Thursday, May 27, 2010

Its Galactic Center Season!

With the arrival of the spring and summer months, most people look forward to vacation time, outdoor sports, spending quality time at the beach (for us So Cal SLBers), and any one of a plethora of other fun activities. For others, like some astronomical researchers I know, this time of year means it is Galactic Center observing season.

From the northern hemisphere, the best time for observing the core of our Milky Way is during the summer months, so this means that researchers who train their telescope at the Galactic Center are typically hard at work during this time of year.

Take the UCLA Galactic Center Group for example. Black hole hunter Andrea Ghez heads up one of the foremost groups for Galactic Center research. The team just celebrated “opening night” of the Galactic Center observing season with their first scheduled observations of the area surrounding the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole (the central parsec) using the Keck II 10-meter telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii. The results were spectacular, and they collected what Professor Ghez described as “an unbelievably good set of data.” Data collected during Keck observing sessions are food for researchers for months, even years into the future. So a truly robust set of data is sort of the holy grail of astronomical observation.

Fortunately, the members of the group can utilize the Keck telescope from the comfort of a nice remote observing room right on the UCLA campus. This saves the long trip to the Big Island and allows for a more streamlined observing process, not to mention being easy on the grant budget. From the remote room, the researchers work closely with telescope operators physically at the Mauna Kea summit via a real-time video conferencing system. Based on the season, and physical location of the telescope, the researcher’s telescope time is necessarily scheduled for the wee hours of the morning. Much devotion is needed to carry out these work hours, but in my estimation this is a small price to pay for seriously contributing to the advancement of our understanding of the universe.

[Shown in the inset photo are members of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, from left to right are: Professor Mark Morris, Sylvana Yelda, Jessica Lu, Tuan Do, and Professor Andrea Ghez.]

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hey Laser: Happy Birthday!

To help celebrate the laser’s fiftieth anniversary (hard to believe the laser is only 50 years young) the American Physical Society’s (APS) outreach department is holding a video contest with a $1,000 grand prize for the winning video. Each video is around 2 minutes in length and somehow uses lasers to demonstrate physics concepts. The contest is open to anyone who wants to participate. Entrants range from elementary school students to national laboratories.

To view the submissions, just go to Youtube and use the search term “Laserfest”. Starting May 24, 2010 you can place your votes for the best video. The winners will be announced on May 31.

Have some fun and place you vote at - Many of the videos are quite entertaining and educational, good for the entire family.

[Inset video is a sample submission. I chose this one because it demonstrates the concept of interference which is very pertinent to my area of research, gravitational wave detectors. If you like Sinatra, you'll enjoy this video!]

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Looking Forward to Retirement – Think Math!

The Physics Groupie is always on the look-out for enthusiasm for mathematics and science during daily travels about town. My eagle eye for science and my sixth sense for math when it’s happening took a step forward the other day at one of my favorite Starbucks near the Caltech campus. I was sitting at one of those new communal tables enjoying my favorite drink, an iced Americano with an extra shot. I noticed a gentleman sitting across the table from me who had a stack of math books piled up. I’m a real bloodhound when it comes to math books.

The book on top looked very familiar – Road to Reality by Roger Penrose. That book is one of my all-time favorites because it touches on just about every important area of mathematics that physicists need for work in a wide field of disciplines. The book is a good launch pad for drilling down into so many areas. He also had an old Schaum’s Outline book on tensor calculus (a requirement for general relativity).

My interest was piqued so I had to talk to this fellow and find out more. His name was “Jim” and he was a retired engineer who had the time now to “find out how things work” so he was exercising his brain by learning a variety of areas of mathematics and physics. This pursuit sounded all too familiar, and it was music to the Physics Groupie’s ears to find another kindred soul.

We chatted for a short while and compared notes about math, physics, astronomy, and the pursuit of science. He said that some people mistake him for a Caltech professor, but no, he’s just a math enthusiast that sits at a Starbucks near one of the biggest bastions of science in the world – Caltech. I can empathize with wanting to be near greatness when trying to figure out how the universe works.

I’ve always thought that using mathematics as a vehicle for keeping the mind young as we age is a sensible life plan. Jim seemed to understand this simple axiom very well. As I had to run off to an evening lecture sponsored by The Carnegie Observatories on dwarf galaxies, I bade Jim a farewell as he continued to pour over his math books, writing notes in the margins. It was a sight to behold.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Astronomer Poet

Science and the creative arts don’t always mix well. When I was an undergrad at UCLA, I recall the campus being divided into “North Campus” and South Campus.” The north was for those who studied the arts, literature, philosophy and the south was reserved for the engineers, the mathematicians and the physicists. The DMZ was around Powell Library, and crossing the line of demarcation made me queasy. It goes without saying, I was a denizen of the south and I always felt like I was traveling into a foreign land when I had to attend a class outside my major up in North Campus. There was this uneasy feeling walking through the shaded paths between the old brick buildings where people thought in terms of poetry instead of equations.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. As I mellowed with age, I learned to appreciate the finer, less objective areas of study. That is why I particularly enjoyed finding Robert Eklund’s website for his book of astro-poems and short essays – “First Star I See Tonight – An Exploration of Wonder.”

Bob proves to me that a science enthusiast (he is a docent at the Mt. Wilson Observatory) also can be sensitive and soul-reaching with his prose. Take the following poem for example that Bob graciously allowed me to reproduce for the SLB. “That poem, ‘First Star,’ is a very special one to me and I use it as the frontispiece in the book. I wrote it in Boulder, Colorado in 1960 for my mother just before she passed on. The ‘mountains’ referred to there are the front range of the Rockies, at the edge of Boulder,” says Eklund about his motivation for the piece.


     The evening burns,
     The dark earth turns,

     The mountains loom against the sky;

     One star looks down
     To bless the town,
     While sunset clouds sail grandly by.

     And if the light
     Of noon's delight
     Moves on, and leaves us where we are,

     The darkest night
     But aids our sight—
     The better to reveal the star.

     — Robert L. Eklund

I believe that a coupling of science and the arts is a pleasing example of complementary disciplines and enjoying astronomy motivated poems like Bob’s can assuage attitudes sometimes associated with the hard sciences.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

SLB Follower Profile: Karla Sachi

[This mini-essay is the first in a series of sketches about Science Lifestyle Blog readers (SLBers) who contact me to tell me about their own life in mathematics and science.]

What do the Science Lifestyle Blog and an ex-Playboy model/surfer girl have in common? Seemingly not much, but I was pleasantly surprised to get a plea for help the other day from Karla Sachi who contacted the Physics Groupie from her home “on a little coffee farm in South Kona” on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Apparently Karla has been obsessed for over 20 years with mathematical “curves” of a very specific formation. After a few e-mail discussions, I found out that the curves she has been scribbling all those years were none other than Lissajous curves, the same ones that we science kids used to play with on oscilloscopes when I was growing up. The parametric equations describing Lissajous curves are fairly well known as in the following:

Lissajous curves are also quite useful for space missions as many recent spacecrafts are in “Lissajous orbits.” Take for example the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Telescope that launched on May 14, 2009 which is currently in a Lissajous orbit about the second Lagrange point of the Sun-Earth system (L2). The illustrious WMAP mission that measured the cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang also used a Lissajous orbit.

Sachi came to the Physics Groupie in a state of desperation, “I've got a conundrum, I can't find a mathematician anywhere! I was one of those bright girls who was misdirected--and fled for the beach instead of academia--ended up in Playboy and became a Malibu surfer, hippie, artist and did a lot of traveling, kicking the Hollywood sleaze and spot light in the shins. I have forever had this obsession with a series of curves. I don't have the math chops … so I've asked around and haven't run into anyone with math skills who understands anything. I searched and finally have become exasperated enough to ask a Physics Groupie,” she said.

Well Karla came to the right place since I love math and astrophysics so I conveyed that Lissajous curves (and orbits) aren’t that far-fetched but are in fact quite commonplace. I hope Karla continues to dream math dreams. It is a pleasing way to relax!

Friday, May 7, 2010

The UCLA Infrared Lab

I recently attended an intimate gathering that featured a tour of the UCLA Infrared Lab. We were treated to a private overview of the lab’s current research by Professor Ian McLean who heads up the lab. I had the opportunity to see first-hand the manner in which the researchers work on some very cutting-edge technology. Take for example the work-in-progress Gemini Planet Imager (see inset photo), a near-infrared AO coronographic high contrast imaging system designed for detection of extra-solar planets. The camera is scheduled for delivery this year to the Gemini South Telescope on the summit of Cerro Pachon in Chile.

Later in the evening Dr. McLean delivered an excellent talk entitled “Lifting the Cosmic Veil: The Story of the Infrared Lab Group.” I learned a lot from this in-depth treatment of the history of infrared astronomy and the UCLA group’s significant contributions. I found out that the group built a number of important infrared devices for the Keck Observatory such as NIRSPEC, NIRC2, OSIRIS, and is working on the MOSFIRE spectrometer and FLITECAM for the SOFIA in-flight telescope mission. The group also plans to construct the IRIS infrared imaging spectrograph for the upcoming Thirty Meter Telescope project.

After McLean’s talk, UCLA’s Dean of Physical Sciences, Joseph Rudnick gave a very encouraging summary of the accomplishments of the infrared group and its high stature today, as well as the university’s desire to maintain their leading position.

During the reception that followed I had a chance to talk at length with Professor McLean to get a closer view of his group’s research. I gleaned much from this discussion and I walked away with the feeling that I will closely follow the group’s research directions in the future.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Physics Groupie on Twitter

For those of you out there that would like to follow the adventures of the Physics Groupie a tad bit closer, please feel free to follow me on: Physics Groupie Tweets. There are many things I do related to science that don’t warrant a full post here on the SLB, so I’ll just Tweet them out to anyone that is interested. I will keep the Tweets pertinent to the cause and provide interesting links where appropriate. Have fun!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

In the Arena – Calling All Scientists

It was a different time, a hundred years ago when former President Theodore Roosevelt strode into the Sorbonne in Paris to deliver his “Citizen in a Republic” speech which has become widely known as the "Man in the Arena" speech. His remarks were a call to action reflecting on what he believed were the duties associated with someone living in a democracy. [I’ve included the unforgettable passage below for your encouragement.]

Teddy’s words are as inspiring today as they were a century ago, but I look at them in a different way. I look at them as a call to action for all those armchair scientists out there, reading about science, attending lectures, and maybe evening dreaming about making a discovery one day. Why not actually climb into the arena? Why not decide to do some real science? Get your face marred with dust.

As I’ve conveyed over and over again here on the SLB, you have many paths at your disposal to make a real contribution (yes, small contributions are worthwhile too). It could be something simple like participating in Galaxy Zoo to classify galaxies, or hunt for supernovae. You could turn to amateur astronomy and locate comets, celestial events (recall the amateur who first noticed the stupendous Jupiter impact last year), or even discover a new exoplanet. At the very least you could run a BOINC screen saver and play a role in a global science computation project. You have a lot of options to “feel the triumph of high achievement.” Do real science now!

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and short coming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never by with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”