Friday, October 30, 2009

The Space Exploration Debate

There has been much recent debate both by the general public and scientific establishment about priorities with the U.S. space program. Even the membership of the Planetary Society, an organization devoted to the exploration of space, is undecided in a recent article in the Planetary Report.

I thought it would be appropriate to open a similar debate here on the SLB. PLEASE REGISTER YOUR VOTE! Also, feel free to leave a comment with your perspective on the subject.

In your opinion, what should be the GLOBAL priority with respect to space exploration?
Manned missions to the moon.
Build a permanent moon base.
Manned mission to Mars.
Non-manned missions.
Space
telescopes.
pollcode.com free polls

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mathematical Modeling

As I’ve said many times before here on the SLB, I enjoy observing seeming incongruities with mathematics and science and the more superficial and overly socialized areas of everyday life, only to be surprised by curious intersections. Case in point, consider the television sensation America's Next Top Model - Cycle 13. Now I don’t actually watch this show! Rather I heard from some mathematical grapevines I hang with that there is a contestant who claims to be a mathematician. In fact, she makes a point of mentioning mathematics on pretty much every episode so far. Imagine that! My curiosity thus got the better of me and I had to find out more about this enigma of the runway.

The model’s name is Brittany Markert, 21, a student at Santa Clara University in Northern California. Markert is indeed a senior majoring in mathematics, although she had to take a temporary break from school to appear on the show. She does seem to be the real deal, valedictorian of her high school class, winner of the 2006 Freshman Mathematics Contest prize at SCU, and scored a perfect score on the math portion of her SAT exam.

A native of Livermore, California, Markert survived a ruthless nationwide casting process to become one of the 14 contestants on the popular reality series. She never thought she’d get the role due to the fact she is of subpar height for modeling at 5 feet, 5 inches tall. Being true to her nerdy upbringing, Markert spends much more time hitting the books than frequenting the gym (she realizes that it must drive other women nuts to hear that).

This Physics Groupie hopes that after all is said and done, a mathematician comes out on top of the modeling competition. Who said that couture and Calculus don’t mix!?

[The inset picture of Markert is from the show; however her 2005 college orientation picture is of pretty much the same caliber.]

Monday, October 26, 2009

Moo Cow's Science Adventures

Zoe is originally from the East Coast and she has a big, wonderful East Coast family with whom she keeps in very close contact. Her family is complete with a charming brood of young nieces and nephews, and they enjoy knowing what Aunt Zoe is up to. One cute way Zoe came up with to communicate with all the kids is to take along a little Moo Cow doll belonging to one of the kids and take photos at different destinations here in So Cal. The kids love seeing their Moo Cow at all these interesting places.

This Physics Groupie thought that tradition was a fantastic idea so I decided to extrapolate the concept a bit and I came up with a new theme that all you Science Lifestylers might use – introducing Moo Cow’s Science Adventures. See the inset photo of friendly Moo Cow sunning herself over at Caltech. Moo Cow has also been to Mars, and I’m sure you can come up with all sorts of new science adventures for your own version of Moo Cow.

So if you have any kids in your life that you want to impress with your science escapades, bring your own Moo Cow along for the ride!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hubble’s Amazing Rescue

“Hubble’s Amazing Rescue” is a wonderful new film produced for the NOVA television science series documenting the compelling story of the mission to save the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The film presents an insider’s perspective of the May 2009 rescue mission starting a full two years leading up to launch all the way to the dangerous 12-day mission and its five pressure-filled spacewalks. The Space Shuttle Atlantis crew travelled 5,276,000 miles in 197 Earth orbits during the mission.

Filmmaker Rushmore DeNooyer crafts a fascinating story of scientific intrigue. After nearly 20 years in space and hundreds of thousands of spectacular images, HST’s gyroscopes and sensors were failing, its batteries running down, and some of its instruments were already dead. The only hope to save Hubble was a mission so dangerous that in 2004 NASA cancelled it because it was considered too risky. But after persistent urging by scientists and the general public, NASA revived the mission.

This story of the final Hubble repair mission and the end of space shuttle missions is one of human fortitude in the search for nature’s secrets. After witnessing a very successful repair mission, the viewer is excited about new images, information, and insights that will emerge from the powerful upgrades to the world-famous telescope.

The Physics Groupie previewed the film prior to its premiere Tuesday, October 13 on PBS. It is a tantalizing tale that will excite any Science Lifestyler with a sense of adventure in pursuit of scientific discovery. I wanted to stand up and cheer at the completion of the film, the significance to human scientific progress is that profound. I highly recommend viewing the film for an enjoyable family science evening at home. In preparation for the film, it would be fun to have the kids build a “hand-held Hubble” scale model of HST. The Hubble should be part of every family!

[Shown in the attached picture is astronaut and physicist John Grunsfeld who performed three of the mission’s five spacewalks. Dr. Grunsfeld is a graduate of MIT.]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Galilean Nights

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 has served its purpose well thus far, to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the universe. There have been many signature events this year in observance of the contributions the field of astronomy has given to the expansion of human knowledge. One upcoming event that everyone should try to attend is Galilean Nights on October 22-24.

During this time the world’s professional and amateur astronomers will be out in force to encourage as many people as possible to look through a telescope. The special spotlight is on the objects that Galileo observed namely the Moon and Jupiter with its four “Galilean moons.” It will be fun for the whole family to relive the revolutionary discoveries made 400 years ago.

For information about finding a star party near you, or about how to plan your own event, just visit the organization’s website (see above link) for all the details.

[Shown in the attached picture is an entry in Galileo’s notebook with drawings of Jupiter and its moons.]

Monday, October 19, 2009

Physics Party Tricks

Being part of the Science Lifestyle means you have special capabilities to dazzle people at parties. For example, knowledge of basic physics means you can do all sorts of clever and amazing things that to some will be like magic (actually good magic is nothing more than good physics and applications of life sciences). In the attached video, you’ll see a nice little trick involving a spoon, a fork, a glass, and a toothpick. It is pretty simple but quite interesting.

For some more interesting physics tricks, check out the SmarterThanThat.com website. The site provides a variety of home experiments that demonstrate scientific phenomena and is run by Moriel Schottlender, a New York physics student almost done with her B.S. degree. Moriel (aka Mooeypoo) is also an aspiring astrophysicist, experimenter, and skeptical activist and is passionate about getting children excited about science - music to this Physics Groupie's ears!



Friday, October 16, 2009

Exoplanets!

I can't think of anything more exciting than to keep a close watch on the discovery of extra solar planets, so-called "exoplanets", planetary bodies circling other stars. It’s been a dream of astronomers since the early days of gazing up at the sky to find other Earth-like planets which may harbor life. Today’s exoplanet research is making this dream a reality, and soon now we’ll see an abundance of planets very similar in nature to Mother Earth.

Although work to find exoplanets began as early as 1988, the first confirm discovery of an exoplanet was in 1995 with the detection of a 51 Pegasi b by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory. Since that time, 369 exoplanets have been detected.

There are a variety of methods used to find exoplanets. The first and most common is the spectroscopic radial velocity or "wobble" method that infers the existence of an exoplanet as its gravitational pull makes the star move towards or away from Earth. Another popular method used today is the transit method where the brightness of a star diminishes by a small amount as a planet crosses in front.

About one quarter of the exoplanets found so far are so-called "Hot Jupiters," planets whose mass is close to or exceeds that of Jupiter and orbits very close to the host star (0.05 astronomical units, where AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun). The recent discovery of WASP-18b is a great example of a Hot Jupiter, 10 times the mass of Jupiter, and orbiting at a distance of just 0.02 AU. The orbital period (time it takes to circle its star) is only 22 hours. Just imagine something that large whipping around a star that quickly! WASP-18b is even more unusual because it is going to crash into its star in about 1 million years.

The smallest exoplanet to be discovered thus far surfaced in September 2009. Named CoRoT-7 b, it is the first rocky planet found outside our Solar System. It has a density similar to that of Mercury, Venus, Mars and Earth making it only the fifth known terrestrial planet in the Universe. Its star is a solar-type star at a distance of 150 parsecs from Earth. CoRoT is a space mission led by the French national space agency, CNES.

I like to monitor all the recent exoplanet discoveries by checking The Planetary Society's Exoplanet Catalog every few weeks. It can be a fun family activity to have the kids check the list on a regular basis. That way little Catherine can say "Hey Dad, they found another Super Earth today. I'll tell you all about it at dinner tonight!"

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Curious Number Trick

Here is a little number trick you can use to amaze your friends. The idea is to pick any number between 10 and 1,000, and then carry out the algorithm below. The resulting answer will always be 42 no matter what number you choose. Imagine that! As someone devoted to a life of science and mathematics you realize there is no magic here so please submit your proofs here on the Science Lifestyle Blog. See who can come up with the correct proof first.

Tell your friend to pick a number.

[She picks 575]

Add the digits together.

[17]

Add the digits again.

[8]

Add 3 to the result.

[11]

Subtract this result from the original number.

[562]

Add the digits together once again.

[15]

Find the remainder left when you divide the result by nine.

[6]

Square the result.

[36]

Now add 6 to the result.

[42]

The result is always 42! Try it again to see.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

End of the World in 2012, Get Off Now?


One of the most valuable things about being in the Science Lifestyle is that you tend to be insulated from being bamboozled by incredible, unscientific claims appearing in the news, tabloids, e-mail spam, etc. A great example of this is the prediction that the world will end on December 21, 2012 based on the Mayan calendar.

Doomsayers observe that the Mayan calendar “runs out” in 2012. Therefore we are to believe that these ancient people, whose civilization ran its course from 300 A.D. to 900 A.D., without the Calculus, Copernican heliocentric model, general relativity, or any other significant scientific apparatus to form a basis of that conclusion, were somehow able to formulate this end-point for human existence. Fantastic!

It is amazing that any rational person believes this wild prophecy. Even the current day Mayans think it is ridiculous, and quite frankly they are tired of Westerners asking them about it.

And yet people are scared. Why? It is because most people can’t employ the scientific method to discern for themselves the truth value of these kinds of inaccuracies. Heck, all someone has to do is use Google to zero in on rational explanations for mysterious claims, but I digress. Internet doomsday rumors terrify the timid, impressionable public who don’t have the intellectual toolset to make sense of the commonsense realities of nature. I hate to sound condescending, but I object when people can’t THINK for themselves.

One of the factoids behind the prediction is a rare astronomical alignment that happens roughly every 25,800 years – when the Sun lines up with the center of the Milky Way galaxy on a winter solstice. But the Mayans never said the world is going to end, and their calendar actually goes way beyond 2012 if one looks closely. Apocalypse is a very Western, Christian phenomenon, so maybe all the Western myths are exhausted and new ones required.

It doesn’t help folks to shape rational perspectives when Hollywood releases movies that support the myths. Next month the movie “2012” opens in cinemas, featuring earthquakes, meteor showers, and a tsunami dumping an aircraft carrier on top of the White House. Yikes!

I’m glad that all you Science Lifestylers out there can move past all this mental clutter and concentrate on something productive. Fear not 2012!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stargazing at the White House

On a recent evening on the White House South Lawn, President Obama, wife Michelle, and a group of about 150 middle-school students looked toward the heavens for some stargazing fun. The star party was eight months in planning and had many luminaries on hand, including former and current astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Sally Ride, John Grunsfeld, and Mae Jamieson; presidential science advisor John Holdren; and NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

In his remarks to the students, the president challenged those in attendance to strive for greatness, “What will your great discovery be?” he asked. “Galileo changed the world when he pointed his telescope to the sky. Now it’s your turn.” I am pleased to learn that President Obama is pressing for dramatic improvement in the quality of U.S. mathematics and science education. This is a refreshing change in encouragement for our nation’s young people.

You can view President Obama’s opening statement by clicking here and check out some of the stargazing, the Double-Double in Lyra through the Celestron CPC 800 8” SCT telescope used for the star party. The proceedings were broadcast on NASA TV.

The photo attached to this post pictures two exceptional teenagers, 14 year-old Caroline Moore who last year became the youngest person to discover a supernova, and high-school sophomore Lucas Bolyard who discovered a pulsar in archived radio telescope observations. What a superb head start these youngsters have in making a serious contribution to the field of astronomy.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

SETI Keeps on Listening

I greatly enjoyed the scenes from the movie “Contact” where Jodie Foster’s character Dr. Ellie Arroway was out sitting on the hood of her car near a giant radio telescope listening for signals from space. The scenes were shot at an actual radio telescope facility, the Very Large Array (VLA) located in Socorro, New Mexico. The powerful image of a researcher intimately devoted to scientific discovery gave me a warm feeling about the fact that a real-life organization like Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is diligently attempting to discover life beyond our planet. As much exhilaration as a movie can engender it is nothing compared to the reality of what SETI actually does.

SETI continues today, its search that began in 1960. Although no detection of an alien civilization has been made, there is much more of the sky to search at many more possible frequencies. Why there has been no signal detected is anyone's guess. It could be the radio silence found thus far is a function of SETI's limited search band, or the assumptions of the landmark Drake equation may be faulty, or maybe we just need to put more resources into the search.

The SETI project is employing two exciting new areas of technology to further the scope of the search. First, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is the latest technology being offered for use by the SETI organization through a generous donation of $30 million by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. ATA is comprised of 42 telescope dishes at a desolate location in Hat Creek, Calif. A total of 350 dishes are planned, but additional funding is needed to realize this goal. Current SETI is scanning the heavens at frequencies around 1,420 Mhz which is the frequency at which hydrogen emits electromagnetic waves. It is thought that this is the most likely frequency an alien civilization might use to transmit signals. ATA, however, will scan a much broader range, from 500 MHz to 11.2 GHz, a range of 10 billion channels.

The second new technology is the Lick Observatory Optical SETI Project which can detect very brief optical flashes from cosmic objects and technologies. This telescope will be located in the Cagnegie dome at the Lick Observatory and initially will consist of an ensemble of 7 Meade 16” LX200-ACF telescopes working in tandem. This is the first attempt at using the optical spectrum in the search for signals from alien civilizations.

The SETI Institute is located in Mountain View, Calif., and has involved many high-profile supporters and luminaries such as the late Carl Sagan, Intel founder Gordon Moore, Frank Drake, Manhattan Project physicist Philip Morrison, senior astronomer Seth Shostak, and many more. Dr. Jill Tarter, director of SETI’s research department, was the model for the Ellie Arroway character in the 1997 movie “Contact.” The SETI Institute is a nonprofit corporation that depends on sponsorship by a number of different organizations such as NASA and JPL, as well as donations from the public. SETI has an excellent “Adopt a Scientist” fund raising program that is described in detail on their website.

This Physics Groupie has been a SETI member for many years and participates in the search by running the SETI@Home screensaver 24/7, just to do my part. SETI is one organization that needs all our support. Please consider joining up to be part of something that may change humankind’s path forever.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Slamming the Moon

It is great being part of the science lifestyle because you get to look forward to cool astronomical and space events. It is even more fun if the event is well publicized in advance so the general public can take part in the experience. Tomorrow, Friday October 9, in the early morning hours around 4:30am PDT, is a great example. This is when the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will propel a rocket and slam it into the moon in order to find possible traces of water. A watery moon could pave the way for a future lunar base that would need water and breathable air which could be derived from water.

LCROSS launched in June and is now set to perform its experiment. LCROSS will send a Centaur rocket, a 5,200 lb. projectile travelling at 5,600 miles per hour, plunging into the 60-mile-wide crater Cabeus near the moon’s south pole (and dig a 13 foot hole in the process). Meanwhile, LCROSS will maneuver itself into position to fly through the dust cloud rising as much as six miles above the lunar surface. The debris will be analyzed onboard LCROSS to determine any water content.

This extraordinary event will be carefully watched by observatories around the world along with the Hubble Space Telescope. Even amateur astronomers can take part in the viewing with a telescope having at least a 10-inch aperture. The project is managed by the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. and a crowd of thousands of science enthusiasts are expected for an evening of music and movies that will culminate with a live video feed of the impact.

This kind of event is a perfect science-family activity, although getting the kids up at that hour may be a challenge. It will be well worth the effort however, especially if the presence of water is confirmed. Isn’t science wonderful?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hubble Continues to Amaze

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has captivated the world’s imagination since its launch in 1990. The images taken by HST over the years have opened up a level of unparalleled clarity into the cosmos. When it looked like the aging old dame of space telescopes was nearing the end of its life, I was relieved to learn there would be one final repair mission (HST-SM4, the fourth servicing mission) which would allow the telescope to function until at least 2014 when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch and take over the task of probing the universe.

The servicing mission was a great success but the science world held its collective breath as HST was put through its early paces. With a collection of new instruments and upgrades, HST recently began to show off its new talents. If the initial batch of images is any indication, we’re in store for some amazing science in the years to come.

HST already has demonstrated its rejuvenated powers with a stunning collection of new images. On top of the list are images of exploding stars, a stellar nursery, colliding galaxies and the lensing effect of a galactic cluster nearly half way across the universe. HST’s calibration just after the servicing mission was interrupted briefly on July 19th, for an unusual opportunity, to observe Jupiter in the aftermath of a collision with a suspected comet. HST's suite of new instruments now allows it to study the universe across a broad array of the electromagnetic spectrum, from ultraviolet light all the way to near-infrared light.

For HST, a new phase of full science operation commences. Demand for observing time will be intense. Astronomers look forward to using HST for a broad range of observations especially exoplanet research. There are also plans to obtain the deepest ever far-infrared portrait of Universe to expose new young galaxies that existed when the Universe was less than 500 million years old.

This Physics Groupie looks forward to the next Hubble decade as the stage is set for unparalleled discoveries from the distant corners of the universe. Thanks to the rebirth of Hubble, another generation of school children can grow up with a unique view of the cosmos never before witnessed.

Monday, October 5, 2009

An Elegant Evening for Astrophysics

On a recent beautiful summer evening, Zoe and I attended a wonderful event hosted by the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy to honor Professor Andrea Ghez with her appointment as the Leichtman & Levine Astrophysics Endowed Chair. The distinction is one of many awards bestowed upon Professor Ghez in recent years, the result of ground-breaking research contributing to a better understanding of the Milky Way’s galactic center. The endowed chair will allow Ghez more flexibility in her pursuit of her research goals.

The event took place atop the new Physics and Astronomy building in the open air 3rd floor patio. The patio is a perfect place for such receptions, with a beautiful view of the surrounding areas of campus including Powell Library. The dining tables were very well manicured, complete with name cards for all the attendees. Upon entering the patio, we were given name badges and a special card containing our table number. Our every need was anticipated as we were offered fine wine (my favorite Oregon Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley was among the selections) and tasty hors d'oeuvres. As we mingled in the crowd, Professor Ghez was swamped with well wishers. We had a long, insightful chat with the department chair, Ferdinand Coroniti, who clued us in about the dynamics of leading his department into a new era, one where the department’s stature has risen to stellar heights in the past decade.

A variety of luminaries were in attendance for the cocktail reception and formal sit-down dinner – Department Chair Ferdinand Coroniti, UCLA Dean of Physical Sciences Joseph Rudnick, and even UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Of course Professor Ghez was the guest of honor and delivered a rousing acceptance talk. Ghez has an inordinate ability to communicate complex scientific subjects to the masses. If there is a short-list of candidates who could possibly fill the shoes of the late Carl Sagan in bringing astronomy to the public, Dr. Ghez has got to be a top choice.

After the excellent dinner, Zoe and I were able to greet Dr. Ghez at last. Gracious and humble as always, she accepted our felicitations. Having already won the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and election to the National Academy of Sciences, I mentioned to her that the limit of the number of feathers in her hat is approaching infinity (a very small math joke).

Next to my primary area of interest, gravitational wave astrophysics, I am most interested in following the progress of the UCLA Galactic Center Group. This dynamic group of researchers led by Dr. Ghez is, in my opinion, destined to do great things. Do I hear Nobel Prize in their future?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Life as an Independent Researcher (scientific misfit)

As a born again scientist, my main emphasis is doing independent research in astrophysics. I really love this area because it satisfies my desire for seeing the big picture, and it also caters to my appreciation of theoretical endeavors. There are a number of areas within astrophysics I enjoy exploring, the theoretical basis of black holes, dark matter and dark energy, cosmology, the large scale structure of the universe and galaxy clusters, and most of all gravitational wave astronomy.

The area that I spend most of my time researching is gravitational wave detection. Gravitational waves are predicted by Einstein’s general relativity. To date, no direct detection of gravitational waves has been recorded. However the time is ripe for the first detection because by 2015 with the operation of Advanced LIGO, the detection of gravitational waves will become commonplace and gravitational wave astronomy will usher in a new era in the field of astronomy.

As an independent researcher, i.e. not employed by a research institution that is a member of the LSC (LIGO Scientific Collaboration), I have no access to the raw data collected by LIGO. When I inquired about why the data was not freely available, nobody could give me a solid answer. My feeling is that since pure science results that are not classified in terms of military secrecy should be open to the taxpaying public given that the project is being funded by the NSF. The only reason I could ascertain was that if they gave out the data and the public analyzed it and someone declared a detection of a gravitational wave, then the gravitational wave orthodoxy would have to verify it. Too many false detections would therefore waste the establishment’s time. I guess I can accept that, so I’ve had to work around this problem of being an independent.

One route I explored was to become a “free agent” in astrophysics. I was directed to several people in the LSC about my ideas of applying evolutionary algorithms to the data analysis task of LIGO. Each researcher I spoke to found merit in my suggestions. Ultimately, I was invited to make a presentation to the LSC at one of their regular group meetings. That way, I could be accepted as an independent member of LSC. Currently, there are no such members. Feeling like a square peg in a round hole (aka research misfit), I opted to look for another path.

One promising alternative I discovered was the Mock LISA Data Challenge (MDLC) project. LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) is the future generation of gravitational wave observatories. It will be the first space-based observatory. The MDLC project is designed to take a head start on the data analysis task by inviting research groups to devise innovative detection algorithms using artificially generated LISA data, injected with waveforms predicted for a variety of astrophysical events that give off gravitational waves such as coalescing super-massive black holes. Participating with MDLC does not require membership in LSC.

The moral of this story and the valuable lesson I learned through my experiences an astrophysics outsider (you may meet with similar obstacles when trying to breach the boundaries of other scientific fields) is that the science establishment might not know what to do with you. In my experience the researchers are generally receptive of new ideas, and in my case, I was told that the LIGO data analysis group was actively engaging researchers from other disciplines to come up with fresh methods. This is a very good indication of openness.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My Life Changing Trip to LIGO

Sometimes just reading the newspaper can change the course of your life. That’s exactly happened to this Physics Groupie a few years ago and I’m quite grateful for the experience. The Saturday, June 10, 2006 edition of the Los Angeles Times ran a front page “Column One” article that served to significantly refine my scientific focus which at that time was a bit overly broad. The significance of the article is ironic given the budget cuts many newspapers have experienced of late, not to mention that science coverage is almost non-existent in most newspapers. Yet, there it was, “Gravity’s Field of Dreams” by John Johnson Jr., an excellent piece describing the search for gravitational waves and the project called LIGO (laser interferometer gravitational wave observatory) designed to detect the waves. This article served to direct me to the scientific field that I ultimately chose to devote my time to – gravitational wave astrophysics. The point is that the event or circumstance that pushes you to a specific field of research may come from an entirely unexpected source. Just keeps your eyes open for opportunities like this.

In early February 2007, Zoe and I decided to visit the LIGO Hanford observatory. I contacted the observatory’s education and outreach coordinator Dale Ingram to schedule a private tour of the facility. I found that LIGO is very open and enthusiastic to receive visitors. We flew into SEATAC (Seattle/Tacoma International Airport), and then took a short flight to the small town of Pasco. There is a tri-city area consisting of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick. We decided to stay at a new, centrally-located motor lodge in Pasco. We took some time to explore the area and take in some local color at a microbrew and some good restaurants Zoe found for us. The next morning we were able to take a modest drive to the Hanford facility for our tour.

Upon arriving at the LIGO facility, I was greatly impressed by the uniqueness of the area. Hanford is located in an area of windswept desert very much unlike most of Washington State. It was cold, bleak and the featureless horizon stretched on for miles and miles. Due to very little precipitation, the entire area is devoid of vegetation. In a way, the stark environment would be quite compatible with ground-breaking scientific research. In a place like that it would be hard to get distracted from your work.

During our visit, Dale provided a wonderful all-encompassing tour of the entire facility that included a visit to the control room where scientists can monitor an impressive array of projection screens showing a wide variety of indicators, and system status displays (see the photo of me standing in the control room that is attached to my profile for this blog). The visitor’s center includes a large lecture hall where public presentations are made, and some fascinating displays about the science of detecting gravitational waves. The lobby even has a real life “Weber bar,” a device once thought to have made consistent detections (currently no direct detection has ever been made) of gravitational waves.

Dale graciously lined up a meeting for me with one of the resident scientists, Dr. Michael Landry. “Mike” as he likes to be called, was very receptive to my ideas of applying my background in data mining, specifically evolutionary algorithms, to the analysis of LIGO data. Mike was a stoic, contemplative experimentalist who headed up the Continuous Wave (CW) group for LIGO. His group monitors one potential source of gravitational waves, pulsars. I didn’t know much about pulsars at the time, but I made it a point to get up to speed with them. I noticed a book on Mike’s desk when I sat in his office. I asked him weeks later for the reference, “Pulsar Astronomy,” and now the book is one of my favorites. As I sat in Mike’s office, I couldn’t help but notice the austere view from his desk overlooking the Washington desert. This place would be perfect for conducting serious research.

Zoe’s and my short trip to this science facility proved to be very rewarding. I came away from the visit with vigor in my desire to learn more about the field and investigate ways I could participate in on-going research. This was probably one my most productive science trips ever!

[The attached photo shows the Physics Groupie shivering in the cold wind near the Y-arm of the LIGO instrument. LIGO consists of two perpendicular 4km arms.]