Gravity & 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.

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