Tag: Astronomy

On Galileo


Most of us are familiar with the story of Galileo Galilei, the great astronomer and polymath, famous for advancing the idea expressed by Copernicus that the earth and other planets rotate around the sun  (heliocentrism).

The story goes that Galileo found proof of heliocentrism in his astronomical observations but was censured, threatened, and arrested by the Church because his ideas ran afoul of religious doctrine.  He was thus a great hero for the cause of science.

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A very rare celestial event will take place on the December Winter Solstice, 2020, where Saturn and Jupiter will be so close that they will appear in the sky as a large star. They call it a conjunction and it hasn’t happened since around 1226. They’ve dubbed it The Christmas Star and say even amateurs […]

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This week on “The Learning Curve,” Cara and Gerard are joined by Dava Sobel, a former New York Times science reporter, and author of Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, and Letters to Father. Dava describes what inspired her interest in some of the most gifted mathematicians and astronomers in history, including Copernicus and Galileo, and the tensions between religion and science. She discusses the life story of a woman previously hidden from history, Sister Maria Celeste, who was Galileo’s daughter. Dava also offers some key lessons from her book, The Glass Universe, about the women who worked at the Harvard College Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She concludes by reading her favorite letter from Sister Maria Celeste to Galileo.

Stories of the Week: State and local education officials from across the country are seeking waivers from standardized testing for the upcoming school year. Should the U.S. Department of Education grant them? As we mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a new report reveals that nearly two-thirds of U.S. public schools contain physical barriers, such as inaccessible door handles and steep ramps, that potentially block access for individuals with disabilities. Are we doing enough to provide options for students with diverse learning needs?

Raining in the Solar System


Venus lightning and clouds

Lightning and clouds on Venus – an artist’s impression.

Earth is not the only place in the solar system where it rains.

Venus takes acid rain to a new level. In the clouds of Venus, it rains pure sulfuric acid, which is better known for being in your car battery. NASA probes have also confirmed the presence of lightning – not surprising, given just how thick the clouds are. Not to worry, though, the rain doesn’t actually reach the surface, which has such insane heat and pressure that the battery acid rain evaporates before hitting the surface. The surface of Venus is a volcanic hellscape (you could have pools of molten lead, and the carbon dioxide atmosphere becomes a hybrid of liquid and gas called a super-critical fluid), so the acid rain is the least of your concerns.

It says something for how hostile colonization is off of Earth that the atmosphere of Venus (50 km above the hellish surface) is seriously being considered for colonization. It helps that the CO2 atmosphere is so dense that the nitrogen/oxygen mix in our atmosphere would act like helium in a blimp. That high up, you would only need a hazmat suit, as opposed to a spacesuit, and we have a lot of experience making acid-resistant clothing.

No Planet Left Behind


PlutoTomorrow is Earth Day, and once again I will be boycotting everything associated with the holiday.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the Earth (I grew up an hour away from here) and it’s not that I don’t support conservation because as a gun owner, I contribute far more to the preservation of wildlife than the most vocal of Sierra Club members. Rather, I am turning my back on the celebration of one single planet in our solar system until a great interplanetary injustice is made right, namely, the designation of Pluto as a “dwarf” planet.

First off, let’s talk about the obviously troubling label of “dwarf” planet, as the correct term for planets such as Pluto is “circumferentially challenged.” Secondly, the designation as a so-called  “dwarf” planet was imposed on Pluto without any consultation with Pluto itself, which is indication of the xenophobia towards the outer planets that is so typical of planets that are inside the bubble of the asteroid beltway. I mean, for all we know, Pluto self-identifies as a gas giant and therefore deserves as much as respect as Uranus does.

A Concerto of the Spheres


On Monday, Aug. 21, I will be attending a concert of sorts. While sitting at a vineyard in Wyoming, I will be drinking wine, wearing goofy glasses, and watching a show rapt in what I am sure will be utter amazement. And while I can’t speak for anyone else who might attend, I can tell you in all seriousness that I personally have been waiting for this particular performance for 45 years.

At some time between this 21st-century age of digital data on demand and the 18th-century age of Diderot embarking on his ridiculously ambitious project, a seven-year-old me could often be found perusing any volume of my family’s collection of encyclopedias. And while I loved the children’s articles on optical illusions and kite-making, and the color plates of the flags of the world, what drew my interest the most was a 50-year table of future total solar eclipses.

That table vexed me. I returned to it time and again in disbelief that I would have to wait forever, or at least until 2017, for a total solar eclipse to occur in the United States — and by that time, I would be old. Adding to my frustration of such a long wait was the knowledge that the little Connecticut town in which I lived was nowhere remotely close to where the totality of that eclipse would occur. It seemed all but hopeless.

Astronomy Becomes the Playground of the Social Left


This isn’t a shocking novelty to me, and it isn’t my first post on this topic. Yet it makes me despair when I see astronomy conferences taken over by irrelevant left-wing social issues. There’s an astrobiology conference going on now and, while I’m not there, I’ve been enjoying following the discoveries and new research online.

Today, though, the NASA Astrobiology Twitter feed is preoccupied with retweeting social issues that are apparently coming up. My inspiration for the post is this tweet, which complains about color-blindness in the workplace. Remember: racism is wrong because we’re all the same, deep down, and if you treat everybody the same, you’re a racist for not recognizing our differences. Her follow-up tweet here reminds us that because we need to make the culture of science inclusive, which means explicitly excluding “white male” science culture. This tweet celebrates the underrepresentation of men on one discussion panel, while this tweet complains about their overrepresentation on another.

I avoided this year’s big American Astronomical Society meeting in part because of the town hall session titled “Racism: Racial Prejudice Plus Power.” Note the session’s axiom:

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I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Sunday. When it appears, I post the previous week’s review on Ricochet. Seawriter Book Review Women making strides in astronomy Posted: Saturday, January 21, 2017 […]

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Professional Society to Astronomers: Stop dating each other! It’s not worth the risk!


shutterstock_305017364The feminist reaction to sexual harassment has ended with this jaw-dropping statement from the American Astronomical Society’s executive officer. Effectively, he’s telling astronomers not to date each other. I’m not exaggerating much. He’s specifically and explicitly saying that the risk of sexual harassment is so great that you are not allowed to date anybody you meet at a conference, even if you scrupulously behave yourself:

Second, do not treat any AAS meeting or other event as a venue for finding a romantic partner. Yes, there are people at our events, and yes, people do make romantic connections, and yes, there may even be opportunities to make such connections at our events, but please, everyone, just shelve these inclinations for our conferences. Too much damage is being done. Just one negative interaction in the poster hall, at a session, in the bar during the meeting, or at a restaurant or offsite event may be all it takes to dissuade a bright young scientist from participating in our field. This is unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

And then,

Monday Morning Science: The Order of Things


By David A. Aguilar (CfA), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16206794

If it seems that the last decade has brought us one discovery of exoplanets — i.e., planets orbiting stars other than our own — after another, you’re not wrong. The field is only a few decades old and, in that time, we’ve gone from knowing very little about a handful of other systems, to a knowing good deal about thousands. This last month, however, has been truly spectacular and changed how both the general public and astronomers understand what else is out there.

Scientific Progress Goes “Chirp”!


Northern leg (x-arm) of LIGO interferometer on Hanford Reservation. By Umptanum – wikipédia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves! We did it!” And with that, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the discovery of a strange feature of General Relativity that’s been hiding since the 1960s.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space, caused by the acceleration of mass. The bigger the mass and the faster it’s accelerated, the better, and there’s nothing that better fits that description than two black holes orbiting each other. These waves expand and compress space, which slightly changes distances between objects in their path. Two objects floating freely in deep space far from any forces, would find themselves carried a little towards each other and then a little away from each other and back and forth, as the wave passed over them. If you could measure the distance between them accurately, like with a laser range-finder, you’d detect that oscillation. But this is tough to do on the Earth, because you can’t have the two objects floating freely any more. The best you can do is to hang them from fine threads, like a swing. They’re not free to move in every direction, but they can swing back and forth.

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September 14, 2015, 3:50 in the morning. I remember where I was. In bed. There was a short, sudden shake of the house. I woke up, looked at the clock, and groggily asked Maria-Cristina if that was an earthquake. “I don’t think so,” she said. “No…no…honey?” she whispered, her throat cracking with the growing realization. “I […]

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Has Caltech Found a Plausible Giant Outer Planet?


Orbits of the ice planets and the proposed giant planet.I’ve gotten texted twice today about the story that Caltech astronomers have found more evidence there could be a massive planet in the outer solar system, perhaps ten times the mass of Earth.  My initial reaction was to dismiss it as a crackpot theory, because there have been a couple of poorly-supported claims about this kind of thing in the past five-odd years. But this one seems better.

For one thing, the astronomers are well known and have reputations for reliable work and solid accomplishments. Mike Brown and Chad Trujillo have found other ice planets in the outer solar system, at least through direct observation. And whereas the earlier claims were based on pretty thin evidence, this one has stood up to a direct challenge from Brown already.

What’s happening is that the most distant ice planets in our solar system, like Sedna, turn out to have elongated orbits — ellipses — with the Sun near one end. Ordinarily, you’d expect that the point of closest approach, the perihelion, would be randomly distributed for each of these. Some would swing by on one side of the Sun, others on another side. But Trujillo found that they’re mostly oriented to swing past just one side of the Sun.

The Attack on Grad School Entrance Standards


The social justice activists have been making more waves in the sciences recently, such as my field of astronomy. The latest is a push to get rid of the use of standardized test scores (the Physics Graduate Record Exam, or physics GRE) in admission to physics graduate school. (Read the statement by our professional association’s president.) The claim is that the GRE is poorly correlated with success as a research astrophysicist and is more correlated with sex, race, and ethnicity.

Some astronomers have tried to quantify this by doing a study of “successful” astronomers; i.e., those who have received the prestigious postdoctoral research fellowships after grad school. They were able to use 149 responses (55%) out of the 271 questionnaires sent out. The rest didn’t respond or didn’t provide their GRE scores, and the study did not try to account for the biases this introduced.

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Scientists have discovered what they are calling “the most important planet outside our solar system.” Notice how the scientists are asserting their Heliocentric privilege and otherizing the new planet as less important than the planets inside our solar system. Known as GJ 1132b, it is the closest rocky exoplanet to have ever been found, and astronomers say it […]

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The Dark Side Is Weak With This One


NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) has captured a series of unusual images showing the astronomical phenomenon known as the transit of the Moon across the Earth. They are unusual because out of the handful spacecraft are beyond the orbit of the Moon, very few are close enough to perceive the Earth and Moon as larger than a speck. The video below is not a computer simulation; it is a series of actual photographs taken on July 16, 2015.

Secrets in the Sky


A little over 400 years ago, Galil(null)eo decided to take his telescope — currently all the rage among Northern Europe’s merchants, eager to identify ships before they came into harbor — and train it on the night sky. Within days, he made four astounding discoveries: that Saturn has rings (“horns” as he described them), that nebulas have structure, that the Moon has mountains, and that Jupiter has four moons. For the first time, these secrets — all shining down on humanity from long before we began staring up at them — had been revealed.

In recent years, astronomy headlines have been dominated by discoveries outside of our solar system, sometimes at the very limits of the observable universe. As exciting and wonderful as these are, I’ve always been more fascinated by our continuing discoveries closer to home. Though school room posters and easy acronyms often make our solar system seem familiar and easily understood — so much so that Pluto’s demotion from planet status by one scientific body caused international headlines — we’re still discovering amazing things in our star’s backyard.