Walkabout the Galaxy

I’ve been on sabbatical this past academic year, and while I didn’t plan to create a podcast at the start of the year, at some point along the way the idea of doing one with my friends and colleagues Addie Dove and Ashley Kehoe crept into my head. The main inspiration came from our regular coffee break “walkabouts” the UCF campus where the conversations were quick, fun, and stimulating. Yes, that’s what she said, and that’s the idea of Walkabout the Galaxy: astronomy news with a complete lack of respect for protocol. We are now available for subscription on iTunes: search for “Walkabout the Galaxy” or click here. We also have a website, and hopefully I will soon figure out how to put a subscription feed there as well. Episodes will be 20-25 minutes and we will be publishing one every 10-14 days. The first two, probably a bit rough around the edges, are available now. The awesome artwork is courtesy of Justin Bartel and the cool space music was composed by Richard Jerousek.

High-Efficiency A/Cs Really Do Save Energy

We upgraded our A/C to a 15 SEER unit at the start of this summer. The graph shows temperatures and our energy usage for the last two years. Note first the close anticorrelation between temperature and energy use in the winter and the close correlation in the summer. This summer, with the new A/C, our energy use dropped by an average of about 300 kW-hours per month, from over 1500 kW-hours to about 1150 kW-hours.

The light blue bars show our energy use this year. Our new A/C was installed at the start of this summer.

The light blue bars show our energy use this year. Our new A/C was installed at the start of this summer.


Our poodle puppy is full of manic energy in the evening. One consequence of this is that I have not been to a movie in ages, and hence the long break in posts to the blog. But, I’m suffering movie withdrawal so hopefully I’ll be back in the theaters soon.

An Obama Decision I Absolutely Hate

The announcement today by President Obama to direct federal agencies to begin opening vast tracts of offshore areas for oil exploration is exceedingly disappointing. The amount of oil: up to three years at current rates of consumption and two years worth of natural gas. Whoop-de-freaking-doo. The damage to the environment will last for decades, if it’s not irreversible. All that to postpone dealing with our oil problem by 2-3 years.

Shadow Reveals Moonlet in Saturn’s B Ring

Saturn’s rings are nearly edge-on to the Sun now, so that small features in the rings that would otherwise be invisible are revealed by the lengthy shadows they cast. A striking discovery was reported today by the Cassini imaging team of a shadow cast by a moonlet within Saturn’s dense B ring. The length of the shadow provides an unambiguous measurement of the size of this object at about 400 m in diameter. This is about 100 times larger than the largest typical ring particle, and about one-tenth the size of the smallest moons observed at Saturn. Because it resides within the rings, its existence may suggest that some form of limited accretion is occurring within the rings, or that it is a collisional shard of a larger moon. Either way, it and other objects like it that are being discovered in Cassini data hold valuable clues to the origin of the rings.

NASA/JPL/SSI image PIA 11665

Image: NASA/JPL/SSI. Image PIA 11665.

This image shows a small bright object in the outer portion of Saturn’s B Ring casting a shadow on the ring. The length of the shadow indicates the size of the moonlet is ~400 m across. See the imaging team’s web site at www.ciclops.org for more details.

Epimetheus and a Blog Upgrade

Okay, first go-round with upgrading the blog didn’t go very smoothly, but the good folks at eboundhost.com got the blog upgraded to WordPress 2.3.2. This means I should be able to have the picture of Saturn’s moon Epimetheus appear in a “lightbox” using the lightbox plugin. Let’s see. Clicking on the picture should blow it up.
Cassini spies Epimetheus
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Hooray! It worked! Mostly, anyway. Still some issues on my end with the upload, but still pretty cool.

I Am Legend

I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of this movie which features another fine performance by Will Smith and an impressive rendering of a post-apocalyptic Manhattan. And I can let slide my standard zombie complaint that applies to this movie as well as every other zombie movie I’ve seen: if they’re so bestial and so damn hungry, why don’t they eat each other? Zombie meat not good enough for them? Anyway, I was ultimately disappointed by the ending which had an overtly anti-science theme and an implied anti-evolution message while having a savior appear because God sent her. Smith’s ultimate act also seemed totally unnecessary. Nothing was gained by him not getting in the safe with Anna and Ethan.


So. Beowulf, the medieval epic poem written in a precursor to English in the 10th century has been brought to the screen by Robert Zemeckis with a cutting-edge technology. Eschewing the combination of the live action and computer generated imagery that marks most science fiction and fantasy movies these days, Zemeckis uses the motion capture technique first showcased in Final Fantasy and The Polar Express where actors performances are captured, digitized, and repainted in the purely digital realm of the rest of the movie. The juxtaposition of 21st century moviemaking technology against a 10th century poem is not as odd as it might seem given the fantastical nature Beowulf’s exploits in the poem. Beowulf’s epic battles against sea monsters and destruction of the creature Grendel defy realistic depiction. But then again, so does The Lord of the Rings, and they did pretty well using real actors. The most interesting aspect to me of the motion-capture animated actors in Beowulf is how immediately obvious it is that they are not images of real people. If you look at a still frame image of Beowulf, it is difficult if not impossible to identify any particular aspect of the images of the people that is not a perfect representation of a human. However, the faces are clearly not human faces. It says something about the remarkable ability of the human mind to identify real human faces and not be fooled by what appear to be perfect simulacra. The characters move jerkily and their contact with each other and with props does not have the heft of real people. I find it distracting and prefer to see actors rather than digital conversions of their performances.

So, after all that, how is the movie? It’s entertaining and has a lot of cool-looking stuff, though it’s not emotionally engaging at all.

Arrived in Orlando

Here we are, at the Panera in Orlando near UCF checking e-mail because our DSL modem got fried by the daily lightning storm within the first hour. Another should arrive tomorrow. The weekend was spent unpacking a tiny fraction of an unreasonably large number of boxes. Movie reviews of Live Free or Die Hard (liked it: a guilty pleasure), Ratatouille (liked it surprisingly much), and Transformers (um, whatever) coming shortly. Unfortunately too many things to do with unpacking and with finishing a proposal due this Thursday to post much more at the moment. I feel like we’re just now getting plugged back into the world after two weeks in a strange sort of limbo.

The Big Move

Today is the first day of our last week in Boulder before making the cross-country trek to Orlando for my new job at the University of Central Florida’s Physics Department. With two dogs and a cat making the trip with us, we’re going on the road. Internet connectivity may be sparse for the next 10-12 days.