Portfolio 6 – Transformation

28 09 2013

As I wondered around Lunenburg on a beautiful calm Sunday morning, my attention was primarily on reflections on the calm waters.   However, the soft light also cast interesting shadows and enhanced colours on the buildings around me.  Even industrial components and weather-battered surfaces had a lovely glow due to the sunlight and refractions softening the shadows.  The photograph here is of three electric transformers and their floating shadows along an old red shed.  Strong vertical lines created by the supporting pole, its shadow and the two white lines on the shed balance the image. Horizontal electric wires and their shadows connect all the shapes.  The squat trio of transformers and their shadows keep the image centred among all the criss-crossing lines.



Portfolio 3 – leaving Moncton on a bright day

19 02 2013

After spending the weekend in Moncton (and having fun exploring infrared possibilities in “surreal” approaches to street photography), it was time for us to return to Halifax.  The route between Moncton and Halifax goes through the Tantramar Marshes of the Isthmus of Chignecto connecting Nova Scotia to the rest of Canada. It is a flat windy place surrounded by beautiful wetlands and historical sites, not to mention the famous CBC Radio Canada International short-wave radio towers and of course, the wind farm with its 15 turbines.  It’s an amazing place, but unfortunately, we had to race through the Tantramar Marshes to get home.

The wind turbines were on my side of the car (rest easy, Cosmoboy was driving while I was taking this image), so I was admiring how they stood out against the sky.  The large advertising billboard appeared very small beside the turbines on the vast landscape. I quickly opened the window and timed the camera in an effort to capture the scale of the billboard and the turbines. The propellers on the cluster of turbines and the advertising poster on the billboard face opposite directions, providing a sense of detachment to the image taken at over 100 km per hour.  Furthermore, the reflective blue of the advertising billboard poster has come through in infrared, providing an unexpected splash of colour in a monochromatic image. This also provides a counter-balance to the starting image in this portfolio, also taken at high speeds from a car.  The difference is that the sun is so high that there are no observable shadows — the entire landscape is full of light.


Light & Shadow Road Trip.

Tree shadows and windows.

Icy shadows & reflections.

Dancing sprites.

Half in, Half out.

Goodbye Sir Patrick Moore

9 12 2012

Patrick MooreSadly, the internet is fairly abuzz with the news of Sir Patrick’s passing at 89. Many people in N. America will likely be unaware of his fame in the UK, where for generations he was and arguably still is, even in his passing, the face of astronomy. He presented “The Sky at Night” show for over 50 years, making it the longest running show with a single presenter on television.

moon-mapGrowing up in the UK, I can’t honestly remember the very first time I heard of him he was just there… a UK institution if you like. My earliest recollection of knowing about him is just after the moon landings and he seemed to be on TV all the time then. Many people are unaware that he was extensively involved in the mapping of the Moon prior to the Apollo landings, so it’s probably no surprise that he greatly enjoyed those missions and the resulting exposure they got on television.

caroline-herschel-1There’s no doubt Moore inspired generations to be interested in the sky above them, but his fame was not without controversy. I will not go into great detail, but in later years many know that he said some frankly inappropriate things about women and voiced strongly right-wing political views that engendered criticism. Yet individual anecdotes about him encouraging young women to enter astronomy can be found around the web, he also authored a book on the unappreciated Caroline Herschel. So I hope he is remembered for the good he did rather than things said in somewhat angry old age.

storyastroAt a personal level I actually got far more from his books than I ever got from his TV show. Ironic as it may be, I found the TV show quite slow and well frankly over my head as a young kid. I ended up being far more engrossed by Sagan’s beautifully produced “Cosmos” series. But Moore wrote a truly prolific number of books over his lifetime and his “The Story of Astronomy” was the first ever book I remember  being completely engrossed by. At 9 years of age I think I read that book cover-to-cover and sections of it repeatedly.  The story of George Hale and his efforts to build ever larger telescopes at Mount Wilson and Palomar totally captivated me. I must have read those chapters dozens of times.

Sir Patrick or really just Patrick, as he liked to be known, leaves a truly remarkable legacy of achievement in education and television. It’s hard to even think of anyone ever breaking his record of presenting a show for so long.

So long, and thanks for all the photons!

Why Curiosity is a big deal

7 08 2012

With all the great press coverage of Curiosity, Cosmoboy’s family asked one unexpected question: “Why is there so much fuss about Curiosity when there have been a bunch of other Mars rovers?”

Although the “Countdown to Curiosity” articles detailed all of Curiosity’s amazing scientific apparatus, the articles didn’t really put into perspective how much better Curiosity is than the other Mars rovers (Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity). So let’s right that wrong!

Sojourner landed way back in December 1996! I was actually studying for my PhD at the time, but there was a lot of great press coverage. It was perhaps the first space mission to really use the internet effectively. But for all the communication successes, Sojourner didn’t really have a great suite of scientific instruments. Given it’s small size, just a little over 10 kg and only 60 cm long, there wasn’t all that much space for scientific payloads. The key scientific instrument (other than cameras) was an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer for determining the elements in rocks (Curiosity has a much more advanced one). But what many people remember about Sojourner was how slow it moved: it had a top speed of a little over 0.5 cm a second! But there again, this mission was put together on one tenth the budget of Curiosity.

The twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers came next, landing in January 2004. Like Sojourner, they both carried an APXS, but this time they came with more sophisticated spectrometers to make even better assessments of the precise elemental components of the Martian rocks and minerals. Much larger in size, at 185 kg and around 1.6 metres long, they were much more capable of carrying a heavy payload. They also had the advantage of a robotic arm so they could get in close and even abraid the surface of rocks to see what was lying underneath (the RAT tool!) But perhaps what everyone remembers about Spirit and Opportunity was their “Energizer Bunny” impressions – they just kept going and going! With it’s solar cells still operational, Opportunity is still working today after having covered almost 22 miles! Spirit got stuck in a dusty soil area in 2009 and unfortunately sent its last communication on 2010.

Fast forward to today’s super-rover: Curiosity! Now we’re talking about a 900 kg vehicle roaming about, which is capable of carrying half the total mass of Spirit in scientific experiments alone! NASA likes to use the analogy that Curiosity is about the same size as a Mini-Cooper. In terms of the scientific experiments, the list is pretty amazing (Curiosity is the first rover with a laser): ChemCam (remote sensing, including the laser, for chemistry) APXS, ChemMin (for mineraology and chemistry), SAM (detailed sample analysis), RAD (radiation assessment),  DAN (for detecting ice near the surface), REMS (for monitoring Martian weather) and not to mention a whole bunch of cameras! All in all, Curiosity is leaps ahead of went before it! It should truly help us understand the Martian geology and mineralogy in unprecedented detail.

Hopefully, that makes it clear why Curiosity is so important for studying Mars. It’s scientific designation, “Mars Science Laboratory” puts into perspective what this mission represents – a true suite of lab experiments on the surface of Mars!

And one last image to leave you with – a shot of all three rovers compared (but not on Mars!)

Countdown to Curiosity: Landed!

6 08 2012

Congratulations to the Curiosity team! I’ve put a capture of the very first image downloaded from the surface to the left. Hard to believe after the months of flying through interplanetary space that Curiosity is on Mars!

The NASA website has already gone down with everybody trying to download the initial images, but keep trying! News coming in by the second – they’ve just managed to get things going again.

A press conference is schedule for 11:15 Pacific, but just to keep the info flowing, here’s what we said about the landing in the blog:


Imagine hurtling toward a planet at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour. Your millions of miles away from the Earth and there’s no human pilot to plot a course once you’re inside the atmosphere to avoid any unexpected events. Sounds pretty risky, yeah? And it is… Beagle 2 was the last surface mission to fail (and we think we found the wreckage), but just four years earlier two missions, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, both failed as well. If you want statistics, NASA has landed on Mars successfully five (yes only five) times! And when it comes to Curiosity, the landing procedure that’s been chosen is more complex than any other mission before it…

While the Apollo missions entered into orbit around the Moon, Curiosity is going to slow down from interplanetary speeds without this step. In this sense its landing will be somewhat similar to the Apollo “splashdowns” on Earth. Thus Curiosity is going to hit the Martian atmosphere travelling at over 20,000 km per hour, and again, just like the Apollo missions, the spacecraft carrying Curiosity has a heat shield underneath to protect the rover from the extreme heat (a peak of 2100 C) produced in re-entry. All the steps that follow are given on this great graphic provided by NASA:

Once into the atmosphere Curiosity will begin a series of maneuvers at several times the speed of sound, before deploying its parachute while still at supersonic speeds. This part of the descent is anticipated to go pretty well. Supersonic breaking parachutes have been used since the Mercury missions in late 1950s early 1960s so the technology is nothing new.

But once Curiosity has descended to about 1.8 km above the surface, and is travelling at aroud 400 km per hour, it will separate from the parachute and begin a powered descent. In about 40 seconds it will be down to just 20m above the Mars surface, and then perhaps the most risky part of the whole mission begins: lowering to the surface on the end of a “sky crane”. Curiosity can’t just be “dropped” – it’s too heavy at almost 1 ton in mass. Once the sky crane is fully deployed the spacecraft will slowly descend down at about 0.75m per second. Once it detects that Curiosity is on the ground it will cut the lines on the crane and fly away at least 150 m away from the rover.


Update: 10:45 am (ADT) still waiting for those images from MARDI showing the descent! 🙂

higgs, Higgs, HIGGS!

3 07 2012

Update: Both the ATLAS and CMS experiments confirm combined signals from different channels at “5 sigma”!! That means there is about a 1 in 2,000,000 probability this is just a random event (although this kind of analysis can’t rule out what are called “systematic” errors). Nobody is sticking their head out to say “This IS the Higgs” but it really looks like it is. Pinning down the details will likely take a while, but they’ve got every right to open the champagne! As Peter Higgs said “I’m glad it happened in my lifetime!”

The internet is rife with chatter about tomorrow’s announcement at CERN: confirmation of strong statistical evidence of a particle with Higgs boson-like properties exists. OK, that sounds like an incredibly wordy let down. Why can’t we just say “Higgs discovered!”? And, for that matter, why is there so much fuss about the Higgs boson?

I guess it doesn’t hurt to call something a “God Particle” – which is damn silly if ask you me. The journalists might like it but the religious people won’t, and for that matter atheists probably won’t either. Hmm, sounds everyone would be upset by that name!

But, back on track. Simply put, the Higgs boson is what gives the subatomic particles like electrons and quarks (which make up the neutrons and protons in the nuclei of atoms) their mass. And that is a really big deal! Mass is one of the single most important properties of matter. Without it, we’d all zip around at the speed of light. So hunting down the Higgs has been a big deal for a long time.

Particles acquire mass through their interaction with the Higgs bosons. The Higgs field (which the Higgs particles tell the other particles about) permates all space. As a particle moves through it you can think of it as being slowed down by the field as Higgs bosons cluster around it – some people like to give the analogy of clumpy molasses. Different subatomic particles are affected in different ways by the field, so some particles appear more massive than others.

So that tells us what it does, but why is finding the Higgs boson so difficult? Why can’t we just say it’s been found? Simply because we can’t actually detect the Higgs boson directly. They’re far to elusive for us to do that. Think of them as the lesser-spotted-black-backed-southern-migrating-hoji-mawatsit bird of the particle physics world. Yeah, you don’t get to see too many of them.

But what you do see is the things they turn into. And that’s the key. One the best ways of finding the Higgs is that it can decay into two photons (photons are the particles than transmit light). But there are plenty of other possibilities, all of which are mimicked by many other interactions in the subatomic world. So finding the Higgs boson is a needle in a haystack operation. You have to look through hundreds of trillions of events in the hopes of finding what you want.

To put this in perspective, how big is a trillion? Well it would take you 50 years to count to a billion, and trillion is a thousand times larger. So it’s likely no surprise to anyone that analyzing all this data has been as much a triumph of computing power as it has been an engineering marvel to build the LHC itself.

What can we expect tomorrow? At the present time, the physicists have a signal that their confident in, and I suspect that is how the announcement tomorrow will be framed. But it’s far too early to exactly specify the type of particle it corresponds to – there is still a lot more work to be done on that. But the mass of the particle (around 130 times the mass of a single proton) is about what is expected for the Higgs boson.

From a personal perspective, it’s great to see the Higgs finally being uncovered. During grad school, which is over 15 years ago for me now, I had good friends that were working on the ATLAS project at the LHC. It’s amazing to think about how much planning it has taken to get to this stage. The LHC has taken billions of dollars and thousands of the brightest people on the planet over a decade to put together. It is a marvel of technological and intellectual achievement!

Just stop and think about things – isn’t it incredible that as a species we have been able to probe the very nature of the Universe to this degree? We’ve almost uncovered the mechanism through which the reality that we live in gets one of its most fundamental properties – mass! It really is almost unbelievable.

OK, feet back on the ground: Where does particle physics go from here? There’s a lot of important work on pinning down details of the Higgs, but beyond that? Is there the political will to build anything bigger than the LHC? I think not. At 10 billion dollars it’s likely the most expensive ground-based civilian scientific experiment ever (although the Hubble Space Telescope cost more over its mission lifetime because of the high cost of spaceflight). Since the LHC is largely a world-wide collaboration, it’s interesting to look at how much a billion dollars a year (i.e. 10 billion dollars over 10 years) is as fraction of the world economy. In short, 1/70,000th. That puts things in perspective.

But particle physicists are all to well aware of this. There is, fortunately, some hope for the future of accelerator design that could bring down the cost of accelerators. Laser wakefield acceleration, where particles are accelerated by “surfing” on an electric field, hold great promise for the future. In theory, the acceleration produced by the 27km long LHC could be achieved in a few hundred meters using laser technology. But this technology is probably decades away from being realized.

There are still many great questions to be answered in particle physics. What about the beautiful idea of supersymmetry? Where is the elusive dark matter particle that we believe makes 5/6 of the mass in the Universe? Both of these questions are probably as important as finding the Higgs itself.

So I think of tomorrow’s announcement as the beginning of something and not the end. It’s an incredible achievement for us to have got this far (hey, and we all paid for it with tax dollars too!) but there is still so much more to learn!

Solar burps

7 03 2012

So sorry for not posting more – life has been utterly hectic over the past few months.

Is the solar storm headed our way something to worry about? Should we hunker down inside and disconnect our TVs, toasters and breadmakers? Or is this just hype about a non-event?

The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. Solar storms can cause very real problems for electrical equipment. Residents of Quebec still remember the power outage in March 1989, that left many regions in the province without power for 9 hours. Five years later two of the Anik communication satellites were taken out of commission, one for hours, another for months, due to a solar storms.

But why exactly does electrical equipment take such a bashing in these storms while we seem just fine? And for that matter, what are these storms actually anyway???

Let’s deal with the second question first. Despite the Sun’s warm glow looking constant from day to day, in fact its surface is highly active. The truly incredible amount of power released every second in the Sun, roughly 25 trillion (i.e. 25,000,000,000,000!) times that required by the inhabitants of the Earth, makes its surface bubble like a cauldron. We can see structure on scales from thousands of kilometers down to just a few (see this incredible image for an example) and probably smaller.

Sun spots are just a very visible part of all this activity. They’re caused by regions of intense magnetic field activity and have enormous amounts of stored energy within them. All this energy can produce huge flares/eruptions which send billions of tons of hot plasma into space travelling at two million kilometers per hour.

And the Earth is often right in the firing line.

But it isn’t as bad as it sounds. While billions of tons travelling at high speed sounds like it would wipe out everything in its path, by the time it reaches the Earth it’s spread out over a vast area. The density is so low by the time it reaches us that if you could imagine standing up in the “wind” of particle travelling at millions of kilometers an hour, you wouldn’t feel a thing. But your body’s cells would. Constant bombardment of DNA with these high energy particles leads to cancer. That’s one of the reasons why sending astronauts to Mars is so tough. How do we protect them?

But the good news is while we’re on the surface of the Earth, our magnetic field protects us from the worst of these high energy particles, diverting them away and concentrating them around the poles – that’s what produces the aurora. But this safety net comes with a price. Under this flood of electrically charged particles our magnetic field changes and distorts, some times incredibly rapidly.

Why is that a problem?

Well, over 180 years ago Michael Faraday showed that if you change the magnetic field over a wire, it will produce an electric current. It’s a really simple idea that has incredibly profound consequences. Electric motors run on this principle.

But now take the magnetic field around the Earth and change it. Where are the wires? All around us! The power grid is the biggest example. When magnetic fields change on scales tens and hundreds of kilometers across, then you can really start getting some serious electrical currents induced. In 1989, it was enough to shut down the Quebec power grid.

These are all serious events. Lost satellites can cost billions of dollars. Losing a power grid can be equally costly, not to mention public safety issues. So it should come as no surprise that predicting these events, and building in safety measures for both satellites and power distribution systems is taken very, very seriously. Early warning systems are well in place now – we get anywhere between two and five days notice.

But the truth is we haven’t really seen a truly huge solar storm in over 100 years. Neither of these two events in 1989 & 1994 compares to the great solar storm of 1859. That flare produced currents so large that telegraph equipment produced huge sparks within offices and aurora were seen almost all around the globe. Compared to the so called “Carrington event” of 1859, what we’re seeing now are small solar “burps”.  Yet even the 1859 event is dwarfed by what we see on other stars. One distant event seen with an X-ray telescope corresponded to a flare so powerful (100,000x a typical solar flare) it would have caused mass extinction on the Earth if it came from the Sun. But don’t worry, the Sun isn’t about to do anything quite that bad.

It makes you think. The Sun may give us life, but one extra big belch from it could produce some real problems.