March 12, 2011


Just before we head out to the night, let's look a bit into the unknown, for that's where the incredible lurks. Yes, I am paraphrasing a famous quote of Carl Sagan that somewhere, something incredible is waiting...well, you know the rest.

More often than not, the things incredible are unseen--as is the case with more than five hundred exoplanets we have catalogued so far. We infer their existence by detecting their gravitational effects upon their host stars, and by sensing the minute dips of starlight reaching our telescopes.

Exoplanet discoveries are a daily dose of the incredible. These fascinating worlds were unknown just a mere fifteen years ago. But now we live in an incredible moment in history where we can point at the stars and say there’s a planet there, and there.

Yet all these discoveries can shake us to the core, and render us gasping for meaning even more. How do we make sense of all of it? So what?! So what, if there are billions of other worlds out there? So what, if other planets are teeming with life? Worlds and the prospect of exolife can blow our minds, but only up to a certain extent. Only for while, we bask in the knowledge that took humanity thousands of years to uncover, and then at the end of the day, life goes on as usual. We have a busy life to live. And life goes on...

...but sadly, life ends, in different ways, in different places. We are ephemeral partakers in the great churning of the earth.

For a few moments in our lives, we all get a taste of the awe and wonder of what has been revealed during our time, and afterwards we get that feeling of insignificance over our brief stay on this planet. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, a 16th century writer who wrote about the plurality of worlds, echoes that sentiment, "Behold a universe so immense that I'm lost in it. I no longer know where I am. I am just nothing at all."

Tonight, as you bask in the full torrent of human life, reflect on the Moment. And then give a hug to someone when you can, while you can.

I’d like to set a tone with pages from a soulful graphic novel, Daytripper. And i'll end this post with this thought: The Miracle is Everything, with you, here and now altogether.

March 3, 2011

The Exoscope

We are visual creatures. We want to understand things from the context of a larger view. And that is true with all the exoplanets we have known so far. How can you relate with these amazing orbs in a more direct way? When you look up in the night sky, where are the exoplanets?

{Drum roll}...The Exoscope.

The Exoscope is a web-based tool to enable you to see the locations of exoplanets in the sky. It's a tool for Exogazing, the activity of spotting stars with known exoplanets.

Exoscope is actually a spin of the awesome Chromoscope. The ability to change and blend the background to different wavelengths gives that dramatic feeling, and that is why I love Chromoscope so much!

The excellent developer, Stuart Lowe (@astronomyblog) and others did all the work to bring you that awesome goodness of chromoscope. I simply imported an exoplanet KML file, and the chromoscope engine did all the rest of putting the markers for the locations of the stars with known exoplanets.

Really, I didn’t do much. I just downloaded the chromoscope application (which is freely available) and added two lines of code to import the exoplanet KML and show the constellations by default. And that was it!

The hard work is actually up ahead. And that is how to always keep the exoplanet KML file updated.

I need help and ideas on how to generate the exoplanet KML file from the most updated source of exoplanet data, The Exoplanet Encyclopaedia. Also, I need some script to generate KML files from a CouchDB couchapp. So, if anyone can give leads on that regard, please ping me. For now, some info i can provide for whoever wants to take up the challenge is this: The developer of the most excellent exoplanet app for the iPhone/iPad (@exoplanetapp) has provided a digestible format of Jean Schneider’s exoplanet data, via The Open Exoplanet Catalogue. So, all I need is for someone to generate JSON data in addition to the XML files. I seriously need JSON so I can import them into my CouchDB exoplanet database app (which is also another work in progress).

Other tasks on the pipeline for this mini-project are:
1) How to center the field of view (FOV) on the exoplanet via a link from other sources (such as The Exoplanet Seeker). I like how WikiSky does it so i hope to implement the same thing.
2) How to host the image files into my own Amazon S3 account to ease the burden from Chromoscope.
3) How to add other stunning backgrounds
4) Cosmetic styling, and UX improvement for each exoplanet popup window (and how to pipe in data dynamically)

That’s it for now. I Hope that even while it’s still in progress, you’ll enjoy the stunning exoplanet landscape from The Exoscope!

The Exoscope
The Open Exoplanet Catalogue
Exoplanet Encyclopedia

March 2, 2011

What To Do on an Interstellar Voyage: Subluminal Science

No doubt about it. Exoplanets have boosted humanity’s interest in interstellar travel. New discoveries got everyone thinking which exoplanets are good targets for the maiden voyage of the first exonauts.

Recently, DARPA and NASA set up a 100-Year Starship study. And the Tau Zero Foundation has renewed their efforts to carry us to the stars.

These initiatives are great. But now we need something to augment with these lofty plans. Even this early, we need to outline projects that future spacefarers must do during their maiden voyage. Let’s write up a ‘to do’ list to keep them busy. Because nobody wants to be nagged with “Are we there, yet?” especially on an interstellar journey.

That list would be huge, but it's narrowed down because of the unique characteristic of that starship--it’s traveling at a fraction of the speed of light! And that is how I got into thinking what science research I would do if I were on that starship.

I dub it “Subluminal Science”, a field of study which simply deals with the effects of relativistic speeds, whose experiments can only be done aboard an interstellar vessel traveling at some fraction of the speed of light. Subluminal, pertains to that step below Superluminal, or faster-than-light (FTL). Since matter cannot reach the speed of light, we’ll just explore subluminal for now. (if we upgraded to an Alcubierre drive instead, then we’d be doing Superluminal research. But that’s for another story)

The universe will ‘seem’ different from the vantage point of a moving or accelerating observer. And that makes it worthy of some curious thought. What do things look like when you're moving at even a small fraction, 0.1c of the speed of light? Can you imagine if we brought a portable version of the LHC on our subluminal starship? What manner of atom-smashing is possible with that scenario?

I know. Asking these questions is very silly. Such is the sacrifice i must bear to urge all of us to do some Gendanken experiments. What research are you going to do if you were given a chance to ride on that starship?

Here are some more prompts to give you an idea. Let me count the ways...

Let Theoretical physicists start thinking about physics at subluminal velocities. Would it be easier to detect gravitational waves if you were moving subluminally?

Let Neuroscientists start making predictions about the effects of subluminal speeds on cognition. I mean, really, what is the speed of thought?

Let Information Engineers start designing protocols for communicating with starships traveling at some fraction of the speed of light. What is the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of WiFi aboard that ship, anyways?

Let Cosmologists gauge the expansion of the universe. Would riding on the 100-Year Starship allow a more accurate measurement of the expansion of the universe? Would you be able to finally detect Dark Matter from that ship?

Let Quantum Physicists theorize how Quantum Computers would behave at subluminal speeds. Does entanglement still hold true when one of the pair is travelling at subluminal speeds?

Let Astronomers start dreaming up techniques that can be accomplished only when your telescope is moving so fast. Yes, you can still do planet-hunting from a moving platform, but how? Parallax methods? One thing is for sure: You’ll find new planets (and refine data on those previously known) from a different vantage point which would not have been possible solely from earth.

Oh the possibilities are endless! But you get the point, right? Those are just starter ideas behind the idea of Subluminal Science research. It can and must be applied to an unmanned probe too, for starters.

Don’t wait for DARPA or NASA. Don’t wait for Tau Zero or BIS to finish building that interstellar ship. Don’t wait for that day when your great great grandchildren zooms to Gliese and then realizes, “Hey, this trip is boring! What are we supposed to do now?”

Go ahead and write up that idea now. What experiments would you like your great grandkids to do on that starship? Let’s plan ahead to make that interstellar journey an exciting trip for our exoplanetary descendants!