A Unique Friendship

Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo of his excitement about “the modern portrait,” a picture that renders character not by the imitation of the sitter’s appearance but through the independent, vivid life of color. Van Gogh’s subject in this painting, Joseph Roulin, worked for a post office in the French town of Arles. He was not a letter carrier but rather held a higher position as an official sorting mail at the train station. Van Gogh and Roulin lived on the same street in Arles and develop a strong bond. Van Gogh eventually painted a total of 25 portraits of Joseph Roulin and his family.

Joseph Roulin, 1888 by Vincent Van Gogh Credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

While working on the above portrait of Roulin, van Gogh wrote to his brother, “I am now at work with another model, a postman in blue uniform, trimmed with gold, a big bearded face, very like Socrates.” Indeed, the modest postman has all the authority of an admiral.

The picture shown below, which van Gogh boasted of having completed quickly in a single session, was painted after Roulin got a better-paying job and left Arles. Some scholars think that this portrait was not painted from life but rather from memory or from previous portraits.

Joseph Roulin, 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh Credit: Kroller-Muller Museum

Vincent recognized Roulin’s qualities as an honest father to his family, a charitable and a good man. Indeed he proved to be a close friend of Van Gogh. Roulin wrote letters to Vincent’s brother Theo keeping him updated on his brother’s condition. He also kept writing to Vincent after he was admitted to the institution in Saint-Rémy.

Thanks to the old postman and his family – to their kindness toward this eccentric and troubled painter – Van Gogh was able to produce some of his best loved works.

This black and white photograph of Joseph Roulin was taken a few months before his death in 1903. It is an extraordinary confirmation of the painter’s impression.

You can get a better impression of this unique friendship by reading one of Joseph Roulin’s letters to Vincent like this one from August 19, 1889 from the Van Gogh Museum:








Hitchhiking to Mars

NASA’s InSight Mars lander is not traveling alone. Two small briefcase size spacecrafts, nicknamed “Wall-E” and “Eva” are hitching a ride as the first CubeSats to visit another planet.

NASA illustration two CubeSats at Mars

A CubeSat is a miniatized satellite for space research made up of multiple cubic units. CubeSats became very popular in the 2000’s for applications such as communications, tracking shipping or performing Earth observation.  Until now, all of them have stayed closed to our home planet.

The Mars twin CubeSats, officially called MarCO-A and B, flew on the same Atlas V rocket that sent InSight into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 4, 2018.

Insight lifting off Credit: Ben Smegelsky/NASA

Serving as scouts, the CubeSats will have a front-row seat of the show. Theywill follow InSight on its interplanetary trajectory to Mars and attempt to track the larger spacecraft’s descent and landing on Mars in late November.

Both CubeSats have already phoned home shortly after their release, indicating that their solar panels are providing enough charge in their batteries to deploy their own solar arrays, stabilize themselves, pivot toward the Sun and turn on their radios.

Both MarCos use a compressed gas commonly found in fire extinguishers to push themselves through space, the same way Wall-E did.

Movie still of Wall-E and Eve Credit: Pixar

In addition to charging their own batteries, the twins’ delicate electronics will also need to withstand bursts of radiation on their way to Mars.

If all goes according to plan, InSight will reach its destination in a little less than seven months. If the twins make it they will provide a welcome set of extra eyes as InSight tries to stick its landing on Mars.

This will be a crucial first test of CubeSat technology beyond Earth’s orbit, demonstrating how they could be used to further explore the solar system.

Hatching Stink Bugs

Husni Che Ngah photographed newly hatched stink bug nymphs around their empty egg shells. (Credit: Husni Che Ngah/Biosphoto)

They’re creepy when they buzz loudly past you towards light sources and produce an extremely pungent odor when disturbed, but stink bugs live their lives content to feed on plants and would rather not encounter you.

There are more than 200 species of stink bugs in North America. Adults are usually some shade of green, tan, or gray-brown.

After mating, the female lays batches of 20 to 30 eggs, depositing them on the underside of plant leaves. Her eggs look like tiny barrels and are light green in color to blend in with their surroundings and avoid predators. Sometimes the eggs are pearly white at first, turning pink later. On top of each egg is a circle of white projections.

A single female can lay up to 300 eggs in a single season.

Stink bug nymphs and their eggs on underside of citrus leaf Photo credit: Project
Stink bug nymphs and their eggs Credit: pinimg.com
Macrophoto of hatching stink bug by Adolf Abi-Aad/Flickr.com

The eggs hatch in four to five days, marking the beginning of the nymph stage. A small triangle on each egg shell is used by the nymph as a knife to cut the shell open. Stink bug nymphs usually remain gregarious for a short period of time after hatching, as they begin to feed and molt.

The time lapse video below shows live bugs in their egg shells © 2012 by Tim Doyle







NASA Superstar Peggy Whitson

Peggy Whitson at a press conference in Kazakhstan in November 2016 Credit: Getty Images

Peggy Whitson was born on February 9th, 1960 in Mount Ayr, Iowa. In 1981 she graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. Then, in 1985, she graduated from Rice University with a doctorate degree in biochemistry. After her graduation, she continued on at Rice as a post-doctoral fellow for another year.

Peggy Whitson spent a number of years working at NASA before she first went to space. In 1989, Whitson joined NASA as a research biochemist. She served in this role for three years before she became a technical monitor, a job she held from 1991 through 1992. Then, in 1992, she became the project scientist of the Shuttle-Mir Program. Whitson subsequently worked in NASA’s Medical Sciences Division and then became the co-chair of the U.S.-Russian Mission Science Working Group.

It was in August 1996 when Peggy Whitson began training to become an astronaut. This took two years, and her first mission was in 2002.

Whitson was a crew member on Expedition 5, which launched on June 5th, 2002. She was one of two flight engineers.  She subsequently spent 184 days in space, also completing a 4 hour and 25 minute spacewalk. Then, in 2007, Whitson was a crew member on Expedition 16, and this time she spent 192 days in space.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson during her 7th space walk January , 2017 Credit: NASA Photo

Whitson shows how dreams become reality, becoming the first female commander of the International Space Station and serving a record 665 days in space. She served as commander twice and also holds the record for most space walks by a woman (10), most hours outside the vehicle (60) and oldest woman in space (57). She was supposed to return to Earth in June 2017 but happily accepted the opportunity to stay on another three months when Russia’s space organization Roscosmos pulled its crew back from participation in a mission to the ISS earlier that year.

Expedition 50 NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson smiles as she listens to a reporter’s question ahead of the final qualification exams with fellow crew mates Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, on October 25, 2016 at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) in Star City, Russia. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
Commander Whitson inside Unity module on ISS Credit: NASA photo
Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson conducting a cardiac stem cell experiment in Microgravity Science Glovebox Credit: NASA photo
Peggy Whitson conducting spacewalk training at NASA Johnson Space Center Credit: NASA Photo

Truly a NASA superstar Whitson encourages aspiring astronauts to get education in science, math and engineering.

Want more information?  Watch this interview with Commander Whitson on Connections to Science from Iowa Public Television:


Photo History of Eyeglasses

I thought it would be fun to look at the changes made to eyeglasses throughout the ages.

The first pair of what we would consider eyeglasses appeared in the late 1400s in Pisa, Italy. These eyeglasses actually looked like two small magnifying glasses (made with convex-shaped glass) riveted together at the top of their handles. The Museum of Vision notes that early eyeglasses were mostly used by monks and scholars.

Conrad von Soest, The Glasses Apostle, 1403

Lorgnettes were popular in France. A lorgnette is, quite simply, a pair of spectacles mounted on a handle.  It was an indispensable accessory for the 19th century lady about town.

Lady with lorgnette by Unknown Artist

The rarest, and most expensive, lorgnettes are those commissioned to have a watch embedded within the handle.

Vintage lorgnette

As the 19th Century ended, tastes changed toward more inexpensive, everyday spectacles such as the pince-nez. French for “pinch nose,” the pince-nez was first developed in France circa 1840 and began to be imported to America after the 1850s. Their popularity was helped by political figures such as Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge who wore them regularly.

Trade card showing pince-nez

The American Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing bifocals in the mid 1700s. He split one lens in half, with the upper part being made for distance viewing and the lower part for near viewing. Antique Spectacles notes that Franklin wrote to London philanthropist George Whatley in May 1785, “As I wear my own glasses constantly, I have only to move my eyes up or down, as I want to see distinctly far or near, the proper glasses being always ready.”

Benjamin Franklin

For most of the 1940s, round circle sunglasses with thick plastic frames were the trendy fashionable look.

Some people are famous for their eyeglasses like:

John Lennon
Dame Edna rhinestone glasses Tim Whitby Getty Images
Steve Jobs, 2008 AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Woody Allen
Iris Afpfel hsn:Instagram

What’s new:  smart glasses are wearable computer glasses that add information alongside or to what the wearer sees.

Apple smart glasses Credit: Shutterstock
Chinese police woman wearing smart glasses to access instant intellienge. Credit: AFP




Going with the Glow

Photo by Xiaohan Wang Note: This image has been digitally enhanced to make the colors more vibrant.

Xiaoham Wang first noticed the impressive central band of the Milky Way Galaxy. Stopping to take the photograph shown above, he noticed the image also had airglow bands,which were quite prominent spanning the entire sky.

What is airglow? Airglow is a layer of nighttime light emissions caused by chemical reactions high in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is caused by a variety of reactions involving oxygen, sodium and OH molecules (oxygen bonded to hydrogen).

Airglow is an example of chemiluminescence – the production of light in a chemical reaction.

Unlike Auroras airglows happen all of the time anywhere in the world, but they are usually hard to see. A disturbance — like an approaching storm — may cause noticeable rippling in the Earth’s atmosphere. The bands and patches of an airglow can shift and vary over minutes.

Green light from excited oxygen atoms dominates the glow. Another airglow component is the familiar yellow light from sodium atom.  Excited OH molecules emit red light.

Here are some other beautiful examples:

Airglow fan near Milky Way Galaxy above lake next to Bryce Canyon in Utah Photo by Dave Lane
Airglow in Loveland Pass Colorado by Bryce Bradford/fFlickr.com
Airglow in the skies over Tibet. Photo by Jeff Dai following some powerful


A New Way of Looking at the Space-time Continuum

Photographer and artist Stephen Wilkes’ latest project, “Day to Night,” takes on the idea of showcasing, in one composite still image, the transformation of a place over the course of a day.

Pont del a Tournelle, Paris Photo by Stephen Wilkes

As Wilkes explains, “When you can capture an image on a silicon chip versus a piece of film you can see it instantly, that’s the first thing.”  So Wilkes can take more than 2,000 photographs without moving his cameras over a 12 to 15 hour period. (He has one camera recording daylight; the other night.) Once he has all of the images, he picks the best moments of the day and the night to create what he calls a master plate.

This is not time lapse photography. The work is done using layers and Photomerge in Photoshop seamlessly blending them into one single photograph, where time is on a diagonal vector, with sunrise beginning in the bottom right-hand corner. That process of editing to create a single image can take about four months — though it’s photographed in a single day.

London Photo by Stephen Wilkes

Wilkes works with a master printer in New York and actually prints on conventional photographic paper because of the depth perception.

Day to Night Coney Island Photo by Stephen Wilkes

National Geographic Society has hired Wilkes to photograph the national parks.  Here is one of his latest:

Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park. Photo by Stephen Wilkes

The power of digital photography is its ability to share emotion through an image. Wilkes’s goal is to show the face of time, which is an amazing emotional thing for people to experience.

To see more of Stephen Wilkes photography go to