Saturday, January 31, 2009

A big night in a big year

Everyone who is even remotely interested in the living world knows that 2009 is the bicentennial of Darwin's birth (1809) and the sesquicentennial of the first publication of On the Origin of Species (1859). And this year is the 400th anniversary of Galileo first turning a telescope to the heavens and the publication of Kepler's Astronomia Nova (1609), in honor of which the UN and the International Astronomical Union have declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy.

There are a couple of other astro-themed anniversaries this year, too. This July 20th will be the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing (1969). Bringing things right up to the 21st century, January 4th and 25th were the 5th anniversaries of the landings of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, respectively, on Mars (2004). That's right, folks--it seems Mars missions either fail spectacularly or succeed beyond anyone's wildest dreams. The primary missions of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers were only 90 days apiece, and here they are still going strong 1854 and 1833 days later (as of this morning), more than 20 times longer. Bring that up the next time some tool complains about NASA's budget.

Last night I celebrated two of Galileo's discoveries: craters and "seas" on the moon, which showed that celestial bodies were not perfect and unchanging spheres, and the phases of Venus, which confirmed the hypothesis that the planets orbit the sun rather than the Earth. Andy Farke (a.k.a. the Open Source Paleontologist, who published a paper on Triceratops combat just this week in--naturally--an open access journal) brought some of his excellent home-brewed beer to the traditional Wedel Friday Night Fish-Stick Picnic, and we spent a little time cruising the sky. We got lucky, too--the atmosphere, which is usually a roiling swamp of turbulence and smog, was as still and clear as I've ever seen it down here. Lately Venus has been so smeared out by bad seeing that it looks like a hyperactive star, but last night we could see it for the planet that it is, and in a crescent phase not to different from that of the moon.

Next month will be even better. As Venus continues on around the sun toward inferior conjunction, it will appear larger and even more crescentic. On the evening of February 27, just after sunset, the crescent Venus will be right next to the much larger crescent moon above the western horizon (as shown above in a screencap from the free planetarium program Stellarium). Get out and take a look. It will be even better in binoculars or a telescope, so start thinking about how you're going to make that happen. I promise it will be worth it.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

With a name like Fluckers...

For my international readership: here in the states we have a brand of jam called Smucker's. Their tagline is, "With a name like Smucker's, it's got to be good." At a rough guess I would say that the average American has seen more Smucker's ads than televised acts of violence. They've been running the same ad for my entire life. Eventually you don't even realize that they are ads anymore, they're just part of the background noise of life.

Armed with that information, you are now ready to enjoy this old Saturday Night Live skit (stolen from here).

Jam Hawkers

Written by Michael O'Donoghue

Jane Curtin: . . . And so, with a name like Fluckers, it’s got to be good

Chevy Chase: Hey, hold on a second, I have a jam here called Nose Hair. Now with a name like Nose Hair, you can imagine how good it must be. MMM MMM!!

Dan Aykroyd: Hold it a minute folks, but are you familiar with a jam called Death Camp? That’s Death Camp! Just look for the barbed wire on the label. With a name like Death Camp it must be so good it’s incredible! Just amazingly good jam!

John Belushi: Wait a minute . . . Dog Vomit, Monkey Pus. We offer you a choice of two of the most repulsive brand names of jams you’ve ever heard of. With names like these, this stuff has got to be terrific. We’re talking fabulous jam here!

Chevy Chase: Save your breath fella! Here’s a new jam we’ve just put out. It’s called Painful Rectal Itch. You’d have to go a long way to find a worse name for a jam. And good? MMM WAH! With a name like Painful Rectal Itch you gotta bet that it’s great . . .

Dan Aykroyd: Mangled Baby Ducks. That’s right, Mangled Baby Ducks! Picture a jam so good that you’d dare to call it Mangled Baby Ducks! Great Jam! It’s beautiful jam!

John Belushi: Wait a minute, wait a minute, this is it - 10,000 Nuns and Orphans.

Jane Curtin: 10,000 Nuns and Orphans? What’s so bad about that?

John Belushi: They were all eaten by rats! Oh, it’s so good! MMM!

Garrett Morris: Hold it, hold it everyone, your attention please, I have here a jam called, Oh God, [mumbles] Ick! Yecch!

Dan Aykroyd: It’s so good it’s sick making!

Chevy Chase: Oh, that’s gotta be great jam!

Jane Curtin: So if it’s great jam you’re after, try this one, the brand so disgusting you can’t say it on television. Ask for it by name!

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Personal flying wing

Awesome frogfish video

This is one of the coolest, weirdest things I've seen in a while. I knew that frogfish existed and roughly what they were, but there is a big difference between seeing still photos and watching one of them walking around.

Weird but true: the more widely spread "posterior" limbs are actually the pectoral fins, and the medial "anterior" limbs are the pelvic fins. Lots of teleosts have the pelvic fins moved forward until they are even with or even anterior to the pectoral fins. Suppose this lineage came out onto land (say, after a mass extinction) and gave rise to a parallel group of tetrapods. Those animals would have forelimbs made from their ancestral hindlimbs! (Quick, to the Speculative-Zoology-Mobile!)

The latest stuff on the fish-tetrapod transition suggests that well-formed limbs first evolved in totally aquatic animals and were exapted for terrestrial locomotion later. Although they are very different in habitat and shape, these frogfish show how useful limbs might be underwater, especially for ambush predators.

If you watch the whole video, you'll see the thing walking quadrupedally on all four fins, and also bipedally on just its pectoral fins. It's a freakin' hadrosaur.

Hat tip to Mike.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Gettin' squirrelly

People come to things by circuitous routes. I have heard of more than one person who got into paleontology through art; they started out by drawing dinosaurs and graduated to studying dinosaurs (not everyone makes that transition...).

I sometimes wonder if I will eventually become a birder. This thought first came to me when I was ODing on natural history a couple years ago. I dig watching animals, pretty much without reservation. I have a big aquarium and keep fish, for most of my life I kept turtles, and every time I've bumped into an animal--okay, a vertebrate--outdoors I've observed it with great interest, regardless of exactly what kind it is. You can go fishing and you can go herping, but those require going where the fish and herps are, and even then there's no guarantee you'll see any. You can't usually just "go mammaling" because usually mammals are either absent or laying low. But you can walk out the door just about anytime and see birds. So it seems reasonable to me that someone with a broad interest in watching critters might end up as a birder because birds are there to watch.

Any committed birders out there are probably appalled at my lack of passion. In which case, hold on, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Over the holidays I blew a hundred bucks worth of Christmas money on a spotting scope. Partly because I'd always wanted one, partly because I intended to use it as a travel telescope for those dark Oklahoma skies (a successful venture, I might add). Today I was just monkeying around with it and decided to try taking some pictures of birds in the back yard. I didn't get any birds, but I did get some good pix of the neighborhood squirrel. If I do ever become a birder, it will be at least partly because I enjoy--in the immortal words of Mike Taylor--badgering around with telescopes.

UPDATE: I'm not alone! "I took my very first bird photograph through my astronomical telescope in 1998."

Taken by afocal projection using a Celestron C70 spotting scope, Orion 32mm Plossl eyepiece, and Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Craters all the way down

Believe it or not, there are a few features on the moon that are not direct products or epiphenomena of asteroid and comet impacts. There are some small, fairly obscure volcanoes, some lava-carved valleys and collapsed lava tubes, and a few scarps produced through faulting. But these are all dwarfed, physically, in number, and in importance, by craters and impact basins. To a first approximation, everything you see on the moon is a crater, part of a crater, a crater flooded with lava (the maria or lunar seas), part of the rim of a crater since buried under lava (the lone mountains from the previous post), ejecta blown out by a crater (the bright rays extending from "young" craters (i.e., those less than a billion years old), valleys gouged by impact ejecta (the valleys from two posts ago), or in some other way a consequence of an impact. This is especially obvious in the southern highlands, which were never flooded by mare lavas and are thus just piles of superimposed craters, like the oft-rebuilt Troy of Schliemann.

The biggest crater visible above is Clavius. It's 140 miles across, 2 miles deep, and about four billion years old. It is also the site of Clavius Base in 2001. Speaking of, last year was the 40th anniversary of 2001, this July will be the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, and this December will be the 37th anniversary of humans not going beyond Earth orbit anymore. The most optimistic projections for NASA and the Chinese space agency do not put people back on the moon before the 50th anniversary of the first landing, and it may be much later.

I wonder what future generations will think of our half century of going nowhere. Recall that the original point of the space station--the only reason anyone wanted one to begin with--was to be a launchpad for the moon and Mars.

Mega sigh.

Taken by afocal projection with an Orion XT6 Dobsonian telescope and Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera, through an Orion Sirius 25mm Plossl eyepiece and Orion Shorty 2x Barlow lens.

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