Wednesday, October 2, 2013

So Voyager has left the Solar System (and much earlier than this post thanks to a general lack of time on my part for writing).

It is an exciting time for many people, both astronomers and others, myself included.  It comes at an exciting time in science.  We are at a point where congress and NASA have the technology to fight over how best to get to Mars, and whether or not capturing an asteroid is a worthwhile endeavor for our money.  No longer are these things relegated to the realm of Science Fiction only.  We are living in a time in which the seeds of our astronomical dreams are opening up and spreading forth new possibilities for us to pursue.

picture of Voyager:

 Voyager's exit from our solar system is a big step forward for us.  It is the first man-made object to do so.  Many of us hope this will on day be followed by more probes and eventually my mankind.  The event brings a sense of adventure that is badly needed in a time when it seems that most technological progress is being made on cell phones and tablet computers.  I should be swept up in those feelings, and part of me is, but part of me just feels sad for Voyager.  It is a lifeless machine with no need for companionship, but I can't help but impose my own feelings onto it.  It will never return home.  By 2025, it's power will fail and if will float on quietly.  In about 40,000 years it will pass by another star - Gleise 445.  But even that star will remain far to the side of it's path.  I'm not sure when, if ever, Voyager will enter another solar system, but I know the time scale is too large to really bother worrying about.

When I was little I had a difficult time getting to sleep.  I still do. As I lay in bed, terrified of monsters lurking in darkened corners of the room, I was even more terrified of not being able to sleep.  I would lay in bed trying so hard to fall asleep that it was a full-on job in it's own right.  Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I would drift off and be happy.  Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and it would dawn on me that I was the only one up.  My parents would be sleeping in bed, the living room lights and TV would be off.  The apartment would be huge in it's silence.  This thought would creep up on me from behind, whispering to me that I was on my own, alone in the world.

I carried that around with me for a long time.  It made the task of going to bed that much worse because it was a race - a race to fall asleep before my parents went to bed themselves, a race to be unconscious before I found myself alone in the dark. Around the time my parents divorced, that changed.  Unconsciously seeking escape from the stress - unconscious because I don't really recall there being many fights etc in those early days - I spent my free time after school hanging out with friends or watching TV alone at home.  I began getting up in the middle of the night to finish my homework.  By fourth grade my grades had plummeted as I stopped doing homework altogether.  As a result, I hated schoolwork more than ever and isolated myself from it more that ever.  I had friends but sought to spend more and more time on my own.  Loneliness was an odd concept to me at that point - I wanted to be physically alone, but increasingly I felt socially alone, cut off from my peers by my poor performance in school and perceived social awkwardness.

By high school I relished being alone.  I had plenty of friends and enjoyed my time with them, but I also lived much of my life alone and reading.  I often stayed up well after my mom went to bed, but now I loved it, loved being the only one awake.  Like many teens, as much as I loved my friends, I often thought of myself as separate from them - distant.

Fast forward to 1997 when the movie Contact came out.  There is a scene towards the end of the movie where the heroine, Dr. Arroway, alone inside the machine (kind of a spaceship of sorts) gets a full panoramic view of the Milky Way galaxy which she is suspended above.  For some reason I could not find a good screen shot of that scene, but I think the scrip does a good job of it:


So many dazzling multicolored stars they almost touch.
Millions more stars than are visible from Earth on the
clearest night.

An immense, spiraling river of gas and dust, millions of
miles long, pours into the maw of a black hole of
staggering dimensions.  Flashes of radiation leap from the
center like summer lightning --

  The center of the galaxy...

Pretty awe-inspiring huh?  A beautiful swirl of lights as billions of stars make there way around the central disk, our own Sol one of them - magnificent.  To me at the time - horrific.  I was struck in that moment by just how far away Dr. Arroway was from everything familiar; in fact from everything period.  I couldn't stop thinking how empty her little corner of the Universe was at that moment.  How many light years was she from the galaxy?  For me, that moment represented the truest form of loneliness.  It is not the lack of friends, or even other living things - it is the lack of everything.

Walking home that night, and for days afterward, that feeling haunted me.  That scene had opened to door to  a level of solitude I had never known.  I had often wondered about it.  When I was in Sunday School as a child, the notion that in the beginning of the Bible, God is alone.  There are no angels or demons, no stars, no people, no light or darkness.  Nothing.  It is a common start to religious creation stories.  The Egyptians were a little kinder to their creator Atum, who began life alone in the water body Nu.  At least he had water surrounding him.  I'm not sure if that was much comfort.

Either way, the experience of being the only one, the only anything, must have been unpleasant to these divinities.  It is such an alien concept that I don't think we have the capacity to imagine it.  Take a moment and try anyway.  You are alone.  There is nothing around you.  No objects, no sounds, no light or color, no sensations of any kind because there is nothing to sense.  Nothing.

I can't do it, not really anyway.  The closest I can get is to remember back to that scene in "Contact" and I find that unpleasant enough.

I think that initial scene of so many creation stories serves as much to separate and elevate God for us as to explain the beginning of the universe.  For early man, living in small communities, huddled around fires at night and cooking the day's collection of roots, berries and small game, the idea of being cut off from each other must have been horrendous.  To me, it is interesting that they could even conceive of there being no universe at all.

Science may be more ready to help us in this.  A current theory is that the universe is like a bubble in a sea of other universes, cut off but surrounded by them.  I find that comforting.  There is no promise that we could ever peek into these other universes or even sense them but the idea that they could be out there, is something.  Nice as that is however, it does little for us when the void of space presses into our conscience.  Being so small and delicate, it takes little to pull me back to the enormity of the emptiness of space, and Voyager's accomplishment has done just that.

Voyager thinks nothing of it's trip into emptiness.  Even if it could emote somehow, maybe the sheer magnificence of the cosmic vista and the knowledge that somewhere out there, there was life to be found, would be enough for it.  Here on Earth, I find myself dreaming of alien worlds and what they might be like.  What it would feel like to walk on them, see the stars from a new angle or even enjoy the local life if any existed?  I'm not expecting any miracles but we should be able to get a much better picture of these things for the many extra-solar planets we have now discovered and those we have yet to find.  If we never find life elsewhere, will we find ourselves lonelier for it?  Will we shut down the space program and call it a day.  Will we suddenly feel the full weight of responsibility we have in taking care of our own planet and turn over a new leaf, or will we instead submit to a planet wide depression and destroy ourselves in a fit of rage and self-hatred?

Personally I think that we will keep going, exploring the universe to learn as much as we can about it, our origins and our place in it.  I think that given enough time, we will do our best to spread to Mars and maybe even beyond.  We will do this, not only because we might need the space or the resources, but because of the peace it brings - the knowledge that no matter how lonely we feel at night, alone in our cities, nations and continents, that we have neighbors to share the stars with us.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

With all the hubub over Congress lately - specifically, their inability to get anything done, I thought a new version of the game Clue was in order.  There are tons of versions of Monopoly these days but it seems that Clue has been neglected despite how easy it would be to "personalize" for any given city/workplace/group of people.
Well, here's my take on Congressional Clue.  It's easy to make - cards for characters and weapons can be cheaply made with index cards and a real Clue game board can be easily converted via paper and tape (or, if your are up for it, buy some poster board and make it yourself. Game pieces can be made with almost anything you want to stick labels on.  Rooms, characters and weapons can be personalized as you like.  The end result is pretty ghetto, but then so is Congress.

Congressional Clue
·        Rooms
1.     Congressional Hall
2.     Brothel
3.     Backroom
4.     Bar
5.     Back Alley
6.     Political Talk Shows/News
7.     Press Conference
8.     Rally
9.     Abandoned Building/Parking Garage
·        Characters
1.     President
2.     Speaker of the House
3.     House Majority Leader
4.     House Minority Leader
5.     Senate Majority Leader
6.     Senate Minority Leader
7.     Influential Non-leader Republican
8.     Influential Non-Leader Democrat
9.      Lobbyist
·        Weapons (descriptions stolen largely from Wikipedia - forgive my laziness)
1.      Straw Man—a fallacy based on a misrepresentation of the opposition’s position.  To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the "straw man"), and to refute it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.
2.      Scandal—a widely publicized allegation or set of allegations that damages (or tries to damage) the reputation of an institution, individual or creed.
3.      Filibuster—talking for hours on end without support of a break.  These days no actual filibuster need take place, just the threat of one is enough.
4.      Crocodile Tears—false or insincere display of emotion, often used in conjunction with other weapons, the proper use of crocodile tears is often enough to sway support on their own.
5.      Money—either by paying off the opposition or by paying for advertising to gain support for your position.
6.      Blackmail— an act, often a crime, involving unjustified (or justified) threats to make a gain or cause loss to another unless a demand is met.
7.      Religion—claiming that a bill is against your religion, repressive of your religion or simply immoral; completely making up the argument would be a Straw Man
8.      Science—claiming that a bill is contrary to current science, hampers science or will have harmful consequences based on current scientific knowledge; completely making up the argument would be a Straw Man.

9.      Rider—an additional provision added to a bill or other measure under the consideration by a legislature, having little connection with the subject matter of the bill.  While often intended to get legislation passed that would not get support on its own, riders can lead to the killing of bills due to outrage at their subjects or even the sheer numbers of them.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Story published!

Just a quick post to toot my own horn.

A short story of mine, "Hector", about a snail that visits the UN is now up in the latest issue of Scareship magazine.  It's my first published fiction and I hope you enjoy it:

I don't have a picture of a conch but here's some pictures of a calliostomatid snail, just because:
Found this guy at the NY Aquarium.  The original picture, and more like it can be found at my photography site here

Kisses! This can be found on my photography site here

Friday, May 31, 2013

Scientific Metaphors & Similes That I Wish Were Well-enough Known to be Cliches in Writing.

Anyone who has been given instruction in creative writing (either by choice or otherwise) has probably had the evils of cliches drilled into their skull.  Writers like to deride them from their lack of creativity and imagination - fair enough - but for all of that, I wish the list of cliches out there was longer.  The good thing about cliches is that they can give us an idea of references that are so well known in our culture that people are often sick and tired of them.  Considering that some examples of cliches are "dark as pitch", "bright as the sun" and "having an ax to grind", we as a society may have set the bar of general knowledge pretty low.  

I study biology and I'll admit to being biased by it.  I see/hear evidence of scientific ignorance daily (hell I'm still ignorant about plenty of it and am always trying to resolve that) and got to thinking that it would be pretty awesome (read geeky) if the state of our collective scientific knowledge was such that there were plenty of scientific cliches going around.  "Fast as the speed of light" is one that I can think of off the top of head.  Here are some more that I think would be great additions (if you feel like skipping the explanations, no worries - I won't cry):

  • As thin as a jellyfish's body  
    • Explanation: jellyfish are diploblastic, meaning they have only two tissue layers.  The vast majority of animal species are triploblastic, meaning they have three tissue layers.  The lack of a third tissue layer means jellyfish and their relatives (Ctenophores too which are in a different phylum) don't need respiratory (gills, lungs etc.) or circulatory (heart & veins) systems - O2/nutrients/waste can easily diffuse throughout the body without them.
Photo from Me!

    • Example: The politicians argument that the 50 states would be better off merged into one was as thin as a jellyfish - everyone could see he was trying to gain support with the influential Statists from his state.  
      • Point of Note: Statists are in essence the opposite of libertarians. I don't know of any powerful statist groups (or any statist groups all all for that matter) in the US.

  • As difficult to pass as a kiwi's egg
    • Explanation:
Can't remember where I got this exactly but it's EVERYWHERE online.  When I find the original scientific paper that did this, I'll give appropriate credit
    • Example: Our first exam was as difficult to pass as a kiwi's egg.

  • As hard to find as dark matter
    • Explanation: Dark matter is theoretical but strongly suspected to exist by astronomers who realized that the observed mass of the universe did not add up to what it should.  They've been searching for it ever since (and may have found some evidence this year).  That's about as much as I know about it.

    • Example: I looked all over town for my favorite brand of coffee without luck.  It's as hard to find as dark matter.

  • Cuter than a tardigrade
    • Explanation: Tardigrades are tiny (I do mean tiny - 1 mm max for some species) invertebrates which are so damn cute their also called waterbears.  See for yourself -

image obtained from here, but it's up on many websites

                     They have even inspired cute yarn versions - 

image from the Wunderkammer blog

    • Example: Oh my God - your new baby is just as cute as a tardigrade!

  • Blacker than a male mountain blue don's wings.

    • Example: Our new car is white as snow, with soft leather seats and tires blacker than a male mountain blue don's wings.

  • As complex as the Einstein field equations
    • Explanation: Part of his Theory of General Relativity which help explain how the function of gravity is a result of spacetime being curved by both matter and energy.  I only kinda-sorta understand it myself but that hardly matters.  What matters (at least for this simile) is this: 

                    What's more - there are 9 more of them, each as complex as that one.

    • Example: The flavor profile of the 2013 Chardonnay produced by Escalia Vinyards is rich and as complex as the Einstein field equations with hints of oak, strawberry, marshmallow, apple, vanilla, butter, durian fruit and bacon.

  • Beautiful as the world seen through a mantis shrimp's eyes
    • Explanation: mantis shrimp have 16 different photoreceptive pigments in their eyes, compared to our three.  
    • Peacock mantis shrimp, via National Geographic. A piece of advice to this guy - just because you can see more colors than the rest of us doesn't mean you have to wear them all at once.  
      • Example: Oh honey.  My that...what is it?  A picture of me?  Well now, er, I look as pretty as the world through a mantis shrimp's eyes!  I'll just go and hang thin in the closet where I can admire it every time I get my coat.

    I had more - way more - but I haven't had time to do them all.   Be thankful. 

    Have any of your own (scientific or from another field)?  Let's hear 'em!

    Saturday, May 4, 2013

    Fun with E. coli

    Technically it's fun with Photoshop CS5.

    Discovering that the school computers have the program I played around a bit with it.  I've long thought it would be fun to create a series of tee shirts featuring cartoony pictures of microorganisms people don't like. Eschericia coli is probably at the top of that list, regardless of how important it can be in maintaining a healthy digestive tract.

    Anyway, I learned that while CS5 is pretty easy to use, it's also pretty hard to make smooth lines via a mouse.  I'm pleased with the end result but plan to try again sometime to see if I can smooth out the edges a good deal.

    Thursday, April 4, 2013

    Mission Accomplished

    I went to the book signing last night and managed to get a good seat.  I've been to a few book signing events and this one was definitely one of the better ones, not a little bit due to the fact that there is just so much cool stuff in the book to be discussed.

    I forgot to bring my copy of Packing for Mars but I brought two others and she happily signed all three.
    Notice the mistake in the last one.  It's kind of weird but that made my day!  She was super nice about it and had a great sense of humor (could you really expect anything else?) too and I sure didn't mind.  I guess what makes it truly special for me is the unique and personalized quality to the message (how many people will get books signed complete with editorial marks and the word "duh" included?

    It was her first signing event for the new book so that was cool but I kind of wish I could have gone to tonight's at the Mutter Museum (I think) which will involve the curator bringing related specimens.


    Well, if I can't go, at least I can close this posting with a picture of a megacolon on display at the museum (photo from


    Wednesday, April 3, 2013

    scurrying to see Mary Roach

    Mary Roach, one of my all-time favorite nonfiction authors (hell, one of my all-time favorite authors period) is reading from her new book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal tonight at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square.

    With the exception of Spook (which I do plan to read), I have read all her previous books and loved each.  Her topics of choice are the sort that can't help but stir the imagination - corpses, space, sex, ghosts - and she has previously stated (I'm paraphrasing) that she has the interests of a 14 year old boy.  Give that, this book seems a bit of an oddity for her.  I'd imagine that a book devoted to the digestive tract is a hard sell for most of the public, but maybe I'm wrong.  I can see how it relates to the 14 year old boy mindset (digestion = poop) but I'm not sure if a. that will occur to many would-be readers or b. that will be the very thing that keeps some from reading it. 

    I'm thinking/hoping that her growing popularity is enough to push the public to buy the book.  That in itself is huge.  For myself as a biologist and as an aspiring science writer, the ability to get people interested in topics generally ignored/actively avoided is a major goal.  Beyond that, I am in awe of Ms. Roach for her seemingly fearless approach to all subjects she writes about (in Bonk she doesn't just write about sex research - she participates in it).  I'm not sure how far I will find myself going in pursuit of answers to my questions but starting a blog - available to the public - is a tiny start for me.