Monday, February 12, 2018

Fundamental Constants: Do They Actually Vary?

I can't remember if I've mentioned it on this blog before, but since the middle of December I've been planning on entering a competition among Australian universities for students or early-career scientists for videos that best showcase and explain your research. It's called the Pitch It Clever competition, and the idea is to make a one- to two-minute elevator pitch video. I decided on a live-action format as being easiest, finally got my filming done on Saturday, spent much of Sunday editing the resulting footage, and submitted it today!

I haven't written much here about what my Ph.D. research will actually encompass, partly (mostly) because I wasn't sure for a while. During the application process the idea was that I'd be working on fundamental constants, but looking at quasars. However, in the several months between accepting the university offer and actually moving here my supervisor came up with an idea of applying the same methods to solar twins instead, and offered me the choice to work on that when I arrived. Despite never having much interest in stars prior to this I found this idea more interesting (surprisingly), so that's what I chose.

The video says it pretty shortly and sweetly (I hope!), but just as a quick overview in case something I said wasn't clear:

All our modern theories of physics—known by the incredibly boring name of the Standard Model—rely on a number of quantities known as physical constants. Their values can't be calculated from within the theories themselves, but can only be measured. We call them ‘constants’ because we've never measured them to change but this is fundamentally an assumption, and one that has remained a niggling worry in the back of physicists' minds for around a century now.

The fine-structure constant, usually denoted with the Greek letter alpha (α), is one of these constants which characterizes the strength of electromagnetic interactions. It has a value of \(\alpha\approx1/137\) (but not exactly \(1/137\)!), and unlike some of the other constants is dimensionless meaning it has the same value in all systems of units. (Other constants, such as the speed of light, have units ‘built-in’ so to speak—the speed of light is, well, a speed, and has units as such: m/s or mph or whatever.)

Anyway, if the fine-structure constant were to vary, we can calculate the effects that this would have in the energy required for electrons to make quantum transitions between different atomic orbitals. (Well, we won't actually be doing those calculations, we have some collaborators who'll be doing that bit for us.) It turns out that transitions react differently—some require more energy, others need less, and some are barely affected at all.

The energy required for an electron to jump between orbitals is related to the energy of the photon of light it emits or absorbs when doing so. This means that we can potentially measure changes in the fine-structure constant by looking for changes in specific absorption lines in various spectra. By looking at pairs of lines that react oppositely, we can increase our confidence that a measured shift is caused by a varying alpha and not something else.

For the spectra I'll be looking at stars very similar to the sun, which are known as solar twins. There's no actual general definition for precisely what makes a star a solar twin, but intuitively it's just a star that's close to the sun in a number of ways. Since we can study the sun so well we can apply all that knowledge to solar twins too, again allowing us to have more confidence that any shifts we might see are truly due to alpha and not some other unknown process in stars very different from the sun.

And that's basically it. Actually measuring a change in alpha would be a truly remarkable undertaking (though it would likely take years to follow up on and be confident that it wasn't a fluke). Realistically, it's pretty unlikely to happen, but null results are also important in science. While alpha's been measured on earth and in various high-redshift quasars, it hasn't been measure very much on the scale of the Milky Way galaxy, and this would give us more knowledge about where this particular constant is constant, which is valuable in its own way.

It's been a late couple of nights working on this video so that's it for now (but feel free to ask questions in the comments if something I said was unclear)! A hui hou!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

New Frontiers in Panoramas

So those of you who follow this blog probably know by now that I love panoramas. There's just never enough of a landscape encapsulated in a single photo in my eyes. Within a few years of getting access to a digital camera I had figured out how to take multiple pictures of a scene and stitch them together in GIMP. This, however, is a long, painstaking process prone to errors. I think I've discovered errors in pretty much every panorama I've made sometime after making it, in the form of areas where two pictures were imperfectly blended. (The amount of work it takes to make one has always discouraged me from going back and fixing them, however.)

This weekend I discovered an amazing program called Hugin which creates panoramas automatically. Sure, I can create panoramas with the camera on my phone now that are quite high quality already, but Hugin allows me to go back and recreate ones from the pictures I already have, which is exactly what I spent most of Saturday afternoon doing. Upon loading in a set of pictures it can automatically analyze them to find matching points, assemble them, fix perspective issues, blend everything together, and spit out a finished panorama, all with a couple of clicks. It's incredibly fun to watch and see the finished output, especially comparing them to the ones I've made manually.

It's unfortunately a bit hard to see the differences (which are important, but subtle) without blinking between the images, so I don't think putting a hand-made and Hugin-made panorama up together would be particularly informative. However, I did find a few cases of images I'd taken with the intent to create a panorama that I never got around to, so have a few never-before-seen photos with this post:

This is a panorama from June 2011, taken from the summit of Mauna Kea at Puʻu Wēkiu on the one occasion I hiked there and remembered my camera. To the south, on the right, can be seen the summit of Mauna Loa, and not a lot else due to the clouds. (This might be why I never made a panorama out of it manually…) The view extends around to the north-east, where you can see some of the cinder cones (or puʻu) on Mauna Kea's north-eastern rift zone.

This panorama dates from November 2013. It's a view out over Kīlauea Caldera from near the Jagger Museum (where the people are on the left, including my friend Graham!). Within the caldera (which takes up most of the picture) can be seen the Halemaʻumaʻu pit crater, where the gas is rising from. I rather like this picture, so I'm not sure why I never got around to panorama-fying it manually. Another nice feature of Hugin that I forgot to mention is the way it can blend pictures pretty seamlessly, compensating for differently-colored sky in different images. This was always a big problem for me when making them manually and it's a super-useful feature.

This is another panorama taken at the same time as the last one, and from very nearby, but looking away from Kīlauea up towards Mauna Loa instead. Not much more to say about it, honestly—it's a different view of Mauna Loa than the panoramas I usually make (from the south-east instead of the north), and it does a nice job of showing off just how long and flat Mauna Loa is, but I can understand why I never felt motivated to spend the time to make this panorama manually.

Finally, this panorama comes from September 2014, from the time I visited Polulū Valley. I made one panorama from higher up at the trail head already but this one comes from further down the trail and I never put the pictures together. The color balance isn't particularly great on this one between the multiple photos, but I do like the view.

Anyway, I'm super excited to have discovered this program and I'm hoping to put it to good use with some more—and better—panoramas from Australia in the future now that I can make them in a few minutes rather than a few hours. A hui hou!

Friday, January 26, 2018

January Astrobite and Australia Day

Well this is a few days late due to a busy week, but I posted my first Astrobite this week over at the Astrobites site. It's on the accidental discovery of a so-called solar twin, a star extremely similar to our Sun, and is a heavily-edited version of my initial application submission (though it's much better now than it was originally!). I had some fun figuring out when to post it due to being pretty much the first Astrobites author in Australia as far as I know, but it worked out in the end.

I've also taken on the modest task of designing some new logo variations for the Astrobites store that I (and quite a few other authors, and not just the new ones) found out about a few weeks ago, so I may have some stuff to show off in that regard in a bit.

Other than that not much to say; it's a long weekend here due to today being Australia Day so I've got some more time to be creative. A hui hou!

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Transit of Venus: Reloaded: Director's Cut

Remaking and rebooting things seems to be all the rage these days, so I figured it was time for me to join the bandwagon and take a shot at redoing one of my old videos from 2012 about the transit of Venus. Well, actually I was recently reminded of its existence and decided that I could do better now. The original video was from before I'd started really working at video editing, and was probably made in Windows Movie Maker. I wouldn't call it bad, and can see some of the hallmarks of my video editing style even back then, but I think this one's a bit better overall. I've gone back and replaced the old version from 2012 with this one, as Blogger's video hosting abilities have always felt a bit shaky to me—one of the reasons I didn't upload many videos prior to getting a YouTube channel. (Two, actually, one for gaming that I introduced in the previous post and a second more general one seen here for everything else.)

(Fun fact, the title in the thumbnail there was recycled from the original video.)

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

2017 Retrospective: Making the World's First Let's Play of Dodge That Anvil!

Last year I created the world's first (and so far only) video Let's Play of Dodge That Anvil!.

The thought that I'd ever get to create the very first Let's Play of a game had never entered my mind prior to last year, but for those who have no idea what I just said, let me back up and explain. (I suggest listening to the game's soundtrack which can be found here in the background while reading, as it's great music and will help set the mood.)
  1. A “Let's Play” (or LP) is a fairly recent art form (stretching back perhaps two decades or so) that at its core involves playing though a game in order to share the experience with others. Typically this is done either in a series of videos of gameplay with accompanying commentary (with varying amounts of editing optional) or in the form of a mixture of textual commentary and screenshots, the type of game often dictating the best or most convenient format. Usually the person making the Let's Play does so because they love the game they're playing and want to share the joy playing it inspires with other people, and the love and dedication put into a truly great Let's Play can be a wonderful thing to behold (though actual levels of skill at the game and dedication to showing off everything in it vary).
  2. Dodge That Anvil! is an indie game made entirely by a single man named Jake Grandchamp that came out in 2006. I only discovered it sometime later—it must have been about 2007 or 2008, because I remember finding it and buying it around the time or soon after I started college. It has the humorous premise of a warren of technologically-savvy rabbits who grow their own crops but whose world is turned upside down one day when anvils begin raining from the sky, threatening all and sundry. The player is a brave “volunteer” who in order to feed the warren must run around harvesting crops while every few seconds an anvil falls out of the sky aimed at his head. (At least initially, later levels add more hazards of various kinds to avoid from exploding beach balls to anvils that come alive and chase you around like bulls to alien flying saucers from the Moon, who turn out to be the source of the anvils.) It's supported by a beautiful stylized art style, some amazing music, and a charming sense of humor in the writing that keeps it fun, but the real meat of the game is its gameplay, which is fast, fun, a little frantic, and utilizes the powerful Havok physics engine to create all kinds of hilarious emergent gameplay as anvils interact with the world, explosions, and each other.
After getting Dodge That Anvil! I played it off and on for about two years till moving away to college in 2009, often watched by my younger brothers. We all greatly enjoyed the experience, and the funny situations the game could come up with—I've got great memories of the three of us laughing uproariously at the latest foible of the physics engine. I then kind of forgot about it in the excitement of moving to Hawaii, and there things stood for almost a decade.

A shot from the first level, showing off an anvil trying to squish me as I gather crops from the tilled areas.
Last year I happened to remember Dodge That Anvil! out of the blue, and felt a nostalgic desire to see it in action again, so I typed its name into YouTube, and got…nothing. Well, not quite nothing, I found the original trailer for the game and a six-minute recording of someone playing the first level from the early days of YouTube soon after the game came out, but the point is that there were no Let's Plays. This is YouTube we're talking about here; if a game exists, someone, somewhere, has made a Let's Play about it. Usually more than one. But in this case, no one had.

After recovering from my surprise, I realized that this presented me with an incredible opportunity/responsibility: to make one myself. This immediately presented a slight problem, though: the game came out in 2006, the latest versions of Windows and Mac it officially worked on were almost a decade old by this point, and it didn't have a Linux version. The game's website was still up when I checked though, and even had the game download still working (the game allowed playing the first few levels as a demo before buying and unlocking the full game). I found my game key in an old Gmail chat nearly eight years old, installed Wine to run Windows applications, downloaded and installed the game, and to my pleasant surprise it ran on my computer (running Debian stable at the time). To my infinitely greater amazement, when I entered my game key at the appropriate screen, it thought for about two seconds and accepted it.

Here's a raging anvil trying to get me in a later level. Also note that it's now summer/fall instead of spring.
This is an indie game that had come out over a decade ago, and the key validation servers were still functioning. That blew my mind so hard that I distinctly remember sitting and staring at my computer screen open-mouthed for a few seconds in disbelief. Jake couldn't be making new sales of the game, not this long after the last supported versions of Windows and Mac were so many years behind, so the only reason those servers were still going had to be for people like me, who were coming back and installing the game again after so many years. That moment, right there, cemented my desire to make this the definitive Let's Play of Dodge That Anvil!—someone willing to spend money on keeping a key server alive over a decade after his game came out just so buyers could continue to play it deserved the very best I could give.

And so I did. Starting in March I steadily worked my way through the game I'd loved so much as a teenager. Unlike many of the games we look back on with rose-colored glasses, it lived up to my memories. The gameplay was just as good and frantic, the writing as humorous and charming, and I took just as many anvils to the noggin while distracted as I remembered. I did my best with every episode, explaining the many things I'd learned about the game, showing off all the secrets I could find, getting 100% completion on every level, all in pursuit of my quest to make a Let's Play that Jake could be proud of should he ever perchance come across it. I'd never been able to find out what happened to him after Dodge That Anvil! was published—he'd never released any other games that I could find and seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth, so I'd always wondered and this led me to push myself to share his wonderful game with the world lest it be forgotten.

Here's a later winter level, showing a multi-anvil strike called an anvil squadron. A split second later my hardhat makes the ultimate sacrifice to save me.
Dodge That Anvil! is actually a decently long game so I slowly worked my way through it at the rate of about one video a week, until August when the most amazing part of this story takes place. I'd finished the main story mode of the game (and was working on recording the post-game optional content) when a few days after posting the final story mode video I got one of the biggest surprises in my life: out of the blue, I got a message from Jake Grandchamp himself, saying that he'd randomly stumbled upon my Let's Play while searching YouTube to see if his original trailer was still up, and loved it! He explained that he'd long been a fan of Let's Plays and always secretly hoped that someone would make one of Dodge That Anvil!. He'd never expected to stumble upon such a good one over a decade after the game came out, he said, and it was worth the wait.

Needless to say I was thrilled beyond words that I'd succeeded in my mission of making a definitive Let's Play of a game which the creator himself could be proud of. We got to talking by email and as a token of his appreciation he sent me a package with a physical copy of the game (something I'd never had due to buying it online), the game's soundtrack, and an actual physical hard hat as a humorous reference to a running joke from my Let's Play of how many times I'd lose my hardhat to anvils and need to buy a new one. (I even did my first unboxing video ever with the package to capture my reactions upon opening it.)

Me wearing that hardhat at my job at the YTLA.
After that, I continued on with the game with renewed zeal. The climax of the game's story mode involves travelling to the Moon, but there's an optional Moon Mode that's unlocked after finishing the story that details the process of getting back from the Moon and involves playing on mirror-flipped versions of all the normal levels with low gravity and a space helmet taking the place of the hard hat to allow you to breathe. It starts to drag a bit near the end, but I've always enjoyed the feel of jumping around in low gravity and the usage of names of actual lunar landmarks for the levels.

Anyway, I finally finished Moon Mode (and by extension the story) near the end of November, a little over eight months since I started. It's been a long and sometimes arduous journey; the time I tried and failed one particular bonus challenge a hundred and thirty-eight times in a row comes to mind (Episode 12), or the time I forgot to record audio and had to add as much of the game's audio as I could back in by hand in editing (Episode 26), or the international move that happened two-thirds of the way through, or when I was two levels from the end of Moon Mode and upgrading from Debian stable to Debian testing wiped my save files, or…you get the picture. But on the whole it's been an incredibly rewarding experience and I'm very pleased with myself for having done it; it's something I can look back on and be proud of. It's definitely not a perfect Let's Play (though I like to think it gets better as it goes along), but I think I learned a lot about recording and video editing from the experience, and it pushed me to finally get a real microphone for vocal recordings and stop using my old phone as a makeshift mic.

Me fighting the final boss's ultimate weapon Anvil Prime on the Moon. It's a remarkably tense fight.
I'm not quite done with Dodge That Anvil! yet; near the beginning of January I put together a video of the game's soundtrack (linked at the start of this post) and I have some plans for a future video showing off some of the game's multiple game-changing codes (some of which I don't know that I've ever tried before, and the descriptions are quite intriguing!). For anyone who's interested and has survived this huge post, my full Let's Play playlist can be found here. I hope you enjoy it, and a hui hou!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Redwoods…in Australia‽ Happy New Year!

Well, here's some trees I didn't think I'd see in Australia:

Yep, that's right, authentic Californian redwoods, Sequoia sempervirans, in the flesh. Er, in the bark. Back in the 1930s the Australian Board of Works planted a patch of land that had been cleared of its original eucalyptus forest with 1,500 redwood trees imported from California (along with Bishop pine and Douglas fir) in an experiment in hydrogrogy. (The experiment's results are, sadly, unknown.)

I got to experience this cool home-away-from-home forest due to some friends from church, who planned a New Year's Eve barbecue lunch with a bunch of other people out in the Yarra Valley about seven kilometers from the forest, which we explored afterwards.

They're not too big around yet, but they're already quite tall!
The redwoods are planted in regular rows, giving an interesting effect as you walk around. Otherwise, add a few banana slugs and you could almost be back in California! (At least until you get to the edge of the forest and see the old-growth eucalyptus forest all around.) I've got some other pictures from the trip that I'll post when I get a chance, but for now, I'll wish you all hauʻoli Makahiki Hou, and I'll see you all in 2018!

Edit (1/1/2018): Have a few more pictures I didn't have time to include last night:

The Yarra River, where we had the barbecue before going to the redwoods, in the beautiful Yarra Valley.

Most trees here are between 55 and 80 meters tall (180–288 feet).

One feature not usually present in Californian redwood forests are these large man-made bird nests.
And while there may not be any banana slugs here naturally, it's nothing a few minutes with GIMP can't fix!
(Banana slug picture from the last time I used the “redwoods” tag on this blog, all the way back in 2010!)

Friday, December 29, 2017

For Want of a Sound Effect

I've been thinking recently about how I could improve the videos I make and one of the things I came up with (alongside “better editing in general”) was sound effects. Actually I've been looking for good sound effects off and on for over a year now; I've been using the site Freesound since last year, which houses a large collection of sounds that people have made available for free use under various open-source licenses (though the specifics of the license each sound uses may make it unavailable for commercial projects, or require attribution if you use it). Freesound has a decently large if occasionally eclectic collection, but it can be a bit hit-or-miss searching for specific sounds. It's also better for getting one or two specific sounds rather than a larger number of similar sounds that you can choose from.

I finally got motivated to search for alternate sources of sound effects last month, and eventually stumbled upon another website called A Sound Effect which is, in essence, an online marketplace for independent sound-effect artists to market their libraries of sound effects. It's quite professionally designed, and makes it easy to browse the hundreds of libraries it houses covering an astonishingly wide array of subjects. Every library comes with a demo reel to give you a taste of what's included, and I've found listening to them to be almost like aural candy; for some reason I find it incredibly satisfying listening to all these sounds broken down to their constituent parts. (Here are just a few I particularly enjoy; I also find myself paying a whole lot more attention to the various sounds in my environment after listening to a few of these!)

There's an end-of-the-year sale going on right now if any of you feel a sudden need to buy some sound effect libraries. I (sadly) don't have much use for most of these amazing sounds, but I've picked up a few smaller libraries for future use, and hope that this is a useful resource for anyone out there making videos or video games. A hui hou!

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas 2017, Australian-Style!

Merry Christmas from the Land Down Under! Having just moved to Australia a few months ago, I couldn't quite justify the cost of flying home for Christmas, making this the second Christmas I'll be spending away from family. But thankfully I've made plenty of friends to spend it with instead, and will be heading over to the house of some friends I met at church.

Since Australia is pretty famous (or infamous) for its spiders, have a Christmas video featuring some peacock spiders…which I only just now while looking them up discovered actually come from Australia, making this serendipitously appropriate! I haven't seen any of these myself yet, though.

I actually came across this video last year but never got around to sharing it. I guess it worked out in the end though! A hui hou! Mele Kalikima a me Hauʻoli Makahiki Hou!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A New Profile Picture for the Summer Solstice!

I was recently reminded of the fact that what used to be my profile picture was, as of a week ago, eight years old. It's not a bad photo (which is saying something since I usually hate pictures of myself by default), but I was twenty when it was taken and I've grown and changed a bit since then.

The photo my old profile picture came from, from December 14, 2009. (That's Rainbow Falls in Hilo.)
Yesterday I had another grad student get a picture of me in front of the projector screen in the lunch room, and while it's not a great photo, it gave me the idea of using the background as a makeshift green screen combined with a few of the astrophotos I've taken over the years…

The initial picture…

…with the Lagoon Nebula

Omega Centauri

…the Orion Nebula

…and the western Veil Nebula as backgrounds.
I'm pretty pleased with how these came out, overall. I tried a number of other astrophotos of mine but they didn't work out for various reasons (the objects were usually too small and compact, or I just couldn't place them somewhere that looked good).

What does this have to do with the summer solstice I mentioned in the title? Ultimately very little, other than the fact that I always plan to write a post to note the passage of equinoxes and solstices and then never remember to actually do it. There's also the curious fact that, despite it being the summer solstice here in Melbourne, the longest day of the year, I still needed long pants and socks this morning and narrowly avoided needing to bring a coat with me due to the weather taking a swift turn for the frigid after the 30+ °C (90+ °F) temperatures we were having just two days ago. I think it's time to throw in the towel and admit that I'm never going to understand Melbournian weather.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

I'm Writing for Astrobites!

Back in October, a few days after I'd arrived in Australia and started getting set up at Swinburne, one of the first emails I received at my new university address was a notice sent around to all students that applications for writing for Astrobites were now open. Never having heard of Astrobites, I checked it out and discovered that it's a blog collectively run by a diverse assortment of mostly graduate students in astronomy and astrophysics whose dual purpose is to 1) let grad students gain writing experience, primarily through its most common type of post, a daily summary of a scientific paper written at an undergraduate level (though more general posts on research, astronomy in general, and the graduate student experience are common), and 2) serve as a resource for undergraduate students to help them better understand what's going on in the world of astronomy by making important discoveries and concepts easier to understand.

Since distilling scientific concepts into (hopefully) easier-to-understand forms is something I've been doing sporadically on this blog for the past—wow, seven years‽ Has it really been that long?—anyway, since that's something I already enjoy doing from time to time, I applied and sent in a sample post in the style of Astrobites for the dealine mid-November, and this week I heard back from the hiring committee that I'd been accepted as a new writer! (You can find the official post that came out today detailing new authors here.)

Usually most writers work for a period of two years (though this is not formally set and can vary), both producing a post of their own and editing another author's post each month. As far as I can tell from the list of past authors there hasn't been anyone from Swinbune before, so I'm blazing a bit of a new trail here. The schedule for next month (which I'll be on) should come out this week, so I can start working on my first official post! (I'll probably use the sample post I submitted, though given another editing pass as I wasn't entirely happy with it even after spending several days working on it.)

Anyway, I'll link to my posts when they come out on Astrobites so you can hopefully look forward to monthly paper summaries from me for the next few years! A hui hou!

Edit: Also, just for fun, we had a hail storm this evening after I got home with hail up to the size of grapes coming down for a few minutes. Never a dull moment in Melbourne!

Clothespin for scale.