Saturday, September 29, 2007

Dr Vector discovers the universe

I've mentioned here before Abrell & Thompson's wonderful little book, Moses May Have Been an Apache, a collection of bogus and no-so-bogus "Actual Facts" based on their newspaper cartoon of the same name. One of the entries has a surprisingly evocative doodle of an American Indian GI, and reads, "Charlie Medicine Horn discovered Germany in April, 1945."

Ha ha.

But there's something to that. It does not matter to me that I was not the first to stand in front of the Wall at Dinosaur National Monument, or wander through Beijing's Forbidden City, or hike the beaches on the Isle of Wight. The fact that thousands or millions of people have done those things before did not decrease the thrill of personal discovery for me.

Tonight I found the Galilean moons of Jupiter for the first time by myself. Now, people have been looking at them for 397 years, and our robots have sent back enough data on those worlds to keep a generation of planetary scientists very busy. I had even seen them before with my own eyes, through my astronomy professor's telescope in high school. But tonight was the first time that I found them for myself. And I didn't even need a telescope to see them. Some crappy Tasco 7x35 binoculars that I bought back in high school, steadied against a lamp pole, did the job.

It helps if you know where to look, of course. From our viewpoint Jupiter travels along the same track as the sun and the moon (the ecliptic), and it trails the sun by a couple of hours. Go outside right after sunset and look to the south-southwest, about 25 degrees above the horizon (spread the pinky and thumb of one hand as far as you can at arm's length; that's about 25 degrees). Jupiter will be the first 'star' you see, and it will be a lot brighter than any other stars in that part of the sky once they come out. With the naked eye it looks just like a bright star, but even at 7x magnification you can see a tiny crescent. If your eyes are moderately dark-adapted and you steady the binoculars against something, you will see tiny pinpricks of light near the crescent. Those are the Galilean moons. It may help to focus your vision on some other part of the field of view at first, a technique called averted vision, which helps you detect faint objects.

I had a little help from Stellarium, an open-source planetarium program that you can download for free. You can view the sky from any point on Earth (Wikipedia will give you your latitude and longitude if you don't already know them), and the program is a cinch to navigate. Here's a screenshot from Merced at 7:17 Pacific Time this evening, which I punched up earlier today to figure out where to look. You can turn everything on and off: the grids (alt-az and equatorial), atmosphere, constellation names and lines, and in fact the Earth itself if you want to look straight down and see what folks at the antipodes are seeing. Here I have the alt-az grid and the atmosphere on to show what the sky actually looked like at 7:17 tonight, and where Jupiter was located relative to the cardinal directions and the horizon.

In fact, I did not see all four Galilean moons, just two off the left flank of Jupiter. The chart in this month's Sky & Telescope says those two are Callisto (next to Jupiter) and Io (next one over). Ganymede should be farther off to the left but I didn't see it, and Europa is behind Jupiter tonight. Here's what it looked like through the binoculars:

Now, this is not an awesome spectacle of Nature's grandeur. It's a tiny crescent and two pinpricks almost at the limit of vision. What is awesome is not the size or detail of the view, it's that I got it all, standing under a (blessedly dim and yellow) streetlight with a pair of low-end department store binoculars.

I'll bet most of you have at least some lousy binoculars laying around; many of you probably have a nice pair gathering dust in the closet. Why don't you go outside tomorrow night and discover Jupiter's moons for yourself?

UPDATE: Erp. I couldn't actually have seen a crescent Jupiter. No one has, not with their own eyes. Jupiter is so far out that we are practically right next to the Sun compared to it; therefore we only ever see the lighted face. Anything less can only be seen by space probes. So what did I see? Some kind of aberration that my brain interpreted as a crescent. Three possible causes include lens flare in the binoculars, some other kind of visual aberration in the binos, and astigmatism in my eyes (I wasn't wearing glasses at the time). Percival Lowell ain't got nuthin' on me.

Still, after more than a week of almost nightly binocular viewing, the Gallilean moons are still pretty freakin' sweet.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Do as the man says

In my continuing effort to undermine any future employment opportunities with this blog, I bring you this recent exchange (transcribed from e-mail):

Randy Irmis: Sweet action sequence. With a techno soundtrack.

Matt (forwarding to Mike Taylor): This is indeed a sweet action sequence.

Mike: It certainly is. I've seen this before, but I'm very happy to see it again. :-) It's my understanding that all of this is basically real, i.e. no messing about with special effects, just a sequence of awesome stunts. And I think that, for once, "awesome" is the appropriate word here. I find it exhilarating that the human body is capable of this kind of thing. I feel a sort of reflected glory based on the fact that I am the same species as him. :-)

Matt: We all have our gifts. I can't go jumping off rooftops like that (and by the way, the guy who jumps out the window and misses the rope is awesome!), but I bet those guys can't eat a whole large pizza in one sitting, either, or belch the national anthem.

Mike: I would have thought that the American national anthem would be just about the hardest one in the world to belch. If you can really do it, I am impressed.

Matt: Sadly, I can't. I have done the alphabet, though. And just the other day I peed for a minute and fifty seconds, without consciously holding back. And I once ate 6.5 Big Macs in one sitting without throwing up. And one time when I was living alone I weighed myself before and after a big dump and found that I had lost six pounds on the crapper.

So I'm still pretty awesome.

Mike: A LOT of LLOLing* here. I command you to post this on your website, right now, with no changes whatsoever.


Done and done. All that stuff is true, by the way.

*LLOL = Literally Laughing Out Loud. Used between Mike and me only when we actually, you know, laugh. A mere smile gets a GSG (Good Solid Grin). It's our little rebellion against w00t culture.

IMMEDIATE UPDATE: As long as we're talking about stuff that came up on e-mail, I feel compelled to share this gem from my LA-nuking homeboy, Jarrod Davis:

"This is like a swamp full of radioactive awesome! I want to roll around in it and let it mutate me!"

UPDATE THE SECOND: I should also mention another very worthy entry to the lexicon, courtesy of Darren Naish. Upon learning that one of his papers has been racking up the citations recently, he exclaimed:

"I think I just had a sexual accident!"

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Lick Observatory trip, Part 1

Life is weird. One year when I was a kid we went to Colorado Springs on our family vacation. We went up to the top of Pike's Peak one day and went to the Cheyenne Mountain zoo the next. That was back in the late '80s . . . I hope there weren't any particularly important breeding programs at Cheyenne Mountain back then, considering it was sitting on top of NORAD and was (and might still be) the Zoo Most Likely To Be Turned Into Fallout.

Anyway, then we stayed a few days with some friends who lived in Colorado Springs. They'd lived there for years. Turned out that in all that time, they had never been up to the top of Pike's Peak. And the guy was a park ranger and his wife was a school teacher!

Which is worse, having something cool right on your doorstep and never checking it out, or having something cool on your doorstep and not even knowing it exists? I can't be too hard on those folks, because I've been in the UC system for six years and I never knew that the Lick Observatory (the first and AFAIK only entirely* UC-run observatory) even existed until a few weeks ago.

* UC is a managing partner on the Keck telescopes (schwing!) and has its fingers in a bunch of other astronomical badassery, including the upcoming Thirty-Meter Telescope, whose appellation rivals the Big Bang for sheer unironic literalness.

Lick Observatory is up on Mount Hamilton above San Jose. The photo below shows the view from the summit looking off to the northwest. The light-colored expanse in the upper left is the south end of San Francisco Bay. Lick was the first mountaintop observatory in the world. Up until it opened, all of the world's observatories were located in the same cities as the universities that ran them, or, if they were privately operated, at the operator's place in the countryside (like Herschel's 1.26-meter monster).

Last Saturday we took two dozen students from UCM up to Lick. It was fully awesome. They have seven domes up there, and six telescopes. The oldest dome was built in 1881; the newest was just completed and is currently waiting for the Automated Planet Finder, a robotic 2.4-meter reflector, to be installed.

The open dome in the photo above was completed in 1886 and houses the 36-inch refractor, which you saw a bit of in the teaser and about which you will see much more in an upcoming post. The dome on the right is at the other end of the building. That's the dome that was completed in 1881. For it's first century of operation it held a 12-inch refractor, but since 1979 it has held the Anna L. Nickel 1-meter reflector.

The view looking east. The shadow of Mount Hamilton is thrown onto the next range over by the setting sun. Which also brings and end to this post. Next up: the 3-m Shane reflector.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Lick Observatory teaser

Just got back from an all day field trip to the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton above San Jose. Got the whole backstage tour, which culminated with my bloodshot, leering eyeball on the business end of a 36-inch refractor (that's 36 inches in diameter for you telescope n00bs). Tell you all about it later.

Hat tip to Darren for the concept of the teaser post.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I am not a-Muse-d

Really, seriously, what the hell is wrong with museum exhibit designers these days?

Last fall I went to the American Museum of Natural History for a week to do some research. I always took a break in the middle of the afternoon to stretch my legs and at least walk through one of the public exhibit halls. And I frequently checked in on the Hall of Biodiversity to gather data. Not data for my dissertation. Data on how museum exhibits work.

The Hall of Biodiversity is basically a big room with a rainforest diorama going down the center. One of the long side walls facing the rainforest is called the Spectrum of Life and it has really impressive mounted specimens from more clades than you can count (portions of this are shown above and below). The other long side wall is called Transformation of the Biosphere and it has a bunch of cubicles with computers where you can sit and learn about how the planet is going to hell in a handbasket.

Guess what? The first time I went through the Hall of Biodiversity, I walked quickly past the cubicles just to make sure they didn't have any actual specimens stashed back there, and I spent the rest of the time standing in front of the Spectrum of Life gaping at all the weird stuff. So did everyone else I saw that day. So did everyone else I saw that week. In a hall on biodiversity, one half of the space is being utterly wasted because . . . deep breath . . . it doesn't actually contain any biodiversity. No animals, plants, fungi, protists, or what have you. Instead, it has fucking computers in fucking cubicles. And the people are staying away in droves.

Which leads me to my first principle of natural history museum design:

People do not go to natural history museums to see fucking computers.

The positive principle to which this is merely a corollary is this:

People go to natural history museums to see natural history.

It follows that the job of an exhibit in a natural history museum is to show people natural history stuff--preserved organisms, fossils, artifacts, whatever. Not fucking computers, and certainly not fucking computers in fucking cubicles. Seriously, who wants to go to a museum--named for the Muses, descended from Renaissance cabinets of curiosity, repository of all that is arcane, bizarre, and wonder-full--and sit in a motherfucking cubicle getting lectured about the same depressing shit that you see every time you flip on the tube?

No one, apparently.

I'm not saying that the biodiversity crisis ain't real or that museums don't have a responsibility to educate the public. But a row of empty cubicles is educating no one. Was this hall laid out by utter morons? Did no one involved take the curiosity and free will of actual human beings into account during the design process? On one side of the room you have people standing shoulder to shoulder and three to five deep just to look at stuff. C'mon, museum studies dipshits*, harness some of that curiosity for good. And no, I don't mean show them a bunch of fascinating real stuff and then funnel them toward the cubicles. I mean show them a bunch of fascinating real stuff. Period.

That's the gig.

My favorite room in any of the museums I've been to is the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London. There is this vast expanse of human architecture and a much smaller but still awe-inspiring example of animal architecture, and . . . that's it. It's just about perfect. There's stuff to look at in the niches on the sides of the hall but it doesn't intrude into the main space. You can walk all the way around the dinosaur, see it from up close or far away, even go upstairs and look down on it from above. Mike Taylor and I have spent a lot of time just looking at that Diplodocus. I'd be hard-pressed to think of another mounted dinosaur anywhere that you can see so well from so many angles. Certainly no other dino mount has such a beautiful and appropriately awesome setting.

It makes a sad contrast with the actual dinosaur hall in the same museum. You know, the one where they took the absolutely gorgeous immense room and filled it up with so much butt-ugly elevated metal and exhibit junk that you would be forgiven for thinking that someone was out to destroy general public interest in dinosaurs. The contrast with the main hall couldn't be more striking: the exhibit, with its elevated metal walkway and the one-dimensional path, is totally out of harmony with the architecture of the room itself. You can't walk around any of the dinosaurs except for the Triceratops up front. All the rest are off to one side of the path and you can only see them from 180 degrees or less. That's nice if you just want to momentarily "appreciate" each one as if they were fucking paintings, but it's pretty dismal if you actually want to get a sense of their size and proportions. The stupid path constrains you to experience each thing in a particular order. No niches to explore, no space to sit and contemplatively take it all in, just a long-ass mostly metal cattle chute designed to keep the human traffic flowing. The lighting is godawful--good luck trying to get any photos better than "medium Bigfoot".

I could go on.

But what REALLY pissed me off about the People's Gloriously Efficient Metallic Intestine of Compulsory Dinosaur Appreciation is that toward the end there is a display case full of toy dinosaurs, dinosaur lunchboxes, and other dino shit.

This is another corollary of the first principle:

People do not go to natural history museums to see fucking toy dinosaurs.

If I wanted to see some fucking toy dinosaurs, I'd go to fucking Wal-Mart. That display case full of dino bullshit is taking up space that could be used to show actual fossils.

It makes me want to weep.

Museums cannot compete with amusement parks, multiplexes, arcades, and other temples to brain distraction. They shouldn't try. They're not just in a different business, they're in the opposite business. Museums have stuff that no one else does, stuff that is truly fascinating and that people are dying to see, and more and more they replace that wonder-full stuff with ordinary boring crap that people can find anywhere. Cubicles. Computers. Interactive geegaws and gimcracks. Piles of toys and lunchboxes.

I know that the public has an appetite for seeing the real stuff. I saw them standing shoulder to shoulder and several deep at the Spectrum of Life. Just looking. I've seen it in every museum I've ever been to. There are always going to be people who blaze through the halls as fast as their legs can carry them. But if you just stop and look, you will see other people just looking, anywhere that there is something real and arresting for them to look at. And if there is space for them to sit and just take it in, they will.

Let's cater to those people. The ones that are seeing something they've never seen before, something they can't go anywhere else to see, and having their sense of wonder tickled. That's what museums are for. If we can achieve that, we don't need all the plastic fakery stamped with bullshit buzzwords like 'relevant', 'educational', and 'interactive'. And if we can't, all that junk isn't going to help anyway.

If you look at pictures of museums from the 19th century, they all look the same: chock-a-block full of real specimens. Signage is minimal and discreet, and there are no Interactive Gadgets To Provoke Active Learning Moments(TM) to be seen anywhere. Partly because they hadn't been invented, but mostly because there were no museum studies dipshits* there to install them. The galleries were put together by curators who took whatever space they were given and filled it to the rim with as much cool stuff as possible. Big specimens went in the middle of the room where you could walk all around them. Little stuff went in cabinets and display cases on the sides of the room where they might entice you to spend a minute or thirty just contemplating their endless forms most beautiful.

If you walked through the Hall of X in the 1890s, there would be approximately half a million examples of X on display, and their sheer number and variety were free to work their dazzling effects on your brain. A century later and you have to sit through the Entrance Hall Streaming Video Preview, then be pre-tested by the Interactive Knowledge Assessment Module, then maybe if you're lucky you will see one or two actual specimens of X off to one side behind a couple of layers of Plexiglas, surrounded by about 7.5 MDEs (Moby Dick Equivalents) of explanatory signage and a collection of interactive computer stuff that is roughly equivalent to a really lame arcade in 1984, before you are processed by the Web-Based Pre-Exit Educational Product Survey and emerge blinking into the sunlight precisely 25.4 minutes after you entered. It goes without saying that there will have been no side-paths, cul-de-sacs, or niches to explore and no benches to sit on. No room for anything so inefficient.

When museums fill up their limited space--and their space is always limited compared to the awesome diversity of stuff that could potentially go on display--with interactive junk or piles of toys, they are sending a subtle message that they have ceased to believe in their own mission. You don't need a pile of toy dinosaurs to make a dinosaur exhibit 'relevant'. You don't need a row of cubicles and computer exercises to impress people with the scope and importance of biodiversity. That stuff doesn't work. Worse, it suggests that all of the real specimens on display are not worth getting interested in or caring about on their own.

If you want to know where the people are, they're on the opposite side of the room, standing shoulder to shoulder, looking at the specimens. Somebody, please, learn from that.

There is only one principle in natural museum history exhibit design:

People go to natural history museums to see natural history.

They can't get it anywhere else. And museums have nothing else as compelling to offer. So let's stop pretending that museums are interactive entertainment venues, and let museums be museums.

* Are you in museum studies? Awesome! Don't be a dipshit.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Well, HERE'S something we haven't talked about yet

Can't enough dough to support your research? How about selling the names of new taxa to the highest bidder?

From this article:

The German research body Patrons of Biodiversity offers a catalogue of frogs and flowers whose scientific naming rights are for sale. And closer to home, the California Academy of Sciences has offered business owners the chance to name one of 600 Madagascan ants after their respective companies: $10,000 bought a species, $25,000 an entire genus.

The academy kicked off its ant auction by naming one of the insects, free of charge, after a popular search engine: Proceratium google. Reactions to the commodification of taxonomy are mixed.

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature denounced Biopat's service as "a striking departure from scientific tradition" that could "irreversibly obscure science and hinder conservation efforts." F. Christian Thompson, a scientist at The Smithsonian, backed the concept as a valid means of supporting research but argued that "anything less (than $250,000) is just selling our science too cheaply."

Michael Swanwick included this very thing in his novel Bones of the Earth. At one point there was a mention of Exxonsaurus.

From what I've read, rainforest entomologists are considered young whippersnappers until they've named at least 100 new taxa, and once you're seasoned it is considered extremely gauche to even remember the exact number of new taxa that you've named (usually in the mid to high hundreds for productive workers). With all the names flying around I am tempted to say, "Rock on!" but I can't help thinking that the taxonomy might WILL get skewed if splitting is lucrative and lumping is not.

Do you have to give the money back if the taxon you named for Corporation X gets sunk?

Or suppose you name a new species after CorpX, but later it is elevated to the rank of genus. Can you hit them up for more money? Sounds ridiculous, but you could have such a clause added to the contract, I suppose.


If someone will just point me to the big leather and mahogany office where you sell out, we'll see how much my righteous indignation is really worth.

Hat tip to Dan Chure, who brought this to the attention of the Dinosaur Mailing List, and to Mike Taylor, who forwarded it to me.

The picture, by the way, is my youngest brother, Ryan, looking super-awesome on the Sinclair Brontosaurus (yeah, you heard me) in Hennessey, Oklahoma. And by 'super-awesome' I mean 'super-goofy'.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Linky linky then go drinky

Some folks I should have linked to sooner, all available now on the new-and-improved link list on your right.

Presentation Zen. Yeah, do that. See if you can get some more to follow, and maybe introduce them to the idea of 'staff meeting zen'. And also 'staff meeting end'.

The Ethical Palaeontologist. Thanks for the shout-out and the TBA.* Yes, I'll be at SVP. Let's grab a beer.

Pursuing Praxis. Reliably eclectic. Plus, she devoted a whole post to the character of John Carter, Warlord of Mars. Rock.

Laelaps. Some good paleo-porn, and a post rate that leaves me flattened. Check out the post on Thylacoleo, the extinct marsupial lion, for starters.

* Darren gave me one of these, too, back around the Late Tithonian. And hit me with the "Why I Blog" meme. I suppose it's about time I stepped up to the plate. First, though, I have this lecture about proteins and nucleic acids that I'm just dying if I don't to write. Really, it'll be dazzling. Tell you all about it at 11:00 AM on Friday, room 105.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Minimum blogging requirements fulfilled

From Ghostbusters, Dr. Ray Stantz speaking:

"Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, and we didn't have to produce anything! You've never been out of college! You don't know what it's like out there! I've worked in the private sector. They expect results."

So with being a lecturer versus a grad student. Hence the nonexistent post rate lately. If that's a problem for any of my grad student readers, you can go hop in your immense beds of free time* and cry yourselves to sleep on your piles of satiny overstuffed oh-my-god-I'm-not-teaching-three-classes-at-once.

*Yeah, I know, research, writing, TAing, coffee breaks, Resident Metal HaloStrike III, midnight movies, dating, beer. Blogging. Yawn, etc.

Here's your daily (monthly?) value added. The story of Mel, from back when stuff was hard. Don't sweat the technical details; the point is the flavor. Hat tip to Mike.

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