Screen Junkies – The Martian, Science, and Problem-Solving!

screen_junkies_martianAs promised, the Screen Junkies episode we made is out. It is about The Martian! JPL’s Christina Heinlein (a planetary science expert) also took part, and I hope you find it interesting and thought-provoking. Maybe even funny too! As usual, there’s a lot that was said that was inevitably left on the (virtual) cutting-room floor, but a lot of good stuff made the cut. All in all, I’d say that this film (which I enjoyed a lot!) had a refreshing take on science and engineering for a big studio film, on several scores. (Remaining sentences are spoiler-free.) First, rather than hiding the slow machinations involved in problem-solving, it has a lot of it up front! It’s an actual celebration of problem-solving, part of the heart and soul of science and engineering. Second, rather than have the standard nerd stereotype […] Click to continue reading this post

Get ready for some “movie science” chatter…

hal_cvj_christina_bigYes, I’ve been hanging out with my Screen Junkies friends again, and this time I also got to meet JPL’s Christina Heinlein, who you may recall was in the first of the Screen Junkies “Movie Science” episodes last year. While we were both in it, I’d not got to meet her that time since our chats with host Hal Rudnick were recorded at quite different times. This time, however, schedules meant […] Click to continue reading this post


No expense spared on astronomy graphics here, you’ll notice. (This is the Pluto-less hanging mobile that amuses my son every morning when he wakes up. At least I think it is supposed to represent our Solar system in some vague way… in any case, it is a very pleasant object to look at for both him and me.)

Just in case you’ve not been following the exciting news, let me remind you to look out for the new information arriving from the New Horizons mission to Pluto. tn-p_lorri_fullframe_color The craft has done its closest approach now, and later tonight will start sending the best of the images and other data about the Pluto system. A huge amount has been learned already in the days leading up to today, as you can get a sense of by looking here. Earlier today, the lovely image to the right (credit: NASA/APL/SwRI – click for larger view) […] Click to continue reading this post

Collecting the Cosmos

i_2014_01_24_CollectCosmos_150x200Don’t forget that on the USC campus on Friday at 4:00pm, we’ll be kicking off the Collecting the Cosmos event! It will be in the Doheny library, and there’ll be a presentation and discussion first, and then a special opening reception for the exhibition. Be sure to get yourself on the waiting list since there’s some chance that you’ll get in even if you have not RSVPed yet. (The image is from the Visions and Voices event site, and includes parts of the artworks – by artists Victor Raphael and Clayton Spada – to be included in the exhibition, so come along and see.) The event description says, in part: […] Click to continue reading this post

100th Birthday Fun!

[caption id="attachment_14281" align="aligncenter" width="499"]The crowd watching Devo on stage at the Natural History Museum's 100th  Birthday celebration (click for larger view) The crowd watching Devo on stage at the Natural History Museum’s 100th Birthday celebration (click for larger view)[/caption]The 100th Birthday party at the Natural History Museum was fantastic! Adam Steltzner’s talk was excellent and it was a pleasure to be the MC and introduce him and run the Q&A. (It was a tall order for me to fill Michael Quick’s shoes, but I gave it a shot.) The audience was really great, and there were several great questions. The wide shot (click for larger view) at the top is a panorama shot of the outdoor concert stage, with Devo just starting their set (GZA of Wu-Tang Clan was on just before). I took it* while standing under the fin whale skeleton that is the centerpiece of the new Otis Booth entryway pavilion that was unveiled just minutes earlier. (See more about that space and other new exhibits here.) Here are a couple of shots (click for larger view) from Adam’s session, where he gave an inspiring talk about the engineering of the landing of the Curiosity Mars rover, with reflections on space exploration in general**:

[caption id="attachment_14261" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Adam Steltzner talking about the Curiosity Mission at the Natural History Museum's 100th Birthday bash Adam Steltzner talking about the Curiosity Mission at the Natural History Museum’s 100th Birthday bash[/caption] […] Click to continue reading this post

Bad Luck for Kepler

Steinn has a nice post about the sudden ending of the Kepler mission, due to a crucial component failure. As he notes:

“Kepler has discovered almost 3,000 planetary candidates, of which about 100 have been confirmed through a variety of techniques, and, statistically, most of the rest are likely to be real planets.

Kepler has not quite found earth like planets in the habitable zone, yet.
It is heartbreakingly close to doing so.”

Sad to see, especially at a time when science is being hurt so badly by continued […] Click to continue reading this post

Tales from the Industry XXXIX – Magnetic Weather?

Today (Tuesday) saw me up at 6:30am to prepare for an 8:00am call time for a shoot on a special episode of – wait for it – Deadliest Space Weather. It is original programming for the Weather channel, and before you dismiss it because of the title, it turns out that it is not a bad idea for exploring various scientific concepts. The first season ended a few weeks ago. I’d not realized it was airing until recently, and actually those recent demos I told you about were used in examinations of planetary conditions on Venus and on Mars. (Two separate episodes.) The idea seems to be to consider what it would be like on earth if the conditions were like those on Venus, or consider what what happen if you went outdoors on Mars.

So you might think it is silly, but if done well, it is actually an opportunity to
explain some science to an audience who might not have been the usual science audience…in which case I’m happy to be on board! In addition to spectacularly showing what happens when sugar and sulphuric acid meet, I got to show how to boil […] Click to continue reading this post

Subway Guy

It has been quite the busy period the last few days, so much so that one is tempted (but not overwhelmingly) to neglect to take note of wonderful things like the discovery of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, or the awesomeness of my group of students in my graduate electromagnetism class who all did quite well in the midterm I set them. But I took […] Click to continue reading this post

Curious about Curiosity?

So, if like many people, you are excited about the (late) weekend landing of Curiosity (the roving Mars Science Laboratory) on Mars, and/or if you want to know more, Kenneth Chang has an article in the New York Times all about it here. (Image right is an artist’s impression done for NASA/JPL.) The sequence of operations that have to go right for Curiosity to, er, stick the landing* is quite amazing, and so let’s all wish them good luck. Have a […] Click to continue reading this post

Go Visit JPL!

This weekend is the JPL Open House! You might recall from my visits there in the past (or, at least, my reports on them – see e.g. here) that it is a fun and informative time. I recommend it. It runs from 9:00am to 5:00pm today and tomorrow, and you can go along to see what’s up with various JPL/NASA missions, hear about future missions, learn the science and technology behind various equipment and the various science goals, and much more.

See the website here for more information.

Here’s a video I made two years ago (including a Mars Rover roving over children!!!):

I hope I can go today, but I’ve got rather a lot on, including trying to find some time […] Click to continue reading this post

To Explore Strange New Worlds…

So you’ve probably heard the news, but just in case I thought I’d mention it here. The Kepler observatory, up there in orbit keeping an eye on things for us, has found a bumper crop of planets orbiting a sun-like star a mere 2000 or so light years away. It is amazing what you can see if you look closely. Every now and again the star’s brightness dips ever so slightly, and that tells you something has passed in front of it – another planet. Or in this case, once you’ve analyzed the pattern of dips, as the team of astronomers did, six planets!

These are not earths, although the headlines all over the news sure try to grab you in […] Click to continue reading this post

Venus at Midday!

[Update: That really hurt. Hard on the neck. And could not even find the moon… I think there’s left over moisture haze high up. :( ]

I just learned from Phil’s Bad Astronomy blog that apparently there’s a great opportunity to see Venus right in the middle of the day, and today is rather optimum for it. I’m going to try and see if it works. At about 1:00pm (sorry those of you for whom the sun has already gone way past that), look for the sun and then the thin crescent moon will be about three fist-widths to the left of that (if in the Northern hemisphere – right otherwise). Venus will be visible just to the right of that crescent. Phil has a diagram up on his site, here. This is all supposed to be possible with the naked eye, and I imagine you can help things a lot by holding your palm up against the sun to stop the brightness from that direction, and then waiting a bit for your eyes to relax into the viewing of the area of the sky I mentioned. Phil also mentioned binoculars. I’d seriously suggest trying without them, if you can, since accidentally looking at the sun with them is something I want to strongly urge you to avoid. (If you must use them, put something like a building or a large tree trunk in front of the sun and don’t change your footing…)

Good luck! I’m going to try in a couple of hours. Let me know how it works out for you, if you like!

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Eye on the Sky

WISE First LightAmy Mainzer has shared and discussed the first released picture from the WISE project that was launched (you’ll recall) not so long ago. It looks marvellous. Press release here.

By the way, I hope you’re following Amy’s blog to learn more about the mission now it is in full swing. She’s giving you a window into the science as it breaks and the excitement of doing the science itself, seeing a project come together […] Click to continue reading this post

Imminent Launch

wise_on_deltaMy friend, The Universe co-contributor, and colleague Amy Mainzer (JPL) is rubbing gloved hands together in the chilly night air up at Vandenberg. Well, ok, if not this very moment, she probably will be at various points this evening and into the wee hours of the morning. The launch pad for WISE (the mission on which Amy is deputy project scientist) is set, and everything is ready to go! See my earlier post about what […] Click to continue reading this post

Get Wise to WISE

explore_missionsOnce again I’m excited about a new piece of machinery. This time it is a space mission again. There have been several remarkable missions launched (many in very recent years), doing all sorts of excellent science, helping us discover all sorts of things about our universe, near and far, young and old. I’ve spoken about (and sometimes followed live) the launches of some of them here on the blog, or spoken about the science results they’ve helped produce. See the graphic on the right for some of them.

wiseWell, very soon (possibly as early as December 9th), there will be the launch of WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer! I learned from my friend, colleague and fellow presenter on History Channel’s The Universe, JPL’s Amy Mainzer, who is a senior scientist and the deputy project scientist on the WISE mission, that they made a series of exciting videos about WISE for you to learn about the science that WISE will do and how it will go about […] Click to continue reading this post

Wet Moon

Aha! So you were thinking the mission last month was a bit of a failure, right? Because there was no big splash (literally) of a plume for the press to gush about? I’m talking about the October LCROSS mission on October 9th that smashed an impactor onto the moon’s surface (at the Cabeus crater) to create a cloud of dust for analysis. I remember people thinking, encouraged by various reports, that the event was rather a damp squib, since it did not produce a Hollywood-style flash and plume. See an NPR report on the mission here from back then.

lcross_dataWell, science is known for being able to carry on steadily even if there are no overt special effects and a catchy soundtrack. Today, NASA announced that their analysis of the data produced from measuring the dust cloud’s properties has shown very definite signs of water (confirming and strengthening the results accumulated by other missions (India’s Chandrayaan-1 and NASA’s Deep […] Click to continue reading this post


moon Well, I’ve been somewhat neglectful of lots of space and astronomy type noticing (here on the blog) in the last couple of months or more, but it is not unusual for me to re-balance my foci a bit as my interests and available time permits. However, I’ve been meaning to point to the quite astonishing results that are being discussed in recent days… The confirmation of what appears to be a remarkable amount of water on the moon. It is an indirect set of measurements, using spectroscopy, (using results from three separate spacecraft) and is quite an interesting story. Happily, Phil over at Bad Astronomy has just put up a rather splendid summary of the story and I’m simply going to recommend that you pop over there and have a read. (There’s also a story by Andrea Thompson that is nice too.) Very interesting in the whole thing is the discussion of how the water got there, and why it is rather more mobile than you might expect (clue: the sun might be involved).

From a story by Ian Sample in the Guardian (which also discusses and speculates […] Click to continue reading this post

Doomsday Fun and Games

the_universeI’ve been wondering why over the last day or two I’ve been getting email about various apocalyptic scenarios. I’ve now figured out why, I think. On Tuesday, several scientists, myself included, played with the idea of how to destroy the earth! Well, it was on the History Channel in an episode of the show the Universe, (it was recorded back in June and July) entitled “Ten Ways to Destroy the Earth”. Of course, these are not scenarios we envision happening any time soon, but rather an excuse to talk about various kinds of science (from spontaneous symmetry breaking and the early universe, through planetary science, solar physics, and of course black holes and more). We list various favourite ways that were chosen to be discussed, and each physicist (although they called me an astrophysicist) picks a favourite. Fun stuff.

I chose putting a huge amount of antimatter at the core of the earth and letting it […] Click to continue reading this post

Ten Things That Go Boom!

the_universeWell, ok… Boom is not quite accurate, but the idea is that there will be ten kinds of blasts/explosions/major_energetic_events discussed tonight on the History Channel’s The Universe:

The Universe is full of explosions that both create and destroy. The Chicxulub impact on the Yucatan peninsula, which may have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, was two million times more powerful than the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated on Earth. But guess what? That’s only good enough for the very bottom of the Biggest Blasts top ten list. This episode works its way up through supernova explosions and gamma ray bursts all the way to the blast that started it all–the Big Bang.

Sounds good doesn’t it? There’s a lot of good people contributing again, so I know it’ll have some good material and explanations.

In addition, I’m reasonably confident I play a role in this one…This one was a blast (sorry) to film. You saw some posts earlier reporting on some of the filming. Assuming they used the material I did with them, you’ll get to see why I was at the […] Click to continue reading this post

It Fell From Space…

the_universeTonight’s 9:00pm episode of the History Channel’s The Universe ought to be interesting. It is all about objects that fall to earth from space. It’s a good opportunity to learn things about the universe (both near and far) from the perspective of things we glimpse arriving here on earth. You’ll get to learn about the earth as well, and how it (and life on it) has been affected by these things. There’ll be asteroids and planetary science of course, and maybe other things. I know from hearing some chatter of the program makers that there’ll be lots of demos using impacts and collisions and so forth. I know some good people were involved in making it, such as the writer/director Laura Verklan, and my friend and fellow regular on the show, JPL’s Amy Mainzer (who has an excellent blog here). […] Click to continue reading this post

Go! Now! Get a Galileoscope!

I just learned from Phil’s blog that the Galileoscopes I mentioned to you some months back (remember? International Year of Astronomy? Not just Darwin year?) are ready for shipping. There were issues with production at first, but now they are ready. The key issue right now seems to be that they are in danger of having to stop production of these lovely things if they don’t get lots of orders by May 31st. Ack!

So please please consider sending in a order for one or a few. Imagine what a delightfully unusual gift it would make for someone. Either someone you know, or someone you don’t know like a neighbour, your local school, church (yes!) or community center, or… even that special someone who you’d like to get to know – what an icebreaker, eh? Here’s a picture from the site of what a happy owner’ll have after assembling it:


It is easy to put together, gives a new window onto the world above your head, and […] Click to continue reading this post

Yesterday at JPL

jpl_open_house_2009_1I had a lot of fun at this year’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) open house. I’m happy to report that there were, once again, lots of people wandering around looking at the displays and demonstrations, asking questions, hanging out, and so forth, and an impressive turnout of JPL staff answering questions and being very enthusiastic about the science (something which is easy to do because it’s such an excellent topic!). I’ve made a video for you that is coming up at the end of this post. (Click on stills for larger views.)

jpl_open_house_2009_5 jpl_open_house_2009_6

There was the usual huge emphasis on planetary exploration with rovers and robots and so forth – this seems to capture the imagination of everyone, so why not? – but I was more than a little surprised to find virtually no showing for the Planck mission. There was one poster somewhere, but no booth, no model, no description of the truly amazing science that it will do in unlocking more about the origins of the entire […] Click to continue reading this post

February for the Chop?

februaryThis post would be better suited to three weeks from now, but the subject item is so very good, so here goes…

Astronomers Declare February No Longer a Month

Emboldened by their success in declaring Pluto not a planet, the International Astronomical Union determined this week by a close vote that February is too short to be considered a true month. It has, however, been granted the newly created status of “dwarf month.” It shares this dubious distinction with several other calendar time spans, including Labor Day Weekend, Christmas Vacation, and the Time Between When You Were Supposed to Get Your Oil Changed and When You Actually Did.

“It only seems fair,” said IAU President Ron Eckers. “February reaches a peak […] Click to continue reading this post

Kepler Ready!

kepler planet seekerI learned* that the Kepler craft (NASA artist sketch on right – this is the device that will look for “other earths” – see below) is all go to try for launch later today! Extract from an announcement that went around:

On 6 March (EST, 7 March in UTC) there are two opportunities for a launch into the Earth trailing orbit. The first window is at 6 March, 10:49:57 p.m. EST (UTC: 7 March, 03:49:57) and the second window is at 11:17:44 p.m. EST (UTC: 7 March, 04:17:44). If Kepler is not launched tonight there is a another possibility at approximately the same time tomorrow night.

Countdown will begin 3 hours before launch and Kepler separation into Earth trailing solar orbit will take place 3709 sec into flight. First contact after separation is expected 4640 sec into flight.

For more information, and to follow the launch live, here are some links: NASA TV, Launch Blog, Spaceflight.

I noticed that Amy Mainzer is over at the Kennedy Space Center to see the launch. She begins to talk about it here on her (excellent) blog. You might want to check back there in case she does a nice report on it. Check out Phil’s Bad Astronomy blog for more on this too. He says he’ll be tweeting and all. (Yes. Tweeting. There, I have used that word in its recent new context/meaning in a sentence for the first time. I feel a bit silly.)

What is this all about? It is very exciting. Here are some sources of information for […] Click to continue reading this post