Thursday, December 21, 2006

pale blue dot

today marks the 10th anniversary of the death of carl sagan. Since he has been a hero of mine for such a long time, i wanted to contribute something to his memory before catching a plane this afternoon.

my first memory of carl sagan is from my freshman year in college. i was majoring in french and taking the university's only undergrad astronomy class as my science requirement. the eccentric professor played a few episodes of the COSMOS mini-series, produced in the 80's by carl sagan and ann druyan. i really enjoyed them and wondered why i had never seen anything so easily understandable and inspiring before. a couple months later, the movie contact was released... proving to be a huge inspiration in my thoughts about the future. i only found out many years later that the movie was actually based on a novel by carl sagan and ann druyan!

later that spring, i decided to change my college major into some sort of science because my curiosities about the world and the universe felt unsatisfied without the observation, investigation and critical thought demanded by science. now armed with hindsight recognition, i thank carl for inspiring the direction of my pursuit.

not only were carl's scientific discoveries about our solar system and contributions to the early space program substantial, he also applied his critical thinking skills and scientific perspective to socially relevant issues. he successfully applied science to public welfare. he managed to communicate his ideas publicly in a kind, uplifting and un-condescending way... which is a diffcult task and rarely achieved by leading experts, in my opinion. i admire this quality in carl.

many years later now... i'm almost finished with my astrophysics PhD and again deciding what i want to do with the rest of my life. i find myself thinking a lot about carl's life as an astronomer and how he became such a strong public influence by passionately speaking about the things he'd learned from pondering the universe. he had such an amazing way of providing perspective for people who dont think about the universe in terms of "billions and billions" on a regular basis. He sparked the imaginations of people all over the world to contemplate the natural wonders of our universe... showing clearly how we need not invoke supernatural phenomenon to explain or feel the awe, joy, wonder, amazement... humbleness that strikes whenever we look at any one of the beautiful images provided by the hubble space telescope or others....

i hope to share with those around me and those i meet, some of the inspiration i've discovered from pondering the universe... (as a career.. haha!!) people often exclaim when i meet them "i've never met a real astronomer before!" then they usually ask me a question or two about something they've "always wondered" (and many times i even get the "you know, you really remind me of jody foster in contact. do you search for aliens, too?"). i love these conversations because i can have them with people from every country! every human considers these questions and uniquely discovers knowledge and perspective necessary for appreciating our extraordinary and finite existences. everyone seeks to explore inward and outward from the "pale blue dot" that is our shared home... the earth.

i also wanted to share with you the beautiful essay written today by carl's collaborator and life partner of 20 years, ann dryuan, ten times around the sun without carl.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

home for the holidays

i'm back in the US. after an exhausting and complicated series of flights, i'm in austin. i returned just in time to unpack, repack and fly to ohio tomorrow. whew!

life is a whirlwind right now... it seems surreal. returning to the instantly familiar US feels bittersweet. i'm only here for a few weeks... long enough to see my family, my advisors, my friends, my boyfriend, my new mamma friends and meet their little babies ... and then i'm off to south america. culture shock? it's seems that i dont have time.

i'll miss deutschland... the friends who now feel like my oldest and dearest... the beer... the museums... the language... the U-bahn... the efficiency... the espresso... the relaxed pace of life... the soccer... the winter... it's an amazing experience to live in a different culture long enough to watch how the people change with the seasons. i have to figure out the traditions thru observation and then asking about what i cant understand. like at the beginning of december all the sudden in every store appeared these wreaths... like you would set as a centerpiece for a table.. and they have four fat candles evenly spaced, sticking up....

the four days of advent.... you light one candle on the first sunday of december... then two candles on the second sunday... etc... so these wreaths flood all the stores for about week and then they linger for the lazy. a very quaint tradition!

the craziest part is that despite all the differences, germany harbors a western and very modern culture. it's intuitive for me eventhough new challenges popped up for me everyday! i wonder how much intuition i'll discover in the southern hemisphere... where i've never been! my curiosity peaks with anticipation!

... but right here and now, in the present moment... i will enjoy the company of those dear to me who i've missed over the last several months. i feel luckily to receive such support from my friends and family. thank you. i look forward to laughing and talking and sharing!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

science and religion

there was a comprehensive conference in california recently called "beyond belief" which brought together people to discuss... science and religion... and how they fit together, or not. if you do a quick youtube search, you'll find many video clips of various presenters.

my personal opinion is that spirituality is a good thing, and unique for each individual, but *religion* is not always a good thing in that most ask their followers to abide by certain rules and belief systems, teaching that all other religions are bad and wrong. this black and white picture has caused many many a war to be fought and lives to be lost. this is only one problem i have with "religion" but i will not write any further about my opinions now, and instead give an excerpt from an article i enjoyed about the conference!

"Maybe the pivotal moment came when Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, warned that ..the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief,.. or when a Nobelist in chemistry, Sir Harold Kroto, called for the John Templeton Foundation to give its next $1.5 million prize for ..progress in spiritual discoveries.. to an atheist .. Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose book ..The God Delusion.. is a national best-seller.

Or perhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects .. testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.

Somewhere along the way, a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which might have been one more polite dialogue between science and religion, began to resemble the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told.

Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church, with Dr. Tyson, whose powerful celebration of scientific discovery had the force and cadence of a good sermon, as its first minister.

She was not entirely kidding. ..We should let the success of the religious formula guide us,.. Dr. Porco said. ..Let..s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome .. and even comforting .. than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know...

She displayed a picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn and its glowing rings eclipsing the Sun, revealing in the shadow a barely noticeable speck called Earth."

read more ... a free-for-all on science and religion

Friday, December 1, 2006

out of iraq and out of office

at least there's one good politician in ohio, dennis kucinich. i've been a fan of his for several years now. he thinks the only way to get the US out of iraq.... is to cut off funding for the administration's actions!! makes sense. the best way i've found to kill old habits is to run out of money to support them! he describes his plan here on the huffington post.

i also think that dubya and dicky are not fit to run this country, and worse, have indeed committed crimes worthy of impeachment. BUT, we cannot impeach bush alone, it has to be both. here are 14 possible articles of impeachment! (yes, thats right... 14!!!!)

piled higher and deeper (phd)

i love the phd comics comic strip. the artist and former grad student has been touring around the US recently giving lectures and connecting with his grad student fans. he came to austin last summer and i'm quite amused by the anecdotes he took away!! haha!!

grad school is not all work and torture... just mostly! :)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


language is an interesting thing. we use it everyday to communicate yet so rarely think about what we are actually saying. immersion in another culture has allowed me to appreciate how i use the english language by stripping the german language down to the necessities i need to achieve my goal! as the native english speaker, i'm often asked "how do you say {something} in english?" and most of the time i'm readily able to respond... but i've found myself gradually forgetting words that i know i know... common things or concepts that are familiar to any english speaker... and i just forget them... which feels strange!

when i first entered grad school and dove into the vast astronomical literature to become familiar with well-known papers cited hundreds of times, i found myself cringing at the dryness of scientific language. the same intimidating words used repetitively became somehow ambiguous when used by every author whose papers i read. apparently all galaxies were afflicted with star forming diseases identified by a multitude of "star formation diagnostics." why could astronomers not be more descriptive so i could actually understand what they were trying to say?? i decided i would not participate in this monotonous ritual and proceeded to write my first proposal - for a graduate fellowship from NASA - with embellished language. i boldly gave the first draft to my advisor for comments. later that day he said "you have a very nice and descriptive writing style." i smiled. "we're going to beat that right out of you!" oh no, i cringed.... what??

i have since come to appreciate that efficiency of scientific writing. after reading buhzillions of papers on generally the same topics, it's nice to know exactly what an author is telling me without having to filter thru new language. i want the new scientific result immediately, now that i know the verbose build up leading up to it. the flowery stuff is relegated to text books and review articles... thats why they're there! a frustrating lesson for a young grad student but a valuable one nonetheless.

which brings me to the point of this post.... my daily language. i've decided to make it a point to say "gesundheit" to people after they sneeze instead of the familiar "bless you." i hadnt stopped to consider the origin of "bless you" in a while and decided that i find it much more pleasant to wish someone good health than to proliferate the notion that an imaginary devil can somehow be blessed out of them. that's all.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

album openers

i was thinking about this and thought i'd get some feedback. what are your top 5 album opening songs?? i think mine are:

"human behavior" bjork (debut)
"hurricane" bob dylan (desire)
"mojo pin" jeff buckley (grace)
"change my life" spoon (love ways EP)
"at least that's what you said" wilco (a ghost is born)

i would also vote for "the late greats" off the wilco album as one of the best closing songs ever. i would love to add a neko case album to this list as well, but she tends to have fantastic #2 and #3 songs, not really great openers.

of course, this is subject to revisions.....

Saturday, November 11, 2006


well it seems that the great state of ohio will hold off worrying about counting the provisional ballots for one of the tightest congressional races of this election.... until the day after they're allowed, because they dont want to miss a second of the OSU vs Michigan football game. interesting priorities. when i was deciding whether i would go to michigan or UT-austin for grad school, i actually had people tell me ... not so jokingly... i shouldnt even consider michigan because of the football rivalry. because of a football rivalry? really?

meanwhile.... germany's top prosecuter is seeking a criminal investigation against donald rumsfeld just days after he resigned from office!!!!! this is some of the best news i've heard in a long time. now that rumsfeld no longer has the protection of being a high level US official, i hope he is forced to take responsibility for the despicably inhumane acts he has authorized over the last few years.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

hawaii's telescopes

after the major earthquakes that hit hawaii sunday morning, it appears that most of the telescopes on mauna kea are all in pretty good shape. one of the keck telescopes has some pointing and guiding issues, but the technicians predict it to be up and running in a week or so. the most damage seems to have been at the canada-france-hawaii telescope (CFHT). the offices were shuffled and a full assessment of damage to the telescope and dome is not complete yet. check out their website to see some pictures and to keep updated!

if youre interested, here are some pictures from my observing run on mauna kea 3 years ago!

in the first picture, Keck I is on the left, Keck II is in the center and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) is on the right. CFHT is further off to the right.

in the second, CFHT is the third from the right (actually, its the 4th from the right, but two of the telescopes have morphed into one in this photo!) and the kecks are the two little bubble domes near the middle.

Friday, October 13, 2006

beautiful saturn

just look at this picture!!!!! i think it's absolutely gorgeous. stepping back for a moment to think that this single photo is a mosaic of 165 individual images taken from the cassini space craft as it solely flew around saturn and then sent the files back to scientists on earth..... wow. its cool what we can do with little robots in space!

the sun was directly behind saturn when cassini took these shots, lighting up the rings from behind. notice all the subtle details in the structure that you can see, color differences... some red areas, some blue.... faint outer rings that are really hard to detect. amazing.

here's a link with the full-size pictures!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

life in the universe?

a nice little video (8 minutes) provided by

video is here

(sorry i couldnt display it here directly, but i was having problems....


as of today (oct 9, 2006), there are 210 confirmed exoplanetary candidates.
go to for the most up-to-date page on exoplanetary discovery!

the kepler mission is currently planned for launch in october 2008. this date gets pushed back every so often due to technical difficulties, but mostly funding issues as far as i can tell. many projects under NASA's budget have been fiscally stressed over the last several years do to, in my opinion, the ridiculous amount of activity demanded by the government... namely, manned missions to the moon and mars. these missions cost a lot of money and yet NASA is still expected to keep up all of its old missions while also trying to plan these too with a pretty minimal increase in their annual budget....

ok, enough of my rant, enjoy the video!!!


Saturday, October 7, 2006

harvest moon

tonight's full moon is dubbed the "harvest moon" and is the full moon that occurs nearest to the autumnal equinox.

image above from astronomy picture of the day

this moon signifies the beginning of the harvest season for many cultures in the northern hemishpere.

you may have noticed at some point that when the moon is close to the horizon, just after sunset, it appears larger than it usually looks when it's high in the sky. a common misconception is that this is mostly because we view the moon near familiar objects like trees or houses, etc... this is not the case as explained by Donald E. Simanek, here.

i also remember thinking when i was a kid that the harvest moon was my favorite because it appeared to have an orange tint. it turns out that this is true for the same reason that the sky is blue! you can follow that link for a full description (or this one by the bad astronomer. briefly, it is because the light reflected off the moon travels thru more of the earth's atmosphere to reach us when the moon is on the horizon. the particles in the atmosphere scatter the photons of light as they travel, preferentially scattering the higher frequency photons (blue, green and yellow), leaving the photons with frequencies corresponding to orange and red to meet our eyes. this effect become more apparent when there is more pollution or other particles in the atmosphere, so the degree of orange-ness differs depending on where on earth you are!

here is some other intersting stuff about the full moon.

Friday, September 29, 2006

massive and minuscule

i always thought the similarity in the patterns found at gigantic scales and itty-bitty scales was pretty cool!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


i just wanted to make a quick post and point everyone in the direction my favorite webpage of all time:

Astronomy Picture of the Day

no matter how much i want to procrastinate doing work, when i look at ths site, as i do everyday, it reminds me why i love doing astronomy. it's certainly not the tedius coding or data analysis... its the physical interpretation and surreal reality.

Friday, August 25, 2006

dwarf planet

well it seems that my prediction was wrong and pluto is now a "dwarf planet!" according to the IAU, we have 8 planets in our solar system.

it's good to see the scientific process open to the public and i'm glad we finally have a working definition of a planet.

Monday, August 21, 2006


our whole solar system could change soon!!!

astronomers are busy in prague voting on their proposed new and finally official definition of a planet. we've identified 9 planets in our solar system in the past: mercury, venus, earth, mars, jupiter, saturn, uranus, neptune and pluto (my very fine mother just sent us nine pizzas!). the first planet was identified over 200 years ago as an object that moved across the sky in a different way than the stagnant distant points of light... the stars. no formal definition of a planet currently exists.

the proposed definition is that in order for a celestial object to be a "planet" it must:
1) orbit around a star, but not actually be a star (a star is an object that burns at least hydrogen in its interior)
2) and be made up of enough stuff (mass) that its own gravity pulls it together to be nearly spherical.

roughly, an object less than 1% the mass of our moon within a diameter way less than the length of california could satisfy the second point. so.... we could wake up soon in a solar system containing 12 planets? if the new definition gets voted in.... we would add ceres between mars and jupiter, keep pluto, throw in pluto's moon charon, and the unromantically named 2003 UB313.

i think there are some ambiguities that still plague the nearly new definition of a planet. for instance, pluto's orbit around the sun is not in the same plane as the other currently existing 8 planets and pluto's orbit is more eccentric (less circular) than the other planets. also, there are objects out there that arent officially stars because they dont burn hydrogen in their cores, called brown dwarfs, but they are 12-75 times bigger than juptier-like giant planets and they dont orbit around other stars. do we need another name for objects that are bigger than juptier, but smaller than brown dwarfs and are not orbiting around stars?

hmmmm.... pygmy planets, plutons, globules, gray dwarfs, pixie planets ;)

i dont think any of those names are clever enough to stick..... any ideas??

Sunday, August 13, 2006

in the beginning

i've decided bring my ongoing, self formatted, moved away from my family so i'll keep them updated webpage, to a different realm.... the bona fide blog-o-sphere.

hopefully, i'll find a compatible photo sharing software as well so i can share pictures up my upcoming journeys to germany and chile.

i leave for munich in 2 weeks. rob and i had a fantastic going away party last night... 50 ways to leave your lover. the pictures shows the amandas.... me all chi-ed up with rob's sister, amanda.

my paper is coming along quite nicely im happy to say. after an unpleasant bout of data analysis, my galaxies have finally started to reveal interesting insights into their formation history. that sounds pretty cheesy, but i'm happy to be doing physics again instead of fighting with plots and understanding every nuance of calculations based on years of assumptions, using data sets burdened by inherent observational biases.

anyway... now all my thoughts shared here will be titled, annotated and potentially referred to in the future. that's somehow reassuring.