Solar Eclipse May 20, 2012

Although the most spectacular part of this eclipse wasn’t going to be visible in the Kansas City area (where I live), I made a last-minute decision to go ahead and try to get some photos of the partial phase. Since I didn’t plan ahead, I didn’t have a telescope at home with me. All I had was a pair of Binomite solar binoculars, a Canon 50D and a cheap Canon 75mm-300mm telephoto lens.

I included not only a couple of photos of the eclipse, but also a photo of what I did with the telephoto lens to allow me to take them. I went to Price Chopper and got an non-inflated Mylar balloon, cut the edges off so that I had a couple of round sheets of Mylar. Then I used my wife’s fingernail polish remover (acetone) and wiped off the paint off its outer surface. I covered the front of the lens and used a rubber band to secure it. I then trimmed off the excess Mylar. It was a total MacGyver job!

Posted in Astronomy, Astronomy 1002

Farewell Brevard Community College

The close of this semester marks the end of my 3-year employment at Brevard Community College. I will miss students, faculty and staff at BCC. Students have been engaging and eager to learn about astronomy. Faculty and staff have always been very friendly and helpful.

The reason I, and others, won’t be back has to do with technical issues with Payroll. Issues with taxes and payroll have made to too difficult for out-of-state instructors to be employed at BCC. As a result, BCC has implemented a policy of hiring only in-state instructors. There is plenty of talent in Florida, so I am sure good instructors will be hired as replacements. I will hold out hope that this policy may change sometime in the future.

Posted in General | Tagged ,

Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus

We had a nice conjunction of Jupiter and Venus last night. Conjunctions are fun, but of no scientific value. Conjunctions occur when two planets line up so that they appear next to one another in the night sky. In reality, Jupiter and Venus are quite far apart in space.

I shot this photo of the two while they were about 40-degrees altitude in the western sky.

Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus

Posted in General

Russian Drilling in Antarctica a Preview of Europa Exploration?

It was announced in the Washington Post this week that Russian scientists had drilled over 2 miles through the Antarctic ice to an ancient lake (Lake Vostok), buried under the ice for over 30-million years.

“Russian scientists briefly pierced the two-mile-thick veil over a freshwater lake hidden beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet for millions of years, polar researchers announced Wednesday.

Scientists hope samples of Lake Vostok, a body the size of Lake Ontario, will yield signs of previously undiscovered life and new clues about the history of the planet. The lake is believed to have been covered by ice for up to 30 million years.”

They go on to add later,

“There also could be living microorganism living off of previously stored energy from sediments,”

Story: Russians drill into Lake Vostok, begin search for life under Antartica’s surface

One of Jupiter's moons, EuropaEuropa, one of the Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter, is completely covered by ice. There is mounting evidence for an ocean underneath the ice. Plans are underway to send a probe that can make a hole in the ice and look for life in Europa’s ocean. The Russian project, and whether or not life is found under over 2 miles of ice, may be something of a warm-up to, and possibly motivation for, a future Europa mission. If life is found under the antarctic ice, it would really spark the imagination regarding possible life on Europa.

Story: NASA Probe Data Show Evidence of Liquid Water on Icy Europa

Posted in Astronomy | Tagged

MIT builds camera that can capture at the speed of light

A team from the MIT media lab has created a camera with a “shutter speed” of one trillion exposures per second — enabling it to record light itself traveling from one point to another. Using a heavily modified Streak Tube (which is normally used to intensify photons into electron streams), the team could snap a single image of a laser as it passed through a soda bottle. In order to create the slow-motion film in the video we’ve got after the break, the team had to replicate the experiment hundreds of times. The stop-motion footage shows how light bounces through the bottle, collecting inside the opaque cap before dispersing. The revolutionary snapper may have a fast shutter but the long time it takes to process the images have earned it the nickname of the “the world’s slowest fastest camera.”

Read more.

Posted in Physics

A New Interpretation of the Quantum Mechanical Wave Function

An interesting and ongoing major issue in physics is how to interpret the mathematics of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is a mathematical theory that describes the workings of molecules and atoms, the properties of materials, and basically everything else that happens at these small size scales. Deciding on an interpretation means to decide how nature operates at the most-fundamental level. A recent paper by Matthew F. Pusey, Jonathan Barrett, Terry Rudolph offer a mathematical proof that may partially solve this long-standing riddle at the cost of a mind-boggling interpretation of reality.

Shown above are the wave functions describing an oscillator (like a mass on a spring)

Solutions to the equations of quantum mechanics involve waves, but waves of what? One interpretations has been that these waves represent probabilities for different outcomes of an experimental measurement. The act of measuring collapses this wave function to a definite value for the measurement. What value that measurement yields was completely open to chance, with certain probability for one outcome or another, described by that wave function. According to the authors, the wave function is not simply a statistical tool that reflects our ignorance of the particles being measured, but is physically real. Below is the abstract to the paper.

Quantum states are the key mathematical objects in quantum theory. It is therefore surprising that physicists have been unable to agree on what a quantum state represents. There are at least two opposing schools of thought, each almost as old as quantum theory itself. One is that a pure state is a physical property of system, much like position and momentum in classical mechanics. Another is that even a pure state has only a statistical significance, akin to a probability distribution in statistical mechanics. Here we show that, given only very mild assumptions, the statistical interpretation of the quantum state is inconsistent with the predictions of quantum theory. This result holds even in the presence of small amounts of experimental noise, and is therefore amenable to experimental test using present or near-future technology. If the predictions of quantum theory are confirmed, such a test would show that distinct quantum states must correspond to physically distinct states of reality.


Posted in General

2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

It was announced today that the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics is being awarded to three astronomers for their work on the nature of the expansion of the universe.  The following is an excerpt from

“The Nobel Prize in Physics 2011 was awarded “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae” with one half to Saul Perlmutter and the other half jointly to Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess.”

I have been teaching my students about this discovery for years and I have been following the work and results for sometime.  It was a stunning and very surprising discovery that countered everything we expected about the expansion of the universe.

They measured distances to galaxies using the measured brightnesses of type 1a supernovae (exploding white dwarfs) and measured the redshift of these galaxies.   Using the apparent peak brightnesses of these supernovae, they could calculate the distances to the galaxies where these supernovae occurred.  The redshift is used in the Hubble Law to calculate the speed at which galaxies are moving away from us.  The finding wasn’t that the expansion of the universe was slowing down in its expansion, as one would expect, but is in fact speeding up!

There is little dispute about the correctness of the measurements.  However, the finding all hinges on the idea that all type 1a supernovae explode with identical brightnesses and that nothing like the rotation rate of the white dwarf causes variations in these supernovae.

Posted in Astronomy, Physics

Particles Faster that Light?

A meeting at CERN, the world’s largest physics lab, has addressed results that suggest subatomic particles have gone faster than the speed of light.

This could be big! News from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research have created what seem to be neutrinos traveling faster than light. Its too early to get too excited, but if it turns out to be right, it will shake up one of the pillars of modern physics, Einstein’s relativity! It is likely to be some kind of unaccounted for process or systematic error in the experiment, but it may not be.  A good scientist will remain skeptical until all other possible explanations are ruled out.

If these measurements turn out to be right and if it turns out that some physics has to be rebuilt from the foundation, it will be an exciting time for young physicists.  Any time there has to be a reconstruction at the foundations of physics is a fun time to be working physicist.  Sting Theory has consumed many theoretical physics careers in the last couple decades, but this would give new minds something of major importance to work on…and likely win some Nobel Prizes in the effort. Who wants to be the next Einstein, Bohr or Heisenberg? Any takers? Go out and earn those PhD.s in physics and go get it!

Posted in General

Scales of the Cosmos

My astronomy students study objects and concepts at all these size scales. The clip below is from the IMAX movie Cosmic Voyage.  It takes you through over 40 powers-of 10 in size!

A very cool interactive look at these scales can be found here.

Posted in Astronomy, Physics | Leave a comment

Do You Want to Help With Astronomy Research?

Today, there are astronomy projects out there that are designed to get the general public involved to assist in real research. Two such projects are Galaxy Zoo, and Galaxy Zoo Supernovae.

At Galaxy Zoo, hundreds of thousands galaxies in Hubble Space Telescope images need classifying. Astronomers need these classifications to help solve the puzzle of how galaxies form and evolve. People wanting to participate are run through a simple tutorial. After completing the tutorial they are given new images of galaxies to classify.

The Galaxy Zoo Supernovae project involves looking at images of galaxies where bright spots have recent appeared. Supernovae are exploding stars and there are different types of supernovae. Participants then compare the bright spots with older reference images to see if these spots are indeed supernovae. Like Galaxy Zoo, a simple and brief tutorial is completed before they are set loose on new images.

If you love astronomy or just want to be a part of professional astronomy research, check these sites out.

Posted in Astronomy