Battle of the Dwarf Planets!

Come visit Pluto’s Tombaugh Planetary Regio Park
The coldest place in the solar system
– UN Department of the Exterior



It’s all fun and games until some body gets perturbed. Wednesday night was Science on Tap night at the Kirkwood Brewery. Bill McKinnon of WashU was speaking about this summer’s New Horizons flyby of Pluto. He is on the science board for this program. Last Bastille Day, the New Horizons satellite performed like a ballerina, pirouetting through the Pluto-Charon system flawlessly. Five plus hours after flyby first word of this mission’s success reached the NASA Mission Operations Manager in the form of a single so-so photo and a system status check. All the memory sticks were full, all the appropriate thruster burns had occurred and all systems were still a go. Even though the speed of light induced message delay is only just over five hours, only, New Horizons would require two months to phone home its cache of photos and data. In space, no one can here you cheer!

See the nitrogen glaciers of Sputnik Planum
that flow among mountains of water ice
– UN Department of the Exterior

Launched on an Atlas rocket in 2006, in just over a year New Horizons was slingshot around Jupiter, rocketing towards a 10 MPS rendezvous with Pluto, almost ten-year in the future. McKinnon showed an annotated diagram of the satellite. Most of its instruments were boringly named with just acronyms, but two standout, Ralph and Alice. Did I mention that the probe’s first slingshot was around our moon? The New Horizons team was by necessity a small team, because after launch there wasn’t much to do for ten years.

This Halloween why not try trick-or-treating
among the cliffs of Pluto’s Cthulhu Ridge?
– UN Department of the Exterior

Alcohol On The Rocks

Pahoehoe Lava

Pahoehoe Lava

Last night, Science on Tap kicked-off its new season. We also used this event as an opportunity to celebrate Joanie’s birthday and watch the Cardinals clinch their latest divisional title. Science on Tap is a collaborative effort between Washington University and in the past Schlafly Bottleworks, but that partnership has become a victim of its own success. We out grew that facility and moved out to the Kirkwood Station Brewery, which boasts a capacity that is four times greater than Schlafly’s. Still, the room was mostly full last night.

The speaker was a geologist, Phil Skewer, an assistant professor. Standing up before the large crowd, he led with a line about being between a rock and a hard place, such is the tenor of his geology jokes. He researches the Earth’s mantle by squishing rocks in his lab. His best line involved a description of the Earth’s density, the average of which is equivalent to that of four Prius stuffed into the volume of a washing machine. Skewer is an experimentalist, who enjoys squishing rocks and then studies how they deform.

After his talk, I asked two questions. First, whether he also uses finite element modeling to study his rock squishing. He was rather dismissive of FEM, “Aw Gawd no!”. I also asked him about studying volcanos, like in Hawaii. I think that this question caught him a little off-guard, because it is so divorced from his own work, professional rock squishing in the lab. I was hoping for something more encouraging, like maybe a post-doc opportunity. 

The accompanying photo shows some pahoehoe lava, from the Hawaiian Kilauea Volcano. The photograph was taken at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. This twisted, ropy surface is typical of pahoehoe (pa-HOY-hoy), a form of basaltic lava. As fluid lava flows downhill, a thin skin on top cools and solidifies. It wrinkles by continued movement of the molten interior.

Fourier Transforming Beer

Red Admiral Butterfly and Pink Cone Flower

Red Admiral Butterfly and Pink Cone Flower

Dan Chitwood, a member of the Danforth Plant Science Center, was the speaker this month for Science on Tap at the Schlafly Bottleworks. His talk was entitled, “What Beer Bottles and Violins Say about Evolutionary Forces that Shape Us and Our Culture”. Both his title and mine are a little disingenuous, since neither one really has much to do with beer. The software that he uses to perform his analysis does use beer bottle shapes as an illustrative example and I was drinking beer during his talk, which occurred at a brewery, but that’s about the extent of the connection with beer. Let’s just say that the smell of hops was in the air. He did talk about violin’s shapes, he plays the viola and used them as his example dataset to illustrate the concepts and theories that he applies to leaves in his work. On Tap is usually more pop science than his lecture was, but its elevated complexity seemed to hold the audience’s attention better than most of the other talks.

Stradivari violins and many of their contemporaries are some of the best and most expensive instruments in the world. The latter attribute makes them prime fodder for auction houses, which have created online catalogs, with high-definition photos of each item. Chitwood has digitized the outline of thousands of these instruments and then decomposed these irregular outlines into a sequence of ellipses that can be constructively summed to recreate the original violin outline. These sequences of ellipses are Fourier series and are a more conducive representation of the object’s shape for statistical analysis than the original pixellated outline. You knew that Fourier would be back. With these mathematical tools, Chitwood was able to describe how these instruments evolved over time and then used this example violin dataset to show how he does similar work, when he describes the shapes of leaves. Leaves are much more complex than even Stradivari violins. For one, their shapes change over time, an individual leaf’s shape changes as it grows and the shapes of leaves change, depending on where they grow on a branch or vine. All of the parts of a flower are just highly specialized leaves.

In the Q&A section, we learned that his specialty of research is the tomato. He is studying a Peruvian desert cousin to the tomato, which doesn’t taste very good and is mildly toxic, but it is highly drought resistant. He hopes to combine this last attribute into the better tasting varieties that we all know and love. With the looming specter of climate change, research into drought resistant plants is important work. One of his colleagues studies grapes. Tomatoes reproduce annually and are a good candidate for GMO techniques, but grape vines take many years to mature, making them a much more long-term project. Complicating the breeding process is the fact that all grapes are grown from grafted hybrids. Shortly after the New World was discovered, an aphid that causes root boils made it back to the Old World and started killing off all of the grapes in France. An expedient solution was soon discovered, graft Old World vines onto New World roots, a technique that is used today. However, at the time traditionalist in France forbade the use of this technique and soon all of the grapes in France died out. Chitwood threw out this story as a cautionary tale, concerning our current GMO debate.

99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

Beer Goggles On

Beer Goggles On

Tonight’s agenda was Science on Tap, with beer goggles! Anne was feeling well enough that she went to school today, but she declined to accompany us tonight, because of her cough. She had returned to the original scene of the crime, kindergarten. She felt that a hacking cough during the middle of a lecture might be too distracting to others. Damn the consumptives! Joanie’s friend Vicki joined us though and after the talk, we met with friends, neighbors and bike buddies, Phil and Mary. WashU Psychologist Richard Abrams was the night’s speaker:

His recent research on visual perception has shown that we see things near our hands differently. We focus more intently on objects near the hands, and we process aspects of them uniquely. These changes occur presumably because we can potentially touch them and pick them up. He reviewed research from his lab and others that reveals the special status that the brain gives to objects that are within reach. Taken together, the research shows why you can pick up a bottle of beer (usually) without knocking something over or spilling the beer.

His talk asked the question, “Why is the beer near your hand better than the two across the table?” His following bullets cover his talk’s topics. These bullet items have been shaped to conform to the Bottleworks venue and as such appear somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Analogies aside, his research seems important.

  • You examine it more thoroughly.
  • You are better able to direct mental effort to it.
  • Special mechanisms help you avoid knocking over the other beers.
  • (Unless you are old.)
  • Beer that you can reach looks closer.
  • The beer looks closer if the person next to you can reach it.
  • Imagination may also produce many of these benefits.

A Schlafly representative asked Abrams for a recommendation for reshaping the planform of their six beer flight place mat. After some thought and more dithering he recommended a semicircle over the existing three by two pattern. Originally, it seemed that he was contemplating different patterns for different ages (old and not old), but he decided upon a one size fits all solution. I asked him if he had investigated differences attributable to handedness. He had not. Only after the talk did I think of a follow-up question, “Are you left-handed?”  Anne reminded me of what her Aunt Betty felt about glasses, she always found it easiest to reach for the nearest, fullest glass.

Science On Tap

NASA Galileo's Saturn Eclipse Mosaic

NASA Galileo’s Saturn Eclipse Mosaic

Tonight was another Science on Tap night and like the last one, it was another astronomy talk. The Schlafly Bottleworks hosts these monthly events in conjunction with Washington University. It makes for a nice combination of Schlafly beer and WashU brains. Joanie organized this outing for all of us and her college friend and my current colleague, Pat, made it four of us, along with Anne and I. The speaker was William B McKinnon. His talk was billed to be about our outer solar system.

This event will go on for some time, so, I won’t be able to post anything until much later, after it is over, but I’m sitting here two-hours before the event, just marking time. It is so popular an event that you have to get a seat that early. Did I mention that it is free? So, while I’m sitting here wanting to write, but not being able to write about Science on Tap, because it hasn’t happened yet, let’s change the subject.

Lake Superior or originally Lac Supérieur in French, meant not the best of the Great Lakes, as is so often claimed nowadays, but the uppermost of them. In the French or Spanish manner, lakes are referred to as Lake Something as opposed to the English manner, Something Lake. Lake Superior sounds more impressive than Superior Lake. In modern times, some people have adopted the affected Lake Something convention, because it sounds more cultured.

It’s a Small Solar System
it’s a small Solar System after all
it’s a small Solar System after all
it’s a small Solar System after all
it’s a small, small Solar System

While he was an excellent speaker, I found Bill McKinnon’s talk less than inspiring. I felt that he spent way too much time backfilling planetary astronomy’s ancient history, meanwhile scant attention was paid to what is currently going on. The New Horizons space probe is slated to make closest approach to Pluto this year on Bastille Day. This coincidental date is all that correlates most of McKinnon’s historical prologue to what is really going on now this year. I wanted to know what was happening next, not what has already occurred. I could have read all of what McKinnon said on Wiki. The contrast in quality Science on Tap talks couldn’t have been more stark, than between this talk and the previous Mars rovers Science on Tap.

Mars, Like a Warm Wet Kiss

MOOOOONWALK, part of Cows on Parade, by Craig Wartman

MOOOOONWALK, part of Cows on Parade, by Craig Wartman

Last night, Anne, Joanie and I attended Washington University’s January Science on Tap lecture by its own Professor Raymond E. Arvidson. The title of his talk was Early Mars: Warm, Wet, and Habitable. In his talk, Dr. Arvidson asserted that at one time there was free-flowing water on the surface of Mars and that the conditions for life existed there, like three to four billion years ago, but he was not willing to venture so far as to assert that there was free-flowing beer on the surface of Mars, even if he was giving his talk at the Schlafly Bottleworks, where there was plenty of beer flowing.

There were horrible audio-visual issues, one could either use the microphone of the projector, but not both simultaneously. Arvidson manage to rise above these technical difficulties and carry on. Then there was the issue of the new seating arrangement. The chairs up front were fine, but the long rows of tables, oriented perpendicular to the direction of the speaker meant that half of those people sitting at these tables had to somehow squirm around, in very tight quarters. The geriatric nature of the audiences at these Science on Tap lectures are not very conducive to squirming. I think that orienting the tables, in shorter rows, but parallel to the direction of the speaker, would be better. Also apparently, the fire marshal had taken issue with past overcrowding at these events. A ticketing system was instituted. I don’t think that anyone was turned away, but I cannot be sure. “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

It was a great talk, on a subject of keen personal interest. Dr. Arvidson and his team have been and continue to be involved with the myriad of Mars probes, past, present and future. His talk keyed-in on the two still active Mars rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity. Opportunity and its twin Spirit were launched years ago. Both rovers have by now, far exceeded their original warranties. Spirit eventually got stuck in sand and was abandoned in place. Opportunity is still operational, even if it now suffers from both Alzheimer’s and arthritis. After each nightly shutdown, to conserve power, its memory has to be reloaded the next morning. Its mechanical arm has lost enough degrees of motion that it now has to traverse the planet’s surface in what looked like to me as a Hitler salute. The new kid on the block is Curiosity and she is a she. Compared to its predecessors, she is a behemoth. Arvidson was able to tell us what these two still active rovers would be doing that night, today and tomorrow, in great detail. It was a great talk! Plus, the Q&A session after his talk was good too. During this part, Arvidson was able to speculate on Mars projects yet to come.