Top 5 comet breakups in History

When comets breakup it can be an emotional time for Astronomers, amateur and professional alike.  Though not like a breakup with a significant other, we get our hopes up that the next comet will be a comet of the century.  We do this because comets are very unpredictable, and any given close approach to Earth could be spectacular….or terrible.

Comet ISON is about to pass behind the sun on November 28th, and could potentially break into pieces from the sun’s incredible tidal forces.  In honour of a new potential breakup, here are the top 5 comet breakups in history:

#5 Comet Holmes

17P/Holmes was a periodic comet originally discovered by astronomer Edwin Holmes in 1892.  Normally a quiet and regular comet, it became famous in October 2007 when it exploded, increasing its brightness by a factor of a half million (from Mag 17 to Mag 2.8), the largest comet outburst ever recorded.  In addition, it temporarily became the largest object in the solar system, surpassing the SUN! Though it still had a tiny mass and eventually dissipated.

#4 Comet LINEAR

C/ 2012 X1 LINEAR is the newest addition to make the list.  Trailing ISON by only 3 months, set to make an appearance in February 2014, the comet underwent a 100-fold increase in brightness and exploded in a similar fashion to Comet Holmes in 2007, though not as spectacular.  This has caused a lot of speculation about what will happen to ISON, which underwent a similar outburst to LINEAR.  An outburst does not always mean disintegration though, since comets often have icy deposits burst forth when assaulted by solar radiation.  Was LINEAR a bad omen for an ISON breakup?

#3 Schwassman-Wachmann 3

73P/Schwassman-Wachmann, the third comet discovered by two German astronomers with names far too difficult to pronounce together every time I talk about this comet in conversation, started breaking up in 1995.  By May 2006 there were 8 known fragments, and the comet is now presumed to have broken into at least 66 distinct objects.   As the comet moved into the inner solar system from the frozen vastness of space, the heat from the sun caused its slow disintegration.  There’s a great little gif of this happening that shows pieces being blown away by the solar wind.  SW3 will eventually disappear forever, but for now its broken and flying out in space.

Comet Schwassman-Wachmann 3 breaking up

#2 Shoemaker-Levy 9

Formally D/1993 F2, it famously broke apart and collided with Jupiter in July 1994.  Jupiter’s extreme gravity created strong tidal forces that pulled the comet into many small pieces, the largest of which was about 2km.  It actually turned out to be an Astronomer’s dream, as it allowed us to observe deeper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere and solidify the gas giant’s role as a shepherd of space debris, protecting the inner atmosphere from many harmful rocks.  The scars in Jupiter’s cloud layers stuck around for several months and gave us a constant reminder of the breakup we were actually happy about.

#1: Comet Kohoutek

1973’s Comet discovered by Lubos Kohoutek (C/1973 E1) was predicted by Astronomers to become the comet of the century, and the media hype was enormous.  Sadly, Kohoutek partially disintegrated and fizzled out, causing the media to ignore the comet hype in the future.  This media avoidance actually let to a great comet C/1975 V1 West being widely unreported only two years later.

Lubos Kohoutek looking heartbroken

Poor Lubos.  Hopefully ISON will hold together and be the comet of the century.  I don’t know if Astronomers can take another breakup of this magnitude…no pun intended.



Rubik’s Cube Challenge: Did I do it?

The finale of the Rubik’s cube challenge was on Sunday, and yielded some interesting results.

To confirm, I did not look at an actual cube or picture of one between the start of the challenge last Wednesday, and the finale on Sunday.  All I did was read the book on the cube solution.  Before I reveal the results let me give you a rundown of what I had to do.

To make it work required memorizing a lot of steps, and learning the notation used by the book.

A simple cube

In the above picture, the top side (T) is yellow, the Front side (F) is Blue, and the Right (R) side is Red.  Opposite the Top is the Bottom (B), opposite the Front is the Posterior (P), and opposite the Right is the Left (L).  A (+) denotes a clockwise rotation, a (-) denotes a counterclockwise rotation, and a ‘2’ denotes a half turn.

So a combination T- R+ T2 moves the top side 1/4 turn counterclockwise, then the right side 1/4 turn clockwise, then the top side 1/2 turn in either direction, since a half turn either way results in the same position.

The solution followed the basic steps:

1. Pick a favourite colour and solve the top edges

2. Solve the top corners

3. Solve the middle edges

4. Solve the Bottom Corners

5. Solve the bottom edges

Each step was then broken down into having the cubes properly positioned first, then properly oriented.  The book detailed ways of doing this with groups of specific moves.  For example, once a top corner cube was properly positioned, it could be oriented without changing other top face cubes with the combination R- B2 R+ F+ B2 F-.

As we get further into the process, the combinations become more complicated, since at this point most of the cubes are in their correct position and orientation, and it takes a lot of work to preserve this.  The final move involved memorizing the combination:

L- R+ F+ L+ R – B- L- R+ F- L+ R- B- L- R+ F2 L+ R-

I did this through forming patterns and remembering them.  For the above move I noticed the first and last 5 moves repeat, except that instead of F+ in the first instance it was F2 in the second.  Many of the combinations throughout the solution repeated and I was able to remember them by breaking them down into smaller bits.

So, did it work?

It took about 30 minutes, and I made several mistakes near the end that required retracing my steps and fixing cubes that were previously positioned correctly, but I did it.

2013-09-29 15.45.05

Completed cube

Completed cube

Here are some of the progress shots:

Top edges done, step 1 completed.

Top edges done, step 1 completed.


Top third of cube done, positioned and oriented correctly

Top third of cube done, positioned and oriented correctly

Top 2 thirds done

Top 2 thirds done


Bottom corners done, only two edges left to fix

Bottom corners done, only two edges left to fix

What to take away from this:

The goal of this little challenge was to see if a skill could be learned and relatively mastered with only theoretical knowledge, and no practice.  It was also to determine if I could push myself to memorize long combinations and an in-depth solution with little time.

In terms of memorization, I have crammed for many an exam in my life, and have become pretty good at memorizing a lot of information in a short time.  In order to make it stick over the long run, revisiting the information every few days is a necessary step.

The fact that I still needed a few tries to get it right means that experience is part of the skill learning process.  The conclusion is one I was already aware of:

To master any given skill in the shortest possible time frame, a combination of theoretical study and real world experience is required.

There is a third step to this as well: Expert advice.  Knowing the tricks and tips from someone who has mastered the skill can undoubtedly make the process go a lot faster, and personalized feedback in real time is invaluable in quickly picking up a skill.  This is why experts who have put in a lot of time in any given field are so highly regarded and in-demand.

Maybe I need to speak to an expert blogger, to speed up the process of getting good at this stuff.

Rubik’s Cube – My First Time Challenge

I have never, not once, in my life, solved or seriously attempted to solve a Rubik’s cube.

I had all kinds of puzzles and games growing up, so I wasn’t deprived at all, it just never happened.  I feel I was just past the generation that was introduced to the cube, and maybe a quick look as a kid convinced me it wasn’t worth the time.  I also think that never seeing one in a store as a child was a factor, or maybe I was just into video games.

While training for my new part time job this week I noticed a book on the table in the break room:

2013-09-25 17.32.54

The theory book

I started reading it, and a couple of coworkers made some comments, leading to a conversation about a piece of my youth apparently missing.  I’m not entirely sure how but we got on the idea of me using the book to solve a cube, and my coworker Helena said she would bring a rubik’s cube to work this Sunday so I could give it a try.

The only catch is that I couldn’t practice beforehand.  So the challenge was issued.  I would study and read the book without actually seeing or practicing on a cube, real or simulated, for three days.  Then I would, for the first time ever, make a serious attempt to solve a cube as quickly as possible.

The whole point of this is the old idea of knowledge vs. experience.  Is the fastest way to gain a skill to read about it? Or to experience it over and over?

I think the true answer is both, but here I am testing my visualization skills to master a cube with zero experience.

I’ll see if I can videotape my attempt on Sunday.

I’d post a picture of a rubik’s cube but I’m not allowed to look at one….only the book cover.

The Great To-Do List Experiment: Astrid Review

If you didn’t know, I’ve been trying out and reviewing some productivity tools. See the original post here.

The first tool I tried out is Astrid. Astrid is a web-based list tool that let’s you manage tasks and fit them into many different categories.  Using HTML5 it updates in real time, and syncs with some mobile devices, though not all of them.

Visual Appeal 7/10: Though I didn’t customize it, Astrid has some great built in themes, and some of them are downright cheery.  The tasks are colour coded by priority, and the lists are easy to see.  The system is lacking in terms of ordering tasks.  I would prefer to have lists numbered so I know which tasks have to be completed in order to start the next.

Ease of Use 8/10: Astrid is very easy to get started with, but took a lot of time to set options for each task.  Once the basic work was done, however, it became much easier to add and check off tasks.

Features 6/10: One of the first features I noticed while customizing Astrid is that you can import task lists.  I’m big on compatibility so this is key if you’re moving a list from one program to another.  If anything the program lacks in features when it comes to categorizing tasks.  I could use another dimension because I like to organize lists in larger sets such as work, home etc.

Boost to Productivity 8/10: Astrid was good for keeping me going on a roll once I got started.  It was great to see completed tasks below incomplete ones, so I could look at my progress for the day.

 Overall Experience 7/10: Aside from a bit of effort to get it up and running and a few missing features, Astrid was good at keeping me on top of my workload, especially on my devices as I moved around the city.

**Unfortunately Astrid has been discontinued as it was bought by Yahoo – or maybe it will come back as a different and better service.  At any rate, next up is Todoist


A new Podcast and an Astronomy in Action Update

Long time no see internet.  I’ve survived a busy end of year performing my Astronomy shows for kids of all ages, and now the summer is here.

I started by finishing up Part 2 of my supernova podcast.  The second part is more of the up to date stuff, and you can find it here.  I’m taking suggestions for my next podcast topic, so feel free to give suggestions.

This summer is a bit of a revamp and leap for my companies.  I’m developing a new series of science shows called EPIC Science, consisting of high energy demos that are both interactive and educational.  The planetarium is in for repairs until a few summer camp bookings come around in a few weeks, and the website is due for some long needed maintenance and redesign (thanks to a few key friends for a site review and feedback).

Coming soon is my review of Astrid as a productivity tool. It can’t be that great if its taken me 3 extra  weeks to review it :)

Happy Canadian Summer!

The Great To-Do List Experiment

I am a ‘list’ kinda guy.  I keep many chrome tabs open of articles and items I want to read, I have lists on sticky notes all around my room, and I have every little daily task I want to accomplish written down somewhere.  However that ‘somewhere’ is often ‘somewhere I can’t find it when I need it.’

So in order to keep my lists organized and by extension my life, I am going to propose a great list experiment, where I’ll be trying out some web and app based productivity tools for a week or so.  After I’m done testing I’ll review each one, and at the very end I’ll pick a winner to be my full time fave.

The contestants are:

1. Astrid – A favourite among techies, I’ve heard a lot of good things about astrid, though it was recently bought by Yahoo.  This could make it better or worse, depending on what Yahoo intends to do with it.

2. Workflowy – It looks really easy and manageable.  I liked the promo video and the minimalist look.   Functionally it looks easy and powerful.

3. Remember the milk – It seems similar to other to do list apps I’ve used in the past, and seems more suited for the little day to day tasks than large project management, but I want to see if it can be that all encompassing app I’ve been looking for.

4. Wunderlist – Also a great promo video, I like the platform support of it.  I want an app I can access from anywhere, and one I can open up whether I’m just starting my day or am on the go with only a mobile device to use.  Wunderlist has great reviews too.

5. Todoist – Also very excited for todoist because of the syncing and especially the visual appeal, making it look like gmail, which I love.  Here’s a nice little preview of its HTML 5 capabilities.

Ultimately I want something cross-platform, cloud syncing, minimalist, and easy to use.  It also has to be something I can manage my life with, covering everything from getting a haircut to work projects and more.

Feel free to recommend any good ones I might have missed!


Finding enjoyment in everyday life

I’m lazy…..

Well sometimes. I like to spend time relaxing, watching a tv show or playing a video game, or even playing guitar, which I guess seems like a productive thing to do.  Generally, I procrastinate like a hero, achieving absolutely nothing.  With my recent lack of work due to the entrepreneurial lifestyle, I found myself with a lot of free time.


i spent the last three months having fun, catching up on tv and video games, improving my guitar playing, and spending time with good friends.  This is all fine and good, but while my friends were working on their careers and moving toward personal achievements, I was moving sideways, and felt as if I was in limbo.

Even though I wasn’t doing much, I felt tired, yet unable to get a good nights sleep.  It seemed hard to get to do anything.  Worst of all I had no idea what I could do to escape it, and felt like I was falling behind on achieving my dreams, with no way to shake myself into action without falling back into laziness.

Until, one day, some small work came my way.  It had me spend a few days being really busy, and I noticed something strange. Even though it was hard work, involved little down time, and had me on the go from early in the morning until late at night,  I felt unbelievably happy.  I slept like a rock and felt refreshed the next day.  I found myself wanting to do more and be productive, and I’ve built on this burst of productivity every day.

Since then I’ve been back up to snuff, and I feel good again.  I’m doing things like cleaning the apartment, blogging, and being more active with my business marketing; I feel more energized than when I was ‘relaxing.’ It taught me some very important lessons that I think I always knew but had forgotten:

1. Action is always better than inaction

To go out and do something, anything, always leads to good things and even the smallest bit of progress gives a big payoff in productivity.  If you are in a rut, do something small and simple, and build on that accomplishment.  It also helps to get out of the house, fresh air is grossly underrated.

2. Learn to enjoy the process in every day tasks

Whether its cleaning, working, or doing something you dread; If you can find enjoyment in completing goals and tasks, your fun begins to derive from overcoming challenges, and you don’t worry so much about relaxing or downtime.  The uptime gives the payoff, the accomplishment gives the satisfaction, and the achievement of goals gives the break, which brings us to:

3. The only good break comes right after a major accomplishment

The times in my life when I have felt absolutely on top of the world have been when I have just overcome a huge challenge.  Like finishing a week long project or a big presentation.  I feel exhausted, but so content with my life.  I have earned my rest, and I am content to relax because I don’t have the lingering feelings of lacking accomplishment.  This is now my motto:

“Every Day I will Earn my Sleep”

FREEEEEEEDOM (ala Braveheart)

I want to earn my 8 hours of sleep each night, and feel like the day’s accomplishments have taken me closer to achieving my dreams.  so I continue on this upswing.

Don’t get me wrong though, we all have those times in our life where we just want to hide, to run away from the world and disappear for a bit.  Its in those dark times that if we look within, we can learn the most about our behaviours, and what we actually need to be happy. But even though we run and hide, the world keeps turning with or without us.  Given the opportunity I’ll always choose to be creating the future instead of standing on the sidelines.

I hope you will too.

An Explosive new Podcast

A Commander Chris Hadfield returns home tonight, the York Universe crew will be focusing on his voyage with a special show, featuring talk of the incredible and inspiring exploits of the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station.  Featured in this episode will be an interview with one of the newest Canadian Astronauts, Jeremy Hansen.  I was lucky enough to be a part of this interview, and am excited that it will finally reach air time tonight!

Also debuting tonight after the York Universe episode, will be my second ‘What’s The Latest?’ podcast, entitled ‘Supernova part 1.’  Find it in the Podcast section of my site.  This episode features talk of the history of supernovae as observed from Earth, and how humanity has reached our current understanding of the mechanism that drives supernovae.  Part 1 takes us from ancient astronomers viewing supernovae all the way up to the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Part two will go beyond to talk about classification of supernovae and lead us to the latest research in the field.  Finally we will talk about future or planned research and what it means for all of us on this tiny blue dot.

Enjoy tonight’s episode!


Fairwell fair Herschel

The Hershel Observatory, an ESA telescope for which NASA helped build instruments and process data, has stopped making observations as it has finally run out of its liquid Helium coolant, as expected.  This is a good time to remember the multitude of data that a space based telescope can churn out, and the incredible scientific advancement that comes from such missions.

The Herschel Observatory

On the heels of the NASA proposed budget, it reminds us how important scientific funding and advancement are, especially for countries that have a good standard of living.  The high end technology that comes from developing missions like this often finds application in new Earth bound technologies that can drastically improve multiple fields, as well as standard of living across the globe.

The telescope, which launched four years ago, has found the universe’s ‘chilliest’ secrets by observing the frigid end of planet, star, and galaxy formation.  Hershel was able to peer into dark and cold regions of the universe that are invisible to other telescopes, showing how NASA and ESA can work cooperatively tackle unsolved mysteries in Astronomy.

Confirmation that the liquid helium ran out came on April 29th, at the beginning of the daily communication session with the spacecraft, which showed a clear rise in temperatures of all of the craft’s instruments.

In the last few weeks of observation, with the coolant running low and a shutdown of science operations impending, some of the most astounding results were released from the telescope.  Some of these (results released in April) include:

1. Sourcing Jupiter’s water content from a comet.
2. Finding a rare debris disc around an aged star.
3. Arguably its most impressive feat, finding evidence of the earliest stages of star formation in the Orion nebula.

Hershel’s instruments were designed to pick up glow from celestial objects with infrared wavelengths as long as 625 um (micrometers), 1000 times as long as we can see with our eyes.  Because heat can interfere with these devices, they were cooled to approximately 2 kelvin using liquid helium, and shielded from the sun by a large solar panel doubling as a sun shield.  The detectors were also kept cold by the craft’s orbit at the L2 Lagrange point about 1.5 million km from Earth, giving Herschel a better view of the universe by always pointing away from the sun and orbiting with the Earth.

The L2 Lagrange point, stable orbit beyond Earth

Mission highlights include: discovery of long filamentary structures in space dotted with dense star forming knots of material; detecting oxygen molecules in space among other never-before-seen molecules; discovering high speed outflows around central black holes in active galaxies; Following the water molecules from distant galaxies to the clouds of gas between stars, and eventually to planet forming systems; finding evidence that comets could have brought a substantial amount of water to Earth; And discovering a large asteroid belt around the star Vega.

Electromagnetic Spectrum, credit: ESA Herschel

It goes to show just how useful it is for an astronomer to look at the universe in all wavelengths of light, and how much we can learn from all wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum, not just the visible.


Post to promote blog + New Career Developments

Technocrati claim token VVY3PGW9WXGJ

Okay to Actually make this a post sort-of worth viewing, I’ll quickly talk about a couple of new ideas and developments on my end.

1. In preparation for this blog and my usual astronomy related activities, I’ve been reading and paraphrasing one astronomy article every day, faithfully, since February. In the spirit of sharing and still getting practice, I’m going to blog about many of these articles with the goal of ‘making them accessible to the public.’ So I’ll take each article and talk about the concepts, to give me some practice in my ability to communicate science to an appropriate level.

2. My second ‘What’s the latest?’ podcast will air on Monday, April 29th, 2013 at 10pm EDT entitled ‘Supernovas.’ I’ll also be posting it in the ‘podcasts’ section of this blog on Monday morning for those who would like a preview.

3. I’m developing a new travelling science show as a compliment to my ‘Astronomy in Action‘ shows.  Right now the working title is ‘The Fire and Ice show,’ and as you can guess it’ll be pretty cool.

There I think that’s a slightly more worthwhile post – enjoy!