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Showing posts from 2011

Impressive Performance VII. Dub Step

Impressive Performance VI. Jill Scott and The Roots

My favorite version of this song is the one on the awesome documentary Dave Chappelle's Block Party . The video quality on this YouTube version it's spectacular, but the audio is much better than most. Jill Scott is a force of nature on stage, and the Roots are awesome as ever. You can't put me in a box, no! My soul just don't fit in one I am the moon that will rise in turn My new sh*t has just begun! I can take you higher I can take you low It's not matter of what I put on It's just matter of my soul!  


You've seen this band, right? No? Check it out.

Impressive Performances V. Vince Young's 99-yard TD Drive

There has been a lot written about NFL quarterback Vince Young , not all of it good. But I don't care, because his 99-yard touchdown drive against the Cardinals is such a thing of beauty that it covers a multitude of mediocrity-related sins. Seriously, could a Hollywood screenwriter have scripted this any better? Starting on his own 1-yard-line? How many fourth downs did he have to convert? Oh, the drama! And that finale? Come on, that doesn't happen in real life!  


Impressive Performances IV. Rubik's Cube World Record

Words fail:


marcus to owen, while in the shower:  "you've been a thorn in my side all day long, kid" owen:  "hey, wait a second - is this snack or lunch" me: "hmmm, both" owen: "you can't eat lunch at 10:30, and we didn't have snack, so i'll call this SLUNCH" (this kid is soooo my son!)

Impressive Performances III. Gilbert Arenas

Before he took his role as a shooter too seriously by pulling a gun on a team mate in the locker room, Gilbert Arenas was one of the most in the NBA. Despite only being roughly six-feet tall (he's listed as 6-4, yeah right), he played with an intensity matched by very few in the league. There have been many 50+ games recorded in the NBA, but my favorite is Arenas' 60-point game against Kobe's Lakers (sorry Lindsay!).

Impressive Performances II. Mouse on the Keys

For most impressive performance by a Japanese post-rock , jazz ensemble, I present Mouse on the Keys with Saigo No Bansan

Amazing Performances I.

Fifth-year astro grad student Tim posted this video to his Gmail status, along with the challenge, "If you know of a more impressive performance, please share." What constitutes an impressive performance is a bit subjective, but then again, it kinda isn't. I'll be posting contenders in the weeks to come. If you know of amazing performacnes, musical or otherwise, please let me know in the comments!

Transiting Santa

Merry Xmas! Where X stands for star crossing...

Ode to Joy!

This will be on the exam

Funny whiteboard from my Fall2011 Ay20 course. Full description at my student Nathaniel's blog: Ay20: What I Thought of the Class


A homophobic mayor's lesson in love. Our story begins in June, when Troy, Mich., realtor Janice Daniels decided she no longer hearts the Empire State. Apparently forgetting that Facebook pages can be viewed by other people, she  posted on her wall  that “I think I am going to throw away my I Love New York carrying bag now that queers can get married there.” [Daniels later became mayor of Detroit Troy] ... Given Daniels’ “God-fearing love for this country,” it’s hard to be optimistic that Amy Weber’s  plea for open-mindedness [see video below] will fall on receptive ears. But every time gay men and women — and their friends and families — come forward and confront small-minded politicians with eloquence and dignity, it makes it harder for the voices of division and intolerance to cavalierly spew their bile and get away with it. Those “queers” and their loved ones so easily dismissed on Facebook are your neighbors. Adjust your mouth accordingly. And “joke” though Daniels’ comm

KeplerCon 2011

Last week was the first Kepler Science Conference (or KeplerCon as I call it), at NASA Ames near Silicon Valley in Northern California. I attended with my grad student Tim Morton , and my new postdoc Phil Muirhead . Phil and I had back-to-back talks about our work on studying the least massive stars in the Kepler Field. The Kepler  Mission is a 1-meter space telescope that is staring at a 100 square-degree field of view. It measures the brightnesses of 160,000+ stars once every 30 minutes looking for the stars to periodically become dimmer, indicating the presence of an eclipsing (transiting) planet. Here's what a large signal looks like: The Kepler  Mission is exciting because it looks at so many stars and has such high precision. Here's a tiny signal from a tiny planet discovered by Kepler : This is Kepler-22b , a 2.5 Earth-radius planet orbiting in its star's " habitable zone ," which is the goldilocks region around the star where it is cool e

Bunches of planets!

Caltech-Led Team of Astronomers Finds 18 New Planets Discovery is the largest collection of confirmed planets around stars more massive than the sun The twin telescopes at Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The astronomers used Keck to discover 18 new Jupiter-like planets orbiting massive stars. [Credit: Rick Peterson/ W.M. Keck Observatory] PASADENA, Calif.—Discoveries of new planets just keep coming and coming. Take, for instance, the 18 recently found by a team of astronomers led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). "It's the largest single announcement of planets in orbit around stars more massive than the sun, aside from the discoveries made by the Kepler mission," says John Johnson, assistant professor of astronomy at Caltech and the first author on the team's paper, which was published in the December issue of  The Astrophysical Journal Supplement  Series. The Kepler mission is a space telescope that has so far identified m

The Turkey That Ate St. Louis

I received this email from a colleague on Thanksgiving eve, and I thought it'd be worth re-sharing this holiday season.  This seems to be an auspicious occasion on which to introduce the first years (and perhaps others) to one of the department's greatest artistic achievements-- Seth Shostak and Bob O'Connell 's searing masterpiece ``The Turkey that Ate St. Louis''. (Unfortunately, only the trailer was completed.) The actors were mainly graduate students in radio astronomy [at Caltech]-- except for Jesse Greenstein who plays Walter Cronkite. The locations were OVRO , Lake Street , and the Caltech Campus. Seth was already obsessed by movies when he came to Caltech. However, his first major effort ``The Teenage Monster Blob from Outer Space, Which I Was'' (1967) was neither a critical or a commercial success. In fact after its first and only showing, O'Connell remarked ``Gee, Seth that sure was a Turkey''. It was this chance observati

Caltech Wins Home Opener!

I attended the Caltech men's basketball home opener last night in historic Braun gymnasium, a.k.a. the Beaver Lodge. Okay, it's not also known as that. At least not yet. Prof. Geoff Blake and I made it up while watching the first half. The Beavers had an amazing first 10 minutes against Pacifica College, with Mike Edwards and Frosh point guard Bryan Joel raining threes as if shooting free throws. The problem was that Pacifica kept hitting layups. I have no idea how a team composed entirely of guards was able to work the ball into the paint so often and easily, but I'm pretty sure Pacifica made it the entire first half without hitting a jumper. To be sure, their guards were bigger than Caltech's guards. And faster. And generally more athletic. In fact, to be perfectly honest, only a few of the Caltech players look  like basketball players at all, at least in the strictest sense. However, the Beavers have no want for hustle and heart, and watching them progress throu

Occupy UC and Police Brutality and Hope

In case you missed it, students at UC Davis recently held a nonviolent protest in solidarity with students at UC Berkeley, as inspired by the Occupy movements nationwide. At both campuses students erected tent cities, and in both cases the police, fully clad in riot outfits, came in to forcibly clear the tents and arrest the protesters. Here's the sad, sickening video of UC Davis college students getting pepper sprayed by a callous, abusive cop: These are students exercising their First Amendment rights. These are not trouble-makers. They are not threatening anyone's safety. They are US citizens, or at least here legally to earn an education. Many of them take U.S. history classes that teach them about our constitutional rights, and about how wonderful and free our country is. As I watched this video, a few questions come to mind: Who ordered the police onto campus in riot gear? No matter who made the call, the chancellor is ultimately responsible for this act. A brave

So alone

Erin's adventures in Community Service

Three months ago, after a great deal of beating around the bush, I pulled my resume together, wrote a mission statement and threw my hat in the ring for the Class of 2012 for an organization called Leadership Pasadena .  While the decision to do so was fueled by encouragement of friends and family, the desire to step out of my comfort zone (being a stay-at-home-mom)was certainly lacking. Boy, has stepping out of that comfort zone been empowering! Leadership Pasadena was started in the early 1990s by a group of community members who wanted to address the issue of gang violence in Old Town (which was quite different than the Old Town of today). In examining the issue, this group recognized the need to address critical and often controversial issues in the greater community of Pasadena.  I am now one of 14 members of the Class of LP12.  Our collective passion is a desire for facilitating community connections.  My passion is creating an excellent educational experience for my children a

Owen: Reading Machine

Modern day pen-pals, I guess. Owen's first grade Dual Language Immersion class often communicates with other classes around our country.  Only they don't write letters and send them by snail mail like we used to.  His class uses skype!  Today, Owen had the honor of reading  Book Fiesta to a class of fourth graders in Michigan who has just started taking Spanish one day a week, so Owen's class got to show off their bilingual skills today.


Over dinner tonight, Erin recounted the following Mar conversations (Marversations): Conversation 1 Mar: Mom, you can't stand up to go pee. Only me and Owen can. You can't stand up to pee because you don't have a penis. Moms don't have penises. But i know a mom who does have a penis Erin: Really?! Mar: Yeah, really. Erin: Who?! Mar: His name is Clarence Simmons and he is a good guy and he is a mom. For real. (We don't know anyone named Clarence or Simmons.) Conversation 2 Mar, Owen and their friend Mila are jumping on the trampoline. Owen: Mila, are you allergic to peanut butter? Mila: No Owen: Okay, then you can have a peanut butter sandwich, too! Mar: But no. I don't want one. I'm allergic to sharing. (This is, indeed, a fact. Mar is allergic to sharing...and quite often allergic to manners, too)

On Parenthood

Erin recently sent me this amazing post On Parenthood . A snippet: As an adult, you may think you've roughly mapped the continent of love and relationships. You've loved your parents, a few of your friends, eventually a significant other. You have some tentative cartography to work with from your explorations. You form ideas about what love is, its borders and boundaries. Then you have a child, look up to the sky, and suddenly understand that those bright dots in the sky are whole other galaxies.   You can't possibly know the enormity of the feelings you will have for your children. It is absolutely fucking terrifying.   When I am holding Henry and I tickle him, I can feel him laughing all the way to his toes. And I realize, my God, I had forgotten , I had completely forgotten how unbelievably, inexplicably wonderful it is that any of us exist at all. Here I am with this tiny, warm body so close to me, breathing so fast he can barely catch up, sharing his newfound j

Dragons and Space Dust

My teaching assistant, Jackie Villadsen, recently completed an excellent podcast for 365 Days of Astronomy . The audio and transcript are here . Here's an excerpt: Stars are the dragons of the Universe. Their massive fiery bellies boil with an inconceivable heat. This heat comes from nuclear reactions. When we set off a nuclear bomb on Earth (which is a very unfortunate and unnatural process), we create for just a tiny moment and in a tiny space the high temperatures needed to fuse together four hydrogen atoms and make helium. By comparison, this process of fusion chugs along constantly, and completely naturally, in the belly of the Sun for 10 billion years! Imagine 10 billion years of continuous nuclear bombs… how strong that is! The rest of the post takes the reader through the fascinating process of stellar nucleosynthesis , or the way in which all of the elements heavier than lithium are processed in the centers of massive stars and blown back into outer space through sup

Sunday Morning Music Break: 8-bit edition

Q: How many marimba-ists does it take to reprise an 8-bit Nintendo song? A: As many as it takes to result in this level of awesomeness:

Feynman Science and Beauty and Doubt

Oh, internet...

I was looking for exoplanet-related pictures using a Google Images search, and I stumbled upon this bit of awesomeness: (The sine of the angle b divided by the tangent of  b  is the cosine of  b , or cos b .)

Monday's guest astronomer

Oops, I meant to post this to my Ay20 class blog. Oh well, enjoy it anyway! Monday we'll be joined by an esteemed visitor, Dr. Jon Swift: Dr. Swift was my graduate student mentor at UC Berkeley and we both ended up at the University of Hawaii together as postdocs, where he was a Sub-millimeter Array Postdoctoral ( SMA ) Fellow . His research focus is on massive star formation and he uses interferometers to study molecular clouds where these behemoth baby stars are born. Dr. Swift is also a professional musician , photographer, poet and an accomplished surfer. Come prepared with questions for our guest. We'll also be learning about blackbody radiation, so stay tuned for the worksheet, which will be posted this weekend.

Wednesday morning pick-me-up

h/t Brian

My students' writing

A friend and colleague of mine, Prof. Andrew West , gave me the idea of having my students maintain research blogs, both as a way for him to keep up with what they are doing and for the student to practice writing.  This has worked so well for my mentees that I decided to use it in my Intro Astro course . I was further encouraged by this article , in which the author Prof. Cathy Davidson notes Given that I was teaching a class based on learning and the Internet, having my students blog was a no-brainer. I supplemented that with more traditionally structured academic writing, a term paper. When I had both samples in front of me, I discovered something curious. Their writing online, at least in their blogs, was incomparably better than in the traditional papers. In fact, given all the tripe one hears from pundits about how the Internet dumbs our kids down, I was shocked that elegant bloggers often turned out to be the clunkiest and most pretentious of research-paper writer

Order of Magnitude Astrophysics

From the Ay20 blog , here's a solution to one of the week 1 worksheet problems . Estimating The Luminosity of a Sun-like Star by: John A. Johnson, Jackie Villadsen Abstract We present the solution to Worksheet problem #2, from week 1, estimating the power output of a Sun-like star. Each group should submit one to two of these per week. Decide amongst your group members who will be first author, second author, etc. Acknowledge people and resources used in your solution. Cite ancillary information. State your assumptions clearly. Write your solution such that a frosh could duplicate your steps and arrive at the same solution. Introduction The oldest astronomical instrument is the human eye. A marvel of evolution, the eye has both high sensitivity and a large dynamic range. A classic study of the eye's response to light conducted in 1942 showed that of order 10 photons need to impinge on the eye in order for the brain to register detection ( Hecht, Schlaer &

Dreaming of a Basketball Future

Owen, Mar and I have been watching a Youtube video of Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry , the two fleet-footed guards on the Golden State Warriors . Owen likes to imagine himself as the shooting guard Ellis, and Mar is the point guard Curry. The music is nice, too. A vision of things to come? At the very least we'll be at the Warriors vs. Clippers (pre-season) game later this month!

Mar is 3!

technically, he's been 3 since Aug 2 :) it just takes mommy forever to post! ;)

Back to Teaching: Intro Astro for Majors

One of the older Caltech undergrads in my Ay20 class (j/k) My posts here will be a bit sporadic since the academic year just started with a bang here at Caltech. I'll be teaching Astro 20: Intro to Astronomy for Majors . We met for the first time yesterday and I have 16 bright, enthusiastic Techers in my class, ranging from Sophomore Ay majors, to Junior physicists, up to the lone Chemistry-major Senior. I'll be blogging regularly about Ay20 here , along with my faithful second-year TA, Jackie. I'll cross-list posts of interest here at Mahalo, but you should add the Ay20 blog to your RSS feed to keep up with the latest. My students will also maintain their own blogs, which will be linked from the Ay20 site. Please follow their writing and leave encouraging comments and requests for more excellent astronomy posts (I'll try to update here as the student blogs come online)! Here's my latest post on The Power of Dumb Questions .


We just began our first AYSO season and we're going in full force.  I frikkin' love soccer, so it warms my heart that Owen does too!  He will be the first to tell you that "I am the smallest, but I'm the fastest" and he has become fast friends with a couple of teammates already! His team is called Dragon Flares and although they lost their pre-season game against the Slayers, Owen scored his first goal!

My Superheros

  What started as good-guy, bad-guy play (using fly swatters and water guns) evolved into a serious dress up session involving lucha libre masks and the creation of super hero capes.  Owen was so thrilled to finally have his own cape & each of the kids helped to sew their own letters onto the back.  Fortunately everyone's powers were effective today and none of the flying resulted in injury.

Go Dodgers

I took Owen and his cousin Giovanni to a Dodger game a couple weeks back as part of the annual Caltech/JPL Dodger Day event.  25 bucks for bleacher seats and all-you-can-eat Dodger Dogs, nachos, popcorn and soda. It was fun, but HOT in that stadium. The Dodgers were playing the Rockies and with two outs at the bottom of the first inning, the Dodgers gave up five runs. Owen said, "Dad, I think they put in a belly itcher on accident." Indeed. At another point Gio said, "Cotton candy kinda looks like insulation." Owen added, "Yeah, fiber glass insulation!" Which is worst, fiber glass or actual cotton candy, is debatable, but the cotton candy was certainly appreciated. In true LA fashion, we left in the 7th inning and didn't catch the final score. That's Dodger baseball!

From the Top Rope

I think this picture is more enjoyable without an explanation, but then again, it's so strange that it probably deserves one. I was in my friend Mike's wedding and all of the groomsmen received lucha libre masks as gifts. Mike had an extra one and gave it to Erin. This was a year ago I guess. Anyway, I was recently searching for a hat in my closet and I found the masks, which are a huge hit with the boys.

The Tempest

I think this is supposed to be pretty, and it should be to many people. But as an optical/infrared observer, I find this positively horrifying! Oh no, my night is ruined. The stars are gone! Ack, now I'll have to wait until next year to observe my targets. Queue wailing and gnashing of teeth. Tempest Milky Way from Randy Halverson on Vimeo .
When I become the king of Pasadena, my first decree will be the elimination of turf grass, to be replaced by desert vegetation, veggie gardens or artificial turf. We do, after all, live in perpetual drought here in SoCal...
Oh, DINKS ...

Explosions in the Sky

I like post-rock music. The lack of lyrics, the gently rolling soundscapes, the slowly building peaks and gentle falloffs all make it ideal as background while coding, or writing, or just sitting around thinking. Seriously, hit play and sit a spell: This song is by one of my favorite bands, the Austin, TX-based Explosions in the Sky , who recently released a new album. I'd write a review, but a recent Slate article by Mike Spies summed it up very nicely: [T]hough the band has crafted, over the span of a decade, 38 separate tracks, it would be more accurate to say they've crafted one, gorgeous, ever-evolving score, to which listeners establish an individual relationship. While the music is very emotional, per se, it resists revealing itself and never asks to be "understood," which is why it tends to attract people who have nothing in common, as there is no singular message to unite under—no inside joke to be shared among fans. Instead, the music attaches it

New Additions to the Johnson Family

Introducing our new fish tank and fish! Erin, our resourceful American picker, found a very nice fish take for, like, a dollar. Those are two Ikea tables for support. It works surprisingly well! The tank is in Marcus' room. I have no idea how we negotiated that setup without Owen's strenuous protestation... This is Owen's fish, Squirty Spark. S.S. likes to sleep during the day perched under the green fake plant, which initially had us very worried that he was dying. But watching him squirt and spark around the tank at night squelched our fears. Squirty Spark is the fastest fish in the tank, and his specialty is doing "face plants" in the early evening while searching for food among the rocks. This is Mar's fish, Nemo-Dory.  N.D. swims around non-stop, making clear photography very difficult. Nemo-Dory has no respect for territory, and cares not for sleeping or sleeping fish. N.D.'s specialty is searching for and eating food near the surfac

Say something nice!

More from Improv Everywhere:

Wingsuit Proximity Flying

Further evidence that humans can do pretty much anything allowed by the laws of physics:

One of my students in the news

Here's an article written for the campus website, Caltech Today, about one of my summer undergraduate researchers, Keith Hawkins. A snippet: Like so many things in life, it all started with a girl. In fifth grade, the girl who sat next to Keith Hawkins every day in class would check out encyclopedias and look up subjects in astronomy, admiring pictures of swirling galaxies and colorful nebulae. Hawkins would join her, and the two of them would sit together and gaze at the heavens, one page at a time. Then, the following year, she moved away.

road trippin