Thursday, January 29, 2009

Playstation Physics

Lior Burko, a physicist at of the University of Alabama, wanted to run computer simulations of the vibrations in space caused by a black hole. The problem was that the simulations need a supercomputer, and the cost is about $5K per simulation.

The solution? Some guy at the University of Massachusetts networked 16 Playstation 3's together to create something the PS3 Gravity Grid. Yes, Playstation 3, the video game console. No, I am not making this up. Apparently, it's very good at simulations that require massive amounts of computations, but only a little bit of RAM. It cost about $6K total to build, and can run unlimited simulations.

So, using the PS3 Gravity Grid, Professor Burko was able to simulate how long a black hole vibrates after it forms. He likens the vibrations of a black hole to the ringing of a bell.

The whole article is here, on

An interview with the guy who built it is here.

Imagine what they could do with a bunch of Wii's.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Just Look Up

I was out in the back yard with binoculars last weekend trying - unsuccessfully - to find Comet Kushida (a bigger one, Comet Lulin, is at full brightness next month). But it was a crisp, clear night, and I amused myself by looking at the Orion Nebula (the middle "star" in Orion's sword), the Hyades star cluster (just to the right of Orion, in Taurus's head), the Pleiades cluster (up and to the right of the Hyades, looks like a big fuzzy thing when seen by the naked eye; the seven biggest stars are said to be seven sisters driven mad by moonlight). I got spoiled by my telescope and had forgotten how much you can see with just binoculars. So if you've got some, go out there and have a look around.

If you don't have binoculars, go out there and look around anyway. Orion and the surrounding stars are in full glory now. So here's a primer. These were the first star names I committed to memory upon getting sucked into astronomy, and I continue to have a real fondness for them. These are the brightest stars in the winter sky, often called the Winter G, or the Winter Football, because of the shape.

We'll start with Betelgeuse (pronunced Beetle juice, meaning literally "the armpit of the great one"), Orion's left arm, a very old red giant that I've read is one of the most likely stars to explode into a supernova in our lifetime. Might happen in 100,000 years. Might happen tonight.

Go from Orion's left arm down to the right leg. That's Rigel, a very young bluish star.

Go below and to the left of Orion to a very bright star, Sirius. This is the brightest star in the sky. You can use it as a test to tell if something is a planet or a star: compare it to Sirius. If it's brighter than Sirius, it has to be a planet.

Go above and to the left of Sirius now, to the next bright star. That's Procyon. I love that name: Procyon. It got alotta mentions in The First Novel.

Above Procyon are two stars side by side. They are the twins, Pollux and Castor, in Gemini.

Go over now, above Orion's head. The bright star up there is Capella. Now go down, to the right of Orion. That's Aldebaran, in Taurus, another beautiful name.

So put on a coat and go outside tonight and try to find them all. The names alone are worth memorizing, because they're so fun to say, so pretty to hear, so evocative. But being able to pair the name with the star itself adds a whole new level of meaning.

Plus there's a chance, albeit slight, you'll get to see Betelgeuse blow up!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Mea Culpa

I've been informed by both Eric and Irrelephant that I was guilty of inadvertent plagiarism in my last post. Apparently a laser-eyed Lincoln Memorial has already been done. On Ren and Stimpy.

Truly, I am standing on the shoulders of giants.

At any rate, Mea Culpa.

I've thought all my life that Mea Culpa meant "I'm sorry." I learned a couple years ago, from a Frank McCourt book I think, that it actually means "I'm guilty." A subtle but profound difference.

Oh, you nutty, nutty Catholics.

Random gleanings from the web.

Crayon physics
. The goal is to move the ball to the star. How? Drop rocks. Make levers and ramps. Axles and wheels. Catapults. The demo is free. You will waste hours on this. You have been warned.

Random kitten generator
. Pretty self explanatory. And cute.

The Megapenny Project
. Explains really big numbers visually, using pennies. And cows. I think I stole this from Bad Astronomy.

EtherPad. Collaborative real time text editing. A little geeky, but very cool for on-line collaboration.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Modest Proposal

It occurred to me watching all the inauguration coverage that it would be cool if they replaced Lincoln's eyes in the Lincoln Memorial with scary red lights. And maybe put a button at the base, so that when you pushed it, his eyes would light up.

Actually, what would be really cool is if his eyes would shoot out laser beams, and sort of randomly incinerate people as they walked by.

But I realize that might pose a safety hazard.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Daytime Star

I like to think of myself as not easily swayed by the machinations of political theater. But I must admit I got a little choked up seeing Springsteen and Seeger singing "This Land Is Your Land" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial Sunday (along with tens of thousands of others). Particularly when they got to those later, more subversive verses.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

Let's hope so.

Stevie Wonder rocked too.

Venus is bright enough and high enough so that you can see as a daytime star now, if you know where to look. Check out the sky just before sunset. Look 40-ish degrees above the sun (your fist at arm's length is about 10 degrees) and off to the left. Quite bright, and once you spot it it's easy to pick out again.

Very pretty. Trust me.

Got a Prémio Dardos award from Eric over at My Heart's Porch. Thanks, Eric. I hope it's not just the tamales talking.

He's a good writer, from what I've read. Just finished his second novel. Check him out.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Huge Applet, Unsearchable Terrestrials!

Astronomers are a wacky bunch. They often code their discoveries in anagrams, in part to prove they made the discovery while they go through the mind-numbing process of slogging through the data before they can publish.

And, in part, I suspect, because they're just wacky.

Galileo did it when he discovered Venus had phases. Huygens did it when he figured out Saturn had rings. And now Gregory Laughlin of the University of California has done it, by publishing the anagram "Huge Applet, Unsearchable Terrestrials!" to announce he's discovered a planet.

Readers of his website have posted all sorts of possible solutions:

"Transit SuperEarth, Pale Blue Gel."

“Grail result, alp cent bee has super earth!”

“Super Earth At Alpha Cen B. Rigel, Less True.”

“Bells greet Alpha Centauri’s Super Earth!”

“This huge pulsar celebrates rare planet.”

Most of these invoke a planet revolving around the star Alpha Centauri B. I don't have the energy to try to come up with a solution on my own, let alone see if the solutions I've printed use all the letters. I get tired just thinking about it.

Thanks to the excellent Teirneylab blog for all this info, which I've shamelessly stolen.

I freaking love comets. Little bits of rock and ice from back before the Earth was born. The truly spectacular ones only come around about once a decade, but if you've got binoculars and geeky inclinations you can see at least couple a year.

There's a new one out there now: Comet Lulin. Right now it's pretty dim, and you gotta get up just before dawn to see it - two big strikes right there. But by mid-February it'll be in the pre-midnight sky, and visible to the naked eye, albeit barely.

This will be the first one I'll be able to see through the big, dumb, cheap telescope. They look like fuzzy snowballs, and are quite pretty. Plus, this one is apparently going so fast you can detect it's motion against the backdrop of stars over a couple hours.

I'm as giddy as a schoolgirl.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Wolf Moon

Met my first blogger in person (except for Dancehall, who I've known for at least a couple lifetimes, it seems). Eric from My Heart's Porch came through our corner of the southwest on his way back from Monument Valley. He brought a fellow traveler with him, who we will call the Rock Star, as that is exactly how the little clowncars treated her. It was like having Hannah Montana in the house (except she's not a registered trademark of Disney; always a plus). She has a great love of bad horror movies, so she fit right in.

They were cold and tired and hungry from spending the previous night in 17 degree weather sans tent (they did have sleeping bags), and it felt good to be able to offer them tamales and green chile and a warm place to sleep. We drank a little bourbon, talked a little writing. We agree on a great deal (Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Hemmingway), disagree on a little (Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx). I attempted to turn him on to TC Boyle, he attempted to turn me on to Nick Acosta.

The subject of God and randomness made a brief but notable appearance, late in the evening, as it tends to do.

All told, it was Big Fun.

Sadly, the meeting was marred when I savagely beat him in Wii tennis, bowling, and baseball, back to back to back. He tried to hold it together, and almost succeeded, but his anguished, wrenching sobs filled the empty halls of our home as he cried himself to sleep that night. He was wearing an eyepatch the next morning. He said his eyes were bothering him, but clearly it was the result of psychic wounds sustained the previous evening.

We've fallen off the full moon wagon the last few months, so it was nice to go out as a family and see the first full moon of the new year, the wolf moon, this Saturday. It was also the biggest full moon of the year.

Though in my view, they're all pretty big.

The symmetry of having the setting sun at my back, just as the full moon rises, never fails to impress.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


In a happily surprising turn of events, we've been playing dominoes as much as we've been playing with the magnificent time-suck known as Wii. The beauty part is, when you get tired of playing, there are all sorts of other things to do with them.

I think you know where this is headed. Half an hour of work, 11 seconds of glory.

Had we more dominoes, it would be more impressive.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New and Improved

"I'll buy almost anything as long if it's shiny and made by Apple."

This is pretty subtle satire. For the Onion, anyway.

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

Monday, January 5, 2009


The girls have somehow learned about burglars, and so of course are scared of them. They now pepper us with all sorts of interesting questions about them at bedtime. How do they get in? Do they steal children? Will they come into our house?

When I answered "no" to the last question, my youngest asked, and this is verbatim, "Is that because you'll cut them up and throw them in a hole?" Yikes! More yikes-worthy is that I actually wanted to answer yes for a second, so as to appear as the Conqueror Dad to them. But I quickly came to my senses and merely told them, "I promise burglars won't come into our house. You don't have to worry."

It's kind of a lie. I can't promise that. But what are you gonna do?