March 2010

First impressions: Nikon 105mm macro lens

Nikon macro lens Last week I bought another new lens — Nikon’s 105mm macro lens. (That makes seven, in case you’re wondering.) I took advantage of the Henry’s eBay channel and got it for more than $200 less than it would have normally cost, but it’s still the most expensive lens I’ve ever bought. (I have another lens that costs more new, but I bought it used.) It’s also the heaviest: at 750 grams, it weighs more than the camera it’s attached to. The thing is a tank — no surprise there, it’s a professional, full-frame lens.

I’ve had a chance to run it through its paces a bit; here are my test shots. I bought this lens for four purposes: as a macro lens (natch), as a portrait lens, as a fast telephoto prime, and for astrophotography. I haven’t gotten good results using it for macro photography: a fast macro lens isn’t much good, because there’s absolutely no depth of field at f/3, so I need to stop it down and throw some more light at my target (one of these will probably be necessary at some point). There’s a lot of focus travel, so it can be a bit challenging keeping moving snakes in focus; I imagine I’ll be suffering some frustrations there. But as a portrait lens and telephoto prime, it’s fantastic — so scary-sharp that I can crop like crazy and still end up with a great image. I haven’t tested it for wide-field astrophotography yet, but I’m betting the ED glass will yield good results.

I expect to use this lens a lot — a good thing considering how expensive it is. Probably the last lens I buy for a while. (Yes, you can point to this blog entry later on if I backtrack on that statement.)

Observing sunspots

Solar observing I bought a solar filter a year and a half ago, but I had the bad luck to do so at the height of the solar minimum — i.e., I bought a filter specifically for the purpose of viewing sunspots at the point when sunspots were at their most scarce. Not only that, it was the most minimal solar minimum in nearly a century.

So every so often I would attach the filter to the telescope, point the telescope at the sun, and see if there were any spots. The technical term for what I saw was “bupkis.” In all of astronomy, there is nothing less interesting than using a solar filter to view the sun when there are no sunspots — it’s just a featureless ball.

First sunspot I had since heard that sunspots and prominences were returning as the solar cycle progressed, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to check it out for myself until yesterday, when I finally saw my first sunspot. Just one, and it wasn’t very big. Naturally, I tried to take a photo, which turned out less well than I had hoped: there was a lot of atmospheric shimmer, and it was hard to get the scope into focus with the camera attached. And I had to guess at the right exposure; I was usually too long, and therefore too bright — at 1/50th of a second, the sunspots were washed out, but I had better results at 1/250 s.

But at the very least it gave me a baseline for future attempts. Next time, I’ll try it with the focal reducer, to reduce the size of the sun’s image — it nearly filled the frame, which made it hard to center, and probably bumped up against the scope’s coma and curved field. With the reducer, I’ll have to take even shorter exposures as well.

And who knows? There might be more sunspots next time.

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Victor Batzel, 1935-2009

I learned last week that Victor Batzel, one of my history professors at the University of Winnipeg, died last year. It was only a one-line notice in the University’s alumni magazine, so I did a little investigating.

Dr. Batzel died of pulmonary fibrosis on January 1, 2009 at the age of 73; he was a smoker when I knew him. He taught me philosophy of history, a required course for honours history students, in the spring of 1992, when he was wrapping up his term as department chair. Having Vic Baztel as your teacher was fun. Voluble, personable, ebullient, and most of all alive, he was a teacher first and foremost, and a damn good one, in a department full of damn good teachers. “His lecture style was highly kinetic. We joked that if you cut off his arms he wouldn’t be able to say a thing,” says the knowing obituary, which details his volunteer life as much as, if not more than, his academic accomplishments, and nails his larger-than-life personality. (See also the University’s press release.)

Not only that, you knew he gave a shit about you. It was a point he made clear in a conversation we had outside on the campus grounds, where he, chatting with someone else, pointed at me and said, “he’s our graduate program” — making the point that, at the University of Winnipeg, almost entirely an undergraduate institution, majors and honours students got the attention that only graduate students would get elsewhere. If anything, he was understating things: nowhere else did I get the faculty attention and support I got during my undergrad years from the U of W’s history professors, even when I was a Ph.D. student. Professors like Batzel — and Bailey, and Stone, and Young, all now retired — did that for us.

Ghibli Museum

The Ghibli Museum — essentially a theme park for Hayao Miyazaki movies, located in a suburb of Tokyo — sounds wonderful: Totoro’s at the ticket booth, there are Laputan robots on the rooftop garden, and the very-dangerous sounding gift shop is named Mamma Aiuto! Read Maki’s account of her visit; the museum prohibits indoor photography, but she has some photos on Flickr of places where she could take them. Too bad I don’t travel well, or speak Japanese: sigh. Via Rebecca Blood.

Snake versus sauropod

Modern snakes raid nests all the time, looking to make a meal of everything from bird and reptile eggs to baby rodents. It looks like they’ve been doing this for a while, if this fossil of a snake raiding a dinosaur nest is any indication. The 3.5-metre snake, a newly described species called Sanajeh indicus, was raiding a titanosaur nest 67 million years ago. Being sauropod dinosaurs, titanosaurs were quite large (some exceeded 100 tons), but the fossil titanosaur hatchling is only half a metre long, and quite manageable for a snake of Sanajeh’s size. The fossil was originally unearthed in 1984, but it was only later that the snake’s skeleton was identified for what it was — an intruder! — rather than more bones from a long-necked sauropod. (The article also discusses Sanajeh’s place in snake evolution, particularly in terms of the development of wide gapes.) Summary at New Scientist; via Clint.

Previously: Titanoboa, terror of the Eocene.