Monday, March 19, 2007


(from The New York Times, Brian May 14 March 2007)

(from The New York Times, Brian May 14 March 2007)

I think these two images may be two of the most extraordinary I've ever seen. They are home-made "Magic Eye" shots. Relax and stare through them, and you will see the Sun in 3D. The frequency is ultraviolet. The second image is the more remarkable. Recently, there was a lunar eclipse. On the surface of the earth, the Sun and Moon appear almost exactly the same size (an amazing coincidence). However, the two pictures necessary to make these 3D images were taken by STEREO, a new NASA satellite. The two STEREO satellites are in the same orbit as Earth around the sun, one just ahead, one just behind. So the Moon appears much smaller than the sun from those positions. The black circle is the Moon transiting the disk of the Sun. In Thrilling Three Dimensions.

A quick aside: the 3D images were made by Brian May. Brian May was the lead guitarist for Queen. He wrote "We Will Rock You" for pete's sake. Now he is getting his doctorate in Astrophysics. It's like he's Buckaroo Banzai or something.

Every now and then, science transcends figures and formulas, and our researches produce something objectively beautiful. Now, I would submit that all good science has beauty, but that is a subjective opinion. But these images are art. Ok, maybe you think the 3D is gimmicky. Take a look at this. Or these.

I have always loved little tidbits like this that good science shakes free every now and again. I love sharing them with others, especially those who aren't as scientifically literate as myself. This is not to say I'm at all well versed - I'm an accomplished amateur, at best. It's only that studies have shown again and again the the vast majority of laypeople are unfamiliar with science (and history, and geography, and...). So I share these arresting moments that we've found in nature. My hope is always that it will become a gateway drug. What are those swirling shapes on the surface of the Sun? Why do they move the way they do? How are they created? How do they dissipate? And the next thing you know, someone decides to become an astrophysicist.

The reason this is important to me is because it happened to me once. In 4th grade, my friend Pete went with me to the middle school book sale. He loaned me a nickel to buy Seven Miles Down. It was about the submarine that dove to the deepest point in the ocean, in 1960. It changed my life. It inspired a love of the ocean and everything in it, that has never abated. Because of that, I joined the Coast Guard, and became a Naval Architect. Those two facts have determined many of the details of my life - who I know, where I live, the places I've seen. All because of one book. Reading it was a revelation. The world was suddenly fascinating - if this was interesting, it followed that if I looked carefully, everything was interesting, and I could see it all.

I never paid Peter his nickel back.

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