Thursday, February 11, 2016

LIGO Detects Gravitational Waves from Merging Black Holes!

If you've been on social media at all today and you're either friends with or following a physicist, you've probably seen them mention something—or, perhaps, a lot of things—about gravitational waves and wondered "what the heck are they so excited about?" Rest assured, this is the most scientifically exciting discovery since the Higgs Boson (at least within the realm of the physical sciences). Today, the folks at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravity-wave Observatory) have announced the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves. Better still, those gravitational waves were produced by the merger of two black holes each roughly 30 times the mass of the Sun into a single black hole. This is also the first time we have detected such an event.

Gravitational waves are a prediction of general relativity, one of the few remaining ones that had eluded us (until last September). Gravitational waves are created as objects accelerate (their velocity changes either in direction or magnitude) in space. This is pretty much the same as the idea from Maxwell's Laws governing electromagnetism, in which accelerating charges create electromagnetic waves. The only difference is that gravitational waves specifically move through spacetime, distorting it slightly as they go.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Inclusive Astronomy 2015

For the first time in months, I have both something worth writing about and the time in which to write it.

This past week was the inaugural Inclusive Astronomy meeting, essentially an entire meeting dedicated to how to not be assholes to people who aren't able-bodied straight white cis-gendered man within the field of astronomy. Not surprisingly, many of the issues touched upon apply to the wider world outside of astronomy (also dominated by people who look generally like me).

Apart from a few hiccups (inevitable for a first of any type of meeting, especially one covering such sensitive topics), I'd call the meeting an overwhelming success. Personally, I learned a ton, and owe a lot to those people who contributed to said learning. I also met a lot of amazing people, some of whom I only previously knew through online interactions via Facebook and Twitter. Aside from these small comments, I can't say all that much about the proceedings of the meeting. I still need to digest what I learned, and I'll be away from the Internet (save for what I can get through my phone) for the next week or so doing fun dorky shit. I may write a bit about that as well, if I get the time.

I've definitely been inspired to put together another post that's been rattling around in my head a little since the Great Astro Flame War, but it'll take a bit longer to put together, so keep your eyes open for it in the coming weeks (assuming anyone still bothers to read this).

Monday, January 5, 2015

AAS 225: Monday, January 5

Wow, it's been a while since I've posted anything here, so I hope I'm not out of practice at typing really fast. Anyway, I'm here at the 2015 Winter AAS meeting, and will again be blogging my way through all of the sessions I attend. I would love to start with the Kavli Foundation Lecture on Earth's Van Allen Belts (I didn't know we were still learning new things about them!), but I have to go help set up the AstroBetter booth so I unfortunately have to miss out on what promises to be a really interesting talk. Also, as usual, don't expect anything particularly comprehensive, as it will be me taking really quick notes as the talk goes on.

The first talk I've been able to attend (while not running around doing stuff for AstroBetter) is the early afternoon plenary talk. So here we go! (Science policy... should be interesting).

Thursday, October 16, 2014


As of the time I post this, it will have been exactly one year since since my old friend and high school classmate Roman was declared dead. He was shot multiple times after supposedly stepping in front of the friends he was with at the time during whatever confrontation ensued. As I was not there, I cannot personally confirm any of the details of the events surrounding his death, but it sounds like a very Roman thing to do.

I met Roman on my first day of high school on the school bus, and we started off laughing and joking on the long bus ride. That started everything. We ended up shooting the shit, and were each supremely excited to discover that the other was a St. Louis Rams fan. Though he had no connections to St. Louis, he became a fan during the Greatest Show on Turf years (and let's face it, who can blame him?) and stuck it through the Marc Bulger and Ryan Fitzpatrick years as well. No one can ever claim he was a frontrunner there.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bad Astronomy Acronyms (BAAs)

One of my personal favorite things about astronomy is that astronomers tend to come up with really bad acronyms. Such acronyms are like puns; I love to hate them. In fact, I collect them. My favorites are the so-called "stackronym"s, which are acronyms that contain other acronyms. So, this is going to be my collection of my personal favorite BAAs. I was inspired by the DOOFAAS (Dumb Or Overly Forced Astronomical Acronyms Site) run out of the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, which hasn't been updated in a while, so far as I can tell.

These are particular acronyms I've seen in department colloquia, at conferences, or on the web. I'd also like to give a special shout out to my buddy Alex Hagen (@astrophysicalex) who posts an acronym of the day from his daily browsing of the arXiv. This list shall be updated as new acronyms are collected. If you have any favorite bad acronyms that I don't have listed here (that you didn't just rip from DOOFAAS), you can tweet them at me @HeavyFe_H or post them in the comments.

ALFALFA - Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA survey (ALFA is, itself, an acronym for one of Arecibo's instruments, the Arecibo L-band Feed Array. So, properly written, ALFALFA = Arecibo Legacy Fast Arecibo L-band Feed Array survey. I love "Arecibo" being in there twice. Thanks for the reminder, Gabo.)

BaLROG - Bars in Low Redshift Optical Galaxies project. Better yet, the observations were made with the SAURON spectrograph. You just can't make this shit up..

BANANA survey - Binaries Are Not Always Neatly Aligned. (I'm kinda sad it's not BANANAs. Thanks Ben!)

BATMAN - BAsic Transit Model cAlculatioN in python. Unofficially known as Bad-Ass Transit Model cAlculatioN in python. (Seriously, I think this wins. This is by far the biggest stretch for an acronym I have ever seen. I approve of the unofficial name though.)

The BEAST = The Bayesian Extinction And Stellar Tool (Thanks Lea!)

CLASSy - CARMA Large-Area Star-formation Survey (a stackronym. CARMA = Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy) (Something just cracks me up about the lower case "y" tacked on to the end.)

DUSTiNGS - DUST in Nearby Galaxies with Spitzer (Oh for crying out loud, you literally just used a whole word as part of the acronym!)

ENiGMA - EvolutioN of Grains in the MAgellanic clouds (Where did the lowercase i even come from? That makes no sense!)

ESPRESSO - Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (brought to my attention by Guðmundur Kári Steffánson at AstroBites)

G-CLEF - GMT-CfA Large Earth Finder (a stacronym. GMT = Giant Magellan Telescope, CfA = (Harvard Smithsonian) Center for Astrophysics)

GHOST - Gemini High-resolution Optical SpecTrograph (how the hell did they think to include the T?)

JUICE - JUpiter ICy moon Explorer (They really stretched that one)

KINGFISH - Key Insights on Nearby Galaxies: a Far-IR Survey with Herschel (Woooooooooooooow)

MAGIICAT - Magnesium II absorber-galaxy CATalog. ( even has a mascot... Thanks Meredith!)

MINERVA - MINiature Exoplanet Radial Velocity Array (Thanks to Jason Wright and company for creating this one)

PINOCCHIO - PINpointing Orbit-Crossing Collapsed Hierarchical Objects (Holy cow... Thanks Nina!)

RUN-DMC - Radial velocity Using N-body Differential evolution markov chain Monte Carlo (Best part is that I know EXACTLY who to blame for this one; we once shared an office)

SLoWPoKES - Sloan Low-mass Wide Pairs of Kinematically Equivalent Stars (So far, this is my favorite)

SLUGGS - SAGES Legacy Unifying Globulars and GalaxieS survey (a stackronym. SAGES = Study of the Astrophysics of Globular clusters in Extragalactic Systems) (Also run out of UC Santa Cruz, whose mascot is the Banana Slug. Yes, really.)

SOAP - Spot Oscillation And Planet software (Bet that made it through their panel review squeaky clean!)

SUMaC - Swift UV survey of the Magellanic Clouds (Once again, I know the people responsible for this one.)

SURFS UP - Spitzer UltRa Faint SUrvey Program (They used a letter in the middle of a word. That's just not okay. Thanks Lea!)

VAMPIRES - Visible Aperture-Masking Polarimetric Interferometer for Resolving Exoplanetary Signatures (I hope the instrument sucks less than the name. Get it, because vampires suck your blood. And I hope the instrument... never mind.)


Well, that's quite the bummer to wake up to. It turns out that the gamma ray burst everyone was so excited about last night was merely an artifact of a glitch in Swift's analysis software. The data have since been re-analyzed (really early in the morning, Dave Burrows is going to need a lot of coffee today) and the following notice has been published.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gamma Ray Burst NOT Detected in Andromeda Galaxy

MAJORLY IMPORTANT UPDATE: The Swift X-ray Telescope team has taken a look at the X-ray data, and has shown that there was a mistake that was made in the analysis. As Robert Rutledge (@rerutled) has been saying on Twitter, this analysis error gave this source an X-ray brightness 300 times higher than what it should have been. Repeat, NO GRB IN M31. Disappointing I know, but it's our job as scientists to propagate correct information, so there it is. I will discuss what went exactly went wrong shortly. My post on the topic is here, and Phil Evan's (vastly superior and more comprehensive) post is here.

At 21:24:27 UT (4:24:27 PM EST), the Swift Gamma Ray Burst Telescope detected a sudden emission of gamma rays (REALLY high energy photons, you know, the ones that turned Bruce Banner into The Hulk) from our nearest galactic neighbor, M31, better known as the Andromeda Galaxy. This is by far the closest gamma ray burst (assuming it's a gamma ray burst, still unconfirmed) Swift has ever seen, and will provide a fantastic opportunity for astronomers to follow up by observing with other telescopes. The Andromeda Galaxy is roughly 2.5 million light years away, which is nearly 40 times closer than the next closest GRB we have detected. Hell, if it wasn't mostly cloudy and thundering tonight, I'd be outside with a telescope as soon as it got dark! Not that I'd be likely to see much yet, especially with a small telescope, but one can dream.