The Minivan That Could

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Today I'm thrilled to feature another guest post from a friend of mine! Meredith Rawls and I met years ago in San Diego while both getting our masters in astronomy. I remember she drove this great old van around, and swore up and down it was the most reliable car she'd ever known. When she told me recently they had been keeping data on every tank of gas purchased since '96, I was thrilled! Take it away, Meredith!

Way back in 1996, my parents decided to buy a minivan. I was in middle school, so I don’t remember much about the decision-making process, but it had something to do with taking more family camping vacations and wanting a new vehicle that was versatile and reliable. Apparently they did their research, because today I am still the happy driver of a 1996 Toyota Previa with 200,000 miles and counting.

Meredith and her husband with their Toyota Previa at White Sands.
Photo by David Morrison

Happy MLK Day

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Today is notable for (at least) two reasons:
1) it marks the public Inauguration of President Obama's 2nd term
2) it is Martin Luther King day for America

As someone employed in higher education, and a strong believer in education as the best remedy for our society, I have high hopes that the next four years will see increased attention and passion for education equality.

In that spirit, here's a map derived from a previous article I wrote:

Food for thought: Why are rural colleges/universities more likely to have fewer black students per capita than their state as compared to urban schools?

Good luck, Mr President. I don't envy your job.

1 Year of Blogging

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Today I felt rather proud: my blog turned one year old! The first post was mostly a placeholder, something to get the ball rolling. In it I posed the question: how long does the typical blog last? I still think this would be an interesting problem to gather data on... anyone have a good source of data?

So far If We Assume is a roaring success in my eyes. I've managed to publish about 4 posts per month on average, I've had some notable pickups/press, met some fascinating people, and I feel my blog traffic has been quite good!
A year of traffic on
The blog itself has changed, grown, and shifted focus. I think it's fascinating to look back at my earlier posts, seeing what worked, what didn't. I definitely wonder: what will my blog look like in a year? What will I be writing about? I'd like to do some more astronomy related posts, and I thoroughly enjoy having guest posts on my blog.

Thanks to so many people for all the awesome conversations, ideas, support, and opportunities! I know Year 2 will be even more exciting!!!

Mapping Constellations

Astronomers use coordinate systems in the sky to keep track of where celestial objects are; the most common is the Equatorial system. When I teach this, I try to get students to imagine a world globe extended out to the stars. On this globe the constellations look like political boundaries...

Today this got me thinking: what if we laid the 88 constellation boundaries on top of a world map? This is what you get:
It's a cute idea, a bit confusing. Labels are placed at the "center of mass" for each region. Constellations are larger in the north, which I believe is due to historical European bias in defining these regions.

Then I took it a step further and asked: what if we used the constellation boundaries to draw the political lines for our planet?
If the world's political boundaries were drawn using constellations.

Accidental Art

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Sometimes the best things in life are free. Sometimes they are pure accidents. In the case of the image below, it's a bit of both!

My good friend, and fellow graduate student, Nick was using a piece of code I had told him about. Alas, I did not tell him about all the settings the code required, and it spit out nonsense. (Sorry Nick!)

But what lovely nonsense it is....

Oops - this was supposed to look more like this, not that

We quickly figured out the error, thankfully, and now his code is off and running. So often little typos can cause your computer to do strange and awesome things. We thought this "error" was beautiful, and worth sharing. Now the repaired code creates a map of the Milky Way in the mid-infrared, which is also beautiful in a different way... and that's how science is done!

What's Trending in Astronomy - #AAS221

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It's that time of year again, when the US astronomers dust off their poster tubes, put batteries in their laser pointers, find their one button up shirt and head to the Winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

Currently it's in Long Beach, CA. While I'm not attending this year, I have been following a lot of the action on Twitter!  If you're curious what these mad scientists are discussing, but don't time to read lots of current papers, I turned the entire 297 page abstract book in to a word cloud of the 250 most used terms...

Full resolution version of the word cloud is here!

While this may not resemble what is trending in the media about astronomy, it's neat to see what scientists are discussing amongst themselves. Also, a point of personal pride, stars>galaxies, at least in this diagram.

p.s. I am of course kidding about the one button up shirt remark. Scientists are actually dynamic and attractive folks!

Quantifying Happiness?

Over the holidays I spent a weekend vacationing in San Francisco with my lovely wife. We had a great time eating and drinking our way around the City by the Bay. I brought back a wonderful souvenir: a tin of excellent coffee beans from one of the many cafes I wandered in to that weekend.

I truly enjoyed the coffee, the simple presentation of the beans in the tin, and the memories of the great breakfast we had at their cafe. (Food/drink is always my favorite souvenir). I enjoyed it so much, I made this silly "graph" charting my happiness as I opened and sampled the coffee a few days before Xmas.
This raised a question in my mind that I invite you, dear reader, to comment on!
Can we really quantify happiness?

In other words, could we actually measure the enjoyment of something as simple as a cup of coffee in real time?

I know research has been done on quantifying pain, and the state of happiness does release lots of unique chemicals into the brain. But happiness is a complex and often subtle emotion. In what way does elation differ from stoic satisfaction?

Of course, I'm not the only one considering such questions. Given how important happiness (and its many variants) is to quality of life, health, stress, and consumerism, I'd imagine it's an important area of research.

It is also a topic of frequent pseudo-charts, like mine above. Here are a few from PhD comics to amuse: Work output vs time, Vacation vs stress, Motivation level vs time. My first officemate in gradschool also once drew "Happiness vs Time in Gradschool". It was an illuminating, albeit somewhat depressing, visualization.

I invite your thoughts, links to relevant literature, or links to other good pseudo-charts on the subject in the comments below

Visualizing the Evolution of Cars

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From user 27147 on Flickr, Creative Commons licensed, some rights reserved.

I've always been a big fan of cars. Like with sports, cars are a subject for which people love to quantify things. Horsepower, curb weight, engine displacement, top speed, miles per gallon... all of these attributes are carefully measured, graded, evaluated, and play a factor in the car market. In high school I knew every stat for my '87 D50...

When I looked at cars over the last couple decades, the change in one particular attribute stood out to me: cars are getting big! (both heavier and larger) I'm not the only one noticing this, of course, and cars used to be very large. So I asked myself: How have car sizes, and efficiencies, changed with time?

I started by looking at data for one of my all time favorite brands: BMW