Hanging stars on the wall

The wall behind the sofa in our family room has been blank since we moved in to the house 11 years ago; we just never saw anything that caught our eye. Until recently, that is, when we were browsing images from the Hubble space telescope and thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have some Hubble images on this wall?”

Luckily for us, the folks at the Hubble Gallery must have had us in mind because they had a section for Wall Murals, featuring 5 different very large high-res images. We went with 30 Doradus (aka the Tarantula Nebula), the brightest star forming region in our galactic neighborhood.

Each image comes as a package of from 8 to 15 files, along with a template for making sure you get them in the proper order. Designed to be printed and then cut to fit a frame each individual file includes information about the tile, including where in the big picture the tile belongs, and a copyright release notice. The latter could be important depending on how/where you get the image printed.


Once printed you simply crop the meta info from the print and then put into your frame. In our case, we had the images printed directly on glass by Fracture so I had to crop the images before uploading them. Easy enough using the image editor of your choice, especially since the final image is a square. If you use Fracture or a similar service, make sure you remember to rotate the image 90° clockwise before uploading, since the download file from Hubble is oriented with the top of the image to the left.

We were very pleased with our experience with Fracture. The prints themselves are gorgeous. I ended up using the files intended for 16″ x 16″ prints to produce the 11″ x 11″ we went with. We might have gone for something a bit bigger, but the only larger size they offer was 23″ x 23″, which would have been a bit too large for the space we had. Delivery time was reasonable (about a week from order to door), and the prints were well packed and protected; no damage on any of them.

My only real complaint with the experience was that I could only upload one image at a time to add to the cart. But in the end, this is a minor complaint in what is overall a well designed experience.

One suggestion for the team at Fracture would be to include the uploaded file’s name on the label attached to the packing for each print. Probably isn’t a big deal in most cases, since most prints are probably easily individually recognizable, but for a “puzzle” like this it would be handy. As luck would have it, I uploaded the images in order, and the labels had a helpful “1 of 15”, “2 of 15”, etc.


Hanging the prints was a straightforward geometry problem. Center the mural horizontally with the sofa, and then have it slightly higher than center vertically between the top of the sofa and the ceiling in the room. Starting with tile #13 (bottom row, middle tile), I marked the location for the screw hanger (provided with each print). Then using a carpenter level, with 12″ measured out, marked locations for the remaining screws. (Each hanger was 12″ apart – 11″ for the print and 1″ for the distance between each print.)

Here again is where the quality of the product from Fracture proved itself. The slots for hanging on the back of each print were precisely located, all of them in exactly the same place (within the tolerance of the tape measure I was using).


Unfortunately, the location of the final installation does not lend itself to a good photo, at least not using natural light and especially not during the day when glare from the windows on the opposite wall make it impossible to get a straight on shot. Rest assured, though, that it looks as great as it sounds.

Caught the tail end of a story on…

Caught the tail end of a story on NPR about naming the newly discovered Planet 9 where someone stated, “The naming of something as important as a planet should be done by society as a whole, not a couple of guys in California drinking coffee.” My first thought was, as long as it has the name of a Roman god who really cares. But then I thought, “Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde.”

James Gleick’s “Isaac Newton” a great introduction

After reading Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle, I became very interested to learn more about some the historical figures around whom the story revolved – Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, John Wilkens, Christopher Wren, …, and Isaac Newton, the founders and early members of the Royal Society. Given my interest in physics, optics, and math, especially Isaac Newton.

Fortunately for me, James Gleick‘s biography of Newton, simply titled Isaac Newton, was published earlier that year (2003). Gleick was not new to me – both Chaos: Making a New Science and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, have a place on my bookshelves – so I had high hopes for his biography of Newton. I was not disappointed.

Chances are you’ve heard of Isaac Newton, if for nothing else than the fact that he came up with the idea of gravity when he saw an apple fall from a tree. (Which, by the way, is a vast oversimplification.) You may have even heard of his 3 laws of motion or that he invented – some might say discovered – the calculus. You may even think that he invented calculus so he could figure out his laws of motion. (As it turns out, he used geometry.)

Newton didn’t actually publish – or care to publish – his work in mathematics, or anything else, until someone else published similar work. Unlike the rest of the fellows of the Royal Society, who were interested in sharing their new found knowledge as much as possible, Newton experimented and discovered and wrote to satisfy his own curiosity, not that of anyone else.  Only in the very recent past have the many documents of Newton come to light, and it is through these many documents that Gleick tells this unique story of arguably the greatest mind ever.

Considering the subject, the book is relatively short with just under 200 pages of main text and about 50 pages of notes. It is a pretty quick read, though I did find that flipping back and forth to the end notes tended to slow me down. And if you are looking for detailed discussion and analysis of the actual content of Newton’s various writings, this is not your book.

If, however, you want to gain an understanding of what drove Newton, of why he wanted to figure things out, and get a glimpse into his incredible mind, this is an excellent book with which to begin.

Genetic engineering and autism

As far as I know, all of the arguments about the increase in autism diagnoses being too rapid to be purely genetic are based on an assumption of randomness in the process. From that perspective I must admit that it seems unlikely that you could explain the increase in autism diagnoses purely to genetics.

But is this really a random process?

This thought occurred to me yesterday when I heard a teaser for yesterday‘s Talk of the Nation on NPR, on which they had a segment titled Genetically Engineering a ‘Perfect’ Baby. In the teaser, they played a quote from one of the guests in which he said something along the lines of:

We’ve been engaged in genetic engineering for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It happens every night in bars and clubs and every where around the world, when men and women ‘select’ the mate they want to help parent their child.

Which got me thinking: What if we (humans) have been engaged in a process of informal genetic engineering – maybe more appropriately referred to as selective breeding – over the past hundred years that has contributed to the increase in autism during that time, especially of the “high-functioning”, Asperger’s type of autism? I can hear many of you, even as I type this: What the hell are you talking about? And you can bet I’ve got my fire-suit on for all the flames that are sure to come my way. But I’m serious.

Consider this: Over the past 100 years or more, the engineers, scientists, mathematicians and other technically oriented people have become more important to the success and progress of our society. As these people’s importance has grown, so has their power and their desirability as a mate. As a result, these “geeks” have more opportunities to reproduce and further the survival of geek genes. When two geeks get together, especially if they are geeky in different ways, that is even more geekiness that passes down to their children.

Or, as a good friend once put it, “Geeks are breeding more now than they used to.” I apologize for the bluntness of the statement, or if it offends, but this is how she said it. (I’ve actually used that quote before, in an August 2005 post discussing the article Scientists begin to trace autism’s genetic roots in my hometown newspaper the St. Louis Post Dispatch.)

Does anyone know of any studies that address the non-randomness of mate selection and potential impact on genetic diversity, especially as it may relate to autism? I did a quick Google search, but didn’t really come up with much.

(Back on the subject of the Talk of the Nation segment, make sure you check it out. You can also join the conversation on the subject on their blog. Some very interesting comments so far.)

Use it or Lose it

“You’ve forgotten a lot of things you used to know, haven’t you Dad?”

This astute observation from my son came at the end of an interesting conversation we had about lunar eclipses. We were driving east on I-44 in Southwest Missouri as the sun went down in the rear-view mirror. A short time later, we saw the moon coming out from behind some hills in front of us.

When I pointed the moon out to my son, he said, “It’s supposed to be a full moon tonight.” Which was odd, since what we saw appeared to be a crescent moon. “Maybe it’s just blocked by some clouds,” I tried, not really believing it myself.

Not long after, we stopped for gas. On getting back in the car, we noticed that the moon was now a “half-crescent,” something that doesn’t normally occur. Knowing now that it wasn’t the clouds I offered the only explanation I could think of – a lunar eclipse.

I explained that the shadow on the moon was actually the shadow of the earth. Having never experienced one, and obviously never exposed to it in science class, he asked what, to me, was the best question possible: How exactly do eclipses work?

I won’t bother you with the details of the discussion that followed, but we got to the point where I had to say, “I used to know how to figure that out, but I’ve forgotten.” Which, I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, led to the question I opened this post with.

Part of it may be me getting old, but I think it mostly comes down to the old saying: Use it or Lose it. Mastery – fluency – in any pursuit requires constant practice. And one of the most important things that we can master, and thus continually practice, is the ability and desire to ask questions, to figure out how the world around us works.

For a lot of great photos of the 03 March 07 total lunar eclipse from around the world, check out the ‘loony’ group on flickr.

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