Sunday, June 30, 2013

Tokyo Temple Run

Tokyo (May 26, 2012)

On the way back to our hotel, after a day walking in the Tokyo Fukugawa area, we bumped into a very big crowd just outside Ueno station. Tokyo is a city with a rich night life, but we didn't expect to see so such a crowd. Getting closer, we realized that something was going on: the crowd was thicker around a small portable temple that a dozen men dressed in uniforms were lifting on poles, like the Lady of Our Graces in Boston's North End. The "uniform" of the temple bearers was also interesting (see photo on the left): a grey shirt with two kanji on the back (a happi?) over runner's shorts or, in some cases, a kind of loincloth (fundoshi) that made them look like they were rather pant less, in a very Donald Duck way. I am not sure what they were actually doing this late at night, but at some point they lifted their temple, started to run, and noisily disappeared into the night. We must have stumbled into the Tokyo Temple run!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Edo-Tokyo Museum

Tokyo, Japan (Jun 26, 2012)

After the Kiyosumi Garden we had an excellent lunch in a sushi restaurant that Yumiko and John knew about. The neighborhood around the gardens is quite nice, with plenty of shops of all sorts where you can enter and look around without any over-eager clerk trying to sell you anything. After lunch we headed to the Tokyo-Edo Museum. The museum is an interesting concept: it hosts a life-size reconstruction of a Tokyo housing block inside a large concrete warehouse. You can actually enter the wooden buildings and look at the carefully reconstructed furniture, or even interact with it (as Daise is doing in the small photo on the left). And you really don't have the choice of skipping anything: we found a volunteer museum guide that made absolutely sure we tried and photographically documented everything in the museum. She took personally at heart that we entered in every building, snapped the obligatory photos of each of us doing the kind of things we could have done if we had lived in Edo, and finally quizzed us about the lecture she delivered! After the museum we had one more stroll in the neighborhood, visiting more shops, in particular an interesting place where we tasted many types of excellent sake). We finally ended up into a large temple where some very carefully choreographed and quite loud religious ceremony involving drums and gongs was ongoing, while Mayli and Yimuko had an interesting discussion about the naming of colors, blue in particular. We ended the day with dinner, in the Tokyo equivalent of a tapa-bar. This was a cool place where we shared beer with tempura and seafood skewers and, best of all, skewers with eel liver (unagi kimo): really tasty, pity that Mayli didn't dare to try it!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Kiyosumi Garden

Kiyosumi Garden, Tokyo (May 26, 2012)

We spent our first weekend in Japan with some friends we knew from our time in Boston. John Silverman was a Smithsonian Predoctoral Fellow at the time I was a postdoc at the Center for Astrophysics. He and Yumiko, his wife, moved to Japan when he took a position at the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (IPMU). They now live in the Tokyo area with their son Daise (pictured in the small photo on the left, while he is taking a photo of his dad and mom). We met at the Kiyosumi-shirakawa Metro train station in the Fukugawa area, which is one of the representative hitamachi (old city) part of Tokyo. The station is very close to the celebrated Kiyosumi Garden. The garden is very beautiful. Built at the end of the XIX century, it has a large pond with three little islands. A path meanders around the pond, sometimes crossing small inlets of the lake on stepping-stones. A famous characteristics of the park is its collection of water-worn boulders, brought from all over Japan to give characters to the landscape. The pond hosts many large koi fishes and snapping turtles, and attracts many beautiful birds, like the one in the photo above.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Tokyo National Museum

Tokyo, Japan (May 24, 2012)

I didn't visit the Tokyo National Museum. Neither did Mayli, when she finally joined me in Tokyo before the end of my meeting. That is however where we met at the end of the day she arrived, which is when I took the photo above. I found her sitting on the tables outside a cafe in the plaza in front of the museum, just after sunset, when the falling light colors everything with a soft blue tint. With a day to kill while I was still at my meeting, Mayli visited the neighborhood of the Gaidai University (University of Arts), just behind Ueno Park. This is part of shitamachi Tokyo, or the old city. According to Mayli, one could walk through the neighborhood for hours, stopping at every art shop selling brushes (where the owner used to make brushes for Miró and Picasso), colors, wooden blocks and prints. She also enjoyed very much Imojin, a traditional old-fashioned ice-cream shop, and Torindo, that she described as the perfect place for a cup of tea.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo, Japan (May 22, 2012)

With 333 meters height, until recently the Tokyo Tower was the tallest building in Japan. As you can sort of see in the small photo below, it looks like a red-painted Tour Eiffel. The Tokyo Tower was in fact one of the few buildings in the city that I already knew before my trip, as it features prominently in a long series of japanese anime and disaster movies. King Kong may have climbed on the Empire State Building holding the belle in his hand, but nothing compares to Godzilla incinerating the Tokyo Tower with his foul atomic breath! When we visited the Tower at the end of our Tokyo mini-tour, however, the sea monster was nowhere in sight. The tower has two observatories, situated at 150 and 250 meters. From there one can see a wide view of the city, all the way to Mt. Fuji (if you are lucky enough to get there in a rare clear day). The view from the observatories is very impressive and reminded me of the opening scene in Blade Runner, with buildings lost in the mist all the way down to the far horizon. The structure also fulfills an important role as broadcasting tower for radio and television signals in the Tokyo area. Our visit to the Tokyo Tower marked the end of its record as tallest free standing building in Japan that a tourist can visit. In case you are wondering, this was not our fault. By sheer coincidence that same day of our visit the observatory of the recently completely (and twice as high) Tokyo Skytree opened to the public. This new concrete and steel tower was constructed to support the broadcast antennas required to diffuse the high frequency signals of modern digital radio and television. You can see the newly completed Tokyo Tree tower in a previous post of this series, still unscathed by the relentless attacks by Godzilla and its monster friends.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Bridges and Weddings

Tokyo, Japan (May 22, 2012)


The Sumida river is now crossed by 14 bridges, and during our boat tour we crossed many of them. Some of the bridges are quite low above the water, and in a few instances I had the instinct of lowering my head as I was passing below them (I was on the open bridge on the top level of the boat). Bridge making was apparently a big issue in Tokyo. Before the main branch of the Arakawa river was diverted from the course of what is now the Sumida river, flooding was common. Add that to the risk of fires, and is clear how in old times the wooden bridges of Tokyo were not particularly long lasting. All this changed at the end of the XIX century, with the development of modern metallurgy. The first modern bridge was erected in 1874 of wrought-iron girders. Now all the bridges are made of steel and concrete, with the last wooden bridge replaced in 1911.

After the boat tour we went to the Happo-en restaurant. The food was good, but Happo-en means "garden of eight views" and the highlight of the place is actually it beautiful garden. Its central pond is home of many voracious koi fishes of unusual size. I wrote voracious because I was watching when one of the restaurant employee was feeding them: I know that koi fishes are not piranhas, but after seeing the resulting feeding frenzy I made sure not to fall into the water. The place is a favorite spot for wedding banquets, and we saw many couples taking wedding photos in the garden. Most of them in western style attire, but a few wearing traditional japanese dressing, like the couple in the picture on the left.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sensoji and the Sumida River

Sumida River, Tokyo (May 22, 2012)

My next couple of days in Japan, being busy at the meeting, I didn't have any time to go around and take photos. The third day, however, we went with the whole SAGE band on a mini-tour of central Tokyo. Our first destination was the Sensoji temple. The legend says that the temple was built in the year 628 by two fishermen brothers. While they were fishing in the nearby Sumida river, they found a golden statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. What do you do when you find a golden statue in the river? Well, you throw it back, which is what they did. Of course that won't work with a true goddess statue, merciful or not, and they kept fishing it back over and over, until they figured out it must have been a sign, and started to build a temple in her honor. The temple was completed in 645, making it the oldest temple in Tokyo.

Sensoji temple (May 22, 2012)
The temple is still a huge attraction, for foreign and local tourists alike. I saw many school groups visiting the temple (see small photo on the left) and the large open air market selling all kind of japanese snacks, sweet candies and souvenirs. Note how one of the schoolgirls in the photo has a surgical mask: wearing a mask is just another evidence of the high sense of civic duty of japanese people. She is not wearing the mask to protect herself, but rather to protect everybody else from the flu germs she may be carrying. Very noble sentiment, given that you really don't want to get a flu if you can avoid it, especially if you are doing some tourism in Japan (but more on that in a later post). The temple is impressive, as is the huge gate at its entrance, and a tall five story pagoda with a weird giant straw sandal sticking from one side.

After spending a couple of hours at the temple, we to a boat tour on the river Sumida. The river is actually a branch of the larger Arakawa river, formed in the Meji era to reduce the risk of flooding. It ends in the Tokyo bay, passing through modern neighborhoods with tall commercial and residential buildings all the way to the Tsukiji fish market. And many, many bridges.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Eclipse!

Tokyo, Japan (May 21, 2012)

My meeting wasn't supposed to start until later in the day, but I decided to get early to the University. My goal was to be on high grounds by 22:00 UT (that's 7AM local time) when a solar eclipse was set to start. This was my first time with a solar eclipse. Well, I have seen partial solar eclipses, but this was my first chance to witness the Moon transiting front and center in between Earth and the Sun. Given that the orbits of the Moon around the Earth, and of the Earth around the Sun, are slightly elliptical, the relative distance of the three objects when they are aligned is different each time. In some cases the Moon is a bit closer to Earth, and completely obscures the disk of the Sun: when that happens we have a total Solar eclipse. Sometimes instead the Moon is slightly farther away and its apparent size is not sufficient to completely block the light from the Sun: we have in this case an annular eclipse. What we had in May 2012 was an annular eclipse: not as impressive as a total eclipse, but still way cooler than a partial eclipse, when only a smudge of the Sun is covered by the Moon.

My plan was to try to photograph the event, but of course there were two problems. First of all you should never look directly to the Sun, eclipse or no, with your camera or with your naked eyes. The Sun is bright enough that you may damage your retina. To photograph the Sun you need a solar filter, and of course I didn't carry one. Secondly, to see the Sun you need a clear sky, and of course it was cloudy. What to do?

In the end one problem solved the other. The clouds were thick enough to provide a nice filter for the Sun, and at the same time not too thick to completely obscure it. In fact when I tried the first pictures came out a little over exposed, even with my lens all closed up at f/16, with the shortest 1/5000 exposure. To get an even smaller aperture I vignetted the lens with my hand, reducing the light entering the camera. And this is how I got the images posted above, with the Sun, the clouds and the Moon in between.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Estudiantina Komaba

University of Tokyo, Japan (May 20, 2012)

With my meeting starting on Monday morning, I had to kill the whole day of Sunday. The idea was to figure out where the University of Tokyo Hongo campus was located, so hat I could make it in time the next day for the meeting (for reasons that will be clear in the next post, I was actually planning to be there the next day well in advance of the meeting scheduled time). According to Google map and the instructions I received before leaving, it was quite straightforward: walk along the Ueno Park pond for a couple of blocks, then turn left and there you go.

Well, it is never so easy. The University campus is in fact on a hill, level with the streets on the East side but way uphill on the side facing the park. To further complicate the access, the campus is surrounded by high walls, with only a few gates allowing entrance to the steep roads leading to the University buildings. Of course this was not mentioned in the instructions, given that most of the meeting participants were staying in the recommended hotels on the West side (facility of access was clearly the reason for such recommendations). So I found myself going round and round around the walls, looking for a way in.

Ueno Park, Tokyo (May 20, 2012)
Mayli complains that my sense of orientation is a little challenged, and that may have played some part in me getting partially lost. To get myself out of trouble, I decided to follow the wisdom of the crowd: I noticed that a lot of people (really a lot) were walking in the same direction, apparently with a sense of purpose much more secure than my random wondering. That was a little surprising (why all that people would want to go to the University campus on a Sunday) but how could they all be wrong? I decided to follow. The solution to the mystery came in the form of the annual May Fair, the University of Tokyo equivalent of Iowa State Veishea. Every year in Spring the University campus opens its door and invites the public in. There is food from all over the world, magicians, students dressed like in Anime and of course music. Japanese pop music, you would think? Yes, but not only. In fact I have been lying all the time, with the story of getting lost and not knowing about the May Fair. Mayli had read about it in her favorite blog Caracas Chronicles

Why a venezuelan blog was writing about a student festival in Japan? Because among the music groups playing at the fair there was the Estudiantina Komaba, an all-japanese ensemble playing exclusively Venezuelan music. They are portrayed in the large photo on top, but you can find their music all over the internet, including YouTube. The group was created in 2009 by Prof. Jun Ishibashi, that in the '80s was a visiting scholar at the Central University in Caracas. Every year new students join the group, that has grown to have a sizable repertoire of Venezuelan music, from the Andes to the Caribbean coast. They are quite good, and in fact they have a lot of fans even in Venezuela. After spending an hour or so at their concert in the Engineering building I headed back to the hotel. That was not the last concert of the day, however. As the small photo on the left show, I happened to find more music on a stage in Ueno Park. I am not sure what kind of event it was, but it looks like many serious "amateur" groups were playing traditional music (japanese traditional, this time) to a very enthusiastic audience. At least this is what the meaning of the word written on the banner on stage (ikouze = "let's do it") suggests it was. Anybody knows for sure?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ueno Park

Ueno Park, Japan (May 19, 2012)

Getting to Japan from the Midwest definitely takes its time. Maybe not quite as long as flying from Boston to New Zealand via Australia, it still takes still about 12 hours just for the long leg from O'Hare to Narita. And of course one leaves in the morning to arrive still in the morning with a whole day ahead before even thinking of hitting the bed. The 14 hours difference between Central US and Japan time are the most effective recipe to completely scramble one's biorhythms. And then you arrive in one of the largest megalopolis in the world, where addresses are based on the block numbers instead of street names, and of course are written with totally alien characters. And you have to find your hotel.

The solution is of course an international data plan and google maps on your iPhone. And if you are into iPhone apps, install also the Hyperpedia app (free for a trial period, then subscription based), an essential tool to get real time itineraries, prices and timetables for all trains and metro system in the country. Japan has an exceptionally efficient and distributed public transportation system, but its navigation can be a little daunting, especially in the smaller stations where english signs are not obvious, and in the larger ones where you have to decide fast among dozens of platforms on many different levels. Hyperpedia and google maps can be life-saver tools to navigate the complexities of the system, especially when you are seriously jet lagged. Once you know what to do, it is actually easy to get to Tokyo, thanks to the Narita Skyliner connecting the airport with the main terminals in the city.

Kan'ei-ji temple, Japan (May 26, 2012)
Since my meeting was on the campus of the University of Tokyo, I choose my hotel next to the nearby Ueno Park, very close to one of the main Tokyo train stations. Ueno is one of the first public park in Japan, created in 1873 at a time (Meiji period) in which the country was experimenting with international practices (among which public park creation). With over 10 million visitors a year, it is still very popular. My hotel (the Tokyo Ueno Hotel Park Side) was very westernized, and is a good option if you are in Japan for the first time. Not the best way to see the "real Japan", but it will make your life easier, at least at the beginning. The presence of the Park makes the area quite touristic, which means there are plenty of places to eat with choices of traditional and international cuisine (yeah, there is even a MacDonald at the corner, ugh). I like Japanese food, though, so I tried to stick to more-or-less traditional cuisine for the whole trip (that included raw fish and raw eggs dropped in white rice for breakfast). After I arrived, however, I was more tired than starved, but I still tried to stay awake until sunset, to avoid being a zombie the next day. The photo above shows the view from the side of the pond at the center of the park, with touristy swan boats, the Kan'ei-ji temple and the newly inaugurated Tokyo Sky Tree far in the background. I didn't last very long, and after a short walk in the park I headed back to the hotel for some much needed sleep. The nocturnal image of the temple on the left was definitely shot on another day, as by the time it was dark, I was sound asleep in a jet-lag induced stupor.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Japan Diary

Kyoto, Japan (Jun 1, 2012)

As I am writing, Mayli is on a plane flying to Japan. She will stay there for a 2-days meeting near Tokyo, which means she will be traveling for about the same amount of time she will be staying in Japan. This is her third trip to Japan, following an initial trip a few years ago, and the trip we did together last year. Almost exactly one year ago, I had a Mega-SAGE collaboration meeting in Tokyo, followed two weeks later by Mayli's bi-annual "Neutrino" conference in Kyoto. The timing was just right so that I stayed one week more in Japan after my meeting, and Mayli arrived one week early before her conference, and we used the in-between week to take a very needed vacation. Since at the time my photoblog was not working, I never posted the photos I took during the trip, and never compiled an online "travel diary" of the vacation. Using the excuse of Mayli's new trip, I will be posting starting tomorrow my belated Japan Diary, with photos and comments of our trip to Japan, with just one year delay.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Frailejones

Laguna de Mucubají, Venezuela (Dec 18, 2010)

The large plants in the foreground are frailejónes (or espeletia), a plant which is typical of the Andean region. These are perennial shrubs that can be found in the highlands near Mayli's hometown (Merida in Venezuela). The espeletia genus was formally described by Alexander Von Humboldt, in his expedition to South America. The ones in the photo above are relatively small, as frailejónes go, as I have seen some taller than a grown human. In fact their common name derives from their shape, as seen from afar in the andean mists, possibly confused with the shape of monks (frailes) walking in line on the horizon. The long hairy leaves have the texture and shape of rabbit hears; well giant rabbit, that is. They are one of Mayli's favorite plants.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Lone November Tree

Ada Hayden, Ames, Iowa (Nov 27, 2010)

A lone tree in the backcountry path at the Ada Hayden park. I took this image in late November 2010, a few years ago, when the tree was already past its fall foliage, and the tall grass was past its harvest time. The area around the lake is preserved as a native restore prairie grassland (the study of native Midwest grasses was the main topic of study of Ada Hayden herself). Note that despite being almost december there is no snow on the ground. This is not unusual in Ames, where it tends to snow late in winter. In fact since we arrived in Ames there have been several years where the weather was still exceptionally good through November, warm and sunny enough to stay outside, but without the excessive heat and humidity (and the scourge of mosquitos) that characterize summers in Iowa.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Grass

Moore Park, Ames, Iowa (Jun 14, 2013)

The big news of today is that SCOTUS has decided about the possibility of patenting human genes. The court opinion is quite interesting, and largely expected. Human genes cannot be patented, as they are a product of nature, while patents are admissible for genetic sequences created as part of diagnostic techniques. This means that companies like Myriad Genetics (that holds the patents related to the "breast cancer genes" BRCA1 and BRCA2) can still charge $3,000 for their test, but their monopoly is broken as researchers are allowed to develop new tests based on the same genes. These new tests will eventually make these genetic screening much more affordable. 

One weird thing about the sentence, though, is that while the Court voted unanimously, Judge Scalia refused to subscribe to the first part of the Court opinion. This is where the "textbook" basic principles of genetics are summarized (e.g. "what is a gene", "what is DNA", etc), and where is mentioned that "the study of genetics can lead to valuable medical breakthrough". Judge Scalia in his remarks wrote that he could not subscribe to the above sentences because "I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief". Judge Scalia does not believe in molecular biology? Or maybe he doesn't believe that the study of genetics is beneficial for society? Maybe he only wanted to point out that he didn't need to understand the scientific mumbo-jumbo in the court opinion to affirm the basic principle, that human genes cannot be patented. Ok then...

Today's photo has nothing to do with SCOTUS, or genetics. It is just some grass, found at Moore Park. The inset on the left is also grass, but flowering: did you know that prairie grass has little yellow flowers that hang down like little yellow lantern?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Las Campanas Observatory

Las Campanas Observatory (Jan 10, 2006)

Since the subtitle of my photoblog is "Photos of a traveling astronomer", I better post some travel related astronomy image. The one above shows some of the telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory. Las Campanas is a large observatory near La Serena, Chile. The facility is managed by the Carnegie Observatories, and hosts a number of telescopes, including the du Pont telescope (large dome on the right), the Swope Telescope (isolated dome on the left) and the Warsaw telescope used for the OGLE survey (elevated dome in the center-right). The Warsaw telescope is one of those cases showing how you can do great science even with small telescopes (the primary mirror of the telescope, 51 inches diameter, is not completely out of reach for a very dedicated amateur). The OGLE survey it performs looks at two nearby satellite galaxies (the Magellanic Clouds) and towards the center of our own Galaxy for the flickering of stars caused by other objects passing in front of them. As Einstein showed with his theory of general relativity, massive objects (e.g. a star of a planet) deflect light similarly to an optical lens. This phenomenon (called gravitational lensing or, in this case, microlensing due to the relative small mass of the lensing object) causes the brightness of the lensed object to briefly increase as its light is "beamed" by a lensing object passing in front of it. 

Magellan Telescopes, Chile (Jan 8, 2006)
By looking for microlensing signature caused by the chance alignment of a "lens" with a distance star in the Magellanic Clouds or the Galactic Center, it is possible to perform a census of very small mass and dim "lenses" that may lurk closer to home, and that would not be possible to detect otherwise. In this way several very low mass stars, and even extrasolar planets, have been detected. As a bonus, the OGLE surveys monitors the variability of million of stars, and has amassed one of the most complete catalog of light-curve of variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds, which I regularly use for my science. Another example is the HAT (Hungarian Automated Telescope) network, a collection of very small robotic telescopes dedicated to the search of exoplanets transiting in front of their parent star. The HAT telescopes were still not installed at the time I took the photo above. Missing from my picture are also the Magellan Telescopes, which are the twin large aperture telescopes (6.5 meters primary mirror diameter) in the small photo on the left. I was using one of them during the trip in January 2006 when I took the photos shown here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Veenker Memorial Golf Course Maintenance Facility Relocation

Moore Memorial Park, Ames, Iowa (Jan 18, 2010)

The Moore Memorial Park is the green area behind my house, where I walk Kero every morning. The park was established on a 90 acres property donated to the city of Ames by Fern and Bertha Moore, that operated a dairy farm there. It is said that Bertha Moore enjoyed negotiating with developers that wanted to buy the valuable property (which sits next to the Iowa State University Veenker golf course), to "hear them out, bargain and then decline". She wanted the property to be converted into a place where children could play. And so it is now: the park is a nice green oasis where the people in the neighborhood bring their children, bike, jog or walk their dogs (this is what I do) on a daily basis. It is common to have large weddings hosted in spring in one of the two shelters in the park.

As you can see in the leaflet shown on the left, the park is destined to shrink a little starting from the next week. A few years ago it became clear that the golf course maintenance facility, currently located in the flood plain within the golf course grounds, was not a safe place for the heavy machinery it hosts. The Squaw Creek periodically floods the area, and the maintenance facility shed with it. 

To avoid this issue the University asked the city to lease 5,000 square feet on the South side of the park to build a new maintenance facility building. The transaction was approved in 2012, and the construction works will start next week. You can read the whole story here. It is to be noted that the site where the facility is being built is currently occupied by a 9/11 memorial that will need to be relocated (some of the trees are already gone). The City hosted a public meeting with the residents (which was not very well attended, and I am as guilty as anybody else for not even knowing about it). Most of the objections to the construction of the facility concerned the visual impact of the structure (the esthetics of the building does not seem to have anything to do with the looks of the park existing structures, i.e. the shelters or the preserved red barn and silo), the fact that the building will block the view from the park to the meadows in the golf course and the forest behind (the trees in the 9/11 memorial would have eventually taken care of that), and of course the "desecration" of the 9/11 memorial. Reading the City Council document linked above, it looks like nobody mentioned what I think will be the main problem that the maintenance facility will bring to the park: noise. And I am not referring to the construction work noise. The purpose of the facility is to host the heavy machinery (large lawn mowers, tractors/trucks, earthmoving machines) that are currently down below in the golf course. These are noisy machines: ever heard the loud beeping of a truck in reverse? This is what I am talking about. Having them operating on a daily basis right next to one of the main paths within Moore Park will be extremely disruptive, for the people and pets that enjoy the park (I can imagine Kero going berserk every time one of those loud machines will move as we walk along the path next to the facility, that would pretty much write off that side of the park for me). Certainly this park "improvement" will not help preserving the quiet that the park frequenters seek. Hardly what Fern and Bertha Moore had in mind for their little plot of land.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Blue Ice

Ice on Ada Hayden pond (Jan 28, 2012)

This is a crack on the ice covering the Ada Hayden pond in Ames, taken two winters ago. Iowa can be quite cold in winter, with continuously sub-freezing temperature lasting for weeks in a row. I remember a three years ago I was at the January meeting of the American Astronomical Society, attending a talk about Mars climate. One of the slides had a plot showing summer weather on the red planet: it turned out that at that moment the temperature in Ames was actually lower than the daytime temperature experienced by the rovers roaming the equatorial zone on Mars! True to that, I had to extend my trip by one day, due to a snow storm that grounded all air transportation to the Midwest the day I was supposed to come back home. But do you know that we have observed snow falling on Mars?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The road back home

Big Sandy Lake, Minnesota (June 8, 2013)

Yesterday we drove back home. Rather than driving back to Duluth, and then Minneapolis to Ames on highway 35 (fast but boring), we took route 169 past Hibing, and them route 65 to Minneapolis. Route 65 is a nice two lanes highway crossing through open countryside bordering the meandering Mississippi river on one side, the usual sequence of lakes on the other.

Highway 35, Iowa
As it was getting warmer driving south, we looked for a stop along the river for Mayli to change into lighter clothes, driving on a narrow dirt road to a public access to the water. The fact that there was grass and dandelion flowers growing in the middle of the "road" should have given us a clue about how much this access road was in use. We did get at the river shore, but could not really stop there for even a minute: as soon as we opened the door of the car a thick swarm of mosquitoes charged to the assault, forcing us to a very rapid retreat, window and car roof still open to try to blow off the dozens of mosquitos that entered the car. I managed to briefly see the river, though, with its slow water the color of chocolate. We had then better luck with our next stop, at a large camping ground on the shores of the Big Sandy lake (photo above). The current lake is an artificial basin, created in 1859 by building a dam on the Sandy river. It originally had a lock, used to allow navigation to and from the Mississippi. In 1850 Sandy lake was the site of the death of hundreds of native americans of the Ojibwe tribe (the Sandy lake tragedy). Officials of the Minnesota territory sought to relocate the tribe from Wisconsin to territories west of Mississippi. To achieve this goal they delayed the payment of the annuity to the tribe, and moved it to a remote outpost in Sandy lake. This triggered a series of events that resulted in the death, by starvation, disease and freezing, of 12% of the tribe, mostly men. The tragedy spurred the resistance of the Ojibwe to the forced relocation, ultimately leading to the creation of a reservation in their traditional territory. A historical marker on the rest area along route 65 memorialize the event. We then restarted our drive, arriving in Ames when it was dark, and raining.

Dry Lake

Dry Lake, Minnesota (Jun 7, 2013)


On Friday the weather was good enough to go for another hike. I decided to go back to the Bass lake hiking trail, this time taking the shorter loop around the Dry and Little Dry lakes. These two lakes are of course not really dry, but they have an interesting story. At the beginning of the XX century, these two lakes were still part of Bass Lake, which was twice as large as today. At that time, logging started in the area, which led to the construction of a sluice way on a ridge separating the lake from the lower Low lake. In 1925 seepage collapsed the sluiceway, creating a gorge and emptying Bass lake lowering its level by 50 feet in 10 hours. In the process two smaller body of water (the Dry and Little Dry lakes) became separated by the remnant of Bass lake. Local newspapers wrote about the unpredicted event as a natural marvel (rather than the consequence of human activity). The hike as pleasant, with several scenic overlook on rocky outcrops on the lake shore, one of which slopes gently in Dry lake, and provided a bathing opportunity for Kero. The shore of the Little Dry lake is flatter, and quite rich in mosquitos, so we didn't linger there for very long.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Soudan Mine

Soudan Mine, Minnesota (Jun 6, 2013)

The crusher, Soudan Mine
The photo above shows the site of the Soudan Underground Mine. This was the oldest iron mine in Minnesota, opened from 1882 to 1962. In 1965 the mine was donated to the State of Minnesota to use for educational purpose and can be visited, down to the lowest level (the 27th, 2341 ft below ground) as part of a historical tour. To take advantage of the low cosmic-rays background, the mine is also the site of the Soudan Underground Laboratory, a high energy physics lab hosting the MINOS and CDMS experiments. While CDMS is a dark matter experiment, MINOS is designed to measure the parameters of neutrino oscillations, the phenomena according to which neutrinos change their "flavor" as they travel. This oscillations are a consequence of neutrinos having a non-zero mass, which is something not predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. Studying neutrino oscillations is thus a way of studying physics beyond our current working model. MINOS is one of the experiments in which Mayli is working, which is why we went at the mine site on Thursday as part of her collaboration meeting "tour". Mayli and I didn't go underground (we had been there in other occasions), but I never had time before to explore the mining equipment on the surface, including the "crusher" (inset photo on the left) used to literally crush the iron ore once it was hauled to the surface. The bit towering structure in the top photo is the surviving mine shaft, which is still used to lower the elevator cage all the way down, to access the lab and the mine level still open for the public tour.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Wanless Road

Kawishiwi River, Minnesota (Jun 5, 2013)

Yesterday Kero and I went for another road trip. The idea was to drive all the way to Lake Superior (to Grand Marais), then take the Gunflint Trail north to Trails End on Sea Gull lake. The only problem with that was that I seriously underestimated the excess army time for the drive, and when I arrived at Grand Marais after following route 1 (always nice) and the costal road (route 61, boring and trafficked) I was sick of driving. Reaching the end of the Gunflint trail would have required another couple of hours at least, so I figured that by the time I was back to Grand Marais I would have been way too tired to get back along the faster, more trafficked, and more boring coastal road. 

A bald eagle on Kawishiwi River
I needed a backup plan. That came in the form of the forest roads 170 and 172 (the Wanless road). From Grand Marais one can take the Gunflint Trail for just a few miles (confirming, btw, that the Gunflint Trial seems indeed a nice place for a scenic road trip), and the aptly named Devil Track Road just after crossing the Little Devil Track river. That's where the Grand Marais airport (airstrip?) is. Then take the route 27 to the Two Island lake campsite, where you will cross route 170. We are talking gravel roads, here. Route 170 goes all the way through the forest, crossing many rivers and lakes. All other cross roads are smaller forest roads, so it is difficult to get lost (yeah, no signal here for your GPS Internet based maps). The only tricky part is near Wanless, where you leave route 170 to briefly take route 7 North (Windy lake road) turning left after just a few miles to finally turn right on route 172 (Wanless Road) that after 40 miles or so connects back to route 1. Overall the whole trip took about 7 hours, at least half of which Kero did with his head stuck out of the window, basking in the wind and the drizzling rain that accompanied us for most of the trip.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bass Lake Trail

Bass lake, Minnesota (Jun 4, 2013)

On Tuesday we (Kero and I) went for a hike. The Bass lake trail loops around four lakes (Bass lake proper, Low lake, Dry lake and Little Dry lake) off the Echo trail, just a few miles from Ely. It crosses an forested hilly area, with several scenic overlooks on the lakes. In between the Bass and the Low lake it passes on a narrow land bridge where a beaver created a pool by damming built the river connecting the lakes.

Kero barking at his echo
Near that area there is a nice sandy beach, covered with lichens in between sparse birch trees. That is the place Kero likes most: he jumps in the water of the lake and barks at the waves he makes. Then he hears the echo from his barking and starts howling back to the imaginary dog (or wolf) on the far shore. I have been in that place twice over the years, and Kero never fails to do this routine (see inset photo on the left). The trail is actually two separate loops: in between the Bass and Dry lakes it bifurcates: one option is turning right for an extra 2 miles around the Dry (and Little Dry) lake, the other is to head back to the parking lot. We chose this second option as it passes through the Dry falls, where the river from the Dry lake empties in the Bass lake. More scenic overlooks there. All in all we walked for about 6.5 miles.

The nice part of this area is that, while protected as part of the Superior National Forest, it still allows dogs on trails. This is not true for the trails manages by the National Park Service, where not even leashed dogs are allowed (they can only be walked where cars can go, e.g. Parking lots or the road side, no more than 100 ft from the car). While I understand the reasons for this policy (yes even dogs on leash are noisy and can be disruptive for the wildlife) I am pretty sure the National Parks could easily set aside short trails (just a few miles) along the main roads, in the most touristic area, where dogs can be walked on leash. I don't see why in those areas a dog on leash would be more disruptive than a busload of tourists.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Lake Superior

Lake Superior (Jun 3, 2013)

Yesterday we drove along route 1 to the shores of Lake Superior. Route 1 crosses the forest heading east, until it hits the Minnesota side of the lake. Paved from one end to the other, it is a very enjoyable ride (but careful, at night, for the crossing deers and moose). Along the way the usual variety of lakes and river crossings: it becomes a long ride if you plan to stop and take pictures at each of them.

Kero and Mayli
We in fact took a diversion by driving off road 172 (Wanless road) at Isabella. It is a gravel road that cuts through the forest, with lots more lakes on both sides. The inset photo on the left was taken at one such lakes (The Dumbbell lake, maybe) where we went for a stroll in the picknick area as off the main road. At Wanless we then took one of the several rites that drive down to Lake Superior (I believe route 166 and then route 342). It is quite impressive how you suddenly get a steep slope and in front of you, instead of the now familiar variety of trees, a large flat expanse of water appear. If you have never seen the Great Lakes, you may as well think of them as internal seas: they are huge and definitely you won't see the shore on the other side. The stillness of the water, however, betrays their nature: there is no sign of the large waves one would expect even in an internal sea as the Mediterranean. The photo on top was taken at a park along the shore, where the temperance river meets the lake at the falls with the same name.

We ended our drive as far north as we could without getting into Canada. We actually found the pier (Hovland landing) were the mail was arriving before route 1 and the coastal road were made. Mail arrived at the site by boat, to be carried on by sledge dogs along the "old dog road". Back in Grand Marais we had dinner. Mayli found a place with an internet-praised onion soup and pear salad. We stopped there to order to go (yeah dogs are not admitted in restaurants) and that turned out to be a mistake: the place was too good a restaurant to order stuff to go, especially if you have then to eat it in the car with p,a stick forks and no spoon for he soup. Well, live and learn. Before leaving town we stopped at a coffee and ice cream place (both excellent) at the very entrance if Grand Marais. We then started the long drive back, on the coastal road (route 61) and then route 1 to Ely, without stops, this time, except the forced ones necessary to avoid the many deers (and two moose) standing in the middle of the way.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Along Echo Trail

Along Echo trail, Minnesota (June 2, 2013)

Mayli meeting is only starting on Tuesday, so we spent the day driving along one of my favorite forest roads, the Echo trail. It starts just a few miles from Ely, and then cut across a corridor in between the bulk of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and a smaller portion of it to the southwest. Only
A beaver on Vermillion lake (Jun 2, 2013)
paved for the first few miles on the Ely side, it is a beautiful drive through forest, river crossings, trail heads and portages. We drove the whole of it, stopping along the way to take pictures at some of the many lakes along the way. The trail ends at the eponymous Echo lake. Since it was still early when we arrived there, we took Crane lake road to, you guess it, Crane lake. Really close to the Canadian border, the Crane lake road end in a touristic village (an island of 3G network good enough to do video chats with our families in Italy and Venezuela, from the middle of the wilderness). You can find there a nice pub where to get a late lunch based on burgers or fried walleye. Restored, we then drove back to our cabin in Ely, following back Crane lake road until it hits route 1 to Ely. We still stopped a few times along the road, though: many lakes to see and photographs, including one where an unperturbed beaver (see photo on the left) was having a snack just a few feet from the shore.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Driving North

Interstate 35, Minnesota (June 1, 2013)

We are driving north. Mayli has one of her "week in the woods", a meeting of her collaboration, in Ely Minnesota, so we are all going together to the North Country. From our place is over 8 hours driving, straight along interstate 35. As you can see, the weather has not been cooperating much, as we got a couple of strong thunderstorms along the way. But now that we are here the sun is up, literally up even though is 9:30PM.

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