Month: November 2012

Gravity & EnergyGravity & Energy

Tracking Movement In the Solar System

This category of the blog is dedicated to science & technology topics that I think may interest my fellow nerds.

(Note: Original post: 2012. A few updates were made during site reorganization in January, 2021.)

For starters, I’ll be posting in the blog regularly under Astronomy & Astrophysics. (In some of these older posts the category is tagged Pixel Gravity.)  To jump straight to those posts, visit the PG Archive–readily accessible in the menu.  For some time now, I’ve been running the social-media support for the program that made the picture you see here.  I’ve been posting about robots, space exploration, astronomy, big steps in physics, and so on.  Sometimes, the space available for a posting on Facebook is too restrictive.   So those kinds of discussions will move here.

What qualifies me to write about this stuff?  Well, I’ve admitted elsewhere that we are a family of hypernerds.  That’s not my term.  It was invented and applied by one of our charming (adult) offspring.  It’s not a misnomer As a family, we are 40% engineers and 60% scientists.

I’m a power systems engineer, which in my case means I’ve made a career out of simulating how power plants and electric and gas networks operate.

My husband is a computational physicist, specializing in solar physics.  Want to know what’s going on inside the sun?  He’s your guy.

Our youngest son is too busy for now, building catapults and robots on his way to a mechanical-engineering degree at UC Santa Barbara. (Update: graduated, with honors. Currently open to job offers.)

After two summer internships in NASA’s astrobiology group, our middle son is working on an honors thesis project on metabolic processes of microbes in deep serpentine wells, attracted by the prospect of doing biology fieldwork in extreme ecosystems right here on planet Earth. (Update: he’s now nearly done with his Ph.D.)

And the oldest escaped from UC Berkeley’s astrophysics program with a degree and a desire to never return to academia.  He built Pixel Gravity instead.

What’s “Pixel Gravity“?  It’s a detailed, graphical astrophysics simulator with real-time controls.  It looks sort of like a game, and it’s fun to play with, but it’s also a serious science tool  As an “n‑body” simulator, it lets users model complex groups of many objects, from the solar system to galaxies.  Most of the other easy-to-use programs available online limit the number of objects or lack physical accuracy, so (for example) relativistic effects on motion near a black hole are not handled properly, if at all.  University researchers have access to extremely-detailed models, but those require supercomputers.  Pixel Gravity provides accurate modeling on personal computers and is priced low so that even students can explore gravity in action.  In addition to Newtonian gravity, Pixel Gravity models the additional effects of atmospheric drag, general relativity, and dark-matter, as well as user-defined forces.  Plus, the software package includes helpful tools for curriculum development such as a tutorial-builder and video-production capability. (Update: Pixel Gravity is at present a retired product–contact us if you’d like a copy to play with.)

So, in short, the topics under this heading are just the kind of things we talk about at our house.  So if you come to dinner, you don’t need to bring a foodie specialty.  But you might scan the latest issue of Scientific American.

Machine DesignMachine Design

 

I draw for you the art of Leonardo:
 
A man whose legs are feathered airfoils
of that smooth asymmetric camber
which folds the wind under an eagle’s wings.
 
A man poised in a cage of struts and sailcloth,
curved like the feathers on the haft of an arrow,
an apparatus geared to spin, to lift him free.
 
The paintings were for money.
 
 
 
 
This poem first appeared in Hadrosaur Tales #19, 2004.  You can still find copies of the original Hadrosaur Tales online at clarkesworldbooks.  Meanwhile, Hadrosaur Productions now publishes a new magazine, Tales of the Talisman, as well as novels, short fiction collections, and audio recordings.  Look them up at www.hadrosaur.com

 

Welcome to Cometary Tales!Welcome to Cometary Tales!

This is a portion of space set aside for writing from both directions, inbound and outbound.

What?

Comets are, by their nature, exciting and unpredictable, which inspires both intriguing storytelling and curious scientific observation.

For starters, comets inbound to the sun unfurl their unique and mysterious tails behind them. This is charmingly artistic and seduces our reason as we watch them sail in from the outer reaches of the solar system like kites with their tails billowing.  So–some of this page is devoted to fiction, respecting science but allowing for poetic license in pursuit of insightful stories.

Outbound comets, on the other hand, demonstrate why we have to use our powers of observation if we want to understand the Universe. Before we can understand why the comet’s tail flies in front of it as it returns to the dark, we must first realize that a cometary tail is the result of the solar wind blasting particles free of the surface of the comet. So–some of the writing on this page is about science and mathematics and technology, aimed in particular at developing and applying the power of critical observation. Messy Monday Science Projects, the current work-in-progress, is a collection of hands-on, observation-based science projects for elementary- and middle-school students.

Meanwhile, throughout their lives, comets are bound by the laws of gravitation and their seemingly strange behavior is described by the science of orbital mechanics. We’ll also be writing specifically about astronomy, the latest in space discoveries, and the mathematics of objects in motion while also supporting Pixel Gravity, an accurate astronomical simulator that anyone (yes, even a scifi poet) can learn to use.