Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The University Rover Challenge 2016

I'm heading off to the deserts of Utah to help staff the University Rover Challenge (URC). The URC is a robotic competition where undergraduate student teams from around the globe design and build Mars rovers over the course of a year, and then they bring their robots to Utah, where we challenge them in tasks like supporting an astronaut in the field, servicing equipment, looking for signs of past or present life, and in testing their rovers by driving through a terrain obstacle course. It's a fantastic event.

Here's a cool overview video of the URC from one of the events' sponsors, Protocase:

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

High Flight, by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

A Canadair Regional Jet CRJ-900, like the one I'm taking back to the U.S. in about an hour

I'm jumping on a plane to fly back to the U.S. from Canada here in a short bit. While thinking of flying, I found the following poem, by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. Magee was an aviator and a poet, and his poem, High Flight, has served as an inspiration for aviators, astronauts, and adventurers of all sorts. 

High Flight

"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God."

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Where in the World is Graham Lau?

I've been travelling and doing so much lately that I haven't been keeping up with my blog. Last week, I traveled to Washington D.C. to compete in the Season 3 national final of the Famelab USA science communication competition. I didn't win the competition, but it was so much fun and I learned a lot more about sharing my passion for science and knowledge with other people. Here's a pic of me on the stage during my final talk, titled "This Thing is Older Than Your Mom":

I took a much needed stop back in Pennsylvania to see friends and family after that. It was refreshing to hit up the ol' stomping grounds again. Here's a pic of my little sister, Kelsey, and I, along with my long time buddies Nick Ison and Ben Doyle:

Sadly, I only had one day back in Boulder after all that travel before leaving on my next trip, a stop to the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. The Canadian Light Source (CLS) is a synchrotron particle accelerator where researchers can use the x-rays produced for a wide range of scientific endeavors.

A panorama looking down at the ring of the CLS synchrotron
My lab mates, Jena Johnson and Julie Cosmidis, and I use the Canadian Light Source to do something called STXM. STXM stands for Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscopy. The technique allows us to use x-rays to produce nanoscale to microscale images of our samples and to collect spectroscopic information about the materials. For instance, we're using STXM to figure out what kinds of sulfur and carbon molecules are in our samples and how those sulfur and carbon molecules are related. I'm currently sitting in a lab at CLS preparing more samples for our last evening of experimentation and data collection. 

A scanning transmission x-ray microscope at CLS

Tomorrow, it's back to Boulder for a good week of rest and catching up on work before I head off on the next adventure: the University Rover Challenge (URC). The URC is a three-day robotics competition held in the desert of Utah, where undergraduate university teams compete against one another with robotic rovers that they've designed and built (usually over the course of an entire year). The event takes place in Utah to simulate a robotics competition on Mars. The teams will use their rovers to look for signs of life, to assist astronauts in their work, to perform maintenance or servicing tasks, and to scout out terrain in the desert environment. I've been to the URC many times, serving as a volunteer and Director of Logistics. I always learn a lot about robotics and have a great time seeing these teams in action, but I also love the back-breaking work and camping out in the desert. Here's a picture from the Cornell Mars Rover team, showing off their Ares rover from last year's competition:

Hopefully, after I return from the URC, I'll have some serious time to get deeper into writing up my dissertation. It's scary to say it, but I'm looking to wrap up my Ph.D. program late this year, so there's a lot of work ahead making all of that happen. However, sometime in June I'll be coming back and writing posts about all of these adventures I've been on and sharing the best photos and videos, so stay tuned!

Ad Astra Per Aspera!

Enjoying A Clean Shave and a Haircut at The Rook and Raven Pub in Saskatoon (no, I'm not shaving off my beard. But I am enjoying a fun drink made with Kraken rum, cola, Guinness, and hibiscus syrup. Yum!)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Don't Look Directly at the Sun, Most Especially When Using a Telescope

Image: Mark Thompson

This week saw many astronomers, amateur and professional alike, jumping to solar observations to watch the transit of Mercury across the Sun. Fortunately, they all understand that looking at the Sun directly through a telescope is bad juju.

Staring directly at the Sun can cause all kinds of damage and blindness. Isaac Newton once temporarily damaged his vision by staring at the Sun for a long period. However, Newton fortunately wasn't using a telescope when this happened. 

So, what happens if you look at the Sun through a telescope (without the proper filters)? Well, Mark Thompson made this video, where he exposes a pig's eyeball to sunlight through a telescope. It's brutal!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Solar Stuff, Arcing Away

This is definitely one of the 
coolest videos you'll see today! 

Here's some recent footage collected in the extreme ultraviolet from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which shows a magnetic arc of material on the sun lifting up and then blasting some of the material off into space! 

Here's a description of what you're seeing from Steele Hill and Sarah Frazier of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center:

"An elongated, streaming arch of solar material rose up at the sun’s edge before breaking apart in this animation of imagery captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on April 28, 2016. While some of the solar material fell back into the sun, the disintegration of this magnetic arch also sent some particles streaming into space. These details were captured in a type of light that’s invisible to human eyes, called extreme ultraviolet. The images were colorized in gold for easy viewing."

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

I'll find it, I'm sure.

I don't normally share my fiction writing on this blog, but I wanted to share what I wrote this morning. I was thinking of my fear of one day growing old and losing my memories. What would it be like to be slowly going to a place where your mind started turning everything into a dream, awake or asleep? Here's a short story I wrote that I call "I'll find it, I'm sure."

I'll find it, I'm sure.

It’s gone, it’s gone, and I just don’t know where. I’ve been searching about through the house, searching here and searching there. I can’t quite recall what it looked like anymore, but I know that it’s gone and I have to find it. Surely I just had it sometime not too long ago. Maybe I had it the last time that it snowed, but when was that now? It’s spring here, but spring in the mountains can mean snow at any time really. Ergh, I swear I keep losing it these days and I just don’t know why. If maybe I could think of part of it or frame it with something else, the thought might come back. Maybe on the bookshelf with my pictures and knickknacks. Is it a picture of someone or some kind of a toy? Hmmm. No. I don’t think that’s quite right, it surely isn’t someone I know or knew and probably not something to be played with. Or maybe that’s just the problem. Maybe those dogs took it for play, and I’ll find it chewed up somewhere today. I dig through the dog’s toy basket but all I see are toys and stuffed things, like cheetahs and octopuses and an otter whose stuffing is all but ripped out. Ugh, there must be something that can help to place this thing that is gone. If only I could get my mind to think. Think, think, think, think. Where is it? What is it? Why is it gone anyway? Is it gone because I’m forgetful or because it never gave me a strong enough thought? No, at least not the latter, because then I wouldn’t know that it’s gone, and I wouldn’t have been searching through this house for so long. Maybe that’s it! Maybe it’s not in the house. Let’s look outside by the shed where I keep all the things that used to mean more to me before I grew old. Mountain bikes and a kayak, some old two-stroke parts, extra tools for grilling that I never really use. No, not here. It’s certainly not here. Maybe if I stop looking it will come to me instead. Maybe I should go for a walk and try to clear my head. I step down the lane with trees to my sides, growing quite high as they reach for the sky. The day feels so warm, even though we live so high up. I decide to kick some stones while I walk. Just like I did when I was a youngin’, I’m sure. Well, maybe… Come to think, I can’t quite recall. Maybe that’s what I’ve lost! Maybe my childhood is lost and needs to be found. But just now I look to the ground, where I see a puddle beneath me and on its surface the sky. Also some trees and then there’s me. Is it me? I’m not sure. I’ve truly grown old. As I look at that pool, I see myself as a child. I remember my parents and Maddie and Kyle. Maddie and Kyle, just now, their faces are there. Looking at me through a puddle by the lane by my home. Or maybe not. Maybe they’re looking at me just now from somewhere closer than that. I hear someone speaking, something about “coming round” and “hello”. I know that what’s missing is somewhere now very close. I see Maddie and Kyle, their faces are so young. Too young. They can’t be here. They died long ago. “Who are you?!” I shout, as I stare them down. I know that they’re not Maddie and Kyle, so maybe they’re imposters and they’ve taken what’s gone. I thought I’d get mad, but those little faces are crying. Crying little faces, especially those that look like Maddie and Kyle, are not something to be mad at, not for more than a short while. I say to them now, and yet somehow I’m sure that I’ve said it before, “Do you know what I’ve lost? I can’t find it no more.” I feel people touching me, and it doesn’t feel good. Something is wrong here and I sink back away. The next thing I know I’m standing again by my shed on a beautiful fall day. Fall in the mountains can be quite a sight. There’s color to the leaves of some trees while others stand stark and dark green against a backdrop of mist and clouds. The smell of smoke from a fire is surely on the air. But right now, I don’t think I quite care. It’s lost, you see. It’s gone, it’s gone, and I just don’t know where. But I’m sure I can find it about if I just look here and then there. Maybe it’s by this old shed that seems like something I once used to know. Maybe it was mine onced, I really don’t know. “Blast it all to tarnation,” I say as I stump away from that shed that stands on that beautiful fall day. I look at the house standing by and now I’m quite sure, that it’s lost in there somewhere and I just need to go look. I’ll find it, I know, if I just take some time. As I step up to the door, I hear a voice on the wind. I turn to look and see faces of people in the sky. Some of them look happy and some sad, though I really don’t know why. “I’m on a mission,” I say, “You see, it’s gone, and I must find it, whatever it takes.” The sky faces they know me, and I think I know them, but I must find it and so I turn back to this house once again. It’s in there, I know it, and I’ll find it for sure. I just need to know where to look once I walk through this door. No time to worry, I’ll find it, I’m sure.