To Boldly Go

I’m not usually one to encourage people to look to Hollywood for life inspiration, but every so often, it’s a shoe that fits.

As possibly the biggest sequel yet to Neil Armstrong’s one small step for mankind, the independent movie The Last Man on the Moon made its U.S. premier last Friday in Austin at SXSW. Par for my course, I found out the day after via this recap from KXAN-TV.

This exquisite documentary set for worldwide release in June tells the tale of Gemini 9A, Apollo 10 and Apollo 17 astronaut Capt. Eugene “Gene” Cernan, the 11th of 12 people in history to walk on the Moon and, as the final man to re-enter the lunar module Challenger on its last outing during what would prove to be the final Apollo lunar landing in 1972, also the last.

By all accounts out of Austin and other international cities where LMOTM has debuted, it’s a must-see production, both for its honest portrayal from Cernan’s all-too-humanly flawed perspective and for its breathtaking archival footage (apparently, even Cernan himself was impressed.) See for yourself in the official trailer below, as well as in this exclusive bonus clip released to coincide with SXSW:

Cernan is as genuine as they come and as equally unabashed in his support of future manned spaceflight as he was back in 1972. I love this related excerpt from his Wikipedia entry:

As Cernan prepared to climb the ladder for the final time, he spoke these words, currently the last spoken by a human standing on the Moon’s surface: “Bob, this is Gene, and I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

The timing is exceptional from my perspective, given that we’re less than two weeks away from Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger’s 2015 Physics and Engineering Festival-kickoff lecture on his yearlong Adrift series addressing the country’s past, present and future in space. In addition to marking the first date night for the hubs and I since our anniversary last August, this momentous occasion comes on the heels of some wonderful teachable moments during the past couple of weeks for our oldest son, whose 6th grade science class has been covering a unit on the U.S. space program. The grand finale? Watching the Ron Howard classic Apollo 13 — one of my all-time favorites — in stages. The movie features veteran actor Tom Hanks in the lead role of Captain James Lovell, one of three men along with Cernan and Jim Young to make the trek to the Moon twice, as well as Ed Harris as Gene Kranz, the iconic NASA Mission Operations director whose “failure is not an option” motto guided the success of America’s flight program for more than 30 years.

(Speaking of mottos and models, watch this Cernan tribute and tell me you don’t have goose bumps afterward!)

Typical pre-teen that my son is, he’s been most impressed thus far by Kevin Bacon’s ability to play a wisecracking smart aleck in his role as astronaut Jack Swigert, he of “Houston, we’ve had a problem” fame who earned his seat on the doomed mission courtesy of Ken Mattingly’s (played by Gary Sinise) ill-timed exposure to measles. Me, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to mix business with pleasure and the ensuing discussions concerning the facts, failures, personalities and lessons surrounding the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs — history accentuated in many cases by his parents’ personal recollections. So interesting to see what resonates with our son, from the triumphs to the tragedies, and to contrast what we learned and sometimes witnessed through the comparative lens of his fresh eyes as a member of the generation I see as most ripe to fuel a Sputnik-esque resurgence.

Can’t wait to see how the movie ends for him once school resumes after spring break. As for the rest of the story, I see a family movie date in our future. Nothing like an inspirational summer learning opportunity for us all. 


Six Degrees of Nick Suntzeff

Lest anyone think fundraising is the only obstacle to getting next-generation telescopes (such as the Giant Magellan Telescope in which Texas A&M University is a founding partner) off the ground, the New York Time’s Gerald Brown recently weighed in on another area of tough, at-times-touchy sledding — drawing the line between spirituality and science.

As Brown explains, this age-old debate most recently played out in Hawaii and on YouTube, among other venues, concerning a protest by Native Hawaiians that disrupted the October 7 groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Protesters blocked the road to put a stop to a groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, in October. (Credit Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press)

Protesters blocked the road to put a stop to a groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, in October. (Credit Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press)

As with all things astronomical, I forwarded the NYT link to Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff, who grew up in California, studied at Stanford University and at Lick Observatory and also spent 20 years as an astronomer in Chile, where he helped co-discover dark energy in between helping to save Alan Alda’s life, among other feats. Nick offered his two cents in the usual colorful manner I’ve come to both expect and love.

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I agree this is a great article. I, too, have been part of controversies about native claims to mountains as sacred sites. The mountains of Junipero Serra, Cerro Tololo, Quimal, Cerro Toco and Kitt Peak come to mind as having been claimed to be sacred. Quimal, which is perhaps the best mountain in Chile for astronomy, definitely is a sacred mountain, and we did not try to study it, except to verify that it did have burial sites on the summit. Kitt Peak is also sacred, but it is not an important site in the Tohono O’odham culture as is the Baboquivari Mountain to the south.

The article expresses the delicate point that indigenous peoples have been totally screwed by western expropriation of their lands, and fighting any fight to show their plight is totally understandable. In the case of Hawaii, the astronomers initially did not reach out to the Native Hawaiians and alienated them early on. There is not a small amount of support among the Native Hawaiians for astronomy, but we were late in including them in the discussions.

Ah, yes. I have many stories about the native beliefs versus astronomy, including meeting Ansel Adams a few times. …

I have always been uncomfortable with this issue since we are sympathetic to native beliefs, yet are often vocal against similar beliefs in mainstream religion. I am very glad George Johnson brought that up in his article. Few people have ever touched on that point of conflict.

cheers, nick

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Yep, there he goes again, creating another story within a story. Nick’s the master of a well-placed tangent, and by this point, he should know I’m an absolute sucker for those. Move over, Kevin Bacon; you’re been replaced by six degrees of Nick Suntzeff, and I’ve got to know the rest of the story on this one!

“You’ve met Ansel Adams?!?” I incredulously reply. “Of course you have! Why am I surprised by anything at this point? Tell me more.”

And, true to form, Nick does — about the legendary artist and then some. As I’ve said time and again, the man’s a walking history book and a born educator.

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The quick answer: Ansel Adams lived near Santa Cruz and Monterey (I’ve forgotten where). Around 1975, Lick Observatory was involved in building a new telescope that would be even larger than the Palomar 5-meter. They (Dr. Merle Walker) studied mountains in California and Mexico and found that the best mountain was Junipero Serra Peak, the tallest mountain in the central coast range of California that is more than 5,000 feet while only about 10 miles from the coast. He did an onsite survey measuring the turbulence and found it was an outstanding peak.

As the highest mountain, it was claimed to be a sacred mountain by the local Native Americans. The problem was that there was no evidence anywhere that this mountain was sacred. The local Indians claimed an oral tradition, but again, there was no evidence for this until after the astronomers were interested in the mountain. The mountain is inside a wilderness area, so it is protected and would take a special permit to build there.

So, just like Hawaii, there was a problem between astronomers and the locals. I hiked the mountain once (it is a tough climb), and I thought it was one of the most beautiful mountains in California in the springtime. It is so high that the forest there is an isolated stand of sugar pines, which are common in the Sierras. The mountain has permanent snow in the winter, so the top of the mountain is alpine country like the Sierras. There is only one other mountain — Cone Peak — nearby that also has a few sugar pines. The pines are dying fast, and the forest will be lost in the near future.

I am not sure how, but someone knew someone who knew Ansel Adams, who was an avid amateur astronomer. He supported the building of the observatory (provided that it had minimal impact on the mountain). So I was roped into being a chauffeur for him, taking him to maybe two public meetings. His mere presence there made a big impact.

Junipero Serra Peak, as viewed from nearby Cone Peak. Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff has climbed the mountain that once connected him with legendary American artist Ansel Adams, who along with a proven penchant for iconic photography, also had an avid amateur interest in astronomy.

Junipero Serra Peak, as viewed from nearby Cone Peak. Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff has climbed the mountain that once connected him with legendary American artist Ansel Adams, who along with a proven penchant for iconic photography, also had an avid amateur interest in astronomy.

He was a private sort of person, so I did not get to know him well. But I did find out that, along with his famous photos, he also had some sort of telescope and took astronomical photos for fun. I imagine these were all destroyed along with the original photographic plates and negatives when he died (a common thing photographers do). I would have liked to see some of his plates. Since I also took photographic plates for astronomy (yes, I am that old), we talked mostly about the techniques of astrophotography.

I have never heard of anyone talking about his astrophotography.

cheers, nick

P.S. This is really old history, and I wish I remembered more details of our conversations. His Wikipedia entry does mention his interest in astronomy, and they have the fact which I never knew that his father was the treasurer for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The ASP is the other professional astronomy group in the U.S., that unlike the American Astronomical Society, includes amateur astronomers as members. He was treasurer from 1925-50, a major position which would have put him in the Executive Council of the ASP.

See also:

And here’s a fascinating primer on the artistry behind the icon, authored by a pretty good photographer in his own right, the Eagle’s Dave McDermand.


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.


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!

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].”

Small Wonders


This gallery contains 11 photos.

“The Noticers of the world are rare and beautiful gifts. … Pausing to delight in the simple joys of everyday life is the only way to truly live.” — Rachel Macy Stafford, The Hands Free Mama * ~ * ~ … Continue reading

Another One Bites the Dust

News this past March out of Harvard University’s Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Group detailing discovery of the possible evidence for inflation in the early universe is taking a universal beating as of late for failing to properly account for dust, perhaps in the group’s haste to leave its competition in it.

Their findings using the South Pole-based BICEP2 telescope hinge on the detection of gravitational waves, which cosmologists have long predicted would produce a specific type of polarization. They were correct in more ways than one.

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)

I remember seeing the media advisory on the American Astronomical Society (AAS) listserv announcing the Monday morning press conference at Harvard’s Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics — an unusual occurrence in my admittedly relatively young experience in science media circles, outside of announcing a Nobel Prize. Given that Harvard is a fellow partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope, I emailed Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff in hopes that he would know what could justify such a media frenzy.

He did. And per his usual, he had a strong, succinct opinion on both the breakthrough and the group’s manner of conveying it to the world: “All this drama — science did not used to be like this.”

Months before the latest round of back-pedaling in the media, Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger had been among those sounding the alarm regarding the damage done to science’s credibility and public image. I emailed Nick then for his counsel, just as I did when I saw Dennis Overbye’s New York Times feature and then another in Nature on back-to-back days earlier this month. Nick didn’t mince words. Nor should he, in my opinion. Then again, we’re both fans of implied duty and inherent responsibility.

More importantly, he offered some great comparative insight on how he and the High-Z Supernova Search Team handled their own early stage Nobel Prize-winning research that ended up proving the universe’s expansion is actually accelerating, thanks to a mysterious substance they co-discovered: dark energy.

“When we discovered dark energy, all we did was to find that the distant supernovae were too faint in comparison to what was expected,” Nick wrote. “We immediately worried that there was some sort of dust in the universe we did not know about that could cause this. We gave a simple argument as to why we felt this dust could not be causing the effect. Dust makes stuff look red — look at something through a forest fire, and it appears red. Same in the universe. We did not see this reddening.

“Also, if there was dust in the universe that we did not know about, more distant stuff should appear fainter because the light has to travel through more dust. This latter effect was difficult to measure, but we did show it was unlikely. All this was in our papers. What we did not do was to say that we have considered dust as causing the faintness of distant supernovae and then not tell the reader why we concluded this. That is what the BICEP2 paper did, and it confused us all as to why they did this.”

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background -- the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background — the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

If astrophysicists the likes of Nick Suntzeff are confused, one can imagine where this leaves the public, both in terms of understanding this “discovery” and in their general impression of science.

First, do no harm.

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The BICEP2 kerfuffle (have always wanted to use that word!) reminds me of a previous occasion when Nick flexed his writing muscles in the name of responsible science. The result: a memorable 2011 guest post for the Last Word On Nothing blog in which he simultaneously describes and decries how science is done these days.

Texas, Our Texas

“When I moved here to East Texas over three years ago, I was a little homesick. I grew up in California and also worked and lived in Chile most of my life, and I never lived far from the ocean. Last year when I was in West Texas, I met an elderly woman who had grown up on a ranch west of Eldorado. She said that whenever she leaves Texas, she too feels homesick — not for the ocean but for the sky. I asked her why. She said that growing up on a ranch, especially at night, you have the sky from one horizon to the other horizon, and anywhere she goes, she feels penned in by city lights, fences and city buildings.

“The sky is really a part of the history of Texas. It is in our flag. It is in our music. It is really in the soul of Texas. And I am proud to be here at Texas A&M, helping to bring the sky back to this part of Texas.”

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On December 4, 2009, Texas A&M University astronomer Nicholas B. Suntzeff put the icing on the celebratory cake with this absolutely perfect big-picture analogy, an excerpt of his remarks presented as part of the official dedication of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building and the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Nearly five years later, I think his grandiose words are just as fitting in capturing the magnificence of another stately project, Between Heaven and Texas, executed by another master of observation, Wyman Meinzer, the Official State Photographer of Texas whose life’s work involves appreciating and accentuating the Lone Star State’s beauty and sharing it with the world. If you haven’t already had the pleasure, meet Wyman and his most recent, resplendent take on Texas, our Texas.

Wyman Meinzer – Between Heaven And Texas from Wyman Meinzer on Vimeo.

Moon Dance

By now, I’m reasonably certain you’ve all seen just about all there is to see in the way of beautiful photographs depicting the recent total lunar eclipse. So wonderful that so many not only witnessed one of astronomy’s rare treats but also took the time to document it for posterity. In my case, it was with an iPhone camera to appease sleeping children and more than a little curiosity — theirs and mine. Technological innovation and one’s inner scientist make for a powerfully motivating combination!

But just in case you missed what I’d consider to be among the cream of the crop, here’s a double-shot of Lone Star State perspective, from wildflowers to Aggies. Everything’s bigger in Texas, if not better!

After staying out till 6 a.m. on April 15, photographing the different phases of the eclipse over a spectacular field of bluebonnets near Ennis, Texas, Mike Mezeul II created this fabulous composite that was making the rounds on Facebook, among other places. Prints are available at (Credit: Mike Mezeul II.)

After staying out till 6 a.m. on April 15, photographing the different phases of the eclipse over a spectacular field of bluebonnets near Ennis, Texas, Mike Mezeul II created this fabulous composite that was making the rounds on Facebook, among other places. Prints are available at (Credit: Mike Mezeul II.)

With a lot of forward planning and a solid nap the prior afternoon, Matai Chiang Wilson ’13 was able to stay up all night to photograph the five-hour-long eclipse as it occurred in conveniently clear skies over the Clayton W. Williams Jr. ’54 Alumni Center on the Texas A&M University campus. To see more of Wilson’s work, go to (Credit: Matai Chiang Wilson.)

With a lot of forward planning and a solid nap the prior afternoon, Matai Chiang Wilson ’13 was able to stay up all night to photograph the five-hour-long eclipse as it occurred in conveniently clear skies over the Clayton W. Williams Jr. ’54 Alumni Center on the Texas A&M University campus. To see more of Wilson’s work, go to (Credit: Matai Chiang Wilson.)