Friday, August 31, 2012

Player 1 Wins!


(checks inbox to find five new messages...)

Response to the AAS President's column

My good friend Prof. Jason Wright just wrote an excellent post about the AAS President's column. Did you read the column? You should (PDF here). Basically, Jason (correctly) points out how inappropriate it is for the president of a non-partisan science organization to echo partisan political talking points in that organization's newsletter. You should click the link above and read Jason's full post (and subscribe to his RSS feed), but here's a snippet:
But partisan politics that does not touch on these elements should be left alone, because it would unnecessarily divide our community over non-astronomy topics and tarnish our reputations as objective seekers of truth.  The standards of truth in partisan politics are so appallingly low (what will the press print without qualification, what won't get someone convicted of perjury or defamation) that scientists, with ostensibly high standards for truth and persuasion, cannot help but be sullied by the exercise.  Individual astronomers can, and in many cases should, dive into the fray as citizens, but the AAS and our other official bodies and organizations should not.
Nice response, Prof. Wright!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Professor Aura

This definitely happened to me when I was in grad school. I wonder if my students experience this when talking to me...

Friday, August 24, 2012

All of Kepler's planets

If you've been keeping current with news from NASA's amazingly successful Kepler Mission, then you're aware of the huge diversity of transiting (eclipsing) planets that we now know of in the Galaxy. Typically, the planets are depicted as they appear in space: as systems of one to six planets orbiting a variety of stars, like this:

Or maybe like this:

But what would it look like if all of the Kepler planets orbited a single star? Well, it'd look pretty amazing, like this:

Worlds: The Kepler Planet Candidates from Alex Parker on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

marcus in the mist

this boy just makes you smile, doesn't he?

More on the scientific process

My friend/colleague/collaborator/coauthor Jason Wright (PSU) weighed in on our paper on his research blog:

He gives a insightful review of the debate from his unique perspective. Says Jason:
It's been fascinating to be backstage on both sides of a scientific dispute, and to move from "umpire" to "participant".

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Science in action

No scientist enjoys having their results challenged. It is a natural, human response to chafe at criticism. It's because of this human tenancy that makes science such a useful tool. Constructive criticism is built into the the scientific process, and the best theories are the ones that stand up for the longest time against the largest barrage of tests and challenges. There are many ways for a scientific theory to be proved absolutely wrong and a theory can be adopted as truth after it has stood up to the rigor if harsh inquiry.

Last year Prof. James Lloyd (Cornell) published a paper that cast doubt on the key results of my Ph.D. thesis. And while it was a perfect example of science in action, let me tell you, the process didn't exactly feel super-great.

My thesis focused on studying planets around stars more massive than the Sun. By the time I started my project in 2004 there were about 200 known planets. So finding planets wasn't all that novel. However, finding planets around massive stars was brand new territory. This is because when massive stars are on the so-called main sequence, working 9-to-5 jobs fusing hydrogen into helium in their cores, they are horrible targets for planet searches. Planet hunters actively avoided them and focused instead on Sun-like stars.

At the time, most planet hunting was done with the Doppler wobble technique. Rather than detecting planets by seeing them, we can use this technique search for their gravitational tugs on their stars. For every action there's an equal and opposite reaction, and for the star to tug a planet into orbit, the planet must tug back causing the star to accelerate.

The problem is that massive stars are rapid rotators, and their rapid rotation masks their planet-induced wobbles (their absorption lines are extremely broad). For my thesis I took advantage of the effects of stellar evolution to sidestep this problem. When A-type stars like Vega or Sirius run out of hydrogen fuel in their cores, they move into retirement and become "subgiants." Subgiants are much slower rotators than their main-sequence counterparts, which makes them much better targets for planet-hunting. So a-hunting I went as a grad student, and in the 8 years since we've discovered 37 planets orbiting these "retired A stars." I also found that Jupiter-mass planets are twice as common around A stars as they are around Sun-like stars.

This tantalizing correlation between the commonality of Jupiter-mass planets and the mass of the central star has important implications for planet formation modeling, and it can be used to select targets for future surveys. For example, direct imaging surveys have started to target massive stars in the quest to take pictures of planets.

This brings us to 2011, when Prof. Lloyd noticed a feature of stellar evolution that might result in massive subgiants being exceedingly rare---so rare that my planet search program should contain only a few massive stars at most, rather than the dozens I claimed to find planets orbiting.

As stars evolve, they pass through the subgiant branch of the H-R diagram (see figure below). What Prof. Lloyd noticed is that massive stars move along the subgiant branch much faster than less massive stars. This means that at any given time, such as right now, there will be many more low-mass subgiants than high-mass subgiants throughout the Galaxy. Based on this, he argued that my target stars were not retired A stars, but rather retired Solar-mass stars. Needless to say, this would nullify my big discovery. I wasn't exactly thrilled.

I embarked on a project, along with Caltech grad student Tim Morton and Penn State's Professor Jason Wright, to see if my subgiants could possibly be as massive as I thought. It turns out that there should be a sizable number of massive stars in my survey, despite their rarity throughout the Galaxy. The problem with Prof. Lloyd's analysis is that he ignored a bias known to astronomers since 1922 known as the Malmquist bias.

The Malmquist bias is kinda like the infield fly rule in baseball: all fans know about it, but only a few understand it at a gut level. Dr. Malmquist came across this effect when studying galaxies. At the time, it looked like the further away one looked in the Universe, the more frequently they came across extremely massive, very bright galaxies. Did these more massive, brighter Galaxies dominate the universe long ago, only to be broken into smaller galaxies at the present time?

The answer turns out to be no. The reason there appears to be so many massive galaxies long ago (far away) is that all you can see are the bright ones when they're far away! Imagine standing in a pitch dark, expansive warehouse (don't ask why). Now imagine that people are milling about with three types of flashlights: faint, medium and bright. The further you look across the warehouse, the fewer faint and medium flashlights you'll see, because they're both intrinsically faint and they're far, far away. So at the other end of the warehouse all you see are the brightest flashlights, even if the people and their flashlights are evenly spread throughout the warehouse.

What does this have to do with my retired A stars? Well, more massive subgiants are way more luminous than less massive subgiants. So even though they are rare, we can see massive stars over a much larger volume! So by having a brightness-limited planet search, I have a relatively large number of massive stars on my target list.

The great thing about science is that the truth of this matter was out there available for us to figure it out. That fundamental truth didn't care about my career or my pride or my dreams. As a scientist I had to step outside of myself, set my pride aside, and seek out the truth. If the answer came back that my masses were wrong, then it would have been incumbent on me to correct my previous claims. That would suck for me personally, but science would march onward with new results and new clues about how the Universe works. But now that we've figured out that my results turned out to be correct, the ball is back in Prof. Lloyd's court to either defend or abandon his hypothesis.

Tricky Brain!

Ever see one of those news stories about how someone saw an angel or virgin mary in a piece of toast or some such? It turns out there's a name for this sort of phenomenon: pareidolia. Don't ask me how to pronounce it. I just learned about it from one of my former Ay20 students who has continued to write on her blog well after the class wrapped up:

A snippet:

Recognizing facial expression patterns is also very important.  If you want to get along with the people in your group, you have to know if they’re upset with you or happy or worried.  So our brains love to see faces.  They are looking for any piece of information that will tell them what is going on, if there is any danger, if anybody looks like they are angry.  That’s why when faced with pure random noise, our brains try so hard to find a clue about what is going on, and they start to see things that aren’t really there.  Bam!  Pareidolia. 
What this leads to in the wider scheme of things is cultural beliefs in things like Bigfoot, aliens, and ghosts.  One famous example of pareidolia is the “Face on Mars.” 
(Image from Wikipedia)
In 1976, the spacecraft Viking I took an image of a Martian rock outcropping that resembles a face.  Some people interpret this as evidence for intelligent life on Mars.  Others might recognize that seeing such a pattern in Martian rocks is just a result of pareidolia and our brains’ tendency to see faces when none are there.
When the Face on Mars was imaged again in 2001 by the Mars Global Surveyor, it's facial features are no longer visible.

It's very exciting to see my students continue writing about science after taking my Intro Astro course. I think I'm more excited about her writing than I would be if she remembered all of the equations of stellar structure.

I get to do it all again starting in October!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Monday, August 20, 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

GO PUBLIC at San Rafael

I couldn't be more thrilled to be a part of the San Rafael Community featured in the footage below. 
Owen is entering second grade next week where his instruction will be 70% in Spanish and 30% in English (mind you, he's learning all the state standard curriculum in both languages)

2nd Grade Student in Spanish Dual Language Immersion Program from Go Public on Vimeo.

Check out footage from all the other PUSD schools on the GoPublic website 

Monday, August 13, 2012

HFS! Twelve years!

"Yeah, my wife and I have been married for seven years. So...we're almost done." - Louis CK

Twelve years ago Erin and I tied the knot. We decided to go ahead and re-up once again this year :)

Seriously, we're still very much in love. It's been a hell of a ride. Three cities, two states, three jobs, two degrees, two kids later and we're still going strong.

Two more years! Two more years!

Outdoors music

First Aid Kit with "Waltz For Richard" live in an alley in Melbourne.

And Lissie singing "When I'm Alone", from the same awesome series of outdoor performances.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A fine line...

...between "world's best dad" and "Darwin Awards." (via Boing Boing, from the Youtube comments). 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Thank you Youtube

...for restoring my faith in modern music. It's not all crap after all! Introducing Lianne La Havas:

And let's hear it for natural hair and a lack of autotuning! Real hair, real voice, real good!

Full concert here.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Notes for the next Mars landing

In case you've been living on a rock or lost at sea for the past few days: HFS! NASA just landed a car-sized rover on the surface of Mars with an almost comical Rube-Goldberg-like sequence of events that includes an MF sky crane.

As impressed as I am by this tremendous feat of engineering (go humans!), I can't help but think of improvements for the next time around. Here's my list of requests for the next time we make the trip to Mars:
  1. Only one sky crane? Psht. This time we have TWO sky cranes! The first crane erects a launch platform, which launches the second sky crane, which then delicately lowers the lander to the surface before crashing into the first crane, pushing it safely out of the way and self-destructing a safe distance away from the rover. The launch platform then erects the US flag and blares rock-n-roll music retuned to sound awesome in the thin Martian atmosphere.
  2. Land a smaller mission first, which sets up cameras at the landing site to record the landing in high-definition 3D from multiple angles. Post the video to Youtube.
  3. Have the rover befriend a stow-away cockroach. The rover keeps the roach alive by feeding it twinkies. While roaming the surface gathering rock samples it stumbles upon the old Spirit rover. The new rover dusts Spirit off, fixes it up, recharges it from its own batteries, and promptly falls in love. The last image received from the mission is a distant shot of Opportunity and the new rover, hand-in-robotic-hand just about to disappear over the Martian horizon. Just to the side of the frame you can barely make out Curiosity looking on longingly. Curiosity was always so painfully shy, but why didn't it at least say hello to the new rover?
  4. Two words: Val Kilmer.
  5. One more word: Terraforming
  6. Stickers on the new rover that say "Weyland Industries."
  7. Send two spacecraft simultaneously and have them race to Mars. 
  8. Send a tiny capsule containing a robot. The capsule unfolds, the robot climbs out, extracts materials from the Martian surface rocks, synthesizes them into new building materials that the robot uses to build a 3D printer. The design for the latest, best rover is beamed from Earth and printed in multiple copies which spread out to all points on the compass exploring the entire surface of Mars.
  9. Three more words: More sky cranes!
  10. And for my favorite idea: Congress actually spends more money on science than discretionary wars in the Middle East. Instead of using drones to bomb the crap out of brown people while we take their resources, how's about we go back to the Moon, set up a way station, and then send some humans to Mars. Why would we do that? Because we humans are capable of so much more than spending all of our wealth on destroying other humans. Look at what we just did. Watch that 7 Minutes of Terror movie again, and realize that we actually did that and did it perfectly. We can do even more if we put our minds to constructive endeavors rather than destructive ones. This is not just sappy sentiment. It's an empirical fact. Com'mon people, let's do better!

Breaking the seal

I always wondered about the concept of "breaking the seal" during a night of drinking. Apparently it's not a real effect. Beer makes you need to pee. Period. It's just that the effects don't set in immediately. The initial delay makes it appear that there's a seal that's broken after the first trip to the toilet. But it's just the onset of ADH surpression.
But how come you can hold your pee just fine until that first bathroom break, and then it seems you have to go constantlyFirst, it takes a little bit of time for alcohol to suppress ADH and for the kidneys to ramp up the water works. When you crack open your first beer, you may have some urine in your bladder already, but also some ADH in your system to keep things from getting out of hand. As you continue to drink, though, your ADH levels drop and your urine production increases. By the time your bladder has filled and you’re ready to go to the john, you’ve probably had a few more drinks. Your ADH is more suppressed and your kidneys are working at full tilt, so you’re going to have to go more often.
Any experts out there who can verify this?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Amazing photo

A photographer is riding his bike through a park and captures a proposal right at the key moment. Awesome!

Wednesday Morning Music Break

Back in my day, singers would use just one version of their voice at a time. And when they played instruments, they had moving parts and looked nothing like a gigantic iPad. And you know what? Forget the old days! Time passes. Technology marches forward. And amazing musicians find new ways to express themselves. Check out Kimbra being all amazing and stuff.

What's up with that guy in the background? Is he deaf and blind or something? Is he dead? How the hell isn't he at least moving a shoulder to the beat. Something! Poor guy.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

One more Mars comic

One more. I didn't say "one last..."

Stuck the landing!

From the DoghouseDiaries:

Thanks, Bri, for pointing me to this online comic. It's all up in my Reader now...

Photo of the month

Owen and Marcus at the Pasadena Library

The Learned Astronomer

I heart Breaking Bad, a show TV channel that I've been watching on Netflix Instant. It's a show about a former chemistry genius turned high-school chem teacher, turned crystal meth king pin. The acting is out of this world, the best since The Wire. The characters are amazingly well written. They're nuanced and real. There are a few type-cast bad guys, to be sure. But the main characters have good streaks, bad streaks and, well, they're multi-layered human messes, just like you and me.

The scenes and situations---with their sympathetic focus on how mundane, every-day occurrences have profound impacts on our lives---remind me a lot of what I love most about Alexander Payne's movies (see The Election, About Schmidt, or Sideways). There's not an episode that goes by without at least one scene that makes me cringe, wince or recoil at the awfulness of everyday decision making and consequences---awful both in the pejorative sense and and because some of the scenes are just plain full of awe.

And speaking of awe, the show is set in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Talk about beautiful! The show is shot in a way that highlights the impossibly bright, crisp, detailed vistas you see only in desert towns. Unlike many shows set in the American southwest, Breaking Bad really highlights just how stunningly beautiful the desert can be. It's not just hot and dry and desolate. Sure, it can be. But it gets cold in the winter, flowers bloom everywhere in the spring, the morning hours in the summer is stunning. The low angles, wide field of view, the focus on vegetation and sunlight make the show a welcome departure from the moody monochromes, shaky cameras and tight shots of modern filmmaking.

Anyway, the motivation of this post was a scene from Season 3, in which the main character Walt meets his new lab assistant. After making a batch of crystal in his brand new lab, they share a true nerd moment, during which they revel in the beauty of science in general, and chemistry in particular. It's funny how this scene is ostensibly about making one of the most dangerous and damaging drugs known to man, yet ends with a recital from a Walt Whitman poem that I somehow completely lost from my past:

This learned astronomer needs to get out under the stars more often!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Star Wars That I Used To Know

As usual, I'm about the 4 millionth person to see a funny video. But I've seen it, and now I need to share it here in case there are other mid-thirties individuals who feel oh-so-badly hurt by George Lucas. Whatever did happen to the Star Wars we used to know?

Before watching the video, here's a fun Star Wars activity (by fun I mean sad):
  • Name five characteristics that describe Han Solo. Pretend you are summarizing his character for someone who has never seen the original trilogy, i.e. one of your undergrads.
  • Now name five characteristics that describe Qui-Gon Jinn
See? It's not just a nostalgia for days gone past. The new Star Wars movies are fundamentally bad films on many levels! (Credit Red Letter Media for the new vs. old character test) The characters are weak, the acting is horrible, the story is...entirely absent! Don't believe me?

  • Give the one-minute elevator pitch for Episode IV. What is the basic story arc?
  • Do the same for Episode II
Okay, on to "The Star Wars That I Used To Know":

From the WHOA! files

This is an overhead view of Curiosity during its decent to the surface:
NASA's Curiosity rover and its parachute were spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as Curiosity descended to the surface on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT). The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured this image of Curiosity while the orbiter was listening to transmissions from Curiosity. 

Curiosity and its parachute are in the center of the white box; and a separate image is a smaller cutout of MSL stretched to avoid saturation. The rover is landing on the etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe "Mt. Sharp." 

Curiosity made it!

How awesome is that?!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Tonight: Coming to a terrestrial planet near you

The short version:

The long version: Seven Minutes of Terror! I simultaneously get goose bumps on one hand, and yell, com'mon, this has to be a parody! on the other hand. But this is real. If you saw this in a SciFi movie, you'd be complaining that the landing was way too complicated to be taken seriously! But NASA's gonna try it tonight. Wish them luck!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Parenting: Did I Just Do That?

The boys were outside playing with the neighbor-kids when I could hear the onset of hunger melt-down in their voices. However, getting them to stop playing and sit down at the table for a mid-morning snack was going to be difficult given their level of engagement in hoola hooping and jump roping. 

So I'm pretty sure I just poured a bunch of snack items in a giant bowl (pretzels, crackers, dried fruit) and set it out on the steps and yelled "snackie poo!" I'm also pretty sure the four kids ran over and gathered around the bowl like a quartet of puppies, stuffed some food in their mouths, and ran out to continue playing, leaving Marcus sitting cross-legged at the bowl shoveling the remaining snack items in his mouth.

If confirmed, I'm not sure if this would qualify as a high point in parenting, or a clear low point. Discuss...

Image Caption: eating (from

Thursday, August 2, 2012

4 years ago....

.....the littlest of munchkins joined our family!
Just look at him now!

At 8AM yesterday he raced into the room where I was still sleeping (lucky me!) shouting "I'M FOUR, I'M FOUR!  WAKE UP SO I CAN OPEN MY PRESENT!" 

It's been such fun watching Marcus grow in to the seriously silly snuggle machine he is today.  He LOVES machines of all kinds and figuring out how each one works.  On a given day, he'll be building forts with Owen, jumping on the trampoline, or working on a project involving bicycle pumps, padlocks and cardboard boxes.  He takes great joy in helping in the kitchen, recently helped install a new doorbell & loves all things salty.  Anchovies, anyone?  

Wednesday, August 1, 2012