Brain loading and stellar chauvinism

When I meet impressive people, I always wonder how they spend their time. Let’s suppose you meet someone who can play effortless bluegrass on the banjo, quote Shakespeare at length, write luminous heartbreaking prose, and throw together an award-winning web site with their right hand while simultaneously juggling five flaming tomahawks with their left. Not bad, right? But those skills are all frozen snapshots. Those are recorded performances, and you’re just pressing the “play” button. What I want to know is: how did they get there? How in world did they load up their brain bins like that? How do they carve up the same twenty four hours that I get every day and manage to do so much with it?

I suspect, but I’m not sure, that they didn’t watch as many episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies as I did in Junior High.

When someone writes a fabulous book, or even an eloquent blog for that matter, I don’t feel like I get much insight into the crucial question of how they got there. It’s a performance. How many rehearsals did it take? But when somebody impressive twitters (there he goes about Twitter again), I feel more like I’m inside the secret process of how they load their brain. Tim O’Reilly, whom I rank in the “impressive” category, was twittering away this afternoon, and it was like peeking over his shoulder while he packed his brain for another good sprint.

One of the things that O’Reilly mentioned today was Celestia, an astronomy program. I’m a sucker for astronomy programs, especially free high-quality astronomy programs. So off I went to download it and install it. For improving the experience of stargazing, I would give the edge to Stellarium. For access to the best astrophotography, you’ll want to use Google Earth’s doppelganger, Google Sky. But Celestia has another trick. Here’s how they describe it: “Unlike most planetarium software, Celestia doesn’t confine you to the surface of the Earth. You can travel throughout the solar system, to any of over 100,000 stars, or even beyond the galaxy.” It is a fun game to play.

Naturally, I flew to the most distant star I could find (HIP 88879) and looked back at our little star, and this is what I saw. What are all those blue squiggles radiating from the Sun? Those are the constellations, those curious cartoons of assorted animals and people that inhabit our sky. We’re used to seeing them flattened against the inside of the dome of heaven. But there’s no dome, right? Those zodiacal doodles connect stars that differ wildly in their remoteness, anywhere from tens to thousands of light years.

It’s very thoughtful of them to put on an animal show for us every night.

Google Sky and Comet Holmes

The latest version of Google Earth now has a projection of the sky built into called, fittingly, Google Sky. It’s a natural extension. We’ve got lots of pictures of the starry sky, so why not stick them all together using the Google Earth glue that already exists. But when I tried it for the first time, I was underwhelmed. If you want to learn your way around the stars, the freeware package Stellarium does a much better job. But I soon realized that’s not exactly the point. Google Sky can act as a focal point for aggregating shared data about the heavens just as its Earthbound sibling does for terrestrial data like storm tracks and botanical surveys. See for example this Popular Science note: Google Sky a Hit With Astronomers. Incidentally, there’s a similar professional sky-watching tool called WikiSky, but it doesn’t have a lot of the slickness of Google Sky.


Anyway, I figured that somebody would have entered special data about where to find Comet Holmes in Google Sky. They had. I was able to follow a link that placed this little indicator of the comet’s location on my screen. I really liked the fact that the interface has this holdover from the Earth-facing side: directions to and from the comet. I’d like to see those directions.

Take exit 9 to merge onto I-84 W toward US-20/Sturbridge/Hartford (41.7 mi). Take exit 57 on the left to merge onto CT-15 S toward I-91 S/NY City (2.6 mi). Turn straight up and head directly toward Mirfak/Alpha Persei (25.43 million mi). Turn right onto Holmes St (1.3 mi).

[originally spotted on O’Reilly Radar]

Two faces of a moon

“Japetus is unique in the Solar System—you know this already, of course, but like all the astronomers of the last three hundred years, you’ve probably given it little thought. So let me remind you that Cassini—who discovered Japetus in 1671—also observed that it was six times brighter on one side of its orbit than the other.

“This is an extraordinary ratio, and there has never been a satisfactory explanation for it. Japetus is so small – about eight hundred miles in diameter—that even in the lunar telescopes its disk is barely visible. But there seems to be a brilliant, curiously symmetrical spot on one face, and this may be connected with TMA-1. I sometimes think that Japetus has been flashing at us like a cosmic heliograph for three hundred years, and we’ve been too stupid to understand its message.”

Arthur C. Clarke gave these words to his fictitious astronomer Heywood Floyd near the climax of his book 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like a lot of people, I read those words years ago and thought to myself: what is the dang deal with Japetus? Clarke wasn’t making up the part about the two-faced nature of Iapetus (as it is more commonly called), an oddball Saturnian moon.

The two-toned satellite is still mysterious, but now we have some quality snapshots from the visiting Cassini spacecraft. And, hoo boy! they do not disappoint. I find this APOD picture astounding: The Strange Trailing Side of Saturn’s Iapetus. Great Clarke! Look in the sky! It’s a cosmic snowball rolled in dirt… it’s a sugar-frosted chocolate space truffle… it’s… it’s a much better investment than the International Space Station. You know what we need? I’ll tell you what we need: more space robots with cameras and fewer accident-prone gold-plated Tang-sucking astro-cosmo-taikonauts.

Stellarium stargazing software

I’ve been on a good run with free software lately. As part of some recent work I’ve been doing with my Sky Clock, I wanted to check my accuracy against a web site that showed the current sky. Was Saturn where I said it should be? As part of my Google search for such a web site planetarium, I came across a mention of Stellarium, a free open-source stargazing program for your computer. It looked pretty, and the fact that it was free made it a simple decision to install it and take a look at it. And lo and behold, it’s very good. Long ago I owned a copy of Red Shift from Maris, and it wasn’t a great experience. The interface was bulky and there was all kinds of weird content that I didn’t really need. Stellarium by contrast is very simple. Its interface feels a little Unix-y and text heavy (lots of single-letter accelerators that expert users can memorize), but it does exactly what I needed, it’s beautful, and it’s free.

As a professional software developer, this last part always gives me pause. I’ve lost count of the number of really useful really good programs I use that are completely free. Not ten minutes ago I downloaded the free Eclipse-based JavaScript/HTML editor Aptana along with a nice free font (Proggy Clean) to use with it. Last night I downloaded a free genealogy program called Personal Ancestral File. Again, it’s pretty basic, but it does exactly what I need. I don’t need and I don’t want to pay for all the fancy-pants features they cram into Family Tree Maker, another product I once spent money on.

Commercial vendors can charge for new features, but they must eventually run out of meaningful novelty. Their free competitors, who by definition can’t be run out of business, will ultimately swallow all features worth copying.
So I wonder: in the long run, will all software be free? I have become convinced that the answer is very nearly yes. In the long run, all software will be free, or hosted as a service, or both. Money will still pour through the system, but by a very different set of sluiceways.

Flickr’ing Saturn

I continue to be impressed with the community energy going on over at Flickr. I was struck by this lovely set assembled by Kokogiak (Alan Taylor) of pictures from the Cassini space probe at Saturn. What’s especially interesting here is that all the pictures come from NASA’s official Cassini site. Anybody could make a set like it, but no one else has (including NASA). The Mars rover page does a much better job, comparatively, in letting you get at interesting pictures. Taylor has done us all a wonderful service… his collection has the Wow factor that the NASA hadn’t yet supplied. Here’s how he describes it.

I’ve been fanatic about space exploration since I was a kid, and have been giddy the past year or so with the constant feed of imagery from Mars and Saturn. I’ve been trolling the 35,000+ images from Saturn ever since they started coming online. All of the images in this photoset come from NASA’s JPL website. They are the best of the lot, in my judgment. As self-appointed curator, I chose 101 images that spoke to me, and that I thought would speak to others. Especially the ones that made me say “whoa” to myself the first time I saw them.

While you’re at it, take a minute to look at his compact Amazon Light interface that makes a clutter free version of the Amazon site using far less real estate. Thanks Alan!

Birth Sky

Comet Hale-Bopp has finally left our evening skies, and while I managed to see it a good many nights, I never did see it perched in a truly dark sky. This is a great pity, as you will know if you were lucky enough to do so.

I did have the good fortune of being in a place with very dark skies just as comet Hyakutake was making its appearance. I was on vacation in Costa Rica, and two nights before, I had gone looking for the comet without success. Finally on the last night of my trip, I saw it almost by accident during a late night walk. Here is what I wrote down the next morning:

Saw comet Hyakutake last night! It was sitting just near Arcturus after the moon had set. It was ghostly with a long streaming trail — at first I thought it was a search light shining from something in the sky — a helicopter? Then when I realized what it was it was just an incredible sensation of awe and mystery. Of course it was silent, but somehow its powerful silence is what I remember most vividly, as though something so dramatic should roar like a waterfall. But it sat quite still and looked at me, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. I wanted it to announce itself, but it just stared back, its ragged coattails streaming in the wind.

This is the same sort of sensation excited by eclipses of the sun, or by the titanic smashing that comet Shoemaker-Levy gave Jupiter last year: something obvious is going wrong in the sky. A good reckoning of the heavens is the first great accomplishment of any civilization, associated with the rise of agriculture, so when something so weird happens in the sky, it can be disturbing at a very deep level. You can begin to see why both comets and eclipses have caused (and continue to cause!) such fear and disruption.

For me, comet Hyakutake underscored the fact that we are not projected onto a backlit screen. We are solid creatures that literally fit into an encompassing three-dimensional cosmos. During an eclipse, the point is driven home that I am here, and the sun is there, and the moon is there. The three of us have come together in a way that suggests the sun knows about me — for an instant an invisible axis, a spindle, passes right through me. It tells me that these celestial bodies are enormous actors that shape and inform the rocks we stand on. This is not a painted backdrop or a great big screensaver. These celestial wanderers write our rules, and any minute a giant rock may tumble from the sky and carve a jagged hole in our planet.

During eclipses, people react strongly. Some are stunned to silence, others are overcome by giddiness. Why? The shining sun was here and then it was blotted from the sky. This is the difference between knowing and knowing. I know that the earth waddles around the sun with moon in tow. But slide the moon between the me and the sun, and by God, I KNOW it.

But moving beyond the physics, we count on the regularity of the sun to fill the great void, and when the sun vanishes, the void beckons. Science cannot fill the great void! The void is an empty spot behind your eyes beyond the reach of reason. The raw reptilian brain that understands this is comforted by the richness of the creatures that live in our sky’s imagination. Show me Perseus and Pegasus!

That night in Costa Rica, I felt the weight of Hyakutake’s eyes on me. It was watching me. The experience took me straight to the place where our forebears and forelizards spent their entire lives, a place where the heavens were animated with living presence. The event reminded me how close the skies are, and how much they matter. How much we owe them and how much they own us.

So now, if I told you that I could reconstruct for you exactly the configuration of the planets and stars on the day you were born, would you be curious to see the result? This is the kind of thing that astrologers claim to do all the time, but astrologers have, by and large, fallen out of the sky, which is to say they have lost the connection the actual relationship between the stars and the planets. Their zodiacal signs are tokens, which, like Tarot cards and tea leaves, are as useful for divination as anything else close at hand. But the astrologers do not speak for where the planets were actually swimming when you were born. The horoscope is out of step with the sky on two counts: the signs have been shifted by precession and their width has been regularized.

The earth is a spinning top, and as it spins through daily rotations, it also nods very slowly first this way, now that way, inclining its head toward successive members of the zodiac. Precession is the name for this lazy nodding. Though too slow to notice in one person’s lifetime, it has added up to a very noticeable difference since our constellations were defined some 3000 years ago. For example, the first day of spring used to occur when the sun was in Aries, but it now occurs when the sun is in Pisces. Some time in the next century or so the first day of spring will occur when the sun is in Aquarius, and the age of Aquarius will at last have begun in earnest.

This is a representation of the sky at the very moment I was born (see if you can work out how old I am!). I find it strangely satisfying to look at. It uses symbols familiar to astrology, yet it is an altogether accurate diagram of where the planets were relative to the stars in the constellations of the zodiac.

If you were to see this model, this birth-sky, for your own birth date, what would you think? An astrologer would use it to read omens, but I think that any of us, even the most hard-hearted, would be inclined to behave like all pilgrims do at the end of the journey: we would look around and say, “Hmmm. So that’s how it was.” Somehow, it matters enough to be worth knowing.

Learn more about the Birth-Sky diagram.