Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Crisis at the Historic Lick Observatory

Lick Observatory, which went into operation in 1888 and was the first mountain-top observatory, is threatened by the budget axe at the University of California. The University President's Office has said that, by 2017-18, it will have to close the still-active observatory (which played a key role in the discovery of the acceleration of the universe, an observation that won the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics.)

You can read the full story in the alumni magazine for the U. of California:

But those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area next week can hear Prof. Alex Filippenko, the President of the Lick Observatory Council, give a free public talk about the latest situation (and what is being discovered at Lick). The talk is Wednesday evening, Feb. 26th, at 7 pm in the Smithwick Theater at Foothill College in Los Altos.

It's part of the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture Series, which I have had the pleasure of organizing and moderating for the last 14 years. For more information about the talk and the speaker, and for directions, see:

From its early discovery of the fifth moon of Jupiter's to the recent findings of planets orbiting other stars, the Lick Observatory has a rich history of astronomical work. Plus, it's a premier educational facility, training young astronomers and welcoming tens of thousands of visitors to its spectacular site.

If you don't live in the area, but would like to know more or would like to help, check out the "Save Lick" website:

(The attached photo, taken by Rick Baldridge of the Peninsula Astronomical Society, shows Lick's oldest building in front of the rising full moon.)

I have a special fondness for the Lick Observatory because its first director helped ound the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, where I was the executive director for 14 years.  Plus it's a Bay Area treasure, and its closing would be a tremendous loss for Bay Area astronomy.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Black Hole Research is One Key Reason You Have a Web Browser

Today, astrophysicist Larry Smarr (U of California, San Diego) received the "Golden Goose Award" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The award was conceived to honor scientific research which seems, at first, to have little practical value, but turns out to have a major effect on human life or society. 

(The Golden Goose Award is meant to contrast with the old "Golden Fleece" award, which a former Senator used to give out willy nilly to research he couldn't understand or appreciate.)

In the 1980's, Dr. Smarr and his group were investigating black holes, places where the complete collapse of a dying star has created a warp in the fabric of space and time. Such bizarre star corpses were predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity, but only reliably discovered in the 1970's. Calculating exactly how the messy collapse of one spinning star (or the collision of two black holes) would affect and change space and time nearby was a real challenge, and required the use of far bigger supercomputers than were available to academics like Smarr at the time.

Dr. Smarr proposed to the National Science Foundation that the US should create a civilian center for super-computing to crack really hard problems like his. When the center was created (at the University of Illinois), Smarr became its director. With really good computers, scientists needed software to take best advantage of them. Two members of his software team (Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina) created a piece of software in 1993 called MOSAIC, which was an easy-to-use way of searching and communicating with the world wide web.

MOSAIC was the first web browser and the browsers you now use to read my Facebook post are its descendants (and still use many of its features.) It was only when browsers made it easy for the average person to get involved with the Web that the Web took off and the personal computer revolution began its modern acceleration. And to think it wouldn't have happened if an astrophysicist hadn't been itching to know the details of the neighborhood of a black hole or two.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Fresh Crater Seen on Mars

The solar system is a violent place, with lots of hitting going on. Small chunks of rock and ice (left over from the formation of the planets) continue to move around the Sun and among its many worlds. When a chunk hits a planet, the pull of the planet's gravity brings the chunk in so fast, it explodes on impact, carving out a nice round crater.

We have several spacecraft orbiting and monitoring the planet Mars from above. One of them, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, recently showed astronomers that a fresh crater about 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter had formed near Mars' equator sometime between 2010 and 2012. In the enhanced-color view I am sharing here, the crater looks blue because the explosion has removed a lot of the red surface dust that makes Mars the "red planet."

Careful studies of this beautiful picture have shown that the explosion of the incoming rock fragment threw material outward on Mars for more than 9 miles in all directions. You can see the magnificent dark rays of explosive material that scarred the surface when the blast happened.

New craters are being made by such impacts pretty regularly on Mars and other worlds, but it's nice to get such a detailed and recent picture from the so-called HI-RISE camera in orbit -- one of our most sophisticated instruments observing Mars.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

An Interview with the Father of the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence

In 2012, during a weekend astronomy event (called SETICon II), I had the pleasure and privilege of doing a 45-minute on-stage interview with Frank Drake, the distinguished astronomer who did the first scientific experiment searching for evidence of intelligent life among the stars. The interview was videotaped at the time, but not released.

Now, to celebrate the beginning of the 30th year of the SETI Institute (the organization engaged in continuing that search), they have released the interview on YouTube and you can see it at:

Dr. Drake was the first President of the SETI Institute, and I have been a board member there since the beginning. We discuss both his career and his current thinking about the search, including his current view of the Drake Equation (a way of estimating the chances of intelligent life out there). He also reflects on a number of modern developments, including the discovery of numerous planets orbiting other stars and novel ways of searching for extra-terrestrial civilizations.

For more about the non-profit Institute, you can explore their web site at: