Tag Archives: prettypictures


11 Oct

I know I shouldn’t play favorites. And I also know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize spacecraft to the extent that I probably do. But despite all of that, before I got a chance to see Atlantis up close this summer, Endeavour was always my favorite of the orbiters.

I’m not sure why. It could be because it was the baby orbiter — only a little younger than me. It could be the fact that it uses the British spelling of the word. It could be the name itself — along with Discovery and Voyager, it’s one of the best purely descriptive names (that is, not named for a scientist or a character in mythology).

According to NASA’s lovely summary of Endeavour’s history,

Endeavour was named after a ship chartered to traverse the South Pacific in 1768 and captained by 18th century British explorer James Cook, an experienced seaman, navigator and amateur astronomer. He commanded a crew of 93 men, including 11 scientists and artists.
Cook’s main objective, tasked by the British Admiralty and the Royal Society, was to observe the Transit of Venus at Tahiti. This reading enabled astronomers to find the distance of the Sun from the Earth, which then could be used as a unit of measurement in calculating the parameters of the universe.
Cook’s achievements on Endeavour were numerous, including the accurate charting of New Zealand and Australia and successfully navigating the Great Barrier Reef. Thousands of new plant specimens and animal species were observed and illustrated on this maiden voyage. Cook also established the usefulness of including scientists on voyages of exploration.”

A painting of the HMS Endeavour -- which reminds me that there were painters at the STS-135 launch. I wonder how their work turned out? Would love to see the final products.

I think all of that’s kind of fantastic. Because of course scientists are useful. I am always a fan of stories dealing with the gradual discovery of things that seem painfully obvious now (like how doctors should wash their hands between patients?).

My recent habit of rooftop stargazing has also made me wonder about the earliest astronomers. What would I have concluded, without any of my modern knowledge, about the changes in the Moon from night to night? About the fact that planets don’t flicker? I mean, no wonder people in the past thought any crazy thing they thought about the stars. I am pretty consistently glad that modern society has figured this all out for me, so that I can focus on things like the brain.

(Feel free to picture, here, someone 300 years in the future thinking to herself, “I’ve been wondering about the earliest neuroscientists. What would I have concluded, without any of my modern knowledge, about the problem of consciousness? No wonder people in the past thought….”)

Every little bit helps, and it sounds like the earlier Endeavour did more than a little bit to shape our earliest true understanding of the universe. Here, though, is the Endeavour we’re gathering to commemorate today, in what is, for my money, one of the most beautiful images in all of history.

Just, wow. (Image from NASA)

Three Months

8 Oct

Am I going to do an “X Months Since STS-135” post every month for the rest of my life? Probably not. I suspect it will be something like measuring the age of a child in months until it reaches a year or so. But for now, it seems important.

I’m really good at marking milestones. In fact, it may be my one true talent in life. I recently fell in love with this website: Nerdiversary.com. Besides being the three-month anniversary of the final shuttle lunch, today marked the 8,000th day since my birth. I am nearing 12 Martian years. On the other hand, I won’t be 2 Jovian years until 2013.

Jupiter has been on my mind a lot lately, since it’s been so bright in the sky. It looks so stable from here — notwithstanding the actual state of its surface — as if it has always been there, and will always be, no matter what is happening here on Earth.

I went down to the beach today, and was reminded that when I was young and in love with the idea of moving out to the West Coast from the ocean-less middle of the country, I felt the same way about the ocean that I feel about space today. There are, of course, clear parallels between early explorers crossing the sea and modern explorers pushing against the edges of outer space.

The shores of the literal ocean.

“We embarked on our journey to the stars with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and in each generation asked anew with undiminished wonder: What are the stars? Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” — Carl Sagan, Cosmos

The shores of the cosmic ocean (in this case, Jupiter above Los Angeles).

Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part III: Crafty

14 Sep

What’s the world of geekery without the commitment that comes from making things by hand? You have to find just the right project — maybe it should be subtle enough that you can show it off in public, but obvious enough that your fellow geeks will get it. Or maybe it should be so outrageously nerdy that it will earn you stares from the normals. Either way, there’s something wonderful about the overlap between nerdiness and craftiness.

I also really like having something that I can work on while watching movies or television, so I don’t feel like I’m wasting time — it’s gotten to the point where I can’t simply sit and watch a show without doing something else at the same time — preferably something crafty.

I made this, and got it signed by astronauts at #NASATweetup. Actual astronauts!

I learned to knit in high school, but only got really into it when I realized all the really clever things I could make.

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Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part II: Brains

13 Sep

Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t like zombies, for the same reason I don’t like vampires — because I get distracted trying to piece together a way in which they could make any biological sense, thus ruining any fictional, escapist, or allegorical content of whatever it is I’m looking at.

So, this post is about the other kind of brains: the real kind, the kind that don’t provide sustenance to the undead (somehow) — in short, the cool kind.

There’s a lot to say about the brain, and I have a little bit more knowledge about neuroscience than I do about rocket science. But the #speakgeek concept is all about the joy of loving nerdy things, and there are few topics in neuroscience that induce more nerdy glee than the concept of the brainbow.

Take that, Hubble!

Continue reading

Proteins Walking

24 Aug

This semester, I’m finally taking a course in neurobiology. I have loved my general biology classes (seriously, the kidneys and the immune system are both beyond cool, and I would happily study either one if I weren’t already so emotionally invested in neuroscience), but I’m glad to finally get into the really interesting, specific stuff.

Really, the only problem with this class is that when I tell people about it, they blink at the word “neurobiology.” It’s a weirdly common reaction–and I try to take it as a reaction to the lack of neuroscientists in the general population rather than as a reflection on me, personally.

Anyway, the first few lectures have mostly been review, but I just thought I’d share something cool about neurons. First of all, neurons can be as small as your average cell, but they can also be over a meter long in humans — think the neuron that leaves your spinal cord and signals the muscles in your big toe to move — that’s all one long neuron, which averages about a meter in length in adults. Even in the smallest neurons, proteins and neurotransmitters must be synthesized in the cell body, and transported throughout the cell to where they are needed.

This video shows how kinesins move down microtubules, which extend all the way down from the cell body (the blobby part with the nucleus in your stereotyped neuron diagram) to the end of the axon (the long projection from the cell body that sends signals on to the next neuron or cell in the signaling pathway).

Kinesins move from the cell body (soma) to the end of the axon (nerve terminal). Dyneins, on the other hand, carry things from the axon terminal back up to the soma — so, for instance, worn-out parts that need to be degraded.

I love its cartoonishness. The two “feet” really do walk down the microtubules like that (of course, even in the largest neurons, this is all two tiny to see in such detail, and the colors are not so…  well, colorful). The stalk on top of the feet carries cargoes of neurotransmitters and other proteins that were produced in the body of the cell, down to the nerve terminal, where they are used or released as needed. Since proteins can’t be synthesized in the nerve terminals, things like neurotransmitters and membrane proteins constantly need to be replenished as they are released or worn out.

What’s really important to remember is the microscopic scale on which this all takes place. The kinesin protein is about 4 or 5 centimeters tall on my computer screen; in real life, a kinesin protein measures about 50 nanometers — a nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter, or one millionth of a millimeter. That means a kinesin molecule has to travel approximately 20,000,000 times its own length to travel from the base of your spinal cord to your big toe.  If (as Wikipedia says) the average American woman from 2003 to 2006 was 5 feet 4 inches tall, this would be the equivalent of walking 20,202.02 miles, which is nearly once around the equator.

Of course, this is based on sloppy cheap-calculator math, and is a pretty sketchy analogy anyway, because kinesin molecules don’t have legs, and “walking” cargo from one end of the cell to another is their sole function.

Still here are these unimaginably tiny yet incredibly complex structures walking down meters of microtubules in axons, just so you can move your big toe — or do anything at all, like, say, be a sentient being. Pretty neat.

Life After the Shuttle

13 Aug

The Atlantic once again has a great photo essay, this time on the future of NASA. It doesn’t really contain anything new, but it’s a very convenient collection of things that have been going on in the recent past and will be going on in the immediate future. Here’s the link.

Picture #24

Pictures like #24, of the surface of Mars, sometimes strike me as incredibly strange:  this is a real planet, with an actual surface, that one (I) could theoretically walk on. For a long time, my desktop background was a NASA image of a sunset on Mars. I have a poor sense of distance, along with a terrible sense of direction, so, on a purely intuitive, illogical level, it seems no more unreasonable to my brain to imagine walking on Mars than it does to imagine walking in the Rocket Garden at Kennedy Space Center after a two-hour flight.

Sunset on mars, via NASA.

There are also a few Cassini images, an awesome picture of the James Webb Space Telescope, and many more. Definitely worth a look, especially if you still need convincing that a) NASA is not “over” with the end of the Shuttle program, or b) the JWST deserves saving.

And It Doesn’t End

12 Jul

A very poor screenshot of about a 3-inch screen on slow Starbucks wifi. But still a picture from SPACE.

I finally made it back from Florida (weird, weird, wonderful Florida) at about 10:00 on Sunday night.  I tried to go to sleep immediately, since I had work on Monday morning.  That almost worked well.

Until I realized:  I actually spoke to three people who had been in space.  Just talked to them like this was a normal thing that actually happened to people.  (With no more than my usual starstruck awkwardness.)

Then, Monday morning, still averaging about 4 hours of sleep per night over the past week, I drove downtown and sang along to Marian Call on my iPod.  And grinned wide enough that people on the Kennedy who happened to see the girl in the blue Element with the FSM sticker and the venti caramel macchiato probably feared for their safety.  Probably.

The thing is, I don’t think I will ever fully get over what I’ve experienced in the past week.  And that’s the best part about it.

Because I was going into space withdrawals by about Friday night, I knew I would have to watch the live stream of today’s spacewalk (EVA, extra-vehicular activity).  Of course, our power went out yesterday after about an hour of rain.

This is real rain, Chicago and/or Comcast.

(Damn it, Chicago, we had storms worse than that for half a day, and then launched a shuttle like it was no big deal.  You have an hour of storms and we lose power for going on 27 hours.  I guess everyone can’t be as efficient as NASA….)

So, as you can see from the picture at the top of this post, I’m watching the EVA on my laptop at Starbucks.  Where I walked this morning, due to my lack of car.  It took about half an hour.  Uphill both ways.

It’s amazing to me that I couldn’t dry my hair this morning, but am still currently watching a live feed of a spacewalk happening over 200 miles above the surface of my planet.  Beautiful.

This still isn’t my final wrap-up post, because I know I’ll probably tear up and laugh while writing that one, and, well, I’m in a Starbucks.  More to come when our power comes back on.

For now, I’m just glad to report that the feeling of the launch doesn’t end.

Hello up there!