Tuesday, March 30, 2010

the summit of mauna kea: sixty symbols

one of my favorite aspects of being a professional astronomer is visiting major telescope facilities and observing. on this blog, i've discussed observing in chile and hawaii quite a bit. finally, sixty symbols shares with you a video version of the experience of observing on mauna kea, hawaii.

see some extra footage and interviews a the periodic videos blog.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

cheeseburger in acid

good to know that concentrated hydrochloric acid does things to a mcdonalds cheeseburger. but still, yuck!

this video comes from the new branch of the periodic table of videos: molecular videos!

Friday, March 26, 2010

astronomy photographer of the year

the royal observatory, greenwich has set up an astronomy photographer of the year competition and i'm a guest judge to choose my favorite entries for the month of april! if you enjoy taking photos of the sky at night or any astronomical phenomema, load your pictures to the flickr group and be eligible for the contest!

it's not really about the contest though, its about sharing your own photos with everyone and seeing the universe through other people's eyes as well.

i've been flattered to be asked to give my opinions on the astro-photographs and cant wait to start sifting thru all the entries!


J is for jalopies

here's an edward gorey alphabet tribute by adam baumgold

see the full cartoon

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

a near miss: ada lovelace day contribution

this post is my contribution to ada lovelace day, which seeks to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science. i tell the story of a well-known scientist who unexpectedly provided me an opportunity that i almost missed...

during my second year studying undergraduate physics at the university of cincinnati, a very accomplished and well-known particle physicist, janet conrad, came to give a colloquium. the department set up a one hour session where undergraduates could sit down and chat with her. to my surprise, i was the only one who showed up for the first 30 minutes so i had her all to myself!

at the time, i had been thinking about the possibility of detecting gravitational waves because i had recently read about a new observatory called LIGO: The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, under construction in the US northwest.

i questioned her about how we could possibly design a machine to detect the energy of gravitational waves when the force of gravity is so weak! i mean, the earth is really huge and creates enough gravity for me to be confident that i will never fly off its surface. and yet i can pick up my cup from the table without much effort at all, even though earth always pulls the cup towards it. gravity is such a weak force, how can we detect it?

she explained that the gravity created by two very massive objects orbiting each other, like supermassive black holes or neutron stars, cause ripples in spacetime that will be faintly detectable with LIGO's laser interferometers. the detectors act like microphones that turn gravitational waves into electric signals. i was fascinated and grateful to her for patiently answering all my questions, even though i didn't really understand the details. eventually, other students joined us and i had to give up her complete attention.

she didnt work on the LIGO project, she actually worked on the Booster Neutrino Experiment (BooNE) which is designed to tell whether the fundamental particles called neutrinos have mass. she hired students each summer to work with her group testing detectors for the BooNE project which is located at the fermilab national accelerator laboratory in chicago, illinois, USA. the image above shows her with one of the photomultiplier tube detectors.

to my pleasant surprised, at the end of the session she suggested i work there during the upcoming summer. i felt flattered and politely thanked her, even though, internally, i was not thrilled about the idea of doing particle physics instead of astronomy.

a couple weeks later, i received an email from her saying that there was a summer job opportunity at fermilab and asking me if i was interested in it. after thinking about it for a day, i decided to turn down her offer. i worried that i would offend her with my response and felt bad about passing up this position that she created and directly offered to me! but, i emailed her apologetically, thanked her for the offer, and admitted that i really wanted to do astronomy if possible and i wasnt completely excited about particle physics.

well......!! she responded immediately by email and in an almost joking tone, she clarified that she knew i was more interested in astronomy and that the position she was offering was not to work with her! instead, she had talked to the director of the sloan digital sky survey (SDSS), who she was in direct contact with because the SDSS headquarters is also located at the fermilab facility! she said she recommended me as a summer student for the SDSS and i should email him to get information about the possible position!

open mouth; insert foot.

holy crap! what an opportunity i almost passed up! and i am SO thankful to her for her persistent encouragement and endurance in dealing with my idealistic and stubborn young self.

i thanked her profusely, and went on to spend two excellent summers in chicagoland completely immersed in the workings of a professional astronomy organization, and an incredibly influential one at that!

a successful particle physicist really went out of her busy way to give me an opportunity and i am eternally grateful. i rarely saw her at fermilab during my time there. she gave me a tour of the facility they were building, but that was really our only contact, ever again. i didnt recognize it at the time, but i've come to see her as a mentor and strong influence in my career choices. she was very respected in her field, which is hugely male-dominated, and yet she was a confident mixture of kind, strong, knowledgeable, and approachable. i was impressed.

i hope to be as attentive to enthusiastic young people who i come across during my time, and try to encourage them as much as possible.

sixty symbols: neptune

in the latest installment of sixty symbols, we describe the planet neptune.

according to the youtube comments for this video, my eyes suggest that i'm possibly alien. i'll let you decide.

by the way, the filmmaker of sixty symbols, brady haran, has started a blog to give you behind the scenes info on this video series, and the original series: periodic table of videos.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

the fairy scientist

the fairy scientist is an interesting four and a half minute video created by skeptical bob for the project reason video contest.

"Children are natural scientists - filled with wonder and curiosity, they yearn to know about the world around them. Join Fairy Scientist, Lydia as she sets out to discover the secret world of Fairies."

the fairy scientist says "A scientist is someone who looks very carefully and tries to discover new things and stuff"

life, like science, is a process of exploration and discovery, not a challenge of blind faith.

large hardon collider

sadly, they've fixed the typo now, but yes, the telegraph actually displayed this headline for several hours today.

thanks to all who informed me of this cock-up!

Friday, March 19, 2010

food that doesn't rot

i applaud nonna joann for her experimental efforts! she bought a happy meal from mcdonalds and let it sit on her shelf for an entire year to see what would happen to the food inside the box, and to contemplate the reality of our fast food society.

she writes, "It smelled delicious for a few days. I’d get a whiff of those yummy French fries every time I walked into my office. After a week or so, you could hardly smell it. My husband worried that when the food began to decompose, there would be a terrible odor in our home. He also worried the food would attract ants and mice. He questioned my sanity."

the photo below is the happy meal ONE YEAR AFTER it was purchased. the results of her experiment have disturbed me.

the contents DID NOT DECOMPOSE or mold or change appearance in any appreciable way. seriously, this is scary!

except for honey, ALL things classified as "food" should decompose. the truth of our species is that everything we eat was once living, from plants to animals. i know its easy to remove ourselves from this fact when so much food at stores is offered in processed forms and comes to us in boxes and cans, but that doesnt change where our natural food sources come from or how our bodies use it.

nonna goes on: "Food is broken down into it’s essential nutrients in our bodies and turned into fuel. Our children grow strong bodies, when they eat real food. Flies ignore a Happy Meal and microbes don’t decompose it, then your child’s body can’t properly metabolize it either. Now you know why it’s called “junk food.”

I think ants, mice and flies are smarter than people, because they weren’t fooled. They never touched the Happy Meal. Children shouldn’t either."


get ready for cute.

toddler giggles while playing with kitten!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

the white mountain

this is the extended version of a very nice timelapse video shot on top of the extinct volcano mauna kea, hawaii.

The White Mountain (extended) from charles on Vimeo.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

romantic circles by kandinsky

i see a lot of eclipses in this painting by wassily kandinsky, although he called it several circles.

i think it would be cool to have a first name like "wassily."

his work reminds me of my grandmother's paintings. i like the bold geometric forms and colors.

he manages to express the romance of a circle.

i went to the lenbauchaus in munich, germany one time and was mesmerized by the shapes in this massive painting...

... and the colors of this one.

Friday, March 12, 2010

dirty space news

we can't always take ourselves too seriously, and the universe likes to remind us of this sometimes.

which is why i'm sharing with you one of the best astronomical follies i've come across in recent times. today someone brought to my attention a recently-submitted research paper on hickson compact group 31, a group of small galaxies gravitationally interacting with each other. the paper shows an image of the galaxies in a way i've not seen before:

hahaha! and if that wasnt blatant enough, they changed the color scale and showed the image again later on in the paper!

this is not the only unintentional astronomical knob gag i've seen... the radio image below of the well-studied galaxy, M87, reveals "spectacular and complex structure" in the galaxy that is 50 million light years away.

and last but not least, this is an artist's impression of the XMM-Newton telescope:

amazing(ly detailed!)!

i guess i'll never be too old or "professional" to enjoy a good knob gag! do you know of any others?


a fellow astronomer, who writes at dark matter sheep, shared with me his image of the cone nebula. here is the published pretty picture, which is pretty good:

here is the version my friend accidentally created in an attempt to make a mosaic. the image caused them to rename the cone nebula: the "knobula!"

telescoper peter coles, who writes at in the dark, has kindly contributed this image of the actual XMM telescope (most phallic design ever?):

"You'll be interested to see these massive space cocks known by astronomers as Herbig Haro objects... this one's even animated!" according to the wiki page, herbig haro objects "are formed when gas ejected by young stars collides with clouds of gas and dust nearby at speeds of several hundred kilometres per second." couldnt have said it better myself!

"no list is complete without Smolčić et al. 2004." indeed. this isnt an actual telescopic image of an object in the universe, but it certainly fits in with today's phallic friday theme! the graph shows the "colors" of thousands of stars. a color is the difference between the light output in one imaging filter compared to another.

we've had an entry from an astrochemist, which i'm going to allow. he explains "Seemingly, these two large molecules experience strong interactions between each other. In solution, they like to pair up and... self organise. To quote the paper, one of these molecules requires "the presence of suitable partners.""

"There is also the Planetary Nebula Spectrograph, or PNS. The logo looks phallic enough but they actually call it the P-N-S just to make sure..."

andy lawrence writes, "The only suitable reply I feel is John Peacock's redshift space correlation function, which you can find at this link. I think you will agree that it reminds one of something that goes nicely together with those cosmic phalli."

this is science people! and i'll point out that most of the contributions to this post have been made by professional astronomers, well beyond graduate school levels of academia. this post also brings a whole new connotation to the slogan of astropixie which has always been "i prefer the hard truth, not a comforting fallacy."

reflection nebula: m78

the astronomy picture of the day recently featured an amazing image of M78, the 78th object in the messier catalog.

M78 is a stellar nursery; a large cloud of gas and dust where new stars are born. the bright regions of blue and white show surfaces of gas clouds that are being illuminated by young stars. there are probably only a couple newborn stars that the produce enough light for the clouds to glow. the dark patches show dense dust clouds that block this light from our view.

M78 is about five light-years across - it takes light five years to go from one side to the other! you can view M78 through a small telescope, but remember that the image you see is what this reflection nebula looked like about 1600 years ago because M78 is about 1600 light years away from us and it takes that long for light to travel from there to here!

Friday, March 5, 2010

how genetics works


via flowing data


the london sperm bank has pretty much the best logo. ever. (thanks for bringing this to my attention, marcos!)

the bad astronomer, phil plait, has been teasing us for ages with his i-cant-reveal-it-yet new tattoo, but now you can watch the video clip from his appearance on LA Ink where he gets his tat. looks great!

sixty symbols has its own facebook page now, so go ahead and join if you enjoy the series: sixty symbols facebook page.

if you havent yet seen the rube-goldberg-inspired video by OK Go, take a couple minutes to enjoy!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

are you vajazzled?

i will always be a vajazzle virgin.

to witness this weird spectacle, here's a NSFW-ish video.

i'm still feeling traumatized by the discovery of this uncomfortable-looking phenomenon that must be ridiculously expensive.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

forced perspective

this forced perspective image by alexandre duarte from the patagonia region of argentina is one of the better ones i've seen.

who needs photoshop?