very close by the bright orange planet for the next several nights. friday night provides the closest approach this month, as shown below.

the moon slowly fills with sunlight over the next week, and will pass right thru earth's shadow, what we call a total lunar eclipse, next wednesday night! stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


why do we kiss?

kissing is fun, for sure, but it doesnt directly benefit us in an evolutionary sense, so why do we do it? what initiated the regular act of kissing thousands and thousands (or millions?) of years ago? and why is that some percentage (~10%) of humans don't kiss?

the scientific term for kissing is osculation (scientists sure have a way at wiping out the romance even from one of the most romantic acts possible, dont they?!). there was an interesting article this week in scientific american describing new research as to why we kiss. one thought is that kissing evolved from when primate mothers chewed food up for their young and then fed them mouth-to-mouth. i can see how that tender and originally necessary act, developed into something that could occur to show affection, even when sustenance wasnt involved.

another thing i learned from the article is the human lips "enjoy slimmest layer of skin on the human body." our lips are also very densely populated with sensory neurons and so are especially sensitive to slight touches. hm. this gives one reason why kissing is so enjoyable, but doesnt describe the benefit of kissing, in the sense of giving a reproductive advantage.

the punchline is that kissing remains as big a mystery as the question of why we fall in love. but for me.... this mystery is a good thing!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

a quick trip to chile!

i had a nice, though exhausting, short trip to chile!

the ocean water was so cold that i didnt swim the entire 8 months i was in chile last year.... but this warm summertime sunday, we played in the waves!

it was good to see again my british sister that i met chile! ;)

i took a bus trip into the grape-vine-lined valley, to the small town of vicuna...

... where i explored the bug museum!

la serena always provides entertaining night life!

the chilean cuisine provided particularly delightful adventures this trip!

redshift and the distance to distant galaxies

this weekend i gave a public talk entitled a long time ago, in galaxies far, far away. it was great fun to prepare and present a talk with pretty pictures after giving so many technical talks lately! based on the responses i received, i thought i would share a popular segment with everyone here!

in order to talk about galaxies far, far away, you have to know how far away the galaxies are! it turns out that determining the distance to astronomical objects is not a trivial matter! for very distant galaxies, the best way to determine their distance is by looking at their spectra in order to determine their "look-back time" or their "redshift."

to do this, we point a telescope at a galaxy, collect the photons of light coming from the stars in that galaxy, and then send those photons through a complicated prism system, in order to see the galaxy's rainbow!

the different colors of the rainbow correspond to different wavelengths of light.

each galaxy has a unique rainbow fingerprint ("spectrum"), although some general properties are universal. the simple rainbow fingerprint below shows a nearby galaxy that has several lines, produced by hydrogen, in its spectrum. the existence of these lines and the relative spacing between them are well understood by physics and quantum mechanics.

since light has a finite speed that it travels (the speed of light is 300,000 km/sec or 670,000,000 mph!), it takes light from a distant galaxy some amount of time to travel through space to us! when we determine how long the light has been traveling thru space, we know how far away the galaxy was when it released the photons of light that eventually landed on our lucky telescope! this time is called the galaxy's "look-back time" and goes from very small up to 13.7 billion years (the age of the universe).

sounds simple enough, but how can we determine this??

the key piece of information is that the universe is expanding!! as the light from a galaxy innocently travels thru space for a couple billion years, space itself is expanding! as the light wave travels, space expands and the wavelength of light gets stretched out with space!

the original wavelength of a photon of light when it left the galaxy, is stretched out as it travels thru space so that it is a longer wavelength by the time it reaches us and lands on our telescope mirror. each of the lines from hydrogen are shifted to longer wavelengths!

we compare the spectrum of a distant galaxy to a very nearby one to see how far a particular line has shifted. the farther the shift, the farther away the galaxy, the earlier in the history of the universe the light was produced inside the galaxy! from the amount of shift of a line in a galaxy's spectrum, we get the galaxy's redshift which is a number between zero and something very large (greater than 100). note that what i've described is the galaxy's "cosmological redshift" (as opposed to a doppler redshift).

mathematically, the redshift, z, is equal to the ratio of the wavelength of light that we observe to the emitted wavelength of light as it was when it left the home galaxy, minus one.

a galaxy with a redshift of one (z=1), emitted the light we observe about 8 billion years ago, when the universe was about 6 billion years old!

here's an example of a real two-dimensional galaxy spectrum, showing the intensity of various lines of hydrogen in addition to oxygen and sulfur.