Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Earth From Nearly 1 Million Miles Away!

I recently wrote a blog post about The Blue Marble, the famous 1972 image of our planet from space taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts, and about the importance of seeing our home planet from space. When we view the entirety of our globe, without our perceived national and ethnic borders, we give ourselves a chance to reflect on our role within the global biosphere, within the global community. 

On the 20th of July of this year, NASA released a new image of our world taken from space. This image was collected by a spacecraft called the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), and it was taken from almost 1 million miles away from the surface of the planet. 

Here is that image, in all of its glory:

Our Earth from a distance of ~930,000 miles (1.5 million km), taken on 6 July 2015 by the DSCOVR spacecraft

The DSCOVR spacecraft took the above image not long after it reached its final orbit at roughly 930,000 miles away (~1.5 million km). The distance is important, as the spacecraft will operate at this distance for the rest of its mission, orbiting at a point in space known as the Lagrange Point 1, or L1. This point in space will provide the spacecraft with a stable orbit (no need for extra fuel to keep it in its orbit) and will allow the spacecraft to monitor the entirety of our planet.

The primary goals of DSCOVR, which is run primarily through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are to monitor solar wind conditions and to provide nearly continuous climate data for our world. The spacecraft will measure the intensity of energetic particles making their way from the Sun to the Earth, such as those released in coronal mass ejections (DSCOVR will be able to offer 15-60 minute warnings of incoming changes to the solar wind that may pose dangers to our technology). DSCOVR will use UV, visible, and infrared light reflected from the Earth to measure ozone, ash and dust, cloud composition and structure, and vegetation cover. The spacecraft will also take full images of the Earth every two hours. 

Full, high-resolution pictures of the Earth at a rate of one every two hours! That's incredible. This means that it's only a matter of time until we get to see some awesome timelapse videos put together showing the dynamic Earth from nearly 1 million miles away. I can only imagine what these new data sets are going to mean for Science on a Sphere and other tools for public engagement, let alone all of the awesome science that's going to come from the DSCOVR mission.

This first image from the Deep Space Climate Observatory is so fantastic and so inspiring that even President Obama posted a Tweet about it:

For a bit more info about the Deep Space Climate Observatory, check out the video below:

Monday, July 27, 2015

ACPAD - "The electronic orchestra in your hands!"

A few weeks ago I saw a video that circulated around Facebook of a wireless MIDI controller that tacked onto an acoustic guitar to offer a range of electronic controls. The thing is called the ACPAD and it looks too sweet to not have one. 

Check out the demo video below and then visit their website to keep up to date on when these things will be available for the masses. Until then, keep jammin'!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Galaxy Song by Monty Python

At a recent pub trivia night sponsored by the Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon), a question came up for which only two of our groups knew the answer. The hint was something like this: "In Monty Python's song about the galaxy, what is the name of the housewife and lifelong liver donor?" 

I was surprised by how few people knew the answer, so I thought it was high time to share the Galaxy Song once more, a song where Eric Idle sings of the grandness of our universe for a housewife whom life has gotten down. 

Here it is for all of your viewing pleasure:

So what was the answer to that trivia question?

The housewife and lifelong liver donor in the galaxy song is Mrs. Brown

Here are the lyrics for those of you who are interested:

Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown
And things seem hard or tough
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft
And you feel that you've had quite enough

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned
A sun that is the source of all our power

The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour
Of the galaxy we call the 'milky way'

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide

We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point
We go 'round every two hundred million years
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, the speed of light, you know
Twelve million miles a minute and that's the fastest speed there is

So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space
'Cause it's bugger all down here on Earth

The Galaxy Song is quite a fantastic little diddy for considering how insignificant we seem to be in the grand scheme of things. 

Paul Kohlmiller, writing for the San Jose Astronomical Society's ephemeris back in 2003, commented on some of the astronomical figures that Eric Idle used in the original Galaxy Song. I highly recommend checking out his updates for those who are interested.

Cheers all! And remember, we may not seem very significant in the grand scheme of things, but that in itself may make us all the more important. We are unique beings, on a world full of unique beings, which come together to form a biosphere, which evolves along with the changing dynamics of a planet, and this planet, thus far, is the only one we know of with life. We're looking for others and hoping to find them, but until then, we remain quite alone.

An image taken from Science Dump of what our galaxy might look like and which shows the relative location of the several thousand stars we can see with our naked eye at night here on this little rock that orbits our Sun

Saturday, July 25, 2015

No, there was not a major discovery of life on comet 67P by the Philae lander

...but a lot of journalists have once again shown that they love to fall for quackery

This image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on 15 June 2015 (ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM)

Earlier this month, The Guardian posted an article which started a brief but infuriating internet fire of gossip about the possibilities for life on comets. Specifically, the article announced that Max Wallis and Chandra Wickramasinghe had claimed during a talk at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting that the organic-rich crust of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is best explained by the presence of microorganisms. Indeed, Wickramasinghe (whom the author of the article titled as a "maverick astronomer and astrobiologist") was quoted as saying that their finding of life on the comet was "unequivocal".

As an astrobiologist and a fan of ideas about the possibilities for alien life out there, I like to wonder about whether there could be living organisms on cometary material. Based on that, you might think I would have been excited about this "news", but a quick read into the announcement and where it came from (more importantly, who it came from) quickly suggests that these findings are a bunch of bunk. 

Chandra Wickramasinghe has become known in the astrobiology community as someone who has a conclusion that alien microbes are everywhere and who will stop at nothing to try to prove his belief. This makes him less of a "maverick astronomer and astrobiologist" and far more of a pseudoscientist and a threat to real science. 

Taken from a page of Skeptical Raptor's blog, where it's shown that
debunking quackery can be fun as well as rewarding 

In this announcement of "finding" alien life, Wickramasinghe and Wallis take the findings of organic-rich materials on the surface of comet 67P by the Rosetta mission and make the claim that such materials are "not easily explained in terms of prebiotic chemistry". They went further and told their audience at the National Astronomy Meeting that they have conducted simulations which suggest that microorganisms with antifreeze proteins could explain dark, organic-rich features as well as certain icy structures on the comet. Wickramasinghe was quoted as saying "...data coming from the comet seems to unequivocally, in my opinion, point to micro-organisms being involved in the formation of the icy structures, the preponderance of aromatic hydrocarbons, and the very dark surface."

You should always be cautious in trusting someone who uses statements like "unequivocally" and "in my opinion" in the same sentence. As Chris Lee pointed out recently in an Ars Technica article titled "Magic carbon layer not a sign of extraterrestrial life", the finding of organic carbon on the surface of a comet is by no means surprising from the stance of modern surface chemistry. In fact, we now know that organic compounds are abundant in the universe. We've discovered organics in meteorites, on comets, on other worlds, and in interstellar space. It's no surprise that the Philae lander discovered organic material on comet 67P, but just because there is organic material there in no way implies that there is also life. Decades ago, it might have seemed that organic material automatically implies life, but we now know that the conclusion of life does not follow simply from the presence of organic material in a sample. Such thoughtful approaches to science, however, are not in Wickramasinghe's realm of thought. It seems that Wallis and Wickramasinghe have taken the approach of dressing up their hopeful belief as a scientific certainty.

This isn't the first time that Wickramasinghe has been involved in unjustified claims that alien has been discovered. Wickramasinghe has previously claimed that viruses like SARS, the bird flu, and the 1918 flu epidemic were extraterrestrial in origin. This pseudoscientist has also been involved in "publishing" claims of finding alien microbes in meteorites and in the atmosphere through the fake science source called the Journal of Cosmology. Phil Plait, author of the Bad Astronomy book and blog, has written several articles pointing out Wickramasinghe's fallacious claims. Phil even tackled this recent claim of life on 67P with his article "Life on a Comet? I’m Gonna Go With “No.”" Dan Evon also briefly covered this non-discovery of life in an article on Snopes.

It gets tiring sometimes battling against the fraudulent and the quacks, and some people might even ask why we then do it. The answer is simple: in our age of abundant information, where disinformation and misinformation run rampant and many people are illiterate in science and technology, the frauds and the quacks pose a serious danger to the future of our civilization. If we lose the scientific method, if we allow ourselves to dwell in unjustified claims, and if we forego evidence for satisfaction, then it's only a matter of time before a new dark ages befalls us and we have to start all over again.

It's not always easy to determine the differences between science and pseudoscience (indeed, philosophers of science have been trying to figure out how to do that for quite some time). Claims like those made by Wickramasinghe and his fellow pseudoscientists seem legitimate to many people, especially when news sources claim these people are "experts", "maverick astronomers", or "top astrobiologists". Yet people like Max Wallis and Chandra Wickramasinghe are a threat to modern science and to the public. Their approach of accepting their preformed conclusions without significant evidence or even rational skepticism is a bane to modern science. I sincerely hope that, moving forward, we will see more scientists taking to social media and more reporters seeking input from real scientists to fight the bunk of people like Wallis and Wickramasinghe when they start to peddle their snake oil.

We may one day, perhaps very soon, discover evidence for extraterrestrial life. I've dreamt of that moment since I was a child. Many of us have. Yet jumping the gun with false assertions of alien life does nothing to improve our pursuits in astrobiology. Certainly, if and when we do find actual evidence for life outside of our biosphere, you will hear the news coming from far more reliable sources than Wallis and Wickramasinghe.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Toastmasters: Video Game Voice-Overs and Public Speaking

At a recent Toastmasters Leadership Institute training meeting, I attended a workshop presented by Brooke Chestnut that dealt with the topic of attracting millennials to Toastmasters. 

Millennials, as you may know, are people of the generation who were born roughly between the early 1980s and the early 2000s (a group for which I am technically a member). Our generation has become a powerhouse of creativity and entrepreneurship, although we're also known as a boomerang generation since many of us tend to put off traditional rites of adulthood until later in life. 

Actually, our generation has unfortunately mostly come to be known as a generation of children who feel undeservingly entitled (if you don't believe me, try telling one of the children in America who has gone straight to college after high school that they actually have to read books and do homework to earn good grades and see how they react).

I enjoyed Brooke Chestnut's training session. There were times when it felt a little insulting (I am a millennial after all), but the message was clear: millennials are an important cohort of people who can be benefitted by the improvements in public speaking and leadership that come through Toastmasters membership. During the workshop, we talked about a lot of the thing that are of common interest among those of us in our teens to early thirties. These are things like social media, technology, and video games. 

Video games specifically I thought were an interesting topic to bring up. I've been playing video games my whole life, and I know how important they can be to many in my generation. One thing that I thought about during the workshop was how many great voiceovers have been done for modern video games. These days, video game productions can be massive undertakings and many high-caliber actors and speakers have started taking on voiceover roles. For instance, here's a video with five awesome voiceover parts from some common video games (the video says Top 5, but I don't necessarily agree with that ranking):

The games and voice actors from this video are, in order:

Fallout 3 (voiced by Ron Perlman)
Killzone (voiced by Brian Cox)

Due to the nature of video games, many of the great speeches and monologues come before or during some kind of battle. Just as real leaders need to find ways to motivate their "troops" before a serious engagement, it's entertaining to have a great speaker buildup a battle before you enter into it within the digital realm of a video game. To empower the gamer, the voiceover actor needs to use their speaking skills to make the character feel real and dynamic. That's why video games are a growing source of great speaking examples.

Here is a video with Carver's end speech (voiced by Ricardo Chavira) from Dead Space 3:

Here's another voiceover, this time by Jen Taylor at the end of Halo: Reach. It's nice to conclude a game with something more than just the credits:

These video game voiceovers offer some great examples of the power of the speech. With video games continually growing in the scale of their production and their use in society, I imagine that we'll see many more great speeches from video games in the future. For myself, I'll be paying closer attention to the voice overs in the video games that I play, to listen for great writing and great speaking when it pops up. By knowing the ways in which speaking appeals to others, we Toastmasters are better able to share our approach of improvement through practice with a wider audience. I think video game voiceovers may offer some of the great speeches that people will look back on in the near future.

I'll leave you with one more video. H
ere's a video that someone put together showing Charlie Chaplain's wonderful speech from The Great Dictator set to various video game sequences:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Luca Stricagnoli - Sweet Child of Mine

You may remember when I posted a sweet video from Luca Stricagnoli earlier this year. The video showed Stricagnoli's acoustic arrangement for AC/DC's Thunderstruck. It was absolutely amazing.

Well here's another video of Luca Stricagnoli published to Youtube on the 5th of July of this year. This time, Stricagnoli is rocking with his version of Guns N' Roses classic Sweet Child O' Mine. Stricagnoli uses two guitars (one of which has two sets of strings) and multiple capos. This is some fine guitar playing! 

Here ya go:

You can now buy Luca Stricagnoli's debut album from Candyrat Records. They also offer transcriptions of Stricangoli's instrumental parts for those of us who want to jam!

Update (9 July 2015):

Luca just shared this video to his Facebook and included the following with regard to his setup for this song:

"My new video can also be found on facebook. I’ll take a minute to tell you some interesting facts about this arrangement. The 2 capos (Jim Dunlop Trigger Capo) that can be seen on the main guitar have been slightly altered by myself. I have cut part of the rubber bottom so that some of the strings would not be blocked even after placing the capo. One of the two Trigger Capo was clipped onto the Spider Capo so that it would be in a handy position to quickly place it before the solo to change tuning. Thanks for all your support, love Luca.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Classical Gas by Tommy Emmanuel and that Sweet Guitar Jam with Roger in American Dad

Following is probably one of the coolest guitar videos you'll ever see. It's Classical Gas, originally written and played by Mason Williams, as performed by the incredible Tommy Emmanuel. Get ready to have your socks knocked off:

Pretty freaking awesome, right?!

You may have heard part of this jam before. If, like me, you're a fan of American Dad, then you might remember the scene from the episode Permanent Record Wrecker where Roger (the alien) kicks some major ass in a guitar jam-off. Well, that guitar jam was the same bit played above by Tommy Emmanuel. 

There aren't many videos of that scene to be found online. The best that I found is below, but, oddly, the voice of Roger doesn't sounds right. Still, the guitar is fantastic:

I've been playing guitar for quite some, but I'm definitely not even on a level where I could see Tommy Emmanuel's level of guitar awesomeness with a space telescope. Good stuff.