Saturday, December 19, 2009

Physics Groupie News

Founding Father Thomas Paine must have had the oft-tragic life of a scientist in mind when he uttered the words “These are the times that try men’s souls.” These simple words describe the beginnings of the American Revolution, but also the life of Paine himself. Throughout most of his life, his writings inspired passion, but also brought him great criticism. I can certainly relate.

The past couple of months have been nothing less than frustration and anxiety incarnate for the Physics Groupie for personal reasons I’d rather not delve into in a public forum. Suffice it to say life has been a struggle. I did manage, however, to submit an important piece of science writing this past Friday that I’ve been toiling over for months which is a huge load off my mind. Now, I’m about to start my first science book project (I’ve published three computer books in the past, but never a science title). This will likely become a year-long project, and I’m still debating how to integrate The Science Lifestyle Blog into the mix. Time will tell where I, this bag of molecular flotsam, will land, but I hope I can muster more posts here on this blog which has grown to personify me like nothing before.

Reasoned Greetings to all!

[PS. No more pen name!]

WISE Launch

One great thing about being a Physics Groupie is getting all excited about things that other people could care less about; it gives me a sense of being “special.” Case in point – the recent launch of the WISE space telescope was pretty low on most folk’s radar, but for me it was a huge deal.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer or WISE launched at 6:09am Monday, December 14, 2009 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The instrument rode atop a Delta II rocket into a polar orbit 326 miles (525km) high. WISE is designed to survey the entire sky in four mid-infrared bands (centered at 3.4, 4.7, 12, and 22 microns), a swath of spectrum dominated by emission from celestial objects that run the gamut from dark asteroids in Earth's vicinity, to brown dwarfs and interstellar clouds in our neighborhood of the Milky Way, to Ultra-Luminous Infrared Galaxies (ULIRGs) ablaze with intense bursts of star formation.

The spacecraft has a primary telescope 16 inches (40 cm) in aperture with a pack of frozen hydrogen needed to cool WISE's heat-sensing detectors to -447°F (7½ kelvins).

Yours truly along with Zoe, my girlfriend and science companion extraordinaire, were invited to attend the launch. Needless to say we were VERY excited to see first-hand a launch of this magnitude. Our invitation was courtesy of the UCLA Physics and Astronomy Department whose very own Dr. Ned Wright is the principal investigator for the WISE project. My long ties with UCLA mathematics and physics paid off big-time.

Alas, we never actually saw the launch aside from good ‘ol NASA TV like everyone else. What we didn’t realize is the moving target nature of NASA launches. After one previous postponement, we headed up to beautiful Buellton, California a couple of days ahead of the launch that was scheduled for Friday, December 11. While there, we found that the mission center pushed the launch back to Saturday, then Sunday, and then Monday. The attrition due to the continued postponements was significant. From speaking to other people on hand for WISE, we found out that most NASA launches play this cat-and-mouse game with the weather, equipment failures, and preemption by secret military launches. We heard a rumor that it took the Spitzer Space Telescope two years to launch. Now that’s fortitude!

The trip up to Santa Ynez wine country where Vandenberg is located and made famous by the motion picture “Sideways” wasn’t a complete washout. The WISE team put on a couple of excellent briefings that included talks by some high-profile scientists. Plus, the food in the area, along with winery tasting room visits made the rainy days a lot more enjoyable.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Supermassive Black Hole

So what does a supermassive black hole sound like when put to music? The British rock group MUSE decided to broach this subject with their 2006 tune of the same name (see inset video).

The Physics Groupie has some scientific scuttlebutt that says the UCLA Galactic Center team plays the tune when on location at the Waimea control center for the 10-meter Keck telescope on the Big Island of Hawaii. Nice way to get in the mood for gazing at the monster lurking at the heart of the Milky Way!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tiger Woods and His Physics Book

A media maelstrom surrounds the early morning jaunt by golfer Tiger Woods as he sped down his driveway on November 30 and somehow ended up in the street semi-conscious. As fascinating as this frenzy of the press is, it’s even more captivating to learn of the paperback book found amidst the broken glass on floor of Tiger's Cadillac Escalade - "Get a Grip on Physics" by John Gribben (see inset photo).

Imagine that, Tiger reading a physics book that talks about the basics of physics from early developments through the latest subatomic particle discoveries and string theory. Maybe Tiger needs to know Newtonian mechanics to determine the optimal force necessary for this 400 yard drives. Or forget about allegations of an extramarital affair, maybe his wife Elin simply caught him reading the physics book a clocked him with the golf club to get him to stop. I've heard of being anti-science, but hey, this is going too far!