Sunday, May 29, 2011

Telescope Time Lapse

These are the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescopes (VLT). Each of the four large telescopes has an 8.2 meter (diameter) primary mirror, and they can be used individually, or they can be combined together to form a much larger telescope through a process called interferometry.

This video also shows the wonders of the Southern Sky. As our Aussie readers can attest, there is a much higher density of stars visible south of the equator owing to the orientation of the Earth relative to the Galactic plane. I've observed once on the Magellan telescopes at Las Companas, Chile, and I can't wait to go back one day soon.

The orange streak emanating from one of the telescopes at 2:44 is the laser guide star adaptive optics system. The laser excites sodium atoms in the atmosphere and forms a fake star above the telescope. The light emitted from this fake star traverses back down through the atmosphere and a sensor on the telescope measures the deviation of the light from a perfect point. Basically, by sensing the twinkling of the fake star, the telescope's camera can adjust its mirror to compensate for the ripples in the atmosphere and form nice, sharp images. There's a laser system like this on Keck, and just last week the Robo-AO laser system was tested successfully at Palomar on the 1.5-meter (60-inch) telescope (see image below).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

It is not a matter of if—but when

Via Savage Love, Mayor Bloomberg's recent speech on marriage equality (full speech here):

When the Village erupted in protest 42 years ago next month, New York—and every other state in the union, save one—still had laws on the books that made same-sex relationships a crime. A couple could go to prison for years, just for being intimate in the privacy of their own home. For men and women of that era, an era many of us remember well, being in a gay relationship meant living in fear:

Fear of police harassment.

Fear of public humiliation

Fear of workplace discrimination.

Fear of physical violence.

Today, in some places, those fears still linger. But as a nation, we have come a long way since Stonewall. Today, two women in a committed relationship—who years ago would have hidden their relationship from family and friends—will instead take part in a wedding ceremony in front of their family and friends. Today, two men who are long-time partners—who years ago would never even have entertained the idea—will adopt a child and begin a family.... Today, a majority of Americans support marriage equality—and young people increasingly view marriage equality in much the same way as young people in the 1960s viewed civil rights. Eventually, as happened with civil rights for African-Americans, they will be a majority of voters. And they will pass laws that reflect their values and elect presidents who personify them.

It is not a matter of if—but when.

And the question for every New York State lawmaker is: Do you want to be remembered as a leader on civil rights? Or an obstructionist? On matters of freedom and equality, history has not remembered obstructionists kindly.

Not on abolition.

Not on women's suffrage.

Not on workers' rights.

Not on civil rights.

And it will be no different on marriage rights.

Monday, May 23, 2011

It's so personal

The state of Minnesota is facing the same budget crisis that every other state is facing, with major cuts to social services, public education, and huge unemployment numbers. The solution?
Minnesota Gay Marriage Ban Amendment On 2012 Ballot

Minnesota lawmakers on Saturday night approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, sending it to voters for their approval, the Star-Tribune reported.
Yes, apparently the best way to solve your state's budget crisis is to make sure that a portion of your citizens are banned from marrying. To be clear: gays and lesbians are not currently allowed to marry in Minnesota. This ban would be a preventative measure just in case they should get all uppity push the issue during a year of non-apocalyptic budget woes.

This directly affects two of our closest friends, Liz and Lindsay, who live in Minneapolis. They have been in a committed, monogamous relationship for fourteen years (4 years longer than Erin and I). They are high-school sweethearts, and they now have a handsome little 14-month-old boy. As they write on their family blog
Sarah Anderson, the representative from my district...sent us a note right after Jude was born letting us know that she was so excited to hear about the birth of our son and to "let her know if there was anything we needed." So, Liz took Sarah Anderson up on her offer and asked that she vote no on the amendment. So there we were, watching the lights by the representatives' names light up green or red. Looked like green was winning. Sarah still hadn't voted. And then she did. Her light turned green and I took it personally.
Yeah, I take it personally, too. Sarah Anderson, wake up and realize that you are way on the wrong side of history. How do you get to the point in your political career where you can do this to your constituents and still sleep at night? Also, how exactly does this reduce your state's deficit or create jobs?

In another post, L&L post some of the letters their friends and family sent to the Minnesota state legislator. I was particularly touched by the letter sent by Lindsay's mother
My husband and I are not residents of Minnesota, but we have three very good reasons why we are urging you to vote no on your state's proposed marriage amendment: my daughter, her partner, and their 14 month-old son. As you know, we are fighting this same battle here in California and we are hoping fervently that Prop 8 will be overturned.

When we learned that our daughter is gay when she was 17, we were shocked, sad, and most of all scared - scared that she would be discriminated against. Fourteen years later, after a great deal of learning and emotional adjustment, we see our daughter's family just as we will see our son's family should he have one some day. I dare any of you to spend a day with them and then say they don't have the same right to legalize their relationship that your heterosexual children have. They are both college graduates, have good jobs, own their own home, and are doing a fantastic job of raising their son. If only all children had the benefit of being raised in such a loving family, the world would be a much better place.
Please, take some time to learn about this issue rather than voting blindly along political lines. Don't prohibit my daughter from having the same civil right as yours.

This is what it comes down to: whether or not to deny rights to law-abiding, productive citizens. More to the point, denying equal rights to two loving parents. The basis for this denial? Nominally it's to "protect the sanctity of marriage." As if gay people getting married will cause divorces. As if Erin and I will continuously have our marital bliss endangered by gay people devoting their lives to one another. This is the weakest of weak-sauce arguments out there.

Of course, the real reason rests in a tradition of bigotry. This is how it worked with slavery, the oppression of women, segregation, modern intolerance of Muslims, and it's how it continues with gays and lesbians. Fortunately, this intolerance is weakening. The major driving force behind this sea change is the number of people who know gay, lesbian and queer people is steadily increasing as more and more people come out of the closet, and more and more straight people recognize the senselessness of the previous generations' bigotry.

Late last month, Gallup released findings from a new poll demonstrating that opposition to marriage equality is higher among American adults who say they don’t know anyone who is lesbian or gay. Check out this article about the pole results, which says
The survey, which was conducted earlier in May, found that Americans oppose legalizing marriage between same-sex couples by 57% to 40% . That margin hasn’t changed notably since a previous Gallup poll about a year ago.

When the May sample was split into those who said they have a gay or lesbian friend, relative, or coworker (58% of the sample) and those who didn’t (40%), the differences in marriage attitudes were striking.

The latter group registered overwhelming opposition to marriage equality — 72% opposed it whereas only 27% favored it...By contrast, respondents reporting personal contact with a gay man or lesbian were almost evenly split — 49% supported marriage equality and 47% opposed it.

It's just very difficult to be intolerant of a group of people when you know some of them at a personal level. It's easy to rail against those damn Mooslims when you haven't ever spoken to one. It's easy to enact discriminatory legislation against people when you don't recognize them as people.

This was certainly the case in the evolution of my own views toward gay and lesbian people. I vividly remember a sermon at my church in which the pastor said that homosexuality is a special kind of sin that God abhors more than others, because when a man loves another man it causes the men to be less a reflection of God Himself. I bought into that at the time. It was easy, because after all...ew. Just....ew! Right?

That is until I started meeting gay people. It turned out that some were annoying, but it was just because they were annoying people, not because they were gay. It also turns out that some were the most kind, funny, intelligent and interesting people I had ever met. Some of them became close friends, and still are to this day, like Liz and Lindsay. And far from being a threat to Erin's and my marriage, Liz and Lindsay's relationship is a model for us. Knowing them has protected and strengthened our marriage. And as a result, I want to protect theirs against the senseless bigotry of people like Sarah Anderson and the other MN legislators that are attempting to strip the rights of MN citizens.

The fight for marriage equality is very personal for us.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On Science Talks and the End of my Tour

Thinking back to my time as a postdoc in Hawaii, I can remember waiting around for invitations to give science talks at other institutions. My thesis work had fully matured, was yielding exciting results, and was promising to lead to even more exciting research directions. On top of that, I was following the advice I had received by branching out into other projects of my own design. I was eager to go out and share my science with other astronomers.

Unfortunately, the phone rang very infrequently. I gave talks at JPL here in Pasadena, and another at the University of Washington. Both were excellent experiences and confirmed my feelings that I was ready for other big stages. I later recognized that I should have been inviting myself to various places, but at the time I was feeling discouraged that I wasn't able to book good gigs, so to speak. After all, how was I going to get recognized as a good faculty candidate? How was I going to move to the next stage if I couldn't show off what I was doing?

Well, all that changed after I got the job I was seeking. Once I became an assistant professor, the phone finally started ringing. At first I thought this was rather ironic: now that I have the job I was hoping to advertise for, I finally get the chance to advertise. But it turns out things were working as they were supposed to. As an assistant prof. I was seen as a fully vetted speaker, someone definitely worthy of inviting to other institutions. And by taking these invitations, my efforts are certainly not wasted. I have tenure to earn, and as such I'm pretty much still applying for this job. And while a few usual suspects will write me letters of recommendation, my tenure committee will solicit many more letters from colleagues at other institutions. My advertising has just begun!

A big part of professional science is communication. I spend a large fraction of my time writing papers, writing proposals, writing letters of recommendation, giving lectures and giving talks. The small fraction of the time left over is spent writing code, planning observations and actually observing, in decreasing order of time spent. As such, a large part of my future (and ongoing) job evaluation is based on my ability to not only do good science, but communicate it clearly and enthusiastically to a broad scientific, and in some cases public audience.

Hitting the "talk circuit" in astronomy is a lot like a band playing gigs. As a new, struggling act (grad student) you first start locally giving talks at your group meeting. From there you give a journal club talk, whereby you give a 30-minute presentation about a research paper you read that week. Later, you might get invited to a neighboring institution to give a lunch talk. These are informal brown-bag affairs during which the speaker gives a 30-45 minute talk on their research project, while the audience of students, postdocs and a stray prof or two much on sandwiches. From there you give your thesis defense, and perhaps a postdoc job talk or two, and in astronomy it all culminates in a 15-minute dissertation talk at the American Astronomical Society meeting.

I vividly remember my dissertation talk. At first I was extremely disappointed that it was scheduled for the last session on the last day of the Austin meeting in Jan 2008. However, since there was nothing else for everyone left at the meeting to do, I had an audience of about 500 astronomers and I gave my presentation in the huge plenary session room, the stage flanked by two 40-foot projection screens. It was awesome!

After you graduate and take a postdoctoral position, you either wait around for the phone to ring like I did, or you do the smart thing and invite yourself to institutions. This is where the connections and friendships you built in grad school start to pay off. Give your buddy at Princeton a call and ask if you can get a Wednesday lunch-time seminar talk (a Wunch Talk as they call them). Book an early flight home for Christmas and stop over somewhere on the way to give the last theory seminar talk of the semester.

All of this presenting can be for naught, or even a net-negative, if you don't put the necessary time and preparation into your science talk. This is where paying close attention to the fine details of colloquium talks pays off. Take notes on what works and doesn't work in weekly talks at your institute. Talk to other postdocs and professors and get advice on how to make clear slides, tips on organization, and pointers on how to dress, where to look (e.g. not at the screen), how to handle Q&A, etc. As I tell my students, you spend months writing a paper and a dozen people in your subfield will read it carefully. But if you give a good talk, you can reach dozens at a time from a wide variety of subfields. You should therefore but as much or more effort into your talks.

The next step up involves giving colloquia. While lunch talks are like playing local bars or doing opening acts for bigger bands, colloquia are like the big shows at downtown venues. Think the Troubador in LA, or the Great American in San Francisco (sorry, I don't know the big venues on the East Coast!). They are usually held at the end of the day on a Wednesday or Thursday, right in the heart of the week. Not the end of the week when people might take off early for a long weekend, or the beginning of the week when people are returning from weekend travel. There's usually a "tea time" before the talk consisting of Costco cookies, coffee, maybe some wine and cheese. After eating and drinking, a large fraction of the department gathers for the big talk of the week: 45-55 minutes followed by 5-10 minutes of Q&A.

Another big part of giving colloquia are the meetings you get to have with various people in the dept before and after the big talk. These are usually 30-60 minute chit-chat sessions during which you talk about your research ("tell me something you won't cover in your talk"), ask about their research, and maybe even get a lab tour or two. These are great opportunities to learn about exciting science outside your field, put names to faces, and have your face put to your name. Colloquium visits also usually involve a lunch date with the grad students, and a big post-talk dinner out at a fancy local restaurant. These dinners are where you get to hear all of the good gossip, catch up with old friends and enjoy good food and good drinks. Think: the post-show part in green room.

I'm becoming more and more convinced that these colloquia engagements are a vital part of one's career development as a young scientist. I'm learning a lot about others research, other departments' approaches to teaching, meeting interesting people in my field, gaining a lot of public speaking experience. Plus, people are learning a lot about me, my research and what I'm up to over here in Pasadena.

At the same time, all of this travel has its cost. It leaves Erin home with the kids for long stretches, I miss my kids, it takes me away from my students, and it's not easy to do research on the road. So after two solid years of monthly speaking engagements, I've decided to take a long stretch off from traveling. It's going to be a good summer home with the kids, lots of hands-on advising, weeks at a time to do my own research, and I even plan to take a 3-week vacation!

This is also a good time to look back. For my own records, if not your entertainment, here's where I've traveled in the past two years. Think of it as the JohnJohn 2009-2011 US Tour:

2009 March: Caltech Job Talk, Pasadena, CA
2009 June: Gordon Conference, Invited Speaker, Mt. Holyoke, MA
2009 Sept 10: UC Berkeley Astronomy Colloquium
2009 Sept 16: Penn State Astronomy Colloquium
2009 Oct 22: Missouri University of Science & Technology (MST), Physics Homecoming Colloquium
2009 Oct 27: MIT Astronomy Colloquium
2009 Oct 28: Boston University Astronomy Colloquium
2009 Nov 4: UC Santa Cruz Astronomy Colloquium
2009 Nov 5: Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics (Stanford), Astronomy Seminar
2009 Nov 9: Keck Institute for Space Science (Caltech), Invited Speaker
2009 Nov 13: Sagan Fellowship Symposium (Caltech), Invited Speaker
2010 Jan 5: 215th AAS meeting, Oral Session Speaker
2010 Feb 23: University of Texas-Austin, Astronomy Colloquium
2010 Mar 23: Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics (UCSB), Exoplanets Rising Workshop, Invited Speaker
2010 Apr 15: University of Utah, Astronomy Colloquium
2010 Apr 21: Discover/TMT Discussion Panelist
2010 May 3: European Geological Union (Vienna, Austria), Oral Session
2010 May 15: Caltech Seminar Day
2010 May 18: Caltech Planetary Sciences Seminar
2010 July 10: Palomar Public Lecture
2010 July 22: Keck Observatory (Hawaii) Public Lecture
2010 Aug 18: Penn State Public Lecture
2010 Aug 19: Penn State Precision RV Conference, Oral Session speaker
2010 Aug 21: Cool Stars Meeting (Seattle), Oral Session speaker
2010 Oct 15: Keck Science Meeting, invited speaker
2010 Oct 21: UCLA Planetary Science Seminar speaker
2010 Oct 28: Ohio State University, Astronomy Colloquium
2010 Oct 30: Caltech Board of Trustees, public lecture
2010 Nov 10: UCLA Astronomy Colloquium
2011 Feb 10: Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation Lunch Talk (my talk starts at the 0:54 mark. I'm really proud of this talk because I had never given it before, nor had I practiced it.)
2011 Feb 10: Harvard CfA Colloquium
2011 Feb 15: Carnegie Observatories (Pasadena), Astronomy Colloquium
2011 Mar 2: Princeton University, Astronomy Colloquium
2011 Mar 3: Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, NJ), Astronomy Seminar
2011 Mar 30: Columbia University, Astronomy Colloquium
2011 Mar 31: Hunter College, Astronomy Colloquium
2011 Apr 20: University of Florida-Gainsville, Astronomy Colloquium
2011 May 2: American Physics Society, Plenary Speaker
2011 May 4: Exploring Strange New Worlds conference, Flagstaff, AZ, invited
2011 May 16: NASA Ames, Space Sciences Division seminar

Whew! It has been quite a ride. I'm glad to say that I have no talks lined up until September. After that, maybe I'll play a show near you.

Image credit: (top) Random Physics Colloquium Image, Harvey Mudd, (middle) my blurry iPhone image during setup before the APS Plenary Session, (bottom) Group photo from the NASA Exploring Strange New Worlds conference in Flagstaff, AZ. Where in the world is JohnJohn?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

First Bingo

Owen: "This is my first bingo in a row!"

"Outside" for 63 points. "Ouch!" says Dad.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


More fun with words

Speaking of fun with with words, more from The Books: