Monday, December 31, 2012

Space Shuttle Endeavour visits Austin, Part Deux

On September 20, the Space Shuttle Endeavour did a fly-over of Austin and I caught a really cool photo of it with the UT Tower. You can see my original blog post about it here.

The weird thing was that for the next few months, after the initial rush of the first few days, I still saw a trickle of retweets, views, and comments.

Then, I got a tweet from someone at Twitter saying that they would like to use the tweet/photo as part of an official Twitter project. I was intrigued, but figured it would show up somewhere buried in a 2012 wrap-up. Well, I was partially correct, it was in a 2012 wrap-up, but buried it certainly wasn't! Imagine my surprise when it showed up here:

Only on Twitter

And here:

And here:

And in the video itself:

(Below the Curiosity rover and next to Barack and Michelle Obama. Seriously?!?!)

And here's the whole video:

And one of the more amusing places that the photo and tweet showed up was this blog entry from the TexasExes: UT Tower Lands on Twitter’s Most Popular Posts of 2012

Compared to Barack Obama's most re-tweeted tweet ever, my little photo and tweet of the Space Shuttle Endeavour was nothing. But to an average person like me it was a big deal!

The stats as of today, the last day of 2012, are: on Flickr - over 5500 views, 100+ favorites and 39 comments. The actual tweet directly from my account was retweeted about 800 times, but I also sent it to several local news outlets and *their* tweets also got a lot of traffic so the twitpic is edging towards 35,000 views! There were also several shares and about 800 likes on Facebook (I think, it's hard to track stuff like that on Facebook) and there were shares on Google+ and on blogs. I did a search on the link to the Twitpic ( and saw all sorts of links that I didn't even know about before! And I've gained about 150 followers in the past few weeks - I'm sure most of them are people hunting for follow-backs or are spambots, but still, it's kind of cool. :)

I did post a couple more pictures of the fly-over, although they weren't as special as the Tower shot, I did like this one of it coming in:

While I doubt 2013 will bring anything like this, I'm still excited to see what happens in the new year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 was a pretty amazing year

I knew going in that 2012 was going to be a pretty busy year for me, and it was! Personally the highlights were the AAS meeting in January, successfully pulling off the very popular public viewing of the Venus transit in June, and seeing the Space Shuttle Endeavour in September (more about that later...). But in the broader world, there was some pretty incredible stuff this year. There were also some sad good-byes and heartbreaking tragedies, and I know it was a rough year for some of my friends and acquaintances, but I want to focus on the good things.

Humans literally went to the extremes - James Cameron solo dived to the deepest part of the Earth's oceans, while Felix Baumgartner jumped from a balloon in the stratosphere. And we got to see both occur live on our computers.

Physicists have probably discovered the Higgs boson, one of the key points of modern Standard Model of physics. (I'll refrain from grousing about how it could have been discovered 15 years sooner and here in Texas if the Congress hadn't been so short-sighted in canceling the Superconducting Supercollider in 1993.)

I saw a man run in the Olympics on two artificial legs. Wow.

Private spaceflight is becoming a reality and SpaceX is proved it can do the job of the low-earth orbit tasks and leave the big stuff, like going beyond Earth orbit, to NASA.

And the highlight, in my opinion, was the amazing landing of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover on Mars. I *still* can't believe that worked...

On a more personal and far less scientific note, this was a great year for one of my favorite places on Earth - London. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee was a great warm-up to their hosting the Olympics just a few weeks later and I loved every minute of watching both. I realized while watching the Olympics - in particular the cycling at Hampton Court Palace - that of all the cities that have hosted the Olympics, London is the one I've spent the most time in. (And I've only been in 2 other cities that have hosted - Rome, which hosted the games before I was born, and Atlanta. Well, technically I've been in St. Louis too, but only the airport!).

From my history side - the possible discovery of the remains of Richard III. The historical detective work that went into if was amazing enough, but the fact that they have found remains that, circumstantially at this point, might be what they were looking for is astounding. It still gives me chills!

On my geeky side - "The Avengers" was amazing and I'm still so impressed that Marvel has been able to put together such a good string of movies and was able to bring it all together into a movie that was even better than the sum of its parts. The finale to the Batman trilogy was perfect as well. And we got to go back to Middle Earth! But the tops for me was the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney and the announcement that we would indeed get episodes VII, VIII, and IX. This is a kind of Holy Grail of my childhood, to see all 9 episodes of the Star Wars "Skywalker family" saga actually happen. And I'm looking forward to some of the other Star Wars projects that have been mentioned outside of the 9-part sage. Personally I'd love to see some stuff set in the Old Republic days.

I'm sure there are things I'm missing, but these are a few of the things that will make 2012 special in my memories!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Well... we're still here

Do I get to say "I told you so" now?

I haven't blogged about it much (if at all?) but I have occasionally ranted on Twitter about the questions, usually in phone calls, that I've been getting for YEARS about the so-called Mayan apocalypse coming on December 21, 2012.

I think the first calls started coming around 2006 after one of the many programs that have since been repeated endlessly the on cable channels first aired. I remember in particular a dad who was concerned about his 11 or 12-year-old son who was getting depressed after watching some of these programs. After talking for a while with the dad, I could suss out that there were other family issues (a divorce or separation in particular) and this was probably feeding an already stressful situation. My main recommendation then, after assuring him that the stuff in those programs were mostly nonsense, was to have his son talk with a school counselor. I think I talked with him a couple of times, but I don't know for sure how it all turned out.

Edited to add: While I was looking through some unpublished draft posts (that's what I get for switching around blogs so much - stuff gets accidentally left behind!) I found a bit more that I had written several years ago about this particular caller:

I got a call from a guy who had watched some wretched History Channel show about how the Mayan calendar was predicting the end of the world in 2012. The man's son (who I think was about 11 years old?) was so freaked out by it that he was having trouble sleeping, wouldn't eat and was generally withdrawing from life over it. I basically told him that it was all stupid mystery-mongering and it was no different from our calendar switching to 2000. He ended up calling back several times and we talked about how to be skeptical about those types of programs. (I also recommended that the son at least talk to a counselor at school since I think there might have been other issues that were at play). He ended up talking to the assistant of one of the authors shown briefly in the program and she told him that the author was very upset at how they had totally taken his work out of context and misreprensented it. I think I had used those exact words when I was describing to my caller some of the tactics that those programs use. I also recommended some books to him and we also talked a little about skeptical thinking in general and I think that I might have made a new skeptic by the time all was said and done.

I had forgotten about the rest of that conversation!

I've gotten a few random questions over the years, but there has been one guy who has called many times over that stretch. In a way, it was actually a good thing that he kept calling since through him I was able to find out what the latest claims were that were being tied to what I started calling "the kitchen sink" of doomsday conspiracy theories. And boy were there a lot of claims. I sometimes fell down a rabbit hole of stupid by looking up on YouTube the terms or people he was asking about. I haven't heard from him in a while but I *think* I was finally getting through to him, especially after he asked for telescope recommendations! I think that stemmed from the common claim that some bright object in the sky (usually Jupiter or Venus) was the mythical Nibiru/Planet X that was supposed to either hit us or pass close enough to flip us over on December 21. I would tell him that it was either of those planets and he would say "how do you know?" or would edge towards some of the "NASA is hiding stuff" arguments. So I told him, you can look at it yourself and see that it is Jupiter or Venus if you don't believe me. And maybe, just maybe, he did.

Then there were a couple of guys who actually came in person to the astronomy department wanting to talk with people, and in those cases, ended up in my office. These were the ones that had the potential to be pretty scary and the thought crossed my mind that I should ask for a panic button in my office (the problem being - I'm a complete klutz and would likely hit the thing accidentally if it was in an easily accessible place when I actually needed it.) One of the guys was, I think, more of an Electric Universe guy (and that's a blog post for another day, but there are other astronomers who have already done some good take-downs on that stuff). But the second one was one of a few people I've talked with who were buying in to the conspiracy talk about "gaps" in the Google Sky maps or things that show up in the IR but not in the visible, etc. Some of those were part of the Nibiru/Planet X stuff, but it was all pretty easily debunked. Unfortunately I completely messed up the answer on what one of those objects was, but since he was actually there in my office, at least I showed him in person the methodology I was using... it just ended up pointing to the wrong answer. But the answer *still* wasn't Nibiru/Planet X!

I don't anticipate that I'll hear from any of those people again or that they will call and say "Yep, you were right!". And I know that we'll still be dealing with versions of these claims for many years to come - the Mayan calendar thing was just a convenient date, but most of the claims were around before and will be around after. I've already seen rumblings about a comet that has a chance to be really spectacular next year, similar to the non-story that was Comet Elenin last year. (And I'll note that all of the "see, nothing happened then, did it?" arguments didn't disabuse most people of their 2012 beliefs, so I don't anticipate the non-pocalypse of 2012 will keep people from buying in to future claims.) But if we're lucky, the comet will be another bright Hale-Bopp-like show, but hopefully without a cult suicide this time. I have to admit that the main reason I waited until today to post this was on the outside possibility that a story broke late yesterday of some Jonestown or Heaven's Gate incident, but thankfully it seems none was forthcoming. Whew.

So December 21, 2012 turned out to be just another day, like I and many other people said it would be. Solar activity was low, there were the usual number of earthquakes, no supervolcano eruptions, asteroid impacts, etc. I personally used it to catch up on laundry because I've been sick for a week and a half!

And before I forget - a BIG thanks to for creating the best place for sending people to get good, scientific answers to these claims and giving people a place to air their concerns and be reassured. I know they are planning to re-tool the site into a place that will be useful beyond this 2012 "expiration date" and I'm sure I'll be sending people to the new site too.

Since this is getting long, I'll save the "wow, 2012 actually turned out to be a pretty amazing year" stuff for another post!

* * * * * * *

The picture at the top is of the Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Since that was the image that most people seem to include in their 2012 posts, I figured I'd at least pick on with me in it. Yep, that's a 15-year-old me in the green shirt and straw hat in the middle of the photo. I still have that hat! Not pictured: the crutch that I had used to help me get up the pyramid because I had broken my ankle about 6 weeks earlier and was just then getting my muscle back in my leg to walk without support. The friend that took the picture carried the crutch back down so I could inch my way down along the chain that runs on the side you can climb to aid people going up and down - those stairs are thin and steep!