Thursday, July 29, 2010

Creationist Nonsense

This clip has been around for a while but I've just stumbled on it, and it's so astounding I just had to address it here. Take a look (embedding this video was causing problems).

In all my years, I don't know if I've ever come across a more nonsensical argument against evolution. I'm just itching to write the anti-Creationism treatise I promised a while back, but for now I think I'll just stick to the facts of this case. What in the world are these people talking about?!

While this video may be the most puzzling of approaches to debunking evolution, I'm afraid it's not very far from what many people actually believe. It represents a profound failure of education and imagination, along with an unhealthy dose of blind faith.

This gentleman claims evolution doesn't happen because we don't find life spontaneously generating out of a jar of peanut butter* (a version of this argument also figures prominently in Ben Stein's ludicrous documentary on intelligent design). The implication here is that life can't just come from nowhere... which is what scientists apparently believe, right? No, of course it doesn't come from nowhere. But the situation is much more complex than these Bible-thumpers care to read about.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Scientists Developing Artificial Magnetosphere for Interplanetary Exploration

Scientists at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom are working on an artificial magnetosphere that could protect astronauts on a mission to Mars.

Long duration space flights present a special problem: the charged particles of the solar wind are extremely dangerous to the health of astronauts. On a trip to Mars, astronauts would be exposed to this radiation for months. Heavy shields on the craft would be enormously expensive to lift into space, but what if we could create a miniature magnetosphere, like the one that protects us here on Earth?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Are We Living Inside a Black Hole?

A new paper from cosmologist Nikodem Poplawski examines the relationship between the expansion of our universe and a hypothetical rebound force that might counter gravity inside a black hole. Among the implications, it could mean we're all living inside a black hole.

Come again?

Well, early on in the 20th century we figured out the universe is expanding. Here's a concise history:

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Sounds of Pulsars

Here's a little treat for the weekend -- take a listen to the sounds of the pulsars!

Of course, these stars aren't really emitting sound, but rather high energy beams of radiation that are detected on Earth by radio telescopes. Radio signals received by these telescopes can be converted into images, but we can also listen to them! (Remember that radio waves are just one of several different kinds of light).

Pulsars are a special brand of neutron star. As the leftover cores of supernovae, they are extremely dense and small, and rotate at incredible speeds, spitting out energetic beams of radiation along their magnetic poles. When one of these beams passes by the Earth, we see it as a flash, like a lighthouse (in fact, when the first pulsar was discovered, some astronomers thought it might be a sort of cosmic lighthouse, left behind by extraterrestrials). So when we listen to the signal of a pulsar, we hear lots of pulses at regular intervals.

Just how fast are the pulsars spinning? Well, it varies. But check out this website and you can hear how fast! Compare this pulsar, spinning about 1.4 times a second, with this one (the Crab Pulsar), spinning about 30 times a second, and this pulsar, spinning about 642 times a second! (Make sure your volume is not too high, because that's one energetic pulsar).

It's one thing to look at a number and be amazed (that third pulsar has a rotational period of 0.00155780644887275 seconds ... what precision!), but I think listening to it spin makes it more real, in a way. Just imagine this neutron star, 10 or 15 kilometers across, spinning 642 times a second! It's enough to make your head spin.

A Comic Rebuttal of the Moon Landing Conspiracy Theories

Darryl Cunningham brings us this clever rebuttal of the Moon landing conspiracy theories, in comic form:

But as he says, and I've said before, there's really not much you can do to persuade the hardcore conspiracy theorists. And that's the most irritating part -- we feel compelled to confront them with the truth, but it's rarely worth spending the energy, and the hour. After all, what difference does it really make if some guy wants to believe we didn't land on the Moon? It's his loss for missing out on the majesty of reality.

One major exception to this, of course, is climate change. There is a difference between finding fault with scientific findings (which is called scientific debate), and getting your facts from the pundit on Fox News who questions global warming because it's cold outside today. Unlike the Moon landing conspiracies, this sort of thinking-with-your-gut is pervasive, and is a genuine threat to the planet. These views should not be suppressed, of course, but they should be emphatically debunked, because while the Moon landing conspiracy theorists make up little more than a fringe group, usually written off by most serious people, climate change skeptics can and do influence public policy, and set us back in our efforts to reverse global warming. And in the meantime, global temperatures continue to tick upwards, and in the course of a year the United States dumps another 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Science of Inception

CultureLab takes a look at the science of Christopher Nolan's hit film Inception.

If you haven't already, you've got to check out this movie while it's still in theaters. It's a new classic, and I can't wait to go see it again.

The Rundown - July 21, 2010

Lots to cover, not enough time to comment on it all. Here's the rundown:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Happy Moon Day!

41 years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to set foot on another world. They are two of only 12 men to have ever walked on the surface of the Moon.

The Moon landing is arguably the crowning achievement of life on Earth. Other events may have been more influential for humanity -- domestication of plants and animals, the invention of writing, the advent of modern medicine, or the harnessing of electricity come to mind -- but the journey of men to another world represents a new era for life on Earth: the first time in our history when we Earthlings are able to leave our delicate cradle and discover our place in the vast unknown universe. Forever after, ours will be a space-faring civilization, and if we survive long enough, it seems likely that we will move on to other worlds, perhaps terraforming neighboring planets, establishing permanent colonies beyond the Earth and one day, we hope, venturing to the stars.

For billions of years, life was restricted to the surface of the Earth. A few winged creatures could climb a bit higher, but nothing could push beyond the thin atmosphere that protects us from the cold vacuum of space. Most of our ancestors lived and died without more than a dim notion of anything beyond our planet. But finally, after billions of years of evolution, a curious and determined species emerged, and set about the business of conquering nature's barriers.

After thousands of human generations we, the lucky children of the 20th century, are the first pioneers in space. We see a little farther only because we stand on the shoulders of giants, but for this reason, we owe it to our ancestors and descendants alike to push deeper into the unknown. Nothing less than the survival of humanity may be at stake. But if nothing else, it seems to be our destiny to explore, and to join the community of civilizations that may be humming and zipping about the galaxy. These are just the first few steps of the marathon, but what a marvelous achievement to have gotten this far.

Happy Moon Day.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Southern Hemisphere Moon!

My buddy just returned from South Africa, where he caught a few games at the World Cup. The assignment I gave him was to take a picture of the Moon, so he sent me the photograph you see above.

What's so special about a picture of the Moon from the Southern Hemisphere, you say? Well, the Moon is UPSIDE DOWN. Of course I mean that it appears upside down to those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere --

Compromise Reached on the Future of NASA

Politico is reporting that the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has reached a compromise on the future of NASA. The bill will now go to the full senate for a vote.

As usual, Politico has buried the policy specifics on the second page... you've got to wade through the political commentary to get to it. But it looks like the key changes are "a more regimented, benchmark-based track" for private sector participation in human spaceflight, and "development of a long-range vehicle [beginning] far sooner than the 2015 date the White House specified." Constellation is still on the chopping block, but the Orion capsule will be retained, presumably as the lifeboat for the space station as the White House proposed. NASA funding will be increased by $6 billion, but it's unclear over how many years that's spread. No mention of whether President Obama's goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid is still in the works.

Overall, this sounds like a good compromise, and the White House is praising it. So let's hope that this controversy is just about finished, so we can get on with it!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Voyager 1 - 12,000 Days and Counting

Last month we told you Voyager 2 marked its 12,000th day in space... almost 33 years. Well, yesterday Voyager 1 hit the same milestone -- an astonishing 12,000 days since it blasted off on its remarkable journey.

Voyager 1 is the most distant man-made object in space, currently about 11 billion miles from the Sun. And it's still talking to us! Its signal, traveling at the speed of light, takes around 16 hours to reach us here on Earth.

In 1990, with its primary objectives completed, Voyager 1 turned its camera around and took one last picture of the Earth. This famous image, above, is known as the Pale Blue Dot (Carl Sagan's book of the same name is a fantastic read).

You've got to check out this video. It gets me every time:


So Fermilab says news of finding the Higgs boson at their facilities was just a rumor. Bummer.

Ah well, we told you it was only a rumor! And anyway, how often do you get to spread a rumor about particle physics?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

JAXA Confirms Solar Sail is Working!

the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has confirmed that the solar sail spacecraft IKAROS is indeed being accelerated by photons emitted from the Sun, which means the solar sail really works!

The spacecraft is showing an acceleration from the solar wind pressure on the order of 1.12 milli-Newtons, which was the predicted value (a Newton is a unit of force, representing the amount of net force required to accelerate a mass of one kilogram at a rate of one meter per second per second). So, the Sun is exerting a force on IKAROS of just over one-thousandth of a Newton every second.

Juno Gears Up For Jovian Radiation

The spacecraft Juno, which will blast off for Jupiter in August of next year, has just gotten a slick new Titanium suit.

Juno needs the Titanium armor because Jupiter has an enormously powerful radiation belt that will fry most anything that comes along. Previous missions to Jupiter have had to be careful to avoid the radiation belt so as not to destroy sensitive onboard equipment, but as Juno's mission is partly designed to learn more about the magnetosphere, the radiation will be unavoidable.

Juno is part of the New Frontiers program, a series of medium-cost science missions. The New Horizons spacecraft, which will rendezvous with Pluto in 2015, is the first New Frontiers mission.

Is Gravity Just an Illusion?

Check out this New York Times article on a debate over the nature of gravity. It's pretty wild stuff.

What's this all about, anyway? Why does it matter how we think about gravity? We understand it perfectly well in our everyday experience, whether we're talking about an apple falling from a tree or a spacecraft going to Saturn. Newton's way of thinking about it was ultimately replaced by Einstein's way of thinking about it, but what difference does it make to us whether we think of gravity as a distortion of spacetime? That doesn't change the way I fall down and scrape my knee.

But scientists are in pursuit of a theory of everything -- one unifying theory that will combine all the known forces (electromagnetic, weak, strong and gravitational) into one super theory. The problem is, our understanding of the very small (quantum mechanics) and the very large (general relativity) are pretty good on their own, but they're a devil to combine. This is where all that weird stuff like string theory and 26 dimensions comes into play. Most of us just glaze over.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Has Fermilab Found the Higgs Boson?

The rumors are flying after a blog post suggested the Tevatron at Fermilab may have found the elusive Higgs boson.

I'm a bit out of my element when it comes to particle physics, but the Higgs boson is kind of a big deal. According to the standard model of particle physics, the Higgs boson would be the elementary particle that imbues other particles with mass, but so far no one has been able to detect it. It has been hoped that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN would be able to produce the Higgs... but maybe Fermilab has beaten them to the punch!

Check out this funny and somewhat trippy little New York Times article from a while back, in which a couple of scientists suggest that the Higgs boson "might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather." Woah.

Stay tuned for developments.

Rosetta's Stone Flyby

This weekend, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft flew by the asteroid 21 Lutetia and got some great photographs. Take a look at them here.

21 Lutetia is just a pit stop for Rosetta (except that it didn't stop, of course... it whizzed by at over 33,500 miles per hour). The spacecraft is now making its way to rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, where it will arrive in 2014. Rosetta will orbit the comet and drop a landing craft, named Philae, to touch down on the surface. If successful, this will be the first mission to land a craft on a comet.

Below, an image of 21 Lutetia captured on July 10th. Saturn can be seen in the background.

Courtesy of wikipedia:
Churyumov-Gerasimenko has a rather interesting orbital history. Comets are regularly nudged from one orbit to another when they encounter Jupiter or Saturn in close proximity. For this comet it was calculated, that before the year 1840 it was completely unobservable due to its perihelion distance of about 4.0 AU. At this time Jupiter shifted that distance to about 3.0 AU. Later on, in the year 1959, another encounter with Jupiter pushed it to about 1.28 AU, where it is now.

Raw data!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Senate Panel Works to Block Obama's Human Spaceflight Proposal

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is working on a bill to block much of President Obama's proposed plan for the future of human spaceflight at NASA. The bill is expected to restore the Orion capsule to its original specifications, authorize the construction of a heavy-lift rocket starting immediately, and will call for one additional shuttle flight, to be flown in the middle of next year. The panel hopes to garner bipartisan support for the bill (as there has been some bipartisan opposition to the President's plan).

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

More Vindication for the "Climategate" Scientists

A British panel has just found that the so-called "climategate" scientists are not guilty of scientific misconduct. This is the fifth review to have reached the same conclusion.

Climate change skeptics, though, will not be deterred. As has always been the case with conspiracy theorists, they are happy to ignore the abundance of evidence that refutes their beliefs and focus instead on a few instances of fuzzy numbers, clumsy statements and less-than-perfect science. All it takes is a few embarrassing e-mails, taken out of context, for them to claim that the whole global warming house of cards is falling.

Even so, this controversy is a good reminder that scientific inquiry must be an open and honest process, so as to minimize these sorts of incidents which needlessly set back the cause of saving the planet. Dishonesty in any scientific endeavor undermines legitimate science, and is almost always counterproductive to the cause it is meant to serve.

In any case, there is a sort of selective blindness on the part of climate change deniers. They are eager, for instance, to hold up the powerful winter blizzards as evidence that global warming doesn't exist, but where are they during the summer heat waves, like the one sweeping through the East Coast right now? Sean Hannity is curiously silent on this front during the summer months.

We know that these trends -- hotter summers, and yes, bigger storms in the winter -- are indeed a predicted result of climate change. But we cannot hold the weather of any single day, in a single location, as proof or disproof of climate change. We must be careful not to point to these high temperatures alone as evidence of global warming, lest we make the same flawed interpretation. Anecdotal evidence is just not good enough. Rather, we must rely on global data, collected over many years; and luckily, the data is on our side.

Photo Credit: Mike Clarke.

Hopeful Signs for Hayabusa

JAXA has just released this image, which may be a particle of dust captured from the asteroid 25143 Itokawa. If that's true, that means Hayabusa has not returned to Earth empty-handed. But this could turn out to be the most valuable (or expensive) space dust ever collected.

This may seem like a pitiful return on the investment, especially if you compare it to the hundreds of pounds of moon rocks returned by the Apollo astronauts. But the Stardust spacecraft also came back to Earth with little more than microscopic particles from Wild 5's coma, so this is not a wholly disappointing sampling (indeed, in light of Hayabusa's troubles, JAXA will be relieved to find anything inside). So long as there's enough material available to study, this will be deemed a success.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Thoughts On July 4th

Well, July 4th is this weekend, which means it's time to celebrate America! Of course, we'll always remember the courage of our forefathers, and the sacrifices of the brave men and women in uniform. But the fourth of July is also an opportunity to reflect on all of the great endeavors of our young nation.

And in this vein, let us not forget our astonishing exploits in space! Only 55 years after the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers, we sent our first satellite into space. And just eleven years after that, man first set foot on another world. What a spectacular achievement! For millennia, human beings were restricted to the ground, and in the course of just 66 years, we went from managing only a few seconds aloft to making quarter-million mile journeys in space.

Since that time, we have completed a preliminary reconnaissance of the solar system, and whole worlds have been revealed to us for the first time in history. The wonders of the solar system, from the mysterious moons of Jupiter and Saturn to the eerie blue clouds of Neptune, were little more than points of light in the sky until our robotic spacecraft ambassadors sent us the first breathtaking close-up images. We've sent vehicles to explore the vast barren landscape of Mars, and we've landed a probe on Saturn's giant moon Titan where, perhaps, there may be stirrings of extraterrestrial life. And yet, there is still much to do! In just five years, we will receive our first close-up images of the massive, spherical asteroid Ceres, as well as the first photographs of the surface of Pluto! Like Titan, the icy Jovian moon Europa, with its massive ocean of liquid water, calls to us for exploration. And of course, we ache to learn more about our remote, titanic neighbors in the outer solar system, and the utterly unknown Kuiper Belt beyond.

Meanwhile, space telescopes have revealed the fabulous beauty of the galaxies in stunning detail, and have shown us the first planets around neighboring suns in the Milky Way. We are beginning to know the vast universe that is our home, and our place within it. And more locally, communications satellites have revolutionized our lives and have, in a very real sense, transformed us into a global community. And in so doing, our national chauvinisms are starting to trickle away.

I've much more to write on the subject, but I'm off to vacation with my family. I hope everyone has a safe and lovely holiday weekend. We'll see you back here next week.

Did Hayabusa Come Back Empty-Handed?

The New York Times chronicles the troubled journey of the Japanese space probe Hayabusa, and the uncertainty of Japan's future in space technology. And as of right now, we still don't know if any asteroid samples were retrieved.

As we've mentioned previously, the projectile mechanism that was supposed to dislodge samples from the asteroid malfunctioned, so JAXA has known for years that there was a chance the probe would return empty-handed. But we won't know for some time whether anything of value was collected; as you can imagine, the scientists are taking extreme care not to contaminate anything inside.

Regardless of whether the asteroid samples are within, Hayabusa's return itself is a triumph.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

New Exoplanet Image - First from the Ground

Check out this image from 2008, recently confirmed to be a photograph of a planet around another star:

There have been some conflicting reports about this, as Bad Astronomy explains. I've seen it touted elsewhere as the first direct image of an exoplanet, but that's not the case. Rather, it is the first direct photograph of an exoplanet taken by a telescope on the ground.

Ground-based telescopes have traditionally been less well-suited for this type of work than space telescopes, as poor seeing creates distortions that blur out such faint objects. But as we mentioned a few days ago, adaptive optics are now starting to close the gap.

The planet, about 470 light-years away, is roughly 8 times the mass of Jupiter and orbits some 330 Astronomical Units (AU) from its star. That's more than 30 billion miles! By comparison, Pluto's average distance from our Sun is only about 39 AU.