Thursday, June 18, 2015

Galbraith Lake - Brooks Range

Road to Sukakpak

Two weeks ago I took a weekend trip up to Galbraith Lake, on the northern edge of the Brooks Range. This is a really beautiful spot with lots of mountains and endless open tundra. No trails, just pick a direction and walk. I drove up at a time when the last few miles of the Dalton Highway into Deadhorse were closed due to washouts, which meant no truck traffic. Trucks to the oil fields are like 95% of the traffic up here, so it was just hundreds of miles of empty road through empty arctic wilderness. Perfect. My friends and I left Fairbanks on Friday night and drove up to the Arctic Circle wayside to stay at the campsite, then went the rest of the way to Galbraith Lake on Saturday morning. Spent Saturday evening hiking in the hills to the west, then camped by the cars at the Galbraith Lake campsite before driving back to Fairbanks Sunday.

We did spot a moose with two calves in the middle of the road, about 4 miles north of the Yukon River. The calves were too slow or dumb to get out of the way and the cow was on the verge of charging my car to keep us away.

On the way north the next day we stopped at one of my favorite viewpoints, Sukakpak Mountain. It's a spectacular mountain, and I have this... spot where I've been trying to take shots of the mountain from the same spot with the same lens but in different conditions. So we stopped and I took some 'sunny, summery' photos:

Mt Sukakpak

Some past shots with the same perspective and lens:

Sukakpak Mountain

Sukakpak Mountain

It was beautiful weather the whole way until we got over Atigun Pass into the Arctic Ocean drainage, where it was heavy overcast and windy. Most of the group went up the nearest highpoint but myself and one other stayed down in the pass and walked deeper into the mountains. Along the way I found quite a few old caribou bones:

Caribou skull and tundra flowers

The overcast skies brought rapidly changing weather. People in the group who woke up at various times in the morning to step outside the tent and pee, and their reports indicate that in two hours time it went from calm and warm to horizontally blowing sleet you could hardly see through, and back to calm but cold. As soon as we were south of Atigun Pass it was a beautiful day again. We stopped again at Sukakpak, this time on the north side of the mountain. The mountain is less impressive from here but there is a nice lake and another mountain that isn't named on the USGS maps. We saw a moose and calf here but I didn't try to shoot it, instead playing with my wide angle tilt/shift to shoot the unnamed (?) mountain and lake:

Lake and mountain

Also, I got my 4x5 view camera out and shot a few pieces of film. Here's the group (minus me) at the sign for the Arctic Circle wayside, posing as if they're an old wilderness road construction crew:


And here's a couple with the lake and the backside of Sukakpak Mountain:



The end of a great trip, and with the lack of truck traffic it was probably the best Dalton Highway driving experience one could hope for.

Monday, February 2, 2015


If you want to take photos in anything other than auto/preset modes, you have to understand how to set an exposure. Otherwise you're stuck asking people about 'settings' all the time - which seems to be the approach a lot of people actually take. Stop doing that because you're making this way harder than you need to. If you just ask for settings and I say 'ISO 200, f/8, 1/1000' that doesn't mean anything to you other than 'derp I'll just twist knobs until I get those numbers to show up on my camera'. You need to understand what those things do, then it's really easy to figure out the 'right settings' for any random photo you want to take.

Your camera has three knobs, and turning any of those knobs up will make the photo brighter while turning them down will make the photo dimmer. The difference is knob one decreases the in-focus area while it makes the image brighter, knob two makes moving things blur or streak while it makes the image brighter, and knob three makes more noise and less dynamic range while making the image brighter.

Knob one is your aperture, knob two is your shutter speed, and knob three is the ISO. Depending on your camera they might literally be knobs or they might be menu selections, but they always do the same thing.

So here you are, you want to take a photo but you don't know what the settings should be. Assuming this isn't a film camera, just take a photo with any random settings and see what you get. Too dark? Turn one of the knobs up. Still dark? Turn it (or a different knob) up more. Keep doing this until you produce a well exposed image. Image too light? Turn a knob down instead.

A shortcut is to take the first photo in some kind of auto or semi-auto mode then copy the settings into manual mode, this will put you 'in the ballpark'. I like aperture mode for this.

Now that you have a well exposed image, what are the settings? The real question is why should you care? They're just numbers on the screen.

But how do you know which of the three knobs to turn? That just depends on whether you'd rather change the in-focus area, change the amount of blurring on moving objects, or change the amount of noise. As an example, for a typical daytime landscape I probably want a lot of depth-of-field so I want to leave the aperture around f/8 or f/11. I want low noise (and lots of dynamic range) so I want the ISO around ISO 100. But mountains don't move around much so I can flip the shutter speed all over the place without really worrying about getting blur from moving objects.

That's the whole process - you know what side effect each of the three knobs will have on your photo, decide which side effect is the least important, and just flip that knob until the image looks good.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Svalbard / C-REX part 1

Sunset over the Arctic Ocean

Well hello folks. I'm writing from Longyearbyen, Svalbard:

I am in a neat place

The sign out the front door of the airport is interesting - 'You're a long way from everywhere, and try not to get eaten by a polar bear':


Longyearbyen is one of the northernmost settlements in the world, at about 78 degrees north on a remote, rocky island in the Arctic Ocean north of Norway and east of Greenland. Go ahead, look it up; it's pretty far up there. Here's a GPS track of my travel to get here:


The Sun hasn't risen since I got here, and won't for another couple of months, but the place is quite pretty regardless:

Downtown Longyearbyen


I'm here for a rocket campaign we're calling C-REX, which stands for Cusp Region EXperiment. That site has more info, but the short version is we're studying a density anomaly that occurs in the Earth's magnetic cusp (a region of the magnetosphere, near the north and south poles, open to the solar wind). We will launch a 21 meter rocket to around 600km altitude (higher than the space station!) and it will release 24 sub-payloads on the way back down. These sub-payloads are artificial chemical-clouds that will glow in the twilit sky, some of them drifting with the high altitude wind and some convecting with the magnetic field. This summer I went to North Carolina or a test launch of this system and, though that first test was unsuccessful, we did have a mostly successful launch on the second attempt. I now realize I never wrote that up here, so here is a picture and a video of the test release:

Rocket release

There are more polar bears (isbjørn - 'ice-bear') than people on Svalbard, and to quote a recent Facebook status of mine: "The polar bear is not only the largest land predator on Earth (and unequaled in sheer physical power), it's also the only one that will attack humans as a regular matter of finding food, rather than only attacking humans when it's sick or weak or starving or defensive. They can go 8 months without eating, and can smell a seal buried under 3 feet of snow from a mile away. It spends its whole life alone, only tolerating other bears for mating and brief interactions, and is constantly on the move, walking a few thousand miles per year. It is also an excellent swimmer, with one radio collared bear having swam continuously for 9 days through the Bering Sea to reach ice 400 miles from land, where she then immediately walked another 1,100 miles." They're amazing animals but require caution and respect, so UNIS (University Center in Svalbard) provides a training class that includes polar bear behavior and practice with flare guns and rifles. Here's me firing a flashbang out of the flare gun. Yes, we're trained to look away from the signal gun when we fire it, due to 1. It's not that accurate of a weapon to begin with, and 2. The possibility of blowback into your eyes:

Me firing a flare gun


I also took a couple of visits up to the KHO Observatory to help install cameras there. To get to KHO we drive up to Mine 7, a few miles from town, then since the road isn't maintained in winter we switch to this awesome tracked snow wagon to climb the last mile or so to the observatory:


We pass the Svalbard EISCAT site during the snow wagon ride:


And the other morning we took our first shakedown flight in the NASA aircraft, everything seems to be ready to go. I took this shot of some aurora to the south towards the almost-but-not-quite-sunrise:

This morning over the Arctic Ocean

So here I am. Our first opportunity for launch comes Monday morning, my role is to fly in a NASA aircraft and photo/film the releases from the air just south of Svalbard; we also have observers running cameras at Kjell Henriksen Observatory on top of a mountain just outside Longyearbyen (central-west Svalbard) and at the Japanese Rabben Observatory in Ny-Ålesund (northwest Svalbard). I gave the local photo club a brief presentation on what to expect so hopefully some of them will be able to get some great photos of what should be a beautiful event; 24 of those glowing clouds over the epic Svalbard landscape. I know I'll have several cameras set up to hopefully get something, though that requires planning since I myself will be on the airplane at the time of launch. Here's hoping for the best.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Pluto is or isn't a planet

This happened recently. Short version, some people are still upset about the 2009 redefinition of Pluto to 'not a planet'. Quoting from the article: "The decision did not sit well with the public. Some amateur stargazers and some astronomers thought it rather arbitrary." So they held some kind of vote and the audience voted to 'reinstate' Pluto as a planet.

You remember when the whole 'Pluto isn't a planet' thing happened right? It was all over the media, and people were up in arms on social media. You'd think it was BIG SCIENCE NEWS based on all that. I got asked recently, as I did several times back then, what was my position on it since I'm an 'astronomy person'. My position is I don't care. This isn't BIG SCIENCE NEWS, it's semantics. Nothing new was discovered, no new theory was proposed. Whether you call Pluto a planet or not changes nothing about what it is. It's trivial.

Here's the thing, I don't think this is a one-off misunderstanding about Pluto. I think this is a symptom of a deeper problem that a lot of people don't understand a fundamental aspect of science. Here's an illustration of the 'Pluto problem':

The 'problem' here has nothing to do with Pluto, it's taking the black-and-white taxonomic categories too literally. The universe (at least on the macroscopic scale) is a continuum, but we like to classify things into boxes. This or that, is or is not. But the real world just isn't like that. Where do you draw the line separating the 'planet' box from the 'not a planet' box? You can draw it anywhere, and no matter where you put it the things on one side of the line aren't going to be very different from the things on the other side of the line. You try to put the line in the most useful place possible but it's still arbitrary by it's very nature. This is a 'problem' of applying binary logic to a continuum.

I'm not sure if this system of categorizing things into boxes is useful in itself or it's only useful because our brains want to work that way, but either way it's useful. The concept of a species is extremely useful in biology even if, when you look close, you realize the concept doesn't apply very well to the reality. Taking the concept for reality is probably a big factor in popular misunderstandings and misrepresentations of evolution - it's pretty easy to take the concept and say something silly like 'one species can't give birth to another', and that makes sense if you think 'species' represents a real division in nature.

I'm not saying to forget the boxes, the boxes are still a useful way of thinking. But at the end of the day you have to remember we invented the boxes. We decide what goes in what box, and putting something in one box rather than another doesn't change anything about the way things are. It's a mental tool to help you understand how things relate to one another; the boxes aren't a real part of nature.

"Some amateur stargazers and some astronomers thought it rather arbitrary." Well duh.

As an aside, I should mention something about how thousands of science enthusiasts got up in arms to defend the way they were taught rather than being willing to change their mental model to best fit the world. This is the same attitude they'll decry in their anti-science bogeymen.