Harassment as Art
My good friend, Amy Davis Roth, is awesome.
Or, more properly, awe-inspiring. On her own she is quite a person: A dedicated artist who produces cool jewelry, who creates wonderful paintings, who is an outspoken supporter of critical thinking and science, and who is also an intelligent, thoughtful, and vocal feminist.
She does all this—and much more—every single day while slogging through an unbelievable miasma of misogyny.
And I do mean unbelievable. For having the temerity to say that women should have equal rights, opportunities, and treatment as men, she gets a tsunami of hatred, venom, death threats, rape threats, and more. It would be enough to break down hardened people, and it has. But not Amy. She manages to not only deal with this horrifying onslaught but also turn it into art.
I mean that literally. With the help of several other atheist and skeptical women, Amy has created an exhibit called A Woman’s Room Online: a free-standing 8x10 foot room that is being installed in the L.A. Center for Inquiry office. It will look superficially much like any office in which a woman might work, with the usual accoutrements.
But each object will be covered with messages these women have received on Twitter, Facebook, and email. Real messages, actual things sent to them that are the vilest, most hateful examples of the worst humanity has to offer.
I recently visited Amy and stayed with her for a few days. She showed some of the individual pieces to my wife and me, and they are as powerful as the words plastered on them are repellent.
The words are hard to read, so difficult to imagine an actual human sending them to another human. They run the range from self-satisfied and arrogant to graphic and explicit threats against body and life. Sexism and misogyny had been brewing in the atheist and skeptical movements for some time but exploded when Rebecca Watson brought attention to them, and people were further polarized after Richard Dawkins made his “Muslima” comments in response. That was years ago, and things are no better ... as we've also seen in so many other online communities as well.
Perhaps sunlight is the best disinfectant, and art has a way of focusing that light. Over at Skepchick, Amy herself wrote a description of her installation, and I strongly encourage you to read it.
I think this is an important piece of art. I suspect a lot of people really don’t have any idea just how much filth women (not only feminists, but just women on the Internet guilty of Posting While Female) have to slog through every day just to exist online. It’s horrifying—and sadly, used as a way to shut women up; read Amanda Marcotte's recent post about this.
A Woman’s Room Online will hopefully open a lot of eyes. And minds. And, hopefully, hearts.
The exhibit opens this weekend, running from Sept. 13–Oct. 13 daily. For more information, contact the L.A. Women’s Atheist and Agnostic Group (a group Amy founded, and they're accepting donations through there as well).
You can follow Amy on Twitter, and you should.
97 Percent, 97 Hours, 97 Climate Scientists
Global warming is real. Climate change is occurring faster than any time in recorded history. Humans dumping carbon dioxide into the air is to blame.
In the scientific community, those statements are not controversial at all. A solid 97 percent of climate scientists doing active research into the matter agree on them.
Politically, though, it’s a different story. Only about half the American public understand global warming is man-made, and only a fraction of them know that there is overwhelming scientific consensus on it.
To raise both ratios, the wonderful website Skeptical Science has started a great campaign: “97 Hours of Consensus.” Every hour, for just over four days, a cartoon caricature of a different climate scientist will be posted along with a short, pithy quotation about the current understanding on global warming. The campaign started Sunday morning (Sept. 7), so it’s well along now. It started with Dr. Michael Mann, creator of the Hockey Stick graph showing that sudden warming is recent and catastrophic:
The images are free to use under Creative Commons, so I suggest doing so. Spread them far and wide. Get the word out: The science is in, and the temperature is up. We must get people to understand it … especially in an election year.
Update, Sept. 10, 2014, at 3:30 UTC: In the third paragraph, I originally wrote, "Only about half the American public think global warming is man-made." It was pointed out to me that this is not the best way to phrase it, and I agree, so I changed "think" to "understand."
*Correction, Sept. 10, 2014: This post originally misspelled the first name of Katharine Hayhoe.
Did a Meteorite Impact in Nicaragua over the Weekend?
Stories are coming out of Managua, Nicaragua, that a large bang was heard by residents there Saturday evening, and it registered on seismic detectors as well. A crater was found in the woods measuring something like 12 meters (40 feet) across. Claims are being made that this was a meteorite impact, a space rock a meter or so across slamming into the ground at high speed.
… but I’m unconvinced. Reports are still a bit sketchy, but my biggest doubts come in two parts:
1) In a city of more than 2 million people, you’d expect a fireball around midnight would’ve been seen by a lot of people. I haven’t heard any confirmed reports of witnesses. Also, I haven’t seen any video from it either. The situation in Chelyabinsk in 2013 was different, of course, but video of that event showed up with an hour or two. I’d expect that after two days we’d have some visual evidence from Managua by now.
Note: I’ve already seen a video on YouTube claiming to be from the fireball, but it’s not; it’s a bright meteor that came in over Spain. Don’t be fooled by hoaxes! There are always lots of them when something like this happens. The picture at the top of this post appears in a lot of hoaxes; it was from a fireball over the Netherlands in 2009.
b) No meteorite has yet been found. If this were an impact, there should be debris in the crater, at the very least on a microscopic scale. I haven’t heard of any analysis of the soil there to look for fragments, either.
I am not saying this was not a meteorite impact. I am saying the evidence for this that I’ve seen so far leaves me pretty unconvinced. I’ll note this happened near an Air Force base, too, which again makes me a little more suspicious.
So my skeptic sense is tingling here and won’t be assuaged until we get much better evidence than has been reported so far. I’ll add that some places are reporting that this may have been connected with asteroid 2014 RC, which passed by the Earth on Sunday. Although this was a near miss (2014 RC got less than 40,000 kilometers from Earth), I am very, very doubtful of a connection. The asteroid passed at 18:00 UTC Sunday, which was noon Nicaragua time: 12 hours or so after whatever happened in Managua. It’s incredibly unlikely that a small piece of that asteroid was that far ahead of the main mass and still managed to hit us. The asteroid was moving at 40,000 kilometers per hour, so it was still farther away than the Moon when this event occurred.
Bottom line: This may or may not have been an impact from a meteorite. At the moment, based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d bet against it … but I’ve been wrong before. Until I see confirmed video or actual confirmed meteorite fragments, I’ll remain doubtful.
When Will Betelgeuse Explode?
If there’s one star in the sky people know about, it’s Betelgeuse.*
Marking the right shoulder of the hunter Orion—remember, he’s facing us, so it’s on our left—this orange-red star is one of the brightest in the night sky. It’s been studied for as long as we’ve had telescopes, yet for all our advanced technology and knowhow, details about it are maddeningly vague. We don’t even have a good determination of how far away it is!
Still, there’s a lot we do know: It’s a red supergiant, a star that started out life already a lot bigger, more massive, and far more luminous than the Sun. Stars like that go through their nuclear fuel extremely rapidly; while the Sun is only approaching middle age at 4.5 billion years old, Betelgeuse is dying now at an age of less than 10 million years old. And when it does finally give up the ghost, it’ll do so with a bang. A very, very big bang: It’ll go supernova, one of nature’s most dramatic and ridiculously violent events.
But when? A lot’s been written about that. If you believe pseudoscientists and crackpots, you might have thought 2012 was our last chance to see it. Sometimes the news spreads that it’ll go any day now. Somehow, oddly, despite all that nonsense you can still see Betelgeuse shining in the sky.
However, the thing is, it really will explode one day. We don’t really know when, exactly, which is why I usually hedge my bet by saying it could be tonight, but more likely it’ll be hundreds of thousands of years from now … a million years, tops.
As a scientist, that date range is a little bothersome. That’s why I was delighted to read a research paper trying to nail down this very fact. While it’s still a bit iffy, and details are still elusive, the astronomers who did the research were able to make a much more refined prediction: Betelgeuse will go boom in about 100,000 years.
Wow. That’s sooner than I would have thought. It’s still a long way off, of course, but in a galactic sense that’s a blink of the eye.
This prediction depends on a lot of things, so the astronomers had to determine many basic facts about the star as best they could (generally depending on the previous work of others). It’s all pretty amazing, so let me list them out for you with brief comments:
Distance: Betelgeuse is likely to be about 200 parsecs (650 light years) away. Different methods yield different distances, which has been frustrating, but a recent paper gives what may be this best result.
Age: Models of the star’s evolution over time yield an age estimate of about 8.5 million years. That’s a bit older than I would have expected, but quite reasonable. Compare that with the Sun’s age of 4.56 billion years, and you’ll see why I say stars like Betelgeuse don’t live long!
Mass: The best estimates of the mass of Betelgeuse give about 20 times that of the Sun (more or less). That’s a lot; as you get more massive, stars get more rare, and only a handful get this hefty.
Radius: This is where we start getting into “yikes” territory: Betelgeuse is a staggering 890 (± 200) times wider than the Sun! Bear in mind the Sun is more than 100 times wider than the Earth and you may realize what a behemoth this star is. That’s a radius—a radius—of more than 600 million kilometers! Replace the Sun with Betelgeuse, and it would stretch nearly to the orbit of Jupiter. The Earth would be engulfed.
Rotation: Stars tend to rotate slowly. When they expand, as Betelgeuse did long ago, they slow down. (This is called conservation of angular momentum, like when an ice skater draws in his or her arms and spins more rapidly.) Betelgeuse is huge, so unsurprisingly it spins very slowly, only once every 8.4 years. The Sun spins about once a month, for comparison.
Luminosity: Betelgeuse is bright. It shines with the energy of 125,000 times that of the Sun. Holy wow. That’s why it can be hundreds of light years away and still be one of the brightest stars in the sky. At that distance, you’d need a telescope to see the Sun at all.
Mass loss: When massive stars use up the hydrogen fuel in their core, they start to fuse helium into carbon. This generates a lot of heat, which causes the outer parts of the star to expand (hot gases expand, after all). Betelgeuse is pretty bloated, which means gravity at its surface is pretty weak. The star is also incredibly luminous, so a gas molecule on its surface feels a strong outward force from the light, and only a weak force from gravity holding it down. The result: Betelgeuse blows a very strong wind of material away from it. It loses about a millionth of the mass of the Sun every year. That may not sound like much, but the Sun loses less than a trillionth of its mass every year. Betelgeuse blasts out a million times as much material as the Sun. That’s not a solar wind. It’s a gale.
The supernova: Using all these data, plus what we know about how stars evolve over time, the astronomers find that in about 100,000 years, Betelgeuse will run out of helium to fuse. The steps after that are a bit complicated, but essentially, it will begin to fuse ever-heavier elements on ever-shortening timescales, until it tries to fuse silicon into iron. This spells doom for the star, because it robs the star of the energy needed to support itself. The core collapses, heats up beyond imagining, and explodes. KaBLAM! No more Betelgeuse.
The aftermath: First, repeat after me: WE ARE IN NO DANGER, EVER, FROM BETELGEUSE.
At that distance, even the titanic detonation of a supergiant star poses no major threat. It’ll be bright, as bright as the full Moon! But it’s too far away to hurt us. Also? 100,000 years is a long time.
Mind you, it’ll launch octillions of tons of matter into space in all directions at a decent fraction of the speed of light. But as it plows through the thin soup of stuff in space it’ll slow down. The astronomers in the paper estimate the shock wave will take 6 million years to reach us and will be moving at a mere 13 kilometers per second. It’ll slam into the Sun’s outgoing solar wind, and the two will wrestle, but the shock itself will stop well outside the Earth’s orbit.
But holy cow, that’ll be a show. But you’ll have to wait a hundred millennia for the opening curtain.
I’m not that patient. Statistically speaking, a galaxy hosts a supernova every century or so. The Milky Way hasn’t had one pop off for a long time, so we’re bound to get one sooner or later that we can study. We may get a thousand or so before Betelgeuse finally loses it. Some will almost certainly even be closer than Betelgeuse is. Again, we’re in no real danger from a nearby supernova, and it would be nice to see one at a relatively proximate distance. Oh, what we’d learn!
… but poor Orion. Once Betelgeuse goes, and fades away over a few months, he’ll be missing his right shoulder. I wonder what myths we’ll have to modify to accommodate for that?
Tip o' the neutrino detector to Tod Lauer.
What Is the Nearest Star to Earth That Can Go Supernova?
(But bear in mind: The Closest Supernova Candidate?)
Betelgeuse Blows Out a Monstrous Arc of Gas Nearly As Big As Our Solar System
Betelgeuse Is About to Hit the Wall
Is Betelgeuse About to Blow?
Betelgeuse and 2012
*OK, fine, a lot of people know Polaris, too. And I guess, if you want to be picky, they’ve heard of the Sun as well. But still. Betelgeuse!
No, We’re Not Facing an Onslaught of Asteroid Impacts
Today—Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014—at about 18:00 UTC, a small asteroid named 2014 RC will harmlessly pass by the Earth, though at the close distance of very roughly 40,000 kilometers. I wrote all about it a couple of days ago … and also warned that you can expect a bunch of breathless and fact-free YouTube videos about it, claiming it would hit us.
I was so, so close.
The very day I posted that, a ridiculous article appeared in the U.K. tabloid Express, claiming that the Earth “faces 100 YEARS of killer [asteroid] strikes starting 2017.”
How do I phrase this? That claim is really, really, really, really, really wrong. Really.
The author of this article, Nathan Rao, has a history of writing reality-impaired articles; for example, in August he wrote a piece suggesting the Supermoon might kill everyone on Earth. This led to a less-than-satisfying exchange of tweets between Rao and me (and many others), with him trying to defend his writing, and ended with me telling him, “Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
Anyway, this asteroid article he wrote is more of the same. Essentially the only time he gets anything right in that piece is when he quotes some astronomers, but the conclusions he jumps (leaps, launches, hyperspace blasts) to are way, way off the mark.
For example, he claims:
A previously unknown asteroid belt has been located in deep space and is now hurtling towards our part of the solar system. … The terrifying predictions came as NASA revealed disturbing new data showing 400 impacts are expected between 2017 and 2113, based on new observational data of objects seen in space over the past 60 days.
Um, no. Not even close. It’s not an asteroid belt, but a single asteroid. And it’s not 400 impacts, it’s 400 predicted passes of Earth, most missing by a wide margin.
Happily, U.K. amateur astronomer David Wood (who also sent me the note notifying me of Rao’s article) did the footwork for me. He figured out that Rao is talking about the asteroid 2014 NZ64. It fits Rao’s (bizarrely interpreted) description; it was recently discovered (in July, about 60 days ago) and the JPL Earth Impact Risk Summary page has a list of 399 near-Earth passes between the years 2017 and 2113, the exact range Rao listed. It’s obviously what Rao is talking about, but somehow Rao turned a single asteroid that will miss us into hundreds of asteroids that will all hit us.
That’s a somewhat significant error to make.
So what’s the science here? NZ64 is a small, 100-meter or so wide, asteroid that has an orbit that does take it pretty close to Earth. Since its discovery it has only been observed a handful of times, and as I’ve written many times before, the fewer observations you have, the harder it is to predict where the asteroid will be in the future. Given that, at this time, NZ64 has only been observed over less than a two-day timespan, I’d say trying to figure out where it’ll be more than a few months in advance is nearly impossible.
So bear that in mind with the impact risk page (which is automatically generated); we really don’t know where this asteroid will be more than a few years in the future … and since Earth is small, and space is very, very big, I’d be willing to bet the chance of an impact will get even smaller once a better orbit is determined.
Even so, take a look at the impact risk page, and you’ll see a column there labeled “Impact Probability.” This gives the fractional chance of an impact at every given encounter, where 0 is no impact for sure, and 1 would definitely be an impact. Note how close to 0 the numbers are! Typical values translate into odds of about a billion to one—even the wildest Vegas spender wouldn’t take that risk—and the highest chance I saw was for a pass in 2023, when it has a one in 6 million chance of hitting us. I have a hard time working up a sweat over that. Note also that each listed probability is actually a link where the numbers are literally spelled out for you, right there for everyone and anyone to see.
That's the central premise of Rao's article, and it's clearly wrong.
I could stop there, but there's one more thing I'd like to point out. He writes:
Asteroid 2012 DA14, discovered by astronomers at the LaSagra Observatory in Spain, currently has less than a one per cent chance of hitting but scientists can't rule out the possibility that it might smash into our planet.
Actually, that is precisely wrong: DA14 was taken off the impact risk list months ago, after observations ruled out any chance of impact in the near future. Update, Sept. 7, 2014, at 17:00 UTC: Ron Baalke notified me that DA14 was taken off the impact list in February 2013, the day it passed the Earth. So it's been over a year and a half that we've known it can't hit us.
Normally I would ignore nonsense like Rao’s article, but I decided to write about it when I saw his piece was relatively popular on Facebook (though the comments there are pretty funny, as most of the commenters fully grasp the, ah, tenuous reality of the article).
Also, to put it mildly, I take a dim view of articles that spin, fold, and mutilate science, doubly so when it’s astronomy on the wrong end of it. And at the very least, this is a chance to show folks how this whole process of flagging asteroids works, so some good can come of it.
But it also shows that, once again and as always, you can’t believe everything (or anything) you see online (and I certainly would be extremely skeptical of anything I read in the Express). When it comes to things like asteroid impacts, your best bet is to check with JPL, or—ahem—here. If an asteroid has a decent chance of hitting us, I’d write about it … after getting confirmation and as many facts as I could from people who actually understand asteroid science.
Not Your Average Vacation Video: An Exploding Volcano!
This has to be seen to be believed: An Australian couple vacationing in Papua New Guinea heard that a local volcano, Mount Tavurvur, had been erupting. They got on a boat to take a closer look and got the ride of their lives (make sure you’ve set the video to HD, the detail is amazing):
Update, Sept. 8, 2014: Well, drat. It looks like the video was taken down. There are lots of copies on YouTube, but they were posted, as far as I can tell, without the owner's permission, so I won't link to them. I'll see if I can find a legit source and embed it here again. My apologies.
Holy yikes! The video was taken by Phil McNamara, and posted on the Facebook page of his wife, Linda. The volcano has been pretty active historically and has caused a lot of damage; it’s killed many people, and buried the nearby town of Rabaul in ash in 1994. Rabaul used to be the provincial capital of the island of New Britain, but after that eruption the capital was moved to another location.
This eruption was smaller in comparison, but holy cow. It was still amazing. In the video you can see lava blasting upward hundreds of meters, falling apparently slowly due to distance. Given the timing delay of the shock wave—13 seconds or so—the folks on the boat were just over 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away.
You can see the shock wave traveling down the volcano slope at 00:13 and then ramming the air above the volcano a few seconds later. The sudden compression condensed the water vapor in the air, so you can see ephemeral clouds forming in a rough circle above the explosion. I looked carefully but saw no sign of it traveling across the water.
The volcano has been spreading ash across the island, as you can see in this photo taken by Landsat 8:
On NASA’s Earth Observatory page they have a before-and-after shot, and you can see that what’s now brown and ash-laden was green just a few months before.
Looking at all that and reading about this volcano, I’d say the McNamaras were pretty dang lucky. This explosion could’ve been a lot worse, and as it is they got some fantastic footage and a great story to tell
Tip o’ the caldera to about a hundred people who sent me this, but the first was Nathanial BB.
SciShow: The Smallest Star
Perhaps you’ve heard of Hank Green; he and his brother John make videos on YouTube. Lots of videos, covering a million different topics. They do too many things to adequately describe here; you can get a taste at Hank’s site, and at John’s. Be prepared to give it a few hours, since the Vlog Brothers are something of a juggernaut online.
They put together a great science video series called SciShow, where different hosts talk about various fun and fascinating topics in science. It’s short, simple, and really well done, which is why I was more than happy to do one when Hank asked. It’s called “The Smallest Star in the Universe,” and it's live on the SciShow Space channel:
Nifty! Mind you, I did not write the script; it was penned by Sarah Willis, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Astrophysics who also does a lot of public outreach. I did a very small amount of editing on the script, but she did all the heavy lifting. If you want more info on this, I wrote about the star J0523 on the blog when it was announced a while back.
I had a lot of fun making this video. It was also terrific to get to know Hank and his team; Hank is precisely as nice as he seems. It’s always truly uplifting to meet people who are firing on all cylinders. I had the same feeling after meeting him and his crew as I do when I leave Comic Con: inspired. Smart, creative people who actually go out and do stuff really motivate me to fire up my brain and start doing things.
As I write this, SciShow has just under 2 million subscribers on YouTube. I bet BABloggees could push that a lot closer to the 2M mark. Go subscribe! You’ll get more science in your life, and that’s always a good thing. And while you’re at it, if you liked it, please give my own video a thumbs up. You can support SciShow at Subbable, too.
Perspective on a Cloudy Day
The other day, I posted a picture of the Earth from space, sunrise over a blue planet, saying, “Sometimes, you just need to be reminded that our planet is a beautiful place to be.”
Did I write “beautiful”? I meant magnificent.
Small Asteroid Will Pass Earth Closely but Safely on Sunday
On Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014, Earth will get yet another close shave from an asteroid. This time it’s a rock called 2014 RC, and it’ll blow past us at about 18:00 UTC (2 p.m. Eastern), missing the planet by something like 35,000 kilometers (22,000 miles).
2014 RC was discovered just a few days ago by the Catalina Sky Survey, on Sept. 1. Given its distance and brightness, it’s probably about 20 meters across—the same size range as the Chelyabinsk asteroid that blew up over Russia in February of 2013.
To be clear: It’ll miss us. We’re safe. But it does get pretty close, about the same distance as orbiting geosynchronous weather and communication satellites. Even though it’s bigger than those satellites, it’s very faint; the prediction is it’ll be about 11th magnitude, or about 1/100th the brightness of the faintest star you can see with your unaided eye. It’ll take a decent-sized telescope to spot it.*
This is all a reminder that these things do whiz past us fairly often, and even if they’re big enough to do damage should they hit us, we generally don’t get a lot of warning beforehand. Asteroids like this are just too faint. Happily, they don’t hit us very often.
Still, at the very least, we need bigger ‘scopes for asteroid searches. We’re doing pretty well in that department, with Pan-STARRS, and the LSST (which is still some years away from operating). But even then they can’t cover the whole sky, which is why I support the efforts of both the B612 Foundation and NASA’s NEOCam. A lot of science will come from these missions at the very least, and who knows? If they do spot a rock with our name on it, at least we’ll get the chance to do something about.
*I expect there will be hastily thrown-together YouTube videos about this asteroid that will overabundantly use the word “sheeple.” You can safely ignore them. Always.
Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Ron Baalke and BABloggee Douglas Troy.
[UPDATE (Sep 7, 2014): I originally neglected to add the group that discovered the asteroid, so I added it in.]
Doctor Who Podcast Episode 2: “Into the Dalek”
Last week, I hosted the first episode of a podcast series to discuss the new season of Doctor Who.
Episode 2 is now live, and I’m joined by my guest Mac Rogers to investigate what it’s like to go “Into the Dalek.” We talk about Daleks as enemies, the Doctor’s new brain, and my favorite moment of the show, when Clara [redacted] the Doctor right on the face.
Remember, this is part of the Slate Plus premium subscription service, which has lots of fun extras. Join up, and get in on the fun.