Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Catalogue of Exoplanets

2011 has been an exciting year for the discovery of new planets outside our solar system. As of December 21st, a total of 714 exoplanets have been identified. Most of them are gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn because being so hot and huge makes them easier to find, but new missions like Kepler have started finding potentially habitable Earth-like planets. Here's a very small catalogue of a few of the most interesting exoplanets out there:

Osiris with its hydrogen tail

Osiris (HD209458b) is a scorching hot planet in the constellation Pegasus (153 light years away) that has its own comet-like tail. It's orbiting so close to its sun that it has a year that's only 3.5 Earth days long.

PSR J1719-1438 b is a diamond planet, orbiting around a millisecond pulsar. Not only are there diamond planets, but also diamond stars like BPM 37093, a white dwarf.

Rogue planets are free-floating planets that don't have a sun to orbit. Even though these planets are drifting through cold, dark space, they might still be warm enough to have liquid water, heated by their geological activity. Being so far away from any star's radiation, it would also be easier for them to hold onto their atmospheres.

Some of the planets found within the last couple of years might even be capable of supporting life. Gliese 581 is a solar system with at least 6 planets. The first Goldilocks planet (581 g), within its star's habitable zone, was found there - although it's a very controversial little planet, since ESO/HARPS surveys say it doesn't actially exist. If it does exist, then it's probably tidally locked with its star so that it has one side permanently lit by daylight, one side where it's permanently night, and a line inbetween where it's perpetually sunrise or sunset. Within the same solar system, Gliese 581 d has been confirmed to exist, and it's an ocean planet candidate.


Kepler-22b also orbits within the habitable zone of a Sun-like star, and HD85512 b in constellation Vela has a climate like Southern France (about 25 degrees Celsius) in the highest parts of its atmopshere.

But our own solar system is still a mysterious place. Titan, one of Saturn's moons, has hydrocarbon rivers and lakes, a thick orange smog of an atmosphere that rains liquid methane down on its surface (meaning it might be one of the only other places in our solar system apart from the Earth where there are rainbows - but most likely infrared rainbows). Even though Titan is freezing now, in the future when the sun turns into a red giant it'll warm up enough to have oceans on its surface. There's already some evidence that there might be alien life forms living in its methane lakes - there's lots of hydrogen in the upper atmopshere, but on the surface of Titan all the hudrogen seems to just disappear, suggesting that a methanogenic life form might be eating the hydrogen. Or there could be some strange chemistry going on there with as-of-yet unknown-to-science catalysts.
A photo of the actual surface of Titan taken by the Huygens probe which landed on Titan's surface in 2005 and transmitted data for about 90 minutes after touchdown

Other interesting moons are Europa, which has a thin oxygen atmosphere, huge cracks on its surface caused by Jupiter pulling on it with its massive gravity, and a possible subsurface ocean; and Enceladus, which spews jets of saltwater into space at over 1000 miles an hour.

Enceladus ejecting salwater into space

For a proper catalogue of exoplanets, check out the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia:
The Planetary Habitability Laboratory:
and of course the Kepler mission: 

Monday, August 29, 2011


"Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people." - Carl Sagan.

Earlier this year, SETI shut down 42 radio telescopes (the Allen Telescope Array). Funding for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence had dried up. That's not too surprising - with the recession, the housing crisis, unemployment... people are too busy worrying about how to pay the bills to spare a thought about little green men. And after all, there are no scientists in Congress. Our world leaders are trained laywers, accountants, and businemessmen - but not scientists*. Our society prioritizes oil and advertising and entertainment, but the exploration of the seeming cold, vast, emptiness of space has been left by the wayside.

Well, Jodie Foster has saved the day! She and other good samaritans raised enough money to bring the ATA back out of hibernation. In a note accompanying her donation to SETI, Foster explained "Just like Ellie Arroway, the ATA is 'good to go' and we need to return it to the task of searching newly discovered planetary worlds for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence [...] The Allen Telescope Array could turn science fiction into science fact, but only if it is actively searching the skies."

* I wish I had come up with that insightful observation but it was actually Neil deGrasse Tyson recently on Real Time with Bill Maher.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Hesher tells the story of a tragic boy, T.J., left numb and empty by his mother’s death, his depressed dad, who hasn’t been able to get out of bed in the mornings or hold down a job or shave since his wife died, his lonely grandmother, and the metalhead (Hesher) who haunts this family. 
Hesher is a monument to nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s a monument to metal, and an ode to destruction.  The soundtrack features songs by Metallica and Motorhead, including one scene in which Hesher lights a diving board on fire, proceeds to run through the flames and cannonball into a swimming pool full of broken furniture, and then climbs out of the pool nonchalantly humming the lyrics to “Jump in the Fire”.

But there is no obvious point to the movie, no clear meaning. Hesher just appears, and then disappears. Inbetween, he takes T.J. for a ride. Hesher is T.J.'s mentor, but also his demon. He is foulmouthed, unpredictable, and cruel, but also calm and rational in the midst of T.J.'s chaotic grief. He drives T.J. into trouble and despair, but he is also his saviour.
Metallica have said that Hesher reminds them of Cliff Burton, which is profoundly appropriate, because Hesher is like a ghost, more of a mythological figure than a man. That's what makes Hesher stand out. Even though it’s really just a simple story about a troubled child, there's something otherworldly about it.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt unapologetically brings Hesher to life, completely believable as he headbangs fiercely and drums out Motorhead tracks on his steering wheel. Devin Brochu's lack of acting experience is noticeable at times, but it’s a challenging role, and he alternates between moments of rage and blank apathy convincingly enough. Rainn Wilson has obviously mastered the role of tragic loser. Piper Laurie adds a great deal of depth to a character who, on the surface, appears to be just a sweet old grandma who wants to go for a walk.
But then, the entire movie is more than what it appears to be. It has all the raw, violent energy of thrashing albums like Kill 'Em All, but it is also beautiful and poetic, like Hesher's metaphors that aren't really metaphors.
Hesher will obviously appeal to any metalhead worth their salt, but even if you have no interest whatsoever in the music or the scene, its still a worthwhile watch, as an exploration of grief and the demons that haunt us all.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Just saw Forbidden a few days ago. The venue had awesome atmosphere, it was dingy and huge and very metal, but sadly not enough headbangers showed up - there were only a handful of people to begin with, they mostly only showed up to see the opening bands (White Wizzard, Revocation and Havok), and they couldn't even muster a proper mosh for Forbidden.
Forbidden put on an awesome show anyway, desolation notwithstanding. They really are bastions of the Bay Area thrash scene and they have not sold out one bit. Omega Wave sounded EVIL! When Russ bellows out "Omeegaaa", its ominous, eerie, and fucking powerful! They also played Through Eyes of Glass, Forbidden Evil, and I think...Adapt or Die. Among others. The night is hazy because by the time Forbidden came on I had already banged my head senseless (although not as much as someone in the audience who had blood streaming from their eye).

Revocation seem like a force to be reckoned with too - they're brutal shredders, but I have to agree with a review from Decibel magazine that said when Davidson is soloing, "The rest of the band often fails to compensate." In a way, it seems like the rest of the band holds David Davidson back - he has skills on the level of that guy from Animals as Leaders, but there just aren't enough solos, bridges and breakdowns for it to come through. I hope they go in a more technical jazz-Cynic kind of direction, because its the one thing that'll make them stand out and set them apart from all the other commercial death metal fodder out there.

And on the science front, I just finished my circadian rhythms course!!! :) I am now an expert in chronobiology, so if you need advice on jet lag, insomnia or shiftwork... I'm here to help!

My next post might just be about the suprachiasmatic nucleus...

Sunday, January 2, 2011


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Dave getting his Master of the Universe and Creator of All Metal award.
Spoilers lie ahead!

When I heard Mega-angry Megadave's autobiography had been released, I immediately rushed off to the bookstore. For half a year or so I had been anticipating the boiling rage and stewing bitterness, years or fury and frustration finally put down on paper.
Except, of course, for all the details that were omitted so that the publishing company could avoid getting sued. If Dave did have to censor himself, it's not noticeable - the book is crammed with annecdotes about James and Lars regurgitating food into each other's mouths like perverted birds, Nick Menza's fascination with gay porn, overdoses, sex addiction, and nervous breakdowns, but all in all it reads more like a trashy tabloid that the history of a thrash titan. Especially since Mustaine has gone off the religious deep end now - did you see him having his group prayer in the Big Four concert DVD? Profoundly disturbing.
As William James said, "The only radical remedy I know for dipsomania is religiomania."
That's not to say Mustaine's book isn't worth reading - it's fascinating to find out Dave's justifications for all the feuds he started (Dave's hate list), and plumb the depths of his monstrous ego. Megadeth's history is broken down into bite-sized chunks, with chapter titles like "I pray the Lord my soul to keep - I'm tired of the tour, I'm tired of Megadeth, I'm not having any fun... and you don't want me to drink, so I'm taking Valium instead".
The book makes sense out of chaos, explaining the why's and how's of the numerous line-up changes that Megadeth has gone through. Dave also dishes out the reasoning behind hos dodgy career moves, like "Risk".
The only problem is that it's all very cheap and undignified. Dave comes across as part Hasselhoff and part Terminator, and the book makes it harder to respect him as a person.
The ending is especially unsatisfying. It arrives all of a sudden, as if Mustaine and Layden had no idea how to finish up so they just arbitrarily cut the cord wherever. Dave weaves in a lame religious parable and then comes up with this cringe-worthy finale: "At some point, you have to wonder how many times does God have to say 'Dude, I love you,' before I straighten up for good? I've got everything a man could want, and then some. It's time."
Terrible!! Victorians used to tell their children or servants or something that they should be seen but not heard. A similar rule applies to Dave: he is meant to be listened to, but not known, because who he is is kind of disappointing.
So my verdict is: half interesting, half a let-down, but a guilty pleasure nonetheless.