Saturday, July 23, 2011

type II supernovae

A couple weekends ago at the Golden State Star Party I saw a really cool thing in my telescope that exemplifies one particular aspect of amateur astronomy that is very hard to share with passers-by. It's great to look at the Hercules cluster or Whirlpool Galaxy or Veil nebula but those kind of truly stunning photo-quality views are rare. Much of the fascination comes from the mindbogglingness of it all. It's frankly mindboggling how endlessly mindboggling the universe is.

Normally, every single dot of light that you see in the sky, even through a telescope, is a single star within our own galaxy. Other galaxies are so far away we didn't even realize they were there until the 20th century. The only extragalactic object you can see naked-eye is a faint fuzzy patch in Andromeda, the great Andromeda galaxy, a huge and very close neighbor to the Milky Way (about 2.5 million light years away).

With a telescope, you see many more of these fuzzy patches, but the smallest detail you can ever just barely see (still only in the large and very close examples) are globular clusters, which are themselves huge balls of millions of stars that couldn't quite make it as dwarf galaxies on their own.

So to see a single star within a galaxy 23 million light years away is downright insane. But that's what happens when a type II supernova occurs in the Whirlpool galaxy. An exploding giant star is the most powerful event in the known universe, so that a single star out of hundreds of billions of stars in a single galaxy millions of light years away can actually outshine the entire rest of the host galaxy.

My telescope is just big enough to clearly see this particular supernova. Two clear dots of light lay on the left side of the galaxy, one of which is a star on any map, and the other is an ephemeral glimmer of such a rare type that only a tiny fraction of humans have been able to see or understand it. To think, we humans go to New York City and are astonished by the amount of energy required to produce such a vibrant organism, and yet with a tiny seismic blip the Earth by itself could snuff this pinnacle of human civilization out. And a single tiny collision between orbiting pebbles could instantly erase out our entire Earthly existence. And a single tiny galactic blip could delete our entire solar system, the farthest limits of our feeble human reach and the source of all energy behind all phenomena we can experience tangibly, extinguished in a cosmic second like a cheap tea-light.

What other barely-distinguishable signal to a minuscule clump of rod cells can lead to such an existential experience of triviality?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

metaknowledge

With all of the hype about `interdisciplinary' research, you'd think there would be more people around with lots of knowledge about lots of things. Who else are the interdisciplinaries? But what it really means is that specialization has gone so far that every tiny little point on the gray continuum between one field and another has been staked and claimed. Whoever claimed it knows that little point incredibly thoroughly but has just as limited a view of the big picture as everyone else.

I don't think we need more so-called interdisciplinaries (at least any more than we need regular old physicists and sociologists), I think we need people who learn primarily the big-picture framework of ideas. When searching for a solution to some technological problem in today's ultra-fragmented and specialized world, each person working on the problem will start with what they know and go in the most promising direction from there. Eventually they come to some conclusion, using the knowledge in the local neighborhood of their own specialty. People are amazingly resourceful, so a little bit of localized knowledge is enough to hack together some solution.

Starting a search from a random point will only lead you to a local maximum. Sure, if you start the search from a whole bunch of random points (like hundreds of researchers in different fields working on the same problem) you'll find a global maximum eventually, but that's not always possible, and it's never efficient. If there were people who were trained to know just what knowledge exists rather than all the details and methods of applying it, they could point in the right direction to start with.

Even group work doesn't replace this kind of skill. The only specialized scientists who can speak with each other are in close enough disciplines to share a jargon. That's hardly a broader view of the world of science.

In the age of the internet we're becoming familiar with this need even on an individual level. Knowing how to google things is more important than knowing things. Knowing what research exists is just about the most important first step when starting a related research project. There's no longer any point to memorizing details, nor is it even possible to learn as many details about any particular thing as people used to, when the subject goes so much deeper in any direction. It's far more important to learn the epistemological structure of those details in order to build up a greater understanding.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

the circus comes to town

The last two months have been so ridiculously crazy and busy and nonstop in motion that I've barely sat down in front of my computer for any real length of time except to frantically get some work done, and as a result stopped blogging for the longest amount of time in 7 years. And I haven't looked at google reader since May 14. I have no earthly idea what is happening in the world...

Anyway, I finally got around to writing down the third installment in my Gabon travel journal, so here it is.

After Jake finished his conference in Franceville, he had arranged with the Wildlife Conservation Society for logistical support and permitting to collect fishes in the Bateké plateau region, just outside the national park (permits for within the park take many more months to approve…) That itself was a bit of a nightmare of spending hours on end writing emails in French with google translate to communicate with a bunch of separate people who apparently don’t communicate amongst themselves, but one that I thankfully was not involved in. At the last day of the conference Jake was finally able to talk to someone (an English person!) from WCS in person and we got an estimated date of departure of Tuesday the 1st, four days later. It wasn’t until Monday at the very end of business that the details were finalized though, and we found out we were going to have to travel with a local guide and feed him and pay him, etc. However, since we originally were told we might have to travel with a WCS person who doesn’t speak any English and didn’t hit it off all that warmly with Jake at the conference, and pay him $66 per day plus expenses, the much smaller price tag of $22 per day was warmly welcome.

So the next day a guy named Stephen drove us in the WCS landrover from Franceville to Kessala, the small village a couple miles hike from the WCS elephant monitoring camp where we would be staying. That drive was the first time I really felt like we were getting into a remote part of Africa with people who were definitely African: The road, which frequently had rivets and holes and uneven surfaces of several feet vertical differences, was definitely not in the same world as the nice paved highway out of Libreville or the decently usable dirt roads surrounding Franceville. And the driver was utterly unphased by this; he seemed to know every rut and exactly how to hit each one to maximize speed and minimize throwing the luggage in the back on top of the passengers. The reality of the situation seemed so unlikely it felt like I was watching a video game.

We arrived in Kessala, which was also of course a completely different world from the two big cities of Libreville and Franceville. It’s tiny, with probably a few dozen residents, and very poor, with all of the buildings except the church made from scrap metal and local wood planks and reeds. Chickens and stray dogs roam around freely, and while no one was obviously going hungry, they also clearly had only a couple very old items of clothing each.

The arrival of the landrover was a town event, with all of the important men of the town descending on the scene to decide exactly what to do with us, and another crowd of spectators milling around nearby. Stephen’s job was to take us to Kessala, introduce us to various people like the town chief and the guy who would guide us in the woods, and instruct that guy on his job description, which was to guide us around to streams and rivers where we could collect fish for about $22 per day plus food. I’m not sure Stephen successfully communicated any of this besides our names before a group of men took over, chattering in very fast Teké, to decide who would accompany us, who would be our porters, and whether I could go at all. (I’m still not clear what the issue was there… but I’m female, and was wearing shorts since it was at least a 100 degrees in Franceville that day and I hadn’t had a chance to change into jeans yet in Kessala, and they clearly thought I was ill-equipped to walk into the forest if I thought that was a sensible thing to wear. But whatever the issue was, it disappeared from discussion as mysteriously as it arose, with not a single question asked of me directly, and I sure wasn’t going to inquire about it further as long as they weren’t sending me back to Franceville.)

When they had decided our fate, at least 45 minutes later, they led us to the home of the man who would guide us and showed us where we could set up camp for the night. Stephen allegedly sorted out the details of what was happening with them, since they didn’t speak a single word of English, and told us when we were supposed to be packed up the next morning and who would carry what for us into the camp for what amount of money. So we ended up with two porters, and Papa, the old man who was our guide for 9 days.

Stephen left us to our devices, and we hurriedly set up the tent to try to get a short reprieve from the madness. The crowd of milling onlookers had followed us to the lawn where we were setting up camp, and three or four boys insisted on curiously helping me assemble the tent (a magical house-in-a-bag) while many others watched Jake rearrange other camping and scientific equipment while pointing and discussing everything in great depth amongst themselves in Teké (mostly speculating about the purpose of the many mysterious items, it seemed) and investigating in as much detail as Jake would let them get away with. We escaped into the tent for a few minutes to change and hide, but then had to come back out to cook some ramen since we were both ravenously hungry and wanted to sleep as soon as possible (Jake operating on only a short catnap and me on about three hours of fitful sleep; see the previous post for that saga…) Dinner, prepared on our REI camp stove with petrol fuel can, was a whole new episode of the three ring circus, but we wolfed down the food and said goodnight quickly enough to avoid going crazy from all the attention.

In the morning the same crowd showed up to watch us pack up our gear and to decide as a town committee how to pack the remaining gear into two porter baskets and a third for our guide, and then to wave goodbye and watch the crazy white people march into the forest. Two elderly women and a younger girl with her infant son walked all the way to the entrance to the forest to wave au revoir and wish us good luck.

The walk to the camp was fairly uneventful; we couldn’t understand a word of the Teké that the three men spoke in, of course, and only bits and pieces of the French when they deigned to speak in the language that we at least had a fighting chance to decipher. When we got there we weren’t sure what to do with the porters so I handed them cash (which they looked confused about, oddly enough) and eventually left. The rest of that day we stayed around camp because Jake was still a little bit ill and there was a river right there to do some fishing in. Around 5pm, three WCS scientists showed up, who I didn’t know would be there at all, and seemed confused by our presence as well, although perfectly friendly I suppose. Papa ate with them and talked late into the evening so it was nice to have him preoccupied by something else for awhile.

The next day Jake and I packed up to hike down to the elephant platform to do some collecting there, since we’d been told by WCS that we could use that platform freely (and sleep there if we wanted to, which Olivia, the woman from WCS who spoke English that Jake had been communicating with, highly encouraged because it’s such a beautiful spot along the Mpassa. We headed out of camp and Jake indicated to Papa that we were going to the platform so Papa started walking with us, but then the communication broke down. I still don’t know exactly what he was trying to tell us but there was something about seeing elephants and taking photos of them and paying 20K CFAs (about $45) for the privilege. Jake said no no no, we are paying you 10K CFA per day to guide us through the forest to rivers where we can collect fish. But things were never really cleared up and we just pushed on ahead with Papa rambling on and on in Teké about god knows what, but it basically sounded like a never-ending rant about what we were doing and what we should be doing instead and what he didn’t want to be doing and what we had to pay him. Of course, neither of us spoke any Teké, and he rarely switched to French, but Jake was much more adept at hanging back and ignoring him than I had the stones to be, so I was stuck listening to this monologue and trying to answer “yes ok” or “I don’t understand” periodically.

(This, by the way, is the same day I wrote about previously with the rain storm, and I can’t remember what all I said, so there might be some redundancy.)

When we ran into the elephant, the communication issue became more relevant, because Papa was telling us to back up and put the camera away, which Jake was still convinced was because he was trying to get us to pay him 20K to photograph elephants, but there was obviously an element of safety concern in there too, as much as I’m sure the extortion element was there on some level. He finally succeeded in shooing us back towards a clearly off the elephant path and scouted ahead before taking us on to the platform.

The three scientists at the platform once again looked puzzled by what we were doing there, and Papa talked to them a long time, probably complaining about having to bring us down there despite the elephants etc etc etc. But Jake took some time to write down in French his field work plans for that afternoon and asked where we could work that would not disturb their research, and that seemed to break the ice drastically. One guy in particular was very helpful and nice and said he was there to help us all week and followed us to the streams instead of staying at the platform all afternoon. It seemed like we would be ok as far as communication went as long as this guy was there and on our side.

Unfortunately that didn’t last long… the next day the forest was drowned by the storm the day before so no one went anywhere. The day after that, the three WCS guys walked off in the opposite direction from the platform, and Papa told us we couldn’t go to the platform that day, which we didn’t really understand but figured it was still because of the forest being flooded, so we went to another stream in the other direction instead.

And every day after that, every single morning, we talked to Papa and he tried to explain to us why we couldn’t go to the platform that day, and said yes we will go tomorrow.

As for sleeping at the platform, that we couldn’t even communicate to the WCS guys, who seemed to think that was a crazy idea. Sure, there are elephants, and it’s dangerous to be out in the forest at night if there are elephants around, but the whole point of an elephant platform is they can’t get up it. Staying on the platform at any time is perfectly safe.

This guy, who was hired to guide us to where we needed to go, instead decided he was an authority on where we could go when and that taking us anywhere was a favor he would only occasionally deign to provide. And the elephant platform area (where we wanted to work because, well, there are elephants around, duh! Who doesn’t want to see elephants…) He wasn’t working for us, he was the de facto king of the forest that we were required to follow if we wanted to go in at all.

I cannot tell you how infuriating it is working with someone like this. Every day the same story. “Tomorrow we will go.”

On the 6th of 9 days, time was running out, and we sat down with Papa to very clearly lay out the plan for the rest of the time. I wrote down a calendar, in French of course, with mornings and afternoons and nights clearly demarcated, and we agreed that that night we would fish at beach 2, and that the next morning we would hike to the platform, collect fish there during the day, sleep there over night, continue collecting the next morning, and then hike back to the WCS camp for the last night before hiking back to Kessala. Everything was written down clearly, he repeated it back to us clearly, and we thought we finally would make some headway.

Next morning? Of course, no we can’t go to the platform today. We will go tomorrow.

By this point Jake had started musing out loud things like “Wow, this forest is so dense and remote. It would be so easy to murder someone here and no one would ever have an inkling of what happened...” Ahh, a day without Papa… how nice that would be indeed. Obsessed with this idea, Jake concocted a plan to get rid of him for an afternoon. He sent him with his camera back to Kessala to charge the battery on the solar charger. This conveniently solved a very real power problem and gave us a solid five hours of quiet and freedom. 20 minute in, it was abundantly clear to me that my grumpy, stressed out mood from the last couple days had been solely a result of having to deal with this guy.

The next day, after giving up on the idea of camping at the platform, once again, Papa says we cannot go to the platform today. And at this point the list of reasons he was giving was flat out comical. It is dangerous because of the elephants. I can go fishing with you, Jake, but the lady must stay here (Now THAT pissed me off. He knew I was assisting with research, and I know there have been other female scientists at the WCS camp…). We must stay away from the platform because it will scare the elephants away and the scientists must count them. We must stay away from the platform because it will scare the elephants away and tomorrow many people are coming to photograph them. It was completely ludicrous.

Up until then I’d pretty much left all the negotiating up to Jake since it was his field expedition and they obviously looked at him as the guy in charge (or, The Man, which is just as good) so why get involved. Especially since my French was not nearly as good as Jake’s. But by this point, on the very last day we were there and still being denied to go work where we were told we could work or camp freely by the organization in charge of all six of us there, I was so annoyed that I joined in the hour long discussion with Papa arguing about where we could go. We got as far as agreeing to go in the direction of the platform and fish in a couple of the smaller streams on the way, but not all the way there.

So off we went. After passing by the first two small streams, Papa started in on his perpetual irritated ranting (in French, at least, by this point) about what we were doing. At the third stream, when we knew we were pretty close to the platform, Jake sat down with Papa and said, Look, I know you don’t want to take us to the platform. We will fish here. But you need to take this message to the other people at the platform with my camera, because I need two photographs of the two locations where we fished earlier. Give them this message, and they can take them for us.

So after at least half an hour of trying to get this message across (Papa is NOT the brightest crayon in the box… and only semi-literate. Sure, we couldn’t speak French, but we had no problem at all communicating with the other three guys. Papa was obviously both genuinely slow and deliberately playing dumb because he didn’t want to cooperate.) he finally set off towards the platform with the map and instructions I had drawn, and the camera. We did a little bit of fishing, and Papa returned, bearing the blissful news that we could continue on to the platform. Jake’s manipulative plan to get the message to the WCS guys that we were there and wanted to be at the platform, had exactly the desired effect.

Once at the platform, Jake did his best to make sure that no bridges had been burned and that everyone was clear about what was happening. He wants to work with WCS again, so he was willing to basically be slapped around by these idiots and bureaucracy for the sake of staying on good terms with everyone involved, and since we were not 100% sure that none of the difficulty of going to the platform was coming from the WCS guys via Papa instead of just from Papa’s obstinance directly, he wanted to make sure everything was smoothed over with them when we showed up. He told the scientists that Olivia at WCS had told us that we could work there but that we didn’t know that it might interfere with their work, and that WCS had not given him a formal outline of his research orders, which would have clarified to them what we were supposed to be doing and what they should let us do, and that Papa very clearly had not been instructed properly about his role as a guide rather than a royal pain in the butt, and that all around there had not been good communication and that it was very hard to make that right once we were there since neither of us could speak French. He asked if it would be ok to fish in one location in particular and take a photo in another location, and they were very nice and helpful and told us exactly where we could fish without being in the way of their research and that we could certainly take one photo at the other location. And once again, the friendly WCS guy came along and showed Jake all around and was quite helpful.

The next morning we hiked out, with one of the WCS guys working as a porter for us, since they all had to hike out then too to get more supplies. We took a group photo at the camp, and everyone was very friendly and nice, so at least it seems that they were not unhappy with us.

And we finally paid Papa his 80K CFAs and said goodbye. Hopefully forever. The consulate at the Gabon Embassy in Washington D.C. definitely takes home the award for most awful Gabonese person (or just most awful person…) that I’ve had to deal with. But Papa put up a great fight and gets a very honorable mention.

When we arrived back at the village, once again we were greeted like the circus come to town. The same old lady, young mom, and her young son met us right at the entrance to the forest to welcome us back and tell us good job for making it. We sat down in the yard where we had camped the first night, and about a dozen people pulled up chairs and gathered around to hear Papa’s long tale of the week before. Oh what crazy things these white people want to do!

And you should have seen it when we got out the last few fish samples to process. Why would be want fish so tiny? And how do we put them in magical water that makes them die instantly? And why do we staple little pieces of paper to them, and carefully cut off their back fin with surgical tools and latex gloves, and take hundreds of photographs of them, and wrap them up carefully in formal after putting the fin clippings in tiny tubes of alcohol? And then we burn the surgical tools for some crazy reason before moving on to the next one. Utter mystery. Every step of the way, they wanted to see exactly what we were doing, and listen to Papa’s mystified explanation of it. Even the old old woman who could barely stand up, and who has surely seen plenty of much crazier things in her 80 or so years, stayed put through the entire saga and story.

Finally, at last, the circus shifted focus from us to the truck that showed up freshly laden with supplies for the WCS camp. Suddenly every town resident was there helping unload the boxes of baguettes and manioc and cans of vegetables and salt fish and powdered milk and cookies and more food than occurs in one place than probably any other time. Little kids took pieces of the baguettes and walked around chewing on them slowly and happily. The crowd didn’t dissipate until the WCS guys had all of it packed into their backpacks and the truck drove off with us in it on the way back to Franceville.

I always suspected, but am now definitely sure, that the last thing I want in life is fame and recognition. It is nice to be left alone, and blissful to be ignored.