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.