Saturday, August 20, 2016

Starry Starry Nights

Around this time four years ago, I have just arrived in Minnesota, about to start my undergraduate degree in the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Since then I have called the North Star State home for four years, and looking forward to a few more years here as I pursue my doctorate. Over the years my efforts in astrophotography waxed and waned like the phases of the moon, and fortunately I have been able to amass a number of pictures, each which tells a unique story of its own.

To start off, what better way to commemorate four years in L'etoile du Nord than by showcasing no less than Polaris the North Star. A composite startrail shot in Luci's house in the suburbs of Shoreview, MN; showcasing Polaris 45 degrees high up in the sky, the apparent king of the celestial bodies with all the other stars revolving around him. Four years ago I first set sights on Polaris in Minnesota - it being 4 degrees above the horizon in Malaysia prevents everyone but the most determined stargazers to spot it.

The Minnesota Astronomical Society has been wonderful company throughout. My favorite stargazing site is their flagship Eagle Lake Observatory one hour west of the cities, It is a truly hidden gem in the prairies with many high-quality telescopes, great facilities and most of all dedicated volunteers who runs their public star parties every fortnight (shown in picture, with the Pleaides cluster lying overhead).

A picture of a meteor (bottom picture, lower left) taken from Eagle Lake as well during the Perseids meteor shower of 2016. It was my first successful meteor shower observation with 98 meteors observed throughout the night. In the picture, the glowing horizon faces the Twin Cities -- the light pollution from the metro has been worsening in recent years.

During the course of my undergraduate studies, an affair with solar car brought me to the other side of the world - Australia in search of gold and glory in the World Solar Challenge of 2013. Getting up to race before sunrise did not stop me from looking for the storied Large and Small Magellanic Clusters in the southern skies. The LMC is imaged in the top picture, while camping under the skies in the barren wasteland of Pimba, South Australia. The views are amazing, and I will definitely go back there one day in the future.

Budget travelling in the U.S. brought me out to the Southwest most of the time - where the lure of starry, cloudless skies beckons. These budget airlines are notorious for their baggage policy which only allows one free 'personal item' per traveler. As a result, I mastered the art of 'shoegazing' - using my shoe as the tripod for the camera to lie on stable enough to capture some photons off the glorious Western skies. Pictured above is the constellation of Orion, viewed from the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The observatory is where the astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, the controversial planet which was visited recently by the New Horizons space probe.

Shoegazing adventures continue at Joshua Tree National Park in California. The constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius are pictured here with the Milky Way. It is always a joy seeing these old friends - I used to observe the dense, rich clusters surrounding them back home in Malaysia, but they barely rise above the horizon in Minnesota.

We were at an observatory called Sky's the Limit Observatory, because it's always more fun to stargaze with other folks. They happened to have a public night the day we went, and it was by sheer chance of having taken a wrong turn earlier in the day that we spotted the observatory and learnt about the public night event.

Up high in the skies, the Summer Triangle beckons.

Minnesota has her fair share of starry nights when the clouds get out of the way. In the summertime, going camping up North (yes, further north) is a rite of passage for Minnesotans. On one of our camping trips in Tettegouche State Park, the skies cleared up for some startrail opportunities. The pine trees glows fire red from firewood burning through the night. I can still smell the burning wood and hear the crackling noises from these pictures.

And I'm gonna end this post with another classic Polaris star trail also taken in Tettegouche State Park. All the images are taken with a Canon 550D or T2i and my 18mm f/3.5 kit lens, my lovely companion throughout the years.

Here's to more clear skies and starry nights!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Series of Miracles

Perhaps I should write more. I just read some studies sometime ago that claims people who keep a journal are able to focus on their tasks at hand, appreciate people more and generally keep a more upbeat life pace. For a while I write fairly often, but it is an intermittent effort, evanescent in its strength to keep on going.

Perhaps I should stop comparing. My life so far has been not bad - waking up at hours that seem indecently vulgar for working people, going to classes and working on my project  down in the basement lab. Although my project is still not officially funded, it is an exciting project especially when we are collaborating with a computational fluids professor to simulate exactly my channel. Sure, the occasional cleaning and working late drags me down, but in overall I have decent control over my work, balancing my research efforts with keeping up with classes which are actually educational and enlightening in the numerous great works great people have done in the unpredictably beautiful world of fluid dynamics.

Although, my state of mind so far has been one of too much stress - one alternating between 'I am not doing enough work' and 'I don't want to do work'. Partly because everyone else seems to do it - weekends in the lab, late nights everyday and whatnot. I try to stick to a schedule that includes no weekend work (sadly, occupied by homework instead) and also no staying later than 7pm. Granted, I don't actually go in right in the morning, but this job is officially 20 hours per week and although it is generally understood that people routinely overshoot them, it definitely is not a 40 hours per week affair instead. In this case, peer pressure is the one that kills, and admittedly my love of comparisons are not doing me much good in this case. Therefore, perhaps I should stop comparing.

Perhaps I should just let the future be. Many days I am worrying about what I'll be able to do with my tentative degree, and with it comes the many horror stories that unfortunately have very few success stories that comes with them. However, looking back I wouldn't have charted this course for me at all if I think about myself from five years back looking into the future. Like, literally - 2011 me still in the tropical heat bath thinking about space and shit. Let's just say life was a lot more ideal back then, without me realizing the real barriers of class division via citizenship. Same thing applies here - who knows what I'll be doing in five years? Better do what I can now, and enjoy life in the present.

Fortunately, enjoying life is one thing that I am doing better lately - cycling in the warm weather, fantasizing about the ultimate bike trip to Duluth and when would I be able to do just that; or hitting the orchestra and the operas which one we've been to recently - Lady in the Dark by the students in the music school - turned out so good (At least to me!) that I basically was one of the first few to give a standing ovation. It was also my first opera in English - Carmen and Figaro were my other two exposures to opera. Taking pictures of pretty things and pretty people, cooking various soups for the cold nights and salads for the warm ones, watching Nichijou reruns with Luci while eating root beer floats... fuck, I even made my own miso soup from the paste - wasn't too hard although turned out a little salty. Anyways, its the little things that count, and makes the memories that we savor throughout the years.

Perhaps instead of wanting more from the future and seeing red over the past, I should just take solace in the present. As I now lie almost falling asleep on this couch we carried two blocks and up a flight of stairs in the heat of the late summer, a quiet apartment in the midnight hours where our friendly neighbors sometimes treats us to a serenade of melodious gangsta rap, as I type on my now hitting six years old computer that works beautifully with a new battery just replaced, in a city that is definitely one of my favorites and also with people that I like to be with. There are many things, which I decided and which I was given, that landed me in this exact couch on this exact moment in this exact year. Savoring the present, and thinking joyful thoughts about the summer about to come, the magical summer where everything glimmers under the brilliant sun and caressed by the gentle zephyr; summer of comfy shorts, fast rides, cool dips in the lakes; scenic hikes, shaved ice, lying down under starry skies.

As put beautifully by Nichijou, "Our everyday lives may, in fact, be a series of miracles. They just may be..."