Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Earth and our Moon from Voyager 1

"There is a tide in the affairs of men, 
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. 
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. 
On such a full sea are we now afloat. 
And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures." 

-William Shakespeare

This picture of the Earth and Moon were taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from a distance of 7.25 million miles (~11.66 million km). Taken on 18 September 1977 (when I was -6 years old!), this picture as the very first ever taken that showed the Earth and the Moon in one single frame.

Voyager 1 is the most distant piece of human engineering and human exploration. It's fanciful to sit and think sometimes about how far away it really is now. As of the exact time of this writing, Voyager 1 is 20,661,735,297 km from the Earth and still going. The Voyagers and their mission were a hallmark of early space exploration. Now is truly the time for us to work together to take this current of humanity's evolution as a spacefaring species, and find our ventures among the other realms in the cosmic ocean.

(Note: in the picture above, the Moon appears very close to the Earth. However, the Moon is really about as far away from us as 30 times the diameter of the Earth! The picture certainly wasn't taken from equal distances to both Earth and Moon)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Stairway to Heaven played skillfully on koto and shakuhachi - a stellar performance

"No stairway. Denied."

...Well not in this awesome video from performers Keiko Hisamoto, Masako Watanabe, Miromu Motonaga, and Kizan Kawamura, where they play two koto (stringed instruments and the national instrument of Japan) and two shakuhachi (Japanese end-blown flutes). 

I can always jam out to some Stairway to Heaven, and this version is definitely incredible and well-performed:

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Sit back and let yourself be stunned by this awesome video of Mars imagery

Mars, dune-filled, desert planet. Mars has long held intrigue for many of us. From that red sprinkle of light in the night's sky, evoking gods of war, to the canal-irrigation hypotheses of Percival Lowell that led to some of the earliest alien science fiction, to the several dozen spacecraft that have been launched for Mars (with less than two dozen having been successful), Mars has a special place in the planetary hearts of many of us who are intrigued by the cosmos. 

One of the missions that has been uber successful, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), has the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (or HiRISE), which has taken well over 200,000 pictures of the Martian surface at high resolution. I just came across a sweet video compilation of false-colored images created by Kamil Bubeła that is definitely worth a watch. The video, called Vivid Mars, is stunning and enticing. I definitely felt the human imperative to get out there and explore a new place when I watched this video. Check it out below (or at Kamil's Youtube page):

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Extreme Humans: Big Meets Small

Sultan Kösen, the world's tallest living human, meets with Chandra Bahadur Dangi, who was the shortest known adult human. (Credit: AFP/Andrew Cowie)
Humanity is wonderful! We come in all shapes and sizes and have different skin colors and physical and mental attributes. Some people even push the extremes of what we know about the human condition. 

In the photograph above, two extreme people can be seen meeting one another back in 2014. Sultan Kösen is currently the tallest human alive. Measured at 2.51 m (8' 3") in height for the Guinness Book of World Records back in 2011, Kösen is a Kurdish farmer from Turkey. He has undergone gamma knife treatment on the tumor which affects his pituitary gland and which caused his unusual height, and this has effectively halted his growth. Kösen is, however, not the tallest human ever known. The tallest verified living person known was Robert Wadlow, who came in at 2.72 m (8' 11.1")! Man, that's really freaking tall!

In the photograph above along with Kösen is the shortest known adult male human of all time. Chandra Bahadur Dangi, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 75, was recorded at 54.6 cm (1' 9.5") in height. Dangi had never left his village in Nepal until 2012, at age 72, when he was officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. After that, he used his new-found fame to travel in his remaining years of life.

Humans really are amazing and incredible. Sure, we have our flaws and should always be cognizant of those flaws in order to improve them, yet our species has come to be a dominant part of the biosphere of our planet. If some major epidemic were to come by tomorrow and wipe out all of the human species, the impact of our actions on the planet would still remain in the rock record for an intelligent alien species to one day find! We come in so many varieties, yet I sometimes wonder if there are even more varieties possible. What lies down the road for our species? I'll come back to this idea in future posts.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Wally wins the internet with a story about some spice and GMOs

Was just cruising along Facebook while snuffling through the tapering end of this sinus infection and I saw this post on my wall from the page of SciBabe (Yvette d'Entremont):

Ya, it really is just an apple. We could hope that it had been genetically modified to improve crop yields or to make it more nutritious, though most current genetic modifications are so that more pesticides can be applied, sadly. Still, it is just an apple. We have absolutely no evidence yet to suggest that genetic modifications to our food cause any differences to how our bodies digest them. Even if the full benefit of genetically modified foods hasn't been realized (perhaps in part due to the anti-GMO hysteria), that still doesn't mean we should fear what so few of us understands; rather, we should work together to increase public understanding of the science involved.

On another note, I personally agree with food labelling, but not just for GM crops. I think our citizens are more likely to make informed decisions about food when they actually have information. Country-of-origin, pesticides used, estimated fossil fuel consumption for delivery to the super market, and other descriptors could go along with the ingredients and nutritional information (even if that nutritional info here in the US is biased by the wants of lobbyists). Or, maybe rather than labelling, a QR code or barcode could link to a website or in-store system that displays all of the information an informed shopped may wish to peruse. Still, the real issue with GM crops, as I see it, isn't in labelling our foods with pertinent information, but rather is in the lack of scientific literacy among the public, which leads to misunderstanding of what genetically modified foods even are.

Still, that's not why I wrote this post. No, my friends, I wrote this post to share with you the insight of Wally. If you're someone who freaks out over a little dirt in your food or doesn't have an understanding of the fact that we humans are still a part of a larger biosphere, then you may not want to read what Wally has to say about spices. But, I have a feeling you're not that person, and you're going to find this to be a good point:

So ya, if you're concerned about the genetic compliment within the DNA of the foods you're eating, then you might want to consider a little further the other things that are in our food. From bat shit and dirt to pesticides and preservatives, at various levels of processing, you're bound to be getting some stuff in your food that you probably don't really want. Most of it's probably not going to hurt you, but we can definitely cut back on the pesticides and preservatives by using GM crops instead (again, if done right). 

In your thinking about GM crops, consider the story of Wally. Maybe you agree with Wally. Maybe Wally wins the internet. Or, maybe like these commenters you feel like Wally just ruined spices for you:

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Cosmobiologist's PhD Defense

I'm now finishing out 6 years of graduate studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Yikes! Where did all of that time go?

Those who know me also certainly know that this past year has been exceptionally rough. Long hours of typing, physical and mental self-abuse, and a slowly degrading attitude toward everything is what comes out of writing a PhD dissertation. Well, that and the fact that you then get to defend that work against a group of research scientists. After writing over 77,372 words in 299 double-spaced pages with abundant figures and tables, all the while using cigarettes, coffee, and booze to fuel the ever longer days of writing (for most of 2017 I was working 60-100 hours a week on the writing), I then had to parse it all down into one coherent talk for my public defense (which comes before the actual defending occurs).

In the week leading up to the talk, I was having some hard times. I was aiming for a 40-45 minute talk, but also knew that I had to have enough data to get the main points across while also making it accessible to a general scientifically-literate audience (something I find to be extremely important). In my many practices, I either hit the right time but with not enough information, or I had lots of info and ran way over on time. Luckily, I was able to give a practice talk to a group of friends and they helped me hone down some key ideas and to figure out how to focus the talk more on my main contributions. Still, the night before my defense I did a run through of my talk and it hit 90 minutes. I was crushed. I was terrified. I was mortified. 

I tried to sleep that night and it just wasn't happening. I think I may have gotten a total of 45-60 minutes of sleep the night before my PhD defense. When the morning finally came around, I did one more practice run with my wife, and this time it hit 45 minutes and felt like just the right level of info for the general audience and for my committee (at least, according to me). I managed to walk away from it and have a breakfast out with Amanda. I then did a 30 minute meditation in the tub, using a guided meditation from The Honest Guys on Youtube (I definitely recommend this one. It's called The Sanctuary). I managed to get myself shined up all nice like and head in for my PhD defense. 

I'm so thankful for the huge turnout of people who came to the live talk. It was great to speak in front of a room full of such awesome people! Also, I was super lucky in that my friend Mike of the Don't Panic Adventure Club duo was able to attend and made a pretty snazzy recording of my talk so that I could share it here with you, on A Cosmobiologist's Dream. Check out the video below (or click here to go to the NASA Astrobiology Youtube page and watch it there):

If you watched the talk, I hope you stuck around until the end to see a picture of my husky, Darwin. He's a hipster, but he's one cool cat (or dog, or, whatever). 

Of course, after that talk came the actual PhD defense. The part where everyone else is kicked out of the room and it's just the lowly graduate student and their panel of research scientists (the committee) who will judge their work. I think I'll save the take-home points on my actual defense of my work and the comments from my committee until I finish the revisions of my dissertation (it may actually end up a little shorter by the end!). At that point, I'll post a link to the dissertation itself and give an overview of everything.

Well, after the night-of-no-sleep and all of the fear and then the talk and the defense that followed, I was finally through the defense side of the PhD process. Although I successfully defended, there are a lot of revisions to do yet. However, maybe now I can cut back to more sensible hours (especially since a graduate student's pay has nothing to do with the amount of work they do). Also, in finishing up the defense, it was incredibly awesome to celebrate over whisky and champaign with so many awesome people. We later went out to The West End Tavern, one of my favorite places in Boulder for having a good whisky. I had several scotches and bourbons, including a 25 yr. Laphroaig and a 23 yr. Pappy Van Winkle (both remarkably awesome glasses of booze!). My friends, being the incredible folks that they are, covered the costs of the spirits, of which I'm pretty sure I drank over 400 years of aging that night.

Now that I'm through the defense, I'm excited for working on the revisions and hopefully publishing at least one more paper from my work (though I think there could be two or three there as well). After all that I put myself through this past year, I kind of feel like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, after crawling through all of that mess of shit and grossness and finally feeling the beauty of the world as I find some freedom. It feels like I'm now able to discover myself again as I finish out this research and prepare for what comes next. As George Fairman's song goes, "I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way!"

Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Monday, April 17, 2017

"The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus

Given the issues concerning immigration, emigration, human rights, and "otherness" that have come to the forefront in American news lately, this poem has been coming back to my mind a lot. It's one I think all Americans should learn and consider, even if they disagree with the implications. The Statute of Liberty, initially conceived to honor freedom and democracy following the Union victory of the Civil War, has this poem engraved on a bronze plaque within the lower level of the pedestal. The poem, the source of the famous line "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...", was written by a young woman who was an advocate for refugees, specifically Russian Jews seeking refuge in America. The issue of acceptance of modern-day refugees and immigrants is complex and many of us find ourselves falling somewhere in the middle of a large spectrum of opinions, the extremes of which may be indifference on one side and utter hatred on the other. Wherever you find yourself in the large mix of ideas about refugees and immigrants, consider what a monument like the Statue of Liberty and ideals like those upon which the United States of America was built can mean to people fleeing from tyranny and from suffering. Is there still a Golden Door to this nation, or is that solely a dream of past generations? As you consider such ideas, remember this poem, The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 
With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she 
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

The New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus