Category Archives: Travel

NASA went where I’ve gone!

This year’s NASA Desert RATS exercise is taking place near Flagstaff, AZ. Here’s the view from inside one of the rovers after a traverse:

RATS is a program in which NASA engineers, scientists, and astronauts take prototype equipment into remote locations on Earth and practice the procedures and operations that they would use if they were actually on another planet. It’s an opportunity for the engineers to see what their creations are capable of, scientists to see how much work astronauts can get done and teach them basic skills like field geology, and the astronauts to get some experience using the equipment so they can provide feedback.

Not only is RATS showing off the best capabilities of the most successful part of the Constellation Program – the Lunar Electric Rover Concept, or LERC – but they have gone to an especially cool site, a well-preserved but little-known cinder cone volcano known as SP Mountain! As that video played, I kept thinking to myself: “that looks familiar…” Here’s my view of SP and the lava flow coming out of the base of the mountain:

SP Cone
SP flow

When I was there, with a class of planetary geology grad students led by Cornell Mars scientist Jim Bell, I couldn’t help but picture the rugged a’a terrain of SP flow with astronauts picking their way along. What a tremendous place to practice exploration operations!

Grad students exploring the flow

Smoky Mountains Report

I spent the week of the Fourth of July with my girlfriend’s family in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, right next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have driven through the southeastern United States twice, but never had a chance to get out of the car and look around much, so I was very happy to add a new area of the country to the places I’ve visited and go take a look at my 7th National Park. (Everglades, Zion, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, and Petrified Forest were the previous six.) We landed in Nashville Airport, made a valiant attempt to dodge all the country music, picked up our rental car, and then drove though the countryside for four hours before coming in to Gatlinburg, driving up a mountain, and arriving at her family’s swanky rental cabin. (I shall skip over describing the übercheesiness that is Gatlinburg itself.) An impressive view greeted us out the back porch…


They don’t call them the Smoky Mountains for nothing. It was pretty hazy most of the time I was there, so we got a lot of views of faded ridgelines marching off into the distance, covered by lush deciduous forests. Of course, as this was a family event, we spent most of our time in that cabin and generally had a great time. But my girlfriend and I managed to make two highly successful jaunts into Smoky Mountains NP.

The first was a bike around the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road. This loop starts at a visitor center an hour’s drive into the park and circumnavigates a flat expanse of farmland in the middle of the mountains. Even the drive in was fun – it reminded me quite a bit of the drive from my home to Williams on Rt. 2, on the part around the Mohawk Trail. Makes sense – the Berkshires and Appalachians formed in similar orogenies, though the scales were far different. Anyway, a farming community has existed in Cades Cove since the first settlers made it that far west and persists today. The loop road winds along what were – to an Ithaca biker – gentle hills and afforded us a lot of panoramic views as well as some brief visits to historic buildings. (The Park Service calls the Loop Road a “moderately difficult” bike. That was definitely on account of the condition of the rental bikes, and that they tell you not to use the front derailleur – I think the one on my girlfriend’s bike was actually disabled. Fortunately, I had my multitool….)

View from the Cades Cove Loop Road

There were quite a few panoramic views from the road. Cars and cyclists share the road, and despite the many pullouts, traffic was slow as the people in cars paused to take photos. I was happy to be a bit more mobile and flexible!

Cades Cove panorama

At the far end of the loop was another visitor center built near the old farming community’s mill – which looked very picturesque among all the trees! I had a fun time playing with the CDHK high-dynamic-range script on my little Canon point-and-shoot to get a picture of the half-shaded, half-sunlit mill building:

Cades Cove mill

Inside the mill, they sell corn meal ground at the site. Of course, we weren’t going to hump any of that out the remaining 5 miles on our clunker rental bikes! After pausing awhile for lunch – which gave us an opportunity to improve my blood sugar, the water level in our bottles, and the worst of the derailleur problems on our bikes – we set off again. I was most interested in the scenery of Cades Cove, as after seeing one or two of the historic old houses, you’ve pretty much seen ’em all. However, there were still interesting historical tidbits to be had. Here’s a pretty cool grave we found in the cemetery around the Primitive Baptist Church:

Murdered by Rebs!

Our bike tour finished with a close encounter. On the way back, all the cars on the road suddenly jammed up, with occasional people pointing out of rolled-down windows. I cast a look off to one side and spotted a BEAR. I skidded to a stop, and it turned out to be a mother black bear with two cubs, rooting around in the shrubbery. They had warned us about bears at the visitor center, but I took those warning in the same way I take any warning about animals in parks – yeah, yeah, okay, if I see a bear I’ll be sure to keep that stuff in mind! Little did I know that they give these warning in the Smoky Mountains because you will probably run into bears. I took some grainy movies before they got too close for us to do anything but get back on the bikes and get going. We had no windows to roll up!

After the Cades Cove bike, we collapsed at the lodge. The next day, though, we were feeling intrepid enough to be looking at hikes in the park, and based on the description alone we picked out Chimney Tops trail. This was a big win.

Chimney Tops is a 2-mile trail to the summit of a mountain right next to LeConte Peak, the highest point in the park. The last mile of the two gets steeper and steeper, ending with a bare-rock climb. I, my girlfriend, and her cousin were very excited as we set off.

One of the first things to strike my about this hike was how lush everything was. I’m used to forests that consist large of trees and ground cover, like those in New England. Whenever I see a different forest ecosystem things seem a little funny to me. So far, the weirdest to me has been the ponderosa pine forest around the Grand Canyon, which consists of huge ponderosas and nothing else. Well, Smoky Mountains National Park is at the other extreme: solid green growing things from ground level up to the canopy.

Chimney Tops Trail

(Other great examples here and here.) We even managed to spot a Jordan’s Red-Cheeked Salamander in all that foliage – a salamander species found only in this National Park! Shortly thereafter, we almost had another encounter with a black bear, as we saw some fellow hikers hoof it down the trail to us and tell us that they were doubling back a bit to avoid a bear that had burst out of the undergrowth right in front of them. We didn’t see the bear – only some wet footprints a few minutes later.

Chimney Tops Trail reminded me a little bit of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park – though the climates, geology, and trails had plenty of differences, of course – in that it ends with hikers climbing out onto a spur of rock that sticks out into a valley. So, as the hike got steeper and steeper, eventually it turned into this!

Scaling the summit

Pausing at a convenient stopping point partway up those rocks, I turned to one side and snapped the following panorama, a preview of what we saw at the very top.

Panorama near the top

Finally, after a bit of exciting scrabbling, we got to wedge ourselves into some crevices at the top and have a good look around. Scenic! (Click to panoramify.)

Chimney Tops summit panorama

Have I mentioned that I love my little Canon SD1000, which fits in my pocket, has a nice panorama mode, and lets me take HDR photos with CHDK? In fact, the HDR tricks I’ve been playing with were wonderful up on Chimney Tops, because they let me combine exposures to get some good shots of the progressively faded mountain ridges staggering off into the distance over the near hills. One such example:

HDR of mountain ridges

And another, capturing the tip of the mountain spur forming the Chimney Tops:

HDR mountain rock spur

Under the shade of the trees it had been nice and cool, but as we came out onto the bare rocks it warmed up. As we snacked, sitting on the mountain, the sun was flirting with the edges of some clouds. Coupled with the haze and humidity, this meant that we got a pretty nice optics show of sunbeams blazing down on the distant mountains. I tried to capture some of that with my camera, too, but found it about as difficult as the one time I was in a position to photograph the aurora borealis. Still, I got a few nice images!

Smoky Mountain sunbeams

I even figured out how to postprocess the living heck out of one panorama to bring out the sunbeams without totally destroying the rest of the image. I quite like the result, below! You’ll want to click on this one.

Smoky Mountains sunbeams

Maybe next time, I’ll have to try and time that hike for sunset or sunrise!

After a good deal of gawking, it was time to head back. Of course, climbing up the rocks and climbing down the rocks are two different problems, and we were a bit slower picking our way down the steep surfaces. This is the best picture I got that gives a real sense of going down. Notice all the deformation in the tilted stratigraphy, with girlfriend and her cousin for scale. (The runner-up is this photo.)

Going down!

I’ve gotta say that the Smoky Mountains were definitely worth a visit, and I’d happily recommend Chimney Tops as a good morning or afternoon hike. I like hiking, and I like our National Parks, so I was happy for the chance to get to see another in an area of the country I haven’t been to.That’s one of the things I like best about the United States: we’ve got so much stuff within our borders, but everyone uses the same money, understands English, and follows the same road signs. And sometimes we even feel like protecting what we have, so we can go into these spectacular places!

Gatlinburg ridges at sunrise

See all my pictures on Picasa – I had fun tweaking them all on the plane back to Ithaca!

Go Falcon 9!

First: Go Atlantis!!!

Now, on to the purported topic of this post: The SpaceX Falcon 9 is slated to launch in less than a week!

Beautiful photo of Falcon 9 on the pad (SpaceX)

Ever since the FY11 NASA budget came out, I’ve been anxious to see the success of the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s heavy-lift vehicle, and the Dragon capsule. A good Falcon launch and successful Dragon flight demo would be like jumping NASA’s Constellation program straight to an Ares I/Orion system prototype. This is the rocket and capsule that the new budget banks on for ISS resupply and astronaut transport. Of course, SpaceX had already won the ISS resupply contract before the new NASA budget came out, so this really isn’t that big a change from the status-quo solution to the space access gap – except that a successful man-rated Dragon would close that gap entirely!

For the bajillionth time, Mike Griffin’s Constellation Program was on track to do what we did 40 years ago, with what we used 30 years ago, 20 years from now. I know the program says “by 2020,” but it ain’t gonna happen, even with billions of extra dollars.

The new budget focuses NASA on in-space vehicles. Vehicles for carrying people throughout the Solar System. Vehicles for building colonies in space. Vehicles for taking people to planets. Vehicles for exploring planets. The kinds of vehicles that cannot be built on Earth and launched, whole, on a Saturn or Ares rocket. The kinds of vehicles that nobody but NASA would try to build. The kinds of vehicles that would move the human spaceflight program forward!

But, in exchange, NASA is not going to develop boosters. The space agency is going to send its astronauts – still NASA astronauts, dammit! – up to LEO on board  vehicles bought from commercial providers. The outcry against this concept is based primarily on the objection that the commercial space access providers are “unproven.”

Well, phenomenal success of the Delta and Atlas lines aside, this is the proving ground. There’s a lot riding on the Falcon 9 flight test; the space community consensus could go dramatically one way or the other depending on the outcome. If SpaceX makes it, we can almost consider NASA fast-forwarded to what Constellation would have done in 2015, or later. (And we’ll be much closer to buying tickets to space!) They just have to buy their launchers from SpaceX, instead of….contracting to ATK to build them.

Good luck to the SpaceX launch crews! Hope the launch is spectacular!

Sol LeWitt

I spent last weekend in Williamstown, MA, with my family for my sister’s Williams Dance Company performance and the super-swanky Mother’s Day brunch at the Williams Inn. (I’m allergic to chicken and turkey, so I passed over the roast duck; but I made sure to grab some brunch swordfish!)

We also went to the Sol LeWitt retrospective exhibition at Mass MoCA. LeWitt is really interesting; first, because he drew his artwork directly on gallery walls, and second, because the artwork consists mainly of a detailed set of instructions describing how to create the drawing. If one museum sells a Sol LeWitt wall drawing to another museum, then they erase the wall, give the new museum the instructions, and that museum carefully follows the plan to reconstruct the wall drawing in a new space. I found this whole process to be quite interesting. (All the images here are from the Mass MoCA web site; click to see them on the original pages.)

Wall Drawing 289 (Mass MoCA)
Wall Drawing 289, Fourth wall: twenty-four lines from the center, twelve lines from the midpoint of each of the sides, twelve lines from each corner. (Mass MoCA)

The precision and care that went into each wall drawing (some on walls that were, maybe, thirty feet wide by eight feet tall) are amazing. Each drawing is the product of work by a number of drafters, some of whom are interns and some of whom are dedicated to Sol LeWitt wall drawing. They develop methods for interpreting LeWitt’s instructions. Some of those instructions even leave parts of the implementation wholly up to the drafters.

Detail from Wall Drawing 305 (Mass MoCA)
Detail from Wall Drawing 305, the location of one hundred random specific points (Mass MoCA)

LeWitt’s method seems to revolve around abstraction – taking something observable and representing it in a symbolic way. The descriptions at Mass MoCA describe how LeWitt was interested in removing the artist from the artwork. This concept resonates for me: here I am, trained as a physicist and engineer, with my livelihood based on constructing, manipulating, and extracting results from mathematical models. Those models are based on the theories that govern physical phenomena; but they never are a full, complete description. Still, we use them to great effect in making predictions or developing new theories. The philosophy of science question here is, are the models conceptually different from the theories they describe? Or are they just a different representation of the same thing? In the same vein, is Sol LeWitt’s art the wall drawing, or the instructions? His opinion seemed to be the latter.

The other thing I ended up thinking about while strolling through the wall drawings was how the implementation of the drawings corresponded to realizations of models in the science and engineering world. We can come up with incredibly complex models for how the universe works, but when constructing a simulation or making a prediction, we often choose to use only a small part of the model. For instance, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity describes how objects move under the influence of gravity (or, equivalently, how they move through curved spacetime). But for a great many applications, Newton’s single equation for gravitational attraction between two bodies is enough: The force is attractive, proportional to the product of the masses of the bodies, and inversely proportional to the square of their separation. Then for yet another large subset of applications, the simple high-school physics expression F = -mg is quite sufficient. In a sense, both of these simplifications are realizations of General Relativity, in the presence of certain simplifications that let us “zoom in” on part of the model. When the drafters have a LeWitt wall drawing instruction sheet, they must match the instructions up to the wall space they have to work with. The instructions seems to be written in reference to relative measurements on the wall (the midpoint of the left side, the corner, the center of the wall, etc), which means that the same instructions – the same idea, the same “theory” can produce very different realizations on different walls. (And, speaking of relativity, I wonder if LeWitt ever took a look at the math behind Einstein’s theories. It would have been neat to see something like this wall drawing as viewed by an observer traveling at 0.5c!)

Not only do the spaces shape the wall drawings, but the drafters themselves may be left with choices in how to interpret and then implement LeWitt’s instructions. Take this wall drawing:

Wall Drawing 386 (Mass MoCA)
Wall Drawing 386, stars with three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine points, drawn with a light tone India ink wash inside, an India ink wash outside, separated by a 6-inch (15 cm) white band. (Mass MoCA)

I spent a little while thinking about that three-pointed star. Without that, it’s obvious how the progression works: the nth star is centered in the middle of each square, its points are evenly spaced about a circle, they all extend to the same radius, and the border of the star comes in between each point so that the shape is concave. But that three-pointed star breaks all those rules! It need not have – it could have been just like the four-pointed star, only with three points. Instead, it is a triangle with one concave side. Here, I do not know: was this in LeWitt’s instructions, or did a drafter determine how to construct this three-pointed star?

Some of the wall drawings definitely did have ambiguity built in. My favorite of MoCA’s drawings was 146A:

Wall Drawing 146A (Mass MoCA)
Wall Drawing 146A, all two-part combinations of arcs from corners and sides, and straight, not straight, and broken lines within a 36-inch (90 cm) grid. (Mass MoCA)

The instructions for this drawing specify that the drafters make “not straight” lines. Okay…so we define the line by what it isn’t, and leave a still-infinite space of possible lines that meet this description. The drafter can make “not straight” lines as un-straight as they like. They can make lines that wander as much as they want. They can choose to tie their “not straight” lines in to the “not straight” lines in the rest of the drawing or not. If you take a look at the timelapse video of this wall drawing being drafted, you can see how each drafter does each “not straight” line differently.

Were I Sol LeWitt, I think it would have been interesting to create a set of wall drawing instructions that contained intentional contradictions. Some drawings might have tiny contradictions, some might seem like egregious errors. What would the drafters do? Would they prioritize the instructions, and satisfy the most important ones first? Would they try to satisfy both constraints equally? Would they push back at all the instructions for the wall drawing, going for the most “average” level of meeting the instructions? That would sure be an interesting way to comment on our artistic, geometric, scientific, or philosophical methodologies. In an exhibition with many drafters and many walls, giving them all the same set of contradictory instructions would likely turn up some very interesting results!

Wall Drawing 692 (Mass MoCA)
Wall Drawing 692, continuous forms with color ink washes superimposed. (Mass MoCA)

Some of LeWitt’s later wall drawings were just plain fun. Drawing 692, above, was also one of my favorites – I liked how it gave the impression of different planes, and how the vibrant colors made the painting stand out as if with its own light. It was like looking through a windowpane onto another stained-glass window. Remember – this image doesn’t convey it, but I stood only a little taller than the second black line from the floor!

Then, of course, there were wall drawings like Splat, the intentionally impossible-to-look-at Loopy Doopy, Whirls and Twirls, and some cool experimentation with glossy and matte paints.

Wall Drawing 824 (Mass MoCA)
Wall Drawing 824, a black square divided in two parts by a wavy line. One part flat; one glossy. (Mass MoCA)

But of course, being a Williams guy, I had to like Wall Drawing 852 best of all.

Wall Drawing 852 (Mass MoCA)
Wall Drawing 852, a wall divided from the upper left to the lower right by a curvy line; left: glossy yellow; right: glossy purple. (Mass MoCA)

The Sol LeWitt Retrospective is a very cool exhibit. I didn’t always like the art at Mass MoCA, but I’ll happily recommend a trip to see this!

Who needs an SLR?

This past Saturday, I biked to upper Robert Treman State Park with some friends. Lots of hills between the lower and upper parks!

I brought along my little Canon PowerShot SD1000 – a pretty simple point-and-shoot – and GorillaPod. This camera is obviously designed for sliding into pockets and taking snapshots with a variety of presets, not for taking really high-quality artsy, landscape, or action photos. Still, this camera has been my personal mainstay for a while. (And given the right subject matter, who cares?!) Along with the GorillaPod and CHDK, it can actually be quite powerful. Most of my pictures on Saturday were high-dynamic-range composite photos that came out quite well in postprocessing. (Okay, still not as well as I could have done trying the same thing with a really good camera. But still: this is a great way to get excellent photos for about $220.)

High-dynamic-range, or HDR, photos are composites of several sub-images with varying exposure times. I followed this article and used Qtpfsgui to composite the images.

Lucifer Falls
Lucifer Falls

HDR images essentially combine the dark areas of overexposed photos with the light areas of underexposed photos. The net effect is an image that seems more like our everyday perception: you can see the details in both lit and shadowed areas of the resulting image. Of course, there are several algorithms that do this, and tweaking the settings can result in various realistic or artistic effects. Continue reading Who needs an SLR?