Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last Post of 2008

There are a multitude of dates which one might celebrate, ripe with meaning both personal and corporate; but this particular holiday has always seemed oddly useless to me. We choose to celebrate this arbitrary division of time, this calendar demarcation, despite its inanity. Birthdays and anniversaries are far more important. I suppose one could argue that New Year is close to the winter solstice, but that original celebration has been pretty well absorbed into Christmas, so there's no reason for a second holiday. In fact, why we should consider January 1st to be a "holy day" - for that's the etymology of the word holiday - is beyond me.
So happy arbitrary calendar division day, everyone. I hope the meaningless number 2009 (being 2008++) brings you cheer, good health, good fortune, and love. As if tomorrow was really, fundamentally, any different than today.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Christmas Note

"Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?" - Dr. Seuss

We've all heard the exhortations to return to the "true meaning of Christmas," but when do we ever act upon it? Why do we watch "It's a Wonderful Life" and then ignore the man sitting alone in the church pew during the candlelight service? The message of Christmas is a much more difficult one than we surmise, not because we are forced to "accept the Christ-child" or believe the nativity story, but because we are reminded - we are called - to treat one another with love and kindness, especially now in the depths of winter. The angel who appeared to the shepherds made his most important point first: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). The Christmas season reminds us that we, too, are to bring good news of great joy, by living it. That we are to love, as we ourselves have been loved.
So what if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more? What if Christmas means more than gifts, sumptuous dinners, snow and traveling? What if Christmas means more than celebrating the hope of spring warmth in the darkness of the winter solstice? What if Christmas means more than the second chapter of Luke, more than the nativity and the remembrance of the day God was made flesh? What if Christmas, perhaps, means even a little bit more than Christ? Christmas is God's reminder to us of the whole plan - the triumph of love in the midst of all hardship or suffering - and that the "Christmas spirit" can overcome Christmas. This is how we discover the "true meaning of Christmas," and how we learn to live it. The true meaning of Christmas surpasses Christmas, permeates every person and every day and brings salvation to the world, but only when we quit talking about it and do it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dark Matter

Here's a neat little story on NPR about the current research on dark matter. Watch the video and tell me it doesn't start out looking like a group of nerve cells. Physics is awesome.

Monday, December 15, 2008


East Lansing? Really? Sigh....

MSU officially gets FRIB. Sorry, Argonne.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why PhD degrees in astronomy and planetary sciences take so long

The citation below is for a preprint (accepted for publication in ApJ) which is the culmination of 16 years worth of observations.

The researchers have essentially confirmed, by examining the orbits of stars exceedingly close to the galactic center (called "S-stars," they are found within one arcsecond of the center), that a massive black hole (about 4 million suns in mass) exists in the center of our own Milky Way. The data were collected over a 16-year span using the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The near-infrared observations were "calibrated" using radioastronomy data from the VLA of known SiO masers, a topic with which I was once involved myself. Once the S-stars were related to known stars (in position and radial velocity, from the near-IR maps and/or spectroscopy of hydrogen lines in the K-band), their orbits could be deduced, and a gravitational potential could be constructed based on the way the observed stars moved. This Keplerian gravitational potential relates to the mass at the center of the galaxy via the parameters of those stellar orbits (the researchers find R0 = 8.33 +/- 0.17(stat) +/- 0.31(sys) kpc), since it is that mass which causes the stars to proceed along the paths they do.
It has been "known" (scientifically hypothesized) for several years that a black hole existed at the center of the Milky Way; these data show that, to within extraordinary statistics (for such an observation), that is indeed the case, and that it most likely is the radio emitter Sagittarius A*.
One of the researchers, Reinhard Genzel, was quoted on the BBC as saying:
"Undoubtedly the most spectacular aspect of our 16-year study, is that it has delivered what is now considered to be the best empirical evidence that super-massive black holes do really exist.... The stellar orbits in the galactic centre show that the central mass concentration of four million solar masses must be a black hole, beyond any reasonable doubt."
And I'd say that's pretty good for 16 years' worth of work.

S. Gillessen, F. Eisenhauer, S. Trippe, T. Alexander, R. Genzel, F. Martins, T. Ott (2008). Monitoring Stellar Orbits around the Massive Black Hole in the Galactic Center The Astrophysics Journal DOI: 2008arXiv0810.4674G

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


This reminds me of a code I wrote - Simulation of Protons from beam Interaction with Target, or "SPIT." I had to stretch the name to fit the acronym just so that I could have the output file be named "spitout." Sigh.
A list of many clever scientific acronyms is here, and a searchable database is here.
And for anyone who doesn't know, "onomastic" refers to the study of proper names and their origins.

Monday, December 1, 2008


As you may be aware, I am somewhat prone to ranting. And rant I will.

I just received my final, bound thesis in the mail, and the binders have made a mistake. My thesis title has nothing to do with a (p,y) reaction. I studied a (p,gamma) reaction. That's the lowercase Greek letter gamma. Not y.

I had no choice in the matter of book binding, and yet a large portion of my graduation fees went toward the binding of six thesis copies (only one of which I get to keep). And after all that money, I get something which is wrong. They didn't just do a sub-par job (like a poor choice of font or something), they did no job (it's completely incorrect). You would think that, after all of the time and effort I spent on my thesis, a book binding company could just engrave the thing correctly. How hard can it be? Given the opportunity, I'd have done it myself.