20 December 2006

Moon Phases

Do you own a monthly calendar? Check in the corners of the dates to see if it indicates the moon phase. Yes? Chances are it's wrong. I've noticed that roughly half (give or take 25%) of the calendars I've owned that had moon phases on them were wrong. If you want to know the actual real phases of the moon, check out the supremely accurate US Naval Observatory moon phase calculator, or for a simpler version StarDate Online's appears to be correct as well. The USNO also has the best sunrise/set calculator (as well as some additional info).

Top 10 Animal Geeks

Thanks to Jethereal for the link, it's the top ten animals in science. I wouldn't call them geeks as they were more of victims, but it's still interesting. :-P

Carl Sagan

Today is the 10th anniversary of Carl Sagan's death. Sadly, I am too young to know much about him, but what I do know is that he was dedicated to increasing people's feeling of wonder at the universe, to creating an insatiable need for knowledge, and to keeping our minds always questioning. I hope as a science teacher I continue to keep that legacy alive.

19 December 2006

Space, the computer's frontier

Holy shucking fit! I was trying to download some free things from the iTunes store, and it says my hard drive is full. My 70-Gig HD on my desktop. I don't download porn unlike some people I know. I don't download movies like others. I only have a 20-Gig iPod and I think I only own around 30 Gigs of music. Windows and Office and Warcraft III don't take up 40 Gigs. I'm going to run a defrag overnight, but that won't figure out the problem for me.

Help me out here folks. I've already gone and cleared out temp files. I went into my iTunes folder and there were a bunch of .tmp files there too that seem to have cleared up a couple freakin' GIGS of space. I am suspicious that it's a fucked up iTunes library, but I'm not sure how to fix it. I've seen visualization programs for the Mac that allow you to see how much disk space is allocated to different programs, is there one for the PC (Win XP)?

*grumble grumble* I didn't notice anything that looked like spyware when I ran the Task Manager, so I think I'm safe there. What else can I do to figure out (a) where my space's gone, and (b) how to stop gap in until I can figure it out?

Thanks in advance for any help.

ETA: Ugh, Disk Defragmenter says I can't run the defrag effectively b/c I now have only 6% of the disk free (5 Gigs) and it wants at least 15%. *grumble*

Google + NASA = Awesome!

NASA has agreed to give LOTS of data to Google, including "weather forecasting information, three-dimensional maps of the moon and Mars, and real-time tracking of the international space station and space shuttle flights so the pictures and data are available to anyone with an Internet connection."

I'm unclear about what's new to this. Google already has a lot of Moon and Mars data, and if they have elevation info for Mars they should already be able to do 3-D virtual fly-bys, despite Griffin saying it as a new thing. Perhaps this is just much more high-res data? Besides, everything NASA produces is public domain - except images of astronauts, and some research data has a proprietary period, and some probably is classifed, but everything else is freely available - so I'm not clear how this is anything Google couldn't get otherwise. Maybe it's just that it's being handed over smoothly and easily that's the issue. Or maybe Google's just taking advantage of the public domain rights, and Yahoo or anyone else could do this as well.

But yeah, we'll see. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for awesomeness.

18 December 2006

And another one...

Rules of the lab

1) If an experiment works, something has gone wrong.
2) When you don't know what you're doing, do it neatly.
3) Experiments must be reproduceable, they should fail the same way each time.
4) First draw your curves, then plot your data.
5) Experience is directly proportional to equipment ruined.
6) Always keep a record of your data. It indicates that you have been working.
7) To do a lab really well, have your report done well in advance.
8) If you can't get the answer in the usual manner, start at the answer and derive the question.
9) In case of doubt, make it sound convincing.
10) Do not believe in miracles--rely on them.
11) Team work is essential, it allows you to blame someone else.
12) All unmarked beakers contain fast-acting, extremely toxic poisons.
13) No experiment is a complete failure. At least it can serve as a negative example.
14) Any delicate and expensive piece of glassware will break before any use can be made of it.

Geeky Joke

Found online...

A computer programmer happens across a frog in the road. The frog pipes up, "I'm really a beautiful princess and if you kiss me, I'll stay with you for a week". The programmer shrugs his shoulders and puts the frog in his pocket.

A few minutes later, the frog says "OK, OK, if you kiss me, I'll give you great sex for a week". The programmer nods and puts the frog back in his pocket.

A few minutes later, "Turn me back into a princess and I'll give you great sex for a whole year!". The programmer smiles and walks on.

Finally, the frog says, "What's wrong with you? I've promised you great sex for a year from a beautiful princess and you won't even kiss a frog?"

"I'm a programmer," he replies. "I don't have time for sex ... But a talking frog is pretty neat."

I want a talking frog!

17 December 2006

No Snow

Ah, so it's not just me complaining about the lack of snow, and not even just New England. It's all of Europe too. I knew El Nino was having an effect, but this's much more widespread than I thought, plus El Nino is primarily a Pacific Ocean effect. Hm.

13 December 2006

Now I'm pissed

I just got a spam email with the subject line "Radio Frequency". Goddamnit, I thought it was something legit about astronomy! I am NOT happy they're stealing real subjects for their crap.

11 December 2006


Sometimes I am so glad I'm not in research anymore.

It only gets better from here, but I don't want to spam y'all...


Foxtrot is cutting back to weekly. :( So sad, how'm I gonna get my dork on? The last daily will be Dec 30.

10 December 2006

The Life of a Scientist-Mother

This article is a small look at what mothers in academia, science, and/or research have to go through. Share it with friends and family, whether in science or academia, or with loved ones who are.

Princess Di's driver drunk

There is a reason I'm posting this story here, on Modern Science.

New DNA evidence proves the driver of Princess Diana's car was drunk on the night of her fatal crash in a Paris underpass in 1997, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported Saturday.

The tests confirm that original post-mortem blood samples were from driver Henri Paul and that he had three times the French legal limit of alcohol in his blood, the BBC said, quoting from a documentary it will screen Sunday.
Conspiracy theorists have claimed that Paul's blood samples were swapped with blood from someone else -- who was drunk -- and contended that the driver had not been drinking on the night Diana died.

The wording in this article is very hazy. I read these three paragraphs as "DNA evidence proves the driver was drunk." In fact, this is explicitly what is stated in the first phrase! The problem though is that DNA can only ID people, it can't tell how much alcohol is in your blood stream. If they found out a way to get whether you were drunk from your DNA, that would be bigger news than Princess Di conspiracy theories.

The confusion lies in the wording, and is revealed with futher reading. What they meant was "DNA evidence proves the drunken blood belonged to the driver." This is a whole different story. Apparently the same sort of people who think the US couldn't figure out a moon landing but could figure out complex special effects not available until the 90's, thought that someone had swapped the blood of Di's driver with someone else's blood, and it was that someone else who was drunk. Oy.

Can you believe they had to do this DNA test just to appease conspiracy buffs? Ridonkulous. The DNA test said that the nucleated white blood cells in the drunk blood belonged to the person known to be driving Di's car. Next thing you know someone's going to claim that the white blood cells must've been swapped out from the blood. That's right, they're going to say someone centrifuged the driver's blood and the drunk's blood, drained out the nucleated cells from both and swapped them, and then put back the blood that has the driver's nucleated cells and the rest of the components from the drunk. Just watch.

09 December 2006

Hubble Deep Field video

Man, Jethereal finds me the bestest things. And this is one of them.

I wonder when my little group will be able to do that. :-P I'm still keeping my fingers crossed on the grant. We won't know until February, and I haven't had the time/energy to do any other applications. I figure if we don't get this one I'll spend all summer writing others!

Because everyone needs a fscking bright laser

Do you need a laser that actually can be seen in air? You really need to be able to pop balloons and light matches at 46 feet. And of course we all know how badly you've wanted to tape a laser on the end of a glass fiber optic-type tube and have a light saber. Since all this is true, check out Wicked Lasers, especially their videos.

01 December 2006

Republicans want law to trump science

Lame duck Republicans want a law to define that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. Scientists have accepted that a fetus can feel pain at 28 weeks (7 months), but have not come to a consensus about 20 weeks - the fetus does withdraw from stimuli, but it could be a reflex due to any stimuli, or a pain response, it's not clear.

Folks, passing a law doesn't make anything more true. You can't "legalize" that pain starts at 28 weeks if it turns out that it doesn't. You can't make the sky pink by passing a law. You can't make π equal to 3. It just doesn't work that way, these are fundamental properties of the universe, and the universe doesn't give a shit about the laws humans make up. Someone should send these idiots back to grammar school.

28 November 2006

Baby nuking

An Ohio coroner has declared death by microwave for a 1-month-old baby brought to the hospital by its mother a year ago.

The death was ruled a homicide caused by hyperthermia, or high body temperature. The absence of external burns ruled out an open flame, scalding water or a heating pad as the cause, [coroner] Betz said.
Betz said the case was difficult because "there is not a lot of scientific research and data on the effect of microwaves on human beings." (CNN)

Any volunteers? ;)

Explosive Supernova Discovery!

A single supernova has been found that does not follow what we know about supernovae. What's known as Type Ia supernovae start off as white dwarfs, the remnants of stars like our own, with more massive companions. The buddy dumps extra mass onto the WD, pushing it up to exactly 1.4 solar masses (according to the old Chandresekhar theory) at which point it goes *BOOM!*

Since all of these started off as the same size, they make the same size boom, or in astronomer's terms their light curve is the same (with minor corrections which aren't yet understood but can be accounted for). Because of this handy-dandy little fact that they all look the same really, we can use how bright they appear to us here on Earth to determine how far they really were. This is one small piece of the puzzle that tells us the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, is accelerating its expansion, is geometrically flat, infinite in size, and contains 70% dark energy.

This group has found evidence that the supernova known as SNLS-03D3bb was bigger than 1.4 solar masses (2 solar masses was reported elsewhere) when it exploded.

If the WD wasn't 1.4 solar masses to start, we don't know how big its *BOOM!* was, we don't know how bright it really was, we don't know how far away it really was. If this was just one star, no biggie, it's a freak. If this were MANY stars, we don't know how bright any of them really were, and therefore we don't know the universe's age, acceleration, shape, size, or composition.

This one anomaly isn't going to send the whole theory of the universe down the drain, but it is disturbing. Believe you me that there will be a LOT of double checking of work in the next year or two, you'll probably hear about some in early January at the next big national (and international) astronomy conference, and after that if it's not just an anomaly textbooks will be rewritten again.

(And they'll get the fix that pesky Pluto typo too.)

21 November 2006


WTF?! What were this person's credentials? A substitute teacher in a high school bio class had students pricking their fingers to take a blood sample, and then pass the needle on to someone else! If this isn't a good reason to require all teachers to have degrees in their subjects, including substitutes, I don't know what is. I don't even get why they'd let a sub run a lab anyway. STUPID STUPID STUPID!!!

20 November 2006

More on averting armageddon

Yet another article on how to avoid doomsday due to an Earth-crossing asteroid, and as usual there's very little content. I think this's the first time I've heard of a gravitational tugboat, but it doesn't seem practical to me since the asteroid would be pulling the ship as well, so you'd need to continaully thrust the ship, but have the particle streams pointed around the asteroid (think of a cone w/ the point on the grav. tugboat and asteroid as the icecream scoop), which is horribly inefficient due to that nice cosine of half the opening angle.

19 November 2006

iTunes 7 Hint

When burning an mp3 CD in iTunes 7, if you have the playlist sorted on the artist name or album name, iTunes will automatically create folders and subfolders on the CD. This unfortunately is not readable on many mp3 CD players (including my car). To not do the folders, sort either on time, song title, or song order (first column, unnamed, and ordered by default by when you added it to the list though you can reorder them), and then burn.

If you really really want them sorted by artist or album but without folders, first create a dummy playlist. In the real playlist, sort by artist or album, then select all (Cmnd-A) and drag into the dummy playlist. Delete the original playlist and rename the dummy to the name you want. When you sort on song number, it should be the same order as when you dragged into it.

05 November 2006

The Big Picture

Here's something fun to play with. Called "The Big Picture," it's a zoomable wide-field visible light survey of part of the Virgo cluster of galaxies. Unlike most large three-color images, this one is NOT a mosiac, but instead was taken in "drift mode" at the Palomar Observatory - the telescope points at a place in the sky to start and then stays fixed in where it's pointing (relative to the ground) as the sky rotates past. However, a physical mosaic version of it's been installed in the newly reopened Griffith Observatory.

03 November 2006

MIT Mystery Hunt Time!

Do you download the daily sudoku variation from WebSudoku? Are the NY Times Sunday crosswords too easy for you? Did you figure out what the heck my icon means just because you could? When you see a series of dots, do you immediately start interpretting it as Morse, Braille, constellations, or T-stations? If any of these apply to you, then you may be interested in joining our team for the MIT Mystery Hunt.

Over the course of Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend (Fri Jan 12 - Mon Jan 15), starting Friday Noon (EST), our team of around 30-40 in-person and 10-20 remote people work on solving a set of 100 puzzles of any sort you can think of. Puzzle formats in the past have included sudoku, jig saw, crossword, word searches, physical treasure hunts, "paint by number," chess, and many original types; puzzle topics include words, history, programming, trivia, math, science, music, pop culture, MIT-specific, literature, internet searches, and many more. The winning team has to organize the next year's Hunt. (We will not win, we're not close to good enough yet, but we will have lots of fun.) You don't need to be an expert in anything, whatever anybody knows always gets utilized somehow. You only need to participate for as long or short as you want. Sleep is optional.

My team, Lake Effect Snow, will be participating in our third Hunt this January (2007). We are starting to make a name for ourselves as being more highly cooperative than most teams, and for having a large contingent of remote participants. While we are interested in adding more strong puzzlers to our team (Tortoise has been our only powerhouse for the past two years), and more MIT-natives, the biggest criterion for succeeding on the team is good teamwork.

One of the interesting things to the Hunt is the structure of it. It's not just a set of puzzles and whomever solves the most wins. Instead, each individual puzzle has at least two layers to it, and then combines with other puzzles into metapuzzles, and metapuzzles combine to eventually come up with the winner. When solving puzzles and working towards the goal of winning, you go through stages.

1) Simple (typical) puzzle Answer
A (live) launch event on Friday noonish introduces all teams to the theme of the Hunt. Then every team starts off with something like 3-5 puzzles. Each puzzle you first solve as "normal." For example, finding all the words in a word search.

2) One-word Solution
Somehow the "normal answer" to the puzzle has to be turned into a one- or two-word solution. Maybe the leftover letters in a word search spell something, or identifying locations on the MIT campus from photos will spell out a word if you plot them on a map. Sometimes you'll have to use anagrams or other similar things to go from the "normal answer" to the "solution". Sometimes you can get the Solution without the "normal answer," and if you're progressing towards the goal, the Solution is all you need.

Solutions are usually submitted to the Hunt organizers (Hunt HQ as we call them), via phone, and once you submit them, they will verify the solution and unlock (reveal) some 3-5 additional puzzles that you can then work on. We typically experience exponential growth of the number of puzzles available during Friday afternoon/night, and then taper off on Saturday as we get stuck and can't come up with more Solutions. Puzzles unlocked together are part of a group, called a Meta or Metapuzzle.

3) Metapuzzle
The one-word Solutions for a few "linked" puzzles then combine to create an additional layer of puzzles (metapuzzles), which also have a simple answer and then a one-word solution. Solving one Metapuzzle will usually unlock a few simple puzzles within a new Metapuzzle.

Some Metapuzzles are also typically on timed release, so groups that are struggling with one set will eventually get new puzzles and and can progress from them. Last year there were actually two Metapuzzles for each set of puzzles - we didn't realize this for quite a while, and then when we suddenly realized it we unlocked a crapload more puzzles. :-P (Not telling the puzzlers what's required is typical, figuring out the "rules" to the game/puzzle is part of the fun.)

4) Run-around
Solve enough Metapuzzles, and they further combine into a treasure hunt throughout the MIT campus to discover a coin or token that is hidden. The first team to the Coin wins. Typically 2-3 teams (unlikely to be us, but we can always hope!) make it to this stage. This usually happens between Sunday morning and Sunday night of the weekend.

Once one of the teams completes the Runaround, locates the Coin, and brings it back to Hunt HQ, the game is over. It typically takes another hour for word to trickle down and all the teams to realize this through their sleep-deprived caffeine-fogged brains, but when no one answers phones at Hunt HQ it's usually a good sign. A (live) wrap-up then occurs some 3-8 hours later, where the organizing team summarizes the overall structure of the year's Hunt, describes the Runaround for all the other teams that didn't make it, and then does a Q&A session for anyone who wants to stick around.

If you are interested in participating, please let me know - email me at zandperl-AT-gmail-DOT-com if you want privacy, or comment on this entry if you don't. If I don't know you in person, tell me a little bit about yourself either here or via email - we haven't been particularly screening out people, but since we want to make sure we keep the good teamwork I think it'd important that we know a little about people who want to join.

I hope to hear from people!

02 November 2006

Were you?

You paid attention during 91% of high school!

85-100% You must be an autodidact, because American high schools don't get scores that high! Good show, old chap!

Do you deserve your high school diploma?
Make a Quiz

I bet it's one of the history ones... I'm not entirely sure what the Immaculate Conception one was doing in there.

31 October 2006

Hubble Saved!


It's official, there's going to be one more mission to service Hubble in 2008!


As I described in more detail elsewhere, there's a few things that I feel are crucial to a useful mission:

  1. Boost the telescope's orbit

  2. Replace the dying batteries

  3. Replace the dying gyroscopes

Things like upgrading cameras are a bonus. Also, keep in mind that this mission does NOT solve the issue of what to do when it "dies" - re-enters the atmosphere. Parts of the main mirror will probably survive re-entry (that is, not burn up), and it's been estimated that there's up to a 1 in 700 chance of human fatality from an uncontrolled descent. NASA still has not addressed that concern.


26 October 2006

Science:1, Vampires:0

A cute little fluff article over on NY Times about why vampires and ghosts can't be real, just in time for Halloween. The link they give for the actual paper itself is incorrect, it can be found here instead. It's also not at the highest level, being more about physics ed than hardcore physics, but still amusing.

22 October 2006

Accessable Evolution!

Not only are the entire works of Charles Darwin being scanned, converted to text, displayed side-by-side, and translated, they're also being made available in mp3 format for people with visual disabilities, or if you just want to listen to them on your iPod while jogging. Awesome!

Now if only they'd do the mp3's as a podcast so it'd be easier for me to download them all at once. :-P

20 October 2006

Antibiotic Resistance iff Evolution

It's in print now, and as my friend who works at a dictionary company tells me, having something acknowledged in print is what it takes.

Bacteria have been steadily evolving to evade the action of antibiotics and infections are becoming more difficult to fight.

For instance, the CDC said, in 1972, only 2 percent of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria infections were drug-resistant but in 2004, 63 percent were.

In a few cases, no available antibiotics can cure an infection, and many more resist methicillin, a later-generation type of antibiotic. [ref]


This is not just a science issue for me, this one is PERSONAL. And I'm sure I'm repeating myself now, so feel free to skip. I've got a (non-contagious) skin condition called hidradenitis suppurativa (HS). Part of this involves bacterial infections in my apocrine sweat glands, primarily caused by staphylococcus aureus (staph). Staph is actually very common, something like 80% of the population have it sitting passively on our skin, and it doesn't do anything bad to them, but in me it gets inside my sweat pores and my body overreacts. So killing the staph should help treat my HS.

Keflex (cefalexin) is in the class of antibiotics called cephalosporins, which are part of the larger group called β-lactams. All β-lactams act by messing with bacterias' cell walls. I think I was prescribed Keflex when in my teens and college a few times, but it hasn't worked for ages. Amoxicillin is another type of β-lactam, and it used to work on me when I was in college and grad school, but sometime around 2004 we realized that it wasn't really doing anything anymore.

In case you're curious (or even if you're not), the term "penicillin" actually refers to a category of antibiotics including the originally discovered penicillin, and various derivatives of it including amoxicillin and methicillin. The penicillins and the cephalosporins are related in that they're both β-lactams and both act by breaking bacterial cell walls. Methicillin isn't actually used today, though it has lent its name to methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA, resistant staph). MRSA is actually any staph that's resistant to the penicillins.

Waitasec, amoxicillin is a penicillin. Amoxicillin doesn't work on me. I have staph. Holy smokes, I have MRSA! But wait, amoxicillin used to work... *thinks* *lightbulb!* Holy darwinism, Batman, I've evolved MRSA under my skin! ...ick... Yeah. And to make matters worse, having that MR stand for "multiple resistant" might be a more accurate description, b/c you may recall (or skim upwards) Keflex isn't a penicillin, it's a cephalosporin. And that too used to work but now doesn't, so my pretty pretty staph evolved that during my lifetime too.

THIS is one of the top reasons why I get really REALLY pissed when people deny evolution.

What I use these days is Levaquin (levofloxacin), part of the category of fluroquinolones, which is part of the quinalones. Unlike β-lactams, quinalones act by messing with the DNA and DNA transcription of bacteria. Interestingly, the use of Levaquin reveals another interesting feature of my MRSA: the FDA does not recommend Leva for MRSA, but only for the methicillin suscpetible strains. There is widespread incidence of quinalone resistant staph, possibly by overusage in European livestock. And yet, the MRSA that are in me are not resistant to quinalones despite being resistant to multiple forms of β-lactams. I see this as more evidence that my MRSA have evolved within me, though I haven't confirmed this with my dermatologist.

*sigh* That's enough ranting for me. Maybe I should take some microbiology courses. ;)

Geekin' in the free world

Woot, I just edited the Wikipedia pages on Mauna Kea Observatory and the 2006 Hawaii earthquake to contain the relevant overlapping information. I'm such a dork. :-P

DNA technology

I'm continually amazed about how DNA sequencing has (1) revolutionized the forensic science field, and (2) become so commonplace now. And yet, there's limits to what it can do.

Five years after 2,749 people died in the September 11 World Trade Center attacks, families of about 1,150 victims still do not know whether their loved ones' remains were recovered.

During the excavation of the 110-story twin towers, which began the evening of the attacks and lasted for nine months, about 20,000 pieces of human remains were found. The DNA in thousands of those pieces, many small enough to slip into a test tube, was too damaged by heat, humidity and time to yield matches in the many tests forensic scientists have tried over the years.

The city told victims' families last year that it was putting the project of making identifications on hold, possibly for years, until new DNA technology was developed.

That's a shame, that even thought they started work on recovering remains the very same day, still by the time they got to lots of it, it had been too long and the evidence was too damaged to positively identify much of it. And it continues to amaze me that they can then just put all the evidence on ice and wait until technology catches up to where they are now! It reminds me of "corpsicles," people cryogenically freezing themselves at the instant of death, hoping for a future reprieve of their illness.

I wonder if there's a way that the identification of these remains can go "open source," such as creating a SETI@Home-type project that runs automatically on your computer, or a Stardust@Home where humans volunteer their time to perform simple easily-trained tasks that will progress towards the final goal, or even just making all the data public domain and letting people try whatever they want with it, like HST or Spitzer data are public.

1,000 words or less

19 October 2006

Earthquakes and telescopes

After jetheral pointed out this article to me but before I even read it, I realized that earthquakes can be devastating to telescopes - and perhaps the world's best observatory is at Mauna Kea. To start off, I can't really picture telescopes being mounted on shocks or something b/c the pier's supposed to be directly into bedrock so no building vibrations mess with the image. Add to that, that if the location of the telescope (or the whole island) shifts in an earthquake, something will need to be fixed to account for that.

And in fact, I'm right on that last one - one of the tele's shifted by as much as an inch, and they're going to have to recalibrate a crap. Thankfully no mounts or optics were damaged, my collaborator tells me that there actually were some stabilizing equipment on Keck 2 that probably saved it, only things like encoders (tell position), breaks, and the location calibration. I'm curious as to how long that'll all take to fix, b/c those telescopes with damage are useless until that happens.

Ooh, and I know major telescopes are insured by Swiss banks or whatever, I wonder if they get to collect here.

ETA: The CFRT is back online! The Kecks are not (as of Fri Oct 19).

LJ Feed

If any of you use LJ, I have created a syndicated feed of this blog over there so you can follow it more easily. While I plan to try and watch comments there, I do not get automatic emails if you comment there like I would if you comment here, so I do not guarantee (sp?) that I'll catch anything you say there.

18 October 2006

Colbert vs. Dawkins

I've never really liked Colbert, and sadly here he gives me more reason to not like him. I'm not entirely a fan of what I've heard of Dawkin's book "The God Delusion" either, but.... *sigh*

Link gotten from Fundies Say the Darnedest Things, with quotes that make me alternate between laughing hilariously and wanting to cry at their willful ignorance of how science works.

17 October 2006

Pluto Fallout

Never has an astronomy topic infiltrated pop culture quite the same way.

It's a T-shirt!
Planetary Status (pluto crying)

It's an old Song!
Planet X by Christine Lavin (© 1997) with a URL sung in it.

And it's a new song!
I'm Your Moon by Jonathan Coulton, song playable online for free, downloadable for free thru his podcast.

16 October 2006

E is for Electromagnet

Yoinked from jrtom, it's the baby geek alphabet! I agree with him that Z should be for Zooplankton.

14 October 2006

Cockatiel Colorations

I was writing a post elsewhere on the pigments involved in cockatiel colorations, and I thought it might be of interest to y'all to have it in one place. Genetics and breeding dictates which pigments each 'tiel has, but I haven't yet looked into that, just where the color originates within one individual.

Cockatiels have two pigments that cause color in them: melanin causes the gray, and lipochrome causes yellow and orange. Peeper (right, photo by me or my dad) was a typically colored cockatiel (called gray), and posessed both melatonin and lipochrome.

Lutino (like Gabe, left, photo by Tammy) is a mutation where they don't have the melatonin, kinda a "half-albino," so anywhere they would've been gray is white instead, and his eyes are red (even without the flash) instead of brown. They still have the lipochrome so retain the yellow head and tail, and orange cheeks. Whiteface cockatiel

Whitefaces (right) do have the melanin so they have gray backs and sides, but don't have the lipochrome so their heads are pure white.

Trina, albino = lutino + whitefaceIn order to get a true albino (Trina, left, photo by ), they need to crossbreed the lutinos and whitefaces to get an even more mutated bird without either lipochrome or melanin.

There are actually many more colorations to 'tiels than just these four that I mentioned, but they're a basic start.

And just because no list of bird photos is complete without it, here's some babies!

The above photos for normal gray and lutino were of my own birds, the albino is 's, and the whiteface (and lutino babies) were random ones on the 'net. If you've got a good photo of a whiteface you don't mind me using for this, post a link in the comments and I'll update the post. ^_^

11 October 2006

Punctuated Equilibrium

A group in Europe thinks they've found evidence that the mass extinction of mammals wasn't caused by comets, nor even ultimately by ice ages, but instead by periodic wobbles in the Earth's orbit and axial tilt. The Nature article says more about how they got the data, including fossil dental records I think...

03 October 2006


Eeee! Threadless needs to start a wishlist feature like Amazon has. I want! This too.

28 September 2006

Google this!

I have an unusually spelled name. If you go to GoodSearch, Google, Yahoo, or MSN, or whatever search engine you prefer, and type in my name, without quotes even, 95% of the hits are me. The bottom of the second page you start to get some questionable ones, things about spaceships with my name on them and wikis and lesbians, but even then I suspect they may be me anyway. (This is why I discourage those of you in cyberland who know my full name from POSTING it, or even parts of it.)

At least once a year I perform this experiment, and today was the day. Google found me an astronomy forum post - my name, astronomy, gotta be me. The forum post read...

I've got Zandperl Lastname to thank for my love of astronomy- THANK YOU ZANDPERL!!! I was so lucky to get a teacher like her.

OMG. *blush* That's awesome! I want the forum to come back up so I can troll and see if I can figure out who this is. It's not clear what year it was posted, but the person joined the forums in March 2004, so it could've been from anywhere...

They person is from Rochester - making it possibly when I TA'd as an undergrad though unlikely since I wasn't the only one in charge of the astro classes, or possibly one of the astrocamps I did back at my Alma Mater, but not guaranteed. Their LJ name is gefilte-ghoti, and they're on various "spacefem" -named things, making me think it's a Jewish girl. Their only LJ friend just posted a survey with all their biographical info. That person is currently 19, making it likely this person is also 19, and therefore likely that it was an astrocamp or nerd camp student.

And with that, I am stumped. A virtual cookie to the first person to identify this person for me!

26 September 2006

"White and Nerdy"

Every time I listen to / watch this song / video, I find something new that has me rolling in the aisles. This weekend it was the Schroedinger equation for a hydrogen atom (thanks marquiswildbill, and for pointing it out to me); today it's the bubblewrap pr0n. And a dozen other things...

16 September 2006


Argh! Someone left me out of the loop! They've finally officially named 2003 UB313 ("Xena") Eris, but I don't know when, or why it's not a creation god. *grumble grubmle* I'm going to have to go huntin'.

ETA: Ah, there we go, it was on Sept 13, this past Weds.

ETAA: And care of FFS!, here's the NY Times link.

15 September 2006

High power microwave "guns" =? non-lethal

Nonlethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices should be used on American citizens in crowd-control situations before being used on the battlefield, the Air Force secretary said Tuesday.

The object is basically public relations. Domestic use would make it easier to avoid questions from others about possible safety considerations, said Secretary Michael Wynne.

"If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation," said Wynne. "(Because) if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press."

The Air Force has paid for research into nonlethal weapons, but he said the service is unlikely to spend more money on development until injury problems are reviewed by medical experts and resolved.

Nonlethal weapons generally can weaken people if they are hit with the beam. Some of the weapons can emit short, intense energy pulses that also can be effective in disabling some electronic devices.

The issue here is what precisely do they mean by "microwave" - the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum is really broad. Some wavelengths are cellphone communication, some are GPS, and some boil water. High power microwaves therefore might fry your cellphone (and possibly cause cancer, though studies are still conflicting on whether cellphones do cause cancer), fry your GPS, or boil your blood. As they do not give sufficient information, I'm going to have to assume it's dangerous to humans, and it IS a lethal weapon, and therefore should NOT be used for riot control.

Yoinked from rosefox

12 September 2006

"My Limit Break involves a moose, the demon Baphomet, and a Kuiper Belt object. It takes four hours and you can't skip any of the cutscenes." --Pintsize, Questionable Content

11 September 2006


When I'm feeling down, I usually go outside at night and look up at the billions of stars and realize how tiny I am, and that whatever little thing that's happening to me actually means nothing in the grand scheme of it all.

But sometimes you have to look back down and see that the actions of a few people can change the whole world.

08 September 2006

Always look on the bright side of life

Every cloud has a silver lining.

The cloud: Global warming is returning the Earth's to Mesozoic conditions. 80% of animal species have had range changes. Between 10% and 99% of species currently exisiting have never experienced the upcoming atmospheric conditions (numbers are so uncertain partially b/c we don't know the historical atmosphere that well, and partly b/c we don't know exactly when species evolved). Mass extinctions are predicted.

The silver lining: Mass extinction events are usually followed by massive evolution - this process is the most accepted model of evolution, called punctuated equilibrium. When dinosaurs start reevolving, even the fundies will have incontrovertible evidence before them of the existence of evolution!

03 September 2006

Hot Library Smut

By “library smut” I am in no way referring to the photo books on native peoples, or the illustrated health manuals, or any of the other volumes which, in your childhood, you lurked about the library aisle to find with the sole purpose of sneaking guilty glances at naked bodies. Nor am I referring to the “risqué” novels by Miller, Cleland, Réage, or Lawrence you leafed impatiently through as a teenager. No. What I’m talking about here is the full-frontal objectification of the library itself. Oh yeah.

Go see it for yourself. It's HOT.

Animal Crossing: Friend code

Anyone else play Animal Crossing? My friend code is 2706-6065-1445 and I don't yet know what to do with it, but I will find out! :-P

Math Teacher Arrested

Math Teacher Arrested

Southern Pines, North Carolina

A former public school math teacher was arrested today at Moore County Airport as he attempted to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a slide rule, and a calculator.

At a morning press conference, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he believes the man is a member of the notorious Al-gebra movement. He did not identify the man, who has been charged with carrying weapons of math instruction. "Al-gebra is a problem for us Rumsfeld said. "They desire solutions by means and extremes, and sometimes go off on tangents in a search of absolute value. They use secret code names like x and y and refer to themselves as unknowns, but we have determined they belong to a common denominator of the axis of medieval with coordinates in every country. As the Greek philanderer Isosceles used to say, there are three sides to every triangle."

When asked to comment on the arrest, President Bush said, "If God had wanted us to have better weapons of math instruction, he would have given us more fingers and toes!"

Thanks Jethereal!

02 September 2006

Planetary protest

A group of 300 astronomers, including David Levy (planetariums), Carolyn Shoemaker (comets), and Irwin Shapiro (GR) have signed a petition protesting the IAU's unilateral decision of a definition of planet. They're unclear if they dislike the definition, or dislike the lack of public input. I dislike their doing this, it's absolutely pointless when they admit themselves that the IAU doesn't convene again until 2009.

I also dislike their implied claim that it's all experts in planets:
We, as planetary scientists and astronomers, do not agree with the IAU's definition of a planet, nor will we use it. ...The list of signatories have studied every planet in the solar system, asteroids, comets, the Kuiper Belt, and planet interactions with space environment.

The first sentence reads that everyone on the list is a planetary scientist AND astronomer, and the second listed reads that EACH signatory studied every planet. No, simply not true.

As for 300 names, keep in mind that put a piece of paper in front of enough people and you're bound to get people to sign it.

01 September 2006

Women are bad at statistics...

Researchers gave a spatial reasoning test to men and women at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, to determine if men or women were better at this skill. But FIRST they asked the test-takers some statistical questions - one group were asked their genders, a second group were asked why they chose a liberal arts college, and the control group were asked about their childhoods. The control group had "typical" scores for the test - men scored 15-20% higher. Those asked about their gender beforehand had men scoring 25-30% higher. And those asked why they chose a liberal arts school, a question which allowed the testers to think of their strengths, nearly closed the gap between men and women. Go figure!

Perhaps statistical questions should be always asked at the end of an exam, then.


Link found by galbinus caeli, I replied so long to his (?) post that I just had to repost the meat of it here. In sum, the Divsion of Planetary Sciences critisized the IAU's new definition of planet, but I don't think their criticism is anything worth writing home about.

It's also worth noting that the DPS is just a part of the AAS (said "double-A-S"), and most astronomers don't give much of a shit what we call those local rocks. Many astronomers even think that once we've landed on it, the thing is part of geology, not astronomy. Planetary Science therefore is a bit of an interdisciplinary subject. Sure planets are exciting to the public, but there's a LOT more out there.

That said, I'm all into public outreach (despite planets not being my field), and I agree with the DPS's comment that the IAU definition is still quite fuzzy - interpret "control a zone" the right way and we rule out Jupiter b/c of its Trojan asteroids. I think all of us know that the definition's still got a lot of flaws, but they had to start somewhere. Shooting down the current definition b/c of its flaws is tantamount to agreeing with IDers that evolution's flawed and should be shot down.

24 August 2006

Pluto Demoted!

And just when I was getting used to the old proposed definition, it's been modified and voted on (237 for, 157 against, 30 abstain) to
[A planet is] a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a ... nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

So we now have 8 planets, MVEMJSUN, a class of "dwarf planets" (which I think are anything round but not unique in orbit), and "small solar system bodies" (anything else).

And to paraphrase my friend Foxtrot, despite what CNN says, this will not CAN not affect the New Horizons mission. It's already been launched.

ETA: Ugh. And despite what else CNN says, Ceres was never a planet. it was temporarily incorrectly called one when we didn't have an official definition. This (BBC) may be a better article.

ETAA: I'm liking this definition less and less. According to CNN, "Pluto is automatically disqualified because its oblong orbit overlaps with Neptune's." Well then, why isn't Neptune disqualified b/c it didn't clear out Pluto, et al.? It could be that Pluto's orbit's different enough that we can let it slide for Neptune's definition and then it's actually Charon and the Plutinos (ooh, a good band name!) that disqualif Pluto. But then what about Jupiter and its Trojan asteroids?

21 August 2006

Seven signs of bogus science

As usual pointed out to me by the inimitable resurrected Sclerotic Rings, it's a list of the seven signs of bogus science! They're not meant to be a fail-safe set of criteria on which to judge what's good science and what isn't, just a starting point.

20 August 2006

Planetary changes

People keep coming up with more interesting thought experiments to test the proposed definition of planet. This one, the changing orbit of the Moon. The Earth-Moon barycenter (center of mass) is currently within the Earth, however, the Moon is drifting away slowly, and in a few billion years, the Moon will be far enough that the barycenter will be outside the Earth's surface. Should that happen before the red giant Sun engulfs us, we'll have to have a Moon-Planet birthday party. Though, when the exact moment that happens is may depend upon things like if it's over Mt Everest or an ocean trench, and do we count the oceans and air and such as part of the Earth?

And what if there's a binary planet system w/ really eccentric orbits, or a mutliple planet system, then we might have the barycenter sometimes within a planet, and sometimes not, so the others would sometimes be moons and sometimes planets. Oy!

19 August 2006

Mass Limit for Fusion

Astronomers may have found the lower limit on mass for nuclear fusion, and thus the upper limit for brown dwarfs, BBC reports. Unfortunately, they present some new misconceptions in the process - brown dwarfs aren't "dead" stars, they're stars that were never born, or perhaps overweight gas giants. But they never did have hydrogen fusion in the core, so they never stopped.

What Richer, et al., actually did was turn the HST towards a globular cluster in our Milky Way and take a 5-day exposure. (In reality they took multiple shorter exposures that were combined into one long one - no one takes a single exposure that long in case something goes wrong and because the tracking isn't perfect even on the HST.) In the image, the faintest stars they could see corresponded to 8.3% of the Sun's mass. If fainter stars existed Hubble would've been able to pick them up, but the article isn't on astro-ph and Science magazine restricts (free) access to the abstract only. If anyone has a subscription and can find the mass-equivalent detection limit of Hubble in the full article, I'd love to know.

Light Pollution makes BBC News

Read the article. Then check out the International Dark Sky association webpage.


It's amusing what you find when you do a search on your username. A year later, I found Inner Girl's link to me. :-P Thanks!


Reminiscent of the Clickworkers project, Stardust@Home uses human eyes to find specks of dust and cometary debris embedded in a piece of aerogel brought back from the Stardust space mission. Funny thing is, years ago as an undergrad one of my classmates gave a talk on his summer research project at NASA working on developing the aerogel...

Thanks to ian-atkin.net for the link/reminder to put something about this up.

Below are the contents of two previous comments to this post; the original posts themselves were deleted (and further commenting prohibited) on request of the first author due to their name being included.

Anonymous said...

Hi, my name is ********.

sorry if I am wrong, but is this NASA that is wanting volunteers to search through the pictures? If they spent so much money on all the equipment, I think they would have planned for the laboratory work as well, unless they are using volunteers to discover the least important (unless unkwonwn) part of the aerogel.

Instead of using your time searching through pictures, look up some NASA UFO videos on youtube.com or video.google.com . Wouldn't it be better instead to ask NASA why they don't do live broadcasts anymore, and disclose all information they know of regarding the kind of objects or "UFOS" they almost certainly know about.
Either that or there so many people out there trying to mislead others for almost no apparent reason.
2:39 AM, August 20, 2006

zandperl said...


The reason they need volunteers has three parts to it: (1) it is a task that computers are not yet able to do, and (2) it will take so many man-hours that it would take years with their current staff, and (3) if UC Berkeley and NASA were to hire people to work on it, they'd go bankrupt before they found anything.

As for UFOs, I personally don't believe they exist, and I think that the people who do think they exist want to believe and so are deceiving themselves when they see something they think is evidence of a UFO.
11:14 AM, August 20, 2006


Ugh. The FDA has approved use of a bacteriocidal virus on processed meats. These bacteriophages kill listeria monocyogenes, which is responsible for up to 500 deaths in the US annually. The virus only attacks that type of bacteria, but it's still a scary method of control. I can just picture a combination of mutations, where the bacteria become resistant to the virus, and the virus also mutate to prey upon humans. I'm thinking organic meat's sounding better and better.

18 August 2006



As you've undoubtedly already read elsewhere by now, a subcommittee of the International Astronomical Union has proposed a definition for planet. I had it delivered to my flap-step while I was camping in Acadia National Park the past week.

The part of "IAU Resolution 5 for GA-XXVI" that describes the planet definition, states "A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet."

The first condition sets a lower limit, it's meant to include objects. It could do with a more quantitative description, but perhaps the words are sufficient if I knew my gravitational fluid dynamics better. If it were all there were though, we would have to include the Moon, Io, Europa, Callisto, Ganymede, Titan, Mimas, Triton, Encealdus, and countless others I can't recall. So we introduce the second condition to limit it: must be orbiting a star. Embedded within that definition is the implication that if two (or more) bodies orbit each other, we must look at the barycenter (center of mass) of the pair - if it is within one body, that is the planet and the other is the moon. If, as in the case of Pluto and Charon, it is between the two bodies, then they are both planets.

There are of course criticisms or quirks of the definition, though I am admittedly beginning to warm to it. There is no third condition for when mulitiple objects are in similar orbits, and this allows mostly round asteroid Ceres to remain a planet. 2003 UB313 (provisionally dubbed "Xena," though it will be officially renamed something else by the IAU later) is bigger than Pluto, and therefore definitely massive enough to be round. Quaoar and Sedna are smaller than Pluto, so we're reserving judgement for now, but we're left with 12 planets in the Solar System if the definition passes. The "planemos" discovered a couple weeks ago would not be planets, as they are not orbiting a star.

There's also an additional clause for concern.

The IAU draft Resolution also defines a new category of planet for official use: "pluton". Plutons are distinguished from classical planets in that they reside in orbits around the Sun that take longer than 200 years to complete (i.e. they orbit beyond Neptune). Plutons typically have orbits that are highly tilted with respect to the classical planets (technically referred to as a large orbital inclination). Plutons also typically have orbits that are far from being perfectly circular (technically referred to as having a large orbital eccentricity). All of these distinguishing characteristics for plutons are scientifically interesting in that they suggest a different origin from the classical planets.

The description of plutons in terms of orbital characteristics rubs me the wrong way. However, I could easily see redefining it to fit the current model of terrestrial and jovian planets. The three sub-categories would then be:
  • Terrestrial / Rocky - Mercury, Venus, Earth, Ceres. These planets have densities of 3-5 g/cm^3 and are primarily composed of rocky material (carbon/silicon solids, and may contain liquid metal cores. Asteroids, the Moon, and Titan fit these characteristics though they are not planets.

  • Jovian / Gas giants - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. These planets have densities typically less than 2 g/cm^3 and are primarily composed of atomic hydrogen gas, with trace amounts of other gaseous molecules such as methane. The inner layers transition into liquids due to the intense pressure. Gas giants are NOT undergoing nuclear fusion of either hydrogen or deuterium. Brown dwarfs do not fit into this category, however I believe all extrasolar planets discovered to date do.

  • Plutino / Icy - Pluto, Charon, 2003 UB313. Lastly these planets will have a density of roughly 1-3 g/cm^3, and their composition will be predominantly ice - water ice, carbon dioxide ice ("dry ice"), methane ice, and so on. They may have some rocky content or core, but not a significant portion of their composition. Quaoar and Sedna will count in this category if they turn out to be spherical. Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto would be counted if they weren't orbiting Jupiter.

ETA: The BBC says we should keep our eyes on three more asteroids, Vesta, Pallas and Hygiea, that are at the borderline of mass/roundness for whether they count as planets.

Anonymity Bubble

Something's come up that I fully expect will soon burst my bubble of anonymity - that is, the boundary that I've been trying to maintain between my professional and blog lives. I'm apprehensive that something unprofessional will leak to my job, for example I might've made a comment about students on here, which is against FERPA, and my employer wouldn't like that. I don't mind if I have posts about my religion (or lack thereof), or occasional mild curses, but anything worse than that trickling out gets me uncomfortable.

If any readers have free time and are bored, I'd appreciate if you poked thru my archives and left a comment on any post that seems it might be a bit too risque for me to want it connected to my real name. Thanks!

01 August 2006

March of the Prostitutes

I thought it was intriguing when I learned about all the gay, bi, and pedophile penguins out there, and depressing when I saw what horrible parents they were, but it's a straight up shocker to learn they're also whores!

The researchers kept their eyes open for more cases of penguin prostitution, and they observed a total of ten over three breeding seasons.

In each case, a female penguin left her mate and made her way to a single male at his nest. She stood nearby and gazed at him. When he gave her a sidelong glance and bowed his head, she followed suit. The hopeful male then stepped off his platform of stones, allowing her to waddle on. Leaving no uncertainty about what she was there for, she lay face down on the nest, and the male mounted and mated with her. Afterward, she got up, picked up a stone with her beak, and without further ado, went back to her own nest. In half of the cases, the female returned to the same single male for a second stone, although they did not mate again. In one instance, a female made off with a total of ten stones.

How to Clean your CPU

(Other than by using the dishwasher.)

A webcomics wife's blog that I read had a question about a noisy computer fan today, and since she's really nice, I wrote a description of how to open up your CPU and clean it out in case she didn't already know how. I thought I'd repost the comment here as a resource for anyone else. Others had previously commented on using a can of air to blow out any dust.

Ditto on the can of air. You'd be shocked how much gunk's in there. If you're doing it yourself and haven't before, opening up and shutting back up a computer's not much harder than filling your car's gas tank, probably on par with checking your tire pressure and oil level. It's perfectly safe so you 99.99% chance don't need to back anything up. If you've done this sorta thing before, or if you can figure it out on your own, ignore the rest of this comment. :)

Shut down the computer and unplug everything from the CPU (I usually start with the power cord, but I'm probably paranoid). Place it gently (don't drag or drop) on the floor in an area you don't mind getting dusty. If there's anything caked on the outside from animals or kids, now's a good time to get it - use alcohol based wipes. If you or any of the kids have asthma, consider wearing a dust mask before opening the CPU.

Inspect the back and sides of the case looking for a piece you can take off. There may be up to 4 screws holding on a side or top panel, they may need a screwdriver, wrench, or just your fingers; there may be some tabs you have to push while sliding a side of the case; you may have just one side come off, or it may be two sides and the top. Sorry I can't be more specific, they're all different. If you can't figure it out, take pictures from all sides (reassemble the computer) and post and we'll figure it out for you.

Once you're inside the guts of the computer, do NOT use water, and if you have to touch any of the circuit boards do so on the edges, gently. I take a can of air to the whole thing, getting out the big chunks first, then working methodically from the fans on down, getting every side of every item in there. Expect to use a half a can of air if you haven't been in there in a year. If there've been any other problems, you can also reseat and wires with plugs and cards that go into the motherboard. First time I did this I took a sharpie and put little notes to myself along the case when I figured out what certain parts of did, so when I had to change a hard drive later it was faster for me to find which thing it was.

Put CPU back together the same way you took it apart - things should only fit together one way, and don't force anything if you're uncertain. Plug things back in to the CPU - again, everything should fit in only one spot with the possible exceptions of phone modem wires (if it doesn't work one way, switch it), speaker wires (ditto), mouse/keyboard (look for colors or pictures), and USB wires (doesn't matter, your computer will figure it out). Again, I do power cord last b/c I'd rather safe than sorry.

Once you're done, turn it on and see what happens! Oh, and clean up the dust that's now everywhere. Good luck. :)

Science Quiz?

Someone explain to me what half of these questions have to do with science.

29 July 2006

Feynman video

Jethereal recommended this video to me, but it's 45 minutes long so I'm posting a link to it here so I can remember to watch it later.

Meanwhile, I'm sleep deprived, have a termpaper due to today, have no food in the house, haven't unpacked my car, and have another paper due next week. Fun! More on astrocamp later if I remember and am not swamped w/ work.

25 July 2006

Reading recommendations

I was just asked through a friend for a list of reading recommendations for a hopeful sci-fi author intending to write about slower-than-light travel w/in the solar system. In case you're curious, here's my recommendations.

  • Nine Planets has information about the planets and other bodies in the solar system. It's by an amateur, and is at a good level for amateurs or students of all ages. For each planet and many moons it has a page of qualitative (descriptive) information in plain English.

  • If more details about the physical or orbital characteristics are needed, you can supplement with Wikipedia. It's worth double checking anything that sounds "iffy" since it is editable by anyone. I once had a student do a paper on the moon and her primary source was Wikipedia - unfortunately she visited the page on lunar craters in the middle of an edit war so she reported to me that the craters on the moon were caused by lightning strikes or alien weaponry (rather than asteroid impacts as is generally accepted).

  • If you're just looking for general background information and to broaden your horizons, Earth and Sky is an NSF sponsored radio show that's played on some NPR stations. It covers lots of earth science as well as astronomy, and there's a nightly sky watching chart that's fun for beginners without a telescope.

  • Bad Astronomy is poorly organized but aptly named: it's by a professional astronomer and sets out to debunk all the bad astronomy in the world, from astrology, to the Moon Landing Hoax conspiracy theory, to B-movies (think "The Core," "Armageddon"). Check out the Misconceptions and Movies sections to make sure you don't make any of the common mistakes.

  • "The Cartoon Guide to Physics" by Larry Gonick, ISBN 0062731009
    A full year of freshman algebra-based college physics in comic strip form. It uses examples from everyday life, and is recommended for everyone from laypeople to PhD holders.

  • "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking
    A must if you do go for FTL transit. Includes the Big Bang, inflation, relativity, and perhaps even the end of the universe.

  • And anything by Larry Niven - besides being a compelling (sci-fi) writer, he also has superb physics.

22 July 2006

More Gender in Science

Dr. Barres was got her Bachelor's of Biology at MIT, her MD at Dartmouth, her Doctorate of Neuroscience at Harvard, and now he's a professor at Stanford. Yes, there was a sex change in there. He has an entirely unique perspective in the history of science. NY Times did an interview with him (free registration), and he wrote an article for Nature (pay access).

21 July 2006

Nice idea...

Today I was talking to the Bicycle Man. You ever meet one of those elderly academic gentlemen who knows nearly everything, and can figure out the rest in picoseconds? Well, the Bicycle Man's father is one of those. The man made a bundle of money by patenting a specific form of the linear air track with a triangular shaped top to it, and donated half of that money to build the observatory at my undergrad school, which he proceeded to do with his own hands.

Well, the Bicycle Man is just as much a genius when it comes to bikes, but he's recently been working with some engineering students at the local University. A couple of them had a really awesome idea. Piezoelectric crystals are crystals that vibrate when a current is applied (I believe this is how most watches work these days), and apparently can also do the opposite and create a charge when vibrated. This particular group wanted to cover a wall with them and use sound to generate electricity to power things - it'd essentially be a solar panel with sound rather than light, or maybe a sonar panel.

And here's where Bicycle Man Sr.'s genius comes in: in the time it took him to blink he announced to Bike Man Jr. that it wouldn't work. Why not? you ask. B/c he quickly calculated that normal sound waves contain only something like 1W/m2 of power, and therefore you'd need a prohibitive amount of the sonar panels to get out any useful energy, even if we assumed perfect efficiency! Too bad, it was a great idea.

My prediction for the future though is that we will start lining the outsides of houses with solar panels. But it will take a while until the process of building them becomes cost effective enough that people are willing to do it.


Believe it or not, it's possible to take a photo of Jupiter and its Galilean moons w/o a telescope! I have a Pentax Lumix camera, 5 Megapix, 12x optical zoom, that goes up to 8 sec exposure. On Wednesday night here at Astrocamp, I set it on a table (b/c I didn't have my tripod with me), zoomed as close up to Jupiter as I could, put it on 2 sec timer so it wouldn't shake as I pushed the button, and bracketted from something like 0.5-8 seconds. The longer exposure got the moons further away as streaks, the shorter exposure got the closer moons as fuzzy blobs. When I got home I cropped like crazy, but didn't do anything else to alter the images. Imagine what I could've done if I'd had an SLR with a longer exposure.

Outer moons; Callisto on left, Ganymede on right.

Inner moons; Europa on left (closest), Io on right (farther).

Moon positions are from the Juplet java applet. Over the course of this week I was able to watch the moons zipping back and forth, it was pretty neat. I'm gonna see if I can take some more next week and track their positions throughout the week.

Just Say No to Knowledge

14 July 2006

Stephen Hawking's Question

Stephen Hawking asks (and anyone can answer) w/ a Yahoo account:

How can the human race survive the next hundred years?

In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?

Damn, I found that *after* I used up my daily quota of answers. Someone comment here tomorrow and remind me to put in my two cents. :)

Darwin's finches evolving

Peter Grant of Priceton, a biologist studying Galapagos finches, has watched one particular physically smaller species for more than twenty years as a physically larger species of finch moved in on their territory, ate their food, and starved the larger individuals, leaving only the smaller individuals to continue the species. As a result, the species in question now has smaller beaks than when the invaders first came in 1982.

And in case you're wondering about the legitimacy, this work was funded by the NSF, and is being published in the peer-reviewed Science magazine.

11 July 2006

Ages old debate

That age-old debate on whether dinosaurs were warm- or cold-blooded has a tentative answer: Yes. By examining growth rates observed in fossil bones, the paleontologists determined that most dinosaurs don't have any process to regulate their body temperature, so small dinosaurs stayed at ambient temperature while big dinosaurs stayed warm b/c body processes generate heat and they can't dissipate it.

To make matters even more complex though, there's one species that switches from being warm-blooded when young, to cold-blooded when adult! Ain't that freaky? "Is it just me, or is it warm in here?" "You're just having hot flashes honey."

09 July 2006

Summertime post!

Since summer's in full swing, I thought I'd point y'all towards a list of ideas for more efficient summer cooling. Enjoy! :)

Bush proposes doubling federal funding for physical science research

This is really good news, Bush's proposed putting more money, an additional $136 billion over 10 years, into basic research in the physical sciences! The root cause of this is that Bush feels it will keep America competitive on the global market - I'm slightly skeptical over the direct cause-and-effect he implies, but anything that puts more money into science is good. And better yet, some of that money would go to training more math and science teachers. Sadly, this might be at the expense of other education fields such as "the arts, parent-resource centers and drug-free schools," causing the Democrats concern, but I think it's worth it.

This has already been approved in the house, but the Senate is stalling on it. I think I'm going to draft a letter to my Senators on the issue - presuming it's not already too late. Or maybe even if it is. If I do write it, I'll post it here for others to copy.

ETA: I think the bill in question is H.R.5672 - Making appropriations for Science, the Departments of State, Justice, and Commerce, and related agencies for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2007, and for other purposes. Anyone else know for sure? If you want to write your senator, the easiest way I know of to find out who (s)he is, is via the AAS Contacting Congress page.

04 July 2006

Worm composting - fruit flies?

Anyone out there have a worm compost bin and get fruit flies? This time it wasn't even from bananas, I think it was from the soil I was using for an experiment for my online course! But the house is infested again and when I went to put in some corn husks today the poker I use to move the material around was covered in what I'm pretty sure was little fruit fly grubs (or whatever they're called). Made my skin crawl. I put the bin outside, and it's staying out there for a week. I'm also cleaning everything wet or raw in the house and drying the sinks before I go away for around 5 days! Any other, less drastic, ideas?

Discovery flies on the 4th

It was [NASA Administrator Michael Griffin] Griffin who chose to go ahead with the mission over concerns from the space agency's safety officer and chief engineer about foam problems that have dogged the agency since Columbia was doomed by a flyaway chunk of insulation 3 1/2 years ago.

Somebody explain to me WHY in the world Griffin gave it the goahead when ignoring concerns from engineers and safety officials is what doomed both the Challenger and Columbia missions?! Gadnabbit, Griffin's a scientist, I was really expecting better from him.

There is one cool part though:

If photos during launch or the flight show serious damage to Discovery, the crew could move into the space station. Then a risky shuttle rescue — fraught with its own problems — would have to be mounted. The rescue ship, Atlantis, would face the same potential foam threat at launch. NASA also worked on a possible plan for flying Discovery back to Earth unmanned if necessary.

50 years of highways

Ooh, this looks like an interesting article - it's apparently a biography of the nation's interstate system, and for me it's pure mapporn! *grin* However, the following severely mangled nest of mixed metaphors made me cringe.

So it's hard to believe that America's freeway system turns 50 this summer — a chronological blip on the tectonic plates too slight for a spectrometer, but in the life of our republic, a golden anniversary.


28 June 2006

Physics for Future Presidents

Oh man, if only they actually did have to take courses like this! I'm going to start working my way through the podcasts of the lectures. Like I needed more things to do this summer...

23 June 2006


Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is the first generation "superbug" that evolutionary biologists are always harping about. We're pretty sure that it first developed its resistance in hospitals, where patients are continually bombarded by antibiotics, the most common class of antibiotics being penicillins (including methicillin). Following the rules of natural selection, most of the staph in patients got killed off, except for a few bugs that could survive the methicillin. This property is called "resistance," and the bugs then procreated and propagated - hospitals are full of MRSA.

Staph, of any form, isn't all that dangerous for the average person. It tends to crawl around on our skin all the time - you've got it, believe me. It only gets into your body when you get a cut or other skin injury, and even then, you can fight it off most of the time. Even if it's MRSA, you can usually fight it off - MRSA isn't stronger in any way but against antibiotics. Which is where the problem comes in. If you can't fight it off for some reason, like you've been having a lot of stress lately, or you have AIDS, or you're elderly, or there's some other reason you have a compromised immune system, then doctors turn to antibiotics. These take out normal staph for the most part (though if you overuse antibiotics you will create MRSA within yourself), but MRSA can't be killed by simple antibiotics, and doctors have to turn to more expensive drugs, that have more side effects. Of course, unless you have a history, doctors won't think of MRSA first, so if you are immunocompromised, MRSA is quite dangerous to your health.

Now-a-days, they've started fighting MRSA with vancomycin - penicillins (including methicillin and amoxicillin) and vancomycin all act to weaken the cell walls - but apparently some VRSA strains have started appearing. In addition, MRSA was at first constrained to hospitals, but has started appearing in the "wild" - in people not in hospitals. Today the CDC issued an alert that a string of cases have been found connected with illegal tatoo parlors - I'm guessing their needles became infected from someone who already had MRSA, and then they reused the needles without proper disinfection. This is yet another reason why tatoo regulation is important, and why you should go to a reputable tat artist (AIDS being the primary reason)!

On a personal note, I actually have some form of resistant bacteria myself. I have a skin condition called hidradentis suppurativa (HS) which affects my apocrine sweat glands. What happens is my body's immune system overreacts to the bacteria normally present there (in my case, a resistant strain of bacteria) and becomes significantly inflamed. I've been taking antibiotics periodically since it first developed around age 13 - so I've been on antibiotics between 2 and 8 weeks out of each year for the majority of my life. Is it any wonder that with this continual dosing of antibiotics that I've developed resistant bacteria in my own body? While I don't have the details of what specifically the strain is, I really expect that it evolved within me, rather than being something I contracted from outside. This is part of why I'm such an advocator for evolution education - it's happening inside me, to my own detriment. Basically none of the traditional antibiotics work for the bacteria in my armpit skin anymore (not amoxicillin, which is part of penicillins, which is part of the class of beta-lactam antibiotics; not cephalexin which is another β-lactam), so we use levoquin, which is in the class known as quinolones - these act by preventing bacterial DNA replication (and hopefully don't stop my own DNA replication). Interestingly, apparently there are a few quinolone-resistant staph strains as well, but thankfully I do not appear to have those in me, though chances are I'll create them eventually. Whee.

21 June 2006

The Mysteries of the Universe

According to Hawking, the mysteries of the universe are "how the universe began, what happens inside black holes, ... how can humans survive the next 100 years," and "I would also like to understand women."

Pseudo Planet Pluto

Just a super-brief post so y'all know I'm alive. It seems the hullaballoo may be true: the IAU is planning to announce an official definition of "planet" this August. I kinda wish they'd have a period of public commentary, rather than just handing down a decision from on high - it'd raise interest in astronomy, if nothing else - but I doubt that'll happen. I may update this post with more info about what I feel the definition of planet should be and what others kinda use; if so, it'll replace this post.

16 June 2006


sadly, my bird peeper didn't make it through the night. when i woke to give her her medicine this morning she didn't respond to her name, or move when i touched her, then i realized she was cold. i think i'm going to have her cremated and keep her ashes until i can find somewhere nice to scatter or bury them, since i don't have any property and neither do my parents.

14 June 2006

Ice cycle

The online class I'm taking is now shifting towards the rock cycle, and one of my classmates posted something about glaciers. This made me start pondering about what would happen on icy bodies such as Pluto and Titan. The rocks types of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic might be carried out by different types of ice! ("Ice" = H_2O, CO_2, or CH_4 methane) To make matters even more interesting, on Titan they've suggested methane rivers - in other words, when the body heats up, the ice changes to liquid and perhaps vapor, so that the "ice cycle" is realy an intermixed "rock cycle" and "water cycle."

Try and wrap your head around that one! :)

Hawking steps outside bounds

In another sign of how the news likes to create controversy, Stephen Hawking commented publically (in Hong Kong) that humanity's best hope for survival is space colonization (he specifically mentioned the Moon and Mars), and CNN immediately quotes back some MIT profs who say he's talking outside his area of expertise, and it'd be better to build a shelter underground, underneath Antarctica.

Ugh, the way they're trying to undermine him sickens me - the point of the statement was to say that humankind needs to band together, and even if we don't kill ourselves, the universe will so we need to do it NOW. We would be better off starting to pursue mulitple avenues than to fight over which one single way is THE right way. I admire Hawking (even more) for finally stepping forward and saying these things. It is the duty (I feel) of public figures to be role models to the rest of the people, and showing us the folly of our ways is a wonderful way to do so.

You go, Hawking!


You may have noticed the infrequency of my posts lately. For the most part this has been due to this summer kicking my butt! Remember all those things I said I'd be doing this summer? Well, turns out the 6-week summer course is actually 10, and putting that on top of everything else has kept me busy. The class is not the most interesting to me either, as I find it concentrates on the effects of/on life on the Earth, which I am not interested in (academically) and do not teach, and it is at a low level of science which I do not find challenging or stimulating. Oh well, the credits will give me more pay.

Then on top of it all, Peeper went into kidney failure on Sunday night. Peeper is my cockatiel whom I've had since I was 12. The expected lifespan of cockatiels is 15-20 years, and seeing as she's 16 I thought it was the end. It was really devastating, I cried all Monday - humans with kidney failure will be given dialysis until a transplant can be found. Not much can be done for birds but hope - and it seems to have worked. She's going to be coming home this evening, though she still has gout (buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints, usually of the feet, often caused by kidney problems) so bad that she cannot perch. I'm not sure if it is expected to improve on its own, but there's no medicine to treat it directly, so either she'll improve or she won't, we can't do anything else. The vet says she's eating well, which is a sign she's not in excruciating pain, but the not gripping with her feet shows there is some amount of pain. Unfortunately, any pain medicine we could give her would only damage her kidney more. But she's coming home, so I'm glad.

07 June 2006

Worst Science Test Evar

Thanks to galbinus-caeli for pointing it out.

You Passed 8th Grade Science

Congratulations, you got 7/8 correct!

Errors in the test include

Q1) skies = skis
Q2) nuclues = nucleus; also has two correct answers (it's the one I got "wrong")
Q4) tell = cell
Q6) neuron = neutron; depends upon the units used.
Q7) Depends on if you take GR into account.
Q8) causes = causes most of; and if you're picky it's the gravity differential.

Moreover, Q1 is not actually covered by 8th grade according to the National Science Education Standards, it's covered in grades 9-12.

06 June 2006

When politics meets science: Bush vs. Gay Marriage

Bush has been pushing a Constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. It's probably a good thing that it won't garner the 60 Senate votes to go forward, because the amendment hasn't clearly defined "man" and "woman."

Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman. (CNN)

Biologically, there are males (XY), females (XX) [1], and other (XXY, XXX, XYY, etc., sometimes called intersex), but the terms "man" and "woman" are social constructions. If we tried to define marriage by the genes, then up to 1% of the population [2] would be entirely unable to marry because they don't fit the combined biological definition and social construct of "man = XY" and "woman = XX".

I guess we could instead define it by birth certificate, which actually is the least of many evils, since you can get your birth certificate gender changed after a sex change operation (so a MtF transexual can marry a man [3]), but you don't have to (so a MtF can also marry a woman [4]).

Ah, the amusements of loopholes. Bring on the lawsuits!

Three-armed baby amputated

In follow-up to this story, doctors chopped off one of the baby's arms. So now we have a normal-looking person with dysfunctional left arm. Absolutely wonderful.

05 June 2006


What'll they think of next? Apparently a guitar with y-shaped strings, three necks, and that sounds more like a percussion instrument. So everything I said about overtones before goes right out the window! :-P

31 May 2006

Baby born with three arms

Though perhaps calling it one and two halves would be more accurate, as neither of the two left arms is fully functional. I find it nauseating that the Chinese doctors are contemplating arbitrarily chopping off one of the "extra" arms just so the child will fit in, despite the fact that they have no idea which arm is "better."

30 May 2006

29 May 2006

Issues-based shopping

I feel like I've posted about IdealsWork before, but it was a while ago and I just stumbled across them again. If issues such as human rights, women's issues, and the environment matter to you, IdealsWork helps you pick which company has the best track record on those issues. HINT: You probably want to check OFF Nuclear Energy, since as far as I can tell they're saying that companies that use nuclear energy get a LOWER rating, while nuclear energy is significantly better for the environment than coal or oil or natural gas. You can also pick the "advanced" tab to weight different issues more heavily. Vote with your money!

Speaking of sound...

There's an article briefly highlighting age-related hearing loss. In short, as people get older, they start to lose the upper range of frequencies that they can hear, and this starts as young as in your twenties. If you want to test your hearing, there's a high frequency sound here.

I wonder though, whether all computer speakers are capable of producing that sound in the first place. I'm sure there's a way to look up the high-frequency cutoff for any given speaker, but I'm too lazy to check on mine. :-P As for why older people can't hear it, there's a little info here and and here, but it appears that the cause isn't all that clear, or else isn't clearly known.

Thanks to the_xtina for the head's-up.