This morning wasn't great for Perseid watching. At 3:30am there were some high scattered clouds along with the light pollution common to this part of New Jersey. In an hour's time I only saw five, but I have a low threshold for entertainment so it was completely worth the effort. There are still a few days to watch and tomorrow morning and the next should be much better assuming the sky is transparent enough.
I've been watching the shower - or at least trying to - since I was 12. Somewhere in high school I discovered meteor trails would make antennas. They are just narrow columns of ionized atmosphere about 50 kilometers long. You could "listen" to them by tuning a radio to a line of sight radio transmitter that was over the horizon. Normally you wouldn't hear anything, but suddenly there would be a few seconds of signal. North Central Montana was mostly devoid of commercial FM stations, so I picked one in Edmonton and waited. Meteors passing overhead would ionize nice trials making effective antennas that would reflect the signal back to Earth and to my radio.1 Listening to radio signal scatter from ionized paths is more challenging in the highly populated East Coast, but there is an easy way out and anyone can enjoy it.
The Air Force send a ridiculously powerful continuous wave signal into space from a few transmitters around the clock as part of their Space Surveillance Radar program. A nifty way to monitor space stuff, but also a wonderfully strong signal to use for finding meteors. Stan Nelson lives in Roswell, NM (no jokes please) and has a receiver tuned to a ~217 MHz transmitter in Lake Kickapoo, TX. He encodes the resulting signal in AAC and streams it to the Internet.
Understanding nature a bit more deeply greatly enhances one's appreciation of it and gives clues that help you find more beauty.
I was thinking about play and education as a friend and I were talking after a conference on the education experiments taking place in colleges and universities these days. We're already in a post MOOC world - not terribly surprising as most of the experiments will produce no more than brief flashes in the pan as the issues are understood more deeply.
In the natural sciences it is critical and perhaps the nature of education is a bit different, so we may be looking at the problem with very biased filters, but both of us are proponents of hand's on education. I learned a good deal of optics as well as learning to deal with failure building my first telescope. Amateur radio taught the practical side of Maxwell's Equations and so on. I was hooked and I still build things to get a better look at nature. And while it is easy to lament the fading of amateur radio and telescope building, there are many new opportunities - some of them wonderful.
Last week I played with a Bigshot camera.2 An easy to build $90 kit, it can teach more than a few bits of science and engineering to kids (or to their STEM rusty parents) and has the added feature of being sort of good enough to do a bit of real photography. I'm a strong proponent of STEAM education (STEM + Art) and photography is a natural path.
There are bits and snatches of lesson plans and starting points for the curious on the Bigshot site, but it can be greatly enhanced. Think of it as a hardware kickstarter for the imagination.
We need more projects like the Bigshot and more mentorship, but there are many branches you can take with photography. Digital camera sensor arrays are sensitive to the infrared and it isn't a big deal to modify a camera to explore the infrared world. I wouldn't do this with a new camera, but most of us have one or two old point and shoots sitting around. Some can be reprogrammed to make time lapse movies or you can buy an inexpensive GoPro - used ones can be had for very little thanks to an aggressive new model schedule. Connect a camera to a cheap microscope or buy a cheap portable digital microscope to take out into the woods.
so many ways to use a bit of tech to play with nature and it only gets better with experience...
(The opening photo is a Perseid photographed from above by Ron Garan orbiting in the ISS.)
1 This is reliable enough that meteor burst communications is a cheap and reliable way to access remote data sources. Snowpack in the Western US is transmitted this way
2 A SciAm piece on the Bigshot project - one of the better education projects funded by the Google of old. Most kids will have better cameras in their phones, but they won't learn very much about how cameras work. This is a potentially rich vein for them to mine.
A chef friend told me you can make a tasascoish sauce quickly in a pressure cooker. Play around with the types of peppers and vinegars. The first try was a success and there is enormous room for experimentation.
Homemade Tabasco Sauce
° 450 g (1 pound) hot peppers - your choice depending on the intensity you want. You can thin with ripe bell
° about 1-2/3 cup cider vinegar .. experiment!
° 2 tsp salt (a smoked salt was recommended, I just used a non-iodized sea salt)
° Chop the peppers and add to your pressure cooker
° add enough vinegar to cover (1-2/3 c for me) and salt
° close it up, crank the heat and when you are at pressure lower the heat to the setting up use to maintain pressure and cook for a minute. When the time is up move the cooker off the burner and wait for it to come to atmospheric pressure naturally. (10 minutes for me)
° Puree the pepper mash with an immersion blender and strain into clean sealable bottles. It will freeze if you want to store it a long time.