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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Curiosity by Anna H. '14

What were you doing?

I almost missed the Curiosity landing.

My friend Daniel and I were looking at a presidential election quiz; a long discussion about the questions it raised sent us deep into the Internet, doing research on the history of U.S. involvement in Israel, on the Patriot act, the conflict in Sudan, etc. While reading an article, I happened to sit up straight, so that my line of sight was no longer perpendicular to the laptop screen; I was looking at it from up above, instead of face-on. I noticed that some of the colors changed: blue was now yellow, red was now cyan. This wasn’t uniformly the case: some of the blues were stil blue, some of the reds, were still red, etc.

What the heck?

The obvious next step: look at the screen from below, then from the sides. The colors didn’t change at all from the sides; when viewed from the bottom, they became more pronounced, but didn’t become different colors. For example, what looked pinkish face-on became a deep red when viewed from the bottom.

I had no idea what was going on. I asked Daniel what he thought; our best guess was “something something polarization something direction of light something something.” In other words: we had no idea what was going on.

Cue twenty minutes reading about LCDs on Wikipedia. Suddenly, Daniel grabbed the computer, and pulled the NASA homepage open; I glanced at the clock, and realized that it was 1:26pm: four minutes before the rover was due to land.

Whoops. Good call, Daniel.

Fortunately, we made it to the webcast in the nick of time, and caught the landing as well as the celebrations that ensued. “Anna,” Daniel said, sounding as awed as if we were in that control room ourselves. “We landed something on Mars.”

I read on the news that something like 3.2 million people watched that landing, 1000 of whom were standing in Times Square (I’m jealous of you, whoever you are!) I imagine it wasn’t just me and Daniel who somehow felt that it was “us” who got the rover there – that somehow it’s a victory for every human being.

So, I managed to catch the Curiosity landing, but almost missed it because I was, ironically, curious about politics and history and how LCDs work. I didn’t forget my question, either. Last night, my friend and I spent three hours (three hours – we were up until 1am) reading about molecules and light waves and pixels and something magical called the “gamma correction.” We think we figured out the answer. It’s REALLY cool – it’s directly related to how the human eye works, how images are stored on your computer, how molecules can be oriented like a spiral staircase and twist a light wave around…if you’re interested (I almost wrote “if you’re curious”, and then decided that I didn’t want to play the HOW MANY TIMES CAN YOU USE THE WORD CURIOUS IN A BLOG POST? game) I will write up an explanation below. In the meantime, comment below and answer this:

Where were you and what were you doing when Curiosity landed?