Photo credit, Dan Birchall. Wherever he is now.

One of the essential ingredients of any tour of Mauna Kea observatories includes talking about adaptive optics, including use of the laser guide star. The wavelength of light from the laser is tuned to some ridiculously precise number of decimal places when represented in nanometers instead of wavenumbers (not sure exactly how many, but probably more than five according to Rob, Kevin, and Allen). Somewhere back in the mists of time when I started giving summit tours, I heard the laser light described as ‘yellow-green,’ and have been repeating that nearly every time I talk about adaptive optics.

As usually happens, my authority was undermined when someone then pointed to a digital picture of the laser in operation (all you wags out there are ordered to say ‘propagating,’ not ‘firing,’ ) and asked why, if it was yellow-green, it appeared as orange in the picture. I sure as heck didn’t know, and admitted as much. I then queried some of our laser folks, who also professed ignorance. The quick answer was that it was some artifact of the way the eye perceives color, but that was knocked out by color appearing in digital images. I started offering that disparity as a bit of ‘salt-and-pepper,’ during my tour, and received some thoughtful looks and puzzled discussion in return. I was even graced with an answer from one of my least favorite kinds of visitors, the sixty-ish male techno-weenie blowhard who has an answer for everything usually involving a number with five significant figures: a long and complex explanation involving something like ‘secondary excitation,’ and other jargon and harking back to his glory days working for some defense contractor.

Then, the other day, I gave a tour to a couple of knowledgeable amateur astronomers and an artist.

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A few nights at work

25 July 2007

Stargazing was pretty good the last couple of nights. Even with the remnants of Cosme on Saturday, we managed to have clear skies all four nights. But the highlight on Sunday and Tuesday nights were definitely the clear skies all the way down to Kilauea. Based on the update from HVO, we had one of the best views anyone has gotten of the fissure eruptions that started on 21 July.

We even dragged a couple of Dobsonian telescopes over to the picnic tables at the back of the parking lot and trained them on the eruption. Based on our back-of-the-envelope calculations, the eruption subtended an angle of about one degree (half as wide as my thumb, held at arm’s length) and was about forty miles away. That made the visible part of the flow about a mile long, but please note that the error bars on that number are large–nearly the size of the envelope itself.

For modern readers of Jane Austen, changes in word usage can sometimes confuse the subtleties of her language. In particular, it took me a couple of tries to figure out what she means by ‘unexceptional,’ when used to describe personal conduct. I understand it as a compliment, implying that conformity is overwhelmingly common, and deviation from the status quo is by nature a bad thing.

Two similar examples from Patrick O’Brian (a great fan of Austen, by the by) are ‘sophistication,’ used in regard to food or medicine and seemingly equivalent to modern ‘contamination’; and ‘enthusiasm,’ which seems to invite the modern reader to add ‘over-‘ when they read it. A digression into the comparative mindsets that produce such usages would have been brilliant from John Ciardi, but such subtleties remind me of some examples from Chris Mooney‘s The Republican War on Science, which I just finished and found very informative, though it produced less outrage than I expected.

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Well, after the last couple of days at work, I may have to get a t-shirt from these guys after all. If the exchange rate evens out before Christmas, that is. It began late Tuesday afternoon, with spectacular proto-thunderstorm clouds on the west side of the mountain, which yielded to a film noir backdrop of a low, lumpy pre-tornado layer on the southeast side by a couple of hours before sunset. Then, by the time it got dark, the large mass of clouds had faded to a lei po`o during the night that allowed stargazing for us and observing at the summit, but with fog in between. On Wednesday morning, beautiful cirrus clouds curved in many directions, translucent and tentacular. And finally, by Wednesday afternoon, some not-quite-realized lenticulars high up to the south. All in all, the solid clouds that prevented observing for most of Wednesday night weren’t as unwelcome as if they had come without the earlier stuff. It also reminded me that cloud types are about as welldefined as are planets.

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A good post on the HAARP project at the Danger Room caused me to spend a while looking for a picture of their offices in the Geophysical Insitute on the UAF campus. No dice on Google images or Flickr, though. Gregg? Layla?

In terms of scientific rhetoric, it seems predictable that people will believe conspiracy theory allegations of the capapbility of some project that looks like it gets 5200 channels when we talk about knowing the age of the Earth to an absurd degree of precision. I had a longer disquisition going on that, but it has now escaped me.

Instead, good news for Pluto. Now if only someone demonstrates the same chutzpah on behalf of Eris, we might be getting somewhere. Also, watch out for dolphins and sea lions–they might be enemy agents.


3 July 2007

I just finished reading State of Fear by Crichton, and let me just say that the quality of his action scenes has rebounded from its all-time low in Timeline back to approximately Jurassic Park levels. Anyway, in general I liked the book much more than I expected to. In terms of issues raised, that is. In terms of ‘melodramatic conclusions occuring while moving at high speed through mid-Pacific jungle,’ I have to give the edge to Cryptonomicon.

I do think, that as well as Crichton’s exposition of the social and media factors in public knowledge of science plays, I still have a few criticisms.

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Of disciplines in this case, not roads.

I think one way to define good science communication is by knowing which details to leave out. I rarely see (except when I venture upon some topic I really shouldn’t) science communicated in a way that leaves the recipients unsatiated by details. Rather, we tend to lose people to attrition as the delivery of detail vastly outstrips the complimentary conceptual framework.

I conducted a group through the observatory today which illustrates my point. Members of the group were four of the members of the US office of a German television network, none of whom were particularly familiar with astronomy, and the Director of a major astronomy research institution (who also speaks German). In a classic series of moves that I have seen many times on summit tours, the Director gave a fairly involved description (in German) of the functions of assorted pieces of the 8-story-tall, 400 ton telescope in front of us. We walked about ten yards and were preparing to ascend a staircase, when the cameraman turned to me and, pointing, asked in English “Is this the part that turns?”

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