Celebrating the out-of-this-world photography from the Hubble Space Telescope

Today, 20 May back in 1990, people on earth got their first glimpse at a photograph from arguably the most expensive camera in the world – or at least using the most expensive lens in the world. Today celebrates the day that the first photographic image (an image of a double star 1,260 light years away) was sent to earth from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

NASA image release date April 17, 2012 This region resembles a coral reef, but the gas has been eroded by the hefty stars in R136, situated above it. Cloaked in gas at the top of this rugged, gaseous terrain are nascent stars that cannot be seen. Dense columns of gas, several light-years long, protrude from the undulating landscape. These gaseous columns are incubators for developing stars. By NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Space Flickr photograph. Some Rights Reserved.) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
NASA image release date April 17, 2012
This region resembles a coral reef, but the gas has been eroded by the hefty stars in R136, situated above it. Cloaked in gas at the top of this rugged, gaseous terrain are nascent stars that cannot be seen. Dense columns of gas, several light-years long, protrude from the undulating landscape. These gaseous columns are incubators for developing stars.
By NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Space Flickr photograph. Some Rights Reserved.) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The HST was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in 1990, and remains in operation until today. In it’s 20+ years of operation, it has dazzled us with some truly mind-blowing images. The fact that it’s orbit lies outside the distortion of the earth’s atmosphere means that it can capture amazingly sharp images, with practically no background light, providing scientists with a detailed view into deep space and time. The instruments on the telescope observes light in the near-ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared ranges.

To see more of the amazing imagery produced by the HST, have a look at the Hubble Space Telescope: the first 20 years in pictures collection in The Telegraph.

Remembering a pioneer of space photography

A few days ago, on 17 May 2013, Frederick Doyle died at age 93.

For those who don’t know, Frederick Doyle was a space photographer and photographic mapping specialist at NASA. He was appointed chairman of NASA’s Apollo Orbital Science Photographic Team in 1969, where his responsibilities included the planning of the camera systems and direction of orbital science photography for the Apollo lunar missions 13 to 17. Many famous images of the moon, including mappings of the mountains of the moon, came to us courtesy of Mr Doyle.

View of the moon, from "Apollo Over the Moon: A View from Orbit" (1978 © F Doyle)
View of the moon, from “Apollo Over the Moon: A View from Orbit” (1978 © F Doyle)

Beyond his moon imagery, Doyle directed photography projects on space missions to Mercury, Venus and Mars. He was also a principle investigator on the Landsat satellite photography projects, as well as on Skylab. The images of earth created under his supervision have given scientists greater insights into topics like climate change and deforestation.

Frederick Doyle may not have been a household name, but as a science photographer he certainly made a huge contribution to the field of space photography and the mapping of the earth’s surface.

To see more of his wonderful images, have a look at Apollo Over the Moon: A View from Orbit.

Celebrating a year of daily blog-posts!

It was today exactly one year ago, or perhaps I should say 365 days ago, in blog terms, that I made a blog post about the inaugural Fascination of Plants Day.

This rather inconspicuous event in the blogging universe, on the arbitrary date of 18 May 2012, was the kick-off of an idea I had to do a daily blog featuring some interesting fact (preferably with a science angle) related to the specific day, and illustrating it with one of my own photos. And here we are – 365 posts later, back to the 18th of May. 🙂

Jumping for joy at having achieved my goal of a year of daily science and photography blog-posts  (© All Rights Reserved)
Jumping for joy at having achieved my goal of a year of daily science and photography blog-posts
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I don’t think I quite realised what I let myself in for – trying to find something interesting for each day proved quite a challenge, especially given the extra requirement of illustrating it with an original photograph of my own. This immediately took things like space travel, innovations at the atomic level, heart transplants etc out of the equation, sometimes leaving me blogging about some rather absurd esoteric topics like Yellow Pig Day and World Coconut Day. I discovered many interesting facts and stories I never knew – the story of Farkas Bolyai and his mathematical obsessions, Stanley Miller’s primordial soup experiments, how bubble wrap was invented, and the fact that there’s even such a thing as World Toilet Day, to name but a few.

I even learned how to make a needle float on water.

My original aim was to keep up the daily blog for a year. With that done, the question is whereto now. While I’m reluctant to commit to another year of the same level of blogging dedication, I have to admit I’ve been enjoying where the blog took me, so I don’t quite feel like calling it a day.

What I’ve decided for the moment (I may change my mind, who knows) is to commit to at least a weekly post on a subject related to the day (or week – there appears to be more than enough ‘International Week of…’ initiatives out there worth sharing a blog post about).

In between I may mix things up a bit with more blog posts related to what I do in real life, that is, being a science photographer. Posts about interesting events and developments in the fields of photography, visual science communication, science art collaborations, and more. Even some personal ramblings, who knows.

My sincere thanks to everyone following this blog, to all the likes, comments and support over the past year. I hope you will continue to share my journey.

Cheers to the next year.

James Prescott Joule and the conservation of energy

Today we celebrate the birthday of James Prescott Joule (24 Dec 1818 – 11 Oct 1889), the English physicist famous for his discovery that the different forms of energy – mechanical, electrical, and heat – are essentially the same thing, and as such are interchangeable.

In wind energy farms, wind energy (a mechanical energy) is converted to electric energy. In the process, some loss occurs in the form of heat generated. Joule's important contribution was to figure out that the total energy (mechanical + electrical + heat), however, remains constant.(© All Rights Reserved)
In wind energy farms, wind energy (a mechanical energy) is converted to electric energy. In the process, some loss occurs in the form of heat generated. Joule’s important contribution was to figure out that the total energy (mechanical + electrical + heat), however, remains constant.
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This discovery lead to his formulation of the First Law of Thermodynamics – the Law of Conservation of Energy. The law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can only be changed from one form to another.

Some of his other important contributions to physics include the definition of the relationship between electrical current, resistance and heat, and also, some 10 years later, the kinetic theory of gases.

His important contributions to the understanding of energy was acknowledged when his name was given to the SI unit for energy – the joule (J).

Location, location, location (and time) – it’s GIS Day

November 14th is GIS Day, an annual event focusing attention on the field of Geographic Information Systems, its use and potential to impact on our lives.

GIS Day started in 1999 to create an opportunity for people to learn about geography and to discover and explore the benefits of GIS.

Spatially mapping your data enables you to identify trends and relationships that might not otherwise be apparent.
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So what exactly is GIS? According to Esri, one of the leading international developers and vendors in the field of GIS, “A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. GIS allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts.”

Or, as Wikipedia puts it: “In the simplest terms, GIS is the merging of cartography, statistical analysis, and database technology.”

Spatially visualising information has many benefits. GIS enables us to map where things are and in what quantities and densities they are distributed. Modern GIS tools also allow us to map and visualise changes in these quantities over time. By seeing how various fields of data are dispersed geographically, and how they are changing, it is often possible to identify trends and relationships that might not otherwise be apparent.

This in turn leads to better decision making and improved communication.

GIS is a pervasive supporting technology throughout all aspects of modern society, with applications in business (banking, retail, etc), law enforcement, health, transportation, environmental systems, conservation, agriculture, forestry, mining, telecommunications, utilities management, research and education.

Capturing spatio-temporal location is key to GIS.
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A GIS can typically employ and integrate data from a huge range of sources, as long as it has some key through which to relate it to the other data in the system. This key is spatio-temporal location – you need to know the location and time represented by the data. To map climate change, for example, you would include information on temperature and rainfall. But just having a list of temperatures and rainfall figures means nothing – to make it useful, you need some indicator of where and when each value was measured.

By promoting an understanding of this simple basic concept – that you massively increase the value and usefulness of any set of data by recording and including the spatio-temporal location of each data item – time and money spent on data collecting efforts can be leveraged so much more effectively.

Are you involved in data collection? Know someone who is? Even if space and time appear unimportant, record it anyway. Who knows – you may just discover something no-one’s thought of before…

Gordon Gould, laser shows and space battles

If you were young in the late 70s/early 80s, you may have a special appreciation for today’s subject. Remember those high-tech night club laser shows that were so popular at the time? Well, today we celebrate the invention of the laser.

On this day back in 1957, the American physicist Gordon Gould, noted down the principles of ‘Light Amplified by Stimulated Emission of Radiation’, or ‘LASER’ in a dated notebook entry. His notes also included various applications for laser light, and he was the first to coin the term ‘LASER’ at a conference in 1959.

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Sadly Gould’s patenting savvy at the time didn’t match his physics skills, and his 1959 patent application was denied by the US Patent Office. The USPO subsequently went on to grant a patent in 1960 to Bell Laboratories, whose scientists, Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow, were independently and in parallel to Gould, also working on the concept of lasers.

This effectively ‘robbed’ Gould of his share of the benefits – money, prestige, science acumen – derived from the invention. Not willing to accept this fate, Gould took the matter to court, an action that set in motion 28 years of lawsuits. He won a minor patent in 1977, but it was only in 1987 that he succeeded in achieving a major victory, claiming patents for a number of laser devices.

To this day, science historians are not in agreement about who to give primary credit for the invention of the laser, but there is no doubt that Gould deserves a large portion of the credit.

Since its discovery, many different types of lasers have been developed, producing emissions in ways too intricate to try and discuss in a blog post. However, the key feature of a laser beam is its high degree of spatial and temporal coherence. ‘Spatial coherence’ means there is very little diffraction in a laser beam, so it can be focused on a tiny spot over a significant distance. ‘Temporal coherence’ means the wave phase of the light beam is correlated over a large distance, producing a polarised wave at a single frequency.

Lasers are not just important scientific tools – they’re also a great subject for science photography.
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Of course lasers are far more useful than simply creating special effects light shows. They have become a ubiquitous part of modern society, being used in electronics, information technology, medicine, industry and military applications. In any single day you may encounter lasers in barcode scanners, CD players, computer hard disks, laser printers and more.

Thanks to their precise focusing ability, lasers are used in a range of medical applications, including surgery, treatment of kidney stones, eye treatments etc. They are also used in cosmetic skin treatments. Their accurate cutting ability makes them extremely useful in many modern industrial cutting and part-making applications. They are also an integral part of many military systems, including guidance and electro-optical defence systems.

And perhaps most importantly, judging by countless science fiction movies over the years, lasers will be absolutely indispensable as the weapon of choice to defend our planet and obliterate enemy space ships!

Charles Glen King and the story of Vitamin C

Today is the birthday of Charles Glen King (22 Oct 1896 – 23 Jan 1988), an American biochemist and the ‘other guy’ who also discovered Vitamin C.

In the early 1930s, King was doing research on the anti-scurvy effects of lemon juice on guinea pigs (guinea pigs are one of only a small group of animals besides humans who cannot produce their own vitamin C, hence they can get scurvy like us). At the same time, Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi was studying the chemical hexuronic acid that he had previously isolated from animal adrenal glands. Within 2 weeks of each other, both King and Szent-Gyorgyi published papers on the discovery of Vitamin C, showing that the vitamin and hexuronic acid were the same compound.

Szent-Gyorgyi went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937, for his part in the discovery of Vitamin C, while King was not similarly rewarded. Controversy remains over the extent to which both men deserve partial credit for the discovery.

Given the extent to which Vitamin C is lost from food due to storage, cooking etc, a dietary supplement may be necessary to ensure that you get enough of the good stuff.
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Vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid, thanks to its anti-scurvy properties (a- = not; scorbus = scurvy). Besides fighting off scurvy, Vitamin C has many other benefits – it is a cofactor in numerous enzymatic reactions in the body, and it has important antioxidant properties. It also enhances iron absorption, and is a natural antihistamine. However, while it is found in high concentrations in immune cells, its flu-fighting power may be a myth. Despite extensive research, Vitamin C has not been proven effective in the prevention or treatment of colds and flu. It does not reduce the incidence or severity of the common cold, but there are some indications that it may help reduce the duration of illness.

Still, even though it may not ward away the sniffles, getting a decent daily dose will definitely do you more good than harm – there doesn’t appear to be many adverse effects from overdosing, since excessive amounts of Vitamin C is simply lost through nonabsorption or urination.

So, don’t hold back on the chilli peppers, guavas, leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, fresh herbs, kiwifruit, strawberries and, yes, good old oranges.

And while you’re feasting away, spare a thought for Charles Glen King, the unsung hero in the Vitamin C story.

Techies Day and the growing need for skilled high-tech workers

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a ‘techie’ is defined as “a person who is very knowledgeable or enthusiastic about technology and especially high technology”. And today, I am told, is Techies Day, launched in 1999 by Techies.com. Yes indeed, when no-one else bothered to create a day for appreciating the techies, they just did what any good techie would do and created it themselves. Gotta love a techie!

All jokes aside, this is the day to take some time to acknowledge and appreciate all the ways in which your life is made easier thanks to a baffling array of techies – the guys and gals who keeps the telecommunications systems communicating; who ensure the computing systems keep computing; who keep our ever increasing collection of digital devices up and running; who enable the blogging platforms to keep on supporting the 433,743 bloggers, 1,058,607 new posts, 1,283,513 comments, and 246,669,831 words posted every day (and that’s just on our favourite platform).

Take time today to show some love and appreciation for the techies in your life.
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Internationally there’s an ever growing demand for qualified technology workers, and a growing recognition of the need for initiatives aimed at drawing more bright young people into technology domains. In a ComputerWeekly report from April this year, the lack of IT talent is described as a ‘global issue’ by recruitment group Hays, who has pinpointed IT as “one of the top ‘hard skills’ in demand” in their list of top ten skills that are globally lacking. The article further points out that, while international outsourcing is still a popular option for many companies to address their shortages, there is a trend to rather try to attract the skills to develop projects in-house.

The situation is no different down here in New Zealand. As reported in the NZ Herald, Minister of Economic Development Steven Joyce , while addressing the Nethui Internet Conference, said “There is a worldwide shortage of ICT skills currently and it’s not getting any better and New Zealand is part of that. One of the challenges for all of us, particularly those of you who are evangelists for the digital revolution, is actually to get schools, people, students, families to get more focused on ICT careers because there is a danger that the focus on the skills, that will be required, lags [behind] the opportunities.”

The ICT domain keeps expanding, requiring more and more techies to keep it up and running.
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So, the next time you interact with a techie and he/she looks a tad stressed, have some sympathy – they’re probably overstretched and can do with some appreciation. Too often these days we consider the IT systems and connectivity supporting our lives a right and not a privelege, and we get righteously peeved off when things go wrong and take it out on the first line of support we hit.

Today, instead of fighting, show some love for the techies in your life.

Happy Techies Day, everyone.

Get in on the action on World Water Monitoring Day

September 18th is World Water Monitoring Day. This day has been observed since 2003, with the aim being to increase public awareness of water quality and water quality monitoring.

Even though World Water Monitoring Day is still observed on 18 September each year, the initiative has in recent years (since 2009) been expanded to become the World Water Monitoring Challenge, a programme promoting citizen participation in monitoring local water resources around the globe. Basic, low cost water test kits can be ordered through the World Water Monitoring Challenge website, and facilities are provided for volunteers to upload their test results to a global water quality database. The parameters being tested include temperature, acidity (pH), clarity (turbidity) and dissolved oxygen (DO).

Getting schools and community groups involved in water monitoring is a practical and useful way to spread the water quality message.
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One of the goals of the Challenge is to expand participation to a million people in 100 countries by 2012. This is quite a stretching target, given that 2011 saw the involvement of just over 330 000 people from 77 countries. Even if the one million target is not reached this year yet, it remains a most impressive initiative, and considering the importance of keeping our global water resources useful and healthy, something that is definitely worth supporting and promoting. Conducting water tests as a schools programme or community initiative not only helps gather valuable data, but also raises awareness among participants about water quality and how their actions can directly and indirectly impact on their local water resources.

To ensure maximum particilation, the extended World Water Monitoring Challenge now runs from March 22 (United Nations World Water Day) to December 31 each year. So there’s no excuse not to get in on the action.

Celebrating the legacy of Carl Zeiss

Today we celebrate one of the great names in optics – it’s the birthday of Carl Zeiss, born on 11 September 1816.

Zeiss studied mathematics, physics and optics, among other subjects, at the University of Jena, before he started experimenting with making lenses. By 1847 he founded Carl Zeiss AG and started manufacturing microscopes full time.

Carl Zeiss built the Zeiss empire through the manufacture of innovative, high quality optics for use in microscopy.
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Zeiss real contribution came from his realisation that, to differentiate himself from other manufacturers in the optics industry, he had to significantly up the ante in terms of quality and innovation. He first teamed up with the physicist Dr Ernst Abbe, who calculated that the optical quality of lenses at the time left much room for improvement, but also found that the optical glass available was not up to his manufacturing requirements. Zeiss then brought on board glass chemist Dr Otto Schott, who established a glassworks at Jena where he produced new, better quality glass that was able to meet and exceed Abbe’s requirements.

While the lenses produced by Zeiss were initially primarily used in the manufacture of microscopes, the glass produced at Jena also opened up possibilities for the creation of much improved photographic lenses, for use in still and video cameras. Zeiss’ early innovations in photographic lenses happened mostly through the contributions of Dr Paul Rudolph, who was responsible for many classic Zeiss lenses around the end of the 19th century including the famous Planar® in 1896. Later famous Zeiss lenses included the Tessar® (1902) and the Sonnar® (1931). In 1935, Alexander Smakula developed an innovative anti-reflective coating for camera lenses, known as the Carl Zeiss T-coating, which opened up totally new possibilities in lens design, and is a key component in modern photographic lens design.

Even though much of the photographic contributions made by the Carl Zeiss AG company only happened after the death of its founder (Carl Zeiss died on 3 December 1888), his name will always be inextricably linked to top quality photographic optics. Zeiss lenses were used extensively in the cameras manufactured by Zeiss Ikon, one of the companies in the Zeiss group, who started producing the classic Contax cameras in the mid-20th century. The Contax rangefinder was the first 35mm camera to pose a serious challenge to the iconic Leica M-series of the time.

Zeiss lenses have been used by many of the great camera brands, including Voigtlander, Hasselblad, Rollei and Sony.

Even in the 21st century, the name Carl Zeiss remains synonymous with quality optics, and brands sporting Zeiss lenses proudly flaunt the fact.
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Aside from microscopy and photography, the optical innovations created by Carl Zeiss and his company have found a use in a wide range of applications, from medical solutions to sports optics to industrial metrology.