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.

geography, multimedia

Mapping Photos using GeoRSS

As I was finishing up my earlier post on the geotagging tutorial, Pankaj Garg of ZeeMaps sent me an e-mail. We had previously been in touch about the possibility of using a GeoRSS feed to map photos in ZeeMaps.

GeoRSS is exactly what it sounds like, an RSS feed for geo-encoded information. More people have GeoRSS feeds than they realize— Flickr assigns each user a GeoRSS—although most of those feeds are probably empty since geotagging images is still not a habit for most people.

georss link on flickr page

Flickr enables GeoRSS only for each user’s primary photostream and for individual tags (as in the image above). I mapped the same photos as in the earlier post. The difference this time in the process is that I exported directly from HoudahGeo to Flickr (after enabling geocoded metadata in Flickr) and assigning a unique tag to all of the photos; in this case, I tagged them with the date. (I suspect sets are not available for GeoRSS because you can rearrange image order, unlike in the photostream or tag streams.) This skips the .csv steps in the original tutorial I wrote. But Flickr may limit the number of entries in the feed, limiting the number of datapoints that will go on the map.

As mentioned previously, the advantage of mapping these in something like ZeeMaps is the ease in customizing and embedding the map. While Flickr can map my geotagged photos, all I seem to be able to do with it is link to the map. Here’s the rough workflow I used:

1. Copy the GeoRSS link from the 2008december4 tag page.

2. Create a new map in ZeeMaps and choose “KML, GeoRSS Add” from the Advanced menu:
menu item to add georss link

3. Paste in the GeoRSS link:
pasted georss link

The resulting map:

China, environment, multimedia

China Green

The Asia Society’s Center on U.S.–China Relations recently published China Green, a multimedia site that will highlight stories of China’s environment. Its initial set of videos and images focus on how climate change is affecting the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas, which host the headwaters of most of Asia’s major rivers.

screenshot of China Green website

The Asia Society took its first leap into multimedia and China’s environment last year with its Clearing the Air website, which introduced viewers to the environmental challenges—especially regarding air pollution—that China faces. The most compelling feature of that site is the calendar showing Beijing’s shifting air quality, Room With A View. The calendar is continually updated, its most recent image being of a clear blue sky on Monday, January 12:

image of beijing air

While visiting China Green, be sure to try using the interactive timelines comparing photos of Himalayan glaciers several decades ago with glaciers today. You’ll see what I mean on the opening page of China Green, as it shows the time-lapse loss of the Rongbuk Glacier. And if you know that you’ll be in New York City on January 16th, check out the Asia Society symposium Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau. [Update] If you can’t make it, the Asia Society will stream a live webcast of the event on its site that day.

Disclosure: China Green was produced by people I consider friends and colleagues. I’d like to especially point out the work of Michael Zhao, who has done a great amount of work in both multimedia and China’s relationship with the environment. A notable example of the combination of those being his look at the importation and processing of electronic waste in China, the first coverage of any depth I’ve seen on the subject.


Photo Geotagging Tutorial for KDMC

The Knight Digital Media Center at UC Berkeley has published my tutorial on Geotagging and Mapping Photos. In it, I go through a set of steps on how to assign location data to images shot on a digital camera and how to use the results to put the images in an online map.

The KDMC guys wanted me to use a specific set of tools: an Amod AGL3080 GPS Data Logger, HoudahGeo phototagging software, Excel, and ZeeMaps.

All of the tools worked great for me—although there was a general failure of the Amod GPS trackers when we tried to download the geodata during our December workshop, so proceed carefully if you choose to use one of those. (I would love any recommendations on other GPS devices for this purpose). The basic workflow is as follows:

shoot photos while GPS tracker is activated —> edit photos —> load photos and GPS data into HoudahGeo —> create .csv file from matched data —> load .csv into ZeeMaps

There are some key details to remember. Make sure the clock on your digital camera is set properly; this is how the GPS data, which records time along with location, is matched with the images. When editing photos, don’t lose your EXIF (time) meta data. And be sure to read the procedures for creating the .csv file in Excel, separating data into columns, etc.—there are a few spots where little mistakes can mess up the file. The procedure, overall, is quite simple.

The biggest surprise, and a pleasant one at that, was ZeeMaps. The service is built on Google Maps, so the output both looks familiar and can be embedded into a variety of contexts. But the real strength of ZeeMaps is the variety of options it gives you: besides the ability to upload .csv files, which can include thousands of data points, there is room for a lot of configuration when it comes to adding different kinds of information and configuring the map for embedding.

That said, the results aren’t perfect. For example, more control over how photos are displayed would be nice to have. And there’s no way to trace out the path that the GPS logger recorded as I walked down side streets and over hills. Other programs do this, but neither my colleagues nor I have found a good service or program that combines all the features we’re looking for. ZeeMaps has the potential to become that, depending on what kind of features it develops. The tech people are incredibly responsive—when I sent a tech inquiry they responded in about a day and plan to incorporate a new feature as a result. I know that the new iPhoto will have photo-mapping capabilities, but have not yet had a chance to try it. I suspect the search for the perfect photo+geodata+display app will go on.

Here is a simple test map I created last month. I’ve also created a map of places I lived on the geobiography page.

journalism, multimedia, science

Night of the Planet Hunter

Geoff Marcy is a Berkeley professor of astronomy and, in little more than a decade, his research team has discovered about half of the known planets outside of our solar system. I sat in with him one night this fall as he used the Keck telescope to scan nearby stars for planets. The result is a four-and-a-half-minute(!) audio slideshow in which he explains his work and how he got started in this somewhat unusual field.

artists's conception of 55 Cancri solar system

The piece is called “California Goes Planet Hunting,” and was produced for California magazine’s recent astronomy issue.

Artist’s conception of the 55 Cancri system courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech and W. M. Keck Observatory.

anticipation, China, consumption, development, environment, international, journalism, multimedia, really?

China: Green Dreams (Finally)

China Green Dreams

Last August I went to northeast China and for the following five months I’ve been putting together a story about an eco-village in China. Or, rather, an attempted eco-village.

Here’s how Frontline/World described it: “The village of Huangbaiyu in rural northeast China was supposed to be a model for energy-conscious design. The initial project was to build 400 sustainable homes, a collaboration between U.S. architect William McDonough and the Chinese. But something went awry. Frontline/World reporter Timothy Lesle traveled to the region to investigate.”

I’m glad I got to do this project and look forward to any responses it may get. No doubt they’ll range from positive to negative. Frontline does something different with this slideshow from a web-tech perspective, which is to stream the images and sound like video rather than through Flash.

If you get a chance, let me know what you think. And if you are inspired, let Frontline/World know what you think.

multimedia, photography

Try PicLens

the xian souvenir seller

PicLens is an extension that creates what looks to me like a javascript slideshow, or, if the viewer adds it to his copy of Firefox or Safari (or even Internet Explorer), can create a three-dimensional wall of photos. It’s kind of confusing until you see it. I’ve enabled PicLens on the Xi’an gallery that includes the photo above. If a little play button shows up on one of the thumbnail images, press  it. At least, I hope so. The instructions are murky, so execution is still hit or miss. In any case, you ought to download the extension if you want to play around with it. I don’t usually plug products, but this is cool. When it works.

anticipation, Asia, China, international, journalism, multimedia, photography


village boy

So there’s a story related to this picture. Actually, the story I’m telling is about the village where this boy lives. It’s the reason why I’ve embargoed all of my photos from China last August. Check Frontline/World tomorrow (Thursday, the last day of January) and you’ll see what I mean.

journalism, multimedia, music

Add Some Rhythm

It seems to be a never-ending quest to find appropriate music to add to projects like radio shows, multimedia presentations, or , you know, Exit Music (for a film), that sort of thing. Here is the latest resource I’ve seen: “film music,” at

So sign up and you can request free non-commercial licenses for whichever ambient-electro-synth songs you need for your project.

journalism, multimedia, photography

Laforet Does the Tilt-Shift Thing

If you thought tilting and shifting a lens was only for fancy architecture and design magazines, well, my friend, you would be wrong. At the end of May, the Times put together an audio slideshow featuring sporting events shot by Vincent Laforet using a tilt-shift lens.

The presentation has been making the rounds, but it doesn’t seem to have generated the online buzz that it might have a year ago, when everyone was blogging about the technique. The effect, still, is pretty cool–an example below.