Crochet, knitting, astronomy & life in general.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Newtonmas to all!

As I get older, I find it harder and harder to get into the holiday spirit. I've never been religious, so Christmas has never really had much meaning for me besides an excuse to get lots of presents. As a kid, presents were awesome, and I was always happy to get new toys, but now I find my material needs are much simpler... I'm not too interested in getting piles of presents anymore. I would even say that the excessive materialism attached to the various holidays people celebrate at this time of year bothers me a lot. For this reason, I've been looking for an alternative holiday to celebrate... something that better suites my beliefs.

My mom likes to celebrate Brumalia, which is the Roman festival that Christmas replaced. It honours Bacchus, so I guess you have to drink a lot of wine. It also takes place at the end of the festival of Saturnalia, so we put a cardboard cut-out of Saturn at the top of the Brumalia shrubbery like so:

I, however, subscribe to a much more scientific belief system, so an ancient roman holiday isn't quite the thing for me, no matter how much wine I drink. Therefore, this year I've decided to celebrate Newtonmas. Isaac Newton, considered by many to be the father of modern Physics, was born on Christmas day in 1642. There was some confusing stuff going on with dates back then, and so according to our modern calendar, his birthday is on January 4th, but since the calendar back then said it was December 25th, I think I'll stick with that one for the sake of the holiday.

Newton is most famous for discovering the Law of Gravitation by showing that the same force which causes objects to fall towards the ground also governs the motion of the planets around the sun. However, he is also credited with inventing calculus (though Leibniz also gets credit for that), building the first reflecting telescope, discovering that light is made up of many different colours, and much more. He was also very religious and a practitioner of alchemy. He might also have been a bit of a jerk.

Anyway, to properly celebrate Newtonmas, I will be doing the following:
  • Eating an apple
  • Singing some Newtonmas carols
  • Shining light through a prism to watch it split into a rainbow
  • Doing some calculus problems
  • Dropping stuff on the ground

Happy Newtonmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Astronomy Monday: The Solstice Eclipse

Ok, so Astronomy Monday is one day late. I can pretend it's Monday if you will. In my defense, I was traveling yesterday.

Today I'd like to talk about this morning's solstice lunar eclipse. At least, I assume it was this morning since it was completely overcast in the Townships last night. I spent the whole day on the bus yesterday traveling from Toronto to the Townships to visit my parents for the holidays. The idea was that I would get back in time to watch the eclipse with my Dad, but alas, it was not to be. Ironically, it was perfectly clear in Toronto. Here's what it looked like there (stolen from blogTO):

Last night's eclipse took place between 1:33am and about 5am, with totality (that is, when the moon was completely covered by the Earth's shadow) starting at 2:41am and lasting 72 minutes. Though lunar eclipses are fairly common (I have been able to observe at least two of them in my short lifetime), this one was special because it occurred on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, something which last happened in 1638 and won't happen again until 2094. Fortunately, eclipses look the about the same no matter what the time of year, and the next one is on June 15th, 2011... Now if I can get my supervisor to send me to Australia, that'd be perfect.

As you may or may not know, a lunar eclipse happens when the Moon's orbit passes through the Earth's shadow, that is, when the Earth blocks the Sun's light from the Moon's point of view. This means that it's always a Full Moon when a lunar eclipse occurs (just like it's always a New Moon when a solar eclipse occurs). I always find a diagram is helpful (shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia):

Why then, you may ask, would we not have a lunar eclipse every time we have a Full Moon? This is because the Moon's orbit around the Earth is inclined by 5 degrees with respect to the Earth's orbit around the Sun, which means that the Moon's orbit only intersects the Earth's orbit in two locations. Only when we get a full Moon in one of these intersecting locations do we experience a lunar eclipse. This is probably also best illustrated by a diagram (from Starts With A Bang!):

As the moon travels through Earth's shadow, it looks like a progressively larger bite is being taken out of it, until the moon completely enters the umbra and turns this gorgeous shade of red. And why does the moon turn red instead of just going black? Well, folks, it's the same principle behind the question of why the sky is blue and why sunsets are red. As the sun's light passes through the Earth's atmosphere, the blue part of the spectrum is scattered, while the red part remains unaffected. Thus, the redder parts of the sun's spectrum are refracted by the Earth's atmosphere and the moon looks red. Because of this, the redness of the moon during an eclipse can depend on the atmospheric conditions on Earth, ranging from a bright orange to almost black.

The last lunar eclipse I saw was in February, 2008. It was a perfectly clear and freezing night, and the Bishop's Observatory was open to the public. My toes were completely numb by the time totality was finished, but it was still an incredible experience. If you want to know more about the mechanics of lunar eclipses, there's a really neat animated explanation here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sheepy Awesomeness

Brenda Dayne blogged about this about a year and a half ago, but I thought it was worth a re-posting. Behold! Shepherds being awesome!

Monday, December 13, 2010


Sorry guys. No Astronomy Monday today. I've got a stupid cold and I'm feeling the crunch from a paper deadline. Yes, there's too much astronomy in my real life for me to write about astronomy in my blog. Don't worry though... Holidays are coming up, and I'll be able to write about cool stuff in space to my heart's content next week.

As a consolation prize, please accept this goofy picture of one of my (more or less) recent projects:

His name is Slurpee, and as you might have guessed (if you're a fan of Futurama), he's a brain slug. The pattern is Brain Slugs by Alicia Ramirez, and this is the one time I actually used the yarn recommended by the pattern... completely by accident too. He was supposed to be the boyfriend's Halloween costume, but of course, the boyfriend forgot him at home when the big day arrived. Poor Slurpee. Oh well, at least he got one big night on the town.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The sweater that wanted to be a One-Week sweater...

... but instead ended up taking three weeks to make, which, to be fair, is still a pretty short time to make a sweater in, at least for me. I started making the Three-week sweater when my mom came down for a visit about a month ago because I had her Christmas present on the needles, and so couldn't work on that. Also, I've been meaning to make this sweater since before I even learned to knit.

The sweater is Painted Lady by Jenifer Paulousky from the Anticraft. It's a top-down raglan crop-top with thumb holes, and I think it was that last feature which attracted me to the pattern more than anything else. When I was in high school, all my friends had hoodies that had thumb holes. For some reason, I never bothered to go shopping for one (and they were probably out of my teenage budget anyway), so I did without thumb holes with envy in my heart. But heck, now I knit, so I can make thumb holes in all my sweaters if I want!

My sweater started its life as four skeins of Malabrigo Merino Worsted Yarn that was given to me by a friend who was clearing out her stash (I've gotten some of my best yarns that way). It's absolutely delightful, both to knit with and to wear! The labels had disappeared by the time I inherited the yarn, and I'm fairly sure that one of the skeins was from a different dye lot, but I didn't care so much. Seriously... if you can get your hands on some of this, it's so soft and squishy and warm and wonderful...

Anyway, onto the sweater. I followed the pattern for a medium until I got to the underarms, where I tried it on... it was kind of baggy, and I worried that the ribbing would float around under my bust instead of clinging to my ribs, so I decreased a few times, which seemed to do the trick, knit the ribbing and bound off the body. This whole process took me six days, and I figured I could finish the sleeves in another day or two.

Turns out sleeves are boring because they took another week by themselves. I knit them using the magic loop method to knit both at the same time, and finished off the cuff and thumb holes with double-pointed needles. And of course, accidentally knit one of the thumb holes backwards the first time, but that was easy enough to rip back and fix. I should note that I used a smaller needle size for the different ribbings because apparently that makes them look better (and I guess it did).

I wore the sweater to school and upon asking what people thought, some said it would look better as a full-length sweater, and others thought it looked fine as is. The tipping point was probably that both my mom and the boyfriend thought it looked silly as a crop top. So, upon the advice of a friend, I just undid the bind-off and continued the ribbing until the sweater was about hip-length. This was also the point when I ran out of yarn... convenient! Seriously, I had to pull around the bound-off stitches so that I'd have enough yarn to bind off the last two or three stitches. I think they call that knitting on fumes.

In the end, I'm very happy with this sweater. Even if it wasn't as quick as I had hoped, I'm very pleased with the modifications I made, and this was worth taking a little extra time. I must say, the ribbed body is much more flattering than a crop-top and to tell the truth, my tummy did get cold when wearing it at the shorter length. After having worn it for about a week now, the malabrigo is pilling a lot, but I think this is a price I'm willing to pay for such a soft, warm sweater!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Spreading my influence

My awesome friend Joanna over at the Happy Seamstress has honoured me with the task of occasionally writing in her blog. You can read my first introductory post here. I plan on writing about knitting and crochet, with the occasional free pattern or tutorial, or whatever else craft-related that strikes my fancy. Good things have already come from this, since I've been asked to review the new Stitch 'n Bitch book, which involves getting a complimentary review copy! Woo!

Joanna will be using the Happy Seamstress website to eventually sell sewing patterns. She's an awesome freelance designer, and a really talented knitter to boot. A little while ago, she was featured all over the internet for this amazing Super Mario sweater vest she made for her husband. It's seriously epic.

Anyway, you should check out the Happy Seamstress blog if you just can't get enough of me (I know, I know...) or if you want to see what other awesome things Joanna has come up with.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Astronomy Monday: Rethinking the Structure of Life

The big thing in science news last week was the NASA announcement that a micro-organism has been discovered that uses arsenic instead of phosphorus in its cell components. That is, it uses arsenic instead of phosphorus in its DNA, in proteins that transport energy throughout the cell, and in the phospholipids that form the cell's outer membrane.

These little guys are bacteria found in Mono Lake, a very alkaline lake with large amounts of dissolved arsenic in Eastern California, and have the complicated name GFAJ-1. They look something like this:

Well, that's neat, you might say, but why is it really all that important?

The primary ingredients that make up life are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus. All life that we knew of on Earth (until very recently), absolutely had to have these elements in order to exist. Life-forms have been found which substitute the trace elements necessary for life, such as certain types of molluscs substituting copper for iron as an oxygen-carrier, but these six primary elements were always present.

The fact that these bacteria are able to use arsenic instead of phosphorus means that it is possible that any one of the six major elements could be substituted for something else, and that life might be more ubiquitous and in much stranger forms than previously thought. When astronomers look for traces of life on extrasolar planets, which is made possible by observing the light of the planet as it transits in front of its host star, they'll have to consider more than just traces of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus.

How, you might ask, would it be possible for life-forms to substitute one element for another? Doesn't each element have unique qualities? Well, the answer to this question lies in the Periodic Table of the Elements (image shamelessly stolen from the BBC):

You might have noticed that arsenic, denoted as "As" is in the same column as phosphorus, denoted "P". As it turns out, elements in the same column in the periodic table have similar properties because they have the same number of valence electrons, that is, the same number of electrons in their outermost shell. Elements that have the same number of valence electrons can form similar bonds with other atoms. This is also why science fiction writers have been thinking for years about silicon-based life forms, because silicon is in the same column on the periodic table as carbon, and thus can form chemical bonds in a similar way.

Anyway, this is a far cry from finding life on other planets, but it certainly alters our perception of what can be used for the basic building blocks of life. You can find the Science Express article about these really cool bacteria here.

Edit (Dec. 7, 2010): CBC News announced today that University of British Columbia Prof. Rosie Redfield blogged that the methods used to determine that these bacteria use arsenic instead of phosphorus were sloppy at best, and that the results might not be correct. I'm looking forward to finding out how the pans out and to seeing what the scientific community comes up with!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sunspots and Falcons

On Monday, my friend (whom I shall call N) and I gave an astronomy tour to a small group of grade 5 and 6 students from a local elementary school. We started off with a planetarium show, which, amid cries of "Let's fly to Saturn!" and "Oooh! Can you zoom in on that again?", I tried to keep within 45 minutes. Needless to say, our planetarium super rocks.

We then went up to our observatory, where we were able to see the sun through our 8-inch telescope with a solar filter. We actually got to see sunspots, which was pretty impressive... It looked something like this (courtesy

After all the kiddies had thanked us and left, N and I decided that since we were already on the roof, we may as well hang out on the building's balcony for a while. The balcony looks like this:

As we turned the corner, we both stopped dead in our tracks. Right in front of us, sitting on the edge of the railing, was a really big bird, which I'm pretty sure was a peregrine falcon. We managed to sneak towards it, hiding behind the short columns on the balcony until we were within a few meters of it. At that point, it decided it'd had enough of us and casually jumped off the ledge to fly away. N managed to get some decent pictures with his iPhone:

(Who knows why that last picture looks so strange? I guess we'll say it's impressionist and call it a day.)