Archive June 2011

Marvellous scientific social media aimee whitcroft Jun 20


I think we can all agree that NASA is pretty awesome*.

nasa logo

Additionally to their being involved in brilliant things like shuttles (well…), space stations, rockets, telescopes and other goodness, their engagement with the public (viz. other earthlings) is not bad at all.  They have a website, photo galleries to make one weep, a youtube channel, a twitter stream**, and so on and so forth.

But what they don’t have, at least according to one Reid Gower, is the ability to communicate their hopes and dreams in a way which allows the public to relate to them.  Something at which, to be frank, an…unfortunately large number… of non-private organisations are pretty awful.

And this is important, because it’s the public’s goodwill which is a critical influence on the extent to which NASA is funded.  Clearly that goodwill ain’t there as much as it used to be, because NASA has seen a seriously serious amount of budget cuts recently.

So, our young hero decided to do something about this.  He’s produced, on his own initiative, The Sagan Series (Part 5 out tomorrow) – an incredible set of 3 minute clips, for NASA.  Watch them.  I dare you not to weep***.

First video is embedded below – you’ll easily find the rest (of which I think number 3 is particularly powerful).

YouTube Preview Image

And support our man Reid.  He’s on twitter and facebook, too.  He’s a powerful example of what ordinary people can do with passion, internet access and some basic editing skills.

In other ‘I want to cry I’m so moved’ moments, please, please do watch Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos‘ if you’ve not already.  I’m firmly of the opinion that it should be mandatory watching for all school pupils.  _Before_ they decide whether or not they want to take science and science-related subjects.


* If you can’t, please do step forward so we can explain :)

** Also, check out astronaut Soichi Noguchi‘s awesome stream (he’s a Japanese astronaut, and pretty involved with the ISS)

*** And want to _immediately_ build**** rockets/spaceships so that you might explore our universe

**** Or fund those who can.  Such as, I dunno, NASA…

A bit of Friday fun: the Galaxy Song aimee whitcroft Jun 17

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Monty Python, as is widely known, are the stuff of legend.

YouTube Preview Image

And, because it’s Friday and one is allowed to let one’s hair/pants/whatever else down, I thought I’d post a little astronomical fun: the Galaxy Song, from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life*.

Enjoy, and may your weekend be marvellous :)


* Not to be confused with the Meaning of Liff**, although that’s pretty brilliantly funny, too. Some of the words therein have stuck forever in my mind.

** Which, I’ve just discovered, is now available for perusal and assorted gigglings free, online, here!

Spongelab: game based learning aimee whitcroft Jun 15

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I awoke this morning to a rather epic amount of win.

logo_spongelab_tagIncluded in this was an email from Spongelab asking if I’d like to register with them.  I did, and I have.

For those of you not suffering from attention issues (i.e. who didn’t immediately click on the hyperlink and will never read the rest of this post), Spongelab is a game-based learning community, centred (excitingly) not just around biology, but also around physics.  They describe themselves as

“a group of scientists, teachers, animators, artists, and programmers passionate about science education and with a desire to help foster learning through gaming.”

There are also seriously, seriously stunning animations/video, less plans etc, as well as (in the near future) podcasts, e-textbooks, and so forth.  It’s all quite pants-tighteningly lovely :)

And I’m super excited about initiatives such as these .  Not only are they brilliant for helping get the sprogs of the world interested and engaged in science, but they have other uses, too.  Indeed, I’ll be getting those friends and family of mine who didn’t study these kindsa things at university to have a look.  Not only might they find it fun _and_ interesting but, well, maybe I’ll have to spend less time explaining stuff, or getting blank stares…*


* Not that I’m complaining, mind

Seeing cosmic rays aimee whitcroft Jun 15


Like, for real. With the naked eye.

Cosmic ray tracks in a cloud chamber

Cosmic ray tracks in a cloud chamber

Another post courtesy of Josh Bailey*, who has been building cloud chambers and documenting the resulting, well, results. I _meant_ to write on the subject, since it’s so frikkin’ cool, but have been somewhat swamped by other things in which I am involved**.

So! Without further ado:


I always find devices that let you observe some basic, not to mention beautiful property of the universe irresistible. And cloud chambers are the very definition of such devices.

A cloud chamber uses cool alcohol vapour to make visible – in real time, right before your eyes – the trails of the particles (from alpha particles to high energy cosmic rays) that would otherwise invisibly pass you by – or even make their way through you. Particles move through the vapour leaving an ionised (slightly charged) trail – that causes the vapour to condense in a visible streak.

The key operating feature is the cool alcohol vapour that makes the trails visible. There are different cloud chamber designs (that differ in how the vapour is generated, how the trails are illuminated and cleared). The most simple chambers use dry ice to provide the vapour – but the system I’m going to describe here uses a cold water, a heat exchanger and a Peltier cooler.

It is almost as simple as just add water. Cold water is pumped through a heat exchanger, and a Peltier cooler is sandwiched in between the exchanger and a round chamber containing a little isopropyl alcohol, all at ordinary air pressure. The cooler continuously extracts heat from the chamber, causing the alcohol to turn into a vapour. LEDs are situated at the base of the chamber, illuminating the coldest vapour that is just on the point on condensation – ripe for some hapless particle to ionise.

The last remaining feature to describe is a high voltage (modestly high voltage – 1000s of Volts, at a very low current) to sweep away old ions. This is introduced by a metal pin at the top of the chamber, connected to the a high voltage supply.

Pictures here

Video here



* Who appears to be enjoying writing about his…projects :)

** More details on those soon. Just think nerdnite Wellington. And an art exhibition. And, um, a host of other things bubbling away, too :)

Dr Evil’s fondest wish may yet come true aimee whitcroft Jun 14


Sharks with frikkin’ laser beams on their foreheads have, until now, seemed a remote possibility*.

Cell producing focused green light.  Credit: M Gather

Cell producing focused green light. Credit: M Gather

But in a stunning development, scientists have engineered living cells which are able to _emit laser beams_.

Take a moment.  Sit back.  Allow your mind to explode a little.

In essence, living cells have been engineered to produce Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) – a jellyfish protein which fluoresces -and, when bathed in weak blue light and helped along with mirrors, emit an intense, focused beam of green laser light.

Possible applications include medical diagnostics and imaging of cells, as well as possible therapeutic uses, although those are likely further off…

The BBC has a more in depth article here, as does the New York Times and, heh, PC magazine :)

Mad props to @SetHop for pointing this out…


* As has the possibility of having laser-beam eyes, a la Cyclops **

** Please note: I am being tongue in cheek

The internet in 2015? aimee whitcroft Jun 08

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Just a quick one today.

I came across this video comparing internet stats in 2010 with (projected) internet stats in 2015.  Not surprisingly, NZ doesn’t really have a standout role in the figures shown, but I’m curious: to what extent do we belive these predictions? Do we think NZ will follow suite, and if so, how so?  And with which economic regions?

And on a smaller note: while it’s a very pretty infographic movie thing  (and a very pretty accompanying website), I’m not sure it’s the best I’ve seen: it’s very fast, and the metrics can be confusing.  Perhaps a voice over might have been helpful… And I’d have liked to have seen clearly what their references were :)

Physics shorthand aimee whitcroft Jun 07

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As you may or may not be aware, I have something of a physics Jones.

superK 2

Super Kamiokande (SuperK) - one of the oh-so-awesome neutrino detectors out there

I’ve found the subject interesting ever since school, although I’ll freely admit that my contact therewith has been somewhat intermittent :)

Recently, however, and for a slew of reasons, I’ve been getting back into it.  Trying, if nothing else, to fill in my gaping knowledge gaps.

While on my trip to the States recently, I got the opportunity to pile through a copy of Neutrino, by Frank Close.  And I loved it*. It tells the story of the discovery of this strangest of all particles, which has near to no mass, seldom interacts with _anything_, and was chased down by various scientists (themselves fascinating characters) over a period of decades.

As a result, of course, I’ve now started happily wondering around among other neutrino- (and muons, I like muons) related news and information.  For example, IceCUBE!  Because using Antarctic ice sheets as huuuuge detectors is awesome.  As are projects such as the Long Baseline Neutrino Detector which, if nothing else, is a lesson in collaboration.

And, and this is the reason for the post’s title, the marvellous “Explain it in 60 Seconds” series by Symmetry. I discovered Symmetry, a magazine devoted to particle physics and put out jointly by Fermilab and SLAC**, this morning and have been glued*** to it ever since.

Anyhoo, enjoy!  And don’t be surprised if there are more physics-related posts in the near future.


* His writing is sufficiently clear and engaging that I’ve added a a number of his other books to my Goodreads to-read list

** Superstars, the both of them

*** Gods help me, I only just refrained from making gluon-type puns.


And, as a small aside, I’ve just come across a website which suggests that ghosts are made up of neutrinos…

Cyborging aimee aimee whitcroft Jun 03

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UPDATE: moar pics here, here and here.

As mentioned, I broke my wrist a few weeks ago.

aimee aap

please note: I am _directly_ plugged into a computer here. * happy sigh *

Which caused me no small amount of unhappiness, given that I was soon to be travelling to the San Francisco Bay Area to, well, get my geek on :)

Thankfully, I am surrounded by other geeks, with strange and mysterious powers, and it was one of these that suggested that we cyborg me.  Because what else would one possibly do with a cast, right?

(Funnily enough, I’ve now had friends commenting on wishing they were casted up, so that they could attach circuitry to themselves :P  Further, I am wondering whether this might be the first time this has been done…)

And, even better, I would then be able to attend the SF MakerFaire thus modified.  There’s a quick video, taken there, of aap running.

For those of you interested in exactly what was done to me, I’ve had its designer/maker, Josh Bailey, explain below:


Aimee broke her wrist. What to do? Make use of the newly available inanimate surface area, of course. Behold the Aimee Arm Processor, recently modelled by Aimee at the San Francisco Bay Area Maker Faire.

Arduino’s [1] all the rage, and most other microcontrollers are merely players. Back in my day we had to LDA, STA uphill both ways through zero page, bank switching all the way [2], but with Arduino many things are embarrassingly easy. Aimee and I had been discussing cellular automata recently [3], and it was not too much of a challenge to find an Arduino board with sufficient guts to drive an LED matrix [4] (on rechargeable battery even). indeed. I ordered an Arduino Pro 328 (3.3V, 8MHz model), 8×8 LED matrix, and an 850mAh battery – the latter about the dimensions of a matchbook, and quite happily runs AAP for almost a week.

Low parts count was a specific design goal, so I went with the direct drive approach [5] – the LED matrix is directly connected to the processor’s I/O pins, and the magic is done in software (i.e. patterns are raster scanned [6] onto to the LEDs so only one row is actually lit at once, but you see more than than due to persistence of vision [7] – maybe Aimee will let me write something about narrow bandwidth mechanical TV [8] sometime – oops distracted). It is possible to drive multiple LED matrices but that would’ve added parts – though one imagines we could’ve broken Aimee’s other arm for more real estate. One imagines.

After a virtuous amount of soldering, swearing, and scorching myself with hot glue the pieces came together (I used an old Ethernet cable and some spare resistors). Sparkfun’s data sheets were incorrect, so had to do some reverse engineering to determine actually which pins controlled what rows/columns. A minor thing but always adds to one’s sense of accomplishment.

And the code? Well, I wrote my own and it is available on request; much example Conway/Arduino code uses interrupts [9] (implementing a convenient background task that updates the display for you) and copies 2D arrays back and forth (not particularly CPU efficient). Most Arduino processors have more than enough CPU for that – but I went with the interleaved, swap pointers for frame buffers approach [10]. More complex but seemed true to my 8 bit roots [11].


1. Ardunio – a bewilderingly awesome open source gem of hardware and software that makes it easy to build things that do anything from blink lights to fly unmanned aerial vehicles

2. My first computer of was a C64 – STA/LDA are 6502/6510 machine language instructions

3. So called artifical life – cells that live or die, by a small number of logical rules, generally within a 2 dimensional space – like Conway’s Game of Life

4. LED matrix – a grid of light emitting diodes, essentially efficient light bulbs that can be switched on or off to create images

5.  The direct drive approach

6. Raster scanning – in this context, building up a picture by drawing successive lines of pixels

7. The effect thought to be behind why humans perceive motion from rapidly presented images, called Persistence of Vision

8. Mechanical TV – or so called Narrow Bandwidth Television. Using a spinning disc or mirror to draw a picture

9. Interrupt – a way for hardware or software to grab a processor’s attention for something and then return it to where it left off.

10. Frame buffer – in this context, an area of memory used to describe which LEDs should be on or off

11. I’m old, another reference to C64s.


So yeah.  That’s how it’s done, peeps.  Stay tuned for other such techie tales :P  Also, an interesting notion: using the Conway Glider as an emblem for hackers…

[oh, and P.S. I figured out what was causing issues with comments section, so feel free to comment in the knowledge that it will not disappear]

Introducing a new blog: Waiology aimee whitcroft Jun 02

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w00t!  we have a new blog :)


Welcome, Waiology!

You’ll notice my use of the term ‘blog’ as opposed to ‘blogger’ as this is a joint effort by a team of hydrologists (water scientists) at  NIWA.

We welcome our new watery knowledge overlords, and look forward to getting to know quite a bit more about one of NZ’s most previous resources: its dihydrogen monoxide.

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