Monday, December 20, 2010

Be a Planet Hunter!

You know the scene. You’re milling around the hors d’oeuvres table at your next cocktail party and a stranger comes up for a little small talk and blandly solicits “So what do you like to do in your free time?” Some typical banter-time responses might involve the mundane – comedy workshops, watercolors, tapas bars, or maybe even hang-gliding adventures.  But wouldn’t it be cool to reply to the question confidently and emphatically, “I’m a planet hunter!”

Well now you really can be with the launch of Planet Hunters, a website that allows anyone to sift through bits of the NASA Kepler’s voluminous data, obtained as the space telescope gazes at some 150,000 stars. Launched in 2009, Kepler monitors the brightness of these stars over several years. For those stars that host planets, and for those planets whose orbits are aligned with Kepler’s line of sight, the telescope’s light sensors register a dip in the star’s brightness when a planet passes across the star’s face, a sort of partial eclipse known as a “transit.”

At last count, Kepler has located eight exoplanets and several hundred more candidates awaiting confirmation. The problem is that computer methods designed to detect exoplanets might miss something. This is where the public can play a role. Humans have an innate ability for fast and efficient pattern recognition. So the Planet Hunter website presents Kepler light curves and allows the user to look for the dimming that signifies the possible presence of a planet.

Planet Hunters which recently launched on December 16, 2010, is part of the popular galaxy classification site – Galaxy Zoo. Here’s the best part - if the Planet Hunters project correctly identifies a new exoplanet, the user who identifies its presence will be listed as a co-author on the scientific paper announcing the discovery. What more can an amateur scientist ask for? So at that next cocktail hour you can proudly proclaim “I discovered an exoplanet, Kepler 11d.” So cool!


[NOTE: the Planet Hunters website does not support the Microsoft IE browser for some reason.]

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Scientists in the Media

I keep my eyes and ears open for science discussions in the general media. This kind of outreach by professional scientists is very important in conveying concepts and theories to the lay person. Here are a couple of excerpts that I found interesting:
“I think it’s probably one of the most abused concepts in physics among the public. You should be wary whenever you hear something like, ‘Quantum mechanics connects you with the universe’ … or ‘quantum mechanics unifies you with everything else.’ You can begin to be skeptical that the speaker is somehow trying to use quantum mechanics to argue fundamentally that you can change the world by thinking about it.”
Lawrence Krauss, Arizona State University, on “quantum quackery,” MSNBC.COM, September 20, 2010.
“This is something people have difficulty wrapping their minds around, because it doesn’t show up in any obvious ways in our everyday lives. It’s a very subtle effect, until you’re flying close to a black hole or moving close to the speed of light.”
Sean Carroll, Caltech, on time dilation, NPR, September 23, 2010.

[NOTE: Scientists in the Media will be a recurring feature here on the SLB.]

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Competition and the Exoplanet Olympics

I had a nice chat with UCLA Professor of Physics & Astronomy, David Jewitt last night after his thought provoking research colloquium “Planets and Exoplanets.” Jewitt’s range of topics for the talk was broad. He started with a current view of our very own solar system – not the boring, rather static one that we all learned in grade school, but the new and much more dynamical model. He also examined the popular methods for exoplanet discovery: radial velocity (wobble), transit, direct, and microlensing. Toward the end, he touched on the question of life on other planets including the moons Europa and Enceladus. It was a rigorous treatment with plenty of detailed scientific graphs and formulae. The scope of the presentation was for fellow faculty researchers, researchers from other fields, and the general public (he led off the discussion with a humorous disclaimer that the success for such a broad reach was impossible and someone was likely to be disappointed – I guarantee that everyone was quite pleased).

As good as the lecture was it was my discussion with Professor Jewitt afterward at the reception that was the most enjoyable. I inquired about the discovery of Gliese 581g, the exoplanet recently announced that is around three times the mass of Earth and inside the host star’s so-called “habitable zone” where liquid water could exist. The announcement on Sept. 29 by Vogt et al from UC Santa Cruz, was one of the biggest science headlines of the year. The star Gliese 581 is a mere 20 light years away.

I lamented to Jewitt that I was disappointed to read this week that an exoplanet group in Geneva expressed doubt on its discovery. He explained the cold reality of competing scientific research groups. Apparently, there are two main groups of planet-hunters, one in California (UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz) and another group in Switzerland. The California group announced Gliese 581g with the consensus of the Swiss group and others. But on Oct. 11 Francesco Pepe’s comments at the IAU Symposium in Turin first appeared on a Facebook page, “We cannot confirm it [Gliese 581g] in our HARPS data.”

It’s tempting to make a big deal out of this or present it as some kind of embarrassment, but this stuff is the meal ticket of science. Jewitt looks at these occurrences of one upmanship as healthy scientific competition between different groups that yields better science in the long run and certainly makes things exciting.

As I strolled away from the California NanoSystems Institute Auditorium where the talk was held, I reflected on Jewitt’s words. The situation reminded me of the long held competition between the UCLA Galactic Center Group and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, the likes of which has yielded some of the most amazing results in the past decade. It’s not unlike watching well conditioned athletes competing in the Olympics – the race is exciting, but in the end it is the advancement of the sport that matters most. So too with competing scientific teams – we all win when the race is over and new truths about the universe are known.

[The inset image is an artist’s concept of the red dwarf star and Gliese 581g.]

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Anti-Science Movement

With the U.S. mid-term elections a thing of the past, it is a good time to take stock of where we are as a country in terms of scientific goals. The GOP’s newly acquired control of the House and gains in the Senate means that the relatively science-friendly Obama administration must now steer a rougher course in supporting America’s science establishment. The conservative agenda of governance is generally pro-business while forsaking scientific progress. Take this excerpt from a Rush Limbaugh broadcast:

“The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.”

It is tempting to laugh off this and other conservative rhetoric, but Limbaugh and similar voices are no laughing matter. America, more and more often, bears witness to these fact-less exclamations from high-profile figures in the American political arena. Take tea party poster child Christine O’Donnell’s claim that “evolution is a myth.” Or consider Representative Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) intention to investigate climate scientists for fraudulent claims about global warming. Then there is the contentious Alaskan race between moderate Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski and her tea party opponent Joe Miller who said Murkowski’s acknowledgement of the reality of global warming is “exhibit A for why she needs to go.” And we can’t forget the anti-science vitriol from conservative cheerleader Sarah Palin who famously decried fruit fly research a waste of public money. These are just a few examples of a rising anti-science tide that academia can no long ignore.

There is no doubt about the growing anti-science streak on the American right that could have tangible societal and political impacts on many fronts including environmental regulation, stem cell research, and many other important issues. The right-wing populism that is flourishing in the current climate of economic insecurity echoes many traditional conservative themes such as opposition to taxes, regulation, and immigration. The biggest area of concern, however, is the movement is also tapping an age-old U.S. political impulse – a suspicion of elites and expertise. In addition, the movement is also averse to science-based regulation, which it sees as an excuse for intrusive government. This is why we see resistance to oil drilling regulation even in light of the massive BP spill in the Gulf.

Denialism over global warming has become a merit badge of the political right. Limbaugh, for instance has advised his followers that “science has become a home for displaced socialists and communists,” and has called climate-change science “the biggest scam in the history of the world.”

 U.S. citizens face economic problems that are all too real, and the country’s future crucially depends on education, science and technology as it faces increasing competition from China and other emerging science powers. But in the current poisoned political atmosphere, the defenders of science have few easy remedies. Reassuringly, polls show that the overwhelming majority of the U.S. public sees science as a force for good, and the anti-science rumblings may be short-lived. Scientists and educators should redouble their efforts to promote rationalism, scholarship and critical thought among the young to help illuminate the pressing science-based issues of our time. Of course, that’s the whole idea behind the Science Lifestyle Blog. Keep the faith!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

WMAP Goes to Sleep

Certainly near the top of the list of scientific instruments that have changed mankind’s view of the cosmos is NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). In September 2010, the spacecraft fired its boosters for the last time and curved into a final orbit around the Sun where it will remain as a permanent fixture in the universe it helped to interpret.

WMAP was launched on June 2001 to revolutionize the field of cosmology. WMAP studied the remnants of heat that lingered after the Big Bang, a pattern frozen in time from when the universe was only about 380,000 years old. The light arriving to WMAP from this great distance has since stretched to microwave wavelengths. Subtle differences observed in the texture of this so-called “cosmic microwave background” have revealed the geometry, composition and age of the universe. The probe showed that the universe is flat, and most likely endless. It also yielded the first full-sky map of the cosmic microwave background (see inset image). Other results included how this primeval light is polarized and forms the blueprint for the first galaxy formation.

During its illustrious mission, WMAP science has been extremely fertile. Its findings produced some of the most highly cited papers in physics. And although WMAP science has come to a conclusion, its replacement is already in orbit: the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite.

WMAP’s discoveries have resonated far beyond the scientific sphere. Singer-songwriter Katie Melua’s 2005 hit “Nine Million Bicycles” included the lyrics:
“We are 12 billion light years from the edge
That’s a guess
No one can ever say it’s true.”
When science journalist Simon Singh pointed out that  the lyrics did not reflect current scientific knowledge (WMAP determined the age of the universe with great accuracy), Melua agreed to re-record the song:
“We are 13.7 billion light years from the edge of the observable universe

That’s a good estimate with well-defined error bars
And with available information”
Listen to the before and after version here. Now that is one scientifically responsible artist!

 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

AMS Einstein Lecture

It was a warm Indian summer evening on the UCLA campus last Saturday night (October 9), and the feeling surrounding Schoenberg Hall was electric with anticipation for the “Einstein Lecture” by Fields Medalist Professor Terence Tao of UCLA. I arrived early to absorb the ambiance, and I wasn’t disappointed – it was fascinating to see such widespread interest in mathematics.

The weekend saw mathematicians from far-off locations converge on the Math Sciences building for the regional meeting of the American Mathematical Society (AMS). The free public lecture that was scheduled for the evening hours not only attracted the mathematicians on-hand from the conference, but also people from many other walks of life, including seniors and children.

As I sat reading a recent arXiv paper on modified gravity and gravitational waves, I surveyed the venue. There was a large area where serving tables were set up, alongside several large round tables designated for enjoying the food and drinks at the reception after the lecture. Not surprisingly, many of the attendees arrived early because the seating was first-come-first-served. A department insider told me that 1,000 people RSVP’d, but the lecture hall only seats 500. The organizers reserved a second hall for 200 more guests, and anyone else would have to watch the lecture on a large projection unit set up outside on the patio. As I sat soaking in the color, I noticed the guest of honor – Professor Tao, arrive dressed in a formal black suit. This was making out to be quite an affair – imagine that, mathematics on a Saturday night!

The name of the lecture was “The Cosmic Distance Ladder.” Even though Professor Tao is a world renowned expert in research mathematics, his talk for the evening was concerning astrophysics. Rarely overviewed all at once, Tao led us through man’s journey in determining his place in the university. How do we know the distances from the earth to the sun and moon, from the sun to the other planets, and from the sun to other stars and distant galaxies? Clearly we can’t measure them directly. Nevertheless there are many ingenious indirect methods of measurement, combined with basic mathematics, which can give quite convincing and accurate results without the need for advanced technology. Even the Greeks could compute the distances from the earth to the sun and moon to moderate accuracy. Tao’s talk focused on these methods that rely on climbing a “cosmic distance ladder,” using measurements of nearby distances to deduce estimates on distances slightly farther away. In the lecture, he discussed the current 9 “rungs” of this ladder.

It was a fascinating lecture and a superb way to spend a Saturday night. I attended the lecture with two old friends from my undergrad days at the UCLA Mathematics Department. At the wonderfully catered reception that followed I had the opportunity to catch up with the past iteration of department chairman, Professor Christoph Thiele, and current chair Professor Sorin Popa. It was a night to remember for sure, under the stars and with the distinct scent of world-class mathematics in the air.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Back to School

The Physics Groupie is taking a small step forward in his formal astrophysics education (one of the reason for fewer posts here on the SLB). I am officially auditing a very cool class at UCLA this Fall 2010 quarter – Astronomy 4 “Black Holes and Cosmic Catastrophes.” The class is taught by Professor Alice Shapley, a rising star of the UCLA astrophysics department who was literally stolen away from Princeton in 2008. I’ve met Alice a number of times before and knew I’d enjoy any class she taught. I have not been disappointed, the class is wonderful, a tribute to her engaging teaching style. With her dry-pan sense of humor, she could be a pretty damn good comedian.

The class is square in my area of interest – black holes, but it is much more than that. Shapley is going through some Newtonian dynamics, Keplerian orbits, spectroscopy, and my favorite – gravity. Although an undergrad course for non-majors, it serves me as a springboard for the future. After a life in computer science, many of you know I switched focus about 5 years ago in favor of astrophysics. I had to start somewhere, so this class is a great place. A goal of mine is to ease back into student mode, and after years in industry it isn’t all that simple. Eventually, I’d like to enter a Masters Degree program in astrophysics or astronomy, and time permitting, a Ph.D. program. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

The class is already providing an excellent framework for revisiting a lot of elementary physics that I haven’t had since I was an undergrad. It is interesting how the hyper-competitive undergrad environment at UCLA looks at this review material. I asked one fellow student (probably only 18 or 19 years old) about the physics being taught in the class. The reply I got was, “Oh, I had all this in high school.” Ah, the precocious youth of today.

Again, this is a course for non-majors, but I’m taking it more seriously than most. Instead of the textbook recommended for the class, I’m using the renowned Halliday & Resnick which is much more intense and mathematical. This textbook is on its 8th edition and originally written by venerable RPI emeritus professor Robert Resnick. I’m also reviewing MIT physics (aka Course 8) material for 8.01 and 8.02 through MIT OpenCourseware to supplement the material being covered in my class.

I’m looking forward to the meat of the class in the weeks to come, namely black holes. With my past experience with the LIGO project and gravitational wave astronomy, plus my more recent interest in the Galactic center with our Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, I’m anticipating a very good learning experience indeed.

[I’d appreciate any comments about returning to the academic world after a long absence. Is this doable?]

Friday, October 1, 2010

SLB – Winner of Design and Lifestyle Award

Theaterseatstore.com
Awards 2010
I am pleased to report that the Science Lifestyle Blog received a “Best on the Net” award for combined design and lifestyle content. The Design and Lifestyle 2010 Web Excellency Awards selected websites in a variety of genres but the SLB was the only award winning site in the area of math and science. The selection process was described this way:

“ … after many hours of searching and reviewing, we’ve come across what we feel to be the best combined design and lifestyle blogs on the net. All of the subsequent winners in this category are both incredibly well designed and feature a strong narrative voice with a knack for creating truly engaging content. Anyone who visits them is sure to take away some form of inspiration …”
I realize that a blog devoted to covering topics in mathematics and science typically will not be on the top of most people’s list, so I’m even happier that we were chosen. Viva la science!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Science of Why?

Everyone has experienced the tiny toddler pestering a well-meaning parent with incessant questions of the sort “why is the sky blue?” Assuming the parent even knows the answer, it can be a bit frustrating to continually field these questions. But I look at it a bit differently. I have great respect for a child’s innate curiosity, a tireless pursuit of finding out how things work. Sadly, although most of us start off life that way, it is through years of institutionalized education, and socialization that our desire to know how things work gets beaten down, we stop wondering why and just take the wonders of nature for granted.

But I digress in my preface to my main point – why so few young people go into fields like physics in college? These days many university physics departments are stagnant in their size. Students often carry a negative perception about the utility of physics in seeking jobs so they opt for degrees in other science disciplines like biology and chemistry. Why is this?

One recent poll of current and past students in physics identified what initially got them excited about physics. Nearly every student indicated that, while other majors told them what various things are, physics could answer the “why.” Why is the sky blue? Why are some materials conductors and others insulators? Why is the universe expanding? Most of the polled students said they were in physics to pursue the why. Physics is a tool kit that teaches students how to think and how to pursue the “why” in whatever they do. Answering the why is a powerful talent to possess and can be applied to problem solving in just about every other discipline.

But getting back to my original point, something in these students brought out and reinforced the innate curiosity we’re all born with. Maybe it really is still in all of us. Maybe we just need to figure out how to bring it out again. Should we try to think like kids again, with pristine wonder about the world around us? One university, University of Texas Austin, reaches out to prospective physics majors with a signature phrase – “Does the ‘Why’ keep you up at night?” Exactly!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

setiQuest – LGM for the Masses

As an indepen-dent researcher, I’m normally not in close affiliation with the “inner circle” of the world-class science projects that have caught my interest over the years. As a result it is especially difficult to siphon off any raw data for use with data analysis efforts – an area which is my forte. Not anymore with SETI I’m happy to report!

I’ve been a participating member of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project for years, but only as one of the thousands of volunteers worldwide who run the SETI@HOME screen saver that processes radio telescope data using a fixed algorithm embedded in BOINC software you can download for free.

Now, things are changing in the direction of much more openness. setiQuest.org plans to make available to everyone the data collected from the SETI telescopes, the software they use to looked for signals, and the algorithms that the software is based on. Now, software developers and algorithm enthusiasts can use the software and algorithms to hunt for signals using their own insights and with custom changes to software and signal algorithms.

Now, things are changing in the direction of much more openness. setiQuest.org plans to make available to everyone the data collected from the SETI telescopes, the software they use to looked for signals, and the algorithms that the software is based on. Now, software developers and algorithm enthusiasts can use the software and algorithms to hunt for signals using their own insights and with custom changes to software and signal algorithms.

setiQuest announced the availability of data in the second quarter of 2010. Open sourcing of software and algorithms will take place in phases, starting in the third quarter of 2010. The Physics Groupie plans to focus on new algorithm development using evolutionary algorithms.

So as new data is collected from the SETI’s Allen Telescope Array, between 100 and 200 terabytes daily, and with an expanded openness, I’m very much looking forward to contributing to a significant scientific project in a meaningful way – maybe even find some LGM (little green men). How about you?

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Hunt for Supernovae

It’s very late at night, still, quiet, and the night sky beckons to me, teasing me to unlock its secrets. With moments like this I get lost in my thoughts of the cosmos and the incredibly violent events happening as we sleep, light years away from our safe little corner of the universe. What better time than to hunt for supernovae?

I’ve been a big fan of the Galaxy Zoo project since its inception (here is a link to my first essay). It is a great way for the public to contribute in a meaningful way with an actual astronomical project – classification of galaxies. The organization started another project called Galaxy Zoo - The Hunt for Supernovae where you can help identify supernovae in a large collection of candidate images from the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) survey. PTF identifies anything that changes in the sky, a variable star, an asteroid in motion, or a supernova. Built in the 1940s, the telescope used for PTF is the Samuel Oschin 1.2 meter at the Palomar observatory. In searching for supernovae, the PTF images the same galaxies twice per night, every five nights. The idea is to capture changes in the sky.

The supernova hunt uses human classifiers because, believe it or not, the human brain has innate abilities in making such visual classifications and can do so better and more reliable than a computer can. So we bipeds are of some use after all!

A supernova represents the end of stellar evolution. At the end of a massive (several times the mass of our Sun) star’s life, there is an explosion of such intensity that it can easily outshine its host galaxy. Our Sun on the other hand is too small to result in a supernova and will fade out with a whimper as it runs out of fuel to power the nuclear fusion at its core. The GalaxyZoo supernova project serves up images of possible core collapse supernovae and type 1A supernovae. The website provides complete instructions and examples of how to classify these amazing astrophysical objects. It is both a fun and educational way to pass time.

So if you’ve been an armchair astronomer up until this point, consider doing something real and join up today and start your own hunt for supernovae!

[Inset image is of the supernova remnant N63A in the Large Magellanic Cloud]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

100 Best YouTube Videos for Science Teachers

The webmaster of the Bachelor of Science website, Beatrice Owen, recently contacted The Physics Groupie about a collection of videos she put together - 100 Best YouTube Videos for Science Teachers. I enjoyed checking out many of the videos myself and they are fantastic so I thought I'd share the wealth here on the SLB. A few of my personal favorites are: "Why is the sky blue?" (#29), "Traveling at Warp Speed" (#38), and "Star Spits Out Baby Planet" (#53).

It has become clear for quite some time the value of YouTube for teaching science, and this comprehensive list clearly demonstrates this tremendous resource. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Review: Punk Mathematics


So here is a book review about a book that hasn’t been written yet. No, I haven’t I figured out how to manipulate space-time by stepping into the future, I’m talking about a new book project that was recently posted on Kick Starter.com. You can check out the proposal by clicking on the widget. Maybe you’ll like it enough to make a pledge of your own.

Punk Mathematics is to be a book consisting of a series of mathematical stories. The author Tom Henderson describes it this way:

It is written for readers who are interested in having their minds expanded by the strange metaphors and implications of mathematics, even if they're not always on friendly terms with equations. Better living through probability; the fractal dimension of cities and cancers; using orders of magnitude to detect bullshit; free will and quantum economics; and the mathematics of cooperation in a networked world on the brink of a No Future collapse.
Sounds pretty surreal for a math book, but I’ll give Tom the benefit of the doubt. He is has a master’s degree in math from Portland State University and seems very committed to this project if the excellent project video is any gauge.

The way Kickstarter.com works is that accepted (read: considered worthy by the site’s owners) projects are featured on the site with a full description of the concept, a video and a list of pledge amounts and corresponding rewards if you decide to pledge a specific amount. Each person proposing a project decides on a goal amount. In this case Tom wants $2,400. If his project manages to meet or exceed the goal amount by a specific date, everyone’s credit card is charged, Tom gets his funding, and Kickstarter.com gets 10% of the proceeds. This is a pretty innovative resource for obtaining funding for your pet project. It’s free-market capitalism gone wild. Tom has done pretty well thus far, attracting over $11,000 as of today (he has 13 days to go). There is no upper limit of how much funding a project can secure.

Punk Mathematics has 8 different pledge amounts ranging from $2 for “a random index card from the first draft” to $400 for a “live performance” in the Portland area.

Most of the projects on Kickstarter.com have an artistic flavor, although there is a technology category where a project called “Diaspora” received 2006% of its goal amount for a whopping $200,641.84! I hope that Punk Mathematics results in a quality result. I’m rooting for Tom!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Math DREAM ACT

I’d like to tell you a story about an 18-year old young man named Erik who loves mathematics. He just graduated from high school where he excelled in his math classes and even completed a Calculus course. He’s the one in school that other kids go to for help with their math homework. Erik plans to continue on with math in college and he was accepted to U.C. Berkeley. After school he’d like to go into a math related field, or economics or engineering. This guy is bright and has worked hard for his achievements. In many respects Erik is a model citizen and the math field needs more young, enthusiastic people like him. The only problem is that Erik isn’t a citizen, he is an undocumented immigrant. This is where this story of promising potential gets a little murky.

Erik came to the U.S. with this family when he was only 8 years old. Obviously, he had no control over his immigration status at such a young age. What he did do was work hard in school, got good grades, excelled in math and was rewarded by getting accepted at UC Berkeley. But because he can’t apply for scholarships, or even work, Erik must go to community college instead and hope that in two years he can solve the financial obstacle of attending a first-rate university. But even if he manages to fund his academic career and graduate from a top university with a degree in math, it might all be for naught since he can’t work in a professional field. He'll be pushed out of the legitimate workforce because of his immigration status. By any measure this situation is sad and a waste.

This is where the DREAM ACT comes in. The Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act is bipartisan legislation that addresses the situation faced by young people who were brought to the U.S. years ago as undocumented immigrant children by their parents and who have since grown up here, stayed in school and kept out of trouble. Each year, about 65,000 students would benefit from the DREAM ACT. After satisfying strict requirements, these students would be eligible for a 6-year conditional path to citizenship.

In the last few weeks, a group of these high-potential students moved to urge California Senator Diane Feinstein to champion the bill and push it from the Judiciary Committee to the Senate for a vote - by setting up an encampment outside her office building on the corner of Santa Monica and Sepulveda boulevards. It is a high-traffic area and the colorful tents and banners were a curiosity for many passersby. I stopped by a few times to lend my support and that is when I interviewed Erik who had just come off an 8-day hunger strike.

For those who would say that Erik is breaking the law by remaining in the U.S. and should go back to his native Mexico, think of it this way – for all intents and purposes, Erik is American since he’s lived most of his life here. He can’t go back to Mexico and apply for legal citizenship since according to U.S. immigration law he has broken the law by living in this country illegally. If he leaves the country, he can never come back. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I believe it is. If Erik is granted citizenship, he’s proven that he could be a productive member of society, especially with his aptitude in math.

I asked Erik what he’d say to an opponent of the DREAM ACT. He quickly responded by pointing out that if he were allowed to stay in the U.S. to attend a university and work in a professional field afterward that he could be a benefit to America by intelligently helping industry to create new jobs. It was heartening to hear him say this and the fact he had the wherewithal to focus on the biggest problem facing the country, unemployment. If you support the DREAM ACT I urge you to contact your congressman and let him/her know how you feel.

Monday, August 9, 2010

STORY: Gravity's Message

Hello SLB'ers - I've decided to self-publish my story that was submitted to editor Henry Gee, for the "Futures" column in Nature magazine back in April 2009. It was rejected on April 24, 2009 by Faye Fornasier, editorial assistant. The July 15, 2010 issue of Nature published a similar story "Gravity's Whispers" by Gregory Benford as reported earlier in a previous post. Here is a link to Benford's story.

“Gravity’s Message”
By Daniel Dean Gutierrez
(c) Copyright 2009 Daniel Dean Gutierrez

Dr. Charles Comreau was just finishing up the last session of his gravitational wave astronomy class at Caltech. It was a long, but very enjoyable semester and a number of the grad students held much promise as future postdoc researchers, especially Holly Prentice. Holly was a shining example of a budding theorist within an experimentalist wrapper. Holly came up after class to inquire about the summer internship with the Advanced LIGO project that had now been operating since 2015 and making history along the way.

“Dr. Comreau, I was hoping to hear about the internship by now, because I’m scheduled to head back to New Hampshire next week. Should I stay on the East Coast for the summer or, am I headed to Hanford?” Holly asked with a tone of confidence. Holly wouldn’t have minded to be in Boston to see a few Red Sox games and prowling around MIT, but her heart was with the project and she wanted dearly to make her own history with LIGO.

It had been three years since the first gravitational wave detection that set the scientific world on end, and meant a well deserved Nobel Prize for Dr. Comreau. Dr. Comreau was the founding father of LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory), the device that made history by confirming Einstein’s prediction that massive moving bodies emit waves that ripple through spacetime. LIGO and its partner in Europe, GEO600, were yielding triple coincident detections of gravitational waves coming from inspiral binary black holes with the detection rate of 1 every couple of days.

Now gravitational wave astronomy was a reality, and shaping the careers of up and coming brilliant minds like Holly Prentice.

“Well, I was going to give you this later at the department party,” said Dr. Comreau as he handed her an envelope with her name hand-written on the front. “Congratulations! You’re in and you report to Hanford in two weeks.”

“THANK YOU Dr. Comreau! You won’t regret this. I already have some new ideas about the data analysis phase, and I’ve come up with a modified F-statistic, and …” said Holly as she mentally sprinted into her new internship.

“Whoa now, you can save all that for our friends up at Hanford. Go enjoy yourself for a couple of weeks and have a nice summer.” replied Dr. Comreau.

Holly decided to hit the East coast for a couple of weeks and had a blast with her significantly large brood of little nephews and nieces. Then she flew directly from Logan to Seatac and on to Pasco, Washington which is a stepping stone to Hanford, home of LIGO.

Holly loved Hanford. She’d visited three times before. It was a stark existence in the desolate high Washington desert, where pristine extremes set the perfect stage for hard-core astrophysics research.

She checked into her Spartan dormitory-like room and immediately went to the control room.

“Hi Jason! I’m back and ready for more late night scrabble contests.” Holly said to one of the regular LIGO operators Jason Kupchek who she had befriended during her past visits.

“Holly! I heard you were coming for the summer. We’re going to have such a time. Have a sit. Let me show you what we’ve been doing lately,” said an anxious Jason who had developed an indelible crush on Holly that past November.

For the next three hours, Holly and Jason poured over the recent electronic logs, inspiral range graphs, and noise budgets. Most of the gravitational wave detections in the past year came at a range of 15 Mpc (50 million light years) in the Virgo cluster of galaxies, produced by the coalescence of two black holes.

It was nearly 1am when Holly left the control room and went back to her room. But she was too excited to sleep so she fired up her laptop and continued to examine the data streams. It was about 3am when she saw it, something she never noticed before. Nobody would have noticed this before because it wasn’t part of the normal waveform analysis process. Holly was looking at the data in a very different way.

“Damn, its e!” thought Holly to herself.

She rushed down the hall to Jason’s room and pounded on the door.

“Geez Holly, what couldn’t wait until morning? I was having that same dream I told you about last year, the one with the sun soaked desert isle, and the two scantily clad …”

“Jason! Will you shut up and come take a look at this?” she said as she led him down the hall, pulling him by his sleeve.

Back in Holly’s room, on her laptop computer was an analysis she had been running, the result of a new data mining algorithm she’d been using to detail the LIGO data stream.

“What are we looking at Holly? What’s so damn exciting?” Jason said, weary with his awkward awakening.

“It’s e Jason. If you look at the coalescence part of the waveform, the peaks of the nonlinear vibrations occur at these units of gravitational strain from a base of 10^-21: 2, 7, 1, 8, 2, 8, 1, 8, etc. I checked it every two milliseconds and verified the values to a thousand decimals, and its e!” Holly exclaimed, hardly believing what she was saying.

This meant that the gravitational waves of an astrophysical event millions of light years from Earth were somehow being manipulated. It was impossible for such a strain signature to be generated naturally. But what it implied was even more astonishing.

“Holly, do you know what this means?” Jason said wide-eyed.

“I think so. It means that some one or some thing is manipulating black holes of around 20 solar masses in such a way as to emit an unnatural strain signature in the gravitational waves! But why, to communicate with us?” Holly said, trying to fully appreciate the ramifications. “So someone would recognize the signature as Euler’s constant? Why wouldn’t they just use Pi, wouldn’t that be more universal?”

Jason leaned back in the chair, and said “But what kind of civilization could have done that? Well, at least we won’t have to worry about them, at 50 million light years away, they’re long dead.”

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A New Home for the Planetary Society

I attended a fun-filled event today on a warm, sunny afternoon in Pasadena, Calif. It was the grand opening and open house for the Planetary Society’s new headquarters. A couple of hundred space enthusiasts, including quite a few kids, were on hand to enjoy the festivities - including refreshing access to a well stocked ice cream truck parked on the street.

Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, the non-profit Planetary Society inspires and involves Earth’s people in space exploration – through advocacy, projects, and education. The new headquarters at 85 S. Grand Avenue is a long time coming; the old classic Pasadena craftsman house that served as the society’s office for so many years finally had no room left. A change was mandatory, and what a change it is.

The new HQ isn’t just another pretty place (but it is mighty elegant looking). The two story structure has enough office space for future needs and the grounds are big enough to hold some very nice outdoor functions. I enjoyed browsing around the office and the informative displays they had set up for the event. They were showing off the science behind the upcoming LightSail solar sail mission, and a computer was set up to sign an electronic birthday card for SciFi author Ray Bradbury who turns 90.

The Planetary Society also gets a new executive director, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” who takes the reins from long-time director Louis Friedman who is retiring. I overheard the staff saying that even though Friedman’s stewardship has been superb, Nye will bring a whole different type of energy to the organization.

I’ve been a member of the Planetary Society for many years, and I feel it is a very worthwhile organization in terms of the advocacy for science that it provides.

[See inset photo of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting ceremony for the new HQ. The man with huge gold scissors is Bill Nye, to his right is Louis Friedman, and to his left is Robert Picardo, the holographic doctor from the Star Trek: Voyager television series. ]

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Creative Writing Foray

My first attempt at getting one of my scientific fiction stories published was a spectacular flop! I wanted to be unique, so I carefully chose a field that, to my knowledge, had no attention by Sci-Fi authors. Since I know a lot about gravitational wave astrophysics, I decided to write a short story about the pursuit of gravitational waves, the researchers in the field, and the LIGO detector itself. Sounds like a good plan right? Well, it could have been.

I chose to submit my story to the Nature journal’s Futures column. Futures is a very short, 900 word, regular section appearing on the last page of each bi-monthly issue. I’ve read the Futures column for a few years now, and I really enjoy many of the stories appearing there. Some, however, mostly by British authors make no sense to me, the prose being like an alphabetic soup or literary fugue. Nevertheless, I sent in my story with great hopes only to be quickly rejected by the Editor, Henry Gee, with a singular and content-free comment “Your story isn’t for us.”

OK, I’m a new creative writer and I was shooting pretty high to be published in Nature with the likes of some pretty famous authors gracing this page. I licked my wounded ego and continued on writing more stories. That was April 2009. Now fast forward to this last week when I received the July 20 issue of Nature. I eagerly turned to the last page and shock, there it was: “Gravity’s Whispers” by Gregory Benford! Benford is one of my favorite Sci-Fi authors with titles like “Artifact” to his credit, not to mention about ten Nature Futures column stories under his belt.

As I started to read his story, my mind raced with “It can’t be!” But sure enough he had independently come up with pretty much the same story as mine, albeit admittedly much better written. The titles were almost the same – his was “Gravity’s Whispers” and mine was “Gravity’s Message,” the protagonist is a young female researcher, the back drop was the LIGO detector, and even the theme was the same – intelligent signals embedded in the gravitational waves. In my story, Euler's constant “e” was found, and in his story it was  Riemann zeros.

So I threw caution to the wind and contacted Dr. Benford, a professor at UC Irvine and sent him a copy of my story. To my surprise he quickly replied and admitted “Your story is remarkably similar. Great minds, same channels, etc.” He also provided an unsolicited critique of my story and why he believed Nature didn’t buy it. My creative writing needs a lot of work apparently.

Since then, Dr. Benford has become a great mentor to me. He’s provided me excellent insights into how to develop my own writing style. He’s even forwarded me some new research papers he’s written about the SETI project. I’m quite honored to establish a connection with one of my favorite authors and a leading researcher. It just goes to show you, it can't hurt to ask questions.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Johnny Carson’s Time Dilation

Once upon a time, there was a great late-night comedian named Johnny Carson (predecessor to Jay Leno) on NBC's Tonight Show. One of my favorite all-time Carson jokes was given during his nightly monologue. It went something like this:

"Scientists have recently discovered the smallest unit of time that can be measured. It is the time between when a traffic light turns green and the guy behind you starts honking."
Delivery being king, Carson's dry-pan style made this joke quite humorous - ROFL!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Calculating in Antiquity

It is easy for modern scientists to take for granted the ability to perform intricate numerical calculations with the help of a calculator, a computer, or even a super computer. An area of research I’m interested in – numerical relativity is a field of physics entirely carried out in the belly of a supercomputer, namely simulating the interaction of two inspiral black holes that ultimately yield gravitational radiation as predicted by Einstein. Even with teraflop (1 trillion floating point operations per second) computing speed, such calculations take months to complete.

Now take a huge step back in history, to Ptolemy’s time, AD 90-168 and think about what even the simplest calculation, like computing a square root, might entail. Remember, this was a time when the language of mathematics was not nearly as defined as it is today. Calculating would take up a significant percentage of the time required for scientific inquiry. Science was tedious for this reason.

I attended a thought-provoking lecture the other night at the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif. – The Geocentric Man: Ptolemy's Scientific Treatises. The speaker touched upon this curious subject – calculating in antiquity. It became apparent that calculating was quite a chore in those days!

Much later, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) had it even harder because the calculations got tougher, but the tools for calculating still weren’t there. Imagine doing calculations for Kepler’s laws describing planetary motion – all by hand. Kepler did create tables that were helpful with repeat calculations and he initiated the creation of the first calculating machine by his friend Professor W. Schickard.

When I stop to think about it, I’m grateful to have computers to take the grunt work out of scientific calculation. With computers, I’m able to focus on the science rather than the drudgery of manual number crunching.

[Inset photo – for those of you who've never seen one, this is the slide rule that was first invented in the 1600s and its use continued to grow until 1974 when it was made obsolete by the electronic calculator]

Friday, July 16, 2010

Betelgeuse – Killer Star

I remember the first time I heard of the star named Betelgeuse in my Astronomy 3 class at UCLA. The professor was the late famed astronomer George Abell who pioneered the field of galaxy clusters (and now has whole clusters named after him). He started discussing the star but pronounced it “beetle-juice.” People love saying it that way. I certainly did.

Over the years, I’ve kept an eye on this red supergiant only 640 light years from Earth. This is one star destined for big things, like a massive explosion. Betelgeuse could become the closest supernova ever witnessed from our planet. Betelgeuse and its red coloration has been known since antiquity, even Ptolemy noted its color in his writings. But it was Sir John Herschel, in 1836, who first described its variable brightness. Betelgeuse is an easy star to spot in the night sky as it lies just above the famous belt of Orion.

But it is the fate of Betelgeuse that most concerns us Earthlings. It is a relatively young star at 8.5 million years old, but for its size-class it is considered old. At 18 solar masses, it will continue to burn and fuse elements until its core is iron, at which point it will explode as a Type II core collapse supernova leaving behind a neutron star remnant about 20km in diameter (it is possible that the star will end its life as a white dwarf if its mass is on the lower end).

A supernova in such close proximity to Earth could have calamitous results – a deadly gamma ray burst (GRB) pointed our way could damage our ecosystem and make most life on the planet extinct. Fortunately, astronomers have determined that we will not be in the line of fire.

For a long time, this was the same concern about a Wolf Rayet star called WR 104 which was thought to be ready to blow and appeared to be aiming right our way. In other words we were “looking down a rifle barrel” of deadly high-energy gamma rays. Fortunately, recent spectroscopic observations at the Keck Observatory showed the system actually is inclined 30-40 degrees away from us so we’re safe - for now.

The point about killer stars is that our planet is very susceptible to dangerous astrophysical events in our galactic neighborhood. So far, we’ve just been lucky, but given the vastness of astronomical timeframes, our luck will eventually run out. It will certainly run out in a few billion years when our own star will reach the end of its life and become a red giant and engulf the inner solar system, possibly even the Earth. The question is whether we will even be around by then to notice?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Promising Math Career Cut Short

This is a story of mathematics, a woman, and what could have been. Let me introduce Gioia De Cari who was a third of the way through her doctoral program in mathematics at MIT when she up and left. She became an actress and a playwright and hasn’t thought about research mathematics since.

What happened? Why would a promising female mathematician abandon a stellar program at MIT, a premier mathematical ability, and years of labor in order to start from scratch in the world of theater? Does the term “sell out” seem too harsh? I’m not all that sure.

De Cari’s recent claim to fame is her one woman play Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze where she depicts her experiences in t he MIT math department in the late 1980s. In the play she examines the exhilaration and the grind of research, her sense of alienation in a male dominated department, the supportiveness and remoteness of her professors, her struggle to connect with her fellow students, the sexism that she let grind her down, and her ultimate abandonment of the role of female mathematician.

I find it interesting that she gave up mathematics to write a play about how she gave up mathematics. That seems a bit self-serving to me. It is like, through her acting, she continues to whine about how she simply couldn’t hack it at MIT. I have no doubt she experienced sexism. Mathematics has traditionally been an alpha-male discipline, except for the hardy females who survived their programs to ensure positive change becomes manifest. De Cari could have been one of those trailblazers, opening up the field for other women who had the talent but encountered institutional roadblocks along the way. Instead, De Cari represents yet another female who let “the man” beat her down.

Think of the role model she could have been instead of the example of defeat she now represents. De Cari could have been doing nationwide outreach to thousands of young girls who excel at math but are dissuaded by societal pressure to go into the “arts” instead. She can’t serve in that capacity now. She says she found her “calling” but with Truth Values all she does is perpetuate a sense of defeat and capitulation.

Attention all middle school girls who love math: seek out your true role models, pay a visit to your local college or university, find the faculty directory, and go speak with one of the (few) female professors who persevered many academic obstacles . She is the true hero you seek.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Book Review – Deep Blue Home

The new title “Deep Blue Home – An Intimate Ecology of Out Wild Ocean” by Julia Whitty (2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a welcome new entry for the field of environmental science. Written in a methodical yet somewhat lyrical style that makes the book a surprising page-turner, Whitty proves herself worthy of attention. With her thirty-year career as a documentary filmmaker, she not only talks the talk, but also is truly in the game – Whitty writes about three prodigious adventures taken in the name of naturalism – her time on a small island in the Gulf of Mexico, a sojourn to Newfoundland, and a journey to a remote corner of Baja California. Any one of these treks could consume the wanderlust of a mere mortal, but Whitty is of another strata.

In Part I she describes her time spent with two female companions alone on a small island in the Gulf of Mexico in 1980 studying nature’s secrets while undergoing some serious hardships you might expect in such a remote environ. Imagine an extended stay on tiny Isla Rasa (28 degrees 49’N, 112 degrees 59’W), a three hour boat ride from the nearest remote fishing village on the Baja Peninsula.

Part II finds Whitty aboard a small sailboat “Ceres” in Cape Saint Mary, Newfoundland to film a population of 10,000 breeding gannets and a multitude of other local fauna. Her illustrative prose makes you feel the cold wind at your face.

The book examines an inordinate number of species, many of which are cross referenced with their endangered status. This feature uniquely expresses the enormity of the prolonged effects of pollution and environmental damage upon indigenous species around the world, especially in the context of the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Many life science terms used in the book are annotated with their Latin roots, a nice touch.

I found Whitty’s intensely descriptive writing style to be both uplifting and fresh. Here’s a sample passage that is typical of Deep Blue Home [warning: you might need a dictionary on hand for this book].
A hard wind blows from the north. We list in our saddles, compensating. Much is in flight on the wind: the petals of orange poppies, bumblebees bouncing between the refugia of yellow cactus flowers, butterflies. We have no shelter, except in the haven of observation and in our leisurely pace – time enough to witness the ways the long eons have worn the youth from this landscape, worked it bones through at the joints, labored its muscles to sinew.
Part III takes place in the high desert mountains of Baja California’s remote Sierra de San Francisco. Whitty describes her excursion with guide Juan Carlos atop burros to explore the hundreds of “rockshelter” caves in the area. I found her narrative of the indigenous cave art, some of which is as old as 5,000 years, intriguing. I was excited to learn of one particular painting that depicted a “childlike sun” which turned out to be an account of the SN 1054, a supernova or “guest star” as Chinese astronomers called it. The remains of this core-colapse supernova are now called the Crab Nebula.

You might assume a book about natural settings of this extent would be loaded with photos of the author’s various destinations, but Deep Blue Home has none. I don’t see this as a negative however because Whitty’s verbal imagery is so vivid the book conjures up more than ample imagination from the reader.

I enjoyed Deep Blue Home for many of the same reasons I find other books of this genre so captivating. The stark images of pristine natural beauty coupled with the author’s instinctive ability to paint vibrant pictures with words are a winning combination. Deep Blue Home is a great choice for your summer reading list.