Poor Pluto!

Remember our discussions of Pluto’s demotion/reclassification? (Lots of link reminders at bottom of post.) Well, here’s a sad (and amusing) image* created by artist Mathias Pedersen:

poor pluto mathias pedersen

You can see a high resolution version of this image here. Don’t forget to look at more of of the graphic art of Mathias Pedersen**.

Poor Pluto indeed!

(Take some time to appreciate how good a job he’s done on colours and other features of the […] Click to continue reading this post

NASA’s Wrong Stuff?

Have a listen to Greg Easterbrook (of Wired) in conversation with NPR’s Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. The issue is whether NASA’s focus on setting up a manned base on the moon, and then heading for Mars, is really the right focus for a huge (multiple billions of dollars) expenditure, given other scientific priorities. The link is here. See also his Wired piece here, entitled “How NASA Screwed Up (And Four Ways to Fix It)”.

That was yesterday. Today, also on NPR’s Morning Edition, I heard NASA’s chief administrator Michael Griffin attempts to defend the policy. There’s a link to audio here, and be sure to listen to the audio (the transcript offered there is only partial, for a start). I find it revealing. He seemed to have a great deal of difficulty answering certain key questions, such as “Do you think it is the best use of money or not?”. “Are there priorities that you have had to cut…?” His answers on climate change and global […] Click to continue reading this post

Griffith Observatory: Entertainment, Education, or Both?

partial view of and from griffith observatory at night, by c.v. johnsonYou may recall a post I did some time ago about a worrying development at Griffith Observatory, just before it reopened after the splendid three year refurbishment. (See here for my long post -with pictures- of my visit to the facility around the time of its reopening.) Various reports said that they’d decided to hire actors (not trained in the subject of astronomy) to largely replace the lecturers (trained in the subject of astronomy) for the new planetarium show. This seemed a very disturbing turn of events, and so I did the blog post about it.

Well, I’d put the issue out of my mind until a few weeks ago when Jerry Weil, one of the show’s creators, showed up in the comments section (I love Google) and made his case for why the new show was just fine. Among the things he said in his comments were:

With the new structure of the shows, there is no time for a Q&A period, so there is no need for the lecturers to have any knowledge of astronomy. It is important to keep the show exciting and entertaining, but the star of the show should be the visuals.

Now, I have not seen the show, and so cannot comment in detail on its contents, or the setting, but I am -to say the least- very worried about such a statement. So I asked him to unpack the statement a bit more, thinking that I may have misunderstood. His clarification:

As far as the role of the lecturers, I was certainly one of the people who originally thought it was an unnecessary burden to have live lecturers when a canned narration would work just as well. After seeing the show, I have to say that having someone there live really adds to the excitement of the show. It makes it “feel” more interactive, and it certainly keeps your attention knowing there is a live human there speaking. However, since it is all scripted and there is no Q&A, it is not necessary for the lecturers to have any knowledge of astronomy. I am also an actor myself (in fact I had coincidentally worked with the actor/lecturer at the show I saw), and I have certainly played many roles in areas where I had no prior knowledge. In this situation it’s more important to have people who can convey the excitement and wonder of the Universe than to have a deep understanding of the subject matter.

Not wanting to repeat my often-made point that education and entertainment need not be thought of as mutually exculsive, I made a mental note to see the show and revisit this issue if I thought I could contribute further.

Remarkably, a few days later I was at a party at a neighbour’s house (Cinco De Mayo), and it was a great opportunity to meet some more neighbours. Among those were […] Click to continue reading this post

The Meddler, I

I don’t like getting angry. I don’t like losing my temper. In the first place, it makes me feel like I failed, and in the second place, I’m a little too good at being angry. I’m really scary. So I let it happen very little.

On Wednesday of last week, I almost completely lost my temper at work (bad enough), and in front of a guest (even worse, in my opinion), Bee, and in front of two of my students (setting a bad example). I apologized to them all, several times, later. Luckily (maybe because I was not wearing any purple pants?), I did not lose it entirely but my internal temperature was really very high indeed by the end of the incident.

travel coffee mugWhat was the matter? You’re possibly going to think that this is an insignificant matter, but I don’t agree. We all went for coffee to one the (usually excellent, with usually very good staff) cafes on campus, and as usual I brought along my own coffee cup. I do that a lot, primarily since it means that I do not use any paper cups as a result, and secondarily because it keeps the coffee warmer for longer, is close to spill-proof, and is much nicer to drink from. I’ve been doing this for years. The routine is usually this: I ask for a small coffee, they hand me a small coffee cup, I smile and say I already have a cup and hand it back, I pay for the coffee, and I pour myself a small coffee and leave. It’s not always in that order, but it is close enough.

This time, I asked for a small coffee, and indicated that I’d have it in my cup, as usual. […] Click to continue reading this post

Yellow Fibre Bundle

palm flowers from gardenThese are quite lovely, aren’t they? I always have great difficulty getting these giant structures (whole thing is about a metre long) down from the tall palm trees that produce them. I take them down because they produce a huge mess over the rest of the garden as they develop. Not the lovely tiny yellow flowers but the little palm nuts (tiny scale model (large grape-sized) coconuts, essentially – same family) that result later, one nut for each of those tiny yellow buds that you see!

So I cut them off. Sad, I know, but there it is.

I do it early because they have to fall. Where do they fall? All over the plants below, doing a lot of damage if I am unlucky. Better to have the much lighter blooms fall (still bad enough) than the […] Click to continue reading this post

Joshua Redman on NPR

joshua redman by michael wilsonThere was a nice piece on NPR (by John Ydstie) featuring Joshua Redman today (photo left by Michael Wilson). He’s one of my favourite of the young (relatively) saxophonists on the Jazz scene today. (Some Wiki info here.) When I was an East coaster I saw him a number of times in concert, and he was always very good indeed. His albums are very good too – fun and full of personality, very soulful, although not hugely ground-breaking (not that this is always necessary to make a great musician). By the way, Joshua Redman’s music is actually a good starter place for people who might want to start out in Jazz by listening to some […] Click to continue reading this post

Parthenogenesis, II

bonnethead sharkRemember Flora? The Komodo dragon? I blogged about her here and here. She produced offspring using parthenogenesis while in captivity last year. Well, there was a news story earlier this week about a bonnethead shark in in the Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska giving birth to a pup. (Interestingly, zoo-keepers and news reporters seemed uninterested in giving our subject shark a name, as happened for the reptile.)

It was a puzzle for a while as to how she did it (as I learned in a BBC article):

At the time, some theorised that a male tiger shark kept at the zoo could have been the father – but the institution’s three bonnethead females had none of the bite marks that are usually inflicted on their gender during shark sex.

Some even suggested that one of the females could have had sex in the wild and stored the sperm in her body – but the three-year period in captivity made this explanation highly unlikely.

But eventually DNA tests resolved the issue:
[…] Click to continue reading this post

The Burning, II

Well, I’d expected that I’d have got to go to Griffith Park to do a hike and maybe show you some pictures to give you an idea of the changes since the fire (fire posts here and here). This has not happened yet, partly because last I heard they were not allowing people close to those areas… that may have changed by now. It has been over ten days since I checked.

Anyway, Colin Brown of Silver Lake was up there quite soon afterwards, and took many photos. They are not really for the squeamish, since he focused a lot on the animal remains that he found. So don’t look if you are likely to be disturbed by the […] Click to continue reading this post

A Fair Bit of Fun with Science

Yesterday was a full day indeed. The main event? The California State Science Fair. The venue? The California Science Center (just across the road from USC). Here’s a picture of it in case you’ve never been:

california science center
(Click for larger view.) California Science Center (with one of my personal emergency escape crafts cleverly disguised somewhere in the picture – all scientists have emergency escape craft, by the way – along with our plans to take over the world, our lab coat, and so forth…)

science fair briefing of judgingThe time? 7:00am. Yes, we start early, as there is a lot to do for the long morning. The judges all gather in the IMAX theatre for a briefing about the ins and outs of the organization this year, the times at which various things will happen, and a reminder about some of the finer points of judging.

At 8:00am we broke up into groups of judges who will judge various sections. Mine was Applied Mechanics and Structures – Senior. Here, we decided on our collective strategy concerning how we’ll go around the various displays, making sure at least five judges (there were ten of us in total) see each project once in the first round of interviews. We’ll compare notes during the break at 11:00am, agree which ones we should all have seen – in order to focus on deciding which ones get which prizes or honourable mentions. I forgot to take a picture of our group of judges sitting around the table chatting. Most of the judges in my group were people from the aerospace industry, I gathered. About three or four people were new to the whole thing, and so some of us explained a bit about the things that we ought to be looking out for in the judging. This also (given the section were were to judge, and given the makeup of the judging panel – many coming from an industry where the place where the science and engineering are quite thoroughly – and necessarily – mixed together) leads to discussion about making sure to distinguish between a great science project and a great engineering project. It’s also good to be aware, when making comparisons, of the vast differences in resources that some entrants have access to. These two things, to my mind, are very important (and we all agreed). A kid (especially one with access to lots of resources, for example) can dazzle an unwary judge with lots of fancy cool equipment and build something that is truly wonderful and admirable, but that does not necessarily mean that they would have done as much science as the next entrant who has done some very careful scientific experimentation with a innovative way of answering a clearly stated question, but in a less spectacular setting – perhaps mostly using more affordable household items.

science fair students
(Click for larger view.) Overview shot of one of the sections, with poster displays.

Well, with that in mind, we all went off to meet the youngsters! See the project listings here. This is the best part, of course… talking with all those enthusiastic young people […] Click to continue reading this post

Backreacting Asymptotically

(Random title constructed to reply to Bee’s post called Asymptotic Backreaction.)

You know, I’ve made some great online friends here on this blog. It’s all the result of that community I’m trying to keep going (and expand) here with contributions to the conversation from many of you in the comments, and even sometimes in guest posts. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of these new friends since everyone likes to pass through Los Angeles sooner or later. In the past six months, four familiar Asymptotia contributors have passed through Los Angeles and I’ve been lucky and delighted to meet them: – Amara (November; on her way to a conference, and she gave us a talk – I’m trying to get her to do a guest post on her “Watering the Earth” topic one day), Candace (January; on her way to a conference here -she did a guest post) by the way, Athena (two weeks ago, on the way to a conference), and this week I finally met Bee (also giving a talk, and on her travels -she’s also done a guest post by the way) who turns out to have just that same excellent eye for observation, and quietly sharp sense of humour, as her blog posts. (She’s the main blogger behind the excellent Backreaction, and she’s done a post there which briefly mentions her visit to Disney Concert Hall with me.)

Anyway, in the photo below is Bee (click for larger), at Grand Central Market (inserted into a photo taken near one you saw earlier. See also this post.):

Sabine Hossenfelder at Grand Central Market

Tameem, a student of mine, has teased me a bit about my showing visitors around, […] Click to continue reading this post