A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Showing posts with label Diane. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Diane. Show all posts

Baby Pictures

Last night, for the second time this decade, I got to have dinner and give a talk on the floor of the dome of the famous 200-inch Hale telescope at Palomar Observatory. It’s rare for anyone to give a talk on the floor of the 200-inch telescope, because Palomar, like every other large telescope around the planet, is used night after night after night looking at everything from the nearest asteroids to the edge of the universe. Few or no pauses are allowed for frivolities such as dinners and talks (in this case we got in, had dinner, gave a talk, and vacated the floor just as the sun was setting). So it was a treat when I got invited to speak to an intimate gathering of supporters of Palomar and Caltech – the university where I work and the one which, not incidentally, owns and operates Palomar – on the floor of the dome. It was even more of a treat because I had been the speaker at the last one of these dinner 8 ½ years ago, and it was particularly interesting to reminisce about what had happened in the almost-decade since then.
When I gave that first talk, in September of 2000, I was a young assistant professor at Caltech who had embarked on what I think it is fair to say was an audacious project: I was going to go find the 10th planet. I had spent the previous two years systematically scanning a wide swath of sky using the seemingly ancient technology of manually slapping giant glass photographic plates to the back of a wide-field telescope, exposing the photographic plates to the sky for half an hour at a time, developing the photographic plates in the darkroom downstairs, and then looking at repeat exposures of the same patch of the sky to see if – perhaps! – I could find something that had moved. It was exactly what Clyde Tombaugh had done 70 years earlier that had led to the discovery of Pluto, but, no, I had the advantage of a much larger telescope and the use of computers to help analyze the final photographic plates.
At the time of the talk 8 ½ years ago I was in the third year of the project, where I was going back with a larger telescope to try to confirm anything that I thought I had detected during the first two years with the photographic survey. I told my audience sitting under the 200-inch telescope about what I was doing and about what I hoped to find. I told them about photographic technology versus the new digital cameras now widely in use. I told them about why I thought that after this third year I was going to have made that discovery I was hoping for and the 10th planet would be in our grasp. It was, I daresay, a talk full of exciting promise.
It’s a good thing I wasn’t asked to give a follow up talk right away.
By the following year it was clear that my three year survey had found a grand total of absolutely nothing.
I told that story last night at the 200-inch telescope and everyone chuckled. They chuckled, of course, only because they knew what came in the years that followed. What came next? We scraped the photographic plates, installed experimental digital cameras, roboticized the telescope, and kept scanning and scanning and scanning. With the benefit of the faster and more sensitive digital cameras we slowly surveyed the whole northern sky and blew the outer solar system open.
Last night I showed my baby pictures from the past decade. I showed Quaoar, the first large Kuiper belt object that we found, the one named for the creation force of the local Tongva Native American tribe, the harbinger of larger objects to come. I showed Orcus with its newly named moon Vanth, and talked about its odd mirror-image orbit to Pluto. I showed Sedna, far beyond the Kuiper belt, in an orbit that takes 12,000 years to go around the sun, named for the frigid Inuit goddess of the sea, a beacon pulling us even further in the distant solar system. I showed Haumea, with her two moons Hi’iiaka and Namaka, spinning her was across the sky, I showed lonely Makemake, bird god of the Rapa Nui, the runt of the litter that produced the Big Three of Makemake, Pluto, and Eris. And then, of course, I showed Eris her, in all of her discord and strife, with her tiny moon Dysnomia circling her.
I really do feel like each one of these is like a child to me. And, like children, whenever the rest of them are not in the room, I will secretly tell you that this one is my favorite. They’re all my favorites. I can tell you stories about their little quirks, their odd habits, and a funny thing that this one did the other day when it thought no one was watching (did you know that the night before Namaka went right behind Haumea playing a little hide-and-seek with us? Silly little moon.).
Something else was particularly interesting to me about my talk 8 ½ years ago at Palomar. Something happened that day that I am certain I will never forget. I was inside the telescope waiting for the group of Caltech supporters to arrive, and finally hearing the knock on the outside door, I opened the door, and, as my eyes adjusted to the blinding outside light, I was greeted by the director of the group of Caltech supporters. She had worked on the Caltech campus for years, but somehow our paths had never crossed. I had certainly never seen her before. How do I know for sure -- you might ask. Trust me -- is my answer. I would have remembered. She walked in the door, and I fumbled my words introducing myself. Her name was Diane Binney.

Diane Binney doesn’t work at Caltech anymore, but she came on the trip to Palomar last night anyway. It was her first time back to the mountain since that time 8 ½ years ago when I gave a talk up there. She came to see old friends and revisit old places. And, since she hadn’t seen many of the people in a long time, she brought baby pictures of her own. She has a 3 ½ year old daughter named Lilah. Lilah has Diane’s last name as a middle name, but she gets the last name from her father. Me. Lilah Binney Brown.

Look up!

My wife noticed, many years ago, that every time I walk outside at night, the first thing I do is to look up. For a while she assumed that it was because I had a telescope operating somewhere and I wanted to see the condition of the sky, the locations of the clouds. Then she realized that I would even do it when she knew that I wasn’t using any telescope anywhere. It’s just what I always did: walked outside, looked up. Finally, she asked me about it. My first reaction was: I do? But then, after awhile, I realized: I do. I am always curious about clouds and about clarity, but mostly I just want to make sure that everything is right with the universe, that all of the stars are in place, that the moon has moved to whichever new spot in the sky it should be that night, that any of the planets that might be up are where they are supposed to be.
Sometimes I get a bit of a jolt, even though I know it is coming. When I fly to Hawaii and go use the telescopes out there I look up at night and see, oddly, that Orion is almost straight overhead, instead of low in the south like it is supposed to be. At that point my eye always travels north to try to find Polaris, now dangerously close to the horizon. Then I take a glance as far to the southern horizon as possible and I see something unsettling: stars I don’t know. I might as well be in another universe.
For all of my traveling the globe to go to telescopes, I’ve only been south of the equator once, for my honeymoon. When I went outside and looked up there, it was an odd combination of familiar and bizarre. In the north, Orion was flying overhead, but upside down. The bright red Betelgeuse, which translates as armpit of the giant, should really be called kneecap of the giant from there. The moon was also much further north than I was prepared for and it, too, was upside down. It really did give me that feeling that I was standing on the opposite side of the world, that my head really was pointing in a different direction than when I was at home.
One of the reasons that I was surprised when my wife mentioned to me that I always look up is because I was a little surprised that everyone else doesn’t do the same thing. The grand vista of the stars and the planets is above us night after night, and all you have to do is to look up. Most people are shocked when you explain to them, for example, that you can look at Betelgeuse and you can look at Sirius, and you can see that they are different colors. They’re amazed to know that that bright light in the twilight sky is not an airplane but is indeed the planet Venus. They are truly floored when you suggest to them that they get out a pair of binoculars and look at Saturn – high over head in the sky these days and you can see the rings. Or the moons of Jupiter. All of the stuff is out there for the taking.
I was in New York City this past week to give a lecture at Sarah Lawrence College. To get to Sarah Lawrence I walked my way down to Grand Central Station in the late afternoon, stared at the board of departures trying to figure out which was the right train to take, bought my ticket at an automated dispenser, and then had a few extra minutes to kill before the train left, so I stepped back against a wall to watch the people go by. Everyone was in a hurry across the floor, trying to catch a train or make their way home. But somebody on the other side of the concourse was doing something that no one else was doing, so it caught my eye. She was looking up. Curious what might be attracting her attention, I did the same, and there, inside of the building, a hundred feet up on a huge dome ceiling, was the sky.
Not just any sky, a spectacular painted sky with stars in place but also the constellations drawn and the ecliptic and celestial equator drawn through! Orion (with a gleaming Betelgeuse in his armpit) battles Taurus the Bull in the heart of the flowing Milky Way while winged Pegasus watched high above. Castor and Pollux look, to me, like they are plotting mischief to the side.
And, with thousands of people streaming through the concourse, there was one – now two – people actually looking up to notice. It reminded me of, well, of Los Angeles at night, where no one bothers to look up.
Because the constellations were painted along with the stars, I concentrated on the constellations. They were what was new to me. When I look at the real sky, I look at the stars, and don’t think much of the constellations, since no one has taken the time to paint them in the sky. But here they were beautifully drawn with sparkling stars as highlights.
Something was a little funny, though. At first, since I was concentrating on those new drawings, instead of on the real stars, I didn’t quite get it. But then it hit me: Taurus is on the wrong side of Orion. Castor and Pollux are switched. And what is Pegasus doing high to the left instead of to the right? It was like the real sky, only backwards.
Backwards is not the same as upside down. Backwards is like a mirror. Backwards it like you never ever really see it anywhere on earth, or, really, anywhere else in the Universe.
My scientific, educational self was offended. What? They spend all of this effort to put the sky on the ceiling and they get it wrong?
The ceiling, though, was copied from artwork that was supposed to be illustrating what the sky looks like from outside the Celestial Sphere. Except for one thing: there is no such thing as a Celestial Sphere. The Celestial Sphere is what you would think was out there if you considered the whole night sky to be a planetarium with little points of light a small distance away. Imagine now that you can sit outside the planetarium and see the stars. This is what the ceiling at Grand Central looks like.
And then I went from slightly offended by the inaccuracy, to thoroughly charmed by the historical accuracy. Yeah, I thought. People really used to think that you could step outside and look in and this is what they would see. This ceiling is fantastic.
It is the International Year of Astronomy.
A few weeks ago I participated in a panel discussion with 4 other astronomers as part of the celebration of the Internation Year. The event was sponsored by, among others, Discover Magazine. In this month’s issue they have a [heavily edited] transcript of the discussion amongst the five of us from the event. I am proud to say that, in the [heavily edited] transcript, I got the last word from the night, based on a question from the audience. Discover Magazine gets the last word:
Audience: What are your hopes for this year’s International Year of Astronomy
Brown: If there is anything I can convince people to do, I want people to not just sit here and listen to astronomers and think about astronomy but to look at the sky. So what I want everyone to do where you walk out tonight is to look up. You’ll see Orion, you’ll see Sirius. Just look up at the sky for a minute and think about what’s out there. That’s what I want.

We'll always have Regulus

I find Paris disorienting.
First, I missed an entire nighttime. When my wife and I arrived at the airport to embark on our vacation it was a southern California late afternoon. When we landed – first in Zurich – it was a Swiss early afternoon. Somehow I had missed an entire fast-forward cycle of the sun setting, the stars rising, and the sun rising again, all in the space of about 4 hours. When I first closed my window shade and then closed my eyes on the airplane – somewhere over Salt Lake City, I think – I made a mental note to be sure to try to open up and see the sunrise – over Greenland, I guessed. But even for the fitful sleep of a bumpy airline seat the sunrise came too quickly. When the thought to open my eyes and look out the window finally solidified sufficiently inside my head we were already over Ireland. I slid the window shade open a tiny crack to take a peak and the entire darkened airplane cabin was blasted with late morning glare. My wife, still attempting to sleep in the seat next to me, added her own glare to that of the sun and I quickly closed the shade. By the time we landed in Zurich and then finally continued on to Paris the sun was already on its way down again, but, still, I feel like a lost nighttime in there somewhere. Nights are precious things, and one should not lose them lightly.
If losing a nighttime were not disorienting enough, I believe that the streets of Paris are uniquely designed to make me lose my sense of direction. I pride myself, most of the time, with having a finely tuned sense of direction. I tend to be able to get from point A to point B by dead reckoning, no matter how many twists and turns and detours are along the way. So on the streets of Paris my general navigational strategy is to take a look at a map to see where we are and where we would like to be, and then I head off in what seems to be the correct general direction knowing that I will get to where I’m going. But the streets of Paris are tough. It’s not just that they aren’t oriented along a north/south axis. It’s not even that they aren’t oriented along any single axis. And it is not even that the streets sometimes curve. It’s that all three of these occur in small quantities. A street that I am on starts out general north-northwest, which, in my head, I probably think of as “northish” and then the street slowly, imperceptible turns west or even perhaps a little south. I then take a left turn onto a street which I think of as going westish when, in fact, it is more like the north-northwest direction I was originally headed. Do that a few times and there is no telling which way you are really going.
The first night we arrived, jetlagged and awake at midnight, I thought it would be fun to walk down to the Seine to see Notre Dame lit up at night. Point A: our hotel. Point B: Isle de la Cite. Direction: north-nothwest. After about 45 minutes of walking in the bitter bitter cold (ok, I live in southern California, so the fact that it was only a few degrees above freezing qualifies as freezing for me) we stumbled out of some small twisty city streets directly into the Pantheon, which was indeed spectacular all lit up after midnight. I’d never been to the Pantheon before and didn’t quite know where we were. I finally got out the map. We were a block from our hotel. Point A to Point A in just 45 near-freezing minutes. My wife gave me a similar glare to the one from earlier that morning.
Paris is a city to which my wife and I have both been a few times, but which we do not know well. We’re staying in a part of town which I have never visited. Our college French is rusty. An after flying for 12 hours and missing a full sunset and sunrise and finding myself unable to make it to one of the most obvious landmarks in town and struggling to remember the French phrase for, say, “Excuse me, madame, but do you know why I seem to keep walking in circles?” I feel very very far away from home in Pasadena. Looking at the globe you can see just how far it is, as I kept explaining to Lilah, our 3 ½ year old, who wanted to understand exactly where we were going to be (a place she calls “Parisfrance”) while she stayed home with her grandparents. “Parisfrance is really really far away Daddy. If I were on the airplane I would have to fall asleep.” A wise girl, I think.
But then, still trying to straighten out my post-midnight rambling route, we hit a slight opening to the sky and the clouds clear a bit and there, a bit low in the sky in about the direction we’re heading is a bright star and a little backwards question mark of fainter stars. The constellation is unmistakably Leo. The star is Regulus.
“Let’s turn around” I say to my wife. “We’ll be going in exactly the right direction.”
It’s the same sky. Pasadenacalifornia or Parisfrance look out into the same night and lie underneath the same stars. Fly 12 hours, miss a sunset and sunrise, forget the language if you want, but Regulus will still be there. I used Regulus once to get myself unlost while driving in New Jersey trying to figure out the direction of the shore (my friend in the car with me couldn’t figure out why I pulled off the road, stuck my head out the door, and looked up, before making a U-turn, but that was the best you could do pre-GPS navigation) and used it to find Notre Dame.
I’ll show it to Lilah when I get home. “Hey Lilah, that star is called Reguls and I could see it from Parisfrance” and she might find it wonderful and mysterious and amazing that you can see the same thing from such different places. Or she might ignore me and say “Daddy Daddy I’m going to draw a picture of a ghost for you” or who knows what else. But I will remember that it is wonderful mysterious and amazing that that’s the same star that showed me which direction to turn on a tiny street after midnight in a big city halfway across the world.

[next week: a name for Orcus's moon. I haven't had a chance to read any of the suggestions yet (being on vacation in Paris), but I see that there will be many many to chose from. Stay tuned.]

Moon Shadows, Interruped

I had intended today to talk more about moon shadows and telescope strategies, but I'm distracted by Google Earth, satellite weather images, and LA Times updates.

Yesterday as I stepped out of the gym on the Caltech campus in the middle of the afternoon (Lilah's nap time is a good time to play squash), I looked up at the sweeping view of the mountains that greets you in many places in Pasadena. This time, though, the first thing I noticed was a plume of smoke coming out of a canyon to the northeast. Which canyon? I quickly zoomed in on some of the familiar ridges and valleys of the San Gabriels to figure out exactly how far away the fire was. How far the fire was from my house where Diane was home, Lilah was asleep. As far as I could tell, it was about 5 miles to the east of our house. Five miles is a long distance for fire on a day when the wind is essentially still. But still. I dropped my gym bag, fished through it to find the phone, and dialed home. Diane answered.

"Where's the fire?" I breathlessly asked.

"Um, what fire?"

This answer was probably the best she could have given. I now more calmly explained to her what I was seeing.

I got in the car and drove back to home. On the freeway you had a nice view, now, of a burning ridge. This fire was definitely not a little spot fire that was going to quickly get put out, but from there I could tell it was pretty far from our house. When I got home I pulled up Google Earth and tried to reproduce the exact view I had had from the freeway. I showed Diane. There. That ridge. Pretty far away.

Last night we had friends over for dinner and, as they got close enough to our neighborhood to see flames a few miles away, they called to say "Hey, isn't that fire kinda close to your house? Maybe we should have dinner at our house instead."

It was OK. Nothing was really close. I surreptitiously went inside now and then to check on the news web pages to see if anything was going on. Not really. Some hikers had to be evacuated. Some boy scouts had been temporarily trapped. The fire would be contained soon. I checked the satellite weather image, on which you could see the plume of smoke heading out to sea. It looked undiminished.

This morning we awoke to something now familiar. As night falls and air cools, the ash that has been lofted into the air all day long falls to earth. The ground was covered in gray flecks and bits. The smell of smoke had invaded the house through the windows we had kept open all night. The sun, rising to the east, on the other side of the fire, made a hazy red glow on the wall of the canyon we could see from our bedroom window.

The helicopters started early. We hadn't seen too many yesterday, but now there numbers were definitely increased. Fire trucks went screaming down the road below us.

Curious to see how far the fire had spread, I took Lilah -- still in pajamas -- and drove down the hill in the direction of the smoke. Whereas yesterday the fire was easily spotted and sharply defined, it was now tough to see anything through all of the smoke. I couldn't tell where it was, but I could tell it had grown overnight.

Sunday plans must go on. Diane had a work event and left. Lilah and I went swimming under the hazy sun. We ate grilled cheese sandwiches, played with finger puppets of the three little pigs, did a little roving hide and seek throughout the house, and finally Lilah went to sleep for her nap. Curious about the fire, I looked to see if I could find any news.

I guess there was a reason for all of the helicopters and firetrucks that seemed so close by. Houses were being evacuated. The fire was still out of control. I got out Google Earth once again to try to interpret what I read. The evacuations are all in the upper part of the city of Sierra Madre, the city immediately to our east. When I finally found the evaculation map I realized that houses 1 1/2 miles from ours were already evacuated.

It's not really that close. But still.

This time it was Diane's turn to call: "I just heard Sierra Madre's been evacuated; should I come home?"

"No. We're fine."

And we are. Really.

We live in a fire zone. Our house overlooks a wild canyon that is right now gloriously flowered, but come the hot winds of the summer and fall will be dead brown fuel. We do what we can. Our roof is fire resistant composite. We thin vegetation. Our swimming pool is connected to a fire hydrant on the street so that a fire truck could easily use the water to douse our lower neighbor's house (but not ours; it's only gravity fed, so it could only help the people below us; sadly, the house above us has no pool that would help us out similarly).

We have evacuation plans with multiple contingencies. Distant fire with plenty of time to plan? Pack both cars and take this this and this. Fire in the canyon right below our house? Take Lilah first, cats if there is time, and run like hell. What if the only road down the hill already has been overtaken? There is a trail behind our neighbor's yard that quickly goes down to a safe spot. Fire on all sides? Jump in the pool and breath through wet clothes.

We won't need any of these plans for this fire. They'll have it out tomorrow or the next day and, more likely than not, nothing significant will have been lost. It's the springtime. It's early. The plants still have some moisture left in them. The winds are not blowing. The real fire season has not yet begun.

These sorts of fires happen all the time in southern California. It will likely not rate more than a 4th page of the local news blip in the LA Times tomorrow morning.

But still. Right now Lilah remains soundly napping. Diane is at work wondering what is going on, and all I can do is sit and check the news sites, watch the helicopters to see how close they drop their loads of water, and stare at Google Earth and speculate on the interaction of slope direction, wind speed, and fire vectors.

Someday, presumably, it will be more. Plans will be put into action. We'll sit below with binoculars staring up at the hillside trying to figure out how close the flames have gotten. We'll call our home telephone to see if the answering machine picks up. For now, though, we do what we can, hope for the best, and always breath a little easier when the winds don't blow.

Tomorrow normal life will continue. Which, for me, means dealing with the technical aspects of our upcoming observations of the Hubble Space Telescope. Our proposal to search for moon shadows on Santa was accepted on Thursday, and observations will start in 2 weeks. That's what meant to write about today, before being interrupted by smoke and helicopters and fire.

Five good years

Five years is a long time.

Five years ago this month there was a major scientific conference in Chile on the Kuiper belt. Astronomers from all over the world converged on a small coastal town to discuss what was know and what might be learned in the future. We knew a lot about the Kuiper belt then. Or at least we felt we did. But what a difference five years have made.

Five years ago Quaoar was the largest known Kuiper belt object, and we counted Pluto as a planet. Today Quaoar is not even in the top five, and Pluto is not a planet, but just the second largest Kuiper belt object.

Five years ago the most distant object that had ever been seen was an otherwise obscure Kuiper belt object with the name 1999DG8. It is 61 times further from the sun than the earth is, in what seemed like the outer fringe of the solar system at the time. Today we know that Eris is much further away (90 times further than the earth), though it is soon going to work its way in close. But we also know about Sedna, which we would have never predicted. Sedna is currently just a little closer to the sun than is Eris, but, soon, it will be on its way out. At its most distant, Sedna is about 1000 times the distance from the earth to the sun. Sedna takes about 12,000 years to go around the sun; the last time it was this close to the sun the earth was working its way out of the most recent of the ice ages. I often wonder what will be happening on the earth the next time Sedna comes around, in the year 14,000 AD.

Five years ago, no one sitting at the conference in Chile would have ever guessed that we would eventually find an object like 2003 EL61 -- aka Santa -- the fast spinning elongated Kuiper belt object that we now know to be the product of massive collision in the outer solar system perhaps 4.5 billion years ago. And people would never have believed that we would even be able to find many of the shards from the impact and start to be able to reconstruct the original humpty dumpty.

One thing that would not surprise anyone from five years ago is that we finally found something bigger than Pluto. Most people studying the Kuiper belt assumed it would eventually happen, and I think many were finally relieved when it happened. No one could have known, of course, just how crazy the year-long debate about planets would be, but I think most of the people at the conference five years ago were pretty convinced that eventually we would fix the classification of objects in the outer solar system by placing Pluto in its rightful place with the rest of the Kuiper belt.

It was a fascinating conference five years ago, I am told. But I didn't have the chance to go. I was, by chance, also in Chile during the conference itself, but I was not sitting in an auditorium in the north of the country with my fellow astronomers, I was hiking in the southern Patagonia regions with my wife. My then-brand new wife. We were on our honeymoon. We got married on March 1st, 2003. Five years ago today. Five good years.

[disclaimer: it is still significantly proposal season, so this column only counts as procrastination when I should be working on a proposal instead.]