Drunk Planets

Hi folkses,

Last weekend whilst stuck in traffic on the way to Sacramento, I was talking (ahem, nerding out) with a friend about data, visualizations, coding, finding our respective niches, doing meaningful work, etc.  At some point, I told him that I began learning Python for the first time when I was but a humble freshman in physics at Purdue, and that the thing I find most exciting about programming is making the computer do the thing I want it to.  Thus, when we learned how to model a ball bouncing on a floor, or a spaceship orbiting the earth, or a skydiver (whom I dubbed “maniac”) jumping off of something, it was basically the coolest thing ever for me.

What struck me was that he was very surprised when I said that I don’t still mess with coding stuff on the side, instead reserving it for work.  The thought had never crossed my mind, actually!

So, the next day, when I found myself with a few minutes to spare, I dug out my external hard drive, unzipped my “School” folder which has every file I used in nearly 15 years of school assignments from high school through grad school, and found a few of my old Python files from that freshman physics class (Physics 162, to be precise).  I had to install a few things, including the right version of Python and then VPython on top of it, before I could actually run anything, but I did all of that with no problems.  Then I recreated my model of the Earth orbiting the Sun, appending a trail to the Earth so I can see where it went:


Sizes greatly exaggerated, otherwise you can’t see the Earth, and you can barely see the Sun.

Basic stuff.  BO-RING.

(but I was still glad I got it to work.  squee!)

So then I decided that I would add the Moon and make it orbit the Earth:


Slightly less exaggerated sizes this time, though I did make the Moon the same size as the Earth so you can actually see them both.  The white trail is the moon.

Still not fun enough for me, because I coded in each of the forces by hand: the force between the Earth and the Sun, between the Earth and the Moon, and between the Sun and the Moon.  I generally try to avoid doing anything “by hand” when it comes to coding, so I decided to make a list of all the planets and then iterate through the list to calculate the net force on each, thus making a slightly more accurate (or slightly less inaccurate) model than just the force between the Sun and each planet.

Here’s what happened:



Drunk Planets:  From the outside to the inside, we see Saturn (cyan), Jupiter (green), Mars (red, of course), Earth (blue, naturally) + Moon (white), Venus (yellow), and Mercury (magenta).

You’ll notice two things here.

  1. Mercury goes bat-shit crazy very early on.
  2. The Earth + Moon system is in a degenerating orbit around the Sun.  In fact, when the system crosses the path of Mercury, the moon gets stripped off and begins its own orbit around the Sun, independent of the Earth.

Because this is obviously not how our Solar System behaves, we can safely assume that something is incorrect.  There are a few things I could have gotten wrong which would result in this kind of behavior, including masses, orbital distances, and orbital speeds for Mercury and the Earth + Moon system, so I went back to trusty Wikipedia to make sure I had the all the right numbers.

In my original code, instead of just using the actual orbital speed for any of my Solar System bodies, I calculated the speed based on the length of the orbit in years and the distance from the Sun:


Using the formula made me feel cool (I suppose feeling “cool” is relative) but it was difficult to check and I was impatient, so I just plugged in the average orbital speeds from Wikipedia.  And I feel exactly zero badly about it.  So there!

And here is why I feel zero badly about it:


Finally, somewhat normal-looking orbits!  Here’s a closer view of the inner Solar System:


The Earth + Moon system is still falling into the Sun gradually, but it’s a good bit slower now (that’s a relief).  And Mercury is super off-center because I used its aphelion distance but its average orbital speed; however, I still count it as a win because at least it’s now orbitting instead of going bat-shit crazy.

Obviously, I haven’t created a perfect model here.  There is totally room for improvement, and that’s alright!  If you found this fascinating, you might check out this other blog post I unearthed in my searching.

And so, dear readers, I think I can safely say that I’ll be trying to do more coding exercises in my free (hahahaha…no really, I’m serious) time.

Until next time,
Ms. Disarray

Edit, later that same day:

PS – You can find my code on my Github!

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” -Eleanor Roosevelt

Well, dear readers, here we are.

This blank page is a little intimidating, not gonna lie.

Take a deep breath…ok, there you go…

Hi, my name is Desiree’, and it has been 3 years, 3 months, and 14 days since my last real blog post.

I would like to announce that future posts will probably lean more towards the “Random Braindrops” and less towards the “Freelance Astronomer” end of the spectrum (so I should probably change my tagline), because I want to write and honestly I’m a bit out of touch with the Astronomer side of myself at the moment.  We’ll see how this goes.

So in trying to figure out what to write about tonight, I was digging through some of my old Evernote notes which I tagged with “musings” because I used to just sit and think a lot about what makes me be me, and how to make myself better.

The first thing I noticed when I began reading is that I really don’t do this kind of pondering anymore.


Deep Thought: The name of the supercomputer in Douglas Adams’ wonderful book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Image courtesy of youtube.com)

The next thing I noticed was nostalgia – no, a longing – for those great times of deep thought.  I meandered through my own mind’s little garden of pretty things:  my religious views (or lack thereof), quantum mechanics and how it manifests itself on the macroscopic world (seriously, that shit is really crazy), the size and scale of the Universe, evolution on every scale I could imagine, and on and on…and on.

The difference between that and present day?  Now, nearly all of my thinking/pondering time is spent exclusively on worrying about my relationships.  Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all nebulae and primates and wavefunctions back in the day.  I spent some time on worrying then, too: about my boyfriend (or lack thereof), my past romantic relationships, my familial relationships, my future career; now I worry about the past, present, and future state of my relationships with my family, my fiance, my coworkers…It’s incredibly unhealthy!  I should add, though, that I have happily gotten past many of those dark thoughts about loves lost, and my friends have never been a major source of worry.  Nevertheless, I dearly miss those deep introspections about the nature of the Universe or the process of evolution, and the freedom and beauty I felt with muses such as these.

“How did this happen??” and “How can I fix this??” are the two questions at the front of my mind.  I suppose the first can probably be answered with, “I entered the Real World.”

And that, dear readers, ignites a fire of indignation that I caved to The Man, that my creativity was sucked away just like so many other grown-ups.

That makes me want to go ponder the answer to question 2:  “How can I fix this??”

And I need to do it stat.

Galileo's Pendulum

November 20, 2012

Dear Senator Rubio:

Recently you gave an interview to GQ magazine, in which the following exchange occurred:

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?
Marco Rubio: I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity…

View original post 796 more words

Thinking outside the lines

Hello my dear readers – all five of you.  🙂

I recently started a new job in exciting, eclectic San Francisco, which included me moving from lovely, sensible little Greater Sacramento into a studio apartment with tons of character in the most adorable little suburb of SF ever.  Seriously.

It’s pretty safe to say that I finally finished unpacking today, about a month after my 8th move in 5 years.  Commenting on one of my many complaints-about-moving Facebook statuses, a dear friend told me I should just stop unpacking.  As much as I would like to take this advice and make my life a lot easier, I genuinely hate living surrounded by boxes.  I need to feel like I belong in my home, even if I’m only going to be there for 2.5 months, as was the case with my previous place.  I similarly hate living out of a suitcase, which is why for more than a 2-night stay in a hotel, I will unpack my suitcase into the dresser drawers and the closet.  But that’s neither here nor there.

This time, I even *gasp* hung my tools on the pegboard!

Anyway, I finally broke down and bought another bookshelf on which to put my books (since my original bookshelf is now pantry space) and also put up my pegboard on which I hang all of my pretty accessories.  Yes, I have a pegboard!

My philosophy happens to be that I am a blank canvas which I get to adorn differently every day, so I love to have cool accessories, such as jewelry, head bands, hats, scarves, etc.  You could probably call it a hobby.

So my home is all but settled again, and with it, my soul.  I am loving my new job, my new town, my new coworkers, my whole new style of life.

I could be upset that I’m not doing what I set out to do when I started college as a physics major with high hopes to be an astrophysicist one day.  This actually used to be my biggest fear, that I wouldn’t wind up doing what I’d set out to do.  My mind and heart have had a challenge dealing with this:  I’m currently in a situation which used to be a huge fear, and somehow I’m completely alright with it.

“A closed mind is a wonderful thing to lose,” reads my very favorite bumper sticker.  I would have to say that this is the biggest, most important lesson I have learned in my 30 years on this little blue dot of a planet.

I learned it when I left the Christian religion.  I learned it when I went to Europe and was told by the tour guide to not put expectations on my trip, to just enjoy whatever happens, because nothing is ever exactly as you expect it to be.  I learned it in physics when I learned about major scientific discoveries that turned people’s worlds upside down.

Most recently, I’ve learned it as I’ve transitioned from grad school to the working world:  It’s a big world out there, with plenty of satisfying, interesting work for someone trained in the sciences.  Of course, as one enters college as a physics major, that’s all anyone ever says, “You can do anything with a degree in physics!”  Well, I would like to say that you really can.  Physics taught me how to think, how to learn, how to approach a problem and think of creative ways to solve it.  These very skills have been indispensable to me this last month as I started work in a completely new field to me: website analytics.  When asked what I do, I like to say that my job is where marketing meets science – we use the scientific method to determine how to better market our product.

So, what does this have to do with astronomy?  Absolutely nothing.  And that is okay with me.  I’m still keeping astronomy as a hobby, and I would like to continue blogging about cool spacey things, but the tech industry is what will enable me to bring home the bacon.

Life can be so much happier when you let yourself think outside the box, color outside the lines, unpack those boxes even if you’re just going to pack them back up in a few months, take the little scenic detour on the road to your dream.  Try doing something practical if you’ve had your head in the stars for years, or try doing something imaginative and impractical if you’ve had your nose to the grindstone for years.

You never know what you might discover about yourself.

Big History


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Just dropping you a quick line, dear readers!  Lengthy as internet videos go, but quite short as documentaries go, this TED talk is absolutely amazing, so I encourage you to take some time to watch it.  Maybe go grab a cup of coffee or hot cocoa or apple cider, then come back, hit play, and settle in for awesomeness. 🙂

Observational Challenges for the Non-Astronomer


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Dearest readers,

Last week, I went to a public astronomy observation event and brought my boyfriend along for what turned out to be his first time ever looking through a telescope.  Had I known beforehand that this would be his first time, I’d have prepared him.

I can sense that you just quizzically raised an eyebrow.  Let me explain:

You see, it is my theory that the Hubble Space Telescope, which caused a revolution in the public’s interest in astronomy, has come to “spoil” the next generation of the public.

And now I’m sure that the other eyebrow just quickly followed suit.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Hubble and all of those awesome space telescopes as much as the next person!  They have been amazing tools, not only to do revolutionary science, but also to garner the public’s interest in science and astronomy.  However, when looking through a moderate-sized telescope in a moderate-sized community (thus it has a moderately light-polluted night sky), it is easy to be disappointed with what one sees through that itty-bitty eyepiece.

On the evening of the observing event, my dear boyfriend was regaled by the sight of about 5 fuzzy blobs, each subsequent one looking about the same as the previous one.  The objects we saw are all part of the Messier Catalog, all of which are viewable pretty easily with binoculars or a small telescope on a decent night, and many of which were made quite famous by the Hubble.

(Cute little aside: My college astronomy professor said that when Mr. Messier made his catalog, it was basically a list of all the “fuzzy blobs” he could see in the sky – it always tickled me that my old, crotchety, curmudgeonly astro prof used the phrase “fuzzy blob” like it was a technical term, so it has stuck with me.)

The fuzzy blobs we saw consisted of the Andromeda Galaxy and the Ring Nebula, which are both totally cool, and the rest were star clusters.  There are two types of star clusters: open, and globular, and once you’ve seen one of each, you’ve seen them all.  Nonetheless, I was really excited for him to see Andromeda and the Ring Nebula, but even I was sorely disappointed, because I didn’t realize just how bad the sky was for observing that night.

Unprepared, a casual observer might see this Andromeda Galaxy (quite similar to what we saw last week):

Image courtesy of washedoutastronomy.com

And not realize they’re seeing this Andromeda Galaxy:

Andromeda Galaxy through a rockin’ telescope, complete with fancy-pants filters and stuff! Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/astroporn/

Similarly, said observer might see this Ring Nebula (this is actually a decent picture – I have seen it looking about like this, but last week’s observation night gave a much, much worse view):

Image courtesy of rocketroberts.com

And not realize they’re seeing this Ring Nebula:

Hubble image courtesy of Hubblesite.org

So, if you’re going to a star party or a public observing night or whatever you want to call it, precautions should be taken by all parties involved, to prevent disappointment.

To make sure that everyone is correctly prepared, I now would like to do something a little different and divide you up, dear readers.  If you are a member of the public who is likely to attend a public observation event, please click here.  If you are an astronomer who might, at some point, host such an event, please click here.

Here’s a pretty picture:

Pretty picture courtesy of NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day

Hello, dear member of the public!

So, if you’re going to go to a star party, here are a few things you should keep in mind:

  1. All of those pretty pictures you see of nebulae and galaxies and such were taken over a looooong period of time, to collect as much light as possible.  Unfortunately, our eyes don’t work the same way as the cameras in those telescopes, so they won’t look the same when you see them with your own eyeball.  Sorry, that’s just the way it is.
  2. But!  See my very first post, about gazing at the night sky, because those photons are still going into your eye, which is the thing I find coolest about looking through a telescope.
  3. Be smart when choosing which star party you will attend.  If you attend one which takes place in the middle of town, you’re not going to see the really-super-hella-mega-cool stuff, due to the light pollution!  With a good telescope, a clear sky, and little to no moonlight, you should be able to get pretty decent views of the Messier objects, though, so it won’t be a total loss.  If you go at the right time, you can even get some great views of Jupiter and its 4 Jovian moons, or Saturn and its beautiful rings.  Each is a seriously impressive sight, even just through a dinky little scope.
  4. Try to keep track of the objects you see so that when you get home, you can search for them online, to really see what you saw that night.
  5. If you have a smart phone, get a sky app like Google Sky Map so that you can follow along with whomever is showing you around.  Google Sky Map even has a night mode, which shows the objects of interest in red, on a black background, so as not to ruin your night vision.
  6. But, how to find a local star party, you ask?  Find the nearest Department of Physics and/or Astronomy to you, which could be a local community college or a major research university.  Some high schools even have astronomy classes or clubs, and be sure to check with local science museums as well.  Basically, anyone who teaches astronomy at pretty much any level should be able to guide you in the right direction.

Ok, astronomers, your turn!  If you’re going to host a star party, try to put yourself in the shoes of a casual observer, to make sure they can get as much out of the event as possible.  Here are a few guidelines I’ve come up with, based on my own experiences:

  1. If it’s a cold night, serving hot apple cider or hot cocoa is a really nice touch.
  2. If you can, show your attendees a slideshow of some really great images of the objects they saw through a telescope.
  3. Again, resource-permitting, try to have your star party in a location that minimizes light pollution.  Not everyone has access to dark skies, but maybe a park on the edge of town (you’ll probably have to get permission to be there after dark, but be nice and maybe they’ll let you) would be a good alternative to a roof in the middle of town.  However, a roof in the middle of town is better than ground-level in the middle of town.
  4. Be organized!  No one likes to come to an event and not know what’s going on or when things are starting or who is in charge.
  5. A little star talk, maybe pointing out some major constellations and the North Star, goes a long way.
  6. If you have regular events, it might be a good idea to take some time to plan out what you’ll be able to see at upcoming events, and let your attendees know, much like they do at Sacramento City College in California.
  7. A nice website for your group or organization, listing upcoming events, also goes a very long way.

Alright, that’s all from me for now, folks.  This post will be part of the second Carnival of Cosmology, so go check out the other posts, and don’t forget to keep looking up! 🙂

White Dwarf Supernovae: Standard Lampposts on Dark Energy Road


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My dear readers,

This special post is part of the Carnival of Cosmology: Dark Energy, hosted by Galileo’s Pendulum, a fellow astronomy blog I discovered less than 12 hours ago, as of the writing of this post.

To begin, I’m going to give a very brief background about dark energy in general, and then I’ll talk about one of the tools we use to measure this enigmatic stuff.  Most of my research has been investigating the nature of dark energy using Type 1a supernovae (pronounced like “Type One-A Super-no-vee,” SNe 1a for short, and also known as white dwarf supernovae.) so it is a topic very dear to my heart as well as my head.

As you may know, the Universe is expanding.  However, what you may not know is that this expansion is not slowing down, as you might think gravity would cause it to do, but it is speeding up.  We can tell this by looking far, far away, deep into space, where the things we see are not quite as bright as we would expect them to be.

One type of candle at many distances – as the candle gets farther away, it appears dimmer. The same goes for white dwarf supernovae and the expanding Universe.
Image courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory/Universe Adventure

To quantify this notion, we use “standard candles,” which have a set brightness that we know is the same, no matter where they are in space or when they sent out their light.  A white dwarf supernova is just such a “candle.”**  This particular type of exploding star is very special, in that it doesn’t care what kind of galaxy it calls home (big, small, elliptical, spiral, etc), and it always has the same pattern of brightening and fading.

Strange, to be sure, but this is all because of the specific type of star associated with this explosion: a white dwarf of about 1.44 times the mass of our Sun (or 1.44 Solar masses).  A star similar to our Sun goes through its life cycle (click here for a very plain-English explanation of stellar evolution) and eventually becomes a white dwarf.  Usually a white dwarf will just burn the rest of its energy, cooling down to become a black dwarf.  However, if it is part of a binary system, or has a companion star, and that companion orbits close enough to our white dwarf, the white dwarf will start sucking mass right off of its companion.

White dwarf sucking mass off its companion

Image courtesy of Science Engine – Space

Once it reaches 1.44 Solar masses, the white dwarf becomes too big for its britches and collapses under the force of its own gravity in an explosion so bright that it can rival the brightness of its host galaxy!

So, you can now see how a particular kind of star in a particular setting makes a particular kind of explosion and doesn’t have to be located in a particular type of galaxy.  Even without any constraints on location, this seems like it would be pretty improbable, right?  Well, just remember that there are as many as tens to hundreds of billions of stars in a given galaxy, and with the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field as an indicator, there are billions and billions of galaxies out there, which makes for a lot of potential SNe 1a to be observed.

Type 1a supernovae are super bright!

In 1994, a white dwarf supernova (lower left) occurred in galaxy NGC 4526. The supernova’s brightness rivaled that of its host galaxy – one single star explosion rivaled the brightness of billions of stars combined!
Image courtesy of the High-Z Supernova Search Team/HST/NASA

Now, since there are so many SNe 1a out there and they are so standard, they make an excellent tool for measuring distances, which is exactly how the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics recipients used them to discover dark energy.  They took a theoretical model of how the brightness should vary with distance and compared that with data from dozens of supernovae that they actually observed (today we have hundreds of observations, and soon there will be many, many more, thanks to the advances in telescope cameras and sensors, as well as the growing number of all-sky surveys being performed).  The disparity between the model and the data grew with distance, thus “dark energy” was discovered.
Head on back over to the Carnival to check out the other great posts!

** I should note that SNe 1a are more like standardizable candles.  If you really want to get technical, check out this article from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Perchance to Dream


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By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My hero.

Dearest readers,

My long-time role model and hero, Sally K. Ride, passed away this week at 61 years old, after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

The first American woman to go to space, Dr. Ride was also an astrophysicist at University of California San Diego and the co-founder of Sally Ride Science, a company which aims to get kids, especially young girls, interested in science.

With news of Dr. Ride’s passing dominating my social media, I have been reflecting on just how she influenced my own life.  My hipster tendencies are screaming, “Hey, I liked Sally Ride before all the hype!” but the rest of me is just glad that even in death, her legacy will inspire people to dream big.

I didn’t have many role models/heroes when I was growing up, but a seemingly-innate fascination with the space shuttle made me love Sally Ride from the time I first learned of her existence and accomplishments.  In the 4th grade, during Women’s History month, one of my assignments was to write a report on a woman of note.  I remember people choosing Harriet Tubman or Mother Theresa, and I chose Sally Ride.

[Funny, my family had a computer before most others’, and I actually remember the font I used to type my little report, Typewrit, because it looked like a typewriter and 9-year-old me just adored it for some reason.  Maybe that’s where my love of interesting fonts began!]

I’m sure that report is still laying around in a box somewhere, because my dear mother saves everything, but alas, I cannot put my hands on it at the moment.  Suffice it to say that I can probably give Dr. Ride most of the credit for my wanting to become an astronaut, since I was born only a year before her history-making flight.  I didn’t become an astronaut, but that big dream is what fueled my love of astronomy from a very early age, and that is what kept me going all through college and grad school.  It was my goal, my dream, my life-target, and still is all those things.

Perhaps you have veered from the original path to your dream, like I seem to be doing.  I thought that getting my PhD would get me to where I wanted to be, and it may yet (but please, no more school for quite a while!!).  Here’s a novel idea, though: other roads can also lead to my dream of exploring the Universe.  It might be a roundabout path I take to get there, but a large portion of traveling is in the journey itself, and so it is with the journey through life.  Who says you have to do what everyone else “always does” to get where you want to be?  I see nothing wrong with marching to the beat of your own drummer.  Go against the grain.  Do something different.  Surprise people.  It may or may not be the path of least resistance, but whatever happens, it will be an adventure!
Finally coming out of hiatus,

Ms. Disarray

The Higgs Discovery, Boiled Down



Hello from hiatus!  I’m still adjusting to my non-student life, still looking for a job, and still TAing for the time being, but I will get back to blogging, I promise.

In the meantime, you have likely heard the buzz about the Higgs boson findings at CERN, and if you’re anything like me, you had trouble understanding it.  Yes, I am a physicist, but I do not study High Energy or Particle Physics, so I’m not all up with the lingo.  Thus, I turned to my favorite astronomy blogger, Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, who seems to know about everything, so I will direct you to his post about the Higgs.

Click HERE, dear reader, and be amazed!

Until next time,

Ms. Disarray ❤

Everything you wanted to know about the Venus transit, but were afraid to ask


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This site explains everything you could want to know about today’s transit of Venus across the Sun – check it out so you can enjoy this last-time-in-your-lifetime phenomenon.
Ok, that’s really all for today. 🙂