Category Archives: Space

An Impey Trifecta: Dark matter, strange correlations, and observing time

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.

  1. When in relation to the Big Bang did dark matter originate?
  2. There is a surprising correlation between supermassive galactic black hole size and the population of old stars in a galaxy. Can telescopes now resolve individual stars in distant galaxies well enough to distinguish old from new to establish this connection?
  3. Observational results come from the successful.  How do astronomers get precious telescope time?

Youtube Channel: Astronomy State of the Art


Backyard history: Southern California’s impact on astronomy

Silicon Valley has reshaped the earth, Hollywood has driven our perceptions of it, and not always for the better.  Less well known is the outsized role California has played in understanding our universe.   Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar, and their astronomers have had a Copernican impact on where we stand in the grand scheme of things.  The word ‘vision’ gets bandied about a lot these days but George Ellery Hale had it in spades.  Here’s how the two observatories that housed Hubble, Humason, ShapleyZwicky, Baade, Rubin, and Schmidt came to be.

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.

Youtube Channel: Palomar Observatory

Youtube Channel: Irish Astronomy

Youtube Channel: Corning Museum of Glass


Nick on ‘brick: Another look at 2001

/tap /tap

Is this thing still on?


I’ve posted previously of CinemaTyler’s excellent but breathless exploration of 2001: A Space OdysseyParallaxNick takes a more leisurely and historical look at the same film. It is less about the filmmaking process and more on its origins, development, context, and implications.  Nick’s videos about astronomy are well worth the watch.

Youtube Channel: ParallaxNick

The time is out of joint: Chris Impey on the tick-tick-tock of the stately clock

Steven Weinberg wrote a famous book, “The First Three Minutes” on the early stages of the universe.  The same universe became transparent to light some 370,000 years later.  There are other landmarks in post-Big Bang time going down to bewildering fractions of a second.

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.

Youtube Channel: Astronomy State of the Art

Composer Toru Takemitsu has set the general idea to music.

Youtube Channel: Orquesta Sinfónica de Xalapa


Low-key Relativity: skydivephil on gravitational waves, the Universe, and everything

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.

Youtube channel: skydivephil

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.)


Bulbous Bouffons and Kakistocratic Klingons at the 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival

MilliGrus – the origami swan part of audience participation

Mil Grus does double duty as the name of “Los Angeles’s Premier Bouffon Troupe” and their eponymous show at the 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival.  Ostensibly based on Pliny the Elder’s story of a Thousand Cranes, a five member ensemble in heavy padding, tights, and grotesque makeup do various skits and improvisational bits taken from (if not exactly inspired by) extensive crowd work and audience participation.  The closest hooks to cranes are the elegant little origami handed to a few of us in the front row (right)  with the totality of the hour being a mystery.  The young and young-at-heart in the packed McCadden Place Theatre roared and ohmyGODded with every twitch, tic, and bit of shtick.  Being neither, I was tossed into my recurring nightmare of the final exam in a class I never  knew I was taking.  If there were references I didn’t get them and if there was a through line, it escaped me.  The performers do show talent in physical theatre and this may have been an intentionally loosely-formatted bit of nonsense for a festival audience.  Perhaps their other offerings have at least some structure for those of us that need it.

The swan-like Bird of Prey from the Klingon Tamburlaine Photo courtesy School of Night Theatre Company

Summertime is usually Shakespeare season but one festival company has taken on on the daunting task of mounting rival Marlowe.  This is no easy task as there are probably very good reasons why Shakespeare (or Bacon or DeVere or whomever) has dropkicked contemporaries to the curb over the past few hundred years.  Let’s blindly extrapolate from one or two encounters with the rest and assert that their language isn’t as smooth, their characters as fleshed, or their plots as nuanced.  Nevertheless, School of Night Theatre‘s  adaptation of “Tamburlaine the Great Parts 1 and 2” into the Star Trek milieu is galactic in scope, brazen in ambition, and a stone cold  marvel.   Historical Timur/Tamerlane/Tamburlaine was such a brutal and unrepentant conqueror that transplanting him into a Klingon makes eminent sense.  It is easier to recognize savagery in the other than to acknowledge it in the self.   The uncredited adapter also cleverly remaps various tribes and city-states involved in an endless series of wars into Vulcan, Romulan, and Starfleet counterparts.   Played straight, Tamburlaine’s unremitting and unpunished transition from shepherd to despot would wear thin quickly but Director Christopher Johnson deftly leavens the grim proceedings with wry humor, sight gags, posturing, and plenty of tongue.

Klingon Tamburlaine program

This production would be a tight fit in an outdoor venue and it is the height of q’hutzpagh to put a fully costumed beak-over-tailfeathers cast of 13 and a percussionist/Foley artist  into the 360 square feet offered by the Complex Theatres.   The action is non-stop, full-tilt, loud, and a tad too long with commedia head snaps and full throated oration from start to finish.  Neither is this a land-bound adaptation.  The large design team puts together epic space battles with supernumeraries, starship models, and clever lighting although the bulk of the fighting is incongruously hand-to-hand combat with pointy objects and blades.

There is  no comeuppance, no divine retribution, and no great moral to the story other than lying, cheating, nepotistic, usurping sleazeballs can and do get away with it.   Some things don’t change over the centuries.   If there is a criticism of the production it is that it might have reached out to LA’s vibrant Klingon community to cast parts currently played by human actors in prostheses and makeup.   The theatre world has taken steps toward inclusivity but there is always room to grow.

Mil Grus by Mil Grus Theatre
Closed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2019
McCadden Place Theatre

Klingon Tamburlaine by School of Night Theatre
Remaining performances: Thursday 27 June at 8:30pm and Saturday 29 June at 4pm
Ruby Theatre at The Complex, Hollywood
6476 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA
Online tickets via the Hollywood Fringe Festival 

Youtube Channel: The Vestibules


Youtube Channel: KyleKallgrenBHH



Misnomers: Dr. Srinivasan on Mostly Neutron Stars

It took me a year and an email to understand how merging neutron stars could generate heavy elements.  For this you need protons and from where do these protons come.  The year was for intermittent research and the email due to failing in that research.  As it happens, neutron stars are chock full of particulate goodness, far more than their name implies.   On the one hand it is good to know how it works, on the other hand it shows that my research skills could use some improvement.

Dr. G. Srinivasan, Researcher Emeritus from the Raman Research Institute explains the beaks and gizzards of these dense objects in great detail.   His 12 part lecture series “A Random Walk in Astrophysics” is also available.

Youtube Channel: International Centre for Theoretical Sciences

Where are they now?: Carol Meier on Voyagers 1 and 2

Narrator Carol Meier has a meticulously researched, splendidly detailed, and wonderfully delivered update on the twin Voyager spacecraft and their epic journey of discovery from Pasadena to the outskirts of the solar system.  It isn’t clear if this is a commissioned piece or one she did on spec.  It is engrossing either way.

Youtube Channel: Carol Meier

Calling the shot: Brian Metzger on kilonovae

Soon after LIGO‘s first detection of a black hole-black hole merger, the astronomical community was hinting about a potentially more scientifically  exciting event within the interferometer’s grasp: The merging of two neutron stars. When two dark objects coalesce, the product is unsurprisingly dark. Colliding neutron stars on the other hand might emit light of some kind and the collision product need not necessarily be a black hole. More intriguingly, so-called kilonovae resulting from neutron star collisions have been proposed as the actual origin in our universe of many elements heavier than iron, challenging the conventional wisdom of these coming from supernovae.

Here’s a prescient talk by Prof. Brian Metzger of Columbia University and coiner of the term ‘kilonova’ on the consequences of neutron star binary mergers. He discusses their signatures in the gravitational wave record and across the electromagnetic spectrum to their ultimate role in nuclear synthesis. Given at Harvard on 16 March 2017, it is quite accessible for a technical colloquium presentation. A mere five months later on 17 August 2017, LIGO and its European counterpart VIRGO indeed detected the merger of two neutron stars and set of a flurry of observational activity across the globe and in space which confirmed at least qualitatively the predictions by Metzger and his group.

The details are still confusing.  For example, we can assume that it takes a long time for two neutron stars to form, presumably from the death as a supernova of each of a large, but not too large, binary pair.  These violent events will eject a lot of material into the interstellar medium.  The neutron stars then spiral slowly and combine, releasing a lot of neutrons to stick to light elements, transmuting them up the periodic table through the r-process.  But, where do these light elements come from if the ejecta from each of the progenitor stars has had a very long time to spread? (*)

Harvard’s Edo Berger has a concise summary of the multimessenger gold rush incited by the event in a special issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.  Many of the papers are free to download.  As an aside, I was acquainted with Edo when he was an undergraduate physics student at UCLA while I was a researcher in the same department.  I had no idea then he’d become one of the Dukes of Earl of  high energy astrophysics.

(*) Addendum 20 April 2019: After a year of futility in not finding an answer to this question, I emailed Prof. Metzger and asked.  In a prompt and gracious reply he said that the ejecta from the merging neutron stars create the seed nuclei required for the r-process.  There are sufficient protons (10-30%) in the ejecta to form nuclei of mass number ~100 within milliseconds.  These then absorb further neutrons within the constraints of beta decay to create very heavy elements within a few seconds.  So,  it seems that neutron stars aren’t neutrons all the way down!

30 May 2020: New video source; prior channel was deleted.

Youtube Channel: CfA Colloquium


Youtube Channel: Kowch737