As the man said after the Eagle landed: “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
The James Webb Space Telescope, largely designed, built, and tested at Space Park in Redondo Beach, has launched, raised itself from the spacecraft, deployed its 5 layer sunshield, and put its primary and secondary mirrors into place. It will take another few months for the telescope to cool in the shade and then to commission the instruments before science measurements can begin.
It has been a long and contentious wait but the magnitude of this accomplishment is worth celebrating.
Playing the piano is damnably hard. I have accepted that I will never practice consistently or wisely enough to reach my original wildly unrealistic goals of competence and am contenting myself with slow progress and occasional discoveries. Coaxing a good sound requires talent, coordination, flexibility, and freedom of movement. There’s nothing that can be done about the first item but occasionally something in the joints unsticks enabling a small improvement in the rest. I feel kinship with weekend athletes who get that occasional moment of grace amid hours of futility.
One of the many frustrations is pressing a key in the same place with the same pressure five times in a row and hearing no sound two of those times. The hammer misses the strings by a fraction of a millimeter and flops back with a click and a dull thud. This makes any kind of phrasing next to impossible for the duffer. He either settles for good enough or goes nuts trying to adapt as the instrument itself changes with the time of day and the weather. It never bothers the professionals who figure it out on the fly.
The piano action itself is a bizarre marvel of wood, felt, physics, and prayer. It is surprising that it works at all and there are eighty eight of the bloody things that have to work consistently. It is a lot to ask, perhaps too much. Robert Grijalva of the University of Michigan explains it in painstaking detail using a model of his own invention. For those with less time, a Dutch animator posting as Hoe Ishetmoegelijk (hoe is het moegelijk = how is it possible) has a concise summary.
The online astronomy office hours from the UofA continue apace. Every week Prof. Chris Impey answers ex tempore a mix of questions from planetary science to the fate of the universe from a thirsty audience across the globe. A large Indian contingent stays up until the wee small hours of their morning to join in. Part of the fun is pausing the video and trying to figure out the answer from basic considerations before resuming. It is fun to be right but more instructive to be wrong. I’ve been moved to send in three questions over the past couple of sessions and all have been answered.
When in relation to the Big Bang did dark matter originate?
The third video from Corning’s Museum of Glass shows that the path to science is not always smooth and that learning from mistakes is the norm. The original 200 inch pyrex disk for the Palomar primary did not go according to plan and had to be recast. The second attempt succeeded and even so, it took ten years of painstaking grinding and polishing at Caltech before it was ready for use.
But the early universe was very hot, very dense, and gravitationally very different from the comfortable-to-us 1 g we experience today on the surface of the earth. Einstein has convincingly shown that spacetime is accordingly divorced from that human experience. Clocks, for example, are affected by gravity and satnav constellations have to take this into account. Did the first three minutes flow the same way three minutes flow in the here and now? I sent that question to Chris Impey’s online office hour and he kindly answered. It is a tantalizing response and one that will require substantial further study to fully appreciate – perhaps finally diving into the guts of GR. It makes me wonder even more intensely why we anthropomorphize those intervals the way we do.
The CDC and WHO are giving us good advice on what do in this Plague Year. The Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics (RCSB) is showing us the molecule causing the havoc. Check out the structures of the various flavors of Coronavirus at The Protein Database (PDB). Click on the images, most of which will go to detailed pages including 3D models that can be spun in the browser. Knowledge will be power in dealing with this beast and let’s offer thanks to the research groups who took the lead in characterizing it which must have come at considerable risk to themselves. When it mutates, and it will, they and others will undoubtedly don their capes and do the measurements again.
It is damnably, horrifyingly beautiful in David Goodsell’s artistic rendering of it infecting a lung:
The web’s archive of older industrial films is a recurring delight. Jam Handy, Coronet, and other firms crafted these with an attention to detail, calm explanation, and rigorous science that is harder(*) to find today when most equivalents are about sales rather than fundamentals. Jeff Quitney has uploaded a wonderful 1954 cleaned-up film to his Vimeo page on color theory and practice by the Interchemical Corporation. It begins with the importance of color to society – especially in packaging goods and people – and then gives a marvelous account of the optics involved. I’ve worked in the field for years but I learned to see things (pun intended) differently thanks to it.
The second film from 2016 looks at color in packaging through its emotional impact and its influence on design and designers. ‘Color In Sight’ resembles like Hustwit’s ‘Helvetica.’ A number of prominent designers talk about how they use and think about color in order to evoke a response, surface a memory, or reveal a part of the spectrum to the color-blind. I have no idea what I’d say to a nail-polish maker but Suzi Weiss-Fischmann (8m18s in) comes off as a fun seatmate on a long plane trip. I had a similar feeling about Helvetica’s Paula Scher. Interestingly, it is produced by TeaLeaves, a Canadian company specializing in very high-end teas for hotels. Judging by their Youtube page, they must spend a fortune on short films – many of which have little outward bearing on their products. I’ve never understood the appeal of tea but the videos are well worth a look.
The mere detection of gravitational waves two years ago was cause for celebration and, for those of us skeptical of LIGO, eating of crow. Now gravitational wave detections regularly cue electromagnetic observatories on the ground and in space with tighter integration to come.
Youtuber skydivephil puts the camera on several researchers active in developing the next generation GW systems and the ever more ambitious cosmological probing that these observatories will enable.
Skydivephil and the unnamed narrator are self-effacing providing few details about themselves, not even their names in the nonexistent credits. They also have enviable access to many leading physicists and institutes, largely on the theoretical side. The style is simple: Let the speaker speak. It is a refreshing antidote to the modern space documentary which highlights the doom-and-gloom with an explosion and visual effect every fifteen seconds. Whatever one may think about string theory, loop quantum gravity, or their alternatives, it is refreshing to hear about them from the purveyors. Here’s the “Before the Big Bang” playlist with an assortment of views on modern cosmology (note that the episodes are in reverse chronological order.)
Memo to self: Always check to see if a playwright is <nationality>’s Chekhovbefore buying the ticket.The sinking feeling sets in early with Open Fist‘s otherwise attractive ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ and by 75 minutes into a seemingly interminable first act, plans are setfor an intermission escape.Then things happen for about 10 minutes and the coin flip comes up as stay to see how it pans out.We get another 5 to 7 minutes of explanation in the remaining hour as we learn what happens to the hard-luck, bad-luck if any luck at all Mundys of fictional Ballybeg, County Donegal.In the meantime, five sisters and a cleric brother may be poor but they have one another, then the fast moving world of change rolls over them.
Open Fist brings its traditional craftsmanship and smart casting to Brian Friel’s highly praised but unbalanced memory play.Lane Allison and Christopher Cappiello stand out as lively, optimistic Maggie and Father Jack, the latter recently returned from decades in Uganda where he found the existing customs and community much more to his liking than the Catholic faith he was sent there to sell.He’s not the only rambler in the mix as Christina’s (Caroline Klidonas) baby-daddy (Scott Roberts) shows up occasionally to see her and their son (David Shofner) whois narrating the piece from… the future. The Mundys are hanging on the edge of society. Breadwinner Kate (Jennifer Zorbalas) loses her teaching job due to Jack’s apostasy not sitting well with the church school. Industrialization eliminates a pittance that Agnes (Ann Marie Wilding) and Rose (Sandra Kate Burck) earn from piecework. The world just stomps on their knuckles until they finally let go. Burck has an especially fine moment in the second act as developmentally-disabled Rose is cruelly used by an unseen admirer despite the loving protection of Agnes –Friel’s hat-tip to Tennessee Williams, perhaps?We guess early on that every flicker of light these characters see is just the streamer for the next lightning bolt to hit them but the waits between the strikes are too damned long.The set, lights, and sounds (James Spencer, Matt Richter, and Tim Labor) do hang well over the production.
The play has won all the awards and feels calculated to do so, much like ‘Anna in the Tropics’ which preceded it. Both will be good box office for years to come.