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 But the review panel's recommendations were based on outdated information, says NAIC director Bob Brown: Instead of staying static, as the panel assumed, the NSF budget will likely be growing in the next year, leaving to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!