Saturday, April 28, 2012

Transit of Venus: June 2012

On June 5/6, 2012 we will witness one of the rarest, yet predictable, astronomical phenomena: the transit of Venus.

What is a transit?
Just like the Moon will sometimes pass between the Earth and the Sun (causing a solar eclipse), so too do the planets on inferior orbits. In other words, Mercury and Venus, which orbit closer than the Earth, will sometimes appear to cross the disk of the Sun. Since the planets are farther away than the Moon and orbits are not perfectly aligned, these events are much rarer than solar eclipses.

Transits are rare since the orbit planes and planet positions do not always line up.

Venus transited the Sun back in June of 2004, here's what that looked like:
The June 2004 transit of Venus

The cycle continues 8 years later on June 2012. After that, though, you'd have to wait 105.5 years for the next transit: on December 2117, and then again 8 years later on December 2125. After that it's 121.5 years until the next one and then the cycle repeats (121.5, 8, 105.5, 8). Add up the numbers and you'll see this is a 243-year cycle. It is unlikely that anyone reading this blog today in 2012 will be alive on 2117 given the current human lifespan, so you do NOT want to miss this event.

Note that as the planet crosses the Sun it blocks out a tiny portion of the stellar disk. We're close enough to the Sun (93 million miles) that we can see the transit easily. It turns out that we can apply this same technique, though, to far more distant stars. For distant stars we can't see the disk of the star or the planet (it all just looks like a tiny point of light), but we can see how the brightness of the star changes with time. If the planet is big enough, when it crosses the star it will make the star appear just a little bit dimmer. With careful monitoring of a star's light, we can spot this change in brightness and, if periodic, infer that a planet is in the system. This can then be used to determine properties like the orbit of the planet and the planet size. This is called the transit method for extrasolar planet searches and is the way in which the Kepler spacecraft has found over a thousand candidates exoplanets.

A planet transits in front of a distant star.

Where can I watch the transit of Venus?
The transit will be visible from the majority of the planet, however the best place to look is in the middle of the Pacific ocean or in East Asia. People in North America can see the start of the event until the Sun sets, people in Europe and the Middle East can see the end of the event after sunrise.
Here in Chile, things don't look to promising but we have a plan (see below).

June 2012 transit visibility

Note that it is dangerous to look directly at the Sun! You want to make sure you have proper gear: eclipse viewing glasses, solar filters for telescopes, or project the image of the Sun to a piece of paper. You can create a simple pinhole camera with a few sheets of paper and a pin (to make the hole). Here is a PDF file with some instructions on how to do that. You can find more information on how to safely observe the Sun here.

One of the best ways to experience the transit, though, is with a locally hosted star party so you can share good equipment. Here is a good website to get additional information on the transit. You can also check out this website to find out the exact times for the transit event at any location on Earth.

Why are transits so important?
Since the invention of the telescope only 6 transits of Venus have been observed. A 7th, the first one predicted using the Laws of Gravitation, took place in 1631, but was not visible from Europe and went unobserved. The 2012 transit will be the second in this new era of rapid global communications (the prior one to 2004 was in 1882). Besides the historical importance of this rare event, there's also useful science that can be carried out, such as studying the atmosphere of Venus or characterizing the transit for extrasolar planet searches. One of the coolest (and simplest) things one can do with the transit, however, is calculate the distance between the Sun and the Earth- the Astronomical Unit (AU, see my post on distance here). The precise timing of the transit in various places on the Earth, combined with some very simple geometry, can be used to estimate this distance. The basic idea is that of parallax, just like for the definition of the parsec. Once you have that down, you get the scale of the solar system and can figure out how far away the different planets are.
UPDATE: I describe the basic math and the required measurements here.

Here is a neat video about the transit, determining the distance to the Sun, and how this all relates to the search for extrasolar planets with facilities like the Kepler Space Telescope:

What about Chile?
Our own team of Chilean astronomers will be hosting a viewing event and outreach activities (including star gazing as there's a partial lunar eclipse on June 4). This will be at Easter Island since the Chilean mainland will not be able to see the transit. I encourage you to join a viewing party, either ours in the exotic Easter Island or one close to your home. You do not want to miss this!
Details for the Easter Island event can be found here (Spanish) or here (English).
Be sure to share this (and our Facebook page) with anyone you know that might be travelling to Easter Island!

Chile After the Rain

Yesterday we had a lot of rain in Santiago. The day started foggy and cold:

It then started raining, with thunder and lightning, and eventually even hail.
Getting that much rain in Santiago all at once is rare, but it was necessary given that the Metropolitan Region has been in drought for the past few years. The amount of rain thus far this year (7.3 mm, including a brief rain shower in early April) still is less than the yearly average up to this date of 11.5 mm.

The news today is reporting that last night we saw flooding in some sectors with a few minor landslides. The main problem is traffic jams or "tacos" that were an hour longer than usual. The metro was very crowded and apparently also suffered from some technical problems near Manquehue that caused delays, but it's not clear if it was due to the rainy weather.
The lack of proper drainage in Santiago causes flooding very quickly. Credit: maritesanz 

Today, however, the day is expected to be clear or partly cloudy.
I woke up this morning to see a beautiful sunrise over mountains that are now capped with snow:

Winter is truly coming...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Astronomy: Observing at APEX

Last week, I went to San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile to participate in service observations at APEX Observatory. APEX stands for the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment and is a modified ALMA prototype 12-meter antenna located at the Chajnantor Plateau at a 5100-meter (16,000-feet) altitude. Like ALMA, APEX observes at submillimeter wavelengths and so requires such a high and dry site to observe.
The 12-meter diameter APEX radiotelescope

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Book Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker is Paolo Bacigalupi's second novel and his first in young adult fiction. It was recently on sale to promote his next novel, The Drowned Cities.
I had previously read his 2010 Hugo-award winning novel, The Windup Girl, and enjoyed it very much (though I'll admit that I preferred the award-tied The City & The City by China Mieville). Hence, I decided to check this novel out and see if he still has the skills.

Overall Impression
I read this fast, very fast. Bacigalupi has created a truly engaging story made ready accessible thanks to its simple language and plot. That's not to say that this is a shallow book: it's set in a very realistic postapocalyptic world and deals with the issues of global warming, famine, and our dependence on oil.

The book is about a young man whose life has been to strip apart ships and sell them as scrap. Everything changes for him when he finds a much more advanced clipper ship near the shore, and a rich girl alive inside. Abandoning the promise of wealth from stripping the ship and ransoming the girl, he instead sets out to help her return home in the hopes that she can give him a better life.

The plot, though simple, is actually not that easy to predict. It takes a while (until Nailer and company discover the stranded clipper) for it to take off and there are many places I thought 'X will now happen' and instead something completely different happens. This unpredictability made me keep reading to see how the story progressed. Only near the end was I able to predict some of the events and recognize the earlier foreshadowing.

The plot is very focused in this book. There are very few scenes that are superfluous; everything feels like it happens for a reason. The only potential loose end is Tool, but I understand makes an appearance in the 'sequel' The Drowned Cities and regardless it's not that Ship Breaker feels incomplete. This is very different from many of the books I read (for example, epic fantasies) where a multitude of events and topics are introduced but only some of them are pertinent to the story, the rest serve to flesh out the world.

This is a young adult novel and it shows: there is only one point of view through the story and the character struggles with some of the same issues any young man will, albeit in a far different setting than most readers will be familiar with. The story focuses on the young boy Nailer, also known as Lucky Boy. He is a ship breaker, a scavenger whose job is to go into wrecked oil tankers and strip them for parts. He is part of a crew of other young men and women stuck in the same place, with the same hard labor. Nailer has lost his mother and his father is an abusive addict and alcoholic. You can tell things aren't really working for him.

The character that changes everything is Nita, Lucky Girl. She is a swank, a rich girl, whose clipper ship has crashed into the sunken remains of a city near Nailer. The book initially presents us with the familiar viewpoint of us vs them, with the good guys being the poor ship breakers in Bright Sands Beach and the bad guys being the greedy corporations. However, Nita turns this around by being a nice, likable character and showing us that even the corporation struggle within themselves to do what is right. It's not a very satisfying scenario (we want to hate the corporations), but it reveals that the world is much more complex than we can imagine.

Other characters, like Tool, Richard (Nailer's father), Candless, Pima, etc, make important contributions to the story. However, as the focus is on Nailer alone we never learn their full story and only perceive them through Nailer's lens.

Setting / World Building
Bacigalupi has created a completely believable world set after peak oil, world-wide famine, and global warming have changed society. Extremely strong hurricanes, genetically engineered humans, higher sea levels, shipping lanes through the ice-empty North Pole, and a greater dichotomy between the have's and have-not's are just some of the features this world has. Nothing is too surprising, but everything seems so real- a natural projection from today's society. It's a bleak world, but it's our world.

I get the feeling that Ship Breaker and The Windup Girl are both set in the same universe. One of the characters, Tool, is a genetically engineered half-man and it's mentioned that these, and others, are modified humans produced in Nippon. This is exactly the same situation as the windup girl herself. The setting on these two novels and their focus, though, is very different. If anything, they present two separate views into the same world. The Drowned Cities continues exploring this universe, though I've heard it is not a strict sequel to Ship Breaker.

Final Thoughts
I enjoyed the book quite a bit and was astonished at how quickly I finished it. I could easily have read a few hundred more pages without trouble. It feels a lot simpler and cleaner than The Windup Girl, but also touches on many of the similar themes. I think I enjoyed that book more than Ship Breaker, but I can still recommend either without reservations. One thing to note is that this is a young adult novel and it really shows in how it deals with characters and the plot, though it does have some very dark things (like murder, addiction, etc) thrown into the mix. I look forward to The Drowned Cities when it's released May 1st, though I may have to wait a while before checking it out.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: Embassytown by China Mieville

This is my second read of Embassytown, but I've been dying to repeat the book after I finished it. As I've mentioned, it was my favorite book I read in 2011. The book has been nominated for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award and the 2012 Hugo award. If he wins, these would be his fourth Arthur C. Clarke award, after Perdido Street Station (nominated for the 2001 Hugo), Iron Council, and The City & The City; and his second Hugo, after The City & The City. He's also won a bunch of other awards that I didn't even know existed.

Overall Impression
This book is as great on a second read-through as it is on a first. The most impressive thing is the setting and the language, both of which are things that Mieville has mastered in his prior works. The plot and characters are also quite interesting.

About halfway through the book, it slows down. It feels like the characters are running around and only a few major things are happening from time to time. They are still fun chapters and although I sometimes wish that they had been trimmed a bit, it's possible the story and characters may have loosed some of the detail and richness by doing so. By the end, though, you are glad you read the book and even those slow chapters take on new meanings.

The first part of the book, Proem, deals with events that happened in the childhood/adolescence of the main character. Lots of world-building happens here. By that I mean, that the universe is described and lots of information is given. It's not an info-dump as it's not just boring descriptions and a lot of mysteries remain to be revealed throughout the book. This is honestly my favorite part of the book, and on this second read-through it was even better as I knew the importance of several of the events described there.

The next few parts set up the main plot line in a somewhat unusual fashion. Chapters shift back and forth between 'latterday' and 'formerly'. Latterday tells of the events immediately following the prologue and deal with the arrival of the impossible Ambassador and subsequent events. At the time, you have no idea why the Ambadassor is impossible, though. Formerly is set in the past and deals with the events following the Proem. Through those chapters you learn of Language, the Hosts, the Festival of Lies, and the structure of Embassytown which leads to the events of the prologue and the subsequent problems that arise.

The final parts feel normal in comparison since you no longer have the shifting timescapes. Unfortunately, like on my first read-through, I found the beginning of this to be a bit slow. Perhaps it's that you got used to the dual tension in the formerly/latterday setup or that the novel has to build up towards the final conclusion. Still, everything ties together and you see how things back in Proem or formerly are relevant to the present latterday. This is a really clever way to tell a story and, to my knowledge, not commonly used in genre fiction. It means the reader has to work a bit harder to understand the story, but you get a whole extra experience with it.

The book is told in first person view of the main character Avice Benner Cho and is her recollection of events. It actually feels somewhat like a conversation. Sometimes she will relating some event then stop and think about something such-and-such character said a few months afterwards before going back to what was going on originally. These time jumps can be a bit jarring, but is a way to bring greater insight to the story and to reveal her personality and the way her mind works.

Avice isn't the only character, you also have a couple of Ambassadors such as EzRa, who is key to the development of the story. EzRa is completely different from other Ambassadors like CalVin or MagDa and we get to learn more about it. There's also a prominent automaton (robot), Ehrsul, whose actions are surprisingly human when compared to the some of the real humans out there. Some Hosts, like Spanish Dancer and Surl tesh-echer (or more accurately, ) are also pretty central to the story. I wish I could find some good drawings of the Hosts, but I can't find anything that fits the mental image I have. They truly are monstrous in appearance.

Avice's age, as with other characters, is generally told through subjective kilohours. Every planet has its own separate year so an age in years is pretty much meaningless. If you travel to a separate planet or undergo relativistic effects (hence subjective hours, since it's what you experienced), this becomes even more problematic or confusing. For example, she leaves Embassytown when she's 7 years old, and returns when she's 11 with a husband (after her 4th marriage). That sounds a bit odd, but she later says the same thing in kilohours: she left when she was about 170Kh. An Earth year is just under 8.8Kh so this amounts to about 19 Earth-years old, not a surprising age at all. An Ariekene year is about 2.8 or 2.9 Earth-years. You get subtle (and not so subtle) reminders about the different timescales with phrases like: "It was the third sixteenth of September, a Dominday" or "the second monthling of December."

Setting / World Building
The setting and world-building is where this book really shines. There is so much detail in this universe that it's difficult to write it all here. Also, the reveals and descriptions are top-notch so I don't want to spoil anything major by relating it here. I've already mentioned the time keeping techniques in the Characters section above. There's plenty of neologisms, or new words, that Mieville uses (as with his other works), but all work very well at immersing (pun INtended, see below) you in the story.

The majority of the story takes place in the world of Arieka where the Ariekei, or as their more commonly known, the Hosts, live. Humans were allowed to build a settlement there, which they named Embassytown. The Hosts are truly alien, not only in their physical appearance, but in their Language. In fact, the Language, its mysteries and intricacies, forms one of the main drivers for the story. What makes Language so interesting, is unfortunately a spoiler; you will have to read and find out on your own.

The immer plays a subtle role throughout the book, though it's not the centerpiece (that would be Language). However, it is so interesting that I hope Mieville writes more books in this universe to explore the immer further. This is the medium by which spaceships travel quickly to other places. It is Mieville's take on hyperspace. When one enters the immer, one is said to immerse (the opposite is to emerge); and immersers are those who operate the ship while in the immer. The immer is sometimes referred to as the always, while the physical world is the manchmal (German for sometimes) given the nature and history of the universe.

There are also creatures or entities in the immer (immerlings), and we get to see one early in the story. Mieville's description of it and it's emergence is beautifully poetic:
Taxonomy is imprecise. Most experts agree what emerged on that day was a minor manifestation, one I’d later learn to call a stichling. It was an insinuation at first, composing itself of angles and shadows. It accreted itself from its surrounds, manifesting in the transient. The bricks, plastone and concrete of buildings, the energy of the cages and the flesh of the captive animals from the gardens spilled toward and into the swimming thing, against physics. They substanced it. Houses were unroofed as their slates dripped sideways into a presence growing every moment more physical, more suited to this realness. - from Embassytown by China Mieville

Final Thoughts
This is probably my favorite China Mieville book thus far (though The City & The City and The Scar come close). It's an amazing science fiction tale with some truly awesome innovations. If you've read this far into my review you'll notice that I still haven't said what this book is about. It is very difficult to answer that since many topics are covered and each individual reader may come home with a different take on the story. I personally enjoyed the immer and Language, but you may prefer the politics or the god-drug.
It is, simply put, a work of art and if I were to tell you the story it would spoil it. If you must, though, here is renown author Ursula K Le Guin's take on Embassytown in which she describes it as "a fully achieved work of art." I sincerely hope the Hugo voters will give the nod to this amazing book and look forward to Railsea, China Mieville's next novel.

UPDATE: September 4, 2012
I've created a short, 1-video review/summary of Embassytown. You can watch it here:

Monday, April 16, 2012

Direct Imaging of Extrasolar Planets

Right now there are hundreds of planets known in the Galaxy and thousands of candidates identified with the Kepler space telescope. Most of these planets are inferred through indirect means, the most popular ones being the radial velocity method, where the planet's gravity pulls on the star and we see this signature, or the transit method, where the planet passes between us and the star causing a tiny decrease in the star's brightness. Perhaps at some point I'll talk about these methods, but today I wanted to briefly mention one of the more exciting methods to search for planets: direct imaging.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Astronomy: MOSFIRE First Light

MOSFIRE, or the Multi-Object Spectrometer For Infra-Red Exploration, has seen first light at W.M. Keck Observatory. This is means the instrument was mounted on the 10-meter diameter Keck I telescope and took its first images of the night sky. It's a big step as it shows that things are moving along.
The MOSFIRE instrument had been under construction at UCLA during my time there and several of my friends worked on it. It is good to see their efforts paid off and the instrument is online and will soon be taking data.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The 2012 Hugo Award Nominees

The 2012 Hugo Award nominations have been announced today!
There are plenty of categories but the one I always pay attention to (and probably the same for most people) is the Best Novel category. Here are the nominees:

  • Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)
  • A Dance With Dragons, George R. R. Martin (Bantam Spectra)
  • Deadline, Mira Grant (Orbit)
  • Embassytown, China Miéville (Macmillan / Del Rey)
  • Leviathan Wakes, James S. A. Corey (Orbit)

I have personally read three of the five nominated works: A Dance With Dragons, Embassytown, and Leviathan Wakes. I rated all very highly so I'm not surprised to see them listed.

A Dance of Dragons, while good, doesn't stand on its own. It's great because it's part of a series and had a lot of anticipation behind it. I'm honestly not sure how a book within a series would fare in these sorts of awards. Here's what I wrote on Goodreads (I didn't have my blog back then):
I took my time reading the book, savoring each chapter (also I had a lot of work to do...), but now it's finished. Overall impression: it's good and a worthy addition to the series. The best part was getting to read about the characters that did not star in A Feast for Crows. I still think Book 3 is better, but this was better than Book 4. There were a few awesome events that occurred, which made me happy, but there were a few minor issues that detracted from the experience. 
The most minor of these (and actually I found it funny) was how there was always food in practically every chapter. Obviously characters have to eat, but GRRM spends a lot of time describing what everyone is eating each time, whether it's stew, mutton, rat, or unborn puppies. 
The pacing of the book was a bit off. Tyrion's chapters were flying by with lots going on, Jon's somewhat less, but Dany's chapters were a bit slow. It felt like nothing really happened until near the end. About halfway through the book we catch up to the previous one, and we see a little more develop with those characters (not all of them), but we are still not given closure on any major plot line. I think there was only a single Jaime chapter and it left me wanting another one, which is unfortunate as we'll have to wait until next book. It makes me wonder whether that chapter should have been there at all? (The events of the chapter does get referred to in a later chapter so I guess that's fine). 
A Storm of Swords ended with a blast (or more accurately, a bolt). I have no memory on how A Feast for Crows ended. This book had a mixed ending. For one character- wow! What a cliffhanger! For another- oh, I guess it's done. And for yet another chapter- huh? where's the next chapter?! I felt the ending wasn't very clean, it sort of petered out at the end; it was honestly a surprise to turn the page and see "Epilogue". I expected some closure in at least a few of the plot lines. I know this isn't the end of the series, but he needs to start wrapping up things soon. 
One thing that bothered me a bit was the introduction of a brand new plot line. We get a brand new character that changes everything. I guess that's fine, but I feel that the series should be wrapping up, not adding new things! I didn't see this coming and so it came as a bit of an unwanted surprise. It's still cool, but detracts somewhat from the story. 
Overall, the story telling and the characters are still great. Those issues I outline above are present, but they don't ruin the story- they just make me worry that it will take more than 2 books to end the series. While I enjoy the series and could easily read more, I do want some closure at some point. 

Leviathan Wakes was a surprisingly good novel. I read it since it was included in The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham. In fact, Abraham is half of James S. A. Corey (the other half is Ty Frank). Here's what I had to say about it on Goodreads:
This was an excellent read. I generally don't read as much science fiction as fantasy, but this was included with my copy of The Dragon's Path (which was also good). I can usually pass over scientific inaccuracies for the sake of the plot, but as a professional astronomer I am always happy when the author pays attention to detail and conforms his/her work to real science. That said, this is not hard scifi- there are no explanations on how drives work, etc, but the main point is that orbital mechanics (and thus the consequences of how space battles will be fought) is accurate.
The story is also quite engaging. In scope it just covers the solar system and if you've ever taken an intro to astronomy course you should recognize all the places they visit. The characters are very interesting, but I wish there would have been more than 2 viewpoint characters. I feel it's aiming to be epic, but by just going back and forth between just these 2 characters it reduces the scope and makes the story a tad predictable.
In conclusion: I am very happy with the book and will be checking out the rest of The Expanse when it comes out.
And finally, Embassytown. If I were voting this year (not sure yet, I'd have to pay the $50 supporting fee...) this is the one I would pick. I consider it the best book I read in 2011. I'm actually re-reading it at the moment and will have a detailed review later this week. For now, here's what I wrote on Goodreads:
China Mieville does it again: an excellent book! This may be the best I've read from him yet (or best ever), though at the moment I can't decide if I like it more than The City & The City. The first ~third of the book is absolutely awesome. It's classic sci-fi like something you would expect from Asimov or Clarke. The next ~third drags a bit, but only because the focus shifts a bit from being about the concepts to being about the plot/characters. The final ~third is great and shines new light on that middle third that makes it quite exciting. 
The ending is quite satisfying and the story overall doesn't feel as dark as some of his other works (I'm looking at you, Perdido Street Station). I love the way he expresses the Hosts' Language. It looks easy to pronounce, but is, in fact, impossible to do so- a truly alien way of speaking. My only regret is that we didn't see more of the immer. I would love to read other books set in this universe. 
I would recommend this book to fans of aliens, space travel, language, and/or sociology/politics. I would not be surprised to see this book nominated for (and winning) awards this year.
Looks like I correctly predicted the Embassytown would be nominated for awards! It's also been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award.

In sum: I think there are some pretty good contenders this year. I haven't read the other two novels, but can imagine that they are good given the company they share.

I can't comment on the other categories as I'm not that well-versed in them, but I can say that I've read the nominated short story "The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue" by John Scalzi and it is hilarious. It came out as an April Fool's Joke, but I, along with many others, wish it were real.
For the Best Related Work, I actually do listen to Writing Excuses and enjoy it very much. I'm a bit behind on the podcasts, though.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Book Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I had purchased Neverwhere since it was on discount and because I keep hearing good things about Neil Gaiman. I have read, and enjoyed, American Gods, so I figured it worth trying another of his books. It didn't hurt that it was on sale for just $2.99. I always keep an eye for these sort of specials.

Initial Impression:
A lot of people have compared Un Lun Dun by China Mieville with Neverwhere. Indeed there are some similarities: the main characters 'falls' into a second London which exists in secret from London itself. That is where the similarity ends, however. In practice, I would compare Neverwhere more with Kraken (also by Mieville). In both cases, the hidden London is darker and you have dangerous and violent characters around (see Goss and Subby vs Croup and Vandemar).

It took me a while to really get into the story. It moves at a nice pace, but the characters and plot seemed dull until I was about halfway through. Then the story really picked up, got the hang of his style, and enjoyed the book. It didn't feel as magical as I had expected, but that is OK.

The story took a while to get going, but once it did it was good. There are several interesting and very satisfying twists to the story that make it very enjoyable. The reveal on "who the bad guy is" was very cool and better than Un Lun Dun's.

Despite the twists, however, the story is fairly direct as a quest-style narrative. It's a very typical storyline pattern that I've come to see several times and is another way it sounds so similar to Mieville's work. We know that the characters must complete task 'A' and once they do, they get task 'B' and so forth. Of course, the fun is in the details. On average (and especially at the start), these details are far more interesting in Mieville's work (particularly since he shatters our expectations); however, things do get very cool near the end.

There are practically two simultaneous plot lines, though both are tied together. The one we start with is Richard's, an ordinary fellow who circumstances unfortunately led him to London Below. He just wants to get his life back and is completely unprepared for the terrors and trials of the world beneath London. The second plot line, and the one that drives the book, in my opinion, is Door's. The girl Door has the ability to open/unlock/lock/create doors of any kind, and someone is trying to kill her. She is running for her life while at the same time trying to find answers and exact revenge on the death of her family.

It takes a long time for us to like the main character, Richard. He is such an ordinary person that we can identify with him, but we kinda wish he was far more heroic. He does grow through the story and he does have his moments, but he is also at times so terribly afraid and normal that we just want to scream at him. At the end, though, I was quite happy with his development and proud of his final choice.

The other characters are more mysterious and interesting. You can't tell who is good and bad most of the time, and there are some interesting reveals through the story. Like most of the setting, you can't quite tell how magical the characters are. Some can clearly do things (like Door) that others can't, but some of the rest seem pretty ordinary except that they live in London Below.

I found this neat depiction of one of the main characters, the Marquis de Carabas, online:
The Marquis de Carabas as drawn by Jo-yumegari
I have to say that drawing perfectly captures the feel of the character and, more importantly, the book itself: dark, ragged, threatening, on the edge of madness, his outstretched hand offering a world you're not quite sure you want.

Setting / World Building:
Setting-wise, I was expecting more from this book than I got. London Below is mostly sewers, the Underground, a few caves, and other things that are literally below ground. While there are some fantastical elements there, they are far less prevalent than in, for example, UnLondon (of Un Lun Dun). I haven't been to London, so I can't tell if Gaiman is making up street names or districts, but it all sounds so real that it's almost boring. To be fair: it's a clever setting, I just wish it were as magical as others I've seen. I suppose that's his thing though, given my experience with American Gods. The world is gritty, filthy, and ragged, but subtly magical. It looks like he has a knack for turning the fantastical into the real, which is no easy task.

The Floating Market was one of my favorite 'places' in the book. It is a gathering of people selling (more like exchanging) goods with a truce to prevent violence. The location changes every time and somehow people know where it will be. If you don't, just ask, which is how everyone finds out. If you think about it hard (as Richard does) you'll realize there is a flaw in that reasoning: if everyone finds out by asking where it will be, who knew in the first place?
In the Floating Market you can get everything you need, from food, to bodyguards, to dead bodies, and even:
“Rubbish!” screamed a fat, elderly woman, in Richard’s ear, as he passed her malodorous stall. “Junk!” she continued. “Garbage! Trash! Offal! Debris! Come and get it! Nothing whole or undamaged! Crap, tripe, and useless piles of shit. You know you want it.” - from Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Final Thoughts:
Despite the slow start and the slightly derivative feel throughout the novel, I enjoyed the book. It's a bit hard to point out what is the best/worst in this book or to tell exactly why I liked it. Neil Gaiman is just a pretty good author.

However, I'm afraid that if I had to choose between Neverwhere and Un Lun Dun, I would choose the latter. Un Lun Dun has a more creative story line given its genre-defying antics and the world feels richer, lighter, and more unique. I can see why some people compare the two, though, and I'm sure that if you like one you may also like the other.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Astronomy: ALMA Observations of Fomalhaut

Over the last few decades, astronomy has leapt forward in leaps and bounds as new world-class facilities have been built. Large, new telescopes on the ground, such as Keck, Gemini, and VLT, or on space, like HST, Spitzer, Herschel, Chandra, and WISE, have revolutionized the way we see the universe. In the extremely arid desert of northern Chile, we are building the greatest astronomical facility on the planet to date: ALMA.

ALMA stands for the "Atacama Large Millimeter Array" and currently consists of an array of about twenty 12-meter antennas that observe the sky at submillimeter and millimeter wavelengths. When completed, it will have fifty 12-meter antennas and a more compact array of twelve 7-m and four 12-m antennas. These can be moved around to provide different baselines that result in greater resolution or greater sensitivity. ALMA observes at wavelengths of 3mm down to 400 microns, hence the 'millimeter' part of its name.
Some of the ALMA antennas already on site. Credit: NRAO/AUI and NRAO/AUI/ESO

Monday, April 2, 2012

Iguazu Falls Trip: Brazil (3/3)

This is the third and last post on our trip to Iguazu Falls. After brief visits to Argentina and Paraguay, we now turned to Brazil. We were actually staying in Foz do Iguaçu, but had yet to visit the parks on the Brazilian side.