A star is born: But the details aren’t easy

A large, cold, dilute gas of hydrogen and space dust collapses slowly under its own gravity, compression, heating, and fusion take place aided and abetted by shock waves, and then a star glows for millions to trillions of years.

That’s how it is usually explained but the numbers are hard to grasp. The clouds can be dozens of light years across, the gas pressures are lower than the best vacuums on earth, the shock waves aren’t the kind we associate with sonic booms, and it can take tens of millions of years to get the party started.

Yet it happens and we are here because of it. The details are very tough sledding but equally interesting.

Introductory Astronomy: Star Formation and the Lifetimes of Stars

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"Star Formation and Feedback" – Eve Ostriker

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Distillation: What goes on in those refineries?

Big tankers tie up offshore and disgorge their contents into brightly lit and mostly inscrutable refineries.   This sixty year old film by Shell Oil neatly explains the chemistry, chemical engineering, and physics of distillation that takes gives us our gasoline, diesel, oils, and waxes. In a different setting, it also gives us many different kinds of beverages.


Colla sinistra: Wittgenstein plays Ravel

Paul, older brother of philosopher Ludwig, lost an arm in WW1 and then commissioned composers to write left-hand only pieces for him. By all accounts a temperamental character, he torqued several now-great names while simultaneously enriching the repertoire through his sponsorships.

Melissa Lesnie‘s article “The Man with the Golden Arm” is fascinating reading.

Here is Wittgenstein at the keyboard with Bruno Walter and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.

Paul Wittgenstein plays Ravel – Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1/2)

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Paul Wittgenstein plays Ravel – Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (2/2)

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A pitch by any other name?: Jupyter’s narratives

The IPython Notebook has evolved into the Jupyter project. This free, open-source hook into many different programming languages simplifies some types of software experimentation. Jupyter’s advocates have attracted some generous institutional and foundational funding to develop the tool. The project has posted its winning proposal touting it as the “Engine of Collaborative Data Science” and ramming home the “computational narrative” as the means. Authors write notebooks with embedded data and code for a variety of audiences and interested readers can run computations for themselves.

It isn’t clear how this will work for complex algorithms that require a lot of computing power. Notebooks can be static presentations in those cases but then they have no advantage over a conventional report. The current Notebook doesn’t have the tools for real software development or algorithm analysis. Savvy users recommend not relying on them beyond certain limits. Variable inspection, debugging, and change control are all on the roadmap for the new JupyterLab and the project’s claims can’t be addressed until we see how well these work. Every addition will require screen space which will mean less space for the data and visualizations. It might in time be as convenient as the current (not-free) Matlab User Interface but it will take work to get there.

Yes, this is the funded scope and if it existed, they would be proposing something else. The Principal Investigators agree that other Notebook interfaces have been around for a long time but imply that cost and proprietary architectures have been the principal roadblocks to their impact. The Notebook metaphor itself is left alone and that’s puzzling. There should be plenty of data (ha!) on how prior interfaces have or have not revolutionized the areas they claimed they were going to revolutionize. The proposal does devote detail to the enabling technologies, the support of large companies, and the future constituency.

But, it is the word ‘narrative’ gets my hackles up. It sounds disturbingly similar to ‘pitch’ and the pitch culture is dangerous. People can be led down a bad path any number of ways – yellow journalism, Powerpoint, or just outright demagoguery. Groups can lie just as well as individuals and Notebooks, like vaunted social media, can just as easily be co-opted for b.s. Data-driven decisionmaking is resurgent yet cyclical. It ebbs when the data don’t match the preconceptions – the internal narratives – of the ones with the money. We may, as a society, have gone past failsafe in handing over control to the unworthy.

JupyterLab: Building Blocks for Interactive Computing | SciPy 2016 | Brian Granger

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Voyager – The Interstellar Mission

39 years ago today, Voyager 1 took flight on its Grand Tour. It has gone farther than any other man-made object in history and won’t stop until it reaches the stars long after we and all that’s important to us are dust. Idealism wasn’t for chumps back then. Or maybe it was. JPL and NASA post the mission data from all these interplanetary missions and it is all free.

Filmmaker Santiago Menghini brings an artist’s perspective to the journey in his short film, “Voyagers.”

via aeon.co

Adriaen and Hadrian: Lost Wax bronzes

I had the great fortune of looking out my grad school office window into a sculpture garden of Rodin bronzes.    The lost wax process used to make these marvels keeps eluding me.  Every time I think about it, I forget steps and/or get them mixed up.   These two videos from the Israel Museum and The Getty go a long way to shoring up a sagging memory.

The Juggling Man by Adriaen de Vries:

Adriaen de Vries's Bronze Casting Technique: Direct Lost-Wax Method

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Hadrian: An Emperor Cast in Bronze

(Found via Khan Academy and Hyperallergic)

Back to the garden: So, did we chemists appreciate what we had in front of our eyes? Yes, quite a bit. The program was stressful and we’d wonder darkly whether we were on the wrong side of the Gates of Hell while having lunch in front of it. The fate of an adjacent parking lot stirred a lot of debate between a supportive faction of chemistry faculty, staff, and students and the late Prof. Albert Elsen of the Art History Department, eminent Rodin scholar, and advisor to the Cantor Foundation that donated the works. The Loma Prieta earthquake intervened and gave us all other things to worry about. The statues don’t look any worse for wear decades later despite fears that they’d dissolve into nothing. Careful stewardship and loving cleaning, enabled by a little chemistry, have served them well.

Stanford conservators work to preserve Rodin Sculpture Garden

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