Climate Change Denier Claims (Heh) That 2015 Wasn’t (Ha) the Hottest Year on Record (HAHAHAHA!)
I (and many others) have shown that the loudest voices in the climate change denial noise machine have long since run out of any real credibility. There are numerous ways to reach that conclusion; for example you can look at how their claims have changed over the years (there’s no warming, there’s not much warming, it’s not warming enough to worry about, warming is good for plants, sure it’s warming but it’ll hurt our economy to do anything about it), you can look at their funding sources (tobacco and fossil fuel interests) whose tactics they deploy, or the fact that they rely on long-debunked claims instead of any real evidence.
But despite this, they do go on. And have no doubt: What they say has real-life consequences—life and death consequences, in fact, for millions of people. More. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
As the denial never seems to cease, I think they’re not only short on credibility, they’re also just short on ways to sell their snake oil. Their ideas get weirder and less believable every time they speak.
That’s the only conclusion I can draw when the claims I see now are so ridiculous, so outrageously, blatantly wrong that it’s hard to believe they can make them with a straight face.
I recently read an op-ed that falls firmly into this category, and it was no surprise at all that it came from James Taylor, from the bizarre world of the Heartland Institute. Remember them? They put up billboards comparing climate scientists to mass murderers, and when people were outraged at the obviously despicable claim (and they hemorrhaged donors because of it), they took the billboards down and, in Orwellian fashion, claimed victory.
So yeah, a view of reality twisted into a Möbius strip is just another day for them.
Taylor’s article was printed in Forbes, and right away, just from the headline, you know you’re about to take a trip into WTFery: “2015 Was Not Even Close to Hottest Year on Record.”
This is one of the wrongiest wrongs to have ever been wronged. Yes, far and away, without question, and where it counts, 2015 was the hottest year on record. Many, many temperature readings confirm that, and it’s not even close; even if you account for El Niño (which tends to make things warmer overall), 2015 blew away the previously hottest year of 2014.
So how can Taylor make this claim? Well, as usual, it’s to cherry-pick a very, very specific set of circumstances: Satellite measurements of a single layer of the atmosphere. As I (and many others) have shown, these satellite measurements are not terribly reliable over the long term, and are nowhere near as accurate as temperatures measured from the ground using thermometers.
Despite this, Taylor states, “By contrast, temperature measurements at the Earth’s surface are less reliable,” which is just flatly wrong. Seriously. It’s just complete fertilizer. If you think I’m being too harsh, then I suggest you read what actual climate scientists have to say about Taylor’s claims, because you’ll see words and phrases like “total fabrication” and “very misleading” and “disingenuous” and “inaccurate” and “wild misrepresentation.” I’m pretty gentle by comparison.
Here’s an analogy for you: Taylor saying satellite measurements show 2015 isn’t the hottest year is like inspecting a horrendous car crash, finding the steering wheel intact, and claiming the accident never happened.
The article is embarrassingly bad, even for an op-ed in Forbes (which has run several such comically wrong articles by Taylor in the past). It’s just so egregiously and obviously and in-your-face wrong, though, that I have to assume it’s aimed only at those who are ideologically predisposed to believe him, in an effort to sow doubt.
And that’s where the consequences come in. Because some of the people ideologically predisposed to use his claims as fodder are other deniers. And some of them have real power, like, say, Ted Cruz. R-Texas.
As a sitting senator (and hopeful GOP presidential candidate), Cruz has access to the best and most accurate science, yet he chooses to ignore it, or worse, actively squash it.
I am no fan of Cruz's, as you might imagine. He is incredibly disingenuous to the point of outright lying, as has been shown many, many times. Cruz distorts the truth so glibly that it’s impossible to know what he truly believes, so it’s possible he really does think the planet isn’t warming up. Or (as seems far more likely) it may be he’s purposely bending his interpretation of reality to match the ideologies of his audience and his benefactors (as I've wondered before, wouldn't it be interesting if senators had to swear to tell the truth during hearings in which they sit? Hmmm.)
But either way, Cruz is dead wrong about global warming. And he uses the same kind of satellite-based argument Taylor does. Cruz still claims warming has flattened since 1998, which has been shown to be so completely, utterly wrong in every way that his making that claim again speaks to his lack of veracity ... but still, Cruz runs the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, where he trots these claims out as fact.
While it’s almost trivially easy to show that Taylor and Cruz are wrong, they still forge on ahead with as much inertia as global warming itself. In Taylor’s case he’s aided and abetted by such venues as Forbes (and other deniers can find refuge in such places as the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Mail, where, apparently, facts are optional).
Cruz has his own outlets, of course. And since an overwhelming tsunami of scientific evidence shows they’re both wrong, they have to rely on what is sadly a tried-and-not-true technique: barreling on, steamrolling over anyone who speaks against them, and hoping against hope that their own audience won’t call them on it.
Postscript: Speaking of calling them on it, Monday is the Iowa GOP caucus, so it’s important to note that not a single viable Republican presidential candidate has a good grasp on global warming.* A vote for any of them means at least four more years of doing nothing about what has been called by people who would know a threat to our national security. I agree. If someone denies basic science on an issue this important, they do not deserve the office of president.
*Correction, Feb. 1, 2016: This post originally misstated that Iowa's GOP primary is taking place Monday. It is a caucus.
SPECTACULAR Photos of a Rocket Re-Entering Over Hawaii!
Around 2 a.m. local time, astrophotographer Steve Cullen was driving home from visiting the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. He stopped at around 11,000 feet to take some panorama shots of the peak … but what he got was much more.
He noticed an orange light heading up into the sky out of the west. It was moving across the sky at about the speed you’d expect from a satellite, but at that time of night no satellite moving at that rate would be lit by the Sun, so it wouldn’t be visible.
Within seconds, though, it became clear what he was seeing: some sort of human-made space debris re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. How?
Because this. Check. This. OUT.
Crash Course Astronomy: Outtakes 5
The final episode of Crash Course Astronomy went up last week, but if you miss it already, we have one final video for you: the fifth outtakes reel, which basically features me trying to pronounce common words as if I have a mouthful of oatmeal.
That bit near the end, where I seem way more upset about messing up thanking people than it calls for? That’s because it took a ridiculous number of takes to get that bit right. I lost count. Maybe 20? More? Mind you, this was literally the very last thing we were recording. Ever. We were wrapping up a long day of being in the studio, I had just finished the content for the final episode, and all I had to do was thank the fantastic folks who put CCA together. And I kept flubbing it. It was really frustrating. Over 46 episodes, that was easily the most failures I had getting the lines out.
But I did (eventually), and we wrapped the series. So again, thanks to Nicole Sweeney and Nick Jenkins for making me look like a dork. If you want more, Outtakes One, Two, Three, and Four exist as well.
By the way, the entire CCA series is now online. When you’re done binging whatever’s on Netflix, give this one a shot. The whole Universe is waiting for you.
By the Light of the Zodiac
Given how much time I’ve spent outside at night looking up, it’s funny to think there are still quite a few phenomena I’ve never seen. One that’s very near the top of my list of “Must See” things is zodiacal light.
This is the glow of dust and particles shed by comets, ones that orbit the Sun on relatively short paths. Over time these objects are influenced by the gravity of Jupiter, so we call them Jupiter-family comets. Made of ice and rock, they shed this material as the Sun warms them. Eventually, this stuff suffuses through the inner solar system, sticking pretty close to the same orbital planes as the planets, forming a flattish disk.
From Earth, we see the material reflecting sunlight back to us, glowing in a band across the sky. The photo above, taken at Mauna Kea by Rogelio Bernal Andreo, is one of the best shots I’ve seen of zodiacal light. It’s very faint, so you need dark skies—which the volcano provides (I think the faint streak across the middle is from a satellite).
Now follow along here: The planets, including the Earth, orbit the Sun on pretty much the same plane (from the side, the solar system’s planets’ orbits look flat). From the Earth, it looks like the Sun moves around us once per year. The path it takes across the sky is the same year after year, and we call this the ecliptic. The planets all move across the sky in that same path, too.
So, like clockwork, the Sun passes into the same constellations at a certain time every year. You know the names of these constellations: Sagittarius, Libra, Scorpius, Aries, Gemini … the constellation of the zodiac, or, if you prefer, the zodiacal constellations.
Since the glow we see from the cometary dust is also in this same plane, it too sticks to the same constellations, and we therefore call it zodiacal light. How cool is that? Cool enough that after a few years spending time in some rock band, a guitarist decided to go back and get his Ph.D. studying it.
Interestingly, the dust we see is not constant. Solar wind, interactions with Jupiter, and other effects would eventually blow it all away. It’s replenished by more comets coming in and renewing it. I found a paper describing this, and the astronomers found that the amount of dust injected into the cloud must be around 100,000 kilograms per second. That’s a stunning 3 billion tons per year!
Mind you, that’s spread out over a lot of volume. Like, trillions of cubic kilometers at least. So it’s pretty thin stuff … but thick enough to be seen, at least from Earth on a dark, Moonless night, and photographed so that we humans can gaze upon it in awe and wonder about the marvelous working of our solar system. That’s a pretty good deal for us, I think.
And the David N. Schramm Science Journalism Award for 2016 Goes To …
I am very honored to let y’all know that I have received the David N. Schramm Science Journalism Award for 2016!
The annual award is given by the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society, the largest society of professional astronomers in the U.S., and is meant “to recognize and stimulate distinguished writing on high-energy astrophysics. The prize was established to improve the general public’s understanding of this exciting field of research.”
The award’s namesake, David Schramm, was an astrophysicist who studied the Big Bang. Much of his research involved how the lightest elements (hydrogen, helium, and lithium) were created in the first few moments after the birth of the Universe, and how those would affect other properties we see in the cosmos today. I never met him, but I wish I had; he sounds like he was an interesting fellow.
HEAD gave me the award for an article I wrote in Slate last year called, “A Supermassive Black Hole’s Fiery and Furious Wind,” about how the matter piles up and heats up around a black hole, which can blow off a ferocious wind of particles so strong it can sculpt the shape of the entire galaxy around it. Here’s an excerpt:
We also know that every big galaxy we look at has a supermassive black hole in its very center. If that black hole has gas and matter falling into it, the accretion disk can be huge and ridiculously, soul-crushingly bright. The luminosity of such an object can easily outshine the hundreds of billions of stars in the host galaxy, and make the black hole visible clear across the Universe.
This sets up an interesting problem. When you have a monster in the middle like that, how does it affect the rest of the galaxy? A curious fact was discovered many years ago; the mass of the black hole in a galaxy seems to correlate with how the stars in the galaxy orbit. You might think “duh” to that, but hang on. Even though a black hole can have a mass of a billion times the Sun, that’s a teeny tiny fraction of the mass of a galaxy with a few hundred billion stars in it.
Somehow, the black hole is affecting the galaxy around it on a huge scale. How?
If you want the answer, click through. I had a lot of fun writing that article. It covers a big, sweeping topic—why the sizes of gigantic black holes are apparently tied to the large-scale behavior of galaxies, which isn’t at all obvious—and uses new findings to help answer a question that had been bugging astronomers for years.
The field of high-energy astrophysics doesn’t have a hard and fast definition, but it covers objects and events that can generate high-energy light at the top of the electromagnetic spectrum: X-rays and gamma rays. These are among the most violent events in the Universe: exploding stars, colliding galaxies, gamma-ray bursts, black holes gobbling down matter, newly formed neutron stars glowing fiercely hot, and the like. I’ve always had a love for such brain-crushing events—probably spurred on by watching disaster movies as a kid.
I never did scientific research in high-energy astrophysics per se, but I was involved in the field for many years. Back in 2000, I left my job working on Hubble Space Telescope to move to California and be a part of the Sonoma State University NASA Education and Public Outreach group, headed by Lynn Cominsky. We developed educational products based on several NASA high-energy missions like Fermi, Swift, NuSTAR, XMM-Newton, and more.
It was (pardon the expression) a crash course on high-energy astrophysics, and I had a chance to learn so much about all these amazing astronomical objects and events from some of the top men and women in the field. I wrote tens of thousands of words for the Web, brochures, classroom activities, grant proposals, and even games we created. This was all in the service of educating teachers, students, and the public about the high-energy Universe, but it also filled a need in my own brain to find out as much as I could about all this fascinating science.
Whenever I write about black holes or gamma-ray bursts now, I’m reminded of my time learning about them back then. It’s nice to be able to tie together different times in my life and use them to help me in my writing.
I am deeply honored to accept this award, especially because it comes from my peers in the writing and scientific community, and I thank them sincerely.
The Dark Cloud of the Wolf
The space between stars is not empty.
Dark, cold, ghostlike material lurks there, as thin as a politician’s promise. Astronomers call this material “dust,” but don’t be fooled; it’s not like the little tumbleweeds you find under your desk. This stuff is made of grains of minerals and complex carbon-based molecules much like soot, created in the atmospheres of stars and blown out into the depths of space.
In the denser clouds of dust there might be a million particles in a single cubic centimeter of space. That may sound like a lot, but it’s one-ten-trillionth the density of the air you breathe.
Still, over hundreds of trillions of kilometers, even material this ethereally dispersed adds up. These grains and molecules of dust are very good at absorbing visible light, blocking it from passing through the clouds. As it happens, many of these clouds are located in the plane of our galaxy, the parts of our sky where stars are crowded together. When a cloud is between us and those stars, it looks like a hole in space, a place where the galaxy forgot to make stars.
The picture at the top of this article is one such cloud: Lupus 4, a vast filamentary structure 400 light-years away and about 10 light-years across. It was taken with the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, and the field of view is about a degree across: twice the width of the full Moon on the sky. That’s staggeringly big. Some people say it looks like a spider, but to me it more resembles some sort of cephalopod, its tentacles reaching out to us …
And that description is more apt than you might think.
Lupus is the constellation of the wolf, located not far from the center of the galaxy in the sky, where dust, gas, and stars are thickest. Lupus 4 is part of the sprawling Scorpius-Centaurus OB association, a loose cluster of massive stars that’s one of the very closest to Earth. These stars are young, and don’t live long; after a few million years they explode, scattering heavy elements into space.
A little while back, scientists studying ocean floor sediments examined a core taken out of the Atlantic Ocean seabed. They found a spike in an isotope of iron, called iron-60, dating to about 3 million years ago. Iron-60 is radioactive with a short half-life, and as far as we know only produced naturally in one place: a supernova. An exploding star.
That means either the material blasted away from a supernova swept over the Earth and deposited that material, or our solar system passed through a region of space where the blast wave from a supernova had stagnated (stopped after plowing through the material between the stars). Since iron-60 decays rapidly, either way it means this must have been from a cosmically young supernova.
As it happens, the stars in the Scorpius-Centaurus OB association are at the right distance to be implicated in this. Millions of years ago, one of them reached the end of its life, blew up, and sent material fleeing outwards at a substantial fraction of the speed of light. Some of that material managed to reach Earth, fall to the bottom of the ocean, and await our notice.
I mentioned that clouds like Lupus 4 appear to be where the galaxy forgot to make stars. But ironically, these clouds are generally the sites of star formation; it’s just hidden from us by the thick soup of dust. It’s possible that the star that blew up all those ages ago formed in a cloud just like Lupus 4 (perhaps in one of its neighboring clouds), and in death managed to physically touch our planet across four thousand trillion kilometers of space.
Like I said. Its tentacles, reaching out to us …
I’ve liked Celestron for a long time; they make really nice optical gear like telescopes, binoculars, and more. A few years back they sponsored a couple of science panels I moderated when I wrote for Discover Magazine, and ever since then we’ve had a nice relationship. They also sponsor my company Science Getaways, for example. I have a few of their ‘scopes and binocs, and I love using them.
So I’m pleased and flattered that they asked me to join Team Celestron, a group of interesting folks who use their equipment. On that page you’ll find a few photos and videos I’ve taken through my ‘scopes, and some info about me, too.
Others on the team include Caroline Moore, the youngest person to discover a supernova; Thierry Legault, one of the single most gifted astrophotographers on the planet; and some physicist dude named Stephen Hawking.
As I mentioned in my Christmas telescope buying guide, the reason I’m happy to endorse Celestron is simple: I like their stuff. It’s good quality at a reasonable price, and if you take care of it you’ll have a scientific instrument that will last for many, many years. But it’s more than just for science: It’s fun.
I’m Shocked—SHOCKED—to Find That Fluid Dynamics Is Going On Here!
On human spatial and time scales, stars seem motionless. Sure, they rise and set, but that’s a reflection (literally) of the Earth spinning on its axis once a day. But the stars themselves move, orbiting the center of the galaxy.
Stars are so terribly far away that this motion appears diminished to almost nothing; you need a telescope and lots of time to even measure it. But in real terms they’re hauling mass; the Sun, as an example, is moving at a staggering 220 kilometers per second around the galactic core. That’s three quarters of a million kilometers per hour!
In general, though, that motion has little effect on the galaxy itself. If you’re traveling through a vacuum, who cares? There’s nothing to get in your way.
But in reality there’s stuff in the way: The ethereally thin gas and dust between stars. This material makes a lab vacuum look like a thick soup; there may be only one atom for every cubic meter of space out there. Some places are denser, with hundreds or millions of particles per meter3, but even that is thin stuff.
But it adds up. And while a star itself is small, massive stars are hot, and blow a wind of particles out from them like a solar wind. This wind can extend for billions of kilometers, well out into space.
Now combine all this: Take a massive, hot star, let it blow a huge wind, and set it free to blast through space at hundreds of kilometers per second. What do you get?
You get what you see in the photo at the top of this post: a shock wave. Like water flowing around the bow of a ship, the interstellar material gets compressed in a vast curve in front of the star. I’ve written about this before; one of my favorite astronomical photos of all time shows the massive star Zeta Ophiuchi ramming through material in space, creating a spectacular bow wave.
The material warms up and glows in the infrared, making it easy to spot with space observatories like Spitzer and WISE, which are both sensitive to those wavelengths. Astronomers combed through the data, identifying over 200 such curved structures. Follow up observations on 80 of them showed they were due to speedy massive stars (some are created in other ways, like patchy gas and dust around a newborn star compressed by the baby’s violent outbursts).
One such wave they found is pretty cool; it’s actually from two stars. Seen here, the stars are HD240015 and HD240016, and the waves overlap, like a curvy M. The stars are both B-types, hotter and more massive than the Sun. However, I couldn’t find much info on them. They must be related, perhaps born in the same cluster. Usually, stars moving fast enough to create these waves were ejected from clusters, tossed out by a close encounter with another star, given a velocity boost by the gravity of the combined masses of all the other stars. I wonder if these two were together when they were kicked out, now traveling through the galaxy as a matched pair.
I like studies like this. We learn about the way stars emit material, how they move through space, and just what they’re moving through. And we also get such cool images! It’s a reminder that the Universe is in constant motion, and the scales are vast. And it helps personally, too. I figure if an octillion-ton star can rocket through space at dozens of times faster than a rifle bullet, I can probably be coaxed out of my chair every now and again and move around a bit myself.
A City of Stars
My love of globular clusters is on record. Of all the objects in the deep sky — that is, outside our solar system — they are the ones that, through a telescope, look most like what they’re supposed to look like.
Nebulae are great, and so are galaxies, but when you look at them through an eyepiece of a typical small telescope you usually only see a faint smudgy thing. But when you get a globular in the crosshairs, yousee it. Thousands of stars packed together so tightly that the center looks like a continuous blur of light, fanning out into a splendor of luminous points as you look farther out from the core. The overall sensation is of a beehive frozen in time...
So, About that Video of the Space Station Passing in Front of Saturn …
Last week, a seemingly spectacular astronomy video went viral. It was created by a German astrophotographer named Julian Wessel, and it showed the International Space Station passing directly in front of Saturn. I saw links to it all over Twitter and Facebook, and no wonder: Catching such an event takes an extraordinary amount of skill and planning. Plus, it’s just cool.
There’s only one problem: It wasn’t real.
Wessel used images from different observing sessions and composited them together to make the video and the image. Under some circumstances this is OK—for example, when different telescopes are used, or when you’re reconstructing a scene (like the Earthrise image taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter). But in any case, the important bit is to note that it’s a composite.
Wessel didn’t do this; on his website he said, "I managed it [sic] to photograph the ISS in front of a planet again. In this case it was the Lord of the Rings: Saturn." He also wrote, "Fortunately everything happened as planned and I could make the capture... You can see the Video of the Event on my YouTube... This is a great effort for me as an astrophotographer. It takes time, patience, preperation and a little bit of luck to get a shot like this, but at the end the hard work pays off!" That certainly makes it sound like he got footage of the actual event. He also submitted it to the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, which ran it (though, after review, they have since taken it down).
The video was convincing enough that it got past a lot of people. When I first saw it, I was amazed, but it also set my skeptic sense tingling. It bugged me that he happened to catch the ISS directly in front of Saturn in one frame of the video; the odds of that are pretty low. And it all looked too crisp and clean, but that wasn’t enough for me to declare it a fake.
However, not long after the video became public, a whole bunch of amateur astronomers were on the case. My friend Stephen Ramsden (who does solar observing) sent me a note letting me know that people were buzzing over some serious issues with the video. Also, Christopher Go, who is a phenomenal planetary astrophotographer, also pointed out many problems with the video. As a few examples:
- The ISS should have been about twice as big as the disk of Saturn, yet they’re the same size in the video.
- ISS is far brighter than Saturn, but they appear equally well-exposed.
- Saturn should have been grainy looking, noisy, due to the very short exposure.
- At the time Wessel claimed to have taken the video, the Sun had just risen. The sky should have been very bright, and Saturn would have been extremely low contrast, almost washed out by the bright sky. Saturn was also very low in the sky, and atmospheric distortion should have made it look very fuzzy.
- It was very cloudy that morning at the location Wessel claims to have taken the video.
I could list many more issues; most are pretty technical and circumstantial, but it’s a long list.
I sent Wessel an email asking him some specific questions, but I did not hear back. Not long after that, he removed the entry about the video from his site and Facebook, and removed the video from YouTube (which is why I didn’t embed it in this post). He also posted to an astrophotography forum, saying the image was a composite, but that doesn’t jibe with the claims he made earlier, which purport it to depict the actual event.
I don’t know what Wessel’s motivations are, and I won’t speculate. I will note that others are looking at some of his previous work and calling foul on that as well. Update, Jan. 26, 2016: Wessel has posted in the APOD message board apologizing for what he did.
But I’m writing about this because I think it’s important to note that it’s easy to get fooled. Software is so good that stuff like this can be created pretty easily, and it can be good enough to fool people passingly familiar with astrophotography, at least at first (though generally not for long, as we’ve seen here). But for people who don’t know much about it, this kind of stuff gets believed, and passed around social media rapidly.
That bugs me for a couple of reasons. One is simply about the nature of truth: People shouldn’t create fakes and then claim they’re real, and if they do then it should be called out. But more, it diminishes the actual photographs, the actual videos, and the very very hard work astrophotographers put into their craft.
For me, I love to share the joy and wonder of the Universe, and when artwork or fakes or computer simulations get passed around as the real thing, it diminishes what’s really going on around us. I prefer to appreciate things as they are.
A lot of fake astrophotographs get shared on social media (especially by those spammy Twitter feeds with handles like SciencePorn and UberFacts, and usually with no links or credit to the original creator). I know a lot of people love seeing these pictures, but I think it’s important to separate fact from fiction. The Universe is actually and truly a stupendously gorgeous and astonishing thing all on its own. We can appreciate artwork depicting it, but we should also understand what’s real and what isn’t.
And here's some irony for you. As I was drafting up this article, I got a note that Szabolcs Nagy was in fact able to catch ISS transiting Saturn on Monday in Gran Canaria! Here's the video:
Yes, I checked, and this one looks real! It is possible to get this sort of thing on video. Like I said, it takes patience and planning, and maybe a bit of luck, too. See? Astronomy is really cool.
I’ve also written about fake pictures many times. Here’s a selection:
But sometimes they are real: