Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Parkes Radiotelescope diary 1989

Monday, 4 January, 2016

I was cleaning out the garage and found some old stuff, including a written account of a trip I took to observe at the Parkes Observatory radiotelescope as a summer student in 1989. So, without further ado:

Hooray! I’d been accepted for a summer vacation scholarship at the Australia Telescope National Facility. This means a wonderful opportunity to engage in some scientific research and to gain experience in working in professional astronomy. There’s also the small matter of earning three hundred bucks a week…

It was all set. I was to begin working on Monday, the 4th of December. That gave me a week off after my last exam at uni. Whoah, a holiday! When was the last time I had one of those?

During my exams, I received a phone call from my ATNF supervisor, Dick Manchester (the man who was once heard to say, “There are more things in life than pulsars.” This is a second hand account, so its veracity is to be questioned).

“How would you like to go to Parkes?” he asks.

“Great, when?”

“November 27.”

There goes the holiday! But wait, I have already planned to do things with friends nearly every day of that week. The last thing was an ice skating trip on the Friday, the 1st of December. I said I was busy until at least then.

“Well, do you want to fly up on Friday evening?”

I’m not one to knock back a free plane trip, so on the appointed Friday there I was, sitting in a minute ten-seater plane with blistered feet and aching legs from the skating and almost falling asleep due to the several late nights just gone. (I’d just made the plane by a mere ten minutes, but that’s another story.)

An hour later and the plane had touched down at Parkes. There were about six cars and a dozen or so people waiting for their friends and relatives. I hadn’t the foggiest who would meet me and take me out to the telescope. Walking across the tarmac, I noticed one guy whose sloppy joe was emblazoned with a star-field and a radiotelescope dish. Okay, that was easy enough.

Raycatcher
The Parkes Observatory radiotelescope

(more…)

Personality pigeonholes

Friday, 8 August, 2014
Myers-Briggs types
Image CC-BY-SA by Jake Beech.

Over the years I’ve seen many people refer to the Myers-Briggs personality types, often giving a four-letter code to describe themselves or other people.

I’ve never liked this sort of pigeonholing of people and have long resisted looking up much about the Myers-Briggs classification. I’ve specifically avoided any sort of test which might purport to tell me what my “personality type” is. I don’t want to be known by a shorthand label which will almost certainly misrepresent critical aspects of who I am.

But I had my curiosity piqued yesterday and actually found myself looking at the Wikipedia page for the Myers-Briggs stuff. And I saw the image shown here. Zooming in to read the text, I found it gave a short list of tendencies designed to determine which side of the four different personality dichotomies you belong to. Unable to avoid the temptation now, I read some of them, and immediately found a problem.

The very first choice at upper left, trying to decide if you are extroverted or introverted, asks if you could be described as (a) talkative, outgoing, or (b) reserved, private? Well, I think I could easily be described as both (a) and (b). The next question asks if you (a) like to be in a fast-paced environment [yes! I do!], or (b) prefer a slower pace with time for contemplation [yes! I like that too!]. I really like fast-paced stuff and I really like slow-paced stuff with time for contemplation! Okay, moving on to question three: do I (a) tend to work out ideas with others, think aloud [yes, I do this all the time], or (b) tend to think things through inside your head [yes, I do this all the time as well]. You can see where this is going. The final question for the extrovert/introvert “dichotomy” asks if I (a) enjoy being the centre of attention [why yes, I do], or (b) would rather observe than be the centre of attention [and yes, I often feel like this too].

Moving on to the sensing/intuition axis, the first question asks do you (a) focus on the reality of how things are [yes, I do, very much so; I’m very pragmatic and realistic about things] or (b) imagine the possibilities of how things could be [yes, I do, very much so; I love fantasising and dreaming of various possibilities]. Second question: do I (a) pay attention to facts and details [yes!! extremely so, I am very detail-oriented], or (b) notice the big picture, see how everything connects [yes! very much so! I am very good at this – people at work have commented how good I am at this sort of thing]. Third question: Do you (a) prefer ideas that have practical applications [yes, I love ideas with practical applications], or (b) enjoy ideas and concepts for their own sake [yes! I love ideas with no practical application]. Fourth question: Do you (a) like to describe things in a specific, literal way [yes! I do this all the time; I really enjoy technical writing for work purposes, describing in detail some highly technical algorithm], or (b) like to describe things in a figurative, poetic way [yes! I love doing this sort of thing; I really enjoy writing poetic descriptions and embellishing things I write with metaphors and literary asides and so on].

Okay, let’s try the third axis: thinking/feeling. Even just the title of the two “sides” has me sure I’ll fit into both. Question one: Do you make decisions (a) in an impersonal way, using logical reasoning [of course I do, it’s only sensible to use logic and be detached for many important decisions], or (b) based on personal values and how your actions affect others [of course I do! What kind of monster would I be if I didn’t base my decisions on my personal values and take into account how they would affect others??]. Second question: Do I value (a) justice and fairness [yes! of course I do!], or (b) harmony and forgiveness [yes! of course I do!]. Third question: Do I (a) enjoy finding the flaws in an argument [well… sort of, here’s one I need to qualify; I get the subdued satisfaction of a job well done, but not hedonistic-style enjoyment out of this – oooh… have we finally found a distinguisher?], or (b) like to please others and point out the best in people [well… sort of; I mean, I like to make people happy, but I’m not above criticising them if I think they deserve it; I’m definitely not a sycophantic yes-man]. I’m not sure how to call this one, other than another tie. Fourth question: Could I be described as (a) reasonable, level-headed [I like to think so, and I honestly believe I come across that way to others], or (b) warm, empathetic [I like to think so, and I honestly believe I come across that way to others].

The fourth and final axis: judging/perceiving. Do I prefer to (a) have matters settled, or (b) leave your options open? Well, I like both. I love being meticulously organised, and I also love flying by the seat of my pants. Question two: Do I (a) think rules and deadlines should be respected, or (b) see rules and deadlines as flexible? You know… I like to strike a sensible balance. Rules and deadlines should definitely be respected, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be flexible if needed. Question three: Do I (a) prefer to have detailed step-by-step instructions, or (b) like to improvise and make things up as I go? I love both! It’s great to have step-by-step instructions, if I want to go that way and do a thing exactly as other people have done it, but I also love modifying and improvising to come up with something unique. (Examples: in cooking, sometimes I follow a recipe to the letter, sometimes I throw caution to the wind and modify like crazy. Playing music: sometimes I want to reproduce the exact sound of a recorded song using a detailed score, sometimes I want to let loose and do whatever I want.) Fourth and final question: Do I (a) make plans, want to know what I’m getting into [yes, very much so!], or (b) am I spontaneous and enjoy surprises and new situations [I love surprises and dealing with unexpected situations spontaneously].

Well. Maybe this says something about me and my personality, or maybe it doesn’t. All I know is that the Myers-Briggs types are ridiculously narrowly specified and don’t seem to apply to me, not even in the slightest. Every single “dichotomous” question they ask, I have pretty much an equal reaction to both sides. I like all sorts of stuff. I like being quiet and contemplative, I like being brash and outgoing, I like to plan and think things through in detail, I like to just go and spontaneously decide what to do on the spur of the moment, I like to be literal and meticulous and logical, I like to be carefree and expressive and poetic.

Why pigeonhole yourself into some “personality type”? You’re missing half the fun of being alive!

Catch up update

Wednesday, 13 November, 2013

So yeah, I’ve been neglecting the blog lately.

Since the last spate of updates I’ve visited Brookvale Public School again, this time to talk to the kids there about volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics. It was another very fun day, with lots of interested kids absorbing what I showed them and asking some interesting questions.

I’ve also run the second session of Ravenloft, which I’d planned to post about soon after it happened, but now the third session is scheduled for this Friday, so I think I’ll just wait and combine the two into one big post.

Science in School!

Tuesday, 17 September, 2013

Galilean moonsI spent the day today at Brookvale Public School, in northern Sydney. It was a visit as part of the CISRO’s (the Australian government research agency) Scientists in Schools program. Working scientists get teamed up with school teachers and organise various programs together. With my relatively limited time, I found a teacher who was okay with a fairly low-key arrangement, in which I visit the school a few times a year and talk to the kids, showing them some cool science stuff. Today was my first visit!

I put together a slideshow about astronomy, starting with planets and moons, and heading towards stars near the end of what I’d prepared. The teachers set me up in their nice new library, and brought various classes in throughout the day for me to talk to. It started at 9am with the oldest kids in the school, years 5 and 6 (ages 10-11 or so). They were very attentive and well behaved, and were clearly bursting with questions at various stages. I showed them the planets stuff for about 45 minutes, and got on to the very start of the material about stars, showing them how spectral lines let us see what stars are made of, and that our sun is a star. Then we had 15 minutes of questions. Some of the things they asked were very deep and took a bit of explaining to answer!

Next was the year 1 and 2 classes (6-7 years old). This was slightly trickier, because I had to adjust my vocabulary more to fit their comprehension. Also, this school has a lot of kids from recently immigrated families, and who are learning English as their second language. After an hour with them, it was recess time! I haven’t had recess for years!

Answering questionsThe next session was with years 3 and 4, and then after them was kindergarten! These sessions were a bit shorter, about 45 minutes each. I think that was enough for the little ones – they were a lot more excitable and broke into chatter a few times. I was glad the teachers were there to calm them down! For the year 3 and 4s, I did a straight 45 minutes of presenting slides and talking about them, with no room for questions. This was because they had a second session with me after lunch, entirely for questions, because they are currently doing a science project on space. I took a well-earned breather at lunch, and then it was a full hour of answering questions from these excited kids.

The slides I showed were mostly images of planets and moons, both from telescopes and also various space probes. I also showed them some of the scientists who discovered various things. I included plenty of females: Annie Cannon, Linda Morabito, Carolyn Porco – in fact I mentioned more female scientists than males – to make sure the kids got the chance to see that girls can be scientists.

The questions were widely varied. One boy had obviously been reading up on things, because he asked me about the metal snow on Venus(!). One of the kindergarten kids had the cutest question, when I mentioned that Mars was a bit like a desert here on Earth, with no trees and no water, and she asked if it had camels. It was a little exhausting, having to talk and think on my feet for a full day with a bunch of excitable kids, but it was a fantastic experience. I’m planning on another visit to the school later this year. I don’t know what I’ll talk about then – I need to work that out with the teachers. But I’m sure it’ll be fun!

Skink!

Thursday, 29 August, 2013

241/365 Eastern Water SkinkI’ve had a couple of good days for spotting wildlife. I saw this fellow sunning himself on a rock as I was walking home from work today, just 50 metres or so from where I saw the brushturkeys yesterday.

This is an Eastern water skink (Eulamprus quoyii). It was maybe 40 centimetres long. I managed to poke my camera fairly close before it scooted away.

Brushturkey!

Wednesday, 28 August, 2013

Australian brushturkeyFollowing up my urban bird post of the other day, I was astonished this morning to come across a pair of Australian brushturkeys while walking to the station to catch the train to work. I know these birds are around the city, but I’ve never seen some so close before, nor so close to my home.

They’re very territorial, so I’ll probably see them again in the future if they’ve moved into the area. At this time of year they’re probably either building compost mounds to incubate their eggs, or already looking after a clutch of eggs or chicks somewhere nearby.

Urban birds

Wednesday, 21 August, 2013

Friendly lorikeetI was walking home from the railway station after work today and I noticed an ibis and some parrots flying overhead. And I figured it might be interesting to list what birds I typically see in my daily life here in Sydney.

  • Pigeons. Yeah, they’re all over the place, alas.
  • Noisy miner. This is easily the second most common bird I see. And the most common one I hear – they’re not called “noisy” for nothing. They constantly chatter away as they flit around gardens and parks. The noise isn’t loud or offensive, just prolific.
  • Australian white ibis. Probably the next most common bird I encounter. I often see them flying relatively high and for longish distances across the city. If you look up at the sky much in Sydney, you’ll see these birds travelling from suburb to suburb. I often see them out the window of my office building too.
  • Rainbow lorikeet. Common around my home, since there are lots of gardens and some bushland in a nearby park. Sometimes they come and sit on my balcony (pictured). Some people feed them, but you need to be careful not to give them food that is bad for them.
  • Pied currawong. Usually just called currawongs, these are the only one of three currawong species commonly found in Sydney. These can be loud birds, with a very distinctive crow-like cry.
  • Berry Island Lapwing

  • Australian magpie. Unrelated to European magpies, these are larger crow-like birds. Their most notable thing is that they attack humans during nesting season (spring). A few people are hospitalised every year with wounds caused by magpie attacks; sometimes people lose eyes. The best way to prevent attacks is to look at them – they attack from behind. Wearing false eyes on the back of your head/hat also helps.
  • Masked lapwing (pictured). Pretty common near water and also in open grassy areas, looking for worms and grubs in the grass.
  • Silver gull. Everywhere near salt water. These are the squabbling pigeons of the shoreline. Also seen inland.
  • Sulphur-crested cockatoo. I see these in the parkland around my home.
  • House sparrow. Introduced from Europe and now common.

The above birds are common enough that I see them virtually every week. The following ones I see less often.
Laughing Kookaburra

  • Crested pigeon. These are much nicer birds than the more common feral pigeons. They have a comical topknot spike of feathers and make a squeaking/whistling sound as they fly. It’s caused by the air moving across their flapping wings.
  • Australian pelican. These are common near the ocean and sea lagoons, but I don’t travel out to the ocean every week, so I only see them occasionally.
  • Australian raven. Sometimes difficult to tell from a currawong from a distance. These are a bit less common.
  • Little pied cormorant. Fairly easy to spot on the harbour, rivers, and near the sea.
  • Laughing kookaburra (pictured from my living room window). I see one of these maybe a couple of times a month. Or hear them – they’re very loud.
  • Galah. These can be seen occasionally in large flocks, either flying across Sydney, or settled into grassy areas to graze on seeds. There’s a flock that I see occasionally in the park areas near my work.
  • White-faced heron. I never used to notice these, but since I’ve been keeping an eye out for birds, I see them moderately often, all over Sydney.
  • Pacific black duck. Seen near waterways and, well, everywhere ducks are seen.
  • Australian wood duck. Ditto, but a bit less common.
  • King parrot. I’ve seen these a few times in the park near my home.
  • Channel-billed cuckoo. These are more often heard than seen. They make loud raucous calls.

These birds I see a few times a month to a few times a year. There are other birds that I see occasionally or rarely within Sydney as well, such as: black swan, willy wagtail, purple swamphen, Australian brushturkey, superb lyrebird. Occasionally I’ll spot a raptor of some sort, a falcon or small eagle, flying far overhead. The coolest bird I’ve ever seen in the city is a powerful owl, perched on a power line as I was walking home from a restaurant one night.

I’m sure I’m missing some species, probably including some fairly common ones that I just don’t know the names of yet.

What I’m working on

Friday, 18 January, 2013

I work for Canon Information Systems Research Australia, a subsidiary R&D company of Canon. It’s usually very difficult for me to say much about what I’m working on beyond “stuff to do with optics and cameras”, because of the need to keep our current research within the corporation. Once the work is patented and published, it becomes more public and I can point and say, “I did that” – but that’s two years or more after I actually did the work.

But I just found some stuff on Canon’s own public website that will give you an idea of what I’m working on right now. This. I’m working on this. Not all of it, just some aspects. But yeah, my work right now feeds directly into this, and more specifically the last section, about health management and safety.

The December without a summer

Monday, 12 December, 2011

Sydney weather, December 2011It’s supposed to be summer here, but you wouldn’t know it. Here’s a graph of Sydney’s weather for December so far, including official observations and the current 7-day forecast.

Parrots!

Wednesday, 5 October, 2011

Rainbow LorikeetBirdie Num NumWalking home from the train station this afternoon, I saw a colourful parrot fly right through my eyeline and up into a nearby tree. I figured it was just a rainbow lorikeet (left), which are plentiful around our home. We have several species of parrots that are common around here. The lorikeets are all over the place, but we also get sulphur-crested cockatoos and galahs fairly often.

So anyway, this lorikeet flew right past… Only it wasn’t a lorikeet! I had to look twice at it when it was perched in the tree, and I realised it was too big and the colour… It was a king parrot (right)! This is only the second time I’ve seen a king parrot within earshot of home, in almost 15 years living here. What’s more, as I was standing gawping and admiring the bird, another one flew past. Cool.