Friday, December 30, 2016

My Top Books of 2016

2016 gave me more time to read than I have had in quite a while. I managed to read 46 books, which far exceeded the 24 books I read in 2015 and the 18 I read in 2014.

As I've done in the past, here are my thoughts on some of what I read this year, focusing mostly on books published in the last few years.

I teach astronomy, so it is no surprise that I like books about astronomy and space exploration.  I read a lot of them this year. Back in March I blogged about two of them: Infinity Beckoned by Jay Gallentine and The New Cosmos by David Eicher, but I also very much enjoyed Thomas Levenson's The Hunt for Vulcan, Marcia Bartusiak's Black Hole* and Tyler Nordgren's Sun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses, from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets.
On the space exploration front there's Into the Black, Roland White's wonderful history of the Space Shuttle program's origins and first two flights. Also, while Hidden Figures is getting a lot of attention right now (they've made a movie of it), Nathalia Holt's Rise of the Rocket Girls also tells the story of human woman 'computers'. Rocket Girls is an enjoyable and informative history of the women computers at JPL, while Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures profiles the black women computers who worked on NASA's human spaceflight program. Hidden Figures is on my to-read pile (see below), I just haven't read it yet.

In science fiction, I recently finished Babylon's Ashes, the sixth book in The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. It's a great series of "space opera" novels that's also become a series on SyFy that's worth watching. I also enjoyed Solar Express by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. It tells the tale of an alien artifact that makes way through the solar system, the astronomer that discovered it, and someone that gets sent to visit it.

I bought Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem mostly because of its interesting title (Okay, the fact that it won the 2015 Hugo Award for best novel may have had something to do with it too). It was a fantastic read. When I started it I didn't realize that it was the first of three books. The second book, The Dark Forest was just as amazing. I'll soon be starting Death's End, the third book in series. I can't wait.
Somewhat related to science fiction are some other books I should mention. William Shatner's Leonard, a biography of Leonard Nimoy. It was far more moving than I expected and well worth reading for any one who is a fan of Star Trek and Nimoy's work. Speaking of Star Trek, I also very much enjoyed both volumes of The Fifty Year Mission by Mark Altman and Edward Gross. They are oral histories that look at the 50 years of Star Trek (surprise!). The first book covers the original series and the movies made by that cast, while the second book looks at The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise and the JJ Abrams Trek movies. I preferred the second book, as it had much more in it that I had never heard of, but both were good reads.

The book that I perhaps enjoyed the most was an unexpected choice for me. It is one that I picked up on on a whim that then sat in my to-read pile. It was there at the end of both 2014 and 2015. This year I decided that I should really give it a try and I'm glad I did.

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides was riveting. The title really says it all, it really was a grand and terrible expedition. Hampton Sides did a wonderful job in telling the tragic tale of this doomed expedition that set sail for the arctic in the late 1870s. It is a gripping history that I highly recommend.

Finally, as I like to do, here is a photo of my to-read pile as we head into 2017. I've actually already started The Big Book Of Science Fiction, but it is such a big book of short stories that I am only occasionally reading that it might very well be somewhere in the pile next year. Hopefully 2017 will bring even more good books to read.

*The full title is Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled On by Hawking Became Loved, but that's just too long to put into a sentence with other book titles that also have really long titles, such as this one: The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe. I don't know about you, but we seem to be living in a period of book title inflation.

Star Trek: The Enterprise Incident

It has been a very busy fall for me and as a result my blogging has come to a standstill. I'm on winter break now and back in action. Before the year is done I should be posting my thoughts on the books I read in 2016, but now its time to visit another episode of the original series of Star Trek.

The Enterprise Incident is considered by many to be the best episode of Trek's otherwise disappointing third season and for good reason, as it is a standout.

The premise is that Kirk and Spock are acting under secret orders to try to steal a Romulan cloaking device. Kirk violates treaty by bringing the Enterprise into the Romulan Neutral Zone and quickly finds that his starship is surrounded by Romulan ships that suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

On the bridge, Kirk asks Spock about what happened:
Kirk: "Mister Spock, you said you had a theory on why your sensors didn't pick up the new ships until they were upon us."
Spock: "I believe the Romulans have developed a cloaking device which renders our tracking sensors useless."
Kirk: "If so, Romulans could attack in Federation territory before we knew they were there, before a vessel or planet could get even begin to get their defenses up."
This of course should be no surprise to anyone, as the Romulans already had a cloaking device in season one's Balance of Terror. Yes, most episodes from this era of Trek don't refer to any of the previous episodes, but this one really should have done so.
Kirk and Spock beam over to one of the Romulan ships and find that the Romulan fleet is commanded by a woman (Joanne Linville), which was wonderfully progressive for the time. Even more so when you consider that there was no comment about it.

The Romulan commander attempts to find out what the Enterprise is doing in their space and Spock describes it as being all Kirk's fault.
Spock: The strain of command has worn heavily upon him. He's not been himself for several weeks.
Kirk: That's a lie!
Spock: As you can see, Captain Kirk is a highly sensitive and emotional person. I believe he has lost the capacity for rational decision.

Kirk: Shut up, Spock!
Spock: I'm betraying no secrets. The commander's suspicion that Starfleet ordered the Enterprise into the Neutral Zone is unacceptable. Our rapid capture demonstrates its foolhardiness.

Kirk: You filthy liar!
Spock: I am speaking the truth for the benefit of the Enterprise and the Federation. I say now and for the record, that Captain Kirk ordered the Enterprise across the Neutral Zone on his own initiative and his craving for glory.
Kirk: I'll kill you, you filthy traitor! I'll kill you! I'll kill you!
Spock: He is not sane.
A seemingly despondent and exhausted Kirk is incarcerated and McCoy is brought over treat him.
When Spock enters his cell, Kirk attacks him and Spock responds in kind:
Spock: I was unprepared for his attack. I instinctively used the Vulcan Death Grip.
McCoy: Your instincts are still good, Mister Spock. The captain is dead.
Yes, Kirk is dead. Only he's not. There's no such thing as a Vulcan Death Grip and it's all part of the plan (though McCoy didn't know it at the time). That way the blame can be put on Kirk and not the Federation.
Scotty: "You look like the Devil himself."


To distract her from their real mission Spock romances the Romulan commander (where they drink Tang together, because that's what you drink in space) as "Romulan" Kirk beams aboard in an attempt to steal the cloaking device.

Naturally, Kirk find and steals the cloaking device, which looks like a cross between Nomad and Sargon's glowing receptacle. He beams back with it and tells Scotty that he's got just fifteen minutes (!) for him to successfully integrate this piece of alien technology into the Enterprise's systems. 15! Yeah, that's crazy. This is how Scotty got his reputation as a miracle worker.

Naturally, it worked. They manage to beam Spock back aboard (complete with the Romulan commander), saving him from execution and successfully make their escape. It's all exciting and fun.

Alexander Courage wrote about 38 minutes of music for the episode with themes for the dramatic action, Spock's romantic encounters with the Romulan commander and more.

The Enterprise Incident is top-notch Trek and easily the best episode of season three. Next up, one of the worst: And the Children Shall Lead.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


It is Earth Science Week and at Palomar College today we celebrated with a demonstration (well, three of them actually) of a simulated volcanic eruption. I shot video of the three explosions. The first one in real time and the next two (which were bigger booms) in slow motion. Have a look:
Yes, the third one (complete with ping pong balls) broke the trash barrel.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Flying Around the Moon

I'm teaching a course this fall on the geology of our solar system. It's my first time teaching it so I've been spending a lot of time looking at imagery of the planets and their moons. We live in an amazing age where there are spacecraft that are currently investigating Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, a comet (until later this week, that is), an asteroid, and our Moon. In addition to all the missions that are happening now, there's a tremendous legacy of imagery from older spacecraft, including fabulous images from the Apollo missions to the Moon.

I've just begun to scratch the surface of the thousands of images in the Apollo Image Atlas. This afternoon I was looking at just two orbits of images captured in 1972 by Apollo 17's Mapping (aka Metric) Camera. The camera was located in the Command Service Module's instrument bay and returned images like this one that looked at the Moon's horizon:

This shot was captured during Apollo 17's 36th orbit about the Moon. Thankfully, the website contains maps that show which way the various images are orientated. That's the nearside crater Manilius near the center above and Mare Vaporum (the Sea of Vapors) is the smooth, dark area to its right. Names aside, it is a starkly beautiful view of the Moon.

The mapping cameras also took images pointed directly downward. Here's a shot from orbit 38:

This shot contains a curvy rille at left, a prominent crater at right and mountains throughout that are on the edge of the Sea of Serenity. It is an area that's not too far from where the first photo I posted was taken.

I decided to take the images that I downloaded and turn them into two short movies, which I have posted below.

Watching them is not that same as flying to the Moon, but it is an amazing view.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Star Trek: The Paradise Syndrome

Star Trek turned 50 years old just a few days ago, so (only a few days late) here's another look at an episode from the original series.
The Paradise Syndrome is a pretty decent episode, especially for season 3.

It begins with Kirk, Spock and McCoy on a very Earth-like planet. Kirk is surprised at the plant life, saying "It's unbelievable. Growth exactly like that of Earth on a planet half a galaxy away." He asks Spock about the odds of this and Spock replies that they are "Astronomical." Was that a pun? Probably not.  Spock continues, "The relative size, age and composition of this planet makes it highly improbable that it would evolve similarly to Earth in any way."
Okay, that is surprising, but even more surprising is that the planet is populated by Native Americans (though they called them American Indians, as it was the 60s you know). Spock impressively can even tell that they are a mix of the Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware Tribes. Strangely, the landing party seems to have been more surprised by the Earth-like plants than seeing the Native Americans.

There's also a curious obelisk that doesn't fit with the native's level of technology, but they'll have to check it out later as the Enterprise needs to go and stop an asteroid from crashing into this planet and causing an extinction-level event. It's a big one too--almost as large as Earth's moon.
Just before they beam up, Kirk falls into the obelisk and gets zapped into unconsciousness. Spock and McCoy didn't see what happened to him. McCoy wants to stay behind to hunt for Kirk, but Spock reminds them that they need to get moving if they are going to stop that asteroid.
Spock uses rocks to explain to McCoy how asteroids move in space. McCoy looks confused.

For some reason no one suggests leaving a landing party behind to hunt for Kirk while the rest take care of business. Instead, they beam up and head off to divert the big rock that is headed this way.
Spock really pushes the Enterprise to the limit, but the deflector beam doesn't move the asteroid enough. The result is that they limp ahead of the asteroid until they can muster another attempt with their phasers.
Meanwhile, Kirk awakens and emerges from the obelisk. He's lost all his memories but, because he was seen coming from the obelisk, is assumed to be a god. Kirk's godhood seems legit when successfully brings back a boy to life with something like CPR. They make him medicine man and, by tribal tradition, he gets to marry Miramanee, the hottie who first found him. This sits well with everyone, except Salish, who is the now former tribal medicine man.
The Enterprise fires phasers as the asteroid, as Spock wants to split it in half. Would that really help? Probably not. I'm guessing there's a big convex lens somewhere between the starship and the rock. Otherwise, how can those converging beams come together? Anyway, it doesn't work and the Enterprise ends up in even worse shape. As Scotty says, "That Vulcan won't be satisfied till these panels are a puddle of lead!"

Soon Salish's stunt double (left) challenges Kirk's stunt double (who looks nothing like Kirk) in a knife fight. The best line here comes from Salish: "Behold a god who bleeds."

In spite of this, Kirk, or should I say Kirok as he was known, is happy. He and Miramanee marry and she becomes pregnant. Yet everyone expects him to fulfill his destiny of saving them all. As the tribal elder asks, "Wise Ones who planted us here will send a god to save us, one who can rouse the temple spirit and make the sky grow quiet. Can you do this?" Um. Kirok really has no idea about this at all. At least we know now why there are Native Americans on this planet. The Wise Ones apparently lifted them from Earth some time ago.

When push comes to shove and it is clear that now is the time for action, Kirk can't do anything more than run to the temple/obelisk and shout "I am Kirok!" The people are unimpressed and immediately begin throwing rocks at him. Miramanee rushes to him and is pelted as well.

Thankfully, the Enterprise arrives just in time and Spock has figured out what the writing on the obelisk means.
Kirk gets his memories back, thanks to a timely mind meld. They rigger the asteroid deflection mechanism in the temple, but they are too late to save Miramanee and her unborn child.

All-in-all it is a fine episode. In spite of it being a Kirk-centered episode, there's good tension between Spock & McCoy and Scotty gets to rant from the engine room. Its all good.

It was an early episode in season 3, so it got its own musical score by Gerald Fried, which is very nice.

By the way, The Paradise Syndrome has a very good followup by Star Trek Continues. Their episode The White Iris is a very moving story that is worthy of your time.

Next up for me is an episode that many consider to be one of the finest in season three--The Enterprise Incident.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A Visit to the Space Shuttle Endeavour

The Space Shuttle has had a big influence on my life. Back in 1981 I got up early to watch the launch of Columbia (STS-1) on the dorm TV in college. That first launch attempt was scrubbed, but two days later there I was again, along with a few others, to watch it as rode skyward and began a new era of space exploration. A few days later I was able to catch its landing just after I got out of class. The room was filled and everyone was cheering and excited to see the Shuttle return safely to Earth. For the next mission (STS-2) Columbia's historic return to space, a friend in the dorm managed to get a pass for us to view the landing from Edwards Air Force Base. We made the road trip from Flagstaff, Arizona and caught its thrilling descent in person. It was a moving experience.

A few years later, the January, 1986 loss of the Challenger and all hands aboard on STS-51L had a profound impact on my life. I'll tell that story here another day, but the Shuttle that replaced Challenger was Endeavour. I never saw Endeavour in person until four years ago when it was retired and flying westward toward its new home in California. Thanks to astronaut Mark Kelly, the 747 carrying it made a low flyover of the University of Arizona campus in Tucson.

I managed to get a few memorable shots of the flyover (including the one above) as the Shuttle made its last flight. From there, the Shuttle made an amazing 12-mile journey across Los Angeles to its new home at the California Science Center. It's been nearly four years since that happened, but the time-lapse movie of its move is magical to watch--even if you've seen it before.

I live in California now and I finally had the chance to go and see Endeavour in person this weekend and she is a beauty from up close.

Here's the view upon entering her hangar. We arrived right when the Science Center opened and made a beeline for the Shuttle and as a result, even though it was a Saturday morning, there weren't many people there at the time. By the way, if you visit on a holiday or weekend you need to make reservations.

The shot above is from the other side. I managed to forget my DSLR camera, but my iPhone in panorama mode worked wonderfully well in capturing the 122-foot long Shuttle Orbiter.

Endeavour's nose.
And Tail.
A view of some of the heat-protective tiles on the Shuttle's underside.

All good museums give you the opportunity to buy stuff before you leave and the California Science Center has its fair share of cool Shuttle stuff right there in the hanger with it. I didn't buy one of these, but they have a stuffed Shuttle complete with stuffed Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and a stuffed External Tank (ET). It is all neatly held together with Velcro (a space program spinoff). Somebody in the gift shop got the brilliant idea to take some of them and turn them into a display. Here's how it looks:
That's the full launch stack at bottom. The SRBs are separating in the middle and the Shuttle has cast off the ET at top. Very nice. By the way, if you want to watch all 135 Shuttle launches at once, check out this amazing video which also can also be seen at the Science Center.

A Space Shuttle Main Engine
 There are lots of other cool displays around the Shuttle and upstairs in the main building, with plenty of mission-flown artifacts. The Center also has a Mercury capsule ("flown" by Ham, the chimp), the Gemini 11 spacecraft, the Apollo-Soyuz Command Module, Ken Mattingly's Apollo 16 spacesuit, a nice collection of meteorites and scale models robotic explorers & telescopes that have flown in space too.
All-in-all, the center is a great place to visit for space enthusiasts.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Venus Jupiter Conjunction

Here's the view I had this evening of the close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter low in the western sky.