The entire universe in blog form
Posted Thursday, May 23, 2013, at 1:21 PM
I have Susan Gerbic to thank for this. She’s a skeptic I’ve known for some time, and is spearheading what she calls “guerrilla skepticism”: going to Wikipedia pages about skeptic topics and upgrading them. A lot of Wikipedia pages on various topics are out of date or simply a bit limp, so she and her team of volunteers go in and fix them up.
They did this for my book entry, and did an amazing job. The book came out in 2002, and there’s been a short entry about it on Wikipedia for some time. But her team took it on as a project, expanding it by a factor of five (!), updating links, and so on. Getting it on the front page of Wikipedia was no easy task, and I thank her for it.
Susan’s reasoning behind this is pretty sound. Wikipedia has a very high ranking with Google, and will usually be in the top five links returned for a topic, if not the top one. By cleaning up the pages dealing with topics covered by skepticism, she’s helping raise the profile of critical thinking in these areas, which is something of which I wholly approve. She also adds links to skeptic articles in related Wikipedia entries, which helps bring more people around as well.
Posted Thursday, May 23, 2013, at 11:05 AM
The Pavlof volcano sits in the long, long chain of the Aleutian Islands off the west coast of Alaska, and is one of the most active volcanoes in the United States. It’s about seven kilometers (4 miles) across and 2500 meters (1.5 miles) high. After being quiet since 2007, it started erupting again on May 13, 2013.
A few days later, on May 18, astronauts aboard the International Space Station had this amazing view of the event:
One thing I love about photos of the Earth from ISS is that the astronauts can see things at an oblique angle. Most satellites take pictures straight down and you lose the sense of depth. The astronauts have a wider view, and can see surface features closer to the horizon. This angle can give an incredibly dramatic view like that one.
The plume of ash shot up to a height of six kilometers (almost four miles), and goes a long way. That picture above was taken using a telephoto, but a shorter lens provides a bit of context:
WOW. The plume extends for hundreds of kilometers, blown by winds to the southeast. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a plume that long seen so clearly before.
Volcanic ash is a hazard; it’s composed not of smooth dust but of very small grains of rock that can have extremely sharp edges and ridges. Even in small quantities it can choke an airplane engine and damage windshields, so air traffic has to be routed around active volcanoes; Pavlof is creating such a situation now.
Alaska is loaded with volcanoes, many of which are active and hazardous to airplanes and people. Scientists need to observe these volcanoes constantly, keeping an eye on them in case any of them decides to wake up. However, the Alaska Volcano Observatory has had its funding cut recently; it’s been halved since 2007. Budget cuts, sequestration, and the loss of earmarks are to blame. The effect has been bad: the AVO has had to stop real-time monitoring of at least four of Alaska’s volcanoes, and much of their equipment is old and on the verge of failing, if not already malfunctioning.
I know the economy means that lots of programs get hit, but not every program the government funds is equal. The idea of cutting back on volcano observatories is, simply, nuts. People’s lives are at stake, and certainly a big eruption has economic impact. The intersection of science and public safety is not a place we can afford to cut back.
I remember, back in 2009, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal using volcano observatories as an example of foolish spending. It’s that kind of thinking that’s foolish. Monitoring volcanoes is in everyone’s best interest, and should be a funding priority.
Posted Thursday, May 23, 2013, at 8:00 AM
Photo by ESO
On May 25, 1998, the first of the four telescopes that would collectively be called the Very Large Telescope (or VLT) opened its eight-meter eye on the sky. Over the next fifteen years, their combined might would scan the heavens, providing incredible views of celestial objects.
To celebrate its 15th anniversary, the European Southern Observatory released this lovely picture of the Lambda Centaurus nebula, also called IC 2944. It’s a huge nebula, a gas cloud, located roughly 6000 light years away (the star after which it’s named is actually only about 200 light years from Earth, so their proximity in the sky is a coincidence).
Stars are forming inside the cloud, and some of them are very massive and hot. These stars blast out fierce ultraviolet radiation that heats and excites the hydrogen in the cloud. The gas responds by glowing in the red part of the spectrum—that’s the pink backdrop you see here, the color shifted a bit due to the way the picture combines light from different filters.
Photo by ESO
It’s common in nebulae like this to have thicker clumps of cooler molecular gas (predominantly molecules of hydrogen—H2—with a dash of things like carbon monoxide and other simple molecules). Cold and dense, they block the light coming from behind them, so we see them in silhouette. In the case of IC 2944 these are called Thackeray’s Globules, after A. David Thackeray, who first saw them.
Interestingly, the big clump in the picture is actually two separate clouds, superposed from our position. Each is about a light year across (10 trillion kilometers, or 6 trillion miles), and probably combined have a mass about 15 times that of the Sun. They may have once all been part of a single structure, a long thick tower like the “Pillars of Creation” made famous by Hubble. Over time, that giant structure in IC 2944 was destroyed by the intense UV light and stellar winds of the young massive stars around it. All that’s left now are these small clumps.
Sometimes these globules are the locations of star formation as well. However, in this case, they won’t get a chance. The processes that destroyed the pillar are still at work, slowly eating them away from the outside in. Eventually, they’ll evaporate totally. Poof. Gone.
Such is life. But that’s just a reminder that we should celebrate the things we care about while we can. So in that vein: Happy 15th Birthday, VLT! May you have many more, and may you bring us more gifts like this.
Posted Wednesday, May 22, 2013, at 12:09 PM
Photo by CFHT/Billy Mahoney
At 3:33 a.m. on May 22, 2013 (just a few hours ago as I write this) in Hawaii, the sky was briefly lit up by a huge expanding bubble of light in the east. I got word of this event from astronomer Adam Draginda, who is a telescope operator at the Canada France Hawaii Telescope, located at the top of Mauna Kea.
An all-sky camera at the observatory monitors the sky for weather, and captured the event:
Photo by USAF/Airman Yvonne Morales
How cool is that? When Draginda emailed me, I remembered writing about a very similar event in June, 2011. The expanding halo seen back then was almost certainly caused by an unarmed Minuteman III missile launch, so I quickly checked the Twitter feed for AbsolutSpaceGuy, and sure enough, the exact same kind of missile was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 13:27 UTC. Hawaii is UTC – 10 hours, which put the launch at 03:27 local time, just a few minutes before the light bubble was seen. Sounds like case closed to me.
But what exactly caused the halo? The Minuteman III is a three-stage ICBM, which can get well over 1000 kilometers in altitude. The third stage is equipped with ports on the side; when the correct trajectory is reached these ports open, dumping the remaining fuel. This expands rapidly, creating the halo. The fuel dump is very sudden, so the cloud expands as a spherical shell, like a soap bubble. This creates what’s called a limb-brightened shell; where the edge appears brighter than the middle (it’s common in shell-shaped astronomical objects as well).
Having said that, I’m still not precisely clear why the halo is bright. I think what’s happening is that the expanding shell is moving very rapidly compared to the thin air around it, because the missile is traveling so quickly at that point. The shell rams the air, causing what’s called shock excitation of the air molecules—hitting them at high speed gives the electrons in the molecules extra energy, which they then release, causing the molecules to glow.
Photo by Subaru telescope, via Adam Draginda
Pretty amazing. Rocket launches have caused all kinds of amazing light shows in the past; the biggest and weirdest was the bizarre Norway Spiral in December 2009. As you might expect, they can freak people out, so I’m hoping that as we get more and better footage of these events it’ll be easier for folks to find the correct information about them! Many UFO reports are of mundane objects like Venus, Jupiter, meteors, satellites, and so on. This is hardly a mundane event, I suppose, but at least it’s easily explainable.
As always, I urge you to keep your eyes on the sky. Weird and delightful things happen all the time over your head, and if you don’t pay attention you’ll miss them. Keep looking up!
Posted Wednesday, May 22, 2013, at 8:00 AM
Photo by NRC, modified by Phil Plait
Last week, I wrote a post saying the Canadian National Research Council (NRC)—an agency that supports and performs scientific research and development—was “selling out science,” moving from supporting basic research to concentrating on supporting industrial, business-based research. That situation is still true, and as I’ll note in a moment, still a cause for great concern. But an official of the Canadian government has contacted me to dispute elements of the story.
I quoted two men who made statements at a press conference announcing the agency’s shift in focus: Gary Goodyear, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, and John MacDougal, President of the NRC. After I posted the article, I received an email from Michele-Jamali Paquette, the director of communication for Goodyear, who said I had misquoted MacDougal and misstated the case about the agency’s shift in focus. She provided me with transcripts of the press conference as evidence.
I read the transcripts, and assuming they are accurate, let me be very clear: Yes, the literal word-for-word quotation I used was incorrect, and one point I made was technically and superficially in error. But the overall point—that this is a terrible move by the NRC and the conservative Canadian government, short-changing real science—still stands. And, in my opinion, Goodyear’s office is simply trying to spin what has become a PR problem.
First, let me clarify the quotation by MacDougal. I could not find a transcript of the press conference at the time I was writing, so I quoted the Toronto Sun, which itself quoted MacDougal as saying, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”
Paquette told me that statement does not appear in the transcript, and she is correct. The closest line was MacDougal saying, “A new idea or discovery may in fact be interesting but it doesn’t quality [sic] as an innovation until it’s been developed into something that has commercial or societal value.”
It seems clear the Sun reporter had a transcription error in the quotation, which I then propagated on my blog. For that I apologize. But let’s look past the word-for-word quotation and listen to what MacDougal was actually saying. The NRC is shifting focus from supporting basic research on its own merits to supporting research that has direct commercial implications. And that being the case, the point in my original post still stands.
I’ll note that in her email to me, Paquette quoted my own statement:
John MacDougal, President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”
Paquette took exception to my use of the word “literally,” emphasizing it in her email. (The link, in both her email and my original post, goes to the Toronto Sun story with the garbled quotation.) Apparently MacDougal did not literally say that. But the objection strikes me as political spin since the meaning of what MacDougal said at the press conference is just as I said it was in my original post.
As I pointed out in my first post: Science can and should be done for its own sake. It pays off in the end, but that’s not why we do it. To wit …
In my original post I used the example of James Clerk Maxwell to show that it’s not possible to know beforehand what viable commercial applications will come from scientific research. I said that if Maxwell were to apply for funding at the NRC today, he would be “turned down flat.”
Paquette pointed out that the NRC is not a grant funding council, and that there are other organizations under the Canadian government that perform this task. That was my error, and I apologize for being imprecise in my language.
However, again, I’ll note this is something of a technicality. The NRC does perform research, funded by the government, and is shifting its focus from basic scientific work to that which is “commercially viable” (a direct quotation of MacDougal from the transcript). So yes, Maxwell would not apply to the NRC for funding, but were he to try to pursue that research while employed by the NRC, his research would currently be in danger.
Unfortunately, despite these errors, the overall meaning remains the same: The NRC is moving away from basic science to support business better, and the statements by both Goodyear and MacDougal are cause for concern.
Science for Science’s Sake
I can’t help but note what Paquette did not dispute in my article.
For example, I quoted this statement by Goodyear: “There is [sic] only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge ... second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost.” Like the (corrected) quotation from MacDougal above, I got this from the Toronto Sun, and checking it against the transcript shows some minor transcription errors that don’t change the statement in any meaningful way. And I still stand by my claim that this is an appalling statement.
And I’m not alone. Chemistry World has this, from Cathleen Crudden, president of the Canadian Society for Chemistry:
“If we can involve new industrial and especially international partners in Canadian research, that will definitely be an advantage.” However, she believes that research will no longer be about doing the best and biggest science. “This is always a mistake,” she says. “If we want to succeed in science and technology, we need to always strive to answer the biggest, highest impact questions. If we don't take the lead on answering the big questions, then we will be the ones buying technology, not selling it.”
Science magazine has this from New Democrat science and technology critic Kennedy Stewart:
“They [the conservative leaders in Canadian government] don't want research driven by researchers themselves or public funding for science going towards actual scientific advancement. Their short-sighted approach will in fact hurt economic growth in the long run because it shuts the door on the long-view fundamental research that truly leads to scientific breakthroughs.”
Physics Today has a pretty good article discussing this whole situation as well, and I highly recommend reading it all the way through, as well as the blog at Physics World and this article at Canada.com.
And I’ll note that Paquette also had nothing to say about the current Canadian government’s muzzling of scientists—documented in the BBC, the National Post, MacLean’s, and the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, to name just a few media sources—which is the point I started off with in my original post. That, to me, is still a grave and shameful matter.
To be fair, the NRC is not the only arm of the Canadian government working on scientific R&D. There are many agencies supporting science, but the current government has been making pretty big cuts across the board. I have long maintained that even in times of financial slowdowns, investment in science is critical. Otherwise, you’re eating your seed corn.
And that is the heart of the matter: The action of the NRC is indicative of the current Canadian government’s attitude toward science, which in many ways mirrors what I see in the politically conservative side of the United States government. David Ng at Discover Magazine has an excellent roundup of this. So does Unmuzzled Science. John Dupuis, who writes the Confessions of a Librarian blog, has a timeline of what he calls “The Canadian War on Science”, which is damning indeed.
So I stand by the overall message of my original post. Moving away from basic scientific research is a mistake. Focusing on corporate-profiting science may have some advantages, but not at the cost of taking away basic science. It is trading the future for more immediate and mid-term profitability, and that is a mistake.
Posted Tuesday, May 21, 2013, at 2:00 PM
This weekend I’ll be in Tucson, Ariz., for Spacefest V, a fantastic convention featuring scientists, astronauts, and space artists. This will be the fourth time I’ll have attended, and it’s been great every time. If you’re a space enthusiast and in the area, you really should come.
Speakers include Carolyn Porco, Brian Cox, Emily Lakdawalla, Meteorite Man Geoff Notkin, and a whole lot more. Even me! A lot of Apollo astronauts will be there, as well as other space travelers and scientists.
Sorry about the short notice here, but if you can, please come. I always wind up leaving more energized and excited about space than when I arrived. What more can a science evangelizer ask for?
Posted Tuesday, May 21, 2013, at 11:59 AM
Poster by Start Motion Pictures
This summer, a different kind of science fiction movie, Europa Report, is coming out. I saw some buzz about it last year, and it looked interesting—it's a science fiction movie about a crew going to Jupiter's moon Europa to look for signs of life. Europa is known to have an ocean of liquid water below its surface, and is one of the better bets in our solar system to look for life.
The trailer was just released, so see for yourself!
You can watch it in higher resolution on the Apple Trailer site.
As it so happens, I've seen the whole flick, because of reasons (fine, I can divulge this much: In the near future I'll be doing some work with the team that created it—and no, I can't say just what for the moment, but I will say I'm not in the movie, nor did I help with its production in any way). It's really good! Like I said before, it's different: It's done half documentary style, half movie narrative. The format works very well, giving the movie a heightened sense of suspense.
The special effects are fantastic, and the cast is excellent (for example, it stars Sharlto Copley from District 9. Bear McCreary did the music, too (he scored Eureka, Defiance, Battlestar Galactica, and much more). I wasn't sure what to expect sitting down to watch it, but I was impressed. The science is very good, which is no surprise since they had JPL scientists as advisers on it.
It'll be available for download on iTunes on June 27, and in theaters on Aug. 2.
Posted Tuesday, May 21, 2013, at 7:45 AM
The storms that swept through Oklahoma yesterday left astonishing devastation in their wake. The live video and photos taken from the ground are horrifying, grim, and heart-breaking.
Whenever there is some sort of terrible weather event, one of the first things I do is check the satellite imagery to see what the system looks like, and how wide-spread it is. And every time, I forget how different things look from space. The contrast is shocking, even when you expect it.
That’s a Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) infrared image of the Oklahoma area taken on May 21, 2013 at 00:15 UTC (May 20 at 7:15 p.m. local time), shortly after the region was being slammed by a monstrous tornado. This wavelength of light emphasizes water vapor at an altitude of about 6 – 10 kilometers (4 – 6 miles), and is a good tracer of high-elevation winds, the jet stream, and of course storm activity.
From this height—the GOES satellites orbit at 35,800 km (22,300 miles) above the Earth’s surface—the terrible effects of this violent system are not only invisible, but replaced with a kind of serene and delicate-looking beauty that is one of the biggest ironies of which I know. It’s even more so for hurricanes, which possess a symmetry and frightening majesty.
[Update (May 21, 2013 at 15:30 UTC): The MODIS instrument on NASA's Aqua Earth-observing satellite took this much higher-resolution visible-light image at 19:40 UTC, just as the tornado was getting started.
The full-resolution version makes the case for the contrast between horror and beauty even more vivid.]
Satellite images like these have been and still are helping meteorologists get a better handle on dangerous weather, and even though it is not yet an exact science, it’s far better than it once was, and will get better yet. I hope that there will come a day when we will know precisely where and when violent weather will hit, and be able to give people enough time to seek shelter so that tragedies like yesterday will be avoided.
My heart goes out to all those affected by this weather. If you want to help, the Take Part website has a list of organizations that are in the area giving support.
Thanks to my friend Jessica for the link to Take Part.
Posted Monday, May 20, 2013, at 11:51 AM
Galaxies, on the whole, are very pretty. I find that interesting, actually; we didn’t evolve to see galaxies with our naked eyes, and they exert no selective pressure on us to breed, so when we find them so attractive it must be coincidence. Their shape, color, and structure just so happen to fit our definition of beauty. Appreciating the art of the Universe is a collateral benefit of evolution.
And then there’s this galaxy, prosaically named J125013.50+073441.5 (after its coordinates on the sky). I have to admit I’m admiring its strange appeal.
Photo by ESA/Hubble & NASA, M. Hayes
What an odd thing! It's located about 500 million light years away, and has clearly suffered a massive collision—while it does have spiral arms, the overall structure is a mess, indicating some large disturbance happened not too long ago. Most likely another galaxy came along, and the mutual gravity of the two drew them together, creating chaos in their structures. There’s no other nearby galaxy in the image, so I suspect the two wound up merging, and we’re catching it a few hundred million years after the event. The ring in the center and the small straight spurs around it are relatively common features seen in the aftermath of collisions as well, formed by the gravitational interaction of one galaxy as it plunges into another.
The image, taken using Hubble Space Telescope, is rather unusual, spanning a wide range of wavelengths of light. It’s a composite of three observations, one in the ultraviolet (shown as blue in the image), one in visible light which accentuates normal starlight (shown as green), and near-infrared which highlights dust (red).
Ultraviolet light is emitted by young, massive, hot stars (and the gas surrounding them, lit by the intense radiation), and those tend to be born in spiral arms. That’s why the arms look blue. There's so much ultraviolet light being emitted, so much star formation going on, that J1250 is labeled a "starburst galaxy"—again, that tends to be an effect of galaxy collisions, when massive clouds of gas slam into each other, collapse, and furiously form stars. The dust is all over the place, and really does look like it was stirred up by the collision. Dust is actually made of complex organic (carbon chain) molecules, created when stars are born and when they die.
Photo by ESA/Hubble & NASA, M. Hayes
In the Hubble release for this image, they mention this galaxy was observed as part of the Lyman Alpha Reference Sample research; a survey to look at galaxies that emit a lot of a special kind of ultraviolet light called Lyman Alpha. As it happens, I wrote about this survey recently when Hubble released a spectacular image of another targeted galaxy, which I think should be called Cinderella’s Slipper.
The survey is helping astronomers understand galaxy formation and evolution by looking at nearby galaxies that can be used as models for far more distant ones. Closer ones are easier to study, while more distant ones may appear only as dots. The closer ones allow us to separate out various features (like the center of the galaxy versus an extended halo of gas) that are unresolved in the more distant galaxies. It’s a clever idea, and very useful for understanding what galaxies were like when the Universe was much younger.
And it does provide us with a bit of eye candy along with that nutritional brain fodder, too. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, so I’m no expert in the whys and wherefores of our appreciation of the beauty of the Universe. But I do know what looks lovely to me, and I also know that the science behind that beauty adds to it, giving it depth and personality. Art is always supplemented by the knowledge of how it came to be…especially when it’s on a grand a scale as the cosmos itself.
Posted Monday, May 20, 2013, at 8:00 AM
A little while back, I got an email from my friend Kelly Weinersmith, a biologist who has a bizarre attachment (ha! Haha!) to parasites. She is part of a group called the SciFund Challenge, and they are trying to increase and strengthen the connection between science and society, as well as raise money for scientific research.
Kelly contacted me because she was asking scientists who do outreach to make a short video answering some questions about how and why they do what they do. I’ve been outreaching (reaching out? Reach outing?) for a long time, and oddly enough I have some opinions about it. So I was happy to help her. I recorded it assuming I was talking to people considering doing outreach, but I suspect there are things in my short video readers of this blog will appreciate.
SciFund Challenge has a lot more videos from other scientists, too. I’ve watched several, and it’s fascinating to see the different takes people have on the work they do. I apparently have cornered the market on smartassery.
I suspect this is all part of some long-term plan on Kelly’s part dealing with parasites that modify their hosts’ behavior. Maybe that’s why I was happy to help her… but in fact, the processes of science and science outreach really are more of a symbiosis. Each has their role, and each supports the other. Science needs to be done, and people need to know about that. I’m pretty pleased to be ensconced somewhere in that loop.
…and if the name Kelly Weinersmith is familiar, you may know her best for looking over the shoulder of her comic-drawing artist husband and glowering at him disapprovingly (hold your mouse over the red button; NSFW language). She’s good people, and it’s an honor to be a part of something on which she’s working.