Author Archives: Shane L. Larson

Total Eclipse: Anticipation

by Shane L. Larson

There are many amazing sky events that happen to pique the interest of amateur astronomers. I went out in 1994 and watched the shattered fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 plummet into Jupiter, scarring the giant planet’s atmosphere with dark swaths of discolor larger than the Earth.  In 2001, I sat up all night in a campground in Cloverdale, CA counting Leonid meteors in one of the best storms in recent memory.  I’ve sat cross-legged in an empty field just off of I-80 in Kearney, Nebraska, peering through a small spotting scope at a bright supernova in spiral galaxy M101, just detectable at the edge of my vision.

All of these events, and many more like them, are important and interesting to those of us who forego sleep regularly to stand out under the dark and look at the night sky. There is something exhilarating about hunting for a few photons that just happened to cross the great gulf of space and fall to Earth at the exact moment I was looking up. But it is not for everyone.

Total solar eclipse progression. [Image by Justin Ng]

Tomorrow, people living in North America will be witness to one of the most profound spectacles the Cosmos has to offer: an eclipse of the Sun. Everyone in North America, if their skies are clear enough, will be able to see something. For a couple of hours, on 21 August 2017, the Moon will pass between Earth and the Sun, partially blocking the view of the Sun.  If you stand along a pathway roughly 70 miles wide that stretches from Oregon to South Carolina, there will be about two minutes during your day when the Sun is completely hidden behind the Moon. The skies will get dark, and the day will feel cooler — it will, for two minutes of your day, feel like night. You are standing in the shadow of the Moon.

Standing in the shadow of a total solar eclipse is one of the most profound personal experiences with the Cosmos you can have. Those comets and supernovas I mentioned before are cool to witness, particularly if you know what you’re looking at and can be reflective about the profound distances those little photons of light have travelled.  But a total solar eclipse is different.

Our lives, whether we think about it or not, are ruled by the Sun.

It is impossible to be unaware that our lives on Earth are acutely connected to the Sun. We bask in its warmth, play in its dappled rays, and soak up its energy every day. But during totality it will completely vanish from your view — you can’t help but notice that it is just gone from its normal place in the sky and our lives. People struggle to explain the ephemeral and visceral reaction they have to the sight and raw beauty of these singularly moving events.

For this eclipse, there are more people who live near the path of totality, and more people that can get to the path of totality, than possibly any eclipse in history. The eclipse tomorrow will be one of the most viewed natural events in the history of our civilization.  You owe it to yourself, no matter where you are, to at least take a moment and #lookUp and share in the spectacle with your fellow humans.

What can you expect?  In your local media you should be able to find the times when you can see something going on in your area. There are great online tools; I like the Astronomy Magazine widget (here is the link!) that gives you eclipse times for any place you click on a map.

For most people, the partial eclipse will last a couple of hours, and any time during those couple of hours you can see the Sun looking like a cookie with a bite taken out of it.

Eclipse glasses are a cheap, convenient, and easy way to be #EquippedToEclipse. [Image by Adler Planetarium]

During the partial eclipse, the Sun will be too bright to look at! You wouldn’t normally look at the bright Sun, so you won’t feel compelled to now!  If you want to see the partial eclipse, then a pair of the ubiquitous eclipse glasses are needed to look at the partially covered Sun. There has been a lot of concern about safety of glasses found from various outlets and vendors, and the debacle with Amazon has not helped. The American Astronomical Society (our professional society) has produced a page with vetted sources of glasses — this page includes BRANDS OF GLASSES that are certified, and also has a list of stores (e.g. Lowes etc) that are selling glasses that are safe for the event. That page is here:

But what if you never got some glasses, you lost your glasses, or your dog ate your glasses?  Well never fear. Eclipse glasses are not the only way to enjoy this!

The dappled light streaming between the leaves on trees will make thousands of little eclipse images in the shadows. Watch for them! [Image by John Armstrong]

During the partial eclipse you can see what is going on by projection. Look in the shadows of trees – the dappled light will be mini eclipses. Hold up a spaghetti colander – the light in the shadow will be mini eclipses. Hold up a Ritz cracker – light thru the holes will show mini eclipses in the shadow. People have used straw hats and lacy sweater sleeves! Be creative, and enjoy the eclipse.

Also — the partial phase lasts almost 3 hours. If your friend next to you has eclipse glasses, you can share. 🙂

My image of the Ring of Fire on 20 May 2012, taken with my iPhone held up to a filtered telescope. [Image by S. L. Larson]

I have never seen a total solar eclipse (though I had the good fortune to observe the Annular Solar Eclipse on 20 May 2012 in Cedar City, UT). We watched that event in a city park, surrounded by maybe a thousand residents of the town who were watching with us. Everyone had eclipse glasses, there were projections with spoons and meshes, and we had our filtered telescopes there and talked to hundreds of people who just happened to be walking by and took a look.

What I remember most, was at maximum when there was a perfect ring of fire visible through your glasses in the sky, there was a tremendous swelling mass of cheering and shouting and joy. There was no big sporting event, no blockbuster music stars inciting that reaction.

Just a thousand humans, witnessing together one of the most beautiful spectacles the Cosmos has to offer, unable to control their joy and emotions.  It was awesome to be standing there shoulder to shoulder in that crowd.

My daughter was in kindergarten when she saw the annular eclipse in 2012, and still remembers it. Now she’s going into 6th grade, and I think she’s going to become an eclipse chaser. 🙂 [Image by S. L. Larson]

I wanted to just get a few thoughts down here about what it is like leading up to the event, musing on how it will feel on the far side.  Will I feel compelled to travel the world for the next possible one I could view (2 July 2019, over the Southern Pacific, Chile and Argentina)? Will I become an eclipse chaser, racking up 10 or 20 total solar eclipses over my lifetime? Or will I just be like, “cool, put it in the log book; when’s the next cool something to happen?” I honestly don’t know.  But we’re about to find out.

Catch you on the other side of totality….

Here is a previous article I wrote about the astronomy behind a total solar eclipse: Stand in the Shadow of the Moon (25 Aug 2014)


New Astronomy at the New Year (GW170104)

by Shane L. Larson

Newton’s portrait.

January 4 holds a special place in the hearts of scientists — it is Isaac Newton’s birthday (*). Newton stood at the crossroads that led to modern science, and astronomy in particular. He was the first person to build a workable reflecting telescope, a design that now bears his name and for the past 4 centuries has been the dominant type of telescope used by amateurs and professionals alike. Newtonian telescopes have revealed much about the Cosmos to our wondering minds. Newton was also responsible for the first formulation of a physical law that describes the working of gravity, called the Universal Law of Gravitation. Today we use the Universal Law to launch satellites, send astronauts into orbit, convert the force of your feet on the bathroom scale into your “weight“, and a thousand other applications.  There is much to celebrate every January 4.

(L) Aerial view of LIGO-Hanford Observatory [top] and in Google Maps [Bottom]. (R) Aerial view of LIGO-Livingston Observatory [top] and in Google Maps [Bottom].

But on January 4, 2017 the Cosmos celebrated with us, singing in the faint whispers of gravity itself. On January 4, the signal of two black holes catastrophically merging to form a new bigger black hole washed quietly across the shores of Earth, carried on undulating vibrations of space and time. You were very likely unaware of this cosmic event — it happened at 4:11:58.6 am in Chicago. It was a Wednesday morning, and I imagine most people were blissfully asleep. But two of the grandest pieces of experimental apparatus ever built by humans were paying attention – the twin LIGO detectors in the United States.  For only the third time in history, a gravitational wave signal from the deep Cosmos was detected here on Earth.

The signal was the signature of two black holes (a “black hole binary,” in the lingo of the astrophysicists) merging to form a new, bigger black hole. The black holes, by definition, emit no light themselves. However, astronomers know that black holes can often be surrounded by swaths of interstellar gas. The intense gravity and motion of the black holes can stir the gas into a violent froth that can emit light. At the time of the event, the LIGO team sent out alerts to astronomers around the world, who turned their telescopes skyward looking for a tell-tale signature of light bursting from the energized gas. Our best estimate of the location of the event was canvased by 30 groups, in many different kinds of light ranging from radio waves, to optical light, to gamma rays. No tell-tale emissions of light were seen. The only way we were aware of this event is from the LIGO detectors themselves.

An artist’s impression of two black holes insprialling, near merger. [Image by Aurore Simonnet, SSU E/PO]

The Gravitational Wave Signal. We call the event GW170104, named for the date it was detected. The signal from the black holes registered first in the LIGO detector outside Hanford, Washington, and 3 milliseconds later registered at the LIGO detector outside Livingston, Louisiana. All told, it only lasted about 0.3 seconds. The signal exhibited the characteristic chirp shape expected of compact binaries that spiral together and merge — a long sequences of wave peaks that slowly grow in strength and get closer and closer together as the black holes spiral together.

Comparison of the chirp waveforms from the first 3 detected gravitational wave events. LVT151012 was a very quiet event that was not strong enough for LIGO scientists to be confident it was a pair of black holes. [Image: LIGO Collaboration]

During the early inspiral phase of GW170104, where the black holes are independent and distinct, the heavier black hole of the pair was 31 times the mass of the Sun, and the smaller black hole was 19 times the mass of the Sun. Ultimately, they reached a minimum stable distance (in astrophysics lingo: the “innermost stable circular orbit“) and plunged together to form a new bigger black hole. When that plunge happened, the gravitational wave signal peaked in strength, and then rang down and faded to nothing as the black hole pulled itself into the stable shape of single, isolated black hole. For GW170104, this final black hole was 49 times the mass of the Sun.

All of this happened 3 billion lightyears away, twice as far as the most distant LIGO detection to date. Perhaps these numbers impress you (they should) — they tell the story  of events that happened billions of years ago and in a place in the Cosmos that neither you, nor I, nor our descendants will ever visit. We add them today to a very short list of astronomical knowledge: the Gravitational Wave Event Catalogue, the complete list of gravitational wave signals ever detected by human beings. There are only three.

The current Gravitational Wave Catalogue, of all known events [click to make larger].

Take a close look at the list. There are interesting similarities and interesting differences between the three events. They are all black hole binaries. They are all at least a billion light years away from Earth. Some of the black holes are heavier than 20 times the mass of the Sun, and some are lighter than 20 times the mass of the Sun. Astronomers use those comparisons to understand what the Universe does to make black holes and how often.

This is the most important thing about GW170104 — it is a small but significant expansion to this very new, and currently, very limited body of knowledge we have about the Cosmos. These three events are completely changing the way we think about black holes in the Cosmos, forcing us to rethink long held prejudices we have about their masses and origins. We shouldn’t feel bad about that — evolving our knowledge is the purpose of science. LIGO is helping us do exactly what we wanted it to do: it is helping us learn.

What do we know? There are many things we are trying to learn from the meager data contained in these three signals. The new signal from GW170104 in particular has tantalizing evidence for the spin of the black holes, and some neat assessments of how close these astrophysical black holes are to what is predicted by general relativity. But I think the most important thing about the event from the perspective of astronomy is this: the black holes are, once again, heavy. GW170104 is the second most massive stellar mass binary black hole ever observed (GW150904 was the heaviest).

The masses of known black holes. The purple entries are observed by x-ray telescopes, and represent what we knew about the size of black holes before LIGO started making detections. [Image: LIGO Collaboration]

With the first two events we had one pair of heavy black holes (GW150914), and one pair of lighter black holes (GW151226). There is a great mystery hiding there: where do the heavy black holes come from, and how many are there in the Cosmos? Perhaps they are just a fluke, a random creation of Nature that is possibly unique in the Cosmos. But the detection of GW170104 suggests that this is not the case; we’ve once again detected heavy black holes. The race is on to decide how the Cosmos makes them. The answers to those questions are encoded in the properties of the black holes themselves. How many are there? Are they spinning or not? Are they spinning the same direction as one another? How do their masses compare to one another? GW170104 is another piece of the puzzle, and future detections will help solidify what we know.

How can you help? If you’d like to help the LIGO project out, let me direct your attention to one of our Citizen Science projects: GravitySpy. Your brain is capable of doing remarkable things that are difficult to teach a computer. One of those things is recognizing patterns in images. The LIGO detectors are among the most sensitive scientific instruments ever built; they are making measurements at the limit of our capabilities, and there are all kinds of random signals that show up in one detector or the other — we call them glitches.  It is very hard to teach a computer to tell the difference between glitches and interesting astrophysical events, so we have citizens just like you look at glitches and identify them, then we use that information to train the computer. So far citizens like you have helped LIGO classify more than two million glitches, and they put more on the pile every day.

If you’d like to help out too, head over to and try it out; you can do it in your web-browser, or on your phone while you’re sitting on the train to work. We have citizens from kids to retirees helping us out. If gravitational waves aren’t your thing, there are more than 50 other projects in science, arts, history and more at you can try out!

A representation of the GW170104 signal, from the scientific paper. These are the kinds of images citizens can classify easily, whereas computers sometimes have trouble. [Image: LIGO Collaboration]

PS: For all of you super-nerds out there, let me point something out if you haven’t already noticed. Suppose you were to parse the name of the signal in the following way: 1701 04. Look familiar? The 4th incarnation of 1701; for the cognoscenti, this event shares the designation of the Enterprise-D. 🙂  Until next time, my friends. Live long, and prosper.

(*) When Newton was born, England had not yet switched to the new Gregorian Calendar, which we use today. They were still using the older Julian Calendar, by which Newton was born on December 25; when converted Newton’s birthday falls on January 4 on the Gregorian Calendar.


You can read about the previous LIGO detections in my previous posts here:


Many of my colleagues in the LIGO Virgo Collaboration have also written excellent blog posts about the GW170104 event, and the work we do to make gravitational wave astronomy a reality. You should visit their blogs!

Vampires, Mummies, and Ghost Fears

by Shane L. Larson

By the time I went to college, I had mastered my fear of vampires enough to not have to sleep with my neck covered. Kept my kid sheets, mastered my kid fears.

When I was a kid, I was completely terrified of the dark. I would sleep at night with the blankets bunched up around my neck (to protect me from vampires) and with a bright light on all night long so if I happened to wake up, I’d see anything sneaking up on me.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m still terrified of the dark. I don’t do stupid things like walk into dark rooms without turning the light on, or watch horror movies (in case you’re wondering — 25 years is too short of a gap between viewings of The Exorcist). But as I got older, my fears evolved.

I grew up during the Cold War, and I was terrified of a nuclear holocaust — my nightmares of vampires were replaced by mushroom clouds and warheads unexpectedly raining down on Saturday morning breakfast. There was a lot of general malaise about this, but a particularly strong memory I associate with my burgeoning fear was seeing a 1985 Twilight Zone episode called “A Little Peace and Quiet“. The closing shot of that episode planted enough disturbing imagery in my head to fuel dark dreams for years to come.

The final terrifying scene in the Twilight Zone episode, “A Little Peace and Quiet.” The image of a warhead hanging over a town terrified me.

Today, I still worry about nuclear conflict (moreso lately, given the instability in the United States’ executive leadership). But other nightmares, possibly far more likely, have found purchase in the soil of my psyche. I worry about the resurgence of diseases like measles and whooping cough, the result of peoples’ resistance to vaccinations. I worry a lot about the steady and constant damage we are inflicting on Earth and its biosphere. I worry about the collapse of bee colonies and the massive bleachings of coral reefs. I worry that we see unprecedented changes in climatic patterns, atmospheric chemistry, and arctic ice that herald an uncertain terrifying future not just for humans, but for every lifeform on the planet.

There are lots of problems facing the world. (L) Rampant impact of human civilization on the environment. [Wikimedia Commons] (C) Coral bleaching, one indicator of planetary wide changes due to climate change [NOAA] (R) Viruses once held in check by herd immunity gaining footholds once again amid people disavowing vaccinations [Wikimedia Commons].

But none of this produces the same inconsolable dread in me as vampires. One of my friends was befuddled by this fact. She insisted that climate change and resurgent killer diseases were real threats that should terrify us, whereas vampires and ghosts are figments of our imagination. How could it be that I’m terrified by a figment of our imagination?

A peek inside my (irrational) nightmares.

She’s right — vampires and ghosts are a figment of our imagination, but as such there are no fixed rules about how to deal with them. There are as many ways of conquering and facing the supernatural as there are fiction authors.

But virulent diseases, arms control, and climate change? There are well established ways of finding out what’s at the heart of those threats and figuring out how to combat them. You and I call that science.

Where does my faith in science come from? A long and storied history, written by you and me and 40,000 generations of people before us. Humans, more than any other lifeform we are aware of, look at the world with a critical eye and ask “what do we see happening? what does it mean? what can we learn from this?” The result of that process, pursued relentlessly in the face of superstition and the over-active darkness of our imaginations, are all the wonders of the modern world we see around us — wi-fi and pacemakers and insulated coffee mugs and teflon pans land ballpoint pens and flying drones and digital cameras.

Technology is one of the most obvious manifestations of science in our everyday lives. Simple examples include insulated coffee mugs that exploit a deep understanding of thermodynamics (L), modern pens that utilize fluid dynamics and mechanical interfaces (C), and teflon coated non-stick pans are the product of chemistry and materials science (R).

But the process of science has also resulted in knowledge and discoveries that are as poetic and stunning as the finest piece of porcelain, the most beautiful rhythm of poetry, the most exquisite painting or the most stirring symphony. Consider the lives you and I lead — we live in a world where baseballs and rosebushes abound, we walk around at the pace our feet carry us, and the most extraordinary event most of us ever experience is a thunderstorm or a kiss on a first date.

Some of the everyday extreme events experienced by ordinary humans.

But that same world is a world where people like you and me have left footprints on the Moon. We’ve sent robots to sift the sands of Mars and photograph the far side of a remote icy world called Pluto. We’ve discovered that stars burn at millions of degrees in their hearts and when they die they explode, creating every atom in every cell of you and me. We’ve taken those atoms and broken them apart to discover they are made of smaller particles called protons, neutrons and electrons. We’ve even broken protons and neutrons apart to find they are made of even smaller particles, called quarks.

Well before science turns into ways to improve your golf game or make your life in the kitchen easier, it is simply pushing the limits of what we think is possible. [L] Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint on the Moon; the Moon is the farthest any human has ever been from Earth [NASA]. (C) The New Horizons spacecraft, after a 10 year journey, sent home the most exquisite images of Pluto ever taken. Pluto is the most distant object ever visited by spacecraft from Earth. [NASA] (R) We have the technology to manipulate and image individual atoms, a million times too small to be seen with your naked eye. [NIST]

We’ve got no business knowing any of that, because it has nothing to do with foraging for food, or making babies. It has nothing to do with sheltering from hail storms, or staying warm. It has very little to do with making clothes or making farm implements from rocks and sticks.

So why do we know about the Moon and Mars and Pluto? Why do we care about atomic nuclei and quarks? Because we let our imaginations get the better of us. Unfettered, we let ourselves ask any question we want to ask, and we set out to find the answers. Every time a curious question presented itself, we rolled up our sleeves and we figured out the answer. But discovery and understanding are only the beginning. Once we have the knowledge in hand, then our innovators and engineers can figure out how to bring it into our homes and lives.

That’s how science works.

In the end, science is the most powerful tool we have to solve problems, and we can use it to solve any problem in front of us. We should be convinced of that by the fact that we can visit planets that no human has ever been to, and that we manipulate and image the very atomic building blocks that make up the world even though we cannot see them. We have the ability to use these tools for our own good. We have the choice to use these tools to overcome those dark corners of our imaginations and create a future our children will look back on and remember for all the good that we did to save ourselves from ourselves.

The Saturn Moment

by Shane L. Larson

I just returned from the 33rd annual Winter Star Party, hosted by Miami’s venerable Southern Cross Astronomical Society. Every February, for a week during the new moon, 400 amateur astronomers and their families descend on Camp Wesumkee in the Florida Keys.  During the idyllic days, we sit in lawn chairs, enjoy the gentle sea breezes, watch sandpipers running along the tideline, or beachcomb on the key front looking for pretty shells or little fishies trapped in tidepools.

Sunset over Scout Key, Florida, the site of the Winter Star Party. [Image: S. Larson]

But the real reason we are there becomes apparent as the Sun sinks over the western sea, and the black velvet of night emerges, studded by brilliant diamonds of light. The vast majority of us live our lives under the glaring lights of modern cities, and all too often we forget that the Cosmos is there, hiding behind our artificial fluorescent glow, waiting for us to remember. At the first sunset of the Winter Star Party, it all comes roaring back and you remember what you’ve been missing.

The Milky Way rises over Scout Key around 3am in February. You can watch a timelapse movie of the whole night, including the rising of the Milky Way, on YouTube. [Image: S. Larson]

People often ask me, “are you religious?” My answer is that I am not in the sense of modern churches and institutions, but I do know that we are part of something larger — a Cosmos infinitely vast and wonderful and intricate beyond anything we can imagine or will ever know. The cathedral of night is my church.

In his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Walt Whitman espoused the idea that you don’t need sages to know a deep connection to the sky, only the solitude of the night.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer 
by Walt Whitman 

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns
     before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add,
     divide, and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured
     with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. 


But in today’s fast paced world, driven by small screens, instant communication, and more information than has ever been gathered by a civilization before, it is hard to slow down enough to realize those moments of solitude. Living beneath the glare of our cities, there are generations of people who have never truly seen a starry sky and thus never built a deep personal connection to the night.

My telescope (named EQUINOX), on the observing field at Scout Key. [Image: S. Larson]

While the Winter Star Party is dominated by amateur astronomers who, like me, do this as often as we can, there are also a lot of people who are experiencing the dark night sky and the Milky Way for the first time. They walk among the telescopes at night, peering at a nebula here or a star cluster there, all the while being regaled with tales and facts of all that we have learned from 400 years of telescopic study of the sky.

This year, at around 4 in the morning, the Milky Way climbed up above the horizon, it’s center studded by a pale yellow “star.”  A young couple, at their very first star party, had stopped by my telescope for some quiet conversation and some views of the sky.

“Do you want to see something cool?” I swung my telescope over to the pale yellow “star” and let them peer through the eyepiece. The view elicited startled gasps, and loud exclamations of joy.

View of Saturn through the telescope, taken with an iPhone [Image by Andrew Symes; visit his blog here]

There is no way that is real!”  The pale yellow “star” was in fact not a star at all — it was the planet Saturn, a cream colored orb bejeweled by its famous ring, the ring itself narrowly divided by a thin black gap known as the “Cassini Division.”

Delivering a personal experience with the night sky is part of the promise of amateur astronomy. We show people the Moon, stars, clusters, perhaps an occasional galaxy. But nothing moves people like their first view of Saturn through a telescope. Most people who take the time to look walk away remembering that moment for the rest of their lives.

We call this “the Saturn Moment.”

More than any other far away object in the sky, Saturn looks like what people expect. They often respond to their view with incredulity, joking that it looks almost painted, or like a picture that has been taped over the end of the telescope.

The Moon often engenders similar responses, but people expect the Moon to look that way. They can see it with their eyes, and imagine craters and mountains, so they aren’t necessarily surprised by the telescopic view.

By contrast, most people have never seen Saturn, except through the eyes of space probes. The telescope somehow takes the NASA pictures we see on our computer screens, and makes it real and visceral.

At the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, you can see a “20 foot Refractor” similar to the kind used in Huygens time (left). We have it set up so you can look through it, and see the same kind of fuzzy image of Saturn he may have seen (right). [Images: S. Larson]

The first person to have a Saturn Moment was Galileo, who turned his telescope on the skies in 1609. His views of Saturn were not the greatest, as his sketches published a year later in Sidereus Nuncius show. It was clear Saturn wasn’t normal because he could make out blobs on either side. He wrote in a letter to his student Benedetto Castelli that Saturn had “ears.” It wasn’t until 1655 that Dutch astronomer Chrstiaan Huygens, using a much better telescope (though still fuzzy) was able to discern that Saturn was surrounded by a thin, flat ring.

A 57 mm diameter lens, all that remains of the telescope Huygens used to observe Saturn. Around the edge is carved a verse from the Roman poet Ovid: “Admovere Oculis Distantia Sidera Nostris” (They brought the distant stars closer to our eyes). It is an anagram, establishing the details of Huygens’ discovery of Saturn’s moon, Titan. When translated, it reads “A moon revolves around Saturn in 16 days and 4 hours.”[Image: Utrecht Univ. Museum, from APOD]

Today, ordinary people like you and me can own telescopes that would have made Galileo and Huygens swoon with envy. Technology is better, and available to everyone.

My Saturn Moment happened long ago, at a sidewalk astronomy event. An amateur astronomer invited me over to look through her “telescope” — it wasn’t an ordinary telescope, it was a spotting scope for birding that she had pointed at the sky. But what I saw blew my socks off. I was seeing Saturn, with my own eyes, and I could see the rings! Though I don’t remember it, I’m sure the rusty dot of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, was also lurking nearby.

The ultimate result of that encounter is that today my wife and I are both amateur astronomers ourselves, and we guide people through their own Saturn Moments every year. Each moment is unique, exhilarating, and moving in their own way. Among the most memorable was several years ago, my wife had guided a young boy to our telescope to have a peek at Saturn. The view elicited a loud gasp, and the exclamation, “It looks just like a Chevy symbol!” Yep, it kind of does!

If you’ve never seen Saturn before, go to your local planetarium or astronomy club. They would love to show you Saturn for the first time. And when you’re done, tell everyone what you’ve seen, and encourage them to have their own, first #SaturnMoment, a moment of perfect beauty between us and the Cosmos.

Taking a leap (second)

by Shane L. Larson

61 seconds is all it takes
For the 9 to 5 man to be more than one minute late

outfield_playdeepSo goes the song “61 Seconds” on the 1985 debut album Play Deep, from the British rock band The Outfield.  Thirteen times since the release of Play Deep (12 Nov 1985), we humans have added “leap seconds” to our timekeeping, endeavouring as much as possible to keep our continuous record of time aligned with some Cosmic measure of time. In those moments, we had 61 seconds in the “minute.”  On the last day of 2016, we will once again add a second to our accounting of time — at 6:59:59 pm EST (that’s 23:59:59 UTC, for all you time nerds out there), a special leap second will be added. For that one moment, we will all live through 6:59:60 pm EDT (23:59:60 UTC) before the time rolls over to 7:00:00 EDT (00:00:00 UTC). An extra second of revelry on New Year’s Eve, 2016.

A statue of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni in Tehran, Iran. al-Biruni invented the modern second that forms the fundamental basis of our timekeeping. [Image by David Stanley]

A statue of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni in Tehran, Iran. al-Biruni invented the modern second that forms the fundamental basis of our timekeeping. [Image by David Stanley]

The fundamental reason for the leap second is this: all of our timekeeping is based on repeatable events. Currently, one second (according to us humans) passes for every 9,192,631,770 radiative oscillations of a cesium-133 atom.  Originally, however, the second was defined by Persian scholar al-Biruni as 1/86,400 of a solar day, where a solar day is the time it takes the Sun to return to the same meridian on the sky (typically the line from due north to due south).  Our innate sense of time, the basis for our calendars and watches and smartphones, is this one that al-Biruni used.  But here’s the rub — the solar day is not constant, because the spin of the Earth changes over time.

There are a variety of reasons for why the spin of the Earth is slowly evolving. One is the sloshing of the Earth’s oceans due to the rising and falling of the ocean tides. This is caused by the gravitational influence of the Moon on the Earth. What we observe as rising and falling tides are actually bulges of water created by the Moon. As the solid part of the Earth rotates, it turns under and through these bulges, which resist the spin of the Earth in the same way water resists you trying to push your hand through it.  The net result is some of the Earth’s spin is taken away. Other geophysical processes are at work too, including the rebound of the crust since the recession of the ice sheets from the last glacial maximum, the redistribution of water with seasons and long term climate change, crustal displacement from large earthquakes, and so on. The effects are all small, some work together to slow down the Earth, and some work to speed up the Earth. But the net result is this: the actual spin of the Earth is about 0.8 milliseconds (8 ten-thousands of a second) longer than the 86,400 second long days we define with our clocks.

So over time, the spin of the Earth falls behind our clocks, which run ahead a little more every single day. By adding a “leap second”, we are pausing, waiting for the Earth’s spin to catch up.  All things being equal, you and I may not notice. Some computers may flip out (they have in the past when we’ve added leap seconds), but largely I expect most of us will continue sipping our beverages as the Sun goes down, waiting for for 2016 to slip into the past and 2017 to arrive. The leap second will pass by, and we might not even stop to notice.

My copy of "642 Things to Write About," a writing prompt book by the community of the San Francisco Writer's Grotto.

My copy of “642 Things to Write About,” a writing prompt book by the community of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

But yesterday I was thumbing through a book of mine, and it made me stop to think about that leap second a little harder. The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto has published a fantastic book of writing prompts designed to provide a bit of creative fodder for you to practice the craft of writing.  The very first prompt is this: What can happen in a second?

It’s an interesting thought to ponder. Every now and then, we have one extra second to live through (by our reckoning). What could the Universe do with that one extra second?  The answer: amazing things!  There are, of course, far too many awesome things that the Cosmos could do, but here are just a few to get you thinking…

You. Many of the cells in your body are in a constant state of growth and regeneration. To make new cells, your body creates copies of existing cells through a process called “cell division.” In order for this process to proceed, it has to replicate a copy of the genetic material in your cell, which is stored in the long strands of DNA.  All told, a human strand of DNA has about 3 billion molecular base pairs — the building blocks of the DNA ladder. If you could stretch a strand out straight, every strand of DNA would be about 2 meters long. The doesn’t sound very long, until you remember that it is all squished inside a cell, which is too small for your eye to see!  So suppose your cell is duplicating this DNA strand — molecular machines crawl along the DNA strand, reading it out and making a copy. How many base pairs can it read in 1 second?  About 50.  If you do some quick math, 3 billion base pairs divided by 50 pairs per second means it should take about 694 days for your body to replicate a single strand of DNA!  It doesn’t take this long though, because the replication process involves an entire workforce working on reading out different parts of the DNA in tandem; all told, it takes about one hour to complete the replication process — so in 1 second, the teamwork of all the molecular machines working the strand copies about 830,000 base pairs EVERY SECOND.  Is that a lot?  If each base pair were like a letter in your genetic alphabet, 830,000 letters is roughly the number of letters in a 600 page novel.

The Sun, imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

The Sun, imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

• The Sun is ultimately the source for most of the energy on Earth. It’s energy is released from nuclear fusion deep in its core, where it burns 600 million TONS of hydrogen into helium every second, releasing energy that eventually makes its way to the surface, making the Sun luminous. At that rate, it will burn a mass of hydrogen equal to the mass of the entire Earth in 70,000 years.

• Suppose you use your leap second to shine a laser beam at the Moon. The beam travels at the speed of light, the ultimate speed limit in the Cosmos. It will almost reach the Moon by the time the leap second is over, but will fall just short by about 56,000 miles. It took Apollo astronauts about 4 days to cross the empty gulf between the Earth and the Moon.

• Every second of every day, 4 or 5 babies are born on Earth. About 2 people die at the same time. The population of our small world is growing, even during our extra leap second.

Unfortunately, many of us spend too many of our seconds in traffic. :-(

Unfortunately, many of us spend too many of our seconds in traffic. 😦

• If you are cruising down the freeway, heading to a New Year’s Eve celebration with your partner or friends, and are travelling at 70 miles per hour (112.6 kilometers per hour), then in a single second you travel 31.3 meters (102 feet and 8 inches). That extra second on the clock gains you an extra hundred feet in your journey.

• You are almost certainly reading this post right now on a mobile device or computer, connected to the vast electronic storehouse of human knowledge called “the Internet.” It is hard to quantify the amount of information on the internet, or what is going on globally at any instant in any kind of meaningful snapshot, but there are Internet Live Stats to give you a sense of the tremendous amount of activity that is jetting electronically around the world. In one second, almost 41,000 GB of data are transferred. That sounds like a lot of information, and it is. Neurologists estimate your brain’s memory capacity to be about one to two million gigabytes — 1 second of time on the internet is roughly 4% of your total brain capacity.

• Like the Moon orbits the Earth, the Earth orbits the Sun, and the Sun orbits the center of the Milky Way. On its journey around the Sun, the Earth is travelling at roughly 108,000 kilometers per hour. In one second, we all travel 30 kilometers farther around the Sun. By contrast, the Sun itself is travelling at about 828,000 kilometers per hour, completing its orbit of the galaxy every quarter billion years. In just one second, you complete 230 kilometers of that journey. When the clocks stall for our leap second on New Year’s Eve, we’ll make it that much farther around our galactic circuit.

There are few objects that personify the modern dependence on electricity as well as a light bulb. The cost for and numerical value for the amount of energy they expend makes them seem somehow diminutive, but recasting that energy in terms of a physical effect on you makes it more tangible.

There are few objects that personify the modern dependence on electricity as well as a light bulb. The cost for and numerical value for the amount of energy they expend makes them seem somehow diminutive, but recasting that energy in terms of a physical effect on you makes it more tangible.

• In one second, every 100 Watt light bulb left on in your house, whether you are using it or not, uses 100 Joules of energy. At current electrical energy rates in the United States (about 12 cents per kilowatt hour), that’s less than 1/1000th of a penny, so it doesn’t seem like a lot of energy. Is it?  This is about the same amount of energy as a 9-inch cast iron skillet dropped on your head from a height of 33 feet (don’t look up — it’s going to hurt real bad when it hits you, because this is a LOT of energy…). Coincidentally, this is roughly the same amount of energy expended by your metabolism to keep you alive, every second of every day — you are the energy equivalent of a 100 Watt lightbulb.

Me and Xeno, burning our extra leap second together taking selfies for the blog!

Me and Xeno, burning our extra leap second together taking selfies for the blog!

• A resting human heart will beat just more than once per second (somewhat less than that, if you’re in great athletic shape). By contrast your cat has a heart rate roughly twice that of a human; in the extra leap second, your cat’s heart will beat twice. Dog heart rates vary by size; smaller dogs have rates like cats, bigger dogs have rates like humans. But everyone will get some extra beats in during the leap second.

Speedcubing is a competitive sport to solve Rubik’s Cube type puzzles in as short a time as possible. To date, there are only 3 successful solves of a classic 3x3x3 cube in less than 5 seconds by a human: Lucas Etter (4.90 sec in 2015), Mats Valk (4.74 sec in 2016) and Feliks Zemdegs (4.73 sec in 2016). Etter and Valk each solved the cube in about 40 turns — just over 8 face turns every second. Zemdegs made 43 turns, a blistering 9 turns per second to capture the world record. Speedcubing is a sport where a leap second is almost an eternity…  The current world record held by a robot is just 0.887 seconds — the machines don’t even need a full leap second to solve a Rubik’s Cube…

Just a few of my cube-style puzzles. The cube in the front right side is a cube designed for speedcubing. I am definitely NOT a speedcuber!

Just a few of my cube-style puzzles. The cube in the front right side is a cube designed for speedcubing. I am definitely NOT a speedcuber!

The list could, of course, go on. You may find it entertaining to think about things that interest you, or ponder things you notice in your life. Ask yourself: what could that extra second be useful for? But after you’ve enjoyed the leap second, sit back in your party hat and puff on your kazoo, and think about the following: time is a real thing. It is clear from the goings on of the Universe around us that time is marching steadily onward; physicists call the evidence of this inexorable stream of time the “Arrows of Time.” But the accounting of time — the division of units of time into units called seconds, and the enumeration of those seconds as they count our way steadily toward tomorrow, are a purely human invention. The Cosmos does not care that there is an extra “leap second” in 2016, not any more than it cares that there is a year called 2016 on some backward blue planet in some forgotten corner of a single small galaxy amidst the 500 billion galaxies that fill the Universe.

The invention of timekeeping, and the invention of the year, and the hour, and the minute, and the second — those are human constructs made with a single purpose in mind: to help us understand the Cosmos around us. These constructs of time are the manifestation of our ability to reason things out, a representation of our ability to consider ideas both complex and abstract and describe and represent them in so simple and understandable of a way that every child, woman and man on the planet can carry a device to tell them how the seconds are passing us by. Which makes me think: it takes about 1 second for me to glance at my watch or smartphone and process what I see. I can waste my extra leap second this  year checking the time… 🙂

Happy New Year, everyone. Enjoy your leap second; I’ll see you back here in 2017.

Looking Back 108 Years…

by Shane L. Larson

Today would have been Carl Sagan’s 82th birthday. It is an auspicious year, because after a 108 year drought, the Chicago Cubs have won a World Series title. The Cubs win reminded me of Sagan because his son, Nick, had told a story once of introducing his dad to computer baseball based on statistics, whereby you could pit famous teams in history against one another. Sagan apparently said to Nick, “Never show me this again; I like it too much.”

Today, Carl Sagan would have been 82 years old.

Today, Carl Sagan would have been 82 years old.

It is an instantly recognizable feeling to those of us who do science — a nearly uncontrollable urge to ask, “What if…” and then construct an experiment to answer that question. When faced with the prospect of being able to pit two great teams from baseball history against each other, the little science muse in the back of your mind begins to ask, who would win? What if I changed up the pitchers? Does the batting order matter? What if they played at home instead of away?

This incessant wondering is the genesis of all the knowledge that our species has accumulated and labeled “science.”  And so, to commemorate Sagan’s birthday, and the Cubs win this season, I’d like to look back at what we knew of the world the last time the Cubs won the World Series, 108 years ago, a time well within the possible span of a human life.  The year is 1908…

The title page of Einstein's PhD Thesis.

The title page of Einstein’s PhD Thesis.

In 1908, a young physicist named Albert Einstein, 3 years out from his college degree and after a multi-year stint working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, got his first job as a professor, at the University of Bern. This era was a time in the history of physics where scientists were trying to understand the fundamental structure of matter. Einstein’s PhD thesis was titled, “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions.” Despite the fact that he could not find a job as a faculty member in the years after he graduated, Einstein worked dutifully at the Patent Office, and did physics “in his spare time.” During 1905, he wrote a handful of transformative papers that would change physics forever. Like his PhD work, some of those were about the invisible structure of matter on the tiniest scales. One explained an interaction between light and matter known as the “photoelectric effect,” which would be the work for which he would win the Nobel Prize in 1921. Physicists had for sometime known that some materials, when you shone a light on them, generated electric current. Einstein was the first person to be able to explain the effect by treating light as if it were little baseballs (Go, Cubs! Go!) that were colliding with electrons and knocking them off of the material. Today we use that technology for devices like infrared remote controls to turn your TV on and off!  By the time Einstein became a professor, he was thinking about new and different things that had caught his attention, sorting out some new ideas about gravity that would, after an additional seven years of work become known as General Relativity.

(Top) Marie Curie in her laboratory. (Bottom) Curie's business card from the Sorbonne. [Image: Musee Curie]

(Top) Marie Curie in her laboratory. (Bottom) Curie’s business card from the Sorbonne. [Image: Musee Curie]

Other physicists were hard at work exploring other aspects of the properties of matter. In 1908, already having earned her first Nobel Prize (in 1903), Marie Curie became the first female professor ever at the Sorbonne in Paris. Her 1903 Nobel Prize in physics was for her work in the characterization of radioactive materials. She and her collaborators were not only trying to understand the nature of radiation and the properties of radioactive materials, but were discovering many of them for the first time. Today, we look at a periodic table of the elements and there are no gaps, but in 1908 there were. Curie and her colleagues discovered radium and polonium. They also discovered that some previously known elements, like thorium, were radioactive and we hadn’t known it. Before this pioneering work, the world knew nothing of radioactivity. At this time, the dangers of radiation were unknown. Curie for years exposed herself to radiation from samples in her laboratory; today, many of her notebooks are still too radioactive to be handled safely without protective equipment. In 1934, Curie died of aplastic anemia, a blood disease brought on by radiation exposure whereby your body cannot make mature blood cells.

We think a great deal of Curie’s exposure to radiation came not just from carrying radioactive samples around in her pockets (something that today we know is a bad idea), but also exposure from a new technology that she was a proponent of: medical x-rays. During World War I she developed, built, and fielded mobile x-ray units to be used by medical professionals in field hospitals. These units became known as petites Curies (“Little Curies”).

Orville Wright (R) and Lt. Thomas Selfridge (L) in the Wright Flyer, just before take off at Fort Myer. [Image: Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co]

Orville Wright (R) and Lt. Thomas Selfridge (L) in the Wright Flyer, just before take off at Fort Myer. [Image: Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co]

There were other technological advances being introduced to the world in 1908.  That year, the world was still becoming acquainted with the notion of flying machines. The Wright Brothers had successfully demonstrated a powered flying machine at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but in May of 1908, for the first time ever, a passenger was carried aloft when Charlie Furnas flew with Wilbur Wright over the Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. Just as with Curie, the Wrights were in unexplored territory, learning about the art and science of flying for the first time. Dangers and unexpected events abounded — the Wright Flyer experienced a crash late in 1908 after a propellor broke during a demonstration for the military at Fort Myer. Orville Wright was seriously injured, but his passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, sustained a serious skull injury and died 3 hours after the crash: the first person to perish in the crash of a self-powered aircraft.

(L) The 60-inch Telescope at Mount Wilson. (R) A young Harlow Shapley. [Images: Mt. Wilson Observatory]

(L) The 60-inch Telescope at Mount Wilson. (R) A young Harlow Shapley. [Images: Mt. Wilson Observatory]

On the opposite coast of the United States, also in 1908, the largest telescope in the world was completed on Mount Wilson, outside of Los Angeles: the 60-inch Reflector, built by George Ellery Hale. The 60-inch was built in an era when astronomers had discovered that building bigger and bigger telescopes enabled them to see deeper into the Cosmos in an effort to understand the size and shape of the Universe and our place within it. One of the biggest discoveries made with the 60-inch was still ten years away — astronomer Harlow Shapley would use the great machine to measure the distances to globular clusters near the Milky Way and discover that the Sun did not lie at the center of the galaxy(see Shapley’s paper here); today we know the Sun orbits the Milky Way some 25,000 light yeas away from the center.

The nature of the Milky Way was still, at that time, a matter of intense debate among astronomers. Some thought the Milky Way was the entire Universe. Others argued that some of the fuzzy nebulae that could be seen with telescopes were in fact “island universes” — distant galaxies not unlike the Milky Way itself.  The problem was there was no good way to measure distances. But 1908 saw a breakthrough that would give astronomers the ability to measure vast distances across the Cosmos when astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt published her observation that there was a pattern in how some stars changed their brightness. These were the first Cepheid variables, and by 1912 Leavitt had shown how to measure the distance to them by simply observing how bright they appeared in a telescope. A decade and a half later, in 1924, Edwin Hubble would use Leavitt’s discovery to measure the distance to the Andromeda Nebula (M31), clearly demonstrating that the Universe was far larger than astronomers had ever imagined and that the Milky Way was not, in fact, the only galaxy in the Cosmos. By the end of the 1920’s, Hubble and Milton Humason would use Leavitt’s discovery to demonstrate the expansion of the Universe, the first hint of what is today known as Big Bang Cosmology.

(L) Leavitt at her desk in the Harvard College Observatory. (R) The Magellanic Clouds, which Leavitt's initial work was based on, framed between telescopes at the Parnal Observatory in Chile. [Images: Wikimedia Commons]

(L) Leavitt at her desk in the Harvard College Observatory. (R) The Magellanic Clouds, which Leavitt’s initial work was based on, framed between telescopes at the Parnal Observatory in Chile. [Images: Wikimedia Commons]

Today, it is 108 years later. When I reflect on these items of historical note, I am struck by two things. First, it is almost stupefying how quickly our understanding of the workings of the world has evolved. It really wasn’t that long ago — barely more than the common span of a human life — that we didn’t know how to fly and we didn’t know that the Cosmos was ginormous beyond imagining. The pace of discovery continues to this day, dizzying and almost impossible to keep up with. The second thing that is amazing to me is how quickly we disperse and integrate new discoveries into the collective memory of our society. Flying is no longer a novelty; it is almost as common and going out and getting in a car. Large reflecting telescopes capable of making scientific measurements are in the hands of ordinary citizens like you and me, gathering starlight every night in backyards around the world. Most people know that the Milky Way is not the only galaxy in the Cosmos, and that radioactive materials should not be carried around in your pocket.

It is a testament to our ability to collect and disperse knowledge to all the far flung corners of our planet and civilization. In a world faced by daunting challenges, in a society in a tumultuous struggle to rise above its own darker tendencies, it is a great encouragement to me that the fruits of our knowledge and intellect are so readily shared and accessible. When the challenges facing the world seem to me too daunting to overcome, I often retreat to listen to Carl’s sonorous and poetic view of our history and destiny (perhaps most remarkably captured in his musings on the Pale Blue Dot). He was well aware of the problems we faced, but always seems to me to promote a never ending optimism that we have the power to save ourselves– through the gentle and courageous application of intellect tempered with compassion.  It seems today to be a good message.

Happy Birthday, Carl.

And Go Cubs, Go.


#AdlerWall 06: #XPLORESTEM

by Shane L. Larson

All too often, we think of STEM as some kind of activity related to education — it is, after all, an acronym formed from “possible fields of study” in school: Science, Technology, Education, Mathematics.

But this is a great failure of imagination on our part. STEM is bigger than simply education, or careers. STEM is bigger than K-12 kids or young adults navigating college.


This week’s #AdlerWall segment is a hashtag that reads simply: #XPLORESTEM. While your high school guidance counselor may have used this notion to encourage you to think about certain majors in college, I’m going to use it as an aperture to an elegant truth: you do #XPLORESTEM every day, you just might not recognize it.

STEM, quite simply, is a way of life. One that we are all immersed in everyday, and one that we all appreciate and enjoy whether we realize it or not. But more importantly, STEM is something we practice every day without realizing it. It is something we were all once fantastic at (and very likely still are), but we’ve forgotten. We’ve listened to all those people who watch us through our lives say “you don’t think very clearly”, “you’re not good at math”, “science isn’t for you.” We’ve melded those soundbites with the seeds of doubt that talk to us in the quiet alone hours before the day dawns; we’ve sown and watered those seeds with inferiority gleaned from watching people around us who are seemingly unbaffled by IRS tax codes, computer operating systems, or the irrational math required to order pizza for teenagers.

I’m here to tell you it is time to burn that field of weeds you have sown.

I’m a theoretical physicist. I spend my days being baffled by really frickin’ hard stuff in astrophysics. I spend a lot of time teaching students and people just like you. I like to think I know what I’m talking about when I talk about STEM. So trust me when I say this:

We are all explorers. We are all scientists. We are all problem solvers. We are all critical thinkers. We just don’t know it.

You may think you are bad at math, you may think you are bad at science, you may think that scientific thinking is baffling, but that’s just the weeds talking. You think like a scientist every day; you practice the art of critical thinking (“scientific reasoning”) every day. You’ve just been trained to believe a lie that says you haven’t. Let’s take a walk, you and I, through some everyday things you encounter and think about in your life.

Like many of you, I’m related to a quilter. Which means I have a LOT of quilted stuff around my house. Here are some awesome examples.

Some excellent examples of quilt patterns. Quilts by Peggy Beauvais.

Some excellent examples of quilt patterns. Quilts by Peggy Beauvais.

Quilting is an artistic and crafty endeavour, to be sure, but there are well defined mathematical principles at work here, related to a topic we call “tiling” (which not surprisingly is similar to another household activity called “tiling” that is related to shower stalls and backsplashes in your kitchen). Tiling is the process of covering a space completely, without gaps. When the space is covered by the same shape over and over again, we call that “periodic tiling” or “regular tiling.”  Good examples include the gridded tread on your shoes, or a regular grid of floor tiles.

Zentangles are a a modern meditative artform that is built around completely filling a space with irregular tiles. [Zentangles by Shane L. Larson]

Zentangles are a a modern meditative artform that is built around completely filling a space with irregular tiles. [Zentangles by Shane L. Larson]

Tiling has given way to spectacular art. Part of the current trend toward meditative art has people engaged in coloring large patterns such as mandalas that symmetrically tile large spaces, or drawing Zentangles that cover a small space with a number of different patterns. Famous artists have made spectacular works of tiling, such as the colored tiling work of Marlow Moss and Piet Mondrian. MC Escher was especially well known for his talent with tessellations.

Tiling also appears in Nature — you can see it in the structure of the cells on a leaf, and in the “granulation” caused by convection on the surface of the Sun, and in the hexagonal lattice in the honeycomb of a beehive.

Two examples of tiling in Nature. (L) Granulation on the surface of the Sun [Image by NASA] (R) Honeycomb by bees [Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Two examples of tiling in Nature. (L) Granulation on the surface of the Sun [Image by NASA] (R) Honeycomb by bees [Image from Wikimedia Commons]

As I wander around my house I encounter another activity that my father taught me when I was young: woodworking. My dad mostly makes furniture (I have several pieces that I quite like that came from him and my childhood), but the form this most often takes for me is in building telescopes. At its most basic level, a lot of woodworking is about taking two pieces of wood and putting them together to make something, like a piece of art or a telescope or a piece of furniture. However, once you name a woodworking piece “chair” or “footstool” then there are some deeper requirements, namely “it should not collapse if I stand on top of it and do an arabesque!”

(L) My daughter doing ballet on a footstool my father made. There is a great deal of engineering that has to go into the woodworking of the footstool to make this possible. (R) One of my daughter’s creations from when she was perhaps 4 years old, and I was first teaching her about woodworking. There is no engineering requirement here beyond “it must stay together.” (Neither she nor I remember what this was supposed to be; it says "volcano" on it.) [Images by Shane L. Larson]

(L) My daughter doing ballet on a footstool my father made. There is a great deal of engineering that has to go into the woodworking of the footstool to make this possible. (R) One of my daughter’s creations from when she was perhaps 4 years old, and I was first teaching her about woodworking. There is no engineering requirement here beyond “it must stay together.” (Neither she nor I remember what this was supposed to be; it says “volcano” on it.) [Images by Shane L. Larson]

The Willis Tower in Chicago was enabled by a new thought in structural engineering -- tubular construction. [Image by Shane L. Larson]

The Willis Tower in Chicago was enabled by a new thought in structural engineering — tubular construction. [Image by Shane L. Larson]

This is the heart of structural engineering. I don’t do any serious design and planning when I make a footstool; I do it more or less by trial and error and appellation to past experience (“I better put a brace here, or it will be wobbly.”). The fundamental principles, however, are the same ones that go into bridge design, or keep the Willis Tower upright. Engineers and architects, to be sure, plan their buildings ahead of time. They do calculations and build models to make sure the beams are the right sizes and the braces are in the right places. But the beginning of any building or bridge or train tunnel is the same place every footstool or backyard tree fort starts — a sketch on the back of a Five Guys napkin with a little guesswork and a bit of previous experience.

I would be remiss, if I closed this oeuvre to life and STEM without mentioning the most obvious example of science hiding in your life: cooking.  Cooking is a bunch of thermodynamics and a helluva lot of chemistry.  We could spend weeks — months! — writing every day about the chemistry that goes into cooking. So let’s just focus on one small bit of culinary wonder: crisping and browning.

Imagine something simple, a little comfort food from childhood: grilled cheese sandwiches. Mmmmm. It starts with some simple bread, a few slices of cheddar nestled between, and a searing griddle. As soon as the bread hits the griddle, it sizzles and sings as heat seeps into the sandwich, beginning the slow melt of the cheese. The process of melting is a bit of thermodynamics, which describes how energy can change the state, the physical properties of matter. The outside of the bread (and probably some bits of cheese that have oozed out on the griddle) are browning under the heat. This is the beginning of pyrolysis, the conversion of organic material into charred material (like “charcoal”). But before the complete conversion of your sandwich into an inedible charcoal briquette, it attains a crispy golden brown state, crunchy and delicious. What happened there? The browning process and flavor change of food during the early stages of cooking (before burning) is called the Maillard process. It is a chemical process where amino acids (the building blocks of organic molecules in living things) and sugars (long chain molecules that are broken up by organisms to make energy) work together and combine into something new. The idea of the browning process was first described by French physician Louis-Camille Maillard in 1912, but the chemical reactions were not worked out until 1953 by John Edward Hodge, an African-American chemist working for the Department of Agriculture in Illinois.

The secret of my lasagne, is the sauce. [Image by Shane L. Larson]

The secret of my lasagne is the sauce. [Image by Shane L. Larson]

Of course, cooking is often as much an art as science. The exact blending of flavors to make something new from common ingredients is unique to every chef. My lasagne is probably quite different than your lasagne. We might both enjoy each other’s lasagne, trade some secrets and ideas, and then experiment to see if we want to tweak our individual recipes. Sometimes we decide the experiment was a success, and sometimes not.  It all depends if the result of the experiment tastes good or not!

Here’s a bit of cooking chemistry from my childhood. Do you know what doesn’t taste good? Tang mixed with hot chocolate. I know it sounds like it should be okay, but trust me. Barf.

Of course, it isn’t all over with the cooking. You and I can cook with guidance from a cookbook — that’s chemistry in the kitchen. But once you eat what we cooked, your body takes over. Without any input from your brain, your body fires up a process called “anerobic glycolosis” — how to take food molecules and quickly make energy out of them. YOU are a walking chemistry experiment, every hour of every day.

So what’s the point in #XPLORESTEM? While on the one hand the impetus is often to encourage the young generation of students to think about careers in STEM fields, because we largely associate such fields with the success of the economy, with progress and brighter tomorrows, and general competitiveness on the world stage, I think about it the way we’ve been talking about it here: the ideas and use of STEM are not just careers and equations and laboratories. The ideas and use of STEM are fundamental principles that we often use unconsciously and in our everyday lives and hobbies. I can’t go build a building bigger than the Willis Tower because I can make footstools. I can’t predict solar storms because I can make a pretty kitchen tile pattern. I can’t make a new durable metal alloy for joint replacements because I know how to mix up a great vinaigrette.

But I can understand and use the same basic ideas as the scientists and engineers who do those bigger things. I can appreciate that what we know about the Cosmos is not an unfathomable mystery, because it is rooted in action and activity you and I do every day.

Your kid may decide they really want to be a marine biologist or a mathematician or a computer engineer. You may decide to go back to school (now that your kids are out of college) and study astronomy, or physical chemistry, or geology.

When any of those things happen, don’t throw up your hands! Don’t make a face like you’ve eaten a bug and declare “I hated science!” I’m sure you did, but that’s because we didn’t tell you the truth — you’re a scientist every day, and you #XPLORESTEM every day. I know you do, because I do it too.

See you out in the world! I’ll be the guy at the chili competition, quite certain that my newest experiment is totally going to win the cook-off. 🙂


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.