#AdlerWall 05: Share Interesting Observations, Ask Questions

by Shane L. Larson

Apparently this creature eats quarters.

Apparently this creature eats quarters.

My wife and I just bought a new couch and when we flipped the old one over to carry it downstairs, a quarter fell out. When I was in high school, arcades were the rage and a quarter was a ticket to a nice half-hour playing Xenophobe or Blasteroids. These days, it goes in my pocket and gets spent on parking. Despite the sad evolution of my life into adulthood, the appearance of the quarter sparked an interesting thought: I don’t remember dropping a quarter in my couch, and probably no one else would either, so that must mean almost everyone’s couch likely has a loose quarter in it! That observation, sparked an interesting question: how much money in quarters is hidden in couches?

(L) How I used to spend quarters. (R) How I spend quarters now. If the place on the left still existed, I could feed the the thing on the right with my phone and put those quarters to good use! :-)

(L) How I used to spend quarters. (R) How I spend quarters now. If the place on the left still existed, I could feed the the thing on the right with my phone and put those quarters to good use!🙂

Because you and I live in the future, information is at our fingertips. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and was quickly at the US Census site, which told me there are approximately 116,000,000 households in the United States (this page is where I landed). So if they all have a couch, and each couch has a quarter in it, that amounts to:

$0.25 * 116,000,000 = $29,000,000

There are 29 MILLION dollars in quarters hiding in couches! This observation has sparked some interesting discussions with friends that are wide ranging and varied: is there really only 1 quarter per couch? How much money disappears from circulation every year? Is there some way we could collect all that money? What could we do with $29 million?

This little exercise is something known as a “Fermi Problem,” — taking something you know (my couch has a quarter in it) and figuring out the implications based on other things you know (the number of households in the United States). Scientists use the method all the time to understand what the Universe is all about, particularly in astronomy where we don’t know much. But the interesting bit about the quarter question is not the number, it is the discussions that ensue afterward.

Just a few observations I have made and shared with friends, found on my smartphone. You most likely have a similar set!

Just a few observations I have made and shared with friends, found on my smartphone. You most likely have a similar set!

You make observations of the world around you all the time, and share those observations on social media or over coffee with friends. I know you do, because I see jillions of people everyday taking pictures of flower bushes and posting them to social media, asking friends over coffee if they noticed they way the clouds were streaked over the city that day, speculating on why the traffic was heavy or light today, or simply enjoying the spectacle of the brilliant turquoise color of the lake on a sunny day. You see the world around you and record it and talk about it, every single day.

adlerwall_questionsobservations

Given our social connectedness in modern life, this week’s exhortations from the #AdlerWall are ones that might not seem totally incongruous: “Share Interesting Observations” and “Ask Questions.” We are all good at this to some varying degree, but kids are masters. Children ask incessant questions of their parents:

“How do airplanes fly?”

“Where do frogs go in the winter?”

“Why do we say ‘bark’ to mean the sound dogs make and the skin of a tree?” 

They also share interesting observations:

“Look how you can make a loud sound by squishing your hand in your armpit!”

“If I hit my spoon right here, it flips oatmeal WAY over there!”

“The shadows from this tree look like an octopus!”

But sadly, somewhere along the pathway to adulthood, many of us lose that unbridled enthusiasm we had as children for exploring the world around us, and declaring our discoveries to the world. Sure, I’ve wondered how many gummy bears I can fit in my mouth and figured out the answer (37) — who hasn’t? It’s not that we don’t know how to ask questions and share our observations.  It has just become the societal norm to squelch the unbridled enthusiasm.

Yes, that’s right: squelch, not kill. Because in the quiet moments, we all give into the most basic impulse to ask a question, to look at the world around us and see what is going on. You might not always post a picture of the weather radar during a torrential thunderstorm, but you still made a screen capture. You have stayed up too late at night because you went to Wikipedia to find out about The Great Platte River Archway and two hours later found yourself still on your tablet, having randomly navigated through clicks until you were reading about the Toledo War. You’ve almost certainly been hanging out with your friends, when someone has asked some esoteric question about the difference between fountain pens and calligraphy pens, igniting a debate that was only resolved by asking Google or Wikipedia.

img_7696For most of us, making interesting observations and asking questions of our friends and the internet are diversions to everyday life, something we do for the sheer enjoyment of learning. But lurking just below the surface of those questions and observations is always a myriad of important ideas and applications, some of which we understand and some of which we may not. Irrespective, it points a simple and inescapable fact: we are all close to being scientists, simply by doing what we do — asking questions and making observations.

Let me illustrate with a curious observation I just made the other day. I have a vertical glass shower door; the glass is maybe 10 mm thick. If you put your eye right up against the edge of the door, and look into the glass (not through the glass), you a mesmerizing collection of reflections inside the glass door!

The view inside a glass door, looking edge on into the glass.

The view inside a glass door, looking edge on into the glass.

I’m sure I could work out the physics of the all the reflections as to why it happens (and could probably subject some future students to the analysis of that problem), but instead I’ll just share that observation with you. The next time you walk through a glass door, take a moment and peer in through the edge, looking longways into the glass — you’ll be treated to the same awesome spectacle I discovered. Maybe you’ll show it to a friend, or you’ll sketch it in your pocket notebook, or you’ll create a new glass sculpture inspired by the sight.  Irrespective, I’ve shared my observation with you, and hopefully shown you something you haven’t see before!  You should share what you see too.

So what does that have to do with anything? Peering into the glass of your shower door produces a spectacle that is fun and pleasing to behold, like a piece of symmetric art or a kaleidoscope. But the basic physics, called internal reflection, led to many, many modern applications, not the least of which are fiber optics, and the heart of most high-speed communications networks that are likely streaming internet and movies into your home right now. Binoculars have a pair of prisms that use internal reflection to gather the images of distant objects and route them through the binoculars to make a correct, right-side up image at your eye. Internal reflection of light in a raindrop takes the light from the Sun behind you, and directs it back at you to make a rainbow. And perhaps last, but not least, internal reflection is the basic physical principle behind infinity mirrors (IMHO, one of the coolest pieces of home decor you can have — your spouse may or may not disagree…).

Everyday examples of internal reflection. (Top L) Binoculars. (Top R) Rainbow creation by raindrops. (Bottom) Light propagating through a fiber. [All images from Wikimedia Commons]

Everyday examples of internal reflection. (Top L) Binoculars. (Top R) Rainbow creation by raindrops. (Bottom) Light propagating through a fiber. [All images from Wikimedia Commons]

All of this is connected, in a simple way, to the little pane of glass on my shower door. The world is a strange and wondrous place, full of moments of giddy discovery if you take the time to notice.🙂

So I’ll see you out in the world — I’m the guy blocking the entrance to the coffee shop as I try to snap a picture looking longways into their glass door.🙂

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This post is part of an ongoing series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall.  Links to the entire series are here at the first post of the #AdlerWall Series.

The Cosmic Classroom on Boxing Day

by Shane L. Larson

The seas of the Cosmos are vast and deep. From our vantage point here on the shores of Earth, we have seen much that is beautiful, awe-inspiring, frightening, humbling, confusing, and enigmatic. The simple truth of astronomy is that it is a spectator sport. The only thing we can do, is watch the skies and wait for the next Big Thing to happen. We collect events, like bottle-caps or flowers, and add them to our collection. Each new addition is a mystery, a new piece of a puzzle that takes shape ever-so-slowly over time.

On 14 September 2015, the LIGO-Virgo collaboration announced that they had detected the first gravitational waves ever, and that those waves had been created by a pair of merging black holes far across the Cosmos.

Today, we have some more news: LIGO has detected the second gravitational wave event ever, and those waves were also created by a pair of merging black holes far across the Cosmos. But as is often the case with astronomy, we know what we’ve observed, but we still don’t know what it means.

The name of the event is GW151226 (the date of the event), but within the collaboration, we call it “The Boxing Day Event.” On 26 December 2015 (Boxing Day in Europe), the two LIGO detectors responded to the faint ripple of gravitational energy washing across the Earth, the signature of two black holes merging to form a new larger black hole.

LIGO detected the black holes merging at 3:53 UTC in the morning on Boxing Day (it was late in the evening on Christmas Day in the United States, 9:53pm Central Standard Time). The event happened 440 Megaparsecs away — almost 1.4 billion lightyears! As with GW150914 before it, this titanic merger of black holes happened long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. It happened before multi-cellular life had ever arisen on Earth, and for a billion years that information has been sailing through the void, until it washed across our shores.

Learning to do astronomy: We can’t do experiments in astronomy, not the way we all learned to do them in middle schoolExperiment. Observe. Fail. Learn. Repeat.

The timeline of LIGO's first Observing run (called O1). The first detection (GW150914) and the second detection (GW151226) are marked. There was also a candidate that looked like a gravitational wave, but was not strong enough for astronomers to confidently say a detection was made.

The timeline of LIGO’s first Observing run (called O1). The first detection (GW150914) and the second detection (GW151226) are marked. There was also a candidate that looked like a gravitational wave, but was not strong enough for astronomers to confidently say a detection was made. [Image: LIGO Collaboration]

In astronomy, all we can do is observe, and hope that when we see something interesting happen, it happens again. Or something similar happens again, so we can start trying to make connections. Since the first LIGO detection, we have been patiently waiting for more detections. It could have been anything: merging neutron stars, a gamma-ray burst with an associated gravitational wave signal, a supernova explosion in the Milky Way, or perhaps other pair of black holes similar to GW150914.  As it turns out, it was the merger of black holes, but somewhat different than the one we observed before. Excellent! A chance to learn something new about the Cosmos!

When you look at the pile of gravitational wave events we’ve seen before (it’s a very small pile — there is only one event there, GW150914), we do the most obvious thing you can imagine: we start to compare them.

sll_blackHoleSummary

Strictly in terms numbers, you see that the Boxing Day black holes are less massive than the GW150914 black holes, by a substantial amount. This tells astronomers something very important: black holes can and do come in a variety of masses. That certainly did not have to be the case; there are many instances in the Cosmos where almost every example of an object is similar to every other object. People are all roughly the same height; grains of sand are almost all roughly the same size; yellow-green stars like the Sun (“Type G2” in astronomer speak) are all roughly the same mass. Though we did not expect it to be true, it could have been the case that all black holes were about the same mass; LIGO is happy to report that black holes come in many different masses.

But this, in and of itself, inspires new questions and new mysteries. The question for astronomers now is where do black holes of different sizes come from? The Boxing Day black holes are “normal size” — we think we understand how black holes in this mass range are made in supernovae explosions. The GW150914 black holes are a much grander mystery — they are larger (by a factor of 2 or 3) than any black holes that we expect to form from stars today. We have some interesting ideas about where they may come from, but those ideas can only be tested with more gravitational wave observations.

Comparison of the size of black holes observed by LIGO, as well as other candidates detected with conventional telescopes. (L) The physical size of the black holes overlaid on a map of the eastern United States. (R) The same image showing the masses on the vertical axis, and the black holes that combined to make larger black holes. [Image: LIGO Collaboration]

Comparison of the size of black holes observed by LIGO, as well as other candidates detected with conventional telescopes. (L) The physical size of the black holes overlaid on a map of the eastern United States. (R) The same image showing the masses on the vertical axis, and the black holes that combined to make larger black holes. [Image: LIGO Collaboration]

Gravitational wave astronomy: Every observation is different, because every source is different. Every set of waves is a unique fingerprint that encodes the physical properties of the objects that made the waves: their masses, how fast they are spinning, what kind of object they are,  how physically big they are, the distance to them, and so on. It’s like looking at the pictures in your high school yearbook — every picture is the same size, and is what we all call a “picture,” but each one uniquely identifies you or your friends. It encodes the color of your hair and eyes, whether you were smiling and wearing braces, the sweater you wore on picture day, and so on.

A typical visualization of a black hole binary. They emit no light, so there are no pictures! [Image: SXS Collaboration]

A typical visualization of a black hole binary. They emit no light, so there are no pictures! [Image: SXS Collaboration]

When we look at our data, we don’t usually show pictures. LIGO is not a telescope, so it does not generate images like we are used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. Most “pictures” you see are simulations or realizations of the data. Instead, we show our data as graphs and plots that represent our data in ways that tell astronomers what LIGO is measuring and how that relates to quantities in physics we understand, like orbit size or energy.

A stereo equalizer display.

A stereo equalizer display.

One common picture we use is something called a “spectragram” — you may have encountered something like a spectragram on a stereo. The equalizers on your stereo tell you how loud the music in terms of whether it is more treble sounding or bass sounding.  In LIGO, we look at our data by looking a spectragram and how it changes over time.  The fact that the Boxing Day black holes and GW150914 are different is immediately obvious when comparing their spectragrams — the fine details of the shape and duration is different in the two cases, but they have the same basic swoopy shape to them. Think about your high school yearbook: the pictures are all kind of the same, but different in the details.

The comparison of spectragrams from GW150914 (top) and the Boxing Day event (bottom). The blue swoop is the gravitational wave signal as it evolves in time (early in the event on the left, and the final merger in the tall swoop on the right). [Images: LIGO Collaboration]

The comparison of spectragrams from GW150914 (top) and the Boxing Day event (bottom). The blue swoop is the gravitational wave signal as it evolves in time (early in the event on the left, and the final merger in the tall swoop on the right). [Images: LIGO Collaboration]

The difference in the gravitational waves LIGO detected is even more obvious if you look at the waveforms themselves. Imagine you are standing on the beach watching waves roll in and crash on the sand. In between waves, the water is calm and relatively low, but at the moment the wave is washing ashore, the height of the water increases subtantially; if you happen to be standing in the wave as it washes by, you might not be able to stand up because the energy carried by the wave is enough to knock you over. In a very similar way, the waveforms illustrate the strength of the gravitational waves as they wash past the Earth. The size of the “up and down” in the waveforms we plot tells us how strong the waves are.  If you compare the Boxing Day black hole waveforms with the GW150914 waveforms, you see they both have a lot of up and down (a measure of strength — they were strong enough for LIGO to detect!), but their overall shape and duration is different.

Comparison of the "waveforms" for GW150914 (top) and the Boxing Day black holes (bottom). The signals are considerably different, and longer in the case of the Boxing Day event. [Images: LIGO Collaboration]

Comparison of the “waveforms” for GW150914 (top) and the Boxing Day black holes (bottom). The signals are considerably different, and longer in the case of the Boxing Day event. [Images: LIGO Collaboration]

Gravitational wave astronomers at LIGO are most excited about the long chain of up-and-downs in the Boxing Day waveforms. This is a part of the black hole evolution we call the insprial — the long, slow time where the orbit is shrinking, the black holes drawing inexorably closer, creeping toward their ultimate fate: the coalesence into a new, single, spinning black hole. The longer the inspiral is visible to LIGO, the longer we can study the black holes with gravitational waves. Once they merge to form a new black hole, they very quickly become quiet, much like a bell fading into silence after being struck by a hammer. The inspiral, and the merger, are the only chance we have to take the measure of these tremendous astrophysical entities.

What now? LIGO has now made two detections of gravitational waves, both during our first observing run (what we call “O1”). In mid-January 2016, we turned LIGO off and have spent the ensuing months combing over the machine and addressing all the problems and difficulties we encountered in O1. In late summer 2016, we’ll start up for “O2.” We’ll turn up the lasers a little bit, and LIGO will be able to see a bit farther into the Cosmos. If our first stint as gravitational wave astronomers is any indication, we will likely see something new; we don’t know, all we can do is observe.  After a few months, we’ll shut down again, tune things up, think hard about how we are working with the machine, and in 2017 expect to come back online with everything at full design specifications.  We are like toddlers, learning to walk. We’ve taken our first few steps, and have discovered there is a tremendous world just waiting to be explored. We’re learning to keep our balance and do things right, but in the not too distant future will be confident and excited in our new found ability to observe and discover a Cosmos that up to now, has been completely hidden from us.  Carpe infinitum!


Many of my colleagues in the LIGO Virgo Collaboration have also written excellent blog posts about the Boxing Day event, and the work we do to make gravitational wave astronomy a reality. You should visit their blogs!

Why you SHOULD respond to student requests

by Shane L. Larson

To my colleagues in professional science:

There has been a tremendous and acerbic backlash over the last week against a current popular practice of K-12 students emailing professional scientists with a list of questions they would like the scientists to comment on. I too have received these emails, and I have to very clearly state (in case you haven’t already been in one of these debates with me) that I have an unpopular view on this issue: I vehemently reject the view that we cannot respond to these emails. It is part of our professional obligation to society to respond to these notes.

In the spirit of intellectual debate, which is the purported hallmark of our discipline, let me recount some of the many aspects of the arguments that have been swirling around.

The Scenario. Emails will sail into our inboxes from (usually) middle-school science students, that asks the scientist if they could answer a series of questions.  Here is a typical one that made its way into my inbox.

examples

These emails are often clearly part of a classroom activity assigned by a teacher. There are those of us who diligently respond to as many of these as we can; we share them among our colleagues when we can’t get to them ourselves. But many of my colleagues simply don’t see the point in engaging scientists this way; they feel like they cannot or do not have the ability to respond to these requests.  Which is where the debate begins to swirl.

(*) They can just look this up on Wikipedia!  Perhaps. But even a casual inspection of science pages on Wikipedia will reveal that it has become an increasingly difficult resource to use, particularly for non-scientists. Wikipedians have taken the viewpoint that entries on the site should contain all the information one could traditionally find in a book. Many entries, especially those related to science, have wide ranging and rambling connections from all branches of science and more often than not divert into mathematical rambling. One earnest sixth grader asked me “Can you explain what a black hole is?” I would say the Wikipedia page on black holes is decidedly NOT for a sixth grader!

(*) These are thoughtless stream of consciousness questions about topics that they just picked out of a hat. They didn’t put any thought into these.  Perhaps in some cases that is true. But it is understandable — we’re talking about middle-schoolers.  For example, almost everyone has heard of black holes, but very few know enough to ask better questions than “what are they really?” But a carefully constructed answer from you can (and will) spark deeper interest, and can (and will) provide a better foundation for the next time they have a chance to ask a scientist a question — perhaps in class, perhaps in a public lecture, perhaps as part of an organized interface activity (like Adopt A Physicist).

(*) They should learn to read and process information from online and print sources; it’s a necessary skill.  That’s right, it is and they should. But they are perhaps 12 years old, and you are saying that from the far end of a PhD in modern science. Learning to read and process information, and more importantly learning how to find reliable sources of information, is something I spend time teaching my undergraduates and my graduate students. It is not as easy as you make it sound when you speak from behind your PhD. I’m sure if you talked to their teachers, you would find that they are doing activities to practice learning the skill you so ardently insist they must learn. But when you are a K-12 student, it is hard to exercise whatever mastery you have of that skill to glean something important about the modern frontiers of science.

(*) I don’t have time to respond to all the requests I get.  Does responding to a lot of emails from students and random members of the public take time? Of course it does. Just like answering your own students. Just like answering your collaborators. Just like answering your department chair or dean. Just like doing research. Just like writing grant proposals. We all have tremendous pressure on our time; that is a fact of life and simply the state that modern science finds itself in. And the truth is that we all spend time on what we value and prioritize; if you don’t value something, then you don’t do it or you don’t spend time on it. If you do value something, you make room for it and devalue something else — it all boils down to priorities and the calculus of not being able to do everything. If you aren’t doing something because it takes too much of your time to do it, you have to be willing to say, “this isn’t important enough for me to spend my time doing. I have other things that I think are more important.”

I get a handful of these requests, but not so many that I can’t answer them; far fewer than I get from my own students, to be perfectly honest. If I do get too many, I share them among colleagues. Given that our lives as scientists are dedicated to solving the hardest problems known to our species, I find it hard to believe that someone inundated by an unanswerably large number of these requests cannot figure out a way to get responses to these students.

(*) I don’t see the pedagogical value of having students email a scientist. Students shouldn’t have answers hand fed to them.  It is NOT for you to decide what is pedagogically useful, it is for the teacher who made the assignment. They have their own learning goals and their own objectives for everything they assign their students, just like you do in your own classroom. It is NOT for you to judge what they do in their classroom any more than it is for me to judge what you do in your classroom.

You should take one of the sets of questions you get, and try to find the answers on your own. Try not to view webpages and books through the lens of your professional degrees; if you find that hard, ask your own kids or a neighbors kids to evaluate a resource you think is useful.  I think you will be surprised — while there is much good science out there for people to find, there is a lot of not so good explanations as well. The signal to noise ratio is very low; you and I have been explicitly trained to work through that.

But the most important reason for me to respond to a student inquiry is they will get something different in a response from me and you than they can get from any book. Perspective, experience, personal reflection — the human side of science, the personal side of science, an illustration of what I think is important as a scientist, the history and heroes that I think are important that aren’t always described in books.

When I answered the questions above, what did I add that couldn’t be had elsewhere?

How long does it take to produce a star? Sure, you can look up the collapse time for a molecular cloud to stars, but I also talked about the scope of the question, pointing out that one could have also thought about the previous generations of stars that made the material that is needed to create a star system like ours.

Do stars have color? I made sure in my answer that the student heard the names Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.

Do I believe in life elsewhere? An opportunity to talk about a personal belief, and where that interfaces with research science on the topic — a chance to illustrate the all too human part of science. I also pointed at one of the finest explorations of the question I have ever seen — Peter Mulvey’s song, “Vlad, the Astrophysicist” (YouTube video here); the intersection of science and society at its finest.

In the end, I think it boils down to this: we like to make loud noises about the current state of public understanding of science, but tucking our heads down is part of the reason the world is in the state it is in. It may have been okay 40 years ago to keep your attention narrowly focused on research; but 40 years ago the Cold War and the military-industrial complex allowed science to enjoy unprecedented support in the form of funding and societal tolerance.  That is not the world today; science is regularly challenged and questioned, in society and in the halls of government, much to the detriment of our civilization and the future of our planet.

But all is not lost. There is tremendous interest on the part of students and the public about science, in large part because of the very prominent and inspiring successes of our experiments that society has invested in: LIGO, the LHC, the Hubble Space Telescope, and many, many others. A few of our august bunch are very prominent in the public eye: Brian Cox, Lisa Randall, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Before them there was Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, and (still!) David Attenborough. They have set a fire in the minds of your neighbors and in the minds of every science teacher on the planet who are now trying to light that same fire in the minds of their students. They will do their best to light an ember, but only you and I can fan the flames. There is something unique and special about communicating directly with someone who has seen the Cosmos through the eyes of the Hale Telescope, or someone who has stood over the arm of LIGO, or watched a vista of Mars slowly unfold as Curiosity sends us a picture from over the next rise.

Out of an entire class of 7th graders, will you move and inspire all of them to a life of science? Of course not, and you don’t need to. But many of them will remember later in life that they once talked to a scientist who took time out of their schedule to respond to them.  And a few will be inspired.

In one of the many dilapidated boxes that my mother has carefully preserved is a bundle of letters I received in my childhood. One is a letter I received in 7th grade from an astronomer (physicist?) at the University of British Columbia, who took time to write a paper letter in response to an earnest inquiry from a young boy who wanted to know what it took to become an astronomer. I have another letter (undoubtedly a form letter?) from someone at NASA in 1986, assuring a worried and spiritually crushed young boy that NASA would, eventually, return to space in the wake of the Challenger disaster. These are paper responses, with stamps and envelopes and everything; not even as easy as an email.

These were scientists who made the time in their busy schedules to respond to a inquiry from a student, and in the end I think it made all the difference in the world.

#AdlerWall 04: Look Up and Sketch the Moon

by Shane L. Larson

You and I live in the future. Our world is one where information is transmitted instantly to everyone, blasting out of large flat screens and small hand-held devices owned by a billion humans around the globe. Information comes in small blurts of text, a few funny pictures, and now and then in a short video. Electronic memory, captured forever in the ephemeral electronic nothingness of the internets.

It is hard to remember that there was a time, not so long ago, where moving pictures were a marvel, a wondrous example of the technological age that was just beginning to expand its blanket across our civilization. That by-gone age that introduced the world to moving pictures is usually called the “Silent Film Era” and spanned more than 3 decades, from 1894 until the late 1920s when “the talkies” began to take over. In the midst of this age of wonder, an ingenious filmmaker made his trade in France, experimenting with all manner of ways of filming and editing to take his audiences on journeys of imagination and wonder. His name was Georges Méliès, and in 1902 he released one of the great classics of film: Le Voyage dans la Lune — “A Trip to the Moon.”

(L) Georges Méliès. (R images) Scenes from "La Voyage Dans la Lune" [Images: Wikimedia Commons]

(L) Georges Méliès. (R images) Scenes from “La Voyage Dans la Lune” [Images: Wikimedia Commons]

Inspired by the novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Méliès imagined making a voyage across the cosmic gulf to visit our celestial companion. This was in the days before rockets — Méliès imagined sending a space capsule to the Moon after launching it from an enormous cannon, a perhaps not unreasonable idea given Newton’s cannonball diagram in his De mundi systemate to describe orbits!

(L) In his "De Munde Systemate" Newton imagined going into space via an enormous cannon; this was before rockets were known. (R) In 1902, rocketry still had not been developed, and Méliès imagined sending his voyaguers to the Moon by launching them in an enormous cannon.

(L) In his “De Mundi Systemate” Newton imagined going into space via an enormous cannon. (R) In 1902, rocketry still had not been developed, and Méliès imagined sending his voyaguers to the Moon by launching them in an enormous cannon.

The Moon at that time was a great mystery to us, the target of much speculation and many wild imaginings. Méliès’ vision built on that — the Moon was an alien landscape, populated by alien cultures that his explorers did not understand nor appreciate. It was perhaps an obvious target for Méliès’ imaginings. More than any other place in the solar system, the Moon is a place that we can all imagine visiting, if for no other reason than we can see it with the unaided eye.

Today, more than a century after Méliès’ voyage of imagination, the Moon is a known place. Like many worlds in the solar system, we have photographed it up close and mapped its surface in exquisite detail. But it still holds a certain mystique that other celestial destinations do not. Mostly because we can see it with the unaided eye, but more because it is the only other place in the Cosmos, besides Earth, where human beings have walked. It is a great wonder to step outside and see the distant orb of the Moon riding high in the sky, and know that people just like you once walked there. It still makes me a little breathless, and encourages me to look for the Moon every time I walk out the door. It seems unlikely that I will ever get to walk the craggy lunar landscape myself, so I fall back on the next best thing: I try to see what I can see with my own eyes.

adlerWall_sketchMoonThe #AdlerWall exhorts us to “Look up and sketch the Moon.” Most of us have seen the Moon, probably unconsciously the way we notice trees, flowers and other ordinary, everyday things. Part of the Wall’s desire for you is simply to be cognizant of noticing what you are seeing (in the same spirit of our earlier exploration in looking closely at what is under rocks). But the other part of the imperative is the sketching.

Why should we do that? Personally, I’m probably the world’s worst sketcher, but I do it anyhow. Sketching, no matter how crude and rudimentary, helps you notice things. There are many different sketching exercises that you can do, and all of them will bring the Moon a bit closer to you.  Let’s explore some of those ideas together.

Right now, picture the Moon in your mind. What does it look like? Without getting up to look at it, without pulling up a picture of it, make a crude sketch of what you see in your mind’s eye on the back of an old cell phone bill.

What did you draw? Perhaps you drew patchy patterns of light and dark. The variations in brightness across the face of the Moon are caused by the geology that shaped it. The darker areas are called maria, or lunar seas. They are basaltic lowlands, the youngest surfaces on the Moon created by vast lava flows in an earlier, active phase of the Moon’s life. The brighter areas are called terrae, the lunar highlands. These jumbled and broken landscapes are the older parts of the lunar crust, covered with craters and criss-crossed by mountain ranges, escarpments, and vast rilles.

Did you draw any craters? How about mountains? The understanding that such features are found on the surface of the Moon is almost ubiquitous. But unless you have looked at the Moon through a telescope, you probably have never seen a crater for yourself.  You cannot see any craters or mountains on the Moon with your naked eye. Until the time of Galileo, it was widely believed the surface of the Moon was smooth.

My two sketches of the Moon. (L) The Moon from memory [not very good!] (R) A direct sketch at full moon. [Images: S. Larson]

My two sketches of the Moon. (L) The Moon from memory [not very good!] (R) A direct sketch at full moon. [Images: S. Larson]

Now go out and make a sketch of the Moon, whatever phase it might be in. The patterns of light and dark are the same ones that have been seen by 40,000 generations of humans before us. The surface of the Moon is millions of years old, changing on slow geologic timescales — human lives, and indeed all of human history, are the merest flashes of an instant in the long history of the planets in the solar system. The face of the Moon you see today is the only one ever seen by humans.

Whenever we look at the sky we project all manner of human interests and problems on the sky, a manifestation of our deep and abiding desire to be part of the Cosmos. The Moon is no different than the rest of the sky in this regard. As our most prominent neighbor, it has oft been the target of imaginative musings. There is a long tradition of recognizing and naming patterns in the patchwork of light and dark — moonshadows.

The most famous of the moonshadows is the Man in the Moon, but if you look closely you can also see the Bunny in the Moon, and the Woman with the Pearl Necklace. Can you make up your own moonshadows that you can easily recognize and teach others to see?

Some of the classic moonshadows you can see in the full moon. Clockwise from upper left: the Full Moon, the Man in the Moon, the Bunny in the Moon, the Woman in the Pearl Necklace.

Some of the classic moonshadows you can see in the full moon. Clockwise from upper left: the Full Moon, the Man in the Moon, the Bunny in the Moon, the Woman in the Pearl Necklace.

The fact that you know the Moon is covered in craters and mountains and canyons is a testament to our civilization’s ability to share knowledge. But in reality, you can discover for yourself exactly what Galileo discovered, even if you don’t own an astronomical telescope. Common birding binoculars or small spotting scopes are all much better than Galileo’s first telescope, and will show you the wonders of the Moon.

You can turn your small scope or binoculars on the Moon at any time, but it is easiest to see surface features when there are strong shadows. This happens at any time during the month except near Full Moon (though you should certainly look at the Moon when it is full!). The boundary between the light and dark on the lunar surface is called the terminator — it is the dividing line between day and night on the surface of the Moon. The shadows of craters and mountains are strongest on the terminator, and if you focus your attention there, you can see some fantastic topography. If you’re inclined to carefully record the shadows you see, some simple mathematical investigations with geometry can be used to figure out how tall and wide the mountains and craters are.

Some of my sketches of the Moon. (L) The lunar terminator, made through a small birding scope. The numbers and letters are to an identification key, figured out after the observations with the aid of a detailed Moon map. (R) A telescopic sketch of the crater Archimedes. [Images: S. Larson]

Some of my sketches of the Moon. (L) The lunar terminator, made through a small birding scope. The numbers and letters are to an identification key, figured out after the observations with the aid of a detailed Moon map. (R) A telescopic sketch of the crater Archimedes. [Images: S. Larson]

If you look at Galileo’s classic sketches of the Moon, you may notice that he sketches the entire Moon. In your own viewings, especially during the crescent phases, you can often see the faint outline of the dark part of the Moon; through a telescope, you will see fleeting, ghostlike impressions of craters, lunar seas, and mountains in the ephemeral shadows. What is going on here?

This phenomenon is called “Earthshine” — sunlight hits the Earth, bounces off the Earth, and hits the dark side of the Moon, making it appear in ghostly shadows. This is the same effect that lets you see things in the shade of a tree at the park — light from the sunny parts of the park bounces off of everything and illuminates the parts of the park in shadow. The first person to explain the origin of this shadowy illumination of the Moon by Earth was Leonardo da Vinici, in his famous notebook, the Codex Leicester.

Galileo's sketches of the Moon always showed the unilluminated half of the Moon as well. You can and will notice this, with your naked eye and through a telescope, due to "Earthshine." [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Galileo’s sketches of the Moon always showed the unilluminated half of the Moon as well. You can and will notice this, with your naked eye and through a telescope, due to “Earthshine.” [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Even if you don’t want to sketch the craters and the mountains, even if you don’t want to peer at the Moon through a telescope or binoculars, you may still see the Moon in striking moments of beauty, framed by life here on Earth. A common experience many of us have had is witnessing a Moonrise or a Moonset against the landscape or against the skyline of the city. In many instances you get the overwhelming perception that the Moon is enormous, looking over the Earth like a gigantic cauldron of boiling light, waiting to pour itself out across the landscape.

The Moon Illusion at work over the Adler Planetarium. What my eye saw (sketch on the Left) and what my camera captured (picture on the Right) are significantly different! [Images: S. Larson]

The Moon Illusion at work over the Adler Planetarium. What my eye saw (sketch on the Left) and what my camera captured (picture on the Right) are significantly different! [Images: S. Larson]

This apparent enlarging of the Moon is an optical illusion known as the “Moon illusion.” While you can generically break the illusion by disrupting your normal viewing of the scene (try standing on your head, or looking at it upside down), the existence of the illusion does not diminish the awe-inspiring effect it has on your mind’s eye. Somewhat surprisingly, simply taking a picture often destroys the illusion — unless cropped very closely around the Moon, pictures flatten the perspective and bring peripheral parts of the scene into play, destroying whatever visual queues your brain was using to make the Moon look big. It’s weird.

The Moon is always up there, waiting for you to notice it, providing intriguing and beautiful opportunities to snap a picture or make a quick sketch. Look up! [Image: S. Larson]

The Moon is always there, waiting for you to notice it, providing intriguing and beautiful opportunities to snap a picture or make a quick sketch. Look up! [Image: S. Larson]

The Moon, like the Sun and stars, is one of the dependable denizens of the sky. Sometimes it is up during the day, sometimes it is up at night. It is constantly changing its shape, and adds majesty and brilliance as a backdrop to images of life on Earth. So the next time you’re out take a look around for the Moon; if you have a moment, snap a picture or make a quick sketch, so you can remember it.  See you out in the world — I’m the guy looking dumbstruck on the street corner, craning his head to see the Moon rising behind the city skyline!🙂

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This post is part of an ongoing series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall.  Links to the entire series are here at the first post of the #AdlerWall Series.

#AdlerWall 03: Look for Patterns

by Shane L. Larson

(L) John Trusler (R) William Blake

(L) John Trusler (R) William Blake

In August of 1799, the Reverend John Trusler commissioned a pair of watercolors to illustrate the concept of “malevolence.” As a philosophical construct, we often regard concepts such as malevolence as being aspects of human behaviour that are part of our free will, not as natural phenomena that are able to exist independent of our free thinking. Does malevolence exist outside of humans, in Nature itself? Philosophers may differ, and certainly artists’ interpretations may vary widely. Perhaps not surprisingly, Trusler was not happy with the first painting he received.

Blake's painting of "Malevolence." [From the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art]

Blake’s painting of “Malevolence.” [From the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art]

The painter commissioned by Tusler was none other than the great English artist, William Blake.  The two shared a contentious exchange in a pair of letters that month about Blake’s depiction. In a letter on August 23, Blake admonished Tusler that we all see the world differently, writing:

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity…and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of a man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.

Blake’s exhortations to Trusler dance around an interesting and lovely conundrum — what is Nature and how do we separate what Nature is from what we perceieve or think of it?

Consider clouds. In your high school science class, you may have once been told that clouds are suspensions in the Earth’s atmosphere, huge agglomerations of tiny water droplets and ice crystals. Most of the familiar clouds form in the troposphere, the lowest part of the Earth’s atmosphere where weather happens. Gossamer and diaphanous, they are pushed around by the winds of the world, carrying weather and moisture to the far flung corners of our planet. Meteorologists, partnered with amateur cloud watchers, have categorized a large number of cloud types, though if you restrict your attention to the most common there are only ten or so that you encounter most often (see NOAA’s “Ten Basic Cloud Types”).

The most common types of clouds, only a few of the more than 60 types classified. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

The most common types of clouds, only a few of the more than 60 types classified. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

But many of us have, at some point in our lives, wasted away an afternoon staring at clouds in the sky. Part of those lazy gazings is calling out shapes and figures we see in the clouds — bunnies, turtles, ships, books, hands.

There are clearly patterns in the clouds. Nature made the clouds, so Nature made the patterns. After many long years of staring at the sky, we have elucidated some regular, recurring shapes and forms that Nature creates over and over again, and we’ve given them names: cumulonimbus, altostratus, cirrus, and so on. By a similar token, the shapes and figures we recognize as bunnies and sailing ships are also patterns we have elucidated from staring at the sky. What’s the difference between our observations and Nature’s patterns? What’s the difference between afternoon figures and the cloud archetypes?

Some clouds seen from airplanes. What do you see? On the left I see a trilobite, a kid blowing a bubble, and cauliflower. On the right I see a poodle, and a shaking fist.

Some clouds seen from airplanes. What do you see? On the left I see a trilobite, a kid blowing a bubble, and cauliflower. On the right I see a poodle, and a shaking fist.

One of the great realizations we have made about the world is that it is predictable. The world does not evolve randomly, changing each day in unpredictable and unexpected ways. Quite the contrary — when I throw a water balloon up in the air (or, possibly, at someone) it always comes back to the ground. The Moon moves through a steady progression of phases every 29 days, always in the same order, just as it has for all of recorded history. A popsicle always melts when left on the kitchen counter. All of these happenings, and the many others that surround us in the natural world, occur according to precise sets of rules that we call the Laws of Nature. The fact that we can recognize patterns, that we can deduce and use the Laws of Nature to improve our lives, provides the impetus for one of the great endeavours of our species — science.

When we look at the clouds, there are two sets of patterns in play. One set of patterns are the recognizable shapes and forms of the basic cloud types. Each of these different forms is governed by a particular realization of the Laws of Nature. They are predicable and repeatable, appearing anytime the same physical conditions appear in the atmosphere. Consider “Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds.” They can form when layers of wind are sliding across one another, with the upper layer moving faster than the lower layer, creating turbulence at the boundary between them.

A classic example of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds, created when different layers of wind slide across one another. [Image: Wikimedia commons]

A classic example of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds, created when different layers of wind slide across one another. [Image: Wikimedia commons]

By contrast, the picture patterns that you can pick out staring up at the sky are unique to your own experiences and interpretations. You can certainly point them out to friends and get them to see what you see. But left to your own devices, you may see a turtle whereas your dearest friend may see a hoagie sandwich.  These are patterns made by your mind; the difference between them and the patterns made by Nature is that the patterns of the natural world are predictable and subject to rules. Our job as scientists and observers of the world is to figure out what those rules are.

wall_patternsThe #AdlerWall this week exhorts us to “Look for patterns,” and that “patterns can be man-made or found in Nature.”

So what kinds of patterns can you find around you? There are clearly patterns that humans make, usually quite deliberately. Our brains crave the regularity and dependability of patterns. One of the most obvious places we encounter patterns is in woven textiles. There are global patterns — stripes, dots, space cats — that you can see standing next to your friend with the loud and colorful shirt. But there are smaller, more subtle patterns you can see if you look closely, notably the interwoven fibers that cross up and over one another to give the fabric its structure. The interlocking up and down, over and under pattern of individual fibers is a human invention, though who thought of it and when is now lost to history; the oldest known woven textile fibers date to about 6000 BCE.

There are many patterns to be seen in textiles, all of them made by humans. The patterns your eye can see, as well as the underlying patterns in the weave of fabric. Patterns occur on all levels. [Images: S. Larson]

There are many patterns to be seen in textiles, all of them made by humans. The patterns your eye can see, as well as the underlying patterns in the weave of fabric. Patterns occur on all levels. [Images: S. Larson]

Carpets are another great place to see human-created patterns. These grace the floors in the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. I want to know whose job it is to make up these patterns!

Carpets are another great place to see human-created patterns. These grace the floors in the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. I want to know whose job it is to make up these patterns!

In a similar way, there are impressive patterns visible in Nature too. On cold winter days, frost ferns can form on your windows. These beautiful displays of symmetry look almost organic in nature, but result from water molecules binding to other water molecules. As a large structure forms, the molecules are forced to remain near the cold surface of the glass, and the structure of the fern emerges. Frost ferns exhbit fractal structure — a repeating pattern that appears on many many different size scales. We see fractal structure in tree branches and clouds as well.

A classic frost fern that formed on my sliding glass door this spring. [Image: S. Larson]

A classic frost fern that formed on my sliding glass door this spring. [Image: S. Larson]

There are other patterns in Nature that you can notice. I just popped outside, and with a few quick sweeps found this rock on the gravel path next to my house. I could have picked up any old rock and found something interesting, but this one has a clear structural pattern. Look closely at the exposed, broken surface. It is comprised of a myriad of interlocking small crystal structures. I’m not a robust rockhound (I just pick up cool rocks and carry them around in my pockets), but this looks like a quartzite of some kind. Quartzite is a metamorphic rock — a rock that has formed by transformation under extreme heat. In the case of quartzite, extreme pressure and heat on sandstone variety rocks causes the glassy minerals in the sand to break down and reform in crystalline arrays, not unlike the one you see on the surface of this rock.

An everyday rock, picked up off a gravel path, shows a jumble of quartz crystals on its surface. [Image: S. Larson]

An everyday rock, picked up off a gravel path, shows a jumble of quartz crystals on its surface. [Image: S. Larson]

You can see much more robust crystal formation in a kind of rock known as a geode. Geodes are roughly spherical rocks with a hollow core, where crystals have slowly grown inside the core. Beautiful (and expensive!) specimens can be bought, but breaking open common geodes will reveal a beautiful little garden of crystals. Crystals are a special pattern of matter that arises from molecules that have regular geometric shapes that are preserved when the molecules are stacked together. The regular geometric shape of the crystal that you can see with your eye is a clue to the microscopic alignment pattern of the molecules that your eye cannot see.  Salt crystals and sugar crystals are other examples.

Geodes are known for their crystal structures. The crystals are macroscopic manifestations of the underlying molecular shapes -- large patterns building from small patterns. [Image: S. Larson]

Geodes are known for their crystal structures. The crystals are macroscopic manifestations of the underlying molecular shapes — large patterns building from small patterns. [Image: S. Larson]

Another example of patterns, where human and Nature’s patterns collide is in the layout of city streets. I grew up in the American west, on the fringes of the Great Plains of North America. There the landscape is vast and flat, and humans could have laid their streets out willy-niIly in any way they wanted.  But a quick glance on satellite shows the roads are usually in a nearly perfect grid, roads running straight north-south or straight east-west. This is not true everywhere. In central Pennsylvania, the rolling landscape of the Appalachian Mountains strikes across the state from the southwest to the northeast. If you look at a town along the rolling, folded ridges you see that the roads and streets are aligned parallel to the mountains — humans patterns have been influenced and shaped by the natural patterns of the world around them.

Human patterns [streets] often follow Nature's patterns [terrain]. (L) Fort Morgan, Colorado is in the Great Plains and streets run N-S and E-W, oriented to the cardinal directions defined by the spin of the Earth. (C) In central Pennsylvania the Appalachians form long ridgelines and valleys. (R) Cities like State College, PA have street grids aligned parallel to the terrain of the mountains in the area. [Images: Google Maps]

Human patterns [streets] often follow Nature’s patterns [terrain]. (L) Fort Morgan, Colorado is in the Great Plains and streets run N-S and E-W, oriented to the cardinal directions defined by the spin of the Earth. (C) In central Pennsylvania the Appalachians form long ridgelines and valleys. (R) Cities like State College, PA have street grids aligned parallel to the terrain of the mountains in the area. Click to enlarge. [Images: Google Maps]

But seeking patterns in everything is a dangerous proposition — while we certainly believe that the laws of Nature govern everything, recognizing repeating and organized patterns is not always so easy. One of the classic examples of this is the tale of wealthy Bostonian Percival Lowell, whose imagination was captured in 1877 by the announcement of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli that he had observed canali (Italian, “channel” or “groove”) on Mars. Many people’s inexperience with the Italian language caused them to map the word onto the English word “canal” which has a definite connotation of being an artificial and constructed edifice. (This erroneous mapping of words between one another is a failure to correctly match patterns!).

Lowell was entranced by the idea of canals on Mars, and spent a not inconsiderable amount of money constructing what is now known as the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He himself spent many long hours at the eyepiece, staring at Mars and sketching what he saw. Looking at his sketches and records we find Lowell saw what he wanted to see — canals. Lots and lots of canals. Looking at Lowell’s exquisite maps of Mars a century later, after our robotic spacecraft have returned tens of thousands of pictures of Mars, we see none of it. The interwoven pattern of canals which Lowell saw appear to be a dramatic case of scotomathe mind sees what it wants to see.

(L) Percival Lowell observing on the 24-inch Clark Refractor at Lowell Obseratory. (R) Lowell's map of the canals he thought he was seeing on Mars, now a classic example of seeing patterns that are, in fact, not there at all. [Images: Wikimedia commons]

(L) Percival Lowell observing on the 24-inch Clark Refractor at Lowell Obseratory. (R) Lowell’s map of the canals he thought he was seeing on Mars, now a classic example of seeing patterns that are, in fact, not there at all. [Images: Wikimedia commons]

Which carries us back to the tale of Blake and Trusler. We all see the world through our own eyes. The goal of collecting knowledge and one of the purposes of doing science is to capture the world as it really is, and to use that knowledge to improve our lives. No single one of us can do it all on our own; it requires all minds on deck. No single one of us ever gets it right on first glance; we have to look at the world, examine what we have seen, ponder its meaning, and, if necessary, let go of what we once thought in favor of a more real picture of what Nature has laid out before us.

So head out and look for the subtle patterns in the Cosmos; it’s all there for you to see.  See you out in the world — I’m the guy trying to take a picture of the repeating tile pattern on the cafeteria floor!🙂

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This post is part of an ongoing series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall.  Links to the entire series are here at the first post of the #AdlerWall Series.

#AdlerWall02: See What’s Hidden Under Rocks

by Shane L. Larson

Our senses — our sight, our touch, our smell, our hearing, and our taste — are the detectors we use to interface with the world. They are a biological sensor network of billions of cells, responsible for probing the world, gathering information, and delivering that information continuously to the brain.

The flow of information to your brain is tremendous, and you have adapted to ignoring most of it. Consider your sense of touch. Do you notice exactly how tight your shoes are right now? Did you think carefully about which direction you moved your leg a moment ago to make yourself more comfortable where you are sitting? How does your bracelet or watch feel on your wrist?

Consider your sense of hearing. Where ever you are, close your eyes for 20 seconds and see what you can hear. Do you hear the fans in your computer? Traffic passing by outside? Maybe sound from a TV or radio in another room or your office mate’s headphones?

All of this sensory data is constantly flooding into your neural network, but you are very adept at ignoring it. Scientists call this filtering — taking a huge amount of data, and separating and keeping just the bits you are interested in. In everyday life that means only listening to the person across the table from you, and not the cacophony of sounds that fills our world. It means looking only at the book or ereader in front of you and ignoring all the interesting things happening in your peripheral vision.

Our filtering is a habit, and given the constant demands on our attention from modern life, it is a completely necessary habit for coping with our overly busy and crowded lives. But it’s a habit we freely indulge in, so much so that we never lift the filter and notice all the wonder in the world around us.

Consider the following picture, taken of the trees outside my back door. What do you notice? Look out your window and jot down what you notice about the trees around you (hopefully you can see some trees — if not what else do you see? Just your quick impressions.).

A typical scene you encounter everyday. A yard with "yardy" things -- trees, grass, gardens, bushes. You filter this and, very often, never even consciously register what you are seeing.

A typical scene you encounter every day. A yard with “yardy” things — trees, grass, gardens, bushes. You filter this and, very often, never even consciously register what you are seeing.

My quick list might go like this: big and small trees; no leaves; grey bark; spring, but barely. All that can be gathered from a quick glance and without much thought or consideration, though at any given moment you may only register “trees,” if you even registered that at all. But what happens if I look closely at one? Take that large one in the center.

You know what trees are all about from past experience, and recognize the bark on the trunk. But what is it really like?

You know what trees are all about from past experience, and recognize the bark on the trunk. But what is it really like?

It’s bark is rough, and more or less aligned up and down the trunk. It is clearly ridged or grooved, and very rough to the touch. But careful inspection yields some odd color variations which, when viewed up close, are not bark at all!

If you didn’t look closely, you may never have noticed the off-color grey-green is a wavy sheet-like lifeform known as a lichen. This particular lichen is of the foliose (“leafy”) variety.  Lichens are a symbiotic amalgam of a fungus and an algae existing together to each others mutual benefit. The algae contributes its photosynthetic powers to harvest sunlight and generate carbohydrates that are used by the alga and the fungus both. The fungus provides a matrix around the algae that protects it and collects water. Lichens have existed on Earth for at least 400 million years (the age of the oldest fossil that we are certain is of a lichen). They are extremely robust organisms, thriving in nearly every climate on the planet.

A foiliose ("leafy") lichen, growing on the bark of this very tree. If you look at the tree picture, this lichen is there, but you filtered it! To notice new things, we must concentrate on overcoming our filtering.

A foiliose (“leafy”) lichen, growing on the bark of this very tree. If you look at the tree picture, this lichen is there, but you filtered it! To notice new things, we must concentrate on overcoming our filtering.

If I look around the tree bark a bit more, I encounter another lichen. This one is not grey-green at all, but orange. It is small, and hard to notice unless you are looking carefully. When I first saw it, I thought this particular lichen was of the crustose (“crusty”) variety. But if I look at the picture, it looks like it might still be foliose, just smaller and a different color. There’s nothing wrong with that — scientific knowledge evolves with consideration and reflection, and is driven by the collection of new and better data (in my case, a picture that showed me this lichen up close, way better than my eye could see in the bright afternoon sunlight!).

Another, smaller lichen I noticed when I was up close. I originally thought it was a crustose lichen, but after looking at the picture I think it must be foliose. Careful examination of data makes our thinking evolve -- that is what the process of science is about.

Another, smaller lichen I noticed when I was up close. I originally thought it was a crustose lichen, but after looking at the picture I think it must be foliose. Careful examination of data makes our thinking evolve — that is what the process of science is about.

Lichens are common throughout the world, and you may or may not have encountered them in one of their many forms. But interestingly, lichens are a delicate probe of the environment in which they live — they are one of many types of organisms that are referred to as bio-indicators. Many species of lichen are sensitive to levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2). In the solar system, we find plentiful amounts of sulfur dioxide. On the moons of Jupiter it is found in the ice and frost of Io, as well as mixed in the crust and mantles of the other Galilean satellites, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. On Venus, sulfur dioxide is one of the most abundant gases in the atmosphere, playing a role in the cloud and “rain” cycle and contributing to the runaway greenhouse effect. On Earth, it is generated naturally from volcanic activity, but vast quantities are created from industrial processes, particularly the burning of coal. Sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere is a precursor step to the production of acid rain which has dramatic impact on lichens as well as other plant communities.

Covering the base of the trunk of our tree is a colony of moss.

Covering the base of the trunk of our tree is a colony of moss.

Farther down the tree, on the shady side of the trunk, we find another organism that is not the tree. Dark green, with feathered spiny leaves but no real branches. This is a moss, a plant that belongs to a larger group of planets called “bryophytes” — plants that do not have branchy structures with a system to move water and nutrients around. Lacking a transport system, these plants stay small and close to the ground. Mosses do not flower; they instead release spores from tall stalks, and looking closely, I can spot a small forest of stalks, getting ready to spread more moss about my yard.

A mosquito, trying to stay warm on the bed of moss. The iridescent colors are amazing!

A mosquito, trying to stay warm on the bed of moss. The iridescent colors are amazing!

It was a cool spring day when I was looking at this tree — definitely not into the hot and humid part of the summer; it was pleasant in the sunshine and a bit chilly in the shade. As a result, much of the animal life is still hunkered down trying to keep warm.  When I was peering close to this moss, I noticed one such denizen of my yard — a mosquito. Mosquitoes have been on Earth far longer than humans — almost 100 million years. There are more than 3500 different species known, though only a hundred or so actually use humans as a food source. Like most insects, they are cold-blooded, and prefer the temperature to be well above what we were experiencing this day. If this one saw me, it ignored the proximity of my phone as I snapped this picture.

seeUnderRocks

All of this is right there in front of us, all the time. I just picked a single tree in my front yard. I could pick any other tree and would have discovered similar interesting things, and probably a handful of other different and interesting organisms.  But let’s return to the #AdlerWall, which exhorts us to “see what’s hidden under rocks.

I picked a rock at random. This one is roughly the size of my fist. I don't carry a ruler with me, but I did have my pocket knife so I put it here for size reference. Improvising with what you have is a perfectly acceptable way to explore the world.

I picked a rock at random. This one is roughly the size of my fist. I don’t carry a ruler with me, but I did have my pocket knife so I put it here for size reference. Improvising with what you have is a perfectly acceptable way to explore the world.

A few paces from our tree, I found this rock. You’ll see it is covered with our old friends, lichens. This rock is partially buried in the dirt near my house and has likely been undisturbed for the entire time the house has been there (almost 30 years) — plenty of time for slow growing lichens and mosses to creep across the face of the rock, undisturbed as they push their frontiers quietly outward.

I’m definitely going to look under this rock, but one of the basic tenets of observing in science is there are two kinds of experiments — passive ones that leave the object of your attention in the state you found it, and active (possibly destructive) ones that manipulate the object for the purpose of study. This dichotomy is most dramatic at the extremes of physics — in quantum mechanics, the act of observing changes the nature of a system instantly and irrevocably (the point in the famous gedanken experiment known as “Schroedinger’s Cat”), and in astronomy we can’t do anything except watch passively (astronomy is a “spectator sport”).

Before I move the rock at all, I look around to see what I can see, in case my investigations destroy something interesting. This isa tiny sprout, pushing up under one edge of the rock.

Before I move the rock at all, I look around to see what I can see, in case my investigations destroy something interesting. This is a tiny sprout, pushing up under one edge of the rock.

Lifting up this rock is going to change it — I fully plan on putting it back, but there will be subtle changes none-the-less, so I carefully look around it before I move it at all, looking to see what I can notice. First, I don’t have a ruler that I can use for reference in pictures, so I use what I have at hand — my trusty pen-knife. By placing it in a picture, I can later know “how big is that rock?”  During my initial inspection, the most significant thing that caught my eye was this little leafy plant, creeping up the edge of the rock. What’s it doing there? Did it try to grow straight up and just encounter the edge of the rock? Has there been a dormant seed under the rock for 30 years, or did the seed luckily fall directly next to the rock?

[L] Moving the rock revealed a long root behind the little sprout. [R] I almost didn't notice the earthworm -- I thought it was another root! Our filters are powerful and can hide the world from us!

[L] Moving the rock revealed a long root behind the little sprout. [R] I almost didn’t notice the earthworm — I thought it was another root! Our filters are powerful and can hide the world from us!

Lifting the rock up, I find the truth — the leafy sprout is on the end of a very long root of some kind. Many plants grow new copies of themselves using propagative roots — roots that strike out under the ground, and then at some point sprout from buds on the roots and produce a new shoot growing above the ground. It looks like this might be of that variety — why else would this tiny sprout have made a gigantic root that threads its way under a rock that has been buried in this spot for almost 3 decades? I should find me a botanist and ask!

If you look closely, you’ll also notice an earthworm (an annelid) bunched up against the side of the root, probably more than a little disturbed that I had lifted the rock up. Worms play an important role in the processing of all the soil beneath your feet — their tunneling provides passageways for air and water to permeate the soil; their ingestion of dirt and organic matter breaks it down into deposits rich in the chemicals needed by plants (nitrogen, phosphates, potassium).

After my inspection, I dutifully put the rock back where I found it, replacing it in the divot in the ground I had lifted it from, covering once again the running root of our early spring sprout and returning our earthworm friend to darkness. There are many interesting things to be found around you. The challenge, always, it to notice. Don’t let the efficient habits of filtering prevent you from seeing what’s hidden under rocks. No interesting rocks around you? Look under sticks and logs. Look for interesting splashes of light or clouds you’ve never seen before. Look under leaves, and look under piles of leaves — what’s different?  Snap pictures of what you see, jot some notes down, and share what you find online so we can see it too!

See you out in the world — I’m the guy on the side of the sidewalk, trying to take a picture of what I can see inside the big crack on the curb.  Wanna take a look?🙂

coolThings

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This post is part of an ongoing series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall.  Links to the entire series are here at the first post of the #AdlerWall Series.

#AdlerWall 01: Write Down What You See

by Shane L. Larson

writeWhatYouSee

Have you ever had an awesome thought, maybe on your commute to work, standing in line at the grocery store, or waiting for your kids to get out of ballet? Did you say to yourself, “I’ve got to remember that! I should write that down.”  Then fast-forward to later that day, and you can’t remember what your brilliant thought was?

Our thoughts are ephemeral things; they come and go like the morning dew. Committing them to long term memory requires concerted effort, which if neglected, sees the thoughts evaporate away, lost forever. Fortunately, humans have invented a device to preserve our fleeting meanderings of mind: paper.

"Study of a Tuscan Landscape." This sketch of the Arno Valley is the oldest known work of art by Leonardo da Vinci.

Study of a Tuscan Landscape.” This sketch of the Arno Valley is the oldest known work of art by Leonardo da Vinci. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Paper is very often the central medium in creative endeavours like art and science. Paper is used by creative minds to explore their craft and store their musings for the future. One of my favorite examples is the earliest known sketch by Leonardo da Vinci himself. “Study of a Tuscan Landscape” was a sketch made in 1473 of the Arno Valley. Ink sketched on a piece of vellum, just 15cm x 22cm. Made more than 570 years ago, it deftly captures the master’s keen eye for looking differently at the world. His mind was exploring perspective and a view from on high, his pen capturing the meander of the Arno River and the hulking walls of Castle Montelupo. His interest and observations would continue, and just more than 25 years later would produce another stunning piece, “Bird’s Eye View of a Landscape”, his rendition of what he might see if he could soar over the Tuscan landscape with the birds.

"Birdseye View of a Landscape." Leonardo da Vinci's imagining of what a bird might see, if flying over the Italian countryside. [Image: Wikimedia Commons[

“Birdseye View of a Landscape.” Leonardo da Vinci’s imagining of what a bird might see, if flying over the Italian countryside. [Image: Wikimedia Commons[

Modern, spacecraft view of the Galilean moons, which were only dots to Galileo. Top to bottom: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Modern, spacecraft view of the Galilean moons, which were only dots to Galileo. Top to bottom: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Another favorite record of mine is one of Galileo’s early sketches of the moons of Jupiter. When he first turned his telescope to the sky, Galileo was faced with many visions of the Cosmos that had been previously unimagined. Among these was the discovery that Jupiter had its own system of moons.  This was no sudden and easy realization — when he first saw them he thought they were stars that just happened to be near Jupiter. But over time Galileo saw them trail along with the planet. He embarked on a concerted and ongoing series of observations that when linked together revealed the truth: the little lights were moving around Jupiter. This was no easy feat! From Earth, the orbits of the Galilean moons are, more or less, edge-on. We don’t see them tracing out little circles on the sky — instead we see them slowly moving left to right along a line. The innermost and fleetest of the moons, Io, takes 1 day and 18 hours to make a complete circuit. The outermost moon, Callisto, shuffles along at a slower pace, retracing its steps every 16 and a half days.

Galileo's notes from 1611, from observations attempting to determine the orbital period of the moons of Jupiter, written on the back of an envelope! [Image: Morgan Library]

Galileo’s notes from 1611, from observations attempting to determine the orbital period of the moons of Jupiter, written on the back of an envelope! [Image: Morgan Library]

To ferret out these patterns requires an organized effort. If you simply watch Jupiter through a telescope multiple times, you will see the moons move, even over the course of an evening. That is exactly what Galileo did, and each time he peered through the eyepiece, he sketched what he saw. The sketches presented in Sidereus Nuncius (Galileo’s book, that announced his discoveries to the world) are very clean and organized, and familiar to astronomy enthusiasts. But I think some of Galileo’s original notes are more interesting, because they capture a very human side of the endeavour. My favorite is now in the collection of the Morgan Library. This is a record of Galileo’s observations of the Moons of Jupiter in January of 1611, when he was trying to work out how long it took each moon to circle the planet. The beauty of this is the scrap of paper is an unfolded envelope. I imagine Galileo peering through his telescope, and on the spur of the moment deciding to watch over several days to work out the orbits, so he grabbed what he had at hand. The next night, having fully intended to record it in his proper notes, he used the same scrap of paper because time had gotten away from him that day when he met an old friend at the market. And so on — it’s the way science goes, constantly intermingling itself with everyday life.  I love this old envelope — it gives new meaning to the old adage of doing science “on the back of an envelope.

Though-out history, paper has been the medium by which we preserve knowledge. It has evolved into a fine art-form in the production of books, which harbor the collective memory of our species. But the mass production and archiving of knowledge on paper in libraries, universities, and bookstores has a much more personal face at the level of individual people: their notebooks.

Notebooks are, quite often, as personal to people as the shoes or t-shirts they choose to wear. Some people swear by spiral bound notebooks (often adorned with pictures of kittens or flaming electric guitars) that you remember from grade school; others have moved on to composition books. Artists often have sketchbooks or watercolor books. Others swear by cahiers of the Moleskine style, or by tiny pocket notebooks they can keep in their pocket next to their smartphone.

A collection of notebooks from around the Larson household. This is only a small sample -- I didn't even have to try that hard to find them! [Image: S. Larson]

A collection of notebooks from around the Larson household — every person has their own personal preferences. This is only a small sample — I didn’t even have to try that hard to find them! [Image: S. Larson]

I have many notebooks lives. My scientific life is contained in my research notebooks. These are an ever increasing number of 3-ring binders, with loose-leaf pages within. This includes my own musings and calculations, graphs, articles I have read, print-outs of code, and pictures of my whiteboard. My amateur astronomy life is captured in a series of paired notebooks — one set are my astronomical diary, capturing the times I was out, who I was with, the weather where I was, the telescopes I used, and what I saw those nights. I also have a sketchbook where I try to make some kind of sketch of everything I see. They aren’t great, but they are a record of what I saw, of what I noticed.

My astronomy observing notebooks are my constant diary of the dialog between me and the night sky. [Image: S. Larson]

My astronomy observing notebooks are my constant diary of the dialog between me and the night sky. [Image: S. Larson]

But my constant companion, which my friends will recognize, is my idea notebook. I carry it with me everywhere. I use 5” x 8.25” hardback journals like Moleskines or Insights. I strongly prefer blank pages, but I’m often using lined journals because I’m a sucker for “special edition” journals, connected to pop culture elements, like superheores or famous novels. I like this size because it is small enough to carry around, but is also large enough to have some space to work.  I almost always have it in one of several treasured covers from Oberon Design.

My idea journal is my constant companion, no matter where I go. Here it is on the rim of Upheval Dome, an impact crater in Canyonlands National Park. [Image: S. Larson]

My idea journal is my constant companion, no matter where I go. Here it is on the rim of Upheaval Dome, an impact crater in Canyonlands National Park. [Image: S. Larson]

I put everything in my idea journal — sketches and Zentangles, calculations and research ideas, travel notes, movie ticket stubs, diary entries about cloud formations, notions for Lego models, ideas for posts here at writescience — anything I might not want to forget.  It all goes there, so I don’t forget it. The funny thing about memory is the act of committing it to paper means I often remember what I was thinking later, even without looking it up!

The #AdlerWall implores you to write down what you see — so you can remember, and so you can relate your experiences to someone else, even if that someone is only a future version of yourself.  Try slipping a small notebook in your pocket, and make little jots down in it as you explore the suggestions on the #AdlerWall.

But be warned: sometimes, when faced with a new, empty notebook, with pristine pages unsullied by pen or pencil, it is hard to write that first thing. This is Fear of Ruining the Notebook. Not everyone suffers this phobia, but I have it in spades, as do many others. So to combat it, I have developed a strategy: I have a standard ritual I start with every notebook, initially marking and adorning some pages. This uniquely identifies every notebook as mine, and it gets me past those first panicky moments when faced with pure, blank pages.  The ritual goes like this:

  • Inside the front, on the leaf connected to the front end-page, I write my name and email address — there is often a place for this.
  • On the bottom of that page, I usually put a sticker of… something. NASA missions, national park stickers, anything I happen to have.
  • On the inside end paper, along the seam, I write my name in black sharpie, as well as a glyph I made up in my youth to mean “me”
  • On the other side of the end leaf, facing the first true page of the notebook, I put a portrait painting of Carl Sagan, with the opening paragraph of Cosmos.
  • On the first page of the notebook, I write some kind of stylized intro graphic that says, “New Moleskine.”

I don’t know WHY I do all these things; I probably don’t need to do them all, but I do. If I were superstitious, I would say it would be bad luck to NOT do these things. But irrespective, it breaks in the new notebook and I can start using it!

Typical first pages in all my idea notebooks -- part of my ritual to get over Fear of Ruining the Notebook. [Image: S. Larson]

Typical first pages in all my idea notebooks — part of my ritual to get over Fear of Ruining the Notebook. [Image: S. Larson]

If you are following along and doing the #AdlerWall project, you will likely find you need a way to capture what you see in the world around you. We of course live in the future — your smartphone can capture what you see in pictures, or voice memos, or electronic text.

But you may find something comforting and liberating in using paper to record your journey. Anything can work, as Galileo’s unfolded envelope shows. But just in case you think its too embarrassing to show people your bird sketch on the back of a lunch napkin, or you’re afraid you’ll lose the sunrise inspired haiku you wrote on the back of a coffee shop receipt, maybe a little pocket notebook is a good starting point — something smaller than your phone, that you can always have on hand in your purse or back pocket.

It doesn’t matter what you do; just that you do it.

See you out in the world — I’m the guy sitting on the curbside, making rubbings of leaves I found on the sidewalk. In my notebook.🙂

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This post is part of an ongoing series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall.  Links to the entire series are here at the first post of the #AdlerWall Series.