20121226

Another awesome video

This is the most beautiful video I've seen in a long time, so I just wanted to share it. The music, the video... It's all perfect. Viva la human race! :)

20121225

Merry Newtonmas!

"25 December is the birthday of one of the truly great men ever to walk the earth. His achievements might justly be celebrated wherever his truths hold sway. And that means from one end of the universe to the other. Happy Newton Day!" - Richard Dawkins

Sir Isaac Newton (16421225 - 17270320) was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist and theologian. He was probably the greatest scientist who ever lived, and his contributions to science will forever have a special place in the history of mankind. He described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion in his monograph Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, a work that laid the foundations for most of classical mechanics.

Even tho he was deeply religious, and spent a lot of his time working with occultism and alchemy, his influence on science of yore, as well as today, can not be ignored. So, you see, even atheists have a reason to celebrate today - we raise a glass in honor of one of the most important people ever to live on this tiny little planet.  

Merry Newtonmas, my dear rationalists, atheists and skeptics!

I will raise a few more glasses today, probably, since this year I'm celebrating both Hitchmas and Newtonmas at the same time. It's more convenient, I think. :)

20121210

Goodbye, little friend.

This is Nero, the ninja cat. I found him somewhere in the middle of summer this year, half-dead, sick and weak. His eyes were still closed even though he was already almost two months old, due to severe case of conjuctivitis, and he couldn't breathe through his nose. I took him to the vet, cared for him for a while, and in a few week's time, he grew stronger and healthier. His fur become shiny and dark, his strength returned and his eyes fully opened.
Throughout the summer, almost every afternoon, after I'd return from work, I would head straight to the Garden and sit to read a book. Nero would jump into my lap, curl up and fall asleep. Oftentimes I would fall asleep too, and together we would sleep the slow, lonely summer afternoons away.
On Saturday, just like every other day, he came to the door, as he always does when he's hungry. I opened the door, and he slowly came in. He was breathing heavily, whimper escaping from him with every breath he took. He was weak, so very weak, and I knew right away something was terribly wrong. At first I thought he was suffering from a cold, or possibly pneumonia, as the past few days were really cold here in Croatia. But he seemed to become weaker and weaker, and I realized he needed to see a vet right away. Seeing how I live in a huge primitive village that has the nerve to call itself a town, no vets work on weekend, and the two I called didn't even answer their emergency numbers. Luckily, somebody, my mother or my girlfriend, I don't remember clearly, remembered there's an animal shelter called near Dubrovnik, so I called them, and they recommended a vet just outside Dubrovnik. I didn't have my car, so I called a friend, and he was kind enough to leave his work for later and take us to the vet. For this, I cannot thank him enough.
After checking him, the vet said Nero's condition was critical, and that she wasn't sure he could survive for long. She gave him a therapy, tried all she could, and sent us home with instructions for the rest of the day. While in the car, Nero became really nervous, so we hurried up and ran into the house. I lowered him to the floor, and he lay down, still very weak. As we gathered around him, he took a few breaths, and just like that, he wasn't breathing any more. His heart stopped, and his eyes lost the glow. Nero died around 0500 PM. He was about seven months old.
Nero died from poisoning. Since he lived in my garden, I am almost completely sure he was poisoned on purpose. It's been two days since he died, and I cannot find a single reason why somebody would do such a thing. He didn't bother anyone, he wasn't loud or wild. I wonder what kind of sad, sick person you'd have to be to purposely poison another living being, and scar another one for his or her life. I am insanely angry, and terribly sad. It's a sad, sad world in which you have to be afraid to have a pet in your own garden.
I don't have many friends, nor do I wish for more. But, as strange as that may sound, I feel like Nero was one of the closest ones I ever had. I know that, with time, I'll be able to spend time in the Garden and not feel that there's something missing. I also know that it won't happen any time soon.

Goodbye, little friend. I saved you once, but I couldn't save you twice. I'm no Superman.


P.S. I want to thank Marjan, who was willing to postpone his work and takes us to the vet; a girl who works at animal shelter "Žarkovica", for recommending a vet; a vet, who did all she could for Nero; and Gaby, my girlfriend, for being with us the whole time.

20121208

Atheist Census DDoS-ed

Atheist Census, a project of Atheist Alliance International, was taken offline by a DoS (denial of service) attack, less than 24 hours after it was launched.

Atheist Census is "a global project to count and collect information on the world's atheists." The response from atheist community was quick and impressive, with more than 8,000 participants from all around the globe in less than a day. I am proud to have been the first participant from Croatia, and the last time I was able to check the data, there were 7 more Croats counted. This was just hours after the start of the project. Now, however, not even the local data is accessible, due to the whole page being down.

It is as yet unknown who the culprits are, but it's safe to assume they don't like the idea of the real number of world's atheists being so easy to check. This is a shame, as it only serves to prove the common prejudice against religious people as paranoid and afraid of non-religious folk. It seems as though somebody, a ruling class of some denomination perhaps, doesn't want its flock to get encouraged to leave their faith after seeing the sheer number of non-believers whom they'd be able to join. Putting it this way, this almost seems like a first move in an open-out war, if you will. By the love of Darwin, let's hope this never happens.

20121207

Earth at night. From space!

Today's post is a coincidental continuation of this one. Once again it revolves around a picture. More precisely, around today's 'Astronomy Picture of the Day'.


Pictured above, as you can clearly see and hopefully recognize, is the Earth at night. The image is actually a composite of many cloud-free night-time images made by VIIRS, Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, situated on Suomi-NPP satellite, circa 824 kilometers above the surface of our majestic homeworld.

Images of the Earth at night are, in my opinion, much more beautiful and awe-inspiring than the 'Blue marble' type of images, because, during the night, you can really see how evolved as a species and a technological culture humans have become. To be able to be visually seen from outer space is an achievement every species should be damn proud of.

Except if it's actually a universal sign for "Hey, we're here, come and conquer us!" In that case, shit.

20121206

Dogs driving cars? Yes please.

A charity in New Zealand is teaching dogs how to drive cars. Real dogs. Driving. Real cars.
I know, it's as crazy as it sounds. Also, damn awesome.


Apparently, the experiment is supposed to show how intelligent dogs can be, in order to encourage people to rescue more dogs and abandon less of them. And while I doubt that a bunch of learned reactions to outer stimuli accurately shows an animal's intelligence, this is both cool and it serves a good purpose, so I'm all for it. And you have to admit - there aren't many things cooler than having a dog driver.
Let's just hope it doesn't come to this.

Source: The Huffington Post

20121205

The dark, spinning Earth

Another awesome video today: A spinning night-clad Earth, set to the dark backdrop of space.

 Click full screen, an choose the highest quality.

To read more about the video, visit Phil Plait's awesome blog Bad Astronomy. :)

20121129

Water ice on Mercury?

For a long time now scientists have pondered the idea that Mercury, the first planet of out solar system, harbors water ice on its polar regions. This was first strongly indicated by data from Arecibo radio-telescope, when it was noticed that the radar reflections from some places on the pole seemed much brighter than that from the rest of the surface. These brighter reflections suggested that there might be water ice on surface of Mercury, which is, as we thought, not really a planet on which we'd expect to find frozen water. However, due to its extremely small rotational tilt, which is less than 1° (which means that the rotational axis of Mercury is almost perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the Sun), some craters near the pole, or rather floor of some craters, never gets hit by the light from the Sun. And, true enough, these bright radar reflections coincided with big craters pictured by the Mariner 10 in the 1970s.

Enter MESSENGER.
MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury (artist's impression).
MESSENGER is a robotic spacecraft which arrived at Mercury last year, becoming the first spacecraft ever to enter into the orbit around it. Since then, it had presented us with data such as we'd never see before. And now it seems to have confirmed the 'water ice on poles' hypothesis. Pictures taken by its Dual Imaging System show that the radar-bright patches are indeed within the shadowed regions around both poles. 
Red: permanently shadowed regions; yellow: polar deposits indicated by Earth-based radar
You'll notice how well yellow points correlate to craters. This really is the best place to expect water ice on Mercury, since, as said before, these are the parts of its surface that never get warm enough for water to evaporate. So there we have a strong indication of water ice on one of the hottest places in our solar system.

Next, using neutron spectroscopy, the average hydrogen concentrations in these radar-bright regions are measured. The data from this experiment shows a hydrogen-rich layer, 0.5 to 20 meters thick, a few dozen centimeters below the surface. The amount of hydrogen in this layer is consistent with the amounts found in almost pure water ice. So this data also strongly corroborates the hypothesis.

One other amazing thing was found, too. There are indications that some regions in the craters are dark, while others are bright. The best explanation for this phenomenon is the presence of organic molecules. Now, don't jump out of your chair just yet - this does not mean there is life on Mercury! It does show, however, that the basic building blocks of life can survive some pretty harsh conditions. This organic matter is carried around our solar system on comets and asteroids, and seems to be quite abundant (it might have seeded the Earth, too, a long time ago). And with one more place with (almost) confirmed water, we can now see that the ingredients for life as we know it are much more common in the vast expanse of our solar system, and, very likely, the entire universe, then we previously thought.


If you want to read more about MESSENGER mission and this most recent discovery, I recommend these two links:


20121127

When the absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence

There is a traditional axiom that states: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. But this statement is simply false, which is quite easy to understand. Irving Copi, an American philosopher and logician, said: 
"In some circumstances it can be safely assumed that if a certain event had occurred, evidence of it could be discovered by qualified investigators. In such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to take the absence of proof of its occurrence as positive proof of its non-occurrence."
So when does the absence of evidence become evidence of absence? As an example I'm going to use the awesomest creatures of all time - unicorns (if you don't like unicorns you are a terrible, terrible person and I hope a herd of space unicorns runs over you with their hoofs of fiery doom). We almost certainly know that unicorns do not exist. There is a minor possibility that they do, perhaps. There are still some places on Earth we haven't explored, or they may be really good at hiding. Perhaps they live on trees so we don't see them from all the leaves (also, who would even think of looking at trees while searching for unicorns?). But surely someone would have collected at least one piece of evidence for their existence by now if they really existed, right? Yet there is no evidence. None. Zero. We can't prove with complete certainty that there are no unicorns. We can't really create an experiment which shows that there are absolutely no unicorns somewhere on Earth, except for sending a billion search parties to simultaneously comb the entire planet. Yet the absence of evidence clearly speaks for itself, thus becoming the evidence of absence. Sorry to disappoint you, but there are no unicorns. (I myself am very saddened by this).
Well, shit.
Okay, now simply replace ‘unicorns’ with ‘god’ and the argument starts to take shape. God is supposed to be this all-powerful super-being who mingles with lives of ordinary people on a daily basis. This means the evidence should be more than abundant. Yet there has still been no scientific proof whatsoever for the existence of god or his ‘miracles’.

First off, what is a ‘miracle’, anyway? By definition, it should be an extraordinary event, something that’s statistically so unlikely to happen that, for all practical reasons, we can regard it as impossible. However, language is a tricky business so we oftenly use a word ‘miracle’ to describe ordinary, but beneficial or simply ‘very nice’ things, like a birth or a victory over a disease. To be clear, I do not consider this a miracle, nor does any sane person confuse this kind of ‘miracle’ with an ‘actual’, out-of-this-world-force induced miracle. So, what would we consider a real miracle? One situation I can think of is if someone who lost a leg grew one over the night, or over a month, or over a year. Yet, somehow, this has never happened, as far as we know, in the whole history of mankind (except if you are part human part starfish - then it might have happened, which is awesome, and I want to be your friend). There are probably a few stories and anecdotes, but recorded evidence from reliable sources is missing. So we can assume this kind of miracle doesn’t happen. Another miracle would be if the Sun suddenly disappeared from the sky. If we don’t count eclipses, since in the case of an eclipse the Sun remains where it always is, this kind of thing never happens. And thank goodness it doesn’t, because that would be one very stupid and counter-productive miracle. So we have no real evidence of miracles. Occasionally, the media reports a supposed miracle, which somehow always crumples to dust when confronted with a team of objective researchers. For example, weeping madonnas are surprisingly easy to fake. Then there is the case of Audrey Santo. There are also all kinds of reflections on windows which happen to be chemical instabilities in the glass, or supposed faces in tree-bark, bread, stones, whatever you want, which can be easily dismissed as cases of pareidolia. Lots of 'miracles', less than zero evidence.
Holy crap it's a rainbow vaguely resembling a veiled woman!
So what we do have is a bunch of old stories, anecdotes and hearsay of a supposed miracles that either cannot be proven, were scientifically debunked, or are simply misinterpreted events that are not likely to happen, but with a significant statistical chance to happen after all (a person waking up from coma, surviving cancer, or winning a game of Arkham Horror). Surely by now we should have at least one solid piece of evidence for one of these alleged miracles which 'prove that god exists'? Yet there is none! And no evidence in such a long time, with so many chances of being recorded, scrutinized and shown to be true, leads to only two possible solutions - either your god is terribly shy and at least as good as unicorns at hiding, or he does not exist. And Occam's razor states that the simpler hypothesis is true, so I think we can all guess which one of these two possibilities is an actual case.

Also, don't forget: if you can't explain something, that doesn't make it a miracle. Similarly, just because science doesn't have an explanation of a certain occurrence, it doesn't mean it never will, or that it's a miracle. Sorry.

20121124

Save the whales!

Today I just wanted to share a beautiful short video I found on Vimeo. I recommend watching it on full screen with HD option on. It's well worth it, believe me. 


Requiem 2019 from Sil van der Woerd on Vimeo.

Whales are the largest animals that ever lived on the Earth, with blue whales reaching up to 30 meters and 180 tonnes. They are one of the best examples of evolution at work, with vestigial hindlimbs sometimes present inside their bodies even today. This shows that whales are descendants of land-dwelling mammals which belonged to Artiodactyl order. Their closest relatives today are hippos. (This does not mean they evolved from hippos, of course, but that both of these species have a common ancestor). You can read more about the evolution of whales here
A humpback whale breaching.
Some people consider whales highly intelligent, what with such a long presence on the planet, and while I'm still very skeptical on this front, it is interesting to consider that they do have different dialects and accents, just like we humans do. Intelligent or not, whales are wonderful animals which should be cherished, instead of slowly killed out (whaling is still legal in some countries, which is both appalling and sad). Not only do humans pollute the oceans with different chemicals and garbage, we also create a terrible sound pollution with ship engines and sonars, which confuse and distress whales that rely on sound for navigation in the dark deep waters. To read more about the threats to whales and dolphins, visit this page

It's saddening to see how anthropocentric we as a species have become, and it will take us a long time to figure out how to live in harmony with all the different kinds of animals, whales included. I just hope it will happen soon, before we destroy the biodiversity of the planet, and, with that, ourselves.

P.S. This post may or may not have something to do with today being a 153rd anniversary of official publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, one of the most important books in the history of mankind.

20121122

Scenes from the Garden: Leaves

Another beautiful autumn day here in Dubrovnik, warm and sunny as if it was spring. Today I decided to take photos of some of the different leaves you can find in my Garden (I follow Google+ trending topics, you know). Since it is autumn whether it seems like it or not, a lot of plants are in the process of loosing their leaves, so I bring you only five photos I deemed most worthy.

The first plant is Mimosa pudica, one of the prettiest trees we've ever had in our Garden. It used to be a huge tree, but when the roots started to do damage to the walls, we had to cut it down. I was pleasantly surprised to see a few young offshoots growing more than five years after we've cut the original tree down. It's a very interesting plant, with bipinnately compound leaves which can rapidly close under certain stimuli, like touching, warming etc.
Mimosa pudica
Mimosa pudica
Next comes a well known plant, Rosa rosa, or, if you don't speak Latin, a rose.
Rosa rosa
Rosa rosa
For the next one I chose a beautiful (when in bloom) Lilac vulgaris, or Common Lilac. This one has also grown in the Garden since the dawn of ages, and I remember looking for a five-petal flowers to drop down my shirt, which supposedly brings you good luck, if you believe in that sort of nonsense (as many kids do, I guess).
Lilac vulgaris
Lilac vulgaris
Last one is so abundant in the Garden that I decided to take two photos of it. It is also one of my favorite plants, an invasive and poisonous species which serves as a great background for numerous spooky, haunted old houses. It is, of course, Hedera helix, also known as Common Ivy. If you don't mind having such a nuisance of a plant in your garden, it is great for attracting all kinds of bugs and birds which you can watch for hours when you're bored.
Hedera helix
Hedera helix and Tricyclus antiquus
Hedera helix
So, anyway, these are only some of the plants in the Garden. Which plant is your favorite? :)

20121121

Scenes from the Forest: Mushrooms

Not many people are lucky to have a forest near their living place, especially now that we're all living in cities. I am, however, lucky enough to have a whole forest right out of my apartment. I spent my entire childhood running through it and playing with my friends, and today still I kept a habit of visiting it every now and then, although none of my friends accompany me any more. So today, since it was a surprisingly nice and warm day (my girlfriend even went for a swim), while returning from the hospital I decided to go through the Forest. It is not a huge forest, and it takes about 10-15 minutes to walk its entire length, but it's a relaxing 10 minutes nevertheless. Anyway, while checking what I surely hope is a fresh dog grave, I noticed a few mushrooms a few meters away, plucked out of the ground and thrown aside. Now, I hate it when people pick flowers and plants, but it's even worse with mushrooms since many of them live for less than a week, so I was somewhat sad when I noticed them. However, it did give me something to do this afternoon: I tried to classify two of them. Since I'm not a mycologist, nor have I ever before tried to classify fungi, it was a fun and a bit frustrating endeavor.
Many people don't really think much about mushrooms, except when choosing toppings for their pizza, but they are actually quite a peculiar sort of beings. Neither plants nor animals, mushrooms are actually fruit of a fungal organism hidden beneath the ground, just like an apple is a fruit of an apple tree. Hence it is also a reproductive organism of the fungi, carrying the spores with which it ensures the continuous survival of its species.
Russula aurea and Amanita virosa, side by side
As I said, I picked two of the mushrooms I found and carried them back home with me, hoping to be able to do the classification. Using the amazing powers of the almighty Internet, I now think I might have managed to do so.

The first mushroom is, I believe, Russula aurea, also known as gilded brittlegill. It is almost without a doubt of the Russula genus, and as for the species, it's hard to be completely certain since it has apparently been out of the ground for some time now, so it's already rotten a little. It could also be Russula vesca, but it's usually more brown than the one I found. If this is indeed Russula aurea, then I got really lucky, since it's an uncommon species which, as opposed to many others from its genus, is edible and also, according to Wikipedia, mild-tasting. I decided to skip the eating and tasting part, so I'm gonna trust Wikipedia with this one.
Russula aurea
The other one should be Amanita virosa, with a very foreboding common name, European destroying angel. It's apparently deadly poisonous, if you didn't catch that from the name. This one is quite big, with a 13 cm wide cap and 10 cm long and 2 cm thick stem. It's quite a nice specimen, which makes me even angrier at the person who destroyed it.
Amanita virosaAmanita virosa
Now, again, I'm not a mycologist and I have no idea if my classification is anywhere near correct. If you know the exact species of the mushrooms I found, please do tell in a comment. Whether correct or not, it was very fun and quite an educational afternoon, so I'm really happy and content, and a little angry and sad.

So, do you have any experience with fungi? :)

20121119

Florida senator Marco Rubio confused about the age of the Earth

Before I start this post, I want you to read this quote very carefully:
I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries.
You did? Great. Now read it again, then laugh and/or weep. Since you are reading this post, I'm gonna presume you know how to read. From that, I'm gonna extrapolate that you have some basic education. Assuming you're not deliberately ignoring a century of scientific work, by this point in your life you should very well know that the age of the Earth is somewhere around 4.5 billion years. If you want to be precise, it's 4.54 billion years ± 50 million years, with an accuracy of 99%. And we know this because a huge number of scientific areas converge and agree on this point. So when you read a quote that says something along the "I don't know" lines, what you should do is smirk and ignore it, or, if you're into that kind of stuff, react by trying to educate the person who originated the quote. And all stops there, you try, succeed or fail, and move on. But when a quote like this comes from a senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, you should probably start worrying about the state of this civilization. The quote comes from an interview published by GQ magazine, and it's the reason why I've been both laughing and crying since I read it a few hours ago. What's worse, Rubio  sits on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Oh the irony.
"The age of the Earth, you say? Hmm... Nope, I have no idea. You should go ask my priest."
So lets just analyze the quote for a moment. Rubio starts off fair by saying "I'm not a scientist, man," thus reaching the point where his answer should end. Instead, he continues to presenting the age of the Earth as a theological problem, completely (and I'd say deliberately) ignoring all the scientist and sciences that for years worked on this problem ("[...] I think that's a dispute amongst theologians [...]"). He then blatantly diminishes the significance of science by saying "I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that." Seriously, mister senator? Guess what: we've answered that a long time ago. So I would suggest some reading and studying, before making yourself look uneducated and ignorant in front of the whole world.

I'm not gonna preach about this any more. But I want you to think about this, and figure out in your head how much do you want people like this to lead your nation, country, city, village or whatever. Bear in mind that the people you vote for have an immensely important role in your life, and not just your own. And that it is you, the people, who vote for them. So I suggest being a little more careful the next time.

20121109

Carl Sagan Day

"Carl Edward Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996) was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences. He spent most of his career as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University where he directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. He published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and was author, co-author or editor of more than 20 books. He advocated scientifically skeptical inquiry and the scientific method, pioneered exobiology and promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI)."
-
from wikipedia
Carl Sagan is one of my role-models, a figure which I will always remember by his playful smile, the way he admired the beauty of nature, and the way he talked about it. When I first watched 'Cosmos', I immediately knew 'what I wanted to be when I grew up'.

Carl, you will never be forgotten.

20121105

Scenes from the Garden: Swallowtail Caterpillar

Papilio machaon, also know as the Old World Swallowtail, with its yellows and blues and reds, is one of the most beautiful butterflies I have seen so far. But this species is special to me for one more reason other than its beauty: its caterpillar is also gorgeous! Not many caterpillars can be called pretty, but this one definitely can. If you don't believe me (to be honest, a lot of caterpillars are just damn ugly), check these images and judge for yourselves (as always, click to embiggen):

20121104

Model Building: Apollo Lunar and Command Modules

One of my favorite hobbies is model building. I prefer aircraft and spacecraft models, though I also have two ships: USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier and USS Bismarck Sea escort carrier. Today I finally built two models I brought with me from my visit to Space Expo: Apollo Lunar Module 'Eagle' and Apollo Command Module, both in 1:100 scale.

The command module was quite easy to build, with not many parts, something around 17.

The 'Eagle' module was not that easy to build. It consists of many really small parts (54 total, I think), like antennae and thrusters and stuff. This one was much more fun to build.

Anyhow, I have two new models! :)

Oh, and yeah, I don't color my models. I just like it more when you can see that these are actual hand-made models. When you color them, they look like factory-made toys, at least to me, and that's no fun.
Well, it is fun, and I like space toys, but these are MODELS. I like models. xD

20121029

ESTEC Open Day 2012

Those of you who follow me on twitter already know, but for those who don't: on 7 October I visited ESTEC, the European Space Research & Technology Centre in Noordwijk, Netherlands. Needless to say, it was incredible. Which is why I will write a little more about the trip in this post.


I started off from Dubrovnik on Friday night, taking the bus to Zagreb (which is a 9 hours long trip), and then the plane to Schiphol, Amsterdam. From there I took the train for Leiden, a beautiful city some half an hour away from Amsterdam, where I stayed with my great host Erik whom I met via CouchSurfing. Leiden is really great, peaceful and calm, and I enjoyed walking its streets every single day. There are some great museums there, of which I visited two: Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Museum Volkenkunde.
Naturalis is beautiful, with a huge number of animal and plant species to see, and a great mineralogy collection (there's a lot of other stuff too, of course). "In terms of collection size, Naturalis Biodiversity Center is one of the top five natural history museums in the world," says their webpage. I spent almost three hours there, and I could have stayed for at least three hours more had I not got tired. This is definitely one of the best museums I've ever visited, and I can recommend it to anyone who visits Leiden, or even Amsterdam. Museum Volkenkunde is as good as Naturalis, but covers a completely different topic - ethnology. With 175 years of age, it is one of the oldest ethnological museums in the world. It has excellent exhibitions on different parts of the world with so many interesting things and great explanations thereof (200,000 objects and 500,000 audiovisual sources), and there is currently an exhibition on Chinese Terracotta Warriors!

However, as fun and impressive as these places have been, they completely fade away when compared to the real reason I undertook such a big trip: ESTEC Open Day. For the first time since 1993, the European Space Research & Technology Centre, ESA's largest establishment and the center of space activities in Europe, opened its doors to general public.

I arrived there with the first group, at 1000 AM on that cold northern Sunday. As I watched the ESA flag wave on the wind, the pale blue morning sky as its background, I felt such awe as I rarely do. There I was, at the gates of the biggest space center in the whole of Europe! Alone among many, I entered the complex to spend almost five hours walking, watching, reading and learning. And sighing with delight, a lot. From the history of European space program, scaled models of satellites, shuttles and rockets, objects flown to space, object fallen from space, to the newest achievements in space technology, a walk through halls and corridors of ESTEC was filled with awe-striking imagery. I stood in front of a 1:4 scaled Mars Express, 1:10 scaled Planck telescope, 1:4 scaled GOCE; I watched holograms of rotating spacecraft, of rotating Earth suspended in nothingness; I touched with my bare hand the Hubble Space Telescope's Secondary Deployment Mechanism which deployed one of the booms that held solar array wings in place; I took a photo of my reflection on a solar panel flown on Hubble Space Telescope, which provided it with energy for more than 8 years.
The leftmost reflection is me!
I've seen ultra-thin materials for solar sails, micrometeoroid impact craters on Hubble's solar arrays, 3D printed building blocks made of lunar regolith simulant; walked through the research area where spacecraft elements are being built and tested; seen real-size mock-ups of Russian Service Module Zvezda, Atmospheric Re-entry Demonstrator, ISS module Columbus...
After all of this I was lucky enough to see the Dutch physician and ESA astronaut André Kuipers (whom you can remember from ISS Expeditions 30 and 31) giving a speech to a huge audience. This was a gorgeous moment for me, as I followed the progress of these missions with great interest. The problem with the speech was that it was given in Dutch, of which I can barely understand every fifth word, but since there was a video presentation in the background, and because of how much I know about André's mission, I was able to follow the speech relatively well. I was surprised it wasn't in English, though, considering how many foreigners there were at ESTEC that day. But, hey, I can't complain - I've seen one of my favorite astronauts!
André Kuipers on stage.
After buying some souvenirs from ESTEC, I finally left the complex, and went to visit Space Expo, Europe’s first permanent space exhibition, where I've seen a real-size mock-up of Moon landing, walked through the Zvezda module, seen myself in infra-red light, touched a 4,5 billion year old meteorite...
Some highlights.
To wrap things up, I'm just going to say that this was absolutely the greatest moment of my entire life (so far). It is too hard to put all of these feelings and impressions in words, and these sentences you read may not sound as impressive as I hoped while writing them. But, trust my word, events like these are an absolute must-see for every space enthusiast and science lover. If you ever get a chance to visit ESTEC, or any other space facility wherever, dear Darwin don't let anyone stop you.

20121021

Meteor watch 20121020 - Orionids

Those of you with an interest in astronomy probably know that last night was a maximum of Orionids meteor shower. Which means, of course, that I spent half the night laying on my back observing them. I actually forgot about them this year, but two nights ago I saw a bolide and 4 really bright meteors, around 0 magnitude, so I got curious and googled meteor activity, and realized I saw some of the Orionids.
Orionrise (click to embiggen)
Orionids are named after the Orion constellation, one of the best known and most recognizable constellations on both sides of the world (due to its location on the celestial equator, a projection of Earth's equator out into space), because their radiant, a point from which the appear to originate, lies in the said constellation. Where they actually come from is a debris trail left after Halley's comet. During the maximum they usually occur at rates of circa 25 per hour, but I observed a bit more than half that number. As can be seen in the table, I saw a total of 32 meteors in 02h40m, 17 of which were Orionids (the rest being sporadic meteors, not connected with any meteor shower). That means I saw approx. 7 Orionids per hour, which was actually quite disappointing, but what can you do.
More about recorded details:
http://www.popastro.com/meteor/observingmeteors/index.php#Details%20to%20Record
And now we're waiting for the next meteor shower to come, which would be the Taurids later this month. Do you plan to observe Taurids, and do you observe meteors at all? :)

20120930

Blasphemy Day!

Today, as some of you probably know, is Blasphemy Day, a day when we are encouraged to criticize and, yes, mock religions. And while some might not see the point in a 'holiday' like this, I consider it a nice initiative, though quite a satirical one. It is very important to show the nonsense of religion as a taboo. We can see numerous caricatures and comic-strips mocking politicians, pop-stars, actors and who not all over the newspapers, Internet and TV, yet when someone makes a caricature of a religious leader, prophet or whatever, all hell breaks loose. How in the name of Darwin did it come to this? We are living in the 21st century, a time of great scientific advance, and yet we are being silenced by a bunch of conservative fossils wearing strange hats.
I mean, seriously?
This is plain wrong. Sure, we all know mocking isn't nice. It's rude, offensive and mostly unnecessary. It is also damn funny, and quite often very necessary. It serves to point at mistakes, illogical decisions or ideas, wrong behavior and dangerous practices. It also shows that we still have at least some sense of humor left. That's good, isn't it? We all like good jokes, and if you don't mind mocking politicians, you have no right to object to mocking religious characters.

Besides, this is not about offending anyone. This is to show that nobody has the privilege to attack the right to speak freely and openly, especially by attacking and killing other people. Yes, Muslims, I'm thinking of you. Boo hoo hoo, somebody made a movie about your prophet. Get over it! You are forbidden to mock him, and that's fine. Rules are fine, sometimes. But religious rules do not apply to those not following a given religion! It is not forbidden to mock your prophet to someone who is not a Muslim. And you have no right to try and make anyone follow your primitive rules. Not by peace, and sure as evolution not by aggression.

And this doesn't only work for Muslims. Christians do the same thing, although not as aggressively as Muslims. Christians are also oftentimes offended by mocking Jesus Christ (Superstar). Yet somehow they too don't mind mocking public figures. Why is it that faithful consider themselves privileged? Why is it that they believe themselves to have a right to be 'protected' from free speech? Listen, guys, you are not special. You are citizens of this planet just like everyone else is, and following your religious leaders and ancient books doesn't grant you any special rights. So buck up, whiners, and get a sense of humor. It will do wonders to your personalities.
And while I don't believe in Thor, I find this extremely hilarious.

20120929

Scenes from the Garden

It's been some time since I really spent time with my Garden. While I was studying away from home (last 4 years), I spent the summers in my home town, but I usually spent them working so I wasn't really able to take care of the Garden. That's about to change, though, since I'm going to spend the next year here, with my family, and the Garden. I like that.

The Garden is quite big, especially when you consider I live in an apartment building. Luckily, we're on the ground floor, so our apartment is surrounded by gardens. I might do a video-tour one day to show you the size of it. :) Until then, here are some pictures:
This is about 1/7 of the whole garden...
Everything looks better with soap bubbles.

We also have a huge selection of cacti, which will take me quite some time to classify. I will write more about them in some of the next posts. Here are some of them:
I like salvaging old stuff. Hence the trike.
We have a lot of animals, too, including two turtles, two cats, a hedgehog, two frogs and, naturally, a bunch of insects.
This is one of the cats, Nero. I mentioned him here.
Nero is not very amused by a turtle.
He does like soap bubbles, though.
Macroglossum stellatarum, a.k.a the Hummingbird Hawk-moth
Well, that's it for now, I guess. I will write more about the Garden from now on, I promise. There is so much work to be done in it, but it will be worth it. :)

So, how about you? Do you have a garden, or want to have one? Do you like gardening? :)
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