Wednesday, November 22, 2006

An historic day for mexican astronomy

Today the LMT (Large Millimeter Telescope) has been inaugurated today by president Vicente Fox. This telescope is a landmark in mexican astronomy. The LMT is the largest single dish radiotelescope working in the millimetric wavelengths (1-4 mm). It is located in the top of Sierra Negra, a 4,640 metres (15,223 feet) mountain in Puebla that was chosen for it's high altitude and dry air that avoids atmospheric absortion of millimetric radiation.

The LMT has a diameter of 50 metres and was a 150 millon investment that was built in 10 years ina cooperation between INAOE and UMass.

Millimetric wavelenghts are usually emitted in the coldest and densest places in the universe, this are the most oscured enviroments in the universe (the earliest stages of structure formation usually take place in sites) and observations at high resolutions had been scarce (there are also plans for large interferometric arrays at this wavelenghts like ALMA), this powerful new instrumention will finally allow us to solve some long standing problems in astronomy like high mass star formation.

The main scientific goals of the LMT are studies of structure formation in the universe, for example it will allow to observe directly the molecular cores where star formation takes place. It will also allow observations of the dust disks around young stars allowing us for first time a glimpse into planet formation. Other interesting proyects planned for the LMT are observations of some dusty starburst galaxies at large redshifts, obervations of the AGN's and studies of the center of the Galaxy that is remarkably difficult to study because the dust blocks light in almost all wavelengths, actually almost all our knowledege of the galactic core comes from radio wavelenghts, so this new window will surely give us many surprises.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Watch for earth-gazers

If you are living in New England and the eastward parts of New York State and Quebec watch out for the leonids. This are particles from the comet Temple-Tuttle and are usually a meager show, but every 33 years the Earth enters in a particullary rich part of the stream, this actually happened in the 1998-2002 period, with the 2001 leonids beeing the most remarkable meteor shower in decades, so we are out of the "sweet spot".

Despite that, today (saturday 18) the earth passes through a narrow and dense part of the filament, if you live in the zones mentioned above then at around 11:45 pm east time (04:45 UT) you can expect a nice show, Leo won't be quite high in the sky so don't expect a literal rainfall of the meteors, the nice thing about tonight's meteor shower is that the meteors will enter the atmosphere at a low angle producing very long trails known as "earth gazers". If you are lucky enough to watch this from one of this places please leave a comment!

So, stop reading this and look in the direction of the Leo constellation, now! If you don't know where to look you can use the skycharts at for more details (inclyding a map of the trail) here, if you can't see the country in the map (like me) you are out of luck.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Science is for everyone, isn't it?

In 1995 Roger Schlafly found a very large prime number and then somehow managed to patent it! Can you really "patent" a number? Well, it seems the answer is yes, but legal issues aside the whole notion of pateting numbers lacks any sense, at least for me. So, are technological patents a good idea?

The central problem is that while patents might somehow encourage sharing information because at least everyone can see the patent and eventually the patent will expire (compare it with secrecy like the coke recipy that might never be known) the current "lawsuit culture" has gone to really funny extremes and some very nasty ones like software patents (you need to pay royalties for patented things like scroll bars, at least in principle).

I have just read an unbelievably funny story in this regard (even funnier than Sagan vs Apple), it seems that Kimberly-Clark was using some patterns quite similar to Penrose Tilings in toilet paper, of course Mr. Penrose (who has done many remarkable things in mathematics and physics) didn't liked such a close link with the lavatory and sued Kimberly-Clark! You can read an account here.

Personally I find that science belongs to everyone and there is no sense in trying to prevent it's widespread use, even in the lavatory.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Setting up your scientific workstation

Usually setting up your computer as a scientific workstation has been a very time consuming activity, for MacOS users scisoft has been avalaible for a long time (it also has a version for Fedora Core 3) and includes most of the software that an astronomer is likely to use and it is useful for practically every other branch of physics, after all the numerical, ploting and statistics software has lots of applications.

Now a very useful script is avalaible for Ubuntu, it is called scibuntu and will turn your ubuntu system into a scientific workstation in a snap.