Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year!



Well, that pretty much says it all, but I'll go ahead and say it again... Happy New Year! Here's looking forward to a good one!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carl Sagan



Ten years ago, we got the news that Carl Sagan had died of pneumonia, a side effect of his long battle with cancer. It felt almost like I had lost a friend, even though I had only once briefly been within two feet of him and had only been in the same room with him three times.

It's hard for me to make an eloquent summary of how Sagan impacted my life, so I'll just ramble about some of my favorite Carl Sagan books and shows.

I have had an interest in science, and astronomy in particular, for most of my life and "Cosmos" came along at a good time to nurture that. I remember seeing "Cosmos" when it was originally on (I was about 8 years old) and I still enjoy watching it today on TV and DVD. Even though some of the graphics have been updated, it is amazing how well the original information holds up after 25+ years. To this day I'm fascinated by Hypatia of Alexandria and her famous library because of that show. I kept hearing Sagan's voice the first time I saw the Rosetta stone at the British Museum, sounding out the letters of Ptolemy's name as he described how it was used to decipher Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs. The cartoon of the evolution of life from single-celled organisms to us was my introduction to the topic. The Cosmic Calendar, with the Big Bang at January 1 and human life at the final minutes of December 31 first showed me the awe of deep time. And how many people my age first knew what a googol was because of this show and not because of a search engine with the same name (although a different spelling)?

I first read "Contact" when I was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. At the time I wasn't absolutely sure what I wanted to do with my life, and after a side-track of wanting to be an astronaut I ended up studying astronomy in college. I didn't end up going all the way to a PhD, but I did get my Bachelor's degree in astronomy and I still work in the field doing educational support and public outreach at the University of Texas.

My final semester in college, I took a brilliant class called "Pseudoscience and the Paranormal" taught by one of our Physics professors and shortly after, Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World" came along, which only strengthened and reinforced my ability to use my "skeptical toolbox". My favorite chapter is "The Dragon In My Garage". It precisely sums up the extent that people will go to hold on to beliefs. It reminds me of one of my favorite Sagan quotes: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". "Evidence" being the operative word.

It is hard to believe that it has been ten years since Sagan's death, and I wish he had lived longer to see the amazing developments in astronomy. But I'd like to think that he lives on in a way through the many people he has inspired over the years.

You can see other memories and thoughts on the life and work of Carl Sagan at Joel's Humanistic Blog at the Carl Sagan Memorial blog-a-thon.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Beauty of Solar Burps


Part of my job is working with a solar telescope and talking about the sun with school kids, so I tend to keep up with solar activity. The sun has a roughly 11-year cycle where it goes from essentially no activity (meaning sunspots, flares, CMEs, etc.) to a bunch of activity and then back down to none. Right now we're at about the bottom, although activity is starting to creep back up and this week a large sunspot has produced several flares and CMEs. The cool thing about these eruptions is that when that energy impacts the Earth's atmosphere, it produces aurorae. Folks in more northerly areas are reporting and photographing some beautiful Northern Lights this week, and some have submitted the photos to the aurora gallery at one of my favorite websites, spaceweather.com.

Being in Texas, it is rare for us to see aurorae, but with particularly large explosions they can be seen. They are usually a red glow on the northern horizon (in my experience), not the rich variety of colors seen at more northern latitudes. Someday I'm going to be father north at the right time to see some!

The little movie at top is from the SOHO spacecraft, which monitors for solar activity everyday. This is the flare from December 14th and is at 195 Angstroms (the sun doesn't actually look green at that wavelength, it's just colored that way in the computer... that wavelength is in the ultraviolet and cannot be seen with the human eye).

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Amazing Mars



You know, since I'm in astronomy for a living and there are all kinds of amazing images and discoveries coming in everyday, you'd think I would have been blogging about astronomy more. And since I love science in general, you'd think I'd be blogging about all science more too! Well, hopefully this post will be the first of many more to come of things that catch my eye.

Mars is currently being studied by five spacecraft, and until recently it was six (since Mars Global Surveyor seems to have gone bye-bye), so there has been no shortage of incredible images and science coming from the Red Planet recently. Of course, there was the water announcement last week, for starters. Then there are the rovers Spirit and Opportunity that keep on roving and sending back amazing pictures. And the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which has the highest resolution camera ever to photograph Mars onboard. Mars Odyssey is the fifth spacecraft for those keeping count.

The picture up top is the latest release from the Reconnaissance Orbiter. In addition to the incredible details and the interesting science from the image, it's just plain pretty to look at.