Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Microblogging’ Category

Pale Blue Dot

Yesterday, the Cassini spacecraft turned its camera back to earth in an attempt to capture an image of Earth through Saturn’s vast rings.  The shot is a tribute to Voyager 1’s famous photograph of Earth as a “pale blue dot” set against a vast and empty sky.

Of course, the term “pale blue dot” was coined by my favorite science writer, Carl Sagan. During the making of his epic series, Cosmos, he read an abridged version of that passage which has been gorgeously animated by this is ORDER.

     From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.


The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.


The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot


Project Loon

Google's Project Loon. Click for link to their official page.

Google’s Project Loon. Click for link to their official page.

Seriously. Sometimes Google just makes me smile.

Google to use balloons to provide free Internet access to remote or poor areas

And now for something completely different …

Today I began my one month foray into Academic Advising.  Rather than picking up a summer teaching course, I decided to step out of the academic cocoon that is the math department to see what else is going on around the university.  It turns out there’s quite a bit.

Me, pretty much all day on my first day of advising.

Me, pretty much all day on my first day of advising.

UF’s Preview program has been recognized as the nation’s best academic advising program (I don’t know who gives out awards like that, but still I’d imagine it’s a pretty competitive field) and I’m proud to be a part of it this year.  Every incoming freshman is required to come to campus for a few days with their parents for a formal introduction to UF.  Along with a faculty advisor, they declare a major and we sit together to work through their first semester schedules.  We’re there in part to make sure their schedule include critical tracking courses and to smooth out certain academic hurdles, but it’s already clear that the main thing we faculty do is to reassure them that 1) yes, your schedule looks a lot different than what you did in high school, but 2) it’s supposed to!  Students tend to be reluctant to schedule classes that sound like fun. Some that came up on my first day were: “The Meat We Eat,” “Sports Media and Society” and “Marriage and Family.”

My advice to these incoming freshman (and to any undergraduates anywhere):  If you don’t have at least one class each semester that just involuntarily brings a smile to your face when you think about it … you’re not doing it right!

Nolapalooza, 2013

NOLApalooza celebrated on the Chelsea's chalkboard.

NOLApalooza celebrated on the Chelsea’s chalkboard.

Last night at Chelsea’s Cafe in Baton Rouge, the Barefoot Pedals Foundation hosted our second annual celebration of the life and legacy of a dear friend, Jeff Nola.  As before, the feature event was a fantastic show by Questionable at Best,  a band that Jeff formerly played with featuring fellow Barefoot Pedals board member Ben Tuminello.

The increasingly inaccurately named, Questionable at Best

The increasingly inaccurately named, Questionable at Best

I have to say, there are vanishingly few bands that will seamlessly cover The Meters, Peter Gabriel, Bill Withers, Hall and Oates and Justin Timberblake in the span of a few hours. For better or for worse, last night’s show also featured a guest appearance by yours truly.

Even if things get a little too heavy, we'll all float on ...

Even if things get a little too heavy, we’ll all float on …

Beyond his love for music, Jeff Nola was known for his commitment to working with young people, particularly through Mission Trips that took him to New Orleans, Arizona, Kentucky and even Mexico.  We have decided to honor this work by initiating a project of our own:  an annual youth conference based in Baton Rouge focused on social justice and mindful action.

We will share more details over the next few months, but please feel free to read through the following document that outlines our current thinking.  If you have any interest in getting involved, please don’t hesitate to contact me.  We’re very excited to get this collaborative off the ground.

Leadership Through Mindful Action

Click to access the current version of our guiding document.

Here is today

I’m always a sucker for websites that try to express the relative scales of things.

Today’s feature:  “Here is today.

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 10.26.19 PM

238,900 miles … for now


Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino

NPR’s Radiolab came in with a wonderful birthday present this week.  This week’s podcast is a brilliant reading of one of my favorite short stories:  The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino.

If you’ve got a 30+ minute drive coming up, I highly recommend you download it here and take a listen!

Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realized this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwing your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon’s surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.


Of coffee rings and ballistic deposition

A friend mine shared a gorgeous video show how coffee rings form at a microscopic level.

Apparently he found the video through a impressive blog called Empirical Zeal that’s maintained by a Physics grad student. The blog post, entitled “The Universal laws behind growth patterns, or what Tetris can teach us about coffee stains,” does a nice job of introducing the notion of universality classes and has several links to some excellent articles on recent mathematical advances in the field.

The mathematics centers on the KPZ (Kardar-Parisi-Zhang) equation, which is well-described in this expository mathematical article by Ivan Corwin:  “The Kardar-Parisi-Zhang Equation and Universality Class.”

Apparently there's a coffee stain font by Mark Mustaine! (This image is taken from the Empirical Zeal post. Go read it!)

Apparently there’s a coffee stain font by Mark Mustaine! (This image is taken from the Empirical Zeal post. Go read it!)

In celebration of pi

pi_backgroundIf you happen to be in a bar and you need to quickly calculate pi, head over to a dartboard.  Draw a square that perfectly encloses the dartboard. (The length of its sides should be equal to the dartboard’s diameter.)  Start throwing darts randomly at the square.

If you manage to distribute the darts uniformly at random over the square then the fraction of the total darts that land in the dartboard will equal the area of the dartboard divided by the area of the square.  If the radius of the dartboard is r, then this fraction will be

displaystyle frac{text{Area of Circle}}{text{Area of Square}} = frac{pi r^2}{ (2r)^2} = frac{pi}{4}.

Notice that the ratio is independent of the value of r!

Therefore if you take the number of darts that land in the dartboard (and not in the surrounding portions of the square), divide by the number of darts thrown and then multiply by four … you’ve roughly approximated the value of pi!

(But remember … it only works if you’re _bad_ at darts.)


While we’re at it, here’s an oldie but goodie. (Not sure of the original source.)


Note that the radius of the circle is frac{1}{2} so that the circumference comes out to pi.

But, of course, nowadays I feel an obligation to nod toward the well-reasoned exhortations of the 2 pi crowd:  The Tau Manifesto.


Visualizing pi.

—  A lo-fi page on formulas that compute pi using the Fibonacci numbers. (link)

— Some pi jokes, if you need them.



Maybe it’s the recent flyby (and impact) that has space on people’s minds, but here are a couple of worthy links, but the sentiments one of my personal inspirations, Carl Sagan, seem to be popping up all over.

This morning for example, I read over at Brainpickings that there is a kids’ book out that seems to want to communicate a favorite notion:

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.  — Carl Sagan, Cosmos

You Are Stardust: Teaching Kids About the Universe in Stunning Illustrated Dioramas


On that same theme, just last night on a drive up from Tampa, I caught a nice episode of NPR’s TED Radio hour, called “Peering into space“.  These are a bit overproduced, striving but not landing on the mark set by Radiolab, but the people involved really are smart and interesting.


Wealth Inequality in America

I remember first running into this chart on Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog a few years ago, but powerful observations have a way of surfacing over and over again.  A nice video explanation of the gap between people’s perception of wealth inequality vs the reality has been making the rounds recently.  It’s worth a look!