Monday, May 26, 2008

Weekend events

This weekend was another one with several highlights. On Friday, my wife and I attended another 100 year school anniversary, this time it was my wife's elementary school's turn. She attended in the 1940's.

On Saturday, we spent a few hours with my "Texas cousin". She is visiting one of her daughters who lives in the Seattle area. Also visiting was my cousin's other daughter, whom we hadn't met before. It was a beautiful day so we drove there, and a good time was had by all, including my cousin's two young grandchildren. Our Nexus pass proved its worth once again - we crossed the border in about a minute (same on the way back). People without the pass had about an hour's wait in line in each direction at the time.

Yesterday (Sunday) a special space-related event took place. Since you must know by now that astronomy and space are part of my hobbies, that event had me watching the Mars landing of the probe "Phoenix" on NASA TV via the internet in "real time". The planet Mars, from the Earth's perspective, it's on its way to its farthest point away from us, "behind" the Sun, at which time it'll be invisible from Earth. Right now, Mars is about 270 million kilometers (roughly 170 million miles) away. As a result, due to the restriction imposed by the speed of light (300,000 km/sec - about 186,000 mi/sec), it took the radio signals confirming the successful landing about 15 minutes to reach us. You could imagine a telephone conversation with someone on Mars, which would take 30 minutes just for you to know that your call was answered ("Hello, Peter" - your voice takes 15 minutes to get to Mars - "Hi John" [the reply] which takes another 15 minutes to come back to you). Radio signals are the same as light (they just differ in their wavelength), and travel at the same speed. There is nothing that we know of which can exceed this velocity.

Because of this restriction, there was no way to control the actual descent of Phoenix to Mars's surface from Earth - Phoenix had to make all critical decisions on its own. The actual landing sequence was complete (it took 7 minutes) and Phoenix had safely landed well before the first signals confirming the start of the landing sequence were received on Earth.

The whole thing is just marvellous, and a testament to the ingenuity of the engineers and scientists involved. Details can be found at

An update (posted 4:05pm)

The two pictures show Phoenix during its actual landing, before separating from its parachute. I enhanced the smaller inset from part of the larger image. This picture was taken by the high-resultion camera aboard the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO). That camera normally looks straight down onto Mars to record its surface details; for this picture it was set to an angle of about 64 degrees from vertical. There was a roughly 40% chance that this photographic attempt would succeed. Phoenix was about 310 km (193 miles) away from the MRO. Amazing!

picture and overall mission control by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Time flying

Yesterday, my wife and I attended a celebration of her high school's 100th anniversary. It is a big affair, which will continue today at the Agrodome, with about 2000 former students expected. Yesterday's get-together took place at the school itself. As an "outsider" (I never attended high school in this - my adopted - country), it was interesting to see how my wife's classmates, many of whom hadn't seen each other in decades, came to terms with trying to recognize formerly (now not so) young faces. I have come to know a few of those faces myself, because some of them have made an effort to reunite for a couple of earlier, and smaller, class reunions.

Tonight's affair is slated to be a real celebration, with many illustrious alumni being present (now professors, judges, scientists, architects and artists, etc.). Several well-known bands and entertainers are scheduled. There are expected be a number of former students attending, who now live in many places all over the world.

It's unlikely that I'll ever take part in a reunion such as this of my own school. The closest I came is on a trip we took about three years ago to my birthplace (Berlin), where I made an effort re-trace the path I took to school daily as a young teenager. The building was locked (it was a Sunday); I could therefore only look at the outside gate. Many schools in Berlin were then (and are now) located within normal looking city blocks, among a mix of shops, residences, churches, etc. They may none-the-less cater to many hundreds of students through several grades. My high school is one of these.

Here's a Google picture of my high school (it's called "Leibniz-Gymnasium"). The layout is the same, but the tree in the courtyard is much bigger. Also, there appears to be a statue (shadow at the left centre in the courtyard), perhaps of Gottfried Leibniz (a contemporary of Newton) which did not exist in my days there. Leibniz is the one who came up with the mathematical techniques of integral calculus - Newton is credited to be the inventor of differential calculus. Even now, there is some controversy regarding who should be called the "father" of calculus. In truth, the two techniques are the two sides of one coin; Derek had some comments in the coincidence of revolutionary inventions on his blog a little while ago.

One thing is obvious: time marches on, and leaves no one untouched.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Final Goodbye.

Yesterday, we had a memorial service for Sonia, my wife's friend since childhood, who died last November. Her family dispersed her ashes in the ocean waters, as Sonia had expressed in her will (I'm paraphrasing her exact words): "to feed the fish, so that she would keep travelling around the world". It was a solemn assembly of about 15 family members and close friends, with words both sad and happy.

Later in the afternoon, more people met in the activity room at the condominium where one of her three close friends lives. Many of her family and friends reminisced about Sonia, our son gave a moving speech about the importance of having close friends, and I think we all reflected on the importance of personal relationships. It was also a happy occasion, because we met many of Sonia's family whom we hadn't seen for some time.

The condominium is located right at the shore of English Bay, with a view across to Vancouver Island; a setting that always appealed to Sonia (as it does to all of us). It was also appropriate, because we could all wish her a "bon voyage".

We had a meaningful get-together.