Poisoned Intution

The above image comes from a NASA multimedia piece released the other day. Although the caption doesn’t say so, I’m 99% sure that’s exaggerated terrain. It would be nice if the caption indicated that.

This actually qualifies as one of my “Planetarium Pet Peeves” and thus requires little further complaint on my part. I’ll quote two of my colleagues on the topic, even though their words also appear on the “pet peeves” page…

As Chris Anderson puts it, “When we fly audiences over a vertically exaggerated landscape, we poison their intuition about the way these worlds would actually appear.” Or, as my colleague Carter Emmart has been known to observe, “even Iowa looks mountainous when you exaggerate its terrain by a factor of ten.”

Sunset Sadness

The above image is circulating via email accompanied by the following message:

“A scene you will probably never get to see, so take a moment and enjoy God at work at the North Pole. This is the sunset at the North Pole with the moon at its closest point. And, you also see the sun below the moon. An amazing photo and not one easily duplicated. You may want to pass it on to others.

“The Chinese have a saying that goes something like this:

“ ‘When someone shares with you something of value, you have an obligation to share it with others!’ ”

First of all, allow me to assure you that you have no obligation to pass this along to anybody! It’s not what it purports to be. And why do we always attribute sayings to the Chinese? I recently kvetched to some colleagues about the “picture is worth a thousand words” saying being so described, when in fact, it’s due to Fred Barnard, an American advertising manager in the 1920s. Anyway, anyway, anyway,…

This picture is not from the North Pole; it’s computer generated. How can I tell? (Aside from the tell-tale fakeness of the image?) First, the sun and moon are basically the same size as observed from Earth, so you would never see a giant moon like the one above. Also, because of Earth’s tilt, a crescent moon can never appear directly above a setting sun at the North Pole.

This isn’t “God at work”! This is Bryce 3D!


I keep starting to write annoyed and disparaging things, but perhaps I should just go to bed. Just, please, don’t forward this image to anybody. Ever.

Of Nebulae and Drawings

I noticed a slight error that seems to be floating around out there on the net. Several “this day in history” sites, including the Wikipedia page on 4 March list today as the “first sighting of Orion Nebula by William Herschel” in 1774. Strictly speaking that’s not untrue—Herschel seems to have made his first observations of the Orion Nebula on 4 March 1774, but in fact, telescope observations of the nebula had originally been described by Peiresc back in 1610 (cf. a lengthy list of early observations of deep-sky objects).

What’s important about Herschel observing Orion is that it got him started on a massive cataloging campaign that resulted in a list of thousands of deep-sky objects. And a numbering system that’s still in use today!

All this thinking about the Orion Nebula reminded me of the image shown above—a sketch by William Herschel’s son John. I link to a fine-art print offered by David Malin of the same, and in a continuing cascade of connections, I also wanted to point out a marvellous essay by Malin in which he compares Herschel the Younger’s drawing to (a somewhat more psychedelic) one created by William Parsons. As he points out, differences between the two images “result not from changes in the nebula or in telescopic power, but from subjective differences in the way their creators saw, remembered, and sketched what was essentially the same subject.” I’ve blogged about related issues before, but Mailin is both nicer and more eloquent than I.

Anyway, I hope you appreciate a random stroll down this-day-in-history lane.

Lunar Transit

NASA’s Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) mission released a spiffy video of the Moon transiting the Sun. I find myself oddly captivated by the video, watching it over and over…

It reminds me of the good ol’ days of the SGI Reality Centers, when managing high-resolution data was a bigger deal than it is today. They would loop TRACE imagery of the Sun. I think I could watch it for hours, although I never really had the chance. And when we tested audiences for our Cosmic Collisions space show, it seemed I wasn’t alone, since people responded most positively to the solar images.

At the same time, I kind of dislike the color. It seems garish, even though I know it’s done in the standard mappping style. Heck, the web page even tells us: “The Sun as it appears in these the images and each frame of the movie is a composite of nearly simultaneous images in four different wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light that were separated into color channels and then recombined with some level of transparency for each.” Except for the “some level of transparency” bit, that’s a fairly lucid explanation.

More lucid than this post, I suppose. But you should watch the movie!

Spheres in a Plane

Yeah, I remember those long nights at my college paper (The Cornell Daily Sun, if you’re curious) when we’d be laying out a page and recognize the need for a photo to fill space and look pretty and make the design more appealing. And, well, sometimes the photo we’d choose would be, um, kind of a stretch.

Kinda like the image above.

It accompanies a press release on computer simulations of atomic processes in nanomaterials, accompanied by a delightfully mystifying caption: “This three-dimensional atomic simulation shows the absorption of a line defect (caused by an impinging screw) by an existing twin boundary (green spheres) in nano-twinned copper.”

Um, huh? Does that mean anything? I honestly think that someone at MIT decided they needed a picture to go with the text, even if it’s meaningless. Twin boundary? It’s explained as “an abrupt internal interface each side of which is a precise mirror reflection of atoms of the other side” in the press release. But how is that shown as spheres exactly? Anyway, problem piles atop problem, leaving a lack of clarity in its wake.

Built for Pluto, Flew by Jupiter

I should be ashamed of myself! Another spacecraft image? After the one on Sunday? Well, yes.

A press release from the New Horizons team describes the spacecraft’s successful fly-by of Jupiter earlier today. It snapped a the montage of pictures above on its quick pass through the system. Of course, the camera was designed to work out near Pluto—where the Sun’s illumination is some 60 times dimmer than near Jupiter. As described in the picture caption: “LORRI [Long Range Reconnaissance Imager] took the images as the Sun was about to set on the Little Red Spot. The LORRI camera was designed to look at Pluto, where sunlight is much fainter than it is at Jupiter, so the images would have been overexposed if LORRI had looked at the storm when it was illuminated by the noonday Sun.”

I think it’s great to see black-and-white images released, but I wonder what people think. It’s pretty spiffy to take a couple snapshots en route to your final destination, right? (“We were on our way to New Orleans, but we stopped off in Biolxi and took a couple pictures.”) In context, it seems appealing and engaging.

This got me to thinking about gravity assists, too. I’m keen to find an animation that illustrates the concept well, particularly one that show the spacecraft in both the solar system frame of reference and the assisting planet’s frame of reference. An animation from ESA comes close, but doesn’t quite get the details right.


A brief note today, although I should note that I’ve had some networking issues over the last few days, so I’ve actually posted several new items on my blog: a pointer to some sexist imagery, my first-ever post on a video segment, and the obligatory reference to the discovery of Supernova 1987A twenty years ago. Sorry for the glut of words!

Anyway, today’s image comes from ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. Eventually, the mission will explore Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in excruciating detail, but earlier today, the craft swung by Mars and snapped the above image. According to the ESA website, Rosetta’s lander took the picture less than five minutes before closest approach to the Red Planet.

What I really enjoy about the image is, quite simply, the spacecraft. Yeah, the Mars rovers show up in their own images, but something about seeing the spacecraft in the foreground, Mars just 1,000 kilometers behind… It offers a distinct perspective that most such images lack. I don’t suppose it was conscious decision (rather that the Rosetta lander couldn’t image Mars without getting some hardware getting in the way), but I find it very effective. Yes, we actually build these things and send them into space!

It makes me look forward to 2014, when we’ll get data back about the comet, too.

A Minor Blow-Up

A minor gripe about the European Southern Observatory’s press coverage of Supernova 1987A. I feel compelled to blog about SN 1987A because today marks the twentieth anniversary of its discovery.

Honestly, I appreciate ESO putting a graph on their web page of images. Even better, it includes color-coded dots with decent labels! But the good news stops there. Two major problems here: the label on the ordinate and the caption for the image.

Why say simply “V Magnitude” when you could add “Brightness” and make the message more clear?

And why cut the caption so short? “Light curve of the Supernova 1987A over a long period of time. Characteristic phases in the evolution of the supernova are indicated.” I mean, “a long period of time”? Just say “more than a decade” (so people don’t have to do the division in their heads). And how ’bout explaining some of those “characteristic phases” while you’re at it? I’d like to know a little more about radioactive tails; they sound kinda interesting.

Anyway, happy birthday, SN 1987A! And many happy returns…

Tools and Language

Seed Magazine’s Daily Zeitgeist pointed to this post on the Frontal Cortex blog, which is where I found the video I link to above.

Um, wow.

Visualizing another person’s mental state is basically impossible; one can only approach by suggestion and by analogy. And the eight-minute video above, created by an autistic woman, presents a deeply moving and profound glimpse into her world—a statement that is at once scientific, aesthetic, political, and passionate. I had read textbook descriptions of autism that I thought gave me a superficial understanding of the condition, but Amanda’s video transformed my thinking.

Furthermore, the use of (in fact, reliance upon) technology fascinates me. It provides the toolset that allows Amanda not just to create, but also to communicate, via everything from voice synthesis to widescale distribution online. It thrills me to think that we live in a time when such things can happen, when silenced people can speak, when otherwise unarticulated ideas can find expression.

Red, Hot, and Blue

A simple enough image today—the cover of the 2007 Edmund Optics catalog. I saw a post on the Cosmic Variance blog about this image and decided that, although it’s a bit of a stretch, this does in fact touch upon “visualizing science.” Sadly, in a way that reflects poorly on the state of gender parity within certain disciplines.

What’s truly disheartening about the image is that the people who published it seem completely oblivious to what it says. I yammer on about visual language all the time, typically in the context of scientific vocabularies that can obscure or distort intended meanings. But here’s visual language of a different sort—imagery with an unintended cultural meaning that also says something about science, or at least the cultural practice of science.

If you feel inclined to write to Edmund Optics about the cover (and I encourage you to do so), take a look at the aforementioned Cosmic Variance post, which includes email addresses and such.