Jul 28 2011

Astronomers show us how it’s done

This is an example of an astronomy paper I can really get my teeth into. First, it’s simple enough to understand. I like papers that I don’t understand, too, because the challenge of figuring them out is wonderful, but relatively simple ones with great information are a joy.

This one has two elements that make it particularly fun. My kind of fun I mean. I will not be upset if it’s not your kind of fun.

First, there is some technology implied and casually mentioned that is _awesome_ and demands further investigation by me. In particular, they have a 60Hz movie recording of the sky all night long that they then process entirely by computer to detect, quantify, and categorize all meteor activity. The fact that we live in a world where that’s pretty much all they need to say is mind boggling — no wonder astronomy is exploding with new information! Consider the level of manual effort that would have gone into documenting a single evening’s meteor activity. And this functionality is, I would venture to guess, well within the budget of an amateur astronomer (though we have admittedly large budgets, often).

The other thing in this paper that I can’t get enough of isĀ great graphics. In this case great in a fairly technical sense, but look at the light curve graphs. At first it’s not all that clear what you’re looking at but as you come to understand it you find the two crucial features of excellent data visualization: in detail, there is more information than you expected and so it invites exploration and interpretation; and in general there is useful information from the gross shapes and positions of the data as a single structure.

In detail, we can see that light and altitude are compared. Looking closer, though, some points on this graph are brighter than others. Though it’s not declared explicitly, the fact that a dark background was chosen suggests to me that what they are doing is summing the hits in a particular place on the graph. So the brighter the point, the more hits from the film were in exactly that altitude/brightness spot. This kind of thing makes me want to dig deeper and deeper.

From a higher level, we can see that the shapes of these plots are similar. They are parabolas with similar widths and heights. They are all oriented the same way. They occur in roughly the same place in ranges of measured values. So this shows instantly that these are from a similar source point in the sky and probably also that they have similar composition. I expect there’s even more in here that I haven’t dug out yet.

So keep on being awesome, astronomers. Keep showing us all how it’s done.


Jan 4 2011

Extreme Amateurization

Speaking of amateurization, how about this: a 10-year-old kid discovered a supernova.


Feb 15 2010

More great views in space

While I’m getting all excited about clarity and lighting in space, check out this raw image of Mimas:

Click on it to see it much bigger and sharper. That’s one beat up moon.


Nov 16 2009

Carnival of Space

The 129th Carnival of Space is up at Tiny Mantras and it’s worth a visit at least for the premise of Tiny Mantras — the writer is the mother of a four-year-old astronomer and that is about the coolest thing I’ve heard all year. If you are a parent (or plan to be or, like me, are a Bad Uncle), this is a great stop in your reading travels. The pure and unabashed enthusiasm that youth bring to bear on science is infectious, and every now and then I need another inoculation.


Nov 10 2009

Set the controls for the heart of the galaxy

Again Phil Plait provides an imagination pump for me. Check out that picture (and follow Phil’s advice: click on it to make it huge).

The heart of your galaxy

You should read Phil’s post to understand what that is. But let’s talk about why it’s cool and why it should drive your brain towards adventurous Diasporan ideas. In the middle there is a black hole. It’s a tiny speck of nothing that masses millions of times the mass of the sun, and the shape that mass creates is that whole picture. Arguably, in fact, it drives the shape of the entire galaxy and that picture, vast as the space is in reality, is still only a small chunk of the galaxy.

Originally I wrote “chaos” up there instead of “shape”. I changed it because it’s not chaos at all. If anything it’s order. The enormous mass creates not a vortex of unpredictability but rather changes what would be an unordered mass of undifferentiated gas into a shape and colours. Its gravitation gets converted into energies that light the sky and create whole new suns. Its relationship to other masses in the galaxy imparts (requires) motion and therefore dynamism. The universe is about decaying order, certainly, but foremost order.

So in your game a black hole (and that’s a big one, but they all have impact vastly beyond their “size”) is not an empty spot of nothingness. It is actually surrounded by high-energy activity. It’s beautiful and dangerous. The region is lit up with forming and dying stars, reflecting their spasms off dust that scatters blues and golds and purples. And in all that is richness too — for the risk you’re paid in heavy metals, elements that need high energies to come into existence in the first place. Elements that are naturally rare because of the hostility of the space that creates them.

An impending doom rarely has the chance to be so startlingly beautiful. Make sure, when you game this space, you sell that image. The terror and the awe.


Nov 2 2009

Delicious Enceladus Flyby

Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy, just posted a lovely little piece about Cassini’s flyby of the moon Enceladus. This is amazing not just because the pictures are beautiful (and there is a special place in my heart for the fact that our earliest close-up pics of this area of space are in black and white) but because they were snapped at a range of only a hundred kilometers. Now really, look at the distance from here to Saturn. Proportionally, 100km is basically nothing. We can put a robot in space and place it where we want to within, what, 50km?

Holy shit we are awesome.

Enceladus seen from the Cassini probe at 100km.

Enceladus seen from the Cassini probe at 100km.

Now in Diaspora this is slightly better than the median technology level. Maybe the same as. Maybe a little less. That means that in a cluster with higher-than-average technology (say T2 but certainly T3), this could easily be a manned vehicle, and not a bank-breakingly expensive one. You get the picture: this kind of amazing thing is in reach of the private citizen in Diaspora. Private citizens go to Enceladus. Not for laughs, mind you, but not part of a government or even corporate project, either.

They go chasing a little profit. And they look out the window and see this. Every day for a month maybe. Man my job sure sucks by comparison.


Oct 22 2009

The Invention of Iron

Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy, just posted this lovely little article about the most distant galaxies so far observed. This cluster of stars comes to us from a long time ago — only a few short billions of years after the universe got kick-started and, maybe more interestingly, even less time since galaxies are thought to have started forming at all. These are young stars in a young universe.

Now this got me thinking, because Diaspora is of course front and center in my mind these days, about what it’s like in that space. And that got me here: as stars get older, they start making new elements. They start by fusing hydrogen together, making helium as a waste product. Be aware that I am vastly over-simplifying, but go get a periodic table of the elements now and you’ll see that there’s an order to these things — it turns out it’s chronological as well as by mass. Anyway, eventually there’s not a lot of hydrogen and they collapse a little and get hotter and are energetic enough to fuse helium into more massive elements. And so on.

Near the explosive end of some stars’ lives, they fuse elements together to make iron. That’s about as far as that goes. Then they explode, and presumably this further energy allows the creation of even heavier elements and all this matter is spewed into space, eventually to be picked up by other stars where it can accrete in a disk and maybe make a planet full of water and meat.

So, long story short, we might be looking at stars of the very first generation. If not now, then in the near future we will be. If that’s true, we are looking at the universe before iron was invented.

If you’re playing or reading Diaspora and wondering how relativity figures into things (and we, the authors, don’t say because it’s part of your story), one reading is that moving faster-than-light, even through the slipknots, is a form of time travel. We can postulate that there is some apparent continuity of events for humans moving through these because of the way the wormholes constrain where your can go, but still, a given system might be deep in the past using the origin of the universe as a universally agreed upon baseline for counting time.

One of your systems in your cluster might exist in a place where iron has never naturally occurred. Holy crap.