Waikiki Sunset

Waikiki Sunset

Settings: Nikon D3300 – 18mm – f/10 – 1/2500s – ISO 200

Hey, folks. If you’re into photography, you’ve probably heard of the golden hour. It’s those fleeting moments just after sunrise or before sunset in which light is seemingly redder, casting everything in a wonderful, warm glow. This effect is a combination of how human eyes perceive the visible light spectrum, and how sunlight is filtered through Earth’s atmosphere based on its location relative to a given latitude. It’s pretty awesome when you take a step back and think about it. So many aspects of our world come together just long enough to produce something so brilliant every day. As a science, astronomy, and geography geek, I understand and appreciate this phenomenon in terms of the sheer mechanics involved.

As a world traveler, however…

One of my longstanding travel habits is photographing sunsets. Beaches, bridges, piers, etc. Whatever it takes, I will capture at least one before I leave. I could wax poetic about the virtues of enjoying a sunset: basking in the dying warmth, the slight breeze on your neck, the hum of a street lamp turning on, everything seemingly slows and quiets down, and that unspoken understanding that you’re one day older. But I’m sure you already get it. Sunsets are among those few, great experiences that transcend language and culture. That’s not just some cheesy sentiment, by the way. If you don’t believe me, try visiting a major tourist destination or beach during the golden hour.

I did exactly that during my recent trip to Oahu. Waikiki is one of the most famous beaches in the world, and for good reason; it’s got excellent water, sand, and skyline, all just across the street from the amenities of a major city. On the other hand, it’s horrendously crowded and noisy. It’s not the kind of place I’d normally stay. But I found myself there on what would be the most beautiful evening of the entire week. I and about a couple dozen other photographers crowded onto Waikiki’s iconic Kapahulu Groin, then eagerly waited for the inevitable.

I crouched on part of the ledge, wary of the waves thundering just a few feet below. I browsed through my camera’s options and set them to capture more reds at a higher speed. If I timed it perfectly, I’d be able to get both the sunset and a wave just as it would crash into the wall. Silently, I regretted leaving my tripod back at the hotel. I hadn’t planned to be in Waikiki when I had left that morning. Looking back, I now wish I’d known about Light, a new company that have designed a new compact camera that excels in low-light conditions, has adjustable field depth, and built-in editing features. As much as I love my DSLR, crouching precariously over a sea wall while holding a huge camera to your face isn’t easy.

It was worth the effort, of course.The images I captured were gorgeous, though they came at a cost; just after the last glimmer of sun vanished over the horizon, an especially large wave swept up to the pier and drenched several of us. We all exchanged a few sheepish glances and a laugh. For that brief stretch of time, we left the rest of the world and its problems behind. There were only us and that pier. When it was over, we looked over each others’ shots, did a little networking, and parted ways. One by one, our shared experience ended, each person walking off into the night. Yes, it felt a little tragic. But thanks to my camera, the memory of that golden hour will never be forgotten.

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What’s The Deal With Leap Year?

Hey, folks. Happy Leap Year!

*Crickets chirping*

…Yeah, okay, it’s not an actual holiday. But it does represent one of the most important and fascinating aspects about the Earth and our understanding of physics. It’s common knowledge that a year is 365 days; it’s what modern civilization uses to keep track of business performance, industry production, crop harvesting, population growth, radioactive decay, public transit, pizza deliveries, birthdays, Oscar acceptance speeches, and pretty much anything remotely affected by the passage of time. Needless to say, timekeeping is kind of important.

However, it’s inaccurate.

The 365 day per year model is based on the Gregorian Calendar, which was first instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. It was an update to the far older Julian Calendar, in an attempt to bring the actual day of Easter closer to the day the church thought it was supposed to be celebrated. It was shoehorned in at the end of February because, honestly, the Romans had a long history of treating the month like an afterthought. While altering the basis of time measurement must have been a huge headache for everyone involved – there are still several different calendars spanning various cultures, and Greece didn’t adopt the new calendar until 1923! – it also illustrated the big problem with timekeeping on Earth: it doesn’t divide into perfect increments. Earth’s orbit is 365.256 days. How do you add .256 of a day to a calendar? Hence why Leap Day happens every four years; the calendar skips over that .256, then multiplies by a whole number of those years to make up for it. .256 x 4 = 1.024, which is just enough to make an extra day and leftovers small enough that no one will really care…

For now, anyway.

Here’s the thing: How we measure Leap Years – and thus the passage of time – is going to have to change in the far future. The algorithm that the Gregorian Calendar uses is fine for our current civilization; it’s as accurate and easily applicable as it needs to be. But on long-term timescales – we’re talking tens of thousands of years – it won’t be able to keep up with the astronomy and physics it’s based upon. Thanks to the effects of the Moon’s gravity, Earth’s rotation is actually slowing down, creating longer days. We’ve already introduced Leap Seconds to make up for the discrepancies and inconsistencies in the planet’s rotation. That’s all assuming that nothing crazy happens with Earth’s orbit, or if it remains stable enough until humanity dies off and the sun goes red giant and destroys the planet in a few billion years.

…Happy Leap Year!

Gravitational Waves Discovered!

DNews breaks down one of the latest and biggest discoveries in physics. Seriously though, this is amazing. The folks running the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) have pulled off something that Einstein could only predict in his lifetime. Now that gravitational waves have been proven to exist, we’re one more important piece closer to solving – or at least comprehending – the vast puzzle that is the universe. If there’s ever going to be a 21st century game-changer for astronomy, this is it.

The Martian (Book) Review

Mark Watney has a problem. Due to a dust storm during his NASA mission, he’s been stranded on Mars. His teammates – and the rest of mankind – thought he died. He has no way to communicate with Earth. He’s trapped in a small habitat designed to last a month. There’s no breathable atmosphere outside. He has enough food for six people which, even if rationed, will last him less than one year. Since a rescue mission will take at least four years to arrive, he has to figure out a way to grow more food…on a planet devoid of water. But if no one knows he’s still alive, he’s going to starve anyway.

Okay, make that several problems.

SPOILERS

Needless to say, The Martian isn’t your typical survival story. A deserted island is one thing, but Mars is a completely different beast. How do you live on a planet that’s essentially uninhabitable? The answer is an awesome blend of the sheer isolation and desperation of Castaway and the determination and scientific improvising of Apollo 13. Watney was part of the NASA mission for a reason; as the team’s botanist and engineer, he’s got the right skills and knowledge to keep himself alive. Not enough food? Okay, cover the floor of the Hab with dirt, plant potatoes, and use your own waste as fertilizer. Keep track of your daily calories and ration accordingly. No water? Fine, burn some hydrazine, store the results, and be careful not to blow yourself up. Need to go on long excursions outside? Outfit your rover with solar panels, create a breathable atmosphere inside, and find a heat source to keep yourself from freezing. Communications array busted? Scrounge for leftover technology, fix what you can, and send information via telemetry, handwritten signs, or Morse code. Your spacesuit helmet cracked? Duct tape.

Seriously.

While some of these MacGuyver-esque techniques might seem daunting for the non-scientifically inclined, The Martian is quite to easy to read and understand. Andy Weir’s extensive research in potential and existing spaceflight technology shows through in both the details and the way they’re presented. While most sci-fi narratives are bogged down by their technical aspects, this novel benefits from having a narrator with a sense of humor. For all his expertise, Watney is a huge geek with a penchant for sarcasm. His first journal entry is laden with profanity, which is exactly how any normal person would react. His ability to describe realistic science in layman’s terms is impressive and often funny; he can say things like, “Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore” or¬†‚ÄúSomething very hot and very explodey had happened” without coming off as condescending. His journal entries give a sense of confidence and self-awareness; he confronts the dire situation with straightforwardness and honesty, but relies on knowledge and humor to keep himself sane. When he’s not explaining how stuff works, his idle musings over Aquaman, Three’s Company, disco, other pop culture tidbits are more than enough to keep readers hooked.

Whenever we need a reminder that Watney’s situation isn’t all laughs, however, the perspective switches over to the rescue operation. NASA discovering he’s still alive is a foregone conclusion; they still have active satellites observing the planet’s surface. Communicating with and getting him back to Earth requires extensive logistics and engineering marvels. The novel examines what would actually happen in this kind of situation; the media frenzy, JPL redesigning rockets with limited time and budget, spaceflight physics, and frantic improvising when things go wrong. There are no villains; everyone wants Watney to make it back alive. How that’s achieved is up for debate, and coming up with a decisive plan is what forms the conflict. While the explanations are in-depth, the characters describing them are not. Most of NASA’s higher-ups (aside from the wonderfully brash Mitch Henderson and supremely competent Mindy Park) are sadly forgettable. Watney’s crew fare little better; their personalities are developed just enough to keep things interesting. There’s potential, like Commander Lewis dealing with the guilt of leaving one of her men behind, or Johanssen’s adorkable interactions with Beck. Aside from those, the astronauts are utterly one-note. Martinez is an ace pilot, constant joker, and nothing else. Then there’s Vogel, the German orbital mechanics and chemistry expert. That’s all. They all provide a little witty banter and technical expertise to get them – and the reader – through the mission, but nothing else. While the story is supposed to be focused on Watney’s survival, a little more time with the rest of the crew would’ve been appreciated.

That doesn’t make The Martian a bad novel. Far from it. It’s got just the right combination of humor and technical know-how to keep readers hooked. Mark Watney is a wonderful protagonist; his snarky attitude and determination turn what should’ve been a tragedy into an epic survival adventure. While the other characters don’t get nearly enough time, they serve their purposes in portraying a nearly impossible rescue mission. The story is well-paced and incredibly difficult not to finish in one sitting. Not due to brevity – the paperback release clocks in at just under 400 pages – but because it’s entertaining. I’m not going to spoil if or how Watney survives, but let’s just say that you’ll be rooting for him every complicated step of the way. This is one of those rare science fiction novels that strives for realism, but absolutely refuses to be weighed down by technical jargon. It can inspire people to study sciences, space flight and exploration, and anything else associated with astronomy. That, above all else, makes The Martian worth reading.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Glimmering Sunset

Glimmering Sunset

This week’s challenge calls for a muse. You might have noticed I have a thing for the ocean and sunsets. Granted, I’m a nature lover in general, but there’s something alluring about the ocean; it gives you a sense of scale and your location on the Earth. You can watch the sun vanish before your eyes, giving you a greater insight of the astronomy and physics involved. The horizon practically begs you to venture forth and find out what’s out there. The ocean is one Earth’s great remaining mysteries; you can just stand there and wonder what lurks beneath the surface. You can breathe in the salty air, feel the wind your skin, and hear the waves endlessly crashing onto the shore…Yeah, I love it. This is one of many photos I took during my most recent trip. I’ll be posting more throughout the week; though they won’t all be sunsets, they’ll definitely involve oceans.