Narrow Your Passions

14 12 2009

So what do you love?

Okay, so what do you love about that?

I’m not much of a touchy-feely sort of guy.  I’m logical and calculating.  And when I think about the stuff I love, I analyze it to figure out exactly what it is I love about it.  This might limit me to specific niches of my interests and is certainly limiting my knowledge of related topics and genres and ideas, but it’s a conscious decision I make.

To me, narrowing down the specifics allows me to ignore all the stuff I don’t like, or at least don’t like as much.  Take video games.  I like single player over multi-player.  (I know that’s not you, just go with my point!)  I don’t like city-building games but I love RTSs that make me build factories and armories and a city center and such.  I like well-defined goals for a game instead of just wandering around looking for adventure.  Of course, to know this I’ve had to play a LOT of games, many I didn’t care for.  Along the way I’ve been able to focus my interests, and I consider that time well spent, even playing a game I didn’t like.

I was thinking about my last post with all the stars.

Those stars are just stunning.  When I narrow down what I love about astronomy, it’s not galaxies or planets, or even brilliant nebulae — it’s the stars themselves.

A friend once said, “Once you’ve seen one globular cluster, you’ve seen them all.”  Most casual amateur astronomers would agree with him, but that’s not true for me.  I think massive groupings of stars is the most glorious thing in the heavens.  I think mostly that’s because it makes my mind go to this place where anything is possible, and something amazing is waiting to be discovered just right. over. there.

So I look at that picture and see much more than just the dots.  My mind lets me see worlds the camera cannot.  I’m immediately interested in the yellow and red stars, and ignore the blue ones, because I know (well, suspect anyway) life is more likely to be found around stars like our sun.  But before long I find myself searching through the blue ones with wonder over how or if such an environment is even habitable for life.   You see, the blue stars are not only hotter, they tend to expel enormous amounts of stellar material.  This cloud of gas and dust absorbs the light from the star and will begin to glow itself, making for an environment totally foreign to us.  Yet Vega in the constellation Lyra is just such a star, and it’s close enough for us to keep detailed tabs on.

The One Million Stars picture was actually a little misleading, though.  Since VISTA uses a near-infrared camera to peer through the gas and dust that normally cloud our view, those stars in the middle of the image are being seen through a lot of light-scattering debris.  That means the redness isn’t their true color.  Kinda like how the sun turns red at sunset.  But still, it’s awesome to be able to see those stars even through the fog.

When I was in college I became very interested in the lives of stars.  Stellar evolution was made so exciting by a man who occasionally wrote for the astronomy magazines, Dr. James Kaler.  I still have several original articles he wrote from 15 or more years ago.  He could really tell a story in print.

I got the chance to actual meet Dr. Kaler a few years back at a joint SEPA/MAPS conference.  I could hardly contain my excitement, even though I was surrounded by people who normally got to spend time with him and didn’t think much about it.  He gave a short talk* in which he summarized the past year of astronomical discoveries and then the crowd dispersed to return to our lodgings.  I embarrassed myself by rushing to the stage to introduce myself and pour out my absolute thrill of meeting him, figuring I only had a few seconds to do so.  But as soon as I got there I found I didn’t quite know how to spill out what an inspiration he was to me.  I started stumbling over my words and, obviously realizing this, he asked, “Are you going back to the hospitality suite?”  “Um…”  (I hadn’t considered that he was staying at the same lodge as the rest of us for some reason, and that he might actually be just attending the conference like me.) “Oh yes!” sounding way too excited and loud given the banality of the question.  He backed up a little and I suddenly got the feeling he thought I was possibly nuts.  And so, he turned and we both walked away in opposite directions.  Later that evening while I was talking with friends one of them tapped me and said, “Look who just came in.”  In this much more relaxed environment I felt I had all the time in the world.  I walked over to him and caught him with no one around.  I explained that I was sorry I accosted him before but he was very influential to me.  Told him how I had dropped out of college because I wasn’t sure why I was there.  How I read an article in Astronomy magazine titled Stars That Go Bang In The Night that he had written that was so amazing and inspiring to me that I felt compelled to return to college and major in physics.  That my primary interests were redirected to stellar dynamics and the life cycles of giant suns.  That my final thesis was based upon his work.  That I later became a teacher myself.  That I was so thankful he had ever written that article.  And that I owed my focus toward astronomy to him.  When I finished telling him all this, he had tears in his eyes.  I think maybe he needed to hear about how his research and authorship had a real emotional impact on people that could go far beyond just the advancement of scientific knowledge.  He was and always will be one of my heroes, and I hope someday to actually get to collaborate with him on a project.

When I look at a vast starfield strewn with suns like diamonds on black felt, I don’t see candles glowing in the cold vacuum of space.  I see life.  I don’t mean habitable worlds with alien creatures (though that sometimes enters my mind), I mean the stars themselves seem very much alive.  The stars are the oldest things in existence.  By studying them, we investigate the history of our universe.  We investigate ourselves.  As we now know, we are star stuff.  Given enough time, the material in those stars can someday turn into us.  And as Sagan said, “We are what hydrogen atoms become given 15 billion years of evolution.”  When a star dies in a violent supernova, the remains flung off can coalesce and reform into a world full of exotic lifeforms and creatures just as confused and curious as we are.  What a marvelous thing, to witness their beginnings!

I love the stars.  And what I really love about the stars is all the possibilities I see within them.  They are necessary for the existence of life, and even in their death they can become life.  Prying their secrets can be difficult, but so worth it.  When I look at them I feel a humbling familiarity, like an echo from a very distant past.  They place in me every passion that a man should feel in his life.

Find the fire that can light your passion.

[* Amazingly enough I found the actual speech online that Dr. Kaler gave at that conference! You can skim it here.]

A Million Points

13 12 2009

A million is a very big number.  I tend to forget that when I think about how a highway or a building can cost several million dollars.  Or the population of a region can be in the millions.  Or that light can travel a million miles in just six seconds.  But this… this is what a million looks like.

So this image may not look like much, but click on it.  I’ll wait.

Now that you’ve seen it, I’m going to give you the chance to *really* see it.  This is an image taken by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) of the region around the center of our Milky Way galaxy in the direction of Sagittarius.  It was taken by a new camera they have called VISTA — the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy.  Weird acronym, huh?  Here’s a picture of the camera.

Yeah, that’s a worker standing there next to it.  I’m betting we’re going to see a LOT of great stuff coming out of this thing in the years to come.

In the meantime, I promised you a better look at those stars…

Go here.  Find the area you want to zoom on.  Click the little icon at the bottom right to make it full screen.  Keep zooming.  Wipe drool from mouth.

Hope you have superbroadband!

A Leonid To Remember

7 12 2009

Yes!  I just got permission from the owner, Mikiya Sato, to post this incredible image he took of a Leonid here on my blog for you, my awesome readers.

Okay, now click on it to see it in better resolution.

I know, right!?!?  Wow!

But that’s not all…  if you click here, you’ll see a gorgeous flash sequence of the event plus images of the expanding vapor cloud over the following 10 minutes.

Viewing this makes me excited enough to set up my laptop and digital camera to capture meteor images myself, just to see if I can.  Unfortunately, right now there’s a construction project going on east of my house which is going to completely wash out the eastern horizon for the next several months.  But it does give me some ideas for the future.