Archive for October 8th, 2008

McCain's planetariophobia

By Phil Plait | October 8, 2008 4:21 pm

So a little while back, John McCain made an ill-advised crack about planetaria (that’s the plural of planetarium), calling them "foolishness". It was ill advised because it raised the hackles of lots of science-loving folks, including those who want to — gasp, horror! — educate kids about astronomy and science.

At the time I suspected it was just a wedge in which to attack Barack Obama, but his use of the word foolishness really caught my attention. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but does he really dislike such things?

Well, last night removed any doubt, when McCain — twice — used Obama’s requested earmark of three million dollars for Adler planetarium as a bludgeon, trying to pin Obama as another pork-barrel politician. He disdainfully said the money was for an "overhead projector". Those are his exact words. Here’s what he said:

While we were working to eliminate these pork barrel earmarks he [Senator Obama, or "that one"] voted for nearly $1 billion in pork barrel earmark projects. Including $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?

Well, shock of shocks — it turns out McCain’s characterization of this was all wrong. In fact, I would call it a lie. He knows it wasn’t for an overhead projector, a piece of classroom equipment that costs a couple of hundred dollars. That money was for Adler’s Zeiss Mark VI star projector: a venerable piece of precision fabricated equipment that projects the stars, constellations, and other objects inside the planetarium dome. Adler’s Zeiss is 40 years old, and desperately needs replacing. These machines are pricey, and replacing them difficult.

Adler needed money to do this. They asked local politicians, and eventually were able to get a request in a budget submitted by Obama. However, Obama never even voted on that budget, and Adler never got that money — thus making, again, McCain a liar.

Needless to say, Adler wasn’t thrilled with this characterization of their beloved Zeiss. They issued a statement to that effect. You can also get opinions all over the place: Universe Today, SpaceWriter, Davin Flateau, Discovery Space, Wonkette, the Chicago Tribune, even NPR.

I have posted about this before (just last night, in fact). The comments on my statements have been all over the place, from support to some fairly ridiculous complaints. My favorites have involved something along the line of, "Where in the Constitution does it say the federal government has to send money to planetaria?"

Good question. But where does it say the government will repair roads, provide clean water, create public schools, fund the space program?

Look: there are some things the government does for the greater good. This is where libertarians and I part company. Government isn’t always bad. In many cases, it takes the money it gets in taxes and does fantastic things with it, like sending probes to Mercury and funding autism research. It makes the roads drivable, and makes sure companies don’t pollute our air (well, it used to do that). You can complain all you want that earmarks get abused — and they certainly do — but they also get used to fund projects that are starved for cash, and that richly deserve to have life breathed into them.

I disagree with McCain here as well. He wants no earmarks at all. I think that’s ridiculous. It would be far better to have regulation of them, instead of the laissez-faire attitude the government has now. Or, if not overt regulation, some sort of throttle on them, instead of them being free passes to bridges to nowhere.

And finally, I want to reiterate what I said in my first post on this topic: I love planetaria. Love love love. They educate kids. That is among the finest and most honorable goals anyone can have. People who work at planetaria across the country and the world do it because they love it. They don’t get rich doing it, they don’t get fame doing it, they hardly even get accolades doing it. But we owe so much to them! Kids learn in planetaria– and not just about the stars over their heads on a given night; planetaria are evolving into the digital age, bringing incredible programs to the public (I know what I’m talking about here). And it’s not even just astronomy. The projectors can give all kinds of lessons: biology, history, local lore… anything you can create digitally can be projected in a planetarium, and kids can learn.

For McCain to use this as a political zinger is insulting, and for him to call it foolishness is beyond the pale. The honorable thing for him to do now is to admit he was wrong, admit he mischaracterized both the planetarium and Obama’s stance, and then issue a public apology to planetarians and science-lovers across the country.

The next debate is in one week. I bet a lot more pro-science folks will be watching, too. Closely.

Hubble spies eye in the sky

By Phil Plait | October 8, 2008 11:00 am

Do you ever feel that when you look at the sky, something is up there looking back at you?


Keck image of a gravitational lens that looks like an eye
Here’s looking at you, kid.

This cosmic eye is an illusion. I mean, duh, it’s not an eye. But it’s not even really shaped like one! The shape itself isn’t real.

The "pupil" of the eye is actually a galaxy about 2.2 billion light years from Earth. That’s a fair bit! But it happens to sit almost directly between us and a much more more distant galaxy — one that is 11 billion light years away. As the light from the background galaxy passes by the nearer one, the gravity of the nearer one bends the path of that light, twisting it in what’s called a gravitational lens.

Arcs are common results of lensing. That’s what you’re seeing here; the distant galaxy image split in two, arcs surrounding the spherical galaxy between them. An eye!

So that’s cool all by its lonesome. But of course there’s more.

A gravitational lens does more than distort the background galaxy image. it also magnifies it and makes it brighter. That means it’s easier to see, and easier to study. Usually, galaxies 11 frakkin’ billion light years away are too dinky to see well, but this one is literally laid out for us to see. By studying it, astronomers have actually been able to detect rotation (not by seeing it move — that would take millions of years — but by taking spectra and measuring the Doppler shift of the material in the galaxy. The rotation indicates that what we’re seeing here is a disk galaxy, young, but relatively normal, on its way to becoming a spiral galaxy much like our own!

It’s like a picture of a toddler, a galaxy growing up. It’s easily the best study of a distant galaxy ever made. And it’s pushed pretty hard on the technology — Hubble discovered the lens (and took the image above), and it took the 10-meter Keck telescope in Hawaii to observe the spectra in detail. But soon, much larger telescopes currently being planned will find more objects like this, and instead of this being a one-off object, we’ll be able to build up a catalog of them. And when that happens, our own eyes will be able to stretch back in time and distance even better.

Alan Parsons Project Eye in the Sky album coverOh, one more thing: if that eye looks familiar to people of a certain age, well, you’re not alone. The Alan Parsons Project predicted this image back in June of 1982! Don’t believe me? Look at the name of the album: "Eye in the Sky"!

I am the eye in the sky
Looking at you
I can read your mind
I am the maker of rules
Dealing with fools
I can cheat you blind
And I don’t need to see any more
To know that
I can read your mind, I can read your mind

Image credit: NASA/ESA/AURA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Did the Chinese fake their space walk?

By Phil Plait | October 8, 2008 9:53 am


I assume, as usual, you want more info, though!

There is a rumor going around that the Chinese government faked their space walk last week. I’m getting email about an article in The Epoch Times, and the article has obvious leanings against the Chinese government. I’m no fan of their government either, to be honest, but this article has many signs of the authors wearing tin foil changshans. They bring up the suspicious timing of the spacewalk, for example, as it comes when China is under attack about poisoned milk:

Political analysts say that due to tremendous domestic and international pressure, the Chinese regime moved up its spacewalk in hopes to shift focus away from the milk scandal.

What political analysts? Odd that the two journalists who wrote the article, Zhang Haishan and Shi Yu, wouldn’t actually list any obvious sources. All they ever do is quote unnamed Chinese bloggers, and never go to any other sources. It’s things like that which should set off your baloney detectors.

The claims themselves are pretty bad, too. Below is a video of the spacewalk. The article claims this was all shot underwater, in a practice tank!

As it plays, watch when the hatch opens. See the debris blowing out? The article claims these are bubbles! That’s really silly. It’s obviously debris from inside the craft. Again, an unnamed blogger says that if this were filmed underwater, the bubbles rose too fast. The authors claim it’s possible a fan blew them.


Watch as the taikonaut comes out of the hatch. Observe his movements. Imagine him in a bulky suit underwater, then watch as he waves to the camera. That’s clearly not underwater; his motions are too rapid to be impeded by water. The movement of the straps and other things hanging off the suit don’t look like they are underwater either; they look like they are in microgravity.

Another claim is that you can see banks of lights reflected off the taikonauts wrist reflectors. I watched carefully, and all I see reflected in the mirrors are the black of space, with occasional reflections of the Earth above. I think it’s the latter that’s claimed to be the lights.

My opinion: all in all, this sounds like yet more conspiracy theorists looking for things that aren’t there, and making stuff up as they see fit. This reads just like an article by Moon hoaxers, looking for anything they don’t understand and trying to wedge some nuttiness into reality.

Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to Steven Andreadis and Leonard David.


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