Monday, February 28, 2011

Space Art

This week one of my space art pictures I created was published in the school newspaper. It was done back in 2008, when I first realized that due to open-source computer graphics programs, making high-quality graphical art was no longer just for dedicated professionals. The realization that I could, on my own, with a bit of work invested, create pictures (of astronomical subjects, primarily) that could hold their own in an art contest was quite intoxicating.

Fictitious Solar System 3: moon around gas giant.

At that point my work was entirely 2-D. I had had GIMP installed on my computer for a while but one day while browsing its website I came across a plugin that would automatically create simple planets. I was hooked. I figured out how to draw stars (and yes, every one of those stars is hand drawn) and nebulae and within a couple of weeks had turned out several (O.K., 3) pictures of fictional solar systems. That's basically what sparked the interest I have in computer graphics that I have to this day. It was only a few months later that I found out about Blender and graduated to 3-D modeling. I made one rather forgettable picture of an astronomical nature with it before getting busy with school and work, and running into snags with the next project I had in mind, which remains uncompleted to this day. Maybe I should brush it off and have another try sometime...

Edit: And here's that self-same project, finished a few months later!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Clouds a-flame.

In my last post, I put up some incredible pictures from Mauna Kea from an arduous journey through a hostile environment (the summit of Mauna Kea is not friendly towards humans even at the best of times). But today I was reminded that beautiful sights can come to you when you least expect it, sometimes without even leaving your living room. This afternoon I looked up from my computer to see this amazingly scenic sunset taking place over Hilo:


We had quite a thunderstorm last night, so the local weather patterns might have had something to do with it.

Edit (3/1/11): Turns out this is my 150th post! I didn't realize I have that many already...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Orographical Excursions.

Heart of the Mountain (click for larger view).
Sunday I got to hike the Mauna Kea summit trail as part of a trash clean up crew. Our job was to hike down the trail from the summit to the Vis, picking up rubbish along the way. It was an amazing experience, albeit an exhausting one. The trail runs fairly straight for about six miles, dropping in elevation about four thousand feet along the way. Near the top, I got to see Lake Waiau for the first time, which was really nifty. The thin air was chilly at that elevation, but not too cold. I worked up a sweat early on from collecting trash, but settled into a fairly comfortable temperature equilibrium quickly thereafter.

Sitting at an elevation of 13,020 feet (3970 m), Lake Waiau (whose name means ‘swirling water’ although it doesn't really do anything but sit) is among the highest lakes in the world, and is one of the very few lakes in the Hawaiian islands. (As an aside, the word ‘lake’, much like the word ‘planet’ until recently, has no formal definition, i.e., it's as easy to argue about whether something is a lake as it is to argue over whether Pluto was [or is] a planet. So the ‘highest lakes in the world’ list can change quite a bit depending on what you personally consider to be a lake.)

Panoramic view of Lake Waiau (lost the right-most photo
 while transferring to my computer).
Lake Waiau is a pretty interesting lake from just about any perspective. Geologically, it's quite strange. It sits in the crater of Puʻu Waiau, a large shallow cinder cone whose bowl is lined with enough clay to hold the water in. It has no inlet, instead being fed with melting permafrost from the mountain, so its level fluctuates quite a bit depending on the snowfall each year. You can see a higher shoreline in the picture below, showing the lake from a higher perspective:

Lake Waiau as seen from the trail into the puʻu.
Biologically, Lake Waiau hosts some really extreme algae. The overall impression of the color of the lake you get when you're actually standing by it is green. Who knows how they survive – the lake freezes over almost every year, I've heard – but survive and thrive they do. I suppose they probably photosynthesize from the abundant sun (Mauna Kea is sunny well over three-quarters of the year) and feed on the nutritious volcanic soil the lake bed is composed of. On another note, Lake Waiau serves as a sort of oasis on the desert-like upper slopes of Mauna Kea. We saw some hardy grasses clinging to the rocks around the rim, something we didn't see again till we had descended almost three thousand feet.

I don't know what that algae is, but it sure is tough!
Lake Waiau also hosts some interesting surprises. While walking around it on garbage patrol, I was quite startled to feel the ground beneath my feet give slightly, then spring back like a trampoline. Tentative repeated pressing showed it wasn't a one-off event - the ground really was somewhat springy. The patch was rather large - I found intermittent springy parts as I continued walking around the lake. I've no idea what caused it, although I suspect the algae may be involved somehow. Perhaps mats of dried algae under the lake shore that are slightly springy?

The bouncy terrain is further along the shoreline in this photo.
Climbing out of Puʻu Waiau we were greeted with this majestic vista:
Those aren't car tracks, just two
parallel foot-paths (feet-paths?).
After a short lunch break, we began the long arduous trek downwards. I didn't get too many pictures at this time, as I was more focused on looking for trash and trying to keep my footing  as we wended our way down, around, and over the incredible landscape of the mountain. Most of the first few hours were spent clambering over glacial deposits or the hard dense Hawaiite formed when Mauna Kea erupted under its glacial blanket. The hot magma hitting the cold ice caused it to become extremely dense, making it an excellent tool material for a people with no deposits of metal ores to smelt. The ancient Hawaiians mined it for adzes, and there are scores of abandoned adze quarries around the summit. The adzes were rough-shaped on the mountain before being taken down and finished, and the piles of chippings are visible from quite far away. Indeed, the trail passed just below one that stood several times higher than myself:

This is even more impressive when you realize each chip
is roughly the size of your hand...and the pile is taller than you.
A little further on we passed a puʻu with a distinctive crater rim that I don't remember having seen before, despite the fact that it ought to be visible from the road. I need to look into that further...


Mauna Kea is an interesting mountain, because it's so big and flat near the top that you can kind of forget you're on a mountain at all because you can't really see down. Around this point on the trail it starts to slope off enough that you can look down and see Mauna Loa, the Saddle beneath you, and even Hualālai if you're lucky.

Note the varied terrain to be found on the slopes of Mauna Kea.
Hualālai is just visible at the far right.
As we drew closer to the Vis at the 9200 foot mark we started to notice familiar landmarks seen from unfamiliar angles. We also started to see vegetation again!

Notice how the path drops off as we
come to the really steep part of the trail.
As we crested the last rise and saw the welcoming buildings of Hale Pōhaku spread out before us, well, it was a sight for sore eyes, let me tell you! (and sore legs too!)

I've said it before, but “Little House on
 the Big Mountain” fits so well here. Quite idyllic.
All in all, it was a great trip, and I'm glad I went, even it my legs are complaining today! (I'm so thankful today is a holiday and I don't have to hike a mile to school and back.) I had a wonderful time, especially getting to see the elusive Lake Waiau. If you ever have the chance to hike the Mauna Kea summit trail I'd highly recommend it, although I'd make sure to plan for at least seven hours (at least) if you're hiking up rather than down.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hannny's Voorwerp

A couple weeks ago I wrote a short post about Hanny's Voorwerp, a mysterious object discovered recently through the Galaxy Zoo program. Not too long after that, I stumbled upon this awesome Hubble image of the Voorwerp:

IC 2479 & Hanny's Voorwerp

At the top you can see the galaxy IC 2479, its spiral structure clearly visible. Below it is Hanny's Voorwerp in all its glory. The green color comes from excited oxygen, while near the middle of the picture the yellow glow comes from where the gas is being compressed to form new stars. This is one of those cases where a picture is worth a thousand words, and since I don't feel like writing a thousand words tonight, you get this pretty picture instead. A hui hou!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

February the 14th

So, I completely forgot to mention the date on Monday. Yes, the 14th of February is the day that we celebrate some of those things that bring joy into our lives, and the man responsible for it all. I'm talking, of course, about National Ferris Wheel Day, named after the brilliant American engineer George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. His brainchild the original Ferris Wheel was conceived in response to a challenge by the directors of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition as something to match the Eiffel Tower, which had been unveiled in 1889. Things took off from there, and there are now hundreds of ferris wheels to be found across the globe. Try and ride one next Ferris Wheel Day!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Déjà vu

I was standing on the street corner when the little white man first appeared across the street. The action was so sudden that at first I blinked at him in incomprehension, owl-eyed. I stood there staring at him for a moment, my brain struggling to take in what I had just seen. I could feel something tugging at the back of my mind, telling me that I had been in this situation before, that there was something I needed to do, but I tried unsuccessfully to determine what it was. The little white man seemed to be beckoning somehow, bidding me emulate him in some way. I racked my brain for what an interminable length of time, before suddenly, in a flash, everything became clear...

The world seemed to shiver and somehow right itself, as if waking from a dream, and I realized that I needed to hurry up and cross the street before the Little White Man was replaced by the Blinking Red Hand.

Perhaps the fact that this actually happened to me this morning is my body's way of suggesting I get more sleep?

Edit (2/13/11):  And since a friend asked me today, yes, I did manage to cross the street safely. The events described above took about a half-second in actuality.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

To an Oil Droplet

by Daniel Berke

The oil drops, wee points of light,
Like distant suns, in splendor bright,
Fall slowly through the air.
Like autumn leaves upon the breeze
They whirl, and with measur'd ease,
Descend beneath my stare.

Like snowflakes borne on winter's gale,
On drafts unseen, the droplets sail
Till from my sight they pass;
In constellations animate,
The droplets churn, each one alit,
An orb of golden glass.

A radiant shimm'ring symphony,
of stars, a very galaxy,
Before my eyes doth sway;
And just like leaves, they slowly fall,
Down to the earth, like objects all,
And gently fade away.

And then, O thing most wonderful!
When impulses electrical,
Are to the drops applied:
They slow, they stop, reverse their course,
As though compelled by unseen force,
Back up their shaft to ride.

And when the current's off once more
Their paths again turn towards the floor,
A myriad dancing lights.
Nothing now impedes their motion,
Save the air, which like an ocean,
Slows their headlong flights.



You have been reading a poetic description of the author's encounter with the famous Millikan oil drop experiment, in iambic tetrameter. With catalexis.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Who Watches the Spiders?

 Today I learned a really awesome Hawaiian tongue twister. Take the simple sentence “It was he who was watching the spiders of him in Nānākuli”, translate into Hawaiian and you get:
Nāna e nānā ana i nā nananana āna i Nānākuli.
Try saying that three times fast!

Incidentally, I find it really funny that the word for “spider” in Hawaiian is “nananana”. Must be hard for arachnophobics. “He nananana!” “He aha?” “NANANANA! MA ʻŌ!”

When I did my grand investigation of the number of possible Hawaiian words a while back, I counted hypothetical words like this one formed of one syllable repeating over and over, but I wasn't sure how many actually existed. Two-syllable repetitions are fairly common (see nānā, “to look, watch”, above), but the only word I knew of with three or more syllables repeated prior to this was the word “pipipi”, which is a “general name for small mollusks, including Theodoxus neglectus.” Also “small or close together, as stars or pipipi shells.” Thus it is interesting to see that such words are not entirely hypothetical constructs, but actually exist.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Powers of 10

Yesterday on the awesome Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) website, they had a very cool video from the 1960's dealing with the sheer range of scales of the universe we inhabit.


Check it out, it takes about 9 minutes to run but is practically guaranteed to change the way you look at the universe, both on the macro- and microscopic scales. It also happens to be of quite (if I may indulge) stellar quality.

It's also cool in me in my dual role of physicist/astronomer, because I know and care for things on both extremes of that scale. I thought the rendering of the atoms as an indeterminate flurry of motion was particularly awesome.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hanny and the Voorwerp

I'm writing this post because I came across something recently I can't recall ever having seen before: the story of a scientific discovery told in comic book form. I was already familiar with the basic story, but found it a fascinating and delightful read nonetheless. I'm passing it on in the hope that others will enjoy it as much as I have, for I believe it helps to recapture some of the joy and wonder of science that some of us all too easily forget. In fact, I think it's a good reminder to me personally of why I do what I do. It brings back the feeling of the majesty and mystery of the universe I had when I was younger, before I came to college and the exotic unknowns began to be replaced with boring familiarity.

I'm not going to spoil the story too much, but ‘voorwerp’ is simply the Dutch word for ‘object’, and Hanny's Voorwerp is a mysterious object found in the data for the Galaxy Zoo project by a Dutch schoolteacher named Hanny van Arkel. What this woorwerp turned out to be is a long and thrilling story...

...which you can check out for yourselves here.

(Warning to those with slower connections: it's 40 pages long, so it might take a while to load.)