Speaking of Science

The Scienticity Blog

Archive for the ‘Look at That!’ Category


Android Wallpaper & Eye for Science Images (Again)

Posted by jns on September 14, 2011

I’m still inspired by joining up images from the “Eye for Science” project database with smartphones, and today I implemented another way to make it easy and quick way to turn an image you like into smartphone wallpaper.

All I’ve done is add a QR Code to the image page, i.e., the page you get when you click on the thumbnail image in the widget at the upper right (if you’re looking at this in my blog, and if you’re not you can do so to see what I’m talking about by clicking here).

When you see an image that you think will make a stunning wallpaper image on your smartphone, just use of the available bar-code scanner apps to scan the QR Code, which will translate to the URL of the image page it’s on. You can then easily load the page on your smartphone and use your phone’s image options to make the image your wallpaper. At least, that’s the way it works on my Android phone.

By the way, if you just want to look through some random images you can access this URL : http://scienticity.net/efs. Then, if you see an image you’d like to make into wallpaper, follow the steps above. You can do this repeatedly : every time you access that URL you get a different image randomly chosen from the “Eye for Science” collection. It’s a great way to waste a few minutes or a few hours late at night.


See a Scientist Being Scientific

Posted by jns on March 27, 2010

Today in my email I got a link to a video* with this startling title:

NASA Oceanographer Uses Science to Study the Sea

Right there, in a video under two minutes in length, we were being offered the chance to see an actual scientist using science! Not only that, it was an oceanographer using science to study the ocean, if you can imagine such a thing!

But now that I’ve mocked the title–but hardly more than it deserved for being so state-the-obvious ridiculous–we should perhaps look at the video.

Said video is a rather nice, short biography of one Callie Hall, who works at the Stennis Space Center (near the south coast of Mississippi; map). NASA posted it as part of their observation of National Women’s History Month.

[YouTube link for those who don't see the embedded player.]

p.s. I don’t want to be tetchy, but why is she using that reasonably precise analytical balance to weigh that off-the-shelf bottle of whatever?
* From a NASA mailing list this time rather than from some nefarious spammer.


GRB 090423

Posted by jns on April 29, 2009

This luminous blob is a “gamma-ray burster”, and exceedingly distant from us: slightly over 13 billion light-years. In fact, it is the current record-holder in the “most distant object seen” category. It was spotted recently by NASA’s Swift spacecraft (about the spacecraft; and about the Swift mission).

Just how a gamma-ray burst happens is still being studied — it’s a big reason behind the Swift mission. GRBs seem to be associated with star remnants collapsing into black holes following a supernova event.

Following the explosion of a big enough star (see “A Star Explodes in Slow Motion“), a shell of matter is expanding around a core that is collapsing into the singularity known as a black hole. In all likelihood this collapsing matter is rotating at very high velocity.

It is thought that lumps of matter falling into the black hole cause some matter to be ejected at very high velocity away from the center in a narrowly collimated jet at relativistic speeds. As this jet passes through the expanding shell of matter around the object, interactions between the jet and the shell of matter produce radiation across a wide spectrum but still in a narrowly visible cone. Sometimes we are fortunate that one of those cones is headed in our direction.

Of this event the NASA press release (“New Gamma-Ray Burst Smashes Cosmic Distance Record“; also source of the image above) says

April 28, 2009: NASA’s Swift satellite and an international team of astronomers have found a gamma-ray burst from a star that died when the universe was only 630 million years old–less than five percent of its present age. The event, dubbed GRB 090423, is the most distant cosmic explosion ever seen. [...]

The burst occurred at 3:55 a.m. EDT on April 23rd. Swift quickly pinpointed the explosion, allowing telescopes on Earth to target the burst before its afterglow faded away. Astronomers working in Chile and the Canary Islands independently measured the explosion’s redshift. It was 8.2, smashing the previous record of 6.7 set by an explosion in September 2008. A redshift of 8.2 corresponds to a distance of 13.035 billion light years.

“We’re seeing the demise of a star — and probably the birth of a black hole — in one of the universe’s earliest stellar generations,” says Derek Fox at Pennsylvania State University [where the flight operations staff is located].

That is incredibly far away!


Decorative Arts, Spectral

Posted by jns on February 10, 2009

Still in operation, NASA’s SOHO (Solar and Heliophysical Observatory) spacecraft orbits the sun (not the Earth)

in step with the Earth, by slowly orbiting around the First Lagrangian Point (L1), where the combined gravity of the Earth and Sun keep SOHO in an orbit locked to the Earth-Sun line. The L1 point is approximately 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth (about four times the distance of the Moon), in the direction of the Sun. There, SOHO enjoys an uninterrupted view of our daylight star. (source)

One of the instruments on board is the Coronal Diagnostic Spectrometer (CDS), which was designed to study the atmosphere of the sun spectroscopically,* i.e., to look at characteristic wavelengths in the light put out by the corona, from which one can deduce quite a bit about the physical processes going on there.

On 26 March 2002 the CDS took a “quiet-sun” spectrum of the corona (meaning there were no particular disturbances, solar flares, or coronal discharges going on, just a normal, quiescent (such as it is) solar atmosphere. Below is the spectrum (shown one half above the other). The spectrum was taken in the extreme ultraviolet (EUV), so this red is dramatic false coloring. There are quite a few spectral lines visible, demonstrating the range and resolution of the CDS.

Evidently I am not the only one who thinks this spectrum is quite beautiful. It seems that the designers of this natatorium also thought so.

According to the SOHO page where I found this photograph, the mosaic is 20 meters long and constructed out of some 50,000 Italian glass tiles.

I want one.
* Here is the official description of the CDS. It’s like scientific pornography for us experimentalists. Just let the words flow over you:

CDS consists of a Wolter II grazing incidence telescope which has a focus at a slit assembly which lies beyond a scan mirror. Light stops define two telescope apertures which feed, simultaneously into two spectrometers beyond the slit assembly. One portion of the beam hits a grating in grazing incidence and the spectrum is dispersed onto four 1-D detectors placed around the Rowland circle. This is the grazing incidence spectrometer or GIS. The other portion is fed through to a twin grating in normal incidence and the resulting spectrum is viewed by a 2-D detector system. This is the normal incidence spectrometer or NIS.

The GIS grating is spherical. The system is astigmatic, i.e. there is no spatial focus. Thus, one would use “pinhole” or square slits and build up images by rastering in two directions over the Sun’s surface. The rastering is performed by rotating the scan mirror (E-W rastering; i.e. by presenting different portions of the Sun to the slit) and by scanning the slit (N-S rastering). The four detectors sit at specified, fixed locations around the Rowland circle and thus detect the EUV spectrum in four fixed wavelength ranges.

The NIS gratings are toroidal, resulting in a stigmatic system. Thus, we may use long, thin slits and can image, spatially along the slits. Images of the slit are dispersed on the NIS detector producing an image, effectively, of wavelength against a spatial dimension. As a result, one can produce rastered images very quickly by rastering in only one dimension with the scan mirror. Since the NIS spectrum is dispersed by two gratings, slightly angled with respect to one another, two spectral ranges are viewed on the one 2-D detector.


Look! Up in the Sky!

Posted by jns on December 7, 2008

All sorts of stuff has been going on up in the sky lately. There’s just so much to look at.

For instance, NASA sent word today (SpaceWeather for 6 December 2008) that the SOHO spacecraft, the orbiting solar observatory,* has only hours ago taken this picture (like this one, which I’ve cropped quite a bit; full-sized source here) of a massive solar prominence. They also link to some additional amazingly beautiful photographs of the prominence taken by other people with solar telescopes: from Mark Walters of Four Crosses, Powys, Wales, UK; from Emiel Veldhuis of Zwolle, the Netherlands; from Robert Arnold of Isle of Skye, Scotland; from M. Ugro et al. of South Portland, Maine.

Now, you may remember the giant meteorite that made an appearance last week over British Columbia. There’s been another (a “superbolide”), this time in Colorado. From the same SpaceWeather page as above:

Astronomer Chris Peterson photographed the event using a dedicated all-sky meteor camera in the town of Guffey, near Colorado Springs.

“In seven years of operation, this is the brightest fireball I’ve ever recorded,” says Peterson. “I estimate the terminal explosion at magnitude -18, more than 100 times brighter than a full Moon.”

Here’s an animation of some of the photographs of the event.

Finally, more pretty pictures. There was some excitement earlier this week on Monday (1 December 2008), when there was, at sunset, a beautiful conjunction of Venus, Jupiter, and a crescent moon. We had clear, cold skies that evening and beautiful viewing of the event, which really was remarkably pretty. NASA has a “Conjunction Gallery” of very lovely photographs of the event submitted astronomy enthusiasts. Visit when you have some time to look and ooh and aah.
* About SOHO’s orbit, from the project page at NASA:

SOHO is in orbit between the Earth and the Sun. It is about 150,703,456 kilometers (92 million miles) from the Sun and only about 1,528,483 Kilometers (1 million miles) from the Earth (three times farther than the moon). This orbit is around a mathematical point between the Earth and the Sun known as the Lagrange point or the L1 point. The L1 point is a point of [gravitational] equilibrium between the Earth’s and Sun’s gravitational field, that is to say that the pull is equal from both the Sun and the Earth. The L1 point is a point of unstable equilibrium (like a bowl round side up with a marble balanced on it). As a result, we have to compensate for perturbations due to the pull of the planets and the Earth’s moon. Every few months we use a little fuel to fine tune our orbit and keep it from getting too far off track. This is known as “station keeping manoeuvres”

No spacecraft is actually orbiting at the L1 point. For SOHO there are two main reasons: the unstable orbit at the L1 point and facility of communication in a halo orbit. If SOHO was sitting directly at the L1 point, it would always be right in front of the Sun. The trouble is that the Sun is very noisy at radio wavelengths, which would make it very difficult to tune into the radio telemetry from the spacecraft. By putting it into a halo orbit, we can place it so that it’s always a few degrees away from the Sun, making radio reception much easier.


Hand-Made Vacuum Tubes

Posted by jns on November 3, 2008

The title of the film, “Fabrication d’une lampe triode” (“Build a triode vacuum tube”) may sound unusually recherché or highly metaphorical, but it is meant literally. M. Claude Paillard is an amateur radio enthusiast with an interest in historic radio equipment (or, poetically in the original: “Amoureux et respectueux des vieux et vénérables composants”). As far as I can make out from the page about this film and M. Paillard — my French is getting rusty and the Google translator is useful but not nuanced — he was involved in a project to restore an old radio station and needed to build some triode vacuum tubes.

This film illustrates how he did this from scratch. It amazes me. He demonstrates so many skills and techniques that simply are not called upon much anymore and are largely being forgotten. It all makes me feel rather dated just because I know what a vacuum tube is.

But the beauty of this film, which is almost entirely nonverbal and requires no skills in French, is that watching it will fill you in on exactly what a vacuum tube is. Okay, it won’t tell you how it works or why that’s useful in electronic circuitry, but you’ll get a remarkably tangible understanding of what’s inside, and seeing its manufacture by hand, by someone actually touching all the pieces, shaping them and putting them together to make a functional whole, is a remarkable learning experience.


Inside the SX-70

Posted by jns on October 27, 2008

The name of this extraordinary film is “SX-70″; it was made by Charles and Ray Eames. (Whether you should watch first or read first I can’t say; if you have the time, watch then read then watch again.)

Some of us will be old enough to remember the Polaroid SX-70 camera and how exciting and modern it was. Such advanced technology! As the narrator says near the beginning:

Since 1947, Edwin Land and Polaroid have pursued a central concept, one single thread: the removal of the barriers between the photographer and his subject. [Title: "SX-70"] And now, a compact, folding, electronically controlled, motor-driven, single-lens reflex camera, capable of focusing from infinity down to ten inches, has been developed to exploit integral self-processing film units which, when exposed, are automatically ejected from the camera, with no parts to peel or discard, and whose final images emerge without timing, in daylight, where the viewer can see them materialize within the same transparent protective plastic cover through which the film was originally exposed.

The SX-70 looked like no other camera before or after, and worked like no other camera, either. The film was the culmination of this dream of Edwin Land’s, and the camera’s design and engineering gave the distinct impression that it had been thought about without preconceptions of how a camera should look.

But this isn’t just about the camera, which is a marvel. I’m more interested right now in this film about the camera, and the film itself is a marvel.

From the Eames Office page about the film, some of the credits:

Presentation of the revolutionary SX-70 Land camera and its aesthetic potential that becomes a meditation on the nature of photography. A tour-de-force of filmmaking that gives the audience a real understanding of the workings of the camera.
Filmmakers: Charles and Ray Eames
Sponsor: Polaroid
Composer: Elmer Bernstein
Narrator: concluding statement by Philip Morrison
Date: 1972

Charles and Ray Eames were the remarkably creative and remarkably influential husband-and-wife design team working mostly from the 40s through the 60s (a quick biographical survey). Many of their designs have become so iconic that they are recognizable by countless people who have never heard of the Eames. There is just so much that I can’t begin to organize my thoughts about them here, where my focus is on this one film anyway. When you have time, explore Charles & Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention.

Next in the credits is Elmer Bernstein, noted composer of many, many famous film scores like those for “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Ten Commandments”, “The Blues Brothers”, and “Ghostbusters”, to name a small fraction. The score is just a few instruments, nothing that’s going to take a lot of time assembling and orchestrating, but nevertheless thoughtfully written and quite suitable for the film.

Then there’s Philip Morrison, whose distinctive voice appears near the end, where he takes over from the anonymous narrator in the rest of the film. Morrison, who died in 2005, was a physicist of some renown, but I think his more important contribution was as an explainer and popularizer of science, as he did with his remarkable television series (and book), “The Ring of Truth” (1987). Then there was the “Powers of Ten” project (1977), the justly famous film of which he worked on with the Eames (watch the nine-minute film). He had also been the main reviewer of books for Scientific American since 1965, a remarkable legacy.

But this list of luminaries would contribute empty celebrity if the film itself weren’t brilliant, and it is. It was shown originally at a Polaroid shareholders meeting and subsequently used internally as a sales tool. It was not made for average viewers, perhaps, and wouldn’t be the right tone for a television advertisement, but it’s not intended for a predominantly technical audience, either. Instead, it’s made for viewers of some intelligence who are willing to give it their attention and learn some amazing things.

I am particularly delighted at how the language is kept clear and understandable, particularly as it’s supported by the visuals, without being patronizing or gratuitously simplified. Amidst the poetical and metaphysical thoughts about photography as an art form, watch for the exposition about the camera, how it operates, and all the technical advances it contains. Pay attention: it’s all too easy to be drawn into the narrative without realizing that all that technical information is entering your mind with relative ease.

As you might expect, there are plenty of people taking pictures with the camera, demonstrating what fun it is and how it is used and its various special features. But look at what they’re taking pictures of: several appear to be scientists, or even amateurs of science, documenting the natural world. Of course, there are also proud parents taking pictures of their children, but they’re just part of the panorama. But even while we see the parents photographing their kids, we are also shown that the SX-70 has a fast lens, a short focal length, a quick shutter that can stop action, and the ability to take exposures in quick succession. The Eames are not merely marketing the SX-70 in this film, they are demonstrating its capabilities and technologies and making that look easy.

I love the attitude that includes the scientific as part of the cultural, a film that combines poetry and philosophy and technical explanations and kids and nature into one amazing whole that’s so amazing one hardly notices that all that’s going on. I like how the technical specifications of the camera are explored and shown rather than explained–before the narrated explanation (beginning at about the 4:15 mark) of the internal workings of the camera–assuming a viewer without special technical knowledge but sophisticated enough to absorb the ideas.

Then, when you do get to the technical narrative, notice how crisp and concise the narration is, and how it’s so beautifully documented by the combined animation and live action (done in the days before CGI). I don’t think it hurts anyone to hear the word “aspheric”, even if it’s not a familiar word–yet. And while we’re there, let’s not overlook the achievement of the Eames’ documenting the internal mechanisms of the camera. There are as many shots in there as Hitchcock used in that famous murder scene in “Psycho”.

Amazing. It inspires me and intimidates me at the same time, which I expect is a good thing.


Plant Pigments

Posted by jns on June 30, 2008

This is chemist Richard Willstätter. I confess that his name was not familiar to me despite his having won the 1915 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Here are two short excerpts from his Nobel biography that summarize his prize-winning research.

As a young man he studied [c. 1902] principally the structure and synthesis of plant alkaloids such as atropine and cocaine. In this, as in his later work on quinone and quinone type compounds which are the basis of many dyestuffs, he sought to acquire skill in chemical methods in order to prepare himself for the extensive and more difficult work of investigating plant and animal pigments. [From Munich he went to work in Switzerland for seven years, returning to Germany in 1912, where he took up a position in a newly established Institute of Chemistry in Berlin/Dahlem.]

In the two short years before the outbreak of the first World War he was able with a team of collaborators to round off his investigations into chlorophyll and, in connexion with that, to complete some work on haemoglobin and, in rapid succession, to carry out his studies of anthocyanes, the colouring matter of flowers and fruits. These investigations into plant pigments, especially the work on chlorophyll, were honoured by the award of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1915)….

His main achievement, according to the Nobel presentation, was elucidating the chemical nature of the chlorophyll and “having been the first to recognize and to prove with complete evidence the fact that magnesium is not an impurity, but is an integral part of the native, pure chlorophyll – a fact of high importance from the biological point of view (source, the rest of which makes for very interesting reading).” By the way, “Plant Pigments” was the title of Willstätter’s Nobel lecture.

He continued to be productive after winning the prize and worked until he chose to end his career in what must have seemed a startling move.

Willstätter’s career came to a tragic end when, as a gesture against increasing antisemitism, he announced his retirement in 1924. Expressions of confidence by the Faculty, by his students and by the Minister failed to shake the fifty-three year old scientist in his decision to resign. He lived on in retirement in Munich, maintaining contact only with those of his pupils who remained in the Institute and with his successor, Heinrich Wieland, whom he had nominated. Dazzling offers both at home and abroad were alike rejected by him. In 1938 he fled from the Gestapo with the help of his pupil A. Stoll and managed to emigrate to Switzerland, losing all but a meagre part of his belongings.

He lived in Switzerland until he died on 3 August 1942, of a heart attack. I was interested to read that a memorial to Willstätter was unveiled in Muroalto, where he lived his last years, in 1956, the year I was born.

This portrait photograph (source) was taken in 1942 by an unidentified photographer. And now we come to the original reason that Willstätter is the subject of this post, namely so that I could mention that the Smithsonian Institution’s Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology has put some of their large collection of portraits of scientists and inventors online at Flickr: “Portraits of Scientists and Inventors“. This collection has 144 portraits; they tell us that the entire collection is available online in the “Scientific Identity” digital collection.

I first read about the Smithsonian Library’s adding photographs to the Flickr commons project by reading an entry in the Smithsonian Library’s blog. It wasn’t long ago that the Library of Congress delighted fans of photography by putting big chunks of their collections on Flickr in a first-of-its-kind collaboration.

It’s a lot of fun with wonderful images to see; it’s also a great sink of one’s time. But this is culture and heritage and history, right? Besides, I think we’re all better people for knowing more about Richard Willstätter now. What a learning experience is Beard of the Week!

I expect we’ll be exploring more of these portraits in the future.


Bjørn Jørgensen: Arctic Photo

Posted by jns on March 28, 2008

A recent story from Science@NASA (“Spring is Aurora Season“, 20 March 2008) told an interesting story about how the aurora borealis seems to be more active near the equinoxes. The apparent reason has to do with “magnetic tubes” whose creation is favored when the Earth’s magnetic poles have the alignment relative to the Sun that they exhibit around the equinoxes.

Fine. Very interesting. But who could possibly pay attention to that when this was the image illustrating the article?

This stunning photograph (reduced to fit in this column better) was taken on 1 March 2008 in Tomso, Norway by photographer Bjørn Jørgensen.

His website is called “Arctic Photo” (direct to the English version).

Now, go ahead and give me one good reason why you would not want to click over to his site and see the beautiful photographs of the aurora borealis, not to mention sections like “The Sun at Night”, “Traditional Boatbuilding”, and “North Norway Winter” in his portfolio?



Posted by jns on February 21, 2008

This remarkable image of the Earth rising over the lunar horizon is actually what it seems to be. It is a frame captured from an HDTV video taken on 7 November 2007 by the Japanese KAGUYA spacecraft, which is currently orbiting the Moon on a surveying mission. They tell us that the Earth is seen rising over a spot that is near the south pole of the Moon.

The KAGUYA Image Gallery, the source of this image (click on “HDTV”),* is a delight to look through; every click brings more remarkable sights and insights.

I first learned about the KAGUYA image from this Science@NASA feature for 20 February 2008: “Who’s Orbiting the Moon?“. It gives a nice run-down of all the missions from various countries that already have satellites orbiting the Moon, or will soon.
* I have cropped the image and reduced it substantially so that it will fit in these narrow confines. Visit the website to find the incredibly large, incredibly high-resolution original image.