Shallow Thoughts : tags : science

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 28 May 2022

Monday night: Tau Herculid Meteor Shower, Possible Storm

There's some talk that a usually obscure meteor shower, the Tau Herculids, may this year become a meteor storm.

For details, see EarthSky News: Will the Tau Herculid meteors produce a storm?

The Tau Herculids come from periodic Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, which in 1995, began to break up, creating lots of debris scattered across its orbit. It's hard to know exactly where the fragments ended up ... but comet experts like Don Machholz think there's a good chance that we'll be passing through an unusually dense clump of particles when we cross 73P's orbit this year.

I'm not a big meteor watcher — I find most meteor showers distinctly underwhelming. But in November 2002, I was lucky enough to view the Leonid meteor storm from Fremont Peak, near San Juan Bautista, CA.

Read more ...

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[ 17:42 May 28, 2022    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 07 Mar 2022

The Sun is Spectacular Today in H-Alpha

[Sun in h-alpha on 2222-03-07] A couple of years ago, Dave and I acquired an H-alpha solar scope.

Neither of us had been much of a solar observer. We'd only had white-light filters: filters you put over the front of a regular telescope to block out most of the sun's light so you can see sunspots.

H-alpha filters are a whole different beast: you can see prominences, those huge arcs of fire that reach out into space for tens of thousands of miles, many times the size of the Earth. And you can also see all sorts of interesting flares and granulation on the surface of the sun, something only barely hinted at in white-light images.

Read more ...

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[ 12:00 Mar 07, 2022    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 06 Jun 2021

Fiddling with JavaScript Astronomy: ThreeWorlds

[analemma webapp] I have another PEEC Planetarium talk coming up in a few weeks, a talk on the summer solstice co-presenting with Chick Keller on Fri, Jun 18 at 7pm MDT.

I'm letting Chick do most of the talking about archaeoastronomy since he knows a lot more about it than I do, while I'll be talking about the celestial dynamics -- what is a solstice, what is the sun doing in our sky and why would you care, and some weirdnesses relating to sunrise and sunset times and the length of the day. And of course I'll be talking about the analemma, because just try to stop me talking about analemmas whenever the topic of the sun's motion comes up.

But besides the analemma, I need a lot of graphics of the earth showing the terminator, the dividing line between day and night.

Read more ...

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[ 18:33 Jun 06, 2021    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 25 Jul 2020

S is for Starlink Satellites

[Comet Neowise and Starlink Satellites] Monday was the last night it's been clear enough to see Comet Neowise. I shot some photos with the Rebel, but I haven't quite figured out the alignment and stacking needed for decent astrophotos, so I don't have much to show. I can't even see the ion tail.

The interesting thing about Monday besides just getting to see the comet was the never-ending train of satellites.

Read more ...

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[ 20:27 Jul 25, 2020    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 16 Jul 2020

Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE in the evening sky

[Comet C2020 F3 NEOWISE the morning of 2020-07-16 from White Rock, NM] Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE continues to improve, and as of Tuesday night it has moved into the evening sky (while also still being visible in the morning for a few more days).

I caught it Tuesday night at 9:30 pm. The sky was still a bit bright, and although the comet was easy in binoculars, it was a struggle to see it with the unaided eye. However, over the next fifteen minutes the sky darkened, and it looked pretty good by 9:50, considering the partly cloudy sky. I didn't attempt a photograph; this photo is from Sunday morning, in twilight and with a bright moon.

Read more ...

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[ 12:58 Jul 16, 2020    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 11 Jul 2020

Comet C2020 F3 NEOWISE in the Morning (and eventually, the evening)

[Comet C2020F3 NEOWISE over California desert landscape, by Dbot3000]
Comet C2020F3 NEOWISE over California desert landscape. Photo by Dbot3000

I've learned not to get excited when I read about a new comet. They're so often a disappointment. That goes double for comets in the morning sky: I need a darned good reason to get up before dawn.

But the chatter among astronomers about the current comet, C2020 F3 NEOWISE, has been different. So when I found myself awake at 4 am, I grabbed some binoculars and went out on the deck to look.

And I was glad I did. NEOWISE is by far the best comet I've seen since Hale-Bopp. Which is not to say it's in Hale-Bopp's class -- certainly not. But it's easily visible to the unaided eye, with a substantial several-degree-long tail. Even in dawn twilight. Even with a bright moon. It's beautiful!

Update: the morning after I wrote that, I did get a photo, though it's not nearly as good as Dbot3000's that's shown here.

Read more ...

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[ 18:18 Jul 11, 2020    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 01 Mar 2020

Plotting Epicycles

Galen Gisler, our master of Planetarium Tricks, presented something strange and cool in his planetarium show last Friday.

[inner planet orbits from north ecliptic pole, with Venus pentagram] He'd been looking for a way to visualize the "Venus Pentagram", a regularity where Venus' inferior conjunctions -- the point where Venus is approximately between Earth and the Sun -- follow a cycle of five. If you plot the conjunction positions, you'll see a pentagram, and the sixth conjunction will be almost (but not quite) in the same place where the first one was. Supposedly many ancient civilizations supposedly knew about this pattern, though as Galen noted (and I'd also noticed when researching my Stonehenge talk), the evidence is sometimes spotty.

Galen's latest trick: he moved the planetarium's observer location up above the Earth's north ecliptic pole. Then he told the planetarium to looked back at the Earth and lock the observer's position so it moves along with the Earth; then he let the planets move in fast-forward, leaving trails so their motions were plotted.

The result was fascinating to watch. You could see the Venus pentagram easily as it made its five loops toward Earth, and the loops of all the other planets as their distance from Earth changed over the course of both Earth's orbits and theirs.

You can see the patterns they make at right, with the Venus pentagram marked (click on the image for a larger version). Venus' orbit is white, Mercury is yellow, Mars is red. If you're wondering why Venus' orbit seems to go inside Mercury's, remember: this is a geocentric model, so it's plotting distance from Earth, and Venus gets both closer to and farther from Earth than Mercury does.

He said he'd shown this to the high school astronomy club and their reaction was, "My, this is complicated." Indeed. It gives insight into what a difficult problem geocentric astronomers had in trying to model planetary motion, with their epicycles and other corrections.

Of course that made me want one of my own. It's neat to watch it in the planetarium, but you can't do that every day.

So: Python, Gtk/Cairo, and PyEphem. It's pretty simple, really. The goal is to plot planet positions as viewed from high above the north ecliptic pole: so for each time step, for each planet, compute its right ascension and distance (declination doesn't matter) and convert that to rectangular coordinates. Then draw a colored line from the planet's last X, Y position to the new one. Save all the coordinates in case the window needs to redraw.

[planet orbits from north ecliptic pole] At first I tried using Skyfield, the Python library which is supposed to replace PyEphem (written by the same author). But Skyfield, while it's probably more accurate, is much harder to use than PyEphem. It uses SPICE kernels (my blog post on SPICE, some SPICE examples and notes), which means there's no clear documentation or list of which kernels cover what. I tried the kernels mentioned in the Skyfield documentation, and after running for a while the program died with an error saying its model for Jupiter in the de421.bsp kernel wasn't good beyond 2471184.5 (October 9 2053).

Rather than spend half a day searching for other SPICE kernels, I gave up on Skyfield and rewrote the program to use PyEphem, which worked beautifully and amazed me with how much faster it was: I had to rewrite my GTK code to use a timer just to slow it down to where I could see the orbits as they developed!

It's fun to watch; maybe not quite as spacey as Galen's full-dome view in the planetarium, but a lot more convenient. You need Python 3, PyEphem and the usual GTK3 introspection modules; on Debian-based systems I think the python3-gi-cairo package will pull in most of them as dependencies.

Plot your own epicycles:

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[ 13:04 Mar 01, 2020    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 10 Dec 2019

Planetarium Show Friday: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Moon

[Schroter's Valley on the Moon] This Friday, Dave and I will be presenting a planetarium show called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Moon: Visit the Moon Without Leaving Your Home Planet.

I'm jazzed about this show. I think it'll be the most fun planetarium show we've given so far. We'll be showing a variety of lunarfeatures: maria, craters, mountains, rilles, domes, catenae and more. For each one, we'll discuss what the feature actually is and how it was created, where to see good examples on the moon, and -- the important part -- where you can go on Earth, and specifically in the Western US, to see a similar feature up close.

Plus: a short flyover of some of the major features using the full-dome planetarium. Some features, like Tycho, the Straight Wall, Reiner Gamma, plus lots of rilles, look really great in the planetarium.

If you can't get to the moon yourself, this is the next best thing!

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Moon: 7pm at the PEEC nature center. Admission is free. Come find out how to explore the moon without leaving your home planet!

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[ 18:06 Dec 10, 2019    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 11 Nov 2019

Mercury Transit: Comparing Between H-alpha and White Light

[Mercury transit 11/11/2019] The Mercury transit is over. But we learned some interesting things.

I'd seen Mercury transits before, but this is the first time we had an H-alpha scope (a little 50mm Coronado PST) in addition to a white light filter (I had my 102mm refractor set up with the Orion white-light filter).

As egress approached, Dave was viewing in the H-alpha while I was on the white light scope. When I saw the black-drop effect at third contact, Mercury was still nowhere near the edge in the H-alpha: the H-alpha shows more of the solar atmosphere so the sun's image is noticably bigger. This was the point when we realized that we should have expected this and been timing and recording. Alas, it was too late.

Mercury was roughly 60% out in the white light filter -- just past the point where the "bite" it made in the limb of the sun -- by the time Dave called out third contact. We guessed it was roughly a minute, but that could be way off.

For fourth contact, Dave counted roughly 45 seconds between when I couldn't see Mercury any more and when he lost track of it. This is pretty rough, because it was windy, seeing was terrible and there was at least a 15-second slop when I wasn't sure if I could any indentation in the limb; I'm sure it was at least as hard in the Coronado, which was running at much lower magnification.

So we had a chance to do interesting science and we flubbed it. And the next chance isn't til 2032; who knows if we'll still be actively observing then.

I wanted to at least correlate those two numbers: 45 seconds and 60% of a Mercury radius.

Mercury is about 10" (arcseconds) right now. That was easy to find. But how fast does it move? I couldn't find anything about that, searching for terms like mercury transit angular speed OR velocity. I tried to calculate it with PyEphem but got a number that was orders of magnitude off. Maybe I'll figure it out for a later article, but I wanted to get this posted quickly.

[Mercury transit 11/11/2019 in H-alpha] I didn't spend much time trying photography. I got a couple afocal snaps with my pocket digital camera through the white-light scope that worked out pretty well. I wasn't sure that would work for the Coronado: the image is fairly dim. The snaps I did get show Mercury, though none of the interesting detail like faculae and the one tiny prominence that was visible. But the interesting thing is the color. To the eye, the H-alpha scope image is a slightly orangy red, but in the digital camera it came out a startling purplish pink. This may be due to the digital camera's filters passing some IR, confusing the algorithms that decide how to shift the color. Of course, I could have adjusted the color in GIMP back to the real color, but I thought it was more interesting to leave it the hue it came out of the camera. (I did boost contrast and run an unsharp mask filter, to make it easier to see Mercury.)

Anyway, fun and unexpectedly edifying! I wish we had another transit happening sooner than 2032.

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[ 12:15 Nov 11, 2019    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 08 Nov 2019

Mercury Transit Next Monday

[Mercury Transit 2006, photo by Brocken Inaglory]
Mercury Transit 2006, photo by Brocken Inaglory
Next Monday, November 11, is a transit of Mercury across the sun.

Mercury transits aren't super rare -- not once- or twice-in-a-lifetime events like Venus transits -- but they're not that common, either. The last Mercury transit was in 2016; the next one won't happen til 2032.

This year's transit isn't ideal for US observers. The transit will already be well underway by the time the sun rises, at least in the western US. Here in New Mexico (Mountain time), the sun rises with Mercury transiting, and the transit lasts until 11:04 MST. Everybody else, check timeanddate's Mercury Transit page for your local times.

Mercury is small, unfortunately, so it's not an easy thing to see without magnification. Of course, you know that you should never look at the sun without an adequate filter. But even if you have safe "eclipse glasses", it may be tough to spot Mercury's small disk against the surface of the sun.

[binocular projection of a solar eclipse] One option is to take some binoculars and use them to project an image. Point the big end of the binoculars at the sun, and the small end at a white surface, preferably leaning so it's perpendicular to the sun. I don't know if binocular projection will give a big enough image to show Mercury, so a very smooth and white background, tilted so it's perpendicular to the sun, will help. (Don't be tempted to stick eclipse glasses in front of a binocular or telescope and look through the eyepiece! Stick to projection unless you have filters specifically intended for telescopes or binoculars.)

Of course, a telescope with a safe solar filter is the best way to see a transit. If you're in the Los Alamos area, I hear the Pajarito Astronomers are planning to set up telescopes at Overlook Park. They don't seem to have announced it in any of the papers yet, but I see it listed on the Pajarito Astronomers website. There's also an event planned at the high school where the students will be trying to time Mercury's passage, but I don't know if that's open to the public. Elsewhere in the world, check with your local astronomy club for Mercury transit parties: I'm sure most clubs have something planned.

I was discussing the transit with a couple of local astronomers earlier this week, and one of them related it to the search for exoplanets. One of the main methods of detecting exoplanets is to measure the dimming of a star's light as a planet crosses its face. For instance, in 55 Cancri e, you can see a dimming as the planet crosses the star's face, and a much more subtle dimming when the planet disappears behind the star. As Mercury crosses the Sun's face, it blocks some of the sun's light in the same way. By how much?

The radius of Mercury is 0.0035068 solar radii, and the dimming is proportional to area so it should be 0.00350682, or 0.0000123, a 0.00123% dimming. Not very much!

But it looks like in the 55 Cancri e case, they're detecting dips of around .001% -- it seems amazing that you could detect a planet as small as Mercury this way (and certainly the planet is much bigger in the case of 55 Cancri e) ... but maybe it's possible.

Anyway, it's fun to think about exoplanets as you watch tiny Mercury make its way across the face of the Sun. Wherever you are, I hope you get a chance to look!

Update: A report from the transit: Mercury Transit: Comparing Between H-alpha and White Light.

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[ 11:36 Nov 08, 2019    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 12 Oct 2017

Letter to the New Mexico Public Education Department on Science Standards

For those who haven't already read about the issue in the national press, New Mexico's Public Education Department (a body appointed by the governor) has a proposal regarding new science standards for all state schools. The proposal starts with the national Next Generation Science Standards but then makes modifications, omitting points like references to evolution and embryological development or the age of the Earth and adding a slew of NM-specific standards that are mostly sociological rather than scientific.

You can read more background in the Mother Jones article, New Mexico Doesn’t Want Your Kids to Know How Old the Earth Is. Or why it’s getting warmer, including links to the proposed standards. Ars Technica also covered it: Proposed New Mexico science standards edit out basic facts.

New Mexico residents have until 5.p.m. next Monday, October 16, to speak out about the proposal. Email comments to or send snail mail (it must arrive by Monday) to Jamie Gonzales, Policy Division, New Mexico Public Education Department, Room 101, 300 Don Gaspar Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501.

A few excellent letters people have already written:

I'm sure they said it better than I can. But every voice counts -- they'll be counting letters! So here's my letter. If you live in New Mexico, please send your own. It doesn't have to be long: the important thing is that you begin by stating your position on the proposed standards.

Members of the PED:

Please reconsider the proposed New Mexico STEM-Ready Science Standards, and instead, adopt the nationwide Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for New Mexico.

With New Mexico schools ranking at the bottom in every national education comparison, and with New Mexico hurting for jobs and having trouble attracting technology companies to our state, we need our students learning rigorous, established science.

The NGSS represents the work of people in 26 states, and is being used without change in 18 states already. It's been well vetted, and there are many lesson plans, textbooks, tests and other educational materials available for it.

The New Mexico Legislature supports NGSS: they passed House Bill 211 in 2017 (vetoed by Governor Martinez) requiring adoption of the NGSS. The PED's own Math and Science Advisory Council (MSAC) supports NGSS: they recommended in 2015 that it be adopted. Why has the PED ignored the legislature and its own advisory council?

Using the NGSS without New Mexico changes will save New Mexico money. The NGSS is freely available. Open source textbooks and lesson plans are already available for the NGSS, and more are coming. In contrast, the New Mexico Stem-Ready standards would be unique to New Mexico: not only would we be left out of free nationwide educational materials, but we'd have to pay to develop New Mexico-specific curricula and textbooks that couldn't be used anywhere else, and the resulting textbooks would cost far more than standard texts. Most of this money would go to publishers in other states.

New Mexico consistently ranks at the bottom in educational comparisons. Yet nearly 15% of the PED's proposed stem-ready standards are New Mexico specific standards, taught nowhere else, and will take time away from teaching core science concepts. Where is the evidence that our state standards would be better than what is taught in other states? Who are we to think we can write better standards than a nationwide coalition?

In addition, some of the changes in the proposed NM STEM-Ready Science Standards seem to be motivated by political ideology, not science. Science standards used in our schools should be based on widely accepted scientific principles. Not to mention that the national coverage on this issue is making our state a laughingstock.

Finally, the lack of transparency in the NMSRSS proposal is alarming. Who came up with the proposed NMSRSS standards? Are there any experts in science education that support them? Is there any data to indicate they'd be more effective than the NGSS? Why wasn't the development of the NMSRSS discussed in open PED meetings as required by the Open Meetings Act?

The NGSS are an established, well regarded national standard. Don't shortchange New Mexico students by teaching them watered-down science. Please discard the New Mexico Stem-Ready proposal and adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, without New Mexico-specific changes.

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[ 10:16 Oct 12, 2017    More politics | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 05 May 2017

Moon Talk at PEEC tonight

Late notice, but Dave and I are giving a talk on the moon tonight at PEEC. It's called Moonlight Sonata, and starts at 7pm. Admission: $6/adult, $4/child (we both prefer giving free talks, but PEEC likes to charge for their Friday planetarium shows, and it all goes to support PEEC, a good cause).

We'll bring a small telescope in case anyone wants to do any actual lunar observing outside afterward, though usually planetarium audiences don't seem very interested in that.

If you're local but can't make it this time, don't worry; the moon isn't a one-time event, so I'm sure we'll give the moon show again at some point.

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[ 15:26 May 05, 2017    More speaking | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 18 Jun 2016

Cave 6" as a Quick-Look Scope

I haven't had a chance to do much astronomy since moving to New Mexico, despite the stunning dark skies. For one thing, those stunning dark skies are often covered with clouds -- New Mexico's dramatic skyscapes can go from clear to windy to cloudy to hail or thunderstorms and back to clear and hot over the course of a few hours. Gorgeous to watch, but distracting for astronomy, and particularly bad if you want to plan ahead and observe on a particular night. The Pajarito Astronomers' monthly star parties are often clouded or rained out, as was the PEEC Nature Center's moon-and-planets star party last week.

That sort of uncertainty means that the best bet is a so-called "quick-look scope": one that sits by the door, ready to be hauled out if the sky is clear and you have the urge. Usually that means some kind of tiny refractor; but it can also mean leaving a heavy mount permanently set up (with a cover to protect it from those thunderstorms) so it's easy to carry out a telescope tube and plunk it on the mount.

I have just that sort of scope sitting in our shed: an old, dusty Cave Astrola 6" Newtonian on an equatorian mount. My father got it for me on my 12th birthday. Where he got the money for such a princely gift -- we didn't have much in those days -- I never knew, but I cherished that telescope, and for years spent most of my nights in the backyard peering through the Los Angeles smog.

Eventually I hooked up with older astronomers (alas, my father had passed away) and cadged rides to star parties out in the Mojave desert. Fortunately for me, parenting standards back then allowed a lot more freedom, and my mother was a good judge of character and let me go. I wonder if there are any parents today who would let their daughter go off to the desert with a bunch of strange men? Even back then, she told me later, some of her friends ribbed her -- "Oh, 'astronomy'. Suuuuuure. They're probably all off doing drugs in the desert." I'm so lucky that my mom trusted me (and her own sense of the guys in the local astronomy club) more than her friends.

The Cave has followed me through quite a few moves, heavy, bulky and old fashioned as it is; even when I had scopes that were bigger, or more portable, I kept it for the sentimental value. But I hadn't actually set it up in years. Last week, I assembled the heavy mount and set it up on a clear spot in the yard. I dusted off the scope, cleaned the primary mirror and collimated everything, replaced the finder which had fallen out somewhere along the way, set it up ... and waited for a break in the clouds.

[Hyginus Rille by Michael Karrer] I'm happy to say that the optics are still excellent. As I write this (to be posted later), I just came in from beautiful views of Hyginus Rille and the Alpine Valley on the moon. On Jupiter the Great Red Spot was just rotating out. Mars, a couple of weeks before opposition, is still behind a cloud (yes, there are plenty of clouds). And now the clouds have covered the moon and Jupiter as well. Meanwhile, while I wait for a clear view of Mars, a bat makes frenetic passes overhead, and something in the junipers next to my observing spot is making rhythmic crunch, crunch, crunch sounds. A rabbit chewing something tough? Or just something rustling in the bushes?

I just went out again, and now the clouds have briefly uncovered Mars. It's the first good look I've had at the Red Planet in years. (Tiny achromatic refractors really don't do justice to tiny, bright objects.) Mars is the most difficult planet to observe: Dave liks to talk about needing to get your "Mars eyes" trained for each Mars opposition, since they only come every two years. But even without my "Mars eyes", I had no trouble seeing the North pole with dark Acidalia enveloping it, and, in the south, the sinuous chain of Sini Sabaeus, Meridiani, Margaritifer, and Mare Erythraeum. (I didn't identify any of these at the time; instead, I dusted off my sketch pad and sketched what I saw, then compared it with XEphem's Mars view afterward.)

I'm liking this new quick-look telescope -- not to mention the childhood memories it brings back.

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[ 08:53 Jun 18, 2016    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 24 Oct 2014

Partial solar eclipse, with amazing sunspots

[Partial solar eclipse, with sunspots] We had perfect weather for the partial solar eclipse yesterday. I invited some friends over for an eclipse party -- we set up a couple of scopes with solar filters, put out food and drink and had an enjoyable afternoon.

And what views! The sunspot group right on the center of the sun's disk was the most large and complex I'd ever seen, and there were some much smaller, more subtle spots in the path of the eclipse. Meanwhile, the moon's limb gave us a nice show of mountains and crater rims silhouetted against the sun.

I didn't do much photography, but I did hold the point-and-shoot up to the eyepiece for a few shots about twenty minutes before maximum eclipse, and was quite pleased with the result.

An excellent afternoon. And I made too much blueberry bread and far too many oatmeal cookies ... so I'll have sweet eclipse memories for quite some time.

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[ 09:15 Oct 24, 2014    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 31 Jul 2014

Predicting planetary visibility with PyEphem

Part II: Predicting Conjunctions

After I'd written a basic script to calculate when planets will be visible, the next step was predicting conjunctions, times when two or more planets are close together in the sky.

Finding separation between two objects is easy in PyEphem: it's just one line once you've set up your objects, observer and date.

p1 = ephem.Mars()
p2 = ephem.Jupiter()
observer = ephem.Observer()  # and then set it to your city, etc. ='2014/8/1')

ephem.separation(p1, p2)

So all I have to do is loop over all the visible planets and see when the separation is less than some set minimum, like 4 degrees, right?

Well, not really. That tells me if there's a conjunction between a particular pair of planets, like Mars and Jupiter. But the really interesting events are when you have three or more objects close together in the sky. And events like that often span several days. If there's a conjunction of Mars, Venus, and the moon, I don't want to print something awful like

  Conjunction between Mars and Venus, separation 2.7 degrees.
  Conjunction between the moon and Mars, separation 3.8 degrees.
  Conjunction between Mars and Venus, separation 2.2 degrees.
  Conjunction between Venus and the moon, separation 3.9 degrees.
  Conjunction between the moon and Mars, separation 3.2 degrees.
  Conjunction between Venus and the moon, separation 4.0 degrees.
  Conjunction between the moon and Mars, separation 2.5 degrees.

... and so on, for each day. I'd prefer something like:

Conjunction between Mars, Venus and the moon lasts from Friday through Sunday.
  Mars and Venus are closest on Saturday (2.2 degrees).
  The moon and Mars are closest on Sunday (2.5 degrees).

At first I tried just keeping a list of planets involved in the conjunction. So if I see Mars and Jupiter close together, I'd make a list [mars, jupiter], and then if I see Venus and Mars on the same date, I search through all the current conjunction lists and see if either Venus or Mars is already in a list, and if so, add the other one. But that got out of hand quickly. What if my conjunction list looks like [ [mars, venus], [jupiter, saturn] ] and then I see there's also a conjunction between Mars and Jupiter? Oops -- how do you merge those two lists together?

The solution to taking all these pairs and turning them into a list of groups that are all connected actually lies in graph theory: each conjunction pair, like [mars, venus], is an edge, and the trick is to find all the connected edges. But turning my list of conjunction pairs into a graph so I could use a pre-made graph theory algorithm looked like it was going to be more code -- and a lot harder to read and less maintainable -- than making a bunch of custom Python classes.

I eventually ended up with three classes: ConjunctionPair, for a single conjunction observed between two bodies on a single date; Conjunction, a collection of ConjunctionPairs covering as many bodies and dates as needed; and ConjunctionList, the list of all Conjunctions currently active. That let me write methods to handle merging multiple conjunction events together if they turned out to be connected, as well as a method to summarize the event in a nice, readable way.

So predicting conjunctions ended up being a lot more code than I expected -- but only because of the problem of presenting it neatly to the user. As always, user interface represents the hardest part of coding.

The working script is on github at

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[ 19:57 Jul 31, 2014    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 23 Jul 2014

Predicting planetary visibility with PyEphem

Part 1: Basic Planetary Visibility

All through the years I was writing the planet observing column for the San Jose Astronomical Association, I was annoyed at the lack of places to go to find out about upcoming events like conjunctions, when two or more planets are close together in the sky. It's easy to find out about conjunctions in the next month, but not so easy to find sites that will tell you several months in advance, like you need if you're writing for a print publication (even a club newsletter).

For some reason I never thought about trying to calculate it myself. I just assumed it would be hard, and wanted a source that could spoon-feed me the predictions.

The best source I know of is the RASC Observer's Handbook, which I faithfully bought every year and checked each month so I could enter that month's events by hand. Except for January and February, when I didn't have the next year's handbook yet by the time my column went to press and I was on my own. I have to confess, I was happy to get away from that aspect of the column when I moved.

In my new town, I've been helping the local nature center with their website. They had some great pages already, like a What's Blooming Now? page that keeps track of which flowers are blooming now and only shows the current ones. I've been helping them extend it by adding features like showing only flowers of a particular color, separating the data into CSV databases so it's easier to add new flowers or butterflies, and so forth. Eventually we hope to build similar databases of birds, reptiles and amphibians.

And recently someone suggested that their astronomy page could use some help. Indeed it could -- it hadn't been updated in about five years. So we got to work looking for a source of upcoming astronomy events we could use as a data source for the page, and we found sources for a few things, like moon phases and eclipses, but not much.

Someone asked about planetary conjunctions, and remembering how I'd always struggled to find that data, especially in months when I didn't have the RASC handbook yet, I got to wondering about calculating it myself. Obviously it's possible to calculate when a planet will be visible, or whether two planets are close to each other in the sky. And I've done some programming with PyEphem before, and found it fairly easy to use. How hard could it be?

Note: this article covers only the basic problem of predicting when a planet will be visible in the evening. A followup article will discuss the harder problem of conjunctions.

Calculating planet visibility with PyEphem

The first step was figuring out when planets were up. That was straightforward. Make a list of the easily visible planets (remember, this is for a nature center, so people using the page aren't expected to have telescopes):

import ephem

planets = [

Then we need an observer with the right latitude, longitude and elevation. Elevation is apparently in meters, though they never bother to mention that in the PyEphem documentation:

observer = ephem.Observer() = "Los Alamos"
observer.lon = '-106.2978' = '35.8911'
observer.elevation = 2286  # meters, though the docs don't actually say

Then we loop over the date range for which we want predictions. For a given date d, we're going to need to know the time of sunset, because we want to know which planets will still be up after nightfall. = d
sunset = observer.previous_setting(sun)

Then we need to loop over planets and figure out which ones are visible. It seems like a reasonable first approach to declare that any planet that's visible after sunset and before midnight is worth mentioning.

Now, PyEphem can tell you directly the rising and setting times of a planet on a given day. But I found it simplified the code if I just checked the planet's altitude at sunset and again at midnight. If either one of them is "high enough", then the planet is visible that night. (Fortunately, here in the mid latitudes we don't have to worry that a planet will rise after sunset and then set again before midnight. If we were closer to the arctic or antarctic circles, that would be a concern in some seasons.)

min_alt = 10. * math.pi / 180.
for planet in planets: = sunset
    if planet.alt > min_alt:
        print, "is already up at sunset"

Easy enough for sunset. But how do we set the date to midnight on that same night? That turns out to be a bit tricky with PyEphem's date class. Here's what I came up with:

    midnight = list(
    midnight[3:6] = [7, 0, 0] =
    if planet.alt > min_alt:
        print, "will rise before midnight"

What's that 7 there? That's Greenwich Mean Time when it's midnight in our time zone. It's hardwired because this is for a web site meant for locals. Obviously, for a more general program, you should get the time zone from the computer and add accordingly, and you should also be smarter about daylight savings time and such. The PyEphem documentation, fortunately, gives you tips on how to deal with time zones. (In practice, though, the rise and set times of planets on a given day doesn't change much with time zone.)

And now you have your predictions of which planets will be visible on a given date. The rest is just a matter of writing it out into your chosen database format.

In the next article, I'll cover planetary and lunar conjunctions -- which were superficially very simple, but turned out to have some tricks that made the programming harder than I expected.

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[ 21:32 Jul 23, 2014    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 03 Jul 2013

Mad Moon Models

[This a slight revision of my monthly "Shallow Sky" column in the SJAA Ephemeris newsletter. Looks like the Ephemeris no longer has an online HTML version, just the PDF of the whole newsletter, so I may start reposting my Ephemeris columns here more often.]

[Plate IX: The Lunar Apennines, Archemedes &c.] Last month I stumbled upon a loony moon book I hadn't seen before, one that deserves consideration by all lunar observers.

The book is The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite by James Nasmyth, C.E. and James Carpenter, F.R.A.S. It's subtitled "with twenty-six illustrative plates of lunar objects, phenomena, and scenery; numerous woodcuts &c." It was written in 1885.

Astronomers may recognize the name Nasmyth: his name is attached to a modified Cassegrain focus design used in a lot of big observatory telescopes. Astronomy was just a hobby for him, though; he was primarily a mechanical engineer. His coauthor, James Carpenter, was an astronomer at the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

The most interesting thing about their book is the plates illustrating lunar features. In 1885, photography wasn't far enough along to get good close-up photos of the moon through a telescope. But Nasmyth and Carpenter wanted to show something beyond sketches. So they built highly detailed models of some of the most interesting areas of the moon, complete with all their mountains, craters and rilles, then photographed them under the right lighting conditions for interesting shadows similar to what you'd see when that area was on the terminator.

[David North explaining the moon] I loved the idea, since I'd worked on a similar but much less ambitious project myself. Over a decade ago, before we were married, Dave North got the idea to make a 3-D model of the full moon that he could use for the SJAA astronomy class. I got drafted to help. We started by cutting a 3-foot disk of wood, on which we drew a carefully measured grid corresponding to the sections in Rukl's Atlas of the Moon. Then, section by section, we drew in the major features we wanted to incorporate. Once the drawing was done, we mixed up some spackle -- some light, and some with a little black paint in it for the mare areas -- and started building up relief on top of the features we'd sketched. The project was a lot of fun, and we use the moon model when giving talks (otherwise it hangs on the living room wall).

Nasmyth and Carpenter's models cover only small sections of the moon -- Copernicus, Plato, the Apennines -- but in amazing detail. Looking at their photos really is like looking at the moon at high magnification on a night of great seeing.

So I had to get the book. Amazon has two versions, a paperback and a hardcover. I opted for the paperback, which turns out to be scanned from a library book (there's even a scan of the pocket where the book's index card goes). Some of the scanning is good, but some of the plates come out all black. Not very satisfying.

But once I realized that an 1885 book was old enough to be public domain, I checked the web. I found two versions: one at and one on Google Books. They're scans from two different libraries; the scan is better, but the epub version I downloaded for my ebook reader has some garbled text and a few key plates, like Clavius, missing. The Google version is a much worse scan and I couldn't figure out if they had an epub version. I suspect the hardcover on Amazon is likely a scan from yet a fourth library.

At the risk of sounding like some crusty old Linux-head, wouldn't it be nice if these groups could cooperate on making one GOOD version rather than a bunch of bad ones?

I also discovered that the San Jose library has a copy. A REAL copy, not a scan. It gave me a nice excuse to take the glass elevator up to the 8th floor and take in the view of San Jose. And once I got it, I scanned all the moon sculpture plates myself. Sadly, like the ebook, the San Jose copy is missing Copernicus. I wonder if vandals are cutting that page out of library copies? That makes me wince even to think of it, but I know such things happen.

Whichever version you prefer, I'd recommend that lunies get hold of a copy. It's a great introduction to planetary science, with very readable discussions of how you measure things like the distance and size of the moon. It's an even better introduction to lunar observing: if you merely go through all of their descriptions of interesting lunar areas and try to observe the features they mention, you'll have a great start on a lunar observing program that'll keep you busy for months. For experienced observers, it might give you a new appreciation of some lunar regions you thought you already knew well. Not at super-fine levels of detail -- no Alpine Valley rille -- but a lot of good discussion of each area.

[Plate XVIII: Aristarchus & Herodotus ] Other parts of the book are interesting only from a historical perspective. The physical nature of lunar features wasn't a settled issue in 1885, but Nasmyth and Carpenter feel confident that all of the major features can be explained as volcanism. Lunar craters are the calderas of enormous volcanoes; mountain ranges are volcanic too, built up from long cracks in the moon's crust, like the Cascades range in the Pacific Northwest.

There's a whole chapter on "Cracks and Radiating Streaks", including a wonderful plate of a glass ball with cracks, caused by deformation, radiating from a single point. They actually did the experiment: they filled a glass globe with water and sealed it, then "plunged it into a warm bath". The cracks that resulted really do look a bit like Tycho's rays (if you don't look TOO closely: lunar rays actually line up with the edges of the crater, not the center).

It's fun to read all the arguments that are plausible, well reasoned -- and dead wrong. The idea that craters are caused by meteorite impacts apparently hadn't even been suggested at the time.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book and would definitely recommend it. The plates and observing advice can hold their own against any modern observing book, and the rest ... is a fun historical note.

Here are some places to get it:


Or, try your local public library -- they might have a real copy!

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[ 16:12 Jul 03, 2013    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 08 May 2013

Gamymede whac-a-moon tonight

A couple of months ago I wrote about watching an eclipse of Europa by Jupiter's shadow. It's a game I call "Whac-a-Moon", where a moon comes out from behind Jupiter, but stays there for only a short time then disappears into eclipse. If you aren't ready for it, it's gone.

This can only happen when Jupiter's shadow is offset from Jupiter that there's a gap between the planet and the shadow as seen from Earth. Jupiter is getting low in the west, and soon we'll lose it behind the sun, but tonight, Wednesday May 8, there's a decent Ganymede Whac-a-Moon opportunity for those of us on the US west coast.

Ganymede disappears behind Jupiter at 6:45 pm PDT, still during daylight. Some time around 9:43 Ganymede reappears from behind Jupiter, but it only stays visible for a couple of minutes before entering Jupiter's eclipse. Don't trust these times I'm giving you: set up at least five minutes early, preferably more than that. And set up somewhere with a good western horizon, because Jupiter will be very low, less than 8 degrees above the horizon.

You can simulate the event on my Javascript Jupiter. When the G goes blue, that means Ganymede is in eclipse. But the simulation won't show you the interesting part: how gradual the eclipse is, as the moon slides through the edge of Jupiter's shadow. During the Europa eclipse a few months ago, I wanted to record the time of disappearance so I could adjust my code accordingly, but I found I couldn't pin it down at all -- Europa started dimming almost as soon as it emerged from behind Jupiter, and kept dimming until I couldn't convince myself I saw it any more.

So far, I've only watched Europa as it slid into eclipse by Jupiter's shadow; I haven't whacked Ganymede. But Ganymede is so much larger that I suspect the slow dimming effect will be even more obvious. Unfortunately, I'm not optimistic about being able to see it myself; we've had cloudy skies here for the last few nights, and that combined with the low western horizon may do me in. I may have to wait until autumn, when Jupiter will next be visible in our evening skies. But I hope someone reading this gets a chance to see this month's eclipse.

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[ 11:46 May 08, 2013    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 12 Mar 2013

The Europa Eclipse -- results

I wrote last week about an upcoming eclipse of Europa by Jupiter's shadow. One of the interesting things I'd found was how much the predicted times of Europa's appearance from behind Jupiter, and subsequent disappearance into Jupiter's shadow, varied depending on which program you were using. I had just recently managed to get my own Javascript Jupiter page showing eclipse events, and its times didn't agree with any of the other programs either. So I was burning with curiosity to know who was right.

The predicted times were:
Europa appears Europa disappears
XEphem 7:43 7:59
S&T Jupiter's Moons 7:40 7:44
my Javascript Jupiter 7:45 7:52
Stellarium 6:49 7:05

I was out of town on March 10. I brought along a travel scope, an Orion 80mm f/6 Orion Express. Not the perfect planetary scope, but certainly enough to see Europa. (The Galilean moons are even visible in binoculars, as long as you mount the binoculars on a tripod or otherwise hold them steady.)

I synchronized my watch and had the telescope set up by 7:35. Sure enough, there was no Europa there. But at 7:38 on the dot, I saw the first hint of Europa peeking out. No question about it. I watched, and timed, and by 7:41 the whole disk of Europa was visible and I could start to think I could see blackness between it and Jupiter. I'd been to a school star party a few days earlier and hadn't cleaned my eyepieces afterward -- oops! -- so the view was a little foggy and it was hard to tell for sure exactly when Europa's disk cleared Jupiter.

In fact, no matter which eyepiece I used, the fogginess seemed to get worse and worse. I had a hard time seeing Europa at all. Finally I realized that I was looking through a tree branch, and moved the scope. But by the time I got it moved again, Europa had gotten even harder to see. That was when I realized that it had been going into eclipse practically the whole time I was watching it. It was already significantly dimmed by 7:43, very dim indeed by 7:48 and gone -- in the 80mm -- by 7:49:20, though I suspect it still would have been visible in a larger scope with clean eyepieces.

So that's why the times in different programs varied so much! Galilean moons aren't point sources: you can't predict a single time for a moon disappearance, appearance or eclipse. Do you want to predict the beginning of the event, the end of the event or the time at the moon's center point? And that goes double for eclipses, where the moon is gradually sliding into the shadow of Jupiter's atmosphere. I found that it took over seven minutes the moon to go from full brightness to fully eclipsed. So what part of that do you predict?

All in all, a very interesting observing session. I'm looking forward to observing more of these eclipses, doing more timings, and tuning my program to give better predictions. (I notice my program was significantly late on both the appearance and the eclipse. I'll work on that. Better to err on the early side, and not miss anything!)

While I was adding eclipses to my Jupiter program, I also added longer-range predictions, so it would be easier to find out when these events will happen. Once that was implemented, I looked for upcoming Whac-a-Moon events. I found one on Mar 26, when Ganymede appears at 7:29pm PDT (add 7 hours for GMT). Europa and its shadow are transiting Jupiter's disk, too, so there's plenty to look at. Ganymede then enters eclipse at 9:40pm PDT. A long time between the events, I know, but it's easy enough to leave a scope set up in the backyard and go out to check it now and then.

These times are from my Javascript Jupiter program and may be a few minutes late. Always be ready at least five minutes early in case the predictions are off, no matter which program you use. Don't say I didn't warn you.

I found no events in April visible at night in California (for other time zones, you can generate predictions on my Javascript Jupiter page). But May 8 has a decent one: Ganymede appears at 9:44pm PDT, then disappears into eclipse at 9:46. Based on what I saw tonight with Europa, that means the moon should start to fade almost immediately after it has emerged from behind Jupiter, maybe even before it has fully emerged. Ganymede's larger size may also mean the fade-out will take longer. Stay tuned. Jupiter will be very low by then, only 7 degrees above the horizon.

Not many events to observe -- this is a bit rarer than I'd thought. Of course, there are lots of moons disappearing into eclipse and appearing from out of it every night, so watching that long gradual appearance or disappearance isn't difficult; the only rare part is when they appear briefly between Jupiter and Jupiter's shadow. That is relatively rare, and I'm glad I had a chance to catch it.

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[ 19:55 Mar 12, 2013    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 06 Jun 2012

There's a big black spot on the sun today ...

[Transit of Venus, June 5 2012] After a heart-stopping day of rain on Monday, Tuesday, the day of the Venus transit astronomers have been anticipating for decades, dawned mostly clear.

For the 3 pm ingress, Dave and I set up in the backyard -- a 4.5-inch Newtonian, a Takahashi FS102, and an 80mm f/6 refractor with an eyepiece projection camera mount. I'd disliked the distraction during the annular eclipse of switching between eyepiece and camera mount, and was looking forward to having a dedicated camera scope this time.

Venus is big! There wasn't any trouble seeing it once it started its transit. I was surprised at how slowly it moved -- so much slower than a Mercury transit, though it shouldn't have been a surprise, since I knew the event would take the rest of the evening, and wouldn't be finished until well past our local sunset.

The big challenge of the day was to see the aureole -- the arc of Venus' atmosphere standing out from the sun. With the severely windy weather and turbulent air (lots of cumulus clouds) I wasn't hopeful. But as Venus reached the point where only about 1/3 of its disk remained outside the sun, the aureole became visible as a faint arc. We couldn't see it in the 4.5-inch, and it definitely isn't visible in the poorly-focused photos from the 80mm, but in the FS102 it was definitely there.

About those poorly focused pictures: I hadn't used the 80mm, an Orion Express, for photography before. It turned out its 2-inch Crayford focuser, so nice for visual use, couldn't hold the weight of a camera. With the sun high overhead, as soon as I focused, the focuser tube would start to slide downward and I couldn't lock it. I got a few shots through the 80mm, but had better luck holding a point-and-shoot camera to the eyepiece of the FS102.

Time for experiments

[Binocular projection of Venus transit] Once the excitement of ingress was over, there was time to try some experiments. I'd written about binocular projection as a way anyone, without special equipment, could watch the transit; so I wanted to make sure that worked. I held my cheap binoc (purchased for $35 many years ago at Big 5) steady on top of a tripod -- I never have gotten around to making a tripod mount for it; though if I'd wanted a more permanent setup, duct tape would have worked.

I couldn't see much projecting against the ground, and it was too windy to put a piece of paper or cardboard down, but an old whiteboard made a perfect solar projection screen. There was n trouble at all seeing Venus and some of the larger sunspots projected onto the whiteboard.

As the transit went on, we settled down to a routine of popping outside the office every now and then to check on the transit. Very civilized. But the transit lasted until past sunset, and our western horizon is blocked by buildings. I wanted some sunset shots. So we took a break for dinner, then drove up into the hills to look for a place with a good ocean view.

The sunset expedition

Our first idea, a pullout off Highway 9, had looked promising in Google Earth but turned out to have trees and a hill (that somehow hadn't shown up in Google Earth) blocking the sunset. So back up highway 9 and over to Russian Ridge, where I remembered a trail entrance on the western side of the ridge that might serve. Sure enough, it gave us a great sunset view. There was only parking space for one car, but fortunately that's all we needed. And we weren't the only transit watchers there -- someone else had hiked in from the main parking lot carrying a solar filter, so we joined him on the hillside as we waited for sunset.

[Mak 90 with solar filter] I'd brought the 80mm refractor for visual observing and the 90 Mak for camerawork. I didn't have a filter for the Mak, but Dave had some Baader solar film, so earlier in the afternoon I'd whipped up a filter. A Baskin-Robbins ice cream container lid turned out to be the perfect size. Well, almost perfect -- it was just a trifle too large, but some pads cut from an old mouse pad and taped inside the lid made it fit perfectly. Dave used the Baader film, some foam and masking tape to make a couple of filters for his binocular.

The sun sank through a series of marine cloud layers. Through the scopes it looked more like Jupiter than the sun, with Jupiter's banding -- and Venus' silhouette even looked like the shadow of one of Jupiter's moons.

[off-axis aperture stops from ice cream containers] Finally the sun got so low, and so obscured by clouds, that it seemed safe to take the solar filter off the 90mm camera rig. (Of course, we kept the solar filters on the other scope and binocular for visual observing.) But even at the camera's fastest shutter speed, 1/4000, the sun came out vastly overexposed with 90mm of aperture feeding it at f/5.6.

I had suspected that might be a problem, so I'd prepared a couple of off-axis stops for the Mak, to cover most of the aperture leaving only a small hole open. Again, BR ice cream containers turned out to be perfect. I painted the insides flat black to eliminate reflections, then cut holes in the ends -- one about the size of a quarter, the other quite a bit larger. It turned out I didn't use the larger stop at all, and it would have been handy to have one smaller than the quarter-sized one -- even with that stop, the sun was overexposed at first even at 1/4000 and I had to go back to the solar filter for a while.

[Venus transit at sunset] [Venus transit at sunset] I was happy with the results, though -- I got a nice series of sunset photos complete with Venus silhouette.

More clouds rolled in as we packed up, providing a gorgeous blue-and-pink sunset sky backdrop for our short walk back to the car. What a lovely day for such a rare celestial event!

Photos here: Venus Transit, June 5 2012.

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[ 12:48 Jun 06, 2012    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 01 Jun 2012

Observe the 2012 Venus transit!

[Venus transit 2004 from Chicago. Copyright © 2004 by Bill Arnett] June 5 brings the last Venus transit until 2117, when Venus will pass across the face of the sun -- the second of the only two Venus transits any of us will see in our lives. (The first, pictured in this lovely image from Bill Arnett, was in 2004, visible on the east coast of the US but not visible here in California.)

Venus is just a small spot against the vastness of the sun -- the skies won't dim like in an eclipse, and you need equipment to see it. So why should a non-astronomer care?

Mostly because it's so rare. Venus transits happen in pairs with more than a century between successive pairs: the last transit before 2004 was in 1882, and the next one after this week's won't happen until 2117. The entire 20th century passed without a single Venus transit.

They're historically interesting, too. It was in 1663 that Scottish mathematician James Gregory proposed that you could calculate the distance to the Sun by measuring a Venus transit, by observing at many different places on earth and measuring parallax. Edmund Halley (of Halley's Comet fame) tried this method during the Mercury transit of 1676, but since Mercury is so much closer to the sun and farther from us, the results weren't good enough. Unfortunately, Halley died in 1742, too early for the Venus transit of 1761.

But lots of other astronomers were ready, mounting expeditions that year to Siberia, Norway, Newfoundland and Madagascar (some of these expeditions were major adventures, and several books have been written about them). They followed up in 1769 with expeditions to Hudson Bay, Baja California, Norway, St Petersburg, Philadelphia... and the first voyage of Captain Cook to Tahiti, where they observed the transit at a location that's still called "Point Venus" today.

[Black drop effect] Alas, their measurements weren't as accurate as they had hoped. The exact times of a Venus transit turn out to be difficult to measure due to the dreaded black drop effect, where the black circle of Venus can seem to elongate into a teardrop shape as it "tears away" from the edge of the sun. The effect seems to be caused by blurring from our own atmosphere (poor seeing) combined with telescope diffraction. So the steadier your seeing is, and the bigger and better your optics, the less likely you are to see the black drop.

How to see the transit

First, if you don't have a telescope of your own, don't despair -- head to your local astronomy club. Here in the bay area there are dozens of clubs, and just about all of them have public star parties planned for the Venus transit. There are events planned at local science museums, planetaria and schools as well. A few bay area links: San Jose Astronomical Association, Peninsula Astronomical Society, San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, San Francisco Amateur Astronomers, or any of the others on the AANC's list of Amateur Astronomy Clubs in Northern California or the SF Chronicle's list of astronomy clubs. And the Hubble Space Telescope will be watching the transit by looking at light reflected off the moon.

But suppose you're viewing it on your own?

Of course, this being a solar event, you can't look at it directly -- you need a filter or other apparatus. No need for a fancy H-alpha filter -- a white light solar filter is fine, the kind that covers the aperture of the telescope. (Don't use the kind that screw into the eyepiece! They can overheat and crack while you're looking through them.)

You don't need a big telescope. I used an Orion solar filter on my little 80mm f/7 refractor for the last Mercury transit and it worked great. And Venus is much larger than Mercury, at about 50 arcseconds versus Mercury's 12 (the sun is half a degree, or 30 arcminutes). So if you've seen a Mercury transit, you can imagine how much easier and more spectacular a Venus transit can be.

If you use binoculars, either make sure that you have solar filters for both sides, or keep one side covered at all times. If your telescope has a finderscope, keep it covered.

If you can't find a solar filter in time for the transit, you can set up your telescope to project the sun's image onto a white board or sheet of paper. (This is how Jeremiah Horrocks made the first known Venus transit observation.)

Use a cheap, low powered eyepiece for this: the eyepiece will get hot, and you don't want to risk damaging a fancy eyepiece. Be careful with solar projection -- make sure nobody nearby can walk between the telescope and the surface you're using as a projection screen, or place their hands or eyes in the light path. A web search for solar projection will uncover other tips.

You can project the sun's image with binoculars, too, so don't feel left out if you don't have a telescope. You'll definitely want a tripod mount. I tried binocular projection during last month's annular eclipse, and found it very fiddly to hold the binoculars just right. Don't count on being able to hold them steady while also looking for Venus on the projected image. If you don't have a tripod adapter (try Orion), cobble something together with duct tape and a block of wood, or whatever you have handy.

And do try to get a good white surface to project onto. Concrete worked well enough for the solar eclipse, but you'll want better resolution for Venus.


When does this all happen?

Seen from the bay area, Venus begins its ingress onto the disc of the sun on 3:06 PDT on the afternoon of June 5. The transit continues until after the sun sets at 8:26. So we won't get to see egress. Venus's exit from the face of the sun, but it's the mirror image of what we'll see at ingress.

Ingress has two parts: first contact, when the edge of Venus's disk first touches the outside of the sun's disk, and "internal ingress" or second contact, when Venus's disk is fully inside that of the sun. Second contact is the most interesting period of the transit, since it's when the "black drop effect" occurs.

[Venus transit aureole by Lorenzo Comolli [Gruppo Astronomico Tradatese] and the VT-2004 programme] And if you have a good telescope and filter and you're blessed with especially good seeing around the time of second contact, try looking for the aureole, an arc of light just outside of the solar disk made by the refraction of sunlight through Venus's atmosphere. Amazingly, the aureole has the same surface brightness as the sun's surface, and is said to be possible to see even through a solar filter. That's something you'll never see in a Mercury transit! (Follow the link on the image to see Lorenzo Comolli's amazing aureole photo in more detail, along with other great aureole images courtesy of the VT-2004 programme.)

Here's the time table for the bay area (from the table on NASA's eclipse website):
First contact: 3:06:20
Internal ingress: 3:23:56
Maximum transit: 6:25:30
Sunset: 8:26

At first contact, the sun will still be high for bay area observers, 60° up. By maximum transit the pair will have sunk to 21°, still plenty high enough to see the spectacle. Photographers will want to wait around for sunset for a chance at some spectacular photos, like the Bill Arnett photo at the top of this article, taken from Chicago.

Want more details or times from other locations? has plenty of links, as does Everything you need to know about next week’s Transit of Venus.

Stay safe, and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime event!

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[ 13:04 Jun 01, 2012    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 22 May 2012

Saw the "Ring of Fire" 2012 annular eclipse

[Annular eclipse 2012] I've just seen the annular eclipse, and what a lovely sight it was!

This was only my second significant solar eclipse, the first being a partial when I was a teenager. So I was pretty excited about an annular so nearby -- the centerline was only about a 4-hour drive from home.

We'd made arrangements to join the Shasta astronomy club's eclipse party at Whiskeytown Lake, up in the Trinity Alps. Sounded like a lovely spot, and we'd be able to trade views with the members of the local astronomy club as well as showing off the eclipse to the public. As astronomers bringing telescopes, we'd get reserved parking and didn't even have to pay the park fee. Sounded good!

Not knowing whether we might hit traffic, we left home first thing in the morning, hours earlier than we figured was really necessary. A good thing, as it turned out. Not because we hit any traffic -- but because when we got to the site, it was a zoo. There were cars idling everywhere, milling up and down every road looking for parking spots. We waited in the queue at the formal site, and finally got to the front of the line, where we told the ranger we were bringing telescopes for the event. He said well, um, we could drive in and unload, but there was no parking so we'd just have to drive out after unloading, hope to find a parking spot on the road somewhere, and walk back.

What a fiasco!

After taking a long look at the constant stream of cars inching along in both directions and the chaotic crowd at the site, we decided the better part of valor was to leave this vale of tears and high-tail it back to our motel in Red Bluff, only little farther south of the centerline and still well within the path of annularity. Fortunately we'd left plenty of extra time, so we made it back with time to spare.

The Annular Eclipse itself

[early stage of annular eclipse 2012, showing sunspots] One striking thing about watching the eclipse through a telescope was how fast the moon moves. The sun was well decorated with several excellent large sunspot groups, so we were able to watch the moon swallow them bit by bit.

Some of the darker sunspot umbras even showed something like a black drop effect as they disappeared behind the moon. We couldn't see the same effect on the smaller sunspot groups, or on the penumbras. [black drop at end of annularity] There was also a pronounced black drop effect at the onset and end of annularity.

The seeing was surprisingly good, as solar observing goes. Not only could we see good detail on the sunspot groups and solar faculae, but we could easily see irregularities in the shape of the moon's surface -- in particular one small sharp mountain peak on the leading edge, and what looked like a raised crater wall farther south on that leading edge. We never did get a satisfactory identification on either feature.

[pinhole eclipse viewing] After writing and speaking about eclipse viewing, I felt honor bound to try viewing with pinholes of several sizes. I found that during early stages of the eclipse, the pinholes had to be both small (under about 5 mm) and fairly round to show much. Later in the eclipse, nearly anything worked to show the crescent or the annular ring, including interlaced fingers or the shadow of a pine tree on the wall. I wish I'd remembered to take an actual hole punch, which would have been just about perfect.

[binocular projection for eclipse] I also tried projection through binoculars, and convinced myself that it would probably work as a means of viewing next month's Venus transit -- but only with the binoculars on a tripod. Hand-holding them is fiddly and difficult. (Of course, never look through binoculars at the sun without a solar filter.) Look for an upcoming article with more details on binocular projection.

The cast of characters

For us, the motel parking lot worked out great. We were staying at the Crystal Motel in Red Bluff, an unassuming little motel that proved to be clean and quiet, with friendly, helpful staff and the fastest motel wi-fi connection I've ever seen. Maybe not the most scenic of locations, but that was balanced by the convenience of having the car and room so close by.

And we were able to show the eclipse to locals and motel guests who wouldn't have been able to see it otherwise. Many of these people, living right in the eclipse path, didn't even know there was an eclipse happening, so poor had the media coverage been. (That was true in the bay area too -- most people I talked to last week didn't know there was an eclipse coming up, let alone how or where to view it.)

We showed the eclipse to quite a cast of characters --

In between visitors, we had plenty of time to fiddle with equipment, take photos, and take breaks sitting in the shade to cool down. (Annularity was pleasantly cool, but the rest of the eclipse stayed hot on an over 90 degree central valley day.)

There's a lot to be said for sidewalk astronomy! Overall, I'm glad we ended up where we did rather than in that Whiskeytown chaos.

Here's my collection of Images from the "Ring of Fire" Annular Eclipse, May 2012, from Red Bluff, CA.

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[ 11:42 May 22, 2012    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 16 May 2012

Ring of Fire: 2012 annular eclipse

[Solar annular eclipse of January 15, 2010 in Jinan, Republic of China, by A013231 on Wikimedia Commons.] This Sunday, May 20th, the western half of the US will be treated to an annular solar eclipse.

Annular means that the moon is a bit farther away than usual, so it won't completely cover the sun even if you travel to the eclipse centerline. Why? Well, the moon's orbit around the earth isn't perfectly circular, so sometimes it's farther away, sometimes nearer. Remember all the hype two weeks ago about the "supermoon", where it was unusually close at full moon? The other side of that is that during this eclipse, at new moon, the moon is unusually far away, and therefore a little smaller, not quite big enough to cover the sun.

Since the sun will never be totally covered, make sure you have a safe solar filter for this one -- don't look with your naked eyes! You want a solar filter anyway, if you have any kind of telescope or even binoculars, because of next month's once-in-a-lifetime Venus transit (I'll write about that separately). But if you don't have a solar filter and absolutely can't get one in time, read on -- I'll have some suggestions later even for people without any sort of optical aid.

But first, the path of the eclipse. Here in the bay area, we're just a bit south of the southern limit of the annular path, which passes just south of the town of Redway, through Covelo, just south of Willows, then just misses Yuba City and Auburn. If you want to be closer to the centerline, go camping at Lassen National Park or Lake Shasta, or head to Reno or Tahoe If you're inclined to travel, NASA has a great interactive 2012 eclipse map you can use to check out possible locations.

Even back in the bay area, we still get a darn good dinner show. The partial eclipse starts at 5:17 pm PDT, with maximum eclipse at 6:33. The sun will be 18 degrees above the horizon at that point, and 89% eclipsed. Compare that with 97% for a site right on the centerline -- remember, since this is an annular eclipse, no place sees 100% coverage. The partial eclipse ends at 7:40 -- still well before sunset, which isn't until 8:11.

Photographers, if you want a shot of an annular eclipse as the sun sets, you'll need to head east, to Albuquerque, NM or Lubbock, TX. A little before sunset, the centerline also crosses near a lot of great vacation spots like Bryce, Zion and Canyon de Chelly.

[eclipse viewed through leaves] I mentioned that even without a solar filter, there are ways of watching the eclipse. The simplest is with a pinhole. You don't need to use an actual pin -- the size and shape of the hole isn't critical, as you can see in this image of the sun through the leaves of a tree during a 2005 eclipse in Malta. If you don't have a leafy tree handy, you can even lace your fingers together and look at the shadow of your hands. This eclipse will be very low in the sky, continuing through sunset, so you may need to project its shadow onto a wall rather than the ground.

If you have some time to prepare, take a piece of cardboard and punch a few holes through it. Try different sizes -- an actual pinhole, a BBQ skewer, a 3-hole punch, maybe even bigger holes up to the size of a penny. You might also try using aluminum foil -- you can get very clean circular holes that way, which might give a crisper image. Here's a good page on eclipse pinhole projection. What works best? I don't remember! It's been a very long time since the last eclipse here! Do the experiment! I know I will be.

[Solar projection with a Dobsonian] If you do have a telescope or binoculars but couldn't get a solar filter in time, don't despair. Instead of looking through the eyepiece, you can project the sun's image onto a white screen or even the ground or a wall. Use a cheap, low-power eyepiece -- any eyepiece you use for solar projection will get very hot, and you don't want to risk ruining a fancy one.

Point the telescope at the sun -- it's easy to tell when it's lined up by watching the shadow of the telescope -- and rotate the eyepiece so that it's aimed at your screen, which can be as simple as a sheet of paper. Be careful where that eyepiece is aimed -- make sure no one can walk through the path or put their hand in the way, and if you have a finderscope, make sure it's covered. This solar projection method works with binoculars too, but you'll want to mount them on a tripod so you don't have to hold them the whole time.

Of course, another great way to watch the eclipse is with your local astronomy club. I expect every club in the bay area -- and there are a lot of them -- will have telescopes out to share the eclipse with the public. So check with your local club -- San Jose Astronomical Association, Peninsula Astronomical Society, San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, San Francisco Amateur Astronomers, or any of the others on the AANC's list of Amateur Astronomy Clubs in Northern California or the SF Chronicle's list of astronomy clubs.

This eclipse should be pretty cool -- and a great chance to test out your solar equipment before next month's Venus transit.

When I went to put the event on my wall calendar last month, I discovered the calendar already had an entry for May 20: it's the start of Bear Awareness Week. So if you head up to Lassen or Shasta to watch the eclipse, be sure to be aware of the bears! (Also, maybe I should get a calendar that's a little more in tune with the sky.)

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[ 21:12 May 16, 2012    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 03 Apr 2012

Displaying equations on the web

How do you show equations on a web page? Every now and then, I write an article that involves math, and I wrestle with that problem.

The obvious (but wrong) approach: MathML

It was nearly fifteen years ago that MathML was recommended as a standard for embedding equations inside an HTML page. I remember being excited about it back then. There were a few problems -- like the availability of fonts including symbols for integrals, summations and so forth -- but they seemed minor. That was 1998.

Now, in 2012, I found myself wanting to write an article involving an integral, so I looked into the state of MathML. I found that even now, all these years later, it wasn't widely supported.

In Firefox I could show some simple equations, like x = 0 x x and x = b ± b 2 4 a c 2 a

But when I tried them in Chromium, I learned that webkit-based browsers don't support MathML. At all. The exception is Safari: apparently Apple has added some MathML support into their browser but hasn't contributed that code back to webkit (yet?)

Besides that, MathML is ridiculously hard to use. Here's the code for that little integral:

<math xmlns="">
      <mn>x = 0</mn>

Ugh! You can't even specify infinity without using an HTML numeric entity. And the code for the quadratic equation is even worse (use View Source if you want to see it).

Good ol' tables

Several years ago, I wrote about the Twelve Days of Christmas and how to calculate the total number of gifts represented in the song.

I needed summations, and I was rather proud of working out a way to use HTML tables to display all the sums and line up everything correctly. It wasn't exactly publication-quality graphics, but it was readable.

More recently, I worked out a way to do exponentials that way, and found a hint about how to do integrals:

P (t)  dt
P0 =————
1 + t

Looks a little better than the tiny MathML version. But the code isn't any easier to read:

<table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0">
<tr><td><td align="center"><small><i>now</i></small></td><td></td><td></td></tr>
 <td rowspan="3" valign="middle"><font size="6" style="font-size:3em" class="bigsym">&#8747;</font>
 <td align="center"><i>P</i>&nbsp;(<i>t</i>)</td>

 <td rowspan="3" valign="middle">&nbsp;<i>dt</i></td></tr>
<tr><td>P<sub>0</sub> =<td align="center">&mdash;&mdash;&mdash;&mdash;</td></tr>
<tr><td><td align="center">1 + <i>t</i></td></tr>
<tr><td><td valign="top"><small><i>0</i></small></td><td></td><td></td></tr>

The solution: MathJax

And then I discovered MathJAX. It was added recently to the Udacity forums, and I think it's also what MITx is using for their courses.

MathJax is fantastic. It's an open-source library that lets you specify equations in readable ways -- you can use MathML, but you can also use LaTEX or even ASCII math like `x = (-b +- sqrt(b^2-4ac))/(2a) .`

It uses Javascript: you put your equations in the text of the page with delimiters like $$ around them (you can control the delimiters), then run a function that scans the page content and replaces any equations it sees with pretty graphics. (Viewers using NoScript or similar extensions will need to allow to see the equations, unless you make a local copy of the libraries, which you probably should anyway if you're using a lot of equations.)

For displaying those graphics, MathJax might use MathML, HTML and CSS, or whatever, depending on the user's browser ... but you don't have to worry about that. (Alas, even in Firefox, MathML rendering isn't up to par so MathJax doesn't use it by default, though you can specify it as an option if you know your equations render well.)

Here's that integral again, using LaTeX format: $$ P_0 =\int_0^\infty \frac {P(t) dt}{1 + t} $$ and $$ x = {-b \pm \sqrt{b^2-4ac} \over 2a} $$

It's beautiful! And although I don't know LaTex at all -- been wanting an excuse to learn it -- I put together that integral with five minutes of web searching. (The quadratic code came from a MathJax demo page.) Here's what the code looks like:

$$ P_0 =\int_0^\infty \frac {P(t) dt}{1 + t} $$

$$ x = {-b \pm \sqrt{b^2-4ac} \over 2a} $$

MathJax is even smart enough to notice the code there is in a <pre> tag, so I didn't have to find a way to escape it.

I'm sold! The MathJax team has really put together a nice package, and I think we'll be seeing it on a lot more websites. If you want to try it, start here: Getting Started with MathJAX.

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[ 16:45 Apr 03, 2012    More science | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 29 Dec 2011

Plotting the Analemma

My SJAA planet-observing column for January is about the Analemma and the Equation of Time.

The analemma is that funny figure-eight you see on world globes in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its shape is the shape traced out by the sun in the sky, if you mark its position at precisely the same time of day over the course of an entire year.

The analemma has two components: the vertical component represents the sun's declination, how far north or south it is in our sky. The horizontal component represents the equation of time.

The equation of time describes how the sun moves relatively faster or slower at different times of year. It, too, has two components: it's the sum of two sine waves, one representing how the earth speeds up and slows down as it moves in its elliptical orbit, the other a function the tilt (or "obliquity") of the earth's axis compared to its orbital plane, the ecliptic.

[components of the Equation of time] The Wikipedia page for Equation of time includes a link to a lovely piece of R code by Thomas Steiner showing how the two components relate. It's labeled in German, but since the source is included, I was able to add English labels and use it for my article.

But if you look at photos of real analemmas in the sky, they're always tilted. Shouldn't they be vertical? Why are they tilted, and how does the tilt vary with location? To find out, I wanted a program to calculate the analemma.

Calculating analemmas in PyEphem

The very useful astronomy Python package PyEphem makes it easy to calculate the position of any astronomical object for a specific location. Install it with: easy_install pyephem for Python 2, or easy_install ephem for Python 3.

import ephem
observer ='San Francisco')
sun = ephem.Sun()
print sun.alt,

The alt and az are the altitude and azimuth of the sun right now. They're printed as strings: 25:23:16.6 203:49:35.6 but they're actually type 'ephem.Angle', so float(sun.alt) will give you a number in radians that you can use for calculations.

Of course, you can specify any location, not just major cities. PyEphem doesn't know San Jose, so here's the approximate location of Houge Park where the San Jose Astronomical Association meets:

observer = ephem.Observer() = "San Jose"
observer.lon = '-121:56.8' = '37:15.55'

You can also specify elevation, barometric pressure and other parameters.

So here's a simple analemma, calculating the sun's position at noon on the 15th of each month of 2011:

    for m in range(1, 13) :'2011/%d/15 12:00' % (m))

I used a simple PyGTK window to plot and sun.alt, so once it was initialized, I drew the points like this:

    # Y scale is 45 degrees (PI/2), horizon to halfway to zenith:
    y = int(self.height - float(self.sun.alt) * self.height / math.pi)
    # So make X scale 45 degrees too, centered around due south.
    # Want az = PI to come out at x = width/2.
    x = int(float( * self.width / math.pi / 2)
    # print, float(, float(self.sun.alt), x, y
    self.drawing_area.window.draw_arc(self.xgc, True, x, y, 4, 4, 0, 23040)

So now you just need to calculate the sun's position at the same time of day but different dates spread throughout the year.

[analemma in San Jose at noon clock time] And my 12-noon analemma came out almost vertical! Maybe the tilt I saw in analemma photos was just a function of taking the photo early in the morning or late in the afternoon? To find out, I calculated the analemma for 7:30am and 4:30pm, and sure enough, those were tilted.

But wait -- notice my noon analemma was almost vertical -- but it wasn't exactly vertical. Why was it skewed at all?

Time is always a problem

As always with astronomy programs, time zones turned out to be the hardest part of the project. I tried to add other locations to my program and immediately ran into a problem.

The ephem.Date class always uses UTC, and has no concept of converting to the observer's timezone. You can convert to the timezone of the person running the program with localtime, but that's not useful when you're trying to plot an analemma at local noon.

At first, I was only calculating analemmas for my own location. So I set time to '20:00', that being the UTC for my local noon. And I got the image at right. It's an analemma, all right, and it's almost vertical. Almost ... but not quite. What was up?

Well, I was calculating for 12 noon clock time -- but clock time isn't the same as mean solar time unless you're right in the middle of your time zone.

You can calculate what your real localtime is (regardless of what politicians say your time zone should be) by using your longitude rather than your official time zone:

    date = '2011/%d/12 12:00' % (m)
    adjtime = \
                    - float( * 12 / math.pi * ephem.hour) = adjtime

Maybe that needs a little explaining. I take the initial time string, like '2011/12/15 12:00', and convert it to an The number of hours I want to adjust is my longitude (in radians) times 12 divided by pi -- that's because if you go pi (180) degrees to the other side of the earth, you'll be 12 hours off. Finally, I have to multiply that by ephem.hour because ... um, because that's the way to add hours in PyEphem and they don't really document the internals of ephem.Date.

[analemma in San Jose at noon clock time] Set the observer date to this adjusted time before calculating your analemma, and you get the much more vertical figure you see here. This also explains why the morning and evening analemmas weren't symmetrical in the previous run.

This code is location independent, so now I can run my analemma program on a city name, or specify longitude and latitude.

PyEphem turned out to be a great tool for exploring analemmas. But to really understand analemma shapes, I had more exploring to do. I'll write about that, and post my complete analemma program, in the next article.

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[ 20:54 Dec 29, 2011    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 22 Dec 2011

Calculating the Solstice and shortest day

Today is the winter solstice -- the official beginning of winter.

The solstice is determined by the Earth's tilt on its axis, not anything to do with the shape of its orbit: the solstice is the point when the poles come closest to pointing toward or away from the sun. To us, standing on Earth, that means the winter solstice is the day when the sun's highest point in the sky is lowest.

You can calculate the exact time of the equinox using the handy Python package PyEphem. Install it with: easy_install pyephem for Python 2, or easy_install ephem for Python 3. Then ask it for the date of the next or previous equinox. You have to give it a starting date, so I'll pick a date in late summer that's nowhere near the solstice:

>>> ephem.next_solstice('2011/8/1')
2011/12/22 05:29:52
That agrees with my RASC Observer's Handbook: Dec 22, 5:30 UTC. (Whew!)

PyEphem gives all times in UTC, so, since I'm in California, I subtract 8 hours to find out that the solstice was actually last night at 9:30. If I'm lazy, I can get PyEphem to do the subtraction for me:'2011/8/1') - 8./24)
2011/12/21 21:29:52
I used 8./24 because PyEphem's dates are in decimal days, so in order to subtract 8 hours I have to convert that into a fraction of a 24-hour day. The decimal point after the 8 is to get Python to do the division in floating point, otherwise it'll do an integer division and subtract int(8/24) = 0.

The shortest day

The winter solstice also pretty much marks the shortest day of the year. But was the shortest day yesterday, or today? To check that, set up an "observer" at a specific place on Earth, since sunrise and sunset times vary depending on where you are. PyEphem doesn't know about San Jose, so I'll use San Francisco:

>>> import ephem
>>> observer ="San Francisco")
>>> sun = ephem.Sun()
>>> for i in range(20,25) :
...   d = '2011/12/%i 20:00' % i
...   print d, (observer.next_setting(sun, d) - observer.previous_rising(sun, d)) * 24
2011/12/20 20:00 9.56007901422
2011/12/21 20:00 9.55920379754
2011/12/22 20:00 9.55932991847
2011/12/23 20:00 9.56045709446
2011/12/24 20:00 9.56258416496
I'm multiplying by 24 to get hours rather than decimal days.

So the shortest day, at least here in the bay area, was actually yesterday, 2011/12/21. Not too surprising, since the solstice wasn't that long after sunset yesterday.

If you look at the actual sunrise and sunset times, you'll find that the latest sunrise and earliest sunset don't correspond to the solstice or the shortest day. But that's all tied up with the equation of time and the analemma ... and I'll cover that in a separate article.

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[ 11:28 Dec 22, 2011    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 13 Mar 2011

Measuring Mars Methane -- Messy!

I write a monthly column for the San Jose Astronomical Association. Usually I don't reprint the columns here, but last month's column, Worlds of Controversy, discussed several recently controversial topics in planetary science.

One of the topics was the issue of methane on Mars -- or lack thereof. We've all read the articles about how the measurements of Mars methane points to possible signs of life, woohoo! But none of the articles cover the problems with those measurements, as described in a recent paper by Kevin Zahnle, Richard S. Freedmana and David C. Catling: Is there methane on Mars?

Lack of life on Mars isn't sexy, I guess; The Economist was the only mainstream publication covering Kevin's paper, in an excellent article, Methane on Mars: Now you don't...

Here's the short summary from my column last month:

I'm sure you've seen articles on Martian methane. Methane doesn't last long in the atmosphere -- only a few hundred years -- so if it's there, it's being replenished somehow. On Earth, one of the most common ways to produce methane is through biological processes. Life on Mars! Whoopee! So everyone wants to see methane on Mars, and it makes for great headlines.

The problem, according to Kevin, is that the Mars measurements show changes on a scale much shorter than hundreds of years: they fluctuate on a seasonal basis. That's tough to explain. Known atmospheric oxidation processes wouldn't get rid of methane fast enough, so you'd need to invent some even more exotic process -- perhaps methane-eating bacteria in the Martian soil? -- to account for the drops.

Worse, the measurements showing methane aren't very reliable. The evidence is spectroscopic: methane absorbs light at several fixed wavelengths, so you can measure methane by looking for its absorption lines.

But any Earth-based measurement of Martian methane has to cope with the fact that Earth's atmosphere has far more methane than Mars. How do you separate possible Mars methane absorption lines from Terran ones? There's one clever way: you can measure Mars at quadrature, when it's coming toward us or going away from us, and any methane spectral lines would be red- or blue-shifted compared to the Terran ones. But then the lines overlap with other absorption lines from Earth's atmosphere. It's very difficult to get a reliable measurement. Of course, a measurement from space would avoid those problems, so the spectrograph on the ESA Mars orbiter has been pressed into service. But there are questions about its accuracy.

The published evidence so far for Martian methane just isn't convincing, especially with those unlikely seasonal fluctuations. That doesn't mean there's no methane there; it means we need better data. The next Mars Rover, dubbed "Curiosity", will include a laser spectrometer which can give us much more accurate methane measurements. Curiosity is set to launch this fall and arrive at Mars in August of next year.

It gets worse: the kapton tape issue

But it gets worse. That Curiosity rover whose sensitive equipment is going to answer the question for us? Well, check out an article in Wired last week: Space Duct Tape Could Confuse Mars Rover.

It seems the materials used to build Curiosity, notably the kapton tape used in large quantities to hold the rover together ... emit methane! Andrew C. Schuerger, Christian Clausen and Daniel Britt, in Methane Evolution from UV-irradiated Spacecraft Materials under Simulated Martian Conditions: Implications for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Mission (abstract), take a selection of materials used in the rover, plus bacteria that might be expected to contaminate it, and subject them to simulated Mars conditions. They conclude

... the large amount of kapton tape used on the MSL rover (lower bound estimated at 3 m2) is likely to create a significant source of terrestrial methane contamination during the early part of the mission.

A skeptical eye

So let's sum up:

* We desperately want to see methane on Mars, because it might point to biological processes and that would be cool.
* But we don't currently have any reliable way to measure Martian methane.
* So we build a special mission one of whose primary purposes is to get accurate measurements of Martian methane.
* But we build the probe with materials that will make the measurements unreliable.

It's apparently too late to fix the problem; so instead, just shrug and say, well, it might not be so bad if we measure at night, or if we wait a while (how long?) until most of the methane outgasses. The methane emission from the kapton tape is fairly small -- though it's hard to know exactly how small, since it's impossible to test it in a real Martian environment.

So in a couple of years, when you start seeing news releases trumpeting Curiosity's methane measurements and talking about life on Mars, read them with a skeptical eye.

Maybe Curiosity will see methane levels on Mars so large that they swamp any contamination issues. Maybe not. But we won't be able to tell from the reports we read in the popular press.

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[ 12:38 Mar 13, 2011    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 21 Nov 2010

Lunar Water Strip-Mines?

You may have seen the headlines a few weeks ago, when everyone was crowing "Water on the Moon!" after the LCROSS results were finally published. Turns out the moon is wetter than the Sahara (woo!) and all the news sites seemed excited about how we'd be using this for a lunar base. It only takes a ton of rock to get 11-12 gallons of water!

I wondered, am I the only one who thinks 12 gallons isn't very much? I couldn't help envisioning a tiny lunar base surrounded by acres of mine tailing devastation.

So I calculated how much rock it takes to make a ton (assuming basalt; lunar highland anorthosite would be a little less dense). Turns out it's not very much: a ton of basalt would make a cube about 8.6 feet on a side. So okay, I guess it would take quite a while to work up to those acres of devastation. It was an interesting calculation, anyway; rock is a lot less dense than I thought.

You can read the details in my SJAA Ephemeris column this month, Full of Moon.

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[ 19:55 Nov 21, 2010    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 31 Jul 2010

Bogus statistics on drug use among drivers

The "Roadshow" column in yesterday's Merc had some pretty ... odd ... statistics involving marijuana and driving.

It quotes "an NHTSA report" as saying:

contrary to popular belief, marijuana has been found to play a significant role in car accidents across the United States, with as much as 33 percent of drivers arrested at the scene of the accident being positive for marijuana and another 12 percent testing positive for marijuana and cocaine. Every year, 28 percent of drivers in the U.S. will attempt to drive within two hours after ingesting alcohol or illicit drugs. Marijuana is the drug used most often — 70 percent — by drivers who drove after drug use and is a major factor why crashes are the leading cause of death for American young people.

Whoa. Let's play that back again: 45 percent of all drivers arrested at accident scenes (33 plus another 12) test positive for marijuana? Nearly half?

Mr. Roadshow, you don't really believe that number, do you?

I didn't. So I did some searching, looking for the NTHSA source.

When I searched for large portions of the quoted phrase, I didn't find anything from the NHTSA. The Roadshow quote appears to come from an article on (I'm sure that's an unbiased source). Here's their MS Word file or Google's cached HTML version). The same article is also available as a PDF at and there are lots of other pages making reference to it.

The article cites "Brookoff, Cook & Mann, 1994; Sonderstrom, Dischinger, Kerns & Trillis, 1995." for the 33% number. There's no citation offered for the "28% will attempt to drive...". They credit "NHTSA, 2000" for "Marijuana is the drug used most often ... by drivers who drove after drug use", but that one's not important because it says nothing about prevalence in accidents, merely that it's used more often than other drugs (no surprise there).

The NHTSA weighs in

Googling on a more general set of terms, I found my way to a October 2000 NHTSA report, Field Test of On-Site Drug Detection Devices. It's a roundup of many different studies, with drug use numbers all over the map, though none larger than the 33% figure and certainly nothing near 45%. That 33% figure is near the bottom:

Brookoff et al. (1994) used on-site testing devices in a study that found a 58% prevalence rate for drugs in subjects arrested for reckless driving (who were not found to be impaired by alcohol). The Brookoff team found that 33% of their sample tested positive for marijuana, 13% for cocaine, or 12% for both. (Because of sampling flaws in the study, these drug test rates should not be interpreted as drug prevalence rates for reckless drivers.) Interestingly, the on-site device (Microline) used by Brookoff and his colleagues generated a significant false positive rate for marijuana when compared to GC/MS results.

The horse's mouth

So what about the original study? I wasn't able to find Dischinger, Kerns & Trillis, but here's Brookoff et al. at the New England Journal of Medicine: Testing Reckless Drivers for Cocaine and Marijuana (cookies required).

A couple of important notes on the study: the figures represent percentage of drivers arrested for "reckless driving that would constitute probable cause to suspect intoxication by drugs", who were not considered to be under the influence of alcohol, and who were suspected of being under the influence of marijuana or cocaine ("all patrol officers were told that they could summon [the testing van] if they stopped a person suspected of driving recklessly under the influence of cocaine or marijuana"). Morover, not all drivers consented to be tested, and the percentages are only for those who were tested.

Seems like a perfectly valid study, as far as it goes (though there's been some mild criticism of the test they used). It's mostly interesting as a study of how marijuana and cocaine use correlate with visible intoxication and sobriety test results. It's not a study of the prevalence of drugs on the road: the NHTSA report is right about that. The numbers it reports are useless in that context.

So the jump from that study to what and Roadshow implied -- that 45% of people involved in car accidents test positive for marijuana -- is quite a leap, and attributing that leap to the NHTSA seems especially odd since they explicitly say the study shouldn't be used for those purposes.

What really happened here?

So what happened here? Brookoff, Cook, Williams and Mann publish a study on behavior of reckless drivers under the influence of drugs.

NHTSA makes a brief and dismissive reference to it in a long survey paper.

Then writes an article that references the study but entirely misinterprets the numbers. This study gets picked up and referenced by other sites, out of context.

Then somehow the paragraph from shows up in Roadshow, attributed to the NHTSA. How did that happen?

If you look at the article, the paragraph cites Brookoff in its first sentence, then goes on to other unrelated claims, citing an NHTSA study at the end of the paragraph. I suppose it's possible (though hard to understand) that one could miss the first reference, and take the NHTSA reference at the end of the paragraph as the reference for the whole paragraph. That's the best guess I can come up with. Just another example of the game of telephone.

Nobody with any sense thinks it's a good idea to drive under the influence of marijuana or other intoxicants. But bogus statistics don't help make your point. They just cast doubt on everything else you say.

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[ 13:33 Jul 31, 2010    More headlines | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 06 Feb 2010

Making "Citizen Science" compelling

I had the opportunity to participate in a focus group on NASA's new "citizen science" project, called Moon Zoo, with a bunch of other fellow lunatics, amateur astronomers and lunar enthusiasts.

Moon Zoo sounds really interesting. Ordinary people will analyze high-resolution photos of the lunar surface: find out how many boulders and craters are there. I hope it will also include more details like crater type and size, rilles and so forth, though that wasn't mentioned. These are all tasks that are easy for a human and hard for a computer: perfect for crowdsourcing. Think Galaxy Zoo for the moon. The resulting data will be used for planning future lunar missions as well as for general lunar science.

It sounds like a great project and I'm excited about it. But I'm not going to write about Moon Zoo today -- it doesn't exist yet (current estimate is mid-March), though there is a preliminary PDF. Instead, I want to talk about some of the great ideas that came out of the focus group.

The primary question: How do we get people -- both amateur astronomers and the general public, people of all ages -- interested in contributing to a citizen science project like Moon Zoo?

Here are some of the key ideas:

Make the data public

This was the most important point, echoed by a lot of participants. Some people felt that many of the existing "citizen science" projects project the attitude "We want something from you, but we're not going to give you anything in return." If you use crowdsourcing to create a dataset, make it available to the crowd.

Opening the data has a lot of advantages:

Projects like Wikipedia and Open Street Map, as well as Linux and the rest of the open source movement, show how much an open data model can inspire contributions.

Give credit to individuals and teams

People cited the example of SETI@Home, where teams of contributors can compete to see who's contributed the most. Show rankings for both individuals and groups, so they can track their progress and maybe get a bit competitive with other groups. Highlight groups and individuals who contribute a lot -- maybe even make it a formal competition and offer inexpensive prizes like T-shirts or mugs.

A teenaged panel member had the great suggestion of making buttons that said "I'm a Moon Zookeeper." Little rewards like that don't cost much but can really motivate people.

Offer an offline version

They wanted to hear ideas for publicizing Moon Zoo to groups like our local astronomy clubs.

I mentioned that I've often wanted to spread the word about Galaxy Zoo, but it's entirely a web-based application and when I give talks to clubs or school groups, web access is never an option. (Ironically, the person leading the focus group had planned to demonstrate Galaxy Zoo to us but couldn't get connected to the wi-fi at the Lawrence Hall of Science.)

Projects are so much easier to evangelize if you can download an offline demo.

And not just a demo, either. There should be a way to download a real version, including a small data set. Imagine if you could grab a Moon Zoo pack and do a little classifying whenever you got a few spare minutes -- on the airplane or train, or in a hotel room while traveling.

Important note: this does not mean you should write a separate Windows app for people to download. Keep it HTML, Javascript and cross platform so everyone can run it. Then let people download a local copy of the same web app they run on your site.

Make sure it works on phones and game consoles

Lots of people use smartphones more than they use a desktop computer these days. Make sure the app runs on all the popular smartphones. And lots of kids have access to handheld web-enabled game consoles: you can reach a whole new set of kids by supporting these platforms.

Offer levels of accomplishment, like a game

Lots of people are competitive by nature, and like to feel they're getting better at what they're doing. Play to that: let users advance as they get more experienced, and give them the option of doing harder projects. "I'm up to level 7 in Moon Zoo!"

Use social networking

Facebook. Twitter. Nuff said.

Don't keep results a secret

Quite a few scientific publications have arisen out of Galaxy Zoo -- yet although most of us were familiar with Galaxy Zoo, few of us knew that. Why so secretive? They should be trumpeting achievements like that.

How many times have you volunteered for a survey or study, then wondered for years afterward how the results came out? Researchers never contact the volunteers when the paper is finally published. It's frustrating and demotivating; it makes you not want to volunteer again. Lots of us sign up because we're curious about the science -- but that means we're also curious about the results.

With citizen science projects, this is particularly easy. Set up a mailing list or forum (or both) to discuss results and announce when papers are published. Set up a Twitter account and a Facebook group to announce new papers to anyone who wants to follow. This is the age of Web 2.0, folks -- there's no excuse for not communicating.

I don't know if NASA will listen to our ideas. But I hope they do. Moon Zoo promises to be a terrific project ... and the more of these principles they follow, the more dedicated volunteers they'll get and that will make the project even better.

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[ 20:25 Feb 06, 2010    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 01 Apr 2009

Pluto Visits the States

This is a reprinting of an article I wrote for my monthly planet column in the SJAA Ephemeris:

Is Pluto a planet, or not? Maybe you caught the news last month that Illinois, birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh, has declared Pluto a planet. It joins New Mexico, Tombaugh's longtime home, which made a similar declaration two years ago.

When I first heard about the New Mexico resolution, I was told that they had declared that Pluto would be a planet within the state's boundaries. [Size of Pluto and Charon vs. the US] That made me a bit curious: would Pluto even fit inside New Mexico? I looked it up: Pluto has a diameter of 2300km, while New Mexico is about 550km in longitude and a bit more in latitude. Not even close (see Figure 1). Too bad -- I liked the image of Pluto and Charon coming to visit and hang out with friends. Though at Pluto's orbital velocity (it takes it just under 248 years to complete its 18 billion kilometer orbit, meaning an average speed of 23 million km/year or 63,000 km/day) and its current distance of about 32 AU (4.8 billion km), it whould take it about 207 years to get here.

But it turns out that's not what the resolution said anyway. Both states' resolutions said roughly the same thing:

BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF NEW MEXICO that, as Pluto passes overhead through New Mexico's excellent night skies, it be declared a planet and that March 13, 2007 be declared "Pluto Planet Day" at the legislature.

RESOLVED, BY THE SENATE OF THE NINETY-SIXTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, that as Pluto passes overhead through Illinois' night skies, that it be reestablished with full planetary status, and that March 13, 2009 be declared "Pluto Day" in the State of Illinois in honor of the date its discovery was announced in 1930.

So the law applies to anyone (though it's probably not enforceable outside state boundaries) -- but only when Pluto is overhead in New Mexico or Illinois.

But wait -- does Pluto ever actually pass overhead in those states?

New Mexico stretches from 31.2 to about 37 degrees latitude, while Illinois spans 36.9 to 42.4. Right now Pluto is in Sagittarius, with a declination of -17° 41'; there's no way anyone in the US is going to see it directly overhead this year. Worse, it's on its way even farther south. It won't cross into the northern hemisphere until the beginning of 2111. But how far north will it go?

My first thought was to add Pluto's inclination -- 17.15 degrees, very high compared to other planets -- to the 23 degrees of the ecliptic to get 40.4°. Way far north -- no problem in either state! But unfortunately it's not as simple as that.

It turns out that when Pluto gets to its maximum north inclination, it's in Bootes (bet you didn't know Bootes was a constellation of the zodiac, did you? It's that 17° inclination that puts Pluto just past the Virgo border). That'll happen in February of 2228.

But in the Virgo/Bootes region, the ecliptic is 8° south of the equator, not 23° north. So we don't get to add 23 and 17; in fact, Pluto's declination will only be about 7.3° north. That's no help!

To find the time when Pluto gets as far north as it's going to get, you have to combine the declination of the ecliptic and the angle of Pluto above the ecliptic. The online JPL HORIZONS simulator is very helpful for running data like that over long periods -- much easier than plugging dates into a planetarium program. HORIZONS told me that Pluto's maximum northern declination, 23.5°, will happen in spring of 2193.

Unfortunately, 23.5° isn't far enough north to be overhead even from Las Cruces, NM. So Pluto, sadly, will never be overhead from either New Mexico or Illinois, and thus by the text of the two measures, it will never be a planet.

With that in mind, I'm asking you to support my campaign to persuade the governments of Ecuador and Hawaii to pass resolutions similar to the New Mexico and Illinois ones. Please give generously -- and hurry, because we need your support before April 1!

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[ 20:09 Apr 01, 2009    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 28 Oct 2007

Bright naked-eye comet: 17/P Holmes

I finally got a chance to take a look at Comet 17/P Holmes. I'd been hearing about this bright comet for a couple of days, since it unexpectedly broke up and flared from about 17th magnitude (fainter than most amateur telescopes can pick up even in dark skies) to 2nd magnitude (easily visible to the naked eye from light-polluted cities). It's in Perseus, so only visible from the northern hemisphere, pretty much any time after dark (but it's higher a little later in the evening).

And it's just as bright as advertised. I grabbed my binoculars, used a finder chart posted by one of our local SJAA members, and there it was, bright and obviously fuzzy. Without the binoculars it was still easy to see, and still noticably fuzzy.

So I dragged out the trusty 6" dobsonian, and although it has no visible tail, it has lots of structure. It looked like this:
[Comet 17/P Holmes] It has a stellar nucleus, a bright inner area (the coma?) and a much larger, fainter outer halo. There's also a faint star just outside the coma, so it'll be fun (if we continue to get holes in the clouds) to see how fast it moves relative to that star. (Not much motion in the past hour.)

It's nice to have a bright comet in the sky again! Anyone interested in astronomy should check this one out in the next few days -- since it may be in the process of breaking up, there's no telling how long it'll last or what will happen next. Grab some binoculars, or a 'scope if you have one, and take a look.

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[ 22:51 Oct 28, 2007    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 07 Jun 2007

Traffic Science

NPR this morning had a program on speeding. One of the "experts" they brought in was Richard Retting, senior transportation engineer with the IIHS (that's the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a group funded by auto insurance companies).

Early on they asked him why speeding was bad. He said there were three reasons. The first two were straightforward: when you're going faster, you (1) travel farther before you can react to something, and (2) take longer to stop. No problem there, and I waited for the third reason, presuming it was going to be kinetic energy.

Well, almost. The third reason, he said, was energy. "Remember that equation E = mc2 from high school?"

Wow! If I drive faster than the speed limit, I'm converting my mass into energy? For those who haven't studied physics recently, he was probably confusing Einstein's equation relating energy, mass and the speed of light with Newton's formula for kinetic energy, KE = mv2/2. The host responded incredulously "The speed of light?" but Retting didn't seem to notice, and pressed on: "When you're going faster, your energy is disproportionate and exponential."

Okay, you're talking on the radio and you have a brain-o. I'm sure we've all said silly things when we knew better, like reciting the wrong equation then not noticing the gaffe. But he also seems confused about what "exponential" means, perhaps because of that "exponent" of 2 in the equation. An exponential curve is when you have something like 2X, not X2. Admittedly, the dictionary of "exponential" includes vague definitions like "Pertaining to exponents", and I suppose there is an exponent of 2 involved. But really, folks: kinetic energy increases as the square of speed.

A little later in the program, someone called in to mention studies showing that higher speeds don't necessarily correlate with accidents, and Redding chastised him for doing google searches for studies: "That's not how we do science in this country." Hey, Mr. Retting -- it might pay to be a little more careful with your own science if you're going to be dismiss callers with remarks like that.

[ 18:37 Jun 07, 2007    More science | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 08 Feb 2007

The Fibonacci Spiral and the Nautilus

or, don't believe everything you read

I've been working on a short talk on Fibonacci numbers for a friend's math class.

Back when I was in high school, I did a research project on Fibonacci numbers (their use in planning the growth of a city's power stations), and for a while I had to explain the project endlessly, so I thought I remembered pretty well what sorts of visuals I'd need -- some pine cones, maybe some flower petals or branching plants, graphics of the golden ratio and the Fibonacci/ Golden Spiral, and some nice visuals of natural wonders like the chambered nautilus and how that all fits in with the Fibonacci sequence.

I collected my pine cones, took some pictures and made some slides, then it was time to get to work on the golden spirals. I wrote a little GIMP script-fu to generate a Fibonacci spiral and set of boxes, then I went looking for a Chambered Nautilus image on which I could superimpose the spiral, and found a pretty good one by Chris 73 at Wikipedia. I pasted it into GIMP, then pasted my golden spiral on top of it, activated the Scale tool (Keep Aspect Ratio) and started scaling.

And I just couldn't get them to match!

[Nautilus with Fibonacci spiral]
Nautilus image credit: CHris73 on Wikimedia Commons

No matter how I scaled or translated the spiral, it just didn't expand at the same rate as the nautilus shell.

So I called up Google Images and tried a few different nautilus images -- with exactly the same result. I just couldn't get my Fibonacci spiral to come close.

Well, this Science News article entitled Sea Shell Spirals says I'm not the only one. In 1999, retired mathematician Clement Falbo measured a series of nautilus shells at San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences, and he found that while they were indeed logarithmic spirals (like the golden spiral), their ratios ranged from about 1.24 to 1.43, with an average ratio of about 1.33 to 1, not even close to the 1.618... ratio of the Golden Spiral. In 2002,John Sharp noticed the same problem (that link doesn't work for me, but maybe you'll have better luck).

As the Science News article points out,

Nonetheless, many accounts still insist that a cross section of nautilus shell shows a growth pattern of chambers governed by the golden ratio.

No kidding! Google on fibonacci nautilus and you'll get a boatload of pages using the chambered nautilus as an illustration of the Fibonacci (or Golden) spiral in nature. It's not just the web, though -- I've been reading about nautili as Fibonacci examples for decades in books and magazines. All these writers just pass on what they've read elsewhere ... just like I did for all those years, never actually measuring a nautilus shell or trying to inscribe a golden spiral on one.

Now do a Google image search for the same terms, and you'll get lots of beautiful pictures of sectioned nautilus shells. You'll also get quite a few pictures of fibonacci spirals. But none of those beautiful pictures will actually have both the nautilus and the spiral in the same image.

And now I know why -- because they don't match!

(Happily, this actually may be a better subject for my talk than the nautilus illustration I'd originally planned. "Don't believe everything you read" is always a good lesson for high schoolers ... and it's just as relevant for us adults as well.)

(Slides from the talk I wrote start here: The Rabbit, the Nautilus and the Pine Cone.)

[ 22:15 Feb 08, 2007    More science | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 21 Dec 2006

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me ...

At dinner last night, amid the ubiquitous miasma of egregious Christmas music which is inescapable in public places starting in mid November, during "The Twelve Days of Christmas" Dave got a faraway expression in his eyes. My mother asked why, and he explained that he was thinking about the mathematics of the song: how many items of each type have been given by the end, and which items are more numerous?

There are two ways to interpret the song.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree.

So by the second day, you have two turtle doves, and you have the original partridge -- but do you also have a second partridge, as a literal interpretation of the song implies? Or is the song simply repeating all the previous gifts, not implying that they're given again?

Most people seem to assume the latter, but let's take the song literally and assume that on the third day, you get three french hens, plus two more turtle doves (that makes four) and one new partridge (for a total of three).

My first thought was that at time step T, you double what you had in step T-1 (you're getting all the same stuff yet again) and add T for the new gifts. But that's not right: you get a new load of each item (one partridge, two doves, three hens, and so forth) but you don't double all the accumulated extras who are now crowding your back yard. Time to start writing down the sums.

At each time T, the quantity you have of the Jth item is:
NJ,T = Σ J

That's easy: it's just NJ,T = J*T- J*(J-1) (pretend you've given J of the Jth object at each time step; but since you didn't give it before timestep J, subtract all the ones up to timestep J-1).

NJ,T = J * (T - J + 1)

If all you want to know is how many of each item you have at the end (on the 12th day), plug in T-12:

NJ,12 = J * (13 - J)

A quick sanity check: that means you'll have 12 of item 1 (partridges in pear trees), because you've gotten one new one each time, and 12 of item 12 (drummers drumming), which you got in one big noisy box on the last day. Likewise, you'll have 22 each of items 2 (turtle doves, of which you got two every day except the first day) and 11 (pipers piping), which you got on day 11 and again on day 12.

So the curve which interested Dave is an inverted parabola; you get the least number of the first and last gifts, and the largest quantity of the two middle gifts: six geese a'laying and seven swans a'swimming. How many geese and swans do you get in the end? Here's the surprising answer:

N6,12 = N7,12 = 6 * 7 = 42

Douglas Adams fans will immediate recognize this as the solution to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Now you know what the question was!

One last question: how many items, total, of all types will you have by the end of the twelfth day?

Since you already know how many of each item you have, just add them all up:
12 12 12 12
Ntot = Σ j * (13-j) = Σ (j * 13 - j2) = 13 * Σ j - Σ j2
j=1 j=1 j=1 j=1

Fortunately, we know that
Σ i = A (A + 1) / 2
Σ i2 = A (A + 1) (2A + 1) / 6
so we can use those identities to figure out how many total items we'll have:
Ntot = { 13 * (12 * 13) / 2 } - { 12 * 13 * 25 / 6 }
= 364

So it turns out that true love packs a present for just about every day of the year into those twelve days!

(And I found an excuse to play with using HTML tables to display equations.)

[ 12:59 Dec 21, 2006    More science | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 08 Nov 2006

Mercury Transits and Titan Occultations

Mercury transited the sun today. The weather forecast predicted rain, and indeed, I awoke this morning to a thick overcast which soon turned to drizzle. But miraculously, ten minutes before the start of the transit the sky cleared, and we were able to see the whole thing, all five hours of it (well, we weren't watching for the whole five hours -- the most interesting parts are the beginning and end).

I had plenty of practice with solar observing yesterday, showing the sun to a group of middle school girls as part of an astronomy workshop. This is organized by the AAUW, the same group that runs the annual Tech Trek summer science girls' camps. (The Stanford Tech Trek has a star party, which is how I got involved with this group.) It's the second year I've done the astronomy workshop for them; this year went pretty smoothly and everybody seemed to have a good time observing the sun, simulating moon phases, learning about the Doppler effect and plotting relative distances of the planets on a road map.

But what I really wanted to write about was the amazing video shown by last weekend's SJAA speaker, Dr. Ivan Linscott of Stanford. As one of the team members on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, he was telling us about Pluto's tenuous atmosphere. There isn't a lot of information on Pluto's atmosphere yet, but one of the goals of New Horizons is to take readings as Pluto occults the sun to see how sunlight is refracted through Pluto's atmosphere.

But that's no problem: it turns out we've already done more challenging occultation studies than that. Back in December 2001, Titan occulted a binary star, and researchers using Palomar's Adaptive Optics setup got a spectacular video of the stars being refracted through Titan's atmosphere as the occultation progresses.

This is old news, of course, but most of us hadn't seen it before and everyone was blown away. Remember, this is a video from Earth, of the atmosphere of a moon of Saturn, something most Earth-based telescopes would have trouble even resolving as a disk. Watch the Titan occultation video here.

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[ 23:38 Nov 08, 2006    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 25 Aug 2006

Pluto is too a planet

The BBC had a good article today about the International Astronomical Union vote that demoted Pluto from planet status.

It was fairly obvious that the previous proposal, last week, that defined "planet" as anything big enough that its gravity made it round, was obviously a red herring that nobody was going to take very serious. Fercryinoutloud, it made the asteroid Ceres a planet, as well as Earth's moon (in a few billion years when it gets a bit farther away from us and ceases to be considered a moon).

But apparently there were several other dirty tricks played by the anti-Pluto faction, and IAU members who weren't able to be in the room at the time of the vote are not happy and are spoiling for a rematch. The new definition doesn't make much more sense than the previous one, anyway: it's based on gravitationally sweeping out objects from an orbit, but that also rules out Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune, all of which have non-satellite objects along their orbits.

And of course the public is pretty upset about it for sentimental, non-scientific reasons. Try searching for Pluto or "Save Pluto" on Cafe Press to see the amazing selection of pro-Pluto merchandise you can buy barely a day after the IAU decision. (Personally, I want a Honk if Pluto is still a planet bumper sticker.)

It'll be interesting to see if the decision sticks.

So do I have a viable definition of "planet" which includes Pluto but not Ceres or the various other Kuiper belt objects which are continually being discovered?

Why, no, I don't. But the discussion is purely semantic anyway. Whether we call Pluto a planet doesn't make any difference to planetary science. But it does make a difference to an enormous collection of textbooks, museum exhibits, and other science-for-the-public displays.

Pluto is big enough to have been discovered in 1930, back in the days before computerized robotic telescopes and satellite imaging; it's been considered a planet for 76 years. There's no scientific benefit to changing that, and a lot of social and political reason not to -- especially now with New Horizons headed there to give us our first up-close look at what Pluto actually looks like.

There are two possible bright notes to the Pluto decision. First, Mark Taylor pointed out that it has become much easier to observe all the planets in one night, even with a very small telescope or binoculars.

And second, maybe Christine Lavin will make a new updated version of her song Planet X and go on tour with it.

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[ 22:56 Aug 25, 2006    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 26 Jul 2006

Math Skills

I just got back from the local Safeway, where a one-pound box of sugar cubes costs $1.49.

A two-pound box, same brand, is $3.99.

What a deal!

Even better, the two-pound price is up: it used to be $3.49 a few months ago (no change in the one-pound price).

I guess too many people were jumping on that incredible $3.49 deal, so they had to raise it.

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[ 17:25 Jul 26, 2006    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 29 Apr 2006

The Hayward Fault -- Exposed!

Today was opening day for the Hayward fault!

Well, okay, the fault itself has been there a while, but it was opening day for the Hayward Fault: Exposed! exhibit in Fremont. They've dug a trench into the Hayward fault as part of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Centennial activities, so people can walk a stairway and stand right in a fault and see what it looks like.

I'm a volunteer docent for the exhibit: one of the people who help answer questions about the fault, the trench, and earthquakes in general, and who also help with details such as setup, safety, and getting people to sign the liability waiver as they enter the exhibit. (My photos and fault facts here.)

Opening day was a bit hectic even aside from the usual opening-day flutters because it was a big day in Fremont Central Park: there was a huge manga festival at the Teen Center right next to the fault trench, complete with live band all day, and over at Lake Elizabeth at the other end of the park was the annual "Splashdown" rubber ducky race.

We expected chaos. But we didn't get it: everything went surprisingly smoothly. We got lots of visitors who were there specifically to see the fault, not just spillover from the other events: apparently it had gotten press on the TV news and several newspapers. There may also have been word of mouth advertising: a surprising number of the visitors I talked to were CERT volunteers or otherwise actively involved in bay area disaster preparedness programs. They were already very well informed about seismic hazards and earthquakes, and eager to see the fault for themselves.

We ended up with about 600 visitors (perhaps a fourth to a third of them teens from the manga festival). Everyone was very well behaved, asked good questions and seemed to appreciate the exhibit. It's lovely to volunteer at exhibits where you spend all your time answering questions, chatting with people and explaining the exhibit, not worrying about policing people and enforcing rules.

(Well, maybe there was a little bit of chaos. The band at the manga festival included karaoke. It's not every day that one gets the opportunity to try to explain paleoseismology and radiocarbon dating while someone a few feet away is belting out "Bohemian Rhapsody" over a loudspeaker but forgetting the words.)

We were pleased to see that everyone spent a lot of time around the (excellent) poster displays from the USGS, which cover everything from earthquake preparedness to stratigraphy of this particular trench to geologic maps of the Hayward fault and the bay area. Most people missed the parking lot displays on the way in (a sign pointing to cracks in the pavement and an offset curb, highlighted with orange spray paint), but we told them what to look for so they could catch them on the way out.

The exhibit will get more press tonight: two or three different TV channels showed up today and interviewed Heidi Stenner, the USGS geologist organizing the exhibit, as well as some of the visitors. So with any luck we'll continue to get good turnouts. The trench will be open through the end of June.

Most of the other docents are either seismologists or seismology graduate students. It wasn't a problem: the questions most people were asking were straightforward questions I could answer easily. But it was fun listening to the other docents and learning from them, and when someone asks a tricky question, you sure can't beat being able to turn to the researcher who did the original study on this trench in 1987 (Jim Lienkaemper) and get the straight scoop! (He also developed the USGS Virtual Tour of the Hayward Fault web site).

The Hayward fault last let go in 1868, a magnitude-6.9 event called "The Great San Francisco Quake" until the 1906 earthquake on the San Andreas took over that title. Trench studies like Lienkaemper's have shown that historically this fault has a large earthquake every 130 to 150 years. Our visitors didn't need a calculator to do the math.

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[ 23:46 Apr 29, 2006    More science/geology | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 18 Apr 2006

Mr. Sid Meets Linux

Every now and then I search for a map (usually a geologic map) and end up at a USGS page like this one.

The web viewer is impossible, so that link over on the left -- Download Image Now (16M) -- looks awfully tempting, and I always go for it.

What they don't tell you is what sort of image you're getting; after you download that 16M, you end up with a file called something like q250_1388a_us_c.sid, which no image viewer I've ever found considers to be an image file. Even ImageMagick, which can handle almost anything, is baffled by .sid files.

It turns out that .sid stands for "Mr. Sid", a file format for very large raster images. The format is controlled by a company called LizardTech, and it's apparently so scary that no one has ever managed to reverse engineer it. The only way to read a Mr. Sid file is to use one of the programs (available in binary form only) from LizardTech.

Fortunately LizardTech does provide at least one of their programs, mrsisddecode, as a Linux binary. Get it from their download page. Then you can type a command like mrsiddecode -i q250_1388a_us_c.sid -o q250_1388a_us_c.jpg to convert the file into some other image format (which will be quite large -- this particular map is 17170 x 9525).

(Apparently there's an SDK which is also available for Linux, available here. The gdal toolkit used by MapServer and certain other GIS applications make use of this SDK. I hear it's somewhat picky about GCC version, but otherwise works.)

I'm happy that I've found something that will convert MrSid files to a format I can use, but it's a little discouraging that the USGS is restricting its public maps to a format that can be read only with software from a single company. I wonder if the USGS has a contingency plan concerning all these Mr. Sid maps in case anything ever happens to LizardTech? Aren't open formats safer in the long run?

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[ 22:50 Apr 18, 2006    More science/geology | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 12 Apr 2006

Dream Jobs and Mars Rocks

Driving home from dinner, watching the alpenglow fade from the gleaming domes of Lick Observatory, I found myself thinking about the talk last night: a wonderful geology seminar by Michael Carr of the USGS on the subject of "Water on Mars".

I had a chance to chat briefly with the speaker before the meeting. We got to talking about the moon. It turns out that he spent some of his early career at Lick, working with a few colleagues to make a geologic map of the moon. How? By sketching the terminator every night from the eyepiece of the 36" refractor, and trying to deduce the geology from the topography they sketched. Talk about dream jobs!

It was interesting to compare Carr's talk to the SJAA talk on the same subject earlier this year by Jeff Moore of NASA/Ames (always one of my favorite SJAA speakers). Carr's talk was quite a bit more detailed and heavier on the geologic details, not surprising since he was speaking to a room full of geologists and geology students. He even showed a stratigraphic column of the Burns Cliff area that the Opportunity rover investigated near Meridiani.

I learned quite a bit that I can apply toward my "Mars Rock" collection. I have a set of rocks that are similar to the various interesting rocks on the moon (I finally found some anorthosite a few months ago). I use them when I give presentations on the moon. It goes over very well: I think people get a better idea of what the moon is made of and how its surface looks when they get a chance to handle the rocks and look at them up close.

I have a start on a similar collection for Mars, but of course the most interesting Mars-like rocks to show people aren't the boring black and red basalts; they're the ones the Rovers have been discovering that point to a history of water. So those are the rocks I'm most interested in adding: the sulfates and other evaporites, sandstones made of evaporite sediments, hematite "blueberries" (Moqui Marbles, on Earth), and jarosite.

I'd never heard of jarosite before, but from a bit of web research the day after the talk, it turns out to be one of the minerals implicated in the controversy that was in the news last year about modern-day generation of methane on Mars. Some people attributed the extra methane to the presence of biological organisms, though others were quick to point out that there are plenty of non-biological ways to release methane.

Interestingly, one of the audience members at the talk commented that in the Sierras jarosite is a weak biological indicator (because the biological organisms prevent formation of carbonates, if I understood him correctly). So it's a pretty interesting mineral even for someone who doesn't hold out much hope for finding life on Mars.

Here's a good summary of the rocks found in the Burns Cliffs.

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[ 22:27 Apr 12, 2006    More science/geology | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 10 Jul 2005

Dark Side of the Moon; M51 Supernova

Yesterday was the annual Fremont Peak Star-b-q. This year the weather managed to be fairly perfect for observing afterward: the fog came in for a while, making for fairly dark skies, and it wasn't too cold though it was a bit breezy. It was even reasonably steady.

I had my homebuilt 8" dob, while Dave brought his homebuilt 12.5". Incredibly, we were all alone in the southwest lot: the most Star-b-q was fairly lightly attended, and most of the handful who stayed to observe afterward set up at Coulter row.

The interesting sight of the evening was the supernova in M51 (the Whirlpool galaxy). It was fairly easy in the 12.5" once we knew where to look (Mike Koop came over to visit after looking at it in the 30"), and once we found it there all three of us could see it in the 8" as well.

We had excellent views of Jupiter in the 8", with detail in the red spot, the thin equatorial band easily visible, and long splits in both the northern and southern equatorial bands. I didn't make any sketches since a family wandered by about then so I let them look instead.

We also had lovely low-power views of Venus and crescent Mercury, and we spent some time traversing detail on the dark side of the slim crescent moon due to the excellent earthshine. All the major maria were visible, and of course Aristarchus, but we could also see Plato, Sinus Iridum, Kepler, Copernicus and its ray system, Tycho (only in the 12" -- the 8" was having glare problems that close to the lit part of the moon) and one long ray from Tycho that extended across Mare Nubium and out to near Copernicus. Pretty good for observing the "dark" side!

Neither of us was able to find Comet Tempel-1 (the Deep Impact comet), even with the 12.5". But after moonset I picked up the Veil and North American in the 8" unfiltered (having left my filters at home), and we got some outstanding views of the nebulae in Sagittarius, particularly the Trifid, which was showing more dust-lane detail without a filter than I've ever seen even filtered.

It was a good night for carnivores, too. We saw one little grey fox cub trotting up the road to the observatory during dinner, and there was another by the side of the road on the way home. Then, farther down the road, I had to stop for three baby raccoons playing in the street. (Very cute!) They eventually got the idea that maybe they should get off the road and watch from the shoulder. The parents were nowhere to be seen: probably much more car-wise than their children (I don't often see raccoon roadkill). I hope the kids got a scolding afterward about finding safer places to play.

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[ 23:31 Jul 10, 2005    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 17 Jun 2005

The Game of Telephone

Remember the game of "Telephone" when you were a kid? Everybody gets in a big circle. One kid whispers a message in the ear of the kid next to them. That kid repeats the message to the next kid, and so on around the circle. By the time the message gets back to the originator, it has usually changed beyond recognition.

Sometimes the Internet is like that.

Background: a year and a half ago, in August 2003, there was an unusually favorable Mars opposition. Mars has a year roughly double ours, so Mars "oppositions" happen about every two years (plus a few months). An opposition is when we and Mars are both on the same side of the sun (so the sun is opposite Mars in our sky, and Mars is at its highest at midnight). We're much closer to Mars at opposition than at other times, and that makes a big difference on a planet as small as Mars, so for people who like to observe Mars with a telescope, oppositions are the best time to do it.

The August 2003 opposition was the closest opposition in thousands of years, because Mars was near its perihelion (the point where it's closest to earth) at the time of the opposition. Much was made of this in the press (the press loves events where they can say "best in 10,000 years") to the point where lots of people who aren't normally interested in astronomy decided they wanted to see Mars and came to star parties to look through telescopes.

That's always nice, and we tried to show them Mars, though Mars is very small, even during an opposition. The 2003 opposition wasn't actually all that favorable for those of us in northern hemisphere. because Mars was near the southernmost part of its orbit. That means it was very low in the sky, which is never good for seeing detail through a telescope. Down near the horizon you're looking through a lot more of Earth's atmosphere, and you're down near all the heat waves coming off houses and streets and even rocks. That disturbs the view quite a bit, like trying to see detail on a penny at the bottom of a swimming pool.

This year's opposition, around Halloween, will not be as close as the 2003 opposition, but it's still fairly close as oppositions go. Plus, this year, Mars will be much farther north. So we're expecting a good opposition -- weather permitting, both on Earth, which is sometimes cloudy in November, and on Mars, where you never know when a freak dust storm might appear.

Which brings me back to the game of Telephone.

A few weeks ago I got the first of them. An email from someone quoting a message someone had forwarded, asking whether it was true. The message began:

The Red Planet is about to be spectacular! This month and next, Earth is catching up with Mars in an encounter that will culminate in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history.
and it ended:
Share this with your children and grandchildren. NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN
(sic on the caps and the lack of a period at the end).

I sent a reply saying the email was two years out of date, and giving information on this year's Mars opposition and the fact that it may actually be better for observing Mars than 2003 was. But the next day I got a similar inquiry from someone else. So I updated my Mars FAQ to mention the misleading internet message, and the inquiries slowed down.

But today, I got a new variant.


As big as the moon! That would be a very close opposition!

(Dave, always succinct, said I should reply and say simply, "Bigger." Mars is, of course, always bigger than the moon, even if its apparent size as viewed from earth is small.)

It looks like the story is growing in the telling, in a way it somehow didn't two years ago.

I can't wait to see what the story will have become by August. Mars is going to hit us?

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[ 11:48 Jun 17, 2005    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 01 Jun 2005

Geological Society of America (GSA) Conference

The GSA conference happened back when I was too caught in the whirl of events to write about them. It's been a over month now, but I did want to save a couple of impressions.

The field trips all started way too early. Sure, this is the whining of a non-morning person: but really, when your field trip starts with 45 minutes of everybody standing around because the rental agency that rents the vans isn't open yet, maybe that's a sign that starting a little later might be a good idea. Even aside from the wisdom of scheduling all your travel time for the height of rush hour.

The field trips were worthwhile, though. The most interesting parts were often topics that hadn't sounded interesting at all ahead of time.

The talks at the conference were terrific, total information overload, with maybe six sessions going at once. There are lots of people doing interesting research in geology, often fairly junior people (grad students or postdocs), and many of them are even able to talk enthusiastically about their research using words that make sense to a mere student of the subject. Dry jargon-laden talks did exist, but they were the exception, not the rule.

Everybody was friendly, too, and very willing to talk to students and explain their research or chat about other topics in geology. I went to one of the "Roy J. Shlemon student mentoring lunches" featuring a round-robin of geologists moving from one student table to another to share insight and stories: very helpful and interesting!

The conference organizers obviously worship at the altar of Bill Gates. There was apparently a conference-wide dictum that Thou Shalt Use Powerpoint and Thou Shalt Display On Our Windows Boxen, Not Your Own Machine.

The unsurprising result was that roughly 80% of the talks had at least some problems displaying slides, resulting in cursing, then apologies, with the speaker assuring the audience that it would make much more sense if only we could see the slide the way it had been written. Perhaps half of these followed up with a mutter about having to use Windows rather than a Mac. Macs are clearly big with geologists (though alas there was no sign of Linux use).

That said, the conference ran aggressively on time, each session having an appointed watchdog to sit in front and remind the speaker when time was running out. I've never seen a conference stick to a schedule so well, especially when filled with short (20-minute) talks. I had been prepared for the worst after problems getting schedule information before the conference, but the organization on site (except field trips) was flawless.

All in all, quite a good time. I'm only sorry next year's conference isn't back in San Jose. (It's in Alaska; I'd love to go, but finances will probably prevent it.)

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[ 00:04 Jun 01, 2005    More science/geology | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 23 May 2005

Geology of Red Rock Canyon

I just finished writing up the final project for my field geology class.

The project involved discovering and mapping the geology of Red Rock Canyon. I'll probably upload the paper and other documents later; for now, just a few notes about the field trip, weekend before last.

Red Rock Canyon is in the Mojave desert, near Ridgecrest. I'd been through a few times before, since it's more or less on the way to Death Valley, but of course didn't know any of the geologic details, other than "Ooh, look at the pretty red and white layers and the eroded hoodoos!"

Actually, it's not technically in the Mojave. One of the reasons Red Rock Canyon is interesting is that it sits at the junction of three of California's geomorphic provinces, at the junction of the Garlock fault (dividing the Mojave from the Basin and Range) and the Sierra Front fault (dividing the Sierra from the other two). The Mojave is bounded on its south end by the transverse section of the San Andreas, but Red Rock Canyon is north of the Garlock fault, in the Basin and Range.

Our four day camping trip (two days of hiking, measuring, and mapping, two days devoted mostly to travel) covered a few square miles around the visitor's center, but we ended up with a surprisingly complete map and stratigraphy. Several people had trouble with the temperatures, which were somewhere in the nineties, combined with the pace of the hikes. That's not really all that hot, especially for desert, but it's hot for a group of people coming out of a bay area winter and an unusually rainy spring, especially the students unused to hiking. (This was all rather ironic since we'd switched our mapping project to Red Rock after being concerned about too much snow at the first choice location, June Lake. Those concerns were probably justified; it was snowing up until a few days before we left, so despite the heat, Red Rock was the right choice.)

Nevertheless, Red Rock is a great location to learn geologic mapping. The structure is fairly simple and easy to see (especially from the top of Whistler's Peak), with a series of cuestas of sedimentary layers each capped with basalt, and a couple of other interesting and distinctive layers in between. Luckily for us, there isn't much complex folding, just a fairly continuous tilt caused by uplift due to the El Paso fault (a branch of the Garlock). The rocks themselves are interesting, with lots of olivine and other crystals in one of the basalt layers, and an area at the base of the other basalt layer containing lovely rocks such as opals -- the area used to be an opal mine.

It's also a fairly nice place to camp, with campsites nestled back among towering cliffs (of the Tr5 fluvial member of the Ricardo formation, if you're curious for details) which provides a bit more privacy and separation from other campers than a lot of parks allow. I'm not really much of a camper (I'm a poor sleeper, and I do like my morning shower) but out campsite converted even the timid non-campers in the class.

White-throated swifts play in the turbulence along the face of the cliffs, calling loudly to each other. Their calls woke me up at daybreak each morning, but setting aside sleep deprivation, it wasn't all bad. It's mating season for the swifts, and it turns out they mate in midair. Two birds come together, and locked together they spiral hundreds of feet downward, finally separating just short of the ground. We have white throated swifts here in the bay area, but I'd never seen anything like their aerial mating dance before; let alone seen it set against towering desert cliffs in the stillness of dawn light.

Other interesting natural phenomena observed on the trip: a barn owl flew over the campsite every night, visible against the campfire light. Zebra-tailed lizards were ghostly white except for their black-ringed tails and some ghostly markings on their backs. We saw lots of jackrabbits and several alligator lizards (the latter have been numerous in the bay area as well, this spring). And we saw a lovely horizontal "rainbow" at mid-day of the first day which turned out, after much research, to be a "circumhorizontal arc". I took a telescope along, but we didn't have very good skies (haze, thin clouds, and disturbed seeing, and with all the campfires it was smoky and not even very dark) so we mostly looked at Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon (we did get good seeing at dusk one night for the moon, and we got a good look at the Mare Nectaris shock rings and the beginnings of Rima Ariadaeus).

A few of our group were disturbed to learn on the way down that they wouldn't have cellphone reception at Red Rock. Horrors! They rushed to tie up loose ends, and managed it before we finally lost reception passing by Mojave.

All in all, a very successful trip, although most of us were awfully glad to get home and jump in the shower. I'm even gladder to have my final report finished. Nevertheless, geologic mapping is fun: I'm happy that I had the chance to complete a map of an area like this. I may even be back to Red Rock some day, to try to trace out the extent of that mystery fault at the north end of the pink tuff breccia layer ...

5/25/2005: photos and report are up.

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[ 20:11 May 23, 2005    More science/geology | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 17 Jan 2005

Open Source Scientific Image Processing

Anthony Liekens has a wonderful page on open-source Cassini-Huygens image analysis.

A group of people from a space IRC channel took the raw images from the descent of the Huygens probe onto Titan's surface, and applied image processing: they stitched panoramas, created animations, created stereograms, added sharpening and color. The results are very impressive!

I hope NASA takes notice of this. There's a lot of interest, energy and talent in the community, which could be very helpful in analysis of astronomical data. Astronomy has a long history of amateur involvement in scientific research, perhaps more so than any other science; extending that to space-based research seems only a small step.

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[ 19:30 Jan 17, 2005    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 18 Jul 2004

FPOA Star-b-q

Hiking up to the top of Fremont Peak before the FPOA Star-b-q started, we saw the Ghost and the Darkness, squirrel style. A couple of ground squirrels hidden in the tall grass startled as we walked by, and whisked off through the grass, occasionally twitching a tail-tip up above the tops of the grasses but otherwise mostly invisible.

Down in the parking lots, there were some interesting ant or wasp-like insects: furry scarlet head, black thorax, furry scarlet abdomen. The wings were black, too, and they could fly at least a little. No idea what they were.

Learned a new word reading scoops on the way down: Anecdotage, that advanced age where all one does is relate stories about "the good, old days."

Turned out Jeff Moore was the speaker at FPOA. He always gives good talks, but this one was especially good: interpretation of the Mars Rover geologic results so far. Some of his slides showed terrestrial scenes (mostly Death Valley) for comparison with the Martian geologic features, and he mentioned that the terrestrial slides were easy to tell because they were the ones with the pocketknife showing (for scale). So the following morning, I got inspired to whip up a few counterexamples.

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[ 10:00 Jul 18, 2004    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]