The entire universe in blog form

Sept. 14 2014 8:00 AM


Hot on the heels of the incredible volcanic explosion video I posted recently comes another in the “holy cow these things really exist?!” department: a volcano tornado.

Yes, you read that right. OK, technically, it’s a vortex, more like a dust devil than a tornado. Still.


Nicarnica Aviation is a company that has created infrared cameras that can detect volcanic ash in the air as a safety measure for pilots; ash is composed of microscopic particles of rock that are very jagged, and can clog airplane engines. Wanting to avoid that while you’re in the air should be obvious enough.

One of Nicarnica’s cameras was set up near the erupting Bardarbunga volcano in Iceland, and on Wednesday, Sept. 3, they caught the hephaestean twister:

That’s amazing. It’s also not entirely unprecedented! In February 2014 a series of twisters arose from pyroclastic flows blasting down the slopes of the volcano Sinabung in Indonesia, and they’re also somewhat common in big fires (like here and here). In April, a fire in Australia generated an amazing one that lasted for quite some time.


This is the first one I’ve seen over lava, though. I suspect the physics behind it is the same as the others, though. As I wrote before:

Now technically these aren’t tornadoes, even if they look like it. Tornadoes are when a funnel cloud is connected to the ground at its bottom and the base of a cumulonimbus cloud at its top. They form from the top down, dropping from the cloud base.
In this case, though, the phenomena are built from the ground up. The pyroclastic flow [Or in this current case, lava] heats the air over the ground, causing it to rise. Air from the sides then rushes in to fill the partial vacuum. This creates swirls, eddies of turbulence, which can get amplified into the vortices seen in the video (and also in fire tornadoes which are also seriously a thing). This makes these events more like a dust devil than proper tornadoes. Or, I suppose, an ash devil. But still, yeesh.

In this case, the volcanado (yes, I’m calling it that, and yes, SyFy: Call me) is loaded with ash noxious gases like sulfur dioxide. Nasty.

fire tornado
A fire tornado was caught on video in Australia. Click to vortexenate.

Photo by Chris Tangey, from the video

But also amazing. I think this technology to spot the ash is important, too. Iceland is situated upwind from much of Europe, and as we learned in 2010 with Eyjafjallajokull, that can cause quite a mess with air travel.

For current info on the Bardarbunga volcano, I suggest the Iceland MET office website. There’s also live webcams set up (like here and here) with some pretty spectacular views.

Tip o’ the caldera to New Scientist.

Video Advertisement

Sept. 13 2014 8:00 AM

Breakaway +15

As I do every year on this day: Wear flared off-white polyester pants, go outside, face where the Moon used to be before it blasted out of Earth orbit, and pour out a drop of wine on the ground for the 311 lost souls of Moonbase Alpha.

I can’t believe it’s been 15 years now. I miss seeing Eagles soaring in the sky above.

Sept. 12 2014 7:30 AM

Rosetta’s Comet Sprouts a Jet

The European space probe Rosetta has been hanging out with the comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko since early August. Initially at station-keeping about 100 kilometers away, it’s now dropped down to less than half that. In November it’ll release the lander Philae to set down on the comet, and scientists are deciding now just where to put it.

In the meantime, Rosetta is snapping away, taking a lot of pictures and data. And the comet hasn’t been quiet: A jet of gas has formed coming from the neck region!


That image above was put together by my friend Emily Lakdawalla, and I leave it to her capable keyboarding to describe how she made this image and to give details of the science.

However, I want to add that the jet is very interesting. ALICE, an ultraviolet detector on board Rosetta, has been taking observations and found very little water ice on the surface of the comet. That’s a bit surprising, since we know comets tend to have lots of ice in them. However, ALICE did see oxygen and hydrogen surrounding the comet. That means there’s water ice under the surface, and it’s getting out. I have to say, that jet seems the likely source.

Unlike asteroids, the surfaces of comets constantly change, especially when they near the Sun. It gets warm enough to turn ice into gas, which then blows away in jets and forms the fuzzy coma surrounding the solid nucleus. That’s why the surface of Chu-Ger doesn’t look like an asteroid; the impacts aren’t as obvious when the outer layers get resurfaced all the time. Also, the comet isn’t solid, like a chunk of rock, but more likely crunchy. Impacts won’t leave your more typical-looking craters in that sort of material.

This is all very exciting! We’ve flown missions past comets before, many times, but this is the first time a probe has stuck around. The comet is slowly approaching the Sun in its orbit, and will reach its closest—and therefore warmest—point in its orbit around the Sun next August. Rosetta’s mission isn’t scheduled to end until a few months after that, so it’ll ride the comet down and watch as activity returns to this dirty snowball. And we get to ride along and watch the whole time too.

Sept. 11 2014 11:15 AM

“What If” You Just Bought This Book?

Tl;dr: Buy this book.

I’ll make this easy: If you’re a fan of my friend Randall Munroe’s xkcd Web comic, then you want to buy his new book.


If you’re not, then I suggest you read a couple of posts I wrote about his stuff—his TED talk and his epic comic “Time.” Good? Good.

Randall started a second Web comic–like series called “what if?,” where he answers readers’ weird questions by extrapolating the science as far as (and, many times, quite a bit farther than) it will go. The answers are always entertaining, funny, and display a sort of naked curiosity on Randall’s part I really admire.

So with all that, I was of course happy he decided to take the best ones and compile them with all new ones to create a book called What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (available in hardcover and on Kindle). It’s loaded with really great stuff, including:

  • What happens if you pitch a baseball at 90 percent the speed of light? (bad things)
  • What happens if you had a mole of moles? (also bad things)
  • What would happen if a glass of water were literally suddenly half empty? (sorta bad things)
  • How fast can you hit a speed bump and still live? (pretty fast)

… and tons more.

Look, I answer questions for a living, too, and Randall is really, really good at this. He finds weird little scientific ways to answer the questions, but it’s his extrapolations that kill me. I laughed a lot reading this book. Even better: I learned stuff reading this book. And you will too.

So stop reading my blog, buy the book, read it, and then start reading my blog again. In that order. Go.

Sept. 11 2014 7:30 AM

SciShow: How Do We Measure the Distance to the Stars?

Hey, remember that SciShow video I posted about, when I visited the adorable Hank Green in Montana and filmed a short thing with me talking about the smallest star in the Universe?

While I was up there, Hank and I sat down to do a short conversation to promote Comic Relief, a charity that’s raising money to help educate (and feed) kids in Zambia.


Hank and I talked distance. Specifically, how do you figure it out? Stars are far away, yet we seem to be pretty confident when we give their distances. It turns out, the answer is right in front of your nose. Watch.

That was fun! And Hank was honestly excited about the topic, and the very fact that we can know what we know. That’s one of the reasons I like him.

If you want more info on the topics we discussed, I’ve written about parallax and also on how exploding stars are used to gauge the expansion of the Universe.   

Also, as you saw in the opening part of the video, this was done to raise money for kids in Africa, which is pretty cool by me. As it says in the YouTube video show notes:

Help more students learn, by giving to Comic Relief at

Or if you’re in the US, you can text SOYT12 to 71777, message and data rates may apply.

If you’re in the UK, text SOYT12 to 70005. Texts cost £5 plus your standard network message charge. £5 per text goes to Comic Relief. You must be 16 or over and please ask the bill payers permission. For full terms and conditions and more information go to

Because stars may be far away, but no one on Earth really is. Help ‘em out if you can.

Sept. 10 2014 12:03 PM

50 Kilometers From a Comet

One of my favorite pastimes is to simply drink in the scenery on long drives or as I bike around the countryside. You never know what you might see, what spectacle might present itself.

For Rosetta the situation is very similar … except when you’re a spacecraft hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth, slowly approaching a comet, the scenic overlook may prove just a tad more dramatic:

comet and Rosetta
The comet looms mysteriously in the distance as seen by a camera on the Rosetta spacecraft's Philae lander. One of Rosetta's solar panels is in the foreground, providing a dramatic contrast. Click to dirtysnowballenate.

Photo by ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA


Holy. Yikes!

That shot was taken by the Comet nucleus Infrared and Visible Analyzer, or CIVA, camera on board Rosetta’s Philae lander. The lander is still mounted to the spacecraft, so in this shot you can see Rosetta’s solar panels and part of the main spacecraft body.

And just above hangs the target of the mission: the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. With the Sun far below, the double-lobed comet is lit incredibly dramatically, each half of the comet a ragged crescent. From 50 kilometers (30 miles) away a lot of features can be seen, but this view is soon to get substantially better: In November, Philae will touch down on the surface of the comet, and the pictures we’ll get from this camera will show up close and personal the bizarre, alien landscape of this tiny world.

Sept. 10 2014 11:00 AM

Doctor Who Podcast Episode 3: “Robot of Sherwood”

Episode 3 of the Slate Plus Doctor Who podcast is now live, where my editor Laura Helmuth and I talk about “Robot of Sherwood.” At the risk of spoilers, I, um, didn’t like it as much as previous episodes. And by “previous episodes,” I mean all of them, dating back to “Rose.”

I won’t go into it here but instead point you to the podcast where you can hear us grumble about the episode. It wasn’t all bad, but I was hoping for a lot more.


Still, I love Doctor Who, despite the odd road bump or two. And I’m still excited for the rest of the Capaldi episodes!

And as I’ve said before:

Fair warning: The podcast is part of Slate Plus, which is a premium subscription service. It’s five bucks a month and provides all kinds of fun added content; I’ve written about it before. There’s a lot of great stuff there on top of the usual great stuff at Slate, so I heartily recommend signing up.

Sept. 10 2014 7:30 AM

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.

Amy Roth and Phil Plait
What happens when you treat people with respect: They like you.

Photo by Amy Davis Roth

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.

Sept. 9 2014 10:08 AM

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:

Michael Mann

Drawing by the Consensus Project

There are entries for noted and outspoken scientists Katharine Hayhoe,* Marshall Shepherd, and Peter Gleick, and more are coming. A lot more.

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.

Sept. 9 2014 7:30 AM

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.