Monday, November 29, 2010

Handel! And Pipe Organs! And Handelian Organ Concertos!

Today I learned that my favorite composer, Handel, wrote concertos for one of my favorite instruments, the pipe organ. And not just one or two, but whole bunches of them! I've now been listening to previews of them on Amazon for the last hour, and the combination of such beautiful music and the chocolate bar I just happened to be eating at the same time nearly caused me to burst with elation. There's nothing like listening to one of the old masters showing how it's done! Beautiful melody, elaborately decorated on all sides by wondrous, joyful harmony, all supported by rhythm in its proper place. The joy of listening to good music that engages the mind, even as it flows through the veins like fire! Words are so inadequate to describe the feelings inspired by any one of these amazing pieces. One of the reasons I so love a good pipe organ is the fact that it is the best instrument I've ever found to be accompanied by whistling.

As if all this wasn't good enough, I discovered that I have had one of these organ concertos all along! It had me fooled because it is one of the few to get a name of its own beyond a mere opus number: The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. That's how it came labled on the CD I got it off of, along with an assortment of other Handel pieces, so I never suspected its true nature. I've always loved it, though, and now I know why!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hauʻoli Lā Hoʻomaikaʻi kākou!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Here's hoping the day finds you with even more to be thankful for than I. The weather here is gorgeous, brilliant sunshine enthusiastically punctuated periodically by short downpours. I am blessed with a loving family, sufficient food to eat, and academic success. I love my work, and get to regularly experience the beauty of the created order. My life is not worry or trouble free (whose is?), but today is a good day to gain a little perspective on just how minuscule my problems are in comparison to my blessings.

I encourage everyone to take a little time today to enumerate the set of all your blessings. (Being potentially infinite, you'll have to terminate it after a fixed number of terms, but the exercise is diminished in worth thereby not one iota.)

By the way, the Hawaiian term given above for Thanksgiving, Lā Hoʻomaikaʻi, translates pretty freely as “day of thanksgiving”. There is, however, another more informal term that could also be used: Hauʻoli Lā ʻAi Pelehū. What's that translate as, you ask?

Happy Turkey Eatin’ Day, y’all!

(I'm also thankful I learned how to use the ‘text-shadow’ HTML tag today!)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Computer woes.

Sorry for my absence this week, my laptop is experiencing another attack of the "computer troubles always strike at the worst time" variety. Some of my keys randomly stopped working, making it rather difficult to write. (The on-screen virtual keyboard just doesn't cut it as a fast or efficient manner...) I'm borrowing a USB keyboard for the rest of the semester till I can get it looked at, so I ought to be able to update here again more frequently. (Although probably not this weekend, as I have a humongous take-home test in Optics due on Tuesday. And I'm driving for a summit tour on Saturday...)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Gecko!

I found this little guy outside in the car port today:


Quite the friendly little guy, it sat on my hand and watched me for quite a while. I love watching geckos lick their eyes to wash them.


There seem to be two different varieties of geckos here, one with this color scheme, and another with a uniform drab tan coloration.

Edit (6/14/13): There's actually more like seven different species.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Oh! what a day, oh! what a night!

Wow.

Observing on the mountain is intense.

It's not so much the lower atmospheric pressure, at least for me. The temperature and dryness of the air are far more pressing issues, to my mind. I don't like being cold at the best of times, and the sharp pain in my nasal passages accompanying each breath reminded me of agonizing winters spent in California where the humidity was so low my nose would hurt for days at a time. Though, having said that, I did have a good time and I'm glad I went.

Hualālai visible in the background.

After I posted last time, I had supper, then the four of us drove up to Subaru with the telescope operators. Our purpose was not to observe (that was Monday night) but to get some time up at the summit in order to acclimate better. The sunset was quite beautiful, as you can see in the picture. The mountain peak in the distance is Hualālai, the third most active of the five volcanoes that make up the island of Hawaiʻi. I was delighted to see it, because it is almost always covered in clouds, and I've only been able to see it clearly once or twice before. Cloud cover was relatively low Sunday night, allowing me to get this picture of Maui and the west Kohala coast.
Haleakalā on Maui visible on the horizon.
We didn't stay up at the summit very long Sunday night, instead coming down to Hale Pōhaku and staying up late so we could get in good naps on the morrow.


That morning (Monday), I discovered that the heater in my room very definitely did not work, as after leaving it on all night the temperature was a balmy 59.6 °F in my room when I woke up (thank goodness for the electric blanket on the bed!). The outside temperature, however, turned out to be surprisingly warm (except for a brisk wind), so after breakfast I and the two other students went on a hike in order to tire ourselves out so we could sleep well in the afternoon.

Hiking around on Mauna Kea is something I've long wanted to do and only rarely been able to. We hiked up to the summit of a puʻu (cinder cone) west of Hale Pōhaku and got some great pictures, such as the 360° panorama of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualālai below. You'll need to click on this one to really be able to see it, and in fact this copy that I've uploaded is a mere 20% of the size of the original on my computer, which is a whopping 16325 x 2000 pixels!
From left to right: Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualālai.


There are all kinds of strange rocks to be found on Mauna Kea. I took pictures of these two that I thought looked exceptionally strange. The first reminds me of a giant clam, and the second made me think of an armadillo. I also found one that I initially thought was an out-of-place granite, until I turned it over and found the characteristic rough brown exterior of Mauna Kea rocks. Sometimes you find rocks from deeper down in the crust that look very different from the usual surface rocks on the mountain.



From the vantage point afforded by the puʻu, I was able to look down and snap this idyllic shot of Hale Pōhaku and the Vis:

Little House on the Big Mountain.
And the clear mid-morning skies allowed me get another picture of Hualālai over the tops of the māmane trees growing on Mauna Kea's slopes.
Subalpine māmane forests of Mauna Kea, Hualālai in background.
Māmane trees (Sophora chrysophylla) are a kind of plant in the pea and bean family found only on the Hawaiian isles. They have very pretty yellow flowers that I don't usually get to see. I think the reason for their heavy flowering may have to do with the fact that the area around the Vis recently received some moderately heavy rainfall. I also got to see some of the native, endangered palila (a type of honeycreeper) that live in the māmane forests and are only found on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea between 6,500 to 9,500 feet. They have a pretty coloration, although I didn't get to see one up close.

Māmane tree, looking south-east towards the Saddle.

While climbing (or more accurately, sliding) back down to Hale Pōhaku for lunch the three of us had a somewhat strange experience where we all smelled a strong sulfurous smell for a short time. It lasted for no more than a minute at most, and its source is currently unknown, although the simplest explanation may be that Mauna Kea is not quite extinct yet, and that pockets of gas may make their way to the surface from time to time.

After lunch and a very disorienting nap (now I remember why I don't sleep in the daytime!), it was time to ascend the summit and begin our night of observation in earnest. Since the data we were getting was not the kind I have been working with, I had no real responsibilities, and was simply able to watch and learn. The experience was quite interesting – I don't think I'd be able to observe on my own after one night watching, but I definitely feel I'd be able to learn. After some trouble getting the telescope focused at the beginning of the evening, the rest of the night passed pretty much uneventfully, with exposure after exposure flowing in from the instrument we were using (an infrared spectrometer called MOIRCS [Multi-Object Infrared Camera and Spectrograph]).

Actually, there was one rather cool event that happened, and that was that I got to use night-vision goggles for the first time. Subaru keeps a few pairs on hand in case of necessity, and the telescope operator let us try them out. It really is true what they say, that you can't see the stars as well from the summit as you can from lower in elevation (due to lack of oxygen, which your eyes need in large amounts in order to function at peak performance). However, night-vision goggles clear that all up, and then some. We first tried them out about 9 `o clock, and were able to observe several meteors that would have been too faint for the naked eye to see. The ones we saw seemed to be coming from the direction of Taurus, which had just barely climbed above the horizon, so we decided to wait and try again later when it had risen higher.

We pretty much forgot until about 5 o’ clock in the morning when I went out again. By this time, Orion and Taurus where optimally suited for viewing from our small balcony, so I turned the goggles' wide field of view on them and simply watched. And then, oh the sights! Auē, as you would say in Hawaiian. The sheer number of meteors was astounding. It seemed like every few seconds I'd see another one whizzing by. They were coming from all directions, shooting and sparkling in the night sky like cloud trails from the energetic decay of a radioactive atom in a cloud chamber. Sometimes I'd see more than one at once. I rapidly lost count of their number, as I sat, enthralled, paying no attention to my rapidly-cooling extremities. And the satellites! I counted fifteen different satellites in the same time period, more than I've ever seen in one night (usually I'm lucky to see three from the Vis).

It's a good thing someone finally came out and checked on me, as before I knew it half an hour had passed, and I was starting to lose sensation in my fingers and nose. I hardly noticed nor cared, though – every good astronomer knows to ignore personal bodily discomfort when spectacular sightings are visible (the correlation between the two is a sad necessity of the job). And that certainly ranks right up there with the coolest experiences I've had. I doubt I'll ever have the disposable income to get such a pair of goggles for myself (at $4,000 a pop, they're not cheap), but, well…a guy can dream…

Finally, as always happens, dawn arrived and we had to pack up. Our friendly telescope operator opted to stay a little later and give us a tour of the telescope, which was a very cool experience. The last time I came, we got to see the room under the telescope where the mirror is stripped of its aluminum coating and re-coated. This time, however, the elevator to the dome was broken, so instead of simply zipping up the several floors to the dome, we climbed up the back way. We passed through the area between the aluminizing room and the dome floor, where the base of the rotating dome rests. It's open to the outside, and the morning light filtering through the cracks left between the dome wheels gave it an awesome, indescribable, feeling. I felt it must be akin to the feeling one would get standing in one of the great European cathedrals as the light of the rosy-fingered dawn bursts through the stained-glass windows in overwhelming brilliance. I really wish I had been able to capture the feeling in a photo.

After that experience, we headed up to the dome itself, where I was able to get the full-telescope picture that eluded me the last time I tried to take it:


To give you some idea of the size of this behemoth, I wouldn't be able to reach the blue circular area at the bottom even by stretching to my full height. The jumble of parts below the mirror, right above the floor is the instrument we were using, a cube nearly two meters to a side. This is a big telescope.

After our tour it was time to head back down to Hale Pōhaku, which granted several opportunities to snap more great photos. One of the most amazing for me was the shadow of Mauna Kea stretching away to the north-west. If you look closely, the peak of Kohala is visible to the right of the shadow. The shadow at sunset is a splendid sight, but I think the shadow at dawn is even grander, accompanied as it is by the feeling of wonder that comes with the morning.

I also managed to grab a picture of the twin Keck telescopes, gleaming in the light of day:

Keck II on the left, Keck I on the right.
This early in the morning, the western Saddle was once again cloud free, letting me take even better pictures of Hualālai:

From the summit (Pu‘u Poli‘ahu on left, Pu‘ Pōhaku on right)…
…and on the way back down.
 (If I seem to have a bit of a thing for Hualālai, it's because it has always been mysterious to me, a shadowy mountain perpetually robed in clouds, invisible to the eye except for rare glimpses of the peak. Seeing it in its entirety gave me a better appreciation of the geography and scale of the island, and was just a pretty cool experience in general.)

 And that's pretty much it. After an uneventful nap and lunch, we headed back down to Hilo, back to warmth and humidity, two things I missed very much at the summit. I am a warm weather person; that's one reason I came here to go to college. That's not to say that I don't get hot like everyone else. But every so often, when I am tempted to complain about the heat, I like to remind myself that there really are much worse things than being hot and sweaty, and trips to Mauna Kea fit the bill perfectly. And having said that, I really am done with this absurdly long post.

A hui hou!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hale Pōhaku

Well.

Here I am, in my own little room at Hale Pōhaku. I'm here on Mauna Kea for the first time as more of a visitor, than as someone with things to do and places to be. Well, I do have things to do, but I also have worlds more free time than I've ever had up here before. It's kind of strange -- I hardly know what to do with myself.

Isn't it cute?

It's really nice being up here. With the sun out, the wind blowing across the mountain's flanks reminds me of the prairie wind in Nebraska, a memory for which I have an especial fondness. I was startled earlier by a strange sound coming from outside my window, which I discovered to be emanating from a pair of Francolinus erckelii (Erckel's francolins) wandering by.

The four of us who came up -- Dr. Takamiya, myself, and two more astronomy students working with her -- got here about one `o clock. After we checked into our personal, hotel-like rooms in the Hale Pōhaku dorms, I realized I had absolutely no responsibilities until dinner time. I thought about doing a little hiking, but ended up resting in preparation for tonight. We're going to try and get a ride up to the Subaru telescope with the astronomers going up this evening, not to oberve (that's tomorrow night), but to spend a few hours up there getting acclimated to the high altitude and lack of oxygen.

Well, it's nearly dinner time, so I need to head off and bulk up on some calories. My one complaint with my room is that the thermostat seems to be incapable of raising the temperature to a comfortable level, so I'm going to be burning a lot of calories tonight. (I'll measure the temperature tonight with my watch thermometer and see what it is.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Rainbow Redux.

Today I went on my first summit tour since before the beginning of the semester. As usual, me bringing my camera caused the weather to be unusually cloudy, up past the Vis and part way up to the summit. From the top, everywhere you looked as far as the eye could see was nothing but a roiling sea of clouds. Driving both to and from Hilo was in constant, heavy rain, along with some pretty thick fog. It did have its perks, though. On the way up, we saw a tiny, close-up rainbow, which I managed to get a (shabby) picture of:


Even more entertaining was the rainbow we saw on our way back down, which appeared to intersect the road right in front of us!

I've been informed that I will have Internet access up at Hale Pōhaku, so I will try to keep you informed while I'm up observing on the mountain. A hui hou!

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Health Benefits of Radium, or: Why you Should Look Critically at Modern Health Fads.

Today I'd like to write about one of the scarier things I know of: the radiation health fad of the early 1900's. You see, back around a hundred years ago radiation had just been discovered by the pioneering efforts of such scientific greats as the husband-and-wife team Pierre and Marie Curie and Henri Becquerel, but it was still such a new phenomenon that no one knew about the dangers it posed.

Due to radioactive decay in the bedrock that underlies them, many hot springs famed for their healing powers have traces of radon gas in them, and thus higher than average radioactivity. Given how little was known about radiation at the time, it wasn't long before a whole health fad industry sprang up in order to get more of this obviously wonderful radiation to the masses (it reminds me quite a bit of the whole ozone health fad that was in vogue around that time, but that's a topic for another time). One of the earlier products introduced was called Radon Water, bottles of water with radon dissolved it it marketed to the average person who wanted to get in on this new healthy product. Unfortunately, there's a slight problem: the longest-lived isotope of radon has a half life of just 3.82 days, so by the time the bottled water had reached its destination, quite a lot of the radioactivity would be gone.

Nothing daunted, the new start-up Radium Ore Revigator Company came up with a solution to this problem. The dilemma is that radon, being a product of the decay of other elements (notably thorium), is constantly being created but decays too rapidly to really be practically brought to market. The Radium Ore Revigator Company's answer? Instead of bringing the radon to the customer, bring the radioactive elements to them and let them produce their own radon! Thus the Revigator was born.

The Radium Ore Revigator is essentially a large water cooler lined with carnotite, an ore of uranium (and thorium, which uranium decays to) that slowly undergoes radioactive decay to produce radon. The intent was that water would be placed into the Revigator overnight to acquire a healthy dose of radon, then imbibed the next day in order to get as much radioactivity into the user as possible.

 Today, we know that radioactivity in the body is entirely a bad thing, causing cell death or cancerous mutations. It's easy to look back at the thousands (yes, thousands) of Revigator buyers in the 20's and 30's and wonder how they could be so deluded. But the scary part, for me, is that mankind really has not advanced much further today. If you read any of the materials put out by the Radium Ore Revigator Company, they sound eerily similar to claims by many different groups today. You can substitute “radio-activity” with the name of many products today and hardly notice the change. One pamphlet of theirs can be found here. For instance, you can find this little gem of a quote on page 10:
Is radio-activity dangerous to the health? Most everyone offers this questions [sic] because it is only natural to regard this as a drug or medicine. The answer is that radio-activity is not a medicine or drug, but a natural element of water, and that since practically all spring and well water that Nature herself gives for drinking purposes contain this highly effective beneficial element, it is but common sense to restore it to water that has lost it just as we restore oxygen to a stuffy room by opening a window-by eating foods that contain vitamins-or by the installation of window glass that permits the entrance in sun light of the all important ultra violet rays. The United States Government says that the radio-activity of natural water is never strong enough to be injurious. 
 I love the implicit assumption that “It's natural, therefore it must be good for you”. Sure, it's natural, but so are arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. For that matter, so is the mutation-causing ultraviolet light whose effects are compared to those of oxygen and vitamins (!). If you read the whole booklet it is both funny and terrifying, knowing what we do about radioactivity today.

I said before that I don't want to be too hard on the buyers of back then. They simply didn't know what we do now. I also don't wish to be too hard because we today are no better, really. There are many different alternative medicine products out today that we really don't know much about at this time, yet which are selling quite well. I'm not going to claim that all of them are completely without value; they might be, but we really don't know. This is partly because current federal law (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994) prohibits the Food and Drug Administration from testing the health claims of most alternative medicines. Thus the companies that produce these products can continue to market them without ever having to provide proof of their efficacy, while the Placebo Effect guarantees that at least some of their buyers will report improvement.

And that I suppose is really what scares me most. If people can be taken in by such things as the health benefits of radiation before, what's to stop it from happening again? Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, so the saying goes, and who's to say how many current health fads will be deemed to be dangerous in fifty years?


I'd like to gratefully acknowledge my inspiration for this post, the incredibly awesome chemistry website www.periodictable.com. Seriously, go check it out. You can find pictures of actual Revigators under radium (atomic number 88), and a picture of a bottle of “Radithor” Radon Water under thorium (atomic number 90). You can also read the much-better-quality article that directly inspired this post and from which a good part of my information comes there.