Friday, August 29, 2008

Quarked Returns!

Who remembers my really awesome column from last year? Well this week was the first week of class, meaning the first edition of The Observer came out today, meaning the first installment of "Quarked" ran this week. This semester I get to write every other week and actually get paid too (just enough to cover the expenses should I go to the coffeeshop to write, basically) so things are looking up.

The first one is available here, covering my observations on what it's like to be a fifth year student. Exerpt-

Being a fifth-year student is rather odd, because you have passed the traditional framework of college progression. This means you find yourself doing things like arranging your schedule to include naptime and telling stories to underlings whether they want to hear them or not. As an example, just a short while ago I found myself talking to a freshman – you can tell by their small size and tendency to travel in packs – and the poor thing asked what the winter was like around here.

"Oh, they're not so bad nowadays," I said with the air of an aged veteran. "But back when I was a freshman, shovels hadn't been invented yet, so we had to use our hands to dig to class! And there was more deuterium in the water back then, so the snow was heavier…"

Ah, memories. It seems like only yesterday that I made them up...

The Future Cometh

I just learned a few minutes ago that the USA will either have a woman vice-president or a black president come November. Now I don't like talking politics on the Internet much, but policies aside this makes me proud of our country.

It also reminds me of a joke John Stewart gave at the Oscars this year. Something along the lines of how Hollywood was worried about there potentially being either a woman or a black man in the White House- "How will we know it's the future?!?"

Monday, August 18, 2008

Lounging Around

After a hectic goodbye from California, I am taking a break this week in New Hampshire before the semester starts next week. And clearly I am spending it well- as everyone knows, no vacation is perfect without reading old paperback novels while lounging on the back of a giant inflatable killer whale...

I found the killer whale (promptly dubbed "Willy," of course) two summers back when he washed up on our shore after a big storm. No one came around to claim him after a few days, at which point informal lake rules decreed him as ours and I realized how much my life was missing in the pre-whale days. Ah, this life of busily doing nothing is a good one.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Wrapping Up

It's my last week working at the SETI Institute, meaning I am spending time banging my head over code with greater urgency. Presentation on Friday, gotta catch the redeye back to the East Coast that night...

Until then, here is a hilariously staged photo taken at the Allen Telescope Array a few weeks back sort of explaining what I'm trying to finish up. In short, there's a lot of radio frequency interference (RFI for short) that is detected at the ATA, and I have the job of cataloging it- or, primarily right now, the clock frequencies from all the processors in the control room. I'm holding a spectrum analyzer here- which we didn't end up using much, but has a great dual use as a ray gun-looking device- detecting the evil RFI (shown here as Billy, one of the telescope operators at the array).

If you look really closely, you'll notice by the way that there is a gremlin used to depict RFI here, which is out of a really bad movie that used to scare me when I was little. This is because, as Billy put it, RFI is like the gremlin in radio astronomy because it causes all sorts of problems. That or we were just really bored and looking for an excuse to take silly pictures, conclude what you will.

Ok, until I sort out my code, I will leave you with this other shot of Science In Action (or, depending on your take, Science Inaction). Be very, very afraid of the girl with the spectrum analyzer...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Testing Physics

Um, yeah. There's really no way to display this picture without giving away that I went skydiving this past weekend, is there?

Basically, this is something that I've wanted to do even back in New Zealand, but we just never got around to it. A few other students here in the program were keen on going, though, so we joined up and finally did it halfway towards Sacramento from the Bay Area. Mind it was $100 for a tandem jump from 13,000 feet, which is a relative steal as far as these things go...
Our motley crew, waiting for the plane to take us up. Mind I didn't notice at the time that I was the only one of us with a purple harness; this was only pointed out to me later...

It should also be noted that it turns out that the sort of people who decide to be professional skydivers are really the sort to get excited upon the word that they're ferrying a bunch of students working at the SETI Institute. As in they get very much into the joke of which one of them we've come to take away, and appreciate responses like "sorry, we're only looking for intelligent life..." and "I could tell you the truth [about aliens], but then I'd have to kill you."

Which raised the obvious question in my mind of why exactly people who professionally do SETI and people who professionally skydive are probably considered mildly crazy (probably in slightly different ways, but not much), and why at the same time you would trust someone society at large considers a bit crazy to jump out of an airplane with you and make sure you land safely. But I digress...
On the ride up- the guy sitting in front of me was the guy who took all the pictures you see here (I ordered them, seems kind of silly to go skydiving and not have pictures!) and the guy behind is the guy who operated the parachute and all that... This plane btw was a little one, just big enough to hold 15-20 people, and we were sitting crammed in on two benches by the window like they do in WWII movies.

And because it's inevitable to be asked, no, I really wasn't scared at all- there might have been a bit of a "huh, I'm actually going to do this" thought when the plane was taking off but I never gave it another thought since.

To be honest, I am almost worried sometimes about my inability to get scared about things a lot of people get really freaked out about. This started when I was in New Zealand last year, where I never thought I could do bungy jumping but ended up realizing that rationally there's nothing to be scared of. You know the physics and how it works, you know the statistics of something happening, so why be afraid?

Skydiving is, to me, the same idea- you are about twenty times more likely to die in a car accident than jumping out of a plane and you know the physics works, so what is there to be afraid of? Just a simple kinematic equation is all.

(Yes, I realize I'm essentially saying something along the lines of learning physics helped me master my fears. I don't think that was the intended consequence, but it's definitely a nice one.)
So for anyone who is curious, in my experience it is a lot easier to skydive versus bungy jump. This is because first of all you don't have much time to think in skydiving- they open the door and everyone hops out in pretty quick succession- and because unlike bungy jumping the ground is really, really far away so that instinct of "maybe this isn't the best idea" doesn't cut in as much. Even better, in skydiving once you hit ~50 mph (terminal velocity is 120 mph when you're on your tummy) the wind resistance makes you feel like you have some weight, meaning after about a second you don't even feel like you're falling. You're just... floating, I guess, which was so great that I spent the entire time alternating between laughing and grinning like an idiot.

One cool thing I really liked about all this by the way is how we did some sort of backflip on the way out, meaning I spent the first few seconds watching the plane go away. Per my frame of reference, however, it felt like I wasn't moving, so I watched the plane go up and away at an odd angle all the while thinking "huh, that's mighty interesting!" And then I got even more excited, as it was by far the best demonstration of relative reference frames I have ever experienced and physics has destroyed any chance I have of thinking normal things even when falling out of an airplane at a hundred twenty miles an hour.
Falling. It was the most absolutely lovely sensation. In fact, he photographer spent some time towards the end trying to get me to do a thumbs up or some other gesture for photographic purposes, but honestly I was only vaguely wondering who the hell this guy was and what he wanted because I wasn't even bothering to pay attention to anything more than the moment. There's just too much to process... Now I'm told if you go skydiving again it's a lot easier to figure out what's going on the second time, but we're going to ignore that line of thought because my mom still has yet to progress beyond saying "I'm glad you survived."
Parachute deployed! This is a rather abrupt stop- taking you from 120 mph to a less splattering descent is guaranteed to be- and I was frankly amazed that it was over that quickly. I was told that free fall lasts about a minute, but it definitely seemed much shorter.

And here's something that I only remembered later, on the ground, while rethinking everything. Somewhere along the way, probably right before the instructor deployed the parachute, he shouted in my ear, "do aliens exist, yes or no? I'm not pulling until you answer!!!" Such wonderful senses of humor, those skydivers... And fyi no, I didn't answer, as a. I wasn't processing what he was saying, b. it's not like he would've heard an answer due to the wind, and c. I was too busy smiling and laughing at the awesomeness known as skydiving.
Gliding through the sky, ho-hum. Still very awesome though, it lasts maybe three or four minutes and I got to steer the parachute. Pretty simple, you have two ropes, and you pull the one on the right to go right and the one on the left to go left. If you pull one of them really, really hard you go into this nice looping spiral, which is similar to the scale of a looping decent on a tall roller coaster. The only problem I had with the parachute part is your weight is essentially held entirely in check by the straps on your legs, which isn't the most comfortable thing in the world but is obviously necessary and doesn't last long so we'll let it slide.
Coming in for landing on the landing field. Landing is so gentle that we ended up standing (slight winds and you might end up sitting instead) and you're unsteady for a second or two on your feet until you remember how to deal with real ground again.

So that is skydiving, or at least the best description I can possibly give of it. I must say explicitly though, in case it wasn't clear, that skydiving is wonderful and you all should most definitely go do it when you have the chance. Trust me on this. After all, you'd trust the astrophysics student who searches for aliens and goes skydiving on the weekends, wouldn't you?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair

I'm sure most of you have had this cross your mind by this point, but there's a huge international city just an hour's drive north of me that I haven't written about. And it's probably high time I changed that, so without further ado...

Jill and I came back from the array last week very late on a Friday night- so late that the train back to Mountain View was really not feasible, so I ended up spending the night at her house in Berkeley. This worked out rather well, honestly, because I had to go through San Francisco anyway to get back to Mountain View. Even better, the Fisherman's Wharf Hostel had a bunk and breakfast for under $30 for Saturday night- quite a steal in a metropolis like this- so I nabbed it. And with that, I had a whole weekend in San Francisco.
First stop, cable car! I just happened to come out of the subway to find a cable car waiting with no tourists swarming around it, which I found fascinating in itself because the lines for the Fisherman's Warf- Union Square cable car often wrap around the block due to sheer tourist numbers. But as it turns out, cable cars in San Francisco are a lot less crowded on the other routes, and as an additional benefit this one ran all the way to Van Ness, the first street I needed to get to the hostel. Really not a difficult decision...

Also unlike the heavily touristed line, here there was plenty of room to either sit down or stand, but I was warned in advance that standing was more fun. And I agree with that...
Once I made it to the hostel, it was immediately obvious that it was the right decision to make. The Fisherman's Wharf Hostel is actually one of the more famous ones in the world with good reason- it's located in the park that stretches all the way from Fisherman's Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge, specifically in an old barracks building of Fort Mason. And I mean, damn. The next time you stay in one of the biggest cities in the world in a gorgeous park with a view like this right outside the window and the rest of the city within walking distance, all for just a few dollars, let me know.
Now perhaps you noticed in the Golden Gate Bridge picture that there were a lot of sailboats. And there's actually good reason for that- I just happened to catch the Sailing Festival happening in the bay that weekend. The best part of it, though, were these two old vessels (shown while crossing in front of Alcatraz- whose touristic intrigue I never quite understood but whatever). When I first spotted them I thought they were just having a nice romp around the bay, but pretty soon some loud booming noises made me pay more attention. If you looked really closely you could see that one boat was flying a US flag and another the Jolly Roger- and there were wisps of smoke originating from the deck, meaning they were firing at each other. Sweet!

They carried out their mock battle for quite awhile, but I don't know who won. For whatever reason, I don't think they wanted to sink one of the ships.
After unwinding by watching the sailboats in the harbor, it was time for a walk. (Which is, it should be mentioned, what I did most of the weekend. Hills be dammed, I walked through most of the city of San Francisco.) After a quick jaunt to and away from Fisherman's Wharf to say I'd been I sort of walked with vague direction that happens when you know the geography of a city but are too lazy to have a map, admiring the views. This isn't the most advisable of methods, of course, because then you'll do something like walk up Lombard Street just because you'll think it's fun to walk down it.
The iconic view of Lombard Street, complete with the perpetual cloud of tourists taking pictures. Mind, I walked up the other, steeper side of the hill where the cars were backed up a fair bit just so they could come down this windy stretch- and it should be noted that here the cars park in the street perpendicularly to the curb rather than parallel, and EVERYONE'S wheels point into the curb. Anything less would be just plain silly.
A house on Lombard Street which I liked just because, well, look at how the guy's car is parked in the driveway. I'm pretty sure most places having your car parked on a tilt like that would result in some concern, but here the guy's just happy that he gets to get a great view in one of the prettiest cities in the world.

I've decided, by the way, that if I had a choice I would live on top of Lombard Street- the view can't be beat, and you would definitely always be in good shape. I might have to wait a little on that though, as even a tiny slip of a house here goes for millions of dollars.
What I happen to think is one of the best street names in the world. It was in Little Italy. I went there for dinner and happened to choose a place where they put a little free dish of little European vanilla-flavored tea cookies for desert. I consumed said little cookies in copious quantities as a child, so they did not go unappreciated.

After that it was getting dark, meaning time to head back to the hostel because wandering around in the dark in a strange city isn't the smartest of moves. I was fine with it though as spending the entire day walking does get you tired, and everyone knows it's fun to talk to fellow travelers in a hostel. (In case anyone is curious, it should be noted that the Germans were the dominant crowd I came across at least. I'm thinking they're fans of the current exchange rate.)

The next morning, after discovering with delight that the free breakfast included waffles, I poked my head outside. Definitely typical San Francisco weather, but not as nice as yesterday-
Guess the sailboats didn't mind, as they were still out, but fog doesn't exactly leave you brimming with an urge to sit and watch. And because the bus stop was nearby and I'd already walked most of the way the day prior, I caught the bus towards Union Square instead.
The bus, of course, went through Chinatown (which I hit up the evening prior but was a lot more vibrant in the morning), which bustles with markets on Sunday morning and has nary an English word in sight. I even noticed at one point that I was the only non-Chinese person sitting on the bus, which absolutely delighted me because it was like unexpectedly stumbling into another country.
Union Square, which had a free art exhibit going on that I thoroughly checked out. I'm pretty sure you're supposed to wander around Union Square to check out the shopping, but that activity was never my forte so after awhile I just wandered into a Thai restaurant for lunch and, later, a bookstore. After that, I wandered out to the CalTrain station to get back to Mountain View.

So all in all, I was rather happy with how this weekend turned out- it's difficult to not like San Francisco, of course, and dipping a toe in the international hosteling world again was fun. Plus it's always nice to find yourself in an unexpected mini-vacation over the weekend, even if you have to go to work the next day.

Lick Observatory

The problem with having lots of adventures is then you have to catch up on them. Let's see how far I get...

My program takes little "field trips" on occasion to Interesting and Important places in the area, and a little while back there was an organized outing to visit Lick Observatory for a day trip. Lick happens to be the first astronomical observatory built on a mountaintop, Mount Hamilton, which happens to be visible from most of Silicon Valley, so it was cool to get up there. The fact that Frank Drake was taking us and the nerd bragging rights associated with saying Frank Drake took you to see Lick Observatory never hurt either.
Anyway, this is the view from the top of Mount Hamilton. See that road curving down the mountainside? That's the one we drove up on. I'm told there are 365 turns on it, as back in the day you couldn't have too steep a grade for mules and buggies. It's a fun drive.
This is the first building of Lick Observatory, constructed between 1876 and 1877. It and the ten telescopes on the mountain today are owned by the University of California system, but the money originally came from James Lick who made most of his fortune buying real estate during the California gold rush and essentially built the observatory as a memorial to himself. He's buried under the telescope...
And this, my friends, is the telescope James Lick is buried under, also known as the 36" refracting telescope which was the largest in the world at the time. (We've come a long way!) Upon first looking at this telescope I confess I felt like it was incredibly familiar to me- the mounting, the labeling for the RA and Dec wheels, the way I instinctively wanted to shout to the tour guide pushing the telescope around "you need to move it in RA in order to get over the pedestal..."

Then I saw a plaque on the base of the telescope which read "Warner & Swasey Co., Cleveland OH." But of course. It's the very same company that built the 9.5" refracting telescope built over a hundred years ago and presently used by the students of Case Western Reserve University, meaning the telescope I've had the most experience with is just a small-scale version of the Lick Observatory telescope. There are even ship's wheels incorporated into the steering design, as Warner & Swasey is the only telescope-building company I am aware of that realized just how satisfying it is to steer telescopes via ship's wheel.
This is obviously a bit more modern a telescope- it's the 3m reflector! Now the reason this one is exciting, boys and girls, is because it is the very same instrument used by the world's best extrasolar planet-finding team, led by Geoffrey Marcy at UC-Berkeley. Forty-nine of the fifty first extrasolar planets were discovered here (which is a fancy way of saying Marcy's team didn't find the first- they didn't have enough computing power unfortunately to be the very first), and over 200 of the extrasolar planets. Truly a powerhouse...

It's also worth noting that in order to deal with the light pollution from Silicon Valley the telescope operates primarily towards the infrared part of the spectrum. Infrared parts of the spectrum are determined not by optical pollution but rather by your latitude- the closer you are to the equator the brighter the atmosphere is in infrared- and since Lick Observatory is relatively high in latitude for an astronomical observatory they have an advantage.
As a final thing, this has nothing to do with astronomy whatsoever but I still thought it was exciting. You know how California is known for earthquakes? Well I've always rather been fascinated by them- I confess my first reaction upon hearing of a big shake is "cool!" rather than "oh, those poor people"- and while I have yet to live out the goal of being in one I always thought I could settle temporarily for seeing a seismometer needle twitch as I was watching.

So this is the seismometer on top of Mount Hamilton, which obviously sees a lot more then one in Cleveland or Pittsburgh (where nothing happens, of course, but you're rather waiting to see a really big tremble from somewhere far away). And see that little bump in the picture recently created by the needle? I saw that happen!!!

I am such a geek. I know. It's awesome.