Sunday, November 22, 2009

My visit to Montreal

The latter half of last week found me in Montréal, Canada.  I was invited by colleagues in the astrophysics group at the Université de Montréal to give a talk on my research.

Wednesday I boarded a plane for Montreal, arriving in the early evening.  I've never been to Montréal before, and the only other time I was in Canada was over 30 years ago, when I was too little to remember.   I don't speak French, but I know enough to be polite, and everyone speaks English better than I do.  So, with no hassle at all, I found my way to my hotel and met with my host, Patrick, for dinner.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Get your shots!

Whooping Cranes
Image Credit: Patuxent Widlife Research Center, USGS

When I was a kid, I thought that whooping cough was a disease caused by whooping cranes (pictured above).  But, it isn't.  It's caused by bacteria.  Whooping cough, a.k.a. pertussis, is a highly contageous disease, it is very dangerous for infants, and it can be prevented most of the time by a vaccination.

Why am I talking about pertussis on an astronomy blog?  Because I learned this morning that my daughter has contracted whooping cough.  She's a teenager, and so with treatment she'll fully recover. As an infant, she did receive her pertussis vaccination, but its effectiveness decreases over time.  Pertussis boosters are available, but we were not aware of them until now, when it is too late.

Monday, November 16, 2009

It's the size of Earth with lots of oxygen, but not a nice place to be.

Image Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Some acquaintances of mine in the United Kingdom have discovered two white dwarf stars that have a lot of oxygen in their atmospheres.  One of them, with the typical boring star catalog name of SDSS J1102+2054, is the blue dot in the center of the image above.  Although white dwarfs are roughly the size of the Earth,  the star in the color picture looks blue like the Earth, and we all love oxygen, this would not be a nice place to vacation.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Planets come and planets go, but not in 2012

An asteroid impacts ruins the day for a flock of pterodactyls
Image Credit: NASA / Don Davis

Today, the movie 2012 opens in theaters.  The basic plot is that the Mayan calendar ends on the solstice in 2012, portending doom for all on this planet.  I'm not going to see the movie, as I'm not a fan of disaster movies (except, perhaps, the Samuel L. Bronkowitz classic "That's Armageddon").  If you want to see major cities around the world destroyed and humanity struggle to survive, then this is probably the film for you.

I mention the film because there is an ever-growing chorus of people who think that the world actually will end on December 21, 2012.  These people are wrong, their claims are made on bad (and often fabricated) science, and many of them are just out to make money off of gullible people.  Rather than go through a litany of the claims about 2012, let me point you to a few reputable websites that have the science and the cultural history correct:
I mention this whole 2012 business because of anecdotes I've been reading.  Young people have been asking if it is best to commit suicide than to try and survive 2012.  Some people are spending loads of money to buy prefabricated shelters that supposedly will protect them.   This is not simply about yet another doomsday prediction based on invented "science"; we are talking about hucksters willing to ruin the lives and livelihoods of innocent people to make a quick buck; we are talking about everyday people who are scared because they heard misinformation about a cataclysm that is not going to happen.  (In case anyone has forgotten, dates for end of the world have been coming and going for nearly 5000 years.  Check out the list.)

I've seen comments on other blogs by people who think NASA is wasting money by trying to debunk the 2012 doomsday predictions.  First, the website doesn't cost that much money -- the web server already existed, and the salary cost for the appropriate research and page design is probably less than the cost of one bolt on the next shuttle launch's external tank.  If NASA's efforts can help people to realize that folks who claim 2012 will be the end of the world are full of it, then the investment is more than worthwhile.

If you know anyone who is worried about some looming disaster in 2012, please point them to reliable resources and try and dispel them of that mistaken notion.  Again, we are talking about our friends and neighbors who are being bilked and scared by a nonexistent threat.

 To those who will claim that I'm just part of a big conspiracy to hide the truth, you're sadly misinformed.  If I suspected that the world was going to end or an asteroid was going to hit or the Earth's rotation were going to stop or Mayan gods were going to descend and wreak havoc on the world, I would not be sitting in a dark little office in front of a computer screen writing this blog.  I'd be out enjoying life, exploring nature, and running up a huge tab because I'd know I'd never have to pay.  Even if "they" were to threaten to kill me, I still wouldn't be here.  If I'm going to die in the great catastrophe of 2012, then "they" would not be able to threaten me.

Water, water, everywhere.

Last month, after NASA's LCROSS spacecraft failed to make a noticeable splash when landing on the moon, I blogged about how it could take months for the data to be analyzed.  Well, it took only about five weeks.  Today, NASA announced that LCROSS did indeed detect water, and a fair amount of it.  Final results will still take months, but the data are clear that water was present.

Why didn't we see the show from Earth?  Part of the reason is that the probe crashed behind the big mountain visible in the bottom of this picture, so the mountain likely blocked our view of some or most of the plume.  It's also just difficult to predict what will happen when you crash one object into another.

Anyway, the LCROSS work is still just beginning, so be on the lookout for more results in future months!

Friday, November 06, 2009

Congratulations Steve!

Image Credit: Steven DeGennaro

Today, we astronomers are honored to welcome yet another newly-minted PhD into our midst: Steven DeGennaro.  Steve is a graduate student here at the University of Texas at Austin, and this afternoon he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation.  

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Begging for money

The past several weeks I've been working on funding proposals for the National Science Foundation.  This just means I'm asking the government for money to do research.  And, despite what you may think, the government is stingy.  There are a lot of astronomers, and limited resources for research.  We have to spell out our proposed research in only 15 pages, and in that small amount of space we have to make people excited about our research and convince them that it is important and will succeed.  We have to anticipate and answer questions the reviewers will have about our science and proposed methods. 

We also have to justify every penny we plan to spend.  It's not  easy.  How do you accurately estimate the costs of attending a conference that you know will happen somewhere in the world in either 2012 or 2013?  How many trips to which telescopes will we have to take?  Will we need new computers along the line?  What will our salary needs be over the next three or four years? This is hard, too.  My salary needs will be a lot less if I am offered a job as a professor somewhere, as that will pay my salary for at least 9 months of the year.  But will I get that job this year?  Or next year?  Or the year after that?  How many papers announcing our results will we need to write?  How many pages will each of these papers be?  How much money will I need for phone bills and photocopying in 2012?

We also have to discuss how our research will make an impact in the world outside of astronomy research.  This includes what sort of education and public outreach we will do if we get the money (such as this blogging or the teacher workshops I've helped with in the past).  The National Science Foundation takes this section of proposals very seriously.  If we want money, we cannot merely hide in our offices, write inscrutable scientific papers, and spend taxpayer money.  We have to show that we are sharing what we learn with the world outside of academia.

Anyway, that's a big reason I've been kinda quiet recently.  In 10 days, this will all be a bad dream, and I can get back to writing job applications.  And 2 or 3 months from now, that will be finished, and I can get around to writing proposals to use telescopes.  After that is done, I can get back to doing science.  Or it may be time to start applying for more funding.  We shall see.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A bitter retirement

Update: 12 January 2010

I've removed this post.  I'm not being censored, nor am I hiding what I've written.  The original post was a personal piece that helped me to work through difficult issues that a friend is facing, and it served that purpose. 

I've learned that some other people close to my friend were troubled by what I wrote, both because it was discussing personal issues in a public forum and because they are even closer to my friend and his troubles than I am.  I did not intend to cause anyone else grief, nor to humiliate a person of whom I think very highly.   I apologize to those anyone felt otherwise.