Go Hypatia!

New York, March 8 & 9, 2014.  Twas a treat to watch today a marathon showing on NatGeo of my favorite childhood TV series – PBS’ “Cosmos” with the timeless Carl Sagan. As well, beyond excited to see this series getting a 2014 reboot to be telecast tonight at 9:00 pm EST hosted by the great Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Episode 13 from the original series. Timeless words of wisdom indeed. Watch it to see the reference to Hypatia – a woman way ahead of her time. Truly inspiring and one of my personal heroines.

This final episode of the series is one of Sagan’s best – beautiful words on philosophy, life, love, evolution, our place in the Universe, the push for peace, the futility of war – and a special appearance 10 years since this was first broadcast. Please take the time to watch it if you haven’t – it is a gift your brain and heart will thank you for.

When we are kids growing up, we often have a favorite teacher – either a mentor, a speaker or a guru – a person we unabashedly look up to. I did adore a couple of my female teachers, in my all-girls strict French Catholic Convent school – but Sundays were the day I looked forward to the most. For that was the day my favorite teacher of all time, my self-appointed guru, the one whose words and wisdom captivated me from a young age, and who – in my opinion, was not just a great man, but a genuinely good man – would speak to me through the television screen – his soulful Ashkenazi eyes beseeching his viewers to think rationally, learn voraciously, and explore with uncompromising curiosity. If I can look back in time and say who the most influential self-chosen teacher had been for me – it was, and still is – this incredible, humble, extraordinarily intelligent astronomer and Cornell University professor – Dr. “Cosmos” Carl Sagan.


Below, one of Carl’s last interviews before his death in 1996.

How true he was about the impending spread of pseudoscience….as near-extinct diseases  like measles, mumps, whooping cough have resurfaced in the first world in the past few years due to the mass-hysteria caused by attention-whore idiots like Jenny McCarthy (aided by “The Secret” and Tolle-worshiping pseudoscience queen Oprah) and the anti-vaccine brigade, the new stint of hordes of women who are quite lucky and wealthy to suddenly falsely demonize and leave great caring husbands in a quest to “eat, pray, love,” the rise of many more dangerous male writers who promote veiled and jargon-laden hogwash in the name of “intelligent design,” and many more stupid self-centered platitudes and strange movements that have sprouted up.  

As Harvard professor Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness  (who I’ve met a few times and he’s a genuinely good person) had once mentioned – the stance of  denial of both climate change and Evolution is to extreme-right wingers what anti-vaccine and anti-GMO and pro-pseudoscience has become to extreme-left wingers. In both cases, hysteria without evidence; paranoia without facts. This is the 2010s and it is easy to see that Sagan had (as always) been correct even back in the ’90s, and was way ahead of the curve in predicting how, despite scientific evidence and facts, both fundamentalist religiosity and pseudoscience would continue to spread in dangerous doses.


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Billions of stars, billions of sports fans

Carl Sagan, always


“I told you so,” Einstein would’ve said.

NASA probe confirms Einstein’s prediction

If you wish to know more about this, do go here directly on the NASA site : http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/may/HQ_11-134_Gravity_Probe_B.html

Or here on the National Geographic site which explains it with lesser technical jargon but nicer graphics:  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/05/110505-einstein-theories-confirmed-gravity-probe-nasa-space-science/    

For the layman version, CBC reports:

According to Einstein’s theories of relativity, the mass of Earth dimples space-time like a heavy person sitting in the middle of a trampoline.(NASA)

A NASA probe circling the Earth has found evidence that confirms two key predictions based on Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The results from the Gravity Probe B mission show that the Earth’s mass does warp space and time, which are interlinked, NASA announced Wednesday.

They also confirm that the Earth does drag space-time with it as it rotates, as predicted.

“Imagine the Earth as if it were immersed in honey. As the planet rotates, the honey around it would swirl, and it’s the same with space and time,” Francis Everitt, the Stanford University physicist who led the mission, said in a statement.

The results are published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Space-time and relativity

“German-American physicist Albert Einstein’s theories of special relativity and general relativity say that space and time are woven together into four-dimensional “space-time.” The mass of Earth dimples this “fabric” like a heavy person sitting in the middle of a trampoline. Gravity results from the tendency of other masses to follow the curve of space-time and roll into the dimple. The theories predict that as the Earth spins, it should twist the dimple — an effect that should be measurable using precise gyroscopes.

Gravity Probe B was designed to test the predictions by taking measurements from four ultra-precise gyroscopes. Those instruments contain rotors that NASA bills as the “most perfect spheres ever made by humans,” allowing them to spin indefinitely without drifting from the alignment of their rotation.

The gyroscopes were aboard a spacecraft circling the Earth in a polar orbit — that is, it travelled perpendicular to the Earth’s rotation, passing over both poles during each orbit.

The experiment was set up so the gyroscopes’ axes of rotation should always point in the same direction — toward the “guide” star IM Pegasi — provided the Earth’s gravity did not affect space and time.

However, the researchers detected tiny, measurable changes in the direction of the gyroscopes’ spins, confirming that the Earth’s gravity does:

  • Warp space and time around it, which is called the geodetic effect.
  • Pull space and time with it as it rotates, an effect called frame dragging.”


Somewhere in the late 1980s a little girl was obsessively reading through her dad’s old Life Nature Library encyclopedia collection and a particular book she loved the most: “The Universe”. There on page 178 and 179 was the picture of a famous white-haired scientist and a chapter next to it with fascinating self-explanatory diagrams and a write-up: “Is the Cosmos Curved? And if so, how curved?” The essence of Einstein’s theory was that the presence of matter distorts space and makes it curve. The concept  of space curvature stemmed from many-dimensional, non-straight-line geometry created abstractly though equations. Just as a surface can curve in ordinary three-dimensional space, so in non-Euclidian geometry a three-dimensional space can itself curve in four-dimensional space. It is difficult to visualize such a curved space because man is not four-dimensional, but from a purely logical perspective it is a clear possibility. The chapter went on to elaborate much more of course about General Relativity.

Well, it’s wonderful to find out that NASA proves that he was right, after all. What had fascinated this girl years ago in a big book were in fact words of proven wisdom.

So, a perfect occasion to place Tim Minchin’s hilarious animated poem, Storm. (Not for everyone, alas – watch at your own risk but don’t complain about getting ‘offended’. Only for those with a good sense of humour.) I love it though. Absolutely. This video is so true on so many different levels in our PC-world. And though yoga of course has unmistakable absolute proven physical benefits, as well as turmeric and curcumum used in Ayurveda, as has been proven through scientific research and tests for prostate cancer, (and mind you, the video doesn’t talk of those), the apt take on homeopathy and other pseudo-science and psychic mumbo-jumbo that the video takes the masks away from is spot-on. A f****ng brilliant piece of work, as Minchin would say.  Feel free to quell any Storm-types (and idiotic Secret-types or nagging EatPrayLove-types) around to down their vociferous ignorance-laced-with-remarkable-certainty lines with this lovely clarity of reality, logic and facts . Enjoy:

(to turn off the captions, simply click on the ‘cc’ button on the youtube task bar.)


An excerpt from the National Geographic article:

Doing What Einstein Thought 

To conduct these tests, Gravity Probe B used a device called a star tracker to keep one end pointed at a single star, IM Pegasi, while in a polar orbit 400 miles (644 kilometers) above Earth.

If we lived in a universe that behaved as envisioned by Isaac Newton—in which the geodetic effect and frame dragging don’t occur—then the gyroscopes would stay aligned with the star forever.

In Einstein’s universe, however, the direction of the spin axis of Gravity Probe B’s gyroscopes should gradually change due to the mass and rotation of Earth.

“Imagine the Earth is immersed in honey, and you can imagine the honey would be dragged around and [an object in the honey] would also be dragged around,” Everitt said. “That’s what happens in the gyroscope.”

Sifting through the data, the team found evidence of an angular change in the gyroscopes’ orientation of about 6,600 milliarcseconds over the course of a year.

A milliarcsecond, Everitt explained, “is the width of a human hair seen at the distance of 10 miles [16 kilometers]. It really is a rather small angle, and this is the accuracy which Gravity Probe B had to achieve.”

The change is so small, in fact, that Einstein didn’t think measuring it was even possible.

In his 1953 book The Meaning of Relativity, Einstein wrote that frame-dragging effects “are actually present according to our theory, although their magnitude is so small that confirmation of them by laboratory experiments is not to be thought of.”

But now, “thanks to NASA,” Everitt said, “we’ve done more than think about them. We’ve actually measured them.”

Gravity Findings to Unravel Distant Mysteries?

Although the results are only now being released, the Gravity Probe B satellite has completed its work, and it was decommissioned in December 2010.

Funded since 1963, Gravity Probe B is one of the longest running projects in NASA history. Scientists had the idea for the experiment before the required technology—such as the star tracker and gyroscopes—even existed…….

For the rest, click here.


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Random Acts of Planet Earth




(Earth Resources Observation and Science)


Best viewed full screen with the volume up 

Today, March 1st, is widely believed to be the birthday of Frederic Chopin. According to Wikipedia:

“Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, in French Frédéric François Chopin[1] (22 February or 1 March 1810)[2] – 17 October 1849) was a Polish composer, virtuoso pianist, and music teacher, of French–Polish parentage. He was one of the great masters of Romantic music.

Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, a village in the Duchy of Warsaw. A renowned child-prodigy pianist and composer, he grew up in Warsaw and completed his musical education there. Following the Russian suppression of the Polish November 1830 Uprising, he settled in Paris as part of the Polish Great Emigration. He supported himself as a composer and piano teacher, giving few public performances. From 1837 to 1847 he carried on a relationship with the French woman writer George Sand. For most of his life, Chopin suffered from poor health; he died in Paris in 1849 at the age of 39.

All of Chopin’s works involve the piano. They are technically demanding but emphasize nuance and expressive depth. Chopin invented the musical form known as the instrumental ballade and made major innovations to the piano sonatamazurkawaltznocturnepolonaiseétudeimpromptu and prélude.”

The images in this little video I made are all from the NASA & USGS Project ‘Earth as Art.’ Click here to find out the locations of these stunning images and the various countries these landscapes belong to. The link is worth it and my main reason for using these images is so people can check their informative, amazing websites, but if you’re too lazy to click there – here is the image key:

1.Aleutian Clouds: These cloud formations were seen over the western Aleutian Islands. Their color variations are probably due to differences in temperature and in the size of water droplets that make up the clouds.

2. Volcanoes: Steep-sided volcanic cones along the Chilean-Argentinean border add texture to this “study in blues.” Of approximately 1,800 volcanoes scattered across this region, 28 are active.

3. Gineau-Bissau: Guinea-Bissau is a small country in West Africa. Complex patterns can be seen in the shallow waters along its coastline, where silt carried by the Geba and other rivers washes out into the Atlantic Ocean.

4. Campeche: Named after the ancient Mayan Province of Kimpech, the state of Campeche comprises much of the western half of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Rivers in southern Campeche drain into the immense Terminos Lagoon, the entrance to which is protected by a long barrier island, Isla Del Carmen.

5. Jordan: Meandering wadis combine to form dense, branching networks across the stark, arid landscape of southeastern Jordan. The Arabic word “wadi” means a gulley or streambed that typically remains dry except after drenching, seasonal rains.

6. Desolation Canyon: Utah’s Green River flows south across the Tavaputs Plateau (top) before entering Desolation Canyon (center). The Canyon slices through the Roan and Book Cliff–two long, staircase-like escarpments. Nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon, Desolation Canyon is one of the largest unprotected wilderness areas in the American West.

7. Bogda: The Turpan Depression, nestled at the foot of China’s Bogda Mountains, is a strange mix of salt lakes and sand dunes, and is one of the few places in the world that lies below sea level.

8. Akpatok:  Akpatok Island lies in Ungava Bay in northern Quebec, Canada. Accessible only by air, Akpatok Island rises out of the water as sheer cliffs that soar 500 to 800 feet (150 to 243m) above the sea surface. The island is an important sanctuary for cliff-nesting seabirds. Numerous ice floes around the island attract walrus and whales, making Akpatok a traditional hunting ground for native Inuit people.

9. Namib desert: Namib-Naukluft National Park is an ecological preserve in Namibia’s vast Namib Desert. Coastal winds create the tallest sand dunes in the world here, with some dunes reaching 980 feet (300 meters) in height.

10. Andes: Vivid colors belie the arid landscape of northern Chile where the Atacama Desert, one of the world’s driest, meets the foothills of the Andes. Here salt pans and gorges choked with mineral-streaked sediments give way to white-capped volcanoes.

11. Sahara: The mountainous outcrops of Jebel Auenat rise 6000 feet above the barren, uninhabited plains of the Libyan Desert. The frontiers of Libya, Egypt and Sudan meet amidst the rugged granite of Jebel Auenat. The mountains are remnants of an ancient granitic dome. Rivers of sand meander around them, swept across the desert pavement by northeasterly winds.

12. Alluvial fan: A vast alluvial fan blossoms across the desolate landscape between the Kunlun and Altun mountain ranges that form the southern border of the Taklimakan Desert in China’s XinJiang Province.

13. Kamchatka: The eastern side of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula juts into the Pacific Ocean west of Alaska. In this winter image, a volcanic terrain is hidden under snow-covered peaks and valley glaciers feed blue ice into coastal waters.

For my post on satellite imagery and the process through which RGB composites are made from Landsat and Aster images, as well as my long-time love affair with the same, click here.

The composition of Chopin has been played here by the inimitable Arthur Rubinstein.



For the video ‘Random Acts of Sunshine’ click here


“Hello World!”

‘HELLO WORLD” is the greeting automatically generated when you create your own blog-site on WordPress.  My first instinct was to rewrite a new heading as it asks you to. After all, this is my virgin entry (not on the web, but on my very own personal ‘blog’.) Then, on second thoughts, why not leave it as it is and use those words as an inspiration?  How would an alien visiting our planet say ”hello” to the world? Or better still, the Eye (or perhaps several pairs of eyes) that reside and fly high above and gaze upon this blue planet? Do those ‘celestial’ entities look down on us from the blackened vacuum of space and holler ‘Hello World’?

Sorry those who believe in some bearded Michelangelo-esque Almighty Father whizzing around afloat a bunch of fluffy clouds surrounded by winged angels and gazing down upon us with benevolent eyes. Alas, I do not believe in the politics of religion. Nor in the presence of a bearded grandpa watching us from above. Or for that matter, any other variations of godly grandpas with or without beards be they white, yellow, blue or black and strangely are supposed to resemble flying humans in robes from past centuries. Hmmm… Today, the  ‘flying men in capes’ are referred to for what they are: fictional comic-book superheroes. In the ancient world, flying men were given quite a different name and degree of blind reverence. Wars were fought for these unseen fliers….”my hero-god is better than your hero-god.” Translation: My Superman (or Spiderman) is better than your Batman, you idiot! Believe in him or I kill ya!   I wish works of fiction were recognized for what they were: fabulous tales by imaginative, judgmental writers and madmen from an ancient world. What still baffles me is how even today billions believe in the ‘powers’ of ancient comic-book superheroes controlling or helping us from above. And gazing upon us from starry abodes.

All right, back to those REAL sentinels in the sky :

My reference to the “eyes in space”, of course, is to two amazing man-made flying objects – which I shall name later – orbiting around our planet thanks to some of the most brilliant brains of the world. There are several of these objects, unheard, unseen (except sometimes as a tiny moving star across the night sky.) And it is to these that we owe much of what we take so much for granted today in our everyday lives. Television, cell phones, GPS trackers, weather charts, road maps and of course, the internet…..and the list goes on.

I wonder what most people think of when the names of the above inventions pop up? I do not know. To each their own. After all, to say how profoundly these services distract and complicate but far more extensively enhance, secure and inform our lives would be an understatement. We have methods of information, knowledge and communication available today which even a generation  back might have felt like science fiction. So the thought which pops in my mind often is that these  ‘luxuries’ are possible only because of those silent, orbiting bodies in space watching over us, those elaborate contraptions that some of the best and brightest geeks of the world have conceptualized, designed and built  : Satellites.

There are many of  Sputnik’s descendants gallivanting around. But the ‘two’ in particular that I refer to above are amongst my favorites : The Landsat 7  and the Aster Terra Satellite. I call these two the ‘aerial artists.’ Why?  Take a look at the images they made possible. Earth as Art indeed.


(Images courtesy of USGS National Center for EROS and NASA Landsat Project Science Office. Click for larger views – absolutely worth it!)

RED : Utah’s Green River flows south across the Tavaputs Plateau before entering Desolation Canyon. The Canyon slices through the Roan & Book Cliffs which resemble long staircase like escarpments. Nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon, Desolation Canyon is one of the largest unprotected wilderness areas of the American West. (Landsat 7 data, USGS & NASA)

BLUE : The astounding textures in this ‘study in blues’ is but the the steep-sided volcanic cones along the Chilean-Argentinian border. Of the nearly 18000 volcanoes scattered across this region, 28 are active. (Aster data, USGS & NASA)

YELLOW : Namib-Naukluft National Park is an ecological preserve in Namibia’s vast Namib Desert. Coastal winds create the tallest sand dunes in the world here, with some dunes reaching 980 feet (300 meters) in height.(Landsat data, USGS & NASA)

These  images were taken by the Landsat 7 satellite and the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) aboard the Terra Satellite. They were created by the USGS National Center for EROS to introduce the general public to the Landsat Program, which is administered jointly by USGS and NASA.  To create these vivid RGB composites various combinations of the eight Landsat 7 spectral bands were selected. The result, as evident, creates a  remarkable intensity of color,  texture and detail.

Ever since I was a little girl Astronomy has always fascinated me. That and airplanes, rockets, forests, mountains, art, puzzles. And Lego. Thoughts of flying across space in lightning speed, peering onto our fascinating planet from above, zipping from over clouds to under the oceans – if only I could fly! And I have flown (my first Cessna in 2006) and squealed in the exhilaration of flight, but let’s admit it – which gipsy-geek has not been sucked into the sheer delight of navigating the world from the confines of a screen through Google Earth?

But before there was Google Earth, there were satellites and a particularly engrossing course we took in my graduate program: Geographic Information Systems. It was here that my love for Landsat & Terra images were consolidated. Besides the intense technical structure of the course, I would get lost in the breathtaking beauty of the images these satellites captured. Although most of our work involved more prosaic sites, it was still exciting to think that the ‘cameramen’ were the same.

On a summer afternoon I had once laboriously printed a series of these images on transparent plastic sheets which I then proceeded to stick on the glass of  my bedroom windows. It only seemed fair that the sun’s rays should cast unconventional colored patterns on the walls and floor of my little bedroom as  they filtered  through this custom-made glass-art. My ‘space-age’ version of Tiffany’s stained glass windows. I collected an entire series of  ‘satellite art’ the way some people collect baseball cards. The science behind it would leave me pondering for hours. It had taken countless hours and years of calculations, mathematics, physics and mechanical-electrical-aerospace-engineering to present the earth for what it was: A work of unfathomable art – stained by chaos, blood, fire, water, stone, silence, peace, paradoxes and immeasurable beauty. Except the last could now be ‘measured.’ And captured through lenses from miles above.

I still recall, my GIS instructor – a strict, brilliant-yet-poetic Russian-Canadian lady – who during her first class, after jotting down several numbers and calculations on the screen, announced that the way to comprehend the science of satellite imagery was to first understand the message in Antoine de St. Exupery’s book Le Petit Prince.  In fact she passed on to the students copies of the book and asked us to find out which  common  thread of thought connected GIS to the views of a fictional cartoon. That  the science of Landsat and Terra satellite imagery and its techniques and  applications would be best understood by those who could decipher the line: ”Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” *

The essential is invisible to the eyes. And it is but satellite technology and RGB composites that reveal the truth  and magnificent beauty of our mysterious hidden landscapes. Years later, whenever I take a breather from prosaic routine to marvel at these images and many more taken by our L & T “dynamic duo” in space, I know what she meant.

Pictures – captivating, stunning, breathless. It is easy to see why, when confronted by such intense beauty, a sense of wonder can arise in the viewer. That there is some “higher power” behind this creation. There certainly is – the power of intricate geographic, ecological, geological and evolutionary systems. And the incredible power of the human mind and in particular certain remarkable brains which created these “contraptions” that could capture through images those parts of the world that were almost impossible to access by mortal eyes. And,  with the ability of remote-sensing devices, to actually “see” energy in wavelengths not visible to the human eye. “Hello World” indeed! If your friendly neighborhood  Terra & Landsat 7 could holler a greeting from outer space, that’s what it probably would be….

Ocean Sand

A satellite image of the sands and seaweed in..? (Guess where! ) The image was taken by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper plus (ETM+) instrument aboard the Landsat 7 satellite. Tides and ocean currents in these tropical islands sculpted the sand and seaweed beds into these multicolored, fluted patterns in much the same way that winds sculpted the vast sand dunes in the Sahara Desert.

* * *

Sidetracked Alert! An interesting read if this has piqued your interest in color theory – both modern and ancient, Goethe’s ‘Zur Farbenlehre‘ :  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_Colours and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color

* ”Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see well. The essential is invisible to the eyes.”

* * *

Want more images? A short video I made with GIS images set to a Chopin nocturne. Here : https://gipsygeek.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/random-acts-of-planet-earth/


One of my favorite scientists, Carl Sagan’s take on the ‘science of Sports’:  https://gipsygeek.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/billions-of-stars-billions-of-sports-fans/