Monday, July 12, 2010

Climbing rocks, seeing stars.

Saturday was a very long and busy day for me, but in a good way. I went on a summit tour and decided to stay for stargazing and take advantage of the almost-new moon to do some imaging. The weather was beautiful up at the summit, and I was even able to catch a glimpse of the island Kaho`olawe for the first time! The view of Maui was also the most spectacular I've seen.

I took some time after lunch before the trip to the summit started to go back and smell the silverswords again. Knowing what to look smell for this time, I could tell that the silversword flowers smell very similar to sunflowers (pungent, a little bitter), but with a definite sweetness I don't remember sunflowers possessing.  While engaged in this pursuit, I noticed a dead flower stalk poking up from the cluster of plants I was looking at and decided to see what the seeds of a silversword looked like. To my surprise, they turned out to be almost indistinguishable from marigold seeds. (It was surprising to me at the time. Now that I know that marigolds are also in the Asteraceae family, it makes a lot of sense.)

I was also able to do a little geological sleuthing while I was there. Saturday morning I discovered the 3-dimensional views of Google Earth, and had been looking at the various Hawaiian islands. This naturally led to me find the Vis, at which point I was shocked to discover that directly south of the south, just before reaching it, the road to it passes through the remains of an enormous cinder cone. I was shocked because I have driven up and down that road (and through the cinder cone) over a dozen times, and never suspected its presence. It really doesn't look much like a cinder cone when you're actually standing on its rim, however, as I discovered. The east and west portions of its rim jut up significantly higher than the rest (the west side is a very popular location near the Vis for viewing the sunset), and on the south-east side where the road enters the cone its rim is completely invisible (there is another, much smaller cinder cone near that location, the formation of which may have destroyed the rim of the older, larger cone).

What really amazed me about this particular cone is how large it is. It is larger in diameter that most of the other cinder cones on the mountain, over a thousand feet from edge to edge. I don't think it's the largest cinder cone on Mauna Kea, but after looking around some more in Google Maps I'd be willing to bet it's in the top five (in terms of diameter, I'm not considering height).

Anyway, in other news, I've been given permission to post some of my pictures that I created as part of my summer project. The picture to the right is rather special to me because it's the very first picture to be created by my script. Somewhat amazingly, after I had all the code for creating pictures written everything worked perfectly, and this was the result the first time I ran the script.
Those of you who program know how rare it is for everything to work right the first time, especially when writing with functions you've never used before! I guess it's a testament to the power and simplicity of the Python Imaging Library that I was using to create the pictures.
If you're wondering what these are picture of, they are pictures of star-forming regions in relatively nearby galaxies (within a few hundred million light years). They are all made using one specific frequency of light, known as hydrogen-alpha (Hα), the frequency emitted by an electron jumping from the third level to the second level of an excited hydrogen atom, at a wavelength of 656.3 nanometers.
Well, actually I think the first one was made using hydrogen-beta (Hβ), which is the light from an electron jumping from the fourth level to the third, at 486.1 nanometers. For comparison, H-alpha is a distinctive pinkish-red, while H-beta is more of a cyan color. These last three pictures have no special significance for me like the first one, they're simply some of the more interesting ones I could find(many of the pictures have little or no contrast across them, partly for data reduction reasons, partly because there is much, much less H-beta light than H-alpha light, so pictures in H-beta are much fainter at the same exposure. The first picture, being a first-time test, is actually pretty heavily over-exposed).

Anyway, now you can see what I've spent my summer doing....making grainy black-and-white pictures. They may not be the prettiest pictures on the planet, but they're special to me (and, it appears, pretty valuable scientifically as well. Dr. Takamiya was quite impressed with them). It remains to be seen what results await our scrutiny...

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