Category Archives: Astronomy

Saturn’s Rings … and the stirring of the Unknown

This video is out of this world … so amazing, it nearly made me cry … It was just introduced to me by a new FB friend, Marney Lieberman,
and is relevant to my last post:

The Three Body Problem and the Appropriation of Images ….


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The Three Body Problem and the Appropriation of Images …

Enceladus Geysers, Samuel Nigro Saturn, Samuel NigroThe Sun, Samuel NigroComet Tempel 1 After Projectile Impact, Samuel NigroClouds over Senegal and Mali, Samuel Nigro

At the end of January, I went to the opening of Michael Benson at Hasted Kraeutler, 537 West 24th Street, New York, NY.
The show was a series of large digital prints that he created from the thousands of images sent back to us by probes
we’ve launched into the solar system to answer various scientific questions about the nature
of our planetary neighbors. From the press release, Benson culled the images
taken by “the Cassini Saturn orbiter, the intrepid Mars rovers
Spirit and Opportunity, and the Earth-orbiting
Solar Dynamics Observatory.”

I share Benson’s fascination, and above you’ll find my own culling of his images… You can cull your own set by going to
NASA’s Cassini site, Mars Rover site or the Solar Dynamics Observatory site
or just do a Google Image Search.

I had two over-riding thoughts (beyond the AWE inspired by what lies beyond our own atmosphere)
as I wandered through the show during the opening
and again when I went back for
a second look:

First, I thought of an earlier, and seeming unrelated, lecture I blogged about earlier in Happy Thanksgiving and Gratitude List of 12. Keith Wilson lectured about the collection of Charles Lang Freer’s Buddhist Scultpure from China. He posed the question: At what point does an object of religious devotion become an object of just aesthetic interest? You can ask a similar question about scientific data: at what point, does it become just an object we gaze at for our own aesthetic need?

Second, I have followed the Mars rovers and the Cassini Spacecraft, and I’m not sure how much Benson’s images tell us about what these sophisticated machines have already given us and what their potential is. For example, it is because of the Cassini Spacecraft that we are learning just how incredibly complicated Saturn’s rings are.  There are large masses (as large as and larger than houses and trucks) that move in and out the rings and some of which sweep large portions of the debris and grow and change in size, shape and trajectory.

What the show does do is give us a vision of Michael Benson, and it is heartening to read that he works diligently with scientists as he makes his composite images
so as to be as accurate as possible. So, to Benson’s credit, it feels like he is trying to give us a view as to what it may be like
if we were actually there – floating in front of the Sun, trekking around Mars, or about to sail through Saturn’s rings.
These are things I think about, and find
(in the non-pop-cultural,
non-trivial use
of the term) AWESOME.

Michael Benson and I share the same interest in the line between and the intersection of art and science.

The very next day after the opening, I happened upon the Dynamical Systems Seminar at the Courant Institute by Eugene Gutkin, called The Outer Billiard Map, and I was enthralled by the connection between this and Benson’s show.

WHAT possibly could be the connection between these two experiences!?! you may wonder.
The quick answer is the Three Body Problem.
But, first, I need to explain
what an “Outer Billiard”
problem is.

Imagine billiard balls bouncing around a pool table, hitting each other in a chaotic fashion. The study of Inner Billiards is the study of the physics of this kind of movement. Now, imagine a solid stationary object in the middle of the pool table with billiard balls bouncing around and off of this stationary object. The study of the physics of these kinds of interactions is termed an Outer Billiard problem.

NOW, imagine the stationary object is a large planet or similar galactic object and the billiard balls are satellites or even beams of light… and that is the connection between the gallery show and the seminar. I reveled in the connections.

Billiard Balls flying around a pool table is pretty complicated motion, so to simplify we break it down. The two-body problem (the moon orbiting the earth, for example) is straightforward in terms of classical mechanics and gravity. Add a third body and it gets very complicated, and is, in fact, an old problem that we still only have approximations for. Sir Issac Newton formulated and studied all these issues.

However, we know enough about this motion to not only send spacecraft to various parts of our solar system, but also to infer the existence of other planets (and their sizes!) in remote parts of the galaxy that may even resemble Earth!

This is definitely fun to think about!

Outer Billiard Map_Eugene Gutkin, Samuel Nigro


Filed under Astronomy, Featured ..., Featured Art Space, Math

Optics. how do lasers work? _ and _ Riis: why two “i’s”?

Swimming. Jacob Riis Park, Samuel NigroSamuel Nigro, Jacob Riis Beach, HorizonSamuel Nigro, Jacob Riis Beach, HorizonSamuel Nigro, Grass, HorizonSamuel Nigro, Jacob Riis Beach, Horizon, Decaying PierSamuel Nigro, Jacob Riis Beach, Horizon, Decaying PierSamuel Nigro, Jacob Riis Beach, Horizon, Decaying PierSamuel Nigro, Ocean, Horizon LineSamuel Nigro, Lifeguard, Horizon LineSamuel Nigro, Beach, Jacob Riis ParkSamuel Nigro, Jacob Riis Beach, Horizon, Decaying PierSamuel Nigro, Sand DunesSamuel Nigro, Hmm…_at_the_BeachSamuel Nigro, Jacob Riis Beach, Horizon, SurfSamuel Nigro, Optics, LasersSamuel Nigro, Riis_Park_SignSamuel Nigro, Riis_Why_Two_i'sSamuel Nigro, Horizon Line

I rode my bike to Jacob Riis Park last weekend. As I walked the beach, I had two thoughts that where worth writing down:

  1. Optics. How do lasers work?
  2. Riis: Why two “i’s”?

Optics is a catch-all term for me. It represents ideas ranging from the evolution of our eyes to the myriad of ways we augment them so that we can not only see the very small and the very far,
but also use the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum to communicate with one another
and to explore fundamental questions about who we are and what the universe is.
It is about time that I start pursuing the many thoughts I have about “optics.”
So, in that spirit, I start:

My top 5 themes of what Optics means to me:

  1. There are many types of eyes and they have evolved a number of different times on our planet. For example, our eyes and the eyes of Cephalopods evolved independently from each other, and, amazingly, function basically the same way: cornea, iris, lens, retina, optic nerve. It is called a camera eye, but doesn’t take faithful “photographs” because the brain interprets and is not a tabula rasa. Arthropods, such as insects, have compound eyes that operate very differently than our own.
  2. The eye can be viewed from multiple vantage points: the eye is an isolated organ, converting light as data to the brain, faithfully reporting the environment to the recipient, and influences how brain develops and grows; or, the eye is actually part of our brain that has pushed out to the edge of our bodies, trying to touch a very particular part of the universe – a specific wave length of electromagnetic energy, what we call visible light, a tiny, tiny sliver of the total electromagnetic spectrum; or, the eye does not see at all, the brain does the seeing – brain interprets the data, completely unconsciously, and builds a view of the surroundings according to its neural architecture.
  3. We augment our eyes in all sorts of ways. Starting in the 16th century, microscopes and telescopes have been allowing us to see smaller and smaller, and farther and farther.
  4. Other technologies harness a broader range of the electromagnetic spectrum to allow us to see and understand more. I think of the Large Hadron Collider, for example.
  5. Optics is a rich field of physics. I plan on brushing up on my college physics, if for no other reason than to learn how to embrace the distortions in my digital images … I need a better digital camera, I’m afraid … more to come.

As I walked the beach, my gaze wandered from the ocean’s horizon line upward and I thought about what Curiosity was doing on Mars
and how it has a special laser to zap rocks from about 20 feet away
and read the subsequent vapor
using the principles of spectroscopy.
Upon this though, I wrote,
“how do lasers work?”

Curiosity is really one big, roving extension of our eyes that utilizes all sorts of optics.
Its mission is to see if Mars ever had
conditions to support life.
I can’t wait.

How lasers actually work is going to be another post.
Onward to my second thought …

As I was leaving Jacob Riis Park, I saw the highway sign and thought:
what kind of name is “Riis?”
what language is that?
how do you pronounce it?
And, why are there two “i’s”?

So, the short answer is that Riis is a Danish name and is pronounced like “Reese.” Which may be good enough, but doesn’t really answer why Danish has this double “i” construction. So, there is going to be a longer answer as another post, and it will deal with linguistics and the evolution of language, specifically the formation of Indo-European languages and phonetics.

I write down thoughts that I want to remember as they occur so that I can follow up at an appropriate time,
instead of having them churn around in my mind needlessly,
or to be forgotten altogether.

One of the benefits of wandering, like I did at Jacob Riis Park, is to allow such thoughts to percolate.


Filed under Astronomy, Featured Idea, Images, Story

dear curiosity, i am with you … love, sam.

Curiosity, American Museum of Natural History

Curiosity at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City

Curiosity, American Museum of Natural History

Jam Packed with Scientific Equipment

Samuel Nigro, Curiosity

So Excited I Couldn’t Hold the Camera Still

Posted when entry began, approx. 1:24 am, August 6, 2012. More HERE.

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Oranges and Distance and the Transit of Venus

Venus is said to be our sister planet: about the same size, mass and density as Earth; and just 30% closer to the sun. Venus has an atmosphere filled with CO2, and, because of the heat trapping properties of this greenhouse gas, averages over 400 degrees C on a good day – hotter than Mercury, which is closer to the sun…. I’d still go … to either. Anyway: the Transit of Venus is a rare astronomical event. It happens in pairs: there was one in 2004 and 2012 and the last pairing was in 1874 and 1882. Historically, we measured the size of our solar system by observing this and similar events. Now, we have the Hubble Space Telescope, the Kelper Spacecraft  and others to get similar and other interesting measurements. The Transit of Venus won’t happen again until 2117. On June 5, 2012, Venus crossed between us and the sun. Something the whole world could marvel in. I went to witness.

Samuel Nigro

Samuel Nigro

Samuel Nigro

Transit of Venus

Transit of Venus

This was an exciting event and got me to think about many things. Too many for a single post. However, I will elaborate on the issue of distance.  The simplest analogy of the vastness of our solar system and the universe that I have come across was stated by Sir Martin Rees in his book  Just Six Numbers, p. 81-82

Suppose our star, the Sun, were modeled by an orange. The Earth would be a millimeter-sized grain twenty meters (65 feet!) away, orbiting around it. Depicted to the same scale, the nearest stars would be 10,000 kilometers away (about 6,214 miles!): that is how thinly spread matter is in a galaxy like ours.

Try to visualize that one: Earth, Sun, the next closest Star; a grain of sand, 65 feet, over 6,0oo miles! He goes on, but … You know what? I’m gonna give you the rest of the quote, because it blows me away even though I have a difficult time imagining it. It has to do with understanding why the universe’s expansion is not slowing down because of gravity, like we initially thought, but expanding. I this. Have fun, or just skip to the end:

But galaxies are, of course, especially high concentrations of stars. If all  the stars from all of the galaxies were dispersed through intergalactic space, then each star would be several hundred times further from its nearest neighbor than it actually is within a typical galaxy – in our scale model, each orange would be millions of  kilometers from its nearest neighbor. If all the stars were dismantled and their atoms spread uniformly through our universe, we’d end up with just one atom in every ten cubic meters. There is about as much again (but seemingly no more) in the form of diffuse gas between the galaxies. That’s a total of 0.2 atoms per cubic meter, twenty-five times less than the critical density of five atoms per cubic meter that would be needed for gravity to bring cosmic expansion to a halt.

OK: Vast, Huge stuff.

The other major issue that I though about
when viewing the Tranist of Venus is
The Iconic Geometry of the Circle.
That’s for a future post.

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