Sunday, December 9, 2007

First Annual Visible Universe Astronomy Gift Guide

It might be a little presumptuous to publish a First Annual anything in a column that has only been around a year and a half, but volunteer columnists have license to be bold. For your shopping convenience, here are some of the items featured in Friday's column, The First Annual Visible Universe Astronomy Gift Guide:

Happy spending!

Playing catch-up

It has been too long! Let me catch you up on the projects I've been working on while I've been neglecting this blog.

Over at the Foundational Questions Institute Web site, I've written four scientists profiles, and have two new articles in the works.

And from the Boulder Daily Camera, where The Visible Universe columns appears every alternate Friday:

Thursday, October 18, 2007

New friends and the leaky pipeline

The Visible Universe has two new friends in the blogosphere: Sorting Out Science's Sam Wise, who featured The Visible Universe in the 25th edition of the Carnival of Space, and Astronomom, who is a real-life friend as well.

Astronomom's brand-new blog chronicles life as post-doc and a new mother. Why start a blog with so much already on her plate?

If I'm going to be part of the leaky pipeline in science because of having had a baby as a postdoc then I want that recorded, and maybe my experience will help others. If I do manage some kind of balance, then I'd like that recorded too.

Responding to the story on the astronomy job market, she writes:

I calculated at the start of graduate school that someone was investing 1/4 million dollars in me getting my PhD alone...! I've used telescopes that cost 10s of thousands of dollars a night to run - and I've had many nights on those telescopes. Surely it would be a huge waste to the field if I just disappear from Astronomy.

But as part of astronomy's "leaky pipeline," I don't believe that money is wasted if a student doesn't pursue a research career. There are many fields where individuals with real, hands-on science experience are desperately needed--science policy, science journalism, education--and having scientifically trained people in those positions can only be a good thing for the field.

Of course, some students take their PhDs and head for private-sector positions in investment banking, software design, and the like. Who can blame them when jobs within their field are so scarce? I agree with Astronomom that, in the long run, an oversupply of highly-educated astronomers isn't good for anyone: Yet, the more students are clamoring for degrees and courses in astronomy, the more tenure-track faculty should be necessary to instruct them.

That's in theory, anyway.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dear Sir or Madam

Here's a story I never thought I'd see outside the AAS newsletter. The astronomy job market is in the doldrums. Those who get coveted tenure-track positions keep them long past traditional retirement age, and thanks to federal penny-pinching, few new research positions are opening up.

According to's Sebastian Thaler:

Are we to tell our children that the universe is good for looking at, but that when it comes to choosing a career, it's best to keep one's gaze firmly bound to Earth? In effect, that's what's happening now.

So go ahead, make a wish upon the first star you see tonight — and wish luck upon whoever wants to study it.

Well, I could have told you that. But catching the story on was a surprise--like opening the New York Times and finding your face on the front page.

Not to compare to the front page of the New York Times, of course, but you get the idea. And when you consider how small the astronomy community really is (the American Astronomical Society claims about 6,500 members, not all of whom are even active researchers), and the granularity of the story (even the Astrophysics Jobs Rumor Mill got a mention), the my-life-is-news sensation isn't quite so crazy.

Is this how Heidi and Spencer feel?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Where's the romance?

If you liked the thrill is gone, you'll love Friday's column, a more detailed take on the pros v. amateur debate. One thing: The Camera left off the first sentence of the story, so you will have to mentally paste it back in: What's the difference between professional astronomers and amateurs?

(And by the way, have you noticed that there are sure a lot of love songs with this "thrill is gone" theme? There's You Don't Bring Me Flowers. And the one from Top Gun. Any others? Come on, readers, I know you're out there! Or, actually, I don't. So show yourselves!)

Another opening, another show

The first phase of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA)--the new UC Berkeley/SETI Institute radio array under construction at Hat Creek--is now up and running. This new radio array exploits cheap 20-foot aluminum radio dishes to synthesize a large collecting area and wide field of view. The ATA is also a multitasker: It can can look at different parts of the sky at the same time (the telescopic equivalent of having eyes in the back of your head), maximizing available observing time.

The ATA can pull the same trick in the frequency domain, taking data anywhere between 0.5 and 11 Gigahertz on any dish at any time. If you were to compare that to how the human ear processes sound, it would be no great shakes--we can process sound waves spanning about ten octaves. But for a radio telescope, it's like suddenly being able to hear the whole orchestra when, before, you could only pick up the flute or the bass.

The ATA will also be a full-time SETI instrument. That's not to say that it won't be doing "traditional" radio astronomy, too: It can do both at the same time. So data will be piping through the SETI computers 24/7, stepping up the speed of targeted searches by 100x.

This first phase included forty-two dishes; the plan is to bring that number up to 350--when more money comes along. Half of the $50 million spent on the ATA to date came from Paul Allen's foundation. (For ideas on where they might come up with the rest, check out last week's column.)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The thrill is gone

The New York Times has been working the amateur astronomy beat, following up their June 8 story on astronomy villages with today's Home and Garden feature on luxury home observatories.

No more lugging telescopes out into the cold and the dark for these "baby boomers and wealthy tech types," reports the Times. No more red flashlights, clunky tripods, and star parties. Amateurs are spending tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to work like the professionals, installing rooftop domes that house serious scopes:

For comfort, most home observatories have a separate insulated and air-conditioned control room that houses all the computer equipment. These rooms often look like studies, with lots of space photography hanging on the walls.

I always envied the amateurs their connection with the sky: The amateurs were the ones who knew the constellations backward and forward, who could point out a star and tell you all that you could see within a pinky's-width. They were the ones drawn to the romance of cold, still air, and the low-tech pleasures of binoculars, 800-speed film, and their own eyes.

The professionals got the comforts of climate-controlled computer rooms, computer-driven domes, and point-and-click slewing. But for all this technology, we might go a whole night without actually seeing a single star. Automation severed our connection with the sky.

As Geoff Marcy, the UC Berkeley planet-hunter, lamented to Reuters in a story picked up by The Gist:

"There are no eyepieces anywhere [at the Keck telescope]. In fact, we don't have an eyepiece for the Keck telescope....Some of the romance of astronomy is gone."

Professional astronomers, of course, aren't in the business of romance: They're in it for the science, and for that they sacrifice the pleasures that amateurs get to keep.

But apparently the amateurs--provided they have the money--don't want those pleasures any more. And with that attitude, how long will it be before Richard Branson is launching personal a Hubble for every baby boomer with a suitable portfolio?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Monday morning quarterlifing

I complained about the "quarter-life crisis" back in April in a Visible Universe column on wave function collapse.

Now it's a TV show. Or rather, an internet video series. Or is it a social networking site? Actually, according to, it is your next step as an artist and as a person.

Ugh. I feel a little sick.

Dishing it out

A few more postscripts to last week's Washington, DC meeting on the future of Arecibo:

Science Magazine pointed out that NSF officials aren't so pleased that scientists are lobbying Congress on behalf of Arecibo.

"We commissioned a panel to determine scientific priorities," says Wayne van Citters, who heads the agency's astronomy division. "To involve Congress in one aspect of it is not a productive way to go."

From van Citters' perspective, the senior review panel's report should be the last word on how funding is prioritized. And, historically, it has been to the astronomy community's benefit to present a unified front. But the review panel's recommendations were based on outdated information, says NAIC director Bob Brown: Instead of staying static, as the panel assumed, the NSF budget will likely be growing in the next year, leaving to enough to go round for everyone.

Frankly, even if the budget were shrinking, I bet that scientists who depend on Arecibo for their work would still be pushing to keep it alive. And they should: there's lots of useful science left in Arecibo, and it would be a shame to see that science lost over a sum of money that, to the NSF, is basically loose change.

But enough editorializing. If you'd like to actually read the talks that were presented at the conference, they are all available here.

Wonkette got in on the Arecibo act with this totally unilluminating post. But still, it's nice to be noticed.

The Cornell Chronicle also featured a story on the meeting.

An editorial in the Cornell Daily Sun (the student paper) declared, "Tragically, we recognize that at this point in the process, Cornell has done all it can to save Arecibo."

Oh, and I mentioned Robert Kerr's quip about painting Google across the dish in Friday's Visible Universe column.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Friends in high places

I'm so proud!

My friends Dunc Lorimer and Maura McLaughlin just published a discovery that, according to one press release, "could open up a new field in astrophysics."

What they found was this: A radio burst so strong, so short, and so distant that they don't know quite what it is. It could be the radio rebound from a neutron star collision, the "last gasp" of an evaporating black hole, or some other exotic event that we haven't even thought of yet.

The data set that captured the burst was actually six years old and had already been through the data-ringer once. But the first time, the team was only looking for repeating pulses--that is, for pulsars. It wasn't until David Narkevik, an undergrad at West Virginia University, took a second pass at the data that the isolated burst was uncovered.

So far, the burst is the only known radio event of its kind. The next one might be discovered in other archival pulsar surveys, or we might have to wait for a new facility like Australia's SKA Pathfinder, a testbed for the planned Square Kilometer Array, to come on line.

The burst was observed with Australia's Parkes radio telescope.

Image credit: Lorimer et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF. Greyscale represents visible light; contours are radio data

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Small steps

Chad at Uncertain Principles wrote up a summary of the New York Times' Sputnik anniversary coverage, highlighting Dennis Overbye's elegy to his own astronaut dreams, which I have to agree is the best of the bunch.

Of a photograph of a shuttle launch, Overbye writes:

There, on a pillar of violence, is your dream of transcendence, of freedom, of escape from killer rocks in the sky, boiling oceans or whatever postmodern plague science comes up with. Of galactic immortality.

That picture broke my heart. I’d seen rocket launches before and been appropriately chastened by the thunder and heat it took to break free of gravity, but I had never seen it from such a perspective. So much work for such a small step into the universe. How could this ever be routine, economical or safe?

I'm of the wrong generation for this sort of future nostalgia, and young enough to imagine that some Big Space Plans might be realized during my lifetime, but it still resonates.

After all, not to get all weepy, but who has never lost a dream? And for the Apollo generation, space travel wasn't just a personal dream but a national one. Overbye writes:

Watching the Apollo astronauts recount their travels to the Moon in the documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon,” I was wiping away tears for a time when we had bold dreams and leaders who, for whatever motives, could make them happen. Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the Moon are as crisp as the day he made them.

Yes, there is the President's Vision for Space Exploration, though it has begun to feel more like a national chore than a national passion. And there is the emerging commercial space industry, which may be where Overbye's deferred dreams have found a haven.

But for now, we're just waiting on the next "great leap."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lunar legalese

Slate's Explainer knows what you're asking, even if you don't. On Thursday, the column broke down the legal ins and outs of moon landings. Apparently, anyone can drop anchor on the moon: The trick is getting there. According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, you need a license to launch.

In the United States, that license comes from the FAA. Brazil, Israel, Russia and other countries with "emerging commercial space sectors" have FAA-analogs that sign off on launches.

As the Explainer points out,

By controlling what and who launches into space, a government can attempt to regulate what happens there. But once you're cleared to launch, you don't need special permission to land on the moon. There aren't any specific guidelines beyond what's in the 1967 treaty as to what happens on the lunar surface.

So what if spacecraft are one day built or launched from orbiting "dry docks?" I know, it sounds very sci-fi, but is it really such a wild proposition?

Any explainers out there want to take this on?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fish in space

Well, the best thing about this story might be the headline, but here’s the scoop: A space pod full of baby fish blasted off last Friday as part of a bundle of life and physical science experiments from the European Space Union. A pair of German developmental biologists will be monitoring how the fish’s otoliths develop in microgravity. What, you don’t know what otoliths are? Okay, I didn’t either: apparently, they are natural accelerometers within the inner ear that help with hearing and balance. Fish otoliths are just like human ones, but bigger--perfect for experiments in the lab or, in this case, in space.

Scientists already tried putting fish in “hypergravity” (i.e., a centrifuge). The fish ended up with mini-otoliths--just what they would need to function if they were to live out their lives in a Gravitron.

The hypothesis is that, in microgravity, the fish will grow bulked-up otoliths. For now, the scientists are observing the fish via a streaming video link. They will rendezvous with their experiment after it crash-lands on September 26.

Eventually, scientists may be able to use the results to develop therapies for human afflictions like vertigo and ringing in the ears.

Fish suffering from these symptoms are encouraged to see their family ichthyologist.

(That's a fish doctor! You get it!)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Paint the sky purple

Dave Caldwell really turned on the purple for this New York Times story on stargazing in Pennsylvania's Cherry Springs State Park:

Glimmering like a sequined showgirl and hovering in the Western sky near the setting sun, Venus appeared first, the warm-up act for what would become a cavalcade of, literally, thousands of real stars.

Venus is pretty, sure, but geez! I hate to get down on a guy for talking up the beauty of the night sky, but what real sky could live up to this?

After all, any old 737 can light up the night: It's the knowledge that every star and planet is a whole other world that makes the sky truly majestic.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Save room for popcorn

The Bad Astronomy Blog reports that Jodrell Bank will be turning the Lovell radio telescope's 76-meter dish into a giant movie screen as part of the telescope's 50th anniversary celebration--or "golden jubilee," as they say across the pond. From the press release:

The huge dish of the Telescope will act as a giant video screen displaying images of early space exploration, astronomy, engineering, the history and future of radio astronomy and the construction of the Lovell telescope itself. These spectacular moving images will be combined with music and a specially-commissioned light and laser show.

It's all part of the British National Space Centre's Space 50, a celebration of the "first 50 years" of the UK's role in space exploration and research. Sure, 1957 seems like a sort of arbitrary "birthday," but it marks the launch of the first Skylark rocket, a science payload delivery vehicle which was in use through 2005; Lovell's first light; and the launch of Sputnik 1--the Soviet satellite that was the first artificial object to orbit the Earth. (Scientists at Jodrell Bank actually hooked up a transmitter to the Lovell dish and tracked Sputnik's carrier rocket about a week after it launched.)

There is a full slate of events planned, including everything from the usual lectures to a yacht race to the Stubble Space Telescope, which defies my pedestrian American understanding but which must fill the same niche the Corn Palace fills on this side of the Atlantic.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The view from Washington

The Washington Post offered a political preview of last week's Frontiers of Astronomy conference:

Astronomers from around the country are meeting in Washington this week to highlight the many scientific mysteries that Arecibo is in a unique position to plumb, but the effort may be "too little, too late," said Daniel Altschuler, a professor of physics at the University of Puerto Rico who was Arecibo's director for 12 years.

"I don't see any effective move toward saving Arecibo," said Altschuler.

While the VLBA, also targeted for cuts, has New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici in its corner, Arecibo doesn't have a hometown Congressional ally: Puerto Rico has no voting representatives in Congress.

Louis D. Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, is hoping someone on Capitol Hill will offer up a budget earmark:

"Earmarks get a bad rap, but this is a case when Congress should step up to prevent Arecibo's demise."

In a strange-bedfellows turn, the White House may be critical to an Arecibo reprieve: If the NSF budget continues to grow as outlined in the President's American Competitiveness Initiative goals, the budget crunch that got everyone scrimping in the first place will no longer be an issue.

Arecibo also has a friend in California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who has been preaching the doomsday-asteroid gospel for years and would push for NASA to take over the funding of Arecibo's radar system (just don't ask what NASA would cut to do it).

Otherwise, there's always corporate sponsorship:

"Imagine the word 'Google' painted across that 19-acre dish," [Arecibo Director Robert] Kerr said. "What do you think that would be worth?"

Message in a bottle

Last Wednesday's New York Times featured an Op-Ed by Timothy Ferris on the 30th anniversary of the Voyager 1 launch. The spacecraft, launched in 1977 (in case you don't feel like doing the math), photographed the planets and moons of the outer solar system before setting out for interstellar space. The probe is already 9.6 billion miles from the sun is advancing at a pace of about 335 million miles a year.

Along for the ride is a "message in a bottle"--a gold-plated phonograph record containing greetings from earth--waiting to be found by some alien species.

As Ann Druyan, science media producer and widow of Carl Sagan, put it:

“This was the most romantic and beautiful project ever attempted by NASA. It
had the sounds of a kiss, a mother saying hello to her newborn baby for the first time, all that glorious music. Remember, this was during the Cold War. Everyone was living with the knowledge that 50,000 nuclear weapons could go off at any time, and there was a lot of angst about the future. This was something positive -- a way to represent Earth and put our best foot forward. That was irresistible.”

NASA, for its part, was just glad the record didn't have any naked people on it.

Anyway, no extraterrestrials have picked up the record yet, but it has become a pop culture icon, figuring into a Saturday Night Live sketch, one of The Strokes' videos, episodes of The West Wing and The X-Files, and apparently driving the plot of the Transformers Beast Wars show. (The nice people at Wikipedia, of course, maintain an exhuastive record of the disk's appearances in fiction.)

Probably not what Carl Sagan and friends had in mind. Or maybe it's exactly what they wanted--not to bring a message about Earth to space, but to bring a message about Earth to Earth.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Spin, not science

Turning complicated science into a snappy headline is tough. It's easy to get carried away by a good line--even if it exaggerates or misrepresents the facts.

Take last week's press release from the University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy. The lede:

A team of astronomers have taken pictures of the stars that are sharper than anything produced by the Hubble telescope, at 50 thousandths of the cost.

The Hubble team bit back, pointing out that release's claim is a half-truth, at best. The Cambridge camera, dubbed "Lucky," can achieve 50 milliarcsecond resolution--twice as fine as Hubble--but only in a tiny fraction of split-second-exposure frames. The "good" frames have to be added up to yield a useful image. To truly beat out Hubble, the Lucky camera has to stare at the same section of sky for much longer.

This isn't just a matter of scientific pride: It's a money thing. If policymakers and the public believe that a ground-based system like Lucky is better and cheaper than Hubble, why would they shell out extra cash for the space telescope?

The fact is that ground-based and space-based telescopes are complementary instruments, not competitive ones. Earthbound telescopes have the advantage of size: The bigger a telescope is, the more sensitive it is to faint objects. Space telescopes are smaller (Hubble's mirror is just 2.4 meters in diameter; Keck, for instance, is 15 meters wide), but they don't have atmospheric scattering to contend with, so they can snap clearer pictures.

The Lucky camera does its best to cancel out that scattering by skimming sharp frames from a big pile of blurry ones. But the intimation that systems like Lucky will make space telescopes obsolete is, as Hubble spokesman Ray Villard put it to Alan Boyle, "greatly premature."

According to this great explainer from Nature News, the Lucky team is abashed and admits that the press release "did kind of hype it up."

But it's a shame, and now the facts of Lucky's real technical innovation are lost in the noise.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Blogospheric reciprocity

Thanks to Stuart at Astronomy Blog for linking to The Visible Universe, and for saying kind things about it to boot! Check out Stuart's post on Pluto: I know, you've heard all about it, but it's a smart take on an issue that just doesn't want to go away.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Rock it scientist

If you want to know the story of Brian May, just look to his hair.

This is clearly the hair of a rock star.

Or is it the hair of astrophysicist?

Actually, it's both.

May has been a bona fide rock star since he joined up with Queen back in the 1970s. Now he's earned his astrophysics credentials, too: He finished his doctoral thesis defense at Imperial College, London in August.

Why is this story so appealing? Sure, astrophysicists like it because it proves rock stars and astrophysicists aren't so different after all--something they (the PhDs, not the rockers) had long suspected.

But I think it speaks to anyone under the spell of a dream that got away--the possibility of two fully realized careers, of returning to the fork in the road and trying out the path you missed the first time.

So, congratulations Dr. May!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Uranus in the spotlight

In today's Visible Universe, read about Uranus' ring-plane crossing--our first edge-on view of the rings since they were discovered in 1977.

Not up for hard science on a holiday weekend? How about this: the story covers the origin of the planet's unfortunate name. And, I make lots of awesome butt jokes!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Charles Schisler, pulsar pioneer

The cultural mythology of pulsar astronomy begins with the story of Jocelyn Bell, who discovered the tighter-than-clockwork radio pulses of PSR B1919+21 back in 1967.

Bell and her adviser, Anthony Hewish, were the first to interpret and publish the phenomenon, but they weren't the first to notice it. Charles Schisler, now 81, beat them to it: While stationed at Alaska's Clear Air Force Station, Schisler picked up the cosmic blips with the radar receivers of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. (He was supposed to be scanning the Siberian horizon for incoming Soviet warheads; evidently, his mind had opportunity to wander.)

Schisler actually took his discovery to an astronomer at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who calculated that Schisler's radio source was located in the Crab Nebula. Schisler returned to his station and started keeping a log of other blips; he believes he may have spotted as many as a dozen pulsars in the months before Bell went public with her discovery.

Schisler came forward with his story earlier this month, when the warning system was decommissioned. His story appeared in a Nature advance online publication last week.

According to Nature,

He says that he feels he deserves no credit for his work, but he still regrets that he was unable to share what he had seen. "I wish we had had a way to communicate with the scientific community," he says.

It's a good point: The original discovery of gamma ray bursts was made with military satellites--and classified for six years afterward. Who knows what discoveries are languishing in sealed files today?

Watch this space

I know you want to hate British energy company npower for registering their corporate logo as a constellation. You want to decry the shameless commercialization of our shared night sky; you want to rail against npower for transforming the celestial sphere into a crass advertising space.

But it’s actually sort of sweet. This is no billboard-on-the-moon, neon-lights-on-the-space-station sort of thing: The company just mentally connected a group of stars (328, to be exact) to spell out “npower,” phoned up the International Star Registry, and bought a spot for their new “constellation” in the ISR’s book, “Your Place in the Cosmos.”

It’s more the idea of an advertisement than an advertisement itself: No one will see npower’s skywriting unless they want to. If only all advertising were so obliging.

(Incidentally, the International Star Registry has no official license to name astronomical objects, so the new constellation—like the thousands of stars named in honor of sweethearts—has no official status.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Still Rooting for NASA

What do Lindsay Lohan and NASA have in common? The Visible Universe (that's me) has the answer!

Happily, the space shuttle landed safely after a gouged tile and Hurricane Dean cast concerns over the mission.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Stars by Google

Just when you thought Google had cataloged everything on earth...they're taking to the sky. The latest version of Google Earth, the zoomable, customizable, digital globe, also features images of the night sky. The all-sky shots come from the Digitized Sky Survey, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and others; the Hubble Space Telescopes provides a selection of close-ups.

According to New Scientist, users can plug in their coordinates on Earth to see their personalized night sky, search a catalog of celestial objects, and pull up detailed information on planets, stars, etc.

The press suggests that this free software could replace programs like Redshift in the amateur astronomers' arsenal, but I suspect serious observers will still seek out specialized software for sky mapping--and for simulating the sky as it was in the distant past, or as it will be in the future.

The Sky program also lets users upload and pin their own images on Google's celestial sphere, which could be a big hit with amateur astronomers looking to share their CCD images.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

New Yorker in the dark

In this week's New Yorker, David Owen writes on our disappearing dark skies and what organizations like the International Dark Sky Association are doing to save them.

Light pollution abatement should be an easy sell: IDA-approved lighting provides the same useful illumination as conventional lighting but, because it doesn't leak light upward or horizontally, it saves money and energy. And, the IDA argues, "full cutoff" or "fully shielded" fixtures are actually safer than the "glare bombs" that typically light up our public spaces, since they don't create the sort of dramatically shadowed areas criminals might hide in.

But the New Yorker story makes it clear that stargazing is still the beating heart of the dark sky campaign. Owen writes:

I lay on my back on a bench and watched for meteors, which streaked past every few minutes: in a truly dark sky, shooting stars are too numerous to bother wishing on. We stayed until we noticed the first glow of the approaching sunrise. Stars near the eastern horizon melted away ahead of it, as though the darkness itself were dissolving.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

NASA This Week

NASA finally racked up some successes this week--the Phoenix Mars Lander lifted off without a hitch on its scouting mission to Mars' northern plains; the space shuttle Endeavour launched with teacher-astronaut Barbara R. Morgan aboard, bringing bittersweet closure to the story of Christa McAuliffe.

But just when you start to sense a heartbeat within the bureaucracy, NASA comes out with something like this, the sort of zombie-brained memo that could only be produced by committee. The memo outlines NASA's new "Message Construct," including the Core Message "NASA explores for answers that power our future" and the graphic element "Inspiration + Innovation + Discovery = Future."

According to the memo: "These messages have been market tested and have proven to resonate best with the general public."

Dubious grammar, capitalization, and arithmetic aside, these things seem to have had all the meaning, all the passion, scrubbed out of them. They reek of boardroom. Is this really all the inspiration the NASA Communications leadership can muster?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Mergers and Acquisitions

Scientists scanning a distant galaxy cluster with Spitzer spotted a collision between four massive ellipticals--the first observed merger of so many large galaxies.

Lead author Kenneth Rines (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) compared the scene to "four sand trucks smashing together, flinging sand everywhere." (See the press release.) The sand, in this case, is a spray of billions of stars knocked out of position by the energy of the collision. Some of the stars will eventually be drawn back in to the new mega-galaxy; others will be orphaned in intergalactic space.

A notable property of the galactic quartet: it is gas-poor, unlike most observed mergers in which a rich supply of gas ignites to form new stars. According to Rines, this suggests that the biggest galaxies in the universe are new combinations of old stars.

Galactic collisions sound pretty violent in print--the popular language (the press release refers to the merger as a "Monster Galaxy Pileup" and a "cosmic smash-up") belies the slow-motion reality of these events, which play out over millions of years. Plus, it is extremely unlikely that any single star will collide with another--the scene most people intuitively picture when we talk about galaxies crashing in to one another.

Looking for life in all the wrong places

What do and astrobiology have in common? Find out in Friday's column on the National Research Council's "weird life" report.

Arecibo: Frontiers of Astronomy

With their telescope on the chopping block, some of Arecibo's top users will be gathering in Washington, DC next month to map out the future of science at the world's largest radio dish.

Likely research goals: more big sky surveys with the (relatively) new ALFA feed array system, which boosted the telescope's data collection rate by a factor of seven; long-term pulsar timing; SETI; and more.

Get conference details here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Brainpower vs. computer power

So what if a computer can play a perfect game of checkers? Humans still have computers beat when it comes to science. Read about it in Friday's column.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Brain power

SETI@home harnessed the power of millions of home computers to beat out the data-crunching power of the best supercomputers. Now GalaxyZoo is trying a new twist on the "volunteer computing" model, inviting the folks at home to classify galaxies by hand through a web interface. According to the site:
The human brain is much better at recognising patterns than a computer can ever be. Any computer program we write to sort our galaxies into categories would do a reasonable job, but it would also inevitably throw out the unusual, the weird and the wonderful. To rescue these interesting systems which have a story to tell, we need you.

With a million galaxies to be classified, the team is hoping 20,000 to 30,000 volunteers will sign on. For more, see the BBC's coverage. Thanks to Karen for pointing this story out!

The analog universe

Astronomers may act cocky about time: one thousand years, ten thousand years, it's all a drop in the proverbial bucket (or a grain in the proverbial hourglass? anyway, you get the idea) when you're dealing with a universe billions of years old. But some astronomical events do happen on shorter timescales--supernovas blaze and expand, stars move across the sky--yet digital records of the sky don't go back far enough for us to be able to study these events over more than a few decades.

But a project at Harvard College Observatory may open allow astronomers to study how the sky changes on a 100-year timescale. Harvard hopes to digitize its collection of half a million photographic plates going back to the mid 1880s. Right now the plates are housed in an ostensibly earthquake-proof repository in Cambridge. Astronomers can access the collection as they would any specialized library archive--but it's an appointment-only, legwork-required sort of thing.

Digitizing the plates would not only make them easier to access and analyze--it would protect them from loss, breakage, and the lapses of bureaucratic reason that have historically put them at risk.

But the project is expensive. According a story in last week's New York Times, the Harvard astronomer heading up the digitization effort says a donor will have to come through with five or six million dollars to keep things afloat. From the Times' interview with Dr. Josh Grindlay:

“Somebody could easily put their name on this — the world’s first time-domain catalog....Do we really want to wait another hundred years to find out with modern instrumentation what the cosmic movie looks like? We’ve got this chance right here.”

Oh, and if you're wondering what exactly photographic plates are and what it would be like to do astronomy with them, check out Phil Plait's comments on the Bad Astronomy blog.

No lab for Henderson

Last month, I wrote that Colorado's Henderson Mine was a candidate site for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory. Well, it looks like Henderson will have to stick to regular old mining for now: The National Science Foundation has announced that a closed mine in South Dakota will get the lab instead. Read about it in the Daily Camera and Nature.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The science section

The Emory radio dish got the full treatment in Friday's Visible Universe. (The newspaper column, not the blog.)

Weird life science

Back in the day, NASA astrobiologists swore to "follow the water" in their search for life elsewhere in the solar system. After all, Earth creatures, in their weird and wonderful variations, agree on little else but the need for H2O. So it made sense that water would serve as a proxy for extraterrestrial life, too.

Now a new National Research Council report is throwing a wrench in the works, calling on NASA and the NSF to take off their "terracentric" blinders and be open to the possibility that life could arise without water and in configurations lacking a carbon-based metabolism. The report, The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems, was issued late last week.

From the conclusions:

The committee's investigation makes clear that life is possible in different forms from those on Earth. Different specific biomolecules may be considered highly likely in extraterrestrial life. Different architectures at the microscopic and macroscopic levels must also be considered likely.

So what are scientists supposed to do about it? How can they search for life that might take totally unfamiliar forms? The report recommends a three-pronged attack: laboratory studies that will help clarify how life got started in the first place, a thorough scouring of Earth's stranger environments (under the sea floor, in the upper atmosphere) for novel forms of life, and space missions to scan planets and moons likely to harbor the ingredients of life. Plus, Titan and Enceladus should get bumped to the front of NASA's exploration docket.

The authors write:

"Nothing would be more tragic in the American exploration of space than to encounter alien life and fail to recognize it..."

You might say tragedy of the tangible variety--to which the American space program is no stranger--trumps the abstracted tragedy of missed opportunity. But it's a good line. And, who knows? It may have already happened.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Symmetry at 25

Symmetry Magazine, the in-house publication of Fermilab and SLAC, commissioned cartoonist Roz Chast to design the cover art for their 25th issue. Those wacky particle physicists!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Before the beginning

What happened before the Big Bang?

Cosmologists don't know. Not only that--the conventional wisdom is that they can't know, that history before the Big Bang is fundamentally inaccessible to science.

But Martin Bojowald, a physicist at Penn State, says that the "past life" of our universe may not have been totally erased. In an article in Nature Physics, Bojowald argues that loop quantum gravity can be applied to a mathematical model of the universe to yield up some--but not all--of the universe's pre-Bang backstory.

I won't pretend to actually understand the argument, but the interesting thing is that we can say anything at all about what happened before the Big Bang--even if the substance of the discussion is just an accounting of answerable and unanswerable questions.

Nature, unfortunately, is tight-fisted with its articles; you can't read them online unless you have a subscription. But you can probably pick up the article online or in print at your friendly university library. Or, try the press release.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Blue moon

Speaking of sealing people up in artificial environments, Rutgers recently held a Symposium on Lunar Settlements featuring talks from aerospace experts, former astronauts, lunar policy wonks, and even a space arcitect. (I never knew such a thing existed, but the University of Houston actually has an entire institute devoted to space architecture, called the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture.)

The presentation powerpoints are all available at the symposium Web site. Check out floorplans for the lunar colony in Larry Bell's presentation--they even include privacy screens. (Bell heads up the SICSA.)

But Brent Sherwood's presentation has the most telling title: "What will we actually do on the moon?" Sherwood offers a plan for "selling" the project to the general public--or, as he puts it, to "non-nerds."

And Chester Spell, an associate professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business—Camden, suggested that workers assigned to duty on a lunar colony would be vulnerable to depression and anxiety, which could run through a settlement like "social contagion."

Which brings us back to Biosphere 2: A reminder that we still may have something to learn from that "failed" first experiment out in the desert.

New lease on life

The University of Arizona, the new tenant of Biosphere 2, got a peach of a deal. According to local reports, the University will pay $100 a year to lease the structure and some of the surrounding buildings, and the rest of their bills will be covered by a $30 million grant from the Philecology Foundation.

The Philecology Foundation? I hadn't heard of it, either. But the man behind it is none other than Ed Bass, who hatched the Biosphere 2 project in the first place.

I'll admit, it's a little weird. But the foundation has committed to supporting research at the facility for at least three years. According to a university press release, research areas will include "global climate change, the fate of water and how energy travels through Earth's ecosystems."

Said UA Associate Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Travis E. Huxman, who will serve as director of "B2 Earthscience":

As a research facility, Biosphere 2 is unique in its spatial scale. The facility provides us a bridge between our small-scale, controlled, laboratory-based understandings of earth processes and experiments in field settings where we cannot control all environmental conditions. Biosphere 2's size allows us to do controlled experimentation at an unprecedented scale.

The Biosphere will continue to be open to public tours.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Reprieve for Biosphere 2

Good news from the Arizona Daily Star: On Tuesday, the University of Arizona will be announcing a "major research initiative" to take place at Biosphere 2. The word is that the dome will be used for climate change research.

I was less optimistic on the future of the "luckless dome" in Friday's Visible Universe, and for once I'm happy to be proved wrong.

Radio Free Emory

Back in 1985, political scientists at Emory University wanted to get a peek behind the Iron Curtain. So they installed a 25-foot satellite dish at the top of a campus parking garage, wired up a TV and VCR in the stairwell, and tuned in to a Soviet TV feed from a satellite above Africa. For a few years, they watched and analyzed Soviet TV shows. One professor even got a book out of it: Split Signals: Television and Politics in the Soviet Union.

But the dissolution of the USSR rendered the dish obsolete. It sat unused for years until the physics department got to thinking: why not turn it in to a radio telescope?

So they fixed up the structure, installed a new 21 cm receiver (21 cm is a hydorgen emission line useful for galactic mapping), and got "first light" in 2006.

Now Emory students can get hands-on experience observing with a radio telescope.

How's that for swords into plowshares?

Read more about the telescope at Emory's physics department site. Click on "View the dish show."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Underground Science

No, not secret science; just science below ground. The National Science Foundation is evaluating proposals for a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), a subterranean lab that would, according to the official literature, study essentially everything: particle physics, astrophysics, biology, geoscience, and engineering.

One of the candidate lab sites is Colorado's Henderson Mine. Henderson had been in a heads-up competition with South Dakota's Homestake Mine for the project but, in 2006, the NSF reopened the selection process to include sites in Washington state and Minnesota.

Site visits are underway, so all the competitors are waiting to see whether this $300 million federal investment will be coming their way. Arguments in Henderson's favor: It's close to Denver and, because it is an active mine, it is supported by modern infrastructure. Getting the operations of a working mine to mesh with those of a research lab might be a challenge, but Henderson has the aesthetic edge: in a 2006 Newsday interview, one of the project's leaders, Chang Kee Jung, (Stony Brook) described visiting Henderson as jaw dropping, like "the first time you meet Angelina Jolie."

Hey, how'd he get to meet Angelina Jolie?

Read more here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Buyer's remorse?

I have a soft spot for Biosphere 2, where I spent half of my Junior year as a student in Columbia University's Universe Semester astronomy intensive. So it was bittersweet to see that Biosphere and the surrounding land have been picked up by CDO Ranching & Development. They plan to build 1,500 new homes and a resort on the land around the structure.
What about the Biosphere itself? Tens of thousands of visitors are still touring the facility every year, and the University of Arizona may be able to secure a lease that would allow scientists to continue using it as a research facility. It's not clear whether the cost of maintaining it is worth the scientific payoff, but the dome might yet be spared the axe.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dome sweet dome

Not to recap the whole New York Times, but Wednesday's Travel section featured this story on "astronomy villages"--housing developments created for and by amateur astronomers, where dark-sky rules are part of community code.

The first of these "planned communities" is thought to be the Chiefland Astronomy Village about three hours north of Tampa Bay. There's also Arizona Sky Village, which doubles as a birding haven.

Of course, if you care enough about dark skies you could always buy your own lot on some Arizona mountaintop and not have to fuss with an HOA. But as Dan Ford, a resident of Georgia's Deerlick Astronomy Village, told the New York Times, “It’s just not as much fun sitting out in the dark by yourself.”

Saturday, June 9, 2007

But can they predict the weather?

In a lovely essay in Tuesday's New York Times, Dennis Overbye writes:
If you are of a certain science fiction age, like me, you might have grown up with a vague notion of the evolution of the universe as a form of growing self-awareness: the universe coming to know itself, getting smarter and smarter, culminating in some grand understanding, commanding the power to engineer galaxies and redesign local spacetime.

This in contrast to Lawrence Krauss (Case Western) and Robert Scherrer's (Vanderbilt University) prediction that future astronomers will be "fundamentally incapable of determining the true nature of the universe."

In the way way future (100 billion years from now), they write, cosmic expansion will have scattered galaxies so diffusely that our sky will be bare of all but a handful of galaxies. Observers in the Milky Way will have no way of knowing that other galaxies exist, that the universe is expanding, or that there was ever a Big Bang.

Future astronomers will perceive the universe to be empty and static, and their conclusions about cosmology will most closely resemble ideas that reigned in the very early 20th century, before Edwin Hubble, before Penzias and Wilson, when it seemed perfectly plausible that our galaxy was the only galaxy; that the universe was just as it had always been and would always would be.

The moral, according to Krauss and Scherrer:
Thus, we live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe: the time at which we can observationally verify that we live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe!

Overbye offers a different take-away:
The lesson in the meantime is that we don’t know what we don’t know, and we never will — a lesson that extends beyond astronomy.

If that's the case, one might where Krauss and Scherrer get off extrapolating the state of science 100 billion years into the future (when, incidentally, the Sun and all of today's stars will be long dead, our solar system a cosmic ghost town). But I would never begrudge two physicists their daydreams.

Like a record, baby

Last week, I mentioned that a rotating sphere will bulge out around its equator. Why? The answer has to do with centripetal acceleration--the linear momentum that tries to keep matter moving in a straight line, even when gravity has other ideas.

In this case, centripetal acceleration wants to fling matter off the planet, and the strength of the acceleration is related to how fast that matter is moving. That velocity maxes out at the equator.

So gravity and momentum come to a mathematical compromise: the Earth is a little fatter where it has its greatest linear velocity, at the equator.

Want to see the math? Of course you do! The ever-prolific Eric Weisstein has encyclopedized it here.

Springtime in the Universe

It seems all of Boston is being punished for my harsh words in Friday's column on the city's now-you-see-it-now-you-don't spring: it's been sour and rainy since the column ran.

So listen up, weather: I apologize. Spring here is lovely, really. I should not have been so ungrateful. Now can the Sun come back out, please?

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Stellar privacy at risk?

So what if Google is zooming its lenses into every peep hole in America? Astronomers have come up with a good close-up, too: they've captured the first image of a relatively normal, hydrogen-burning star (other than our sun). And they discovered that it is fat.

So, taking pictures of stars seems like the kind of thing astronomers would have gotten around to by now. But it turns out that imaging the surface of a star is hard. Until now, only bloated-up red giants were big enough to appear as anything more than single points of light in astronomers' images.

The imaged star, Altair, is pretty close to Earth--it's only about 15 light years away--and it's a "rapid rotator," which gives it what one of those weight-loss drug ads might call "belly bulge." That is, it's a distorted sphere, wider around the equator than around the poles.

The team had to jump through some technical hoops to snap the shot: they used four infrared telescopes as an interferometer, getting better resolution than they could with a single telescope.

They hope to use the same technique to image other stars and even extrasolar planets.

Read the NSF press release here, or check out more technical information, including a PDF of the Science paper, at author John Monnier's site.

Or learn more about the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA), the telescope array that Monnier's team used.

Friday, June 1, 2007

NASA and the Mercury 13

Last week, I wrote about the Mercury 13--a group of women who aced the physical exams required to join the astronaut corps but who, it seems, never had a serious shot at spaceflight, thanks to 1960s mores that kept women out of the daredevils ranks of the test pilots who became NASA's first astronaut class.

James Oberg argues that the media miscast this story as a "secret NASA training program" when, in fact, it was a private side project run by a NASA doctor. Read his commentary here.

The Mercury 13 have their own web site with bios of "the ladies" and additional background reading.

And check out NASA's diplomatic take on the subject here.

Astronomy with all five senses

In my May 11 column, I referenced a bunch of people and organizations that are working to make astronomy a multi-sensory experience. Here are some of the sites I mentioned.

Touch the Universe: A Braille Book of Astronomy

Total Eclipse, SE Australia, 1976, sound sculpture by Bill Fontana

And my personal favorite: The edible space shuttle for vegetarians and a shuttle dog for omnivores.

Barack Obama, Mars and the idea of West

Barack Obama's family history may seem plucked from a cycle on the It's A Small World ride--his mother, born in Hawaii to a pair of restless Kansanans; his father, yo-yoing between America and his native Kenya--but it is just one more retelling of the classic American frontier story, argues Larissa MacFarquhar in a profile of the presidential hopeful for the New Yorker.

Of Obama's maternal grandfather, she writes,

After a few false stars and eloping with a restless girl, he did what men of his type iconically do: he moved west. He moved to California, then to Seattle, and then, finally to the last frontier, as far west as he could go without ending up east again, to Hawaii.

How did it all turn out? As Obama points out in his memoir, his grandfather ended up physically distant from Kansas but psychically just where he started. His traveled paid off only in chronic disappointment.

Writes MacFarquhar,

Innocence, freedom, individualism, mobility--the belief that you can leave a constricting or violent history behind and remake yourself in a new form of your choosing--all are part of the American dream of moving west....But this dream, to Obama, seems...a destructive craving for weightlessness.

Some would argue that our drive to go to space--to open the new west, the new frontier--is just the next natural step in our cultural restlessness, and that it will be a similar letdown: That once we get to Mars, the Moon, wherever, we'll find what Obama's grandfather found--we can change our surroundings, but we can't change ourselves.

I like to think that this isn't the case--that new places, new discoveries, and the process of exploration itself can be transformational. Whether this hunch is enough to justify sending humans out into the solar system--well, scientists and their administrators have always been hesitant to justify their work in such abstract terms. Stephen Hawking, the newest initiate into zero-G, argues that we need off-Earth colonies to ensure the survival of the species. Few others in the scientific establishment would take quite that tack--they'd point to technological spinoffs, economic benefits, international competitiveness, that sort of thing.

And as for Obama: One might ask whether, if it weren't for his family's history of restlessness, we would have ever arrived where he is today. Perhaps you need to experience motion to know the value of staying put.