Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mauna Kea aftermath.

Well, it's not nearly as dramatic as the view from Mauna Kea's peak, but to make up for the fact that I don't have pictures of that, here's one of a chunk of lava I picked up at the summit:

Piece of basalt from near Mauna Kea summit.

I find this piece of rock fascinating for three reasons:
  1. It has a piece of another rock inside it. This piece is a flake off a larger rock, indicating that that rock cooled with this little bit of...something...inside it. The little embedded rock fascinates me as well, because I don't know what it is. My first guess would be 'basalt', since a) that's what everything on the island is anyway, and b) it comes from the top of a volcano. It has a sort of basalt-y look to it. It also has a kind of glassy look to it that makes me think it could be obsidian, volcanic glass. Apparently the lava that surrounds the little piece was below its melting point, else it would have melted away completely, but you can see that it shrank more than the surrounding lava as it cooled, forming the little air pockets around it. Altogether fascinating.
  2. It shows clear signs of layers, or strata, rather like sedimentary rock. It certainly makes sense that lava should have layers, since it erupts over previous deposits, but seeing so many layers in one rock is an experience I haven't had before. They were apparently laid down in different conditions -- note the different colors of the layers, and the differing amounts and sizes of the bubbles within them -- but what those conditions were I cannot say. It's possible the little embedded something fell onto a layer of lava and was then covered by another to form this rock (I think that's the most likely story). Another scintillating mystery.
  3. It's a piece of cooled lava! This thing has been through pressures and heats I can barely imagine, coming from deeper below the surface of the Earth than I've ever been above it, all to end up as a piece of rock you can hold in your hand. How cool is that? 

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Climbing Mt. Impossible-to-Breathe

Well, today was a rather different day, even by the standards of my not-so-average life. After a terrible time falling asleep last night, I got up on five hours of sleep to leave Hilo as the sun was just assaying to climb into the eastern sky to ascend Mauna Kea with several other volunteers for the purpose of building rock curbs along one of the paths to the summit to mark it as the one visitors should use. While in the process of checking my email over breakfast during my usual morning wake-up routine, I discovered a message from the school informing me that I had financial aid updates. Not expecting anything of this nature, I followed this cryptic message and found out that I had just been awarded the Daniel K. Inouye Scholarship in Astronomy, of which there is one award per year made to an undergraduate Astronomy major in their senior year, amount equal to one-half tuition for one year.

Needless to say, I was floored.

I almost couldn't believe it at first, it was so out-of-the-blue. It's not a scholarship you apply for, so I had no prior anticipation of it coming. When I finally managed to quench my tears of joy, I remembered that I still had to be at MKSS ready to drive a bunch of volunteers up to Mauna Kea by 6:45 AM.

The ride up was fascinating. I've never driven the Saddle in the morning before, when it has not yet been clouded in. I saw Hualālai, the volcano on the west side of Hawai`i, in its entirety for the first time (I've seen its peak above the clouds [it's over 8,000 feet high], and its base under them [once], but never from base to peak before). And on the drive up Mauna Kea we saw a gaggle of some 10-20 nēnē! Nēnē, the state bird of Hawai`i, are not exactly a common sight, so it was quite a thrill to see so many at once in a group.

I'd gotten a somewhat vague description of what we would be doing, "building rock walls at the summit", which I jumped at because it looked like it afforded a chance to visit the actual peak for the first time. What it turned out to be is that the Mauna Kea rangers have been building little "curbs" out of rocks along the sides of a trail up to the summit, in hopes of keeping people on the trail. It being slow going with only a few people putting in time when they could, they decided they could use a little volunteer help. After a delicious breakfast at Hale Pohaku, we headed up with two of the rangers and began moving rocks, by pick-up, wheelbarrow, bucket, and hand.

According to the thermometer, it was 30 degrees Fahrenheit on the summit at the time we started driving up, and with the wind chill it probably dropped another 15, at least. Man, that wind was cold. And desiccating. It's amazing how fast it leaches the water right out of you up there.

Moving rocks around at that altitude is really kind of strange. For one thing, all the rocks, even two that come from right next to each other, are different. You could pick up two similarly-sized rocks and have one so light it makes you wonder if you're holding a good Styrofoam replica, while the other is difficult to lift because of its weight. The range of densities is astonishing.  The range of colors is interesting as well, usually gray or dull red (from the iron content), but sometimes dark black, or even with shiny embedded minerals. Exercise, in the low oxygen conditions, is a bit more difficult, necessitating frequent breaks to catch your wind and rehydrate. And the cold! The wind blew incessantly, rapidly numbing all extremities and drying my eyes out so much it took almost a half-hour of sitting in the truck on the way back to HP at lunch time for them to rehydrate.

We really didn't work very long, about two hours, but we got a good long stretch of the path curbed on both sides. When we finished moving all the rocks we'd started with, we had some free time so we headed on up to the summit. It was at this point that I realized I'd brought my camera, but left my memory card at home in my computer, so unfortunately, no pictures today.

The walk to the summit is misleadingly difficult. From the start of the trail, by the road, it doesn't look too bad -- until you're making your way up multiple switchbacks across a steep hillside composed of slippery cinder, fighting to draw each ragged breath containing only 60% of the oxygen content it would at sea level, your muscles vociferously complaining about the hypoxic conditions. But the view from the top is worth it, in my opinion. It was still early enough in the day that clouds hadn't covered the entire north-east coast of Hawai`i, so I was able to see the shoreline in that direction. I was also, for the first time, able to see over the limb of Mauna Loa all the way to the south-east shoreline. I can now say I have been at an altitude of 13,706 feet on my own, probably the highest I've ever been (besides airplane trips, of course).

The structure of Pu`u Wēkiu is that it is the rim of an old crater, with the summit being the highest point on the rim. The path we were working on comes at it from one side, so I took the path down around the other side on the way back, which provided a good brisk walk and some excellent views.

After a hearty lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches (yum!), it was back down to Hilo, finally getting back at 3 o`clock. Once again, I apologize for the lack of pictures; should I get the chance again (and it seems likely that they'll be having volunteers up to help again sometime soon), I will endeavor to make up with it with some shots from the tallest mountain on Earth*.

*measured from the sea floor.

A hui hou!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A tour of Subaru.

Tuesday, nine of us from the University Astrophysics Club got to go on a special tour of the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea, which at 8.2 meters in diameter is among the largest telescopes in the world (the fact that it's a single piece of glass makes it even more amazing) . I was particularly excited because the trip gave me a chance to try out my new tripod. I'll just show you the panorama I took with it now, so I can focus on the telescope for the rest of this post:

You really need to click on this one to see it. Mauna Kea is in the middle, Mauna Loa on the sides.
My apologies for the horrible changes in exposure across the picture, I didn't realize I'd forgotten to take the pictures on manual till after I'd taken it. If you followed my advice and clicked on the picture, be aware that what you're seeing is 25% of the original -- a picture size and memory amount that would have frozen my old computer faster than making ice cream with liquid nitrogen. Anyway, on to the telescope...

We all headed up to Mauna Kea in the morning, spent a half-hour at the Vis acclimating to the elevation, and reached the top of the mountain a bit before noon. We were then taken in to the telescope control building, and thence to the telescope enclosure itself (I can't call it a dome, because it's a cylinder; there's a picture of it later).

None of my pictures can adequately convey the feeling I got being in the room with the telescope. The thing is monstrously huge. Strangely, it seems even larger than Keck to me, though that's probably because I've never stood directly beneath Keck (I'm sure it would seem plenty big then).
Here's a picture of Subaru after they graciously rotated it so that we could see the mirror (well, actually we can see the mirror cover in this shot, they had it covered for protection, but it still gives you an idea of its massiveness).

Can you find me in this picture? Hint: near the bottom.
Perhaps this will help:

Look ma! One hand!
If you're wondering why the telescope is blue, it's because the Pleiades are faintly blue colored, and 'Subaru' is the Japanese word used to refer to the Pleiades.

As you can see, it was pretty cold in there. It was 50 degrees F at the Vis when we got there, quite a bit colder than that at the summit, and even colder in the telescope enclosure (most of the major telescopes are kept at or below freezing during the day to reduce thermal expansion stresses and minimize the time to thermal equilibrium in the evenings).

This being more than a mere tourists' tour, we got to go into the workshop where they periodically re-aluminize the mirror:

The tracks you see run all the way around the room, which is circular and directly below the telescope. In the background you can see some of the equipment they have for handling the 22.8 metric ton mirror when they bring it down. I asked how much aluminum is needed to aluminize the entire 8.2 meter mirror (~53 square meters), and was told "a few grams -- the amount in one aluminum soda can" -- they just spread it really, really, thin (and smooth). I also learned that aluminum reacts with concentrated hydrochloric acid, which surprised me because I was under the impression that it didn't (that's how they strip the old coating off the mirror to re-coat it).
Finally, the obligatory group photo afterwards with Subaru in the background:

See what I mean by cylindrical dome?

The fact that the tour was of Subaru didn't stop me from getting some great pictures of some of the other observatories up there. Here's a rather pretty shot of the Sub-Millimeter Array:

I also couldn't resist taking this fortuitous shot of Keck II with its door open (I have no idea why they were, but it allowed this excellent shot):

Inside you can see the 10-meter mirror.

So... as you can see I'm managing to keep busy. I'm still happily working with Dr. Takamiya, and I finally realized what it is I like so much about my job vocation. It's the creative aspect, where each project is a challenge to be met and overcome with creativity and ingenuity. I'm happy when I have a design objective firmly in mind and the inkling of an idea about how to achieve it (though I'm even happier when I've hammered it out and it works like it's supposed to!). Right now, for instance, I'm in the process of writing a script that will iterate through our special 'cube' data files and extract all 225 individual spectra in each one, then search them all and categorize which spectral lines that interest us are present. I'm at the point where I need to come up with a way to catalog the output about each spectrum, and I have an inkling about how to write a webpage using HTML and JavaScript that would allow the Python I'm using for the script to interact with it and automatically fill out a table with the desired values. Will it work? I don't know yet, but I'm going to find out soon! And with that said, I'll close off here and get to work on it.

Ah, the joy of creating...

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ducklings, periodic tables, and music reviews, oh my!

The cold I have had for the past few days seems to have abated somewhat today, thankfully. I received some special news Thursday that I meant to post sooner, but I was waiting for pictures and then didn't feel like writing, so I am just getting around to writing about it now.

As some of you know, I have some ducks (back in California). They're Runner ducks, a breed that is equally at home on land or in the water, and often prefers the land (which is good, 'cause north central California is more land than water most of the year). They also happen to be the second most prolific egg-laying breed of duck, and were one half of the cross that produced the most prolific breed. However, they have no special maternal reputation, so it was with very great delight that I learned that one momma duck had managed to hatch out no less than six ducklings!

The proud mother. An early picture, before all had hatched.

Ducklings beat chicks hands-down in the cuteness department.

Chickens have no subtlety, but ducks...ducks are enigmatic.

(I should mention that these pictures are all by my photographically talented sister.) I have also heard that another of my ducks is sitting on a nest, so it remains to be seen if any more new arrivals join the first. Rest assured you will hear about it if they do!

On another note, at the risk of boring you with my hobbies, I rearranged the periodic table yet again into a form that is more pleasing to my eye, with the rare earth elements placed in their proper position, rather than being pulled out to the bottom. This is, if you like, the "correct" way to draw the most popular version of the table, but as you can see, that gives it the wrong aspect ratio for most books (there is, really, no true correct way to draw the table. The way you usually see it is just that, the usual way it is drawn. But there are over a hundred different ways that people have drawn it over the years). I should mention, you can click on any picture to see it in a bigger size.

 As you can see, the aspect is a little awkward.

To add to the randomness of this post, I will close out with a review of my new oratorio Elijah. It is by Mendelssohn, and rather like when I got Haydn's Creation for Christmas I was initially lost listening to it. Most oratorios I had heard previously had been by Handel, who has his own personal style which is hard to put into words.  It's a little hard to describe the feeling you get when listening to a non-Handelian oratorio for the first time; strange, and slightly lost. Things you unconsciously expect are not there, and unexpected surprises pop out at you. It's a bit like driving home at the end of the day to discover every house on your street had been repainted a different color while you were gone -- rather disorienting. However, on repeated listening, I have become very fond indeed of Haydn (why oh why couldn't he have written more oratorios?) and I'm beginning to do the same with Mendelssohn as well (and he actually did...). Every composer has their own unique style, and it simply requires a slight retuning of the ear in order to appreciate it fully.

I'd like to end this with a big thank you to everyone who's given me an oratorio over the years. After all, 5/7 of my collection was a gift, and those things do not run cheap. Rest assured that your gift has provided me with many happy hours of brain-stimulating enjoyment. I wouldn't be half so a good a whistler as I am today if I hadn't spent so many hours practicing along to complex Baroque fugues and interwoven Classical choruses.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Occupied by a cold, our protaganist finds ways to spend his time.

Well, my cold from yesterday has not abated, rather, it gathered force overnight and broke over me like an ocean wave this morning. I decided to take the day easy and rest...which will probably be what I do for the next two days as well.

I feel like mentioning a little musing of mine, on what we call the means whereby we earn a living. This is totally unoriginal, as it comes from the essay I had for my English 1A final 3 years ago (at least I think it was the final, it might have been a midterm). Basically, it talked about the rather dark shading of most terms we use to describe what we do. Take the word "job", for instance. The word job originally referred to an illegal activity, a usage that still survives in the phrase "a bank job". In fact, many of its uses as a verb are rather dark:  "to get rid of or dispose of"; "to swindle or trick "; and "to carry on (public or official business) for improper private gain". Well, how about the word "occupation"? Wait, isn't that what a foreign army does? Do you really want to imply that your work "occupies" your life like an invading army (rather like the cold I have now)? (and yes, occupation does come from the Latin occupare, which essentially means military occupation.) Finally, many people at my age in life are interested in getting their career going. Yet "career" means "to move or charge at full speed", not the most controllable or safe operation (career is quite similar to careen, which means to veer, tip, or sway, again implying nonstellar balance or control).

Contrasted to those rather negative portrayals of how we make our livings, are two positive ones: "vocation" and "profession". Vocation comes from the Latin vocare, which means "to call". Although it is typically used of someone going into some form of ministry, it can mean anyone who's found their calling in life.
Similarly, the act of profession means "to make an avowal, or declaration". Putting them together, once you've found your "calling" (your vocation), you "profess" or declare it

Since I really like what I'm doing with Dr. Takamiya so far, I will take a friend's advice and profess that I now have a vocation. Whether or not it is my ultimate vocation remains to be seen, but it will certainly do for now (and probably anything I do in cosmology will involve at least some computer programming, so it's not like I'm going to stop doing it in the future).

Hope that gave you something to muse over. A hui hou!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

In Which Our Brave Protaganist Finishes His Work, Despite A Raging Head Cold

Just a short post tonight to mention the irony that right after happily proclaiming myself to be in good health a few days ago, I came down with a cold. Normally colds don't bother me much, but this one has really hit me hard. I probably shouldn't have gone in to work with Dr. Takamiya today (in my defense, I felt well enough when I went in, and then got progressively worse, especially after 2 o`clock), but on the bright side, I finished my script I've been working on and ran it on all the files it was made to work on (about 50-100 astronomical image files). I realized last night that I'd made a stupid error in writing it, and needed to compress three separate functions in it into one so it would do what I wanted it to. Thankfully, that was accomplished relatively bloodlessly, and in the process I found and excised a lot of extraneous code, and documented what everything was doing a whole lot better (for future reference). I was both surprised and pleased when Dr. Takamiya told me she was impressed by some of the expressions I'd used, which is gratifying because probably 30-40% of the time I'd spent writing that script had been looking on the Internet learning those very things.
Anyway, time to get to bed now. A hui hou! (until next time.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

If you like doing it, is it really work?

 I neglected to mention it last night in my post because I was tired, but yesterday I started working with my professor Dr. Takamiya on her research project over the summer (a lovely birthday present). We didn't do much yesterday, but today I got started in earnest, and I must say, if the rest of my summer goes like today, it will be a good summer.

I spent about six hours coding today, and I loved it (I even forgot to eat lunch in my zeal at discovering how to run IRAF through Python bindings...). It was quite enjoyable to spend a day working with my head and learning new things (like how to find and access files in Python, for example). I've so far managed to write and debug about half of a script that will allow us to quickly convert a large number of picture files from one format into another that we need.  All in all, a very productive day, and I can hardly wait to get to work tomorrow.

Monday, May 17, 2010

On the attainment of my majority.

Well. Today I am twenty-one years of age. I wish I could think of something suitably weighty and impressive to say, but the words are not coming tonight. The sun has returned to the position in the sky it was in when I was born (barring precessional affects), yet the main thing I can think is that today I can do something I have never been able to before: rent a car!

Yes, twenty-one is the minimum age to rent a car for every car rental agency in Hawai`i, though with an additional under-age fee slapped on (not removed until twenty-five). Not that I currently have any major need to rent a car (I've been getting along just fine), but it may come up in the future, and it's nice to have that option now.

Today I finally received all my grades, and was mildly surprised to see that I had made an 'A' in every class. I say mildly surprised because I have a tendency to over-work myself, and this semester I took that to an extreme. It's not easy to admit, but it was a stupid decision on my part (and those of you who told me I was crazy -- you were right!). It was a very difficult semester for me, so the fact that I managed to pull through is very satisfying. Though as always, I cannot claim credit for what I have accomplished; soli Deo gloria!

In other news, I have my sister Abigail to thank for the tripod that allowed me to take the following picture of me posing with my circular version of the periodic table:

(in case you're wondering, the alkaline and alkaline earth metals are at the top; the rare earth metals [the Lanthanides and Actinides] make up the right side with the hard-to-see white magnets; the yellow are the transition metals; the red are non-metals and the green are semi-conductors [or metalloids])

Friday, May 14, 2010

Jubilation and rejoicings! Finals are DONE!

Ahh, this morning I finished up my last final for the semester, in Intro to Modern Physics. This was the one that caused me the most trepidation, so I was quite pleased to find that it went very well. The last problem, in particular, was excellent. Challenging enough to make me stop and think hard about it, but nothing a good spot of concentrated mental energy couldn't handle (it was a derivation of the formula for the probability of a particle tunneling into a potential energy barrier - surprisingly simple, in the end, but some mental gymnastics on the way).

...And, best of all, I just checked online and found that I got over a hundred percent on that final! (though that means I probably totally broke the curve for everyone...shoot. I know there was an extra credit problem, but still...)

And with that...I declare this semester officially over! I'm still mulling it over, so I will probably have some musings to post in the next few days about it. In the meantime, I'd like to say thank you to my aunts Susan and Deb for the wonderful birthday presents: Susan for the awesome oratorio Elijah, which increases my slowly-growing collection of oratorios to seven, and Deb, for the incredible refrigerator-magnet Periodic Table!

Each element lovingly hand-positioned by yours truly.
 This thing is so wonderful...I hope to be able to finally memorize the entire periodic table, including the rare earth elements. My first attempts to construct a circular version of the periodic table that I've always wanted to see have met with some problems, mostly related to the difficulty in trying to construct a circle over a foot in diameter using thirty-two evenly-placed points without some sort of compass or other guidance. But that's just the start..there are so many things to do with this! (like seeing how many and what words I can make using the elements as Scrabble tiles...hey, it's chemistry and linguistics! Woohoo!)

Anyway, it's getting late, and I should sleep. Now that school is done, I can focus on other much-needed things, like mowing the lawn! A task for the morrow.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Observing run debriefing

My apologies that I didn't get around to writing anything yesterday about my observing run on Friday night. This was partly because I was busy working on my take-home final for Partial Differential Equations and studying for my Electromagnetism final, and partly because staying up all night does some wacky stuff to your head. I knew it was Saturday, because I headed to the library for a previously-scheduled study group, and yet Saturday night I steadfastly maintained to Jonathan that it was Friday, until being informed by my watch otherwise. I have a slight break from busyness right now; as of this writing I have just completed both the take-home final and the final paper for PDE's . My final paper was on the Schrödinger Wave Equation and how it can be solved to give the electron orbitals in a hydrogen atom, and it came out looking beautiful, especially with the graphics I included showing the first ten orbitals (1s-4f, if you're interested). \(\LaTeX\) is such an amazing typesetting program

But back to my observing run Friday night with Dr. Takamiya. We started about 5:30 in the afternoon, heading into the Institute for Astronomy building just above campus to remotely control the UH 2.2 meter telescope atop Mauna Kea (no, we didn't actually go up the mountain this time). Our telescope operator (TO) got there about 6, and we proceeded to start the telescope computers and the instrument we were using (a camera called SNIFS) and put them through a battery of pre-observing tests, calibrations, and routines. The sun didn't set till almost 7, and twilight didn't end for another half-hour after that, so we were performing tests and getting things set up for almost an hour and a half.

Thankfully, we had perfect weather, no clouds or other obstacles. We had a rather humorous incident where the Gemini observatory called us to tell us that they were planning to shine their adaptive-optics laser into the area we were observing, and were we going to be observing there much longer? We only had another 20 minutes there anyway, and they very politely waited, even calling again to make sure we had left. We could see their laser on the all-sky camera mounted at the summit to watch for clouds, which was pretty nifty

As the night progessed, Dr. Takamiya showed me how to issue orders to the telescope, and I got to tell it to take several exposures. We were observing relatively nearby galaxies, taking pictures first of an ionized hydrogen region, followed by a picture of a blank patch of sky nearby which we'll subtract from the image later on (technically we were capturing the spectra of the regions, in order to measure the relative abundance of different elements, so no visual pictures. Sorry)

I also learned a new word Friday night (or maybe early Saturday morning, it gets hard to tell): telluric, which means "earthly", as in "starlight that comes to us is affected by clouds and other telluric factors". I already knew that 'tellus' is the Latin word for earth, (which is what the element tellurium is named for), so I was able to guess in context what telluric meant, I just never knew it existed in English before. Now I just need to find a conversation in which to use it..

The night went pretty uneventfully, except for a portion when we weren't able to get a guide star to work for about 10 minutes. The hardest part was staying awake during the 20-minute exposures when there wasn't much to do but watch the guide star and make sure the focus didn't wander (seems like the hardest time is from 2 to 3 in the morning, after that I woke up a bit). We started shutting down about 4:30, since twilight came around 5, which is when we finally left. Luckily, I got home and made it into bed before the sun rose at 5:30, or I probably wouldn't have gotten much sleep. As it was I got several hours of very good sleep in (I think it's funny that I was the person up the latest in our house, and I still got up before anyone else, around 10:00).

Well, with my PDE stuff done, I don't really have anything to do tonight, so it's time for a little relaxation, before hitting the books next week. My PDE final is tomorrow, but it's simply turning in things and watching a few classmates' presentations, nothing to worry about. After that I have two finals on Wednesday, and one on Thursday, so it's studying Monday and Tuesday.

Oh, I almost forgot to say, Happy Mother's Day, mom! And thank you very much for the chocolate in your latest package; I've been slowly chipping away at it. Aloha wau iā 'oe! (I love you!)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Oh happiness and felicity! Classes are done!

Ahh, today is a day of great rejoicings! I have finished and turned in the last homework assignment for this semester (true, I have a take-home test for Partial Differential Equations due on Monday, but that is much preferable to an in-class test in that class). I was highly honored today by Dr. Figueroa asking for copies of my last two homework sets to use as the basis for the answer key he was compiling for them, since I typically get most of the problems right (I may have mentioned that the free textbook we're using has no answers, so he has to compile answer keys for the homework he assigns himself).
Speaking of the most recent homework we had for Complex Analysis, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Residue Theorem as promised. The Residue Theorem is often called "the crown jewel of complex analysis", and now I know why. Problems that previously would have been incredibly difficult, or even impossible, are now a snap. I didn't get a chance to work on the homework until Monday, and expected to be spending upwards of ten hours on it, and was very pleasantly surprised as problem after problem fell to the power of the Residue Theorem. I finished approximately 90% of the problems in less than two hours, and took only about another hour for the remaining ones. The feeling was one of delight, as previously-impossible problems became simple ones. I can hardly wait to actually use it in a physics application now.
The details are a bit deep (it took a whole semester to build up to them!), but basically, it says that when integrating over a region that contains one or more singularities (places where division by zero occurs), the integral is equal to 2πi times the sum of the residues, which are the values of the function being integrated attains at the singularities. Since plugging in the number directly would be undefined, residues have to be found another way, which can be as easy as a single differentiation (though they can certainly be difficult to compute, as well). The beauty of the theorem, is that it completely removes the need to actually integrate anything, which is very nice (differentiation is a science; integration is an art [integration is the inverse of differentiation, if you haven't taken calculus, and while you learn differentiation in first-semester calculus, it takes the rest of that semester plus another three to really get a handle on integration]).
Tomorrow night, I have been invited by Dr. Takamiya to go on an observing run. We won't be going up Mauna Kea; instead, we'll be controlling the telescope from the Institute for Astronomy building near campus (I'm not sure which telescope it is, though. I'll let you know when I find out). I also don't know how long I'll be there, it could be an all-nighter! I'll be sure to let you know all about it Friday.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Particles, magnets, and clothes, oh boy!

Wow! Today has been fantastically incredible for me. I'm going to have to troll my vocabulary for superlatives to fully describe my day.

Today, in case I haven't mentioned it before, is the day everyone in my Modern Physics class demonstrated their projects.  We were a little unsure about ours -- as I reported a few days ago, our attempt to run it on Friday, with every confidence that it would work, came to nothing, leaving us forlorn and distraught. However, Mike, my partner and the one with the actual equipment, ran it again on Saturday and was able to see many trails (humorously, he tried calling several people to tell them about it, including me, and they all for one reason or another didn't answer, leaving another classmate to quip "Mike discovered the secret of the universe, and nobody picked up the phone!"). So when we ran it today, we were hopeful about seeing trails. At first, it seemed our attempts would be in vain, as there was little alcohol rain and nary a trail in sight. However, after we'd seen everybody's projects and the class was over, Mike twiddled with it a bit, added some alcohol and set the base plate directly on the dry ice, and voila! Trails galore! I could hardly believe my eyes, at first -- 8 unsuccessful tries before seeing anything more than a random cosmic ray, and now, trails popping off in quick succession, even showering about en masse like sparklers at times. It was definitely one of the cooler and more dramatic things I've seen in my life.
I attempted to capture it on camera, but unfortunately the conditions necessary to see the trails made it very difficult to get a good picture of them. And still pictures can never do it justice, anyway. Nothing can compare to actually seeing subatomic particles interacting with the alcohol-vapor rich air in front of you, suddenly appearing and shooting along like a meteor, leaving a trail of droplets behind them to disperse and fall out of the air over a second or two. Or bouncing off the plastic aquarium containing them and ricocheting back into the chamber. I attach one of the better pictures I managed to take below. The trail in this picture is quite clearly visible as the white horizontal streak near the middle of the picture. The dark disk to the left is the uranium-doped sample, and the americium is just visible in the back corner as the tiny grey disk.

The intrepid Lego men, of course, are there to monitor and watch the proceedings.

All in all, it was amazing. Mike and I sat and watched it for almost half an hour, mesmerized by the interplay of fundamental forces going on in the chamber before us. The most fantastic part for me was seeing a trail split. That's right, I saw a single trail, straight as an arrow, suddenly spawn a second trail branching off at about a 30 degree angle. I'm positive it wasn't two trails that happened to be near each other, because the second trail quite clearly started at the first one, which kept on its straight course afterwards. What was it? I don't know. A decay seems unlikely, as uranium and americium both decay mostly to quite stable alpha particles (helium nuclei). I suspect, taking conservation of momentum into account, that it may have been an alpha particle knocking an electron loose off an air molecule causing said electron to go careening away.

The sub-atomic dance going on before our eyes was so beautiful, we found it a hard thing to finally have to take it down. There's a chance Mike will take it up tomorrow to Mauna Kea, where he'd have a good chance of being able to observe cosmic rays, and even the showers of secondary particles they create when they strike a molecule in the atmosphere, slamming into it at appreciable fractions of the speed of light.

I am happy to be able to say that I have finally been able to watch where atomic and subatomic particles go with my own eyes. While that was certainly intellectually satisfying, the second big attraction of my day -- magnets -- was incredible on a much more visceral level.

You see, one of the other project this morning required the use of a powerful magnet in order to split the spectral lines in a mercury vapor lamp. They were using a large cylindrical magnet -- and when I say large, I mean it had an interior diameter easily big enough for me to put my hand all the way through its 8-inch length without touching the insides. Our teacher, Dr. Takamiya, also brought along a small pair of extremely -- and I mean extremely -- powerful magnets. I only succeeded in separating them after putting one of them up against a corner of a desk and shoving laterally with all my strength against the other one. But while their strength was of an order unknown to me in magnets before, that in itself was not too incredible. I've played with strong magnets before. What was incredible, and completely blew my mind, was what happened when I moved them near the large cylindrical magnet.

I didn't have much in mind when I first got the impulse to hold the small magnets close to the large one (at this point they were bonded strongly together in my hand, generating a powerful field). I had a natural, subconscious hypothesis that I would simply feel a very powerful force pulling my hand towards the magnet. But that's not what happened -- not at all. I was snapped out of my assumptions about the behavior of magnets when the pair in my hand started to twist and turn, as if with a mind of their own. My memories of the event are lurid. I'm almost positive that I felt no actual force on the magnets, only torque. They weren't being attracted to the magnet so much as they were trying to align themselves with it field. Intrigued, I moved my hand up and down outside the magnets, and felt the magnets in my grip react as if alive, writhing about in an attempt to obey the commands of the invisible magnetic field they were being pulled through. It was surreal. I'm fairly certain I stood there with a huge grin lighting up my face for ten or twenty seconds, just feeling the thrill of magnets calling to each other across space. My astonished exclamations of delight and wonder quickly brought several other classmates to my side, so I relinquished the magnets to let them experience the wonder, while still myself able to feel their strange tugging in my hand. The memory still brings a thrill to my spine. Why could not we have done this in my Electromagnetism class this semester, at least once? A whole semester's worth of dry theorems and boring formulae was distilled into one intense, gripping, and powerful moment for me. If I had gotten to do this in January, I would have been excited to learn more about this mysterious force. As it is, I'm still excited from this morning, and jumping up and down inside at the remembrance.

Later, as people were preparing to leave, I got another chance with the magnets, so I took the cylindrical magnet and laid it on its side, then held a single small magnet in my hand and pushed it through the middle of the cylinder. I did feel a force this time, though again, it was drowned out by the overwhelming torque. Each time as I moved the magnet in and out of the cylinder, it desperately tried to flip itself around in order to line up with the field, then slowly tried to draw my hand towards the middle of the cylinder once it was inside. The whole experience was...beyond my meager ability to describe. You can only truly understand if you have felt the small metallic cylinders in your hand jerking and tumbling about with a life of their own to follow the unseen lines of force emanating from their larger cousin nearby. Truly, I must see about getting me some magnets of this caliber.

The third item on my list is nowhere near as exciting as the first two, but I needed a third noun for my title, and it warrants a mention. With summer coming on ( I can tell it's getting light a little bit earlier each week), and some of my older pairs of shorts showing their age, I finally found time today to run to Walmart and pick up two more pairs of my favoritest shorts. I know I know, not as exciting as watching bits of atoms flying about, or experiencing forces I turn out to have a surprising ignorance of, but it makes me happy none the less, and makes a fitting end for one of the most exciting days for me in quite a while. I need to finish this and get to bed  now, so perhaps tomorrow I'll tell you about the Residue Theorem, and how that's impacted my life. And about my upcoming observing run at the Institute for Astronomy on Thursday and Friday nights with Dr. Takamiya.
Till then, aloha!