Sunday, March 30, 2008

Saturday, March 29, 2008

carnival of space #47

this week's installment of space-related articles is up, for your reading pleasure, at the martian chronicles blog.


Friday, March 28, 2008

i'm your density

i've spent most of today writing!!! yippee! dissertation writing is not one of the most enjoyable experiences i've ever had, but a productive day always feels great!

i've managed to amuse myself quite a bit today while writing about the history of how many stars form in different types of galaxies during different epochs. (although i regret not having time right now to get into the details, i will have time at some point in the future and choose now to just skip to the punch line.) there are two main relations you investigate to study this process: the star formation rate density and the stellar mass density and how they change over time.

almost every single time i write the word "density" i accidentally type "destiny"!! the first several times it made me chuckle because of the obvious reference to the classic destiny/density mix up from one of the best science-fiction comedies ever created: back to the future - but backwards! i have to admit that at this point, it's just plain annoying because i think i've tried to write that word at least two dozen times today!! oh well. here you go....

there are sooo many good quotes from that movie!!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

the international space station meets jules verne

i hope some of you got to the see spectacular and rare triple flyby tonight! the european space craft, jules verne, came into view first, rising in the southwest and brightly passing almost overhead. (jules verne was a popular author of the 19th century, who pioneered the science-fiction genre with popular novels like journey to the center of the earth and twenty thousand leagues under the sea).

it was difficult to spot jules verne at first because there were scattered clouds overhead which confused us into thinking all the stars were moving! jules verne was bright at about 1st magnitude, but it was nothing compared to the international space station (ISS), which followed about 5 minutes later. the ISS was negative two magnitudes.... which means super-bright! way brighter than anything else in the night sky other than the moon! the shuttle, endeavor, caught our eyes, as it followed the same path across the sky as the ISS, just 40 degrees or so behind it, not as bright, but still bright indeed! it was so cool to see both of them trailing across the sky in tandem!

i excitedly looked thru binoculars to try to find more details of the bright ISS. I could see the brightest central region reflecting the sun's light, then some extended metallic stuff sticking out to the sides... solar panels!

the ISS has been in orbit around earth since 1998. it constantly moves around the earth at 350-460 km (217-286 miles) above the surface, and moves at 27,700 km/hour! that means it makes nearly 16 orbits everyday!! so why is it so rare that we see the super-bright ISS pass overhead? since the ISS doesnt produce light of its own, we rely on reflected sunlight to see it. the ISS is only illuminated when it passes is in sunlight... which means most of the time that it passes overhead, its daytime which prevents us from seeing it, or it's nighttime, which prevents it from being illuminated. we can see the ISS over our heads when it passes near sunrise or sunset. at sunset, we are just barely in the darkness of earth's shadow, but the ISS, still floating above the surface, still receives and reflects the sun's light! the ISS is soooooo bright because its football-field size reflects a lot of light!

what a fun sight tonight!! thanks to my students who came to the roof with me after our lab class to watch the event :)

triple flyby alert - TONIGHT!!

NASA's space shuttle, endeavor, just undocked with the international space station (ISS) and both are orbiting the earth very close to each other. in addition, the european space agency's cargo carrier, jules verne, is flying just 2000 km ahead of the first two space ships, creating a triple flyby tonight!! you'll see a bright (1st magnitude) jules verne, followed 4 minutes later by an even brighter ISS and space shuttle close together!

this event will be visible from austin, texas at 8:30pm tonight... look to the west! if you live in the US or canada, go to for details. otherwise, you can use heaven's above to find out whether this stunning trio will pas over your head during the next couple days!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

machine tattoo

i dont know if i'd really call this a science tattoo, but it sure is one hell of an awesome (and creepy) tattoo!!

Monday, March 24, 2008

godfather of fitness

here's jack lalanne speaking quite a while ago in an inspirational manner to convince us all to be happy by living a more natural life... eating properly, exercising and doing the things in life that we enjoy!

i'm convinced, especially since he's still kickin it at 93 years old!

second best chocolate day of the year!

happy first sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the vernal equinox of march 21st!!

it's also the second best chocolate day of the year. the #1 chocolate day of the year is, of course, halloween, which wins in my eyes because everyone gets to dress up in costumes as well! and at halloween, there are fewer animals cast as chocolate bars. as a child i always thought it was a bit creepy to eat so many cute little bunny heads. but ultimately the "chocolate!!" factor won!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

miriam & amadou

miriam & amadou are definitely a duo that i cannot wait to hear live!! the "blind couple from mali" create and intensely positive world music sound together. i was hooked the instant i heard their 2005 album dimanche a bamako. in combination with producer, manu chao, they created an album that feels as the name suggests.... like a lazy, happy, productive sunday afternoon. it's soft, but intricate, relaxed and intense!

here's a song called "senegal fast food"...

Saturday, March 22, 2008

expelled from expelled!

this is the most hilariously ironic story i've heard in a long, long time.

from my perspective, it started this past wednesday, when i went to hear richard dawkins speak on UT's campus. i knew his general debate points before going in, but i appreciated that he raised my consciousness to concepts i hadn't considered.

during his talk he mentioned a movie i hadnt heard of... ben stein's expelled: no intelligence allowed. dawkins spoke of being tricked into being interviewed for the movie by people claiming they were sympathetic to his views on biology, evolution, religion and atheism. he also mentioned that biologist and blogger, pz myers, was similarly tricked into participating in this movie that apparently claims professors should be given tenure even if they throw out the massive amounts of evidence and scientific consensus for evolution, and instead believe in creationism.

so i just read on pharyngula, pz myers blog, a fabulously ironic story from last night. read his version for yourself, but i'll summarize here. he went to a ticket-less special screening of the movie last night with his family and a few guests. the producer of the film recognized him and sent over a policeman to escort him out of the line into the theatre with the threat of arrest! pz questioned the officer, then left without a fuss, leaving his family and guests to view the film. the irony? one of his guests was freaking richard dawkins!!! hahahaha!!

the producer recognized pz, but not his guest. way to be on top of things! here's another account from a witness last night. enjoy!!

Friday, March 21, 2008

looming defense

defense is looming
nerves peak in middle of night
less than two months left

now i have a job (!!!!!!!)
assurance relieves pressure
but tough times remain

much work still to do
prolific writing abound
concentration, please!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

continuing tree


a last message from sir arthur c. clarke

Sir Arthur C. Clarke shares reflections and preditions on his 90th birthday in this ~9 minute recording from december 2007.

the moon and saturn and regulus

it's the time of the month for the moon to swing past saturn again! look to the south-east to see the moon just below a white-yellow saturn!

this time last month when the moon passed by the 6th planet in our solar system, it also passed through the earth's shadow and shared with us a lovely lunar eclipse!

the above compilation image shows 12 lunar eclipses from 1996 to last month! it's interesting to see how the size of the moon changes in each image as the physical distance between the moon and the earth changes based on the moon's position in its elliptical orbit. enjoy!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

what is intelligence, anyway?

this is a particularly interesting insight as i'm stuck in the depths of writing my dissertation and studying everything i think my committee members might ask me i should know to earn my doctoral degree. unfortunately, the insight isnt terribly useful for my current predicament, but it's interesting nonetheless.

What is intelligence, anyway?
By Isaac Asimov

When I was in the army, I received the kind of aptitude test that all soldiers took and, against a normal of 100, scored 160. No one at the base had ever seen a figure like that, and for two hours they made a big fuss over me.

(It didn't mean anything. The next day I was still a buck private with KP - kitchen police - as my highest duty.)

All my life I've been registering scores like that, so that I have the complacent feeling that I'm highly intelligent, and I expect other people to think so too.

Actually, though, don't such scores simply mean that I am very good at answering the type of academic questions that are considered worthy of answers by people who make up the intelligence tests - people with intellectual bents similar to mine?

For instance, I had an auto-repair man once, who, on these intelligence tests, could not possibly have scored more than 80, by my estimate. I always took it for granted that I was far more intelligent than he was.

Yet, when anything went wrong with my car I hastened to him with it, watched him anxiously as he explored its vitals, and listened to his pronouncements as though they were divine oracles - and he always fixed my car.

Well, then, suppose my auto-repair man devised questions for an intelligence test.

Or suppose a carpenter did, or a farmer, or, indeed, almost anyone but an academician. By every one of those tests, I'd prove myself a moron, and I'd be a moron, too.

In a world where I could not use my academic training and my verbal talents but had to do something intricate or hard, working with my hands, I would do poorly.

My intelligence, then, is not absolute but is a function of the society I live in and of the fact that a small subsection of that society has managed to foist itself on the rest as an arbiter of such matters.

Consider my auto-repair man, again.

He had a habit of telling me jokes whenever he saw me.

One time he raised his head from under the automobile hood to say: "Doc, a deaf-and-mute guy went into a hardware store to ask for some nails. He put two fingers together on the counter and made hammering motions with the other hand.

"The clerk brought him a hammer. He shook his head and pointed to the two fingers he was hammering. The clerk brought him nails. He picked out the sizes he wanted, and left. Well, doc, the next guy who came in was a blind man. He wanted scissors. How do you suppose he asked for them?"

Indulgently, I lifted by right hand and made scissoring motions with my first two fingers.

Whereupon my auto-repair man laughed raucously and said, "Why, you dumb jerk, He used his voice and asked for them."

Then he said smugly, "I've been trying that on all my customers today." "Did you catch many?" I asked. "Quite a few," he said, "but I knew for sure I'd catch you."

"Why is that?" I asked. "Because you're so goddamned educated, doc, I knew you couldn't be very smart."

And I have an uneasy feeling he had something there.

Monday, March 17, 2008

cape canaveral night launch

one day i hope to witness a shuttle night launch at cape canaveral. i want to watch the night sky glow like its daytime from the immense thrust created by humans to shoot rockets up so fast that they escape earth's gravity!! here's an image from APOD showing last week's night launch of the space shuttle endeavour.

many many years ago when vacationing with my family in florida (like every other family from ohio and the midwest at large it seemed!), we watched a daytime shuttle launch from many miles away. we stood on the beach, delaying our long ride home, to watch a tiny little streak of smoke rise quickly in the air. we saw it rise up and heard and felt the rumble afterwards. the sound delay was so long, that i almost forgot to expect it!

it's amazing to think that we (humans) are launching something into space almost every week now, even though we only started exploring space 50 years ago!!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

planetary nebula NGC 2371

there's a footprint in this big cloud of gas!

this image of planetary nebula, NCG 2371, just released from the hubble space telescope heritage collection. see the red left-footprint over on the left representing glowing nitrogen gas? perspective is grand, isn't it?!

as a title for this blog entry, i almost used: "caught red-footed!" while it caused me to sigh a big enough ... uuuuuuugh... that i ultimately chose a different title, i thought phit plait might appreciate it! :)

NGC 2371 lives about 4,300 light-years away in the constellation, gemini. in fact, tonight, there is a line up of the moon and mars, inside gemini, and NGC 2371 jumps right in between gemini's twin's , castor and pollux, and the moon!

now, NGC 2372 a very faint gas cloud at about 11 magnitudes, so you won't be able to pick it out with your eye, or even binoculars, but it'll be nice to know it's there!

the moon, mars, and gemini

did anyone catch how gorgeously the moon lined up next to bright orange mars last night?

tonight the moon slides down and over a little to perch right between mars and the twins of gemini, pollux [PAUL-ux] and castor [CASS-ter]. the moon is bright and the alignment will occur practically overhead after sunset, but you'll be able to see the filling-up moon for most of the afternoon!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Friday, March 14, 2008

her stroke of insight

in this video from TED, dr. jill bolte taylor mixes her knowledge of science with the poetry of her personal experience.

"Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had an opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: One morning, she realized she was having a massive stroke. As it happened -- as she felt her brain functions slip away one by one, speech, movement, understanding -- she studied and remembered every moment. This is a powerful story about how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another."

Saturday, March 8, 2008

WMAP - "double-U map"

I remember the exact moment when the very first results were released from the wilkinson microwave anisotropy probe... WMAP... "double-U map."

it was my first year in grad school, february 2003, 8 months after i moved to austin, texas. many UT astronomers sat together in the main classroom watching an internet-fed NASA press-release projected on the front screen. with anticipation in the air and excitement lowly buzzing around the room, we informally drank from our coffee mugs and smiled at the faces on the screen and at each other!

these results were to revolutionize applied astronomy!

in my very first astronomy course ever, as a first-year undergraduate student (studying french), i learned that the value of the hubble constant was somewhere between 50 and 100 km/s/Mpc (astronomers refer to the hubble constant as H_o ["H-naught"]). this seemed like a pretty big spread in possible values for H_o, which especially didnt help my understanding a number with the units of velocity per unit distance... kilometers per second per megaparsec... km/s/Mpc...?? distance divided by time divided by distance. but the distances cancel out, right? so it's just a per second... (1/sec)... thats a rate! the hubble constant describes the rate at which the entire universe is expanding and we know that it lies somewhere between 50 and 100 km/s/Mpc? cool!

you can also discover the age of the universe from hubbles constant... the inverse of a rate (something per second) is a time. so if you take the inverse of the of expansion of the universe and change everything to the proper units (years), you discover that the age of the universe... is somewhere between 10 and 20 billion years, according to my freshman astronomy class! wow!

that was my thought process as an undergraduate anyway. jump forward to 2003 when the NASA spokesperson on the screen in the front of the classroom announced that the first results for the WMAP were tallied, and revealed that Hubble's Constant is 72 km/s/Mpc and the universe was 13.7 +/- 0.2 billion years old! how precise!?! goose bumps found my arms that day, when they told us this number and showed us the first image of the cosmic microwave background radiation (shown below). the updated 5-year results (revealed by NASA last week) show that hubble's constant is 70.1+/-1.3 km/s/Mpc and the universe is 13.73 +/- 0.12 billion years old! period.

how does the WMAP experiment reveal this information? by looking at the dying glow of the first light possible for us to "see" after the big bang. the colors show very tiny temperature differences.

here's the "map" of the universe revealed by the 2003 first-year results...

here's the equivalent map after collecting 5-years worth of data.

they look very similar. you can see the same general patterns in each... the dark blue spot near the center on both images, and there's another one towards the lower left (cosmic voids?). the new data more precisely isolates the orange "hot" spots from the blue "cold" spots in both space and difference in value.

to understand the oval shape of the WMAP image, i swiped this description and image from ned wright's cosmology tutorial...

"These ovals are all maps of the entire celestial sphere in an equal-area Mollweide projection. The image at right shows a topographical map of the Earth in this projection. Note that there is no part of the Earth that is not included in the oval, and thus there is nothing "outside" the WMAP map."

to read more in-depth introductions to cosmology, see ned wright's cosmology tutorial, or WMAP for dummies. phil plait, at, gives a more brief, and to the point description of the dying glow of the big bang that WMAP actually sees. sean carroll at cosmic variance reflected on the third year WMAP results and introduces more of the physics-lingo involved in the discussion.

i wonder what will be the next big astronomy moment that will leave momentary details etched in my mind forever?

human debut in astrophotography

more inspiring photographic fun from larry landolfi.

the background for the first image is a publicly available compilation image of "Cassiopeia A" [cass-ee-oh-PEA-uh] provided by NASA. the image of "Cas A" combines data from 3 space telescopes: infrared from the spitzer space telescope, visible light from the hubble space telescope, and x-ray emission from the chandra x-ray observatory. the supernova remnant, Cas A, shows us what is left behind after a star much more massive than our sun explodes to end its life! Cas A was first recorded to be seen by humans 300 years ago, after the light traveled 10,000 years to reach us!

i like how landolfi digitally adds a human perspective to these two wonderful snapshots of the universe!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

space alone

this is a great little animated short movie. its a bit sad and made me think "woah!"

created by ilias sounas

enceladus: saturn's (water?) moon

the cassini spacecraft will be making a close fly-by of saturn's moon enceladus [en-SELL-ah-dus] in one week, next wednesday, march 12, 2008! it's surface features many craters, eventhough it is covered by fresh, clean ice! there are large geysers, like old faithful on earth, spouting out little ice crystals!

with the upcoming flyby, scientists hope to gain insight into a possible liquid layer beneath the ice surface. here's a quick video from JPL explaining the specifics of the mission!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

neko case

neko case is my rock and roll crush. i am absolutely in awe of her musical mastery! she is a brilliantly unique songwriter and i've never heard a voice so powerful and pure. the best part about her is that she gets it... whatever that might mean to you! she dislikes auto-tuners "fixing" recorded voices, she doesnt want to be "too famous"... she just wants to be heard, and she's passionate about what she does. she has a lifelong fan in me!

"hold on hold on"


moon covers venus this wednesday!

early-risers have quite a few interesting solar system alignments to entertain them for the next several mornings!

before the sun rises to outshine everything in the sky, three planets glow brightly toward the southeast: jupiter, venus, and mars. monday morning, march 3rd, the moon rises above the horizon just after jupiter, showing off its waning crescent to jupiter's lower left. the next morning, the sliver moon will shine between jupiter and the planet pair, venus and mercury! wednesday morning, the moon passes very close to mercury and venus... so close that the moon will pass in front of venus during the day!!

the lunar occultation of venus will be visible from many parts of north america (see map below). in austin, texas, we will be able to see the moon cover venus at 12:12pm (here's a table to determine times of occult for other locations - note that times are given in Universal Time so i subtracted 6 hours to get CST).

there are many times when venus is bright enough to be seen during the day, but it's a difficult (nearly impossible) task to see it when you don't know exactly where to look! this occultation will allow more of us to see venus during the day, because the much bigger target, the moon, will be so close! from texas, the crescent moon will be about 30 degrees up in the sky from the horizon, but still difficult to spot since only a tiny portion will be lit up by reflected sunlight. try to find the moon by looking southeast around noon, then look for venus just to the left of the moon.

i really enjoy seeing distant objects other than the sun in the sky during the day, so i'll be eating my lunch outside this wednesday!!

underneath and inside

by koen hauser

Saturday, March 1, 2008


great graphics in this video imply that boxes could take over the world. if not boxes, then what?

happy leap day!

for all the gory details about why we have leap years and which years are leap years (hint: there's a bit more to it than just "every four years"), go check out phil plait's thorough leap year explanation (complete with math!).

and happy birthday to my office mate, shay, who's about to get her phd at age 7! amazing!