Chasing the Northern Lights in Edmonton

I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Inuvik, NT where the northern lights are relatively easy to see. I remember heading to the east channel of the Mackenzie River (a short ten minute walk from where we lived) and venturing out onto the frozen ice to gaze up at the incredible dancing aurora above. Even in Yellowknife where my parents now live, you can see the northern lights relatively frequently. Here’s an incredible shot my Dad took back in September:

Aurora Borealis at km 13 of the Ingraham Trail, Yellowknife, NT, by Martin Male

Take a few minutes and check out some of the other aurora he has captured. The lights just don’t look real!

Here in Edmonton the northern lights aren’t exactly uncommon, but you do need to work a little harder to see them than they do up north. Or at least I thought you did, until I discovered the AuroraWatch service a couple years ago!

Auroral forecast from

The award-winning AuroraWatch service was created and is operated by a team at the University of Alberta. The service monitors geomagnetic activity in the Edmonton area and can email you for free if the northern lights might be visible. At any given time, you can visit the website to see the estimated probability of witnessing the aurora borealis in the evening (their live widget is embedded to the right). There are two alert levels – yellow when the probability is above 50%, and red when the probability is above 70%.

Since it launched back in October 2007, AuroraWatch has had more than 1.2 million visitors and currently has more than 26,000 email subscribers. Since 2009, they have issued more than 175 alerts.

So how can you ensure you get a good view? Well once you’ve received your red alert, get to a better viewing location:

The best advice for viewing aurora is to look north, after dark. Just around or before midnight is an especially good time, but the northern lights can be seen in Edmonton from early evening onwards on some very active days. Inside the city, the light pollution makes dimmer auroras harder to see – so you will get a much better view if you go to a location with darker skies outside the city.

That makes sense, right? Head outside the city and you just might get an amazing photo like this one taken by local photographer Mike Isaak back in November:

Northern Lights over Elk Island
Elk Island Aurora by Mike Isaak (purchase prints here)

He posted the photo on Twitter and received more than 330 retweets and more than 280 favorites. You can see why! Mike is also a finalist in the 2014 VISTEK Emerging Photographer competition – go vote for him!

Of course, if you know when to look and how to capture it, you don’t have to go very far at all. On the same weekend in November, photographer Kevin Tuong captured this incredible shot of the northern lights over downtown:

Northern Lights over Downtown
Northern Lights over Downtown by Kevin Tuong

I didn’t think you could see them like that within the city limits, but you can! Kevin’s photo was also popular on social media, with lots of upvotes on Reddit.

The AuroraWatch site often hosts images that photographers have sent in. It sure looks like that Remembrance Day long weekend in November was a sure-thing for aurora-viewing.

AuroraWatch won the ASTech 2013 Public Awareness Award for the unique service it provides:

“We are delighted and honoured that the impact of in promoting space science and technology was recognized with this ASTech Award to the Aurora Watch team,” said principal researcher Ian Mann, noting that space weather can also have more damaging consequences on the satellite, GPS and power grid infrastructure we increasingly rely on in the 21st century.

According to Environment Canada, there’s an average of about 90 nights per year when the northern lights are visible in Edmonton, and the best month is probably September. The good thing about AuroraWatch is that you no longer need to guess which nights those are!

If you love gazing up at the aurora borealis as much as I do, go sign up for the AuroraWatch Alerts. You won’t be disappointed. Also check out @aurorawatch on Twitter.

Many thanks to Mike Isaak, Kevin Tuong, and Martin Male for letting me use their excellent work to help illustrate this story.

The Large Hadron Collider

At 4:28am EST today, scientists at CERN successfully turned on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider. After nearly 15 years of work and roughly $8 billion USD of investment, I’m sure everyone involved in the project breathed huge sighs of relief when it didn’t explode this morning.

Eventually, the collider is expected to accelerate protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts and then smash them together, recreating conditions in the primordial fireball only a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Scientists hope the machine will be a sort of Hubble Space Telescope of inner space, allowing them to detect new subatomic particles and forces of nature.

The LHC has received lots of negative publicity (but publicity nonetheless) in recent months, as some individuals feared that the collider could create a black hole that would swallow the Earth in an instant. Scientists from around the world unanimously declared that such a notion was complete nonsense. But the naysayers persisted.

Fortunately, naysayers inspire comedy on the Internet!

Here are a few funny LHC-related things I came across today:

Also funny looking though it isn’t meant to be, is the official LHC website. I didn’t know 1994 was back in style!

I think the LHC is pretty exciting (apparently Google does too, as they devoted a Doodle to it). I hope it enables all of the discoveries that scientists think it might. To learn more, check out the Wikipedia article.

My klean kanteen is green

klean kanteen Last week Sharon bought me a water bottle. More than just a simple gift though, there’s a story behind this particular water bottle. You see unlike me, Sharon actually pays attention to the news when they talk about health scares. To me it seems like there’s a new study released every day telling me that the things I am enjoying right now are going to kill me, so I tend to tune the news out. It was over one of these “health scares” that we had a disagreement, many months ago. Sharon had been reading about plastic bottles, and how they can leech dangerous chemicals. My gut reaction was that her concerns were probably exaggerated, and I told her so at the time.

Of course, it turns out she was right (she usually is). Most of the problem centres around a compound known as Bisphenol A, or BPA. In the last year, many governments have issued reports questioning the safety of the compound, including Canada. Perhaps more importantly, the private sector has jumped on the anti-BPA bandwagon, with manufacturers like Nalgene issuing statements about the chemical and launching new BPA-free products. I’m not sure there is any conclusive evidence one way or the other, but it doesn’t matter – consumers don’t want products that contain BPA.

As a result, we went shopping for a new metal water bottle for Sharon (though there are some safe plastic ones – see this article for an overview). She eventually settled on a 18oz bottle made by klean kanteen. From their about page:

Klean Kanteens are made from #304 stainless steel, the material of choice in the food processing, dairy, and brewery industries. Stainless steel is easy to clean, durable, inert, sanitary, toxin-free, and non-leaching. Klean Kanteens are the stainless steel alternative to plastics. Plastics in landfills and oceans are one of the most alarming of today’s environmental stories.

I don’t think she chose it for the brand at the time, but rather because it seemed durable, affordable, and was surprisingly light (the 18oz bottle weighs 6oz). Another plus was the relatively large mouth on the bottle, making it easy to fit ice cubes inside.

Her purchase ended up being a good one! She takes her water bottle everywhere, and it does its job very well. And because it’s made of metal instead of plastic, water stays cold forever! Just another reason to ditch your plastic bottle.

I’ve never carried a water bottle around before, but I’ve gotten used to Sharon having hers. Like most people, I don’t drink enough water. If I have a water bottle handy though, I drink more.

Which brings us back to last week and the gift. I guess Sharon decided she’d had enough of me continually commenting on how great her water bottle was and drinking all her water, so she got me my very own! I have been taking my shiny new green, 27oz klean kanteen with me for the last few days and it rocks. I fill it up with water and ice cubes in the morning, and the water stays pretty cold throughout the day. Sometimes I fill it up again. I’m definitely drinking more water than I used to (and presumably ingesting less chemicals than I might have with a plastic bottle). Thanks Sharon!

If you’re in the market for a new water bottle, I’d definitely recommend klean kanteen.

Huckabee isn't running for 8th grade

Holy crap politicians like Mike Huckabee scare me. Or more accurately, the fact that some Americans will vote for Mike Huckabee scares me. I think there should be a test you have to take if you want to run for President. One of the questions on that test should be, "do you think the Earth is 6000 years old?" Anyone who denies evolution is simply not fit to be President. End of story.

Check out this YouTube video of Bill Maher interviewing Mike Huckabee. Maher asks about one of the debates, in which Huckabee was one of three Republicans to raise his hand when asked if he did not believe in evolution. As part of his explanation, Huckabee calls the question "silly" and explains that he is "not running for 8th grade". For the sake of everyone living on this tiny marble, I sincerely hope that no one like Huckabee is elected next year.

Bush might be an idiot, but people like Huckabee are downright crazy.

Read: Digg

Hubble Space Telescope in trouble?

Post ImageMany photographs of outer space have been taken over the years, but the really impressive ones have for the most part been taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. I have learned quite a bit about the telescope thanks to the two astronomy courses I have taken this year – it is a pretty amazing piece of engineering. Needless to say, I was a little worried when I read the headline “Hubble humbled by power failure” today. Fortunately, the news isn’t that bad (and it’s a few days old too):

The main camera aboard the Hubble Space Telescope has stopped functioning due to a short circuit, NASA announced Monday.

A previously planned service mission on the Hubble to install a completely new camera was already scheduled for September 2008. The new camera, currently called the Wide Field Camera 3, will replace the downed WFPC2 and prove more powerful than the ACS was in most ways…

So it’s not really in trouble. Though I suppose the scientists won’t be happy about having to wait until next year to use the main camera. As a mere bystander I’m just happy that it is mostly operational and that it will continue to be able to bring us amazing photos and information.

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched on April 24th, 1990 and will be replaced in 2013 by the James Webb Space Telescope.

Read: CNET

Xerox is working to reduce, reuse, and recycle

Post ImageI suspect that for most people, the term “xerox” conjures up images of paper thanks to the American document management company of the same name. Xerox (the company) is more than just photocopiers and printers though – the company has a long history of research and development. And they are at it again, this time trying to apply the Three R’s to paper:

[Brinda Dalal’s] research is part of a three-year-old technology development effort to design an add-on system for an office copier to produce “transient documents” that can be easily reused. The researchers now have a prototype system that will produce documents on a specially coated paper with a light yellow tint. Currently, the process works without toner and produces a low-resolution document that appears to be printed with purple ink.

The printed information on the document “disappears” within 16 hours. The documents can be reused more quickly by simply placing them in the copier paper tray. The researchers said that individual pieces of paper had been printed on up to 50 times, and the only current limit in the process appears to be paper life.

The idea makes sense to me. Companies have already reduced the amount of paper they need to use, so Xerox sees an opportunity to help them reuse and recycle it too. The end goal is to try to reduce the amount of paper that companies actually use.

Those of you who know me fairly well are probably confused because normally I am championing the death of paper, not reading about ways to extend its lifetime. As much as I would like to have everything stored and presented digitally, I realize we’re not there yet. And, as the article points out, a complete change to bits and bytes isn’t likely to happen anytime soon:

“People really like paper,” said Eric Shrader, a computer scientist who is area manager for printing systems at the Hardware Systems Laboratory of the research center, which is known as PARC. “They like the way it feels.”

Until e-paper is perfected, this paper erasing technology Xerox is working on might work quite well indeed.

Read: CNET

Why can't we detect a nuclear blast?

Post ImageAs I am sure you are well aware, tensions in North Korea are building as the rogue state threatened more tests if additional sanctions were placed on it. I have been keeping up on the news much like everyone else, but I haven’t really taken the time to do a lot of digging to understand the situation better. As such, I pretty much consider North Korea crazy, as I fail to see how provoking a war they could not possibly win will get them anywhere. This is not 1939, and the major powers of the day are not going to roll over and give North Korea what it wants.

Despite unified international pressure to disband plans for a test, North Korea apparently tested a nuclear weapon. I say apparently, because it is not yet clear:

“The working assumption is that this was a nuclear explosion of some kind,” one intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The conventional explosion theory doesnt make a hell of a lot of sense, even for the North Koreans.”

Working assumption is an improvement from a few days ago! So here’s my question: why can’t we detect a nuclear blast?

When I say “we”, I mean the current nuclear powers, especially the United States and Russia. How could the cold war have gone on for decades without a nuclear detection system being conceived?

Maybe I am letting my ignorance show here, but it seems to me we should have the ability to detect a nuclear blast anywhere. I don’t know how the science works or anything, but I would have thought such a detection system would have been developed a long time ago. I would have thought that a country like the United States would want to know immediately if a nuclear weapon was detonated somewhere.

It just seems strange to me that North Korea can say they detonated an atomic weapon, and we have no idea whether they are lying or not.

Pluto: A Planet Again in 2009?

Post ImageAs I have said before, I think the demotion of Pluto is a good thing. I see nothing wrong in recognizing that assumptions of decades past (there are no more objects like Pluto) have been rendered false (there are in fact lots of objects like Pluto). However, as an article in The Economist points out, a lot of people seem to think Pluto should remain a planet:

Members of the public are also wielding the web. Sites such as and have been launched. Sales of “Pluto is a Planet” T-shirts are high. And a band called Jimmy and the Keyz has written a song called “They demoted Pluto”.

Okay, people are entitled their opinions. And I realize that humans can be quite sentimental. I had to laugh at how The Economist ended the article though:

Whether listening to public opinion is really the best way to arrive at scientific definitions is questionable. But there is a suspicion that the IAU’s leaders may cave in to the pressure and find an excuse to reinstate Pluto at the next general meeting, in 2009.

I find it really hard to believe that anyone will still care in three years time. I suspect most will have accepted the new system and forgotten all about the controversy.

Read: The Economist

Visualizing Information

Post ImageOne thing that really interests me is the different ways in which you can visualize information. Most often, text is simply not the best way. A picture really is worth a thousand words! Audio and video or animation of some sort can also be quite helpful in trying to comprehend something that may be difficult using just words. A good example is this post put together by Matt at the Signals vs. Noise blog:

Science presents some of the most interesting challenges for information designers. How do you help people grasp sizes, distances, and ratios that are nearly unimaginable?

You’ve got to check out some of the images he found, especially if you’re a teacher or parent. There’s some really interesting stuff! My favorite is the image of our solar system.

Read: Signals vs. Noise

Climate Change

Post ImageIf you’re friend of mine here in Edmonton, you’ve probably had the unfortunate experience of discussing climate change, especially the particular variety known as “global warming”, with me at some point. In general, I don’t dispute that the globe is warming, but I do dispute that global warming is entirely caused by humans and poses a great threat, for the simple reason that we don’t have enough data.

We can show temperatures are rising (albeit over a very short period of time, so we don’t know if it’s normal or not) but we have absolutely no clue as to why. Sure there are many thoughts and ideas, but the fact that there are so many, and that they are so varied, only proves that we have absolutely no idea why the globe is warming. To blame it all on humans releasing CO2 seems a bit premature, and I hate that people jump on the bandwagon without thinking.

Here’s another reason we don’t know: the ozone layer. You might have heard over the last couple years that the ozone layer is healing. The fact is, it healed much faster than scientists predicted. That leads to many questions – if it healed up so quick, how big was the problem in the first place? Did humans really play a big role in causing the holes? Would it have healed without us doing anything? Again, we don’t know. And if we can’t understand an event like this that has already happened (to an extent), how can we understand something ongoing like climate change?

Even the definition at Wikipedia shows we don’t understand the “why” part of climate change:

Climate change refers to the variation in the Earth’s global climate or regional climates over time. It describes changes in the variability or average state of the atmosphere – or average weather – over time scales ranging from decades to millions of years. These changes may come from internal processes, be driven by external forces or, most recently, be caused by human activities.

I came across a really interesting climate change explanation earlier today on Derek’s blog. He cites a transcript of the Planet TV Show:

According to the math, we cannot know for certain how close we are to the point of no return, until it is too late. So if you are looking for absolute proof, you will not get it unless you are willing to sacrifice everything. Because, you cannot have absolute confirmation that a catastrophic change is occurring until it has begun and cannot be stopped.

This is true of both climate cooling and climate warming. When have we reached the tipping point? We don’t know until we’re past it.

Even if our contribution of CO2 is not the main reason for climate change, it is still important that we reduce and eventually eliminate the release of CO2 from fossil fuels. If we are close to the tipping point, then any small amount of increase may be the amount that pushes us over the edge. By the same token, if we are close to the tipping point, then any small decrease will take us that much further from the edge of a catastrophic shift in climate.

Good point, and I agree we should eliminate the release of CO2 from fossil fuels.

Global warming does not pose a threat to the Earth. Nor does it pose a threat to life on this planet. Both the Earth and life on the planet will survive the effects of global warming and catastrophic climate change. What is in danger is us.

The reason it’s humans that are in danger is that climate change could lead to another ice age. Life would exist after the ice age has ended, as we have seen before. The only way the earth itself is going away is if humans blow it up, or something from space does. The full transcript is here.

I don’t think we’re in as much danger as Planet TV Show does. I have a lot of faith in human ingenuity, demonstrated throughout our relatively short history. If something related to climate change happens that might threaten our existence here on earth, I am pretty confident we’ll have already moved on to other planets or at least would be able to. That’s not to say everyone will survive, unfortunately, but I think the human race would.

There are a few main questions to ask when discussing climate change:

  • Are the temperature changes and other factors (storms increasing, etc) we are currently seeing indicative of a fluctuation (temporary) or a shift (permanent) in climate?
  • Is this fluctuation or shift natural, or caused by humans?
  • If caused by humans, are we the only cause, or just one of many factors?
  • Can we do anything about it?

The answers to these questions remain elusive. Many varied theories exist, but conclusive evidence is nowhere to be found.

I think we’ll figure it out eventually. And when we do, I would not be surprised if our contribution to climate change is but one of many factors. Maybe even a really small factor. As much as some people would like to think, humans are not the centre of the universe, nor responsible for everything that happens inside it.