Monday, December 31, 2018

Happy 2019! Hauʻoli Makahiki Hou!

Well here it is, 2018's just about over and 2019's just around the corner. A year spent in Australia, a year spent below the equator—and now that I'm west of the international date line instead of east I get to welcome the new year before most of the world instead of after it. (Which means this post is going to go up the day before for people in the U.S. Oh well. That's time zones for you.)

And I'm off to a New Year's party now, so see you all in 2019! Hauʻoli Makahiki Hou!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A Christmas Eve Astrobite

I've put up a final post on Astrobites this year, on Christmas Eve, of all days! Especially after posting one on Thanksgiving. This is actually the post I wanted to write for Thanksgiving, but time constraints and the fact I already had one half-written changed that.

This paper is about how our Sun is so incredibly stable in brightness over time compared to other stars. In fact, its variability is so much lower than other stars that it's been a long-standing puzzle in solar physics. To explain it briefly, the authors of the paper I wrote about did some simulations of Sun-like stars while varying a few key parameters such as the proportion of elements besides hydrogen and helium and the star's effective temperature. What they found is that the Sun sits in a very special place in phase-space where it ends up being almost perfectly constant in brightness over the course of its solar magnetic cycle. Changing the metallicity or temperature by extremely small amounts (relatively speaking)—in any direction—causes the variability over a star's magnetic cycle to shoot up dramatically.

(The mechanism I thought was pretty interesting: magnetic activity in stars causes two types of phenomena, starspots which are darker than average, and faculae which are brighter than average. Most stars are dominated by one or the other over the course of a magnetic cycle which changes their brightness, but the Sun's parameters cause the relative numbers of sunspots and faculae to almost perfectly balance in such a way that its average power output as seen from Earth is almost constant.)

This is actually final astrobite as a scheduled author; going into my second year of my PhD I've decided to retire from the active rotation to be able to focus more on my research. However, I'm not done writing just yet! I'll be able to write posts for the queue, and I still intend to, which just means I won't know when they'll go out. I no longer need to write one every month or so, so the number may go up or down depending on how many interesting papers I come across. Honestly, that's the part I'm looking forward to the most: some of my posts were on papers I found genuinely fascinating and loved explaining and I'm really proud of them, while a few of them were written just because I had a deadline and were the most interesting least boring papers I could find recently. Being able to write only when I'm really motivated (kinda like I do here…) is quite an exciting prospect!

I feel like that may have ended up more melancholy than I intended, so how about some Christmas presents? For the featured image for my posts I used the painting below, which I painted last Thursday as a present for my adviser:

“A Solar Twin,” by me.
(Unfortunately I miscalculated when he was going on vacation so he'll find it when he gets back in January, I guess. Some of my friends were ribbing me that I'm setting unrealistically high expectations for the other students now!)

Painting a star turned out to be so much fun that I painted another one the next night, a pulsar for my associate adviser:

“A Pulsar,” also by me.
Ignore the ugly shadow cast by my easel at the top of the picture. Which, I realized, I haven't mentioned yet, so yes, I bought an easel! I feel like a real artist now. An easel makes painting so much easier. I picked one that's quite portable and folds up nicely so I can bring it home (as I've done over the break, along with my painting supplies). It's sitting in the corner with my current work on it, and I must say, an easel with a painting in progress on it really classes up the room it's in!

Anyway, that's enough for tonight. Merry Christmas everyone, and I hope to be back with some more posts soon now that I'm on vacation.

Monday, December 17, 2018

A December Update

It's been pretty quiet on the ol’ blog front this month—for a few reasons—but I'm hopeful that'll change in the next week or so. First off, I got sick last weekend, which laid me out for almost a week. Then, I've been struggling with a lot of instability in my computer the past few months, which I finally tracked down to one of my RAM modules starting to fail. I found and removed it last weekend, and my computer's been nice and stable again since. And finally, I've just been busy with numerous things as the end of the year rolls around.

This is the last week before the Christmas break begins, and I'll be taking a few weeks off after that, so I'm hoping that starting this weekend I can finally start working on some of the many creative projects rattling around in my head that have been accruing the last few months. And that'll likely lead to some new blog posts, so the second half of December should be a little livelier than the first half has been so far. Blender just came out with a huge new update that radically overhauls the interface to make it simpler and more intuitive, and I'm interested in checking it out to see how it's changed. Plus I've got plenty of other ideas for projects to do. A hui hou!

Sunday, November 25, 2018


I've finished my second painting project, a picture of the waxing crescent Moon illuminated by Earthshine. This one only took about a month, compared to my first one which took three, for a few reasons:
  1. This one is only 40 cm² rather than 80 cm², or a quarter of the size of the first one.
  2. It uses a much more restricted palette (number of colors), mostly because:
  3. It's based on an actual astrophoto someone else took that I used as reference.
In fact it would have been finished even sooner, but for the SciCoder workshop last week leaving me no time to paint until Saturday. Still, it's finished now, and I'm pretty happy with it.

I only have one in-progress photo for this one; partly I forgot to take more, partly I chose not to because there often weren't significant differences between painting sessions.

You may be able to pick out, in the still un-painted areas, the pencil marks I sketched as a guide.
Here it is in progress, after two sessions; the first one I painted the sunlit side and maria (dark lava plains) there, and the second I started filling in the dark side highlands. It was interesting doing this one because I used a very restricted palette; white, black, gray, and one or two different types of blue.

And here's the finished product. I think this one looks a bit better from a distance, hence the wider shot of it hanging up in my kitchen. (The house I'm living in, very conveniently, has a ton of ready-made hooks for hanging things all over the walls.)

North is up in the painting so this is roughly how it'd look in the northern hemisphere, partly because I'm used to seeing it that way and partly because that's how the photo I painted it from looked. But you could easily flip it upside down to have a southern hemisphere view.

Anyway, it was a fun project, and interesting to paint with a restricted range of colors. I've already got several ideas in my head for future paintings, so we'll see which ones come to fruition first. Two weeks ago I discovered that the local art shop (where I'm now on a first-name basis with several of the employees) sells little 8×10 inch canvases by the 10-pack, so I've picked up one of those and have some Christmas presents to start painting… A hui hou!

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A Thanksgiving Astrobite!

In a funny coincidence, when the latest three-month schedule for Astrobites was put together I ended up being scheduled for both Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. I got my Thanksgiving post up two days ago, and amusingly the title (“Mirach’s Ghost and Mirach’s Goblin: A New Galaxy Found Near the Local Group”) sounds a bit like I mis-scheduled a post intended for Halloween.

I'd actually intended to write this post for the queue and write about a different paper for my scheduled Thanksgiving post, but I ended up being extremely busy this week (details below) and since I'd already started working on this post I ended up using it instead. Oh well. Maybe I'll write the other one up for the queue. The paper I ended up writing about is fascinating in its own right, about the discovery of a new, extremely faint dwarf galaxy just beyond the boundary of the Local Group.

The reason I was so busy this week is that I was attending SciCoder 2018, an intensive week-long workshop in scientific programming. This was, however, an almost-literally last-minute decision, as the course had filled up so quickly upon being announced a few months ago that I only made it on the waiting list (and knew there was at least one other person who was on it ahead of me). Sunday night at about 7:30 PM I got an email from the conference organizer letting me know there was an opening and asking if I wanted to attend, and after half an hour or so of working out just how much that would impact my week I accepted.

And when I say intensive, it was just that; 9 to 5 each day (or 8:30 on the first day), at the University of Melbourne (necessitating an hour of train and tram travel for me each way), and throughout a veritable avalanche of information. I was fortunate to already have some familiarity with some of the concepts presented, and even I left each evening feeling like I'd just spent the day doing the mental equivalent of drinking out of a fire hose. It was good, don't get me wrong, but also quite exhausting.

Somehow during the week I also managed to squeeze out enough time (not that it took much) to work on a little personal project: Astrobites has had an offer, through its parent association the American Astronomical Society, for a logo revamp by a professional design firm. In place of the current logo which uses a photograph of Mars (with a bite taken out of it), one of the concepts they've provided was a stylized representation of Mars (with a bite taken out of it).

I'm a huge sucker for stylized representations of things, and liked the general idea, but there were a few details of the proposal that I wasn't 100% satisfied with so I quickly made a slightly different version of my own based on their template to illustrate the shortcomings I saw…and then had a fanciful idea to make a whole solar system of stylized-planets-with-bites-out for logos. I've got enough experience with Inkscape now that it only took me an hour or two, and I really like how it came out (as did a few fellow students when I showed them).

At this point I've changed Mars enough that the only thing I'm really copying from the proposal is the “bite and crumbs” motif each planet has. I doubt these will show up in an official capacity, so I thought I'd show them off here as a personal project. That's it for today though, I need to go catch up on my sleep now. A hui hou!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Personal Panoramic History, Part 8: 2015

Previously in this series of posts, covering 2014, I had some panoramas from the top of Mauna Kea to where it disappears into the ocean. In contrast, 2015 might just be The Year of Ocean Panoramas…


In March of 2015 my friend Graham and I went for a hike at a little forest reserve up the Hāmākua coast called Kalōpā State Recreation Area, and while I didn't get any good panorama opportunities in the forest, on the way we stopped at Laupāhoehoe Point, a little spit of land sticking out of the craggy coast where you can access the ocean.

View looking east-south-east along the Hāmākua coast.
It's a lovely area, and we had some spectacular weather for the visit; being on the windward side of the island it's likely clouded over or raining much of the time.


Nā Pali cliffs, near Kīlauea, looking south-east.
Interestingly I don't remember exactly what this trip was. I know the location: it's at the top of the steep cliffs (pali) between Kīlauea and the ocean, yet I don't remember why Graham and I came there or what we did for the rest of the trip, since these are almost the only photos I have from that day. We'd come earlier in the month to see the lava lake in Kīlauea, but here we were apparently just hiking? Apparently we didn't go to Kīlauea Iki or anything else like that, or I would've gotten photos of it. I think we stopped near here to have lunch, or something like that. It is a mystery.

Regardless, this panorama definitely hasn't been shown before. I vaguely remember of that trip that there was a lot of poor weather around; you can see that on both sides of the picture there are dark storm clouds, but we were lucky to have clear skies above us when this was taken.


I don't actually have any panoramas specifically from June, but that month I noticed that panoramas make great desktop wallpaper for a dual-monitor display, and it could almost be considered the point where I realized that I'd been doing them for a while and started to get more intentional (albeit slowly) about looking for panorama opportunities.


July, however, has several panoramas due to my mother's side of the family having a reunion in Oregon which I attended. We stayed right on the beach and explored a few locations up and down the coast as well.

This panorama and the next were taken relatively close to each other, the first looking north, the second looking south along the coast. The first and third of this series of four have shown up before on this blog, but the second and fourth are new, as I only put their constituent photos together into a panorama with Hugin.

I'm not sure why I never put these photos into a panorama, but my guess would be that due to the Sun's strong reflections in the middle of the scene the color correction would've been beyond my skill to do manually. Luckily, Hugin handles varying color composition throughout a panorama quite nicely and can compensate for it automatically to a pretty good extent.

These two panoramas above and below show Simpson's Reef; the lower one just from a slightly wider angle, which is likely why I never bothered putting it together after creating the first one.

I don't remember much about the reef from the little informational placard that was posted by the lookout, but I remember that the largest island in it was almost completely covered in sea lions (though they're hard to make out at this scale).

And that's it for 2015! A fairly slow year in terms of quantity, but some pretty nice panoramas. Looking ahead, 2016 will be similarly slow, but it's got some interesting ones that I haven't shown off before. A hui hou!

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Painting a Volcano Is Like Making a Volcano: Layers Upon Layers

Last month I teased a project I've been working on for a while, and having finished it this week I'm finally ready to reveal it:

I've taken up painting (with acrylics)! And I've finished my first painting!

I mused about taking up painting in this post back in June, having found the experience of painting my YTLA model at the beginning of the year to be very soothing and enjoyable. Back in August we restarted our weekly art workshops at Swinburne with our artists-in-residence Pam and Carolyn, and I decided to go for it—and I'm ultimately really glad I did, as I've found it to be incredibly rewarding.

For my first painting, I wanted to paint a picture that I've had in my head since at least 2012, back when I was working at the Visitor Information Station on Mauna Kea. It was inspired by my reading about how Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa used to host year-round glacial ice caps, and also erupted underneath those glaciers. A picture came into my mind of the summit of Mauna Kea, snow-clad, looking south towards Mauna Loa similarly covered in ice, at night with the (northern hemisphere) summer Milky Way rising majestically above while a fountain of lava erupts from Mauna Kea's summit through a crack in the ice.

I'd originally wanted to do this using Blender, like some previous projects of mine, but I just never got around to it after I started working full time so I decided I'd try doing it as my first painting project. Probably far too ambitious for a beginner like me, but you can judge how it turned out for yourself. Since I enjoy seeing the creative process I took a bunch of photos throughout the entire three-month creation period, so you can watch the entire process as it unfolded.

Here it is, my first swatch of paint applied to canvas, August 21, 2018. (Though I also spent two weeks before this applying two coats of gesso—essentially a primer layer of white paint mixed with chalk which serves as a good base for future paint layers.) Not much to look at yet, but you can see the outline of Mauna Loa and Hualālai (on the right) starting to take shape already. There's a curious thrill of trepidation that comes when holding a loaded paintbrush poised over a blank canvas; the feeling of permanence and lack of an undo option combine to make it a bit nerve-wracking even when doing nothing more complicated than a flat black night sky!

Next, I added the glacier atop Mauna Loa. The glaciers were probably the most difficult part of this project for me, as I've never seen one personally so I had to rely on photos and my own ideas of how ice looks. I think this one atop Mauna Loa came out pretty well, at least.

Of course, even personal familiarity with a subject doesn't guarantee I'll paint it well. I painted a lot of the early stages from my mental picture without reference photos, and I definitely could've done a better job with the slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualālai with some visual references. Still, this session was interesting for mixing a few different colors to play with. I'm not using pretty much any colors straight from the tube (other than the black background, and maybe some of that gray), rather I'm mixing them to start to get a grip on color mixing theory as it applies to acrylic paint.

Moving into September I finished off the slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualālai. I mixed even more shades of colors this time and started layering them over older ones, which led me to the striking realization that making a volcano and painting a volcano are very similar processes; just layers upon layers!

Almost immediately upon actually putting paint to canvas at the beginning I realized I was enjoying the process far too much to wait for weekly workshop sessions, so I quickly started working on my own throughout the week. I had a short time available for this session so I added a cloud on the left approaching from the east and crossing the Saddle. (Spoilers: I wasn't happy with it almost immediately upon finishing it, so it'll change later.)

Next session, I tackled the snow-covered summit of Mauna Kea in the foreground. A sharp-eyed inspection of this photo will reveal that it's upside-down, as I rotated the canvas on the easel so that I could paint along the bottom edge of it. It turned out to be an interesting artistic exercise, actually; I painted the smaller cinder cone on the left entirely upside-down, and am still happy with how it came out. I wasn't very happy with the glacier as a whole though, so you'll see it getting reworked.

Case in point: here I've gone over most of the foreground to try to both merge it more naturally from side to side and also introduce some feeling of contours to help define the shape. The cinder cones got some working over, too. They're actually based on real cinder cones still extant at the summit, though I didn't copy them particularly closely. The large one on the left is Puʻu Wēkiu, the eastern rim of which is today the highest point on Mauna Kea; the one behind it is Puʻu Haukea, a relatively recent cinder cone going by its not-yet-significantly-weathered dark gray color; and the one on the right is Puʻu Poliʻahu, named after one of the Hawaiian goddesses of snow. It's very close to the present-day location of the JCMT, and has a much more weathered and irregular profile now than I've painted it here.

At this point I finally started looking up references for what Mauna Kea looked like when snow-covered nowadays, and realized that photos usually showed black rocks sticking out from the snow, especially around rims and ridges. I went a little overboard with it here (and dialed it back later), but I think it definitely helps to define parts of the space better.

I was never entirely happy with the cloud I'd added, nor the center part of the foreground glacier, so in one session I redid both of them. I think it was around now that I started realizing that the composition didn't really have space for a lava fountain like I'd originally intended, but I was still on the fence about including one eventually at this point.

Instead, I decided to expand! Pam encouraged me to add a second canvas to the sky to better capture the Milky Way, and I'm really glad I took her advice. Actually painting the Milky Way was an interesting and exhausting process, as I did it by spattering paint on the canvas to make stars. (I blocked off the foreground beforehand so it wouldn't be affected.) In what's turning out to be a recurring theme, I wasn't happy with the initial look of it and spent a few sessions reworking it…

Coming into October, I went back and spattered more stars on the canvas, though I made the same mistake as before and tried to paint in the Milky Way's dust lanes from my head rather than from a reference. You might have noticed that the quality of these photos, especially regarding glare, changes a lot; it depended on if I took them in the evening after working on them under electric light, or in the morning the next day when there was daylight. Large expanses of black like the night sky here were especially difficult to properly represent the darkness of.

It's not easy to see in the photo, but I've gone and hand-painted in all the brightest stars that one could reasonably see with the naked eye based on the perspective and time of year. The center of the Milky Way roughly coincides with the center of the top canvas, so Sagittarius, Scorpius, and Corona Australis are all visible, with a bit of Lupus on the right and a few other constellations having one or two stars appearing. And being the stickler that I am, I actually painted them with colors corresponding to their spectral types. This session turned out to be surprisingly grueling, trying to put the stars in the right places based on a star map using Stellarium. I also added a few nebulae as well; the largest pink patch near the center is the Lagoon Nebula, while just above it is the Trifid Nebula. You can also see that I've subtly whited out bits of the black rims of the cinder cones to make them blend in a bit more.

I was worried that the hand-painted stars wouldn't stand out all the much from the background splatter stars, until a few days later when I noticed an interesting thing: up close to the canvas you can see all the faint background stars, but step back a few paces and it all disappears into the blackness of the night, leaving the hand-painted stars as the only ones to be seen! I definitely didn't plan that, but it works really well, and is an interesting lesson in how a painting can be seen differently at different distances; a dynamic I hadn't really appreciated from my previous experience doing artwork on a computer where you generally only look at something from a fairly fixed, nearby distance.

Finally, in one mammoth two-and-a-half-hour session I went over the Milky Way again by hand, adding gossamer stars clouds and actual dust lanes from reference photos. I spent so long looking at the Milky Way, in fact, that I now immediately recognize structures in the dust lanes in other photos from having painted them. There are still some factually incorrect dust lanes in there, but it's much more realistic now. And at this point I realized that I was satisfied with it. I could keep tinkering with it and adding more details, but I was also fine with calling it finished (I also finally decided against adding any eruption activity). I did one last session on Pam's suggestion to add a bit more color to reflect the color of the Milky Way in the ice and to push Mauna Loa more into the background, and the result is:

My first painting is complete! I varnished it just this week. The lighting on this photo is, once again, pretty terrible, but it gives a decent idea of what it's like. Together the two canvases are 80×80 centimeters (31×31 inches), so it's reasonably large. I call it “Mauna Kea a me Mauna Loa ma lalo o ka lani hōkū (Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa beneath the starry heavens).”

It feels amazing to have finally finished it, and I've received lots of nice comments on it from people. I've really dived into painting, as I've found it to be way more fun and engaging than I had expected. I've picked up a number of tubes of paint and brushes, and even a palette knife which looks like a tiny trowel and reminds me of doing archaeology! I've been reading up on techniques and painting terms, and checking out the paintings of famous painters with a new eye. (I'm thankful for a decent amount of art history in my education, but I'm learning there are so many painters I've never even heard of!)

Now that I've finally cleared that picture from my head I find another one has arisen to take its place. People have also given me some ideas for others (like a series of planetary landscapes around the solar system), so we'll see what comes next. But one thing's for sure: I expect this to be a hobby for years to come. A hui hou!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Good Tootgarook Lookout

This past weekend I went on a retreat with a bunch of other young adults from church down to Tootgarook, on Mornington Peninsula on the south side of Port Phillip Bay. We had a great time, the weather was a lot nicer than I heard it was back at my place, and the views were pretty fantastic. Good enough for me to take some panoramas again:

The view from the house we stayed at, which was on top of a hill.
The picture above looks north, towards the center of Melbourne across Port Phillip Bay, although it was cloudy enough off to the north that we mostly didn't see it—just a bit on Sunday, and some of the lights at night. The beach was only about a fifteen minute walk, and we spent a little time there Saturday afternoon (though it was still much too cool for swimming this early in the spring).

On the right of the panorama you can see a mountain hill called Arthur's Seat. Interestingly, it's named after another such mountain in Scotland, an extinct volcano. We stopped there on the way back on Sunday, for a lovely view of Port Phillip Bay:

Near the top of Arthur's Seat, looking west and little north.
I would've gotten a wider panorama but there were trees in the way the middle that would've messed it up, so you just get this. Well, and one more:

That's all for now, a hui hou!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Knitter of Oz

I've written before about my crochet hobby which I've been pursuing for quite a while now (though I did take a several-year-hiatus over college), having learned from my mother in my teens. She never picked up knitting, however, so I never learned it either.

Until this past week, when I learned from a friend here in Melbourne! I've often wondered how the two compared, since I had friends who knitted and it always seemed so complex to me, even as they told me how crochet was more complicated. Now that I've learned both, I can say that knitting feels simultaneously simpler and more complex than crochet. It's simpler in that there are mostly just two stitches compared to…uh, “several” in crochet. It's also more complex in that it uses two implements instead of one. It's also more nerve-wracking, at least at this stage, since it always feels like you're about to lose an entire row of stitches all at once in parallel, whereas in crochet you can only lose stitches serially.

Ultimately, I'm really enjoying it! There's a weird feeling of cachet that accompanies being able to whip out my knitting needles on the train or wherever (even if I'm as likely to be undoing errors as making progress at this point; I'm still somehow adding stitches in without meaning to). Maybe it has something to do with people almost invariably asking me what I was knitting while I was doing crochet in the past, and it'll be nice to finally not have to correct them. Whatever it is, I'll be sure to take photos once I have something worth showing! A hui hou!

Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Year Down Under and an October Astrobite

As of September 29th I've been in Melbourne for a full year now. It's been a long year of working on my PhD, I've moved twice, and I miss Hilo's climate pretty often, but I've also made some amazing friends and discovered a facility for and enjoyment of painting I didn't know I had (about which I promise a post in the next few weeks). I've had artwork exhibited in a public exhibition, and learned that stars and CCDs are infinitely more complicated than I ever dreamed (or wanted to know).

I've done an excellent job of hiding my telescope model behind a pillar in this photo.
In other news I put out a new Astrobite today, on a paper talking about finding the mass of the closest known white dwarf by measuring its gravitational redshift (basically, how much its light is redshifted climbing out of its gravitational well). This one was pretty interesting for me, as the authors used the Hubble Space Telescope and spent some time detailing all the tiny systematic errors in its spectrograph's CCD. Detailing tiny systematic errors in CCDs is pretty much my PhD (or at least it feels like at times) so I could really empathize with what they went through to get a good measurement. I also got some nice comments from two of the paper's authors, so that was cool.

That's it for now! A hui hou!