Carpe Diem

Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff may have missed out on the Stanford University Class of 1974’s 40th reunion this past weekend because of meeting conflicts, but he still got the chance to revisit his undergraduate past.

Nick arrived on the last day, showing up just in time to walk over with Redwood High School and Stanford classmate Mike Kast to see the student observatory the two built together in the early 1970s. Not unlike the Texas A&M Bonfires of old, the structure was equal parts commandeered and sheer will — no doubt part of the reason Nick makes such a good Aggie nowadays!

As usual, Nick tells it best in both photographs and captions, so I’ll let him take it from here!

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Mike Kast and I built this observatory at Stanford back when we were undergrads. Amazingly, it is still there and has not burned down, considering I did much of the wiring. The telescope and dome have been replaced, and it has been spiffed up a lot (like the rest of Stanford), but it is still there and still being used for a popular astronomy lab class. Sally Ride helped and was a student in the first lab class we had! The real catalyst was Dr. Walter Meyerhof, who was the Chairman of the Physics Department back then and had confidence that a bunch of green undergrads could do such a project. We took the pier from aeronautical engineering (sort of without exactly asking), the 100-year-old Leuschner Observatory dome from UC Berkeley, a B/C mount from a Southern California aerospace firm that had previously used it to track downrange missile tests, and furniture from somewhere we can’t remember now. Mike figured out how to replicate the key to the electronic lock at the gate to the road up the hill so we could get in and out without anyone at Behavioral Sciences noticing. I was told the observatory hill became a place where undergrads often go on first dates.

Epilogue

OK, if you are fortunate enough to know Nick Suntzeff or have read any of this blog’s previous entries involving him, you know that there’s more to the story and that it’s worth telling/reading. More from Nick on his and Mike’s friendship and their Stanford adventures:

It was nostalgic going back and seeing it. They actually have done some remodeling of the building, and it looks a lot better. It is weird what one remembers. Mike and I told each other stuff that we remembered, and basically, we remembered completely different events. It is not that he would remember some event, and I remembered it differently — rather that I generally had NO memory of what he remembered. So it was fun piecing together the story again.

Just a short prologue. Mike’s mother is Russian, and their family knew my family. His father was a vice president for Bechtel Corporation and, thus, a really important engineer. But his father was also really interested in astronomy. So Mike grew up around telescopes. He and I were best friends in high school, and my interest in astronomy grew, albeit slowly, because of Mike and his father.

We started Stanford together. My advisor was Dr. Meyerhof, the chairman of the physics department — a rather scary, serious German fellow, or so he at first seemed. He would come over to my dorm once a week to eat with his three advisees. Mike would come over, too, so there would be four of us with Dr. Meyerhof. The other two students sort of drifted away, and the dinners were just usually Mike, me and Dr. Meyerhof. At one dinner (and this both of us remember), Mike and I were talking about the fact that Stanford had no observational astronomy and no “real observatory.” And then, Dr. Meyerhof looked at us, and said, “Why don’t we build one?” That floored us. I was 17 and Mike 18, and this famous professor at Stanford is telling us we can build an observatory? How would we start? Where would we get funds? Geez, we were zit-faced freshmen.

But Meyerhof was serious. He had always wanted to have a traditional astronomy program (like what we are doing at Texas A&M) at Stanford, and he could not get a lot of interest with the administration and even with the physics faculty, who tended to look down on astronomy as “postage-stamp collecting” — the ultimate insult of a physicist to astronomy, geology, biology, chemistry, etc. So he told us not to worry about funding, but to put together a plan. So we did. And he found money. And we started to generate interest among undergrads and graduate students in the project.

Three years later, it was done. The building was designed by an undergrad in architecture. Mike acted as the general contractor, and a SeaBee grad student in engineering did the major construction. We got volunteers to help build and outfit the building. We got companies to donate money and parts of the telescope. I was kind of the spokesperson and organizer, finding people and convincing them to help us. By the end of the 1972-73 academic year (that summer), we finished. Mike lived in the building for a year as he worked on it. In the first class taught (by me), Sally Ride was one of my students, and I had to give her a grade. (She got an A. Sally always got an A in everything she did.) The next semester, she was a teaching assistant at the observatory.

Meyerhof did not get the university to start an astronomy program, but he opened the floodgates to teaching astronomy, and new astronomy classes appeared after we left. Sally Ride’s thesis advisor, A.B.C Walker Jr., took the observatory under his wing and got significant further funding for it. There’s even a history page.

Looking back, it is amazing we got the thing done and still graduated. I graduated with the absolute minimum number of credits in four years and could not start taking grad classes as a senior like the other students in senior physics. But building the observatory was way more cool. Mike in his fourth and fifth year also built a solar observatory for Stanford, which is still working. That was a more serious professional observatory, near our student observatory, and is still used by the solar physicists at Stanford.

cheers, nick

Daydream Believer

“Daydreaming is a short-term detachment from one’s immediate surroundings, during which a person’s contact with reality is blurred and partially substituted by a visionary fantasy, especially one of happy, pleasant thoughts, hopes or ambitions, imagined as coming to pass, and experienced while awake…”

No better day than Sunday to share this visionary fantasy — an absolutely spectacular time lapse called “The Mountain,” shot in 2011 at Spain’s El Teide, the country’s highest point and home to Teide Observatory.

Happy detaching!

Words of Non-Wisdom

Some days, I don’t have the words.

Other days, appearances can be deceiving. I have the illusion of words (as in, they exist on the page/screen), but upon initial re-read, I realize they aren’t worth the paper/screen they’re not printed on. Heck, this could be one of those days!

Death and taxes aside, it’s the great equalizer that happens to everyone foolhardy enough to make a career out of writing. You know, one of those things anybody can do, particularly in this empowering age of new/social media. I mean, when it comes to content, it’s anybody’s white space to fill in a society sorely lacking in critical thinking skills where, for so many, one source is as good as any other. After all, I read it on the Internet, so it must be true, right?

Yet, even science says writing is beneficial and worthwhile. Me, I’d put it right up there with alcohol and religion as one of those “all things in moderation” cases. But that’s because I know from decades of personal experience that, for all its catharsis, it’s a struggle that’s real if not always transferable.

It’s a given that few people beyond other writers truly can appreciate what goes into good writing — a highly elusive and even more subjective term on the best of days. It’s an at-times exhausting process, having to constantly be creative-on-demand on top of inventive, resourceful, investigative, upbeat and interested/interesting, knowing that the ultimate reward is having to gear up to do it all over again the moment the effort at hand is deemed worthy and complete. A double-shot of Dorothy Parker (props to the dedicated writer who manages her public figure Facebook page, Ellen Meister) readily leaps to mind for good reason:

DorothyParker_TypewriterDorothyParker_WriterEncouragement

Science writing is a whole new world, one in which your challenge long before facing that inevitable blank page with its mockingly blinking cursor is to become an overnight expert on any number of topics your sources have devoted their entire careers to studying — a daunting, somewhat egotistical, yet professionally necessary and proper task for someone who, let’s face it, didn’t exactly excel in these subjects in college. Fortunately, the majority of sources I’ve encountered are true educators willing to overlook and compensate for my shortcomings, but still, there’s definitely a certain degree of pressure, self-induced or otherwise. Some days, I get it and it shows; other days, well, it shows then, too. But there’s one positive side effect (note to my kids): I can research with the best of them.

Oh, and did I mention that for me, perfectionism and procrastination go hand in hand? Apparently, I have that in common with lots of others. That old best-quality-is-often-your-worst-quality concept. Same song, different verse, but at least that one wasn’t my assignment.

Some days, I long for a return to the times of Gutenberg. Funny thing is, it’s often words that snap me out it, from a catchy headline or teaser copy to emails from friends and faculty like Nick Suntzeff — missives that I wouldn’t be so fortunate to receive in such pre-Renaissance days. These harbingers of hope help me see I am not alone and that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously sometimes in my efforts, particularly when they involve mischaracterizing or overhyping science (Nick’s own motivation for writing that day – ha!)

Incidentally, if I can point to an example in my portfolio for each category listed — or better yet work all 14 into a single piece, and I think this one comes close — does that mean I’ve officially arrived as a science writer?

In a word, writing is a psychosis — a self-prescribed mixture of pleasure and pain. As writers, we’re constantly playing a part, investing in others’ dreams, adventures and back stories, sometimes at the expense of our own. It’s no surprise in ways that the profession (not unlike that of actors, entertainers, musicians and comedians — vocations that all tie back to writing) is littered with antisocial, depressed and/or suicidal drunks. But hey, I suppose that’s channeling Hemingway.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming . . . .

HemingwayQuote_Writing

Somewhere Over, er, Around the Rainbow

Rainbows — who doesn’t love them? Everyone — no matter what age, no matter how bad their day is going — will stop and admire, even if only for a second or two, those beautiful arches of color whenever they happen to appear.

image

Our infatuation with them goes back thousands of years. In many religions, they are viewed as a sign or message “from above.” In many cultures, they are a symbol of peace and hope. In this day and age, however, rainbows make fantastic social media fodder, and if there’s been a good rain, it’s almost certain that you’ll find at least one picture of Mr. Roy G. Biv.

So last week after a wet several days, Shana and I took to our Facebook machines to skim the obligatory rainbow pics posted by our friends, and we noticed something rather interesting — several shots of unusually flat, double-rainbows.

Rainbow

Being the curious science enthusiasts that we are, we wanted a logical explanation for these oddities. Shana decided to consult our go-to guy for any inquiry involving the sky — Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, University Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy.

We learned that rainbows are naturally 360 degrees, and half of it lies below the horizon where there is no moisture. As for why our rainbows in question had less arch than normal, Dr. Suntzeff explained:

“It is flat because the photo was taken during the middle of the day. The rainbow is circular around the anti-solar point. Here, the anti-sun must be way below the horizon.”

He also passed along this link that offers a very detailed explanation:
http://www.atoptics.co.uk/fz795.htm.

There you have it — rainbows are naturally circular, thus eliminating any hope for ever finding that pot of gold at the end of one.

At least they’re still pretty to look at.

(Incidentally, for those who might want to try that water-hose experiment to see the full 360-degree effect in action, I’d recommend leaving your dog, if not your adorable toddler, inside. Curious? Click here.)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Anything look familiar, from photo to explanation, in this September 30 Astronomy Picture of the Day? Just goes to show this is phenomenal double stuff the world over!

Seasonal Natures

Reports earlier this week of the first snowfall in parts of Colorado came bundled for me with a somewhat jolting reminder of something I have thus far left undone. (Yep, I can almost hear my mother, if not my co-workers, laughing.) Funny how Mother Nature has a pesky way of doing that to all mammals, hibernating and otherwise.

In tribute to summer’s last gasp and stockpiling memories to last you all winter, I come bearing humble gifts — additional photographs from Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education research scientist Dr. Carolyn Schroeder and the 2014 edition of G-Camp, an outreach program for teachers offered through the Department of Geology and Geophysics in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. Because Carolyn truly outdid herself in the way of great photos, I had decided back in July to reserve all floral-related ones for a special album I would post at a later date in order to showcase the more geoscience-specific ones in the previous blog entry. Seems like I blinked and it became September, but hopefully, the better late than never adage applies.

As Carolyn says, the mountain wildflowers (in this case, seen in places ranging from Silver and Yankee Boy Basins near Ouray to the ghost town of Animas Forks northeast of Silverton) were nothing short of stupendous — “everything from mountain bluebells and columbines to different colors of paintbrush, violets, delphiniums, stonecrop, pink elephants and etc. They painted the landscape in broad swaths of color. It is amazing that such loveliness can spring from such a hostile environment, even from just rubble.”

For those who might not want take a tourist’s (albeit a scientist’s) word for it, resident Colorado author Kathy Lynn Harris confirms Carolyn’s scientific analysis in a recent blog entry of her own. To borrow from Kathy’s fantastically picturesque words, “It’s been an especially good wildflower season. Even as September approaches, there are still carpets of white, yellow and lavender mountain daises and large swaths of bright purple fireweed. The sweet scent of pink and violet clover fills the air on our walks.”

I can almost smell the heaven! But enough of my procrastinating — go enjoy your own vicarious walk already, courtesy of another successful collaboration between Mother Nature and science.

Angel in Flight

Meet Aggieland’s “Angel,” the rare white hummingbird whose story was chronicled earlier this week, as captured by Waco photographer Dr. Spencer Moore this week at the Country Star Bed and Breakfast. Dr. Moore is one of several Brazos Valley area photographers who have visited the Country Star this week for the opportunity to see this marvelous wonder of nature who has appeared each day since Saturday, August 16. See more photos of Angel and other subjects documented by Dr. Moore at his website, Dr. Spencer Moore Photography.

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

The Beauty of Rare Creatures and Social Networking

Science truly is all around us. The secret lies in being a Noticer — a term I’ve referenced before in this blog. And it’s collaborative by nature, too. (By the way, there’s an intended pun there. Read on to see. Oops, I did it again — ha!)

OK, enough with the cheesy humor and on with the real story. This past Saturday, Country Star Bed and Breakfast owners Cher and Doug McHan were shocked by an amazing sight at one of their property’s bird feeders — a white hummingbird. Albinism, a genetic condition that results in a lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair, scales or feathers of an animal, has been documented in many different species throughout the animal kingdom. When it comes to hummingbirds, most people have seen the more common jeweled-green and ruby-throated varieties, but this guy (or gal) — who’s more specifically a leucistic hummingbird, versus the extremely rare albino version characterized by pink eyes and feet — is novel by any standard, especially here in Aggieland.

Armed with her trusty sidekick — the Canon Rebel T4i camera she regularly uses to document the establishment’s most loyal visitors (deer) and other happenings for the B&B’s Facebook page and website — Cher snapped a few quick shots and posted them on social media. She also reported it to a white hummingbird banding website she found.

(Credit: Cher McHan.)

(Credit: Cher McHan.)

Saturday close-up. (Credit: Cher McHan.)

Saturday close-up. (Credit: Cher McHan.)

In short order, Cher’s Facebook friend David Harkins (a 1984 Texas A&M wildlife and fisheries sciences graduate) advised her to alert iNaturalist.org and the Birds of Texas Facebook group. He also put her in touch with his own friend, photographer Bill Morris, who visited the Country Star Monday to document the exceptional find. Meanwhile, Cher’s cousin, Doreen White, gave it a name: Angel.

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

Say what you will about social media’s intrusion into society, but so often it uses its powers for good. In this case, it helped put the exclamation point on that extraordinary in the everyday we talk about in our boilerplate. Good bull, er, hummingbird!

See additional images courtesy of Waco photographer Dr. Spencer Moore here.

(Credit: Cher McHan.)

(Credit: Cher McHan.)

Science: There’s a Magic to It

“It’s magic!”

It’s hard to hear yourself think, much less anything else, in a classroom full of sixth-graders, but that excited shriek caught my attention.

YAP_demo_PhysicsI was taking photographs of a Physics Show demonstration for the Youth Adventure Program (YAP) in the Mitchell Physics Building last month. The kids were in awe over a tiny cube-shaped magnet that was floating in midair around a circular disc. And indeed, it gave the appearance of something on the supernormal side of things.

“It’s not magic – it’s physics,” noted Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova, senior lecturer and champion of the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s premier outreach extravaganza.

Technically, that’s true. We actually were witnessing the principles of superconducting levitation at work. Superconductors expel magnetic fields, so when the disc is cooled to its point of superconductivity (with the help of some liquid nitrogen), the repulsion is so strong that the magnet appears to be suspended in air.

Science may be the fabric of what we know as “magic,” but it takes a lot of creativity Tatiana_YAP(and perhaps some charisma, too) to capture an audience’s imagination using only everyday objects, especially when that audience is hyperactive pre-teens. People like Tatiana, and also Dr. James Pennington who spearheads the Department of Chemistry’s Chemistry Roadshow, are masters of this.

To me, there’s a little bit of magic in that.

On the Other Hand

THIS JUST IN: Scientists are normal! For starters, just like you and me, they take the occasional vacation. That being said, I don’t know many whose curiosity ever takes the occasional break.

As proof, I respectfully submit Exhibit A — a Facebook posting from Texas A&M University astronomer Nick Suntzeff, documenting a curious find from his travels in Croatia this month. I’ll let you be the judge, from the history to the actions and their motivations, but for me, there’s no debating that Nick has a wonderful way with words!

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City seal of Trogir, Croatia. (Credit: Nick Suntzeff.)

City seal of Trogir, Croatia. (Credit: Nick Suntzeff.)

“I was intrigued with the city seal of Trogir in Croatia. What’s that comet all about? Well, there was a St. John buried in the city. When the Venetians set out in 1170 or so to fight the Byzantium enemies, the stopped in Trogir and sacked it. They stole all the relics of the saint, except they could not carry the whole damn sarcophagus of St. John — so they cut his hand off because it had the bishop’s ring. The hand was carried back to Venice. But the fleet suffered some divine intervention of a storm or plague or fleas. Anyway, Trogir recouped and demanded their stuff back, which the Venetians gave, except for the hand, which they felt they could care for better. On the eve of the feast of St. John (according to the article by A. Marinkovic), ‘the hand flew back to Trogir followed by a comet and helped by angels, and was found in the cathedral of Trogir, laid on the top of the tomb in clean linen.’

“They don’t make miracles these days like they used to. A dead hand with a ring followed by a comet and a squad of angels? Now, that I would notice as an astronomer. Even using IDL [Interactive Data Language].”

Earth to Teachers

As one of the rotating images within its website header teases, what has 72 feet, covers 3,000 miles in 16 days, can earn 3 graduate hours of credit, and is more fun than summer vacation when you were a kid?

The answer is G-Camp, an outreach program for teachers offered through the Department of Geology and Geophysics in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. As the ultimate in immersive summer extravaganzas, the two-week camp sets off for a variety of sites across Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, teaching the principles of geology in the field by allowing participants to explore and experience first-hand the processes and environments of planet Earth from past to present.

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education research scientist Dr. Carolyn Schroeder serves as one of G-Camp’s instructors. Prior to coming to Texas A&M, she taught earth science in Texas public schools for 30 years, earning Texas Earth Science Teacher of the Year honors in 1986. This past year, she returned to the classroom, teaching introductory geology courses at Texas A&M in addition to her duties with CMSE, which include serving as director of the Texas A&M-College Station Regional Collaborative for Science.

Our G-Camp tour guide, Carolyn Schroeder, pictured here at Otto's Point, Colorado.

Our G-Camp tour guide, Carolyn Schroeder, pictured here at Otto’s Point, Colorado.

“Once you have taken a field trip with a geologist, you are hooked for life,” Carolyn says. “That’s what happened to me on my first one with Dr. Mel Schroeder back in 1974, and I continue to love learning about geology and sharing that love with others, both through the classes and workshops that I teach and by informal means as well.”

Consider this your two-part vicarious pictorial education, courtesy of Carolyn and G-Camp 2014! While you’re waiting for Part 2, feel free to stop and smell/see the flowers Carolyn experienced along the way and/or follow the group on Facebook for bonus pictures and information, if not points.