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  • Archive for January, 2011

    “oh, by the way”

    2011 - 01.14

    The 1750s brought the advent of the “Island Universe” hypothesis. Real science for the acceptance of this theory began building in 1912. The debate was heated, until the 1920s when Edwin Hubble, with the aid of the world’s largest telescope, proved the existence of “Island Universes”. The central epiphany of this theory? That there are other galaxies outside our own.

    It has still been less than a single century since we began to grasp our own position in space.

    I’ve been slowly working my way through the gigantic book Cosmos: A Field Guide which I got for christmas. As a source of stimuli, it’s provoked a lot of thought and given me inspiration to write about the resulting ideas here on this blog. It continues to be a wellspring of mind-bogglement. There’s the images within it, which are worthy of staring at for a long time and letting your mind wander, and there’s also the text which has an almost-humorous way of slipping in wild information in a matter-of-fact tone.

    Maybe to the people who would write such a book, the facts it contains would be concepts taken for granted. Like the previously mentioned quote:

    Just think about that one. Really think about what that means. If that doesn’t blow your mind entirely, I have no idea what could.

    And these incredible revelations are inserted randomly, almost like throwaway anecdotes or afterthoughts to the images. A little, “oh, by the way” slipped in. Oh by the way, there’s more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way. I was going to just keep quiet and let you enjoy the pictures, but this little trivial factoid came to mind so I thought I’d let you know. Pffft.

    I came upon another doozy last night: When naming places in space, there are conventions which are typically followed, to differentiate between categories. Below is an image of a place called “47 Tucanae” which was so named because in the day it was first cataloged, it was believed to be a single star. In time, better telescopes revealed that this point of light was not a single star, but a globular cluster; possibly the ancient remains of a galaxy that once was. It’s composed of over a million stars.

    Over a MILLION. The first time we saw it, we thought it was only one star. One. Turns out it’s a million of them. At least. That’s six orders of magnitude larger. A million is a number which is hard to visualize. It’s far, far too large for someone to count these stars by hand. No doubt the number was calculated by mass computations, image analyzing software, or some other novel method. It’s comical how wrong that first assessment was. And not that the man with the inadequate telescope wasn’t trying–far from it–he simply didn’t have the vision to see.

    But this little observational mistake meaningfully captures something for me; it’s emblematic of the vastness of the universe, of our smallness within it, and most of all, of our feeble ability to see it for what it truly is. The Earth, which we once thought to be flat, is most definitely round. The heavens, which were once thought to orbit around the Earth, have entirely independent trajectories. And a place that we once thought was a single star turns out to be over a million stars.

    It’s a zen reminder that for all the mountaintops we climb, there are even loftier peaks beyond, obscured by the slopes we have yet to conquer.

    Site Update: Hello Photos!

    2011 - 01.12

    Oh snap.

    As of today, the Photos section on the site is what I’d call “operational.”  I’d been debating how to organize it for a while, and I decided to split all the pictures into categories to keep their large number digestible.  For a long time I couldn’t figure out what the categories should be.  I had been thinking in genres; landscapes, people, macros, etc but that just seemed too boring.  Obvious.

    I came up with the idea of abstract words for the categories, which is much more flexible for content, and thought-provoking as to what could fit in where.  The four categories are Outer Spaces, Organics, Inner Spaces, and the Expanded Universe.   Hopefully this structure works out well for future additions.  I’m using flickr slideshows to display the images, which is a nice way to view them, plus if you click the title of the image, you get sent to flickr, where you can view/download the image fullsize.

    The background image is a retouched picture I took of some negatives I had sitting in the closet.  Also, clicking on “All of the Above” will take you to the flickr photostream, which includes everything from the 4 main rolls plus a few extra odds and ends.

    In the future, I want to add more photos, put together a wallpapers pack, and add some photoshop tutorials here on the blog which I’ll link to from the photos page.  All in good time…..

    Surfing the nebulae

    2011 - 01.09

    Today I was checking out some hubble images at spacetelescope.org. This website just… boggles my brain every time I go. If the writings on this blog interest you at all, you owe it to yourself to go look at the 100 best images. Each one of them is worthy of poring over intensely.
    The Hubble telescope captured a display of starlight, glowing gas, and silhouetted dark clouds of interstellar dust in this 4-foot-by-8-foot image of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300. NGC 1300 is considered to be prototypical of barred spiral galaxies. Barred spirals differ from normal spiral galaxies in that the arms of the galaxy do not spiral all the way into the center, but are connected to the two ends of a straight bar of stars containing the nucleus at its center.

    While looking at the above image of this barred spiral galaxy, I was daydreaming about what might be there. Even with the great detail in the picture, it’s quite difficult to make out individual stars. Most of the ones that do shine bright enough to distinguish are not likely the most interesting stars in this galaxy–it’s the sun-like yellow stars which blend into the background, invisible to our eye, which probably have the most planets, the densely populated orbits, and timescales conducive to the arising of intelligent life.

    When I look at a picture like that, there is no doubt in my mind, no doubt, that this galaxy, like our own, must certainly be chock full of interstellar travelers. Highly evolved forms of life plying the minerals of barren moons, trading with other species. Vibrant commerce. Nuanced cultures. Storied histories. As I stare into the clouds of stars swirling around, a multitude of emotions arises thinking about what might be there. Lament, knowing that I’ll never get to know or explore these places, even if only from the glow of a computer screen. Humility, at the fraction of an iota that is our world. Bewilderment, at the inconceivable scale of this one picture.

    Frustration at my fellow man, that we haven’t made exploration a priority, or for the many centuries that we slacked on science while imbibing the drug of religion. Or for the perennial refrain of ‘we need to fix our problems here first’.  I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that is a day which shall never come.  And besides, some of the answers to our problems will be discovered along the way into space.

    But I also feel more optimistic trains of thought when I look at these pictures. Wonder, at the vast unknown of what might be. Wild and deep wonder. Pride, that we have discovered this much, that we have these images to inspire us in the first place. And hope that someday our distant, distant descendants will someday begin their charting of the stars, drawing new maps of what’s out there and filling endless encyclopedias with their discoveries. And it’s also a bit reassuring to think that there are surely many races and civilizations out there already doing it. Surfing the nebulae. Circumnavigating the Milky Way. Having races, just for fun, around the obstacle courses of our cosmos.

    Oh how great it would be to join in such voyages.

    Site Update: Hello words

    2011 - 01.07

    As of today, the “words” section of the site is what I’d call “operational”. I’d been brainstorming for neat ideas of how to organize my poetics, and finally it came to me: a periodic table. Sold. A collection of categorized building blocks that form the world around us… Yes.

    As of now there are 37 “elements.” I’ll need 118 to fill it up completely, which ought to take me a while, and that’s a good thing. The plan is to use this as a device to motivate myself to write more in 2011. I’m not huge on new year’s resolutions, but if I had one, writing more would be a good one. I imagine the snapshot shown here will be awesome to look back upon, months from now when the table is more populated.

    I definitely could have filled up the table right now. There’s probably around a thousand poems in my archives, but I decided that I’d rather be choosy about what goes up, and leave the rest open as a challenge to myself. If I can fill it before the end of this year, I think I will have done well. The flash for the table took a long time to make, with a mind-numbing amount of copying and pasting. About maybe 4 hours? I hope to add a few extra touches on the flash itself in the future… Stay tuned!

    Games I Like: Assassins Creed Brotherhood

    2011 - 01.05

    Games I Like: Assassins Creed Brotherhood

    Probably the sweetest part about the series as a whole is its historical fiction. Two main characters you’re interacting with are Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli. And you’re running around the coliseum in Rome. Nice! The series is also renown for an impressive continuity between games. For the inquisitive player, there are troves of hidden, secret plotlines to go after and uncover. The overall thrust of the tale is pretty interesting to begin with–it’s a centuries-spanning conspiracy plot about two groups of Illuminati vying to be the power who secretly controls the world.

    I’ve played them all and this latest version is the king of the heap. The AC designers have hit their stride and the resulting experience feels more cohesive and polished than ever. Your map is littered with different pursuits to go after, and so far, the game has been set exclusively in Rome, which I’d say is a good thing. I never cared for the wide-open countryside, devoid of things to do. They’ve lowered the number of viewpoints to climb, which is also a good thing. One of the chief complaints about past installments in the series was repetitive gameplay.

    There is certainly repetitive gameplay still in here (how many Assassins do I have to recruit?!) but a lot of the repeated elements have been shaken up for variety. Killing the guard commander at a Borgia tower (the main bad guys are called the Borgia) is a challenge you will almost certainly screw up on your first attempt. Each time the setup is slightly different, and you don’t know if he’s going to stand and fight you, or bolt for his panic room at the first sign of trouble. The guy who bolts is actually harder, since he moves quick and you have limited time to get him, with lotsa guards in your face.

    The vast majority of the time you’re playing, they turn you loose to explore the city. It’s sandbox action in the 1400s! You can choose what you feel like doing and there’s plenty of options… thief assignments, assassination contracts, shops to renovate, money chests to loot, treasures of Romulus to get, viewpoints to climb, Borgia towers to take over, and so on.

    As far as things to complain about, I get very tired of the loading screen, which is a blank empty space that they allow you to run around in. You can at least re-familiarize yourself with the controls while waiting, but there are many places where I wish they played a cool animation instead… for example when you use the secret underground tunnels to get around town, I wish they showed a quick video of Ezio running down the tunnel instead of dumping you into the generic loading screen. And there’s also many missions that have annoying quirks which cause you to die and replay the same section 10 times over because some guard always sees you and you just can’t figure out what they expect you to do.

    But loading screens and bang-your-head-against-the-wall sections aside, there’s certainly a lot to explore and love about this latest installment. And as implausible as some of the weapons may seem for their era, I see on Wikipedia that Leonardo actually DID design a tank just like the one in the game! Huh! Well there you have it.

    tastemaking in our little corner of the galaxy

    2011 - 01.04

    This quote from the beginning of Cosmos; I’ve been thinking about it often.  I completed watching the series some months ago now, and boy how I wish there were more.  Now all that remains is to go back and rewatch the episodes, a ritual that certainly gleans satisfaction, if lacking a bit in that smack across the face of resounding freshness that accompanies the first viewing.  Seeing it again, there are little hidden facets which reveal themselves, a secret kept from the new inductees.

    And there’s the pleasure of watching Mr. Sagan in action.  Through this series, I have arrived at a state of unmitigated admiration for this man.  Carl’s magnetically eloquent language, masterful comprehension of science, and retainment of such rapturous wonder at the beauty which surrounds us are a model to aspire toward.  There is something about his persona, the emphasis in his oratory, which imbues him with the overwhelming zest of a virtuoso at the peak of their form.  I would say that Carl is to the scientific world what the Beatles were to the music world.  Both were tastemakers who popularized complex ideas, making them accessible to people who might not otherwise enjoy 7/8 time, traditional Indian music, abstract lyricism, unconventional chord changes and recording methods.  Or in Carl’s case, the concept that heavy elements (and the ones that we are made of!) come from the insides of stars, the sheer vastness of the universe we exist within, and the towering influence of our understanding of the cosmos upon our ultimate fate.  And in both cases, these people were admired not just by outsiders who had only rudimentary grasps of their work, but rather they were both looked up to by generation after generation of experts and even geniuses within their respective fields.  In the recent NASA press conference concerning the arsenic-based bacteria, they invoked Carl three times (along with Stephen Hawking once, and Neil deGrasse Tyson once, to put it in perspective).

    At the same time that Carl is an archetype, he is very much a man, somewhat laughable in his dryness, but adorable in his sincerity.  Clad in his favorite orange coat, sitting in this overly-ornamental fake time machine, he looks a bit ridiculous, and I can’t help but giggle a bit.  But I love him for ‘going for it’ so unabashedly.

    I sort of wonder when I watch Cosmos, if they recorded the very beginning of it last, after the whole of the series was done.  When Carl gives that opening oratory, it feels to me as if it is the conclusion, the glorious end-result of his wanderings, disguised as the beginning.

    All Your Aliens Are LAME.

    2011 - 01.03

    My biggest beef with almost all the science fiction out there: the unimaginative portrayal of alien life.  And I’ll be especially harsh on Star Trek here–for being the series that is lauded as one of the more “realistic” (ie. it tries to obey physics), all the aliens (Klingons, Vulcans, borg, etc) all look an awful lot like Homo Sapiens.  I think the Cantina scene in the original Star Wars comes a lot closer to imagining what breadth of life must be out there.

    Given a completely different set of circumstances, the process of evolution will take a completely different path.  This recent NASA study which, essentially through forced evolution, bred a bacteria that eats arsenic and uses it in place of phosphorus as the backbone of its DNA structure, is a breakthrough.  It changes the parameter of where we should be searching for life.  And more importantly, it expands the boundaries of where life might arise.  That’s huge.

    I would also posit that this discovery is only one of many discoveries to come that will expand our narrow thinking on the possibilities of life.  I would bet anything that there are chemistries which proliferate life with far more exotic elements than the replacement of a single building block using the Earth-life formula.  The study of extremophiles here on Earth is important work to understand life.  Earth, after all, is just one set of pressure, temperature, gravity, atmosphere, and soil that’s out there.

    It really bothers me how human-centric alien life is always portrayed.  If an organism grew on a completely different world, with a different set of parameters as listed above, it would probably be absolutely nothing like us.  Two eyes, a nose, and a mouth?  Probably not.  This is how our evolutionary tree began, millennia ago, and because of those early parameters, nearly all the life around us follows the formula.  Who’s to say that on different planets, starting from scratch, life wouldn’t evolve with ears on the back of their knees? Or eyes that perceived with radio waves, or infrared.  Their “eyes” probably wouldn’t even look like what we call “eyes”.  Maybe these creatures would evolve to be able to emit and manipulate electromagnetic waves–that ability would have many advantages…

    Other structures that we completely take for granted might not be present whatsoever.  A leg, for example.  Of course, legs are a good solution to the problem of how to get around, but why not rolling wheels or something similar to treads, or why not glide around on a layer of slippery goo like a snail?  Maybe alien life would hop from place to place like on pogo sticks?  In low gravity environments, that would be a very efficient way to travel.  Why walk and get bogged down in all that expenditure of energy with friction against the ground when you can just bounce gracefully across it all?  Boom, you just got beaten in the evolutionary contest, alien with legs! As much as I strain my mind to come up with oddities which might arise, I feel limited by my Earthbound bias.  What if alien life is REEEEEEALY different?  There must be creatures and civilizations out there that have endured for billions of years.  Their evolution probably started like ours as a chemical process driven by the right building blocks and the infusion of electromagnetism.  These creatures evolved to intelligence, built a society, discovered science and technology, began to guide their own evolution.

    They eliminated genetic flaws, squashed weaknesses to disease, augmented their intelligence and information storage.  At a certain point, their technology and their physical beings became indistinguishable.  They learned how to preserve their minds indefinitely and how to network them for instantaneous telepathy.  For some, physical existence became more like an afterthought.  For others, connection with the collective muted the possibility of discovery out in the wilds of the cosmos.

    They developed means to travel the galaxy, cataloging other life in the pursuit of advancing their own.  The optimum way to do this probably involved zero interference with these other, less advanced lifeforms.  Studying their natural growth patterns was more fruitful than attempting to conquer, plunder, or exploit–irrelevant, pointless ideas when much larger questions and goals awaited.  Perhaps these creatures developed ways to transport their consciousness via electromagnetic waves, reconstituting physical forms at will, only for sporadic observation where things got interesting.  By this point, a physical appearance would be whatever manifestation would best suit the situation.

    What would such a highly developed species choose to look like?  I find it fascinating to think about.  What would their goals become?

    What would their leisure pursuits be? In the “Cosmos: A Field Guide” book I read the fact that there are more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way.  This is an astounding, stupefying fact that I will probably repeat later, for the sheer difficultly of being able to wrap one’s head around it.

    To me, the most thought-provoking aspect of it is that where the probability of life is simply anything other than zero, the vastness of this universe implies an explosively bountiful cornucopia of every imaginable tree-branch of life, including the existence of such ancient and advanced races as we theorized about above.

    Riffin on the Ice Cube / Space books

    2011 - 01.02

    I was at half price books about a month ago and I found this eye-popping hardcover book called “Superstructures In Space” for just $10.  It’s chock full of gorgeous photos taken by spacecraft and of spacecraft, detailing all the major human forays into space.  I’ve learned a lot reading it.  Chiefly that there are way more space missions going on than I realized.  There’s a probe on it’s way to Pluto (it’ll get there in 2015!), and another one inserting into orbit around Mercury in March of next year.  The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is an ongoing mission that has returned 3 times more data than the last 5 missions to mars COMBINED.  It’s mapped mars with a greater resolution than available on Google Earth.  The Deep Impact spacecraft was a super sweet mission in which they shot this projectile into an asteroid to observe what kinds of elements would be present in the resulting debris.  There’s just a ton of amazing things going on in space that I wasn’t even aware of.

    Just as I thought my interest/obsession was plateauing, for Christmas my girl gave me an even more gigantic book (see comparison below; literally GIGANTIC at 17×14 inches!) by called “Cosmos: A Field Guide”.  It’s not related to Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” in the literal sense (although they do invoke “star stuff”, a well-worn Saganism), but it goes through everything we’ve observed in the universe, from satellites looking at Earth, all the other planets, the outer solar system, Oort Cloud and Kupier Belt, the Milky Way, other galaxies, and the boundaries of what we can see in our universe.  The book is pure space porn, filled with breathtaking pictures of every type of celestial body imaginable.  The one shown here is the remnants of a supernova.  There aren’t really words that convey the size or the grandeur of what’s been discovered out beyond our planet.  I’m totally enraptured by these ideas at this moment in life…

    So against that backdrop I was reading about the neutrino observatory at the South Pole.  As silly as it may sound, the fact that we got a dude down there at the coldest place on the planet, measuring and counting neutrinos hoping to figure out some piece of our universe–it gives me hope that humans might be able to make it.  These are the biggest questions for us to answer: what is the universe made of, how did it form, can we trace its lineage?  In the words of Carl:

    What he’s getting at is the fact that these questions go beyond nations, races, generations, or any other divisions among us.  And our quest to answer them is tied inseparably to technology that will allow human civilization to make an ultimately essential leap–spreading to other worlds.  The universe is unfathomably vast and we humans, despite all our progress, are still at a most infantile age.  Whether we end up destroyed by nuclear weapons, avian flu, asteroids, or the greenhouse effect, one way or another Earth isn’t going to be safe forever.  Our ability to get out there (and get out there fast!), I believe is going to be THE pivot point on whether the genus “homo” ends with “sapiens”, or lives on to continue further.

    A thought that keeps running through my mind is “we live in a primitive time”.  I imagine a far away age where our distant descendants roam the galaxy in search of resources to mine, lifeforms to chronicle and trade with, picturesque worlds to settle upon, and maybe sightseeing by watching stars being born in nearby nebula.  These are the actions of an advanced civilization.  By comparison, we are living in far more primitive times than the stone age!  We still use rockets to launch spacecraft.  Rockets!  How un-elegant.  The knowledge that there are other galaxies besides our own is less than a century old.  That fact astounds me.  What utter ignorance we have begun to climb from.  The idea of an earth-centric universe seems embarrassingly laughable.  Like a little kid who thinks he knows how babies are made; “when the man pees inside the woman”.  Hahahaha, how naïve and clueless we were!

    I suspect that even such ideas as popular today as “dark matter” will one day be as antiquated as the concepts of ether or the crystalline spheres of the geocentric model.  Our galaxy-traversing descendants will look back through the history books and chuckle about what ideas once passed as science.  But that is the beauty of science–it is always refining itself, self-correcting, and disowning the baggage that no longer applies.  The neutrino observatory is an awesome step in refining our search for matter, understanding cosmic ray sources, and general surveying of the universe.  No doubt it will place us one step closer to the answers to those ‘big questions’.  How big of a step, only time can tell!