Monday, November 10, 2014

And off we go again - NaNoWriMo

Amongst the crazy things one can do in November is to decide to write 50,000 words in 30 days, i.e. the NaNoWriMo challenge.  I've done this five years running now and I do like to keep up a good streak.


Writing 50K words in *20* days, that's even crazier.  And that's the position that I'm in because I only just started today.  This month has been so demanding.  The whole fall has been that way, actually, with proposals to write, classes to teach, science to do, education research to publish, conferences to attend and my usual Halloween bash to throw.  And then I got sick.  For a week.

At first I figured I'd just skip NaNo this year, since it is always tough, and I really don't need the extra stress.  But that idea just wouldn't sit right in my gut.  I kept on coming back to the idea that I had this great streak going, and didn't I really enjoy the pressure in some weird way, and wasn't it in fact a great way to get some writing done after all?  In five years I've managed to produce the full drafts for about 2.5 books.  Not bad.  That on top of my usual writing means about a novel every two years.

Now if I could manage to get them edited and published ... but that's another thing completely.

Right now is about the 'write now.'  And that's what I've decided to do ... so off we go with the scary zombie/vampire story with a dash of gay romance and a twist of apocalyptic flavor.  It may never get read, but I know I'm going to have a fun time writing it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Naming Astronomical Objects - Power, Productivity, Privilege

Naming things has incredible power.  As a writer, I have a great deal of faith in the power of words.  Naming focuses our thoughts, makes them more clear, and changes our relationship with the object (or person) in question.  Naming creates a written and oral history for an object.  Conquerors and colonists have long known the power of names.  They have renamed objects and forced people to take new names in order to exert their power over them.  Renaming obscures the past, allowing for the new regime to more fully fill the minds of the people. 

Naming is language.  Language is culture. 

So we need to exercise some care when naming.  As any parent knows, it can be agonizing to finally choose a name for a child.  After all, a name is forever.  Well, until it is changed or forgotten, anyway. 

When I was just a kid, my father bought me a gift - my name on a star, as certified by one of those "star registration" companies.  At the time I thought it was great - I also thought it was completely official.  After all, the certificate was impressive and said the name was "insured."  I was really pleased with the gift, until I became an astronomer myself and found out that the name wasn't "real" at all.  That is, no official scientific body, society, or nation recognizes these "registered" names.  I was very disappointed.  I didn't mention anything to my father since I didn't want him to know that the star in question would never be referred to by my name.

There is another company active today that, instead of registering star names, registers the names of craters and other features on the planet Mars.  I have very mixed feelings about this.  The major con to the situation is that the names are not "real".  Again, they are not recognized by any official society or scientific naming body.  I don't like the idea of someone being disappointed when they realize that money was spent to place a name on a "people's map" of Mars, and not to officially, scientifically, name an object on another planet.

Another con is that money is required to do this.  How much of a "people's" map is it really, when names must be bought?  This creates a situation where only those with monetary privilege can name an object.

But there are pros to the situation.  The money raised is being used for research and education efforts.  And some people don't care if the name isn't official, they just like the idea, and enjoy the experience of naming.  It puts them in touch with space, and opens new ways for them to be engaged and interested.

It is a confusing and complicated issue, this naming of astronomical objects.

The only really official naming body is the International Astronomical Union (IAU).  They have a somewhat lengthy process for assigning a name, since each body has a theme.  But no money is required to propose a name, and for the most part, any reasonable name for a major feature will be accepted, eventually.  Not always - a coauthor and I were unable to get a name for a certain channel on Mars, and so ended up having to refer to it as the "unnamed channel" in an actual research paper published in a journal.

Which brings up part of the problem here.  There are now more features, asteroids, and extrasolar planets to name than the IAU can keep up with.  (Note that some of these have been assigned numbers or identification tags, but not names.)  Their process works relatively well for small numbers of major features, but not the inundation of small features and worlds being identified by current space missions.  So how do we arrange to name things so that the names are there as soon as we need them, but also are chosen with care and assigned properly?

Some would say the "people's map" is the answer.  Others might say it is too random, and too rarified with only those with disposable cash being able to contribute to the effort.  I don't have the answer.  I do wish that my "unnamed channel" had been named properly.  But I also wish my star had been "officially" named as well.  How do you get it both ways?

Still, my little personal story has a very happy ending.  My star name might not be official, but I was indeed honored with my name on an asteroid.  A real, official name based on my contributions to science and education - 7807 Grier  Wow.  :)

What are your ideas for naming objects?  What is legitimate in your eyes?  How do we solve the problem of needing to name a large number of objects well and quickly?  It is a complex matter of the power names, the productivity of our work in scientific research and exploration, and the privilege of those who get to name, and why.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Friday, April 11, 2014

Where the Science Poets are for NaPoWriMo

Some amazing science (and speculative) poetry is in the works this year for National Poetry Month - NaPoWriMo.  A bevy of fearless poets are attempting the challenge of writing a poem a day for the whole month, and many are bravely posting them on their blogs!  (Unlike myself.  I do like to keep the option of later publication open, and so I keep my drafts off line.)

Here are some excerpts from a few of the poems already offered this month.

@asrivkin writes of Skylab, where as his title states, he likens the space station to "The Summer Cottage" ...

They never did have the neighbors over,
though they did hitch
their camper vans together
and drink vodka.
Did they all look longingly
at the Moon overhead?

In "If I should die in the desert after stargazing" @Tychogirl calls us to compare our stargazing to other voyages, artistic and otherwise ...

If I should die in the desert after stargazing
know that it was enough, that final view

of stars frozen in their movements
like Van Gogh’s crows

@iyzie writes in "The Rings of Chariklo" of reconciling scientific versus artistic depictions of space and the planets ...

One of the lessons taught to me
by Chariklo and her jewelry;
the whimsical illustrators
of the early space age
weren’t so wrong after all.

So here are some of the people to follow, both twitter handles and blogs.


Did I miss you?  If you are writing science or speculative poetry this month, I'd be happy to note you here as I update the post!  NOTE you don't have to be posting your poems to have your twitter handle/blog included here.

Image Credit:

Monday, January 27, 2014

Astronomical Observing - Actually Getting Data

Sunset view from 2.1 Meter catwalk.
So after days of writing about cirrus, humidity, and telescope shut downs, I figured it was time to write about the glories of when it works.  It looked a bit cloudy to start the night, and we were wondering how it would go.  But the worst of the clouds have moved through.  We've been chugging along well so far (fingers crossed for more) and hope that more clouds won't come along until after sunrise.

So what are we doing up here, anyway?  We are looking at asteroids, for the most part.  We are getting image data (in a handful of colors) of the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter.  These are a population of asteroids that orbit the sun at the same distance as Jupiter, gravitationally influenced to stay in two groups, 60 degrees in front and behind Jupiter's orbit.  These objects have not been extensively studied, and may hold some keys to the early formation of the solar system as a whole.

Example of our data.  Asteroid highlighted by green circle.
So here we are, getting data on as many of these asteroids as we can.  And the observing program will go on for the next few years, since we need to look at a large number of asteroids in order to draw meaningful conclusions - at least for this study.

Our data roughly looks like this sort of thing.  An image showing stars and our target asteroid.  The telescope has been commanded to compensate for the rotation of the Earth, so the stars look like nice points, even after a long exposure.  The asteroid is moving at a different rate, however, so if you add the various images together, you can see that it has moved relative to the background stars.  So it looks a bit like a smudge or streak, here.  (The 'wavy lines' are not real, they are artifacts of the data and quickie reduction done for this example.)

Jupiter - Always fun, and amazing
Of course, the 'seeing' isn't always perfect.  Even on a nice night like this one, intermittent clouds can go by.  When that happens, we spend a little time on some very bright targets, until we can go back to taking our regular data.  This is what astronomers call 'having fun.' 

Image Credit:  Shot from catwalk, Andy Rivkin @asrivkin on twitter, example of data from our run, and same for Jupiter.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Astronomical Observing - Dealing With Weather

An (old) picture of the 2.1 Meter Telescope with lightning.
Ah, yes.  Can't write a series of posts about observing without mentioning the weather.  It is particularly appropriate right now - since I have time to write this post because weather has shut down the telescopes.

We'd hoped for clear skies tonight.  The forecast was for no clouds, and reasonable seeing conditions.  But sometimes it just isn't that easy.  When the weather is obviously bad, say you have lightning like in the picture, you know you won't be getting any data.  It is a very black and white situation.  When you have heavy clouds, or it is raining, that is also straightforward.  You can easily see that the conditions are simply not conducive to observing.  But there are less obvious factors that are just as important.

One of these factors is wind speed.  Most telescopes cannot be open in relatively high winds (say 45mph in some places) as this can damage the telescope and is a safety issue.  Wind is something you can feel, of course.  You may not know exactly how fast the wind is blowing, but you can look at a wind gauge and assuming it is working properly, it will tell you if it is safe to open or not.  Mostly.  The wind is not always steady, of course, and it can change value or direction, or there may be sudden wind gusts.  It can be much harder to determine what is or isn't safe under those conditions.  So it is possible to be sitting inside the dome on a clear night, unable to open, because the wind is occasionally gusting a bit too fast for comfort.  That can be a little frustrating.

Sky Chart predicting clear skies ... and high humidity.  At least for a while.
Another factor is humidity.  This factor is particularly frustrating, and is the reason we are closed at the present moment.  The issue in this case is not that we can't see the sky, but as with wind, that there is a possible issue with the telescope.  It isn't a safety issue, but rather that under the right conditions, water can condense right onto the telescope mirror.  This is very bad for the telescope, and could damage the mirror.  One way to avoid this is not to open the dome if the humidity is high outside, but that is not always a perfect indicator of dew formation.  Condensation (dew) is also a function of the air temperature, the temperature of the telescope, wind speed, and more.  To add to the frustration, humidity is highly variable across short distances.  It is possible that one telescope on the mountain is just fine to open, while another is not.

Bright Jupiter in a haze of humidity.
It isn't particularly obvious how humid it is outside until you look up and see the fuzz of light around the planet Jupiter.  As in this sky shot, the sky is pretty clear, but pretty much straight up (in the center) is a bright spot with haze around it.  That is Jupiter, and the haze is water in the atmosphere.

So here we are sitting under a clear sky, unable to open.  Adding to the frustration is the constant checking.  I am the sort of person who is uncomfortable with gray area.  I want it to be cloudy or not.  Raining or not.  Constantly checking the humidity, (and getting four numbers for four different instruments) is maddening.  Hopefully things will improve later, the sky charts says they might.  But our little corner of the mountain, well, who knows.

Image Credit:  2.1 Meter in lightning from  NOAO/AURA/NSF.  Clear Sky Chart from Kitt Peak Clear Sky Chart.  Sky Shot from  Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Astronomical Observing - To Find a Telescope

Approach to 2.1 M. Dome
Long before going to the mountain, the observer has to create an observing proposal and apply for time on a telescope.  Time can be found on some telescopes by applying to an open, national program, or (if you have the right partners), can be obtained from consortia who own their own telescopes, and have a certain amount of guaranteed time for their specific observers. 

The telescope needs to be a good match for what you want to do.  Telescopes vary in size (light gathering power) and each has its own unique suite of instruments.  Some observations can only be made with the largest and most sensitive telescopes that exist.  But getting time on one of these is difficult - it is very expensive, competitive, and if you do get time, it won't be much.  If you need a lot of nights, or if you have relatively bright targets, then a somewhat smaller telescope is what you need.

At least for the time being.

Base of the 2.1 Meter Telescope Dome
I've written in the past about the uncertain fate of the telescopes on Kitt Peak.  I mentioned that some of the most amazing and productive astronomy telescopes on the planet may be shutting down.  Several smaller, mid-sized, and older telescopes at Kitt Peak and elsewhere are being divested in favor of a small number of larger, newer ones.  This in itself is not unexpected, but as an educator, it is my personal concern that changes like this will make it harder for certain groups to get observing time - like graduate students, early career astronomers, astronomers from non-traditional backgrounds and minority institutions, and those with smaller programs.

2.1 Meter Telescope
Another complication is that, what with time at the biggest 'scopes being so competitive, they won't give time to a project that can physically be accomplished someplace smaller.  If there are no such telescopes left, then a host of important observing programs just won't get time.

This is not to suggest that there will be no smaller telescopes, but open time will become very scarce.  An observer will have to forge the right partnerships with other scientists involved in telescope consortia to get telescope time.  And this is less likely, and more difficult for the groups I mentioned above.

Our project this week is one that requires many nights - we need 300ish, relatively bright asteroids, and can get about 50 in a decent week of observing nights.  This means it will take a few years to apply for time each semester, do the observations, and iterate until having reached the necessary number of targets.  The 2.1 Meter Telescope at Kitt Peak Observatory is a perfect fit, with the right instrument (CCD imager) and the right amount of light gathering power.  So the first stop is here.

BUT this is one of the telescopes slated for shut down.  After next semester, it will no longer be available, in spite of being one of the most important workhorse telescopes on the mountain.  Hopefully it will be picked up by a consortia, but there is no guarantee that we will get time here even if it is.  So it is most likely that further work will be accomplished elsewhere ...

Image Credit:  All my pictures except the large 2.1 Meter Telescope shot, which is from     NOAO/AURA/NSF

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Astronomical Observing - Hitting The Mountain

Telescopes tend to be on mountains, far away from the lights of cities, spurious electronic signals, and above the bulk of dust and atmospheric water that can interfere with certain observations.  They also tend to be in places with good weather, of course.  This combines to put optical observatories in some very lovely places, i.e. scenic mountaintops that are sun-splashed in the day and capped by diamond skies at night.

Many observatories are very high and remote, and it can be a hassle getting there.  But it is always worth the trip, even just from a sight-seeing point of view.  Kitt Peak National Observatory is not so terribly high nor far from habitation, and the desert (if you like that sort of thing, which I do) is wonderful to drive through.

It is one of the perks of astronomy, just traveling to observatories.  There is something thrilling in taking a turn on a winding mountain road and suddenly seeing the brilliant white dome of a telescope come into view.  It feels magical to me - a place for looking deep into the darkness, and learning what's out there.

The drive up is always filled with a mix of hope and apprehension.  Working in visible and near visible wavelengths of light means you are at the mercy of the weather.  And even in places where it is "always" sunny, well, it isn't.  You have in your hands (or in your notes or your computer hard drive) the list of objects you hope to observe, but it is just a plan, an idea.  What you really end up doing will be based on weather and other considerations, like how the telescope and your chosen instrument are behaving.

So you take a few nice deep breaths of mountain air to clear your head, and then walk on up to the dome to see what the night has in store.  (And as for us, the first night went great, a dozen targets observed, and no time lost even when the water cooler insisted on leaking for an hour after we replaced the bottle on top.  Always nice when the telescope isn't the problem for the evening ...)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Fractals in a Starry Night or Art + Math = Reality

 Starry Starry Night by Shadoweddancer on deviantArt
Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh
One of the things I enjoy about post-impressionist art is the way it conveys such a feeling of reality, often without looking 'real' at all.  The colors can be bright, the paint heavy with thick brush strokes, and the angles strange and unexpected.  Yet the art conveys emotion that rings true to the subject matter - the feeling of what is depicted - and it is far more 'real' than a camera could ever catch.  

There are many questions about van Gogh and his paintings.  What was the source of the altered 'vision' that allowed for his striking art - was it genius, or a mix of that and something like an illness, affecting the way he painted?  For example, it has been suggested that the swirls and halos in 'Starry Night' may have been a result of mental illness, toxins, epilepsy, or other factors.  Was this curling, glowing world to some extent what he was really seeing?

When I think about fractals, I imagine that van Gogh was seeing far more accurately and 'realistically' than we might at first imagine.

As you know from my previous posts 'Art Imitates Life' and 'Fact, Fiction, and Fractals,' I am captivated by fractals and fractal art.  In spite of years of formal math education, I am still amazed at how we have developed this tool (language) called math, that can describe the world both so comprehensively and so creatively.  When we use math to describe nature we find systems and patterns repeating in strange ways, and yet they seem so recognizable to us, because they are all around and a part of our everyday experience.

Clouds and clusters of stars are both phenomena that share a certain fractal nature.  They possess self-similar (same on all scales), repeating, complex patterns.  Galactic gas and dust are distributed in a manner that is both self-similar and hierarchical.  It is from this material that new stars are born, already clustered in ways that match the original fractal nature of the gas cloud.  Investigating how the fractals change with time gives scientists insight into how stars are formed and how they evolve. [1]  Clouds possess a wide variety of shapes and forms - bumps, curves, swirls, blobs, and filigree - that together form complex, repeating patterns.  Some of these can be modeled very accurately with the right kind of mathematical fractal.  Such models are then used to help both weather prediction and climate modeling. [2]   

The fractal swirls in 'Shadoweddancer's' Starry Starry Night seem strangely familiar.  Of course they bring to mind the piece of art that they honor, but they also reflect the subject of the painting - the night sky itself.  After all, a mix of stars and clouds would have many intriguing fractal patterns laced within one another.  As I look at this fractal art, I imagine I see stars and galaxies glowing through a patchy gauze of clouds.  It is certainly a spectacular night, with clusters of stars and the band of our Milky Way galaxy flowing through the scene.

The similarity to 'Starry Night' is striking to me.  It makes me imagine that van Gogh's painter's eye saw into the patterns of the evening sky and represented them in a way that only a fractal could really imitate.  A stretch?  Probably, but there is no denying the fractals found all around us, and the amazing works they inspire.  I know it motivates me to look for more of the 'hidden fractals' that abound in our environment, both in nature and in art.  And I will continue to imagine that the genius of some artists (and mathematicians) is the ability to see into the patterns of reality in ways that the rest of us overlook.

Image Credits and References:

Starry Starry Night appears with the generous permission of the artist, Shadoweddancer on deviantArt.  "Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists.  This is a tribute to his Starry Starry Night, which I think is one of his most recognizable works and my favorite."

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh is from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

[1] Sanchez and Alfaro, 2010, Galaxy Astrophysics, arXiv:1011.1374 [astro-ph.GA], Cornell University Library,
[2] van den Heuvel et al. 2012, JGR Atmospheres,

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fun at TusCon in Tucson - Or Why Cons are Cool'm embarrassed to say I've been to very few Cons, even though I've been an avid fan of science fiction, fantasy, and horror since I was a wee child.  Cons seemed kinda scary for some reason.  Even as someone to whom they are directly targeted, I always felt like I wouldn't really fit in.  This is of course nonsense, but I do sometimes think a lot of nonsense.

So off I went to TusCon 40, primarily to give one of the talks in the science track, and to sit on a writing panel about rewriting/editing.  Since they were on separate days I ended up being there for most of the Con.  It started Friday afternoon, which I missed, because I was having dinner at a friend's house.  But Saturday morning came, and with it my talk.  I hung out to hear about the outer planet satellites from David Williams, and to hear about the Chelyabinsk impact from Carl Hergenrother and Vishnu Reddy.  My talk was "Do Extraterrestrials Really Need Water."  I had a good audience, about 30 people, and some good questions and discussion afterwards.

Then I sat down with one of my colleagues and another person who was a writer and a filmmaker to have lunch and chat about asteroids and such.  That was a great deal of fun, and a good way to stretch one's brain.

But then I had the evening open, and sat around wondering what to do.  Well, I was exhausted, so figured I could go get a nap.  But then I noted that one of the 'art demos' in the art room was paper quilling.  I've been doing paper quilling since I was nine, and couldn't pass up the opportunity to sit for an hour twirling paper.  This was fun, and ended up being almost two hours long, sitting with ten other crafters who unlike me had never tried quilling before.

After that it was time for the masquerade, or the costume contest.  This was also enjoyable, both to see some really great costumes, and to laugh a bit at how completely over the top some of them were.  One favorite was a person dressed up as "2nd Level Fighter" who had an arrow through his neck.  But my 'most liked' was a version of Merida from Disney's Brave, who unfortunately didn't win, but them's the breaks.

The next day dawned, and I needed to entertain myself before my own writing panel at noon.  So I headed over to the movie room to see a screening of "Heavy Metal."  You may recall in my post about "Top Ten Cult Movie Favorites: Horror" I have "Heavy Metal" listed as number five.  Yes, I have it in horror.  I watched it again at the Con and did not change my mind.  That is some gory, scary stuff.  There is of course the humor, sci-fi, and fantasy in there, too.  But overall, the feeling watching the film is one of unease.  And a few of the animated shorts that make up the film are so horrific they skew the whole movie.  Anyway, I was one of only three people watching "Heavy Metal" at 9:30am, but I suppose that's the nature of a Con.

I then took myself on over to the room with the writing panels and sat in on one about writing as both a profession and a hobby, and the overlap of doing things for fun and for profit, both.  That was an interesting panel, since many of the writers had conflicting feelings about how their writing ran into all the other areas of their lives.  Some quotes from that panel were, "Any creative person is always working," "We are the heroes and villains, we are our own best source material," and "When we write science fiction, we are no longer innocent to the nature of stories; as a professional we lose a certain innocence."  People drew the line between hobby and profession not only by if money was being earned, but also by how much time the endeavor took up in any week.

Then was the panel I was on with rewriting and editing.  I've mentioned it before and so won't go into details, but there was definitely a sense overall that rewriting is where the story is truly made.  That that is the point at which the crafting takes place.  I think I'll write up a blog post about my own ideas and experiences from rewriting; there was plenty to talk about.

I spent the next block of time hanging out in the dealers room, buying a book or two, leafing through old paperbacks, checking out some of the art, and basically relaxing.  There was a lot of creative stuff on display, even for such a small con.

By then things were beginning to wrap up, but not before I got to head back to the video room to see number nine on my cult movie horror list, "The Trilogy of Terror" with Karen Black.  I had not seen that movie for at least twenty years.  The first two were no longer scary at all, but that Zuni doll still has some of it's old horror.  Even when it looks like she is being attacked by a plastic doll (which she is) there is enough blood and screaming to get your hackles up.  Then of course the great ending, with all the teeth and all that.  Yeah.  Good times.

So all in all, I'd say success.  I particularly enjoyed giving the science presentation, and am looking forward to offering the talk at other Cons.  Have to start sniffing around and see who is interested ...

Image Credits:  Top, logo for TusCon 40; middle and bottom, my own photos from the Con.

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