Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for May, 2014

Just. Do. Science.

This past weekend I went to a science-fiction convention named Balticon, where I attended a couple of presentations by an astronomer named Pamela L. Gay, who co-hosts the “Astronomy Cast” podcast and tweets as @starstryder. She is really, really big on citizen science — she is the driving force behind, where ordinary people like you and me can contribute to real planetary-science projects.

Dr. Gay’s enthusiasm prompted me to sign up for an account on CosmoQuest and to start passing judgment on photographs of the craters on our Moon and the asteroid Vesta. Such tasks, individually small in the grand scheme of things but nevertheless important to solar-system investigators, also helped me get through the weekend with my emotions on an even keel.

You see, today marks one year since a stargazing friend of mine died of a massive stroke. I can’t even begin to imagine what the past 365 days have been like for his widow (also a friend of mine). Last month I went to a planetarium show that she staged — it was supposed to be her husband’s show, but she finished the work on it, and I could tell that her desire to excite young people about science was every bit as strong as his.

So, I’m going to honor my friend’s memory by doing some science. Yeah, there’s that whole bit about not having gone all the way to my Ph.D. However, the world now has incredible opportunities for participating in actual science that were not even in anyone’s imagination 20 years ago when I was discovering HTML and studying for my qualifying exams.

There’s not only CosmoQuest but also Zooniverse, which has a huge range of available projects, from classifying tropical cyclone data to tracking California condors. There’s Eyewire, a neuroscience “game.” There’s SciStarter, which has an even broader range of projects going on. The Smithsonian has a transcription center where “digital volunteers” can type up the handwritten words of long-ago explorers and nature observers.

Even when you’re not sitting at the keyboard, your computer can do science for you — just install the BOINC software and let it crank away during those otherwise idle times. I’ve got my laptop running two different BOINC-based projects: SETI@Home and EON. One of these days I’ll have to try something similar for my Android tablet.

Now you have no excuse. Just check something out. Play. Discover. Learn. Do science.


A new ‘Medium’

I just published in, literally, a new medium for me: the website I stumbled upon the website some months ago, probably because one of my hundreds of Facebook friends linked to an article there. Ever since, I’ve been itching to try it out, and the stars finally aligned for me to do so (sorry about the astrology reference).

I have no idea how to gauge readership of a piece, so I’ll just have to post a bunch of links to it in all the usual social-media outposts and see what happens.

Since the event that inspired me to write the piece happens tomorrow (Wednesday, May 21), I had really wanted to publish this several days ago. However, I had a weekend stomach bug that made it difficult for me to think 1,500-word thoughts and make them semi-coherent.

Anyway, please feel free to check out my tale of a small town auctioning off its prized Norman Rockwell painting: Enjoy!

Speeding up those dental appointments

One weird thing about me: I’ve got a phobia when it comes to dentistry. I don’t mind any other medical procedures — I made my first blood donation at the tender age of 17, and I have experience with the other end of the needle too (I had to give one of my cats insulin shots for the last 14 months of his life). But dentistry … give me the good (legal) drugs, please.

So I’m always happy to read of products that can reduce the time spent in the dentist’s chair, such as the report of a faster-hardening composite material for fillings. The Austrian researchers say that the new composite material contains a tiny amount of germanium and can be “cured” in thicker layers, which means that your dentist doesn’t have to alternate as much between packing the material into the tooth and holding up the little blue light that photoactivates the material.

I haven’t investigated this further, and I suppose that U.S. officials will have to approve the material before it can be offered to dentists on this side of the Atlantic. Still, I have some old fillings that will need replacement eventually, so I’ll keep this in mind.

(I really wish I could face the laser rather than the noise and vibration of the drill, but my dentist tells me that the presence of my old fillings makes it impossible to drill with a laser. Apparently, lasers are only for teeth that have never had cavities.)

Coming up for air…

Things have been busy around here for a while now, as I juggle my freelance assignments with the acquisition of some gently used furniture from a retiring couple who are moving out of state (and all the rearranging and cleaning that goes with the latter). However, I am absolutely glued to the TV for one hour every Sunday night, the exact duration of an episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I hope you’re watching Cosmos as well, and I promise I’ll write more about it before the series comes to an end. In the meantime, I “reposted” that Annie Jump Cannon essay from another blog — makes it entirely TOO easy to “reblog” someone else’s work, so I just wanted to emphasize that I did not write it; I just enjoyed reading it.

Annie Jump Cannon, Featured On Last Week’s Cosmos, As Profiled In “Wonder Women of History”

STRAITENED CIRCUMSTANCES: Tim Hanley on Wonder Woman and Women in Comics


If you’re not watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey every Sunday on Fox, you are seriously missing out. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is everybody’s favourite scientist, and the show is both gorgeously shot and does a fantastic job explaining big scientific concepts. It’s a lot of fun to watch.

Last weekend, Cosmos profiled Annie Jump Cannon, famous for counting and classifying thousands of stars. It was great to see Cosmos spotlight female scientists, and it reminded me that Annie Jump Cannon was profiled decades ago in Wonder Woman as part of the regular “Wonder Women of History” feature.

In the Golden Age, each issue of Wonder Woman profiled a notable historical woman in a 3-4 page strip. There were several astronomers spotlighted, including Cannon, Caroline Herschel, and Maria Mitchell; the latter two are famous for their work in comets. In Wonder Woman #33, dated January 1949, Annie Jump Cannon was the…

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