Eclipse: Protect Your Eyes for The Big One

Miguel Crespo

Summer is here and again sun, humidity, and mosquitos will relentlessly plague our days. But the firmament reserves something unique for us: a celestial spectacle we do not get to witness every day. On Monday August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will cast its shadow across America. For those who happen to be in the right place at the right time, a once in a lifetime experience will take place in the form of a couple of priceless minutes when the sky will switch colors like the canvas of a mad artist.

But what is a total solar eclipse anyway? A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon stands between the Sun and the Earth, briefly obscuring a patch of land where night and day become indistinguishable for a few moments.

The ancient Chinese legend has it that solar eclipses occurred when a legendary celestial dragon devoured the Sun. In Vietnam, a frog eats the Sun, while people of the Kwakiutl tribe on the western coast of Canada are convinced that the mouth of heaven consumes the Sun. Myths and legends of the ancient world always had something romantic to them. As a child, I loved to believe them until one day I was pointed to a scientific source, only to learn from Stevie Wonder that “…when you believe in things that you don’t understand then you suffer, superstition ain’t the way.” Modern science has elucidated mythical representations of natural phenomena—the Hubble telescope taught us that red light comes from farther away than we thought, and yes, the Earth does revolve around the Sun. Times of darkness and ignorance are long gone for humanity. Or are they? A quick YouTube search is enough to come across countless videos proclaiming the wackiest ad hoc interpretations of this summer’s forthcoming eclipse. Fulfillments of biblical prophecies always come in handy, and contrary to the general opinion, never get old. However, Numerology is my all-time favorite. Desperate subtracting and adding in search of the just too probable coincidence, ideal for the construction of the pyramids by Martians but may also be invoked in case of an eclipse. Together with a few Web sites of the same genre, this serves as a reminder that, as Sam Harris said, “Civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous.”

The majestic gift from Helios is as beautiful as it is ephemeral. Only two to five minutes in the path of totality guarantee the full-blown eclipse experience. The path of totality is a 70-mile-wide stretch of land that will diagonally run from Oregon, all the way down to South Carolina. In search of a reverse path of enlightenment, thousands of enthusiasts will travel to those areas, carefully mapped by NASA, where Selene and Helios will unite in the short-lived affair that the Ancient Greeks anticipated so many centuries ago. Hotel owners and tour organizers alike have also taken note of the event, offering the best rates to enjoy the unforgettable experience together with music festivals, river cruises or even a trip on horseback.

Anticipation has been building during the last few months. Currently, myriad Web sites offer relevant information, including the best spots to view the eclipse, the weather forecast, timing, eclipse simulations, and the exact dates of past and future eclipses. As a matter of curiosity, the longest eclipse will last seven minutes and twelve seconds, and will happen on June 25, 2522 for those who are still around. The best maps can be found on the NASA site, while offers everything you always wanted to know about eclipses but were afraid to ask.

Some might wonder if those meager two minutes of glory are worth the travel, the wait and the expense. Well, here is what we can expect from a total solar eclipse. If you are within the path of totality, the so-called Contact 1 marks the beginning of the show. The Moon disk seems to tangentially come in contact with the Sun, biting a tiny little piece of its periphery. As it progresses further into the Moon, the Sun starts looking more and more like a crescent, the tables turn and it becomes “a little moon” for a moment. This image is priceless, though just as harmful as looking at the Sun at any other time: only special eclipse filters or glasses can be used to safely enjoy this moment. The good news is they are inexpensive and easy to find, remember: Google is your friend. As the Moon incessantly munches on the defenseless Sun, eclipse watchers will notice its shadow looming closer and closer. There is no way back; only a silver ring will be visible when the two celestial bodies finally join in this improbable turn of events. But there is more: from that point on the atmosphere becomes eerie, the air acquires a rare quality, the sky darkens, and birds start to chirp in bewilderment. As the temperature drops in the improvised night, the miracle finally occurs and the entire Sun is hidden behind the almighty Moon. Only then can one look at the Sun without protection, and only in these circumstances will one be able to see the Sun corona. An aura of plasma extends into the sky surrounding the Sun, like a pearly white crown emitting ever-changing rays. The glow of a multitude of mutating colors in a shimmering cotton candy around an impossibly black hole. No photo, no National Geographic documentary would do justice to the uniqueness and the magic of witnessing a total solar eclipse.

ANTOINE CARON “Astronomers Studying an Eclipse”

This month Natural Selections interviews Jazz Weisman of the Scientific Computing Users Group

Juliette Wipf

Picture: Jason Banfelder, Director of the RU High Performance Computing Systems, talking about the most commonly used computing tools at the inaugural meeting of the SciComp group.

On April 12, Scientific Computing Users Group (SciComp) of The Rockefeller University’s (RU) held its inaugural meeting in CRC 406. The founders of the group, Jason Banfelder, Director of the RU High Performance Computing Systems (HPC), and first year graduate student Jazz Weisman, led the meeting. I caught up with Jazz Weisman about this new group on our campus.

NS: How did you and Jason come up with the idea to start the SciComp group?

I attended Jason’s Quantitative Understanding in Biology course at Cornell University and wanted to learn more. When I asked him about opportunities he said that starting a group is always a good, as well as a feasible idea. In fact, he had thought about starting something for a while as well. I actually recommend Jason’s lecture, or a similar intro level data analysis class, to everybody. A lot is already going on in that area, and we tried to create something in this pool. The future is definitely more computed, and we have to start somewhere.

NS: What do you think is the biggest plus of the SciComp group?

Painful and repetitive work should be reduced as much as possible. So many things can be done a lot easier with the help of computing, which will make repetitive tasks in science a lot less painful. But there are a lot of side benefits to our group. People get to know Jason as a representative of the IT department, which will make communication between the scientists in the lab and IT easier. People tend to be a bit shy about their computer skills, and we hope to make the IT department more accessible. Finally, we want to get interested people together. Labs can sometimes be a bit insulated; however, their computational interests would be similar.

NS: Researchers (myself included) can sometimes be a bit scared of using new programs, even though we use computer programs daily. Why do you think that is?

I think most are afraid of messing up their data. We also don’t want the design of our results to change, since we have long chains of experiments, sometimes generated over years, and a change in the output can sometimes make it hard to represent data neatly. But, as I said, most of our experiments come in long chains. Programming languages, such as R, Python or MATLAB, can simplify such tasks, and are actually a lot faster and easier to use than, for example, Microsoft Excel. Most importantly however, they make things repeatable, which is always better. If we use code to perform a string of tasks, this code can be given to a new student for example, and everybody can be sure the desired analysis was executed exactly the same way as usual. The student, on the other hand, can also study the string of code in peace and quiet, which will make understanding of the method easier for the new student as well.

NS: What can people expect from those meetings? Are there exercises that you do on computers together, or is it more of a discussion round?

Our group meetings usually start with a short talk of approximately 15-25 minutes on a chosen topic. For example, in our second meeting on May 18, we chose to talk about the data visualization tool ggplot2. After the presentation, we hope to get an open discussion going where everybody can ask questions. You can bring your laptop because it can help showing others the actual problem you are experiencing. It is not necessary that you attend the whole meeting; you can also just come for one part of it. We want our meeting to be an open thing. Also, we understand that everybody is busy and that you might have limited time for stuff.

NS: Who can attend the SciComp meetings? What skill level is expected from participants?

Absolutely everybody can attend our meetings and no previous experience is required. If you want to learn more on the discussed topic, please come. We expect nothing and are simply happy you are interested. If we talk about an R-based tool like ggplot2, for example, it will all make a bit more sense to you if you know some of the programming language R already. But it is not expected at all. We want the group to be widely accessible. Everybody who wants to should come!

NS: What do you expect from the participants (ask questions, prepare, etc.)?

People shouldn’t be afraid to get a discussion going. We are happy to answer the most basic questions! This is exactly why we thought the group environment would be nice, just to make everything more laid-back and relaxed. Ultimately we hope to also see group members helping each other out, with me or Jason only assisting when needed.

NS: What topics will be discussed in the meetings?

People can actually vote on which topic will be discussed. In this Google group, people should add their requested topics. If you and your colleagues want to learn about a specific program your lab is using, you should individually log onto the Google group and vote, so we can see how big the demand is. With this approach, reruns of hot topics are also possible if needed; just reenter the topic into the Google group. We hope to soon talk about DNA or RNA sequencing, which I definitely think is the topic most people are interested in at the moment. In addition, we will use the Google group for general updates as well as a place for people to ask questions.

NS: In your inaugural meeting, you talked about the most successful tools currently available to get a feel for the needs and interests of the attendees. In the last meeting you discussed the R plotting tool ggplot2, which makes all kinds of beautiful plots and graphs. When will the next SciComp meeting take place and what topic will be discussed?

We’ve decided to have the next meeting on August 3 in CRC 506 from 5:30 – 6:30. We will discuss Dynamic documents in R, presented by Thomas Carroll, head of the new bioinformatics resource center​. Finally, if anyone is interested in becoming a co-organizer they should contact me via email at I think that one or two more people to plan and put the word out could be a good thing for the SciComp group.

Jason Banfelder, Director of the RU High Performance Computing Systems, talking about the most commonly used computing tools at the inaugural meeting of the SciComp group.


Renewable Energy

Yvette Chin

When Sheikhs invest in solar, you know a paradigm change has arrived. A slew of sun-drenched Middle Eastern states, prompted by the now-favorable economics of renewable energy, and a concomitant cloudy outlook for fossil fuels, are looking to transition their oil-heavy economies towards solar energy production. Closer to home, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo too has a vision—expedited in no small part by the exigencies of climate change, economics & energy security—to secure a clean, affordable and resilient post-oil future.

Governor Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) commits NY state to a Clean Energy Standard (CES) with the goal of meeting at least 50% of the state’s energy use with renewable sources such as solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal energy and reducing greenhouse gas emission levels from 1990 by 40% by 2030. This was prompted by the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan (CPP), which mandates a less stringent 32% reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.

The pivot to renewables has many causes. First, cost is king and with renewables at least, cheaper is better. Advances in technology—cheaper, more efficient photovoltaic (PV) cells and wind turbines; souped up batteries to tide over times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing—have brought down costs and increased reliability so much that the sector is competitive (as low as under $0.04/kWh) versus fossil fuels. Upfront investment costs are lowered by tax credits and net metering rules, which allows the sale of unused energy back to utilities to recoup expenses. Tax credits in particular were essential to the adoption of renewables, although the necessity of subsidies is receding as the industry is able to stand on its own merit. In December 2015, a divided Congress rallied to extend the 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar energy & the 2.3-cent/kWh Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind energy for five years (through 2020), among a slew of renewable subsidies, to ensure successful implementation of the CPP. On current form, the importance of such subsidies will diminish further as innovation continues to drive down costs and bring about mass adoption.
Second, climate change and environmental concerns lend an urgency to the transition to clean and low-carbon energy sources. Credit Hurricane Sandy for the harsh reminder that ocean levels are rising and reclaiming low-lying flood-prone land. The energy sector appears to be a zero-sum game with the rise of renewables occurring at the expense of the coal industry where a projected 50GW of capacity is expected to be lost by 2022 and, indeed, completely phased out in New York state. The upheavals of this energy revolution have being manifested in the rise of populist presidential candidate Donald Trump, fueled in part by the loss of jobs in America’s Rust Belt. Advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club and ardent environmental activists are also playing a significant role in the adoption of low-carbon fuels. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign organized a community-based push for off-shore wind energy investment with a Clean Energy rally in lower Manhattan followed by personal testimonies from state-wide attendees to the Public Service Commission. These efforts paid off in the adoption of a 90MW offshore wind project, the largest in the country, in federally leased waters off Montauk, in a tie-up between the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) and Deepwater Wind, a private company. Moreover, the CES envisions establishing New York state as a clean energy powerhouse to safeguard the economic future of the state’s workforce by ensuring its technical expertise in the renewable energy sector. Slated to be one of the largest solar panel factories in the world, a 27-acre $750m SolarCity battery facility financed and constructed by New York state is another example of the economic thrust of the REV. The high-efficiency solar panels manufactured in the gigafactory produce electricity at a cost of roughly $2.5/W and production is expected to hit full capacity in late 2017.

The REV is expected to lower energy bills through localized power generation and distribution, furnish a greater choice of energy providers to reduce dependence on a central utility, advance net-zero energy efficient smart homes that can be controlled remotely, boost employment in the hi-tech renewables sector and improve overall quality of life from the greening of the energy industry.

Growing vegetables in small spaces

By Guadalupe Astorga

image 1

Top Left: Hydroponic research in Epcot Center, Orland/Antony Pranata,CC. Top Rigt: Hydroponics/Frank Fox, CC /Bottom panels: Our Windowfarms Project

One of today’s global issues concerns the supply of fresh food to people in cities. While the carbon footprint for transporting fruits and vegetables from the areas where they are produced, to the consumers’ tables can reach high levels for longer distances, local production and consumption have several advantages. A number of new initiatives make it possible to take advantage of urban spaces to grow fresh vegetables in your own city or apartment.

In cities where the space is dominated by concrete construction, urban agriculture has shed new light into public and private spaces, promoting community interactions and the development of organic alternatives to intensive crop farming.

Different projects have taken over rooftops and unused spaces in New York City, not only to grow fresh vegetables for distribution in the local community, but also to offer a sustainable model for urban agriculture in open spaces.

Other interesting alternatives involve hydroponic cultures, which offer a very efficient way to grow different types of organic plants with no need of big spaces. In recent years, several hydroponic techniques have exploded and evolved in a plethora of varieties developed by enthusiastic farmers who have openly shared their knowledge on the internet, making videos with detailed tutorials and instructions for beginners and experienced farmers. Hydroponics are not expensive or complicated, can be started at any time of the year, and you can control what you eat.

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Left panel: Hydrosock Version/Jim Flavin; Right panel: Hydroponics principle/iamozone, CC

In an example of these collaborative initiatives, also born in New York City, hydroponic vertical gardens are designed for our apartment windows, and people around the world have shared their experiences to create new innovative and esthetic designs. You will need a bit of creativity and enthusiasm to make this project in your apartment, but it is certainly worth it.

A more convenient and simpler alternative to get started wih hydroponics in your own apartment at minimal cost is the Hydrosock Version, proposed by Jim Flavin (Fig. 1, left panel). This handy design is the easiest version of hydroponics; it does not need an air pump to oxygenate the water, nor expensive or specialized materials. The roots get oxygen as the water level decreases in the reservoir. The principle is shown in Fig. 1 right panel.

I encourage you to make this simple hydroponic system at home for high yields of vegetable production and little cost. This is the proper time of the year to start if you want to harvest delicious vegetables for this summer.

You will just need:

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