Movie Review: Wonder Woman

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DC Comics, home of Batman, Superman, Justice League, and others, has had a lackluster track record with its (live-action) films. Compared with Marvel, which has produced mostly hits, the typical DC superhero movie is just average at best…until now! I haven’t seen every DC film, but I think I can safely say that the new Wonder Woman is the best DC Comics film of all time, with the possible exception of The Dark Knight.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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Days 3 and 4 at the #AAS230: Galaxies, Supernovae, and Space Weather

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The famous Crab Nebula supernova remnant.

The AAS Conference has concluded, but there’s still a lot of exciting science going on. Here are the big stories from the final day and a half.

Sadly, I missed the first talk on Wednesday because I had to get my own presentation ready. It was by Manfred Schüssler of the Max Planck Institute on the Solar magnetic field.

I did, however, see David Koo of UC Santa Cruz give his talk on the CANDELS Survey*. CANDELS is a massive Hubble Space Telescope survey to image as many distant galaxies as possible in areas of the sky that have already been extensively studied in other wavelengths such as the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. It will be one of the biggest studies ever on the evolution of galaxies and rare types of galaxies, covering 250,000 in total.

Later, Doug Leonard of San Diego State spoke on supernovae—specifically, supernovae of red supergiants, which are actually about a third of all supernovae (another third or so come from blue supergiants and the rest are Type Ia explosions of white dwarfs). We don’t actually know how supernovae explode because the rest of the star above the exploding core should be too heavy for the explosion to get out. In this entertaining talk, Dr. Leonard explained the evidence that supernovae do not explode symmetrically and how this could actually make them work.

This morning, Dolores Knipp of the University of Colorado Boulder described the current state of space weather. The upshot is that space weather can still cause big disruptions on Earth, but the good news is (and I was very heartened to hear this) that we are finally hardening our infrastructure against a catastrophic solar storm. Hopefully, we won’t have to worry about that by the time the next solar cycle comes around in the mid-2020s.

I gave a short presentation on my research this morning along with some other interesting planet-related talks. Here is a link to my slides.

And finally, Hernán Quintana of the Pontifical Catholic University in Chile related his thirty-year struggle to build a strong home-grown astronomy education program in Chile, a country that had not been able to do so for many years despite hosting some of the best observatories in the world.

Other highlights:

*CANDELS is the correct spelling. Dr. Koo deliberately changed the spelling to make it easier to Google.

**Gravitational lensing, which makes a background star appear brighter, has been used for many years, but this is the first use of an observed change in a background star’s position to measure a star’s mass.

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Day 2 at the #AAS230: Warm Jupiters, Human Spaceflight, and Other Stories

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Artist’s rendition of the mysterious Planet Nine.

The second day of the AAS Conference has concluded with still more fascinating tales from the world of astronomy. We begin with the tale of the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which concluded last year, from Bonnie Buratti of JPL. There were a lot of interesting results here, including that the water on Earth probably did not come from comets, as was previously thought, but from asteroids. But the biggest results are coming out on Thursday, so I’ll come back to that later.

One of the panel discussions tried to put together the pieces of the puzzle that lead to warm, Jupiter-sized planets with elliptical orbits. That’s a long and fascinating tale in itself involving the interaction of close in planets with more distant ones, and I’ll probably do a follow-up on that later.

Chris Impey of the University of Arizona spoke about our future in space. The upshot: despite funding difficulties in the U.S. at the federal level, thanks to commercial space enterprises, the future is bright.

Konstantin Batygin of Caltech is the “partner in crime” of astronomer Mike Brown, the discoverer of Eris and “killer” of Pluto. He described the long and fascinating process of predicting the existence of the as-yet-undiscovered Planet Nine. With new lines of evidence including the bizarre object “Niku” and a model for the axial tilt of the Sun, the evidence is stronger than ever.

Finally, Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts talked about the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*. Of particular interest are the X-ray flares seen around the black hole. The origin of these flares is uncertain, but it could involve magnetic effects in the surrounding gas or even asteroids being torn apart by the black hole’s massive gravity!

Other highlights:

*This is not a footnote. The name of the object is Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius-A-Star).

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Day 1 at the #AAS230: Dark Matter, Colliding Planets, and More

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The famous Bullet Cluster, the first clear proof of dark matter.

The AAS Conference is underway today with the first round of talks from all branches of astronomy. For us astronomers, the biggest events are probably the plenary sessions, where most everyone attends, but a lot of the most newsworthy results come from the contributed talks and press conferences, so there’s a lot of ground to cover, and I’ll come back later to focus on some of it in more detail, but here’s an overview.

We started the day with a plenary talk on dark matter by Katherine Freese from my own University of Michigan. The plenary talks are really more of a “state of the field” kind of thing, but it was still a very good overview, and I learned lot in a concise form to help me understand the issue of dark matter more clearly. The upshot is the dark matter remains one of the big outstanding questions about the nature of the universe, but we may start to get answers in the next few years.

Later, we heard from Bekki Dawson of Penn State on the subject of inner solar systems—planets that are close to their host stars (which are also most of the exoplanets we know about). I attended several follow-up talks on this subject that went into more detail as well. A big part of this was explaining all of the weirdness we’ve discovered about exoplanets over the years, which I’ve written a fair amount about before. A lot of that has to do with the “nature versus nurture” puzzle—teasing out the different effects of how the planets formed from how they changed and interacted with each other over time. There’s a lot of exciting stuff here, like planets colliding or being gravitationally pushed into their suns—things that may actually happen often during the formation period.

I wasn’t able to attend the afternoon talks today, but they covered interesting topics as well. One described the universe’s most extreme star forming galaxies, which were a major contributor to overall star formation in the early universe. The other presented results from SOFIA—an infrared telescope that flies around on a converted Boeing 747 with a big hole cut out of its side. Yes, seriously!

Other highlights:

*KELT-9b is not actually the hottest planet ever discovered. Kepler-70b and Kepler-70c are believed to be hotter. However, these planets are not original. They are remnants of planets that plowed through the atmosphere of the red giant star they orbited. However, KELT-9b is the hottest unprocessed planet ever discovered.

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Blogging the #AAS230

As you may already know, I’m a professional astrophysicist, and for astrophysicists, the biggest event of the year is the biannual conference of the American Astronomical Society, usually known as the AAS (that’s “Double-A-S” for you non-astronomers). Now, the winter meeting held each January is really the main event, but the summer meeting being held this week is a pretty big deal, too. And that’s why, right now, I am in Austin, Texas for the 230th AAS meeting.

Well, partly it was a matter of when I had new results to present, but either way, it promises to be a fun week. I will be giving a short presentation (a 5-minute presentation–seriously) on my own research on Thursday, titled A Retrieval Architecture for JWST Observations of Directly Imaged Exoplanets, which I may talk about later. But there are lots of other cool new results coming for astronomers of all types.

Among the highlights of this year’s meeting (by which I mostly mean the plenary sessions) will be:

  • Origins of Inner Solar Systems
  • The Universe’s Most Extreme Star Forming Galaxies
  • Our Future in Space
  • Planet Nine From Outer Space
  • Space Weather

This week, I will be blogging each day of the AAS with science highlights from the day’s talks—probably the main plenary sessions for the most part, but I’ll make note of any other interesting developments I see. If you’re interested in astronomy at all, it’s sure to be good, so stay tuned. Expect the first post tomorrow evening.

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Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Well, I’m back. I took a long hiatus from blogging after an even longer spotty record due to some personal stuff I’ve been dealing with. I may or may not eventually talk about that, but I’m going to try to get back on the proverbial horse and post here at least once a week. As a part of that initiative, I’ve decided to be more consistent about reviewing new books and movies that I read and see, and maybe a few other things, too, so watch this space for more updates.

This week, the big new movie is the fifth installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Dead Men Tell No Tales.

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Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Rebel Alliance stole the plans to the Death Star and discovered its One Weakness. Rogue One is the story of how that happened and why the Death Star’s engineers were stupid enough to build that weakness into the system in the first place. (Spoiler: it wasn’t stupidity.)

Snark aside, this was a pretty good Star Wars movie. I was nervous about Rogue One for several reasons. I was nervous when Disney said they were going to make non-Episode Star Wars films, especially another prequel because we know how the last batch of prequels turned out. I was worried because it felt like Disney is trying to turn Star Wars into another Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the MCU has been pretty hit-or-miss even with a lot less baggage than Star Wars.

But Rogue One exceeded my expectations. The movie tells the story of Jyn Erso, the daughter of the Death Star’s unwilling top engineer as she tries to get her father back and later stop the Empire from blowing up planets with a ragtag group of rebels. Now, here is the biggest flaw in the movie: I can’t tell you any of the others’ names. I don’t remember them, and the reason is that the exposition was muddled, busy, and definitely didn’t go out of the way to help the audience learn who these people were, even though several of them are compelling characters onscreen. I’m not great with names in general, but I just couldn’t keep track of them. (And it doesn’t help that Star Wars is filled with made-up names rather than familiar ones.)

But after that point, I enjoyed the movie. The rest of the story was well-written, and it was a technological marvel for the digital Peter Cushing alone. He really looked almost real, and he definitely came down on our side of the Uncanny Valley. I have a hunch we’ll be seeing more resurrected actors in other movies in the future.

I admit I was still worried, however. I was worried when the plot swerved in an unexpected direction from the heist flick that was implied in the trailer. I was worried when I couldn’t keep track of people’s names. But most of all, I was worried that they would botch the ending–that they would cop-out from where the story needed to go…but they didn’t. The ending was pulled off beautifully, and even if it was a little contrived, I wouldn’t change a thing. There’s some stiff competition, but I might be willing to go so far as to say that it was the most moving ending of any Star Wars film, and it goes a long way to make up for the messy introduction. In conclusion, Rogue One is a must-see for the hardcore and casual fan alike.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

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