My protoplanetary disk in Blender3D

A protoplanetary disk is, in my opinion, a stupid word that means something very sweet … it just means a solar system in its infancy, when it’s still a baby, still developing. But instead of just calling it a “baby solar system” or, to be more regal, an “infant solar system”, they had to christen it with an ugly, long, totally unnecessary name. It makes it sound like a super foreign, enormously complex idea: what else could a protoplanetary disk be, if not something that you can only understand if you spend many years getting a PhD? Really, it’s a pretty straightforward, though! It’s an infant solar system. But the people getting their PhDs in this have to pretend that their research is sooooo complicated and would go over all your heads, and therefore … we’re stuck with a “protoplanetary disk”.

I should make one more note: I said a protoplanetary disk is “sweet”. It’s sweet because it’s a baby in a sense. But they’re not actually all that sweet. They’re like violent places full of collisions.

Any case, I made one in Blender 3D. This right here was the image I tried to mimic. And this is what mine ended up looking like:

protoplanetary disk0062

Isn’t it nice??!! You can see it spinning in animated form here.

The spinning might be a little fast.

I made this 3D model on my own. I mean, there’s not tutorial out there titled, “How to build a protoplanetary disk in Blender”. So I had to skulk around in several different tutorials and get tips from each to figure out how I was going to do this. One of the few times I’ve completely improvised my Blender work when it comes to a more complicated object. Makes me proud when I experiment and do this. One tutorial in particular that got me started on some ideas was this one on making clouds.

Once I got the basic shape, this is what it looked like:

protoplanetary draft 1

It’s got the concentric circles, but it’s a bit too solid.

So I changed the material a bit, tried to make it transparent, and …

protoplanetary draft 2

This made the disk look a little more insubstantial, which is what I wanted. On the other hand, it made it look like there was a stump in the middle. There was actually no stump there, but this particular material, combined with the light source, produced the aspect of one.

So I finally just cut out some of the vertices in the center of the disk. And also, I changed the way I was setting up the light source. At first, I had set up a sun lamp right over the disk, and let it shine down onto the center. But once I carved out the hole in the disk, I got rid of the sun lamp; added an icosphere in the gap left by the hole; gave it an emission shader; and then amped up the strength a whole bunch.

So again, it ended up looking like this:

protoplanetary disk0062
Protoplanetary disk built in Blender 3D.

This is how I got there:


First, this is what the model looks like in Blender: you can see both the disk and the “sun” in the center.

protoplanetary model


The disk is just a plane, extruded upwards a bit, with several modifiers on it. Here you see all of them:

protoplanetary modifiers

I added a subsurface modifier between all the others not because I knew what I was doing, but because I saw someone do that in a tutorial. So it seemed like an impressive thing to do.

Here’s what the parameters of the wave modifier look like:

protoplanetary wave

Here is the Displace modifier parameters, along with the linked texture:

And finally the Simple deform modifier. This one was super fun! I tried out the Bend, Twist, Taper, and Stretch options, each in its turn, and it was so cool to see the results.

protoplanetary simple deform


Like I said, I added an icosphere to put in the middle of the disk, and then this is the material I assigned it. Simple and straightforward: an emission shader, a yellow color, and a high strength of 100. I deleted all the other lights.

protoplanetary lighting

Disk material

The material to color the disk did not end up so complicated at all. Here are the nodes:

protoplanetary material

World material

For the world material, I used a background image:

protoplanetary world material

The background image I used is located in the description provided for this YouTube tutorial. That particular YouTube tutorial is what I used to make the first animation in this Twitter thread.

Animate the disk

To make the disk spin, there’s two things you need to do.

  1. First, go to the wave modifier and make sure the speed is set to 0. Otherwise, the disk will spin all by itself, and no matter if I turned the speed up or down, it was rotating way too fast.
  2. Now you can manually animate the disk by adding keyframes. Save the position at the beginning of the animation, and then go forwards on the timeline, spin the disk however much you want (press R-shift-z; the shift-z will make sure the “R” for rotate doesn’t cause the disk to wobble up and down), and then keyframe the new position.

And that’s it! My approach to making a protoplanetary disk in Blender.

Scicomm made polished, part 3

I finished a new animated Twitter thread for work. This one is on planet collisions. Woah!

You can see it here. It’s nine tweets in all.

I wrote about getting feedback on  my animated Twitter threads earlier. I was sad because I was told about how bad and unpolished my work was.

Well, after all my whining and complaining, I did the teacher’s pet, good-girl act of “let me learn from my mistakes” and “take the feedback to heart”. I decided to act all mature and pretend I was happy to be told I sucked. While making the new Twitter thread on planet collisions, I paid attention to the backgrounds and colors I was using. I worked on it for a month, and tweeted it out last Thursday. It was in fact my last act at work before becoming a Coronavirus refugee.

protoplanetary disk0062
This is supposed to represent a solar system in its infancy.

Then I sent this new thread to one of the people who had given me feedback. What do you think now? And in a very cutesy, inspiring turn of events (thankfully), I was told: this looks great! Big improvement! Nice job!

Isn’t that nice?

Further: that the colors and similarities in style between the different animations makes it much more evident that they all go together. That they have a relationship to each other through the color choices or the dark background.

lava flow0071
Lava flow.

You know what, though, I don’t know that I can fully appreciate my own work. I, for example, thought there should be something distinctively consistent in the background for each animation — something I wasn’t able to ensure. But upon receiving my feedback, that was when it first dawned on me that just the simple consistency of a dark background in each animation was enough — nothing fancier than that. So I still have a lot to learn, but it’s definitely nice to receive praise, and I think if I iterate this cycle of experimentation on my part, and feedback from others, I learn little nuggets of insight at a time.

As always, I use Blender3D to make these animations.

Honest feedback from kids

When I make animations with kids, part of the point is that other kids will want to watch the stories and learn something about the environment and about science on the way.

Well, after I had finished “When Anders, Dilsa, and Reza were mean: a bird story” with the kids at a local summer camp, I showed it to a 4-year-old boy. Or I tried to show it to him. He ran away to grab his video games after 10 seconds, with the cheekiest grin on his face, and blithely informed me that it was “boring”. Oh dear.

I tried the same movie with a 9-year-old boy, and he went “ho-hum” and told me he’d finished watching it after he got through watching Disney’s “The descendants”, or something … but then he never actually watched it, ever.

But that same 4-year-old boy really likes watching “Mr. Glump and the poisonous pond.” He likes it because he says, with a great giggle, that Mr. Glump looks like Trump. Well, I can honestly declare that none of the 30 kids who worked on that movie, and none of the kids or family members at the viewing party, made any such comment, but this kid is certain! So he’s watched “Mr. Glump” through a couple of times.

Mr. Glump
Mr. Glump with his scowl and his poisonous spraying bottle.

The best science artists (according to the European Space Agency)

I am making this list based on certain online sleuthings I made a few months ago.

There was an art competition announced … and it was an art competition that specifically had to do with satellites and climate change. Those were two topics heavily featured in my PhD dissertation, so I thought, why not enter? Especially because the guidelines specifically said, you can enter as your artwork a film or an animation. Animation is the only sort of artwork that I know how to make, so I figured I could come up with something.

The competition was run out of the European Space Agency (ESA) climate office. I decided to make an animation celebrating all their satellites. The winner got 30,000 Euros. It was too good of a chance not to take.

Before I started my animationi, I went about scouting the Twitter account of the ESA climate office, and was I in for a surprise. They were announcing their competition on it, sure enough, but then, they were also contacting lots of individual artists and telling them … hello! Check out our contest, we like your art, and we hope you enter. Of course, they never contacted me, so I wasn’t sure what the point of entering was at all. They seemed to already have a short-list developed.

But lets take a look at some of these favored artists!

Someone called Ruth Mottram, who is a climate scientist working on Greenland, tweeted at Jackie Morris Art, telling her to enter. The ESA climate office saw the tweet, and said:  lovely work! Hope you enter!

Looking myself at Jackie Morris’ images on her Twitter feed, yes, they are very beautiful. Look at this.

After that, the Climate Office didn’t wait for recommendations from people. They just started tweeting people outright asking them to enter. First, they tweeted at Ralf Schoofs. I looked through the illustrations on his Twitter feed, and I don’t know … They are nice, but maybe a little staid. Except I did like this one of little fishies.

Then the Climate office went and tweeted at a British astronaut. He doesn’t seem to be an artist at all, but I guess they were hoping?

Then, per another recommendation, they told “the Light Dreams” that they’d love to see a submission from him. The Light Dreams got a little huffy, and said, did you just call me a budding artist? I’m way above budding. So let’s take a look. I looked at the art on his pinned tweet. It is not exactly the style of art that I like, and maybe a little generic-looking, too.

They tweeted at Dr. Niamh Shaw. She has a Ph.D., and does art, and is she an astronaut to boot? She’s a big deal apparently. Looks like she does theatre, though I’m not sure I found real samples of her work.

At this point, the ESA Clean Space Office got in on the act, too. And they started helping out the Climate Office, and tweeting at artists as well. They tweeted at someone named Marianne Tricot. And the Climate Office was all, thank you so much! So what kind of artist is Marianne Tricot? Well, I don’t know, because I didn’t find enough images of art on her Twitter to get a clear view, and her website is down. “In maintenance mode.”

Then someone named Peter tweeted to someone named Vero that he hoped that she would apply. Her art looks really cute. And the Climate Office thought so, too, because said they hoped she would apply, as well. She did indeed apply, but she waited till the last minute (as did I) to upload her submission, and the website got stuck (as it did for me). So she tweeted back and they told her, don’t worry, we’ll make sure it gets submitted.

A few days later, the Climate Office, tired of a step-by-step approach, went ahead and tweeted at a bunch of artists en masse. But none of them were that impressed at the invite, apparently, because none of them answered. So who are these illustrious ones?

First was Melissa Gomis … I couldn’t find much art on her twitter page, but I did find a video she’d made on Vimeo. I thought it was kind of boring. And too abrupt in transitions, no?

Second was Zahra Hijri. Lookie there, first [and only] non-white person they tweeted at. I can’t find much art on her twitter page, but any case, she seems to be a very accomplished journalist.

Third was Susan Hassol. She seems to be a “big deal” as well. She makes climate change videos. What do you think? I wasn’t quite in the mood.

Fourth was Rosamund Pearce. It looks like it’s her job to make visualizations for the Economist magazine. I dislike that magazine, first. But this video she made is pretty cool. It has all the content you need right in the video; you don’t need a caption, which is nice for when you’re just scrolling through a Twitter image feed.

Fifth was Ed Hawkins. Another “big deal”, it appears. But where is his art? The little sun and rain cloud at the top of his website?

That was the end of that list. But then someone named Knurek tweeted to someone named Kiciputek to make a submission. And the Climate Office said, that would be lovely. But Kiciputek has canceled his/her account, so I don’t know what’s on it.

And that was a wrap. None of them ended up winning, though.

I applied with my little animation. I knew it was a long-shot, but I thought, I can’t pass up the chance (I didn’t have a job at the time!) The submission website got stuck as I tried to submit, like with Vero. I tried it again and again, and it finally worked on the third try. At least, I thought it did. I was able to check online to see if my video was ever downloaded by the Climate Office, and it was not. I emailed them, and it hadn’t arrived. I had my confirmation email and everything, so I sent them that, plus sent them the video directly, and I guess it got considered in the end.

The person who won was Shane Sutton. Looks like he does all sorts of large-scale art, so I think it must catch the eye really fast. He’s what I’d call a “real” artist — meaning he does it with his hands. But can you tell what this is supposed to be?


Animations with kids and old Eurovision songs

I’ve had a song from the 1989 Eurovision stuck in my head. As I was editing/fixing/polishing/rendering the animations for McAllister Elementary, I listened to it on repeat, as I do, making handy use of the YouTube refresh button.

It was still on my computer when I dashed to McAllister the very day before our viewing party. When I’d been at the school the week before to show each class of second-graders their film and have them do a survey, I discovered that I had missed a kid! The idea for this project is that every child in class contributes a page to the animation, but this kid had joined one of the class in the middle of January, after we’d done all the full-class lessons, and I’d never gotten wind of it. Luckily, I caught him at the last minute, and that was why I was back at McAllister the day before the viewing party.

He was such a cute, sweet, confiding kid, so as I was setting up my laptop, the still-live YouTube page with the Eurovision song was still up, and I asked the kid if he wanted to listen to it. He said yes. He liked it!

Me and Anne Shirley teaching: Animations with Kids

I just finished re-reading Anne of Avonlea (the sequel to Anne of Green Gables.) In that book, Anne is sixteen-and-a-half years old and starts teaching, and of course, she becomes the best teacher the kids ever had.

I always liked reading this book. I loved reading about Anne as a teacher. Except this time when I read it, I realized how little it actually focuses on the teaching itself. Most of it is about everything else going on in Anne’s life.

But as far as the teaching parts go – it was good for me to re-read about that, because it is imbued with Anne’s philosophies as far as teaching go. And her philosophy is to be very kind and inspiring.

If you’ve been reading about my challenges as I run my “Science Animations with Kids” program, then you will know that no matter how inspiring I try to be, I still don’t always reach the kids. My foundational philosophy with this program is that all kids love to be creative; and all kids especially love Disney films and animated films. And if they are given a chance to make a computer animated film about science, then they will learn the value of teamwork, computers, taking care of the earth, reading, creativity, and science careers all at once. I mean, how can you get more inspirational than that?!

And yet, I had second-graders laughing at the work other second-graders did; and I had the girl Anna who I snapped at when she leaned back; and I had the other girl, Leah, who just up and turned her back and nearly started to cry when it was her turn. Those have been some rough moments.

Reading about Anne’s philosophy of kindness, I realized that I just not the kind of person who can live up to that. I am not patient enough, I’m not tactful enough, not soothing enough. When I get the attitudes of different kids flung in my face, my instinct is not always to try to “understand” and be gentle and mothering; rather, I want to fling their attitude back in their face.

I had a pretty bad day with the fifth-graders at Wolf Meadow two weeks ago. When I walked into the class, Anna – who I sadly correctly predicted I had lost the trust and respect of – gave one glance my way and immediately ripped out a groan: oh, she’s here again?

That’s a nice entrance to have when you’re volunteering, of course. The teacher told her right away: Anna! That was very rude. Apologize!

I honestly don’t know whether Anna apologized or not. I am sometimes slow to take in what is happening. I might not even have noticed what Anna said had not the teacher commented on it, or realized that Anna’s outburst was directed towards me. But as soon as my brain caught up, I simply decided I didn’t want Anna’s apology; I just didn’t want to work with Anna at all.

During that same class period, I managed to work with 3 kids in total; that’s pretty slow progress. It wasn’t because the kids were being slow, they were just being careful. But the slow progress was starting to frustrate me nevertheless, plus at this school I don’t have the luxury of having hours of time allotted when I can pull kids to animate with; all the time is kind of on a strict diet, if you will. The last kid I worked with that day, “Evan”, ended by making me really mad. After he was done animating, he told me: because I animated with you, now I won’t have time to build me connect-a-Lego! (some sort of construction building-block game.) I thought to myself: hello! This might be the only time in your life that you get to make a computer animation, and you’re complaining that you didn’t get to build your connect-a-Lego that you can access in class any old day? That’s gratitude for you! Out-loud I just told him curtly: then you should have told me from the start you didn’t want to do this, and I could have gotten another kid to animate your page.

Evan stayed still for a while as he wrapped his brain around this thought; and I did feel a little bit bad! I remember being his age, and feeling like when a grown-up told you to do something, not realizing that you have an option to say ‘no’; because so often you actually don’t have an option to refuse. How was Evan to know that he could have refused me?

He then bounded off to play with connect-a-Lego; but class ended shortly thereafter. As the kids filed out for lunch, someone called out, Evan’s crying. And indeed he was; he was squatting on the floor, over his beloved Connect-a-Lego, crying his heart out because class was over and he had to put everything away. “But I was almost done!” he wailed. His teacher, who has a heart of gold, tried to sooth him. But I did not! I did not feel bad or sorry for him; I felt mad. Like what am I doing with this project if Evan’s going to cry about it, and Anna’s going to groan?

I went home that day to an email inbox full of job rejections; oh, I was in a state, let me tell you!

The next day, I yelled at some people and felt better. I went back to Wolf Meadow, and luckily, no kid started crying when they had to animate with me.

The next week, when I was back at Wolf Meadow again, Evan came up to talk to me, all normal. I guess he has forgiven me for stealing his connect-a-Lego time. And I hope he will enjoy watching his part of the animated film when it’s all over. Anna is apparently a lost cause for me. But something surprising happened with the other girl with whom I’d had a hard time, Leah.

Ever since she’d gotten into a huff with me, she’s been hanging around when I animate with other kids. She’ll throw glances my way. Last Friday, a girl called “Miya” – who maybe is friends with Leah – did a very cool thing. She got the scientist in the program to walk across the screen. Miya did a great job, so I was squealing in praise of her. Leah showed up next to us! “Is that fun?” she asked in a very kind and very humble way to Miya. I pretended not to notice. Miya kept on making the scientist walk, and by the time she was done, we had a little audience behind us. Everyone was clapping Miya on. This is, by the way, one of the moments that does make me feel good about this program; because I don’t think Miya is someone who gets a lot of praise for accomplishments on the regular. But now she was having this special moment.

Suddenly, who should sidle up next to me but Leah? She dropped onto her knees so her head was level with mine (I was seated) and she said: Dr. Mejs, I’m sorry I was rude the other day.

And just like that, we made up. We talked a bit, and shook hands, and I can’t wait to animate with her now!

The teacher saw our interaction, and after the class had left for lunch, she asked: “so you’re good now with Leah?”

“Yep!” I answered. “She apologized.”

“What?!” The teacher was very surprised, which in turn made me surprised.

“I thought you’d told her to apologize,” I said.

“Not me! When she walked into class today, Leah told me, ‘I still haven’t animated my page. And I don’t want to, either!'”

You’ve got to love the defiance! I’m glad she changed her mind, and I think it speaks volumes that she apologized off her own bat, without any prompting. It was a good ending to this particular episode. So I’m not at Anne Shirley-levels of greatness in teaching; but I hope that I am doing more good than harm.

Making a snail in Blender

I poked around some online examples and tutorials.

This snail was super cute and ended up being my inspiration! Can’t get any cuter.

And then this was a nice and straight-forward tutorial for making the spiral shell, which I stuck on top of the snail.

snail in Blender3D

He’s a little lop-sided and one-eyed, and after all, that shell on his back looks kind of unappetizing, but that’s what I have so far.

This is the snail that goes with the animation I’m making with one of the fifth-grade classes at Wolf Meadow, who are doing a great job animating so far. Yes, we have already started animating – can’t believe it’s gone so fast!

Quiet pause in the class

After some rough days, just had one of the best lessons I conducted today at Wolf Meadow. This was with a group of kids whose lesson last week was a complete wash, mostly due to some miscalculations on my and my partner teacher’s part. Well, we tried again this week, and it went so well.

When I do these lessons, I get so nervous about keeping a flow going; or I get nervous that if I don’t keep the pace relentless, I’ll lose the kids — they’ll start daydreaming or get distracted. Or if I don’t keep talking, then it will seem like I don’t have things straight in my mind, and the kids will start smirking.

That gets tricky when you get to a part of the lesson where you’ve been demonstrating and showing the kids things for a while, and you’ve piled on tools and tricks and tips, and now you have a new twist to show them, and — and — you’re out of breath yourself, but still feel like you need to plow right along.

Well, today, when I got to such a point, I took a breath instead! I took a pause. And the kids didn’t explode into chatter. I asked them instead: what do you think about this?

Positive claps all around.

Anything that’s really sticking out for your?

Ah, one kid said something, I just don’t remember what!

Then I told them: okay, there’s a bit more teaching to do before I let you all come up and practice yourselves, so let’s all take a deep breath. And we did quietly take a breath.

Way back when I was an actual teacher, I remember some of the “veteran” teachers would say things like: you can use silence so effectively in the classroom. Pauses and check-ins can be very helpful. Well, it’s a very nice tip, but I never made it to the stage where I was actually an effective enough teacher to be able to employ such nifty techniques. But here I am!

A film with different speeds

A few months ago, I was trying to create a film of various images and clips of footage. However, all the footage was in various speeds – some in 6 frames per second (is that speed a crime in the film world?) and some in 30 frames per second. So when I added in the 30 frames per second bits, it was in super slow motion.

Today, the issue came up again, but I searched a bit and I figured out how to get around this in Blender’s video sequence editor. I’m pretty happy to have discovered this! And it was super easy, ALTHOUGH I messed it up the first couple of times.

It also took me a few times searching to find the simple solution (for my case). I found this stack exchange Q&A, from which this was the important tip (the tip was actually in the question being asked) …

The method I have been using, up until now, is to import all the movie strips. Then set the frame rate for the project to 30f/s and on the 120f/s strips, add a speed control effect strip, to change the speed to that of the audio.

So I learned about the whole speed control thing, lovely!

Still took me a while to get it to work right. You think you’ve done it right, but then you add a ‘transform’ strip and it messes up. Or you try to edit down your video, not for the sake of speed control but because you want to chop a piece of it off, and it messes up again. This speed control has to be done with tender gloves.

I found some tutorials to help out, but they were both super annoying! One of them, you couldn’t hear the audio. The other had to give a whole introduction and blab on before he got to the point. But when he finally got around to it, I was able to see a demonstration of how the speed control works.

Video editing

Usually, I make animations, so I just have the rendered images all in a row, and then a single audio file –  somewhat chopped up, but still coming from a single file.

But a few months ago, I made more of a traditional “movie” made up of single images, bits of videos, and lots of added text. It seems to be the new ‘trend’ for ‘granting agencies’ to now require you – that is “highly encourage” – to include a video in your application submission. It’s not because they’re going to choose you – oh, heavens, no – they just want to get the satisfaction of making you do more work for nothing.

Well, any case, this was what my video editing sequencer ended up looking like:

video sequencer.JPG

Pretty interesting to see that outcome! The turquoise is the audio; the black at the bottom is a black background for any blank space; the purple is various mages; the gold is text; and the green is to changes the sizes of the images. I forget what the blue is for, though!

This is the sequencer in Blender, by the way.