Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form

April 4 2015 7:30 AM

It’s Our Nature

One of the things that still surprises me about living in Colorado, even though I’ve been here for more than seven years now, is the wildlife. I’ve never lived in “the country” before, and when you do, inevitably, nature pops up.

The other day I was just hanging out, wondering if my sinuses were going to let me get any writing done, when out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. I’m used to birds and the neighbor’s dogs and such, but this was something big. I could tell right away it was likely a heron, but I grabbed my camera with the long lens, and snapped a few shots. The one above shows it in a bit of context.

This zoom below made it pretty clear: It’s a great blue heron. I poked around online and found that we have lots of herons in Colorado, so to make sure I posted it to Twitter, and immediately got a lot of responses confirming my ID.

Great Blue Heron
A closer look; I need a bigger lens!

Photo by Phil Plait

He (?) was roughly a meter tall and walked out of sight pretty quickly. Still, wow, what a graceful and elegant bird. I was surprised to learn they’re threatened, with only about 1,600 nesting pairs in the state. This one is likely to do well; I’ve seen huge fish jumping out of the pond. I imagine there are plenty of heron-size snacks swimming around.

The wildlife here is pretty striking. Coyotes, foxes, great horned owls (I saw one on my roof a few weeks ago, and criminy, it was huge) … we have a bald eagle that flies around here too, but it’s hard to get a good shot of it. My wife and I saw it fishing in the pond a few months ago; it got attacked by magpies, which eventually scared it off so they could steal the fish.

Eagle and magpies
The magpies are actually quite pretty, but could use some manners.

Photo by Phil Plait

Heckle and Jeckle are jerks.

As spring settles in I may post more pictures here. It’s a reminder to me that there’s a lot of beauty and majesty in the world. That’s something I’d like to share with you, too.

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April 3 2015 7:15 AM

Crash Course Astronomy: Earth

Astronomy as a science is pretty tough to define these days. I actually point that out in the first episode of Crash Course Astronomy; if I observe Mars using my backyard telescope, I’m doing astronomy, but what if I’m a professional scientist looking at isotope ratios in samples of atmospheric gas trapped in an air bubble from a Mars meteorite? That’s maybe chemistry, or geology, or just planetary science.

Where does astronomy start? With the Moon? Above the atmosphere? It’s like asking where the sky starts. I’m not sure the question has meaning.

I’m mulling this over because it’s interesting to think of where Earth fits in this scheme. For thousands of years it was a unique place, but around the time of Kepler and Galileo people started to think of it as a planet like the others in the sky. It’s the one we inhabit (for now), so it gets its own flavors of science (geology, geophysics, and so on). But astronomy?

I vote yes. It’s a planet, and when we think of it that way, we see it differently than we might by living on it and looking around. And so, from Planet Earth, here is Episode 11 of Crash Course Astronomy: our home world.

The way we label things can guide our thinking. That is a two-edged sword; it can help us see things in a new way as well as put blinders on us. But I rather like to think of Earth as a planet; it reminds me that we are immersed in astronomy, we literally live on it, and our world is one of countless others in the Universe. That is both humbling and awe-inspiring.

Update (April 3, 2015 at 19:45 UTC): ARG! A couple of people pointed out I made a mistake at the 7:34 mark, saying the pressure of Earth's air is ten tons per cubic meter, when it's per square meter. That's totally my fault (the caption put up as I speak that line is just quoting me, so it's incorrect too). Think of it is a verbal typo. My apologies! 

April 2 2015 12:14 PM

D.C. Event: To Mars and Back

Hey BABloggees! On Thursday, April 9, 2015, I will be in Washington, D.C., to moderate a panel of experts talking about living and working in deep space: specifically what life will be like on a trip to Mars.

The panel is part of a series of discussions that are free and open to the public that day, all under the rubric of “Giant Leap: The Race to Mars and Back.” The event is sponsored by Future Tense, a collaboration between the New America Foundation, Arizona State University, and Slate, and underwritten by Lockheed Martin.

My panel—"A Day in Deep Space"—will be at noon, and includes Kate Greene, a sci-tech journalist and former crew writer for the NASA-funded HI-SEAS project; Josh Hopkins, a Lockheed-Martin space exploration architect; and Tara Ruttley, NASA associate ISS program scientist. We'll be discussing a typical (!) day on board a deep space vehicle headed for Mars. What's "routine" when you're on an interplanetary voyage?

Mars and Back

Photo by Shutterstock / New America

I’m pretty excited about this. I love hearing experts talking about space travel, because it makes the 12-year-old sci-fi fan in me all giddy, and then my brain kicks in and tells me this stuff is real. There are humans whose job is to make plans for other humans to live in space.

The future: Welcome to it. Come to the event and greet it with me.

April 2 2015 7:00 AM

Cards Against Humanity Science Pack: Helping Support Women in STEM

I am very pleased to let y’all know that the ridiculously fun and grotesquely crass game Cards Against Humanity has released an expansion science pack of cards I helped develop. And better yet: Sales of the pack go toward a full-ride scholarship for women seeking undergraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math!

Let me be absolutely, positively, vacuum-of-space clear here: This game is massively and completely and utterly NSFW. It’s very much only for adults. The official game motto is, “A party game for horrible people” and that’s the only thing about this game that’s not a joke. The game is incredibly offensive, a hard R rating for sure, hugely over-the-top on purpose. I'm sure a half-dozen psychology theses could be written about why it's so popular, but popular it is. Millions have been sold. 

Having said that, this part is amazing: 100% of the proceeds from sales of the science pack will fund scholarships for women seeking STEM degrees (CAH put out a press release about this). And we’re talking full-ride scholarships here. The applications will be reviewed by a panel of more than 40 women, professionals with advanced STEM degrees. The thinking is that this panel will also provide a network that can help support the scholarship recipients. I think that’s a fine idea.

As of the time I posted this article—just a few days after sales began—well over $230,000 has been raised by sales of the pack! Wow. Seriously, wow

My involvement came through my friend Zach Weinersmith, who creates one of my all-time favorite Web comics Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. He asked me to be a judge for a science humor competition he was putting on called BAHFest, and not being a fool of course I said yes. He said that he was making some giveaways for the audience, and wanted to create a special science pack addition for CAH. Would I be interested in coming up with some funny cards?

Yes again. We met with the CAH folks via Google Hangout, whipped up a few hundred funny ideas, trimmed them down to a few dozen (oh my, that was very, very hard to do), and then finally settled on what's now in the pack (my favorite: "Failing the Turing test").

It was a big success at BAHFest, and now the folks at CAH have released them for you to buy. They’re 10 bucks each. If you want outside opinions, here are a few:

So here’s your chance. Are you a terrible person? Then you can also be a great one and help a young woman—or several—get started with a career in investigating the Universe.

April 1 2015 11:57 AM

Super Typhoon Maysak Seen From Space

On Tuesday, in the western Pacific Ocean, the tropical cyclone Maysak strengthened rapidly and became what is called a Super Typhon, with sustained winds of more than 250 kilometers per hour, the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic. The main part of the storm has grown to a staggering 1,300 kilometers across and is headed for the Philippines.

High level winds are strong, and the wind shear may weaken the storm soon (winds blowing over the storm rob it of strength it needs to sustain itself). The damage this immense typhoon can do is terrifying.

And yet, its beauty cannot be denied. Images taken by astronauts Terry Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti from the International Space Station are as surpassingly beautiful as they are quietly menacing.

April 1 2015 7:00 AM

Erupting Volcanic Lightning!

Your daily dose of awe: a volcanic eruption showing lava bubbling out of the caldera, a towering plume of ash, and lightning coursing up the ash cloud.

Yeah. Tell me you’re gonna see something cooler than that today.

The volcano is named Colima, a 3,800-meter-high stratovolcano on Mexico’s west coast. It may be less famous than its bigger brother Popocatépetl, but its Mexico’s most active volcano at the moment; it’s erupted dozens of times over the past few centuries, including a big one in 1913.

It erupted again in 2005, and then, in November 2014 it started a series of eruptions that are ongoing. Photographer (and amateur astronomer) César Cantú took this shot on Sunday night. The six-second exposure blurs the ash cloud a bit but caught that amazing lightning blot.

Here’s another shot:

Colima volcano

Photo by César Cantú, used by permission

Lightning in ash clouds is relatively common. It’s thought to be due to static charge building up as the rough, glassy particles of ash rub against each violently in the plume. I’ve been to a few volcanoes in my time, but only one active, and nothing like this. Seeing lightning in an erupting ash cloud is now on my must-see list.

Update (Apr. 1, 2015 at 14:45 UTC): Cantú created a time-lapse animation from a series of pictures he took, showing an eruptive burst from Colima. It covers two minutes of real time, and you can see the plume blasting upward, an ash cloud flowing down the volcano's flank, and some lava peeking through the maelstrom.

Cantú’s work has been featured on my blog many times; below is a list of articles I’ve written about his work. You can follow him on Facebook, too.

Related Posts:

March 31 2015 2:59 PM

Watch Me Live Tuesday Night With Felicia Day Talking about Fortune’s Pawn

I’m pretty excited to let y’all know that I’ll be a guest on the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club!

Yes, you read that right.

It’s a video hangout/podcast hosted by Felicia Day, Bonnie Burton, Veronica Belmont, and Kiala Kazebee, where they drink wine, talk about a romance-fantasy novel they’ve read, and make dirty jokes. I haven’t met Kiala yet, but I have ridiculous crushes on Felicia, Bonnie, and Veronica (psssst: Don't tell them, because I don't think they know), so when Felicia asked me, the outcome was inevitable.

The book we’re discussing is called Fortune’s Pawn, by Rachel Bach. It’s actually a science-fiction novel, kinda sorta military in nature, about a mercenary named Devi Morris who shoots bad guys. It was a good read, brisk and fun. There is some sciencey stuff in it, which, I imagine, is why Felicia asked me in; I’m not usually much of a romance novel kinda guy, unless spaceships or aliens are involved.

The live hangout will be at 7 PT today, Tuesday, March 31 (02:00 UTC Wednesday morning). Assuming the software gods smile, the hangout will be embedded below so you can watch it live here. I expect there will be some amount of swearing and drinking (not necessarily in that order), and some sexy subjects discussed, so this'll be NSFW. Fairly warned be ye, says I.

If not, then try the Vaginal Fantasy playlist at YouTube, or on the Vaginal Fantasy site. They also have a group on Goodreads, and of course they’re on Twitter.

This’ll be fun. I don’t get to let loose very often, and I really have a lot of respect and love for these women. I hope you'll join in.

March 31 2015 7:18 AM

Mercury: How Much More Black Can It Be?*

Mercury is an airless rocky world, much like our Moon, but for some reason it reflects less light than the Moon. This lower reflectivity (what we science types call its albedo) makes it darker than expected.

For a long time, it was thought that small grains of iron were the culprit. Being near the Sun, Mercury is cooked by light and subatomic particles from the Sun. This creates these tiny iron grains from iron embedded in the surface material, and these grains are quite dark. However, it turns out there isn’t enough of them to explain why, on average, Mercury reflects half the light the Moon does.

A new study has turned up a new perp: carbon. Comets have lots of carbon in them, and as they swing by the Sun they release a lot of it into space. In fact, as they get closer to the Sun they release more (especially ones that disintegrate completely, which does indeed occur often), so Mercury should get a big dose of carbon.

To test this, the scientists used a powerful gas gun at NASA’s Ames Research Center (my old pal Pete Schultz is a co-author on this study; we used that gas gun for an episode of Bad Universe). They shot pellets at several kilometers per second into a target of dark basaltic rock that also had sugars mixed in it (as a carbon source, mimicking carbon-based molecules in a comet). They found that carbon could be freed from the sugar molecules and mixed into the resulting melted impact material, making it darker.

The basaltic rock was more like the Moon’s surface than Mercury, but the results are encouraging. My very first thought about this as I read the report was, “What about a spectral signature of carbon?,” meaning that if carbon were there on Mercury’s surface, why don’t we see it in spectra (breaking the light up into thousands of individual colors, allowing the chemical composition to be determined)? They covered this as well: The spectrum of the impacted material in the experiment was fairly flat, with no real hint of carbon embedded in it. The carbon was mixed into the material in a way that hid it spectroscopically, even though it absorbed light and darkened the rock.

Is this why Mercury is darker than expected? Maybe. More tests and observations are needed; the lack of a spectral signature is interesting but not in itself proof. Still, it’s kinda neat to think Mercury might be dark because it’s painted with carbon atoms, airbrushed over the eons by the breath from comets.

The surface of Mercury may be harsh, but maybe it got that way poetically.

*None. None more black.

March 30 2015 12:17 PM

BA Video: Attack of the Waterspout!

A couple of weeks ago, a waterspout formed off the coast of a tropical beach in Brazil. The panic it evoked was merited … kinda sorta. Here’s why:

I’ve seen dust devils in person many times (driving from California to Colorado years back, we saw a half dozen, one that was so big we were kilometers away when we first spotted it), and pictures of them on Mars(!). But I’ve never seen a tornado in the wild myself, or a waterspout … or an ash devil, or a fire tornado.

Y’know what? I’m not too upset by that. Watching them on video is just fine by me.

March 30 2015 7:00 AM

The Top of the World Sinks Ever Lower

Ever year around the end of February, after a long winter, Arctic ice reaches its maximum extent. This year that happened around Feb. 25, when it encompassed 14.54 million square kilometers of ice around the North Pole.

Sound like a lot? It’s not. Really, really not. This year’s maximum extent was the lowest on record.

ice extent
Ice extent (area covered at least 15 percent by ice) for 2015 (solid blue line) compared with 2012 (dashed) and the average from 1981–2010 (black line).

Diagram by the NSIDC

The plot above shows the situation. The solid line shows the average ice extent over the year (measured from 1981–2010) and the gray area represents a statistical measure of random fluctuations; anything inside the gray is more or less indistinguishable from the average (in other words, an excursion up or down inside the gray area could just be due to random chance).

The dashed line was the extent in 2012, when unusual conditions created the lowest minimum extent in recorded history. The solid blue line is 2015 so far. As you can see, it’s already reached maximum, and it’s well below average. It’s also outside the gray zone, meaning it’s statistically significant. It’s the earliest the peak has been reached as well. Both these facts point accusingly at global warming—more warmth, and shorter winters.

We have to be careful here, because individual records can be misleading. The trend is what’s important. However, the trend is very, very clear: Ice extent at the North Pole is decreasing rapidly over time. Note that this record low extent is about 1 percent lower than the previous record … which was last year.

The implications of losing Arctic ice are profound. First, high latitudes are more affected by warming; the temperature trends in the extreme north are twice what they are at lower latitudes.

Melting ice does contribute to sea level rise, though not as much as melting glaciers on land. The bad news: Those glaciers are melting faster than ever. This has a second effect that may prove just as disastrous, too. All that fresh water dumped into the salty ocean changes the way the water circulates around the world. This circulation is one of the key ways warmth gets redistributed around the planet. Disrupting this cannot possibly be good news for us. You can read more about this at RealClimate, and climatologist Michael Mann discussed it in a recent interview.

At the other pole, Antarctic land ice is melting at a fantastic rate, and the slight increase in sea ice is not even coming close to making up for it. Deniers love to point at the sea ice, but that comes and goes every year and is roughly stable; the land ice is melting away at huge rates. Claiming global warming is wrong because Antarctic sea ice is increasing is like pointing toward a healing paper cut on your finger when your femoral artery has been punctured.

Arctic ice is like the fabled canary in a coal mine; it’s showing us very clearly what we’re in for. And what’s headed our way is a warmer planet, an even more disrupted climate, and a world of hurt if we do nothing about it.