The entire universe in blog form

Dec. 19 2014 2:15 PM

The Horsehead and the Flame

Well folks, looks like I have your next desktop wallpaper for you: a Spitzer Space Telescope image of the incredible Flame Nebula, a star-forming gas cloud hanging off Orion’s belt:

Video Advertisement

Dec. 19 2014 7:15 AM

Science, Celebrities, and the Perils of Promotion

Promoting science can be tricky. In general it’s fun and rewarding. I have a passion for science, and I wear it happily for all to see.

But there are minefields afoot. Of course there are people who deny science, and they will let the vitriol flow if you happen to stick a toe into their territory. There’s also the issue of diversity, including topics like women in science as well as people of different backgrounds, color, beliefs, and so on. I’m all for promoting more inclusion in science: the more the merrier! Reality is, and should be, for everyone.


But how to do this, how to actually promote these ideas, can get interesting.

A while back I was skimming my Twitter stream, and saw that my friend Christina Ochoa had retweeted a fun graphic created by Elise Andrew of I F’ing Love Science:

scientists actresses
Actresses, scientists.

Graphic by Elise Andrew

The picture is titled “Actresses with a passion for science” and shows five such women: Hedy Lamarr, Lisa Kudrow, Mayim Bialik, Natalie Portman, and Danica McKellar. I know how important it is to have good role models for kids and how girls need more support in getting into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Like it or not, actors and other famous people bear weight, so showing famous actresses who love STEM in my opinion is a pretty good thing.

So I retweeted the picture, adding “Love this” to it.

Then things got interesting.

Within minutes I started seeing responses about Dr. Bialik. Yes, “doctor”; she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience. The thing is, she also holds a number of beliefs with which I and many others disagree, some of them very strongly. For example, she’s a spokeswoman for a group called Holistic Moms—they support homeopathy, a provably worthless and arguably dangerous bit of “alternative medicine.” They are also strongly anti-vaccination, and Bialik herself supports anti-vaxxers (she has stated she has not vaccinated her own children, a position I am strongly opposed to).

I knew all this when I retweeted the picture. I’ll admit, I hesitated before doing so, specifically because of this. Is promoting this picture also promoting anti-science beliefs? Looking at the responses on Twitter, a lot of people think so. I see their point, but I also don’t think this is quite so black-and-white.

I do strongly disagree with many of Bialik’s beliefs. But I also know that she is a high-profile actress, starring in The Big Bang Theory where she plays a scientist. Her character, Amy Farrah Fowler, is a biologist and is commonly seen doing work in the lab and talking about her research with her friends. I’m quite fond of her character; she’s a passionate scientist, a decent person, a dork, emotional, analytical, and has trouble being objective when assessing her relationship with her significant other. I know a lot of people like that. I am people like that.

On top of that, Bialik has promoted science herself. For example, I urge you to take a few minutes and watch this delightful video where she does a great job talking up science:

Clearly, she can be a positive role model for science. However, we must have a care. The same people who might be inspired by her pro-science message might look into her more and find that she holds some less-supported beliefs, some that are anti-science.

So is using her in that montage of pictures a good thing or a bad thing? I would argue it’s neither, but the good outweighs the bad. The facts are that she is a scientist, she is an actress, and the picture was about actresses who are scientists. In point of fact, celebrities can be influential, and it’s a good thing that people see science supported by celebrity.

But of course we should also be careful not to put celebrities on too high a pedestal. Yes, Bialik has beliefs unsupported by science. But so does everyone. I imagine if we dig into the histories of the other four women shown in the picture we’ll find all sorts of things that go against the foundations of science, just as you would if you examined anybody’s thoughts. I have met my fair share of scientists who believe in one thing or another without evidence, or despite it. Heck, you can find Nobel scientists who fall into that category, ones who have supported clear crackpottery.

I’ll note I’ve dealt with this before when I was at an event with a Miss Utah; though she and I would disagree strongly on a number of topics, she was also an outspoken promoter of STEM, which is why she was there. And I was glad she was there, doing what she did. Think of it this way: If you knew of someone who did a great job taking down psychics, but also thought global warming was a hoax, would you then stop praising them for their work against psychics? It’s not an either-or thing; I would hope you would continue to praise them where appropriate but also take them to task where needed, too.

While you might dismiss those ideas and think less of the person holding them, that doesn’t necessarily subtract from their contributions to science. In this case, Bialik has done a lot to raise awareness of science and women’s contributions to it. Celebrating her (and the other four actresses) for that is great, and that was the sole purpose of the picture, and it’s appropriate to praise her there.

That doesn’t mean I am forgiving of Bialik’s beliefs at all. And in fact her presence in the picture has brought attention to them, which I think is also a good thing. A lot of folks agree with her when it comes to health issues, and that’s a big problem in this country; I’ve been clear about that for years.

That’s what I meant about this not being black-and-white. We’re all shades of gray, and if you really only want to praise people who are absolutely the perfect icons of science in every way, well, good luck finding them. You’ll be looking a long time.

As for me, I will continue to support science the best I can, and also support women in science. That’s the bigger picture here, and one we should all bear in mind.

Note: The friend I mentioned above, Christina Ochoa, is part of a group of actresses (also friends of mine) who love science. They call themselves Scirens and you should follow them on Twitter. They're good people, and I’m pleased to help support their efforts.

Tip o’ the calculator to Joel Parker for the link to the video.


Dec. 18 2014 11:30 AM


I love photos of the Earth taken from space; our deserts, oceans, islands, volcanoes, farmland, forests …  all of it.

But there’s something special about seeing something recognizable, even iconic, from space. Perhaps we’re used to seeing such things on maps, but a photo of it adds the dimension of reality.


I’m not sure. But no matter why, it’s hard to deny this is just straight-up cool:

I’ve spent a lot of time on this peninsula; family vacations when I was younger, visiting friends when I was older, watching the odd rocket launch or three. My folks lived there for many years, so seeing this from space reminds me of combing beaches for shark teeth when my daughter was little, getting sunburned like an idiot despite slathering on lotion, sweating maniacally in March.

At night, from space, the outline of Florida makes it so obvious (like Italy; perhaps peninsulae are easier to recognize). The lights of the city are both lovely to see and appalling to seriously consider; the light pollution is overwhelming, ironically drowning out everything in the night sky except for the few brightest objects … like the International Space Station passing overhead, from where this photo was taken.

Our technology has made it possible to go up and look down, but much harder to stay down and look up. If there is some sort of allegorical conclusion to be drawn here, well, I’ll leave it for you to consider.

Dec. 18 2014 7:15 AM

Scientists Discover 38 Percent of the Earth

OK, so the title is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it's sorta true: Mineralogists have finally found naturally occurring samples of what may be the most common mineral on Earth: what’s called silicate perovskite, or (Mg,Fe)SiO­3.

They’ve also officially given it a name now too: bridgmanite. Percy Williams Bridgman won the Nobel in 1946 for studying high-pressure minerals … and that’s a clue to why this mineral was so hard to identify.*


Bridgmanite can only exist under conditions of high temperatures (at least 2,100 C) and pressure (240,000 times the sea level atmospheric pressure—a crushing 240 metric tons per square centimeter!). It’s thought to be abundant in the Earth’s lower mantle—a region 660 to 2,900 kilometers beneath Earth’s surface. The molten rock in the mantle is fluid, moving incredibly slowly inside our planet. Any bridgmanite in the mantle brought up toward the surface slowly breaks down under the cooler and lower pressure conditions, which is why it’s remained elusive, even though the mineral may make up as much as 90 percent of that part of the mantle (and therefore more than a third of the entire planet).

Layers in the Earth. 1) Inner core, 2) outer core, 3) lower mantle (the layer in question), 4) upper mantle, 5) lithosphere, 6) crust.

Drawing by Mats Halldin

The scientific break came in the form of a meteorite, called Tenham. Long ago, two asteroids collided, and the impact created high temperatures and pressures. Bridgmanite formed, and the piece cooled too rapidly for the mineral to decompose. In 1879 the rock fell to Earth in Australia, where it was found and eventually determined to have different kinds of high-pressure minerals in it. Bridgmanite exists in it in very small grains, typically only about 1 micron wide (a human hair is typically 100 microns in width), but it’s there. It was announced earlier this year, but the scientists just published their paper about it in November.

This is quite a boon! It’s difficult to reproduce the conditions in the deep Earth, and even if you can it’s even harder to study what you get. In this case, it’s like we got a sample of the Earth’s lower mantle for free. It’s also a nifty crossover between different disciplines: meteoritics, high-pressure physics, mineralogy, just to name some.

And also, it’s just amazing. We live on a ball of rock and metal 12,740 km across, with a staggering 1 trillion cubic kilometers of material in it, the vast vast majority of which we can never directly see. I wasn’t even aware that we didn’t actually know for sure what made up over a third of our own planet.

Science! Astronomy may be my passion and my love, but sometimes it’s good to remember that science also tells you, literally, what’s going on right underneath your feet.

Correction, Dec. 18, 2014: This post originally misstated when Bridgman won the Nobel. It was in 1946, not 1964.

Dec. 17 2014 11:15 AM

Dark Sky in Canarias

Because why not, here’s a luscious time-lapse animation of the sky over La Palma, Tenerife, and El Hierro, three of the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco:

This video was taken by photographer Imanol Mujika. He has a stunning Flickr gallery, too.


I’ve been to La Palma, and the clouds really do roll in like that. I like how you can see them swell and disappear over the city (I think it’s Santa Cruz in the video) like waves on a beach.

Also, toward the end (at the 1:55 mark), there’s a star trails shot where the long exposure shows the stars as streaks due to Earth’s rotation. Stars on the celestial equator—the part of the sky directly above the Earth’s equator—make straight lines, but toward the right (north) and left (south) they curve more, as they circle the pole. But they curve in opposite directions!

That’s just the natural consequence of the wide-angle shot, being able to see the motions of stars across a big chunk of sky. Near the celestial poles, the stars make smaller circles, so we see the curvature of their trails changing with position. I have a more detailed explanation in an earlier post, if you’re curious (and you should be!).

Seeing this makes me want to get under the stars again ... and now that it's winter, Orion, Taurus, and all the wonderful chilly weather stars are back at a decent time of night. Time to warm up my camera ...

Dec. 17 2014 7:15 AM

Hour by Hour, the Phases of the Moon for the Entire Year of 2015

Just the other day I wrote about the good folks who create video at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. And now I get to do it again: They just released their Dial-a-Moon page for 2015, which lets you display the hour-by-hour appearance of the moon for the entire year.

They also put out a video compiling all the images for the year into a single animation. You might expect it to look like the Moon is just sitting there, with the phase changing as the terminator (the day/night line) sweeps across its face. But that’s not what you get at all. Watch:



The Moon orbits the Earth in the same amount of time it takes to spin once. This means it always shows us the same face … except not really. The Moon’s rotation is constant, but the velocity it travels in its orbit around the Earth changes because that path is an ellipse. When it’s closer to Earth it moves faster, and slower when it’s farther away. This mismatch lets us peek a bit “around the side” of the Moon. The Moon’s spin axis is also tipped a bit with respect to its orbit, and that allows us to see over the northern and southern poles, too.

When added together, you get that mesmerizing nodding and weaving motion, which is called libration.

The video has some nifty extras too. At the top left it shows the Moon’s position in its orbit around the Earth, as well as the phases of both the Earth and Moon.

Behind the big Moon in the center is a line representing the Moon’s orbit seen edge-on. On the left is the Earth, and on the right it shows how far away the Moon is, in units of the Earth’s diameter (12,740 kilometers or 7,900 miles).

On the bottom left is a diagram of the Moon, with a blue and yellow dot; the blue is the sub-Earth point and the yellow is the sub-solar point.  In other words, if you were standing on the Moon at the position of the blue dot the Earth would be exactly overhead, and if you were at the yellow dot the Sun would be directly overhead. Note that when the Moon is full to us on Earth, the yellow dot is smack dab in the center near the blue dot: The Sun is shining straight down on the half of the Moon we see. When the Moon is new (completely dark), the yellow dot is on the far side of the Moon; the Sun lights up the half we can’t see, and the half facing us is dark.

Finally, on the lower right are lots of fun numbers: date/time, the phase (percentage of the Moon illuminated as seen from Earth), how big it appears, how far it is, and so on.

If you’re planning any detailed lunar observations, the GSFC page is pretty useful. I know I’ll use it to plan our future Science Getaways trips; we try to schedule them around new Moon so we can see the stars when I take my telescope out.

And even if you don’t need that kind of detail, this is just a way cool thing to have around. There’s also a video that shows just the Moon without any of the annotation, and a view as seen from the Earth’s Southern Hemisphere as well, with the Moon upside-down. Wacky Southern Hemisphereans.

And don’t forget this is a simulation, based on images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The real thing is even better, so go outside and look! You may get inspired. A couple of friends of mine were.

Dec. 16 2014 12:24 PM

Meteor Not?

So in my post about the Geminid meteor shower yesterday, I said that I didn't catch a single Geminid in my photos, and that's true. But going over them carefully, I happened to see something a bit weird, and I'm not sure what to make of it.

I took many shots of Orion, since it was perfectly placed over a tree, and any meteors going across it would make for a great photograph. I kept the exposures to 20-30 seconds, since the sky background was pretty bright, and I didn't want the stars to trail too much. While I didn't get any Geminids, I did happen to see this tiny streak:


You can see the three stars in Orion's belt at the top, and the fuzzy glow of the Orion Nebula, the nursery to a lot of young bright stars. And there, just below the third star in Orion's "dagger," there's that little blip. Is that a meteor?

I'm not sure. It's not a Geminid for sure; given Orion's position in the sky, a Geminid would leave a left-to-right streak in this photo. It's not in the previous or following photo, taken seconds earlier and later. 

I'm not sure what to make of it. Most meteors would leave much longer streaks, but if the bit of cosmic debris happened to be heading almost straight toward me, it would leave a short streak due to perspective. If it's not a meteor, what could it be? Sometimes subatomic particles can leave similar streaks in a digital detector (these are typically called cosmic rays), but I've never seen one in my usual use of a regular camera. It may have been a bird lit by city lights, but the streak doesn't wiggle, and is so short that seems pretty unlikely. Same for an insect much closer to the camera. 

It seems weird to think that a small bit of interplanetary debris sloughed off by some ancient collision between two asteroids millions of years ago and hundreds of millions of kilometers away may be the least unlikely explanation, but there you go. 

Astronomy does sometimes provide an unusual perspective.

Dec. 16 2014 7:30 AM

50 Shades of 67/P

That picture shown above is, seriously, a full-color photo of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

It was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on Aug. 6, 2014, when the probe was still 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the comet (long before the Philae lander was deployed). The OSIRIS camera on board has red, green, and blue filters that allow the camera to mimic what the human eye sees. It’s not exact, but it’s close.


And what you see is … gray. Which means the comet really is just kinda overall gray.

That doesn’t surprise me. Comets aren’t really loaded with the sorts of colorful minerals that make Mars or Europa or even our own Earth so gloriously hued. They’re mostly water ice and rock, with other things thrown in for good measure.

But you might expect some variation when you look at the comet in detail. But it’s very smoothly gray; there’s very little change in the color composition across the comet. That means there’s probably physical homogeneity across its surface. If there are any interesting minerals or materials in the comet, they appear to be distributed pretty well.

That does surprise me; I was expecting to see patches of ice at least on the surface, and those reflect blue light better than red. But we see no blue patches at all. The water ice in the comet is mixed in with the other stuff.

That’s not the case with other comets; for example, Hartley 2 is also double-lobed, with a waist in between them, similar in shape to 67P. But observations using the EPOXI spacecraft show the waist is emitting water ice, while the lobes blow out more carbon dioxide. The waist is also smooth in appearance, while the lobes are rougher. It’s unclear why this might be.

But 67/P, for all its similarity in overall shape, is clearly a different beast than Hartley 2. That’s telling us something. Perhaps they were born in different parts of the solar system, and so are constructed differently (we know that to be the case for some by looking at isotope ratios in different comets). Maybe something happened as they aged—4.55 billion years is a long time, after all—that changed them. It could be that 67/P's outgassing and dust have coated its surface everywhere. Or maybe comets are just a diverse group, every one different from another. None of these circumstances would be surprising.

There’s another possibility, too: Simulations of the early solar system show that our Sun may have stolen the vast majority of its comets from other stars! If that’s the case, then that would go a long way toward explaining why comets are so different from each other. They were born in different solar systems!

It’s hard to express just how awe-inspiring that is. We’ve always assumed comets were like time capsules from the ancient solar system (if weathered and worn over the eons). But they actually may be samples of alien stars, transplants from elsewhere in the galaxy.

Thinking about this literally raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

So gaze upon that photo of 67/P once again, and think about what you may be seeing. I know I’ll never use the word “gray” to mean boring ever again.

Dec. 15 2014 1:52 PM

Comical Immunity

Speaking of vaccines, my pal Maki Naro is a fantastic illustrator and pro-science guy, and he just put up a wonderful comic about why vaccines are important.

I love this. He hits on lots of critical topics, like how our immune system works, how vaccines prime that system to fight off diseases, why herd immunity is important, and why it's hard to keep up with evolving viruses.


Drawing by Maki Naro


Just as importantly, he hammers the anti-vaxxers who so richly deserve it, like Jenny McCarthy, Andrew Wakefield, and RFK Jr. Maki shows why their claims are not just wrong but in most cases hugely, egregiously wrong. And it's all done in a lovely, palatable comic form, making it easy and fun to read. 

Maki draws more comics like this for Popular Science, too. I like his style, and I hope you do too.

Dec. 15 2014 11:27 AM

A Rain of (Teeny) Asteroids

Over the weekend, the Geminid meteor shower came to a peak. This annual event occurs when the Earth plows through debris left behind by the asteroid 3200 Phaethon as it orbits the Sun (it gets so close to the Sun that bits of the rock vaporize and blow off the asteroid). Each little bit of interplanetary detritus is moving at about 35 kilometers/sec (22 miles/sec), fast enough that as it rams through our air, it heats up enough to become incandescent, and we see a “shooting star.”

I was out Saturday night (Dec. 13), and over the course of two hours I saw so many I lost count; I’m pretty sure I spotted at least 80. I wasn’t able to get any Geminids on camera (grrrrr), but happily photographer Neil Zeller had far better results:


Spectacular! He drove up northeast of Calgary to get nice dark skies, and it was clearly worth the trip. The photo is actually a composite of several exposures; he was facing northwest and captured the Milky Way, several Geminids, and a lovely green aurora on the horizon (Zeller has an astonishing gallery of aurora photos on his website). On the far right you can just see an interesting pair of stars tightly spaced; that’s Mizar and Alcor, the stars in the bend in the Big Dipper’s handle.

As you can see, all the meteors seem to point in the same direction. That’s because they do! The meteors appear to come from a part of the sky near the head of Gemini (hence their name), and radiate away from that point in all directions. It’s a perspective effect, like driving through a tunnel and seeing the lights on the walls appear to come from the same spot ahead of you, and streak away to the sides.

As I stood under the chilly Colorado sky Saturday, this radiating effect was pretty strong; I saw meteors in any part of the sky I looked, and they always pointed back toward Gemini (except for one that was a random meteor unrelated to the shower; on any night you can usually see a few per hour). I saw every flavor of meteor, too: long streaks, short ones, faint ones, bright ones, and one that flared about as bright as Jupiter (magnitude -1 or 2 if you want details) that left a luminous vapor trail that lasted for just a second or two. That was amazing.

This was easily the best meteor shower I’ve ever watched myself. It’s usually too cold and cloudy this time of year to see it, but things worked out well; in fact, as I write this (the day after the shower) it’s snowing!

The mighty hunter. Click to embiggen.

Photo by Phil Plait

And I did get a lot of very pretty pictures from the night, including this one of Orion through the trees (and Sirius, the brightest star of the night sky, to the lower left). It was totally worth the cold fingers, toes, and nose.

Tip o' the lens cap to Daggerville on Twitter.