ESO at 50

3 10 2012

On October 5, 2012, ESO will host a live 6-hour broadcast of “A Day in the Life of ESO” as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations. This is your chance to view real-time observations made from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Cerro Paranal. You can submit questions in advance of the broadcast via twitter, fb, or e-mail. From the ESO website:

  • Send a tweet @ESO, also using the hashtag #ESO50years
  • Write a question on your Facebook wall in which you tag ESO’s Facebook page. To tag a page you must first “like” the page and then type @ESO Astronomy in your question. A menu will appear from where you have the option to choose our page, ESO Astronomy. See an example of a tag (“via ESO Astronomy”) on this post
  • Send an email to with the subject ESO50years. Optionally, please include your name and country.

The live broadcast runs from 11:00 to 17:00 CEST (that’s Madrid’s time zone, if you need a reference). So, six hours ahead of the eastern time zone in the U.S., seven hours ahead of the central time zone, etc.

Read the press announcement here.

Nostalgia for the Light

2 10 2012

I just spent several hours watching Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light. It’s a 90-minute film and a more focused audience could probably have knocked the viewing out in one sitting. I, on the other hand, found myself completely distracted by the telescope porn in some scenes, and watched them two or three times. When combined with several Internet research forays, I at least doubled, if not trebled, my viewing time.

If you’ve seen the trailer for the  movie, you already know that it is a visually spectacular film. If you haven’t seen the trailer, take a moment:

Obviously, I picked up the film for the observatories, but they were used mostly as a heuristic device, framing the director’s meditation on the aftermath of Chile’s Pinochet era. Guzmán contextualizes the terrors perpetrated under Pinochet and Chilean society’s subsequent refusal to own up to them in universal natural history (i.e., what emanates from the Big Bang), but Nostalgia is really about the human, not the eternal, epoch. And for all the work the director did to draw parallels between astronomy, archaeology, and the quest to unearth (literally) the remains of Pinochet’s victims, the film is almost exclusively about our understanding of the immediate past. The trauma of nostalgia in Guzmán’s narrative requires memory and suppression, or the development of historical consciousness. The universe does not remember, the universe does not forget. Yes, we can trace the calcium in our bones to its origin in the stars, but that “biological memory” has no moral drive behind it. The bones don’t hold the universe accountable for the calcium, while the survivors of Pinochet’s political massacres do hold the murderers so.

Unless. I was struck by the scenes focused on the work of architect Miguel Lawner. Lawner mapped Pinochet’s prisons by turning his body into a measuring device, moving it through space, step by step, until it remembered dimensions, locations, and functions of everything around it. It’s difficult to gauge how much of his mapping ability came from conscious effort and how much could be attributed to what we like to call “muscle memory.” Either way, it raises questions about the role of the body—beyond the brain—in preserving memories.

Miguel Lawner sketching a concentration camp from memory.

Structurally, this movie reminded me quite a bit of Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Like Herzog, Guzmán worked to tie together archaeology, historical consciousness, the human present, and vision. But Cave was much more optimistic about the human condition. Nostalgia reminds us that moving out of the cave doesn’t guarantee civilization, or if it does, it’s a civilization shot through with darkness.

Wallpaper Wednesday

27 09 2012

Gemini North with Southern Star Trails. Image credit: Gemini Observatory

I completely forgot yesterday was Wednesday. Rather, I remembered, but only as “Today is Wednesday, the day I talk to my developmental editor,” not as “Today is Wednesday, the day I remember that I have a blog I’m supposed to update at least once a week.”

It’s just as well I missed my regularly scheduled update because now I can write about yesterday’s press release from Gemini Observatory. The observatory announced that its astronomers have produced the sharpest image yet made using ground-based (Earth-based) instruments of Pluto and its largest companion, Charon.

Speckle image reconstruction of Pluto and Charon obtained in visible light at 692 nanometers (red) with the Gemini North 8-meter telescope using the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI). Image credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/NASA/AURA

The pixelated image might not look like much, but as the press release noted, it’s “the first speckle reconstructed image for Pluto and Charon from which astronomers obtained not only the separation and position angle for Charon, but also the diameters of the two bodies.” That’s pretty exciting—if anyone has tried to sell you the diameter of Pluto recently, he or she should have prefaced the number with the word “about.” Astronomers have been setting upper limits on the diameter since Pluto’s discovery in the 1930s (the 1960s seemed to be a particularly fertile decade for arguments on the topic), but still qualify their assertions with “± 20km”. I’ve been looking forward to the New Horizons arrival at Pluto in 2015, but the Gemini announcement makes the wait a little less painful.

Of everything I’ve read today, the comment I enjoyed most was made by Elliott Horch, coauthor of the Gemini study:

This was a fantastic opportunity to bring DSSI to Gemini North this past July. In just a little over half an hour of Pluto observations, collecting light with the large Gemini mirror, we obtained the best resolution ever with the DSSI instrument—it was stunning![1]

First, you gotta love the enthusiasm. I recently heard an NPR story about the development of robotic intelligence. The claim was that one day, humans would stop experiencing the “A-ha!” moment because robots would do all our thinking for us. I’m guessing Elliott Horch wouldn’t agree with that premise.

Second, the comment about “just a little over half an hour” caught my attention. It’s a little misleading, of course. As Horch knows, since he was in charge of the project to develop the instrument, hours and hours and hours went into the design and installation of the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI).[2] But then again, this is how contemporary astronomy works: you request a time slot on a popular instrument and pray the weather, the instrument, and everything else in the universe that can affect your project goes the way you want it to go. Sometimes you get an entire evening with an optical instrument, sometimes you get a few nights, sometimes you have to change your project because there’s no open time available at all. When everything works out, well, then  you see Charon and Pluto.

Today’s wallpaper celebrates the Gemini/DSSI/Korch team victory. Click on the observatory and star trails to reach the download page.


[1] Gemini Observatory Takes Sharpest Ground-Based Images Ever of Pluto and Charon (

[2] DSSI was installed temporarily at Gemini North last summer. It’s spent most of it’s observing life at Kitt Peak.

U.S. Fire and Smoke (MODIS)

23 09 2012

Wildfires in Washington State. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team, GSFC

I think the first line of NASA’s description of this photo says it all: “The summer of 2012 will unfortunately be known as the ‘Summer of Devastating Western Wildfires’ and practically not one state out west was spared.” At present, my home state is seeing a resurgence of flames due to lightning storms sans rainwater sweeping through the area earlier in the month. I’m particularly interested in the Okanogan Complex, since it’s closest to home, but the high evacuation levels of the Wenatchee Complex have been stressing me out for two weeks now.

The above photo comes from NASA’s U.S. Fire and Smoke Gallery, an intriguing yet somewhat depressing set of images taken by various satellites. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers (MODIS) on the Aqua and Terra satellites are doing what they were designed to do: provide an extensive, repetitive record of the earth’s surface. Terra flies north to south over the equator in the morning, Aqua crosses south to north in the afternoon. Between the two imaging systems, the entire surface of the earth is documented every 1-2 days. Most of the “MODIS Image of the Day” photos show us the troubled parts of the planet: typhoons, hurricanes, ash clouds from volcanic eruptions, massive phytoplankton blooms, and yes, smoke and fire from around the world.

Wallpaper Wednesday

12 09 2012

Helmos Observatory, Peloponnesus, Greece. Photo credit: Harry Katzjaeger

Today’s wallpaper is apropos of nothing in my life right now. Rather, it’s a beautiful image of the night sky above Helmos Observatory, home to the 2.3 meter telescope ARISTARCHOS. Helmos might be placed in one of the most beautiful parts of the world (if you don’t believe me, check out the observatory’s image gallery).

Click on the image to go to the appropriate National Geographic wallpaper download page.

Wallpaper Wednesday

5 09 2012

Dawn Orbiting Over Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Today NASA announced that Dawn has escaped the asteroid Vesta’s gravitational pull. The spacecraft is now “officially” on its way to Ceres, the first dwarf planet detected by humans. Stop by the mission website to watch Dawn’s Greatest Hits, a splashy video highlighting the research accomplishments at Vesta, the most interesting of which were a series of discoveries that led to the conclusion that Vesta resembled a minor planet more than an asteroid. Dawn’s work at Ceres will be exciting: what started out as a comparison between an asteroid and a dwarf planet has turned into a comparison between two different types of small planets. Check out When is an Asteroid not an Asteroid? for more on that story.

Dawn’s Greatest Hits:


Farewell Portrait of Giant Asteroid Vesta:


Click on the image at the top of the post to download the wallpaper.

Roger Hayward’s Moon (Griffith Observatory)

29 08 2012

Sculpting the moon’s surface, Griffith Observatory, 1939.

As I was sifting through images of the moon this morning, I found this photo taken at Griffith Observatory in 1939. Shown is Roger Hayward, the artist commissioned in 1934 to create a model of a section of the moon for the observatory. Hayward was trained as an architect, earning his degree from MIT before relocating to Pasadena to pursue a career as a designer. He served as chief designer for the Los Angeles Stock Exchange (1929), designed by his MIT classmate, Sam Lunden, and also contributed to Lunden’s design for the Doheny Library at USC (1930). If you recognize his name, however, I doubt it’s because you’ve been studying his architectural designs. It’s more likely you remember the illustrations he did for the “Amateur Scientist” column in Scientific American magazine between 1949 and 1974, or even more likely, the drawings he did to illustrate Linus Pauling’s research.

How does one make the leap from architect to illustrator of science? In Hayward’s case, it involved a brief stop at the moon. Moving to Pasadena worked out well for him, even though the Great Depression shut down his career as an architect almost as soon as it had begun. When the Stock Market crash put an end to large-scale design projects in southern California, Hayward kept himself busy with painting, puppetry, and physics. Pasadena sits just below Mount Wilson, so when Hayward’s interests expanded to include astronomy and mathematics, he was able to take advantage of the Caltech minds at work at the Mount Wilson Observatory. Various Caltech associates tutored him in atomic theory and he built a few smaller instruments—a 6-inch reflector telescope, a quartz spectograph—by way of educating himself in the field.

The various strands of his formal and self-education came together in 1934, when the Griffith Observatory and Planetarium commissioned him to design “the world’s largest” model of a section of the moon (more images here). As reported in The Literary Digest the next year,

“Most spectacular of the exhibits [at Griffith Observatory and Planetarium] will be in the south gallery—a thirty-eight-foot plaster model of the moon, made to scale from Mt. Wilson Observatory photographs by Roger Hayward, of Los Angeles, an architect by profession and an astronomer by preference, and Caspar Gruenfeld, a sculptor. It will be illuminated by moving lights to produce the effect of sunlight.”[1]

Hayward was given access to the 100-inch telescope on Mount Wilson so he could supplement the observatory’s photographs with first-hand observation of the moon. His design (and Gruenfeld’s sculpting work, Gruenfeld is always left out of the story) was apparently well-received, as the observatory commissioned him to design and build models of Oregon’s Crater Lake and Arizona’s Meteor Crater as soon as he finished the moon section.[2] Adler Planetarium was eager to get in on the action and hired Hayward to design a scale moon model with a 6-foot diameter. Walt Disney eventually saw the financial potential in the projects and commissioned Hayward to duplicate his moons for the “Man in Space” television show and Tomorrowland exhibits.

Although he worked in other fields after finishing the models (he designed a commercial nutcracker, for god’s sake), Hayward continued to advance his studies in astronomy and physics. He partnered with a Caltech associate to design a movie projection screen and write a physics textbook. He must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven when he was offered a position as an optical engineer at Mount Wilson Observatory in 1941. Much top secret stuff in support of the war effort ensued.

After the conclusion of the war, Hayward partnered with Sam Lunden once again, forming the firm of Lunden, Hayward & O’Connor. For architectural historians, Hayward’s story tends to end here: the firm designed the Los Angeles City Health Building, the Mira Costa High School, a VA  hospital in Arizona, the Temple Israel of Hollywood, and several other mid- to high-profile projects in the LA basin. However, although the partnership looked successful from the outside, from the inside, it was obvious that it was flawed almost as soon as the papers were signed by the trio. Hayward and O’Connor in particular didn’t get along and the partnership was dissolved in 1957.[2]

The tension between Hayward and O’Connor probably had something to do with the fact that Hayward’s attention was always directed elsewhere. Specifically, he was more concerned with his delineating work for Scientific American than he was with the success of Lunden, Hayward & O’Connor. He had completed his first job for the magazine in 1948, illustrating George Beadle’s “The Genes of Men and Molds”. The quality of Hayward’s drawings pleased the magazine, the paycheck pleased Hayward. Although he worked on many projects throughout the rest of his career—collaborating with Linus Pauling, for instance—Hayward continued to draw for Scientific American until his health and vision failed him.

The burning question of the day: what happened to the lunar section Hayward and Gruenfeld built at Griffith Observatory? Many (mistaken) bloggers attribute the moon currently on display at the observatory to the hand of Hayward, but that’s a much more recently produced object and at any rate, not a section model, but a smallish moon (there’s no way Hayward could perch on top of it and sculpt the Mare Imbrium region). According to a comment that appears to have been written by someone associated with Griffith Observatory, the Crater Lake and Meteor Crater models are in storage.[3] But where’s the lunar section? Contacting the observatory is on my list of things to do, but in two days, I’m moving halfway across the country, so that list is going to have to wait awhile. If you know, drop me an e-mail and I’ll update this with the information.

ETA: Here’s a link to a few construction photos of Griffith Observatory and Planetarium. You’re welcome.


Most of the information included here about Roger Hayward comes from on material held in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Oregon State University Libraries. See Roger Hayward: Renaissance Man for a glimpse into the archive.

[1] “An Observatory for the Public,” The Literary Digest (April 20, 1935): 28.

[2] Ben H. O’Connor, “Letter from Ben H. O’Connor to Samuel E. Lunden and Roger Hayward, 1957,” in Special Collections, Item #2356,  (accessed August 29, 2012).

[3] See “Comment on Kevin Kidney: Mr. Hayward’s Moon Model.”

James Webb Telescope

17 08 2012


A year ago, I posted a rather uninspiring wallpaper describing the James Webb Telescope. If you’ve been following the development of the telescope, you’ve probably noticed that some of the terminology has shifted in response to changes made in the instruments.

For the past ten months, the mission team has been offering a “behind the scenes” look at the instruments and their performance at various testing sites via video podcast. Everything you ever wanted to know about mirrors in space—watch the videos and you will never need to ask another question on the subject.

The most recent video veers away from the subject of the telescope’s mirrors to talk about the “dynamic duo,” the paired instrument consisting of the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) instrument. It seems like an odd combination: the FGS is a guide camera responsible for the fine adjustments in the telescope’s guidance system, while the NIRISS is a four-way instrument that works as an imager, spectroscope/-graph, and interferometer. The FGS and NIRISS operate independently, but as the video linked above indicates, the NIRISS can take over some guidance functions, adding another level of redundancy to the instrument in case something goes wrong with the FGS.

Also: thank you, Canada.

Wallpaper Wednesday

8 08 2012

Lovell Telescope under repair, Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics

Today’s wallpaper commemorates the career of Bernard Lovell, pioneer of radio astronomy. Click on the image to reach the download page.

Gale Crater

6 08 2012

Altered Landing Target for MSL. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

I’m seeing a steady stream of hits on this site by people searching for maps of Gale Crater. I included a few maps in an earlier post about the MSL launch, but the best collection can be found on the HiRISE site. I recommend in particular the collection gathered during the landing proposal phase of the MSL project. You can also do a search on the words “Gale Crater” or browse through the image catalog to look at the most recent images.

The JPL’s Explore Mars! site includes a tool for exploring Gale Crater. Use the navigation bar at the top of the page or click on any of the topographic tags to zoom and read more about the crater’s features. And of course, you don’t want to overlook Google Mars. Don’t expect to get any work done once you open that page up, though.