Archive for the ‘Cool Images’ category

Raindrops Keep Falling…

December 1, 2013

I’ve always loved this passage in the introduction to M.F.K Fisher’s  memoir-cum-essay-collection The Gastronomical Me:

People ask me:  Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and love, the way others do?

One paragraph later, she replies:

The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.  But there is more than that.  I tseems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.  So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writig about love and the hunger for it, and wormth and the love of it and the hunger for it….and then the warmth and ricghess of hunger satisfied….and it is all one. [ellipses n the original]

People don’t often ask me why I write about science, and not politics or economics or culture or war…the way others do.

But I’ve asked it of myself, and I find myself lining up with Fisher.*  Science is so utterly intertwined with how we live that to write about its history, its discoveries, its many discontents,  implications, way of thinking, is to interrogate politics, culture, conflict, philosophy and everything else…food included.

But still, writing about science is not just a sneaky way to comment on Republican anti-rationality or whatever; it’s not just a means to another end.  I’ve written a book about the science of climate change, and though that book is as much about politics — and human nature — as it is about carbon chemistry and Milankovitch cycles, I remember one encounter I had while researching it.

I was in the woods in mid-New Hampshire in October or so, a research forest, walking around with the scientist who’d spent a couple of decades at least measuring everything he could about that ecosystem.  We were talking about acid rain and the changes he’d been able to document, and all that you’d expect in such a conversation, and then he stopped in his tracks at a little jog in the trail.  “That’s an ash tree,” he said, pointing to what was clearly an old friend.  It was desert-highway straight, tall, in fine health.  “These are one of my favorites,” he said.  “They make baseball bats out of these, which is very satisfying to me.”

Which is to say that there is simple pleasure to be had in the scientist’s life, or better, for most of us who aren’t practicing researchers, in a science-infused view of life.  Sometimes, there’s just the fun of the imagination leaping from the forest to the diamond; sometimes it’s the joy of the puzzle;  or the adrenaline rush of the extraordinary (did you know a wolverine can bring down a moose?  I didn’t until I read this);or — and this is what I think first drew me into the story — it’s simply those moments when science offers up a glimpse of pure, disinterested, astonishing beauty.

Like this one:

blue morpho

This image was made with the help of a friend and sometime co-blogger of mine, Dr. James Bales, assistant director of MIT’s Edgerton Center and a master of high speed photography.  It shows a drop of water striking the wing of a a blue morpho butterfly.  It came about in the context of the work of a group of researchers at or recently of MIT who have been studying how to reduce the contact time between water and hydrophobic surfaces.  Cutting the interval during with sprays of water remain on such surfaces matters to applications like preventing icing on aircraft wings.

It turns out that engineering surfaces with tiny ridges does the trick — so far, the team has managed to reduce contact time by 40%, using surface configurations that can be achieved with readily available tools.  More details here.

That’s all well and good — in fact, better than.  As someone who flies pretty regularly out of Logan Airport, I’m all for anything that erodes the threat of icing.

But why the butterfly?

As Jim tells it, the group knew that they had, in essence, reinvented something nature’s been doing for a long time:  what you see happening on the blue morpho’s wing above is exactly what engineered ridges on aluminum can accomplish.  And the researchers wanted to express that realization in a way that acknowledges the elegance thus implied.  Their own images were more useful than grand, and that’s where Jim came in, with the results you see above…**

…which are to me, before anything else, simply beautiful.

From time to time I do ask myself why write about science.  An answer, not the only one, nor the whole of it, can be seen above.***

*People also rarely — never — juxtapose me with Fisher, but that’s another kettle of fish.  I read her; I get to quote her.

**For those of you who like to think about such things, Jim says that “The tricky bit is getting the lighting just right (involved finding the right angles between strobe, wing, and lens, along with a mirror on the far side of the wing from the strobe to get a good fill light) and getting the timing right.”  (That, by the way, is what good photographers say.  The tricky bits are you know, everything.)

For the ubergearheads among us, Jim reports that the image was made with a Nikon D700, mounting a 70-180mm lens (presumably Nikon’s old macro unit), with a 1.4 teleconverter, a StopShot trigger unit (from Cognysis, in the US) and an Ultra Micro Flash from LaserScribe (an outfit in the UK) which has a flash duration of approximately 10 microseconds.

***Two more images for your delectation can be found below.

All images: credit A. T. Paxson, K. Hounsell, J. W. Bales, J. C. Bird & K. Varanas, used by permission.

blue morpho 2

blue morpho 3

A Bit of Multi-Spectral Awesomeness For Your Delectation

July 9, 2013

This image has been around for a bit, but I just stumbled on it — so here you go:

719590main_Grid-Sun-orig_full

Per the NASA write up, this is a collage of images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, mostly showing measurements of light at particular wavelenths, w. a bit of other information as well.

I want my own quilt  made to that design.

As the linked material says, the point isn’t just pretty pictures.  It’s that the characteristics of the light (electromagnetic radiation) detected up and down the spectrum reveal very specific details of the processes the produced each particular emission.  See, e.g., the wonderful story of the element that was, then wasn’t, coronium.

One more thing:  this image, or rather the investment required to make all the images that go into this collage, is an example of the kind of nice thing it will be harder and harder to get the longer our current Republican party remains in existence.  Just sayin…

We Are Stardust

May 29, 2013

Via Phil Plait (aka the Bad Astronomer), this gorgeous view:

CentaurusA_LRGB_120hours_3215x2406-X3

This picture of the active galaxy Centaurus A was made by Rolf Olsen, an amateur astronomer in New Zealand.  I can’t do better than Plait does in explaining why this sight is not simply beautiful, but astonishing:

The detail is amazing, and you really seriously want to embiggen it; I had to shrink it a lot to fit it on the blog. Going over the details at Olsen’s site just amazed me more and more.

First and foremost: He took these images with a 25 cm (10”) telescope that he made himself. That’s incredible. A ‘scope that small is not one you’d think you could get this kind of image with, but persistence pays off. It took a total of 43 nights across February to May of 2013 to pull this picture off.

Centaurus A is  a very interesting object — the product of galaxies in collision, it has a massive black hole gobbling up stuff in its center.  As Plait notes (with awe!), Olsen with his very modest-sized home-made telescope was able to resolve the tell tale jets that the black hole produces (see Plait’s piece for the close – ups).  I’ve done a little bit of star gazing, and I worked with Tim Ferris on the development of his Seeing in the Dark film — a kind of love note to the amateur astronomer community, so I have some sense of the skill and sheer stamina of those folks who spend night after night staring up.  And even with that as context, I can say that what Olsen does here is truly impressive.

So enjoy. Stare at that image (do hit the link for the big version — and check out Olsen’s gallery).  Note that in the shock of collision you likely get ramped-up star formation.  In star formation, you get planets.  With enough heavy elements (i.e., enough generations of stars aborning and flaming out), you get the basic chemistry of life.  Not saying there’s anyone looking back…but (allowing for the time lag)  you never know.

Consider this a cosmic open thread.

Image: Rolf Olsen, 2013, used by permission.

Just Because I Can

January 2, 2013

I’m doing what I shouldn’t here:  troll baiting.  In the version of this post up on Balloon Juice, a relentless troll whinged about the use of false color in rendering astronomical images both interpretable and beautiful.  What follows is (a) stuff I wanted to get off my chest and (b) an excuse to post some cool astronomical images.  Enjoy:

I love astronomy.  I’ve made a couple of films about telescopes, observatories, and the exploration of deep space made possible by the extraordinary instrumentation created over the last couple of decades.  Observational astronomy has undergone a true revolution in my lifetime, and we know more about our universe by direct examination now than we did before, say 1950 by an almost incomprehensibly wide margin because of the two great changes rung in by that revolution.

One of those is astronomy’s gain from the tide that lifts all boats — the incredible rise in precision engineering and the science behind it that underpins  so much of modern life, from the digitization of experience to the transformation of medical diagnostics to the tying up of the globe into an unprecedentedly swift, safe and reliable transportation network and so on.

The other truly transformative move in 20th century astronomy was (at least largely) specific to the domain of sensing, remote and direct alike:  the realization that it is possible — and important — to look up with detectors that can capture signals from anywhere on the electromagnetic spectrum from gamma rays to radio waves — and not just in the realm of the visible that has defined astronomy from Og the caveman to Hubble (and a little beyond).

Nothing new in any of this potted history, but there’s a bit of method to my madness.  The exploration of wavelengths longer than what humans can see (infrared-radio) and shorter (ultraviolet-gamma) has led to utterly new views of the universe, and insight into a whole range of physical phenomena that observations within the range of human sight could never yield.  For a quick gestalt on that point, take a look at this:

mwmw_8x10

I’m not sure how easy it is to pick up the identifiers to the left of each image — but the image shows us what our galaxy looks like when examined at different points along the electromagnetic spectrum.  When we go out on a clear night (preferably at altitude, away from a city), we see something that looks like the third strip from the bottom.  Looking at that, we have essentially no idea of what’s going in the sky — all the signal to be seen everywhere else up and down the picture.

Crucially, there’s a ton of science in (or enabled by) these various views.  Emissions of light from some object are signals of some physical process happening to produce that electromagnetic emission.  If a star or a galactic center or whatever is pumping out a ton of gamma-rays, that tells us a lot about what’s happening to produce so much light at such high energies — and the same applies up and down the spectrum.

But there’s a problem, or rather a feature of the observations that lead us to the insights available only when we have a multi-spectral grasp of our surroundings.  We don’t see X-rays.  Nor radio waves, nor any light that doesn’t fall within what’s called, for obvious reasons, the optical or visual band of spectrum.  To render those images interpretable, to make them available for communication to each other, we need to perform an act of translation.  That’s what’s going on above, when you see images labelled “gamma ray” or “radio continuum” with your own eyes, dressed up in lively shades of red and yellow, purple and blue.

To some (and now I’m getting to it) such coloring is a lie, propaganda with which NASA and space scientists in general trick us into paying for the observatories in space and on earth that generate the data behind the fibs.  To sane people, it’s what you do to help you think about and understand what it is you’re looking at/for.  And if as a field there is a value placed on aesthetically rich translations of the invisible into the seen?  Well, it might be because so many astronomers were first moved to make the night sky their home by images like this:

saturn-voyager

Which is what Saturn looks like in the optical range, as observed by the Voyager II spacecraft.  (Personal note: I was hooked on stuff in the night sky from the time I saw Saturn through a large telescope at Oakland, California’s Chabot Observatory.  I was about 10.  The sight of the rings swinging into view as I sat at the eyepiece has never left me.  Public cultural goods are good.)  There’s not much science in that picture, except for the deep pleasure it offers, sufficient to move many more than one into a life’s work.

All of which is prelude to one last image.  A commenter troll in this thread spent inordinate amounts of time and blather complaining about the terrible trickery and deceit involved in Hubble Space Telescope imagery, because, after all, the only thing that comes back off that instrument are strings of 1s and 0s that reflect measurements in various bits of the optical and near infrared chunks of the spectra.  The colors are “false” — which is to say not what a naked eye would see, if it had the light gathering capacity of a 2.4 meter-mirror and the ability to stare, unblinking for the requisite amounts of time.  The naive American public must, it seems, be protected from twin illusions of knowledge and beauty, lest it thus be gulled into funding more such instruments.  Or something.

To which, at long last, I say simply, get a life.  Or perhaps more in keeping with the tone of this establishment: copulate yourself with vigor — and an oxidized agricultural implement.

To put that into visual terms, let me offer up for your viewing pleasure an utterly falsely rendered picture that is both sublime and filled with the raw material of insight:

A star between 100 and 150 more massive than the Sun, about 7,500 light years from Earth.

This is a picture of the giant star Eta Carinae, and it’s a photoshop:  the blue image is from the Hubble Space Telescope, and shows the relatively cool remnants of an eruption in 1840 that blew off about 10 solar masses, leaving between 100 and 150 times the mass of our sun behind.  The orange imagery is a false coloration (a lie!) of x-ray data gathered by another NASA orbiting observatory, the Chandra X-Ray telecsope.  That shows what happens when fast gouts of material from the explosion smash into surrounding gas and dust, collisions that heat that shroud to upwards of a million degrees, which is what produces the energetic x-ray emissions.  The shape of those observations marks the limit of the region in which this desperately unstable star is interacting with its environment.

Eta Carinae attracts a lot of attention because it is a prime candidate to go supernova — and if/when it does, we’ll have almost scarily front row seats for the show.  The composite image above isn’t “necessary” for the investigations of its properties.  But it does provide a synoptic view of what’s going on right now, and it sure is pretty.

Which is what we know on earth, and, if not all we need to know, than at least a fine goad to get after the rest.

Your Tax Dollars At Work

January 1, 2013

NASA’s Picture of the Day for January 1, 2013:

716720main_hubble_new_year_full_full

Here’s the image caption:

The Hubble Space Telescope captured a spectacular image of the bright star-forming ring that surrounds the heart of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1097. In this image, the larger-scale structure of the galaxy is barely visible: its comparatively dim spiral arms, which surround its heart in a loose embrace, reach out beyond the edges of this frame.

This face-on galaxy, lying 45 million light-years away from Earth in the southern constellation of Fornax (The Furnace), is particularly attractive for astronomers. NGC 1097 is a Seyfert galaxy. Lurking at the very center of the galaxy, a supermassive black hole 100 million times the mass of our sun is gradually sucking in the matter around it. The area immediately around the black hole shines powerfully with radiation coming from the material falling in.

The distinctive ring around the black hole is bursting with new star formation due to an inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy. These star-forming regions are glowing brightly thanks to emission from clouds of ionized hydrogen. The ring is around 5000 light-years across, although the spiral arms of the galaxy extend tens of thousands of light-years beyond it.

Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

Just think:  if the Teahadists have their way, none of the engineering or aspiration that made the Hubble possible would see the light of day (or night) in the future.  Just sayin’.

Luck Favors The Prepared Mind

April 14, 2012

I grew up in Berkeley, California.  I’ve watched the Golden Gate Bay Bridge* in every season, in every weather.  I have never seen anything like this. (Copyrighted photo at the link.  Well worth a click, even if, horribile dictu,**it leads to the Daily Mail.)

Perhaps an open thread might gratify?

*I actually do know the difference.  I could see the Bay Bridge, but not the Golden Gate, from the house in which I grew up in Claremont Canyon.  But +3 (bourbon *2 plus Cotes du Rhone), one’s fingers can do the talking with no help from the brain. Apologies all….

**Absolve me, Magistra Small.  The sins I’ve committed through crap Latiny are none of your doing, oh greatest of my high school teachers.)

Bonus pic:

Image: Yoshitsuya Ichieisai, The Lightning Bolt, c. 1865.

A Little Post-Lunch Star P*r*o*n (Entirely SFW)

June 8, 2011

Have a look at this latest bit of cosmic eye candy to cross my desk:

What with all the wretchedness that comes from too deep an immersion in the craptastic nature of our politics these days, it is sometimes necessary (for me) just to stop, look up, and enjoy the view.

This is an image of the star-forming region Messier 17, alias the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula.  It is the first released pic from data taken by the European Southern Observatory’s new survey telescope, the VST.  It’s not large, as modern telescopes go — 2.6 meters in diameter, or roughly half the diameter of the venerable Palomar 200 inch Hale Telescope.  But it’s been designed as an instrument to make surveys of significant portions of the sky with very high resolution and optical/image quality.  The ‘scope boasts active optics, and delivers its photons to what sounds like the coolest instamatic ever made…with initial results as you see above.

Prom Night In The Cosmos/My High School Wasn’t Like This

March 31, 2011

A bit of (not quite) random beauty — and a lovely story parsecs from politics — for your morning pleasure:

(Link to a big  tiff here.)

The story:  This image is the winner in the second annual contest the Gemini Observatory runs for Australian high school students, in which teams identify objects in the night sky that could yield images of both scientific interest and sheer gorgeousness.  The students have to submit an essay defending their choice of object, and this year’s winners, five young women from the Sydney Girls High School, proposed taking a picture of a system of colliding galaxies* with the following scientific rationale:

“If enough colour data is obtained in the image it may reveal easily accessible information about the different populations of stars, star formation, relative rate of star formation due to the interaction, and the extent of dust and gas present in these galaxies.”

As the Gemini press release went on to report, the team also argued for, in essence, the transformative value of art  in the form of the artistry inherent in great works of science:

When viewers consider this image “in contrast to their daily life,” the team explained, “there is a significant possibility of a new awareness or perception of the age and scale of the universe, and their part in it.”

The data for this image were gathered by the Gemini South telescope — an eight meter monolithic mirror telescope of exceptional optical quality — using one of its primary instruments, a multi-object spectrograph in its imaging mode, serving as a camera.

As for the analysis of what we are actually seeing above, the Gemini press office writes:

The primary galaxy in the image (NGC 6872) exemplifies what happens when galaxies interact and their original structure and form is distorted. When galaxies like these grapple with each other, gravity tugs at their structures, catapulting spiral arms out to enormous distances. In NGC 6872, the arms have been stretched out to span hundreds of thousands of light-years—many times further than the spiral arms of our own Milky Way galaxy. Over hundreds of millions of years, NGC 6872’s arms will fall back toward the central part of the galaxy, and the companion galaxy (IC 4970) will eventually be merged into NGC 6872. The coalescence of galaxies often leads to a burst of new star formation. Already, the blue light of recently created star clusters dot the outer reaches of NGC 6872’s elongated arms. Dark fingers of dust and gas along the arms soak up the visible light. That dust and gas is the raw material out of which future generations of stars could be born.

So, who cares if our current politics is a social-engineering test-to-destruction experiment?  In galaxies far, far, away, they’re getting ready to restart the tape and try again.

You may consider this a cosmic open thread.

*For more images of colliding galaxies — surely some of the coolest objects in the sky — check out this collection of Hubble images.

I Haz One Happy. I Haz One Sad.

January 5, 2011

Two links I’ve been saving for everyone’s delectation.

The happy?

This extraordinary video mashup of something like 270 films released in 2010, coming in at six minutes running time.

__

Just great stuff.

And the sad?

This collection of genuinely beautiful photographs of the ruin that was Detroit.  The artfulness of these images is just marvelous.

The subject…it breaks my heart.

Image.  J. W. M. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838

(The link between image and post is a little allusive, I’ll admit, but it’s there (in my own mind, if nowhere else), and I do truly love this painting.  I’ve made pilgrimages to see it.)

Because You Can Never Know Enough About Your Turkey’s Genome

November 24, 2010

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

For your pre-Thanksgiving edification, I give you this delightful photo-feature on the genetics of tomorrow’s feast.

I’ll add just one note of unmerited self-satisfaction.  Emily Anthes, the writer of this piece, is an alumna of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — which I have the honor of directing.  She’s been doing great work since she left us (and before)  and it is part of my Thanksgiving Day treat to take pleasure in such outcomes.

__

So as not to be unseemly in this public space, I’ll just stop with the advice that you would be wise to keep an eye on Emily.

Image:  Pieter Claesz.“Still Life With Turkey Pie,” 1627


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