Friday, March 30, 2007

Clean Slate

Well, I've basically finished the project I've been working on since August; the paper will be the first one on the astro-ph list for Monday, and I'll probably write up a short something for here about it before then. So I'm moving on to other things, which apparently means I start by cleaning my desk area (the before state is here). One of my officemates suggested I post this picture; I'm really just doing it to see how long it'll take for him to comment on it again. Everything is so organized it hurts; the papers that were previously strewn everywhere are now in a nice pile in the useless back corner of the desk, and I can actually find which pen I want to use.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Magnitude System

I'm planning on writing a post soon about my recent work on variable stars near the Galactic center, but I've come to the realization that such a post will invariably detour into a healthy rant about the magnitude system astronomers use to describe how bright objects are. So, in the interest of keeping this forthcoming post more on topic, I'll rant about explain magnitudes now. (Yes, two science-y posts in rapid succession; please contain your excitement.)

When astronomers talk about how bright something is, we use "magnitudes" (which are just plain old numbers from, say, -30 to 30) instead of fluxes or luminosities, which are ungainly things with units, like 1400 watts/m2 or 1039 erg/s or 1032 watts. The main reason magnitudes are nice is because they are logarithmic; small numbers are easier to work with and think about than big numbers. Logarithmic just means "3" instead of "1000" or "17" instead of "100000000000000000." The brightness of astronomical objects varies a whole lot, so, logarithmic is nice. Except that the first weirdness of the magnitude system is that instead of saying, magnitude = log(flux), like sensible people would do, astronomers instead say, magnitude = -2.5log(flux) + constant. The constant, whatever, but -2.5?? Seriously? This is the kind of crap that keeps physicists at bay. First of all, the "2.5" means that "an order of magnitude" change in flux (i.e., a factor of 10) is actually a change of 2.5 in magnitudes—or, rather, a change of brightness by one magnitude does not mean that the brightness changed by an order of magnitude. I can almost get past that nomenclature mishap (mostly because there are much much worse problems elsewhere in astronomy) by reasoning that we'd have to use more digits if the 2.5 wasn't there; it's similar to how a "degree" in the Celsius and Farenheit systems don't refer to the same difference in temperature.

But the negative sign. Let's discuss the fact that there is a negative sign in that there equation. This means that a magnitude 10 star is much fainter than a magnitude 5 star. Fainter. As in, less light, because it's got a higher magnitude. ?!@#~!?!?$%#??!! Who the hell ever thought that was a good idea? Actually, it was the Greeks, and if this were a real lesson rather than a thinly-veiled rant, I'd probably explain it to you rather than just handing out a pointer to the wikipedia article on apparent magnitudes. Of course it was the Greeks, what we in the business refer to as a "historical artifact." Historical artifact my ass. When you get into astronomy, they laud it as this amazingly wonderfully rich subject in part because it's the oldest blahblahblah, but what they fail to mention is that what this really means is that we aren't just carrying around the baggage of decades of people naming and classifying things before they knew what the hell they were, but some of the stuff in our closet, nay, our very foundation, is the result of a bunch of guys who died thousands of years ago (and probably wore bedsheets when they were alive in the first place).

Saturday, March 24, 2007


Well, spring has officially been here in the northern hemisphere for several days now, and now that I attend a school whose terms align accurately with the seasons, this also means that spring quarter will be starting Monday. The ice and snow are being replaced with more savory things, like flowers and pollen and ants, and apparently our office building isn't going to have the air conditioning ("cooling systems") turned on until April 10, so it'll be like going to a tropical non-breezy treeless forest every day.

Now, the most important aspect to remember about this upcoming quarter is that I will be taking my Last. Class. Ever. Sure, there might be some set of exams I'll have to take at the end of the quarter, and they're probably going to even give me another degree, but such things are inconsequential when we consider the raw facts of no more classes. See, classes and I, we just don't get along. I'm not a big fan of sitting still for extended periods of time, let alone having time taken out of the middle of my day for sitting still. We used to be pretty close: I took classes and they gave me good grades and everything was hunky-dory. Then in 10th grade it happened: I did my first research project. I had a couple of magenta liquid crystal cells I hooked up to a battery and some switches, and I spent hours and hours heating them up and freezing them (my first fun with dry ice) and watching how the impurities in the material affected the phase transitions. I was hooked. What's the point of taking classes when I could be having fun instead? So for the last nine years (yrrgh! that long??) I've been rather impatiently waiting until I could quit wasting my time on all these silly sit-and-take-notes and then do-these-everso-enlightening-problems classes, and start doing real science.

And when I put it that way, I'm not quite sure I've entirely internalized just how exciting this is going to be.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Spring Break

This week is spring break. Normally, I guess this would mean an oasis of a week of working free from distractions, but for various reasons I'm not going to be doing much in the way of research this week. My paper is finally in its final throes before being submitted to a journal, and ideas about what I'm going to work on next have even begun to congeal... so taking a breather right now is even kind of good timing. I also have the distinct feeling that I won't be blogging much this next week either, but hey, it happens. I'll be back sometime.

And I should totally get points for how specific, enlightening, and interesting this post is.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Worst Part About Being a Graduate Student at Ohio State

A few weeks ago, some prospective graduate students were visiting our department. After coffee one day, they were put in a room with graduate students so they could ask us questions about pretty much anything free from faculty members and any pretence of a social setting. These kinds of situations are usually kind of amusing because we graduate students usually come off sounding like happy drugged babbling people. (In visiting faculty candidates, this behavior often elicits a reaction of (in a confused tone), "Everyone seems really happy here ...")

So one obvious question we got from a prospective student was, "What's the worst part about being a graduate student here?" While most of the grad students were composing eloquent responses along the lines of, "duhr ....," one student, without missing a beat, replied, "Those two weeks in September when they've turned off the air conditioning but it's still really hot outside and so it gets to be like 85° in the offices." Everyone laughed, haha, but oh, man, there's some truth to that.

Except that's not actually the worst part. The two weeks in March when it's started to get warm outside but they won't turn on the air conditioning (or turn off the heat?) have got to be worse. In September, you see it coming, you're already used to wearing summery clothes, but in March you're still naively wearing a jacket everyday and then one day it's warm and it's like WHAM! and your palms get all sweaty just from the exertion of typing in your 80+° office. It's phenomenally horrid. And the whole bureaucratic reason behind it is so absurd: somewhere there is a Big Switch, and apparently they can only flip the Big Switch twice a year, and because of the ingenius cooling system in our building, they can't risk having the AC on (or the heat off?) when there is a risk of the outside temperature going below freezing. It's so ridiculous. I want to be glad it's warm outside, not wandering whether or not I'm coming down with a fever before remembering, oh yeah.

Good thing there are no proposal or funding or other kinds of deadlines this time of year and we can happily go a week or so without working ...

Monday, March 12, 2007

I Had No Idea

This morning shortly after I got to my office, Firefox crashed. Well, froze, and then crashed, but you know how it goes. So I blithely restarted it, and ... some default Firefox page came up instead of my homepage. And the bookmarks on the toolbar were all default instead of, you know, mine. This was clearly unacceptable. Turns out, Firefox had managed to forget all about who I am and what I like and where I've been; I learned in the ensuing hours that I apparently know very few of my passwords, and I get confused without little buttons to click on pre-coffee. I had no idea I needed these features so much. I was completely lost... I kept wanting to search for something or look something up or check something, and I suddenly had no idea how to use the internet. And, apparently, internet browsers have gotten more complicated since Netscape 4.78; I had to get our tech guy to tell Firefox where all of my stuff was. But, luckily, the files were just hiding and I was able to quit pulling my hair out and start crawling the web again.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

I Should Charge a Photon Tax

I think it's time I give you all a tour of where I spend most of my awake-time (and even some of my sleep-time):

I've conveniently labeled the photo for you so you can find your way around. The labels are kind of enh, and hide what they're labeling sometimes, but if you think of it as a treasure hunt, it'll be much more fun.

  1. Unopened package of 72 unsharpened pencils.
  2. New iPod.
  3. Ti-89, running out of batteries. The trick with these things is to replace all of the batteries at once, otherwise the newer ones will explode and the calculator will never work again and Santa will have to replace it.
  4. Bus schedule. Nevermind that I have it memorized.
  5. Leather rose-scented rose.
  6. Pen.
  7. Old 12oz mug. It jumped off my filing cabinet one day, breaking the handle into five pieces, so now it holds pens I never use instead of coffee.
  8. Circumnuclear dust structures in 48 pretty galaxies.
  9. AAS calendar. Tells me the Julian date and moon phase.
  10. Torso-less thinking girl from Chiang Mai, Thailand. She looks like she's made out of some kind of nice heavy wood, but she jumped off another windowsill a few years ago, and broke where her elbows touch her knees, and then I got to play with super glue.
  11. Apparently 11 isn't cool enough to label something.
  12. Coin from the 2006 Mystery Hunt.
  13. Purple 3lb weight; fairly dusty.
  14. Stapler; devoid of staples.
  15. Nice big window. My photons, not yours.
  16. New 15oz mug from Fudan University. Only text on it I can actually read is the 1905–2005, but I have a vague idea of what the rest says.
  17. Cow.
  18. Expired Donato's coupons.
  19. Koala bear. He used to have a Harvard shirt, but clearly a shirtless koala bear is superior to a Hahvahd one.
  20. Wooden dude from Korea. I think.
  21. Pile of papers/trash/junk that moved here from my old office and I don't know what to do with. This whole section of my desk is fairly useless, since the drawers are right there so I can't easily sit there and use it.
  22. New box of Girl Scouth Thin Mints.
  23. Fake coffee.
  24. Sock, not mine. My socks come in pairs, two of which are under the desk, and one of which is in one of the drawers.
  25. Scissors, also not mine. For cutting things.
  26. USB hub, for charging the iPod. Also not mine; belongs to a guy down the hall who has started making threats about what'll happen if I don't return it.
  27. Bacardi cooler bag thingie.
  28. Shot glass, from Jamaica.
  29. A purple pen, not to be confused with the pale purple pen or the dark purple pen or the good purple pen or the purple pencil.
  30. Postcard from Ishigaki next to various trinkets from China and Korea; these trinkets (and the wooden guy) will grow up to become winter tree ornaments.
  31. Research notebook; proof that I am actually organized.
  32. Sugar-free vanilla pudding. I didn't mean to get sugar-free, so I'll never actually eat this.
  33. Bubble-wrap. For popping and annoying officemates.
  34. Phone. If you call it, the girl who had this desk two years ago will tell you to please leave a message. Also comes with a blinking red light.
  35. Technology Review.
  36. Whiteboard eraser.
  37. All sorts of papers about the Galactic center and such things like that.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Red Gloves

When I visited here a little over two years ago as an innocent prospective grad student, I was coming from what was supposed to be a three week trip to southern California (mostly Caltech), and I wasn't prepared for 20 degree weather. My layover was in Denver, and between gates I bought a pair of red leather gloves in hopes of surviving Ohio in January. They were nice red gloves, very soft leather, decently warm, and very very red. They lived in my jacket pockets, because that's where gloves belong and are easily found.

Last week it was much warmer here than usual, so I switched from my winter jacket to my more-of-a-raincoat-except-it's-not-really-waterproof jacket. My gloves, wallet, and phone also made the transition. Then Saturday morning I woke up and it was snowing and this was sad and I needed to switch back to my regular ole winter jacket. But, wait! Only the left pocket of my other jacket was harboring a glove, and I had no idea where the other one could have gotten to. It could have fallen out pretty much anywhere, and after verifying that "anywhere" wasn't my apartment or my office, I was quite sad. My right hand was quite cold all weekend.

Then last night I was walking to the bus stop (the bus only runs on weekdays) to come home, and out of the corner of my eye, I see: red! I look down, and there is a lonely red glove on the ground by the sidewalk, in the mud. I picked it up and put it on; sure enough, it's my right glove, slightly muddy but relatively unfazed by Saturday's snow. And there's no way I would have noticed it in the dim light if it had been some boring color like black or brown.

What really gets me is that yesterday was a rather craptacular day, one of those days that had me wanting to crawl under my desk and hide. And yet finding my red glove, which only put me back on par with where I was Friday, was the best thing that happened all day.

And I really have to wonder what was going through the mind of the guy about ten paces behind me on the sidewalk.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

2007 Already? Seriously?

How did it get to be 2007 already? Have I been asleep for the last two months/years/decades, or what? This crazy quarter system has it so that the last week of classes is next week; like with no warning whatsoever I've got to finish all of the work I haven't done for the last two months. How did that happen? I don't feel like I've been actively Not Working, and yet here it is March already and I don't know where January and February got put. And it's not just March; it's March 2007. New Horizons has already done its little dance with Jupiter, and wasn't it launched just yesterday? We can no longer pretend it's still the beginning of the century—the decade is practically up and gone, and we still haven't come up with a good name for it. Soon we're going to start calling the years with "twenty" in the name instead of the formerly new-sounding "two thousand." Twenty-ten is just around the corner—I'm supposed to be graduating then—which means I might want to have a thesis topic—which means I should figure out what I'm interested in—after I finish this current project, of course—erm...