Things that Make You Think



October 21, 2006 at 21:15 pm | Leave a Comment

It was one of those dinnertime topics of conversations with a couple of friends and we got to talking about the whole issue of “intelligent design” and science and how the two should never mix. My own viewpoint is that science is pretty darned cool at giving us answers and that extraordinary claims (like invoking some deity for evolution) require extraordinary proof.

So, we got to talking about scientific things that inspire awe in people, that make them ask questions and want to search out answers. For one of our friends, it was a glimpse of a video about biology that set off the thoughts. And I got to thinking about the things I’ve seen in the cosmos that always make me think, “Hmmm…I wonder what that’s like?” or “Hmmm… how cool is that?”

So, what makes me think “Hmmm” and why?

A few years ago, a bunch of us went to Florida to observe Mars during opposition. We were going after a sort of rare vision: the glint of sunlight off of ice in Sinus Sabaeus. We actually managed to bag it, and several of us got our names in an IAU circular announcing the observation. I thought that was pretty cool. During the early morning viewing session when we all saw the glints, I had this really cool realization that I was looking at another world in real time. It may sound pretty banal now that we have spacecraft giving us, essentially, daily webcam views of Mars. But for that night and that experience, it was awe-inspiring.

Another thing that made me go “hmm” lately was a view of the Orion Nebula from HST. You know the one I’m talking about (from a couple of entries ago). It just gets better and better each time we look at that starbirth nursery. Well, that picture, coupled with an image of comet dust that I saw recently during my research for one of the Griffith Observatory exhibits, took me way back to the origins of our solar system. That piece of dust, which was created way back before the Sun and planets formed, came from the death of a star that blew up as a supernova a long, long time ago (at least more than 4.5 billion years ago).

Now, if I could pick up that dust, I’d be holding a piece of cosmic history in my hand.

But, even cooler than that is the fact that the blood coursing through my hand has elements that were created in stars that died long ago. I AM starstuff. And THAT, my friends, is an idea that truly has me saying, “Hmmm.”





Galaxy Shakes and Earthquakes



October 18, 2006 at 23:25 pm | Leave a Comment
Colliding galaxies as seen by HST

Colliding galaxies as seen by HST

It’s a fun time to be a spacewriter. A bunch of cool press releases hit my desk today. The first one was from the Hubble Space Telescope folks, showing off a perennial favorite: the Antennae. I thought the headline on the European Hubble site was a nice (if subtle) commentary on world affairs: “Colliding Galaxies Make Love, not War.” The US Hubble site was a bit less political, probably fearing the wrath of White House operatives if it used the European approach, but, nonetheless, the picture is magnificent!!

The second one was from Keck Observatory. It sits high atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and as you might imagine, suffered a little damage from the earthquake on Sunday. In fact, I’ve heard that several telescope facilities on the mountain have sustained varying amounts of damage, with engineering crews working to make things right again for the observers who have time on the mountain.

One of the groups I work with is the PIO at Gemini. In their press release they state that they have a few structural issues to deal with, and it will be a few days before they’re ready to resume regular science operations. I did some observing on Mauna Kea back in the 90s, while Gemini was still under construction, and I remember thinking about what it would be like if nearby Mauna Loa started erupting again. The last time it did so was in the 1980s, and a friend of mine who worked on Mauna Loa at the time said it was pretty interesting to watch from a distance, but certainly scary thinking about how close the flows came to Hilo!

Finally, my other favorite observatory—Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles—is getting a ton of press for its upcoming re-opening. Regular readers know that I’ve been working with the design crew for the new exhibits as the senior exhibits writer. So, I’m pretty excited when I see great stories coming out about the place. And I can’t wait to get out there and see it for the opening! Wanna know more? Check out these links:

LA’s landmark Griffith Observatory poised to re-open.

Sky Temple Reborn.
This project has been one of the most interesting, fun, challenging, and fulfilling as any of the scripts I’ve done over the past 20 or so years. And, the building is so beautiful that it will continue to be, as it has been since the 1930s, a draw to visitors near and far. I think I told somebody once that it drew on every skill I had as a writer, a scientist, and a researcher, and taught me a few new ones as well. It’s fun!





The View is Great



October 13, 2006 at 20:50 pm | Leave a Comment

Like just about everybody else on the planet with email access, I get my share of spam every day. I don’t even let it touch my computer because I use a program to delete it before it ever gets downloaded. But, I still scan the headers once in a while. The titles are pathetic attempts to get me to open a file, only occasionally showing any sense of creativity. Today’s bunch was no different, including a dozen variations on the theme, “Important! You must to open this immediately!” They reminded me of a bad Saturday Night Live sketch involving Dan Akroyd as a hapless foreigner trying to take on American pop culture.

Earth from space

Earth from space

So, I weeded out today’s unfortunate importunings about mail-order brides, junk stocks, products guaranteed to make me lose weight (or grow a certain part of my body “hugest” (as one claimed), and once those were gone, all that remained was a link to one of my favorite sites on the web, Gateway to Astronaut Photography.

This pic was taken by the crew of the International Space Station. The images are arranged by mission, but you can use the handy search tool to find images in just about any theme you can image. A few days ago I was looking for pictures of the Earth’s limb (its “edge” if you will) and ran across some truly lovely visions.

The Moon from Earth orbit

The Moon from Earth orbit

This one to the right was taken by one of the crew members of a shuttle mission. It is part of a sequence that follows “moonset” on orbit.

It doesn’t cost anything to use the site, but you do have to register to get high-resolution (large) copies of images. But, if you just want to browse some of the loveliest images of our planet you’ll ever see, this is the place to do it!







October 9, 2006 at 15:41 pm | Leave a Comment

So, being a science geek has its upsides sometimes. Last weekend we went up to Yankee Siege, a place where real-life geeks demonstrate some physics principles using a trebuchet and some pumpkins. How do they do this? Well, they use the trebuchet (pronounced “TREH-boo-shay”) to fling pumpkins (and not just any old pumpkins—these are regulation competition pumpkins) at a mock castle some 1,200 yards away. Yankee Siege folks are the World Champions at Punkin Chunkin, having used their trebuchet to fling a pumpkin 1,394 feet. Here are two pictures of their counterweight trebuchet, a 35-40,000-pound handmade machine. The counterweight is the big four-sided diamond of wood hanging down from the lever (which in the second picture is pointed nearly down to the ground in “launch” configuration—in fact, it has just started its launch sequence. (You can read more about its construction here.)

A trebuchet getting ready for a flinging in NH.

A trebuchet getting ready for a flinging in NH. Image © 2006 Carolyn Collins Petersen

Where does the physics come in? From Wikipedia, I found this: “The object of a good design is to transfer as much energy as possible from the falling counterweight (the diamond-shaped box behind the lever arm in the second picture) into the projectile (in this case, a pumpkin in a net that is attached by a rope to the end of the long, pointy lever arm (pointing up in the first picture and in action in the second picture). The maximum range for a hypothetical 100% energy transfer, Rmax, of the projectile can be shown to be Rmax = 2hmc / mp, where h is the distance the counterweight falls, and mc and mp are the mass of the counterweight (the box) and projectile (the pumpkin), respectively. The efficiency of a real trebuchet is then easily determined as the ratio of the actual range achieved to the calculated maximum range.”

So, in other words, you’re taking the energy of the counterweight (which is really heavy) as it falls to the ground under the force of gravity and using it to fling the pumpkin (which might weigh 20 pounds) as far as you can.

Trebuchet at Yankee Siege in NH

Trebuchet at Yankee Siege in NH. Image © 2006 Carolyn Collins Petersen

At Yankee Siege on Saturday afternoon we saw them fling pumpkins into the woods behind their fake castle, at least 1,300 feet away. We got to see them do it three times (it takes about a half an hour to get the trebuchet ready for a launch attempt). Between times we wandered around and looked at the machinery, got some cold cider to drink, and visited the farm stand across the road. It was a major hoot, and we got to see physics in action on a warm, colorful autumn afternoon.

Wanna try your own hand at designing a virtual trebuchet? Visit the The Treb Challenge.





It’s Getting Closer



October 3, 2006 at 21:14 pm | Leave a Comment
Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California

So, my Google News alerts have been chiming at me today telling me that there’s news about Griffith Observatory. There was a press conference today, attended by a hundred or so press types in Los Angeles, where the mayor of LA announced that the observatory would be open to the public on November 3 after being closed for four years for renovations.

It’s getting exciting folks, because I’ve been part of that whole renovation thing for the past year and a half. My role? Working as senior exhibit writer for the entire exhibition program. I’m still working on a few last-minute changes to copy for the final exhibit panels to be created, but for the most part, my part of the project is nearly finished. It’s been a fun one, and I’m going to miss the daily emails and teleconferences with the rest of the team. But hey, we have to let our baby get born! And it’s going to be a heck of a baby!





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Inama Nushif!
Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)

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