### A Historical Day: Pictures of Planets

As you may have seen in the news, two explanet research teams have taken the first pictures of planets orbiting other stars. The astronomy community is buzzin' right now--this is absolutely huge! Up until now, we've only sensed the presence of planets by detecting their gravitational influence on their parent stars, or seeing the planet eclipse its star as viewed from Earth. The difficulty with taking pictures of planets is that the little guys are so much fainter than their host stars. It's analogous to seeing someone hold a candle next to a light house in Hawaii...as viewed from California!

Now we actually have portraits of two exoplanetary systems: Fomalhaut b, and HR8799 b, c and d. My former Berkeley classmate, Mike Fitzgerald, is 3rd author on the Fomalhaut b paper. Nice work Mike!

In the picture above, you can see the Fomalhaut planet orbiting just inside of a massive "debris disk" that is a lot like our solar system's Kuiper belt (where Pluto lives). The star is blotted out by a shield-like object mounted on the telescope kinda like the Sun visor on your car, which makes the whole thing look like the Eye of Sauron, huh?

There's something very powerful about actually seeing planets sitting there next to some of our stellar neighbors. What's especially cool, at least from my perspective, is that these new planets orbit stars more massive than our Sun. Known as "A-type stars" or "A dwarfs," Fomalhaut and HR8799 are about twice as hefty as our star. My own research has shown that stars more massive than the Sun are twice as likely stars to have planets. Mass matters when it comes to planets. It's nice confirmation to see--actually see--the first imaged planets around such massive stars! Here's an excellent writeup by Greg Laughlin over at oklo.org. You can follow the links he posted to see more cool pictures.

So remember where you were when astronomers announced the first pictures of planets outside of the solar system!

Update: Check out another good post here at the Bad Astromomy blog.
Update 2: NPR Science Friday Podcast here.

Anonymous said…
I heard about that on NPR yesterday! I was all, my brother-in-law does that stuff. :)
blissful_e said…
John - you have an amazing way of writing about far-off complicated things in an entertaining and accessible way. :)

fyi - I was in Perth, Western Australia, when this was announced. Thanks for letting us know about it!

### On the Height of J.J. Barea

Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea standing between two very tall people (from: Picassa user photoasisphoto).

Congrats to the Dallas Mavericks, who beat the Miami Heat tonight in game six to win the NBA championship.

Okay, with that out of the way, just how tall is the busy-footed Maverick point guard J.J. Barea? He's listed as 6-foot on NBA.com, but no one, not even the sports casters, believes that he can possibly be that tall. He looks like a super-fast Hobbit out there. But could that just be relative scaling, with him standing next to a bunch of extremely tall people? People on Yahoo! Answers think so---I know because I've been Google searching "J.J. Barea Height" for the past 15 minutes.

So I decided to find a photo and settle the issue once and for all.

I then used the basketball as my metric. Wikipedia states that an NBA basketball is 29.5 inches in circumfe…

### Finding Blissful Clarity by Tuning Out

It's been a minute since I've posted here. My last post was back in April, so it has actually been something like 193,000 minutes, but I like how the kids say "it's been a minute," so I'll stick with that.
As I've said before, I use this space to work out the truths in my life. Writing is a valuable way of taking the non-linear jumble of thoughts in my head and linearizing them by putting them down on the page. In short, writing helps me figure things out. However, logical thinking is not the only way of knowing the world. Another way is to recognize, listen to, and trust one's emotions. Yes, emotions are important for figuring things out.
Back in April, when I last posted here, my emotions were largely characterized by fear, sadness, anger, frustration, confusion and despair. I say largely, because this is what I was feeling on large scales; the world outside of my immediate influence. On smaller scales, where my wife, children and friends reside, I…

### The Force is strong with this one...

Last night we were reviewing multiplication tables with Owen. The family fired off doublets of numbers and Owen confidently multiplied away. In the middle of the review Owen stopped and said, "I noticed something. 2 times 2 is 4. If you subtract 1 it's 3. That's equal to taking 2 and adding 1, and then taking 2 and subtracting 1, and multiplying. So 1 times 3 is 2 times 2 minus 1."

I have to admit, that I didn't quite get it at first. I asked him to repeat with another number and he did with six: "6 times 6 is 36. 36 minus 1 is 35. That's the same as 6-1 times 6+1, which is 35."

Ummmmm....wait. Huh? Lemme see...oh. OH! WOW! Owen figured out

x^2 - 1 = (x - 1) (x +1)

So $6 \times 8 = 7 \times 7 - 1 = (7-1) (7+1) = 48$. That's actually pretty handy!

You can see it in the image above. Look at the elements perpendicular to the diagonal. There's 48 bracketing 49, 35 bracketing 36, etc... After a bit more thought we…