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Earth is once again passing through left-over material from Comet Swift-Tuttle providing us with the annual stellar artistic show of the Perseid Meteor Shower. The best nights to view will be August 11 through 13, 2012 anytime after 10 or 11 pm. The dark sky far from city lights just before dawn is expected to provide the optimal viewing experience. To add to this celestial delight, will be a crescent Moon in alignment with Jupiter and Venus viewable in the eastern sky in the early morning hours.
Focus your gaze toward the Perseus constellation not too far up from the horizon in the north to north-east direction. (Review a detailed sky map.) In darker conditions it might be possible to observe as many as one hundred per hour. If you are in a safe location–in other words, not near a country road–take a blanket and lie down on the ground for a comfortable and relaxing night of sky magic.
If you are fortunate enough to see many meteorites, it’s always fun to count your way to a world record. However, for more than just personal entertainment, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office is very interested in knowing precisely how many you see. In fact, they have developed a citizen science smart phone app called ‘Meteor Counter‘ for iPhone and Android to assist anyone in scientifically providing accurate observation counts to the NASA research team. With these crowd-sourced counts, NASA can further develop models of the Perseid meteor debris stream, which will guide future safety plans for orbiting spacecraft.
Of course, not everyone in the Northern hemisphere will have optimal viewing experiences. However, online activities and live viewing of the shower will be available for those late night couch potatoes who would prefer to avoid the hot dog days of August. Courtesy of the great Spaceweather.com, a real-time Perseid Meteor show image gallery is available for viewing actual photos uploaded from amateur astronomers around the world. On the night of August 11 and 12, a live “Up All Night Chat” is also being hosted by NASA with astronomer Bill Cooke and colleagues where they will answer your questions and you will join them in a live video and audio feed of the shower.
So, however you are able to view this spectacle–either interactively online or roaming in the countryside–the annual Perseid meteor shower is a beautiful moment that must be relished. We experience our days focused on the minutia of effectively living in our society, but it is so inspiring to step away, if for only an hour in the middle of the night, to remember that we are only a minuscule element in an amazingly massive and gorgeous universe.
Within a few days (August 6, 12:31 a.m. Central), a robotic representative of humanity will once again return to Mars. As the largest rover to date, the Curiosity‘s exploration mission will further help us understand the neighbor planet, including how it might once have been capable of supporting microscopic life. In addition to Mars’ potential history of life, Curiosity will continue past rovers’ efforts to characterize the climate and geology all in preparation for the ultimate goal: sending our species to the red planet. (Read more about the Mars Science goals.)
Stepping a human foot onto the surface of Mars may be several decades away, at least, but I intently hope that my lifetime will be long enough to witness the event. It was a technological marvel when we arrived on our Moon, but it will be a technological inevitability–mixed with an extreme amount of guts–when we arrive on Mars.
Why should we go?
Do we think we can just be lazy and not care for our home planet, and then be ready to hop over to the next when this one runs dry? This, of course, is nonsensical and is not in the back of anyone’s mind who is seriously working toward Mars. Getting to Mars requires extreme technological advancements, so many of which will benefit humanity at home. The potential for discovering new natural resources can benefit future generations of future generations. Discovering life on Mars, the historical footprint of life, or the lack thereof can each have important implications for understanding our place in the Universe. And, ultimately, successfully inhabiting Mars creates the opportunity for our species to survive if a planetary crisis of an extinction-level event occurs here at home.
We are a species who has evolved in such a way that we are now developing the technology to seed our own survival on another planet. This is not an endeavor for one country or one culture alone, but it is an experience for everyone.
You, one step closer to Mars
And, the time to participate in this experience is already here. This first thing to do is to take a stroll outside after sunset on the evening of August 5, 2012. Look west and observe a beautiful celestial triangle comprising Mars, Saturn, and Spica, one of the brightest stars in the sky, which is actually a binary system located only 260 light years away. Then, head back home and prepare for the online webcast presented by NASA TV, starting at 10:30 pm Central.
The Curiosity rover is much larger than the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, so landing this puppy will be a harrowing experience, for sure. However, with a successful touch-down, proof of our technological advancement for sending larger payloads for future missions will be in the bag.
Once the landing is completed, the exciting new data collection can begin. And is there data! And where there is a lot of data to sort through, there are interesting opportunities for citizen scientists. From previous rovers, there are over 250,000 surface images currently being sorted and cataloged to create a massive topological map of the Martian surface. NASA has opened up this mapping project to citizen scientists through the “Be a Martian” online interface. Using your desktop computer or even your mobile device, including Windows Phone, Android, and iPhone, you can individually review images actually taken by a Mars rover and identify characteristic ground and sky features, help stitch together multiple images, count craters, and learn much more about the wonderful new science underway on Mars.
This is certainly an exciting time in solar system exploration (especially with the two Voyager probes nearing the edge of our system right now), and it is important that you take part in these scientific efforts. NASA really does need help from the masses: you don’t require any Congressional budgetary approvals to begin work. Our personal greater appreciation for what is happening on Mars and what potentials exist deep in its red dirt will help bring our planets closer together and the benefits that will soon be discovered closer to reality.
Looking at an image and seeing that something just isn’t quite right is always an intriguing experience. From past experience, we expect to see one thing, but often upon immediate observation we see something else quite different. Optical illusions demonstrate to us directly that reality is created by our perceptions of the environment and these perceptions are processed in our brain. So, maybe reality is just all in our heads?
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one” – Albert Einstein
(a popular misquotation extracted from “For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.” Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (2008), p. 540)
Classic examples of optical illusions include the floor tiling at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome and the “flashing” grid illusion first reported by Ludimar Hermann in 1870. The twentieth century artist M. C. Escher took the phenomena to an artistic level and created some of the most popular and aesthetically interesting illusions, and many more optical illusions may be viewed with an image search.
In 2003, Akiyoshi Kitaoka, a professor of psychology at the Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, designed a new visual phenomenon called the peripheral drift illusion, or “Rotating Snakes” (read the original report, PDF). In this design, an apparent motion of the image is seen in the observer’s peripheral vision. The effect is strongest when the image contains clearly graduating sections of repetitive diminishing or increasing brightness and these sections follow fragmented or curved edges. A variety of examples of the design can be previewed on Kitoaka’s website of Rotating Snakes.
This visual phenomena has fascinated scientists with the challenge to explain how our brains process this image. It was not until quite recently that an answer may have been experimentally discovered (“Microsaccades and Blinks Trigger Illusory Rotation in the “Rotating Snakes” Illusion”, Otero-Millan, et al. The Journal of Neuroscience, 25 April 2012, 32(17): 6043-6051; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5823-11.2012, Read the abstract). Researchers from the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona, lead by Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde, presented “Rotating Snake” images to participants while recording their eye motion with high-resolution. Previously, it had been presumed that the eyes were drifting during observation to create the apparent motion. However, they instead found that when the observers acknowledged motion in the images, their eyes were undergoing small rapid movements called microsaccades. These mini-eye movements represent small jumps in a person’s gaze position that help to refresh the input on retinal receptors during the intentional fixation on an image (“Toward a model of microsaccade generation: The case of microsaccadic inhibition” Rolfs, et al. Journal of Vision, August 6, 2008 vol. 8 no. 11 article 5 doi: 10.1167/8.11.5, Read the full-text PDF).
It is quite amazing to gaze at an image that you consciously know is static, yet you unquestionably see an apparent animation. Your understanding of reality conflicts directly with your observation of reality. For a quick personal experiment to see if I could control this reality distortion, I was able to temporarily pause the motion with a very focused attempt to stare only at one corner of the Rotating Snake image. As I let my focus shift just bit, the rotation immediately re-appeared. It is only a guess as to whether I was inhibiting the microsaccades of my eyes, or if I was positioning the image in some “peripheral blind spot” where the retinal receptors taking input from the eye motions couldn’t receive the input. Nevertheless, I do still feel quite grounded in reality; however, I am reminded to maintain an appreciation of questioning what I directly perceive around me as my brain will continue to work in ways that is beyond my conscious control.
On Sunday, May 20, 2012, the Moon passed directly in front of the Sun offering a memorable view of an annular solar eclipse from southeast Asia into the western United States.
Here in Central Illinois, Dynamic Patterns Research was unable to witness the solar eclipse thanks to several nice pockets of severe thunderstorms, although we should have been able to see a sliver of eclipse just above the horizon at sunset. Fortunately, many others around the country did have memorable experiences with this special event with great photographs and informal educational experiences with their children. If you would like to re-live the full experience from your home computer, the team at CosmoQuest from SIUE provided a live three-and-one-half-hour feed with commentary and video covering the entire event:
The digital social world was filled with sharing of solar eclipse images, some quite aesthetically outstanding and awe-inspiring. Check out the album from Space.com and the album from Spaceweather.com to witness this great natural wonder of our solar system by talented citizen scientists and enthusiasts from all over the world.
Certainly, a solar eclipse can inspire adults into a greater appreciation of this wonderful universe, but an event like a solar eclipse can offer something a little more special to children. I seem to recall many years ago (well, not that many) during my pre-school days playing outside in the playground when the world grew a little darker and the teachers thoroughly reminded us to not look directly at the sun. The memory is mostly a haze, but I almost think I was a bit scared. Maybe I didn’t understand what was going on, or I was just afraid that I might go blind. What I didn’t have back then was a guided informal educational experience that I was certainly primed and ready for. Moments like these are brief, but critical, for exciting and intriguing young brains about science and helping them develop an appreciation for how everything around us works.
Kate Cormeny Geesaman spent the afternoon experimenting with her children building a solar eclipse viewer and then giving it a try at their home in south-central Texas.
“I think I may have seen a slight sliver “on” the sun, but it wasn’t the dramatic viewing I had imagined. But, Aaron was introduced to the idea and we had a great time in the beautiful Texas weather with our family and neighbors! After we went inside we got our SkyMap app open on our phone and observed how the moon was indeed in front of the sun…just below the horizon.”
Although Kate and her children were unsuccessful in creating a clear observable image of the eclipse, the experience was certainly invaluable for bringing a bit more curiosity to her young boys, and teaching them something about how to create tools to solve problems — an evolutionary essence of being a human. And, spending time with family, friends, and science makes for a perfect Sunday afternoon!
If you have any images that you would like to share, please post to the Dynamic Patterns Research Facebook page and we’ll be sure to feature your work to everyone.
Unfortunately, Dynamic Patterns Research missed out on making our own direct observations of the annular solar eclipse, but the next opportunity will be perfect, weather permitting of course. We’ve already set our calendars for Monday, August 21, 2017 when the path of the eclipse will be nearly directly overhead, so a “ring-of-fire” image should be possible.
This evening just after sunset, the crescent Moon was positioned in a beautiful triangular alignment with Venus and Jupiter. (view the skymap) I took the kids out to try using the binoculars to see the Moon — which they certainly also just used to walk around the yard finding one another! — and to talk a little about the two planets and how cool it is that we can see them with our own eyes.
These slightly in-focus images were taken with a very simple Nikon CoolPix S8100 auto focus in night landscape mode on a tripod.
We have just begun reading the recently released review book, “Connectome,” from Sebastian Seung of MIT. The basic notion of the book is that you are the emergent result from the interconnections of some 100 billion neurons in your brain. “You are your connectome.”
This is not a novel idea at its most basic level, however, Dr. Seung is bringing this exciting hypothesis to a broader popular understanding, which will help guide future generations of appreciation for the utterly incredible mass of flesh lodged in our skulls.
Mapping the complete interconnections of neurons remains to this day a daunting task for neuroscientists, but a task in which Dynamic Patterns Research is particularly interested. It took decades of manual labor by White, et al. to map the mere 302 neurons in the wee little worm C. elegans. The complete structural architecture of its neuronal connections–it’s connectome–is now readily available for research and exploration. Now, imagine extending this task to the human brain, but plan on taking a 300+ million-fold leap that would necessarily require technological advances not yet fully realized.
Despite this apparent impossibility, there is just something awesome about the human brain that makes us who we are, and we just have to plow forward and try to discover more. There’s something “in there,” or, something that emerges from what’s inside that especially sets us apart from all other known life on this planet. If we could tap into that “something,” then we might just have a better understanding of who we are as an organism. Tapping into the structure of our brains–our connectome–is the best place to start.
Watch Sebastian Seung’s TED Talk, “I am my connectome.” :: July 2010
It seems that we will have to patiently wait for technological advances–although they are increasing at accelerating rates–to get us to the ability to efficiently map our personal connectomes. In the mean time, we do have an extraordinarily powerful tool that is ready today to help with developing procedures for mapping neuronal connections in living brains: this tool is the brains of citizen scientists.
It is from the laboratory of Sebastian Seung and enthusiastic collaborating scientists who bring to the citizen science community the exciting opportunity to directly map interconnections in neural tissue. The online system is called eyewire, and provides images from 3-D stacks of neuronal tissue from the retina and guides citizen scientists through a process of identifying connecting features. By visually evaluating two-dimensional cross-sections of tissue images created with electron microscopy, users work through the layers by recognizing connecting features between each image. The identified cross-layer features from the efforts of citizen scientists can then be reconstructed into a three-dimensional structural map of the neurons–and their connections–throughout the tissue.
A waiting list is currently in place to control the influx of interested citizen scientists, so Dynamic Patterns Research has not yet had the opportunity to test out the system (but, we are on “the list”!). We hope to be in soon so that we can participate in this great project that is at one of the core interests of Dynamic Patterns Research. If you are already participating now, please let us know what you think of the system.
Your brain is the most awesome thing in the Universe. We know so little about it, but we are on the cusp of a revolution in a new understanding of what it is and how it works. Now, citizen scientists can be an integral part in this revolution so that anyone can scientifically better know their inner self.
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