Thursday, February 11, 2016

Gravitational Waves!

The astronomical world was rocked today (well, news of the announcement leaked out a few weeks ago) by the announcement of the first confirmed detection of gravitational waves --literally ripples in the space-time continuum-- caused by the collision and merger of two black holes located an estimated 1.3 billion light years away. Not only was this the first event detected by gravitational waves, it was the first direction detection of black holes and binary black holes.

This ushers in a new era in astronomy allowing us to probe the universe in a way that's never been done before. If the history of science is any guide, it is certain that there will be unanticipated discoveries that will be made.


There's an amazing amount of info on the 'net about this discovery, so here I've just added this video about it and will a couple of links as well.

The New Yorker has a compelling article on how the gravitational waves were detected. For the more technically inclined be sure to look at this article from the American Astronomical Society and this one from Sky & Telescope magazine.

We live in amazing times. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Moon & Venus Rising

The Moon and Venus were nicely paired this morning before sunrise. Here's the view that I had of them from outside my front door:
And a closer shot of just the Moon:
Mercury, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter are all out in the morning sky right now, making it possible to see six planets at once (counting Earth too!). They are spread out across a large part of the sky, which makes it difficult to photograph, but a great sight to see in the morning sky if it's not too cold outside.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Shoot the Stars with your iPhone

I've recently discovered an app called NightCap Pro that allows you to take night sky (and other low light) images with an iPhone.
I haven't had much in the way of clear skies lately, but I have had a chance to try to app out a bit to see what you can do with it, and I must say, that I'm impressed.
The app has several modes that will appeal to those wanting to capture shots of the night sky. The shot above was my first photo with the app. It was taken in Star Mode and shows the constellation Orion. One of the great features of the app is that you can basically set the focus on your phone's camera to infinity, so you don't have to worry if your stars will be pin points or not. I wish that my DSLR had that ability, as getting a good focus at night can be challenging.
Of course, to take any night sky photos (with an iPhone or DSLR) a tripod of some kind is an absolute must. I've got a Joby for my iPhone and it is great. You can attach it to just about anything. For ease of use, I've been gripping mine to my my regular camera tripod, but my backyard fence would also do nicely.
What I especially like about the app is that you can set it to Star Trails Mode to capture long exposure photographs of the night sky. The shot above shows Orion again (with an airplane flying past Betelgeuse).
Here's a longer shot, with numerous airplane trails, pointed at Polaris, the North Star.
And another photo with Polaris at left and the stars of the Big Dipper ascending just right of middle. The Night Cap Pro app also has a mode for photographing satellites and meteors, which I have yet to try out.

Of course you'll always get better night sky pics with a DSLR camera than you will with the teeny tiny aperture that an iPhone has, but that's the point. It is impressive that you can get any star photos at all with an iPhone. That's the great thing about this app, it allows your tiny iPhone camera to do much more than it was designed to do.
I took this shot of star trails (and a meteor) over Halema Ľuma Ľu Crater in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park in the summer of 2014 with a DSLR. Next time I'm there I'll try it with my phone too.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Crescent Moon With Clouds

I don't have anything special to say about this other than I think that this shot from a few nights ago looks interesting.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Star Trek: Return to Tomorrow

It is time for another look at an episode of Star Trek, today it is:
Return to Tomorrow is an interesting episode that plays well, but after you think about things it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense. Here's what happens...

While exploring "hundreds of light years past where any Earth ship has ever explored" the crew of the Enterprise receives a distress call that leads them to a tattered Class M planet where "about half a million years ago, its atmosphere was totally ripped away by some sort of cataclysm." Okay, that's bad.
The ship is soon contacted by a voice, calling itself Sargon who tells them, "It is the energy of my thoughts which has touched your instruments and directed you here. Now with this closer distance I can speak to you at last."

Sargon requests that they enter into orbit about the dead planet and then threatens them just before the opening credits roll: "... if you let what is left of me perish, then all of you, my children, all of mankind must perish, too." So, if all of humanity is at risk, I guess they had better beam down and see what he wants.
Beaming down through 112.37 miles of rock (!) into a subterranean chamber are Kirk, Spock, McCoy, astrobiologist Dr. Ann Mulhall and 2 security guards, though Sargon apparently didn't want the Red Shirts to join them.
In the chamber they come face-to-face, er... face-to-illuminated-fiberglass-sphere with Sargon. He's nothing more than a mass of energy without substance, which is the essence of his mind.

Sargon has got a lot to tell them, first suggesting that his people may have fathered humanity: "Perhaps your own legends of an Adam and an Eve were two of our travelers." Thankfully, Dr. Mulhall replies saying that life on Earth evolved independently. Go Science! Go evolution!

Sargon also confesses that "the records of our travels were lost in the cataclysm which we loosened upon ourselves... A struggle for such goals and the unleashing of such power that you could not comprehend." That sounds bad.

Kirk compares this to the crisis humanity faced and survived in our nuclear age, but Sargon puts him in his place: "And we survived our primitive nuclear era, my son. But there comes to all races an ultimate crisis which you have yet to face... One day our minds became so powerful, we dared think of ourselves as gods." Gods who apparently couldn't get along with one another.

So what's all this got to do with Kirk and the rest of the landing party?
Sargon switches places with Kirk, occupying his body and placing him into the now dimly glowing fiberglass receptacle.  Here's how McCoy described it: "An alien practically hijacks your body and then corks you into a bottle."
Sargon takes them into another chamber and reveals a couple of important things. First only two others survived: Thalassa, who happens to be Sargon's wife, and Henoch, who was from the "other side" in their great war. As Sargon explains, "we attempted to perpetuate both sides. We built this chamber here in order to preserve our essence in this fashion."

The audience is never told if Sargon's people were all just mental energy before the war forced them down here, if they did this just to survive or much of anything. Certainly Kirk, et al. don't ask him any questions about what happened. Had this been an episode of ST:TNG, Picard would have been asking their culture, what happened in the war and if they left any artifacts behind from before they went all mental, but I digress.
So for the last half a million years Sargon has be searching the heavens with his mind, "probing, waiting, probing. And then one day my mind touched your vessel and brought you here." Apparently Thalassa and Henoch have been saving their energy in Airplane Mode all this time, as you would think that in 500,000 years Sargon might have reached out once in a while to talk to them and, in doing so, realized (as we soon learn) that Henoch is one evil mass of energy.
But the ask here is that Sargon wants Kirk, Spock and Mulhall to give up their bodies for a while so that they can build and then live in creepy-looking humanoid robots. I'm not sure how this meshes with what we heard in the teaser ("... if you let what is left of me perish, then all of you, my children, all of mankind must perish, too."), as they ask Sargon basically, "what happens if we say 'No'?" Sargon's reply: "Then you may go as freely as you came." How can that be?
Anyway, even though this transference messes up everyone's metabolism Kirk thinks that letting Sargon, Thalassa and Henoch use their bodies is a good idea and he explains why in his famous Risk Speech:
It's a classic Kirk monologue and the highlight of the episode.
The smile tells you he's evil.
Because the transference messes up everyone's metabolism, they need injections to keep them going and unfortunately they let Henoch (in Spock's body) handle the formulas and he uses that opportunity to kill Kirk and Sargon. Yup, Kirk dies in this one. Mostly. Sort of.
Actually, Thalassa, who shows no remorse for the death of her husband Sargon, reveals that 1) there's a way to save Kirk and 2) that both she and Henoch intend on keeping the bodies they are borrowing. McCoy responds with: "I will not peddle flesh. I'm a physician." Well said, Dr. McCoy.

Thalassa is not impressed though, calling him "a prancing, savage medicine man" and that he should be on his knees worshiping her.  "I could destroy you with a single thought." Nice gal, that Thalassa. I can certainly see why Sargon is so in love with her.
Sargon, though, is apparently not dead, he brings Kirk back, has a plan to defeat Henoch but apparently to do so both Dr. Mulhall and Spock have to be sacrificed to make it happen. We even get to see their dead, smoking fiberglass receptacles.
There's a bit of misdirection to confuse Henoch and he, well Spock is injected with poison, killing him. So, yeah. Both Kirk and Spock "die" in this episode.
Or so we are lead to believe. As Henoch flees Spock's body Sargon somehow kills him and then we learn that it wasn't really poison after all. Once more, Spock's consciousness isn't dead either. They popped him in with Christine Chapel, who was pretty happy about the whole thing: "We shared consciousness together." How touching.

As for Sargon and Thalassa, apparently the fate of mankind doesn't matter. They've realized that they just aren't going to fit in. "We now know we cannot permit ourselves to exist in your world, my children. Thalassa and I must now also depart into oblivion." They kiss and are gone.

It kind of makes you wonder what the point was, doesn't it? Maybe Sargon thought that half a million years of waiting would have made them better "people" (or whatever), but that didn't turn out to be the case.

Anyway, George Duning wrote about 18 minutes of music for this episode. It's not my favorite Trek music, but it seems to work here.

Ralph Senesky directed the episode and he blogged about it here.  It is totally worth checking out. Spoiler, this wasn't his favorite episode.

All-in-all, Return to Tomorrow is not the worst of Trek, but it isn't in the top tier either.

Next time, it's a fun one - The Ultimate Computer.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Monday, January 4, 2016

My Top Books of 2015

I'm a little late in posting this, but as they say better late than never, right?

I read 24 books in 2015, which is more than I read in 2014 (18) or 2013 (9), so I guess I am trending in the right direction.

As usual I read a mix of science fiction, science, history and "making of" type books. Not all of them were published in 2015, so this probably doesn't really qualify as a best of the year list.

In science, I most enjoyed Kip Thorne's 2014 book The Science of Interstellar.
The book is an excellent look at black holes, worm holes, space travel and more as they were portrayed in the movie Interstellar. Kip Thorne was the movie's science adviser and in real life knows more about worm hole theory than just about anyone on Earth.
In the category of history, it is hard to top David McCullough's 2015 book The Wright Brothers. It is a wonderful look at the earliest days of powered flight. As usual, McCullough tells an engaging story that makes his topics really come alive. I confess that I didn't know too much about Orville and Wilbur Wright before reading this book, so I'm happy to have read this.
I read several "making of" type books in 2015 - which included J.W. Rinzler's The Making of The Empire Strikes Back and Marc Cushman's These Are the Voyages: TOS Season Three - his third volume looking back at the original Star Trek series, but my two favorites were Cary Elwes' autobiographical As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride and Return to Tomorrow, Neal Preston Jones' massive look at the making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

If you loved the movie The Princess Bride than you should read Elwes' fun book. Elwes, who played Westley in the movie, tells tales not only of how the movie was made, but how it basically flopped when released (the studio didn't know how to market the film) and then got new life when it was released on home video. It is a quick and easy read that's great fun.

Neal Preston Jones' book isn't for everybody, but I really enjoyed it. According to Goodreads, which is what I use to keep track of the books I read, it was read by just 11 people there! Compare that to the over 82,000 who read another book from my 2015 list: This Is Your Brain on Music. Anyway, Return to Tomorrow is a deep, long (682 pages!) oral history of the making of the first Star Trek movie. If you want to know why Star Trek: The Motion Picture turned out the way that it did and what its actors and creators had to say about it while it was being made, then this is the book for you.
In science fiction I enjoyed Jack McDevitt's Thunderbird and Nemesis Games, the next installment in The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (now a TV series on SyFy), but my favorite was Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven. Shipstar is a hard science fiction novel and sequel to their 2012 novel The Bowl of Heaven. I enjoyed Shipstar more than the first novel and recommend them both.
Here's part of my To Read Pile as it looked on Christmas. There are some others that aren't in the shot, but it looks like 2016 will be another good year for reading.