Category Archives: Science!

When it Rains, it Pours

If things are quiet here lately it probably correlates with how the off-blog writing is going well lately, and I have two things to announce:

1) I have a new monthly gig over at Astrobites, which is a site run by astronomy PhD students where we take new astronomy papers off the ArXiv and summarize them at an undergraduate level.  My first summary is up and is about “New Evidence of an Asteroid Encountering a Pulsar,” which is more or less exactly what it sounds like. (Meaning: awesome paper!) So that should be interesting, and we’ll see how it goes- if nothing else, I have a bigger incentive than ever to keep atop the latest literature.

2) The second and perhaps more important one is I’ve just had an article appear in the January 2013 issue of Sky & Telescope titled “Tuning In to Radio Jupiters.”  It’s all about how the race is on to detect the first extrasolar planet via radio, by way of interesting details on things like how Jupiter shoots radio lasers through its magnetic fields and how Nikola Tesla might have detected them.  Trust me, it’s cool and you should read it!

Over, and out.

As Seen in Astronomy Magazine

Working hard lately (Artie Aardvark Goes to Groningen, anyone?), but I wanted to check in and mention that you should go pick up the December 2013 edition of Astronomy to see my latest-and-greatest article.  It’s the one listed on the cover as “Super Graphic: Where are spacecraft now?” which is about, well, where spacecraft are now.  You know how you always hear about space missions like the Voyagers or the Vikings or whatever else, and then never hear about them again once their science results leave the spotlight?  Well this is a summary of humanity crashing spacecraft or flinging them into space or all sorts of things we deliberately or inadvertently do with them- researched by me so you don’t have to! (This is a classic example in science journalism of “if I’m wasting this much time reading up on this I can’t be the only one interested, so why not try to sell the article to someone?”)

Trust me, it’s cool, and in large part because the graphics are incredible– imagine the Solar System over several pages, with little planets and space missions and text placed where appropriate.  There is no way I am talented enough to do that part because my creativity does not go that way- Astronomy just has a wonderfully talented graphics guy- but I must say, it’s lovely when you have a vision for something and convince someone to make said vision despite your lack of talent to make it happen on your own.  Teamwork at its best!

So anyway, get yourself a copy of the December 2013 Astronomy if you’re interested, whether digital or print- it’s a good one!

Artie Aardvark Looks at La Palma

For those who don’t know him, Artie Aardvark is my little friend who is very curious and likes to visit various astronomy sites. Naturally when he heard about the La Palma observing run, he was begging to go…
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I am so excited, I get to visit La Palma and see what astronomers do!  La Palma is an island in the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco where a lot of Europeans come for vacation, and here I am relaxing with them on the beach a little before heading up to the observatory on the summit.  I am worried though- it’s cloudy!  Won’t the clouds make observing stars hard?IMG_1253

IMG_1260I soon learn the secret of La Palma though is the mountain is so tall and steep that we are above the clouds here!  Wow!  I can’t wait to visit all the telescopes! Continue reading

La Palma- On The Roof of the World

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IMG_1282These shots were taken at sunset a few hours ago, in the sort of sunset and circumstance that makes you think if this really is all there is, well, you’re pretty ok with that.

I am on La Palma in the Canary Islands for a week-long observing run.  Normally coming up to this sort of place isn’t the astronomy I do (I play with a radio telescope in the Netherlands, which I’ve never seen as I download the data form a supercomputer, meaning not too many exotic observing trips), but we have a course at the University of Amsterdam for our M.Sc. astronomy students where we have them write proposals and take data and write it up on a proper big telescope down here in La Palma.  They take a TA too- a PhD student who is the teaching assistant- so upon realizing I had to TA anyway I asked just what someone had to do to TA the La Palma course.

“You have to ask, and you’re the first one to ask” was the answer, so here I am, adapting to a week of nocturnal existence where one typically sleeps from 8am-4pm.  Something else I never really do normally by the way, as radio waves don’t care if it’s day or night when you observe them.

More later, probably from a furry little aardvark friend of mine who loves exploring all things astronomy.  But it was just too glorious a sunset tonight to not share it.

Artie Aardvark Sees Santorini

For those of you who don’t know him, Artie Aardvark is my curious little aardvark friend who is the mascot for our radio astronomy group.  He likes to tag along on astronomy adventures and write about them in a far cuter way than I ever could.  Take it away, Artie!

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Wow it’s a good life being an astronomy project’s mascot- the astronomers had a conference here in Santorini and they brought be along!  This is the view from the conference center.  I think it might be the prettiest place in the world to have a conference. Continue reading

Amsterdam, Two Years In

amsterdam-canal-viewIt is a rather incredible thing to stop and think how I moved to Amsterdam two years ago.  In many ways two years is a long time: long enough to graduate from a beginning PhD student in your department to a senior one, to learn the rhythm of the seasons at a European latitude where sunset times range from 4pm to 11pm, to master the chaotic intimacy of an Amsterdam bicycle commute.  Two years of living somewhere is plenty of time to move twice, try a long distance relationship, learn enough Dutch to realize you know what people are discussing at the next table, learn how to do improv comedy, learn all the shortcuts and secret haunts, know the one place in town that sells chocolate syrup, and a myriad of other things you deal with in daily life but only learn with experience.

In the past two years I have visited about 20 countries.  How, dear reader, did that happen? (Ok, there is an answer: mainly weekends and an expert manipulation of short distances and cheap fares from a major center of European transport. But geez, that’s quite a few.)

But anyway.  Since most of you likely don’t know, the reason two years is a particularly noteworthy thing to mention is it means I am halfway through my time in Amsterdam because my contract is for four years total, and they are fairly strict about making you graduate on time in the Netherlands (you might extend a few months, but that’s it).  If I can tell you anything about the coming two years compared to the last two it’s it will be dominated less by exploring life abroad and more with “OMG I need to write a thesis,” as my friends who have done it seem to all disappear for at least six months when preparing to submit.  But there’s a reason getting a doctorate in astrophysics is supposed to be hard, right? As a final note, in honor of this halfway through my time in Amsterdam occasion, I thought I’d take a moment to answer the three most common questions I get from people who want to know how things are going.  In no particular order: Continue reading

Photo: New Hampshire… Rocks!!!

Madison Boulder

huge glacial erraticIn the “list of odd things I’ve seen but never expected to” category, I am now including this rock.  It is the Madison Boulder, located innocuously off a stretch of road and hidden in the forest so you don’t really see the thing until you suddenly find yourself almost right in front of it.  And when you do it seems a bit crazy that something so very big and impressive could be hiding out in the forest without you knowing about it.  What is the biggest rock I’ve ever seen doing in the middle of the woods?

It turns out the Madison Boulder is a glacial erratic- one of the biggest in the world, in fact, with an estimated weight of 4,662 tons (though- warning, geek joke- such a precise number made me question the sign maker’s significant figure usage…).  About 25,000 years ago during the last Ice Age the entire region was covered in a giant sheet of ice more than a mile thick, which carried along boulders big and small which were made smooth by the constant pressures, but as anyone who has visited the area knows many of these were then left behind during the glacial retreat (along with a few thousand glacial lakes).  The Madison Boulder just happens to be the very biggest in all of New England.

And I know I must say this a lot guys, but science is so cool.  For thousands of years after the Ice Ages people surely stumbled across this rock wondering what on Earth it was doing hiding in the middle of the forest, but we are lucky enough to not have to wonder!  And frankly a giant sheet of ice a mile high stretching thousands of miles is probably way cooler than anything you could think up as a credible answer anyway…