Tuesday, September 30, 2008

KAIT and the High-Z Supernova Search

I have been and always will be a space geek. Ever since I got glow in the dark stars and comets taped to my ceiling as a kid, I have dreamed of being an astronaut (something I fully intend to apply for). I read voraciously about the space program and got through my fair share of science fiction. When I came to college, I had the opportunity to take an astronomy class for the first time, and one in particular came highly recommended from older students. So, in my rookie semester, I took Astro. C10 with Professor Filippenko (Alex, as he likes to be called). It was a class designed to be accessible to science students and non-science students alike, and that fact combined with Alex's unique enthusiasm for the subject has made it one of the most popular courses at Cal. The course covered a wide range of topics from the behavior of light to stellar evolution to the shape of the universe. As someone who has read a lot about space on my own, much of the information was familiar to me, but I learned a lot regardless. Towards the end of the semester, Alex announced that he would be taking 10-15 (of the ~800(!) people in the class) students to Lick Observatory near San Jose, CA to get a tour of the facilities and a little insight into the nuts and bolts of modern astronomy research.

I wrote the optional paper and was selected for the trip. After a long and winding drive into the mountains, we arrived at the top of Mt. Hamilton. We got a tour of the historic observatory (it was the first permanently-occupied observatory on a mountaintop) and got to look at a few interesting objects through the 120-year-old 36 inch refractor. Part of the tour included Alex's personal invention: KAIT. From his lectures it was clear that Alex worked on supernovae, but those of us on the trip got to see exactly how he did it. I asked Alex a lot of questions about the telescope, and he invited me become one of his undergraduate assistants on the project. I jumped at the chance to participate in astronomical research and I have been working for him ever since. I want to share some information about this fascinating project, but some background is needed.

What's a Supernova?
There are many different objects out there in the observable universe, and different people study different things. Professor Filippenko and his team mainly study supernovae, which most people know as exploding stars. These objects, or rather the violent explosions their so-called progenitors produce, are interesting to study for a variety of reasons, but what exactly are they? Nova means "new" in Latin, because originally these events appeared as a new star in the night sky that would fade over time. Amazingly, supernovae were seen by humans long before the telescope was invented. Extragalactic supernovae aren't bright enough to be visible with the naked eye, so these events arose from stars in the Milky Way exploding. In 185 AD, Chinese astronomers recorded that a new star appeared and stayed visible for 8 months. The only other Milky Way supernovae that have been recorded since were in 1006, 1054, 1572 and lastly in 1604. A galaxy the size of ours should theoretically have one supernovae every 50-100 years, and the objects give off such a tremendous amount of energy that they should be obvious in the night sky. However, there is a large amount of dust in our galaxy, and it's very possible that it has blocked the light of supernovae from reaching us, especially one on the far side of the galaxy.

All supernovae are massive explosions, but they are theorized to occur in a few different ways. The "classic" supernovae, known as a Type 1A, happens when something called a white dwarf (basically a very old star) gets extra mass added to it from a companion star or via a merger with another white dwarf. Once the total mass of the object gets over a certain limit, the star rapidly undergoes nuclear fusion and explodes. When I say rapidly, I mean something around the size of Earth with a mass around that of the sun converting most of its mass into pure energy in a matter of seconds. The result of this is a supernova, the most energetic event in the known universe. To put this in perspective, lets look at SN1006. This supernova occurred when a star 7200 lightyears away (over ten quadrillion miles) exploded. The result of this was an object appearing in the sky half the size of the moon with enough brightness to light the ground at night for months. In fact, if a supernova goes off close enough to Earth, it could easily destroy all life on the planet. One could have taken out the dinosaurs. These things don't mess around.

All that's left of SN1006 is a rapidly-expanding shell of gas and dust. Over the last 1000 years, it has gotten to be trillions of miles wide. Here's what it looks like today, courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope:


So why do we look for these things, aside from the fact that they are awesome?
It is fairly well known that Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding in the 1920s. By looking at special stars called Cepheid variables, Hubble found a relationship between the distance of a galaxy and how fast it was moving away from us. This observation, confirmed over and over again since, is one of the fundamental pieces of evidence in support of the Big Bang theory. Supernovae are kind of like modern Cepheid variables in that they can both be used as 'standard candles'. Basically this means that you can use clever tricks figure out exactly how much light they are giving off in total, and thus deduce their distance. For example, lets say you look out to sea on a dark night and see a single light from a boat. It could either be a faint light that is close by or a bright light that is far away. Both would look the same, and you would have no way of knowing which was the case. However, if you knew the exact brightness of the bulb (the "absolute magnitude"), you can compare that to the amount of light you actually see ("apparent magnitude") and calculate a distance. The speed of recession is a little more complicated, and has to do with something called the Doppler effect. We have all experienced this when ambulances drive past us. They sound more high-pitched as they approach and more low-pitched as they drive away. From these two effects, one can determine both distance and recession velocity, which is exactly what Hubble did. Supernovae are especially useful for this kind of work because of their incredible brightness. They easily outshine the galaxies they reside in when they explode, and we can thus get data about very distant parts of the universe.

The Big Bang theory took a while to get accepted by most members of the scientific community, but it is now basically indisputable. Questions turned from "if" to "how", and cosmology was born. People became very interested in the 'shape' of the universe, which is a concept so abstract many people who study astronomy for the first time struggle with. It became a common conception that the universe expanded very rapidly at first, but thanks to gravity this expansion was slowing over time. Then, in the late 1990s, an astounding result came out of the high-z (meaning high redshift, thus very distant) supernovae research field. Two groups, both of which Alex was associated with, reported that the most distant supernova were dimmer than they ought to be. The logical conclusion of this observation was that the expansion of the universe was in fact accelerating. This would mean that some hitherto-unseen force was not only working against gravity (antigravity, anyone?), but enough so that it actually reversed gravity's effects. Thus dark energy was born. Not since the discovery of the expansion itself had the astronomy community been turned on its head so dramatically. To this day, nobody has a clue what dark energy actually is, but they have calculated that it must account for around 3/4 of all of the mass-energy of the entire universe in order for it to be having this kind of effect.

Needless to say, supernova research is a pretty hot field in astronomy right now, and not just because of the acceleration discovery. Alex designed and built KAIT, the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope, to make finding these events easier and more efficient. It is a relatively small telescope that operates almost completely autonomously. Every night with good weather, KAIT takes a look at several hundred locations in the sky. Using software specially written for the purpose, it identifies new objects and flags them to be double-checked by a researcher. That's where I and several other students come in. Every night, these images are downloaded from the telescope in the mountains onto a computer in Berkeley, and someone goes through each and every one of them. Usually the software tags a cloud, a satellite, or something called a cosmic ray, but every once in a while you get something good. It is my job to separate the wheat from the chaff, and find the occasional supernova candidate. If these candidates appear in the exact same place again on another night, they are very likely supernovae. Several hundred supernovae are discovered worldwide every year, and KAIT is one of the most successful supernova projects ever. I have personally discovered around 10 so with KAIT since I began working with Alex in 2007. Here is one of the more recent ones from March of this year, SN2008BF:

The pair of large fuzzy dots are actually galaxies on a collision course, each containing billions of stars. The arrow is pointing to the supernova. One can see from this image how 'big' the supernova looks, which is an effect of its brightness saturating the camera on the telescope. Below is a much more beautiful image of a SN Filippenko's team discovered in 1994, again from Hubble, showing very clearly how bright the supernova (lower right corner) is compared to the host galaxy:


Working on this project has been an amazing experience, and I hope to continue it until the day I graduate. I am very grateful to Alex and to the Berkeley scientific culture in general which encourages undergraduate participation in real research. Thanks to this trust, I have been able to learn a lot more than can be gleaned in a lecture while contributing to the scientific process. Sometime in the future I will write something about my biology research, which has been equally rewarding.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Wheels Have Come Off The Straight Talk Express

I am confident that when the political obituaries are written, as they are after every election, these past two weeks will be seen as the turning point. John McCain's campaign is collapsing faster than the economy, and his erratic and confusing behavior is to blame. It began Sunday, September 14 with his insistence on continuing to describe the economy as "fundamentally sound," a move that I still struggle to understand. Perhaps he wanted to appear as the candidate that could calm America's fears, or maybe he was hoping to contrast himself with what he perceived to be Obama's fearmongering. Either way, he should have chosen his words more carefully. After being lambasted yet again by Obama, newspaper editorial boards, and TV news anchors, he descended into a doublespeak haze that he has yet to emerge from. Within hours of the "fundamentals" comment, he sought to clarify his comments by saying that by fundamentals he clearly meant American workers, gracing us with a novel definition of the word. It was a classic political juke, and if it remained an isolated foul-up McCain could have had a much better week. But he was just getting warmed up.

Unfortunately for McCain, his awkward comment came on one of the worst days in modern financial history. Lehman Brothers, one of the world's largest and oldest investment banks, collapsed. Unable to find a buyer, their stock dropped 94% in a single day as they filed for bankruptcy protection. Thanks to the interconnected nature of the financial world, and the fact that many firms had chosen to ride the credit default swap gravytrain, this collapse began to spread. Merrill Lynch, another titan from before the Great Depression, was lucky enough to find a buyer in Bank of America. Yet somehow, McCain seemed to be under the impression that this was what "strong" looks like. Someone in his campaign must have whispered in his ear that perhaps this wasn't the best way to shake Obama's claims that he was out of touch. After all, with 7 houses, 13 cars, and a plane, it is difficult for average people to think he understands their problems. McCain began a series of awkward pivots in an apparent attempt to regain some credibility, but ended up digging himself deeper into the hole. Ostensibly, in McCain's world the economy can both be "fundamentally sound" and in "crisis" at the same time. A-mazing.

The problem kept spreading. AIG, the massive insurance company, was the next company to creep up to the precipice. As late as September 16, McCain came out in opposition to bailing them out. The very next day, when the Federal government declined to follow his advice and announced an 85 billion dollar rescue package, McCain praised it as the right thing to do given how widespread the impact of letting AIG fail would be. Not content with his faux pas count for the week and trying to appear presidential, McCain called for the firing of SEC Chairman Christopher Cox. On Thursday the 18th he said, “The chairman of the SEC serves at the appointment of the president and in my view, has betrayed the public’s trust. If I were president today, I would fire him.’’ Well, someone didn't do their homework, because the President isn't allowed to fire the SEC chairman. Yes, he is appointed by the President, and like Cabinet positions the choice must be confirmed by the Senate, but the SEC is not part of the executive branch. As an independent agency, it is immune from the whim of the President. Later, perhaps after some more whispers from his campaign about how Cox was not generally viewed as to blame for this crisis, he backtracked and called him, "a good man."

With that, McCain was pretty much done for the week. However, as it became clear over the weekend that Obama was seen by a growing number of Americans as more fit to be trusted with the economy, McCain decided to do something to shake things up. With his poll numbers slipping all over the place, and with it becoming increasingly obvious that the economy was likely to dictate the conversation for much if not all of the rest of the campaign season, he got desperate. In a move that will be endlessly compared to his choice of Sarah Palin for the VP slot, this past Wednesday McCain decided to suspend his campaign. Wanting to appear presidential and somehow above politics, he declared that he would grace D.C. with his presence (he has missed more votes this year than every other Senator except for Tim Johnson, who had brain surgery, and is the only Senator to have missed a majority of votes in the 110th Congress with 64%). He also called for a delay of the first Presidential debate, saying that it was time for Democrats and Republicans to come together, put politics aside, and solve this crisis. It was classic Rove: do something completely political while saying the complete opposite. Well, to quote one of my favorite Fark memes, (again) he didn't think his cunning plan all the way through.

Wanting to be the white knight is all well and good, but you better have something to offer. Bringing the media frenzy literally into Congress as they attempted to weave together a delicate agreement probably wouldn't help, as was quickly pointed out by Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Barney Frank. Frank, who is leading the negotiations on the House side, called it, "the longest Hail Mary pass in the history of either football or Marys." Meanwhile Obama pointed out what everyone was thinking by saying that presidents have to be able to deal with multiple things at the same time, and postponing the debate at a time when the American people were looking to both candidates for some direction was a bad idea. At the bipartisan meeting (originally Obama's idea) at the White House yesterday, which apparently was one of the most dramatic in recent history, McCain offered no firm stance on anything. He twiddled his thumbs, remaining silent for long stretches of time while Bush attempted to retain order over the actual participants in the discussion. After the meeting, Henry Paulson literally knelt down in front of Nancy Pelosi, begging her to not withdraw support for the agreement. He should have been kneeling in front of John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, because apparently it is only the House Republicans that refuse to get on board.

As this crisis gets worse, I can only imagine that McCain will follow suit. His erratic behavior on a variety of fronts over the last few weeks, beginning with a week full of ridiculous ads attacking Obama, does not bode well for him. This week especially, Obama has very clearly been the calm, stable leader that Americans are desperate for in these tumultuous times. Political ideologies run a pretty wide range in America, but a trait that everyone looks for is consistency. Tonight in Oxford, Mississippi Barack Obama will show up ready to debate foreign policy and the economy. McCain's campaign has repeatedly said that he will only show up if a deal is reached, something that appears increasingly unlikely thanks to the paralyzing fear of anything smelling of socialism that grips House Republicans. If he holds to his word, McCain will appear to be hiding. Given the fact that he has nothing constructive to add in Washington, this time-out he has given himself will only hurt him. Additionally it will give Obama the chance to have 90 minutes of prime time coverage with millions of people watching, where I suspect he would hold something of a town hall or interview with Jim Lehrer. On the other hand, if McCain shows up with no deal having been reached, everyone will wonder why he made the ridiculous threat in the first place.

McCain's kneejerk reactions and surprising moves do him no long-term good. His choice of Sarah Palin initially brought him a lot of enthusiasm from The Base that he hadn't seen during his entire campaign. His poll numbers were boosted, his crowds got much bigger, and things were looking up. It quickly became clear, however, that Sarah Palin was a flash in the pan. Her novelty and "hockey mom" persona made her the most popular of the four people in the election. Her lack of depth and inexperience quickly caught up with her, and she has now become the least popular of the four. McCain's "maverick" moves (is anyone else getting tired of the word?) are subject to the same law of diminishing returns as any other repeated stunt, especially in such a serious atmosphere. This latest one was even less calculated than the Palin pick (which is really saying something), and it might be his undoing. The wheels have come off the bus, and this late in the game it will be difficult to salvage things.

As it has been this whole time, this is Obama's election to lose.

Friday, September 19, 2008

High Fidelity

Last December, Rolling Stone magazine published an article entitled "The Death of High Fidelity". It describes the various ways in which music in the digital age is tweaked to sound louder at the cost of clarity and subtlety. This is easiest to hear when comparing original tracks with so-called remastered tracks. This kind of interference isn't even as bad as it gets. Does your band have a drummer who can't quite keep time? No problem, Beat Detective will take care of it. Tone-deaf singer? Auto-Tune to the rescue. It's a travesty. Such micromanagement of sound, especially with a keyboard and mouse, kills the soul of music.

From the article:
"With the Beatles or Rolling Stones, they'd be a little sharp or flat, but no one would care — that was rock. Now if someone's out of tune or out of time, they treat it as a mistake and correct it."
— Ted Jensen, mastering engineer

I like to think that my favorite modern bands wouldn't stoop so low, that they have enough talent and pride to only cut authentic songs. I know for a fact that couple of bands I enjoy listening to have used analog-only recording techniques on all or most of their albums, giving them a distinct low-fi sound (The White Stripes and the lesser-known Rust Belt blues rock duo The Black Keys). One of my favorite albums of all time, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is purposefully distorted in a way that makes you want to check your speakers at first, but I later learned to relish. I have trouble believing that much indie music is changed in the way the article describes, and hip-hop is an entirely different department. I imagine (or maybe just hope) that this phenomenon is confined to the kind of stuff you hear repeated endlessly on MTV.

MP3s haven't helped this situation much. Sure, over your average person's computer speakers, or through the low quality headphones that most people have, bitrate and compression probably don't have much of a noticeable detrimental effect. But plug your iPod into a hifi system worth something, or a good pair of cans, and suddenly 128 kb/s doesn't cut it. I use in-ear headphones, ER-6i's from Etymotic. They are a small Illinois-based hearing aid company that made the jump to really outstanding products for music. The ER-6i's are designed with the iPod in mind, which means they boost the bass a little compared to their other offerings, which are aimed at a professional crowd. I can say without a doubt that no other electronic product that I own has brought me so much joy. They passively block out almost all noise, and then reproduce sound in a way that I have only ever heard with a really high quality hifi system. I remember how amazing it was to listen to my favorite music when I first got these - I heard things I had never heard before. The soft shake of a maraca in the background of a song, whispers between the band members, etc.

Alas, the exceptional quality of these headphones came with a major drawback. They are so good at what they do that no detail goes unnoticed. The clicks and pops inherent to mp3s that have been encoded with shoddy software are more apparent. Low-bitrate finally meant something other than diskspace. Buying these headphones turned me on to the substantial audiophile community that exists online. I learned to use software like EAC to extract music from CDs, and LAME to convert those .wav files into mp3s that I am completely unable to distinguish from the originals. I.e. there is a way to do things correctly, we can have our cake and eat it too with enough effort.

To keep music sounding good as we convert to a completely-digital music marketplace, artists, music distributors, and listeners are going to have to take part. Don't mix for the radio, use high bitrates, and invest a little in headphones. Once you have heard your favorite music 'the right way', it's impossible to go back.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Oslo In The Summertime

This song by Of Montreal off their album The Sunlandic Twins captures Copenhagen very well, despite the fact that Oslo and CPH are in different countries. (I take Pitchfork reviews with a hefty dose of salt, and you should too.)

Oslo in the summertime, nobody can fall asleep
I’m staring out the window from my bed
At 4 a.m. the sun is up
Look, the sky is peppered with seabirds and with crows all cackling
Hva Hva Hva (x)

Up in tre ten Heimdalsgate
Me and Nina making fun of footballers in Rudolph Neilson Plass
I practice my Norwegian on poor befuddled waitresses
Who shake their heads completely at a loss
Oslo in the summertime, the streets are strangely quiet ’cause
Everyone’s away on holiday
Hva Hva Hva (x)

Oslo in the summertime Pakistani children play locked inside of the courtyard all day
Pretty people everywhere sun-lamp tans and flaxen hair
Just tell the American not to stare
Hva Hva Hva(x)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Sarah Palin Enigma

For the life of me, I can't understand what John McCain was thinking when he chose an obscure, inexperienced governor/moose-hunter to be his running mate. Sure, the unexpectedness of the decision (along with her hardliner views) drove The Base into a frothy frenzy, but how is he going to translate that initial excitement among his party's fringe into a path to victory? It almost seems to me that his choice demonstrates his tacit agreement with Obama's regrettable (but not untrue) statement about some people in rural communities from a closed-door fundraiser in San Fransisco in April:
"So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
In McCain's case, he didn't get bitter, he got desperate. Thanks to the 5% of him that doesn't kowtow to Bush, The Base wasn't very excited about the man, despite his war record (oh, haven't you heard? Rumor has it he was a POW). So McCain picked an unknown, gun-totin', Bible-thumpin', "supermom" to inject some life into his faltering campaign. And since we only have the last week and a half to go on, it appears to be working. Since his announcement, he has been pulling bigger and louder crowds than ever before.

Will it last? Don't count on it. As relatable as Palin appears to be to the average Joe, as much as she passes the "beer test", she has more skeletons in her closet than most politicians accumulate over their entire careers, all while lacking any kind of depth to prop her up. And she's only 44! The McCain campaign won't let the press near her, and she has yet to say anything new since her acceptance speech, which was penned by one of Bush's speechwriters (change! change! change!). And again, she's only been under national media-sized scrutiny for a week and a half (two weeks if you count the McCain campaign vetting process). From Troopergate to earmarks, from her position on the "Bridge to Nowhere" to the family values "whaaaaa?" of her 17 year old daughter's pregnancy (her boyfriend Levi has yet to respond to my Facebook friend request), there's simply a lot about Sarah that no amount of lipstick can cover up.

As the monsoon of lies and character attacks emanating from the McCain campaign pile up, Obama needs to keep focused. With Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, asserting last week that, "This election is not about issues," it is clear that Obama stubborn insistence on talking about the things that actually affect the lives of Americans has hit a nerve. McCain knows he can't win on issues, not when the president with whom he agrees with on nearly everything has some of the lowest approval ratings since approval ratings were invented. It's true, Obama has a tougher challenge ahead of him than most Democrats (including myself) foresaw months ago. He has to simultaneously hammer home the core ideas and policy specifics that have taken him this far while delicately fending off the smear from the right. John Kerry's swiftboating was so successful partially because John Kerry didn't acknowledge the attacks fast enough, which made sense at the time given how ridiculous the claims were, but hindsight is 20-20. Obama needs to be smart and strong at the same time, letting the BS roll off his back but not ignoring it. Based on his reponse today to the "lipstick on a pig" non-story, it looks like he knows to handle these things like a pro.

To say the least, it's going to be an interesting couple of months.

Matt Damon nailed it. He's not exactly my favorite political commentator, but when you're right you're right:

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Here goes nothing

I have always been attracted to the idea of keeping a blog, but never pulled the trigger until now. I have had more free time lately than I am used to, and given all the interesting things going on in the world at the moment I thought I'd go for it. I hope to improve my writing, meet people with similar (or radically different!) views on the world, learn some things, and have a bit of fun.

Some background-
I am a third-year undergrad studying biology (specifically, genetics) at UC Berkeley. I, like many bio majors at Cal, consider myself to be pre-med. I will begin applying to medical schools in the summer of 2009. I participate in two very different research endeavors at Cal, one within my major and one completely outside of it. As a student that focuses on genetics, I work in a lab on campus that studies a very particular kind of inheritance called paramutation, using maize (corn) as a model organism. My other research is in the Astronomy Department on campus. I work with a robotic telescope called KAIT (check out the link on the right) that scans the sky every night looking for evidence of exploding stars called supernovae in other galaxies. Both of these research positions are on a volunteer basis, and I do them because the subjects interest me.

Right now I am one month into a semester abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. As much as it kills me to be out of the country during the meat of the general election, the internet keeps me pretty well on top of everything going on. I plan on posting all about this wonderful city sometime in the future, but for now I am loving every minute. Last night I saw The Faint at Vega, a great venue with a lot of character. A few weeks ago I saw The Flaming Lips at Tivoli, an amusement park that serves beer.

As you may have guessed, I love politics. This upcoming election will be the first general election where I am old enough to vote, and I have been keeping myself on top of the news every day for months now. Some of my favorite places to stay informed are listed on the right. This must be one of the most interesting match-ups in recent American history, and I am really glad I get to be involved. The last eight years have been really tough to get through; I have watched my country lose its footing and its standing in the world. I couldn't be more excited about Barack Obama, and when he gets elected on November 4th, I will literally dance in the streets. I am planning on being in D.C. for the inauguration, to witness the culmination of a movement I have been following since St. Patrick's Day 2007 when I saw Obama speak in Oakland.

That's enough for now, until next time.