Monday, December 31, 2007

Clay Sculpture: a Bhuddhess

I mentioned in November that I took a clay sculpture class last summer (as in, I started this post on July 26, apparently), and now that the majikle day has passed, I can share the formerly Top Secret product (a Christmas present for my dad):
This is a Bhuddhess for my dad's massage parlor (formerly my bedroom). The inspiration was the weeks we spent touring Thailand (and other various places in southeast Asia), replete with daily Thai massages and many famous Bhuddhas. This Bhuddha is in the meditation position, which I figured was the most similar to the mental state achieved in a good massage. The base on which she is sitting is supposed to be a lotus flower, a la this picture from a lake near Battambang, Cambodia:
I'm also rather disturbed at how disturbingly similar this picture (which I took) is to one of the iPhone's (and, apparently, newer versions of Apple's OSX) default wallpapers.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hotel Mauna Kea

What is it like to observe on Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in Hawaii? Hat tip to the Angry Astronomer:

Monday, December 24, 2007

Bismuth and Copper, on a Tree

(NB: I would have made this post earlier, but alas, my camera has broken. Santa?)

I have been taking a jewelry class for the last few months, and as those who know me in Real Life invariably ask upon hearing this tidbit: "Jewelry?!" Well, good point. But one of the projects I have spent the most time on was making bismuth crystal Christmas tree ornaments out of copper:

This particular crystal is one of the ones a friend gave me last year, shortly before I discussed making bismuth crystals here (see the crystal on the top-left in the first picture in that post). Next steps include getting better at making my own bismuth crystals (it's a lot of fun, but rather tricky as it turns out), and turning them into more pieces of art and jewelry: necklaces, earrings, pendants, and more ornaments.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More astro-ph Nuggets

Today's first piece of fun on astro-ph is a short paper by Travis Metcalfe on "The Production Rate and Employment of Ph.D. Astronomers," or: how difficult is it to get a tenure-track job given that you have a Ph.D. in astornomy? I haven't actually read this preprint, but Travis had a very interesting poster at the AAS meeting last May on the same topic, so I am guessing it is based on the same information.

The second is a short conference proceedings by Chris Stubbs on the Crisis in Fundamental Physics, or, what will happen if w really does equal -1. Translation: what if the properties of the dark energy really are the most boring vanilla stuff we can come up with ... and thus also boring both theoretically and observationally. This, combined with Simon White's screed from a few months ago, paint the question of dark energy as inherently interesting (there is something going on in the universe that we really don't understand, and it might be related to why our really-good-for-everything-else theories of quantum mechanics and gravity don't play nice together), but in the meantime it poses a scientifically and sociologically potentially crippling/stagnating problem.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

How to Measure the Masses of Galaxy Clusters

I've spent some time recently thinking about the usefulness of galaxy clusters in astronomy and cosmology (aside from them being interesting in their own right). As the most easily identified most massive structures in the universe, one obvious parameter that is often desired of them is their mass. But how does one go about weighing the most massive objects in the universe?

Stellar light: This is the simplest and most straightforward way to measure the mass of a cluster, but it also requires the most assumptions. The basic idea is that if you know how much light the stars in the cluster are emitting, and if you have some good guess at how much mass a cluster of a given luminosity is (i.e., the "mass to light ratio"), then you can estimate the cluster's mass. An even simpler version is to just count up the number of galaxies in the cluster, and say, "well, clusters with this many galaxies have on average about this mass ..." And, counting the number of galaxies in a cluster is actually rather trickier than it sounds because it takes a lot of telescope time to verify that individual galaxies are in fact cluster members.

Galaxy velocity dispersion (also stellar light): If you're going to go through all the trouble of verifying which galaxies are actually in the cluster, then you can actually measure the mass of the cluster rather than merely estimating it. By taking the velocity dispersion of the galaxies along the line of sight, and assuming that the cluster is relaxed and in virial equilibrium, you can measure the mass, which is essentially proportional to the square of the velocity dispersion.

X-rays: Galaxy clusters have a lot of hot ionized gas in them. This hot gas emits high energy photons due to what is known as "bremsstrahlung": when an electron changes course as it goes whizzing past a (positively charged) ion, it is accelerating, and therefore gives of radiation. We can measure the temperature of the gas from this radiation, and like with the galaxy velocity dispersion, when we assume the cluster is in virial equilibrium—not always an accurate assumption, especially if, say, the cluster is merging with another cluster, or just forming—then we can calculate the mass of the cluster. This is one of the most popular and straightforward way of measuring cluster masses; the only tricky part really is the fact that one has to go to space in order to get X-ray data.

Weak lensing: As light from galaxies passes near a cluster, the cluster's gravity causes the light's path to bend slightly, which in turn causes the shape of galaxies behind the cluster along our line of sight to appear slightly disorted on the sky. (If you want a less hand-wavey explanation, you can look at this post I wrote last year. The mass and the physics are the same, even if the regimes are slightly different.) By measuring the average shape change of background galaxies in different annuli around the cluster, we can measure the surface mass profile of the cluster. Many people will argue (including me, perhaps) that weak lensing is the only way of measuring the entire cluster mass—gravity only cares about where the mass is, not what is causing it, and so gravitational lensing is sensitive to the underlying dark matter profile of the cluster, not just where the gas, galaxies, or light happen to live. Weak lensing is also a nice technique because it can be done with ground-based telescopes using visible-wavelength (or near infrared) light, but it does not require a plethora of spectra like galaxie velocity dispersion measurements do. Converting a measured weak lensing profile to an actual cluster mass estimate, however, involves converting a surface mass density excess to a surface mass density (i.e., the "background" surface mass density must be well-estimated) and then converting the surface mass density to a mass (i.e., assumptions about the three-dimensional structure of the cluster must be made in order to turn a two-dimensional map into a three-dimensional mass).

Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effect: One of the most exciting and promising new ways of measuring cluster masses is through their imprint on the cosmic microwave background (CMB, or as "real cosmologists" call it, the "camb"). As a CMB photon goes through a cluster, it will interact with some of the high energy electrons in the cluster's hot gas (the same ones responsible for the X-ray emission). The result is that the CMB photon gains a little bit of energy, causing the CMB to appear hotter in the direction of the cluster than it would be in the cluster's absence. Through a conspiracy of math and physics, the change in CMB intensity is essentially due to the cluster's mass alone—and because the clusters are relatively close by compared to the surface of last scattering (the origin of the CMB photons), the SZ signal is basically independent of the cluster's redshift. The redshift independence is both a blessing and a curse: while we can theoretically detect high-redshift clusters with the SZ effect, we have no way of constraining their redshift using the SZ effect alone—and high redshift objects are exactly the ones which are more difficult to detect and study using the other techniques I've described here. The SZ effect has been observed for several clusters, but to date no clusters have been conclusively discovered from their SZ signature. This may change soon, however, as two telescopes (the South Pole Telescope and the Atacama Telscope) capable of detecting the SZ effect have come online in the past year. At the very least, the SZ effect promises to be a powerful technique for constraining the measurements from the other techniques described here.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Citations and

A couple of years ago, a paper came out saying that astronomy papers posted on astro-ph get about twice as many citations as those which do not. Plenty of people think that if you are going to post a paper to arXiv, then you should time it so that it, for example, shows up near the top of the daily astro-ph listings. The second paper on today's astro-ph list takes this a step further, showing that the papers appearing near the "top" of the daily astro-ph listings receive essentially twice as many citations as those further down on the list. The interesting question here—one which it's fairly difficult to disentangle—is whether this difference is really purely due to a positional bias (people glance at the first few papers on astro-ph in the morning and then stop, and thus are more likely to remember and cite those first few papers), or if it is a selection effect (people who care enough to make sure their paper is near the top of the list might simply have better science to share, or be better at self-promotion in other contexts, like conferences).

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Astronomers Stuck in a Cloud

I've been at the MDM observatory near Tucson since yesterday around sundown, and last night I started a blog post which looked something like this:

Well, I'm back on the mountain, and it is raining. A lot.
And then the power went out, and since the generator was down as well, we had no power, no heat, no internet, and—after a few hours—no phone either. We were in the middle of a cloud, a white windy rainy mass, wherein we had no connection to the outside world. It's an odd thing, being in a dark building with only a couple of flashlights in the middle of storm after everyone else has gone to sleep, and I (having been staying up late in this time zone for several days already) was the only one awake. So I sat around for a while thinking about galaxies and stars and clusters how everything is interrelated and how I'll never come up with a thesis topic.

Today has been more lighthearted—and more of an extended hurricane party, but with more astronomy and rampant silliness. The first year grad students are here this weekend, nominally to learn how to observe. (Does learning how to do a lightning shutdown count?) They have finals next week and so there has been a lot of questions buzzing around along the lines of "Why are metal poor stars bluer and fainter than metal rich stars?" and "What's the difference between the Tully-Fisher relation and the Fundamental Plane?" Between this and the conference last week (more on that later), I feel as though I've been walking in an astronomy-saturated fog for a week.

The power came back around 2:30pm and the internet and phone followed around 4. With the return of the outside world, there has been a lot of online Scrabble (yes, I've been converted) and now the watching of the Oklahoma-Missouri game on the small TV in the kitchen ... something about if Oklahoma wins then it is good for Ohio State and if Ohio State wins the national championship then alumni will want to give more money which will eventually be good for the astronomy department.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Cat Conversations

While I am in Arizona this week, Carina is spending her time with one of my officemates who has a giant kitty of his own. I wonder if their interactions are anything like this:

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Science and UnScience

I'm headed to Tucson, AZ today for an astronomy-laden week, complete with a conference and some observing (weather permitting). Among my flight reading material is an essay Edwin Salpeter (yes, as in, the Salpeter IMF [initial mass function]) posted to astro-ph last week with some interesting anecdotes and observations on astronomy pre-1957. On the other hand, if you're looking for something less informative, but perhaps more flavorful, you can read any one of the numerous screeds on the recent hogwash in the New York Times about science really actually being faith in disguise (which, by the way, it's uhm not).

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Day to be Thankful For

My new idea is to send people to and for whom I am thankful Thank You cards for Thanksgiving. I didn't think of this until today, but maybe it will happen next year. I love the Thanksgiving holiday because it is so unpretentious: get together with loved ones (or at least, people with whom you can vaguely get along during a meal) and eat lots of food. And, of course, the undercurrent of "being thankful" is perhaps a good one, only normally people take "being thankful" to mean "remembering there are a bunch of things taken for granted that perhaps should not be." This happens even when there is a person who should be the receiver of the thanks: why is it, "I am thankful you are here today" instead of "Thank you for coming today"? Any other time of year, it would be the latter, so why the passive voice when we are actively trying to "give thanks"?

Off the soapbox and back to the food. This year, the significant other came to Ohio and we are spending the weekend alone and away from family. We had a duck and sausage stuffing for dinner; even though neither of us had ever cooked a whole bird before, preparing the duck turned out to be even easier than this ostensibly simple duck roast recipe we found online. Staying true to the spirit of the holiday, we made enough food four four or five people even though it is just the two of us. We also bought a bottle of gerwurztraminer, and discovered that wine bottles can be easier to open with a corkscrew than without, and that most of the people in the grocery store on Thanksgiving can be observed talking on the phone asking if there isn't "just one more thing" needed. There was also bread and goat cheese, hot spiced apple cider, and pumpkin pie. We're halfway through a puzzle bought yesterday, and so far, Carina has only tried to eat one of the pieces. I think she's still got a bit of food coma from the bit of duck she had. The next project will be to see what she thinks of the bucket of Legos once its opened and we try to build a Lego castle...

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Dose of Not the Daily Show

Miss the Daily Show? Here's what one of its writers has to say about the WGA strike:

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

You Asked For It

As the lone commenter (so far?) on the previous post pointed out, apparently kitty posts get more comments than art or science posts. So, here is a picture of δ Carina in a trashcan:
I'll probably have another science post sometime this weekend, but in the meantime, anyone have a good lolcat caption?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Science: Still Awesome

Just in case you were wondering, science is still awesome.

First up, synesthesia—the mixing of senses so that, for example, one associates or experiences certain colors with individual numbers and letters—is always cool. I have this to enough of an extent that I would totally love to have it even more. For example, in my mind Thursdays are a deep mustard color, but Tuesdays are a rich green and Wednesdays are a pale blue; I wouldn't be surprised if this association is one reason why I don't have to keep a calendar or datebook. The recent incredibly wonderful thing I've found out about synesthesia is that apparently colorblind synesthetes can experience colors via associations that their eyes are not actually capable of seeing. Brains are so fantastic.

I've been taking art classes at the local cultural arts center since June. Over the summer I took a clay sculpture class, and when I went back on my second week to look at what I had started, I was rather freaked to discover that the piece was partially covered in mold. Turns out, the more microorganisms there are living in clay, the more aerated the clay is, and thus the higher quality it has the potential to be for sculpting. Also in the art department, last week I was working with two pieces of sheet metal (I'm taking a jewelry class now) that I wanted to have have identical borders, so I superglued the two pieces together so they wouldn't move relative to one another as I filed the edges. But then I wanted to, you know, unsuperglue them. The most efficient way to do this, apparently, is to simply anneal the metal—that is, put it under a big torch until the superglue burns away and the pieces come apart. I was working with copper, which normally when annealed turns a nice deep red color, but with the superglue on it, turned a dark grody grey.

It's been all over the news, and I obviously didn't get around to writing this post yesterday, but the Auger collaboration has finally come out with their first big result: cosmic rays appear to not be isotropically distributed on the sky. They come just short of saying that comsic rays are produced by supermassive black holes (specifically, supermassive black holes actively accreting matter), but due to a liberal use of the subjunctive in the paper, this is essentially the take-home message. Chad has already done a detailed analysis of the paper and all that jazz, but he fails to mention the fact that the effective size of the Auger detector, located in Argentina, is roughly the same area as Rhode Island—and they're looking to expand. I'm not sure if this is just a statement of how large their detector is, or how small Rhode Island is, though.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Indie Art Capital of the World

So, apparently Columbus has been named the Indie Art Capital of the World. I'm not really sure what this means, but it is true that I have become a lot more aware of art—and people creating art—since moving to Columbus. In fact, the guy I got δ Carina from (thanks, Craigslist!) is an independent artist; he even gave me a self-printed short comic book (about SPACE! and Dylan Thomas being cool!) as a thank you for taking my new shoe-sized meow-monster.

Probably part of Columbus's new title can be attributed to the monthly Gallery Hop in the Short North area of town (the aptly named neighborhood shortly north of downtown). Art galleries littered along about a ten block area stay open late on the first Saturday night of each month, as the crowds wander from gallery to gallery, bar to bar, shop to shop, navigating the random music being played and jewelry and other random things being sold on the sidewalks. And, in these cases, a place doesn't necessarily have to be a "gallery" per se in order to attract people looking for visual and mental stimulation; if you have open wall space to hang a few paintings on, you're in business. Just tonight bought my first piece of what could be considered, you know, real art: a 12"x18" print of the above pretty lady, Sernity, from Robert Walker, an artist displaying his paintings at a realty office. I was also lucky enough to see the original of Rachell, this purple-haired vixen on the right, who I might have just taken home with me had I had $1000 to spare...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

δ Carina: A Narrative

So the new kitty's name is now officially δ Carina. You may call her δ, Carina, or Carrie for short, but she probably won't respond to any of them. The choice of δ Carina as a name, in retrospect, was incredibly obvious. I had originally been trying to decide between Cassiopeia and Carina (and so either Cassia or Carrie for short), but for such a hyper little hairball, Cassiopeia seems a little to sophisticated. So Carina it is, but the all-too-obvious nickname/association with Carina is Eta Carina, the stupidly massive old cranky variable star in the constellation Carina. And my little bundle of skittish cord-chewing energy is neither massive nor old enough to be an η Carina, so the obvious other choice was Epsilon Carina (since in the land of mathematics ε is generally small but nonzero quantity). But as it turns out, eps Car is a binary star, and since I've got one cat and not two (though, seriously, ε Carina A and ε Carina B would be awesome names for sibling kitties), that was Right Out. So, in the spirit of taking the limit of small delta and epsilon-delta balls, δ Carina became the new name nominee; the only remaining question was: what kind of star is δ Car?

Well, as it turns out, there is no star δ Carina. The Bayer designation of stars names stars in a constellation as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, etc. from brightest to, er, less bright; so, for instance, Alpha Centauri is the brightest star in the Centaurus constellation. So how can a consellation have no fourth brightest (i.e., Delta) star? Glad you asked. See, back in the day, Ptolemy made a list of the 48 constellations in the sky. One of the largest was Argo Navis, the Southern Ship. So there was an Alpha Argo Navis, a Beta Argo Navis, etc. But when the constellation got broken up in 1752 into Vela (the sail), Carina (the keel), and Puppis (the poop deck [hehe]), astronomers, being astronomrs and thus logical in all ways, decided to also split up the stars and keep the Greek lettering instead of, you know, re-assigning the names to the actual nth brightest stars in each new constellation. So, α and β went to Carina, but γ and δ are in Vela—leaving the name δ Carina free to be assigned to my new 9-week-old clingy attacking striped meowing fuzzball.

And so, as she attacks my hands and legs and arms and keyboard and oh my god I hope she's going to get tired out so I can get some sleep tonight, I present to you δ Carina, The First Day: A Narrative.

Oh no!! A new place! What do I do? I'm all trembling and scared.
Cords! And a ball! How do I choose??
Shoes!!!! My favorites! How did you know??
OK time to read some but how do I choose?
That was lots of hard work now it's naptime.
Whoa. I fell off that was scary. I'll hide here and let Athena the Raccoon protect me.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Kitty, Part 1

I got a kitty today!! The apartment I was living in for the last two years did not allow pets (something about undergrads being irresponsible creeps), but now I'm in a pet-friendly place and in town for a while, so ... I will do my best to not let this devolve into a cat blog, but first, there's this post which has been sitting in draft for for almost a year ...

Why I need a kitty:

Because my at-home vocabulary is too large:
Because I need another website to check obsessively.
Because traveling frequently will be just that much easier.
So I can take silly pictures and attach dorky captions to them.

Also, KITTY!!!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Turning a Sphere Inside Out

Ever wanted to see what it looks like when a sphere gets turned inside out, or simply know what is meant when people talk about turning closed surfaces (like a sphere) inside out? Hat tip to Scott Aaronson for this video:

As it turns out, I actually recognize several of the intermediate steps (for a few of the algorithms they show) as neat-o sculptures that often show up near math departments.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dumbledore is Gay, and Authority is Not to be Trusted

So tonight was The Night with J. K. Rowling. I'm pretty tired right now, and perhaps rather inebriated, so I'm going to keep this short. No promises on a longer post later, but we'll see. If you haven't actually read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, well ... at least one horrid spoiler follow.

The obvious highlight of tonight's event was the question-and-answer session. The questions were all picked ahead of time, and were largely plot-centric (which meant that questions relevant to writing process/style such as the one we submitted were right out). As much of the internet already knows by now (I'm such a slacker, going out for chocolates and wine afterwards instead of writing a blog post immediately), one of the most interesting answers was in response to a question about Dumbledore's past. A general meme with the questions being asked was "I'm such a big fan, your books have had such a big impact on my life, here's my question." The person (a young teenage girl, if I remember correctly) who asked about Dumbledore actually phrased these compliments fairly well, talking about how the books had taught her a lot about relationships. She then asked, since Dumbledore is such a champion of the power of love, "did Dumbledore ever find love?" Rowling's response was essentially, "Well, since you've been so honest with me ... I always saw Dumbledore as gay." This was followed, of course, by a huge applause and lots of cheering; and, of course, the idea that this wonderful (even if fictional) role model that so many people have come to know and love is *gasp* not straight is fantastic. As far as the Harry Potter plotline is concerned, however, it is also relevant: apparently Rowling thinks of Dumbledore as having been in love with Grindelwald, which is why he was so devastated when he realized Grindelwald's true nature... and then was so reluctant to confront him later in life. Another of Rowling's comments on this revelation: "Wow, if I'd known people would be so excited by this, I would have mentioned it sooner," and "Oh my god, the fanfiction now."

I found another exchange to be particularly interesting not so much because it was enlightening, but because Rowling delivered a particularly juicy quote. The question had to do with whether or not the Death Eaters were influenced from history by the (obvious choice of) the Nazis. Rowling basically kind of avoided the actual question, but she did say, "You should question authority and you should not assume that the establishment or the press tells you all of the truth ... the entire series is a prolonged argument against intolerance and bigotry." Very well said, Ms. Rowling.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

“This is because taking the derivative of something makes it redder.”

Hat tip to Blake:

Also, I totally want a Derivative Machine now, especially if I can run it backwards!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fine. I'll do a Harry Potter post.

In about a week—at 7p.m. EDT Friday, October 19, to be precise—I'll be in New York City to spend some quality 2000-on-1 time with the one and only J. K. Rowling. Apparently this is the first time she has toured the US since 2000; the stint in NYC will be the only not-for-just-kids appearence on her jam-packed four stop tour. Now, I don't particularly consider myself a Harry Potter "fan" ... you may have noticed the lack of zomghp7!!!$!!%!!!! posts here back in July. I do, however, enjoy the books (even if I don't actually own all seven yet—I'm holding out for a boxed set of paperback copies of the UK adult version). They are enjoyable to read, and the world Rowling has created is simultaneously entertaining and interesting. And, yes, I picked my copy of the Deathly Hallows up at midnight the night of July 20, and had it read by dinnertime that night.

Interjection: Just now, as I was writing this post, a friend messaged me and started talking about the band "Draco and the Malfoys," who are the foil to "Harry and the Potters." I am now disturbed.

So the reason I am bringing all of this up is that I need help. See, we've been told that there will probably be some sort of question-and-answer session at the event, but everything I can possibly think of wanting to know that could be gleaned from a one-question-one-answer situation is along the lines of, "So if the Potters were all alone the night that James and Lily died, the how did Dumbledore hear about it before everyone else in order to send Hagrid over there, and how come it took so long for Hagrid to arrive with Harry if he was one of the first ones to know?" This kind of technical nitpicking is right out for this particular venue, but I haven't got any better ideas.

So: if you could ask J. K. Rowling one question, what would it be?

Update (10/16/07): It's been pointed out to me that Rowling is a rich person. Wouldn't she like to donate money to astronomy like all of the other cool rich people?

Update (10/17/07): We just submitted this question to the website:

You've been writing this series for 17 years. How difficult was it to keep the style consistent over all that time, even when you as a writer surely must have evolved considerably?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Clouds, Clouds and More Clouds

I'm in the middle of a six night observing run at the MDM 2.4m telescope on Kitt Peak near Tucson, Arizona. This evening threatening clouds at sundown turned into enough lightning at the horizon to do a lightning shutdown—that is to say, after not bothering to open the dome and try to look at anything, I had the pleasure of shutting down the half dozen computers that run the telescope and its instruments, etc. as well as their UPS backup power supply. I've heard plenty of talk before of how annoying it is to be an astronomer on a cloud-covered mountain, but I always thought the irritation arose mainly from the lack of ability to take data, when in reality it's more like an irritation arising from the lack of anything to do. The last few nights have been cloudy off and on, but mostly with the patchy kinds of clouds that tease you as you chase for holes between them, or like last night when everything was beautiful and clear and we were efficiently going from one target to the next until around 1a.m. when in less than fifteen minutes the humidity rose by 10% and the sky became a thick blanket of white and we had to close up for the remainder of the night.

The run I am on is for "queue observing." The basic idea behind queue observing is that if a bunch of people have objects they'd like to have looked at once a night for a period of time, then they can combine resources and take turns observing all of the objects. In this case, "resources" are "graduate students who feel like getting some observing experience and perhaps their names on a paper or two." The main part of this queue observing run is to take spectra of supernovae for SDSS. SDSS is good enough at finding supernovae that, while they're looking (i.e., in the fall) there is always a list of supernovae to observe, and, unlike other kinds of transient objects (like gamma ray bursts), supernovae are generally bright for about two weeks.

This 2.4m telescope is, I believe, the largest in the world that does not have a regular night operator. That is, larger telescopes have a staff of people whose job it is to actually run the telescope: they open the dome and turn on the instruments and take the calibration images and make sure the telescope is pointed in the correct direction with high enough precision and is nicely focused and that everything is working nicely. Not so here. Here it's just me (well, there was another graduate student here the last three nights, but no staff at night), and so when it's actually safe to, you know, turn on the telescope, then I get to make sure that all of those things happen. The first night or two is usually hell because there are so many things to remember and it takes a while to completely nightshift and get used to the higher altitude and lower humidity; tonight is hell because there isn't anything to do and I didn't get up until 4pm so it's not like I can "just go to sleep."

Well, actually I did bring some DVDs from Netflix with me. I've already watched a disc of Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I've only recently started watching both shows). Seriously, all alone in the dark on an empty quiet mountain... I'm now surprisingly jumpy. And I'm not liking the forecast of it not clearing up until Tuesday night.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Apparently, I Exude Physicistiness

So I'm going to be observing in Arizona for about the next week. This evening, I was waiting for the other graduate student to get off of the plane in Tucson, I was just standing next to my luggage. A Japanese man, about 60 years old, comes up to me (as he's leaving the jetway) and asks (I kid you not): "*mumble, mumble,* are you a physicist?" Me: "*stammer, stammer,* yes." He asked what I was doing here, and I said observing at MDM, and he was like, "oh, okay," and went away. I didn't realize the weirdness of this story until after he'd left (I'd been asleep on the plane so I was not exactly "awake" yet) ... but I don't think there was anything about me that screamed, "I am a physicist!" I checked, and I wasn't wearing a physics shirt or even anything particularly nerdy (is a Hawaiian shirt, black slacks, and black loafers that unusual?). The other graduate student postulated that perhaps he had been in earshot of our conversation at the beginning of the flight over which temperature scale is superior (which included calculating the average body temparture in Celsius); apparently the guy across the aisle from me had been shooting us weird looks for the duration of this discussion. But does a discussion of temperature scales really give it away that I'm a physicist?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Saturday Morning Ramble-Blogging

Fall quarter started on Wednesday, which means that the little ones are back, and even though I'm not taking any classes, everything has this shimmering buzz about it that was lacking during the summer. We've already had our first CCAPP seminar—the lack of colloquia and seminars are one reason summers have so much copious free time—and the coffee and sandwich shop on the first floor of our building has reopened. There have already been several home football games; I went to my first a couple of weeks ago thanks to a pair of tickets someone else couldn't use. We played Akron, and as games go, it was OK: the first half was abyssmal with a halftime score of 3-2, but the second half actually played like a real game rather than a lazy Saturday afternoon practice. College sports like this (i.e., football and basketball) still kind of disturb me: why bother with the messy premise that these atheletes are also students? Why not just have a "young professionals" league for players under, say, 23? What's the point of college "spirit"? Am I the only one who finds it mildly sickening just how clearly laid out the gender roles are in this arena?: man fight, woman cheer. My dad was a high school guidance counselor when I was growing up, and I remember it being a big treat to go to the Friday night home games with him; I was never interested in trying to follow the game, but I would always run down to the bottom of the stands to watch the cheerleaders. I know ther eare people reading this who don't think this dichotomy is a big deal, so tell me: how come there are no big popular women's games, and especially none with male cheerleaders on the sidelines enthusing the vast crowds?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Scientists in Movies (and TV)

I saw Pi last week for the first time since about when it came out in 1998. Back then, I didn't really see what the big deal was, but then, I probably was unable to follow the "plot." This time around, I really don't understand what the big deal was: it's an artsy-fartsy film that is trying way too hard. Everyone knows that Contact (the book) does a better job of hinting at the mystique of number theory—even though it's nominally a book about astronomy and aliens and religion!—and even Kushiel's Avatar does a better job at trying to guess what it would be like to hold the supposedly unholdable Name of God in one's head.

But what really disappointed me about Pi—and thus made all of the number theory and religious mumbo jumbo just silly and contrived—was the utter stereotypical nature of the main character, Max. He's clearly supposed to be the troubled genius, an antisocial outcast rife with self-destructive hallucinations and unthinkable mathematical insight. No. Just, no. Even if mania/insanity/depression/whate-have-you and intelligence are linked or correlated, the movie still screams, "Ooooh, look at me! Isn't this disturrrrrrbing?" No. It's ridiculous. Now get over yourself.

Even most movies which clearly try to be realistic fall short. Take for example the play-based Proof. In it, Gwyneth Paltrow is supposed to have proven this really amazing theorem about "prime numbers," but she is also battling various mental issues. While the psychosis in this film still comes across as a bit off, I think it's a good effort; where the movie is utterly painful for me is whenever the characters attempt discussing math. This is the problem the writers face: they can either have the characters speak naturally like real scientists or mathematicians would—and thus have essentially no one in the audience understand any of the jargon-laden sentences, or they can have the characters repeat definitions to one another that they would have realisitically known since they were six years old and have the conversation come across and stilted and forced. Most movies I can think of choose the latter path; they'd rather hold the audience by the hand and let them feel like they can follow the conversation rather than have a realistic exchange in which the tone of what is spoken—the jokes, the tension, the insults, the interruptions and half sentences—are the drivers of the plot rather than the actual words.

The only two movies I can think of that take the latter route (and even then, still let the words be the plot driver) are Contact and Real Genius. The particular scene in Contact that doesn't try to painfully explain the details to the audience is the one in which they are taking the Vegan signal and converting it to a TV visual and audio output; the dialog exchanged is reasonably realistic, and the audience doesn't have to understand it all because it all makes sense when the TV is turned on—and part of the humor in the scene is that the nasty miltitary man doesn't understand the conversation either. Contact has its own shortcomings of course—you can seriously not convince anyone who has spent time trying to decipher puzzles lacking instructions that "we can only get three sides to fit together!" doesn't scream "I'm a cube, damn you!!!"—but it is still one of the best movies with scientists as characters I know of.

The other, of course, is Real Genius. The students and scientist-types in it are all obvious caricatures, but they are exagerations of something realistic and along the correct axes. Sure, many of the characters in the movie are the stereotypical "oh no I'm smart and can do math so I must be a total social dork!" but the main character, Chris Knight, is clearly well outside of this box. I couldn't even begin to list the number of movies and TV shows featuring a scientifically intelligent character who is white, male, with glasses, doesn't shower often enough, can't get a girlfriend, can't carry on a "normal" conversation, and is uncomfortable in big groups and pretty people. Of course, this is a travesty because it's through pervasive moves and television that most kids subconsciously learn the cultural stereotypes of many professions and different kinds of people. It is extremely difficult to fight stereotypes once they are planted.

Are there any movies, or even TV shows, out there that I'm missing which depict scientifically minded folk in a realistic—or at least non-condescending—fashion? Even the West Wing, which clearly respects characters with intelligence, treats mathematical intelligence as inferior to the ability to yield verbal rhetoric. I think the main problem is that (good) writers write what they know, and almost by definition very very few writers know what it is like to be or be around real scientists. This, combined with the fact I mentioned above about writers being scared to write conversations their audiences can't actually follow, is why even those writers who want realistic technically-minded characters on screen don't achieve them.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Ceci n'est pas un "link dump"

So I was fairly dead to the world (of the internet) in August. But with September comes a whole new month! I've been so slack on reading blog posts (probably a good thing, of course, given the general inverse correlation between number of blog posts read and amount of work done) that I've started using Google Reader to keep track of the unread posts. Seeing as how I've also recently bought my very own coffee pot so I can enjoy real coffee at home, this morning's internet perusal is also slightly more caffeinated than usual. In reality, I was actually planning on reading a set of papers on absoprtion systems in close quasar pairs, but I cleverly left the stack in my office. So you, whatever little readership is left after such a month of non-posts, win.

The Friendly Atheist talks a little bit about an article in the Columbus Dispatch on the recent surge of atheistic books; the article itself isn't terrible enlightening or interesting, but I think it represents a response to the overwhelming support the editor of the Faith & Values section was sent after innocently asking in February whether or not nontheists should enjoy a more representative sampling of articles in the F&V section than is typical.

Elizabeth Wood over at Sex in the Public Square rightly points out that the whole "debate" over whether sexual preference is chosen or biological is completely irrelevant to the fact that it isn't something that should be a basis for discrimination.

We also saw (and are seeing) all sorts of people fleeing from the White House like rats from a sinking ship; see this recent AP story on Tony Snow for a probably complete list. My favorite quote is:

Snow, ailing with cancer, had said recently he would leave before the end of Bush's presidency because he needs to make more money.
See, he could have said, "for health reasons," or something completely believable and forgivable like that ... but "more money"?! Sheesh. And certainly the timing these sudden desires for more money and wanting to spend more time with family are mere coincidences rather than being due to knowing something we don't know and not wanting to be held as accountable later. Certainly.

Speaking of people focussing on all the wrong things, Mark at Cosmic Variance provides a nice superposition of people worried about action rather than hypocrisy and baggy clothes rather than crime.

On a completely unrelated note, it seems that ScienceBlogs is doing a 500,000th comment contest, and it appears that the winner will be sent to Cambridge (the one in the UK, that is). Personally, I think Boston is the "greatest science city in the world," and I'm completely unbiased, but I also think most people (myself included) would rather score a free trip to England. I'd be perfectly happy to get my hands on one of those Sb mugs, though.

This is also one of the more fantastic times of year for those of us on the evil quarter system, seeing as how plenty of other places have already started classes and are being innundated with floods of undergrads. Best part is: I'm not taking classes this term! Or next term! Or, really, ever again! I doubt the gloating will ever get old.

And then we have this delightful gem showing us that I may not be representative of those educated in South Carolina:

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Google Sky and Astronomy for the Masses

So some lady just called me looking for the Political Science department .... I told her that I am in the Astronomy department, not Political Science. So she asked me if I believe the universe is expanding. Yes ... "That's because of the redshifts, right?" Yeah ... "So who owns the Hubble telescope?" Uh ... "The US Government owns the Hubble telescope, right?" Well, I wouldn't put it quite like that. "The French government doesn't operate it, so it must be the US." Does that really follow? "Astronomy is a science, right? What's the phone number of the chair of the science department?" Uhm ... It's 6pm... I don't think anyone is going to be in their offices right now.

Sigh. I clearly need more practice talking to crazy people while still allowing them to remain "interested" in astronomy, though this one seemed rather well-informed, albeit with big warning bells going off all over the place. In other news, Google announced today that the Sky is now part of the Earth, in that Google Sky is now part of Google Earth. This was enough of an incentive for me to finally download Google Earth and waste lots of time looking at pretty galaxies and galaxy clusters and nebulae and other such fun things. Constellations and planet orbits are included. Much like Google Earth, Google Sky is much more in the hokey fun category than the useful category, and unfortunately the objects I'm prone to looking at first are the ones I know well enough to be annoyed at how poor some of the data is. The entire sky has been mapped by the Digital Sky Survey (DSS), and a fourth of it by the more recent and absolutely fantastic Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). The Sloan images include all of the delightful astrometric precision of SDSS, as well as all five wavelength bands of the survey. Then, for the popular select few objects, the Hubble Heritage project has kicked in with "informative" blurbs about "zoom lenses" (also known as "the Virgo Cluster") and other such things, though one useful bit about these is the links to outside sources like ADS for said objects. The Hubble Heritage project by itself is a pretty interesting archive to nose around in if you haven't already, as well as the recently released Hubble Legacy Archive (which is actually good for scientific purposes).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

I Guess It's Official

Seeing as how I no longer live next to a set of rather active railroad tracks, I've gone and changed my Blogger profile to reflect the now official move to a better, less undergrad-saturated area of town. The old apartment wasn't all that bad; the only noise problem was due to the people upstairs, and their 3:30a.m. trysts had cut into my sleep one too many times. And the bathtub was horribly disgusting, as it was shaped such that the lowest point was in the center of the tub rather than at the drain. The front door could never be open for more time than it took for one or two people to go through it due to a nasty fly problem, and the laundry room was three times as far away as the railroad tracks and down a flight of stairs. So it was time to get out, but I hate hate hate moving: I hate putting stuff into boxes, I hate taking stuff out of boxes, I hate standing in the middle of a room with some random thing in my hand wondering where it should go, and I hate having stuff everywhere. I've taken several half days and three full days off (and it would have been many more and would have been a lot more painful had my mother not decided to drive up and help), and I'm completely ready to get back to thinking about astronomy instead of where the permanent location of the box of stuff will be. And, now that I've got internet at the New Place, I might even start blogging more than once a week.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Box of Stuff

When I was little, I had a "game" box that I kept neat things in: stickers, neat shells (small ones), odd game pieces, a multicolored crayon that I never used because I didn't want to waste it. I mostly used the objects in this box to design games around; of course, one important rule in all of these games was that I could always add new rules, and therefore always win.

I'm moving to a new apartment this week, and as such everything in my apartment is finding its way into boxes. This afternoon, I went through the Box of Stuff that has been sitting relatively ignored in the corner of my bedroom since I moved here two years ago. It's called the Box of Stuff, by the way, because everything in it originally came from the Drawer of Stuff back when I was living in a dorm. I figured a Box of Stuff I have barely touched in two years is probably full of stuff that can happily make its way to the trashcan, but boy was I wrong. This Box is like a treasure trove.

I found seven boxes of matches, two boxes of sparklers, several candles (one of which smelled kind of funky), and a small thing of green glitter I bought for about ten cents in Taiwan (I think). There was also a dozen matchbox cars and a mostly used tube of super glue, from back when I spent hours trying to glue matchbox cars to the ceiling of my dorm room freshman year—turns out getting super glue to stay where you want it on wheels that turn, and then getting the wheels to stay where you want them, is more difficult than it had seemed at first thought, and so the plan of having a city on my ceiling never really panned out. The Box of Stuff also revealed a box of 100 poker chips, five six-sided dice (in an unopened box), about eight decks of cards including one unopened one with the kings and queens of England on it from when I visited the UK when I was ten. I was delighted to find a can of silly string, a leftover remnant of the first year I ran HMMT and got to pick out all of the prizes; there was also an HMMT frisbee. There was also a leaf of Lothlorien (a clasp like the ones in the movies), a long roll of Caution tape (borrowed from some place), a long roll of CAUTION INFINITE BUFFET (caution) tape, a thing of Magic Grow Safari Animals, an Exacto knife, a surprisingly large collection of paint (about 10 different colors, also from when I was attacking the ceiling and door of my freshman dorm room). I found (and threw away) two large road reflectors (one yellow and one blue); these were from when my dad was going through a phase of collecting road reflectors of all colors and giving them to friends. (My mother claims he wanted to give them to all of this friends so that they could each bring one to his funeral, but since he's stopped, it must mean he thinks he isn't going to die, or else he's gotten distracted by something else shiny.) The Box further revealed a large collection of Mardi Gras beads, several pocket tools with belt holsters, twine (off-white, yellow, and neon orange), and a box of the most excellent colored chalk you can imagine.

Hopefully my next generation of treasure collecting won't be in the form of Horcruxes... What's in your box of stuff?

Monday, August 06, 2007

France, circa 2004

Well, I apparently haven't felt like blogging lately, but since I see other people are giving me credit for it, I figure I might as well share this little gem with you:
I can't remember who sent this to a francophile mailing list I was on at the time, but the timestamp on the image is December 2004, back when "freedom fries" were still all the rage. (And, by the way, FFE: I have a vague idea just how much clicking it must have taken you to find this image. Man you must have been bored.)

UPDATE: According to this Digg post (from 12/2006), the company is Tom Bihn designs, but I can't confirm this. Anyone?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How Do They Do It?

The latest from Quirkology:

I have my own theory, but I don't want to spoil the thinking for anyone. Leave your ideas in the comments!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Simply FOBulous

Friday night's AstroMovie was Simply FOBulous, sponsored by a graduate student whose boyfriend is on of the Also Starrings in the independently made film. The movie is about the oldest daughter in a Vietnamese-American Seattle family which is pressuring her into marrying a nice Vietnamese boy. The solution is a mail-order husband from Vietnam who she doesn't really want to marry. He arrives in the US seemingly Fresh Off the Boat (or FOB) and naive. Hilarity ensues as various people try to teach the new arrivee about life in America.

While there are parts that scream "low budget!"and many of the characters are strongly stereotyped, Simply FOBulous is simply hilarious. There were lines that many of us didn't catch because we were still laughing from the previous exchange. You can support independent film by buying the DVD, which was just relseased last Tuesday.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Philosophia Naturalis #12

So I decided a while back that in doing Philosophia Naturalis #12, I was going to have a really awesome theme, but I haven't been able to come up with a good one. At first, I was thinking I'd do a magic or Harry Potter themed post, and indeed there have been several reports in the blagosphere about the science behind Harry Potter. Anne-Marie at Pondering Pikaia has tackled such issues as the botany of wands, the genetics of wizardry, and other such biological quandries. Or, if you're like me and much more worried about things like energy and momentum in your fantasy stories and movies, Blake at Science after Sunclipse will remind you exactly which aspects of physics need to be ignored (or simply to become more, ah, flexible) in order to actually enjoy, say, the X-Men. But even though I'm going to be picking my copy of Book 7 up from the local Barnes and Noble at midnight Friday night, I'm really not enough of a fangirl (and, indeed, all of the hype is getting rather annoying, though the geeking is rather fun) to allow this analogy to go much further.

With Brian May of Queen finally getting his PhD (and giving a few talks along the way), I considered doing some sort of rockstar themed post, but really, there isn't much else there.

The adventure role-playing game theme can be applied to most anything. You could be a skepchick doing research out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, forced to send blog updates in via a co-blogger (such as parts one, two, three, four, five, aaaaand six ... and while you're over there, you might as well vote in the Mr. Wizard video competition). But then, as you're going along, minding your own business as you try to steal a shopping cart, you're thwarted! Blake Stacey at Science after Sunclipse has the story.

Or, not. And this is where I remember that, oh yeah, I actually find themed blog carnival posts mildly annoying because they're usually really difficult to read. I just want a nice list of blog posts, with perhaps a few words of description for each.

Alright, that's it for this month; I hope you've found something to enjoy and keep you busy while everyone else is reading Harry Potter 7 multiple times this weekend. PN #13 will be held at Cocktail Party Physics on August 16.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Blended iPhone for Sale

For those of you who haven't seen it:

And, yes, the remains are for sale, currently going for $1126 with more than three days left on the auction. It comes with a "Will it blend?" DVD, a t-shirt, and one of their blenders. (By the way, if you've got that much to blow on such a "used" iPhone, then would you please just give me the money instead? I've got some student loans that could use a good knock in the teeth.)

Man, that's a nice blender.

UPDATE: Oh my god I am so awesome I EMBEDDED A VIDEO ....

Saturday, July 14, 2007

What is Math?

Apparently, math is within the purview of the Phiolosophia Naturalis blog carnival (*nudge, poke*, suggest articles!), which has got me thinking again of a discussion I had a couple of months ago with a group of MIT alum I didn't know very well. One of the guys in the group was trying to promote the view that math is a science, but the scientists at the table didn't like this idea very much. There are actually three distinct questions at play here. At the most fundamental level, what does "mathematics" mean and encompass, how do we approach and go about learning and discovering math, and how should math be marketed so as to not scare people away from it?

So, is math a science? Webster defines "mathematics" as "the science of numbers and their operations, interrelations, combinations, generalizations, and abstractions and of space configurations and their structure, measurement, transformations, and generalizations." But any real mathematician (except perhaps a number theorist?) would be quick to say that mathematics is about mere numbers. Keith Devlin claims that mathematics is "the science of patterns." I grimaced when I first heard this proposed definition, in part because it shifts the definition from "mathematics" to "science" and "patterns." I think what sets math and science apart is a certain degree of allowed imagination: for example, it is possible to create a self-consistent theory in which gravity goes like r-3 instead of like r-2, and the only problem with this theory would be that it doesn't describe the world we actually live in. One has to go and look at our universe to realize this, however. With math, however, one can theoretically sit in a closed room with a good brain and an endless supply for paper and pencils and derive and prove all of math—in math, something either is or is not true, and there is no way to even self-consistently describe the stuff that isn't true. That is, math is, at its core, universal truth.

From a marketing perspective, though, would it be better to treat math as a science? If the idea is that "numbers are scary" but "patterns are fun," then treating math like something to be explored and investigated instead of memorized might help fewer people get turned off by it. Such an educational approach, however, is the kind that is expensive and difficult to test the results of... though an approach that teaches how there are patterns in the multiplication table rather than insistance on memorization might have benefits. I can't really speak to this, however, since I've never been an educator, and moreso, I can't imagine what it's like to not grasp elementary level math as intuitive.

I had a friend who majored in the "philosophy of math" at Harvard. He said they didn't do math; they thought about doing math. When people actually "do math," i.e., prove new theorems and such, I think the process is rather scientific. You have some idea, a "hypothesis" perhaps, and you start with your assumptions and poke around until you prove or disprove the idea, or decide it's too difficult and the idea needs simplification. Science has a lot of trying new things to see what kinds of results can be produced; in this functional way, perhaps math is much more like an experimental science than a theoretical one, but where the "data" are trains of logical thought rather than measured values.

Of course, there are those who claim that math is a construct of the human mind, and, of course, we have no way of disproving this theory until we can communicate with other species. So you behavioral biologists and neuroscientists better get working on that.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Announcement of Philosophia Naturalis #12

I'll be hosting Philosophia Naturalis #12 right here at a geocentric view on Thursday, July 19. Philosophia Naturalis is a blog carnival for the physical sciences. If you'd like to suggest an article, you can email me at or leave a comment here. The carnival webpage also offers a more detailed explanation on what kind of articles we're apparently looking for, as well as a few other ways you can suggest a post. I'd like for submissions to be in by the night of Tuesday, July 17 so I can have at least a little time to organize my thoughts. Anything since June 20 is fair game.

And, yes, I did use a mailto link up there. I'm not sure I approve, but you should email me anyhow, unless you're a spambot.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

ActBlue: Daniel Biss or Kakistocracy?

For those of you wondering this Independence Day what you can do to "get more blue states," I'd like to direct you over to ActBlue, "the online clearinghouse for Democratic action." The idea is that, through the ActBlue website, you can find out who the Democratic candidates are for given elections, and also through the ActBlue website, you can donate money to these campaigns. (They even have a blog if you'd like to get some up-to-date statistics.) Through ActBlue, you can learn about such candidates as Daniel Biss, who is a (very cool) University of Chicago math professor running for the Illinois House in District 17—he's also someone you can actually believe when he says his top priority is education, and that he thinks everyone should exercise their right to vote, regardless of their political leanings. Or, if you like to get entertainment value out of your donation money, you can donate to Maine's Hancock County Democratic Party by purchasing a Kakistocracy bumper sticker. (For those of you in need of a vocabulary lesson, a kakistocracy is a "government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens.")

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Miracles and Missions

Last Tuesday morning I went with my family to the groundbreaking for the new "community center" at the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). I've mentioned DJJ on here before; my dad is heavily involved with volunteer efforts out there, and apparently he was building coordinator for this multi-million entirely-donated dollar effort. The idea behind the community center is that, compared to once they re-enter the real world, it's relatively easy to get an incarcerated kid back on track while they are still behind bars. But in the real world, normal high schools—let alone colleges—don't want these kids in their halls. It's harder to get a job, to become a fully functioning member of society... and so they slip back into old habits. If I understand it correctly, the idea behind the community center, which is being built for cost on the DJJ campus, is to serve as a place where kids can become more integrated into the community before their release date. I can't keep track of how many years have been spent on this project to get it this far, and I have only the vaguest sense of how much effort and work it has taken. As such, I was completely taken aback when speaker after speaker at the little ceremony talked about how this is "a miracle from God." Seriously? It's one thing if you don't give yourself any credit for all of your hard work, but what about your coworkers and those who have donated money? Wouldn't a true miracle have been having this building just show up five years ago so that it could have benefited all the kids who have gone through DJJ during that time? I understand that these people think that God works miracles through people—I don't understand why they think this, but I understand that they do—but wouldn't it be a more positive message to send to people trying to put their lives back together before they've barely started that if you work really hard for something you can achieve it, rather than saying if you work really hard for something, that's nice and all, but it's not your accomplishment in any case?

So then Tuesday afternoon, the girl I was best friends with growing up got into town, and I got to hang out with her for the rest of the day. (Our parents lived two houses apart since I was five.) In July, she's off to Nicaragua for three years to teach at a school for children of missionaries. She'll be making barely enough to live off of, and since the school doesn't have a large influx of money (the kids have to pay tuition, but you can imagine how much spare money missionaries have in the first place), they want for the teachers to donate a good chunk of their salary back to the school. The solution? "Stateside" support, i.e., have your church, friends, and family back home "donate" money for you to live off of for three years. While I am worried about some aspects of this venture, I do think it will be a good experience for her, especially since she wants travel and adventure and has been trying to get a job teaching elementary school for the last year and a half. But this whole thing has gotten me thinking a lot about mission work; Nicaragua is an officially Roman Catholic country, but more and more people are becoming protestant. Why a christian country needs missionaries is a little bit beyond me, but over lunch on Tuesday, my uncle was explaining to me how his kids have been involved in mission projects in Mexico. These projects are to build a house for a family in a short time frame, free of cost. In the meantime, the kids get to learn about poverty, form a bond amongst themselves, and learn the personal benefit of helping others—all good things independent of any religious motivation. (Again, Mexico is extremely Catholic ... why would they need evangelizing to?) It seems that Chad over at Uncertain Principles has been thinking along these same lines this past week (see here and here, and be sure to read the comments): are there any atheist/non-religious charity organizations that provide both this kind of charitable work and such an enriching experience for the people involved? Values and religion are not the same thing, of course, and it is important for children—regardless of the religion or lack thereof of their parents—to learn values (whatever that might mean) and the importance of hard work and the power of people in action instead of praying that some god is going to miraculously fix the world in his own sweet time.

Friday, June 29, 2007

There might be a lesson or two in here somewhere ...

The plan was for me to come back from South Carolina on Wednesday and do my oral exam on Thursday. Roughly speaking, that's what happened, but like many stories, there's a nice "travelling sucks" story stuck in the middle.

So Wednesday morning, my mom drove me up to Charlotte and it was no problem at all getting to Detroit (I was flying Northwest). As we were landing, a nice thunderstorm broke out, and so we got to sit on the tarmack for about an hour before someone would come out and bring out the jetbridge so we could get off. I grabbed a sandwich and talked on the phone for a bit (long layover) and worked on my presentation some. I was working enough that I didn't even notice my flight back to Columbus had been delayed a bit, but I didn't care since I didn't have a tight schedule. When they finally let us onto the plane, the two people ahead of me in line got all huffy with the boarding ticket lady because they didn't realize that they couldn't bring their big suitcase onto the plane and had to check it planeside. Oh, and they were rather drunk. Finally get on the plane and one of them is sitting across the aisle from me and smells like a nice ashtray—quite unpleasant. Eventually someone comes onto the plane and asks to "talk" to them "for a minute." They go; I get two seats to myself. We then sit at the gate for another twenty minutes for security to deal with the drunk people (why they needed the plane there to do that is beyond me). We then go sit on the runway for about an hour before the pilot tells us that we don't have enough fuel to get to Columbus because we're being rerouted, so they take us back to the gate before letting us know the flight has been cancelled. By this time it's after 8pm, and I was supposed to be back in Columbus before 6:30. Needless to say, Northwest was fully uninterested in getting me back to Ohio that night; they said they "might" be able to get me back "tomorrow." Tomorrow? Might? I have an exam at 2:30 that I'm—oh yeah—unprepared for! In the meantime, I had made friends with some ladies in the back of the plane (apparently watching smelly drunk people get kicked off a plane is a bit of a bonding experience). One of them was able and willing to rent a car on her company credit card and drive the four of us back to Columbus. (Thanks, Robin!) By the way, this is another example of why to never check luggage; I was the only one in the car with all of the stuff I had been hoping to leave with. I pretty much never spend time around "real" people, so I was pleasantly surprised when the conversation was lively and interesting the whole way back—and it definitely made for an upbeat ending to a rather shit-tastic birthday. I was dropped off at the airport, where I picked up my car and finally made it home sometime after 1 a.m.

Thursday, I was fairly dead to the world. I was reeeeeally hoping that some combination of caffeine, adrenaline, and maybe even anxiety would suffice for waking me up, but not so much. The hour before the presentation I spent trying (unsuccessfully) to nap on my desk. The talk itself went okay; somewhere in my academic past I have learned to give a half-decent presentation on auto-drive. The more than an hour of questioning afterwards, however ... let's just say it was a rather embarassing experience I'd rather not reminisce over and leave it at that. I passed of course, and I went out for wings afterwards (BW3s has finally re-opened near campus), but I am forced to wonder how it would have gone if I had actually been cogent and lucid, and actually, you know, prepared for the ordeal instead of taking a five day joy trip to a place that has the power of giving me a really thick accent.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Brief Visit "Back Home"

In an unexpected turn of events, I'm in South Carolina visiting my family this weekend. It's not very often that I get on a flight booked less than 48 hours earlier. Nothing bad, but I don't really know yet why I agreed to come... more on that later.

Now, as I've not lived here for many years, and I only visit two or three times a year, I have gotten used to the house being slightly different on each return: new refrigerator, new truck, new camper, my dad's new motorcycle, the upstairs area where my mother used to tutor now set up as a "home fitness" area, my old desk moved downstairs to be my parent's computer workstation, pictures on the walls changed, all of the beds re-arranged for a complicated set of reasons only my mother can be hoped to understand, and so on. This visit certainly has the biggest change yet, but at least I was warned about it—my dad even called and asked my permission before doing the Severe Rearrangement.

You see, my old bedroom, the one I lived in from the summer I turned 5 until the summer I turned 17, is now a massage parlor. This is because my father is in the process of becoming a licensed massage therapist, and for a complicated set of reasons only my father can be hoped to understand, my bedroom is the only room in the house suitable for being transformed into a massage parlor. So I now sleep in the guest bedroom when I visit, which is strange as it is a room I know fairly well, but (until a few nights ago) had never slept in.

I spent some time today cleaning out my old beside table, as my dad now wants to use it as a place to stash massage equipment. This was an entertaining exercise as the bottom drawer of this particular piece of furniture seems to be where I stashed every single note I passed (or was passed) in middle or high school, along with pretty much every letter I received during the same time period. Meanwhile, my mother and my brother have been unpacking all of his stuff from his two years as a graduate student, and preparing him for starting basic training (and then officer candidate school [OCS]) tomorrow morning. The army has sent him nice little informational booklets about both of these ventures. For example, the future soldier handbook is quite explicit that future soldiers should not show up with a thong in their posession. Just in case you were wondering.

It is really difficult to get work done here. You know, real work. I was supposed to give the oral portion of my general exam tomorrow, but well, as my mother wanted me here instead, I was able to get it moved to Thursday. After less than 48 hours of preparation. So, I've been trying in vain to actually prepare for it while here, but the only place in the house even remotely acceptable for working happens to be right outside of my brother's room ... and therefore directly in the floodpath for all of the ruckus that is my mother and brother trying to "get organized." It's been a good visit so far and we've had a lot of fun together, but I'm still rather, ah, antsy about Thursday ...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Galaxies!! Part Two

Waaaaay back in June—as in, last June—I wrote a long post explaining the background, mostly about galaxies, needed to understand the work I've done on the connection between how strongly barred a galaxy is and what kind of structure its circumnuclear dust takes on. (If you want to understand the results below, I recommend reading the background post first. Also, the poster for the conference I presented this at last year can be found here.) The paper was published on December 1, and it is this paper that I will be presenting next week for the oral portion of my general exam, so I figure it's about time I get around to explaining to y'all some of the actual, you know, results.

The first step in preparing next week's talk was to re-read this paper I haven't touched in nearly a year. This has been fun, not only for the "wow! galaxies are cool!" aspect, but also because I can think things like, " 'Employ'? We employ this technique? Didn't we really just use it??" Also, all of those figures I thought were gorgeous a year ago? Turns out the font is too small on most of them, and at least one of them has a typo (as well as one table).

Our first main result was that tightly wound nuclear dust spirals are primarily found in galaxies lacking bars. This isn't all that surprising due to boundary conditions: for the dust in a circumnuclear spiral to connect to the (radial) dust lanes in a bar, the spiral must unwind somewhat, and tightly wound spirals are not somewhat unwound.

So what kinds of circumnuclear morphologies do strongly barred galaxies take on? One common feature is what we term "large grand design" (LGD) spiral structure. A LGD spiral has two prominent symmetric spiral arms which, in 90% of our LGD galaxies, distintegrate before reaching the galaxy nucleus. One frequent end for these spiral arms is at a circumnuclear starburst ring. A circumnuclear starburst ring is just what it sounds like: a ring of intense star formation and thick dust surrounding the galaxy nucleus, like the example to the right. Here, the LGD structure are the dark dust lanes on the top left and bottom right of the image, which connect onto the ring itself. Inside the ring, we see a loosely wound nuclear spiral which is distinct from the ring itself, and is likely to be "native" dust; that is, the bar is probably ineffective at funneling material to the very center of this galaxy. In our most strongly barred galaxies, those lacking LGD spirals simply have very chaotic centers (at best, a chaotic spiral), potentially with a lot of ongoing star formation.

Monday, June 18, 2007


I've been in the greater Boston area this weekend (Boston-Cambridge-Sommerville-Allston) for a wedding. As my significant other was one of the groomsmen, we were involved in all of the wedding-y things: the pre-wedding dim sum Friday night, the square dancing Saturday afternoon, the rehersal dinner Saturday evening, the pre-wedding setup and endless picture taking Sunday morning/afternoon, the actual wedding Sunday afternoon with partying extending to late Sunday night, and the post-wedding brunch this morning. I've never been square dancing before, but it was a lot of fun (aside from the occasional big fat sweaty man who I really didn't want to be anywhere near); it's something I might want to try again.

The actual ceremony was a Jewish ceremony, and as I had never been to a Jewish wedding (or anything else, for that matter), I found it all quite interesting. Because this was an "interfaith" wedding, the rabbi was kind enough to explain what each part meant as it was happening. Weddings strike me as something in which a little bit of tradition is a good thing (circle of life and all), but too much is just plain hokey and impersonal. This wedding had the katubah (Jewish marriage contract) signing, a wedding canopy, poems and blessings spoken and sung by friends, ring exchange, and some nice glass smashing at the end. I especially liked the canopy (because it can be kept) and the glass smashing (because it'ssimultaneously sweet and destructive), and I think I would have been all choked up and teary throughout the entire ceremony had it not been for the occasional god-reference for comic relief. The more personal bits included friends change ringing on handbells, in part because both members of the couple ring bells, but also because that's how they met. For the uninitiated. change ringing is not the same as "tune" ringing; it is a British form of ringing that's been designed to be able to be done on large bells that take a couple of seconds between the "ding" and the "dong." Some pretty neat mathematical patterns can come out of it, but that's another post for another day.

I've also been able to spend some time this weekend with friends who I do not get to see very often, mostly in food-centric events. It amuses me that I lived here for four years and there are still so many parts of the city I know nothing about; this weekend I have gone further on both the red and green T lines (that's Boston lingo for "subway") than I ever have before. On the other hand, some things stay the same. I've written this blog post on one of the computers in the computer lab where I wrote most of my undergraduate thesis, and there's a lady in the corner over there who was in here most of the time I was writing it two years ago.