Thursday, June 27, 2013

We're moving East: FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about my move to the East Coast:

Q: When are you moving?

A: July 3

Q: So soon!

A: That's not a question :) But yeah, we want to get settled in in Cambridge before the school year.

Q: Have you found a place to live?

A: Yup, we very quickly found an ideal house in Cambridgeport, near Central Square and about 2 miles from the CfA.

Q: Whoa, that was fast!

A: Yeah, we got extremely lucky. There's very little inventory in Cambridge, especially in our price range. Erin and I laid out the characteristics that we needed, and a separate list of wants in a Google Doc, so we knew what we were looking for. On our second day of searching during our visit to the Boston area this Spring, Erin found a place that met all but 1-2 of our needs/wants. She called me with the news, I rushed over to take a look, and we decided to make an offer. It was accepted and we closed last week.

Q: Where will the boys go to school?

A: Cambridge does not have neighborhood schools. Kinda like Berkeley, you list where you'd like your kids to go, and it's up to a lottery thereafter. This ensures a good mix of socio-economic backgrounds at each location and prevents the affluent from separating out good schools for their kids, leaving the rest for the less advantaged. This fits well with our sensibilities. The downside is that we're not guaranteed to have the boys attend the dual-language immersion school that is a block away from our new house. Such is life...

Q: What do the boys think about the move?

A: They're mostly excited, and they really enjoyed their visit to Cambridge last Spring. But you have to keep in mind that they've never done something this momentous and life-changing in their memory-recording lives. Owen moved from Hawaii when he was 4, but doesn't really remember much about it. It'll be interesting to see how they react when the reality starts setting in. For example, we sold the fish tank and fish, and saying goodbye to the fish was really emotional for them.

Q: Are you flying, driving?

A: We're going to drive along I-80. Our road trip is all planned out with many stops, and only one stretch of driving longer than 8 hours. We'll be staying with friends and family along the way. The road trip will last about a month. We're looking forward to seeing the country.

Q: A month-long road trip with two young kids? Are you crazy?

A: We've done it before when the kids were even younger. The boys travel like champs and we'll spend more time off of the road than on it.

Q: Are you teaching in the Fall?

A: Nope. My first teaching assignment at Harvard will be the Ay16, Intro to Astro course for prospective astro and physics majors. It's very similar to the Ay20 course I've taught at Caltech, but it has the distinct advantage of being a 16-week semester course, rather than a 10-week quarter. I'll get to cover much more material and do more involved labs. I also hope to teach AstroStats sometime down the line.

Q: Will your group go with you?

A: Actually, only a few people in the current ExoLab will be joining me. One student will come to Harvard with me in the Fall of 2014, and one postdoc will join me. I'll also remotely advise one other student. So I'll need to rebuild the ExoLab. Fortunately, recruitment won't be difficult.

Q: What about Project Minerva?

A: The test facility will remain at Caltech for a year while my team "teaches" the telescopes to operate robotically. After that, we will move the telescopes to a permanent site, TBD. We're looking at Mt. Hopkins in AZ (our default since it's owned by SAO), Mt. Wilson, McDonald Observatory in TX, and San Pedro Martir in Baja Mexico. We'll make our final site decision this Fall.

Q: What will Erin do in Cambridge?

A: Live the good life! But seriously, with both of the boys in school, she has many options available to her including the ability to go back to school, work part time, or both. While the details are TBD, what is certain is that she'll do extraordinarily well at whatever se takes on. That's how she rolls.

Q: Are you available to give a talk at my institution?

A: Sorry, but no. I have placed a one-year moratorium on extended travel in order to get my family and group settled in. A year from now I plan to hit the talk circuit again with a brand new set of presentations. Until then, please invite Phil Muirhead, Justin Crepp, Leslie Rogers, Tim Morton and Jon Swift to give talks. They are all outstanding speakers and they're doing all of the great work that makes me look good these days!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A day for equal rights

Wow, what a huge decision! This from the court that failed to protect the voting rights of of one minority group earlier this week just affirmed the rights of a different minority group by striking down Prop 8 in California and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The court giveth, and the court taketh away...

I hope this is the beginning of end of the silly notion of "defending marriage" by denying it to gay people. The lack of honesty behind this argument has always made my head ache. If marriage needs defending, its from the straight people who do it for convenience, or money, or citizenship, or any number of reasons that have nothing to do with long-term commitment, love or family. Marriage needs to be defended from a 50% divorce rate. But the last thing threatening my or anyone else's marriage is someone else getting married.

This Fall I'm going to attend my first same-sex wedding. The individuals getting married are some of my and Erin's dearest, closest friends. They've been together way longer than Erin and I have been married. Their devotion to each other is a model for us and couples everywhere. They are raising a wonderful little boy together, proving that they are not only a strong couple, but also excellent parents. Their state legalized gay marriage last year.

If they were straight, they could have been married in minutes, drunk out of their minds in Vegas if they chose to do so. They could have divorced the very next day, if they wanted. Only because they are gay did they have to wait first for California to say it was okay for them to marry. Then they watched as the state of California rescinded that right through Prop 8. Then they moved to another state that said that they couldn't participate in the same institution as their fellow citizens. Now, finally, the state says that it's okay for them to marry. During that time, millions of straight couples got married, for myriad reasons, and millions of their fellow citizens divorced one another.

Marriage doesn't need defending. It's an institution that is constantly changing to accomodate modern morals and practices. It will live on by adapting. But even the defenders know this if they give it even a moment's thought.

What needs defending are the rights of our fellow citizens. In our country, everyone is supposed to be born equal under the law. However, there will always be the temptation to grant majority groups rights and privileges, and to deny them to minority groups. The temptation exists because at our base, we're selfish. By excluding others, we secure more for ourselves. Fortunately, we live in a country that has mechanisms to prevent this. Mostly. Kind of. Sometimes.

Today, those mechanisms secured basic rights for one of our country's most oppressed minority groups. We should all celebrate. But even if you don't, I and millions of others will!

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Start with a metal surface attached to an acoustic oscillator (a speaker). Add salt to the surface. Increase the frequency until the plate reaches its natural frequency, at which point standing waves are set up. The salt settles down along the nodal lines on the surface where the plate is relatively still. Similarly, salt grains are bounced out of the regions where the surface oscillates.

(I found this video on ThisIsColossal. h/t Bri for pointing me to the site.)

This is a 2-dimensional analogy of oscillations in the Sun. Hot material just below the Sun's surface rises in convective cells, which then "ping" the outer layers of the Sun. This pinging causes the Sun to oscillate and set up standing waves throughout it's 3-dimensional interior. Some of these vibration modes can be observed by making repeated measurements of the Sun's brightness as its surface oscillates.

An illustration of spherical harmonics in the Sun's interior. These harmonics can be measured by watching the Sun's (or another star's) brightness oscillate in time.

In principle, one could estimate the density of the plate in the video above by reading off the nature of its natural frequencies. Plates of different densities (made of different materials) will vibrate differently and give rise to patterns at different characteristic frequencies. The same goes for stars. Astronomers can read off the density of stars based on the fluctuations in their brightness, which allows them to measure their mass and radius.

This is one of the major side benefits of the Kepler mission. By making repeated brightness measurements (photometry) of hundreds of thousands of stars, the mission has discovered thousands of planet candidates. For some stars, their natural frequencies show up in the photometry, which enables the detection of planets and a characterization of the host star's physical properties. Science!

Python en Espanol

Fun fact: the Spanish translation of Object Oriented Programming (OOP) is programaciĆ³n orientada a los objetos, or...POO.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Cool Data Visualization Showing Where Greenhouse Gasses Originate

This is a really cool way to visualize complex connections in a compact, easy-to-read plot (via The Dish). I wonder if there's software to do this. 

From MotherBoard:
Hope this is getting clearer: carbon is deeply entangled in every sector that runs our lives right now. Fighting this thorn-studded, planetary kudzu will mean hacking away at all of it. Obviously, that means killing coal-fired power plants, and replacing them with solar, wind, and/or nukes. But it means getting combustion engine cars off the road, too. And pivoting towards more sustainable agriculture. And stopping deforestation. And cracking down on power-draining houses. And.
A carbon-neutral, zero-waste city under construction in Abu Dhabi
On a related note, I watched a documentary on the architect Norman Foster last night on Netflix called How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? What struck me is the scale of his undertakings, which now includes an entire city in Abu Dhabi, designed from scratch to be carbon-neutral and zero-waste. The first striking aspect of this project, after the enormity of the scale, is the fact that an oil-producing country has commissioned its construction. A country that has everything to gain through more fossil fuel usage recognizes the need to be carbon-neutral. Interesting. The other thing was a quote from Foster:
The tragedy that is given the urgency of the situation, given what is at stake which is literally our survival as a species, what I find inexplicable is that there is only one [of these cities]. If there were twenty urban would be very critical and say Why only twenty? That is the shocking thing.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

PSA from NASA: It gets better

It's tough enough to be a nerd in high school. To this I can definitely attest. But being a nerd and being gay? That's gotta be rough for a kid.  Nice job NASA for showing that it gets better on both fronts!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Tim Doner is 17 years old and he has mastered 20 languages (via The Dish):