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Showing posts from July, 2012

Science is back on TV...well, web TV

Ever pine for the days when the Discovery channel and PBS showed nature documentaries and fun, yet educational shows about science? I'm talking actual science as opposed to The Science of Monster Trucks vs. Sharks!!!

Well, Jorge Cham of PhD Comics fame, together with Caltech Planetary Sciences grad student Alex Lockwood, are coming to the rescue with a new web TV series called PhDetours. Here's the first episode. Stay tuned for more!


Twinkle, twinkle

Twinkle Twinkle Little StarBy Julia Kregenow and Jason Wright
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
I know exactly what you are

Opaque ball of hot dense gas
Million times our planet's mass
Looking small because you're far
I know exactly what you are

Fusing atoms in your core
Hydrogen, helium, carbon and more [Note that these have to be pronounced as quick triplets for proper scansion, i.e. "hy-dro-gen, hel-li-um, car-bon-and, more"...]
With such power you shine far
Twinkle twinkle little star

Classed by their spectroscopy
Oh, Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me
Bright when close and faint when far
I know exactly what you are

Smallest ones burn cool and slow
Still too hot to visit, though
Red stars dominate by far
Twinkle twinkle little star

Largest ones are hot and blue
Supernova when they're through
Then black hole or neutron star
I know exactly what you are

Our Sun's average as stars go
Formed 5 billion years ago
Halfway through its life so far
Twinkle twinkle little star

(new verse! 7.23.12)
Sunspots look…

Profound musings

In a recent post about reference frames in the universe and the cosmic microwave background, my friend and fellow astronomer recently wrote:
This "dipole" signature in the cosmic microwave background represents our motion (mostly the Milky Way's motion) through this omnipresent gas of photons left over from the explosion that created the Universe.  This means that the stuff in the Universe does have a preferred frame of reference, even if the laws of the Universe don't.  Crazy.  Sometimes I wonder:  how did the Universe pick that frame?  Other times I wonder whether that question has any meaning at all.  Other times I wonder which of those wonderings is more profound.  Then I get back to changing my daughter's diaper and my priorities are rightfully restored.Well stated!

Dueling Lasers

I received this email and photo the other day from a collaborator of mine:
Last night, Andrea Ghez's group [at UCLA] had both Kecks using LGS-AO on the supermassive black hole at the Galactic Center. Check out this image.UPDATE: The photo was taken by Dan Birchall (Subaru Telescope Operator). Check out his blog here.




Check out this post for more about the Keck laser adaptive optics system.

Newton's Cannonball

by: Lori, via the Exolab Blog
A deafening boom. A rush of air. The smell of gunpowder. And suddenly a cannonball was arcing through the air. This hypothetical cannonball, launched by Isaac Newton in a thought experiment, could be considered the shot-heard-'round-the-world heralding the arrival of the theory of gravitation.



Newton reasoned if one shot a cannonball off the top of a mountain at a relatively low velocity, it would travel some distance and fall back to Earth. Faster velocities would mean the ball travels farther before it hits the ground. But of course, Newton did not stop there. What if the radius of the ball’s trajectory curve matched the radius of the Earth? The ball must keep falling, but it would never reach the ground. Essentially, it would orbit. So technically, we are falling around the sun, while the moon falls around the Earth! This particular thought experiment that led to Newton’s theory of gravity was only made known after his death. He published very few w…

Aiming for the unexpected

The other night I received an email from my friend Avi Loeb, the director of the Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation, sharing one of his regular non-refereed astro-ph opinion pieces. Avi likes to share his non-standard opinions and ideas in these short little papers, and I've enjoyed and learned a great deal from his previous contributions, such as this one about taking the road less traveled in ones research.

In his most recent posting, Avi avocates for national funding for "open research without a programmatic agenda establishes a fertile ground for unexpected breakthroughs." This would be in addition to funding for traditional, low-risk endeavors. 


I really like this idea, especially since it resonates with what I'm trying to set up within my own research group at Caltech. I try to make sure that my students and postdocs have primary projects that "pay the bills," as my advisor Geoff Marcy liked to say. But I also encourage open discussion, outsi…

Three levels of pain

I received a similar image via the Facebooks by Linda Y. Google showed me this one. 

Spinning food

Image caption: Little Pea is a handy tool for getting your kids to eat their veggies.
Parenting is tough. The moment you figure something out, the logarithmic evolutionary timescale of your kids' development surpasses any gains you've made over a similar timescale. Pardon my technical writing just then, I'm writing three papers and two proposals right now. Basically what I'm saying is that a 1-year difference between, say, ages 3 and 4 is enormous in terms of a kid's development in comparison to the meager gains that I, as a parent, make over that same period. After all, when you're 34, one year feels pretty short, and let's face it we parents aren't learning at the rate we used to! The moment you finally learn a new parenting trick, your kid is an entirely different person.

I remember how this effect was especially acute when the boys were babies. A baby basically has only four things that can go wrong. They need: a new diaper, food, burping, sleep. Bu…

A New Perspective

On the Penn State Scandal

My good friend and close collaborator Professor Jason Wright is a relatively new prof at Penn State. He recently wrote about the scandal on his family's blog (on which I lurk :), and he agreed to let me repost his thoughtful and thorough writeup here. I have a lot of thoughts myself, but I have neither the experience nor writing skillz to say it as well as Jason. I will say that

The admixture of child sexual abuse and unlimited power/trust placed in the higher-ups bears a striking resemblance to the Catholic church's ongoing sexual abuse issues It is the near worship-level football culture at Penn State (and other big schools) that lead to the unlimited power/trust placed in falible human beings. I've recently been giving a lot of thought to things like celebrity and sports fandom. When you stop and think about these things, they're really strange concepts! Why do we care so deeply about things that ultimately have no direct affect on our lives? (Of course, this doesn&…

Humans used to dream of flying

Wouldn't this be an awesome way to commute down the mountain after a long observing run?

Don't screw this up for me, LeBron

I've been combing through Jay Smooth's archives at The Ill Doctrine and I came across this gem about the silly illusion of importance that all sports fans share:


99 Problems

From my brother-in-law, a.k.a. MC Law-talkin'-guy:

I thought I would send you a summary of one of the best legal pedagogical tools I've come across in recent years: Jay-Z's second verse to the song 99 Problems.  I recently became reacquainted with the song while listening to the Jaydiohead mashup 99 Anthems[Youtube link not safe for work or innocent ears], a mix of the lyrics to 99 Problems and the music of Radiohead's The National Anthem (which is a great combination, in case you haven't heard it).  I noticed that the second verse raises a lot of issues concerning the scope of law enforcement authority when they pull over your vehicle, and, lo-and-behold, a law professor and former Assistant United States Attorney from the Southern District of California recently wrote an article based on this very concept (PDF document).  Hopefully you find some of this interesting and helpful, and, remember, when in doubt about what you can and can't do and what limits there …

Scary Smash!

Via Jenn@losbike, a story written by a kid.

Kepler: The Archetypal Nerd

byLori  From the Exolab Blog
Modern technology has enabled us to find thousands of planets orbiting stars other than our own Sun, only within the past few decades. Most of these planets fall into three broad categories: ice giants, gas giants, or hot super-Earths. The most intriguing kind of exoplanet, the holy grail of exoplanet discovery, Earth-like planets in their respective habitable zones, is less commonly found. The Kepler Mission is a NASA Discovery mission that is responsible for finding a majority of the planetary candidates we know of today, and is designed to find these diamonds in the rough over the course of its full mission lifetime. Kepler has taken us leaps and bounds beyond the big puffy hot-Jupiters we were first aware of, and its success is taking large steps toward discovering extraterrestrial life. So who was the eponym, Kepler? It’s a name we’ve all heard, but it doesn’t carry with it the same stories the other giant names of science carry: Newton’s apple, Galile…

xkcd's United Shapes of America

My favorite part is how Georgia's and Missouri's shapes are interchangeable. Somehow, I never noticed that before.


via xkcd.com

Caltech Athletics: Can't Win For Losing

Did you hear the story about the small science and engineering school in Southern California that turned itself in to the NCAA for rules violations? Have you heard all the jokes about having to vacate wins it didn't have, and giving up off-campus recruiting that it never did?

Well, as with much that happens at Caltech, I had to hear about this from an off-campus source. Jason Wright posted the original story on Facebook a couple days ago, and another friend pointed me to this LA Times article. A snippet

While other programs often falsely brag that they're winning the right way, seemingly only at Caltech do they have the guts to lose the right way. "This is our integrity at stake here," said Betsy Mitchell, who discovered the violations shortly after she was named Caltech athletic director last summer. "It stinks, but we did the right thing, and we're going to take our medicine." You know what stinks? This Pasadena brain boutique is essentially being pu…