The Messier catalog is weird

5 02 2011

Charles Messier was a French astronomer who lived from 1730 to 1817. He was a comet hunter. In the process of cataloging comets, he frequently stumbled across objects that, to him, initially appeared to be comets. He compiled a list of 110 of these objects, which is now called the Messier catalog.


M31 - Andromeda Galaxy

These Messier objects are now well known to nearly all astronomers. Most of these are spiral galaxies or globular clusters. M57, also known as the Ring Nebula, is a planetary nebula.

When I first learned about the Messier catalog and the reasons behind its creation, I was a little confused. Why would someone make a list of things they are not looking for? I suppose it makes sense that if you are committed to a somewhat repetitive mental task, you would want to make it easier for yourself to avoid common mistakes. That is the likely initial purpose of the catalog.

I suppose that through an 18th century telescope, it might be a little difficult to distinguish between a comet, a galaxy, a globular cluster, and a planetary nebula. While telescopes did enable astronomers to see deeper into space than they had in the centuries before, 18th century telescopes are put to shame by their 20th and 21st century counterparts.

Messier cataloged galaxies centuries before we knew what galaxies really were. It was not until the 1930’s that Edwin Hubble proved conclusively that they were, in fact, extragalactic objects and were millions of lightyears distant. In Messier’s time, people simply assumed that they were just nebulae.

Whatever the Messier catalog’s initial reasons for existing, it gives amateur and professional astronomers a great jumping off point for observing relatively nearby objects.


Astronomy Course Schedule, Mark I

31 01 2011

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I have been toying around with the idea of going back to school for my Astronomy Bachelor’s degree. I may even continue on to a Master’s degree. I am not certain if I have it in me to the full PhD/postdoc route. But grad school is a decision to be made a year before graduation.

I talked with an Astronomy/Astrophysics academic advisor at Indiana University back in December. Here is the rough course schedule we came up with.

  • Summer 2011
    • MATH-M211 Calculus I (4 credit hours)
  • Fall 2011
    • MATH-M212 Calculus II (4 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P221 Physics I (5 credit hours)
    • AST-A221 General Astronomy I (4 credit hours)
  • Spring 2012
    • MATH-M311 Calculus III (4 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P222 Physics II (5 credit hours)
    • AST-A221 General Astronomy II (4 credit hours)
  • Summer 2012
    • MATH-M343 Intro to Differential Equations with Applications I (3 credit hours)
    • MATH-M303 Linear Algebra for Undergraduates (3 credit hours)
  • Fall 2012
    • MATH-M312 Calculus IV (4 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P331 Theory of Electricity and Magnetism I (3 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P441 General Astronomy II (4 credit hours)
  • Spring 2013
    • PHYS-P332 Theory of Electricity and Magnetism II (3 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P453 Intro to Quantum Mechanics (3 credit hours)
    • AST-A451 Stellar Astrophysics (3 credit hours)
  • Fall 2013
    • AST-A305 Modern Observational Techniques (4 credit hours)
  • Spring 2014
    • AST-A452 Extragalactic Astrophysics (3 credit hours)

Nearly all of my liberal arts and non-degree credits are done and were taken recently enough that I can count them toward this degree. I will also need to take an intensive writing course at some point in this degree program. Given all that math and physics, it would be a welcome break.

I am making a pretty big assumption with this course schedule. That assumption is that I quit my steady, well-paid, job with health benefits and go back to school full time for another three years. That is a decision I am still wrestling with and I am far from making a decision. This is really just a thought exercise for me to see how long it would take me to complete this degree that I have been eying since  2007.

Do what you love

21 09 2010

Note: Before reading this post, please note that this started out as a personal writing piece that I never really intended to share, but I decided to put it out there, anyway. I normally write about technology, education, science, or ethics, things that affect everyone. I have avoided personal stuff here for the most part, but I have decided to share this.

In the time since I graduated from high school in 2006, I have struggled to figure out what it is, exactly, that I want to do with my life. I think that most people struggle with this question. Some even struggle with it until the day they die.

When I first launched into college, I was a freshman at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, a commuter campus in downtown Indy. I was not completely of my major, which was geology at the time. It just seemed like an area that I was somewhat interested in and that I could get through with relative ease. After my first semester, I started to reevaluate my options.

Before I started at IUPUI, I considered attending Indiana University’s main campus in Bloomington, about 90 minutes from my home and family. It was also slightly more expensive as I was living with my family and did not have to pay room and board at IUPUI.

After falling asleep a few times in my only geology course and not really getting into the subject like I had planned, I realized that that was probably not the area for me. So, in February 2007, in my second college semester, I applied for an inter-campus transfer to IUB and changed my major to Astronomy/Astrophysics.

In the fall of 2007, I had one astronomy course and I loved it. It was a Monday-Wednesday-Friday course that started at 8:45am, pretty early for me. Still, the material was fascinating and I loved every minute of it. I really got into the course.

The other courses were not as thrilling. I had to take a liberal arts class, in gender studies. It was a relatively easy course and I showed up and did pretty well. Still I tolerated it.

I took a 200-level introductory physics course for science majors, which went smoothly enough. Some of the material was challenging and frustrating at times. Still, I think I am better for having taken that course.

That fall ‘07 semester brought me the only F I have ever earned in a course, EVER. It was Calculus I. having taken several years of algebra and pre-calculus courses, I was not accustomed to calculus’ different notation and wildly different concepts. Coupled with homesickness and a bit of depression, I did not do well enough in that course to pass. In a four-month semester, my GPA had slipped from a 3.7 to a 1.8.

Despite wanting to remain at IUB and work on my astronomy degree, I recognized that I was not performing academically and burning through my college savings twice as fast as I was at IUPUI. With no astronomy degree program at IUPUI, I changed my major to Informatics and moved back in with my parents.

The Informatics decision was an interesting one. I think it was a decision made through pragmatism, rather than passion. I was told that most employers just want to see a bachelor’s degree on your résumé, no matter what it is in. Compared to that one semester in the astronomy program, six semesters in the informatics program was a cakewalk.

The courses were so easy that I could take 16 or 17 credit hours, work full time, and not really be pressed for time or energy. I was exposed to programming languages, information organization, applying technology to the real world, and a few other things while in the IU School of Informatics.

I learned a great deal, but through all of that, I could not shake the nagging feeling that it was all bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the program and the people I worked with. However, I did not really know what my major was about. None of the informatics courses that I took really provided a clue. They were really all over the place.

My interest in astronomy never really went away. After two and a half years, two jobs, an internship, and graduation, I was still thinking about that elusive astronomy degree. On the cusp of graduation in May 2010, I was weighing my options. I still had about $20,000 to work with if I wanted to continue my education. I had an option: continue down the Informatics path with a master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction or go back to Bloomington and earn my Astronomy/Astrophysics degree.

After a friend pointed out that, with an advanced degree, I could make enough money to send myself back into the astronomy program, I went with the HCI option and later took a PHP development job in Carmel, on Indianapolis’ north side. I planned on working full-time and going to grad school full-time.

I was quickly overwhelmed at my job, and then again in school. There simply were not enough hours in the day for me to eat, sleep, go to work, go to class, and prepare for the next class. After the fifth week of classes, I dropped all three of my HCI courses so I would have more time for work and also because my interest in it had been waning in the several months after I applied.

So, here I am in my cubicle at MediaSauce, less then three days away from an important deadline on a site, really wishing I was not here and regretting some of the decisions I made, but not regretting the things that I have learned from them. I firmly believe that everyone should find something that gives their life meaning and make that their life’s work. This is reflected in a speech that Steve Jobs made in a speech at the 2005 Stanford University commencement ceremony.

I have a rough plan on the drawing board that will get me out of this gig and into one that is less ambitious, one that will let me work on my continued education. I plan on returning to Bloomington as a part- or ¾-time student, while working an easier job that does not demand so much of my time or energy.

My prospective major? Astronomy/Astrophysics of course, with a master’s degree following. I had already planned on doing this, just not this soon. HCI is out of the way and the major that I have wanted for three years is within reach. I do not expect it to be easy, but, with the work and study skills that I have picked up, along with some other life experience, it might be easier now than it was last time. I was told by the undergrad Astronomy advisor at IUB that department heads are more likely to accept students going for their second bachelor’s degree because they have already proven they have what it takes to get through that degree program.

If I start next semester, Spring 2011, I could theoretically have my astronomy degree by May 2013. With the part-time job I am trying to get, I would be able to cover all of my living expenses, possibly even my tuition.

When I communicated this plan to my mother, she seemed concerned that I was aimless moving from thing to thing, without any idea of what I want to do. I am 23 years old. I have no idea what I want to do. I just know that I have over $15,000 in savings, some respectable technical skills that can be applied to a part-time job, a passion for science and science education, and a renewed determination to
earn my Astronomy degree.

When I asked for an alternative to my solution, besides remaining in the job that I don’t really like, she had nothing. If someone points out the risk in your reasonably well-laid life plan and cannot offer an alternative, it’s best to tell that person to STFU and then move on.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work and the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle.”

-Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

The secular movement needs diplomats, not warriors

18 08 2010

I watched a great half-hour talk from Doctor Phil Plait, who was at The Amazing Meeting. In it, he gave his insights for bringing people over to rationality and skepticism. Most if it I agreed with and it changed the way I think about my interactions with non-skeptics.

He sums it up succinctly, “Don’t be a dick.” Whenever you, as a non-believer goes after a believer with ridicule and anger, it instantly turns that person off to your point of view and can cause them to dig in even more deeply on what they believe. Phil cited a recent encounter he had with a young-Earth creationist at a talk in West Virginia. She cited the observation that the moon is moving away from Earth and its rate of recession indicated that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Instead of calling her out and ridiculing her position, he simply explained that the moon’s recessional rate is not constant and the Earth is indeed 4.5 billion years old. They ended up having a discussion afterwards.

He made more progress by respecting the other’s views than he would have by mocking them. For people who are scientifically literate and have a skeptical mind, it is very easy and tempting to make fun of people who are credulous when it comes to religion, UFOs, homeopathy, the like. To those of us who do not believe those claims, they seem so absurd. However, when trying to convince someone who does not thing they are absurd, diplomacy is key.

To paraphrase Dr. Plait, we need diplomats, not warriors. It may feel like we are fighting a war, but we really are not. We are trying to skew people towards a skeptical method of thinking and analysis.

I would set aside half an hour to watch the talk in its entirety and read the accompanying blog post. It was definitely worth it.

An (in)famous astronomer has died

29 06 2010

I have no idea how I missed this. English-born astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge died earlier this year, on January 26 at the age of 84. He was instrumental in helping to develop the now commonly-accepted theory that all elements heavier than hydrogen, including those in planets and organisms come from ancient stars.

He gained a bit of notoriety and controversy for advocating the alternative cosmological model known as the Quasi-Steady State (QSS). In a steady-state universe, matter is being created, along with space, as the universe expands. QSS is an addition to the steady-state theory that states that miniature Big Bangs, called “minibangs,” are going off constantly, even after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago that sparked the creation of our universe. Because these theories directly contradict established observations and these discrepancies have not been properly addressed by QSS or SS proponents, they have yet to gain any real traction in the astronomy community.

In his later years, he gained even further notoriety for proposing that extremely red-shifted quasars were not distant, but were, in fact much closer. Due to the expansion of space, objects appear to accelerate from one another faster at greater distances. Burbidge proposed that these extremely red-shifted objects were really nearby galaxies moving away from us at the relativistic speeds and not moving at those speeds because of the expansion of space.

He came to fame in astronomy by contributing to a 1957 paper that explained how any element can be synthesized from hydrogen within the cores of stars. If a star is sufficiently massive to nova or shed its outer atmosphere, it will then spread these heavier elements throughout its galaxy. This is the commonly-accepted scientific theory to explain how heavier elements came into existence and were distributed throughout the universe.

Going back for more

28 09 2009

When I began my college experience, it was August 2006 at IUPUI. My major, though unofficially declared, was a BS in Geology from IU. That one year at IUPUI taught me a lot. I had only one geology-related course and it bored me to tears. I thought I might enjoy it because I had always had an interest in the field in the past, but it turns out that it was completely unsuitable for a career path for me.

After my first year of college ended, I decided to do an intercampus transfer and headed down to Indiana University’s main campus in Bloomington. My new major? Astronomy and Astrophysics. As it turns out, there is a great deal of math involved in such a major. I became depressed more than usual down there and was unable to focus. I eventually flunked out of Calculus I. I ended my stay in Bloomington after only one semester and returned home to Indianapolis.

After my second intercampus transfer and major change, I was back at IUPUI majoring in Informatics in January 2008. I thought the classes were pretty interesting and I definitely saw myself coming out of this program with a fun, well-paying job. At the end of next year’s spring semester, May 2010, I will have graduated with a BS in Informatics. I left Bloomington and never looked back.

Now, I am looking back. A few days ago, I went to visit my sister, who is now a sophomore at IU in Bloomington and loving it. I had not been back there since I left in December 2007. This came up in conversation and my sister and mother asked me if I had considered going back to Bloomington to finish my Astrophysics degree. I have to say since I had such a miserable time down there, the thought had never occurred to me until that moment. Then I started doing research, figuring out what classes I would need, how long it would take, and where I could live while I was down there.

I do not know what my attitudes toward going back for another Bachelor’s degree will be in a week or two, but at the moment I really want to try it. It could be fun, presuming I am able to pass Calculus I the second time around.