The entire universe in blog form
Posted Monday, June 17, 2013, at 10:30 AM
You’d think it would be hard to hide a whole exploding star, but the galaxy has managed to do just that for 2,500 years.
Supernova remnant G306.3-0.9 somehow managed to elude discovery until 2011, when it was seen during a survey of the galaxy by the orbiting Swift observatory. Swift detects X-rays and gamma-rays, extremely high-energy forms of light emitted by the most powerful and violent events in the Universe—like exploding stars. X-rays from G306 betrayed its existence to Swift, and when astronomers noticed it, they swung other telescopes around to investigate.
The image at the top of this post is a combination of observations from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Space Telescope (which sees infrared light), and the Australian Telescope Compact Array (which detects radio waves). X-rays are shown in blue, infrared in red and cyan, and radio in purple.
The circular shape of the object is a big hint to its origin as an exploding star, but the presence of X-rays is the clincher. When a star explodes, it blasts out a brain-crushing amount of matter and energy. The expanding debris can outmass the Sun by a factor of 10 or more, screaming outward at a substantial fraction of the speed of light. The energy emitted in a supernova in just a few weeks is the equivalent of the Sun’s output over its entire lifetime of 10 billion years.
The violence of a supernova is almost too much to comprehend.
This is belied by the beauty and apparent serenity of the image, isn’t it? We see it frozen in time, its vast power diminished by distance. It’s only through our understanding of physics and mathematics that we can even begin to understand the forces at work here.
The star exploded about 2,500 years ago (ignoring the time it took for the light to reach us), and the debris has expanded to about 25 light-years in diameter. That means the material was blasted outward to at least 1 percent the speed of light—and probably more, given it slows down over time as it rams through the thin material between the stars. As it slams into that gas, shock waves form in a similar way that sonic booms are created from supersonic aircraft. These shocks bounces around in the material, compressing it, and playing havoc with the magnetic fields inside. This accelerates subatomic particles to fantastic speeds, just under that of light itself, and it’s the interaction of the particles with those magnetic fields that generates the X-rays seen by Chandra and Swift.
Stars explode in our galaxy every century or so on average. We know of roughly 300 supernova remnants in our own galaxy, and G306 is one of the youngest. Some are tens of thousands of years old, and a handful older yet. Many of them are when a massive star explodes after a very short life, so they are still embedded in the gas and dust clouds from which they were born. That absorbs the fierce light, obscuring them from our view. That in turn means there are probably hundreds more supernova remnants in the Milky Way, many as young or younger than G306, that remain undiscovered.
It’s incredible that one of the singular violent events possible in the Universe can be relatively nearby yet be completely invisible. But we’re getting better at this. Our telescopes improve all the time, and we keep a sharp eye on the sky. I expect that over time, many more of these hidden cataclysms will come to light.
Posted Monday, June 17, 2013, at 8:00 AM
Fire image courtesy peasap's Flickr photostream; Earth image from NASA; composite by Phil Plait.
Oh, that Heartland Institute. This fossil-fuel-funded climate change denial “think tank” has made its name making outrageous statements that generally aren’t even within a glancing blow of reality. Like the way they hugely exaggerated the importance of “Climategate”—what I like to call a manufactroversy—or their horrific billboard campaign comparing climate scientists to the Unabomber and Charles Manson. That was where they actually had the temerity to say:
The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.
Nice, huh? No wonder they hemorrhaged sponsors so rapidly after that boondoggle.
So when I heard that one of their global-warming denial screeds had been translated into Chinese and that Heartland was claiming the Chinese government was becoming more “skeptical” about climate change, well, I myself was hugely skeptical.
Turns out, I was right.
Heartland made this claim:
The trend toward skepticism and away from alarmism is now unmistakable… Publication of a Chinese translation of Climate Change Reconsidered by the Chinese Academy of Sciences indicates the country's leaders believe their [failure to sign a global climate treaty] is justified by science and not just economics.
Note: That quotation is from an article at the Guardian about this; Heartland took down the page with their original press release. Now, why would they do that?
Because it was egregiously false. It was so fallacious, in fact, that the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) issued a very stern statement (emphasis mine):
The claim of the Heartland Institute about CAS’ endorsement of its report is completely false. To clarify the fact, we formally issue the following statements:
(1) The translation and publication of the Chinese version of the NIPCC report, and the related workshop, are purely non-official academic activities the group of translators. They do not represent, nor they have ever claimed to represent, CAS or any of CAS institutes. They translated the report and organized the workshop just for the purpose of academic discussion of different views.
(2) The above fact was made very clear in the Translators’ Note in the book, and was known to the NIPCC report authors and the Heartland Institute before the translation started. The false claim by the Heartland Institute was made public without any knowledge of the translator group.
(3) Since there is absolutely no ground for the so called CAS endorsement of the report, and the actions by the Heartland Institute went way beyond acceptable academic integrity, we have requested by email to the president of the Heartland Institute that the false news on its website to be removed. We also requested that the Institute issue a public apology to CAS for the misleading statement on the CAS endorsement.
(4) If the Heartland Institute does not withdraw its false news or refuse to apologize, all the consequences and liabilities should be borne by the Heartland Institute. We reserve the right for further actions to protect the rights of CAS and the translators group.
Wow. The number of times they use the word false makes their feelings pretty clear (as does another CAS notice). Also, note the part where they say Heartland knew what they were claiming was false, too.
And false it was. As the Guardian article points out, China has been stepping forward about climate change, testing out political and engineering ideas to try to curb carbon emissions. China has also officially endorsed the International Panel on Climate Change’s statement that the world is warming and it’s due to human influence.
So, after this withering blast from CAS, what does Heartland do? Issue a notpology:
Some people interpreted our news release and a blog post describing this event as implying that the Chinese Academy of Sciences endorses the views contained in the original books. This is not the case, and we apologize to those who may have been confused by these news reports.
Seriously, Heartland? “Some people”? I think you misspelled “everybody,” including the very China Academy of Sciences you were touting, because that’s precisely what you were saying.
This kind of wishy-washy phrasing is nothing more than yet another attempt at distraction, as well as blame-shifting from their own huge and embarrassing error to “those who may have been confused.” Sorry Heartland, but your position is clear. You can’t even deny your own denial.
Groups such as the Heartland Institute and so many others are sowing confusion at a time when we need more clarity, not less. We need to make real steps toward curbing global warming, and as recent reports have shown, it’s already hard enough. President Obama is making a lot of promises toward that goal, but making actual movement is a different issue. This is why I continue to write about this issue; the more people who get the real facts, and see who is trying to obfuscate them, the better.
Posted Sunday, June 16, 2013, at 8:00 AM
A few years back, a pair of House Finches built a nest under the eave of our roof. After the chicks hatched and flew away (which we missed) a second pair (or maybe the original) nested there again—clever, saving them the need to rebuild from scratch.
Over the next two years the nest was abandoned, though, until last year when a robin took up residence. That proved unfruitful; a few days after I took the picture in that link I saw the broken egg shells on the ground. I never did find out what happened, but given nature, red in tooth and claw, I suspect another bird came along and ate the egg contents.
But never fret! This year, amazingly, a pair of handsome House Finches have once again taken up residence.
That’s the mama bird, who seconds later snuggled in (literally; her tail feathers waving back and forth primly as she hunkered down into the nest) for a nice brood. She wasn’t thrilled with my being less than ten meters away snapping pictures, but hey! It’s my house too.
Actually, she was in the nest when I first walked outside to take the picture, but flew off to a nearby tree when she saw me. Turns out her hubby was there too:
Adorable. And loud; they sing a lot. But it’s sweet sounding, and I like it.
What I don’t like, though is what I saw tucked into the eave under which I was standing:
I thought at first it was a Yellow Jacket, but given the shape of the nest I now suspect it’s a Polistes dominula, a European paper wasp, an invasive species in the United States. Either species is aggressive and mean, and they frankly terrify me. I got stung by one on the fingertip a few years ago—like the damn thing knew where the densest cluster of nerve endings are in the human body—and there are no words for the intensity of the pain I felt. I’m pretty sure for a moment I shifted into another dimension.
So these are not as welcome a visitor as the finches. The wasps come every year and nest under our eaves, and every year I have to clean them out. But in one sense I hate to do it; they are a marvel of evolutionary engineering, and their nests are a wonder.
But that stinger evolved too, and so it’s either us or them. I vote us.
In the meantime, I’ll keep my eye on the birdies. If the eggs hatch, I bet I’ll have some cute pictures soon. It’s happened before.
Posted Saturday, June 15, 2013, at 8:00 AM
It’s no surprise that funding cuts are hitting everyone in science. From research to outreach, there’s less money coming from the top down, and that means less science at all levels.
We need science. We need more research, more people involved, more interest generated, and more of the public knowing about it.
Cosmoquest is a group run by my friend Dr. Pamela Gay that gets the public involved with science (full disclosure: I am an advisor to CQ). They run hands-on demos, do interviews online, create and run citizen science projects, and generally just get out there and evangelize science.
Cosmoquest gets funding from several sources, but NASA grants are a big one, and those are being cut back severely. Faced with this sudden loss, Cosmoquest is holding a massive 32 hour live telethon on June 15 – 16 starting at 16:00 UTC (12:00 noon EDT) to help raise needed funds to keep the organization going. It will be held on Google+ in the form of a Hangout, a live video program, hosted by Pamela and Dr. Nicole Gugliucci (aka Noisy Astronomer) with lots of special guests.
Including me! I’ll be on at 22:15 UTC (6:15 p.m. EDT) Saturday, today, June 15, talking about all sorts of things, including my time working to create educational materials based on real NASA astronomical satellite data. Other guests include Surly Amy, Scott Sigler & A Kovacs, Dr. Seth Shostak, Dr. Kiki Sanford & Jennifer Ouellette, and many more.
Posted Friday, June 14, 2013, at 11:32 AM
Video screenshot courtesy of Mike Olbinski
Stop whatever you are doing, make this full screen, and prepare to be awed: This time-lapse video of a supercell storm cloud rotating over Texas is far and away the most amazing thing you’ll see today.
Yes, that’s real.
A supercell is a rotating thundercloud; the spinning vortex in the middle is called a mesocyclone. Conditions need to be just so to create one. First you need a wind shear, where wind blows faster in one spot than another, so a blanket of air is flowing over another one. This sets up a rolling vortex, a horizontally rotating mass of air like the way a wave breaks when it gets to a beach. An updraft then lifts that vortex, which then spins vertically.
The warmer air in the vortex rises; this is called convection. If there’s a boundary layer of air above it, called a capping layer, it acts like a lid, preventing the vortex air from rising. It builds up power and can suddenly and explosively grow to a huge size. Wikipedia has a good description and diagrams of how this works.
Supercells generally form where there’s a lot of flat land to get that good horizontal flow first. Texas has that in abundance, which is why photographer Mike Olbinski went there in hopes of getting footage like this. (Read his description of his adventure on the Vimeo page for the video; it’s quite good.) Texas, it so happens, is roomy, so it took him four years to be at the right spot at the right time—in this case, June 3. Persistence paid off for him, and because he shared this terrifying beauty, it paid off for all of us. Olbinski has several other incredible storm-chasing photos on his website.
I’m fascinated by weather phenomena, and supercells like this are something I’d love a chance to see from close by … but not too close by. They can create havoc locally, with torrential downpours (that look like alien spaceworms blasting the Earth), severe lightning, and tornadoes. Given that, maybe video like this is satisfying enough for now.
Tip o’ the tornado cellar door to BABloggee Jeremy Huggins.
Posted Friday, June 14, 2013, at 7:30 AM
Sometime in the early afternoon on Tuesday, a fire started northeast of Colorado Springs, Colo., in Black Forest. It grew rapidly, and as I write this, it has consumed well over 15,000 acres of forest—that’s more than 60 square kilometers or 20 square miles. Two people are confirmed dead, and the fire has destroyed 360 homes, making it the most destructive in Colorado history. (Last year’s devastating Waldo Canyon fire destroyed 347 homes.) About 38,000 people, an immense number, have been evacuated from 13,000 homes.
And the worst part is the phrase you never want to hear: There is 0 percent containment. The fire is raging out of control, with high temperatures, no rain, and strong winds expected for the next few days. Parts of Colorado Springs are under mandatory evacuation orders, and it’s not at all clear how big this fire will grow. Not far away, a second fire at Royal Gorge is burning as well. As I write this, it’s at about 4,000 acres burned.
The image above, taken by NASA’s Terra satellite, shows the gray smoke from Black Forest fire blowing east. The red outline shows actively burning areas as determined by a thermal infrared detector on Terra. This was taken on Wednesday, and the fire is much larger now.
Last summer, conditions in my home state of Colorado were awful: hot, dry, and windy, after a winter with very low amounts of snow. We got more snow earlier this spring but very little since, and we’ve already had record heat. Fires are inevitable under these conditions.
I can’t see this wildfire (or the other two currently burning in Colorado) from my home, but I remember well seeing the plume from the Boulder wildfire last year going over my house (and the terrifying smoke from a fire north of me as well). I wasn’t in any danger, but a lot of folks closer to town certainly were. It looks like we’re on this trajectory again.
You may guess what I’m thinking about this: global warming. These conditions are precisely what is expected from a warming planet; changing and more extreme weather patterns bringing droughts to some areas and torrential rain and flooding to others. Yes, even more snow in some places in the winter, because even though we’re warming up, the temperatures in winter still get below freezing, just not as much below freezing. That means more water in the air and more precipitation.
But not everywhere. In Colorado we’re very dry. Worse, I can look out my window and see smallish dark clouds blowing by. Those can commonly produce lightning without rain, so we get increased fire risk without the benefit of the rain. It’s a double whammy.
I don’t like this at all, but I fear very much this is the new normal. As temperatures creep up, we’ll see more fires in this country; a Department of Agriculture report estimates that they will double by 2050, approaching 20 million acres lost every year. That’s an area nearly 300 kilometers (180 miles) on a side. It’s incomprehensible.
But by then, perhaps, it will be all too obvious. That’s what “new normal” means. Not happier plants or easier ship passage through Arctic waters. Instead, get used to reports of more Arctic ice melting, more fires, more flooding, and just more plain old bad news.
If you want to keep up with the latest news on the fires, the Denver Post has a live blog covering it.
Posted Thursday, June 13, 2013, at 1:05 PM
Photo by s_bukley / Shutterstock.com
Last week, I wrote an article strongly condemning Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s stance on vaccines. In a nutshell, he believes in an elaborate and ridiculous conspiracy theory that scientists all over the world, but especially at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been lying about the safety of vaccines. He claims that thimerosal, a preservative now used only in one specific kind of flu vaccine, is destroying the brains of our children.
He believes this despite a vast amount of evidence that he’s grossly wrong. Despite test after test, a link from thimerosal to autism has never been shown. But Kennedy chooses to ignore the huge number of researchers who say this and instead focuses on a cherry-picked few, including some with somewhat, ah, shaky credentials.
While I’ve written about Kennedy once or twice before, the fact that he was the keynote speaker at an anti-vaccination (and generally anti-science alternative medicine) convention was what prompted me to write what I did. That, plus my editor, Laura Helmuth, asked me to. She had seen Keith Kloor’s article about Kennedy over at Discover and knew this was up my alley. I thought it was a good idea, and there you go.
Not long after my post went up, the emails came in … from Kennedy’s office. They contacted Helmuth asking if I would speak with Kennedy to correct some errors in my post. Helmuth relayed the request to me. I laughed and told her no thanks; I’ve dealt with conspiracy theorists like him before and knew what a brain-melty experience that phone call would be (as, unfortunately, Kloor found out first-hand). Instead, I told her, have his office write down where they think I was wrong with corrections, and I’d look them over to issue corrections as needed. This is what I did in the case of an article dissecting the selling out of science by the Canadian government a few weeks ago. (As I expected, the Ministry of Science and Technology sent me nitpicks, with the substance of my claims left unchallenged.)
What happened next in this saga still has me chuckling wryly and shaking my head. Kennedy’s office declined to write and enumerate any of my supposed errors but wanted to call instead. Helmuth agreed to this and decided to take Kennedy’s call herself. What unfolded was eerily as I predicted. Kennedy ranted at her for the better part of an hour. At one point he claimed more than one scientist supports him. Interestingly, when Helmuth contacted one of these scientists, he said Kennedy “completely misrepresented” him. Another scientist she contacted said much the same thing.
Shocker. I knew that would be the case. Listening to Kennedy’s radio show and reading his articles leads to an all-too-clear conclusion: When it comes to vaccines, he has all the signs of a crackpot. He ignores (or dismisses) evidence that contradicts him, he clings to cherry-picked (or quote-mined) evidence and clearly wrong evidence that supports him, he imagines vast conspiracies, he says scientists at the CDC are criminals, ad nauseum. His history is full of him saying such things.
As Helmuth notes at the end of her article, Kennedy was only able to make one even marginally tenable claim about my article being wrong: He said he wasn’t anti-vax but acknowledged vaccines had saved millions of lives and was actually “pro-vaccine.” But I disagree. Saying in one breath that vaccines have done good but then in another attacking them and increasing fears of them based on nonsense puts him squarely in the anti-vax camp. It’s like saying that most UFO cases are just misidentified normal things, but the ones we haven’t identified are definitely alien spaceships that come here to stick probes in our various orifices. Acknowledging one aspect of reality and then claiming absurdities does not make you pro-science.
When it comes to medicine and health, this kind of thinking is dangerous. There’s a measles outbreak in Wales, and it’s been tied to baseless vaccine fears. In Auckland, New Zealand, a child nearly died from tetanus recently. His parents didn’t vaccinate him because they had read online that vaccines might cause autism. They’re horrified at their mistake and want to warn other parents: "There are a number of myths out there, and it's really easy to get sucked in.” In 2010 in California there was a terrible pertussis outbreak, and 10 infants died from it.*
People are getting sick, and some are dying due to preventable diseases. It’s awful, and the only way to stop it is to get the real information out to people and speak out against those who misinform them.
Correction, June 13, 2013 at 18:15 UTC: The California pertussis epidemic in 2010 was originally stated as occurring in 2013. My apologies for this oversight. A synopsis of the epidemic is available at the NCBI website, and pertussis is still a scourge around the world today.
Posted Thursday, June 13, 2013, at 12:06 PM
Video screenshot courtesy of Stéphane Guisard
Here it is, your moment of Zen: the Milky Way rising majestically over the Paranal Observatory in Chile.
This time-lapse video was taken by Stéphane Guisard, whose photos have been seen on this blog many times before (see Related Posts, below). Guisard used a wide-angle fish-eye lens to capture the whole sky. Around the bottom are the various telescopes comprising the Very Large Telescope array (each an 8.2-meter behemoth), and you can see the domes moving as they target various astronomical objects.
The Milky Way steals the show here. We live in a vast disk galaxy, 100,000 light-years across. But we’re not in the center; we’re very roughly halfway from the center to the edge of the disk. That means when we look toward the constellation of Sagittarius, we are looking toward the center of the galaxy—like someone who lives halfway to the northern edge of Manhattan can face south to look “downtown.”
The central bulge of the galaxy rises right to the zenith, and the flat disk, seen edge-on, bends due to the weird optical effect of the lens Guisard used. The disk is littered with gas clouds and spotted with darker clouds of thick dust that block the light of stars behind them.
Two satellite galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, rise to the upper left as airplanes streak across the frame. My favorite part, though, is right at the end, when coming in from the upper right you can see a faint shaft of light pointing toward the center of the frame. That’s zodiacal (pronounced Zo-DIE-ah-cull) light, sunlight reflected by dust shed from comets in the solar system. Like the Milky Way itself, those particles form a flat disk that we see edge-on, so it looks like a line across the sky. It’s very faint, and you need really dark skies to spot it at all.
I’ve never been to Paranal, but someday I hope I will. I can only imagine how incredible the view must be from down there.
Posted Thursday, June 13, 2013, at 8:00 AM
When it comes to writing about attacks on science, there’s rarely good news to report, so I’m savoring this: Once again, the Kansas state Board of Education (BoE) approved solid science standards for students in the Sunflower State.
Science standards are a set of guidelines used by teachers to help them educate students; they list recommendations and goals for what the students should understand by a certain grade level. For example, by eighth grade, they should know that visible light is only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which also includes radio waves, infrared, ultraviolet, and so on. Each state has its own standards, and there’s a national set as well.
There are standards for quite a few fields of science, like chemistry, physics, astronomy … and biology. Of course, fundamentalists went ballistic about this and a few years back sneakily got creationists elected to the BoE. They twice voted to severely weaken the teaching of evolution. This—rightly—made Kansas the laughingstock of the planet.
In 2006, more moderate folks were elected to the board, and sure enough, soon thereafter, years of far-right religious damage was undone in Kansas when the BoE voted to put evolution back in the science standards where it belonged. And now, in 2013, it’s happened again—the BoE approved science standards that support evolution and its wonderfully coherent and cohesive explanations of biology. I looked over the old (2007) standards and the new ones where they discuss evolution, and they look pretty good to me. Creationists have also attacked such things as the Big Bang and, of course, global warming, but I see those are in the science standards as well.
Of course, not everyone agrees with me. In the SFGate.com article linked in the first paragraph, I got some grim amusement by the quoted comment of Ken Willard, a conservative (and creationist) representing Kansas District 7 on the BoE. He said:
Both evolution and human cause of global climate change are presented in these standards dogmatically. This nonobjective, unscientific approach to education standards amounts to little more than indoctrination in political correctness.
Oh, those wacky truth twisters. As I’ve pointed out before, loud voices of anti-science commonly accuse those of us in the reality-based community of doing what they themselves do. Contrary to what Willard is saying, evolution and global warming are indeed represented quite fairly in the standards. Denying them, as Willard would have us do, is what would be dogmatic and unscientific.
I’ll note that Willard’s district includes the city of Hutchison, which is home to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, an extraordinary museum devoted to science and space exploration. There may be some irony in that.
There were other objections to the new standards, but those were, happily, in the minority. In the end, the BoE voted 8-2 to approve the standards and keep real science in the classroom.
I congratulate the BoE and hope that they serve as an exemplar for other, less enlightened states.
Louisiana, I’m looking at you.
Posted Wednesday, June 12, 2013, at 11:30 AM
A little while back, I wrote an article about some new results dealing with the structure and formation of the Milky Way, our home galaxy. While I was digging through my emails looking for news about those studies, I found an unrelated note sent earlier from astronomer Adam Block, who frequently lets me know when he has cool pictures he’s taken. I had overlooked it somehow, but I’m glad he found it.
Wow. That’s NGC 3344, photographed by Block using the 0.8 meter (32 inch) Schulman Telescope (RCOS) on Mt. Lemmon in Arizona. It's a magnificent face-on spiral galaxy about 20 million light years away... and when I saw that was the distance, my scientist-alarm pinged inside my brain. It seemed like an odd distance. Why, you ask?
Our galaxy is in a small collection of 50 or so galaxies called the Local Group, and it’s a few million light years across (the Andromeda Galaxy is the only other big galaxy in the group, and it’s less than three million light years distant). The M81 Group is another small clot of galaxies about 10 million light years away, for example. The nearest actual cluster to us is the Virgo Cluster, about 50 million light years away, and it has well over 1000 galaxies in it.
Photo by ESA/Hubble & NASA
So the distance to NGC 3344 is a bit weird; it’s neither here nor there. It’s apparently part of a small spur off the big Virgo Supercluster, a huge collection of clusters themselves, which contains the Virgo cluster, the Local Group, the M81 Group, and many more. Still, this means NGC 3344 is relatively isolated, off more-or-less by itself.
It’s a fantastic example of an intermediate spiral; the arms not too tightly wound, not too flung open. It has a mild bar in the center, a rectangular extension of stars commonly seen in spirals; the Milky Way has one. In Adam’s picture you can see dozens of pinkish clumps indicating the presence of warm hydrogen; a dead giveaway that those are sites of ongoing star formation. The bright star just above the galactic center is most likely one inside our own galaxy, fortuitously and coincidentally placed.
If I had to pick a favorite type of object in our Universe, it may very well be grand-design spiral galaxies. They posses grace, beauty, and hold a vast amount of scientific interest. Even if we didn’t live in one, I suspect they would still hold a very special place for me.