This is my last post for the Bad Astronomy Blog on Discover Magazine. As of today – Monday, November 12, 2012 – the blog has a new home at Slate magazine.
It has been my pleasure and honor to be a Discover blogger for more than four years. Still, I remember my science teacher in third grade quoting Heraclitus to us: "Nothing is permanent except change". That’s true today, of course, and just as obviously in the Age of the Internet the velocity of that change is accelerating.
But in this case I hope the change isn’t too shocking for you, dear BABloggees. All you have to do is switch a URL in your bookmarks or update your RSS feed (to do that, just copy that link address into your feed reader). I’ll still be writing the same sort of material, I’ll still make dumb puns, and I’ll still be Tweeting, Facebooking, and GooglePlussing like mad.
To be clear: all the archives of my blog will be copied to Slate magazine, but will still have a home here at Discover. I’d be obliged if you updated links to the new ...
Folks, it’s time. And an appropriate time: for my penultimate post here at Discover Magazine, I’ve decided to show you my tattoo.
I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but there were a lot of behind-the-scenes issues getting permissions I won’t bore you with. But by the time I was able to post this it was so long after I got inked it seemed a little silly. Still, Discover Magazine was the reason I got it, so it seems fair and fitting to post this now. And I’ve dyeing to let y’all know anyway.
As a brief recap, a few years ago I made a bet with then-Discover Magazine CEO, Henry Donahue: if I got 2 million page views in one month, and the magazine got 5 million total, we’d both get tattoos. In March 2009 we did it! So Henry and I went about getting inked.
He got a pretty nifty Celtic fish on his shoulder. For mine, I decided to turn to you, my readers, for suggestions. And they poured in. I narrowed it down to a handful I liked, then made my decision. Henry and I thought it would ...
The Cascade range of volcanoes is pretty impressive to see from the ground. Stretching from California up to Washington, it includes famous mountains like Saint Helens, Hood, and Rainier. I’ve seen many of these while driving in the area, and they’re even cooler from an airplane.
But I have to say, the view from the International Space Station might be best.
[Click to cascadienate.]
This shot was taken from the ISS on September 20, 2012, and shows the region around Mount Shasta, a 4300 meter peak in northern California. It’s technically dormant – it erupted last in 1786. In geologically recent history it’s erupted every 600 years or so, but that’s not a precise schedule, so geologists keep an eye on it, as they do many of the peaks in the Cascades. As well they should.
To the west of the mountain (to the right in the picture, near the edge) is the much smaller Black Butte. I only point that out because you can see a highway winding around it to the right. That’s I5, a major north-south highway, and a few years back when my family ...
Speaking of Neil Tyson, if you’re a fan of his you’ll be pleased to know that his show, Star Talk Radio, is now going to be part of the Nerdist Channel network! Thats actually a pretty big deal; Chris Hardwick has created this juggernaut of Nerdist and it reaches a lot of folks.
The new show is essentially a video version of the radio show. Chris interviewed Neil about it for The Nerdist website. If you’re curious what it’ll be like, here’s a video of a live Star Talk interview he did with several comedians (Hodgman! Schaal!) and Mike Massamino, a NASA astronaut:
Cool, eh? And maybe I’ll have more news about this soon, too. Superman isn’t the only guy who walks around in his underwear Neil has talked to.
- DC Comics pins Krypton to the star map
- My Nerdist episode is online!
- Nerd TV
- Great Tyson’s ghost!
- Neil Tyson and I talk time travel
I love it when kids get excited enough about science to go out and do something about it. That’s why I’m digging Jeffrey Tang – who’s 10 – because he created the Astronomy For Kids podcast, where he talks about different astronomical things. The first podcast went up in February 2012 ("The Solar System") and he’s done others on Stars, the Moon, Saturn, and gravity. They’re only a few minutes long, perfect for a kid to listen to, and the ones I listened to were accurate and covered the ground pretty well. They’re also interesting and fun!
If you have a kid who likes science, I bet they’ll like this podcast. And I can see these being played in schools, too. Who better to connect with kids than another kid?
[Today is Carl Sagan's birthday, celebrated by lovers of science and rationality around the planet. I wrote the following post last year, but I think it's still appropriate (and I updated his age). Happy birthday, Carl. It's a darker cosmos without you, but we still walk with the candle you lit for us.]
If Carl Sagan were still alive, he’d be 78 years old today. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been overly concerned with arbitrary time measurements, especially when based on the fickle way we define a "year", but it’s human nature to look back at such integrally-divisible dates… and Carl was very much a student of human nature.
I’ve written about him so much in the past there’s not much I can add right now, so I thought I would simply embed a video for you to watch… but which one? Where James Randi eloquently and emotionally talks about his friendship with Carl? Or the wonderful first installment of Symphony of Science using my favorite quote by Carl? Or this amazing speech about how life seeks life?
But in the end, the choice is obvious. Carl Sagan’s essay, "Pale Blue Dot", will, ...
Of all the amazing pictures returned from the moon by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – and I may include the Apollo landing sites among them – I think my favorites are the ones showing boulders that rolled down slopes.
Did I say rolled? I mean bounced!
[Click to enselenate.]
This shot from LRO shows the floor of crater Shuckburgh E, an impact crater about 9 km (~6 miles) across. The image shows a region about 655 meters (0.4 miles) across. The crater floor here is not level; it’s tilted up from left to right, and also has contours. Boulders dislodged for some reason (a seismic event, or a nearby impact) on the right have rolled down to the left… and some actually skipped along, bouncing and bounding as they did.
The two biggest trails are dashed, indicating the boulders had a bit of a rollicking time before coming to rest. You can see both boulders at the left of the trails, where they came to a stop. Note that the sunlight is coming from the bottom of this picture, which can play tricks on perspective. I see the ...
Astronomers are discovering a lot of planets these days. The official count is 800+, with thousands of more candidates (unconfirmed but suspiciously planet-like).
Right now we give them alphabet soup names. Alpha Centauri Bb. HR 8799b (through HR8799 e). And of course, everyone’s favorite, 2MASS J04414489+2301513b.
These catalog names are useful, but less than public friendly. In science fiction we get Vulcan, Psychon, Arrakis, and other cool names. So why not in real life?
The folks at Uwingu asked themselves this very thing. Uwingu (pronounced oo-WIN-goo) is an astronomy and space startup company that’s looking to fund scientific research and exploration. I wrote an intro to Uwingu back when it was soliciting funds to get initially rolling (happily, that goal was met). The idea is to sell goods and services to space enthusiasts, and use the proceeds toward doing real science. The folks in charge are professional astronomers and space scientists at the tops of their fields, people like Alan Stern and Pamela Gay. Full disclosure: I am on the Board of Advisors for Uwingu, an unpaid position, but I’d write about it and support it ...
Well now, this is an interesting discovery: astronomers have found what looks like a "super-Earth" – a planet more massive than Earth but still smaller than a gas giant – orbiting a nearby star at the right distance to have liquid water on it! Given that, it might – might – be Earthlike.
This is pretty cool news. We’ve found planets like this before, but not very many! And it gets niftier: the planet has at least five siblings, all of which orbit its star closer than it does.
Now let me be clear: this is a planet candidate; it has not yet been confirmed. Reading the journal paper (PDF), though, the data look pretty good. It may yet turn out not to be real, but for the purpose of this blog post I’ll just put this caveat here, call it a planet from here on out, and fairly warned be ye, says I.
The star is called HD 40307, and it’s a bit over 40 light years away (pretty close in galactic standards, but I wouldn’t want to walk there). It’s a K2.5 dwarf, which ...
A few people – including my pal Deric Hughes – put together this non-partisan and nicely done video in honor of democracy:
If you like it, give it a thumbs-up on YouTube and Like it on FB.
And they’re right. As I wrote last night, there is much work to be done. I don’t think we can or even should put our differences aside – we need them to keep a check on runaway beliefs. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to move things forward.
Seeing the International Space Station pass overhead is pretty cool. It glides soundlessly across the sky, getting brighter as it gets closer to you, whizzing by hundreds of kilometers above your head at 8 kilometers per second.
I usually go to Heavens-Above when I think of it to check when the next few passes will be. But wouldn’t it be nice if you get a text or email letting you know that a pass is about to happen?
NASA has set up a service to do just that: Spot The Station. You can give it your email or phone number, your location, and whether you’d like to see evening passes, morning ones, or both (because the station is lit by the Sun, you can only see it just after sunset or before sunrise).
That’s all there is to it. The next time the station is going to be visible from your location, NASA will send you a note. They also have a page describing what the message means, so you can go outside and figure out not just when to look, but where.
I’ll note there’s ...
Well, it was quite a night.
I’m trying to parse it all, and there’s a whole lot to parse. The big news, duh, is that President Obama won, and yes, I’m happy about that. Despite a lot of smoke and mirrors from pundits and campaign managers during this unending election cycle, the President has done a lot of good for this country, and has been a net positive in many ways. I think a lot more can improve in the next four years, and I’ll be curious to see just how he rolls up his sleeves and gets to it.
Having said that, I’m not all rainbows and unicorns with him, which I’ll get to in a sec.
I’m thrilled Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost. I have to think that their, ah, extremely poorly thought-out comments about rape had something to do with that. I saw a lot of tweets along the lines of "Hey Republicans, if you want to win next time you’d better not talk about rape!", which I think is wrongheaded. I think politicians should be talking about it, but they should be getting it right. It’s one thing to score a political zinger, but another to ...
Oh my, another lovely night sky (and landscape!) time lapse video; this time from Alessandro Della Bella, and called Helvetia’s Dream:
[Make sure you set it to hi-def and make it full screen.]
I love the opening shot! Unless it was just digitally zoomed, it must have taken some planning; you have to know just where the Moon is going to rise to catch it that accurately.
A couple of other things to watch for, too:
At about 45 seconds in, a bright meteor leaves a long persistent train, a glowing trail that gets blown away by the thin but rapid winds 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. I actually gasped when I saw that!
At 1:30 you see the stars of Orion setting behind the Matterhorn, zoomed in. The big bright pink blob is the famed Orion Nebula, but just above it is the star Alnitak with a bit of nebulosity around it; the bright patch is the Flame nebula, and barely visible is the much fainter but iconic Horsehead Nebula.
I also love how the clouds – more like fog – flow through the valley. The study of how things ...
I suspect something like half of the people reading my blog will, today, need this: a video of a puppy playing with a spring doorstop.
[The term "unicorn chaser" comes from Boing Boing, and is akin to a palate-cleansing for your brain after something awful.]
c/o my pal the geektastic Bonnie Burton.
Listen. I want you to vote.
I won’t make that pandering "It doesn’t matter who you vote for" speech, because, geez, c’mon. It does matter.
But not voting at all is not an option. You need to vote.
I know a lot of folks are undecided, and getting mocked in the media for it. But from what I see, a lot of people have honest problems with both candidates.
I can relate. I do too. But in my opinion, voting is still critical, for a few reasons. But there’s one big one: if you don’t vote, how does that help?
Seriously, staying home and not voting doesn’t help at all, and in fact hurts. Why? Because, for one thing, I bet you don’t hate everything about both candidates. A lot of people frame it as the lesser of two evils, but I think it’s more positive to consider it as the better of the two choices.
Looking over the choices, there must be one who edges out the other, for whatever issues matter to you. That matters. It truly does.
And not voting hurts you, directly. If you don’t vote, you have no say in what ...
The story of Superman is so well known that I hardly need go into detail. But in case you’re some sort of commie, the idea is that he was born on the planet Krypton orbiting a far away red star, and sent to Earth while still a baby by his parents as their home planet exploded around them. Our yellow Sun somehow gives Kal-El superpowers, and he goes on to star in a series of increasingly poorly-made movies*.
I’ve often wondered exactly what kind of star Krypton orbited and where it was. Up until now all we’ve known is that it was red, and red stars come in many flavors, from dinky red dwarfs with a tenth the mass of the Sun up to massive supergiants like Betelgeuse which outweigh the Sun by dozens of times (I’ll note that a deleted scene in "Superman Returns" indicates it’s a red supergiant).
Well, that’s about to change. DC comics is releasing a new book this week – Action Comics Superman #14 – that finally reveals the answer to this stellar question. And they picked a special guest to reveal it: my old friend Neil Tyson.
So there’s this comet named 168P/Hergenrother. It’s one of a bazillion such iceballs orbiting the Sun, but this one turns out to be more interesting than most. For one thing, it has a short period, orbiting the Sun once every 6.8 years or so. Its orbit goes out to about that of Jupiter’s, and reaches down into the inner solar system about as far as Mars. It never gets closer than about 80 million kilometers (50 million miles) to us, so it’s usually relatively faint, and you need a big ‘scope to observe it.
It was discovered in 1998, and made a second pass down our way in 2005. This year, 2012, it came by again, and folks around the world observed it as they do any comet. But then, in September, it gave us a surprise. A big one. Lots of observers were reporting that practically overnight the comet grew hugely in brightness, getting as much as 700 times brighter than expected! Not only that, but observations showed the shape of the comet had changed, going from fairly point-like to much fuzzier.
That could mean only one thing. The comet was breaking up.
On Halloween 2012, when people were assembling their costumes and candy, the Mars Curiosity rover was assembling something truly spectacular: a jaw-dropping high-definition self-portrait that has to be seen to be believed:
[Click to enjohnny5enate. And yes, oh my yes, you want to.]
This incredible picture is a mosaic made up of 55 hi-res images taken by the MAHLI, the Mars Hand Lens Imager. That’s a camera designed to be able to take close-up shots of nearby rocks and other feature, but can also focus all the way out to infinity, allowing it to take pictures of distant geographical features as well.
Or, in this case, itself! Now get this: MAHLI is located at the end of the two-meter robotic arm. That was extended and then aimed back at the rover so it could take the pictures (think of every Facebook pic you’ve seen of party revelers holding a camera up and taking a snapshot of themselves). So why don’t you see the arm in these shots? It’s because it was edited out! The camera took several pictures which overlapped. So you’d get two shots of, say, the main body of the rover, each with the ...
This picture is going around Facebook. I tried to find the original, but it’s hopeless, so I’ll just put this here.
Remember, in the US we’re not just voting on the President, we’re voting on lots of Congresscritters, too. In that case, we may be setting the clocks back more like two thousand years.
- The Neroes of global warming
- A wind is rising
- The US Congress Anti-Science Committee
Regular readers of my long-standing crush on singer/songwriter/siren Marian Call. Her voice is lovely, her lyrics brain-poking, and her self-motivated music career an inspiration.
So I’m really pleased to let y’all know she is re-releasing her last album, Something Fierce. She’s doing this for several reasons, but one is to get it more widely released. She wants to get on NPR and other places where the audience for her would fit right in.
Of course, this is Marian we’re talking about, so she’s gone to ridiculous lengths to do this. She wants her listeners to participate, to be a part of this. So she’s done something both silly and clever (typically): she’s started a treasure hunt. Well, she’s calling it Adventure Questing because, let’s face it, her fans (of which I am a big one) are all geeks. Anyway, she’s issuing one task per day to her followers, and they’re, well, silly and clever. I won’t give anything away; instead, just go look.
Also, follow her on Twitter for updates and such.
This all started on November 1 – sorry, I know I’m ...