Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Terry Pratchett: Facing Extinction

Pratchett alongside an endangered red ape
Bestselling author Sir Terry Pratchett, known in particular for his Discworld novels, returns to the jungles of Borneo in the last segment of this trilogy. Eighteen years ago, he encountered orangutans in the wild for the first time and this documentary follows his return to Borneo where he hopes to encounter them again and discover what the future holds for these amazing creatures. The experiences of his first trip caused him to become a trustee of the Orangutan Foundation, a UK charity devoted to protecting both the animals and their habitats.

In this segment, Pratchett and his assistant visit an Indonesian street market that is rumored to sell endangered animals and meet up with Dr. Birute Galdikas, the world expert on orangutans and president of Orangutan Foundation International. The most powerful piece of the documentary is the travel into the jungle to find the intelligent orangutans, in particular Kusasi, described as the “former king of the orangutans.”

The reality of the situation sets in when Pratchett asks a local conservation worker: “Would the people of Borneo care if all the orangutans were wiped out?”

“No,” she responds, “Ninety percent wouldn’t care a bit.”

This documentary is especially emotional for fans of Pratchett’s because in 2007 he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Watching him struggle through the perils of the jungle is guaranteed to wrench anyone’s heart.

The hour-long show broadcasted on BBC Two at 21:00 GMT, but can also be found here.

Celestial Sightings

Just about every evening before going to bed, I take a moment to look at the stars. While the weather isn’t always agreeable, when it’s clear there’s always something worth seeing.  Last Sunday, for example, there was the beautiful sight of Jupiter and the neighboring crescent moon closely paired together.

Tomorrow night, be on the lookout for the waning moon (after all, yesterday was the worm moon — the first full moon in March) sandwiched between Spica and Saturn. You will be able to find the moon midway between the star and the planet, which are currently 17° apart.

Spica will be the white star to the moon’s upper right and Saturn will be more creamy-colored down to the moon’s lower left. Because such a full moon would usually wash out anything in its near vicinity, this degree of separation will actually help the casual observer spot the trio. It will be easiest to spot this celestial arrangement in the southeast after 11 p.m.

Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo

Light from the moon, reflected from the sun, takes only 1.25 seconds to reach the earth. The light from Saturn, 830 million miles away, takes about 74 minutes. However, the light from Spica, a 1st magnitude blue giant, takes about 260 years to finally reach our eyes. So be aware that the light you'll see left the brilliant star well before the American Revolution.

For more on lunar occulations and the best time to see this trio in your area check out details here.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Reddit AMA: Alex Filipenko

Yesterday, Alex Filipenko, a famous astronomer as well as an astrophysics professor at UC Berkeley, did an AMA on Reddit. For those who don't know, an AMA is an "Ask Me Anything" done Q&A style on the social media site. Most of the questions revolved around the future of space exploration and research. Below I have posted some of the more insightful questions with the corresponding responses. You can view the AMA yourself, here.

Q: Where do you think we will be regarding space travel/research in 50 years? 100 years?
A: Hard to say, that far in advance. I hope we will understand dark matter and dark energy. I hope definitive evidence for extraterrestrial life is found by that time. I'm almost certain we will have directly detected gravitational waves. Regarding space travel, maybe within that time, people will land on Mars for the first time.

Q:  How will we understand or detect dark matter/energy? Will this happen in the next 50 years?
A: Physicists are trying to directly detect dark matter in terrestrial labs. I think dark matter will be found this way in the next 20 years and if not, we need to go back to the drawing board! Dark energy will be much more difficult to directly detect, so I'm not sure it will happen in the next 50 years. Without direct detections, a more complete understanding of both dark matter and dark energy will come from from detailed observations of how they affect the universe. Other astrophysicists and I are busy collecting data that are setting ever more precise constraints on the physical nature of dark matter and dark energy.

Q: You mentioned education reform; what kind of reform do you think would help instill an actual love of knowledge in kids today? Do you think that our current system of just memorizing things and taking tests is sufficient? What do you think we can do instigate that change?
A:  Education reform is a very difficult issue. We have to excite kids about math and science at an early age. We might succeed in part by making these subjects more fun (check out, for example). We have to show kids how math and science are relevant to their lives, and how beautiful they are. Of course, some facts must be taught, but the process of science and discovery should be emphasized more.

Q: What do you think of all the exoplanets being discovered?
A: It's totally fantastic! This is truly a "golden age" for research on exoplanets. In the past few years, the Kepler spacecraft has found a few thousand exoplanet candidates, more than 90% of which are probably genuine exoplanets. Studies of the "Doppler wobble" of the stars they orbit, and other observations, are gradually confirming more than more of them. Some are in, or near, the "Goldilocks zone" where liquid water might be found on the surface. Some are roughly the size of Earth. These will be excellent locations to search for life.

Q: What made you decide on astrophysics as a career?
A:  I've always been fascinated by science. From ages 10 through 17, my main interest was chemistry, but as a freshman in high school I was given a small telescope. With it, I "discovered" Saturn the third "star" at which I pointed the telescope! This really jazzed me, and astronomy became a growing interest. In my freshman year of college, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I took an introductory astronomy course from Professor Stanton J. Peale, and it was truly wonderful. I realized that the physics of the very large is governed by the physics of the very small (atoms and subatomic particles), so by switching to astrophysics I could "have it all." So I changed majors with the intention of becoming an astrophysicist, and I've never regretted the choice.
One final factor in my decision: As a budding young chemist, I played with explosives and had a couple of pretty bad accidents. I realized that I don't have the self-discipline to stay away from dangerous chemicals, so I should switch fields as an act of self-preservation, if nothing else!

Go here to read the rest of his responses, some more serious and some more silly. (Fun aside: Someone also posted a GIF of Filipenko dancing on the Berkeley campus.)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Prolific Photography

10 percent of all photos taken ever, were taken last year.

TIME, Top 10 Photos of 2012

We currently take as many photographs in a single year as photographers did throughout the entirety of the 19th century. This tidbit and the above statistic aren't as unbelievable when you realize how slow photography was in the 1800s. I have been the subject of wet-plate collodion/tintype photographs (the dominant process in the 1800s, invented around the 1850s), and it takes about ten minutes from start to finish to make a single image with the process. Even 20th Century photography was much slower than digital photography is now; one hour photo shops gave you thirty-six prints per roll of film, tops. And that doesn't take into account the time spent out photographing.

Digital cameras and smartphones allow us to make images without any comparable constraint to volume. In an hour, a professional digital photographer can realistically make upwards of a thousand photographs in the field. With wet-plate collodion, including set-up and tear-down time for the portable darkroom, the photographer is lucky to make four.

But the very nature of digital photographs leads to interesting questions about their survivability and persistence in a historical sense. Old-school darkroom photographers often bemoan the lack of accessibility with digital files over time (anybody tried accessing information from a 5.25" floppy recently?), and by virtue of the volume of photographs being made right now, images in general seem less "special" or "worthy." Not to mention that many photographs don't exist in a physical, holdable, experiential, corporeal sense anymore. The internet is slowly changing that as it slowly abstracts the content away from the storage medium: When consumers look at a picture on Instagram, it doesn't really matter to them what Instagram stores it on, as long as they can send it to them. So now the problem becomes, when the electricity goes out, so too vanishes our photography.