Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Vineyards of the Langhe

Langhe, Italy (August 4, 2014)

Don't trust the GPS. One would think that I would know well the area in the south of Piedmont where my family is from. After all I have lived there for many years, and spent many summers in a little valley where the Alps starts, right at the head of the wine region of Piedmont. Yet, when at the end of the long drive from Trieste, Waze decided that we should get off the road to take a "shortcut" through the hills, I decided that technology must trump memories. Sure as hell, we found ourselves in the middle of the Langhe, in pitch dark, driving on roads getting ever smaller and steeper.

Vineyards in the Langhe
The Langhe are the wine region at the south of Torino, where the finest wines of Piemonte are produced (and the more-precious-than-their-weight-in-gold white truffles are found). Traveling through the area is like reading through a restaurant wine list: Barolo, Barbaresco, Neive... all little towns on the top of a hill, with a castle, a church and vineyards producing the unique wines carrying the local toponyms in their names. To those famous wines one should add the least known ones, among which the red Dolcetto and the white Arneis, which I actually prefer to their better known brethrens. The center of the Langhe is Alba, a pre-roman town that became a free city during the late middle ages, and was a center of fierce resistance against the german occupying forces in WWII. Cesare Pavese, one of my favorite writers, was from Santo Stefano Belbo, one of the centers in the area. My family has also their roots in the Langhe, with my paternal grandparents born in Bra and Cherasco. On the other side of the river Tanaro these two small centers are in sight of La Morra, an ancient village where the Nebiolium (Nebbiolo) wine was already grown in roman times. It is said that the vineyards were so highly regarded that the penalty for cutting down a vine were as severe as hanging, or having the offending hand amputated.

My only regret of getting lost in the finest wine area in Italy was that it was the middle of the night, and in full darkness we could not enjoy the beautiful vistas of the region (recently declared UNESCO World Heritage Site), nor the wines or the food. This was however to be remedied just a few days later, when we went back to the area on a wine expedition.

Mr. Drocco and his dogs
The attitude I was taught as a kid with respect to alcohol consumption, is that you drink wine for its flavour, not because of its inebriating qualities. A corollary of this is that there is no point in drinking crap wine: you go for quality. While in the US that would be synonym with expensive, in Italy it rather means that you only drink the wine from a producer you trust. That often means going to the source. The trusted vineyard of my family is a friend of my father, Mr. Renzo Drocco. A small family business, his production is mostly sold to local restaurants. And to a few friends. So, the next day after getting lost at night in the hills of the Langhe, we did the same route in reverse, in full daylight, to Mr. Drocco vineyards in Rodello. You can see the landscape in the area in this post's photos: rows after rows of vines, owned by small producers that strive for quality, rather than quantity. You can see him in the little photo on the right, in the cellar where his wine matures, and where he offered us a taste of his wines accompanied by a fresh slice of his own excellent salami (the latter explains the laser-focused attention of the two very interested pooches in the photo).

As I am writing this post, now that I am back in Iowa, one of his bottles is on the table, in front of me. A bottle of Arneis, a highly perfumed wine with the aroma of apricot, peaches and pears, sometimes called "Nebbiolo bianco". In the local dialect, Arneis means "little rascal", and refer to the difficulty in properly growing the vine. An art that Mr. Drocco has mastered to perfection.

Langhe, Italy (August 4, 2014)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Troubled Life of an Unlikely Emperor

Trieste, Italy (August 3, 2014)

There was a time in history when a selected group of individuals, because of their birth, marriage or money, were more equal in society than everybody else. A few families controlled the governments of Europe, and the flow of capitals across the world. Their offsprings were groomed since a tender age to be the future enlightened leaders of their nations. Borders were drawn to accommodate their rightful necessities, and preserve the balance of power among these powerful families and their entourage. To us, living in the modern world of full equality, where everybody has the same political influence, economic possibilities and education opportunities, regardless of gender, race or inclinations, this may seem a quaint world out of touch with reality. But this was the world at the beginning of the XIX Century, after the Congress of Vienna in 1814 repaired the upheaval caused by the Napoleonic wars and set a new order by restoring the old powers to their rightful place.

Votivkirche, Vienna
This was the world in which Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine was born, in the imperial palace of Shönbrunn in Vienna. The second surviving child of a cadet branch in the Austrian imperial family, he devoted himself to a life of study and military action when his brother Franz Joseph become the new Holy Roman Emperor (that is, the ruler of Austria and half of Europe). Franz Joseph (Ceco-Beppe as he was nicknamed by his faithful italian subjects) had been elevated to the crown to bring some new, militaristic blood to a throne tainted by the European revolutions of 1848, and roll back some of the democratic concessions forced upon his feeble-minded uncle. After suppressing a revolt of the Hungarians, that somehow resented the Habsburg centralized rule, the emperor suffered an assassination attempt by the hands of the Hungarian nationalist János Libényi. He barely survived, and to celebrate this event (the survival, that is) the emperor's brother Maximilian called upon the reigning families of Europe to donate for the construction of a church on the site of the attack. Thus the Votivkirche in Vienna was constructed, located, as it happens, just facing my hotel room when I was in town two weeks ago for a meeting. The little photo on the left was my view from the window. Thanks Maximilian for your efforts.

Miramare marine reserve 
Maximilian efforts, however, didn't stop with the beautification of my hotel room view. At just 22 years of age he became commander in chief of the Austrian Navy, and was instrumental in the creation of the naval ports of Trieste and Pula. He was then named Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia (at the time part of the Austrian Empire), but he didn't last very much in that role. The emperor became enraged by the liberal policies attempted by Maximilian, and he was removed from the post. He then retired in Trieste with his wife Carlota. In Trieste he built their love-nest, the Miramare castle. The villa (built with the characteristically eclectic architecture of the time) is shown in the large picture above. It happens to be just a few step down from SISSA, the school where I did my graduate studies, and ICTP, which is where Mayli took a year of courses after her university degree.  You can say that Mayli and me met on the grounds of Maximilian and Carlota love-nest. The residence is surrounded by a beautiful park facing the gulf of Trieste, now a protected marine reserve. Next to the reserve and directly at the end of the road to the SISSA/ICTP buildings, there is a stone and concrete pier projecting into the gulf. The only public access to the sea, between the protected waters and private marina, this pier is where SISSA students spend the late afternoons waiting for the traffic to abate along the coastal road, before heading back to the city for dinner. You can see the pier in the small photo below (you may notice, keen-eyed reader, as women of any age sunbathe topless in Trieste, and nobody makes any fuss about it).

Miramare, Trieste
Maximilian however was restless. When a delegation of Mexican conservatives approached him in Miramare offering the crown of the newly created Empire of Mexico, with some little hesitation he accepted. He embarked on the imperial yacht Phantasie with his wife towards this new american adventure, ready to bring to his new subjects the wisdom and the enlightenment of his european education. He received the blessing of his peers: the benediction of Pope Pius IX and a ceremonial firing salute ordered by Queen Victoria as his boat crossed the Gibraltar strait.  He was not told, however, that the plebiscite supporting the creation of the new empire succeeded only with considerable help from the french bayonets of the occupying Napoleon III armies, nor that the liberal forces of Benito Juárez were less than ready to recognize his rule. He landed in Veracruz on 21 May 1864 welcomed by the wild enthusiasm of the crowds, and an ongoing revolution of the republican forces led by Porfirio Díaz. He didn't last long: his liberal policies once again enraged his conservative supporters, while the republican revolutionaries made huge gains as the french troops were retired, and with indirect help from the post-civil-war, Monroe-doctrine-directed United States. While Carlota was in Europe trying to rally support for her husband, Maximilian was taken prisoner by the forces of Juárez, court-martialed and sentenced to death. Despite the pleas of many liberals of the time (including Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi) to spare his life, he was executed on June 18, 1867. His wife had a nervous breakdown following the news: she never acknowledged his death and spent the rest of her life, insane and recluse, on the grounds of the Miramare castle.

From the terrace of the Miramare castle, Trieste, Italy (Aug 3, 2014)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

About Writing

Trieste, Italy (August 3, 2014)

+Rurousha tagged me in her blog to write about writing. She wants to know "how/where I find the time to take so many photos and write posts that are both scientific and lyrically beautiful". Uhmmm... I don't know about beauty, but the question about the time is easy to answer: I don't [find time], as evidenced by my taking more than two weeks to raise to the challenge and write this post. Now, I am supposed to comment a little more about my writing process. I'll do that while posting a few photos from Trieste taken last week, which is where I was while not writing this post.

What am I writing?

Trieste, Italy
I am not actually writing, this is a photoblog. Well at least it started as a photoblog, than I got distracted by the photo captions, and the photos became secondary to the text. Early in my career as an astronomer I traveled quite a lot, often in exotic locales which is where observatories are situated, or where conferences are held. Add to these work trips the visits to our families (mine in Italy and Mayli's in South America) and my photoblog rapidly morphed in a sort of unstructured travel diary, where lots of words are spent over-analyzing the places and situations utterly unfamiliar (and for that exciting) I come in contact with. Even after many years I still enjoy to be surprised by people and locales outside my comfort zone, which is what keeps me on my toes and keeps me real. I share a lot of this thinking on this blog. More recently, mainly because of my teaching duties as university professor, my travels diminished a little, and my posts have detached from the topics directly related to the photos. The images have become only the excuse to talk about whatever touched my mind, be it science, or society. And this is where usually I get in trouble.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, I am not sure my blog adheres to any specific genre. I mainly write to scratch the itch of the day (or rather of the month, considering the sparseness of my posts, lately). For a photoblog, my posts are way too wordy. For a blog, my images have way too much prominence. I am stuck in this in-between land where I cannot decide if I like more taking pictures or writing about them. Since I write mostly for me, this is not a problem, but this lack of focus is something I would not advise to anybody interested in increasing the volume of their readership (mine is ridiculously small)!

Trieste, Italy
My style is heavily influenced by a bunch of italian journalists that are more writers than reporters, spaghetti Hemingway of sort. First of all Paolo Rumiz, reporter for "Il Piccolo" of Trieste (you see, there is a connection to the photos) first, "La Repubblica" now. Rumiz is a gentle man writing with huge sensibility of his slow-paced travels around the world. One time he traveled from north to south in Italy with a "Topolino" (a car from the '50s) through little roads and even smaller villages (in "The Legend of the Floating Mountains"). Another time, he traveled along the path of Hannibal, from North Africa to the tip of the Italian peninsula. A few years back, he went all the way to Vladivostok along the Trans-siberian railway. The stories of his voyages are the high point of my summer months. From him I have learned that great stories are not written by focusing to the heroic acts of few actors, but rather on the daily struggles, little victories and annoying defeats of the ordinary people; like me, like us...

Sometimes I write about science. Science is what I do in my daily job (yes, astronomers work mainly in daytime, like everybody else). The science posts that appear in my blog are very different from my official science writing, the one of the scholarly articles. In my ApJ papers every word is measured and exact (at least it tries to be), a direct translation of math into english. My science posts have instead escaped from the cage: they liberally use forbidden analogies and figure of speech, and blur the lines between scientific rigor and misleading fantasy. My goal is to stimulate curiosity, not provide answers: don't try to learn science from my posts! I think I fault this to Italo Calvino.

Why do I write what I do?

I have no agenda. Well everybody has a hidden agenda, I just don't know what is mine. I started to write as a way to practicing English. When I arrived in the US my American English was quite awful. The little English I knew was British/international slang (my Ph.D. thesis advisor was from the UK), with a technical slant focused on my field of studies. American everyday-life-language was a big mystery for me (I remember a long conversation with the car insurance guy that ended with the poor man hanging up in frustration after saying "oh my dear God" because of my lack of understanding; I still hate to talk by phone). Writing a blog was a way to experiment without anybody hanging up on me (at least on my face). The topics I chose don't have a method: they are just something that happen to cross my mind, upset or elate me, or result from free association chains from the subject of a photo I shot.

How does my writing process work?

I use a computer, of course. If I had lived in the XIX century I would have used a quill, but now we have the magic of electronics that makes publishing easier. Oh wait, you mean to ask about my writing method, do you? Oh well...

Trieste, Italy
I am not sure I have a consistent process. I spend a couple of hours every day, weather good or bad, walking my dog. During these walks I let my mind wander; sometimes thoughts occur to me that I cannot easily shake off. Writing about them is a way to exorcise these mind-worms, a physical way to purge them from my mind and let them roam free one electron at a time, from my keyboard to the screen. Digital catharsis. When this happen, I mumbe for a few days about the subject, then try to find some photo in my archive that is remotely connected to the topic, and I start to write. Inevitably ending up to a different place from when I intended to be. But that's ok, isn't that what happens to characters anyway, once they leave the fingers of their writer (this is a reference to Luigi Pirandello)?

At the beginning (10 years ago, when I started the first incarnation of this blog) I posted more frequently, and the process what the reverse: first I chose the photo, then I wrote a caption for it. Now that the internet has changed (with the raise of social media) my photos go mostly on Google+, freeing my hand to tell stories on my blog, albeit at a slower pace.

Ok. what's next? Ah, I have to tag somebody to continue with this. Mmm, let's send the ball back to Japan to +Elizabeth Tasker. Why? Because she is a fellow astronomers and she also writes a mix of science and lifestyle posts in her blog. If you think I travel a lot, think how she has made her travel status permanent by moving to beautiful Sapporo. Elizabeth, the ball is on your court!

Trieste, Italy (August 3, 2014)

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Tale of Foxes

Ames, IA (April 9, 2014)

Summer, in principle, is when I have more time in my hands since I am not teaching, and I can go through life at a more leisurely pace. In principle! In practice, summer is even more hectic than the teaching semesters, as you can infer from the small number of posts in this blog. Since classes have ended, I had a trip to Baltimore to give a talk on planets rising from the grave of dying stars, another trip to Boston for the meeting of the American Astronomical Society, and soon I will have a new trip to Vienna to give a talk about how those same dying stars are on a fast slimming track. And in-between all this I worked on two papers, on observing proposals, visited some collaborators in Minneapolis, monitored my graduate students, one of which graduated last week. So much for a leisurely pace! All this should explain why this post about "my" foxes had to wait until now to be written. Well, this plus my reluctance on writing about something that was still a developing drama, with uncertain end. 

Fox kits!
But let's start from the beginning. As you know we live at the edge of a small university town, just a short walk from a park that borders with undeveloped corn fields and a little forest. This park is frequented by numerous wildlife; not just the deers that Kero love to chase (if he could) but also predators like foxes and coyotes. They come out usually at sunset (presumably at early morning too, but that's not my game), and I often see them when I walk Kero at our unusual hours. Right at the entrance of the park there is a small creek collecting the neighborhood rainwater. The creek is usually left alone, and had been overgrown with bushes and tall grasses. I never paid much attention to it, except for checking on the muskrat that lives in the area, which is what I thought I saw, one evening in early April, as a shadow moving in the bushes. I pulled Kero close to me (muskrats elicits from him the same reaction that rabbits do), and started looking. What I saw were two little fox kits, and their mama checking on me while I was looking at her pups! I hushed kero and walked him home, then went back there with my camera to check if they were still there.

They were there! It was dark and I didn't want to get too close to avoid bothering them, so my photos are a little too fuzzy for my taste (if you want to see deliciously cute sharp fox photos, have a look at the work of Roeselien Raimond). Still these are my foxes, so I want to show them here. I went there a few times, and they seemed to be quite oblivious to the people passing by. Mama fox was always in the vicinity keeping an eye on them and on the people passing by, when they were out playing (always at dusk, I never saw them out during the day). I am not entirely sure how many kits there actually were: in one occasion I counted at least 5 of them out at the same time, but they could have been six. Overall it was quite a large litter, the cutest thing in the world, playing like crazy the same way dog pups do, coming in and out from the numerous holes of the rather large den that their mama dug on the side of the creek (you can have an idea of the den size in the panoramic photo at the bottom).

Playing in the grass
The problems, however, started a week or so later. The neighborhood north of the creek is prone to flooding, mainly because the drainage holes in the streets do not have enough capacity to eliminate fast enough the strong summer rain that happens in this part of the country. To solve this problem the town started digging a new drainage system, and part of the work included enlarging the pond where all this water is supposed to end, and the creek that brings the rainwater into it. The creek, yes: exactly where the fox kits had their den. One day, with horror, I noticed an excavator parked on the side of the creek and red marks all around the slope indicating the area to be excavated, that included the whole den with its occupants. That is when I met another photographer that had been visiting the kits like me, and after some brainstorming she called the city department that deals with wildlife, managed to talk with a local biologist, and succeeded in having the city stop the digging for at least two more weeks, to give time for the kits to be strong enough to move on their own without harm.

I visited the site in the following days, and they were still there, playing outside their untouched den, despite the loud noises all around the area that the heavy machinery must have been making during the day. After a week I had to leave for one of my trips, and when I came back the den seemed empty (still untouched). When they finally dug out the area for good, it seemed that there was nobody around. While I cannot be sure of what ultimately happened to the kits and their mama, I believe everything in the end went well. A few weeks later I saw a beautiful young fox with a lush fur along the path next to the creek, basking in the last rays of the sun. She looked at us, unconcerned as we approached, and then took off in the tall grass bordering the newly fashioned creek. Maybe she was prospecting for a new den, to raise the next generation of kits in the years that will come?

Playing with mama, Ames, IA (April 9, 2014)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Quantum Yoga

Cambridge, MA (June 18, 2005)

The main thing with Cambridge, Massachusetts, is its diversity. The big universities are the focus of a vibrant multi-ethnic community, with Harvard Square and Central Square its centers of gravity. The two squares are a joy to visit, as they host many small bookstores (revolution books yay!) and restaurants, still somehow able to survive despite the gentrification that followed the housing bubble. Among our favorite places in Harvard Square, however, there is a very special yoga studio

The studio is special because of its owner, Jesse. We started frequenting him when the studio was at its infancy, in a small basement room in Harvard Square just big enough for a few mats along one wall (I once managed to actually dent the wall, which tells a lot about my "flexibility"). Now the studio has grown a lot, opened a second downtown location, a "donation" studio (you pay what you can) a no-kill animal shelter, and much more. But Jesse is still the same Jesse, and we were lucky of being able to meet him for a chat during our last Boston visit. And as usual with Jesse, we talked about science and the nature of reality as described by physics (Jesse is more up to date about science news than me).

Riverfest in Cambridge
All this came back to my mind a couple of days ago as I read a few articles celebrating the 50 years since the publication of the Bell's Theorem, that more than any other results in modern physics is at the base of our attempts to understand reality. The theorem applies to quantum mechanics, the foundational theory of modern physics. Developed at the beginning of the XX century, quantum mechanics describes the behaviour of subatomic particles and forces. It replaces the determinisms of classical mechanics (where everything is predictable with clockwork precision) with a probabilistic approach. With quantum mechanics you cannot foretell where a particle will be at a given time, only estimate the probability that it will be there, or at any other location. This view, which is based on the work of Niels Bohr and the "Copenhagen" school, has been found to be inherently unsatisfactory to many scientists, including Albert Einstein when he proclaimed that "God doesn't play dice with the world". The favorite loophole invoked by the critics was to assume that quantum mechanics was an incomplete theory, e.g. that there was some missing equation with hidden variables that, if measured, would predict the exact outcome of any physics experiment. Bell's theorem closed this loophole, by showing that any physical theory (including quantum mechanics) cannot have hidden local variables. As a consequence, the world is either inherently random (and the exact result of any experiment is unknowable until somebody measures its outcome), or physics is non-local.

Losing locality, however, is as bad for common sense as much as believing in a random universe. If physics is non-local then anything anywhere in the universe can in principle affect, instantaneously, the outcome of a physics experiment. This contradiction was famously popularized by Einstein, again, when he suggested that the loss of locality would lead to a "spooky action at a distance", where entangled particles would have the mysterious ability to determine each other status instantaneously as if they could communicate "telepathically". While this paradox was proposed to show the absurdity of a non-local universe, reality is full of surprises, and quantum entanglement (as this spooky action at a distance is called) was indeed confirmed in several experiment starting from 1972. The story of how these experiments is interesting in itself, and beautifully narrated in the book "How The Hippies Saved Physics". This the story of a band of physicists coming from the counterculture of the fabulous sixties set out to understand the deeper meaning of physics in between acid trips and paranormal experiments. While they did not prove the existence of telepathy and the new age idea of the oneness of the universe, they did demonstrate the reality of quantum entanglement, inventing in the process the field of quantum encryption and quantum computing.

While quantum entanglement seems to suggest that physics is indeed not local, superluminal communication is still prohibited by Einstein special relativity. The true meaning of this spooky action at a distance, as a consequence, is quite obscure. Living in a fundamentally unpredictable universe is however also very unsatisfactory, despite the sci-fi appeal of multi world theories where all possible quantum solutions do happens at the same time, just in different "parallel" universes. A century after being discovered, we casually use quantum mechanics without even noticing, every time we turn on the switch of any electronic devices whose semiconductor technology is based on the weird nature of quantum mechanics. Yet, like children playing with magic toys from alien civilizations, we are still far from understanding the deep principles upon which our gadgets are based and, fifty years after the publication of Bell's theorem, the true nature of our quantum universe.

Boston seen from Cambridge, MA (June 18, 2005)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Two Schools in Newe Towne

Weeks Footbridge, Cambridge, MA (June 18, 2005)

When I say that I lived in Boston for 12 years, I really mean Cambridge, MA. Cambridge, on the other side of the Charles river, is the left-wing, intellectual counterpart to the financial centers / 1 percenter character of downtown Boston. Hosting both Harvard and MIT, even its name is a tribute to its ivory-tower destiny. When in 1636 the legislature of Massachusetts Bay Colony voted to form a College for training its Puritan ministers, the school that would later become Harvard University was established in the village of Newe Towne. In less than two years, as the College was becoming more and more successful, the name of the village was changed to Cambridge, in honour to the renowned England university. That sealed the fate for the little village across the Charles river, destined to become a beacon of culture and power that century later would rival its namesake across the pond.

Fountain across the Harvard Yard, in Cambridge
The center of Cambridge is Harvard Square, the original location of Newe Towne, and the current site of the Harvard Yard. That's where you find the red-brick-ivy-covered buildings one typically associates to an ivy-league University. They are still there, the old dorms where the freshmen stay when they arrive to the College, to be inoculated with the germs that will make them true-crimson pureblood harvardians for the rest of their life. Even today, Harvard is the university most associated with the US ruling class, a class of lawyers and graduates from its famous school of Government dedicated to John F. Kennedy, J.F.K. Despite being established by the legislature of the Colony, Harvard is now a private University. A huge one, with an endowment so large (over 30 billion dollars) that if it wants, Harvard could offer free education to all its students.

Then there is the MIT. Closer to the river, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was established two days before the start of the civil war when the country realized that the development of science and technology was essential for its future (oh, how would you wish this is still true). It was modeled after the tradition of the european polytechnic schools. It is now one of the most selective universities in the world, with less than 8% acceptance rate. Many of the technological inventions that define our age have originated in halls of the MIT, whose symbol is the large dome visible across the river in the photo at the bottom. Strangely enough, the main rivalry of MIT students is not with Harvard, but rather with the California Institute of Technology, the Caltech in Pasadena, California. The story of the pranks between the two schools is legendary, and includes a real spanish cannon stolen from the Caltech campus and transported cross country to the MIT. This is just one of the many hacks for which the MIT students are famous.

The MIT dome, Cambridge, MA (September 6, 2008)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Like in the Movies

Boston, MA (September 6, 2008)

The first time I landed in the US was at the end of October. I came to visit Mayli, just a few months after she had moved to this country for graduate school, in one of the many Universities of Boston. At the time she was living in a small apartment in Somerville, one stop before the end of the red line.

Old State House
I still remember Mayli's letter describing her first landing at the Boston Logan International airport. How the city seemed impossibly large, extending in all directions not occupied by the ocean. But while she first landed in August, my first landing was in the fall: it was already after sunset and all I could perceive from my seat was the dark expanse of the Boston Bay and the sudden noise of the plane wheels hitting the tarmac. My first landing was not very scenic. Immigration: check (Italians at the time could get in the US for three months with just a passport stamp on entry; now they need to get a visa in advance). Custom: check (what could I possibly have to declare, in my rigid-frame suitcase with three weeks of underwear change?). Butterflies in the stomach (the anticipation of seeing Mayli). Actually finding her on the other side of terminal E's sliding doors. The taxi ride through the Sumner tunnel (for many years I thought is was dedicated to a season), negotiating the pre-Big Dig traffic all the way to Somerville. The small annex apartment in Clyde St. (tiny, but hey, not many graduate students were lucky enough to rent their own apartment).

That's how it began. 

Somerville didn't conform to my idea of the USA. My knowledge of american middle class neighborhoods came from the Milwaukee of Happy Days, but somehow I was expecting either the New York city of Annie Hall, or the desolation of the Bronx in a old Paul Newman cop movie. At least I knew I wasn't visiting the Old West, so I wasn't expecting horses and crazy tumbleweed bushes roaming in the desert. Somerville seemed a safe neighborhood, with its old and slightly run-down New England-style cardboard houses (I discovered that they were made of cardboard the first time I sat on the futon, when leaning back I heard the deaf sound of the wall as I hit it with my knuckles): it was no Bronx here. But the half-rusted cars parked along the cheap chain link fences, and the open-air tangle of wires hanging from the street wooden poles, not one of them standing straight, didn't have the glamour of Manhattan either. Reality was a little more prosaic than the Hollywood fiction. Yet all was so alien to me that even the chocolate chip cookies with earl grey tea in the humid and cold mornings tasted like the new world.

It rained a lot. Between the unpleasant rain and my exceedingly bad english I didn't dare to get out much alone the first days. When Mayli was busy, I spent most of my first week studying in the Tufts library, and watching the cat-sized squirrels in the extraordinarily green lawn across the library windows. Then the weekend finally came, and with it my real introduction to Boston. We took the T from Porter to Park Street, and from there we followed the freedom trail. I don't have photos taken in that expedition, but I remember it like the small image above on the left: wet pavement in front of tall modern buildings, and the occasional old-brick piece of history embedded in the glamour of a modern US city. We walked the full day, me still trying to reconcile the reality I was seeing with the idealized world remembered from TV. Then sunset arrived, with it the night's shadows enshrouding the urban landscape, now lit by the streetlamps and the car's headlights. That's when I saw it.

The steam rising from the manholes in the street. Like in the movies: at last, I found my America. 

Boston, MA (September 6, 2008)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Trip to Boston

Boston, MA (June 7, 2014)

The Summer Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, this year, was in Boston, Massachusetts. This was the perfect opportunity for me to return to the city where I lived for 12 years, before moving all the way to the middle of the country. The meeting was at the Westin Hotel in Copley, which is close to the Hancock tower, the tall blue building in photo above, right at the center of the city.

Sara Seager in Plenary
Summer AAS meetings tend to be smaller than the January meetings, yet there were almost 1,200 astronomers in town. The format of the meeting is the usual for the AAS: a number of plenary sessions spread through the day with parallel sessions in-between, where shorter talks were grouped thematically and delivered in smaller rooms. Two of my students were giving talks in the parallel sessions: one about his search of brown dwarf companions hiding in the periphery of extrasolar planetary systems, and the other about measuring the efficiency of star formation across the Galaxy. While the parallel session talks are delivered as brief "science" updates and tend to be very technical, the plenary talks are intended for a general astronomy audience, and tend to provide a broad overview of the field for non specialists. They are fun to attend. The picture on the left shows Sara Seager, extrasolar planets superstar from MIT, talking about the characterization of planetary systems found by the Kepler telescope, and the perspectives offered by future missions. Very timely, as the continuation of Kepler itself (the K2 mission) has just been approved by NASA (albeit at the expenses of other, equally useful, space telescopes). K2 is a cool hack: Kepler was designed to work with three reactions wheels, gyroscope-like devices that allow the precise pointing necessary to achieve its legendary photometric accuracy. Down to two wheels after malfunctions, Kepler was due to be retired until clever engineers figured that they could use the solar radiation with the remaining reaction wheels as a stabilizing force, the same way a sailboat use head-wind to coast against the current. Devilishly smart: it is rocket science after all. The K2 mission will operate differently than before, and its focus will be more on the stars hosting planets, rather than finding more planets like Earth: this is however as important as the search for extrasolar planetary systems, as pointed out by my Iowa State colleague Steve Kawaler in his excellent and entertaining plenary talk.

The meeting finished on Thursday, so I spent the last day of the week visiting the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), which was my workplace for the 12 years I lived in Boston. It was nice to see everybody, including the part of my group that is in California (also in Boston for the meeting), and one of my graduate students there with a fellowship to finish her thesis. As a plus, I discovered that some of my CfA friends, including my old boss, had been converted into manga characters, as a part of a collaboration between US institutions and the Tohoku University in Sendai. How cool is that?

Fenway Park
I will talk more, in future posts, about the plenary talks at the AAS and my CfA visit. Let me finish this long overdue entry with a comment about the photos. As you have certainly noticed these are cameraphone photos, shot with my iPhone 5s, and processed in-phone with Snapseed. I didn't bring my "real" camera (the Nikon 700) with me, as I often do in trips that are mainly work. This trip was actually borderline, as I stayed in town for the weekend after the meeting, and went around shooting along the Charles river (top and bottom photo) and in the neighborhood of the hotel (which was just behind Fenway Park, the famed and sacred home field of the Boston Red Sox, photo on the right). But I have already amassed a quite large selection of Boston quality photos in the years I have lived there, so it was fun just walking around happily snapping snapshots with a phone, layering artsy textures in accordance to the mood I felt while I was pressing the shutter. After 5 years in the corn fields, one forgets the diversity of life in the large human conglomerates of the East coast cities. I have been frequently to Chicago, but it is different. One ends up living in the suburbs, and the suburbs of Chicago are not different than the suburbs of a midwestern university town. Boston (and Cambridge where I worked), had a unique pulse, which is difficult to replicate in the middle of the country. Or maybe I am just getting nostalgic?

Boston, MA (June 7, 2014)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

It is Again That Time of the Year

Spring in Ames, Iowa (May 4, 2014)

It is again that time of the year.

"Which time?" you may ask. The moment when the tall grass of the prairie turns green? The season when the trees in the orchards bloom? The time when the fledgling leave their nest to venture into the world? Actually... no, this is really not the time I am referring to. 

The time I am going to write about is the time when classes end, and the fledging of the human-kind (undergraduate students) are leaving campus to get back to their nests (or summer jobs). This is the time we don't have to teach. This is also the time when, inevitably, I go to the supermarket and the well-meaning cashier asks if the professor can finally start his well-earned three-months-long paid vacation. Vacation, yes, because that's what most people assume university professors do after the end of the spring semester. The truth is, well, this is not really the case. First of all, university professors are not paid during the summer. That's correct, when we don't teach, we don't get paid. The way to get a salary during the summer (and somehow we are generally allowed to do so for at most two of the three summer months) is to get external funding for research. For us astronomers this means NASA or NSF (the National Science Foundation). Of this funding the university gets an a sizable cut (which in our case is as much as 50%), just for the privilege of handling the money and let us use our office and the restroom at the end of the corridor. Getting this funding is very competitive, but essential for an healthy research program, not just for our summer salary but for the whole ecosystem that lives out of our grants, including paying for our graduate students salaries and tuition (somehow they insist in eating during the summer months ;-) ).

This, is the time of the year I am referring to: far from the fabled three-months paid-vacation that many people assume we do, it is the time when we finally do research and in the process we pay the university out of our grants for the privilege of keep working, against all odds, to advance the progress of science.

Spring in Ames, Iowa (May 11, 2014)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Disciplines of the Imagination

Las Campanas Observatory, Chile (January 6, 2006)

As +Rurousha often writes, the best part of blogs are their comments. I fully agree with this statement, and I am happy when long threads of comments populate the entries of this blog. My post about magnolias and life on extrasolar planets was especially rich with interesting discussions. One thread, initiated by +Grace Monte de Ramos, ended up mentioning astrology, and was closed by a very interesting comment by +Marj Evasco about the "disease of literalness" and the "disciplines of the imagination". It made me think for days... and finally spurred me to write a few words about astrology.

Las Campanas Observatory
For most of history, astronomy was the theoretical framework for astrology; which in turn was the practical application of astronomy. Astrology was taught in universities, where the astronomy faculty was required to make astrological predictions, as well as personal astrological charts for the university benefactors (the local princes). This was not just another chore (like serving in yet another faculty committee): it was the main raison-d'etre for these astronomy positions. The astronomers were willing partners in this activity not just because it was the source of their salary, but also because it promoted their prestige, continuing a millenarian tradition started by the priests of long extinct civilizations. Uraniborg, for example, was built with great expenses as Tycho Brahe observatory by the king of Denmark. During construction it absorbed 1% of the danish GDP, which is huge if you think that the Apollo project at its peak (in 1965) was just 0.8% of the US GDP. The reason for such an investment was for the renown astronomer to generate astral charts to guide the policy of the kingdom. Galileo himself was well known for his astrological work, and got in trouble from time to time because of the vehemence of his predictions. Doing science while simultaneously dabbling in the occult was not a unique characteristics of astronomers: chemistry has its roots in alchemy. The great Isaac Newton spent more time in his alchemic search for the philosopher's stone (to transmute base metals into gold), that he did to formulate the laws of physics. Newton was a prolific writer: he left more than 10 million words (enough for 150 full size novels). Only 20% of this corpus was about science and his activity as Master of the Mint; the larger fraction was about his heretical religious views and his work in alchemy. The extent of Newton's involvement in secret arts was such that John Maynard Keynes (the famous economist and collector of Newton's writings) opined that he was "not the first of the age or reason, but the last of the magicians".

Magellan Telescope
The fact that the founding fathers of science practiced what we would now call magic and superstition should not be seen as the original sin of science; it is rather an evidence of its strength. Newton, Galileo, Tycho were men of their times. During their lives there were no factual reasons to believe that the ideas of alchemy, or astrology, were unfounded. Their greatness was in transcending the supersticious foundations of the culture in which they lived to lay down the foundations for the scientific method, a revolutionary evidence-based approach to the physical world. The scientific method was what made ultimately possible to separate myths from reality, something that only came to fruition with the Age of Enlightenment. Astrology turned out to be unfounded: the only two celestial bodies that can possibly have a physical action on Earth are the Sun and the Moon (tides). Furthermore, the whole technical framework for astrology (constellations and geocentric cosmology) have long been proven to be an illusion. The irony in all this is that it was Tycho's superior data for the position of Mars that were crucial to ultimately disproved his own geocentric view . The same fate befell on Alchemy: it is not possible to convert iron into gold with chemical means, although the feat is possible, at great costs, with nuclear reactions. The irony here is that Newton started the science that showed how his main life efforts were in vain. Science is a self-healing process: ideas that are falsified by experiments are ultimately rejected, and replaced by new paradigms that can better explain and agree with the data. Science is a purely empirical endeavor.

Yet, I agree that science is also a discipline of the imagination. It is a way to abstract the stark reality of the physical world and give it a life, meaning and aesthetic value in the realm of the mind. It is an instrument to appropriate the elegance of the universe and describe it in mathematical form. It is a way of transcending the imperfections of the human nature and aspire to the divinity of the cosmos. This is why many scientists that are not religious in traditional terms still have a sense of sacred (e.g. Einstein secular religion). Astrology is no science, and it has no basis in the physical world. Still, it can be a fascinating discipline of the imagination. Astrology and the esoteric world are precious windows on the human mind. Like myth making, or religion. They tells us about the strategies devised by our minds to cope with their existential problems, and come to term with their mortality.

Furthermore, reading the horoscopes after the Sunday comics is fun. As long as, of course, they are not taken literally and considered as a factor for deciding government policy. ;-)

Las Campanas, Chile (January 6, 2006)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Who Comes Before the Companies

Soudan Underground Laboratory, Minnesota (Jun 7, 2004)

Mayli's uncle is a successful businessman. He had always been interested into what Mayli does, but never had the chance to understand the details of her research. A few years ago, however, he happened to be in Minnesota, where one of Mayli's experiments is located, and she invited him for a tour of the lab. The MINOS experiment consists of a huge detector capturing neutrinos coming from Fermilab, 450 miles away. The detector is at the bottom of an iron mine seven hundred meters below the surface, where the detector is shielded by dense layers of rocks from cosmic rays and other natural radiation. As they were driving to the lab, Mayli's uncle had a pressing question: always seeking new investment opportunities he wanted to know which companies had built the experiment. He was puzzled by Mayli's answer, that there were, in fact, no companies: the whole thing was designed and custom-built by a large collaboration of physicists and engineers. When they finally entered the huge cavern where the 5,400 ton detector stands, like a giant ship in a bottle, he widened his eyes and said: "I understand now how it works, you guys come before the companies"!

The Soudan Mine shaft
I get asked similar questions all the time. Not because the people I met in the street want to know where to invest their money, but rather because of the diffuse perception that taxpayer money spent on science is a luxury that we cannot afford in a difficult budgetary environment. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is precisely in perilous and uncertain times that we need science to challenge our thinking, and push the boundaries of the possible. 

Take NASA, the much maligned "government-bloated, pork-driven agency", a billions-dollar sink of hard earned taxpayer money. Well, the annual NASA budget is just 0.5% of the total US federal budget, far less than other government expenditures such as military expenses. Contrary to the public perception, this money is not burned in rocket fuel, but invested in technological development, supporting a high-tech industry ecosystem that would have never existed without the challenges of space travel. The CCD detector in your digital camera was not invented at NASA, but the cameraphone you would be carrying around if it wasn't for a miniaturization program sponsored by NASA would not fit in our pocket, or in your car, for that matter. The need for producing ever lighter and smaller devices that could be fit into a rocket spurred the whole industry of integrated miniaturized electronics, an industry that is now worth $150 billions/year. The whole cost of sending human to the Moon was less than $100 billion over the entire Apollo program. And this is just an example. The real yield of NASA, and scientific research in general, is the training and inspiration of the technological backbone of our society, without which the postwar economic boom would have not existed.

Physics experiments, and the same can be said of other fields of scientific enquiry, are designed to constantly extend our horizon. You want to measure the next digit, trying to find the subtle flaw in your current pet theory, find the crack in our view of the Universe so that new worlds and new ideas can progress our understanding of Nature. It ain't easy and requires technological innovations that are well beyond the standards of industry. When you design your next experiment, you don't refer to the available technology: you bet on the future technology that will develop ten years from now. Science is the pathfinder of progress, experimenting new techniques, seeking new solutions beyond what is currently possible. Most of these experiments will inevitably fail, but the hallmark of research is being capable of learning from these failures, so that the one-in-a-million success will have the chance of revolutionizing the world.

Pure science may appear to be concerned with phenomena far removed with everyday life. Still it pushes the envelope of today's technology, setting the stage for the companies of tomorrow and the development of our future.

Soudan Mine, Minnesota (June 6, 2013)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Magnolias from other Worlds

Magnolia flowers, Ames, IA (May 4, 2014)

More than two weeks without blogging, that's the longest stretch since I restarted this blog almost one year ago. Sometimes life gets in the way: I had to give a presentation at a meeting in Baltimore (that was last week) and it took me two weeks non-stop work to prepare the talk. Before I left Ames it was still winter, the weird out-of-season Iowan version where it is warm one day and freezing the next. Now that I am back, spring finally arrived in full force. The magnolia in front of my house is peaking, and this post is a perfect excuse to show some of the flowers that survived last week rains.

Magnolia core
The trip, and the non-stop maddening work, were worth it though: this was one of the most interesting meetings I have ever attended. The meeting was about habitable worlds across time and space and the participants were equally divided among astronomers, geologists, climate scientists and biologists. Our task was to discuss what we really know about habitable planets outside Earth, and what we need to understand to search for more planets that could host living organisms right now. The fact is, this is not an easy task. Just defining what is alive and what is inanimate matter is not a trivial effort (the best definition I heard is that "it is alive if it can die"). If I look at the magnolia flower on the left, I instinctively know it is alive. But life comes in different forms, and recognizing it may be not so easy. One speaker talked about her expeditions in Antarctica to study a brine subglacial lake that has been isolated from the surface for millions of years. You would expect that whatever was trapped into the lake when the continent froze would have died by now. Not so fast: she found lots of little bugs thriving in the salty frozen water tens of meters below the surface. Well, thriving is maybe too strong a word: to survive in such a resource deprived environment the little buggers had to slow their metabolism to a death-defying point. Each of this bacteria, on average, reproduce only once every 120 years! Slow bloomers, they are.

Magnolia petals
Earth is completely shaped by life. Even the air we breathe was made by life. Oxygen is too reactive to survive as a free gas in a planetary atmosphere: a planet left to its own devices would rapidly lose all its oxygen as everything will rapidly rust, and Earth would become as red as Mars. The original atmosphere of our planet was rich in CO2, with no O2 whatsoever. Then the bugs arrived, the first wave of them, the cyanobacteria that figured out how to use sunlight to eat CO2 and breath out oxygen. They were tireless; they produced so much oxygen that they completely inverted the ratio between CO2 and O2. This was the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) without which we would be very small and blue (you need an oxygen metabolism to sustain complex life). But bacteria didn't stop at the GOE, they changed not just the air we breathe, but also the rocks we walk. There are 5,000 minerals on this world, and 2/3 of them would not be here if it wasn't for the presence of bacteria. Some of these minerals are the actual shells of little bugs that died and formed immense carbon-rich layers at the bottom of the oceans. Most other minerals would not have ever formed in absence of an oxygen-rich atmosphere. We literally walk and breath on a planet shaped by life.

So where does this leave us if we want to search for life on other worlds? We can precisely count on the power of life to change its own environment. We can look for the signatures of life that distinguish a world from its dead counterpart, a living breathing oxygen rich atmosphere from a dead CO2 one. A world with rocks born out of living organisms instead of dead volcanic stones. We may not find an alien magnolia in the world next door, but sooner or later we will see the incontrovertible chemical signs that there are other worlds in the stable disequilibrium that would not be possible without the wondrous action of living matter. Other Gaias are out there, waiting to meet us across the aeons of time and space.

Magnolia flowers, Ames, IA (May 4, 2014)


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