Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Running in Nonna & Papi's back yard, Houston, TX, December 2008.


Playing in the Johnny Jump-up at Nonna & Papi's house, Houston, TX, December 2008

Learning to Fall Asleep

"Sleeping like a baby." Whoever came up with that aphorism clearly never had a baby. When you have a kid, you come to realize that babies are terrible sleepers. They have no sleeping skillz. Specifically, they're horrible at falling asleep. They need rocking, singing, humming, perfect quiet, a loud fan--all types of aids just to relax and fall asleep. And then they're up 2 hours later.

I'm very perplexed about this behavior. When our ancestors were hunting and gathering while living in the forest, how did enough of us survive to reach civilization with babies screaming their heads off every 2 hours? A primitive mother doing laps around the ol' tree for an hour with a screaming infant doesn't work so well for passing on genes, at least it seems to me. Holy sabre-tooth lion attacks! Were babies better sleepers 100,000 years ago? Did they have the ability to fall asleep peacefully back then and lose the skill as humans got more sophisticated and softer? Is an infant screaming for an hour a side efect of civilization?

Among others, these are the thoughts that occupy me as we begin Marcus' sleep training. The other thoughts are usually along the lines of, "Oh please oh please let this pause in the screaming be the end!"

"Sleep training" is just a sophisticated term for "letting' 'em work it out." Erin and I read a book about it called Health Sleep Habits, Healthy Child during Owen's infancy and we used the method to great effect. It's a simple technique that really could have been summed up in one chapter:

Chapter 1: Let 'em cry it out.

Come to think about it, the title is the entire chapter! The subsequent chapters of the book explain why this method works, how it's okay, and no, really, it's actually okay.

Chapter 2: It works.
Chapter 3: No, I'm serious, it will eventually work.
Chapter 4: No, your baby is not dying.
Chapter 5: Hang in there, it'll soon stop.
Chapter 6: We're proud of you, you're doing it, keep it up champ!

(Just kidding, there's all kinds of good stuff in there about naps, what ages are appropriate for developing certain sleep habits, etc.)

So here we are again, sleep training our second baby. And oh man, it's painful. I'm taking solace in remembering Chapters 2-6, and that Owen only took about a week and at the end he was, and is to this day, an excellent sleeper as a result.

Wish us well and pass the ear plugs...

UPDATE: Marcus just went silent after only 30 minutes on his first night! He's a natural! (yes, he's okay, we just checked his breathing :)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Nature of News

A couple days after appearing on Slashdot (news for nerds), my research team and I appeared in today's edition of Nature News!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In the news...hopefully

UH Astronomer Uses Ultra-Sensitive Camera to Measure the Size of a Planet Orbiting a Distant Star

(See also: oklo)

A team of astronomers led by John Johnson of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy has used a new technique to measure the precise size of a planet around a distant star. They used a camera so sensitive that it could detect the passage of a moth in front of a lit window from a distance of 1,000 miles.

The camera, mounted on the UH 2.2-meter telescope on Mauna Kea, measures the small decrease in brightness that occurs when a planet passes in front of its star along the line-of-sight from Earth. These "planet transits" allow researchers to measure the diameters of worlds
outside our solar system.

"While we know of more than 330 planets orbiting other stars in our Milky Way galaxy, we can measure the physical sizes of only the few that line up just right to transit," explains Johnson. The team studied a planet called WASP-10b, which was thought to have an unusually large diameter. They were able to measure its diameter with much higher precision than before, leading to the finding that it is one of the densest planets known, rather than one of the most bloated. The planet orbits the star WASP-10, which is about 300 light-years from Earth.

IfA astronomer John Tonry designed the camera, known as OPTIC (Orthogonal Parallel Transfer Imaging Camera), and it was built at the IfA. It uses a new type of detector, an orthogonal transfer array, the same type used in the Pan-STARRS 1.4 Gigapixel Camera, the largest digital camera in the world. These detectors are similar to the CCDs (charge-coupled devices) commonly used in scientific and consumer digital cameras, but they are more stable and can collect more light, which leads to higher precision.

"This new detector design is really going to change the way we study planets. It"s the killer app for planet transits," said team member Joshua Winn of MIT. The precision of the camera is high enough to detect transits of much smaller planets than previously possible. It measures light to a precision of one part in 2,000. For the first time, scientists are approaching the precision needed to measure transits of Earth-size planets.

Bigger planets block more of the star's surface and cause a deeper brightness dip. The diameter of WASP-10b is only 6 percent larger than that of Jupiter, even though WASP-10b is three times more massive. Correspondingly, its density is about three times higher than Jupiter's. Because their interiors become partially degenerate, Jovian planets have a nearly constant radius across a wide range of masses.

The photometric precision is three to four times higher than that of typical CCDs and two to three times higher than the best CCDs, and comparable to the most recent results from the Hubble Space Telescope for stars of the same brightness.

Johnson is a National Science Foundation astronomy and astrophysics postdoctoral fellow working at the IfA. Working with Johnson and Winn are MIT graduate student Joshua Carter and Nicole Cabrera, a student at the Georgia Institute of Technology who spent the summer working with Johnson as a participant in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the IfA.

The scientific paper presenting this discovery will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. A preprint is available on the Web at

Built in 1970, the UH 2.2-meter telescope continues to produce cutting-edge scientific results.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Owen's reason for the season

One of my favorite things is when Erin and the boys pick me up from work. When I walk out Erin usually parks such that Owen's window faces the front door of the IfA, and as I come out he usually shouts, "Daddy!" and smiles really big and I say, "Baaaahhhh, OWEN!." It's a great way to end the work day.

Yesterday was different, however. Owen's window wasn't down and he wasn't smiling. When I got in the car I said, "Baaahhh, OWEN!" He informed me, "No Daddy, I'm grumpy!" The reason for his sour mood was that the play structure he wanted to play on was undergoing renovations. So one can understand his less than sunny disposition.

On our way home Owen sat in the back and stewed. But when we rounded the corner on Liloa Rise, we all spotted something truly glorious: A new Christmas display that featured, dun duh dun, a choo-choo christmas light display!

Erin said, "Owen, do you see what I see?!" To which Owen replied, "I think I just smiled!"


Monday, December 1, 2008

Science! In Action!

I've been invited to give a Wunch talk at the Princeton Department of Astrophysical Sciences in mid-December. Wunch stands for Wednesday Lunch, and as far as I can tell Wunch talks are the same as colloquia in other departments, which are formal, hour-long presentations about your research. It's a good way of advertising your work, meeting important people in your field, and getting really stressed out! Compounding matters is the fact that I applied for their tenure-track faculty position, which potentially makes this particular talk of mine my Job Talk (granted, every talk is a job talk, but...)

In an effort to relieve a little stress and break the monotony of preparing my Power Point slides, I decided to break out Gawker and make a time-lapse video of myself working. I snapped a frame every 10 seconds and recorded at 16 frames per second. I look remarkably like a Bobble Head Doll. Amazingly, I avoided picking my nose while filming. Well, I avoided having my nose-picking captured on camera.