view of cassini spacecraft near Saturn's rings


The Cassini spacecraft, after 13 years exploring Saturn and its moons, broke apart yesterday during entry into the planet’s atmosphere. There’s pretty much nothing not interesting about this mission: the Huygens probe parachuting onto Titan, the discoveries that answered questions or sparked new ones about Saturn and its moons, the risky, cinematic last set of 22 orbits that looped between the planet and its rings:

Even the reason for destroying Cassini is about looking to the future: by using the last bits of fuel to control its path, NASA and the ESA avoid the risk of it crashing onto Titan or Enceladus where it could contaminate environments potentially friendly to life.

A rendering of Cassini on a flyover past the water vapor plumes on Enceladus, which contain organic compounds.”

You can find NASA’s valediction for Cassini here as well as a video summing up the mission.

And below, from a few days ago, one of its last images: the moon Daphnis making ripples in Saturn’s rings.
This image of Saturn's outer A ring features the small moon Daphnis and the waves it raises in the edges of the Keeler Gap. The image was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 13, 2017.


Learning a lot about a subject over the course of an assignment can leave me loving or hating it. A couple of years ago, I started a gig doing research for a documentary on the Beatles’ touring years. I had a passing knowledge of the group’s music and the various cultural spokes that radiated from it—Beatlemania, the films, the break-up—but possessed a benign ignorance of the details and never really understood it as a whole (as I suspect many people my age simply take for granted a number of Boomer-boosted icons of the 20th century). It turns out, I think the band is great. And the stories and anecdotes are often very good, sometimes great, ranging from the gothic to the ridiculous.

In any case, the fruits of that research (my part of which was just a fraction of the collective effort) can be found in the Ron Howard-directed doc The Beatles: Eight Days A Week—The Touring Years (and streamed on Hulu).

Witness, fellow pre-Millenial/post Gen-Xers, your antecedents’ enthusiasm!

earth, journalism

Line in the Sand

Over the last 140 years, give or take, San Francisco’s Ocean Beach has been a sort of boxing ring, pitting the optimism (or hubris) of humankind against the relentless power of the ocean.

We’ve moved sand around, we’ve imported beachgrass and iceplant, laid concrete, set down boulders, dumped actual, used tombstones from a cemetery evicted to make way for development in good San Francisco fashion on the beach—all this to defend against the water as it pounded our western shore.

And, like so many other natural phenomena that kick our butts and blow up best laid plans and remind civilization that we aren’t the only forces to reckon with on this planet, climate change makes it worse. As sea levels rise, so does the pressure on those coasts, which are naturally worn away by the seas and naturally replenished by rivers and streams that deposit bits of sand and rock. Except when we disrupt that dynamic by laying down houses and asphalt and all this built environment on the natural one.

These days the latest move on the part of planners is to strike a sort of compromise with nature at Ocean Beach. You can read more in my article for California Magazine.

[Image above of men laying concrete at the Great Highway, which runs alongside Ocean Beach. June 19, 1919. From the always great OpenSFHistory (OpenSFHistory / wnp36.02175.jpg).]

chart showing reports of animals sensing earthquakes
animals, science

Nonsystematic and Collected from Many Sources

I love this chart, from a 1981 review paper on whether animals can anticipate earthquakes.

It plots instances of odd behavior, for a multitude of species, based on time before a quake and distance from the epicenter. To me, it’s like a data-based graphic equivalent to herding cats. The caption:

Fig. 1. Distribution of animal behavior incidents according to the distance from the epicenter and the time before the main shock of 36 different earthquakes in Europe, Asia, North America, and South America. Symbols indicate reports on the following animals: catfish, eels, other fish, frogs, snakes, turtles, sea birds, chickens, other birds, dogs, cats, deer, horses, cows, rats, and mice. Data are nonsystematic and collected from many sources. [Kilian, 1964; von Hentig, 1923; Simon, 1975; Lee et al, 1976; Academia Sinica, 1977a, b; Shaw, 1977; Rikitake, 1978a, b; Tributsch, 1978]

A little while back, I wrote about research into whether animals can somehow predict earthquakes. It’s a great subject!

For years people have wrestled with the question of whether a link can be found, whether animals can somehow act as a warning system that will tell us to seek shelter before an earthquake. But one of the challenges, whether in terms of first identifying the behavior or of later monitoring your warning-animal, is consistency and knowing that you’ve made a robust observation. And one phrase in that caption pretty much nails the problem for drawing broader conclusions: “data are nonsystematic and collected from many sources”.

Which leads us to ask, what would be systematic data? Hard to say. As I wrote in that Beast article, most of us can’t sit around staring at Rover, taking careful notes, just in case an earthquake strikes. And yet that might be what it takes. As one researcher wrote more than 30 years ago:

Should we find that our animals indeed do sense impending earthquakes so much the better. If we do not, however, there is danger of extrapolating our results to the statement that no animal anticipates seismic events and that further studies are not warranted. I don’t know how to deal with this paradox except to urge the USGS to lobby for sufficient funds to allow installation of a greater diversity of species in seismically active areas. An important part of the lobby would be a plea for patience and understanding of the gamble and costs incurred as one simply maintains the experiments and waits for an earthquake to happen.

That was written by a UCLA biologist who’d spent a couple years observing pocket mice and kangaroo rats near Palm Springs. The rodents seemed to run on their wheels and dart through passages more often just before earthquakes.

artist's rendering of earthquake

Shake and Bake

The editors at California Magazine asked me to look into the possible effects of a major earthquake on the Bay Area. It’s a topic I’ve thought a lot about over the years, and have written about previously. Just about every region carries the risk of getting caught up in a disaster, natural or otherwise, that could quickly spiral out of our control. We should all do a better job of preparing for them.


Seeing leaf-cutter ants in the wild is the sort of thing that makes you want to spend all day crawling on the ground following them around. These are charismatic microfauna

Here, a few seconds of footage I took while playing around with a GoPro near Jaco, Costa Rica, last December.

They don’t eat the leaves, petals, and other bits of foliage they bring back to the colony, but use them to cultivate gardens of fungus that act as a food source. 

multimedia, science

Night of the Planet Hunter, Youtubed

Last week, someone asked if some of my work from a few years ago could have been published to Youtube. Great question. Way back in 2008/2009, if you were working with an organization that was interested in experimenting outside their traditional media format—say, a magazine publishing an audio slideshow—you’d sometimes find that despite the interest, there was a more fundamental question: what, exactly, to do with the resulting story. There might be technical constraints (which was the case with the story below), or certain editorial imperatives (self-hosted video; wanting people to visit your site as opposed to making something embeddable, etc) would make things complicated.

In the case of this 2008 audio slideshow about searching for exoplanets (the pre-Kepler era), my editor said I might as well publish it to my site since they couldn’t really publish the Flash-based output from Soundslides (speaking of which, ugh, Flash). Since then, some of these things have loosened up—see, for example, the Wired video I pitched in on with an early draft script, that went straight to Youtube. SoundSlides itself developed a convert-to-Youtube-friendly-format option online, which is what I used here.

Anyway, here we finally have an easily embeddable version. And below that, the brief write-up that went with it.

California Goes Planet Hunting

Until 1995, exoplanets—planets orbiting sun-like stars—were more figment than fact, the stuff of sci-fi novels. But in 1995, a Swiss group discovered the first known example, called 51 Pegasi b, and since then, astronomers have documented more than 300 exoplanets. Of those, nearly half have been discovered by the team led by Cal astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, who directs the Center for Integrative Planetary Science.

California recently checked in with Professor Marcy to find out more about his work. The results: an audio slideshow of a night searching for planets with Marcy (above) and a Q & A with Marcy about his work (below), both produced by Timothy Lesle.

California: How do you describe what you do?

Geoff Marcy: I think every young person, at some point, looks up at the night sky and wonders if those “suns” harbor any planets, especially earth-like planets. We wonder, “Is anyone out there?” My research has been to search the nearest 1000 stars for planetary systems, with the hope of finding possible oases for life. My group works day and night using the world’s largest optical telescope, the Keck telescope. NASA and the University of California provide the telescope time. Three NASA space-borne telescopes hold real promise for the future. Kepler will launch in 2009 and is designed to detect Earth-like planets, which have never been found. It will search for stars that dim repeatedly, as a sign that earths are crossing in front of the star, blocking starlight.

How did you get into planet hunting?

When I finished my Ph.D., I didn’t have any good ideas about what to do next. I attempted to continue my research, measuring the magnetic fields on Sun-like stars. But such measurements are very difficult, and I could tell it wasn’t going well. I felt lost and incompetent. Resigned to mediocrity, I decided I should do research that captured my imagination, no matter how unlikely it was to succeed. For the next 10 years my collaborator, Paul Butler, and I tried to discover planets, without success. I was quite distressed the entire time, but didn’t feel that I could quit. When we found our first planets, most people didn’t believe us. A Canadian astronomer and an American astronomer promoted alternative interpretations, saying we were fooling ourselves and tricking others. But we persisted. I was so depressed when people didn’t believe me that I had to get away from astronomy. I took up tennis, playing every day. I still play tennis every day.

If a star looks small, a planet must be impossible to see.

Detecting a planet near a star is like trying to see a speck of dust next to a flashlight, located 1000 miles away. We find planets by using a trick. The stars are yanked by the gravitational pull of the planet. We watch the stars to see if they are moving around in circles or stationary. If they move, we know a planet is there. Massive planets yank more strongly on the star, allowing us to measure the planet’s mass. And the time it takes for the star to move in a circle is the same time it takes the planet to orbit the star. So we learn quantitative information about the planet, even though we don’t see it at all.

My team has discovered extraordinary and bizarre new worlds. Some orbit so close to their star that they are just skimming above the star’s surface, [which is] blow-torching the planet to thousands of degrees. Others travel along stretched-out, elongated orbits, with the star flinging the planet far, only to let it plummet back. The circular orbit of the Earth is a fluke among planets in the universe.

Will we be visiting them one day?

Some day we humans will devise propulsion systems that allow us to send spacecraft to the stars. At first the payloads will be sensitive cameras, sending back detailed pictures of another world, with its oceans, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. Perhaps we’ll even see the life forms living there. Later, we will travel to the stars ourselves, to visit those worlds and live there, like the pioneers in the Old West. Ultimately, our travels to other worlds will help preserve our species, protecting us against catastrophe on any one planet, including our home Earth.

Tim Lesle also wrote about a serendipitous supernova study in the November/December 2008 issue of California.

image of washizu and wife from Throne of Blood

Quick Note on Throne of Blood

Here’s the late Donald Richie on Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood:

I was present during the location shooting for much of the film. Particularly fine were those rushes of the advancing hunting party, both the long silhouette shots and, later, the advance, taken with longdistance lenses which flattened the figures out and looked like a medieval tapestry. After they were taken Kurosawa said he was pleased. “I have about ten times more than I need.”

In the finished film this morning’s work takes ten seconds. Gone are the living tapestries (“they only held up the action”); the wonderful turning shots of the messenger (“I don’t know—they looked confused to me”); a splendid entrance of Mifune skidding to a stop (“you know, Washizu wasn’t that upset”); and a lovely framing shot of the procession seen through the gate (“too pretty”).

I still think of Kurosawa that morning, up on his platform, directing everything, always quiet, suggesting rather than commanding, looking through the view-finders, getting down to run through the mud to the other camera, making jokes, getting just what he wanted. And then—having the courage, the discipline to choose from that morning’s richness just those few frames which contained what would best benefit the film.

It is, indeed, a very good film. As Kurosawa’s fans point out, literary critic Harold Bloom has written that Throne of Blood is the “most successful film version of Macbeth.” (Perhaps more interesting to note the subordinate clause Bloom tacks to the end of his declaration: “though it departs very far from the specifics of Shakespeare’s play.”)

In any case, Richie’s description of what was cut leaves me wanting to see the deleted scenes.

The trailer:

image of washizu in command

animated gif of calvin and hobbes looking at shooting stars


It’s a redesign for this place, a modified version of the new Ryu theme: a much-needed behind-the-scenes upgrade and a maybe-not-bad change in the look of things. E.g.:

Old version:
Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 5.31.54 PM

New version:
screenshot of new design

For those of you into WordPress, I now have options like post formats, responsive parameters, featured images (such as the gif above), a click-down “sidebar” at the very top of the screen (that’s what those tabs are if you hadn’t tried them), etc.

Now I just have to think of stuff to publish here.