Saturday, July 14, 2018

Another (Unexpected) July Astrobite! Structured Satellite Galaxies

So just a few days after my previous Astrobite summarizing the ASA meeting I got a surprise when I woke up to an email from the Astrobites scheduler saying that he'd posted my Astrobite I wrote for the queue back in February. This one deals with an interesting problem I'd never heard of before called the “Satellite Planes of Galaxies problem.” Observations of he Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, and Centaurus A show that a significant fraction of the satellite galaxies around them tend to orbit in correlated planes. Yet similar-looking structures are vanishingly rare in simulations, to the point where it would be exceedingly unlikely to find them around three galaxies so close to each other. It's pretty interesting as while we've had hints of theses planar structures around the Milky Way for a few decades and Andromeda for a little less it's only recently that we've really been able to confirm them and discover the one around Centaurus A.

Something amusing I found in this paper was the name for the structure around the Andromeda Galaxy, which is called the “Great Plane of Andromeda.” This sounds like a reference to a very old name for the Andromeda galaxy, several hundred years ago when it was known as the Great Nebula in Andromeda. I just like the idea that anything associated with the galaxy becomes known as the “Great ____ in/of Andromeda.” A hui hou!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

July Astrobite: Summarizing the ASA Meeting

My Astrobite for July came out yesterday, a short summary of the Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA) meeting last week. Well, I say “short,” but as it's not a normal paper summary I allowed myself another hundred words or so beyond the usual thousand-word-limit. I think there were a hundred and forty talks total, so to summarize I just picked one from each day from a range of topics and by people from different universities. Even then I didn't have room to cover some of the things that came up such as a good number of talks about radio astronomy which covered things like using measurements of pulsar timing across the Milky Way to make a very sensitive gravitational wave detector on a galactic scale.

One thing I did notice over the course of last week, though, was that there weren't any other talks or posters related to my area of research in varying constants. There were quite a few areas where there were multiple talks/posters on similar subjects (like gravitational waves, or pulsar timing, or the challenges of big data), but nobody else presenting anything like what I'm doing. (That I saw at least; there were parallel session each afternoon of which I could only watch one, but from reading the talk titles I don't think I missed anything obviously related.) Certainly there are other people working in this area, but it was interesting to have presented what felt like a pretty unique talk. Anyway, that's enough for now or I'll end up writing another thousand-word summary. A hui hou!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Belated Tau Day! And the 2018 ASA Meeting

Happy (belated) Tau Day (6/28/2018) everyone! Yes, it's that time of year again when we celebrate the correct circle constant, \(\tau\ (=2\pi=6.283185…)\). I'll do my usual linking to the official Tau Day website, and note to myself that I should consider getting one of the \(\tau\)-shirts. A triumph for tau is that it's now officially part of the Python math module as of version 3.6! Just do from math import tau to start using it.

In other news, it's been a very busy week and a half for me. Last Thursday I headed out to the gold-rush town of Ballarat an hour and a half by train from Melbourne for the Harley Wood School for Astronomy (HWSA). This is an annual workshop for graduate students, where this year some fifty students from all across Australia spent a very frigid weekend at the historical Ballarat Municipal Observatory. We had some interesting talks and workshops and I got to meet quite a few fellow students from other universities.

Anyway, Sunday before coming back to Melbourne I and a few other students visited Sovereign Hill, a tourist attraction in the form of a historic mining town from Victoria's gold rush in the 1850s. Being just a few years after the California gold rush there are a lot of similarities, but I think I'll save a fuller explanation (and some pictures) for a later post.

On Monday the week-long Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA) annual conference began. This is my first time attending such an event as a participant, as when I went to the International Astronomical Union (IAU) meeting in Honolulu in 2015 I didn't actually attend any of the talks. This time not only have I been sitting in on talks all week, but I gave one of my own on Monday!

It's essentially the same talk as I did for my Confirmation of Candidature cut down to half the time with more focus on the theory and less what I actually did, but from the comments I received it came off pretty well. I had the very last talk of the day on Monday and several people said I'd managed to keep their interest during it, so I consider that an accomplishment.

Having got my talk out of the way Monday I was free to enjoy the rest of the week. I listened to a lot of talks on some very interesting astronomy going on in Australia, and having been to HWSA before hand I knew a number of the speakers and poster authors, which was cool.

Today's also the last day of the Deeper, Darker, Brighter exhibition as well. Tomorrow we'll be removing our artworks from the gallery, and hopefully moving towards starting up our weekly art workshops again!

June's been a very busy and somewhat stressful month overall for me, and I'm looking forward to things settling down a bit. It's perhaps not surprising that I came down with a cold immediately after the ASA meeting finished, so I'll keep this post short tonight. A hui hou!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Landscapes of Hawaiʻi

Last week a former co-worker of mine from when I was working for ASIAA with the Yuan-Tseh Lee Array put up a video he'd taken with a drone showing some of the landscape around the Saddle region of the island of Hawaiʻi and the area around the YTLA. It's absolutely fantastic, and I highly recommend you watch it below:

Seeing these landscapes I know and love from a perspective at once familiar and alien was really quite a powerful experience for me. The first ~1:10 of the video shows the Saddle region between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, and the Mauna Loa access road splitting off from Saddle Road near Puʻu Huluhulu (which I've written about before). I know this road like the back of my hand from driving it so often last year, and seeing it from a bird's eye view—being able to see all the different lava flows of which you can form but such an imperfect and fragmentary picture from the ground—was incredibly thrilling. In some ways, though, it wasn't entirely alien, because from up on the slopes on Mauna Loa we could always look back and see down to Puʻu Huluhulu and where the road connected; we just couldn't see it this closely. Thus the interesting sensation of seeing something familiar from an unfamiliar angle.

Apparently the experience of seeing my favorite volcanoes again affected me more powerfully than I thought, because last Friday at lunch when I noticed that the whiteboard in the lunch room was uncharacteristically clean I found myself with a vision of the island in my head and a powerful compulsion to draw it out, which led to me creating this:

Hawaiʻi island from the north, maybe ~5–6,000 meters up. I ran out of room to show Kohala at the bottom.
I've been thinking, now that I've finished with my YTLA model, of taking up painting as a way of de-stressing. I enjoyed painting my model quite a bit, and feel like it'd be nice to leave out the model-making and just focus on the painting. I'd like to do landscapes, in a sort of extension of my love of panoramas. I've had a picture in my head that I've wanted to create since something like 2012, similar to this one though more focused (and a night scene), and I'm looking forward to finally working it out.

We may even be able restart the weekly art workshops we had for the first few months of the year! Both Pam and Carolyn (our art mentors) and several other students are quite enthusiastic about the idea, so we shall see. A hui hou!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Confirmation of Candidature Passed!

Yesterday I passed my Confirmation of Candidature review, so I'm a real Ph.D. student now! The past two weeks were a bit stressful as I first had to write a report, then a half-hour talk, then give the talk yesterday, but it's all done now. Judging by the number of questions people found my talk very interesting—usually you see maybe four–six questions afterwards, but as I was answering the seventh or eighth one with I was starting to be ready for them to end! Michael (my adviser) said afterwards that answering questions in this area of research can often be difficult since people will often ask questions while laboring under a misconception about what you're doing, so it requires understanding what they're not understanding and addressing that first before you can answer the question they're really asking.

Anyway, the review panel was quite happy with my progress and had a few good suggestions for improvements to be made in the future. Now that's that over I have a week and a half to squeeze in a little work before the Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA) annual meeting starts and I get to give basically the same talk in half the time. (The ASA meeting is being hosted at Swinburne this year, which is incredibly convenient for me!) A hui hou!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

A Trip to Healesville Sanctuary

Last month on the 5th of May I accepted an offer by a recently-graduated student at Swinburne for a lift out to the Healesville Sanctuary, a zoo/conservatory about an hour out of Melbourne in the Yarra Valley. Healesville Sanctuary focuses on native Australian fauna and has a strong captive breeding program, being the first place in the world to successfully breed platypuses in captivity in 1943.

I brought my camera with me, but about an hour after we arrived we attended a fantastic bird show where I decided to try out the new super-slow motion feature on the camera of my new phone. And after getting a few video clips of birds in slow motion, I thought why not get some more clips of various animals and make a video out of it? So I did.

I didn't remember or manage to get video clips of all the animals I wanted to, so there are a few still photos in there, but I'm pretty happy with how it came out. I'm especially pleased with that two-second side-on clip of a platypus swimming by; none of my attempts to photograph the platypuses worked out, but somehow the videos did. A hui hou!

A picture that didn't make it into the video but I thought was fun.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Personal Panoramic History, Part 6: 2013

Previously, 2012 was a slow year for panoramas, and 2013 seems to have been the year of low-quality-phone-camera panoramas for me. I didn't actually take as many pictures this year in general, probably because I started my first full-time job with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in January and wasn't getting out quite as much. And of the trips I did go on, some such as the ones to various lava tubes didn't really make for prime panorama material, or were in really overcast conditions that didn't make for great contrast. As such I'll be omitting some of the lower-quality camera phone panoramas from this year that I don't feel merit inclusion here.


Prior to starting work at the JCMT on the 15th of January, while I was home for a few weeks over Christmas my family took a trip to Florida in the first week of January for a few days to see a Cornhuskers game. (Fun fact I learned while going on a wiki-walk from that link: Nebraska, my home state, is the only triply-landlocked U.S. state, meaning you'd need to pass through at least three other states to reach the sea. How funny that I would later move to the only totally insular state…) While in Florida we did some sightseeing, including visiting Disney World and Cape Canaveral, but the only panorama I was able to make from my photos there is from a lake we took an airboat tour on.

Florida lake.
Unfortunately I don't remember what lake this is, but it was pretty neat to be able to get out on it and see the wildlife. Which consisted almost entirely of birds, because it was cold the entire week were there so all the alligator were staying pretty quiet. I think we got to see a single wild one resting by the side of the lake and that was it. (We got to hold a baby one in the tourist store by the lake, though, so that was neat!)


Jumping all the way to August: in August 2013 my paternal grandfather passed away after battling cancer for well over a decade, something I only ever touched on very briefly at the time. I didn't really appreciate at the time how well he'd adapted to technology after a life spent farming, but he used to send out weekly email updates to the family for years, mementos I still have to remember him by. I went back to Nebraska for the funeral, where I stayed at the ancestral Berke farmstead with the rest of my family. It's been in the family for generations, since the 1800s; I've even seen the (remains of the) original Berke family dugout! (And you thought the family roots stuff was last post…) I think that's the most recently I've been out to Nebraska, almost five years ago now which is a bit sad, but while I was there I took the panorama below:

The Berke family farm, Nebraska.
It's another early camera software panorama so it's got some ugly seams if you look closely, and I somehow got my finger in it (‽), but it shows a scene I'm intimately familiar with from early childhood visits to the grandparents, out on a familiar ridge on the farm looking back over the valley to where the house stands. (Fun fact: I've discovered I have a very visceral association with the smell of Baby's Breath flowers which I think stems from smelling them as a very young child around my grandparent's garden.)

(I'm always confused, by the way, by people who find out I was born in Nebraska and go “Oh Nebraska! It's so flat!” While it's certainly not the Rocky Mountains, the area around here for miles in all directions is rolling prairie hills, with lots of steep erosional gullies and canyons in the rich loess that makes the ground so fertile for farming. The one place I've found on Earth, so far, that reminds me of it? About seven to eight thousand feet up the sides of Mauna Kea, where the land similarly slopes in gentle rolling folds and the wind constantly whistles through the grass and sparse trees that make up most of the vegetation.)


In November I took a trip to Volcanoes National Park with some friends—as far as I can tell, my first visit to it since 2009. (I documented it more thoroughly in three parts here, here, and here.) Luckily, like the last time, I took some enough pictures to get some great panoramas!

Mauna Loa from near Kīlauea caldera.
Just another Mauna Loa panorama, taken from near the parking lot near the visitor center/Thomas A. Jagger museum/Kīlauea caldera overlook. Yep, that's one long mountain all right. I originally made this panorama manually (you can see it by mousing over the one in the first post linked above), but with Hugin I was able to include an additional photo or two on the ends to make it a bit wider.

From around here I got two more incredible panoramas; one of Kīlauea caldera as a whole:

Kīlauea caldera.
Here you have a pretty wide view of the caldera, with the visitor overlook (and my friend Graham!) visible on the far left. This is the view from somewhere along the walk from the parking lot to the overlook.

Halemaʻumaʻu crater within Kīlauea caldera.
Here you can see a close-up of Halemaʻumaʻu crater within the caldera. The lava lake present at the time was too far down to see, but you can see where it was releasing lots of sulfur dioxide and other lovely noxious gasses. For some reason I never developed either of these two panoramas until going through my photos for this post, so these are never-before-seen ones from me! Which is too bad that it took so long to develop them, as I especially like the first one for the sense of scale and grandeur it shows.

Kīlauea Iki, from the western end looking east.
After seeing the caldera, we hiked the Kīlauea Iki trail (documented in the second post linked above), a first for me. It's a great hike, and one I've done three times now. I've discovered it's really hard to get both the rock and the sky exposed correctly, because the rock is so dark and black that the sky automatically overexposes if you're trying to take photos from within the crater. You can see the original hand-made panorama by mousing over the one in the linked post, and boy does it look distorted compared to this one that Hugin made!

Kīlauea pali (cliffs) from down near the ocean on Chain of Craters road.
This is another newly-created panorama that hasn't been shown before, but I've got some other pictures from the same area in the third post linked above. The area being down on the coastal plain near the ocean, looking back up towards Kīlauea and nā pali (the cliffs). It's not particularly interesting, but I like how you can see where the lava more recently came over the cliffs on the right (eastern) side.

And that's it for panoramas for 2013! It was definitely nice to close the year with a steady full-time job I loved for the first time. It looks like 2014 is going to be the slowest year yet for them, but I got some pretty great ones that year to make up for it, including a mix of new and unique and old and familiar subjects. A hui hou!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

May Astrobite, or “How Is a Pixel Like a Bucket?”

Just a quick post tonight to point out my most recent Astrobites article which came out on the 22nd. This one was very interesting to write. It's about a paper which I read when it first came out back in February on the arXiv. (It's pronounced “archive,” and it's a website where most papers in physics and astronomy and several over sciences are hosted freely available; it's undoubtedly revolutionized the areas it serves by making it easier to communicate results, and I can't imagine trying to do research without it.) I'd been stockpiling recent papers that looked interesting for a week or two before sitting down to write, but none of them really seemed to call to me, till I finally remembered this interesting paper I'd read about CCD systematics.

CCD stands for charge-coupled device, which is the technology behind most digital cameras nowadays. Astronomers adopted them very rapidly back in the 1970s soon after they were invented, and they're responsible for a very wide variety of astronomical research since then. Despite coming up on fifty years old, the authors of the paper I wrote about managed to find a new, never-before-seen form of subtle systematic errors in sixteen out of twenty-two instruments they investigated. The thing that really blew my mind while browsing the abstract and got me to read the paper? They noticed an effect that was proportional to the number of 1's in the binary representation of the value of various pixels in the image.

If you just said “What‽” out loud like I did upon reading that, check out the paper! It's really well written and does a good job of explaining their findings with some really good, high-quality graphs. If you don't know what that means or why it sounds so weird, maybe check out my astrobite—I spent several hours wrestling with an analogy involving grids of buckets and sprinklers in an attempt to render the technical details more approachable, so hopefully I've explained it there in a way that makes sense.

Basically, the top part should be a flat line at zero, not…this.
The results of this paper, while not necessarily highly problematic, are likely to be very far reaching and will affect a lot of people and their science, so now that it's been officially published as of May 11th I expect we'll start seeing some more papers popping up on arXiv related to the issue it reveals. (arXiv allows people to upload “preprints” of papers that have been submitted to journals and are in the process of peer review, which is how I was able to read it back in February.) That's it from me for now though, a hui hou!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Family Roots

Another year, another birthday. And what an eventful year it's been! This time last year I was still working at the YTLA in Hawaii (and I'm pretty sure I got to observe on my birthday night) and working through the application process at Swinburne.

Back around the end of April I heard from my mother about some genealogical research my aunt had been doing which I found quite fascinating, so as I ponder another year lived I thought I'd share some of these family roots for posterity.

According to the Mayflower Society, it turns out that on my mom's side I'm descended from several of the passengers who came over to North America on the Mayflower in 1620, specifically John Alden and Priscilla Mullins (who were married a year after arriving, in 1621). While reading about them I discovered that the famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was also descended from them, making us distantly related. And then I discovered that he wrote a famous epic poem in dactylic hexameter about them called The Courtship of Miles Standish! (You can read it here.) It's about a love triangle between John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, and the eponymous Miles Standish, and how (spoilers) John and Priscilla eventually end up married. It's unknown if it's historically accurate or not; Longfellow always maintained that it was a retelling of oral history passed down through the family, though at the very least he likely made use of some poetic license by compressing several years of events down. It's a good poem, if really, really weird knowing it's about my ancestors. (I already know how it ends, or else I wouldn't be here! Talk about spoilers!)

According to my aunt's research we're also descended from William Brewster and his wife Mary, more Mayflower Pilgrims, though she forgot to get it checked by the Mayflower Society at the same time. (Edit 5/26/18: She got back to me that they were able to confirm this as well, with the additional information that I'm fifteen generations removed.) While researching them and William's rather exciting life I discovered there's a style of furniture called a Brewster Chair, named after a particular chair created for and owned by him. Even more incredibly, the actual chair owned by my ancestor is still around in the Pilgrim Hall Museum, and you can see a picture of it below!

Original Brewster chair (left, public domain photo).
As I reflect on all this information this year there are a lot of emotions to process. As I reside here in Australia, it's encouraging to think that my family's been crossing oceans to make new lives for themselves on the strength of their religious convictions for centuries. And knowing that my ancestors were present for the first Thanksgiving in 1621 has given the holiday new meaning for me; I think come 2021 I'll make a point to celebrate it with the tagline “A family tradition for 400 years!” A hui hou!

Monday, May 14, 2018

An Arty Astronomical Exhibition

Well, the art exhibition opening on Saturday was a great success! I got to talk to quite a few people who came through over the course of the multi-hour event and ended up being put on the spot as soon as I showed up (I was the first of the PhD students involved to arrive) to say a few words about the process, so I'm glad I dressed up a bit. This was also my first opportunity to see much of Carolyn and Pam's work and to see everything professionally arranged and lit, so it was quite impressive.

This picture shows two of my friends' projects, a black hole (bottom), brown dwarf (left), white hole (top), and the James Webb Space Telescope (right). The JWST model is I believe 1/12 scale, and it's still over a meter long! I spent an hour and a half on Thursday helping hang it from the ceiling which was quite an experience. They're in a darkened room where there's an animation about the Deeper Wider Faster project that inspired this exhibition playing, and they look amazing in the darkness.

Another friend of mine made this imaginative representation of a spiral galaxy being red- and blue-shifted by rotation. She planned it all out in code and matplotlib before making it and it came out very impressive (and fragile unfortunately, though that's true more or less of all our work!). We were all pleasantly surprised on Saturday to discover that the spiral structure, which didn't show up much from the side, was silhouetted on the wall behind it due to the lighting.

And here's me with my model! I got it to a point where I could both continue to add detail to it but could also call it finished at any point, and I'm pretty happy with where it ended up. (The only thing I'm not pleased with is that the cardboard platform in the middle developed a significant bow to it [probably due to absorbing water from the paint], but by the time I'd noticed it it was too late to really do much about it.)

There's also a lot of other nifty artworks, but I don't want to spoil all the surprises for people who can still go see it! (Plus I was so absorbed in admiring them that I forgot to get pictures of a lot of them.) I'm almost certainly going to visit again while the exhibition is open, so perhaps closer to the end I can put up a few more pictures. A hui hou!