Saturday, March 24, 2007

Surpassing Hubble from the Ground

Several friends have asked me recently what I thought of the eventual, and possibly imminent, decommissioning of the Hubble Space telescope, arguably one of the preeminent scientific instruments of the last century. My reply describing wondrous past utility now becoming obsolete was almost always met with stark surprise. Wasn't Phillip supposed to be the champion of all things space and astronautics?

Well, for all you space telescope traditionalists, witness the future today. Last week, there was a release from the Gemini Observatory in Hilo, HI that included images even the Hubble telescope couldn't have taken, and they were taken from the ground, through the earth's atmosphere.

The Gemini observatory images combined optical and infrared wavelength images of the Pillars of Creation area of the Orion nebula. The really interesting new data refutes one of the earlier theories that hot energetic starts were blowing dust and matter off of several proto-stellar objects to form the dusty pillars. Gemini's latest data shows that there was a violent explosion from below the lower left corner of the image that ejected several large objects (shown in blue from the hot and energetic iron gas emissions) that are leaving wakes of energized hydrogen gas shown in orange.

The innovation that made this type of image quality possible from the ground, even through the distortion due to the Earth's turbulent atmosphere is called adaptive optics. An actuated deformable mirror is manipulated to introduce the inverse distortion from an image of a very tiny or point source of bright light which has passed through the atmosphere. Here is a diagram of the system used by Gemini.
AO Schematic Illustration
From the Gemini site: A schematic of how an adaptive optics systems, like Altair on Gemini North, works to correct distorted starlight. The illustration (1) is an example of a blurry image taken without the help of adaptive optics. When starlight is collected and focused by the telescope, just prior to coming to a focus, the light entering an adaptive optics system is first collimated (2) and is reflected off a deformable mirror (3). After reflecting off the deformable mirror, the light passes through a beam-splitter (4) where the shorter wavelength light (optical) enters the wavefront sensor (5) which takes a "snapshot" of the distortions on the wavefront and sends the information via a computer (6) to the deformable mirror to keep the wavefronts corrected and flat. Finally, the light is focused (7) and imaged on a detector (8) for astronomers to study.
When there is no bright star in the field of view, the Gemini system uses a laser that targets the ionosphere to create an artificial star. Here is an image of the system in operation.

I can't wait to see what else this system comes up with.
Do check out their web site for all the details: Gemini observatory.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Chandra Reveals Thousands of Black Holes

NASA's Chandra X-Ray observatory in orbit is racking up quite a record of groundbreaking discoveries this year. After enabling the verification of Dark Matter earlier this year, Chandra's latest mission peered through interstellar dust and obscuration that have historically plagued visible light instruments to discover over 1000 Black Holes in a patch of the sky about the size of a paperback book held at arm's length.

Each of the colored dots in the field below (taken in the constellation Bootes) is a direct image of a black hole that lies at the center of a remote galaxy (hence the name "Active Galactic Nuclei" [AGN]).

Chandra image of a region of the Bootes constellation

X-Ray astronomers are already all stirred up about the fact that the prevailing theories on Black Hole formation and light emission are now being called into question by this new data. In our latest theories, matter falling into Black Holes would emit light as it sheds angular momentum while falling into the hole, to result in a bright torus (donut) of orbiting matter.

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Animation Published by:
Goddard Space Flight Center

Date Published: April 30, 2001
Official ID:blackholebinary1

Animation from Harvard's Chandra center.

But Chandra's latest survey doesn't show the distribution of brightness we would expect from over 1000 donuts of orbiting material oriented randomly around 1000 Black Holes. Stay tuned while the astronomers figure out what is really going on!

Read all the details from the Chandra Web site, and learn more about Black Holes here.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Behold the Glide Toaster

Hat tip to Gizmodo.



More details here.

Only in Japan: A Pedal-Powered Roller Coaster

Via TechBlog and Tree-Hugger, and an auto-translated version of the original Japanese site.

The Skycycle at Washuzan Highland Park in Okayama, a pedal-powered roller coaster.

More on Mary's Spectrograph

After digging around the web for a bit, I found Mary Masterson's web sites that chronicle her life, with the Littrow Spectrograph project figuring prominently. (See my earlier post on High School Innovation for the initial story on Mary's award-winning science fair project.)

Check out the Spectroscopy web site that Mary put together including links to the MIT science institute for high school students she recently attended FREE OF CHARGE!

She also has a more technically oriented site that describes her project in detail, including nice photos of her equipment in operation. The real beauty of her shining example is that Mary covers all the scientific bases from strong inquiry and innovation, disciplined and meticulous experimental techniques, strong communication and presentations skills (including web, paper, and poster publication), all the way to strong participation in the broader scientific community to learn from others at world-class institutions and share her ideas with mentors and peers.

One of the things I really love about Mary's project is how she was able to assemble a first-rate solidly designed and constructed bit of scientific equipment for under $300. At first glance, the whole assembly looks like a bit of expensive commercial-grade laboratory equipment, but the reality is that Mary found many of these parts to be readily available in surplus equipment shops. A couple of used camera lenses, a pre-owned CCD camera and a laser were the big tickets that were all attached to some custom-machined base and mounting hardware. So in order to complete the project, Mary started with the theories, designed the physical system, machined the parts, assembled them, wrote software, managed the computer interface, data collection and analysis, and finally published the results.

A very complete package indeed.

The real shame, in light of this gold standard, is that most students are completely unaware that these sorts of opportunities exist and are open to any motivated applicant.

Friday, March 16, 2007

High School Innovation

17 year-old Mary Masterman of Oklahoma City just won $100,000 by designing and building a Littrow Spectrograph system with just under $300 worth of parts in Intel's Science Talent Search competition. Not a bad investment after all, not to mention her high likelihood of getting into the college of her choice.

Here is a picture reproduced from the Make Magazine web site of Mary in front of her contest-winning poster.

Make 414
Note in particular, the three hefty laboratory notebooks resting on the table. That gives you an idea of the likely efforts, scope, and duration of a genuine science research and development project that is actually approachable in high school with the right mentorship and guidance.

Plus she got to meet the President.

A Call For More K-12 Science Resources

In the spirit of leading our nation to technological greatness, I hereby issue a call for your favorite science and technology resources, comprised of either online or traditional media. Please post comments here with links, stories, pictures to your hidden, or not so hidden gems!

K-12 Science Resources, Part 2

The MIT alumni association just hosted a panel with some of the luminaries in the battle to improve elementary and high school science education, and the archive along with several great resource links were posted on the web log.

You can watch an online broadcast of the panel here, if you first download and install the free RealPlayer from here.

Here is the list of speakers:

  • Catherine Drennan, Associate Professor, Chemistry - Chemistry and Beyond
  • Woodie Flowers ME '73, Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering - FIRST Competition
  • Mitch Resnick EE '88, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, MIT Media Lab - Lifelong Kindergarten Research Group
  • Isaac Colbert HM, Dean for Graduate Students - Introductory Remarks
  • Dedric Carter '99, Executive Director, Office of Engineering Outreach Programs - Moderator
It is a great panel, where each told of anecdotes and learnings from the K-12 science innovation efforts. Here are some of the comments from attendees:

"Very impressed by all of the speakers. I am a physics teacher so it energized me to hear great ideas and wonderful stories." Kelly Forest CE '92

"Great speakers, very timely topic in both my personal life and the world at large." Megan Brewster, PhD student

"Very significant and important topic. Personally interested for both my own children and our nation. Very creative programs have shown practical tools/links to find more info-Thanks!" Scott Brazina GM '89

Here are some links to a few of the individual web sites chronicling their respective missions.

Kid Tech 2004
MIT's K-12 education outreach initiatives for students and teachers. This one is a real treasure trove with dozens of programs throughout the year for students and teachers to come to MIT and learn to do their own science research and undertake their own creative efforts at technical innovation. Every school should make strong efforts to find and attend services like this one, even if it would require extra fund raising efforts to make it happen. (I would very much like to hear from anyone, student, teacher, administrator or otherwise that would like to attend such a program but is having difficulty for any reason, be it finance, distance, or time that is the barrier. I would also like to receive links to other programs in other cities that support similar notion of hands-on, unguided exploration and innovation.)

MIT Alumni Discussion on K-12 science education.

Go forth, crusaders, and banish the ignorance!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Stereo-B Warming Up

If these first test shots from NASA's Stereo-B satellite are any indication of what more is to come, the future is bright indeed. NASA's Stereo Satellite pair is now in orbit around the sun, both leading and lagging the earth in order to capture stereo views of solar activity.

Animated view of STEREO's orbit

The first official images are expected in April, but on the warm-up run, Stereo-B captured an amazing series of images of a lunar transit across the face of the sun. (Note that the moon looks smaller than a typical solar eclipse because Stereo-B is much farther from the moon than the earth, while at a similar distance from the sun.)

STEREO eclipse movie
See the movie: small, medium or large.

All images courtesy of NASA. Click here for all the details.

MobiTV in Time Magazine!

Despite my general policy of separating this blog from my day job, I can't resist a plug for MobiTV's latest public relations home run. Everyone should run out and get a copy of Time Magazine's latest issue.

Time Cover

Jason and Nicole from our PR department scored us a 5 page gate-fold spread on why people work at MobiTV. You can see the online version here, but do check out the hardcopy to get the full page photo-impressions of many of the awesome people who make MobiTV such a fantastic place to work.

Here are a couple links from the Time online site:

Programming Provocateurs

What draws workers to MobiTV? A hot technology, a cool company and maybe even a big payoff.

Portrait of Jason Mikami inside the network operations
closet of MobiTV, in Emeryville, Calif., February 2007.

Ron Popeil Would be Proud

For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Popeil, you may perhaps recall several of his company's products which in total, have pulled in over $2 BILLION in sales. My favorites are Ronco's Pocket Fisherman, the Ginsu, the Vegamatic, and Mr. Microphone.

Pocket Fisherman
But this one, while currently an independent product, was just too priceless to pass up.

Witness the "Twirl-a-Squirrel."

Monday, March 05, 2007

Lunar Eclipse

Here are a couple nice shots of last weekend's lunar eclipse, courtesy

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Lunar Eclipse - Gif animation

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Stunning New Views of Saturn

Having worked briefly on the Cassini spacecraft sensors while at JPL, I am continually amazed and gratified that my minuscule contribution might have had any part, however insignificant, in generating such stunning images and scientific data.

Check out these incredible images of Saturn and its rings returned from the spacecraft as it travels ever farther outside the plane of our solar system to offer views of Saturn that we will never have from our comfortable perch on Earth. (all of the following images are courtesy of:

CICLOPS/Space Science Institute
Boulder, CO

A Ruinous Culture in Public Education

I've heard and read many business aphorisms in my tenure running first MicroDisplay and now MobiTV. The single most important and accurate saying of the vast lot, the one principle which has the broadest and most significant impact on the success of any venture I could imagine, is:

"Hire slowly and fire fast."

But this principle is now far out of reach for many public schools.

The "hire slowly" part is simply about exercising extreme care in who you hire, their qualifications, their work ethic, their standards of excellence, their record of past performance, and perhaps most importantly, their cultural fit and ability to maintain and foster the above attributes with a positive spirit even when severely overworked. I have found that A people really hire A People, and B People really do hire C People. Too much of that, and before you know it, despite a core group of well-intentioned and capable staff, the intrepid find themselves rapidly surrounded by a growing sea of mediocrity, or worse. This is a particularly pernicious problem when an enterprise is forced to grow quickly in an area with a limited pool of quality candidates.

With by-and-large miserable compensation packages, often dysfunctional administrations, and work loads with responsibility for so many students that the demands of the job become farcical, the pool of truly qualified K-12 teachers is woefully small. In such an environment, hiring mistakes are inevitable. Even with a perfect hiring record, teachers burn out, break down, or simply get distracted with other things. Once performance begins to flag for any reason, without IMMEDIATE attention, a horribly rotting disease begins to fester. This is where the "Fire fast" part comes in.

The idea is not to fire someone as soon as the slightest frustration, slight, or lapse arises. What it means is that whoever is responsible for managing the effort has an obligation to quickly address deficiencies, help the troubled staff to overcome its difficulties, and make a QUICK and realistic assessment if there is a genuine chance of performance recovery on a timescale that will protect the business at hand. If the assessment is negative, quick action to remove the problem immediately (though it is my strong belief that this should be done in a manner that is fair and supportive of those leaving the organization in order to efficiently move them on to other opportunities where they are more likely to be successful), to "fire fast," is imperative.

If performance problems are not addressed immediately, there is the obvious direct result that students who have no chance to "re-do" a critical and often foundational step in their educational chain will be in front of poor-performing teachers. But there is an even worse problem that results. In the absence of quick action, it becomes immediately obvious to all the other employees and teachers that problems are not addressed, and there is neither any penalty or consequence for failing to meet a high standard, nor (another problem) any advantage to extra-hard work in support of raising a standard.

A downward-spiraling effect springs forth almost immediately, where positive behaviors are not rewarded, and negative behaviors are reinforced to result in an ever-worsening culture of ever-lower standards. In effect, one rotten apple really does begin to spoil the whole bunch.

The ONLY palative is to aggressively remove the negative elements from the environment and support the positive ones before the rot sets in. But check out this "Firing Flowchart" from an organization that penetrated the NY City public school administration. (hat tip to Shelly Batts over at Retrospectacle) As she did, I reproduce the image snippet from her site because the full extent of the process WON'T EVEN FIT ON THE BLOG PAGE.


Do click on the above link if you want to see the complete and horrifying picture. A quick glance makes it immediately obvious why bad teachers almost never get fired. It's simpler and far cheaper to just ignore the problems instead of investing the extensive efforts of multiple people for years in a likely fruitless effort to fire even a single problem employee. In my mind, realizing that this system has been in place for decades almost single-handedly explains the public education dilemma of miserable standards, lack of professionalism, innefective administration, and the moribund cultures in many schools. There is simply no mechanism that alows the administration to actually BE responsible.

How could this situation evolve? I have two words; "Teachers' Unions."

Their originally laudable intent to protect and advance the interests of teachers has resulted in an unparalleled beurocratic environment which almost guarantees a ruinous culture of reinforced mediocrity, and unsupported excellence, and that in an administrative environment that increasingly leaches away support for teaching with an increasing tax of burdensome under-performers that are impossible to remove.

For all other enterprises, California is an "At Will" employment state, meaning that employees can quit at any time for any reason, and companies can fire employees at any time for any reason. That might sound a little capricious, but in parallel, there have evolved very strong employee rights laws which force employers to be fair in the exercise of these rights and foster strong protections from discrimination, harassments, and so on. The law already does a pretty darn good job of protecting the interests and rights of employees. I wouldn't expect any real education reform until an administration can expeditiously address any problem that might arise and protect and nurture a culture of excellence. Sadly, I fear that won't happen in the public education system until these types of corrupting supports from well-intentioned but ultimately misguided unions are completely eliminated.

Don't get me wrong, it's not the idea of Teachers' Unions themselves that is the problem, and I am not intrinsically anti-union. But it has become clear to me that many of the valuable opportunities to actually have a productive union support and train the best teachers have been undermined by the goal of supporting all the teachers, good or bad. Until that changes, the bad will continue to corrupt the good, and our children will suffer for it.

Do any of you have good union or school administration stories that are related? Please post your comments, as this is an issue near and dear to my heart.