I’ve been warned that I sometimes veer too far in the direction of toolmaker away from the standard path followed by most scientists. Try as I might, I cannot seem to avoid finding the process of doing science nearly as interesting as the goal of getting that science done. And so, my mind has been orbiting around a problem I suspect is endemic amongst all physicists, if not all scientists. That problem, captured so nicely by this PhD comic is that of filesystem cruft. Science, being at it’s core an experimental art, produces for every successful idea a whole panoply of failed experiments, mistakes, and generally messed-up crap. Being paranoid creatures consumed by our own fears, along with the awareness that serendipity has been a cornerstone of great work, we are loathe to sweep these ill-fated children of the mind into the trash where they (mostly) belong. And so those of us who rely on computers for most of our day-to-day work end up with home directories filled to the brim with old scripts, corrupted data files, a dozen different versions of the same list of values, and other digital detritus. And this situation makes for errors, confusion, thousand yard stare, anal leakage, and other evils too foul to discuss in polite company. Just looking at my /home directory on my workstation at the University, I have more than 100,000 files sitting around, waiting for me to stare at them for a quarter hour trying to remember what they were for.
I just got back from the University of Calgary’s fantastic Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. Since there is a new moon in Calgary, we have had late night open houses yesterday, today, and one tomorrow from 10PM until 2AM. Since I am exhausted, let me show you the awesome picture of the beautiful tendrils of cool dust in the Eagle Nebula we were able to capture using the 16″ Clark-Milone Telescope:
I’ve been thinking of writing an astronomical toolkit for Arduino, to help users build their own go-to telescope mounts, satellite trackers, heliostats, and other cool amateur astronomy equipment. As anyone who has ever worked with astronomical coordinate systems know, since astronomers treat the sky as a 2 dimensional spherical surface, most calculations involving positions on this surface involve a good deal of trigonometry. While the Arduino library includes built-in functions for sine and cosine, it lacked the inverse trigonometric functions arcsine and arccosine. These are necessary if you ever need to convert a length ratio into an angle. It is impossible to convert between different sky coordinate systems (like Horizontal and Equatorial, the two most common) without access to these functions. In today’s post, I’ll show you how I wrote my own arcsin() and arccos() functions using Taylor polynomials.
I feel like yesterday’s depressing (but popular!) post painted a bit gloomier picture of the future of astronomy and space science than the reality warrants. Today, I thought I might cheer you up with an inside view of one of the neatest pieces of scientific instrumentation under construction today: a fantastic radio telescope called the Australian Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Pathfinder (ASKAP).
This morning, I watched with tears in my eyes as the last flight of the space shuttle pierced the clouds above Cape Canaveral. After the joy of watching four human beings rise above the atmosphere carried by little more than a few thousand tonnes of metal, plastic, and ceramic safely and in less time than it takes me to drive to work, I started to look back upon a week that has been, if I may put it bluntly, disastrous for NASA, and for the American space effort.
So, the other week I got into a minor flame war (more of a potshot skirmish really) with an astrologer on twitter (full disclosure: I started it ;). It all started over the remarks Brian Cox (scientist, rock star, all-around cool dude) made on his most excellent Wonders of The Solar System television program. Clip after the jump.
So, I have been the proud owner of a galileoscope for about a month now. While I am quite happy with the optical quality (and the price!), the focusing mechanism leaves a bit to be desired. In order to cut costs, the ‘scope focuses (changes the distance between the objective and eyepiece lenses) simply by having a pair of concentric tubes that you manually pull out or push in to focus. Continue reading