Sunday, October 31, 2010


Halloween is today.

What most people don't realize is that Halloween has its roots in ancient astronomy.  Halloween is a memory of pagan celebrations of a cross-quarter day - the approximate half-way point between the Autumnal Equinox on September 22 and the winter solstice on December 21 (the actual half-way point is November 7).  It's part of the "Wheel of the Year" of two solstices, two equinoxes, and four cross-quarter days leading to 8 traditional pre-Christian holidays based on tilt of the Earth and its revolutions around the Sun.

As with many pagan holidays Halloween - traditionally called Samhain (pronounced "sow-en") - was overprinted with Christian holidays as Christianity moved into formerly pagan areas (e.g. Yule became Christmas and Ostara became Easter).

If you're Catholic, you may be familiar with All Saint's Day on November 1.  Being once known as All Hallows Day refering to its sacred nature (like "hallowed be thy name" in the King James English version of the Lord's Prayer).  Halloween is simply a contraction of All Hallows Eve.

Samhain was originally the last of the three autumn harvest festivals (the cross-quarter day Lughnasadh or Lammas in August being the first and autumnal equinox or Mabon being the second).  It was a time to remember and honor the dead as we move into the dark half of the year (winter) - it was also thought that the veil between this world and the next was thinnest at this time of year (hence the modern association of Halloween with spirits and ghosts).  Samhain (which means "summer's end" in Old Irish) was traditionally the start of the New Year.

Being too old to trick or treat, I celebrated by attending a bonfire last night.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mount Merapi

Haven't posted most of the week since I've been overwhelmingly busy (half-crazed even) with work (not all of it for my job).

One of the things that happened this past week was the eruption of Mount Merapi (Gunung Merapi or "Mountain of Fire") in Indonesia.  It's one of the most active volcanoes on the island of Java so it's not particularly a surprise.

Just prior to the eruption, the government, in consultation with seismologists, raised the alert to the highest level and urged villagers living on the slopes of the volcano to evacuate.  Many did but some listened to an 83-year-old man named Maridjan - the spiritual "Keeper of Merapi."  For the past 30+ years, Maridjan appeased the volcano by tossing offerings of chickens, rice, and flowers into the crater.  I guess the spirit of Merapi was sick of chicken & rice for dinner since Maridjan and a number of his followers died for this foolishness.  When seismologists are worried about a volcano, leave.

Anyway, the initial eruption of the volcano was explosive but now seems to have settled down a little bit with lava flows seen near the summit.  This may mean that there was only a relatively small plug blocking the neck, building up gas pressure, and now released.  While the lava flows are not good for locals in the area, they are a lot better than violent pyroclastic explosions.  While there was a large earthquake (and some large aftershocks) the day before the earthquake, the two are unlikely to be related (other than the fact that Indonesia is a tectonically active place). 

What's going on there is illustrated below:

To the left would be the Indian Ocean south of the Indonesian island of Java (see map above).  The seafloor of this tectonic plate is moving toward the north at about 6 cm/yr, diving down into a seafloor trench, and sliding under Java.  As the plate subducts, frictional "stick-slip" movement causes frequent earthquakes and melting occurs at depth with magma rising up to feed volcanoes like Merapi.

As long as this plate tectonic configuration exists, Java will be subject to large earthquakes and violent volcanic eruptions.  That's the cost of living above a subduction zone  Feeding chicken and rice to volcano gods won't help.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I love my job

I had two longish chapters to review for a publisher and it was a beautiful, unseasonably warm day.   So I left work at 2:30, came home and changed, and then drove over to a trailhead at the base of the Shawangunk Ridge.  Hiked up to a cliff overlooking the fall colors of the Rondout Valley and Catskills and sat, just me and a large vocal raven, and read the chapters there instead of in my office.  I was far less distracted, relaxed a bit, and got some exercise and fresh air.  Not bad.

Our Strange Solar System

We used to think the solar system formed in a nice orderly way.  The inner or rocky planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, then the asteroid belt, and the outer or gas giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune all accreted from an initial disk of gas and dust some 4.6 billion years ago.

Turns our we may have been completely wrong.  There were problems with our old view of the solar system - Uranus and Neptune are too big and Mars is too small given their locations.  No one really understands the formation of the asteroid belt.  New computer models, however, bolstered by the discover of hundreds of exoplanets orbiting other stars over the past few years, cause some astronomers to believe they have the answer  They claim that the early solar system was a much more dynamic place planets bouncing around a bit until they finally settled into their present orbits.

These models show Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune forming much more closely together between 5-12 A.U. from the Sun (1 A.U. or Astronomical Unit is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun, about 93 million miles).  Jupiter and Saturn were unstable, however, and got into a gravitational shoving match which eventually ejected Uranus and Neptune out to 20 A.U. and 30 A.U. respectively.  That's why Uranus and Neptune are too big for where they are - they didn't form there!

Jupiter and Saturn meanwhile became coupled in a 3:2 resonance (Jupiter completed 3 orbits for every 2 by Saturn) and together they moved inward toward the Sun eventually reaching a distance of 1.5 A.U. (where Mars is now).  Jupiter would likely have went further into the Sun if not braked by Saturn's mass to which it was coupled.  This inward movement compressed the disk of rocky planetesimals that was later to accrete the four inner planets.  That's why Mars is too small for its position it formed further in from the compressed planetary disk and then migrated outward with the rocky, iron-rich planetesimals that formed the S-type asteroids.

Then Jupiter and Saturn migrated back out they kicked water and carbon-rich planetesimals into the outer asteroid belt to become the C-type asteroids.  Many of these bodied, kicked further inward, possibly supplied Earth with much of its initial water through collisions.  In addition, the collision of the early Earth with a Mars-size impactor formed the Moon.

While this all sounds crazy, it's being proposed by serious planetary scientists, is consistent with observations and the laws of physics, and the models work.  It also fits into what we see with many of the exoplanets of weird systems where massive gas giant planet are orbiting very close to their stars.  Given slightly different starting condition, our solar system may well have ended up like that as well.

Read more about it at The "New, Improved" Solar System over at Sky & Telescope.

One disturbing implication of this research is that "nice" solar systems like we have may be very rare in the universe which, of course, means life as we know it may be rare too.  This will be interesting to follow and see if it hold up to further scrutiny.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Family Mole Night

Friday, my wife and I took our two children (both 9 years old) to SUNY New Paltz where the chemistry department had Family Mole Night. Professor Dan Freedman and students from the chemistry club ran a number of events in three different rooms to introduce kids to chemistry.

Kids got a goodie bag with stuff from the American Chemical Society (ACS) including some periodic table cards, a tee-shirt, a little stuffed animal, etc.  They also got a helium balloon.

In one lab, they were cooking sugar to make sugar glass similar to what they use in the movies when people get thrown through a window.  Kids were able to stir the solution on a hot plate while measuring its temperature with a probe and add food coloring.  The other demonstration in the lab was called artificial snow - it was sodium polyacrylate, a substance that absorbs 200-300 times its weight in water (it's used in diapers).  Kids had fun squirting water into a dish of it to make fake snow.

In another lab, they saw how you can make pH paper by soaking it in cabbage juice.  Then the drew on the paper with lemon juice, windex, bicarbonate, vinegar, etc. to see if they were acid (reddish color) or base (bluish color).  The other demonstration was making ink with tea and ferrous sulfate (they called it "magic ink" and kids wrote with it using feather quills).

The final demonstration was making ice cream with milk, cream, sugar, vanilla, and liquid nitrogen.  The liquid nitrogen was added to the mix, kids stirred it, and as the nitrogen sublimated away it quick froze the mixture into ice cream.

Thanks to the New Paltz chemistry department for doing this!  I think the biggest educational part of this event for my kids is seeing what real chemistry labs look like (not like the gleaming, spotless labs you see on TV), that chemists are not mad scientists, they look like everyone else, and that there are girls who study chemistry and do science (good for my daughter to see).

Here's my wife's take on the event from her blog.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Happy Creation Day!

Saw this post over at Phyrangula.  I  too forgot today (October 23) was the date Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656), Primate of All Ireland set as the day of creation in the Bible in 4,004 BCE.  Happy 6013th birthday Earth (actually 4,600,000,000 years old, but what's a six orders of magnitude between friends?).

Space Balloon!

A Brooklyn father and son launched a balloon locally near Newburgh which returned some amazing pictures before it landed a few miles to the north near Rifton (not too far from where I live).

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Very cool, I'd love to try this sometime.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Annoyances of the week

Head colds (I should alway sanitize my hands after grading labs!) that make my head feel like it's going to explode (no, I don't take sick days, they just wind up being more work for me when I return to school).

Students who ruin things for future students.  During a midterm exam this week, a student asks to use the bathroom.  Being a reasonable sort, I say sure.  On the way back down the hall, after a rather long break, I see said student putting their fancy cell phone back into their pocket.  Congratulations - now no one will be able to use the bathroom during an exam.  Students wonder why professors get strict and mean - every policy in my classroom was inspired by a student acting poorly.

Students who come to the faculty office area and push open closed office doors without knocking or try to peer into windows in doors when their knocks aren't answered (like the professor's hiding under the desk or something and they can catch them).  It's just rude behavior.

Students who address me as "Hey" or "Dude" or "Schimmrs" (my email address!).  I take the effort to learn all of my student's names, it's not too much to ask they learn mine (and I even let them call me Steve if they're an especially good student or an older student).  They can call me "dude" if the see me in a bar downtown but not in the freakin classroom.

Faculty who don't do shit and think their only duty at a community college is teaching their classes.  No.  Part of the job of being a professor anywhere is a certain amount of bureaucratic paperwork, submitting grades on time, syllabus revision, program and course reviews, committee work, etc.  When lazy slackers don't do it, it simply makes more work for everyone else.  What really pisses me off is that they usually get away with it thus ruining morale for everyone.

Being paid a barely-living wage and pondering bankruptcy (I'm literally 1 paycheck away from financial ruin) in a broke, high-tax state.  I love teaching, think I'm good at it, but local elementary school teachers earn $30K-$40K a year more than we do teaching college when you compare median salaries.  And we went to school longer (which typically means we've accumulated more debt as well).  That really pisses me off, especially given the fact that students from the local school districts come in here practically illiterate.

Stupid politicians.  The debate for governor of New York was a circus.  The lunatic Jimmy McMillan of "The Rent is Too Damn High" party (party of one, I think).  He claims that, if elected, he'll do some magical thing that will lower everyone's rent (won't help me since I own a house so I'll pass).  Kristin Davis, the former prostitute and madam (claims to have had ex-governor Elliot Spitzer as a client), running on the "Anti-Prohibition Party" ticket in favor of legal pot, gambling, and paid sex. She called career politicians the "biggest whores in the state" which was pretty funny.  Then there's the perennial losers from the Green Party and the Libertarian Party whom I've forgotten (and so will the voters).  Carl Paladino of the Republican Party who was an incredibly poor public speaker (I was listening on NPR so just heard their voices) and apparently has a strange obsession with gay men in speedos and thinks gays are "icky".  This "family" values candidate apparently fathered a child with his girlfriend while still married.  Democrat Andrew Cuomo gave the best performance during the debate (not hard, I think I could have beaten most of them in a debate too).  I just think Cuomo, who's definitely going to win being tens of points ahead of Paladino in the polls, will simply be more of the same - a career politician buddy-buddy with everyone else in the Albany cesspool.  The whole thing is just depressing.

Why are nerds unpopular

When we were in junior high school, my friend Rich and I made a map of the school lunch tables according to popularity. This was easy to do, because kids only ate lunch with others of about the same popularity. We graded them from A to E. A tables were full of football players and cheerleaders and so on. E tables contained the kids with mild cases of Down's Syndrome, what in the language of the time we called "retards."

I used to sit by myself (still do, many times), what's that say about me?

Anyway, continue reading this interesting essay...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

National Chemistry Week

This week (October 17-23, 2010) is National Chemistry Week.

Our family is celebrating by bringing our kids to a Family Mole Night at SUNY New Paltz this Friday (plus we're concentrating on chemistry in our homeschooling curriculum this year).

Check out this website for the Periodic Table of Videos.  They have short, interesting video clips for each element on the periodic table.  I'm working my way through one element at a time!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


The image below was taken during a field trip to the Adirondacks for my Geology of New York State course last spring.  It's a well-known rock unit called the Popple Hill Gneiss.

Gneiss (pronounced "nice") is a high-grade metamorphic rock - this means it formed from a preexisting rock at very high temperatures and pressures.  In this case, the preexisting rock was dacite - a type of silica-rich lava which once erupted from ancient volcanoes.  Between 1.3 and 1.1 billion years ago, rocks of the Adirondacks (and the rocks under all of New York State for that matter), formed during a massive mountain building event called the Grenville Orogeny ("orogeny" is from the Greek words for "mountain" oros and "origins" genesis).

During mountain building, light-colored granitic magma was injected through fractures forming the pink rock seen above.  After everything solidified, this entire unit was heavily folded and heated up high enough to remelt the quartz and feldspar (lowest melting points) of the igneous rock due to its being deep (over 12 miles down) in the core of the mountain belt.

This type of partially melted metamorphic rock, with its pretty swirling texture, is called a migmatite.

Here's a great wide-angle image of the entire outcrop along Route 58/812 near Hailsboro, NY.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

R.I.P. - Benoit Mandelbrot

Dr. Benoit Mandelbrot, the mathematician who coined the term "fractals", passed away at 85 a couple of days ago (New York Times story).  Mandelbrot didn't really discover fractals (or fractional dimensions), but he brought them to the attention of everyone and showed how they described many natural features such as coastlines (Mandelbrot, B. 1967. How Long is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension. Science 156: 3775: 636-638).  His book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1983, W. H. Freeman) brought fractals into the public eye (that's when I learned about them).

Basically, fractals are good for describing self-similar shapes which show complexity at all scales as you zoom in (like a coastline from space, an airplane, on foot, or with a microscope).  A fractal shape can have a finite area bounded by an infinitely long line.

The Mandelbrot set in the complex plane (click to enlarge)

When I first heard about Mandelbrot sets, back in college, I wrote a computer program to display and play around in them (before the web, even before PCs had windows, anyone remember DOS and Turbo Pascal?).  For such a complex figure (you can zoom in forever in any one area to see everchanging views) it's actually quite simple to iteratively calculate.

Here's a slow and deep (sounds dirty, doesn't it?) zoom into the Mandelbrot set.

I'm sure I'll post more about fractals in the future (when it's not 9:50 pm and I'm not so tired).

Friday, October 15, 2010

Stupid, stupid, stupid!!!

Oh my god, a UFO in the sky over Manhattan!

Watch this moron woman reporter for FoxNY News - pay special attention around 0:30 when they zoom in on FUCKING JUPITER AND THE FOUR GALILEAN MOONS!!!

Jupiter!  The bright object in the southeast I've posted about in the past and have had my observational astronomy students observe through  a telescope.

Jupiter!  The mysterious star with a "tail", and "two flashing lights" in a "broken pattern"?

Hey, bobble head, did it look like the this?

Was it in the southeast sky around 25-30° of altitude?  Did you seek out any advice other than the expert opinion of the local hot dog vendor?

It's not ignorance that pisses me off, we're all ignorant about lots of things, it's the chain of self-confident stupidity that reaches from the people on the street to the reporter to the editor to the producer of the so-called "news" organization whose idea of fact checking is their sense of personal incredulity.

As a society, we are officially dumb as fucking stumps.  What really pisses me off is that this idiotic reporter most likely makes more money than I do trying to educate people about the world around them (I guess that makes me the dumb one).  And people wonder why I'm cynical and pessimistic about our future.

Author photo?

So my publisher is finally going to get my book going on the geology of the Hudson Valley.  I submitted this over a year and a half ago to a regional press and they did warn me that it would be a while before they could publish it (and the economic downturn last year slowed down their production schedule).  They did call me last week, however, and are ready to get moving (they basically only do one book at a time).

I'm excited and all ten or so of you loyal blog readers will be the first to know when it becomes available.

I was thinking of the dust cover author photo...  What about this one?

Steven Schimmrich is a geologist outstanding in his field

Get it?  I'm out standing.  In my field (it's in front of my house).  I thought it was amusing.  To give credit, the idea came from here (I'm sure the book will have a picture of me on a rock).  I'm not sure the photo was worth it, I had to brush two ticks off me after taking it!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Oldest land plants?

The evolution of land plants had a huge impact on planet Earth.  Land plants irreversibly altered our climate, created soil, and set the stage for the movement of animals onto land.  Researchers (Rubinstein, et. al. 2010. Early Middle Ordovician evidence for land plants in Argentina (eastern Gondwana). New Phytologist 188: 365-369) recently discovered evidence of the oldest plant fossils known this far - cryptospores of liverwort-type plants from Argentina a bit over 470 million years old (473-471 Ma, the early Middle Ordovician Period).

Here's a BBC News article.

Back during this time, Argentina was in the eastern part of a southern supercontinent known as Gondwana (in yellow below) and the continents were barren places.

 Into this harsh environment, on the shores of the ancient freshwater streams, green algae evolved into liverwort-type plants.  Liverworts (Marchantiophyta) belong to a primitive group of plants called the bryophytes.  Unlike tracheophytes, the vascular plants dominant in our world today, bryophytes (like liverworts and the more familar mosses) lack vascular tissue to transport water and reproduce by spores. 

Reproduction cannot take place without the presence of water and they are thought to be the evolutionary bridge between aqueous green algae and true vascular plants.
The Argentian researchers discovered what they interpret to be cryptospores from five different genera of liverworts some 470 Ma.  This pushes back the age of these plants some 10 million years - not a lot, geologically, but interesting because five different genera shows a diversity implying an older history for these plants, certainly into the Early Ordovician and possibly back into the Cambrian Period.

Without these modest green plants, we would not be here today!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

National Fossil Day

October 13, is National Fossil Day.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Beautiful Hudson Valley

Scenes like this make me glad to live in the Hudson Valley.  The photo was taken Sunday, October 10 from Butterville Road near New Paltz and shows the Smiley Tower of Mohonk Mountain House on the Shawangunk Ridge above Brook Farm.

Click on image to view a larger version

Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus Day

Today's Columbus Day and I have the day off.  I have to wonder why?

First off, everyone knows (or should know) that Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) did not "discover" America - there were indigenous people already living here for thousands of years!

Nor was he likely the first European to visit the area (he never even set foot on the North American mainland) - the Norse had a settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland around1000 AD.

To be fair, however, Columbus began the era of sustained contact between the Old and New Worlds.  We even use the term Pre-Columbian to describe the New World prior to his arrival.

The problem with Columbus, and the reason why I don't feel he's deserving of a holiday, is the fact that he was not a nice guy - even by the far looser standards of his day.  To his credit, he was a self-educated and intelligent man - he was widely read and spoke several languages.  He was also ambitious and brave - there's no way one can do what he did without cojones.

It's also hard to blame Columbus for the diseases brought to the Americas by European contact.  It was mostly unintentional and Columbus and his men certainly weren't the only Europeans responsible for the epidemics of smallpox and other diseases that ravaged the Native Americans.

We can however, take him to task for his treatment of the Taino.  After his first contact with them, Columbus wrote in his log:

"They... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned.... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane.... They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

As Howard Zinn wrote, in  A People's History of the United States:

In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.  The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.
Due to disease and the unspeakable cruelties - torture, rape, slavery, and murder - visited upon the Taino, an estimated 90% of them died in a generation.  Columbus engaged in genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean.  A contemporary of Columbus, Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian, wrote: "Even those who loved him had to admit the atrocities that had taken place."  At one point, he was hauled back to Spain in chains because of his brutality as Governor of Hispaniola (and the Spaniards of the time weren't bleeding heart liberals - think of the Inquisition and Conquistadors!).

In addition to the decimation of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, Columbus's other enduring legacy was the initiation of the transatlantic slave trade.

Why we have a holiday honoring this man, I have no idea.  Some localities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day or Native American Day.  That I could support.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Comet Hartley 2

Comet Hartley 2 (officially 103P/Hartley) is a small comet in the sky right now which may brighten to naked-eye visibility (barely at magnitude 5) by the time of its closest approach on October 20.  It will easily be visible with binoculars if you know where to look.

At its closest approach to Earth on October 20, it will be some 11 million miles away (about 47 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon).  The comet will reach perihelion (peri = "around" and helios="Sun" - the closest approach to the Sun) on October 28.

The comet was discovered by Australian astronomer and comet hunter Malcolm Hartley in 1986.  In has an orbital period of 6.46 years.  It doesn't appear to have much of a tail in recent images, just a blue-green glow surrounding the cometary nucleus.

Tonight (October 10), the comet will be near h-Persei (h is eta) in the constellation of Perseus.  At 9:00 pm, this star will be in the northeast almost 40° above the horizon (if you extend your arm and make a fist, your fist held sideways will cover about 10° of the sky).  Note below that h-Persei (circled) is directly below the distinctive W-shaped constellation of Cassiopeia.  Scanning with binoculars in this region should reveal the faint glow of the comet.

If you plan on looking for the comet near closest approach on the 20th, wait until 11:00 pm or after before going out since it will be too low in the sky at 9:00 pm.  The 19th is probably best since it will be close to Capella, a bright, easy-to-find star.  At 11:00 pm on the 19th, Capella will be about 35° high in the northeastern sky (slightly east of northeast).  The comet should be a bit to the right of Capella.

Happy 10/10/10!

It's October 10, 2010 - Happy 10/10/10!

Not that it has any real meaning but if you need an excuse to relax and have a good time, other than it being a beautiful, sunny fall day here in NY, you can celebrate this calendrical coincidence.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Obligatory superficial post

I haven't posted since Wednesday and it's Friday night so I feel obligated.  I do have some things I want to write about but it's probably better to wait until tomorrow since I imbibed a couple of beers tonight (Sam Adams Octoberfest if you must know - and only a "few" pints). 

And, to top off this week from hell, I'm also getting a #$*@# cold (one major drawback of having little kids - they're walking petri dishes).

Beer!  Isn't that unprofessional Steve?

Um, actually, it's not.  Read this definition of a geologist (especially the subsection on geologists and alcohol).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fingers crossed

I'm teaching Observational Astronomy this semester on Thursday nights.  One of the main objectives of this course is to get outside and look at the sky, identify constellations, learn to use telescopes, etc.

Past three Thursdays in a row have been cloudy and rainy.  Tomorrow, however, looks good so I'm really psyched about getting out with the students.  Nothing better than standing outside at night under a starlit sky and looking around (even on our notoriously light-polluted campus).  A local author once wrote about our campus at night:

As I watched in horror, I also became aware of a strange glow in the sky. The sun had set, but a blood-red aura appeared across the fields, emanating from a site half a mile away. I knew that there was a commuter college somewhere over there, known as [edited out by me], and as the evening descended, the school's system of anticrime lights flared into phosphorescence. Atmospheric conditions stained the light red, and the college glowed like a Martian heliport.

A Place in the Country
Laura Shaine Cunningham

Awfully hard to do good astronomical observing at a Martian heliport but we manage!

By the way, if you haven't been outside to see Jupiter this past month, you're missing a great sight - it's the brightest thing in the southeastern sky.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Just a quick post today since I've been busy with work the entire day.

One of my favorite nerd videos:

If you don't know about Tiktaalik, and how we all have our inner fish, you really should read the book below - I highly recommend it.

Here's the link to Amazon.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Morning Glory

We planted morning glory seeds this year in front of our porch and they ran riotous growing all over our railings, enclosing the porch into a green room of vines, and even reaching the roof.  There are literally hundreds of flowers blooming even now into October and they've been supporting quite the population of butterflies and bees (the hummingbirds have moved on to warmer climes).

I was surprised to learn that there are over 1,000 species of flowers referred to as morning glories from a number of different genera.  They all belong to the taxonomic family Convolvulaceae. The family name Convolvulaceae comes from the Latin convolvere which means to wind - which is how morning glories grow up my porch, by winding their stems around and around the railing posts (it will be fun removing all of them soon).  If the plant didn't have such beautiful flowers, it would be considered an obnoxious weed.

Morning glory is also infamous for its hallucinogenic properties.  The seeds each contain about a microgram of a lysergic acid alkaloid called ergine (d-lysergic acid amide) similar to LSD.  Sources on the Internet claim anywhere from 25 to 500 seeds are needed for an LSD-like trip (different sites have different numbers - I'm assuming it depends on how you prepare it, the species of morning glory used, when the seeds are harvested, and the phase of the Moon for all I know).  I also have no idea if there's a lethal dose for morning glory seeds - I take no responsibility for anyone's actions in that regard.

Two species of morning glories, the tricolored Ipomoea violacea and the white-flowered Turbina corymbosa, were supposedly ingested in a tea-like infusion by Aztec priest/shamans in ancient Mexico (and still today by some indiginous tribes in Oaxaca).  Here's a link to more information - no assurances as to its accuracy.

Just a word of warning to those tempted to engage in risky home pharmacology - don't seek your high from the seed packets purchased in stores since they're often treated with bioaccumulating toxic chemicals like methyl mercury to retard mold - I'm waiting for our idiotic government to make us show ID to buy morning glory seeds like we now have to for Sudafed (that really solved the meth problem, didn't it?).

The above is why there are companies on the Internet that sell "organic" morning glory seeds - since some of the companies have names like Shaman's Garden, it's not too hard to figure out what people are doing with these seeds.

Anyway, back to my mundane, non-trippy world.  Here's a typical bloom (we have a few different colors going).  I love the pentameral (5-fold) symmetry.

Here are a couple of blooms Sunday (October 3) with a bee still gathering nectar (and transporting pollen from one flower to another).

The inside of a ripped open flower laying bare the sex organs of the plant.  The petals (5 fused together to form a funnel- or trumpet-shaped bloom) is called the corolla and the slightly hairy green leaves at the bottom (also 5 of them) are called the sepals or calyx.  Note the white pollen (plant's version of sperm) dusting the inside of the flower from the stamens (filaments with elongate anthers on top produce the pollen).

Seed pods of the morning glory after the flowers drop off.  Home to the spirits living in the seeds according to Mexican shamans.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

What day of the week?

Ever wondered what day of the week some event occurred (or will occur)? What day of the week were you born, for example? Here’s a formula to figure it out (this will only work for the modern Gregorian Calendar – dates after 1752 in the United States).

Let’s use July 4, 1776 as an example to illustrate the process.

First we need to calculate some variables:

d = Day of the month

m = Month number. Start in March with 3, April is 4, May is 5, up to December which is 12, January is 13, and February is 14 (this is to deal with leap years)

y = The year of the century (the last two digits of the year). If the date’s in January or February, they’re treated as the 13th and 14th month of the previous year so subtract 1 from this value (e.g. February 5, 2001 would have m=14 and y = 00).

c = The century (the first two digits of the year

For example, for July 4, 1776, the values are:

d = 4
m = 7
y = 76
c = 17

Then use the formula:

w = {(d) + [(m + 1) 26 / 10] + (y) + (y / 4) + (c / 4) – (2 c)} mod 7

A couple of notes. First, all of the division is integer division. This is where you divide the two numbers and only keep the integer part (the part of the number to the left of the decimal point) and throw away the decimal part. For example, (14 / 5) = 2 in integer division (it’s really 2.8 but we toss out the 0.8 part). For the above equation, there will be no decimals, just whole numbers (integers).

Another oddity is the mod 7. Mod refers to modulo and is the opposite of integer division. It’s division where you only keep the remainder. For (14 mod 5), it’s (14 / 5) which is 2 with 4 left over so the answer is 4.

Let’s run through this formula with my example numbers:

w = {(d) + [(m + 1) 26 / 10] + (y) + (y / 4) + (c / 4) – (2 c)} mod 7

Let’s insert my values for July 4, 1776

w = {(4) + [(7 + 1) 26 / 10] + (76) + (76/ 4) + (17/ 4) – [2 (17)]} mod 7

Add the (7+1) to get 8 and multiply by 26 in the 2nd term and multiply 2 by 17 in the 6th term

w = {(4) + (208 / 10) + (76) + (76 / 4) + (17 / 4) – (34)} mod 7

Do the division in the 2nd, 4th, and 5th terms. The 2nd term is 20.8 keeping the 20, the 4th is 19 even, and the 5th is 4.25 keeping the 4

w = {(4) + (20) + (76) + (19) + (4) – (34)} mod 7

Add the five terms and subtract the 6th

w = {89} mod 7

Divide 89 by 7 and only keep the remainder. It’s 12 (7 x 12 = 84) with 5 left over.

w = 5

The week number w corresponds to the day of the week with Saturday = 0, Sunday = 1, Monday = 2, all the way up to Friday = 6. So w = 5 is then Thursday.

Check to see if this is correct here.

Why does this method work?  There are a number of explanations on the web - here's one.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Another way to find phi

You might want to start by reading my Introduction to Fibonacci Numbers and Fibonacci Rectangles and Spirals post before reading this.

Consider the line above.  We'll start by drawing some line AC.  Then we'll divide that line by placing the B such that the following is true:

   AB is to BC as BC is to AC

We can write an equation to express this relationship as:

   AB/BC = BC/AC.

Let's suppose AB is 1 unit.  Could be 1 inch, 1 millimeter, 1 foot, whatever.  Let's then define BC = x.  Then AC = (1 + x).  Let's rewrite the equation now.

   AB/BC = BC/AC ==> 1 / x = x / (1 + x)

Algebraically rearrange:

   1 / x = x / (1 + x) ==> (1 + x) = x2 ==> x2 - x - 1

Do you remember basic algebra?  We need the quadratic equation to solve for x:

   ax2 + bx + c = 0  ==> x = [-b ± (b2 - 4ac)1/2] / 2a

Solving for x for x2 + x - 1 = 0 gives:

   x = [-b ± (b2 - 4ac)1/2] / 2a = [1 ± (-12 + 4)1/2] / 2 = [1 ± (5)1/2] / 2

The only positive solution is:

x = [1 + (5)1/2] / 2 = 1.6180339887498948482045868...

It's Phi (F) - the ratio of successive Fibonacci numbers!

This is why F is called the Golden Ratio.

Friday, October 1, 2010

But I NEED a C

It never fails.  Every semester, a student approaches me, typically at the point at which they're irrevocably failing the course, to tell me they "need" a C.  If they don't get that C, all kinds of dire things will happen to them - they'll get kicked out of school, lose their financial aid, be dropped from the sports team, won't be able to transfer to some other college, whatever.

We'll ignore the fact that no student ever faces those consequences because they fail one course.  At our community college, those are consequences that come from failing many courses over multiple semesters.  The attempted guilt trip simply doesn't work on me.

Now maybe I could also understand the plea for leniency in grading if my grading scheme were completely subjective and arbitrary, but it's not.  Here's my Physical Geology lab course grading scheme exactly as given in the syllabus handed out of the first day of class.

     36% - Midterm (18%) & Final (18%) Exams
     18% - Ten Course Assignments (2% for 9)
       5% - Saturday Field Trip
     30% - Twelve Lab Exercises (2.5% each)
       8% - Rock & Mineral Identification Quiz
       8% - Laboratory Final Exam

It adds up to 105% because the all-day Saturday field trip is extra credit (I can't force students to come on a Saturday and field trips are hugely important in geology classes - we have field trips during lab time too).

Anyway, I enter grades for each exam, lab, or assignment into a spreadsheet and it calculates the final grade based on the above percentages.

These students never come and argue their actual grades on the exams, labs, or assignments.  They just want extra points or for me to make up some alternative assignments for them to do for credit.   While I'm always willing to work with students who have a good, documented reason for problems during the semester (illness, death in the family, etc), I'm certainly not willing to do extra work myself (creating new bullshit assignments) because a student couldn't be bothered to do any of the original assignments and turn them in when due.

My attitude is that if the student "needed" a C, they should have come to class every time (instead of having a half-dozen absences), finished all of the assignments, and studied a bit more for exams (these are typically students who miserably fail exams where the class average is in the 70s or higher).

I just think it's unethical to "give" grades based on student's desires.  For this, I'm considered a hardass by some of my colleagues.