Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Birthday Candy

One of the nice little touches at this conference has been the availability of small snacks and candies during the coffee breaks between talks. As this is in fact a conference about galaxies, and one of the more popular galaxies is the Milky Way, it should come to no surprise that I have found myself craving a bit of chocolate. You see, astronomy, aside from the science of sugar, I suppose, is the field after which the most candy has been named. We've got the Milky Way, the Mars Bar, and, of course, the Starburst. But apparently Americans are confused about candy. I didn't even realize it, even after I had a clearly-labelled Milky Way bar this morning, with its soft nougat-y center. Apparently, what we Americans call a Three Musketeers is actually a Milky Way, and what we call a Milky Way is actually a Three Musketeers. Think about it. Milky center? That would be the stuff in a Three Musketeers. Three components? That would be the Milky Way's nice chocolate, caramel, and nougat. Somehow, this managed to blow my mind more than the influence of the bulge on the rotation curves of spiral galaxies.

Other adventures in eating include Tuesday night (birthday!); I went to dinner with roughly the same group of people I had gone out with Monday night (when I was terribly jetlagged and could have fallen asleep in my chair quite easily). This whole Japanese food thing is growing on me ... some of the raw fish is quite delicious, while some of it makes me think, "Why is this so chewy? Shouldn't it be cooked some?" Tuesday night I had raw beef for the first time, and it struck me how yummy it was. Not too chewy, and not to, well, raw-seeming. Afterwards, we went out for "dessert," or shaved ice with flavored syrup and possible beans. I passed, but it was still a fun place and I enjoyed the company and watching people investigate their dishes. We then went to the same bar we had gone to the night before .... their menu was primarily in Japanese, but some of the headings (e.g., Sake or Beer) were in English. One such heading was "Birthday Cocktails," and there were twelve pictures of colorful drinks in martini glasses. Obviously, this had to be investigated. As expected, my drink, a "Moonstone," was free, and I even had to show ID for it (in order to prove that it was indeed my birthday). It was one of the... weirder drinks I've ever had. It was milky white, and apparently yogurt-based. Aside from the fact that it was definitely alcoholic, that is all I know about its ingredients. It had this odd citrus-y flavor to it, like it was confused about what it wanted to be when it grew up. I won't mention that I think I was at least five years younger than everyone else at the table. While I may feel as if I have wasted the last twenty-two years of my life, it was definitely a young birthday.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Galaxies, background

I've finally arrived in Ishigaki. There is time set aside for a poster session today, and since I got bored on the plane yesterday and already wrote this up, I think I'll just give you some background on the research I've spent the last 9 months doing. Results to come later! The paper is at astro-ph/0606460.

First, a bit of background. To fully appreciate this project, you have to understand that galaxies are cool. Like, sexy cool. Like, really really pretty. Specifically, spiral galaxies are just to die for. Just look at any of the pictures I have here and you'll understand what I mean. One reason galaxies are so awesome is that they have a lot of stuff in them: stars, large groups of stars (called star clusters), gas (like H2, CO, etc.), and dust (tiny grains of stuff, like dust on Earth, but without all of the dead skin cells). There is a lot more gas than dust, but usually where there is dust, there is gas, and as dust absorbs and scatters more light than the gas, it is easier to observe where the dust is and infer that there's a bunch of gas there as well. It's interesting to know where the gas is because if you get a bunch of gas into a small region, then stars begin to form. Oh, and it's pretty.

Now that that's out of the way, you should also know that most galaxies are barred. This means that instead of just a mess of spiral arms, there is some straight feature in the middle, such as is seen in NGC1300 or NGC1530. Bars are believed to funnel gas and dust from the outer regions of galaxies to the centers. It has been observed that, in general, barred galaxies have a higher concentration of gas at their centers than unbarred galaxies do, which is a bit of evidence that the bar is responsible for transporting the gas to the center. What we tried to investigate in this project is exactly what happens to the structure or morphology of the gas (or, more specifically, the dust) when it gets near the center.

We made these things called "structure maps" in order to look at where the dust is (all of the grayscale images in the paper and on the poster are structure maps). The dark regions are due to dust, while the bright regions are due to emission (which usually indicates star formation). These were made from archival HST (Hubble Space Telescope) data. HST is really good about making data publicly available after a short time; anyone can easily search their archive and download the data. There were a few papers published which had measured barstrengths for a bunch of nearby galaxies, and using this list I searched for which galaxies have available HST data including the galaxy center. I then downloaded these, ran some code on the files, and created the structure maps.

Once all of the structure maps were made, we finally got to look at all of the galaxies. We classified the central regions into six different categories. It's been known for a while that spiral galaxies often have nuclear spirals. Large-scale spirals are usually made of young, blue stars, and are essentially the size of the galaxy---on the scale of ten parsecs, say. (One parsec is the distance at which one AU (the distance from the Earth to the Sun) subtends one arcsecond on the sky. It's a little over 3 lightyears.) Nuclear spirals are completely distinct from these large-scale spirals; they are regions of slightly higher gas and dust density, are typically less than one kiloparsec in size. Our nuclear morphology classification scheme has four categories for nuclear spirals: grand design (GD), loosely wound (LW), tightly wound (TW), and chaotic spiral (CS). The grand design class is based on large-scale grand design spirals: there are two prominent symmetric arms which, for our definition, are seen to extend into the galaxy nucleus. This is an interesting class because it has been observed (and theorized) that GD structure should be found primarily in barred galaxies; dust lanes along the bar are seen to spiral towards the nucleus once they reach the central regions. LW and TW spirals are basically just coherent spirals, but the tightly wound ones are, well, more tightly wound. (The prototypes figure has a good visual example of the difference between these two classes.) How tight the spiral is can tell us a lot about the environment in which the spiral was formed and exists. Chaotic spirals are nuclear spirals that, while still having a unique sense of chirality, are relatively incoherent. The other two classes, chaotic (C) and no structure (N) are for nuclear regions with no clearly discernible spiral structure.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

arrived in Osaka

Arrived in Osaka. Will miss first half day of conference, but will get there. Tired, but but free internet!

Apparently the really-awesome camera (ACS, the Advanced Camera for Surveys) on HST isn't working. This is Not Good.

The mirror in the bathroom here has this nifty feature that part of it majikle-y doesn't fog up. There's no noticeable border to the area, either.

More later ...

Friday, June 23, 2006


The illusion of world connectivity, shattered.

Have you ever had the feeling that what you're experiencing just can't be real? That you will soon wake up and it will actually be a few minutes or hours earlier? I like acronyms, so let's call this sensation the feeling of This Must-be A Dream, or TMAD for short. While I sometimes get TMAD when something really good is happening (e.g., oh my god, hejustkissedme), I more often feel TMAD when something really horrible is happening.

As a random example, let's take Friday afternoon, shortly after noon (Dallas time), as I was standing at the American Airlines Admiral's Club in Dallas being told that I would have to spend the night in Dallas. As all good travelling-on-planes-sucks stories are long and convoluted, and I'm currently sitting in a Hyatt Regency hotel room without internet access, I might as well start at the beginning. So, there's the conference in Japan entitled "Mapping the Galaxy and Nearby Galaxies." I'm supposed to present a poster there on Tuesday, and my advisor, Paul, is supposed to give a talk there, also on Tuesday. Of course, we would both like to be there for, you know, the entire conference. The conference is in Ishigaki, a tiny Japanese island off the coast of Taiwan. It's really hard to get to. Our itinerary had us flying from Columbus to Dallas (at 8:43am on Friday), and then from Dallas to Osaka (leaving at 11:45am). We were then to spend the night in Osaka. The next morning, then, we had a flight leaving at 12:20 p.m. to Naha, and then on to Ishigaki. This was going to be excellent---I could explore a random Japanese city for a night, and we'd be able to get over the jetlag before arriving at the conference. Alas.

We're sitting at the gate, and they come over the PA system to tell us to start boarding. We stand up. They come over the PA again: "We're sorry, but we just found out there is a ground stop in Dallas due to thunderstorms. We'll have a decision on a flight time by 10." Uhm. It's a two and a half hour flight to Dallas, and our next flight was supposed to leave at 11:45. This would be pushing it close. Paul, who has Platinum status and is therefore special, calls up American Airlines and asks them if our next flight is also delayed. This part is kind of boring and not very exciting, unless you include the bit about my laptop deciding that 60% battery means 0% battery and shutting down randomly. Anyhow, when we finally got on the plane shortly before ten, it looked like we might be able to make the connecting flight. If we missed it, we might be able to get on a flight to Narita-Tokyo at 12:05; the people on the phone assured us there were plenty of open seats on this flight, and that we had nothing to worry about. We decide we'd rather be stuck in Columbus for a night than Dallas, but that it's worth the risk. Oh, and, apparently, they do not delay international flights, even if all of the incoming domestic flights (you know, the ones with the people on them) are delayed. Paul had a seat towards the front of the plane, but I was stuck in the next-to-last row, with no hope at all of getting off the plane quickly.

The flight landed right at 11:45. From my delightful seat in the back (next to the girl with lots of mascara, badly dyed hair, and a red and black tattoo that covered her entire back), I could see Paul jumping up quickly. He was probably one of the first ones off the plane. When I finally get off the plane, he wasn't at the gate anymore, so I check the screen. Flight to Osaka delayed to 11:55, but in another terminal. I start running, assuming that if Paul got there in time he'd try to have them hold the plane. Oh boy. So, the Dallas airport has five terminals, connected by a tram thing. I was in C terminal, and had to go to D. Of course, this requires going through E. At the second E stop, the doors don't reclose. We wait and wait, and eventually someone comes over the PA and tells us to get off the train and to take the one going the other way, as it will service all of the stations. Never listen to the big brother voices. Get on the other train; the doors start closing on the first one. Run over to the first one. Wait. Wait some more. I was mildly anxious at this point, by the way. It was probably at this point that I realized Paul and I should have exchanged cell phone numbers. Then another one coming the wrong way comes along, and, once again, we're told to get on that one. So I do, and it goes, and when we're almost to the stop I started at, we see the first tram leaving the E station. I freak out a little bit, switch trains at the next station, turn on my cell phone, go all the way back to D, finally, and run to the ticket counter.

There's no one there. At all.

So this would be when I start freaking out, a lot. There is a huge departures screen right by the gate, so I look at it, and ... the Osaka flight is no longer listed. See, this is bad. I look, and ... the Narita flight is also no longer listed. This is also less than ideal. Some poor guide lady asks me if she can help. I figure she's not with American Airlines, so, no. I am probably hyperventilating at this point. If I had been thinking clearly at all, I would have totally been having TMAD---this was just not possible. I go to the next gate and ask the lady there if Paul was on the Osaka flight. No, but he was on the Narita flight. Which has already departed.

So, this wasn't good. I'd like to think I'm a fairly self-sufficient person, but at this point, I was falling apart in every which-a-way. It's also at times like these that I all skill I might have at maintaining composure is quickly converted into skill at cursing.

"So, wait, he's on the flight? And the flight left?" "Yes, ma'am."

Right then, my phone rings. It's a 617 number, but it's gotta be a good sign. It's Paul. That's weird. He's three gates away and had called the department to get my phone number. Relieved does not begin to express what was going through my mind at that moment. He had apparently been booked on stand-by on the Narita flight, which, though half-full two hours earlier, had been filled up due to some other flight dumping passengers. Anyhow, with his special-person status, we go to the nearby Admiral's Club and they start trying to get us to Japan.

Apparently, all flights to Japan from the lower 48 leave between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. All of them. So, if you miss one, you miss all of them. They found an itinerary that would have us flying from Dallas to Frankfurt. Yes, Frankfurt, you know, the one in Germany. And, yes, the other direction. From there we could have a flight to Osaka and arrive in Osaka in time for our next skip and hop to Ishigaki. Sure, we wouldn't exactly be rested, but at least we'd arrive on time and not miss our next flights. The problem with the flights from Osaka is that they are part of a (rather sketchy seeming) package deal, which includes our hotel rooms at the conference. We've only corresponded with these people via email, it's unclear that they work on the weekends, and it's also unclear that they actually speak English.

As exciting as it might have been, it turns out that the airline with the flight from Frankfurt to Osaka is "not booking" on that flight right now. Not that they don't have seats available---no, no, they just aren't booking them right now. Even with all of the special powers of the Admiral's Club, we couldn't get seats on that flight. And we'd already missed all of the flights out of the US to Japan for the day. Why is it so hard to get half-way around the world in 48 hours?? Aren't we living in a highly-connected world these days? As we are apparently not, we are currently booked on the same flight we had today, but for tomorrow. Now, the problem with this is that it puts us into Osaka at 3 p.m. on Sunday. But .... our flight leaves at 12:20 p.m. And it's mid-summer and Ishigaki is a resort island. All of this was running through my mind as I was standing there listening to the kind man with the nice suit, and I just didn't feel like it was real. It's past being funny; I want to get to this conference. I don't want to miss any of it. But right here, right now, that's just not going to happen. I don't see a happy ending for this story yet, but at least I'm not the one on the phone trying to take care of it.

Meanwhile, they gave us vouchers for lunch, dinner, and breakfast, as well as rooms at the Hyatt Regency for the night. The beds look like they are to die for. There are four channels of ESPN, but I'd have to pay for internet. I have vouchers for three drinks from the Admiral's Club, including alcohol, in my pocket, but that's on the other side of security. I may or may not try going tonight. It's almost 4 p.m., ... now what?

(Posted at 10 p.m. ... we have reservations for Sunday night in Osaka, but it's currently unclear how or if we'll be able to get to Ishigaki from there. As it is simply inconceivable that I would have to spend my birthday travelling back to the States after failing to get to a conference ... at worst, we'll arrive a day late. Right??)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Soccer and Such

Well, I've been meaning to write a post on this since opening day, but for whatever reason I'm just now getting around to it.  And, for equally unknown reasons, I'm writing this up now instead of either working or watching Germany v. Poland.  I've been assured, however, that Germany never loses to Poland, and so far the match is scoreless anyhow.

So... I've gotten sucked into the world of soccer in the last week.  Friday I was slightly burnt out and fairly intent on doing anything but working on my paper, and so I was gladly dragged along to watch the opening games of the World Cup.  Our department has a decent representation of non-Americans, as well as Americans who actually care about this international sport, and so the company during these matches has been quite knowledgeable.  I must say, though, that I am really sick of all the people---Americans and non-Americans alike---who keep talking about how, in general, Americans don't care about soccer.  (And, yes, I realize that by complaining about it, I too am talking about it.)  They talk about how 2.2 billion people were watching the World Cup finals last time (they're every four years, so that would have been in 2002, when Brazil won and I had a room on Mass. Ave. ...).  That's one third of the world population.  Here's one for you:  did you know that the World Cup was held in the United States in 1994?  Apparently, that is when and why Major League Soccer was formed in the US; to host the World Cup, you have to have a national soccer league.  Also, apparently, 50% of Americans were unaware that the World Cup was being held here.  I was certainly one of them.

The ones that really get under my skin are the Americans who talk as if America is inferior because we don't care about this sport.  Seriously, what the hell?  It's not like we don't care about sports or rivalries.  The difference is, the United States is a large country without any natural rivals a la England v. France, and Americans already believe they are better than any other country.  We create national pride by invading other countries, not by beating them on a game field.  (Sure, the morality etc. et.c of this can be debated, but hang with me here ...)  And, yes, we have our sports.  We care deeply about them (I was in Boston when the Red Sox won the World Series---ah, yeah, we care about sports).  The way I imagine soccer in the rest of the world is like this.  Take Boston and New York.  Let New York only have one baseball team. which we all know is really the Yankees.  Now, give both Boston and New York a lot of guns, don't let them trade players, but do let them invade each other if they feel they have sufficient reason.  Think I'm kidding?

I will concede one point, though:  people say Americans are wussy because the celebrated sports in the great U. S. of A. all have time-outs.  Baseball, you take turns.  Football, you go for a few minutes, max, and then stop and try again---and you only get a certain number of tries.  Basketball even has time-outs instead of letting the clock run continuously.  In soccer, on the other hand, the clock runs continuously for forty-five minutes, while one of the referees keeps track of how much time should have been taken for time-outs, and tacks it on to the end fo the half (which is known as "stoppage time.")  So, okay, sure, it's less atheletic.  But giving us fans only 15 minutes to go to the bathroom or get another snack??  Haven't you people ever heard of "commercial breaks"???

Oh, let's see.... other fun stuff....  well, when trying to learn all the rules, I asked about what happens if a player accidentally knocks the ball into their own goal.  Apparently it counts as a point for the other team anyhow, unlike the safety in football.  And, apparently, people can get really pissed off ... in 1994, a Colombian player scored against his own team in the World Cup, and could never show his face in public again.

We went down to the Drexel Theater yesterday to watch the Brazil v. Croatia game, which was being shown for free in one of the theaters.  While the game itself was rather entertaining, to be sure, I was fairly amused when a fan ran onto the field.  The commentators kept talking about how the cameramen were being very good for not showing him and therefore not condoning the behavior, but we finally go to see him being carried off of the field.  He was wearing a Croatian red-and-white checkered jersey, "but the blue-jeans gave him away."  The commentators then commented that "this doesn't bode well for security ... and neither does this," as they show multiple places in the stands where Croatian fans had red blazes going with nice thick red smoke.  Absolutely awesome.