Category Archives: Science

that time I got to see the Arecibo telescope


I suck at mornings, especially when I’m on a (working) vacation.

But getting up at oh-my-god-it’s-still-dark-out-why-am-I-awake o’clock to go see the Arecibo telescope with my own eyes (and two busloads of nerds) was totally worth it.

The thing about this is that it’s so huge, it sort of distorts the scale of itself and creates the illusion of not being a thousand feet across. But it’s a thousand feet across.

While we were there, I got to watch the detector move, which made me way more excited than I thought it would. Unfortunately, we didn’t discover any aliens or distant galaxies while we were there.

But look at that picture, and just think about this incredible thing that humans built in 1962, existing, harmoniously, next to all that natural beauty. In fact, it doesn’t just sit there beside the natural beauty, it is able to exist precisely because of the conditions created by that natural beauty. I think that’s really neat.

Sometimes we humans don’t suck.

True Facts About the Octopus

Two video posts in one day? I must be going craaaaaaaaaaazzzyyy!!!!1

Alright, settle down.

So earlier today when I was avoiding doing something productive, I came across a video on Reddit of an octopus escaping from a boat. I adore octopuses (I have a large tattoo of one on my arm), so I watched it. Then I read the comments and came across this fantastic video called True Facts About The Octopus. If you have five-ish free minutes, I highly recommend watching it. In fact, when people ask me why I have an octopus tattoo, I’m just going to tell them to watch this video, because it covers how fucking hardcore and amazing the octopus is.

Oh, and get this: I didn’t know until I went to YouTube to grab the embed code that this was made by internet legend and Ur-vlogger Ze Frank! Now I have to do actual work so I can reward myself with viewings of his other True Facts videos.

I couldn’t believe it, myself, but this is a real picture.

Last night, Anne and I got to go to the Jet Propulsion Labratory to watch the landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover. It was a powerful, emotional, inspiring experience.

When I think about how these scientists flew something the size of my car to another planet and landed it almost exactly where they wanted it to land, I feel very, very tiny indeed. 

This morning, I saw a picture on Tumblr that I was positive was a fake:

NASA's Curiosity rover and its parachute were spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as Curiosity descended to the surface on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT). The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured this image of Curiosity while the orbiter was listening to transmissions from Curiosity.

NASA's Curiosity rover and its parachute were spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as Curiosity descended to the surface on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT). The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured this image of Curiosity while the orbiter was listening to transmissions from Curiosity.

It turns out that it's not fake. It's Curiosity's descent to the Martian surface, photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

So let's think about this for a moment, okay? Not only did these humans successfully land a Mini Cooper on Mars, they timed everything out so that a satellite they already put into orbit around Mars could take pictures of it.

Gene Roddenberry always talked about how amazing humans were, because we could do amazing things when we worked together. 

He was right.

…across the gulf of space…

Last week, I got to do one of the coolest things I've ever done in my life: I went to JPL in La Canada to record a video for the landing of Mars Curiosity on August 5.

I have to believe that their first through eighth choices weren't available, because it's the only thing that makes sense, but somehow I was chosen to be the host and narrator of a video for, among other outlets, NASA TV, that explains how Curiosty gets to the surface of Mars, and what she'll do once she's there. It's pretty incredible stuff, and I am still astonished that I was chosen to be the guy.

While I was at JPL, I got to get up close and personal with the full-scale replica of the rover that stays on Earth while her sister goes to Mars, so I took a few pictures:

image from
image from
I grew up about 10 minutes from JPL, so I lived around a lot of NASA sceintists and went to JPL's open house every year. Being chosen to go to JPL to make the modern equivalent of the films I loved watching when I was a kid was a tremendous honor. I'll post the video I made whenever it's live.

In which I am easily amused (again)

A few days ago, I saw this awesome thing that happened:

Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa flew 220 miles into space to play with toys. His recent stay on the International Space Station included several hours of building a Lego version of his orbiting abode.

When it was done, it looked something like this:


Because I am easily amused, and very bad at Photoshop, I was inspired to improve the image thusly:


The moral of this story, kids, is that the more easily amused you are, the more amusing things are to you.


from the vault: some of us are looking at stars

This was originally written in May of last year, just after I watched the space shuttle Atlantis blast off into orbit. On the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, I thought it was worth reprinting:

On January 28, 1986, I was home from school with the flu. I remember that, no matter what I did, I couldn't get warm, so I was sitting in a hot bath when my mom knocked on the bathroom door. 

"There was an accident with the space shuttle," she said, in the same voice she used when she told me that my grandmother had died.

For the next few hours, I sat on the couch, wrapped up in as many blankets as we had, and watched one of the local news networks – probably ABC – cover the unfolding disaster. Because of the fever and the years between now and then, I can't recall a single detail other than how impossible the whole thing felt. How could something like that even happen? And did it mean that we'd never put people into space again?

This morning, I sat in my office and watched the shuttle Atlantis launch into space via a NASA TV stream through VLC on a monitor that is bigger than my family's 1986 television. When mission control gave the order to go with throttle up, I held my breath like I have every single time since the shuttle program was reinstated in 1988, and when the shuttle separated from the boosters and glided into orbit, I got something in my eye. Just take a moment, if you don't mind, and think about what it means that we can leave our planet, even if we've "only" gotten as far as the dark side of the moon. Think about what it means that something as incredible as putting humans into space and bringing them back safely to Earth today earns less media attention and public excitement than the typical celebrity breakup.

It is amazing that we can do this, and even though I've come to believe the shuttle program isn't the best way to spend NASA's tiny budget (which is a pitiful fraction of what it should be), I hope that there was a child watching the launch today who will feel inspired to reach out to the stars and see what's out there.

We humans are a flawed species, to put it mildly, and I think we could do a much better job taking care of our planet and each other … but when I see what we're capable of doing, it gives me hope that the future I pretended to live in twenty years ago will actually arrive some day.

Please join me in a moment of silence for the Challenger astronauts, and the people they left behind.

Thank you. Now, listen to John Roderick sing The Commander Thinks Aloud on #JoCoCruiseCrazy and try not to cry.

We are, all of us, in the gutter … but some of us are looking at stars.

starry starry night

I stayed up until almost one this morning, reading comic books.

I know, it's like I'm 12 all over again.

And it's awesome.

Around four, Anne woke me up.

"What's wrong?" I said, while I was still waiting to clear immigration between Dreamland and Reality.

"Nothing. I just couldn't sleep, so I got up and went outside to watch the meteor shower. It's really cool, and I knew you'd want to see it."

I sat up, pushed the covers to one side, and ignored the grumbling protests of our dog, who had just lost his primary source of warmth and cuddling.

"It's cold out, though, so put something warm on."

I grabbed a hoodie and put on my totally-not-lame-but-always-make-me-feel-self-conscious-to-wear-them slippers. I walked through the dark house, past the quiet and strangely comforting hum of my aquarium's filter, and out onto our patio.

I know it's cliché, but the stars were brilliant jewels against a field of black velvet. Betelgeuse was a brilliant red. The Orion Nebula was bright and fuzzy. Sirius, in Canis Major, was such a bright blueish-white I couldn't look directly at it. To the North, Ursa Major dominated the sky, and I could even see Mizar without any effort. Back on Earth, a distant train's whistle sounded from far away, probably from the train yard near Commerce.

"You just missed a fireball," Anne said, quietly. She pointed to the Eastern sky and added, "and there have been tons of little flashes from over there, too."

I wrapped my arms around myself to stay warm and let my eyes roam across the sky. I didn't see any fireballs, but I saw lots of meteors fly across the sky, greenish and yellowish trails flashing then fading behind them.

Maybe it's because I wasn't entirely awake, or maybe it's because I'd been reading about mutants and other worlds before I went to sleep, but as I looked up into the sky, toward Castor and Pollux, I really felt, for the first time in my entire 38 years on this planet, the overwhelming vastness of the universe.

Where I have always felt awe, I felt small. Where I have always felt inspiration, I felt vulnerable. "I'm on a planet, spinning on its axis, racing around a star, moving faster than my mind can comprehend, through that," I thought. "And right now, that planet is flying through an ancient asteroid debris, bits of dust and rock smacking into its atmosphere like bugs against a windshield." I felt a little freaked out.

I've quoted Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot so many times, I don't need to look it up anymore to get it right, but last night, looking up into the enormity of the universe, it was suddenly more than poetry and a reminder to take better care of each other.

I moved closer to Anne and put my arms around her. She leaned her head back against my chest and we looked up into the sky together, watching faint meteors streak across the sky every few seconds.

"I'm glad you woke me up," I whispered. "Thank you."

"I'm sorry you didn't get to see the fireballs," she said.

"Nah, it's okay. I didn't need to."

The train's whistle sounded again. This time, it didn't seem so far away.

We stood there and watched the sky for several minutes, until our hands and feet were numb with the cold, and went back inside.

When I got back into bed, I pulled the covers up over my head, and tucked them around myself as tightly as I could. It took a long while for sleep to reclaim me.

Robot Astronomy Talk Show: Destroyer of Worlds

A few times a year, I get to go over to the Spitzer Science Center at Cal Tech, and do some voice over work for these wonderful educational shorts. I'm really proud to be a small part of IRrelevant Astronomy; we're making science accessible and entertaining, and hopefully inspiring people to learn more about our universe.

A few days ago, the most recent episode I did was released. It's called DESTROYER OF WORLDS.

In this one, I play a character who may be familiar to some of you, called The Physician. I hope you enjoy it.

And as long as I have your attention, I thought I'd share a few astronomy-related links that I find educational, inspiring, entertaining, or all of the above:

Have fun, and keep looking up.


Books I Love: Hyperspace

When I was 19 or 20, I realized with some alarm that my knowledge and skill set was very specialized and very limited. I knew a lot about acting, filmmaking, and just about every other practical aspect of the entertainment industry, but I was beginning to feel like I didn't have anything to fall back on, if the acting thing didn't work out for me. I had always enjoyed reading and learning about things, so I started spending a lot of time in book stores and libraries, doing my very best to expand my world. Much of my reading stayed focused on the arts, though, as I read magnificent books like Goldman's Adventures in the Screentrade and countless collections from W.S. Burroughs and other beat-era writers.

As I entered my early twenties, I made a commitment to expand into something else, and I chose science. I had always loved science, and being on Star Trek made me science adjacent for all of my teens, but I quickly found out that most science books were way over my head, or written in a style that wasn't engaging enough to make it worth the effort. After a few frustrating months, someone (I think it was my brother) suggested that I read A Brief History of Time. I picked it up, read it in just a couple of days, and realized that my life could be divided into before I read it, and after I read it. On my next trip to the bookstore, I went straight to the science section, and looked for something – anything – to continue my education.

My eyes fell on a book with an interesting cover, and a provocative title: Hyperspace: A scientific odyssey through parallel universes, time warps, and the 10th dimension. It was written by a guy called Michio Kaku. I pulled it off the shelf, and after just a few pages, I was hooked.

There's a story in Hyperspace, right at the beginning, that I'm going to paraphrase. It's the story that grabbed my attention, captured my imagination, and fundamentally altered the way I thought about the nature of existence. I already had "before and after" with A Brief History of Time, and when I got to the end of this story, I had "before and after I read about the fish scientists." The story goes something like this:

In San Francisco, there's this botanical garden, and near the entrance there is a pond that's filled with koi fish. Dr. Kaku describes standing there, looking at the fish one day, and wondering what it would be like if the fish had a society as complex and advanced as our own, but the whole thing was confined to the pond, and they had no idea that there was a whole other world just beyond the surface of the water. In the fish world, there were fish scientists, and if a human were to pluck one of them from the pond, show it our world, and return it to the pond, it would go back to the other fish scientists and say, "Guys! You're never going to believe this. I was just doing my thing, and suddenly, this mysterious force pulled me from our world and showed me another, where the creatures don't need gills to breathe, and walk on two legs!"

The other scientists would look at it, and ask it how it got to this new world, but it wouldn't be able to explain it. They'd want the scientist to recreate it, but it wouldn't be able to. The fish scientist would know, however, that the other world was there, and that there was something just as complex as life in the pond on the other side of some mysterious barrier that they couldn't seem to penetrate.

I'm sure I've mangled the story, but that's essentially what I remember from it. I thought, "Well, shit, if there could be a world like that in the pond, maybe we are in something else's pond!" I didn't know if it was possible, I didn't know if it was just science fiction, but I didn't care. It was this incredible possibility, and my world opened up again. I felt like I'd been granted membership in a secret society. I devoured the book, and I began to think about the nature of existence in ways that I'd never even considered before. When I finally read Flatland a few years later, I was blown away that Abbot had written essentially the same story a hundred years earlier, in 1884, and I was thrilled that I could actually understand it.

I got a chance to interview Dr. Kaku one of the times I hosted The Screen Savers. I nervously told him how much his work meant to me, and he said that Star Trek was similarly important to him. That was pretty cool.

next time: a fantastic voyage

Podcasts I love: Stuff You Should Know

So did you spend some time in your driveway listening to yesterday's suggestion? Well, maybe not your actual driveway, but that metaphorical driveway that's next to the little birdhouse in your soul? Oh, good. I knew you would.

Kids, learning isn't just fun, it's awesome. There is a huge world out there and it is just filled with all kinds of interesting and astonishing information. It's also filled with Stuff You Should Know, which is an appropriately-named podcast from the guys at How Stuff Works.

This podcast usually runs between 15 and 25 minutes, and covers diverse topics like How Moonshine Works, How Cannibalism Works, and How Abandoned Cities Work. Our two hosts, Chuck and Josh, are staff writers for How Stuff Works, and the podcast is worth listening to for their amusing interaction as much as it is the fascinating "wow, I did not know that" information they dispense.

Earlier this week, they did a show called Why Do Some People Believe The Moon Landing Was A Hoax? which is a great example of why I love this podcast. It'd be really easy to say, "because some people are so fucking stupid they believe every conspiracy theory, no matter how outrageous and disproved by science. Thank you for listening. The end." but they actually dig much deeper, and truly examine the question in an entertaining and informative way.

I've told iTunes to keep and sync all unheard episodes of just a few podcasts, because I love them so much I don't want to miss a single one. Stuff You Should Know is one of them, and listening to it has made several commutes and short-haul business flights more enjoyable than I ever thought possible.

Next time: it comes from a land down under