Starry Starry Night: A visit to Lick Observatory

24 04 2012

by Tanya Lewis

San Jose is a bustling city of just under a million inhabitants. Yet only 25 miles to its east, on the tranquil summit of Mount Hamilton, astronomers cast their view skyward at the Lick Observatory. I visited the observatory, which is operated by the University of California, last week.

Lick Observatory Visitor Center (Photo: Tanya Lewis)

Lick actually encompasses nine different research telescopes. The observatory was funded at the bequest of James Lick, a wealthy piano maker and land baron, in the 1880s. Lick himself was quite a character. The richest man in California at the time, he originally planned to use his money to build a giant pyramid in San Francisco in his own honor, but luckily for science, George Davidson of the California Academy of Sciences persuaded him to build an observatory instead.

The road to the observatory follows a torturous, winding route, which at times was enough to make me carsick even as the driver. After an hour of careful wending, I arrived at the summit just before sunset. One of the support astronomers met me there, and showed me around the 36-inch (1 meter) James Lick Telescope. It was the world’s largest refracting telescope when it was built in 1888, and resembles the stereotypical long-objective of an amateur telescope, though much larger. On a slightly eerie note, James Lick is buried beneath the telescope.

The 36" James Lick Refracting Telescope. (Photo: Tanya Lewis)

But not much science goes on at the Refractor these days. The night I visited, astronomers were observing at the largest telescope at Lick, the 120-inch (3 meter) Shane telescope. Unlike the 36-inch, the Shane is a reflecting telescope, like the Keck Telescopes in Hawaii. I got to go inside the dome of the Shane and watch as the telescope and shutter rotated into position. They made a sound like the Titanic scraping against un-oiled hinges.

Next I visited the observing room, where the telescope operator and astronomer(s) were. (Actually, most of the observing these days takes place remotely, at UC campuses, but that night, an astronomy graduate student was being trained on-site.) Amazingly, only one, fairly dinky-looking computer is needed to control the telescope itself. The operator collaborates with the astronomer to aim the telescope at the parts of the sky that are of interest.

The 120" Shane Reflecting Telescope (Photo: Tanya Lewis)

That night, the science agenda involved looking at distant galaxy centers, or quasars, and taking light spectra – a breakdown of light by its component wavelengths. The spectra provide information about the ionized gas in the space between galaxies, known as the intergalactic medium, which yields clues about the physics of the early universe.

Although I couldn’t stay for the whole night of observing, I set off home safe in the knowledge that, in the still Mount Hamilton night, someone was probing our galactic origins.


Blue Marbles and Ocean Microbes: A Sea Change at TEDxMonterey

20 04 2012

Erin Loury

by Erin Loury

A volunteer placed a translucent, blue marble in my hand as I walked through the door.  Everyone else in the darkened auditorium held a similar token.  Ocean-philes of one kind or another, we were gathering at the Monterey Institute of International Studies for the third TEDxMonterey.  A community-organized event modeled after the popular TED talk series, the day’s line-up of inspiring presentations revolved around the topic of “Sea Change,” and explored the connection between people and the ocean.

My blue marble from TEDxMonterey

The blue marbles were part of a project started by Wallace J. Nichols, one of the day’s speakers. The marble represents how the Earth looks from space, a blue sphere colored by its predominant feature, our ocean. It also represents a drop of seawater, teaming with life. Nichols hopes the blue marbles will pass through the hands of everyone on the planet. When you see someone doing something to help the ocean, give a blue marble to them, and tell them to pass it on, Nichols said.  He hopes the act will help inspire gratitude for the life-giving gifts of the ocean, and efforts to protect it.

James Cameron recently took his blue marble to the bottom of the Marianas Trench before giving it away, Nichols said. I read about these marbles making their rounds at the Copenhagen climate meeting in 2009; now I’m excited to have one of my own.  I will have to think of some great ocean adventure to take my marble on before I find just the right person to pass it off to.

TEDxMonterey included a number of ocean visionaries, and contained references to Shakespeare (who coined the term “sea change” in his play The Tempest), algal biofuels, education, fishing, and talk by long distance swimmer Lynne Cox that I found particular inspiring—she broke the record for swimming the English Channel at age 15, swam across the Bering Strait, and swam over a mile in Antarctic waters with just a bathing suit, cap and goggles, to name just a few of her feats!

There was a good deal of science mixed in throughout the day, and I thought one of the most engaging scientist speakers was Melissa Garren, a researcher from MIT.  Garren called for a little recognition for the ocean’s tiniest residents: its bacteria and viruses.  She gave a nod to Prochlorococcus, a species of cyanobacteria that, along with other microalgae, produce half of the oxygen on Earth. Take two breaths, Garren said. For the first, thank the trees and macroalgae, like kelp. For the second breath, thank the microbes. Though they support our very existence, scientists only discovered Prochlorococcus in 1988. We have so much to still learn about the ocean.

Thank marine microalgae like these for half the air we breathe (photo: Daniel Vaulot, CNRS, Station Biologique de Roscoff)

Garren called microbes “the invisible engineers that control the chemistry of the ocean.” They influence how the sea feels, smells, tastes and looks. Two gallons of seawater contain more bacteria than there are people on the planet, Garren said. The audience of ocean enthusiasts collectively squirmed as we recalled how many mouthfuls of seawater we had each swallowed. When we pollute the ocean with too many nutrients, which fish farms often do, the bacteria populations can sky rocket.  When the microbe population is out of whack, the ocean experiences some nasty side effects, like a person who suffers the wrath of intestinal microbes, Garren said.

Sometimes corals are the collateral damage. Corals have a protective layer of bacteria that coats their skin of symbiotic algae, but bacterial diseases also plague them.  Garren recently discovered that the bacterial pathogen behind a widespread coral disease can actively “sniff out” traces of coral mucous on a microscope slide. It was a bit mindboggling to think of tiny marine bacteria hunting down their prey. The things scientists are discovering about the ocean constantly amaze me.

TEDxMonterey was a stimulating and inspiring event. I’ll leave you with the quote from Ariel’s Song in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which made it into one of the day’s talks. I just love the words—they give me chills every time I read them.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Oh, and one shameless plug. I’m very proud of a certain photographer who was featured as a local artist at TEDxMonterey for his stunning underwater photography. Check out his work here:

Marine science graduate student and underwater photographer Scott Gabara shows off his photos and camera setup at TEDxMonterey

Keep (the) Santa Cruz (Sandhills) Weird

17 04 2012

Sarah Jane Keller

I’ve heard that Santa Cruz might be weird. I live in the redwoods above the city and maybe it’s a little strange here too. Sunset Magazine called Boulder Creek, just up the road, “absurdly rural.” In a search for the absurd, I considered visiting the nearby Bigfoot Museum to see if I could scare up a Sasquatch but turned instead to the park in my backyard, Quail Hollow Ranch County Park.

Since first visited the park, I’ve been intrigued by signs along the trail that say ” Sensitive Area Closed”. What are they hiding back there, behind the big shadowy arms of the live oaks?

Entering forbidden territory. Photo by SJK

This weekend, I found out. The Fish and Wildlife Service owns the property and there’s a good reason we can’t just go tramping around on it—and it has nothing to do with protecting Bigfoot’s habitat. Behind the signs is rare ecosystem harboring the true weirdos of Santa Cruz County: four plant species, a grasshopper, a beetle and a kangaroo rat that live nowhere else in the world.

A cage protects this federally endangered Santa Cruz Wallflower (Erysimum teretifolium), found only in the Santa Cruz sandhills and nowhere else, from hungry deer. The plants live for two or three years, but only produce flowers once. If the flowers are chomped off, the plant misses out on reproducing. Photo by SJK.

The Santa Cruz sandhills are so fragile that only 60 people are allowed to visit this particular parcel each year, 15 at a time, during Sundays in April. The perilously rare plants that grow there thrive in sandy soil free of competition from other species. And they grow right in the middle of the trail. If you walk on the trail you inevitably STEP ON A FEDERALLY ENDANGERED SPECIES. During last Sunday’s tour I was caught between the perverse thrill of having permission to accidentally trammel rare plants and the horror of doing so.

At the

beginning of the walk, our guide Shane, a systems engineer with a passion for geology and botany, pulled out some fossils to demonstrate the origins of the mountaintop beach in our backyard. He presented us with sand dollars, which are found in the 15 million-year-old silica soils only a short distance from redwood forests.

The coarse texture of the sand and the way nutrients and water slip through it fostered the evolution of the rare collection of heat, sun and drought-adapted plants a

Though naturally rare, endangered and found only in the Santa Cruz sandhills, the Santa Cruz spineflower (Chorizanthe pungens var. hartwegiana) carpets the ground where it grows. Photo by SJK.

nd animals that live there today. Since the early 1900s that sand has also been attractive for many industrial uses from making bottles, and now optics and silicon wafers. There’s an active sand quarry just across the street from Quail Hollow and six have been active in the area at different times.

The sandhills habitat has been destroyed, degraded and fragmented by mining but also by residential developments like the one I live in, vineyards, orchards and recreation. During the walk, Shane credited Jodi McGraw for assembling much of what people know about the sandhills as a UC Berkeley doctoral student. Her website about the sandhills says that there were about 6,000 acres of the naturally rare ecosystem and about 60 percent remains today. However, most of that land is not protected.

Now, when I climb a hill around my house and look out on mountains carpeted with green, I see the white sandy patches peeking through and think they are some of the most special things in my absurdly rural neighborhood (though the neon lumberjack is a close second). I came expecting to be enamored by redwoods but I also found the Santa Cruz Wallflower and the Ben Lomond Spineflower. Thank goodness for the weirdos.

In California, these Ponderosa Pines usually grow above 3000 feet in the Sierra Nevadas. In Santa Cruz county they are a low elevation oddity where they survive in the sandhills.

Purple Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta) is a grassland flower that's not rare, but it's pretty. Photo by SJK.

Plastic Number Crunching

14 04 2012

Amy West

by Amy West

With recent news of washing machines spilling microplastics into waterways, a greenwashing lawsuit involving plastic water bottle companies, and bans on plastic bags, plastics are everywhere. Literally.

They are crammed under our cupboards, spilling from trashcans, and discarded along the road. Most families are engulfed in plastic consumables, and those with good intentions, toss them into the blue recycling bin. It feels good to divert most of our consumables and packaging into the blue bin, and helps justify purchasing food such as cottage cheese, which invariably comes packaged in plastic. Out of sight, out of mind, after all.

Plastic overload. Photo by Amy West

However, with plastics recycling the average plastic consumer may believe a few myths.

1. All plastics collected for recycling are actually recycled.

2. Plastics are recycled in the U.S.

A report by Columbia University showed the U.S. generated 33.6 million tons of plastics and recycled about seven percent of that- just 2.1 million tons; the rest were landfilled. Why? Mostly because a market for plastics does not exist for plastics with resin codes #3 through 7.

There is a recycling market for plastic beverage containers (#1, #2) like bottled waters and sports drinks due to the very successful Bottle Bill California established in the late 80s.  Other states with a bottle law include Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Unfortunately bottle laws were repealed in Delaware, and Missouri.  Allowing buyers to redeem plastics for cash is the financial incentive that really drives recycling: a nickel for containers less than 24 ounces, and a dime for containers 24 ounces or larger.

Mark Murray, the executive director or Californians against Waste explained that because of the mechanics of recycling, most of the plastics are “downcycled”, or turned into different products. For instance, California ships 60 percent of water and soda bottles overseas to turn into textiles, but the rest remain in California and molded into plastic clamshells for food or strapping. One new company Carbon Lite actually transforms the plastic into pellets so other beverage companies can convert them back into plastic water bottles- closing the recycling loop. The #2, or HDPE, containers such as shampoo bottles and juice cartons have slightly better rates- 50 percent stay in California. Detergent and oil containers can be made from these, in the case of Epic Plastics, they take these containers and a few other plastic types to manufacture thin plastic lumber for garden edging.

This 425 millions pounds of recycled plastic does not include the commingled plastic in our bins that are either landfilled, or baled into a large compressed plastic cube and shipped overseas. This scrap plastic is worth pennies, but for the recycling company, it removes the financial burden of paying to dump it.

California’s agriculture farms produce a significant source of plastic such as film, trays and covers. Known as ‘plasticulture’, the 2008 report by California’s Waste Management states this mass amount of plastic used or recycled by each agriculture sect is unclear, but is estimated to be more than 100,000 tons a year.

A Green Waste Recovery study in unincorporated Santa Cruz County in 2009 (which includes about half of the county population) found residents recycle about half of the discarded hard plastics and 80 percent of the stretchy film plastics. That percentage is relatively encouraging, but discouraging when those plastics land in Asia as scrap plastic.

The amount of crude oil involved in plastic bottle manufacturing alone is ludicrous. Oil is required to make the bottle, ship it, send it to the recycling center, ship it to plastic manufacturers, and downcycle it into something different only to go through the shipping process again. With Americans screaming about gas prices, those who purchase plastic beverage containers should reconsider their plastic consumption. They might as well be stocking their refrigerator with gold.

Beach flat (artist rendition) of Ferdi Rizkiyanto from Jakarta in Indonesia (scroll down to see on

Recently I wrote an article on how companies can stop this unrecycled plastic from leaving our shores– by melting it through pyrolysis to create fuel. It just makes more sense to retain our plastics

and finance innovative solutions to close that recycling loop.

With 145,000 Santa Cruz residents generating 66,000 tons of waste a year, plastic accounts for 12 percent of it. That means nearly 8000 tons of plastic could be converted to fuel. Producing a gallon of fuel requires 7 to 10 pounds of plastic, thus Santa Cruz potentially harbors a cache of a million and half gallons of fuel. Or for those that think in barrels-37,000 barrels.

So when purchasing grocery items like juice, choose the one in glass. Remember, its REDUCE, reuse, recycle.


For buyback centers in Santa Cruz to bring your plastic beverage containers, #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) for some cash.

Origami: when math and art meet

11 04 2012

By Marissa Fessenden

When I learned to fold a paper crane out of a piece of paper, I thought I had mastered one of the coolest tricks ever. The crane was the most difficult pattern in my little origami book. But origami is more than paper birds, cups and frogs. It is an art form and a way to gain insights in engineering and math.

Art gallery-goers make origami boxes and cups for jelly beans at the opening of an origami exhibit at UC Santa Cruz. Photo by Marissa Fessenden

Origami is a traditionally Japanese art. Purists follow simple rules: one square of paper, no cuts and no glue. By folding the paper into mountains and valleys in sequence, artists shape designs. Some are incredibly complex.

Traditionally, finding new origami forms relied on trial, error and some luck. But computers have opened up a new way to develop designs. Robert Lang, a physicist and mathematical origami artist, has even created a program that can spit out the pattern of folds necessary to make any shape—a reindeer, a beetle, a scorpion. He likes insects because their many skinny appendages posed a challenge to origami artists of yore.

Least you scoff at the simplicity of Lang’s approach, or accuse him of taking talent away from the art, realize that the pattern still requires a master folder. Lang also tweaks the patterns to make the end result more pleasing and natural looking. Check out his gallery here. This hermit crab is one of my favorites.

(video by Wired)

Math and origami go even beyond the development of new designs. Computational origami is actually a field of mathematics where paper folding can solve problems. For example, a puzzle for geometry is to draw an angle that is exactly one-third of a given, arbitrary angle using only a straightedge and a compass. This exercise is impossible, but becomes possible when you can fold the paper.

Lang is also a master of using origami for real world applications. He helped design the optimal folding of an airbag for cars and consulted for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to develop a telescope lens that would unfold to the size of a football field once it reached space.

When he meets with a client who wants to use origami he asks if cutting is a problem. The restriction to stick to uncut paper is merely artistic. In many cases, cutting provides a better solution for practical application.

Another great example of the uses of origami is a folding, implantable medical device, known as a stent, developed by Zhong You and Kaori Kuribayashi from Oxford. Stents are tubular structures used to hold open a part of the body such as a weakened blood vessel, and restore fluid flow. You and Kuribayashi used origami to make tubular stents that fold to a small diameter while they are delivered to the right location. Once in place, the stents can expand. Traditional stents are made of wire mesh. The origami stents can be made of other, more bio-compatible materials.

I listened to Lang talk at a recent UC Santa Cruz lecture on mathematics and origami. The talk marked the opening of an exhibit honoring the late David Huffmann, a computer scientist and renowned origami artist. If you are in town and would like to visit the exhibit, stop by the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery at Cowell College. Pieces by David Huffmann, Erik Demaine and his father Martin Demaine, Robert Lang, Brian Chan and Eric Joisel will be displayed through June 16.

And those wishing to master the art of folding paper cranes can learn here.

Let’s Get Personal

10 04 2012

Today, I received an email asking what I found most valuable about the UCSC Science Communication program.

I could say the internships have given me fantastic on-the-job training; the instructors have made my writing tighter and livelier; I’ve had the opportunity to meet reporters from The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times; and by the end of this quarter I’ll have a better handle of photography, video editing and investigative reporting.

While that is all true, one of my favorite parts about the program has been the personal essay assignment. Apart from personal statements for applications, I had never written about myself in such a, well, personal way. Writing that 750-word piece was difficult and cathartic, and reading it aloud to my classmates and Janet, our instructor, was even more more so. I had to rush at certain points to keep myself together.

Most of us were tearing at one point or another as we went around the room reading our stories. That session was one of my favorite of the year. I won’t reveal my classmate’s memoirs, but I’ve pasted my first draft here:

In first grade, my blue pencil case was lord among my school supplies. I bought the VHS-sized contraption in a San Diego Toy ‘R’ Us during Easter vacation in 1987. It was pimped out with padded covers featuring illustrations of military jets. I didn’t care much for the images—I would have rather had My Melody smile at me—but the magic buttons that popped open the pencil pocket, the eraser holder, the pencil sharpener, the magnifying class and the thermometer made the pencil case more than a utilitarian gadget.

It represented the American Dream: Disneyland, Popples, Barbie, Care Bears, Count Chocula and McDonald’s.

I was born in Mexico City, but I was convinced that my true home was the United States.  I watched mostly American television series, and even had the good fortune of going to a bilingual school where I learned English from Big Bird and Ernie.

Then my dad came home one spring afternoon in 1988 and told us we’d be moving to Los Angeles in August. I was thrilled.

We went to the U.S. embassy to get our visas. I was on my way.

We packed up the essentials and divvied up what we couldn’t take among relatives and friends. I was sad to leave, but also excited. California was my golden opportunity to become American.

But when I arrived, I quickly realized my three years of English classes hadn’t been enough. I couldn’t communicate with my new compadres.

At a school interview with the nuns who ran Good Shepherd Catholic School, I smiled and nodded, and did my best to understand what they were saying.

I don’t remember what they asked, nor what my responses were, but whatever it was must have worked. I got into the school. Crisis averted!

One of my dad’s new coworkers had a daughter in my grade. Ximena was Mexican too, and she was my ambassador and translator.

We became close friends, but despite her help, I felt out of place.  Ms. Ellis kept me after school to work on my English skills, and my classmates noticed.

During one of my first private sessions, she asked me where I was from.

I mumbled, “I am of Mexico”—a direct translation from the Spanish, soy de Mexico. She smiled and quickly explained the difference between of and from.

In the classroom, I adjusted rather quickly and I earned good grades. But on the playground, I sometimes still felt like the new girl who didn’t know how to talk.

I wanted to belong, but I didn’t have blond hair and blue eyes. Ximena, who had been blessed with both, must have an easier time, I thought.

As time went on, my sense of being different didn’t subside, so I shunned speaking Spanish. I felt embarrassed when someone would approach me in my native language and mortified when my mother couldn’t communicate with the non-Latino parents.

I felt this way through most of college. There, I didn’t have very many Latino friends, and I made it a point stay away from the Latino organizations on campus. The closest I came to one was living in the Spanish-language dorm, which was among the most beautiful houses on campus. It was also run by Europeans—not Latinos—a very important distinction in my mind.

I can’t pinpoint the moment when my feelings of self-hatred started to go, but I think it happened in New York.

My first semester in graduate school I had a roommate from Spain. It felt silly to speak with her in English. Around the same time, I started dancing salsa, and for the first time, I listened to Spanish music willingly.

That’s one of the reasons I love New York so much. Despite California being new Mexico, New York—land of salsa, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans—was where I became a proud Latina.

Now, I speak Spanish without hesitation. When a stranger asks me a question in Spanish, I don’t wish for the ground to turn to quick sand.

It’s been almost 24 years since I moved to the U.S., and my American Dream has shifted. I’m glad since my original concept was skewed to begin with.

Often, we don’t get to spend a lot of time together as a class because we’re bustling from school to our internships, and there’s always a deadline to meet. But this assignment gave us a chance to learn about each other in a very intimate way.

As the year winds down, I hope our walks through campus during photography class will afford similar opportunities.

Images: 1) Science Communications Programs. UCSC. 2) Los Angeles City Hall. Daniela Hernandez. 3) New York City skyline north of West 43rd St. Daniela Hernandez. 4) UCSC Campus. Daniela Hernandez.  

RoboSquirrel Lets Loose

7 04 2012

Squirrel robots are on the loose near San Jose, and they’re helping scientists at the University of California, Davis understand how their fleshy counterparts interact with rattlesnakes.

When squirrels approach rattlesnakes, they wag their tail and use infrared radiation to signal radiation-sensitive rattlesnakes. What exactly they’re conveying is anybody’s guess, but it’s probably safe to say that “Come eat me” is not on the menu. The radiation flashing seems to shift the snakes’ behavior from predatory to defensive, according to a 2007 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study from UC Davis.

When the researchers tested how infrared robo-tail wagging affected snake behavior in the lab, they noticed the snake spent less time exploring the chamber for food and more time in the “defensive postures of coiling and cocking-to-strike,” they wrote in the 2007 study. Tail-wagging, then, may be a squirrel’s way of posturing and discouraging their predators from striking out at them. The researchers claim rattlesnakes very rarely attack squirrels wagging their tail and those who do often miss. (In the video above, only the non-wagging critter got bit, but it looks like that snake must have had better aim than most.)

So why put yourself in a position to have your head chomped off?

Assuming the rattlesnake in the video, which was filmed during the more recent San Jose field studies, was cocked to strike, RoboSquirrel didn’t fare very well. A real squirrel may not have ended up as the rattlesnake’s main course, but injury might still have occurred.

Perhaps the tailed rodents may be assessing how dangerous the situation really is, the scientists wrote in a press release. But that seems like an ill-thought-out death mission. The researchers suggest perhaps snakes leave after encountering a wagging squirrel. If that’s true, then this strategy might be a way for squirrels to protect their vulnerable pups from being eaten by hungry snakes. In that context, that strategy seems more logical. Testing whether this happens in the wild might be easier (and less cruel) with an army of RoboSquirrels. If the hypothesis holds up, shooing away rattlesnakes by deploying furry androids could have other ecological consequences.