Wednesday Jan 16, 2008

Racine High School Sophomores discover Asteroid!

Comet Hale Bopp over racine

Congratulations to the students at Prairie High School in my home town of Racine Wisconsin for discovering an asteroid and having the opportunity giving their newly discovered asteroid "2008 AZ28" a nicer name. As far as I know, this is the first time an asteroid was discovered as part of a high school science project. Yeah I know, the photo above is of a comet. I took that photo of comet Hale-Bopp over a Racine county farm a few years back. Asteroids aren't quite as photogenic amidst the light pollution of the Chicago->Milwaukee sprawlopolis. Anyway, I suspect an asteroid is just a comet that's out of ice and out of gas.

Friday Nov 16, 2007

Comet 17PHolmes with Pentax \*IST-DL digital SLR normal lens


As an amateur astronomer with a limited budget, I normally wouldn't pay much attention to a 17th magnitude periodic comet. There are thousands of comets, asteroids and other bits of space dirt out there. Most are dimmer than the 16th magnitude which puts them far beyond the reach of my F5.6 Celestron 500mm Maksutov here on the outskirts of a light polluted city. But when on the night of October 23rd, one of those spaceballs named 17P Holmes conveniently brightened a million times to magnitude 2.5, suddenly it was worthwhile looking at.

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Thursday Dec 21, 2006

Calendar (book) and happy solstice!


During the days nearest the winter solstice, light shines between two buildings here at eastpoint, reflects off a pond and brightens up my office for a few minutes. At the same time, a few dozen miles north of here, the winter sunlight threads its way into the 5000 year old passage grave at Newgrange. The Newgrange alignment is almost certainly intentional, the eastpoint one is almost certainly an accident. But one thing we do share with our neolithic ancestors is a hope that the days don't continue to grow shorter. This year's winter solstice is shortly after midnight GMT on Friday December 22.

Did you ever wonder why Thirty days hath September, April, June...?" Why isn't September the seventh month, October the 8th month etc...?" Why are there 7 days in a week and why, in many languages their names seem to refer to planets and pagen gods? Why is the millenium always one year off? Why can't Christians agree on a day to celebrate Christmas? Why isn't the sun anywhere near your astrological "sun sign" constellation on your birthday? Was there really a year without a Christmas? Why does the unix command 'cal 9 1752' give the following output?1:

   September 1752
 S  M Tu  W Th  F  S
       1  2 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30
Many of these questions are answered in detail in David Ewing Duncan's book: "Calendar - Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year." 5000 years ago when Ireland's inhabitants built Newgrange, they had a fairly accurate way of measuring the winter day when the sun would stand still (solstice) and the days would stop becoming shorter. The Aztecs also had a complex calendar which attempted to compensate for the non-integer relationship between days, lunar months and years. The author goes into great detail on many aspects of the calendar. He explains how dogma, pride, war and other human failings eventually led to the kludge we accept as our calendar.

The author understandably glosses over many things. Newgrange/Knowth/Dowth (which together may form a winter solstice, summer solstice and equinox calendar) and similar neolithic astronomical devices could be the subject of another book. David gives just enough information on the astronomy behind the calendar without dwelling on it. I was almost surprised at the end of the book when he seemed unfamiliar with the workings of modern atomic clocks, but I shouldn't have been. David Ewing Duncan's area of expertise is history and specifically the history of this science. I would highly recommend this book. The book was written shortly before the embarassment2 we known as Y2k. It was also published before the U.S. delegation to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) proposed to abolish leap seconds and once again, unhitch human time from earth time. I hope everyone on the ITU committee has read this book. Knowing how much time and effort was involved in getting our calendar (mostly) right, I really don't think fear of mini Y2k bugs is sufficient reason for unwravelling this connection with the clockwork of the universe.


1The gnome panel calendar doesn't agree with the unix cal calendar for September 1752. I don't know if that's a GNOME bug or if GNOME decided to use an earlier date for adoption of the Gregorian calendar. Gnome clock 2.16.1 on my desktop crashes if I set the date before 1902 or after 2037. Here we go again!
2 Of course Y2K bugs were real. I know of one company which lost well over $100,000 in the early months of the year 2000 because a runaway process was continually making long distance phone calls. But I'm convinced that average software and business practices are so buggy that many Y2k bugs remaining after Dec 31, 1999, were "lost in the noise."

Monday Aug 28, 2006

Don't cry for pluto, cry for rote learning

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three quarters long... - Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Using the same logic, sometime before autumn in the year 2614, our solar system will be fresh out of planets. But I'm not concerned about the IAU's reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet. I'm more concerned that some educational systems are heavily focused on rote learning, and therefore quickly obsoleted. Fortunately, my childhood interest in the "stuff" out there never stopped at the end of the "My Very Easy..." or the articles in my 1959 World Book Encyclopedia claiming that "One day man may travel in space.". ROY.G.BIV doesn't encompass the colours of all rainbows and Renoirs and "Every Good Boy Does Fine" is only a stepping stone to Mozart. Likewise, Pluto was never the last planet (especially between 1979 and 1999). In the age before telescopes it was easy, a planet was a wandering star. The stars in a constellation stayed together, rising a few minutes earlier every night over the course of a year. But planets moved separately from this background and sometimes they moved in the opposite direction. IAU's categorization is useful but for the rest of us, other categories might be more useful:

  1. SEEUMS:Solar system objects which were known in antiquity and which we can see with our own eyes. That is, the Sun, moon, bright comets, mercury, venus, mars, jupiter and saturn. (though mercury, mars and saturn might not be noticed above the glare of a medium sized city.)
  2. UHOHS(or OH @$&\^#!):The 800+ known solar system objects which could hit the earth one day.
I recently read James Gleik's Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman from Sun Ireland's book club. This and Richard Feynman's own book: "Surely Your Joking Mr. Feynman" demonstrate that Feynman wasn't just a nobel prize winning quantum physicist, he was also gadfly to the U.S. education system. I love the part in "--Joking" where he sends a blank book through the textbook review process and it is voted "above average!" Feynman inherited his aversion to rote learning from his father:
"You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing, that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something." - Richard Feynman

So, rather than focusing on the names and IAU categorizations of the planets, shouldn't we encourage students to look at the night sky and see how it works? My daughter pointed out mars to me when she was two years old. She could recognize the bright reddish untwinking star which hovered over the glare of Pope John Paul school's insecurity lights. For northern hemisphere classrooms, september is ideal for astronomy. The cluttered dusty center of our galaxy is still visible early in the night and beautiful autumn asterisms such as the pleides are moving into the night sky. The angle of the sun is ideal for viewing artificial satellites, zodiacal light and aurora. My homework assignment would be that on the next clear night, turn off the T.V., put away the textbook for an hour before bedtime and find a dark place outside. Look for something you haven't seen before and try to discover as much as you can about it. We have allowed criminals, television and outdoor "security lights" to take away our night sky. Let's take it back.

...There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
- Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Sunday Apr 02, 2006

Eclipse Chasing (caught another!)

Total Solar Eclipse Mangavat Mar 29, 2006

My family and I just returned from a trip with the Irish Federation of Astronomical Societies (IAS) to Antalya Turkey to view the March 29, 2006 total eclipse of the sun. We're not the kind of dedicated eclipse chasers who travel to the center of the south pacific, arctic and antarctic regions or remote areas of siberia or sahara desert in order to see totality. But for us this rare sky event is a perfect excuse to visit a corner of the world we might not otherwise see, but which isn't too expensive or difficult to reach. We were rewarded with warm weather, friendly people, spectacular mountainous mediterranean scenery and well-preserved ancient cities. We also had clear skies over Manavgat for the total solar eclipse.

The above photo was a 1/8 second exposure at F2 taken with my broken Casio QV-4000. The missing lens element gives a distorted, but very wide view which shows the sky, eclipsed sun and the foreground.

We set up a play tent so that my daughter and her new friends could play together during the partial phases. Capturing a total solar eclipse on film is even more difficult than capturing a sunset, a rainbow or a dark starry sky. And most of us don't want to spend the short time of this rare event looking through a viewfinder or at an LCD screen. That's my excuse for why none of the totality photos I attempted look anything like what we saw. My wife took a couple of photos with her tiny Canon Powershot SD300 which look like text book photos of totality and the diamond ring.

It was an amazing experience. If you don't see us in Shanghai or southern Japan for the 2009 eclipse, look for us in southern Illinois or Eastern Oregon1 for the next contintental U.S. eclipse in 2017!

1 Currently eastern Oregon is semi-desert and southern Illinois/Missouri is typical midwestern "anything goes" weather, but with global warming kicking in, maybe it will be the reverse by 2017.

Update: University of Wisconsin-Madison's Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) put together a very clear Java animation of the eclipse as seen from Meteosat-8.

Update: Albert White, another Sun Ireland guy who is active with IFAS, was also at the Antalya solar eclipse expedition. He just posted his eclipse photos and a bit of audio. If a 1999 honeymoon in rainy Gerlingen Germany counts, this is my third total eclipse, Next time I'll leave it to Albert, my wife and my daughter to take the photos and I'll just look!

Wednesday Jan 25, 2006

Planning to see another total solar eclipse

On February 26, 1979, when my wife was a little girl, her grandmother took her on a Green Bay astronomy club expedition to see a total solar eclipse in Manitoba. I'd seen many partial eclipses and lunar eclipses since 1979, but I had never seen a total solar eclipse. None would touch the continental U.S. or nearby parts of Canada between 1979 and 2017. So when my wife saw that a total eclipse would touch the Carribean island of Antigua on February 26, 1998... she talked me into escaping Wisconsin winter for a few days. I'm glad I went because the difference between a total eclipse and a partial eclipse is at least as significant as the difference between night and day. Here is a scan of one of the slides. The volcano on the nearby island of Montserrat was smouldering. The moon's shadow moved quickly across the water between Montserrat and Antigua. In the blink of an eye, the light changed from an eerie yellow dull-sunlit day into the blueish glow of a moonlit winter night. The horizon glowed the color of Sunset in all directions and the bright planets mercury and jupiter stood on either side of the sun and venus shone closer to the horizon. These planets along with the eye-like Sun, stars and volcano made it seem as though we were on another planet. The crowd cheered and when the first rays of the Sun reemerged... the "diamond ring", I asked her to marry me. We were on our honeymoon in Germany during its last total eclipse, but the rain and clouds prevented us from seeing the spectacular sight we saw from Shirley Heights, Antigua. We hope to have clear skies for our trip to see the March 29th 2006 total solar eclipse. We will arrange it such that if the eclipse is clouded out, at least we will enjoy a vacation in an interesting (and warmer) part of the world.


Tuesday Sep 20, 2005

Weird bubble

I'm gradually eliminating some questions which have puzzled me since I was old enough to ask my dad (a science teacher), "How come?"

Q:Why is the sky blue?
A:Preferential Raleigh scattering of blue light.

Q:Why does an old neon night light only light up when another light illuminates it?
A:The photoelectric effect.

Q:How many volts are produced when road-salt induces corrosion of a 1969 rambler?
A:0.5 Volts. (I haven't yet found a practical use for this energy.)

Q:Why do some of my Northern light photos have rings in the center of the frame similar to the ones in this photo.

Here is a new one.
Q:When we purchased new bubble solution for my daughter's birthday party, why did this approximately 4 centimeter bubble last so long? (Her other bubble solution couldn't make a bubble that lasted long enough to leave the wand.)

Sometime during the following afternoon this bubble did eventually pop but who would have guessed it would last nearly 24 hours? Of course some people were predicting that this bubble would deflate nearly a decade ago.

Saturday Sep 10, 2005

Units of marketing hype vs efficiency

The Megahertz madness surrounding P.C. advertisements reminds me of the muscle car era and the fact that the 7.5 liter V8 engine in my '72 Buick produced almost exactly the same horsepower as the 2.5 liter 4-cylinder engine in a friend's German car.1 Liters and valves are popular hype units in U.S. auto industry advertisements. And CPU clock frequency is the primary hype unit of choice in the P.C. industry.2. The "more MHz is better" meme is even applied to other devices. Cordless phone and baby monitor advertisements often imply that 3 GHz gives you twice the range of 1.5GHz. The flaw in this assumption can be illustrated by DVD remote controls, IrDA and InfraRed headphones which operate at 400THz, much furthur up the electromagnetic spectrum, but which have a range of only a few meters.

The April fools day issue of a 1970s electronics magazine once parodied a HiFi stereo advertisement. "500 Watts!" was the blurb and in small print was (drawn from house wiring.) The photo was of a WWII vintage vacuum tube radio which may have drawn 500W. A couple of decades later it isn't a joke. Vacuum cleaners are promoted based on the number of amps they consume...not how well they suck.3 Which reminds me, why are light bulbs sold based on the number of watts they consume and not the amount of light they put out? While I'm on the topic of misguiding "marketing units", what is this megapixel madness? My wife's 2.1 megapixel camera took better photos than a 4.1 megapixel replacement. Anyone who has been in the computer industry for a few years has seen some funnny math applied with hype numbers. USB devices were promoted using Megabits per second rather than Megabytes per second, (Mbps vs MBps). The factor of 8 difference made USB 1 appear faster than SCSI when it was actually considerably slower. Similar strange math was applied in the days of modems, baud vs bps. And somewhere along the way, a "K" of memory became a "k" and lost 24 bytes (2.3%). Which would you prefer, a pair of noise-cancelling headphones which can reduce ambient noise by 70% or a pair which reduces noise by 10dB?4

My hype unit pet peeve is related to my personal interest in astronomy. Department store christmas catalogues advertise 475X and 675X telescopes. What's an X? Unless the telescope happens to be the inconvenient size of the one in Birr (see image above), the X's are a figment of the advertiser's imagination. The 50 foot tube and 72" mirror of the Birr Leviathan were said to be capable of 650X magnification without being overwhelmed by diffraction, aberration, atmospheric turbulence and light loss. Sorry the 60mm department store scopes can't be pushed to that magnification, no matter what the box says!5

Does anyone remember the VHS vs Beta "head wars", when a 9 head VCR was a status symbol? The fact that Betamax VCR's required fewer heads to do the same job was lost in the marketing mumbo-jumbo. Two heads is always better than one, right? Early CD players advertised increasing number of bits in their DACs until someone figured out how to do 1-bit oversampling and then they all boasted 1-bit DACs! One of my favorite examples of marketing madness came from a popular electronics article in 1970s. Transistor radios often had 10 Transistors! proudly emblazoned on the plastic case. But when popular electronics opened up one of these radios, they found that some of the transistors weren't connected to anything. Were the dummy transistors installed to prevent the hype from being an outright lie? I guess so, but it does make me wonder if every Hz of a 2.5 GHz PC is doing its job. I hope schools are still teaching long division so future consumers can calculate (cool stuff) per (resource.) I'm looking forward to the day when efficiency is reintroduced as a marketing concept.

1Most Irish car engines are 1.6 liters or less, but the performance seems similar to that of 3 liter cars in the U.S. (sometimes they are driven as though they were 7.5 liter cars.) My $200 Buick is long gone, it was said to have been capable of passing everything on the road.. except for a gas station.

2One Sun research lab is working on faster and more efficient computers which don't use a clock at all. Imagine telling your friends that you have a 0MHz cpu!

3The physics major in me would like to see Torr, Bar or Pascal in the marketing blurb for a vacuum cleaner. (How about Torr per Watt?)

4A 10dB reduction in noise level is the same as a 70% reduction.

5The good news is that with a well-made telescope you can see the rings of saturn, the clouds and Galilean moons of jupiter and the craters and mountains of the moon at less than 50X. And you can see thousands of stars in the milky way, nebulas at the center of our galaxy and a neighbor galaxy more than 2 million light years 1X, with only your eyes, a map, and a clear, dark night sky.

Monday Jan 10, 2005

Accidental Comet Macholz photo

After about 4000 photos including Christmas 2004, the front "zoom" lens element of my Casio QV-4000 digital camera became unseated from the body. The remaining lens parts only allowed ultra-wide angle shots. The replacement, a Sony DSC-V3, is much faster at capturing the fast moving emotions of our toddler. Shortly after I took the first astro photo with my new digital camera, I learned that Comet Macholz was near the Pleiades and should appear within my photo. Yes, a dim and barely visible fuzzy spot appeared in the photo. The comet hunter who found this when it was much dimmer and lost in a sea of stars must have amazingly good eyesight, knowledge of the sky and a dark viewing site. I tried some experimental photos with the broken QV-4000 because its F2.0 lens and 60 second exposures were more suitable for astrophotography. Here is a 60 second exposure at F2.0 The comet is the first bright blob below and to the right of the Pleiades "microdipper", towards the bottom of the picture: Comet Macholz Pleiades in Japanese is "Suburu." If you look at the Suburu logo, you'll see this mini constellation (asterism). We finished 2004 with a short, brisk sail on the Irish Sea on December 31. The wide angle view of the broken camera caught the Sunset along with the fact that it was too windy to put up more than a small jib. Later that night the boat's owner showed me the output of his windfarm quickly rise towards a megawatt per turbine. Winter is here.Sail 12/31/04

Wednesday Jul 21, 2004

Hawking, time and the destruction of misinformation

Stephen Hawking is presenting a paper here in Dublin this week which appears to contradict his earlier theory (and bet) that information is ultimately destroyed in a black hole. I have supporting experimental evidence which I will present later. I only understand about half what I know about quantum physics, but I always found it interesting that energy, mass and information were related. Quantum mirroring is, as Einstein described, "spooky", but apparently real enough to use in practical encryption devices. The only thing I can glean from Hawking's abstract is that in the "simplified" math used in his earlier papers the event horizon exists from some frame of reference, but in the real space it never really catches up with itself. Pretty cool eh?

Experimental Evidence
Shortly after I posted last night's rant about Write Only Memory, my posting disappeared into the aether. Roller appears to have a timezone bug which couldn't handle the fact that it was after midnight here, but before midnight where the server lives. Roller couldn't handle articles being updated before they are created so the article disappeared. When time caught up with itself, it reappeared. This experimental evidence shows either that information\* is indestructable or that bugs are very persistant. Somewhat related is the fact that several airline web pages offered flights on February 30th, 2004 but not on March 1st, 2004. Didn't we all go over this date related code a couple of years ago?

\*The term "information" here is used very loosely. Any actual information in this article was immediately archived on Signetics Write Only Memory The remainder of the article is simply a special case of the output of the script:
cat /dev/random | strings | grep "For being ignorant to whom it goes I writ at random, very doubtfully"
(don't try this on a thin client)

Tuesday Jun 08, 2004


My clock radio woke me this morning with the newscaster's reassurance that "After 12:38 it will be again safe to gaze skyword."  He was referring to the transit of venus, and seemed to imply that it is safe to stare at the sun when venus isn't blocking a tiny percentage its light.  I guess you can't believe everything you hear. My wife and I set up a telescope in the garden to project the image of the sun on a pizza box.  We watched the tiny dark spot of venus move across the face of the sun, we also watched with our eclipse shades and captured a few frames with a mylar filtered digital video camera: 
Venus moves across sun I wonder if there is any useful symbolism there for future headline writers? Someday I need to collect all of the cliche headlines about Sun, "Sun sets, Sun eclipsed, Sun dims, clouded outlook for Sun, Sun may rise again." I should have been a sports writer.

Clouds moved across the face of the heavenly sun a few minutes after our pizza box experiment. Ireland isn't an ideal location for astronomy, but astronomy and the sciences helped spark my interest in Sun Microsystems which is how I ended up in Ireland. I majored in instrumentation physics and always enjoyed the application of computer systems and software to the sciences.  I work for Sun's desktop group, providing solutions to customers and providing communication from customers back to desktop engineers. I'm currently working on the Java Desktop System. My everyday desktop is GNOME 2.0 on Solaris[tm] SunRay[tm] But I also use JDS on a laptop and am testing an early build of JDS on Solaris 10 beta. It took a few days to get over the glitches, Ghee mentioned some issues that only became obvious when GNOME components were ported to Solaris. I'm using a new tool called dtrace to try to find areas of inefficient code. I'll let you know what I find.



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