Ramblings of an armchair astronomer and inveterate geek

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Astronomical Running Chickens

February 28th, 2008 · No Comments

IC2948 is the less-than-spectacular catalogue number for a nebula in the constellation Centaurus. The more popular name is the Running Chicken Nebula. Steve Crouch, an avid astro-photographer in the Canberra Astronomical Society, took the image below and asks, “Can everyone see the running chicken?”. Well, can you?
IC 2948 Running Chicken Nebula in Ha [

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Self Service Science Search

February 16th, 2008 · 1 Comment

ABC LogoFor quite a few years I have been contributing to the ABC Science forums, particularly the ABC Self Service Science forum. Over the years the forums have accumulated quite a few answers to questions on topics from quantum physics to belly-button fluff, but finding them can be a problem without an internal search facility. A limited Google search is often the best bet but leaving the forum to go to Google is annoying. This post describes one option to help the situation.
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→ 1 CommentTags: Computing · Science

Digital Coaches

January 21st, 2008 · No Comments

Over at Seth’s Blog: A shortage of digital coaches Seth points out something that I have often considered and think has some merit.

As an IT literate guy I frequently find myself explaining to others how even the simplest IT things can be done more efficiently (or effectively) with small changes in behaviour or thinking. Often these things are as straight forward as, “You can copy and paste using Control-C and V” or “There are better tools than Excel for collecting this information.” Some people take these things and run with them, and others revert to type within minutes but this rarely leads to the sky falling in. This level of individual coaching, however, is not going to attract work at $100/hr.

Sometimes more complex offerings involve the other party rethinking how they approach what they are doing in order to facilitate the types of efficiency gains that Seth refers to. This poses quite an obstacle in large project/organisations. A common scenario is a project sub-team that is focussed on how the output of a process looks, e.g. a report in given format, and considers that the only way to do it is to collate information, in isolation from others, into that output format. This, IMHO, is rarely the most efficient way to do it even in the unlikely event that their outputs are independent of all others in related tasks. However, addressing any IT efficiencies in this process are almost always focussed, by the client, on ways of collating information in that output format and not on a more holistic approach to the problem(s). My experience of several large Defence and commercial projects is that the larger the project the greater this inertia of thinking becomes. Of course, large projects are often supported by IT teams that should be guiding the project’s computing directions: in practice I think they are often marginalized by the project management (outside of IT projects they’re running) or organisational issues. Complex environments also dictate a longer required (non-productive) period by the coach to assess the most effective changes; creating a financial barrier that feeds the thought inertia. Whether an external digital coach would have any effect in this environment is debatable.

I am sure that Seth’s notion of ‘digital coaches’ will work in some circles. It has a greatly improved chance of success in smaller settings where the coach is requested, respected, and has the ear of someone with the desire and capacity to enforce/ensure adoption of change. It seems to me essential that the coach can grasp the situation in a reasonably small time and start making productive suggestions: after all the customer does not want to be paying $100/hr for two weeks to see some result. Seth’s example of a restaurant or small business seems to be about right. Dave Saunders commented, “I love the idea of a digital coach. I sure wouldn’t want to do it though.” I agree: at least until I’ve tried it in a small business. I’ve already tried it in large organisations, and the best I could say is that it’s often demoralising and usually ineffective. Maybe that’s an indictment of my own abilities rather than the concept.

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Jupiter from New horizons

October 11th, 2007 · No Comments

New Horizons Jupiter-Io MontageA short while ago I posted images taken of the Tvashtar volcano on Io. The images were snapped by the New Horizons mission to the dwarf planet Pluto. Some months have passed since those images were taken, and the mission’s imaging team has had time to assemble some of the 700 observations the probe made as it whizzed past Jupiter into a montage of the whole planet and its moon Io (click to enlarge). The image is quite impressive, even more so on the very large version available at the NASA JPL web site.

Needless to say, the image is not a simple happy snap of the planet and its moon. The NASA site carries a description of how the image was composed but it also carries quite a bit of jargon that I’ll try to decode here.
New Horizons Jupiter Colour SeparationsThe camera responsible for the image, called LEISA, is sensitive to infrared light: the sort of light emitted by your TV remote. Light is characterised by its wavelength, with infrared light having a slightly longer wavelength than the nearby visible red light. The warmer an object is, the shorter the wavelength of the bulk of light it emits… if it is warm enough it glows visibly red, yellow, blue… think stars. While Jupiter’s atmosphere is not hot enough to emit much infrared light just because of its temperature it does reflect a lot of sunlight. Different gases reflect/absorb light at particular wavelengths and this can give away the atmospheric composition. By taking images in light of a range of wavelengths (1.59, 1.94, 1.85 micrometres) the camera is effectively taking images of gas of certain compositions, temperatures and, by inference, depths in the atmosphere. Using comparative information such as these images a great deal can be learnt about the object. The three images above show an approximate reproduction of the original images around the Great Red Spot (GRS). The imaging team shaded the images red, green, and blue and merged them to form the image of Jupiter.

The overlaid image of Io was constructed using a monochrome (black and white) optical photograph taken with the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera. Using images from another camera, sensitive to bluish light typical of methane, an artificial colouring has been applied. Once more Tvashtar is billowing, and lava is flowing on the surface.

Spectrum of Mercury Vapour LampYou can experiment with splitting light with a spectroscope by following the links from my previous Science Projects in a Small World post. The LEISA camera is tuned to pick up light from one narrow section of a full spectrum, similar to targeting the prominent lines in the image to the left.

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Podcasts for Science Geeks

September 24th, 2007 · No Comments

Swinburne University LogoSwinburne University, my alma mater, has recently started publishing podcasts covering research programs at the university. It is often very difficult to keep abreast of research goings-on without keeping a constant reading program of appropriate journals. Even a lot of the journal articles I do read are too terse for an outsider to easily penetrate. I see these podcasts as a good way for scientists and other researcher to communicate passion for their studies. Topics include.

Go here for viewing pleasure.

Make Magazine LogoOn a slightly different tack is the creatively off-beat Make Magazine. Make publishes a traditional dead-tree magazine that rarely makes an appearance on Australian shelves (although I think McGills carry it) and a regular podcast program. Ever wanted to make your own Rubik’s cube out of dice, Jam Jar Jet! (PDFCast), or Teeny Tiny Solar Robots.


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