Sunday, October 30, 2011


Writing FluxClassify this semester has been a rewarding and interesting experience for me. I've learned a lot about how computer graphics and graphical user interfaces work and how to design a program that is easy and fun to use -- in short, a good program. It's also been a bit of a relief.

To understand why you need to know that I consider my hunger for knowledge to be a very integral part of myself, to the point that when I began to suspect I was losing it last year it was cause for much distress. Coming to college for knowledge is rather like satisfying your thirst by drinking from a fire hose, and after three years I found that I just wasn't as interested in my classes as much. A lot of people think I'm really smart (and I suppose having a good memory helps), but the truth is that I'm just motivated to put effort into finding out about things that interest me. When I became less interested in my classes I put less effort in, and that led directly to my first non-A grade in college. I began to fear that perhaps my innate curiosity had been satisfied, which is what drives physicists in the first place. Overall the last two semesters have had a semi-constant background of worry about whether I was really suited for the lot in life I've always wanted.

However, over the summer and fall I've come to realize that my hunger for knowledge never really left me -- my appetites just changed! Looking back over the last two semesters I see that I was still interested in learning thing. They may not always have been related to what I was learning in class, but I was still as voracious as ever in my pursuit of knowledge. Working with Dr. Takamiya helped because it introduced me to a latent desire to learn more about computer programming that's been a steady background of my life for over a year and half now.

My research experience has been helpful as well because what I learn from working on it mimics more closely how I learn naturally in life than learning in a classroom. My Observational Astronomy Lab this semester pleasantly surprised me in this respect, because our final project (for the remainder of the semester) involves going out, taking actual data, and writing a report about it, and I'm actually really interested in it. In short, all my changing knowledge appetite means is that I'm a little bored of classroom learning for the moment and ready to apply it (which is good news for grad school!). I suppose it's no big ground-breaking realization, but it has been a slow process of discovery for me, and I'm very relieved to see that while my curiosity may be satisfied on one subject for a while, it'll just find something else to investigate. Because, really, a physicist without curiosity is an oxymoron.

And now I need to finish this long-winded post and leave for a day of volunteering on Mauna Kea. A hui hou!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Victory! Vindication! Version 0.4.0!

Success! I'm very excited this evening because the newest version of FluxClassify, my spectra-categorizing program, is now functional. The three weeks I spent learning new code and racking my brain over how to do things was not in vain. It's already a huge step up from the previous version, and much, much, easier to use. It's not quite ready to release to my eager group of spectra-classifiers due to some details I intend to implement to make it even easier, but I hope to have it out with a bare minimum of extra features by this weekend. I'm even more excited about this, my first program written with Pygame, than I am with its predecessor, written in wxPython (and my first GUI), because Pygame is much lower-level than wxPython so I had to learn how to do a lot of things the hard way or re-invent the wheel in various places. The flip side is that I have extremely fine control over everything, so if I can figure out how to do something, I can do it exactly the way I want it. Ah, the sweet taste of victory.

See this? This is a shot of FluxClassify's main menu. It may not look like much, but that list of observations to choose from is auto-generated. That's right, it automatically takes stock of the data you give it to dynamically create a clickable menu on start-up. Also? Everything you see there is relatively placed based on the size of the screen, so it should work just fine on differently-sized screens.

Although, it is a bit sparse right now...I may add a better background in the future. I do plan to add some "Options" buttons later this week, such as the ability to mute the sound.

...Oh, I didn't mention it has sound effects? That's another nice thing about Pygame, it allows easy integration and playback of sounds. It's amazing how much a simple "click" sound when you mouse over a menu option  adds to the experience. In essence, I'm designing a program that I would enjoy using, to make sure that other people enjoy using it too. And I won't stop improving it till it's nice and polished. It doesn't hurt that I have fairly high standards in program usability and quality.

The entire reason I spent three weeks learning and writing new code was for what you see before you here. This here is a shot of FluxClassify in action. As I mentioned before, one observation comes in two parts, one taken through a blue filter, one taken through a red one. Up until today, people have had to classify those two parts separately, by manually flipping through pictures and switching between them and FluxClassify to record their results. It's time consuming, inefficient, somewhat boring, and obscures the big picture of the observation. This program is designed to do away with all that, by displaying both the blue spectrum (on the left) and the red spectrum (on the right) together in one place, something I couldn't figure out how to do in wxPython (I couldn't get it show any pictures, period). I chose this picture, incidentally, because of the strong flux seen in both spectra - a good hydrogen-beta emission line on the left, and an even nicer hydrogen-alpha line on the right.

If you're wondering how exactly to use this program, well, that's why I said it's not quite ready to release yet. Currently you can classify spectra with a few key presses (and I plan to keep that), but I also plan to include mouse clicking, and buttons to show people their options and what they picked. Once I have that stuff down, and a few other odds and ends I've thought of, it'll be ready to release for beta testing! A hui hou!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Globular Cluster Photo Series (Part 13): M92

Today I have an image of the globular cluster Messier 92 for your viewing pleasure. M92 is one of the more spectacular globulars in the sky, but is unfortunately outshone by the slightly more spectacular M13 with which it shares the constellation Hercules. M92 is smaller than M13 at 109 light-years across compared to its 170, but is at roughly the same distance, about 26,700 light years away (M13 is about 25,000). These two factors combine to give it an apparent diameter on the sky of 14.0 arcminutes, a bit smaller than M13's 20.

Messier 92 in Hercules.
M92 is a nice looking globular cluster, still large enough on the sky to look interesting, and fairly concentrated. M92 boasts one of the few eclipsing binary systems known in globular clusters. It has another, more interesting claim to fame, however. The Earth's spin axis slowly precesses over time, taking about 26,000 years to describe a large circle on the sky. (Think of a top slowly wobbling in a circle as it spins. It's the same physical principle.) Precession is the reason that Thuban (a star in Draco) was the North Star for the ancient Egyptians rather than Polaris like it is today. Anyway, in about 14,000 years precession would point the Earth's axis less than a degree away from M92, leading to M92 being a sort of North Cluster. For comparison, M92 is about a fourth of a degree across, so you can see just how close that would be. Polaris itself is about a degree from the North Celestial Pole, which is small enough that it doesn't matter for everyday navigation aiding.

Pretty interesting, no? A hui hou!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A (Nobel) Prize Winning-Performance

Wednesday night I had the privilege of hearing a talk by Brian Schmidt, one of the three winners of this year's Nobel Prize in physics for his work as the leader of one of the two teams who independently discovered the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. This was his first public talk since being announced as one of the winners, and he even turned down an invitation to meet queen Elizabeth to give it! Despite the talk only having a week's notice, it was packed. Quite literally standing room only, as I and many other stood the entire time. There must have been easily two or three hundred people in attendance, many from the local community.

The talk was very informative, and given at a level that non-scientists could understand. As a result he didn't cover too much material that was new to me, but what he did cover he discussed in an engaging and knowledgeable manner. All in all it was a great experience, and I'm glad so many people from Hilo got to come and see some of what astronomers do up on top of the mountain. Positive PR is always a good thing for us!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Project Orion

Today I came across what is certainly one of the most intriguing and arguably one of the best ideas the human mind has ever come up with: Project Orion.

Project Orion was a serious research program in the late 40's and 50's dedicated to achieving rocket propulsion in a...slightly unorthodox manner. In essence, it boiled down to chucking atomic bombs out the back of the rocket and detonating them to provide thrust. Mull on that for a few seconds. This was a dead-serious project by some top physicists. The explosion from the bomb would push on a large pusher plate at the back of the vehicle that would be attached with some heavy-duty inertial dampeners causing the whole thing to act like a spring, bouncing back after each explosion only to be greeted with a fresh one for the maximum impulse. Serious calculations showed that it would take about the same about of bombs to get a wide range of payload masses, from 2,000 tons (on the order of the size of the Saturn V rockets that went to the moon) all the way up to 8,000,000 tons (on the order of the size of a small city[!]) into orbit, meaning you could launch much greater masses with the same amount of "fuel" than you could using conventional measures. How many bombs does it take to launch a spaceship into orbit, you ask? The guys in charge of the project have you covered. It would take about 800 nukes at the rate of about one per second to launch something into orbit in a manner akin to "an atomic pogo stick."

Imagine that, if you will.

Imagine being among the first crew to experience one of these. The whole point of the inertial dampener is to decrease the acceleration when the bomb goes off from a lethal 100g to a more human-survivable 2 to 4g, but that's still some significant shock. And every second for over ten minutes you'd get another one. Another interesting fact: the guys in charge of the project were worried that the random nature of the explosive fireballs might send a spacecraft off course, but were reassured when they found that the effects tended to cancel out. Well, that sounds nice in theory, but in reality it means that in addition to the jerky forward motion you'd be feeling, there'd be tiny, random, deviations each time which you know aren't going to knock you off course, but which I'm sure would be pretty unsettling anyway.

Plans for launching such space vehicles included -- I am not kidding here -- covering the landing pad in a layer of conventional explosives and literally blowing the ship far enough up into the sky that it could drop its first nuclear charge without risk of shrapnel from the nuke interacting with the landing pad damaging the ship itself. I mean, how cool is that?? The project ended up being shelved not because of the extreme amounts of fallout it would generate (the idea was never actually flight tested), but because no one at the time could think of a need to launch thousands of tons of payload into space (the signing of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty also made it impossible to test. The U.S. tried to get an exemption for nuclear propulsion into the treaty, but the Russians were [understandably] reluctant).

In the aftermath of bans on open-air nuclear explosions, some people have proposed a similar idea, but one where the spaceship would be launched by more conventional means (or assembled in space) before igniting its nuke drive far enough away from Earth to be non-hazardous. It was calculated that a mission to Pluto and back could be completed in a single year using such a drive. In contrast, New Horizons, the probe currently heading to Pluto, is the fastest man-made object ever, and it's still going to require nearly 15 years to get to Pluto.

And now, perhaps, you can begin to see why I find this idea so fascinating, so captivating, so wonderfully and uniquely "out there" that I could not sleep without writing this post about it. Because when you get right down to it, really, all worries aside, who wouldn't want to ride a nuclear-powered rocket? ("Prime the nuke drive, Scotty!")

Monday, October 10, 2011

Art and Awards

Saturday night was the annual Volunteer Appreciation Banquet up at Hale Pōhaku for all the Mauna Kea volunteers. Although I've been to two before this (indeed, my first time ever volunteering was on the night of the banquet in 2009), this is the first time I've been able to stay for the entire banquet (the banquet runs longer than the time the volunteers who are actually volunteering that night need to be down at the Vis by).

I enjoyed the banquet immensely, especially getting to see various people I knew recognized for their outstanding contributions as volunteers. There were 11 “major” awards given out, things such as “Most Dedicated Volunteer,” “Most Enthusiastic,” and “Stellar Spirit.” And then, in a totally unexpected turn of events,  I heard my name called out associated with the last one, “Best Images of the Year.”

Close-up of the amazing fleece jacket I got as part of it!

Of course such an award needed some examples, and I found it mildly amusing (even as I was blushing up a storm) that two of my pieces of artwork were shown while only one image made using the imaging telescope was. (Although, since it was the image in the post directly preceding this one, I suppose you could argue that it was equivalent to showing 16 images.)

Needless to say, I was touched, and truly honored. One of the nicest things an artist can hear is that someone enjoyed their work and as you can imagine I was pretty pleased. In fact, coming off of that, this seems as good a time as any reveal my latest piece of work. It's based off the recent announcement of the discovery of Kepler-16b, one of only five planets known to orbit two stars, and the first one whose parent suns are close to being Sun-like (though both are still smaller than our Sun). This image is of a completely fictitious solar system, although the two stars in it have fairly realistic coloration and relative size.

I'm not really happy with the spiral arm running through this picture, but I really, really like how the stars and planet came out, enough to make this my background picture (that's why it has the dimensions it does). They are the main focus, after all. I tried to give an impression of the stars' mutual gravitational pull from their close obit distorting them somewhat away from a purely spherical shape, and for some reason I find the tiny starspots on their surfaces adorable. Ah, well, I should probably get to bed now after being up late last night. A hui hou!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Messier Globular Cluster Collage

How's that for a noun cluster? This picture is a collage of all the pictures of globular clusters I've taken so far, all nicely labeled.

My housemate Jonathan told me the title immediately made him think of ‘assorted candies.’

These are all at the original size as they appeared in the images I took, they haven't been scaled relative to each other (well, they're original size when you click on the image to see the full version). When you look at them like this it's easy to see why Omega Centauri is one of the best ones to see visually. For comparison, Omega Centauri is about the size of the full moon on the sky. They're arranged in no particular order. They're also not at the same quality level, and I might end up re-doing some of them such as M107 if I get the chance. I've submitted this picture for the slideshow at the annual Volunteer Appreciation Banquet for Mauna Kea volunteers tomorrow, which I'm really looking forward to!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pygame to the rescue!

I don't think I've mentioned this before, but in the project Dr. Takamiya and I have been working on we came to the conclusion (after many attempts to stave it off) that the analysis of spectra could not be done reliably by computer (too many false positives), but would need to be done by a human. And when I mention we have a total of 33,525 spectra, you'll appreciate that it's going to take some time.

Because of that, I decided to implement Project Spectra Zoo, modeled after the much more famous and polished Galaxy Zoo. Basically, it involves volunteers from the large number of incoming freshmen this semester doing the analysis for me (in return for getting their names in the paper and some valuable experience). Now, in the spectra to be analyzed, there are a lot that are not entirely clear as to how they should be classified even for someone like myself, so the idea is to have every spectrum analyzed by at least two people and then compare the results, paying attention to those cases where people disagreed. Since having some sort of standardized results would facilitate that happening, I decided to write a program to help people with the analysis.

(Now, I'd just like to say that writing this program shows just how much I have learned and grown over the past year. I used a Python package called wxPython for writing graphical user interfaces [GUI's], and it would have been completely impossible for me to have written something in it at the end of last summer. I know, because I tried for a few days, and got nowhere. Only after learning a bunch more about Python, including the concept of classes, was I able to understand how to use wxPython.)

wxPython is good at what it does, which is created programs with a native feel to them for whatever OS you're using. Using it I was able to create FluxClassify, seen below in version 0.3.0., V0.3.0
Briefly, each numbered checkbox represents a spectrum in the 15-by-15 array format we're working with. Users can check boxes to represent the presence of a spectral line in an image (or even activate a third state for an "I don't know" answer), save their classifications for both the red and the blue filters (each picture comes in two parts of 225 spectra each), and output a file containing all the classifications they made in an easy computer-readable format.

It's perfectly usable as it is, but it requires users to manually flip between the spectra and the program which gets distracting and slows the process down considerably. I dreamed of a new program, one more similar to Galaxy Zoo: one that would display a single spectrum, wait for the user to classify it, then move on to the next one.  With this grand vision in mind, I set about learning how to place graphics in wxPython (the spectra are all saved as JPEG files).

This turned out to be a surprisingly difficult and daunting task. It turns out that the wxPython documentation is awful. I've always found the (plain) Python documentation to be an amazingly helpful and useful resource, and never realized just how above-par it was. After a two days of bumbling around with confusing and complicated wxPython tutorials, I was ready to—well, not give up, but to look around for other options. It was looking for other options after my first tangle with wxPython that led me to the much-more-useful-for-my-purposes Python Imaging Library last summer, after all.

So a few days ago, I was considering the problem of getting graphics—images—into a program with a GUI. And then the idea came to me: what programs, out of all computer programs, tend to make the heaviest use of graphics? The answer is games. Games, more than any other program, use the most and most complicated graphics. This line of thought came to me because I had recently downloaded the Pygame package when I discovered it had a version for Python 3.2, intending to check it out later. Now, I've spent several hours over the last two days checking out Pygame's documentation, and it turns out to be much simpler getting graphics on-screen. I haven't begun writing FluxClassify's successor yet, but I'm sure it will be a lot easier. It may not look quite as polished, but it'll be more efficient and easier to use, and that's what counts.

And who knows, considering I'll have used a package intended for making games to write it, maybe I'll throw a gaming element or two in there as motivation for my volunteers to classify spectra. It doesn't hurt to make scientific research fun, after all!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Even More Superluminal Musings

In my last post I promised the next one would have some stuff about quantum mechanics and the apparently superluminal neutrinos. Well, here it is a week later, and still no post. This is mostly because my ideas that I mentioned turned out to be of little interest after I thought about them some more, and then I got kind of busy with school and stuff. But since I promised a post, I might as well share what I was thinking about.

To start off with, relativity does not actually say that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, c. It just says that no information can travel faster than that speed (and also nothing with mass, but since anything with mass carries information, that's almost a sub-case). In fact, in a beam of light composed of multiple 'wave-packets', you can measure the speed in several different ways, and some of those ways will give you speeds greater than c. They can't be used to carry any information, though. Spacetime itself is also thought to be able to expand faster than c (you just can't move faster than c through spacetime...which always leaves me feeling a bit confused).

You're probably asking yourself at this point, what does this have to do with quantum mechanics? A lot, as it turns out, because moving faster than the speed of light is not unknown in QM. One example has to do with the phenomenon known as entanglement. In the right circumstance, two particles can be created together such that they become entangled. What this means is that if one is measured to have a certain attribute, the other will have the exact opposite attribute. The usual example is that if one is measured to have 'spin up', the other will be measured to have 'spin down'. Spin up and spin down are extremely complicated to explain, and don't mean exactly what you would expect in classical mechanics. Just accept that the particles, when measured, can be either one or the other, but not both, and not anything in between, and which state it is is completely 50/50. The "when measured" part is important, because according to QM the particles aren't actually in either state before you measure them. Your act of measurement causes one to take on one state, and the other to take on the other. The interesting thing is that it happens, as far as we can tell, instantaneously.

Say you take one particle (without measuring it) and give the other one to a friend (again without measuring it), and you both take them far apart from each other. Then, at an agreed-upon time, you both measure your particles. Despite them not having a fixed orientation (spin up or spin down) before measurement, measuring one will instantly "collapse" the other into having the other orientation, so that they always have opposites. What's interesting is that you can have the two particles far enough apart that there's no way the second one could "know" the value measured for the first one utilizing any sort of subluminal communication. I.e, if you measure the two particles 20 nanoseconds apart, but it would take light 100 nanoseconds to move between them, there's no way for information to be exchanged according to relativity, and no way for the second particle to know what value to give when measured. And yet it happens. Always when the experiment is performed, the two particle have opposite spins, and the only conclusion is that they are "communicating" instantly. The reason this doesn't violate relativity is because no information can be exchanged this way -- you don't know what the value of your particle will be before you measure it, so there's no way to send a signal to your friend measuring the second particle, because he simply gets the opposite of what you have. If he measures a +1 every time you measure a -1 and vice versa, it does no good if you measure a random set of plus and minus ones.

Anyway, the other way that QM allows for faster-than-light travel is called tunneling. Tunneling is strange and a bit freaky, because there's no analog for it in classical mechanics or our everyday experiences. Imagine a particle trapped at the bottom of a potential well, by which I mean that the particle is repulsed from the sides, and doesn't have enough energy to escape. If the particle is unobserved, it exists as a sort of probability wave, and this wave can sort of leak through the sides of the well if there are areas of lower energy on the other side (think a well dug into the top of hill. The area at the bottom of the hill is of lower potential energy than the bottom of the well). This leakage is highly dependent on several factors, and almost always extremely small -- but what it says is that if the particle is suddenly measured, it has a chance of being found outside the potential well despite not having enough energy to get out. Again, this happens instantaneously, as far as we can tell, but again it can't be used to send information because it all depends on measuring the particle in the first place, and it may or may not be in the well when you do.

After that extremely long roundabout explanation, my initial thought was that the neutrinos were somehow tunneling as they made their way through the Earth's crust, causing them to appear to travel faster than light. After some thought, I decided this wasn't feasible for several reasons.

1. Tunneling depends on repulsion, and neutrinos aren't electrically charged (their name means "little neutral one" in Italian). They only interact via the weak nuclear force and gravity. Gravity doesn't repulse, and the weak force, as its name suggests, is much, much weaker than electromagnetism, which is where all known tunneling comes from. I'm not even sure it would be possible to induce tunneling with the weak force. It also depends on the particle being confined -- if it's just flying through space and meets an obstacle, it can simply ricochet off and never bother with tunneling.

2. Neutrinos hardly ever interact with matter. Whether or not they can tunnel is a moot point if they can pass through the Earth without interacting with a single atom of it, and billions do every second. So even if they could (which they probably can't), they probably wouldn't.

3. Tunneling is by its nature extremely rare for any single particle. Given that the scientists at OPERA have made multiple measurements (thousands, in fact) of the neutrinos that appear to be superluminal, it's extremely improbable that they were all tunneling, especially in light of the above two points.

What will most likely happen is that some measurement or combination thereof will be found to be in error, although it might require improvements to our measuring technology first. I haven't heard anything about the experiment since the initial buzz, but I'll keep an eye out for news, and keep you guys updated on the eventual conclusion of this (although if it does turn out to be superluminal motion, I hardly think you'll need me to tell you about it). A hui hou!