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A* Episode 13 
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Completed the first A* Portrait today! The customer sent in a nice photo which translated well into a traced-over sketch:

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but they also requested that the figure be given Einstein-like hair! :o So I found this nice gallery of Einstein rocking a variety of radical hairstyles, and decided to go with the "Classic Medium Wavy," so

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Voila! Who would'a thought you could have that much fun with a $5 sketch? :D

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I neglected to plead with you to look at my "Princess and the Giant" fairy tale Sunday page from two weeks ago, so I'm going to try to steer you to it now with this tempting banner/link:

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And just so we don't have a day go by without some science (although we already had Einstein, but hey, bonus), I recently came across the BBC's Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011 contest, and specifically the video there showing the winning entries. A nice view of the Milky Way (and the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* hidden somewhere there in the middle!) features among lots of other cool stuff.


Tue Sep 13, 2011 4:29 am
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I haven't done one of these in a while, and today's page drawing went pretty smoothly (unlike, say, yesterday's--*shudder*), so here's a little animation of some steps it took in the process from really shaky storyboard (my secret shame: I never finished getting all the storyboards for this episode done, so I had to get back on that today; this was the first and it was a wee bit scratchy) to the finished art with three shading layers:

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I dunno if you watched all of the BBC video I linked yesterday showing their 2011 Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest winners, but it brought up some pretty interesting subjects that I just had to go look up!

I thought the zodiacal light photo was interesting: zodiacal light is a column of faint, very diffuse light sometimes visible in the night sky, mostly just after sunset or just before sunrise--it's due to sunlight scattering off cosmic dust in the interplanetary dust cloud, a disk of dust that extends well out past the orbit of Earth; although cosmic dust (including stardust, which is a specific type) mostly forms in the atmospheres of stars, because such dust can only float around the star for about 100 million years before it is thrown out of the system or merged into some larger body, all the dust currently in our solar system is "later generation" dust from comets, asteroids, and so forth. Here's a different photo of zodiacal light seen from Paranal, mountain site of the observatory by that name in Chile, with its famous Very Large Telescope:

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image by ESO/Y.Beletsky (source)

And although it mostly looks like a column, "in fact, the zodiacal light covers the entire sky, being responsible for 60% of the total skylight on a moonless night." And here you thought it was all from stars!

The winning BBC photo of the Vela Supernova Remnant is also really neat; from a supernova that exploded around 12,000 years ago, at 800 light years it is one of the closest supernova remnants to Earth, and one of the brightest X-ray sources in the sky. There's a really nice photo of the whispy, bubbly, ghost-like remnant over here. But the reason it's one of the brightest X-ray sources is because the core of that supernova survived to become a neutron star, the Vela Pulsar.

The Vela Pulsar is historically significant because its connection, made in 1968, with the surrounding supernova fragment, provided the first real evidence that supernovae form neutron stars. It is called a pulsar because it still has a lot of rotational and electrical energy from the supernova, which has left it spinning rapidly; this forms a very powerful magnetic field that shoots material and particles from the poles of the neutron star's magnetic axis, which is offset from its rotational axis, so emitted beams carves very rapid paths across the heavens; the Earth happens to be in one of those paths, so we see high-energy emissions from it in a series of steady, rapid pulses--the Vela Pulsar is "the brightest persistent object in the high energy gamma ray sky," sending gamma rays our way, some of which (keep in mind these are individual photons) carry energy over one billion electron volts (those rank as third overall in terms of bright gamma ray sources in the sky); "for comparison, visible light has energies between two and three electron volts." Here's a nifty animation of Vela's gamma ray pulses:

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image by Roger Romani (Stanford University) (Lead), Lucas Guillemot (CENBG), Francis Reddy (SPSYS) (source)

This Chandra X-ray image shows the superheated gas caught in the pulsar's electromagnetic vortex; it's shooting out along one of the jets in the upper right, but as you can see follows a twirling path down the length of the magnetic line, rather than moving straight:

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image by NASA/CXC/PSU/G.Pavlov et al. (source)

Multiple Chandra images have been combined into a slow animation of the gas in that jet; globs of gas moving along the jet have been clocked at about 50% light speed!

Being that bright from 959 light years away, Vela is powerful, but the closest neutron star to Earth is the rather unfortunately named Geminga, which is 815 light years away. Geminga (the name is supposed to mean things in two languages, which was rather too clever as it sounds really silly in at least one of them) was born from a supernova 300,000 years ago, and that supernova may have been the event responsible for blowing the Local Bubble in which our Solar System resides: a 300-light-year cavity in which space is only about 10% as dense (averaging "0.05 atoms per cubic centimetre") as it is in the rest of the galaxy as a whole. Geminga might also have got a lot of velocity from the explosion, as it is zipping through space at about 205 kilometers per second (about 2/3rds of 0.1% of the speed of light)--which explains why the source of our 300-light-year bubble is now over 800 light years away (although if you do the straight math on that (205 km/s * 300,000 years) it would be more like 194 light years away from the source of its detonation, but I suppose it has probably slowed a bit, and the bubble and Earth for that matter are probably also moving in various directions relative to it anyway).

Pulsars gradually run down, losing their rotational energy and thus their magnetic jets after just 10 to 100 million years, which means that 99% of the neutron stars in the Milky Way have spun down to the point where they no longer pulsate.

Here's a neat map of the sky by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope showing the positions of the Vela and Geminga pulsars, among others:

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image by NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration (source)

And I am just going to mention another that *isn't* on there: SGR 1806-20 ("SGR" stands for "Soft Gamma Repeater"; its pulsar identifier on the map would have been "PSR J1808-2024"), a magnetar, which is a name used to identify neutron stars with particularly strong magnetic fields. I've talked about magnetars before; I'm just throwing SGR 1806-20 in here because speaking of those strong gamma rays coming from Vela, SGR 1806-20, which is way farther away--50,000 light years, on the far side of the Milky Way--is responsible for the brightest event every to come to Earth from outside our solar system:

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On December 27, 2004, the radiation from an explosion on the surface of SGR 1806-20 reached Earth. In terms of gamma rays the burst was brighter than a full moon and had an absolute magnitude of around −291. It was the brightest event known to have been sighted on this planet from an origin outside our solar system. The gamma rays struck the ionosphere and created more ionization which briefly expanded the ionosphere. The magnetar released more energy in one-tenth of a second (1.3×1039 J) than our sun has released in 100,000 years (4×1026 W × 3.2×1012 s = 1.3×1039 J). Such a burst is thought to be the largest explosion observed by humans in the galaxy since the SN 1604 supernova observed by Johannes Kepler in 1604.

A similar blast within 3 parsecs (10 light years) of Earth would destroy the ozone layer and would be similar to a 12 kt of TNT (50 TJ) nuclear blast at 7.5 km. The nearest known magnetar to earth is 1E 1048.1-5937, located 9,000 light-years away in the constellation Carina.

Dang! SGR 1806-20 is the most magnetic object known; it is "only" 20 kilometers (12 miles) across, but its magnetic field "is a quadrillion times stronger than that of the Earth."


Wed Sep 14, 2011 2:54 am
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I was talking about pulsars yesterday, and one thing I mentioned was that they lose their rotational energy and magnetically powered jets after "just" 10 to 100 million years. But that relatively short life-span in astronomical terms didn't deter NASA from using pulsars to illustrate Earth's position on plaques and records that went out on the Pioneer and Voyager probes in the 70's, respectively. Designed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, the diagram of 14 pulsars around the Earth (in the lower left of the image below) could theoretically be used by someone really smart and determined to locate Earth in this part of the Galaxy:

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image by NASA (source)

The dashes along the lines pointing to the pulsars is their frequency in binary code, in time units of the spin-flip transition of neutral hydrogen (the frequency at which the spin quantum mechanical property of hydrogen atoms changes, which is illustrated to the right of the pulsar map); the length of the line is their relative distance (although if they'd wanted to be really clever they'd have somehow shown that in units of spin-flip frequency length...), and "tick marks" at the end of each line are supposed to show the pulsar's Z coordinate relative to the galactic plane. Pshew! They'd have to be pretty smart aliens to figure all that out--and to line it up with whatever they could see of some of those pulsars from wherever they are--but hey, we only want the smart aliens coming here, I suppose.

That was printed on the inside and outside of the cover (since the outside might get dinged up by micrometeorites, etc) of the Golden Records included on the Voyager probes. The diagrams above the pulsar map are supposed to show a very smart person how to make a machine that would play back the data on the record, which contained "116 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind, and thunder, and animal sounds, including the songs of birds and whales" and "musical selections from different cultures and eras, spoken greetings in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Jimmy Carter and U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim."

The diagrams really embody both Sagan's positive belief in the existence of intelligent life in other parts of the galaxy, and his sort of constructivist approach to science, where he liked to start with basic principles and build up from there. This is best embodied, I think, in his story of how to make an apple pie, as heard in this catchy remix:



Here's what the record itself looks like:

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image by NASA (source)

Despite the popular name it has gained, the record was mostly non-gold: "The record is constructed of gold-plated copper. The record's cover is aluminium and electroplated upon it is an ultra-pure sample of the isotope uranium-238. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.51 billion years. It is possible that a civilization that encounters the record will be able to use the ratio of remaining uranium to daughter elements to determine the age of the record."

I'd say if they can figure out the pulsar bit, the uranium puzzle should be...easy as pie! =p


Thu Sep 15, 2011 1:17 am
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As I lay in bed this morning trying to get back to sleep, a new vein of humor comics popped into my head. And I want to get them out, but I don't seem to manage to have time to do a Sketchy comic, A* comic, A* sciencey blog thing, AND one of these other comics every day. So the blog, being the weak link there, will be switching gears for a bit as I get these gag comics done. They'll be compiled in my One Off humor comic site, but I'm also going to put them in the A* blog because eh otherwise I won't have much put here! Also, their pseudoscience may provide a nice contrast to A*'s attempts at hard science. AND they'll be giving me additional drawing practice with the Lasso Tool technique I use on A*, which can only be a good thing for this comic.

So anyway, I give you the first in a little series I'm calling The Irresponsible Diagnoses of Lance Murdoch, Unqualified Psychoanalyst:

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Yay! Okay but I am going to sneak in some quick science bits today:

- Generally I try to avoid posting about extrasolar planets people are discovering these days, because there are so many of them, and because the conclusions reached about their size and surface conditions and so forth are generally based on very, very scanty data. But anyway, I thought it was interesting that NASA's Kepler mission has just announced the discovery of the first known planet to orbit two stars; apparently a planet orbiting a binary star like this is called a "circumbinary planet"; and this one, although its current official designation is Kepler-16b, appears to have been nicknamed "Tatooine" already, after the planet in the Star Wars movies that had two suns in its sky.

- NASA has just come out with the plans and proposed budget for their new rocket, the one that would be used to go to Mars and so forth. The really boringly named "Space Launch System" (although I guess "SLS" sounds okay) will/would be somewhat larger even than the huge Saturn V rockets used in the Apollo program (the one that sent people to the Moon), and the program to develop and launch this massive liquid hydrogen & liquid oxygen-powered astronaut-launcher would cost about $35 billion. If, that is, Congress approves it, which... Well, I guess we'll see how that goes.

- And that reminded me of this article I noticed back in May (and which has been wasting away at the bottom of my large blog topic backlog all this time :p) about the crew vehicle that would be launched on the SLS, namely the "Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV)" (ew, now that name is just dull no matter how you slice it--unless I suppose you stick "Orion" on the front of it, which people seem to have started doing--it was originally going to be part of the proposed "Orion" spacecraft "in the now-cancelled Constellation program"); it's supposed to be about twice as roomy as the capsules used back in the Apollo program, so it could carry six astronauts, rather than just three. (Although I'd think it might be nice to carry just three astronauts, but give them more breathing space for these much longer proposed space flights.)

- And here's a video showing what might be a "fireball"--that's the official name for a basketball-sized asteroid that smacks into Earth's atmosphere and leaves a blazing trail across the sky as it disintegrates. This one was widely seen in the sky in the American Southwest in the past day or so.


Fri Sep 16, 2011 2:23 am
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Well I'm going to do some science bloggertry today rather than another Lance Murdoch, Unqualified Psychoanalyst comic, because it's late, and it's the weekend, darn it. Although I will be doing my weekend comic, The Princess and the Giant, this Sunday, and oh gosh look here's a teaser/link to last week's page just in case you missed it:

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Oh yeah, part of the reason it's so late as I write this is because today's A* page was a fussy one. For instance, here are various attempts at layouts/finishes for just this page:

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And that's not even taking my various shading attempts into account! Dar!

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When I was looking up the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope the other day--that's the orbiting instrument that made that all-sky map of various pulsars--I came across something somewhat mind-blowing AND directly A*-related! It seems that a year or so ago, some folks at NASA or wherever were taking that sky map of gamma ray emissions and basically Photoshopping it in various ways to see if they could find interesting structures or patterns that weren't immediately obvious, and they came up with this:

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image by NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT/D. Finkbeiner et al. (source)

in which, you'll notice, two gigantic, bulbous gamma-ray emitting lobes appear above and below the galactic center. Extrapolating from that data, what they came up with was this (artist's interpretation):

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image by NASA (source)

They call them Fermi bubbles, and they are areas 25,000 light years tall (that's the same distance from Earth to A* at the galactic center, by the way!), radiating out in elongated spherical shapes from approximately the top and bottom of supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* at the center of the Milky Way. The gamma rays they're emitting come from collisions of highly energetic electrons with low-energy photons (radio and infrared light).

They don't know what generated these structures, but it seems likely to have had something to do with A*--possibly from huge jets of energy thrown out from the poles of the supermassive black hole millions of years ago, when it was feeding on a lot of material swirling into the center of the galaxy. And the curving shapes of the lobes make me wonder if those particles are still trapped in magnetic field lines anchored on the black hole.

Here's NASA's video about the Fermi bubbles:

[nasavid]147ecfb86039bffd873402785d06abf1[/nasavid]


Sat Sep 17, 2011 5:23 am
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Fresh from the pages of my occasional oneoff.smbhax.com humor comic, it's The Continuing Diagnoses of Lance Murdoch, Unqualified Psychoanalyst!

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Man I bet that's unoriginal! I was too scared to try Googling it. :o

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I was looking up A* on alexa.com (>_>) and found some other sites have linked to me that I didn't know about! And because I love love looove it (but really, I do like it) when people link to me, I'm going to tell you about them!

- Eh well three sites, even one in Japanese, linked images of Chernobyl that I posted back in these news articles.

- The blog "A Bureaucracy of One" wrote some nice things about A* (this was back when I was fresh off meeting Phil Foglio and was more or less off my head because he'd said he read A* :o...and yes I am still name-dropping that almost a year later :PP).

- Poster RGE linked to A* from a comment on an interesting comic-style animated "explanation" of "dark matter" here on the blog "krazy kimchi."

- Poster Versatek6 included A* in a linked list of webcomics in a post on this Twilight Lady webcomic page.

- Someone cool put a nice little banner link to my Sunday Princess and the Giant comic up on the Comics page of Kymation.com.

- The author of Forsaken Stars (which is a pretty interesting black and white sci-fi webcomic) linked to the Princess from this list of webcomic nominations in a blog entry on his site.

- Anna Moritz's Photo Blog has a "gallery" link (warning: high bandwidth) to the "Journey into a black hole" thread on the A* forum, where there are a lot of neat space pictures I've posted before.

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Oh and I happened across this interesting radiation dose chart by Randall Munroe, who does a little webcomic you may have heard of called "xkcd." The chart gives a visual idea of the scales of radiation exposures, ranging from what you get from sleeping next to someone (:o), through things like a chest X-ray, exposure in various places at Chernobyl and Fukushima, all the way up to the fatal dose amount. It's a little hard to read all at once since it sort of "zooms out" like three times, but it puts things in an interesting perspective nonetheless.


Tue Sep 20, 2011 1:54 am
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WELL!

So there IS a woman under all that cold efficiency! Too bad ... wonder what would happen if Selenis ever actually let herself 'feel' something... about someone other than herself?

...Answer: Mother would kill that clone.

But honestly... very nice scenes... full of tenderness and emotion! We Approve! :)


Tue Sep 20, 2011 7:02 am
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Aw, thanks! Enjoy it while it lasts! =D


Tue Sep 20, 2011 6:29 pm
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I'm now accepting Character Art Commissions! (That link is always accessible from the "store" link in the site's top menu.)

Got a beloved character from a movie, book, comic (even A*! :o), or just from your own head? Send me a description and $25 using the simple online form, and I'll draw them just for you, doing whatever you want! The detail level would be something like this:

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--although that would just be the small, low-res version I'd add to my portfolio; the person who commissions me gets the full, high-resolution version suitable for making a nice print, wallpaper, or...whatever they want to do with it!

So if you've ever wanted me to draw something that I just haven't drawn yet, this is how you can make me do it. :)

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I was encouraged to think of and launch this art commission thing due to the relative success of the $5 photo-based portraits I started offering a few weeks ago. Thanks to everyone who's had me do one for them. :) Here's the latest--it was a pretty fun expression to work from (nice lighting, too!):

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The expression, pose, and lighting actually kind of reminded me of this drawing of Vero from A* episode 4. :D


Wed Sep 21, 2011 4:59 am
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I'm going to try to go back to doing two A* pages a day.

That will probably mean one in the evening and one in what will technically be the morning of the next day. I'll post a link to every new page on Facebook and on Twitter as soon as each one goes up, so follow me on one of those if you'd like to get notification immediately when there's a new page! Or you could just reload the front page of the site every few hours, I don't mind. :D

I'll probably only manage one page on most Fridays, since that's the one evening of the week when I peel myself off the computer and go hang out with my poor neglected friends. And if you were following the comic back when I was doing two pages a day before (that was prior to this latest episode, more or less), you'll know that there will just be days here and there where something will come up and I'll only manage page. But still, it should be mostly two pages a day.

I don't want to sacrifice visual quality, but I think I've gotten faster lately--I had to when I switched to a standing desk mid-episode, because I couldn't stand and draw for very long! :o--so I think I have a shot at pulling this off semi-decently. And there's a certain brisk energy my two-a-day pages sometimes had that my one-a-day pages are sometimes lacking, if that makes sense. And I worry less about the pacing if I can get two pages done a day; with just one a day, I feel much less comfortable doing sort of dramatic pauses and glances and all that--which are things I really want to be able to do; I've already found myself cutting pages a few times in this episode to move things along, and I don't like doing that.

I haven't got *that* much faster at drawing, though, and I don't want to feel *too* rushed and sloppy as I try to get two pages out, so I'm going to have to cut down on a few non-A*-comic things I've been doing.

For one thing, I'm pausing what had been my other daily comic, Sketchy. It's a nice warm-up each day and I do have some fun with it, but even drawing it as hastily as possible, it still takes a measurable chunk of each work day--and while there are maybe a few dozen really lovely people who follow it (thank you!!!), A* has at least 100 times more readers, so Sketchy is looking like a not-all-that-clever use of my time. Alas, poor Sketchy!

I also probably won't have nearly as many lengthy semi science/research blog entries, since those actually take quite a bit of time to prepare. I'll miss doing that, because I really do enjoy looking into interesting space science things or whatever, and posting nice big cool photos of them, but I'm pretty sure 99% of A* readers are here primarily--or even exclusively--for the comic, so that's probably what I should concentrate on.

It's possible this won't work out at all, in which case I'll happily be able to resurrect Sketchy, and do more in-depth blog articles. But for now I'll be trying this two-a-day thing again.

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And I don't have a nice photo sciencey article or new Lance Murdoch (Unqualified Psychoanalyst) comic today 'cause I spent the rest of my time switching the "portfolio" page for my photo-based portraits from a regular old HTML page to a nice tidy script-generated display that will update itself so I don't have to muck with my text editor every time I make a new drawing. It doesn't look any different at the moment--except for being centered--but once it gets more than a certain number of images in there--the default is currently set to 20--it will automatically split them into sorted displays across multiple pages. And that sounds dumb and boring but I'm actually quite pleased with it because split-page lists have always scared me and I'd avoided trying them up until now. =P (If you do want to see the simple split-page listing I'm so inordinately pleased with, you can see it if you set the per-page image limit to something small, like one.)


Thu Sep 22, 2011 5:15 am
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