Crochet, knitting, astronomy & life in general.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Keeping our internet reasonably priced

I'm not usually one to get all riled up about things, but when it comes to my internet, I don't mess around. The CRTC has made a decision which will pave the way to allowing internet service providers (ISPs) to charge Canadians per byte for their internet usage, sort of like what mobile companies already do. This means that we'll be paying a lot more for a lot less internet. To boot, the big telecom companies are forcing small companies to adopt the same billing policy, effectively eliminating any sort of cheaper alternative.

My internet is expensive enough, and I have no interest in paying more for it. If you're of the same opinion, and are Canadian, I hope you'll fill out the below petition. If for some reason that doesn't work, you can use the OpenMedia form.

In other news, I just got back from an awesome conference in Milwaukee, which I will tell you all about soon with pictures and everything!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Astronomy Tuesday: Elusive Habitable Planets

I know I said that I'd have lots of time to write about astronomy over the holidays, but really, I got so caught up in watching Farscape, reading webcomics and practising extreme relaxation, that I totally forgot. And then the semester started again and I got busy. Why am I writing right now? Well, my friend, it has to do with that procrastination/amount of work to do correlation.

Anyway, today I thought I'd talk about Gliese 581 g, an unconfirmed rocky planet orbiting the red dwarf star Gliese 581. The planet got everyone excited back in September since it was discovered in the habitable zone of its sun, that is, that perfect distance from the star where water can exist in liquid form. This would be the first time a planet outside our solar system has been discovered in that special region around its sun. Here is an image of the Gliese solar system compared to our own (from Wikipedia):

We shouldn't, however, start packing our bags to go visit this extrasolar planet. Besides the fact that interstellar travel is currently just a pipe dream, Gliese 581 g probably wouldn't be as hospitable as one might first think. Even though it's considerably closer to its sun than the Earth is to our own sun, Gliese 581 is much less massive than the Sun and therefore much less luminous. Thus, the average temperature on this planet is about 37 degrees (Celsius) colder than on Earth. It's possible that since it's 3 to 4 times as massive as the Earth, it would be able to sustain a thicker atmosphere with an increased greenhouse effect, but that's pure speculation at this point.

The other issue is that since the planet is so close to its sun, about one tenth the distance that Earth is from our sun, there's a good chance that it's tidally locked, that is, its rotation has slowed so much that one side of the planet is always facing the sun. This would imply that it would be incredibly hot on the side of the planet facing the star and very very cold on the side facing away from the star. This happens when the gravitational gradient, that is the difference in gravitational force which decreases with distance from the massive object (the star in this case), is large it exerts a torque on the planet which causes its rotation to slow down, eventually causing it to rotate at the same rate as it's orbiting the star. This is probably best described in a diagram (from Wikipedia, of course):

I don't know how much that really helped, but the point is, if there is a large difference in temperatures on the planet, it would be more difficult for liquid water to form, and therefore for life to exist. This problem might be solved if the atmosphere of this planet is thick enough to distribute the heat around the planet. Venus, for example, is also almost tidally locked to the Sun and because of its thick atmosphere, the temperature is more or less uniform on all sides. However, since our instruments still aren't good enough to be able to detect the atmospheric composition of Gliese 581 g, it's hard to say anything more on this subject.

The story is further complicated by the recent announcement by another research group that they aren't able to detect the new planet in another data set. The planet was discovered using 122 measurements from the HIRES instrument on the Keck 1 telescope in Hawaii, and 119 measurements from the HARPS spectrograph at La Silla Observatory in Chile taken over 11 and 4.3 years respectively. All the planets in that system (there are 6 in total) were discovered using the radial velocity technique, which I briefly described in a previous post. Basically, the planets all cause the star to wobble slightly in its orbit, and by subtracting the wobbles of the closer and more massive planets, one is able to detect the fainter signals from the other planets in the system. Let's take another look at that wobble (if only because I love animated gifs):

So this other group added 60 data points onto the HARPS measurements and says that they can't find the signal for Gliese 581 g. It has something to do with the error bars on the previous measurements, and assumptions that are made about the shape of the orbits of the planets in the system. On one side of the argument, you have astronomers saying that this new planet doesn't exist at all, and on the other side, the astronomers who originally detected it maintain that you need the data sets from both instruments to be able to see it.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see how the argument is settled, which I suppose will happen in the next year or so when even more measurements are taken. If this planet does indeed exist, it's certainly an exciting prospect for discovering life elsewhere in the universe!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Who-oa! You're like a gorilla!

Yes, I have had the song by the Mopes stuck in my head for the last month or so, but more importantly, I got a GorillaPod!

It's an awesome little tripod with flexible legs and rubbery feet that wrap around and grip things like nobody's business. It had no trouble hanging on to my bookcase:

Or on to Spock, the stuffed beagle:

When my camera is attached, it also vaguely reminds me of those weird alien transporters from War of the Worlds. Especially when it decides to attack my face:

My plan is to use this newfangled contraption to take pictures and videos of my hands so that I can make tutorials and stuff without having to worry about holding the camera. Look ma! No hands!

On a completely unrelated note, I wrote a book review! You should go check it out on that other blog I now write for.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Books books books...

I'm not very good at making New Year's resolutions. I mean, I guess some years I half-heartedly make a list, and then completely ignore it. This year, however, inspired by an ever-growing pile of books to read, whose prosperity has certainly been helped along by a large number of books received as X-mas presents from the parents and the boyfriend, I've resolved to spend a lot more time reading for pleasure.

Since I started grad school, I've read innumerable scientific papers, but I've hardly read any novels at all. Like maybe 2 whole books in the last 2 and a half years. Pretty pathetic. Well, that's not strictly true. I have been downloading audiobooks from Librivox, and I got through 5 or 6 books that way, and I have been reading a bit on my Kindle. However, I wouldn't say that either of those media really count as true books, since I'm either being read to or don't have to lug a real book around.

Anyway, to show I mean business here, in no particular order, is my reading list for 2011:

I'm in the process of reading the second book in Robertson Davies' Cornish Trilogy, entitled What's Bred in the Bone. I received these books as a birthday present, I think, at least 2 years ago, and have only read the first book, which took me about a year. It's actually a pretty interesting story, mostly taking place in Toronto, centered around the life of Francis Cornish, an eccentric art collector.

Next, I'd like to read The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Leguin. This is a classic of fantasy literature, considered by some to be on a par with Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Interestingly enough, I first heard about it from an audio recording of a lecture entitled "TMS Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature" by Prof. Michael D.C. Drout which was given to me by Stevie ages ago. I then borrowed the books from my mom last winter break, and they've been sitting on my shelf collecting dust ever since.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins should be a good read. I got this as an X-mas present from my dad last year. The boyfriend has read it, and he rather liked it, so I probably will too. It essentially debunks Creationism, etc. by listing all the evidence that has been found for evolution. If you read my post about the Creationist publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, then you already know how I feel about that subject. I also really enjoy Dawkins' style of writing. He's a very angry person, it seems, but he has very well-structured arguments. I listened to an audiobook version of The God Delusion, and I enjoyed it a lot.

The boyfriend got me this book, The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, for X-mas this year. It's Hawking's first book in over 10 years, and covers all the really big questions about the origin of the universe and so on. I really enjoyed A Brief History of Time and Black Holes and Baby Universes, so hopefully this'll be good too!

I hope I don't get sick of popular science books at this point because The Universe and the Teacup by K.C. Cole looks like an interesting one. I got this from my dad for X-mas this year. From what I can tell, it's about how mathematics enable us to create patterns out of natural phenomena and thus explain them. Sounds like it's right up my alley.

The boyfriend also gave me for X-mas The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, who also co-authored Stephen Hawking's most recent book. Apparently it's about randomness and how people are unable to account for this in their everyday lives. I'm a huge fan of chaos theory and randomness (Chaos by James Gleick was awesome), so this should be a good read.

Finally, for X-mas last year, I think, my dad gave me Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music. It explains how all humans are experts in music, even if they don't know it, that is, the human brain is naturally programmed to understand musical concepts intuitively.

So that's my list... hopefully I'll be able to finish all these books by the end of the year, but I won't hold my breath. Still, a worthy challenge!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Lillian Gang: Apr. 11, 1919 - Nov. 27, 2010

For this 150th post, and as we usher in a new year, I'd like to talk about my maternal grandmother.

The above picture shows her blowing out the candles at her 90th birthday about a year and a half ago. On Saturday, November 27th, around 1am, she passed away quietly in her sleep, having suffered a heart attack about a week earlier that left her weak and barely conscious. She lasted just long enough for my uncle from Israel to see her alive, though at that point, I doubt there was much of her mind left.

She did live a very full life, having traveled the world, raised three children, gotten her Master's degree while still a full-time mom, worked full-time as a social worker and then as a volunteer after her retirement, and lived in her own house until two and a half years ago despite my grandfather having passed away over 10 years ago. The obituaries that appeared in the Globe and Mail and in the Toronto Star hardly seem to do it justice.

Savta, as I always called her, was born Rochelle Leah Goldstick to parents Edna and Edward Goldstick, both immigrants to Toronto from different parts of Europe to escape jewish persecution. She was an only child, and always resented this fact. Her mother was over-protective and her father was never satisfied with any of her accomplishments. As her dementia progressed over the last couple of years, she brought up these early years more and more often, since her childhood memories seemed more vivid than those formed more recently. She would tell again and again the stories of how she and her cousin Wilfred would walk all the way to High Park, much to the dismay of both their mothers, and how she was constantly compared to her cousin Shifra, who would always do better than her in school.

She got her bachelor's degree in Social Work at the University of Toronto and worked for many years for the Toronto Catholic Children's Aid Society. She had the difficult job of taking children away from neglectful parents, but from what I hear, she was pretty good at it. She was always very tough. In the early '70s, she got her master's degree for purely financial reasons, since all these young people coming in with their graduate degrees were making more money than she was. It was right around this time that both her parents died.

She married my grandfather, Israel Gang, right after WWII in 1946. She and Grandad had a very weird relationship. I get the impression that they married because they were both getting older and were worried about finding a mate. I mean, they certainly seemed to love each other, and were married for 54 years before my grandfather died in 2000, but they did fight a lot. Grandad was a bit of a grumpy guy and had trouble expressing his emotions, and Savta knew how to push all his buttons. However, they played Scrabble together almost every day, and when Grandad died, she refused to play the game with any of us because it was too painful.

Savta was also an incredible knitter. She probably knit hundreds of sweaters and socks for herself and for everyone else in the family. My uncle, Savta's middle child, absolutely loved her hand-knit socks and would wear nothing else. When Savta couldn't knit any more because of her vision problems, my aunt taught herself to knit so that she could make socks for my uncle. I inherited her handknit socks, most of which are a single colour, and some others are striped because she ran out of yarn.

I miss my grandmother a lot. I regret not visiting more, and I wish I could have spent more time with her when she was still lucid. Little things set me off, like playing the Entertainer on the piano. She loved that piece, but when I played it for her she always told me I was doing the first part too fast. She was such a stubborn and independent woman, and it's hard to believe that anything could have done her in...