Super Gorgeous Tiny Star Show

30 06 2008

So there’s a company called Ohira Tech. They make a star projector called Megastar. It comes in two flavors, Megastar Zero and Megastar II. Where’s Megastar I? I dunno. Here’s the take… I saw a brief demo of the Megastar during Friday nights’ events, and was impressed. The star projector was under black fabric and was uncovered only in darkness and was re-covered before the lights came up. Mysterious, huh? Today I went by the vendor booth and saw the cute little Megastar Zero sitting on a table. I mentioned to Sky-Skan rep Paul Tetu that I was impressed with the star field and asked if I heard right that the little device was actually projecting 22,000 stars at once. (In comparison, I trained on a Spitz 512 which could project around 9000 stars at once.) He looked confused and said, “You were looking at millions of stars.” If I’m not completely conveying my shock, let me repeat… Yesterday I saw an opto-mechanical projector that was brought to the conference on a plane as carry-on luggage display over 5.5 million stars! The projector uses laser light to produce stars that are literally pinpoints. Then I was asked if I wanted to see it up close. I sat in a small portable dome for five minutes watching that sky rotate and, putting up my hand, watched as some of the star light fell on my palm. It really felt like I was touching the stars. It was a – transforming – experience, to steal a word that’s been thrown around a bit this conference. I could have sat right there all afternoon.

Last night they turned on Super Megastar II (does that sound Japanese enough?) in the big dome at the Adler and let everyone bask in the glory of its 22 million stars!* They also handed out binoculars so we could see details too small to be seen otherwise. The audience wavered between stunned silence and giddy euphoria. I watched as stars blinked in and out as they moved across the dome and fell into the perforations in the dome because they were smaller than the perforations! The inventor of this wonderful machine, Takayuki Ohira, gave the presentation himself. At one point he tried to point out a nebula for us to look at through our binoculars and asked, “Can you see it?” I couldn’t see it and no one around me could either. Then he said, “I guess you might need a telescope to see that one.” A telescope? In a dome? Can you believe that? It’s absolutely incredible. Applause broke out spontaneously across the room. The audience complained when our time was up and we reluctantly had to move on to the next demo.

The only reservations I have about these instruments are in their limited capabilities and lightweight construction. The Zero version weighs less than 25 pounds and has a plastic body. The Super MS II weighs about 110 lbs but didn’t appear any more robust. They are also exclusively star projectors. You can’t display planets, the moon, the sun, or any other object that moves relative to the background stars. And those stars certainly don’t move relative to each other. You almost have no choice but to use a separate system to do any serious education. I question the longevity of these products, but I think the advantages of such a detailed starfield trump it. It really looked great paired with that Sky-Skan system!  And from the buzz it appears Megastar and Sky-Skan will be forming a nice partnership to make that hybrid appear throughout the world.

BTW, it really surprised me to discover Takayuki was my age! I don’t know what I was expecting, but looking at an incredible inventor my age and wondering what I’ve done with my life wasn’t it. I went by his vendor booth today and talked for just a minute. He speaks very little English and I speak NO Japanese so hopefully he could interpret my ecstatic emotions in the right way.

Did I mention his entire company has only 4 employees?  Yeah.  I met all of them.  More on that later…

*[I originally had written 22 million because that’s what I heard in the first demo. Then before I published this I looked up the specs on the Megastar II and found it was 5.5 million, so that’s what got published. Now I’ve discovered that what I actually saw was the SUPER Megastar II — which is an astounding 22 million pinpoint stars, just like I heard the first time.  The “Super” makes all the difference! :o) ]

IPS Day 2

30 06 2008

I didn’t want to give this post such a generic title, but just so many things happened yesterday that I just had to put it all together like this.

First I got to hear Dr. Rocky Kolb speak. If you’ve seen the IMAX movie Cosmic Voyage (and I’ve seen it well over 300 times — remember, I was a projectionist straight out of college) then you’ve seen him standing in Fermilab describing the early universe. Well yesterday he did that for us. After his wonderfully entertaining talk I got to ask him a question. The one question I asked him was, “If I was trying to teach cosmology to high school students and knew they could only retain one or two big ideas, what ideas should those be?” Some of you remember I attempted this back at Governor’s School 2004. It didn’t work too well because I was trying to teach the whole story. He gave me this advice: “Number one, teach them that the universe is dynamic and under constant change. Number two make them understand that we know something is interacting gravitationally with everything we can see. We don’t know what that stuff is, and whatever we might think now could change in a few years, but right now we’re trying to nail down the nature of this Dark Matter. But just because we haven’t figured it out doesn’t mean it’s something we shouldn’t teach yet. We KNOW there’s something mysterious interacting with us. But number one make sure they know the universe changes constantly. That’s the most important thing to take away from any cosmology course.” Thanks, Dr. Kolb. I’ll take that advice to heart.

After that was the paper presentations. I went to as many as I could, especially those concerning education, but two really stood out…

John Stoke from NASA discussed the final servicing mission to Hubble. They’re replacing a couple of instruments and repairing a couple of instruments and replacing batteries and gyroscopes and thermal blankets. It’s an ambitious mission. I was unaware of how crippled Hubble is right now! All the instruments from the last servicing mission are out-of-order and astronomers are getting all their scientific data from a couple of original operational instruments. John delivered so much information that it would be ridiculous to try to repeat it all here. You’ll just have to find a lot of it yourself.

Toshi Komatsu from the University of Calif. described an interactive program to introduce students and the public to the Kepler Mission for discovering extrasolar planets. I wrote about the Kepler Mission here. It’s a very cool way to visualize orbital data that practically anyone can find patterns in. And as you all know, the pattern is everything in science! Once you can see the pattern, figuring out what kind of planet is orbiting the monitored star is pretty straightforward. Having regular folks interpret the data for themselves is a brilliant way to help them understand the science. And it’s one I’ll definitely be using in my classroom.

One other really cool thing happened yesterday, but I won’t let you guys in on it until I get photographic proof. heh. Details will hopefully come soon.

What’s the resolution of real life?

28 06 2008

So there’s this long-standing joke amongst digital producers about how many pixels a projector would have to push before the pixels just disappeared. Last night I found out!

Sky-Skan has developed a multi-projector system in conjunction with Sony to produce an 8k x 8k image at 60,000 lumens! For the life of me I couldn’t see the individual pixels from 30 feet. And the image was so bright that at one point Steve Savage (president of Sky-Skan) had us to look at the moon, but I couldn’t because it was near the blindingly bright sun! It was absolutely beautiful and I would love to see it in a permanent set-up instead of a quick, thrown-together conference setting.

I understand that the projectors are a quarter of a million dollars less than $150,000 each and the system requires 4 computers per projector, but I’m a little blurry on those details. I’ll get the correct info and update this post ASAP. I just wanted to get in a quick line to let you know the hotness I witnessed on the first day.

Speaking of the first day…after the plane ride and the way-too-long shuttle ride to the hotel and checking in and registration and seeing old friends and the rest of the headaches that go along with “first day” stuff (which, BTW, actually gave me a pretty good headache) the conference kicked off by transporting us all to the Adler and holding us there until midnight! But they did give us a super-awesome dessert bar around 11pm with WAYYYY too much sugar.

And I got to enjoy that dessert bar with someone I haven’t seen in a long time, Waylena McCully, and I got to meet her cool husband, Jeff. What was really cool was that Waylena and I started reminiscing about working together in Tennessee and we rehashed a lot of the crap we had to put up with from our boss. A lot of stuff I had forgotten. For those who know Aaron Christie, Jeff sounded exactly like him (Jeff is a programmer for Mathematica). I’ve got to find a way to get those two together for a nerd-off. ;o)

More as I see it.

IPS ’08

28 06 2008

I’m in Chicago for the International Planetarium Association conference. YAY! I read about the conferences that other geeks go to. Phil Plait goes to TAM. Wil Wheaton goes to PAX. Everyone else goes to Siggraph or E3. Well, I get to go to IPS!

What will I see here? The newest visual rendering technologies tied to the newest projection technologies. This is the stuff I love. I promise to keep you all apprised of all the coolness that happens. E&S has promised some new ideas in creative teaching techniques under a domed environment and several other companies, like 3DMirage, Spitz, Sky-Skan, Minolta, and Zeiss, are going to be showing off their creative visions.

The immersive theater may not truly exist in Arkansas today, but one day our culture will grow enough to catch up with the rest of the country and much of the world. Yes, one day we too will have awesome technology like Mississippi. :-P

And when that happens I shall be the first to view it! Do you dream in electric Technicolor?

Tunguska Turns 100

28 06 2008

It was 100 years ago this coming Monday that we humans got a little taste of what past species had to face. Tunguska is a region of Siberia so remote that I’m sure none of us would have ever heard of it except for the June 30, 1908 event. Around 7:14am a fragment from a meteor — most likely a stony asteroid — detonated three to six miles above the ground and leveled an estimated 80 million trees. Though there is no crater and no direct eyewitnesses of the explosion we can still piece together much of the science.

The difficulty modern scientists have of developing the picture of The Event is the same as it was 100 years ago — Tunguska is just so remote that scientists require weeks to months of travel just to get there. It took over a decade for the first expedition to reach it and it would be another decade before meaningful data could be collected. To put their difficulty into perspective, here is a plea for an expedition to another impact in the region from just 6 years ago! You can understand why details of the event are so vague.

We need to examine events like this with great scrutiny so we can determine how often they occur. If something like this happens over a populated area the destruction would rival a nuclear assault. How worried should we be? It’s never happened in the 15,000 years of recorded history. Would statistics say that such events are anomalies or are we due?

We look on the Tunguska Event as a signal that our existence is not a certainty; that we cannot control all the variables. We’ve had to find some way to survive through all the predators and diseases, all the famines and floods, all the volcanoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. We don’t have natural armor, poisonous barbs, or sharp, pointy teeth. Without our smarts and opposable thumbs we wouldn’t have stood a chance as a species. But through smarts alone we’ve dominated our environment, and our impact on it is easily visible from space. Yet it’s from that space that our greatest challenges may lie. After surviving everything our world can throw at us, we still have that overwhelming, terrifying knowledge that extinction can come rapidly. By looking at the archaeological discoveries made over the last century we can see that mass extinctions have happened with stunning regularity. Now the question is, “Can our smarts improve our technology fast enough to win a battle with a massive impactor?”

We’re just now beginning to understand how dangerous our universe can be.

What if The Batman took on Sub-Zero?

26 06 2008

I know what you’re thinking… That would rock! When’s it coming out?

Turns out you’re not alone in your love of geeky violence.

As has been heavily reported on, the developers at Midway are creating MK vs. DCU in which they’ll place DC superheroes into the Mortal Kombat arena. This is a game I could definitely get into.

If you look at the FAQs (updated just last week) on the Midway website you’ll read that they’re not going to have fatalities. This, to practically everyone, seems like a good way to ruin this game before it can even launch. But in an interview with Gamespot (posted yesterday), MK creator Ed Boon claims that he has no idea how the rumor of no fatalities got started — because it just wouldn’t be Mortal Kombat without them. So why, after his interview, does the FAQ still claim no fatalities? The FAQ is actually maintained by fans and not the company, so they’re going on previous interviews and speculation. We’re going with the creator’s words!

The folks over at DC are pretty insistent that the game have a T-rating. MK has always been rated M. The finishing moves are just too violent for many of the DC characters, especially Superman. To bridge this disparity some of the DC characters have “brutalities” instead of fatalities. I have no idea what that means other than their opponent gets to live.

So how do you deal with the indestructible Superman without introducing a second indestructible character? You weaken him with magic, of course. Superman is not only vulnerable to Kryptonite and red suns, but to magic as well as was revealed back in the 40s (maybe earlier, but my memory fails me). This actually became a small point of discussion in the 50s during the federal trials that brought about the Comics Code… but I’m off subject.

There is a sweeping storyline written by comic book veterans Jimmy Palmotti and Justin Gray. The story is told from both sides with the other side seen as invaders. I’m assuming this will help explain Superman’s weakened state.

What really has me excited about this game (other than the cool crossover aspect) is the stage interaction. You can knock your opponent through walls and off ledges. Yes, you could knock them off ledges in the past but this time your character follows them down and continues fighting during freefall with an extended set of special moves. Plus when the characters get hurt you can actually see tears in their clothing and cuts on their bodies. We’ll hope the game meets the hype.

The Great Shuttle Mix-Up

25 06 2008

I know this is a double-post from the Bad Astronomy site…and if you’ve already seen it, tough. It was funny enough to make me LOL so you’ll just have to live with me posting it too.