Much-delayed photos from GRAIL tweetup, part II

Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke twice during the GRAIL NASATweetup in September, once during the afternoon of lectures after our tour and once the next day, after the scrubbed launch attempt. Other speakers on Wednesday included Charlie Bolden, NASA administrator; Maria Zuber of MIT, the head scientist behind the GRAIL mission; Jim Adams, a planetary scientist at NASA; and Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame [Lt. Uhura], who–and this was a surprise to me–spent time recruiting female and minority astronauts in the 70s and 80s.

Tyson would talk all day if you let him, and if he were talking to you, you probably would. Very engaging speaker, and he interacts with the audience a lot more than other speakers (which is part of why he’s the only one I got pictures of on Wednesday–I also should have just turned on flash and set my camera to auto, but oh well). He was the only one who came into the audience, which gave us in the back a good chance to shoot photos…including one of him dragging an audience member out of his seat in illustration of a point about providing evidence for your claims… 😛

"Our sensory system is not only feeble, it deceives us. You cannot claim to understand the universe through sensory devices where half the time they're giving you the wrong information or allowing you to interpret it the wrong way."

"Drag the alien back with you!"

"We have to love the questions"

At the end of the talk on Thursday, Sept. 8, Tyson made the comment that scientists have to “love the questions themselves.” It’s a quote straight out of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I got really excited to hear him say it; it’s not that common for people to cross the boundary between art and science naturally, without making a fuss about it, and I’ve since seen a video in which he used it in another talk. I believe he knew the reference he was making, which is both very cool (scientist quoting poet) and very odd (Rilke goes on to say “do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you”). There may be ways of interpreting Rilke’s statement such that Tyson’s use of it doesn’t mean “don’t try to answer the scientific questions that seem very difficult,” but that tension is there. Yes, live the questions, as the poet said, but don’t let that stop you from seeking answers.


Denver Botanic Gardens

So…I’ve been rather absent from the blog. Seems like a lot of my posts start with that comment. I wanted to post about GRAIL months ago–by now, it’s 3/4 of the way along its roundabout journey to the moon (timewise). I do have a number of photos edited, but I have many, many more to work through. My busy-ness level spiked when my name was pulled to attend the tweetup and hasn’t gone down much at all (and doesn’t look like it will any time soon, either). I’d like to get more photos edited before I post them here.

Meanwhile, I visited the Denver Botanic Gardens for the first time last weekend, with some of my family. Here are a few photos I took there.

Funtimes with modern spam

Okay, this is too good not to post. I may have complained once or twice about the quality of spam comments or their miserable inability to persuade me that they were written, in a human language, by a sentient being, about something–anything–on this blog. Well, I still can’t say much for their intelligibility, but they’ve certainly gotten more entertaining. Tonight’s selection, copied error for error, comes from an unknown assailant with an IP address that tracks to lovely Kennesaw, Georgia*; I choose not to repeat his/her/its given screen name, for reasons you are welcome to imagine vividly:

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That’s right, friends, “I hump collection starred this article.” Revel, mes amis. Revel.

* This remark is not intended as an endorsement of the city of Kennesaw. I have never been there. For all I know it is a swamp, home perhaps to the third castle, which burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp.

Letter from an unabashed JWST apologist

This took a bit to write, but it is now written and sent to my representative in the House. It’s pretty long, I hope she doesn’t hate me for it. 😉 (Also, I hope that I don’t have to send it to my Senators!) Let me know if I’ve got anything wrong–I tried to be careful about my information, but this is the internet, after all.

Dear Representative                ,

I write to you with the hope of encouraging you to stand in support of one of the most important astronomical projects of this and recent decades, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). As you know, a subcommittee in the House of Representatives recently introduced—and today approved—a draft budget that would reduce NASA’s funding and zero out the JWST entirely.

While it is true that the JWST faces delays and cost overruns, these issues should not lead us to give up on the project. The Webb’s predecessor, Hubble Space Telescope, faced similar problems in its development, costing several times the original projected amount by its launch date in 1990, the launch itself being delayed by some seven years between project-related delays that pushed it to late 1986 and the Challenger disaster that delayed it even further.

But we did not give up on the Hubble, and it has paid us back for our persistence, lending to discoveries that have changed our understanding of the universe and solidified its position as an immense success. Among other things, the Hubble captured the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in excellent detail; gave us evidence that supermassive black holes lie at the centers of many galaxies; recorded the first visible-light image of a planet orbiting another star; refined our calculation of the Hubble constant, thus providing our most precise measurement of the age of the universe; and perhaps most surprisingly, gave us strong evidence that the expansion of the universe, far from slowing down, is accelerating, indicating the existence of dark energy—a force whose nature remains as yet a tantalizing and unanswered question.

Helix Nebula, HST, 2003

And the Hubble’s contributions have not been restricted to the esoteric sphere of astrophysicists. Through mediums such as the Space Telescope Science Institute, many of the most stunning images and discoveries of the Hubble have been released to the general public over the course of the telescope’s operation. These images are captivating, inspiring, iconic. Think of the “Eye of God,” the Helix Nebula, or of the Eagle Nebula’s so-called “Pillars of Creation.” They convey in the most direct way, not just the knowledge, but the beauty there is to be found in science.

Eagle Nebula, HST, 1995

The James Webb Space Telescope stands in line to continue and to expand the work of the Hubble, as Hubble—after more than 20 years—finally nears the end of its life. JWST has been identified as a top priority in both the 2000 and the 2010 decadal survey produced by the National Academy of Sciences. Equipped to observe primarily in infrared light, with a mirror more than two and a half times the size of the Hubble’s, and orbiting much farther from Earth, it will allow us to study objects both farther and fainter than the Hubble can observe, as well as viewing objects whose surrounding clouds of dust obscure them from Hubble’s view. The JWST will give us a clearer view of stars as they form, of the very early universe and the formation of the first galaxies, of planets beyond our solar system (even to the point of determining the chemical composition of their atmospheres), and likely, as with the Hubble’s evidence for dark energy, of phenomena at which we cannot yet even guess. And like the Hubble, it has the potential to inspire a new generation of potential scientists and researchers.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be central to astronomical research in the coming years and possibly decades. True, it is over cost and faces delays, but we can’t expect NASA to predict with great accuracy the full time and funding needed to design and build a piece of equipment the likes of which has never been built before, which is what Hubble was in its day and JWST is in ours. Even now, as noted in the American Astronomical Society’s statement of July 7, the major engineering hurdles have been overcome. The equipment is being built. It was recently announced that the mirrors are ready fully polished. We have come so far, so much progress has already been made, and the potential gains are so great that it would be a terrible waste to give up now.

Please, I implore you: Support science. Support NASA. Support the quest to understand our cosmos. Don’t let this project die before it has had the chance to truly live; please do not defund the James Webb Space Telescope.

I apologize for the length of this letter; and I thank you deeply for your attention.

Yours sincerely,

Denver, Colorado

* Note: My sources for this letter are primarily, for information on Hubble’s discoveries and the anticipated projects for JWST, and Wikipedia†, for information on HST’s delays and cost overruns. Plus the mentioned AAS statement.

† I know, shame on me. I did check the cost at launch on, and that disagreed with the Wiki figure, so I did not say that cost at launch was more than five times the projected cost (as Wikipedia indicates). So I’m not all bad for using Wikipedia a little bit, right?

Chase Freedom looks like a pretty good offer

I’m checking into the Chase credit cards–Freedom, mainly, since the others are for higher spenders and/or businesses. They don’t make it much easier to contact them than Capital One, but they do provide a ‘tour’ option for the reward system. It took a little bit to find it, but here it is: Ultimate Rewards member site. That link should go to the gift card section, and there are tabs at top and links on the left that will take you to the sections for cash back, account credit, travel, etc.

There is, of course, a disclaimer at the bottom of the page saying that pricing/availability can be changed at any time; I think that’s on all these sites. While I don’t especially like that Chase’s program is also based on points (are all of them??), they do advertise a particular cash back rate, which kind of obliges them to keep the cash back redemptions at 100 points to the dollar, at least. And the gift card rates are surprisingly good, after two years with Citi; some of them are actually a better rate than cash, so if you’ve earned $20 worth of points, you might be able to get a $25 gift card. Most give you the same rate as redeeming cash, but some of the ones that interest me are among the better ones, so I could get even a little more than 1% back (5% on bonus stuff) with the Freedom card.

On the one hand, no apparent email address for contacting them (unless you’re already a customer), on the other hand, much better redemption rates for reward points. The rates for lower-value cards at Citi are abysmal; you have to get a $100 gift card to get 100 points to be worth a dollar, and it can take a long time to reach the 10,000 points you need for that. To get a $50 dollar gift card, you essentially shell out $60 worth of points, a $25 card costs $35 worth, and a $10 card costs $15 worth. Even a $5 card at Chase appears to cost $5 worth of points. And they even have more of the cards I’d be interested in available. So it’s tempting.