This is my last post for the Bad Astronomy Blog on Discover Magazine. As of today – Monday, November 12, 2012 – the blog has a new home at Slate magazine.
It has been my pleasure and honor to be a Discover blogger for more than four years. Still, I remember my science teacher in third grade quoting Heraclitus to us: "Nothing is permanent except change". That’s true today, of course, and just as obviously in the Age of the Internet the velocity of that change is accelerating.
But in this case I hope the change isn’t too shocking for you, dear BABloggees. All you have to do is switch a URL in your bookmarks or update your RSS feed (to do that, just copy that link address into your feed reader). I’ll still be writing the same sort of material, I’ll still make dumb puns, and I’ll still be Tweeting, Facebooking, and GooglePlussing like mad.
To be clear: all the archives of my blog will be copied to Slate magazine, but will still have a home here at Discover. I’d be obliged if you updated links to the new archive, but old links shouldn’t break.
And so, I bid a fond adieu to Discover. What I said in my post announcing the move still holds true: I encourage everyone to read the fantastic collection of science blogs that live here, among the best such blogs in the world; fantastic company in which to be. And I hope you follow me to Slate.
It’s a big Universe out there, roomy enough for all of us. And there’s still a vast amount left to explore and understand.
I have a rather big announcement to make: the Bad Astronomy Blog is moving to Slate magazine on November 12!
I’ve been writing at Discover Magazine for over four years, and it’s been a great ride. From the moment the phone first rang early in 2008 – then-CEO Henry Donahue calling me asking if I’d be interested in joining their nascent blog collective – to this very day, I’ve had so much fun working for this grand science magazine. I’ve posted something like 4600 blog articles since then – can I get a Holy Haleakala from the choir? – which is a whole lot of science, astronomy, Doctor Who, and antiscience smashery. I’m proud of my work here, and grateful for the support I’ve received from Discover.
But, as Q said to Picard, all good things must come to an end. Slate is already a major voice in politics, economics, and social issues, and they cover science as well. Since I do tend to speak my mind on every topic in which I’m interested – and that includes politics, religion, what-have-you – it’s a natural fit.
This is bittersweet, to be sure, as any big change can be. I’m excited about this new chapter in my blogging life as well as sad about leaving Discover. I’ve made many friends here, and I have great hopes for their future. All the Discover blogs are and will remain in my feed reader, and I will always check them every day.
Science covers the whole Universe – that’s rather the point – so there’s room for lots of science coverage. You could do a lot worse than read 80 Beats, Cosmic Variance, The Crux, Discoblog, Gene Expression, The Loom, and Not Exactly Rocket Science.
But I also hope y’all will follow me to Slate as well. I’ll have more info on the move (like the URL, RSS feed address, and all that) closer to when the time comes.
And seriously – thanks to all of you who have been reading my writing, whether you’re a new BABloggee or one who’s been hanging around since I first started writing it on my Bad Astronomy site back in 2005. I appreciate all the comments, emails, tweets, and general feedback I’ve gotten, and I’m sincerely happy to be able to bring you a slice of the cosmos, no matter where my words sit.
[UPDATE (Nov. 2): I've just been informed the Challenge has been extended to November 9th due to the chaos on the east coast.]
A quick reminder: I am participating in the Donors Choose Science Blog Challenge to raise money for teachers in need. The funds go to educators in at-risk schools so they can get the tools they need to teach kids math, science, and other topics. I have more background on this in my first announcement post.
If you were thinking of donating, I have some nice news: Donors Choose has set up a matching fund! Every dollar you donate (up to $100 per donation) will be matched by Donors Choose themselves. This is a $50,000 pool of money they have promised, which will buy a whole lot of science for kids who are curious and excited about the world, but lack the resources to fill that desire.
When you fill out the donation page, a text box will come up asking for a code. Just enter SCIENCE, and your donation will double. It’s just that simple. This offer will go through the end of the campaign (on November 5) or when the money runs out, whichever occurs first. As I write this, 18 people have donated a total of $2000 which is going to over 400 students. That warms my heart immensely.
As always, thank you for helping out. If you’ve ever seen a kid’s face when they get that "AHA!" moment in a science class, then you’ll know why I love this funding drive. We’re literally bringing the world to these students, and it means the world to them.
My friend, the geekeriffic Jessica Mills, interviewed me for her blog on Tech Republic (the second part is here). It was a lot of fun talking with her; we wandered over topics like Hubble, Star Trek, science, Doctor Who, black holes, Neil Tyson and Bill Nye, and what I would do if I encountered advanced aliens in a wormhole (answer: self-promotion).
Jessica is amazing. She is a writer, producer, and actress, and was the driving force behind the very funny web series Awkward Embraces (which I wrote about in a post a while back). If you’re a geek – and you are – you should watch it.
Not everyone in the US gets that chance. A lot of schools and teachers simply don’t have the money they need to give kids the education they need.
That’s why, every year, I participate in the Donors Choose Science Blog Challenge – fund raising for teachers who are looking to create or buy educational materials for their classrooms. Donors Choose is an organization that supports teachers by letting them create their own funding page – a bit like KickStarter, but for educators.
Every year, Donors Choose has their Science Blog Challenge to raise as much money as possible over a three week period.This year’s challenge ends on November 5.
I have created a Bad Astronomy page on their website where you – the readers of my blog, and lovers of sciencey things – can kick in some cash. You can peruse the projects teachers have listed, and give to the ones you want (hence the name Donors Choose). I just bet there’s something there you wish you could’ve done when you were in school. Why not give a kid the chance you may not have had?
Last year, this blog raised nearly $6000 for those students. Let’s see what we can do in 2012. Thanks.
Science Ranch 2012 has wrapped up, and it was way, way too much fun.
Quick background: my wife Marcella and I started up Science Getaways, where we create vacation packages and add science to them. We figured we love learning about the places we visit; their natural wonders, the geography, biology, and more, so why not make it official and put something like this together for other science lovers? At Science Getaways we take vacation packages and add exploration hikes, talks by scientists, star parties… y’know, SCIENCE. The point was to get like-minded science afficiandos together and have them get even more out of their time off; that’s why we call it a "vacation with your brain".
Our first venture was to the C Lazy U Guest Ranch in Granby, Colorado. Nestled in a valley in the Rockies, it’s a stunning setting with lots of natural beauty. We invited geologist Holly Brunkal and biologist/ecologist Dave Armstrong to come, with me pulling astronomy duty. In September, a group of science lovers descended upon the ranch for four days of fun, relaxation, and… SCIENCE.
I know I may be a wee bit biased, but I think everyone had a lot of fun. The ranch itself boasts a lot of outdoor activities: horseback riding, a ropes course, biking, and more. Marcella and I had to laugh; when we first organized this Getaway, we asked folks if they’d like to ride horses, and only a few said yes. But once everyone got there, nearly every single person went for at least one ride! It was a great way to get out into the hills without a lot of effort – helpful in the rarefied air at 2500 meters (8000+ feet) elevation!
The science was, of course, amazing. We learned a lot about the local flora, fauna, and geology of the region. Did you know the Rockies we see today are actually the second Rockies? There used to be a range here in Colorado hundreds of millions of years ago, and they eroded away. Eventually, a new mountain range pushed up, forming today’s Rockies.
Driving the lessons home, we went on several hikes to explore the natural world ourselves. At different times during the week we saw moose, bear, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, foxes, and chipmunks. At one point we had a handsome young fox poking around nearby too, probably looking for lunch.
Probably the highlight of the hikes was when we all went to a stream bed near the ranch. Over the years it’s wandered a bit, exposing rock washed down from the hills. Within a few minutes, one of our guests found a fossilized leaf imprint dating back to the Creataceous Era, more than 65 million years ago! Not five minutes later another guest found a lovely specimen of petrified wood. We all started poking around in earnest after that; I found some fascinating samples including anorthositic rock, and a lovely layered sedimentary rock that got baked by a lava intrusion, turning it black as coal.
Of course, there was astronomy. Oh my, was there. The first night we walked outside from the main lounge room, and even before our eyes had properly adjusted to the dark we could see the Milky Way blazing overhead. I had my new Celestron 20 cm (8") telescope, generously donated for the occasion by Celestron, Inc., and we took it a few hundred meters out from the lights of the ranch to observe. We saw a dizzying variety of celestial favorites: globular clusters, planetary nebulae, binary stars, open clusters, galaxies (M 31, the Andromeda Galaxy, was amazing and easily visible to the naked eye), and more. It was chilly, but we still had a lot of folks stick around for hours while we observed. I usually observe from my home where the skies are decent, but being out where it’s truly dark makes a world – ah, a Universe – of difference.
One of the most fun times, I think, was just everyone asking questions while I answered them. We did that combined with a naked eye tour of the night sky; me with my green laser pointer showing folks how the stars rise and set, how the planets move, and even our location halfway to the edge of the galaxy. With a little ingenuity and a laser pointer, it’s actually pretty cool what you can learn under the stars.
The last night at the ranch was wonderful. It had clouded up just before sunset, so we all gathered in the main area where the ranch set up a campfire. We talked, laughed, and generally had a great time socializing. It was truly lovely.
Thus endeth Science Ranch 2012. But that’s most certainly not the end of Science Getaways! Marcella’s been hard at work getting the next one set up, and we’ll have an announcement about it very soon. Stay Tuned!
Image credits: leaf fossil by me; horseback pic by Jon Sager; campfire shot and Milky Way by Jason Bechtel.
This week sees me returning to the state I grew up in: Virginia.
I’ll be at James Madison University Thursday, September 27 to give my "2012: We’re All (not) Gonna Die!" talk – basically destroying the Mayan December 21, 2012 apocalypse nonsense – at 7:00 p.m at the Wilson Hall Auditorium. Admission is free and open to the public.
The talk is sponsored by the John C. Wells Planetarium, JMU Department of Physics & Astronomy, College of Science & Mathematics, and the JMU Center for STEM Education & Outreach. They even made the awesome poster seen here! [Click to Kukulkanenate.]
Then, the next day – Friday, September 28 – I’ll be at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, to be the keynote speaker for the 2012 Forum for Interdisciplinary Dialogue called "Fact, Fiction, and Supposition"! I’m honored to be a part of this event sponsored by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation and the Jefferson Graduate Fellows at the University of Virginia.
That talk is also open to the public, and will be at 16:00 at The Jefferson Scholars Foundation Hall. They’ve set up a Facebook page for the event if you like that sort of thing. My good friend Dr. Nicole Gugliucci (and UVa alumna) will be speaking the next day there, too!
I haven’t been back to central Virginia in a good long time, so it’ll be nice to see it again. I hope the trees are turning now! And I hope to see some of you Wahoos there, too.
I’m on a lot of social media stuff: Twitter (which I feed directly to Facebook), reddit, Fark, and so on. I get quite a few ideas for blog posts on these sites, and of course get lots of support. I also can simply chatter when I feel like it, making jokes, linking to things I like, and so on.
I find myself spending more time on Google+ lately. I like it better than all the other stream-based media; it gives me more room than Twitter, isn’t as all-fire irritating as Facebook, and with some minor exceptions I like the interface. I’ll sometimes even drop into the video hangouts, like chat rooms where you can actually see the other folks involved. Speaking of hangouts, you should circle Fraser Cain no matter what anyway. He runs the Live Star Party hangout with live feeds from telescopes around the world, which is awesome.
I post things on G+ I wouldn’t put here on the BABlog for a variety of reasons; simple musings, crowd-sourced stuff, ideas dealing more with online life. If you’re on G+, here’s my page.
Speaking of which, I still have two Facebook pages; my personal one, and my "fan" page (note: due to the limit FB puts on the number of friends a personal page can have, I can no longer accept friend requests there. The fan page has no such limit, however). And I’m still blurting away on Twitter, of course.
I’ll note that sometimes, when things get busy and I don’t have time to write a full-blown blog post, I’ll use these media to link to cool stuff others are doing, too. So I’d recommend following me on these social sites if you want to see things you won’t see here on the BA blog.
If you’re social, come find me. I’m kinda social too.
According to my software, this blog post you are reading is the 7000th article I have published on the Bad Astronomy Blog.
That’s a lot of words. It’s also a lot of astronomy, geekery, science, antiscience, web comics, puns, embiggenates, and "Holy Haleakala!"s (61, to be exact, plus this one to make 62).
I am generally not one to wade into maudlin celebrations of arbitrary numbers, so instead I’ll celebrate this milestone by showing you something appropriate: the North America Nebula, taken by Mexican astronomer César Cantú.
[Click to encontinentenate.]
Why is this appropriate? Because the New General Catalog of astronomical objects – familiar to and used by astronomers across the planet – lists it as entry number 7000.
And it should be obvious why it’s named as it is.
Of course, I can’t leave you with just a pretty picture. This nebula is something of a mystery; we don’t know how big it is or how far away it lies. In the sky, it’s very near the star Deneb – which marks the tail of the swan constellation Cygnus – and Deneb is a massive, hot, and luminous star. It’s possible the gas in the nebula is glowing due to the light from Deneb; if so NGC 7000 is about 1800 light years away and over 100 light years across.
It’s the site of furious star formation, too, with stars being born all along the bright sharp region which look like Mexico and Central America. The "Gulf of Mexico" region – the darker area with fewer stars – is actually the location of thick interstellar dust that blocks the light from the stars behind it. Visible light, that is; the dust glow in the infrared, so if you look at it with a telescope that sees IR like the Spitzer Space Telescope, what is invisible becomes ethereally visible:
This mosaic shows the North America Nebula in different wavelengths of light: in the upper left is visible light; the upper right is visible plus infrared, so you can see the two together; the lower left shows infrared light from 3.6 to 8 microns (roughly 5 – 11 times the longest wavelength the human eye can detect), and the lower right is similar but going out to 24 microns, over 30 times the wavelength we can see. The visible light images show the gas, while the infrared show not only the dust, but the warm spots where stars are being born, their new light penetrating the surrounding cocoons of material, reaching across space, and finally ending its journey here on Earth where we can detect it and learn from it.
I’ve struck upon many ideas for this blog over the past seven years, six months, and one week I’ve been writing it, but one of the most important is this: not everything is as it seems. Whether it’s someone’s opinion, a "fact", a picture, an argument, or even a vast sprawling cloud of gas and baby stars a thousand trillion kilometers across, this much is what astronomy and critical thinking has taught me: What you see depends very much on how you see it. And if you want a more complete picture, something that ever-approaches reality, you must view the Universe with different eyes and with an open, but trained mind. Only then will you not get fooled, and not fool yourself.
Thank you honestly and sincerely to everyone who’s been along with me this far into the ride, here on my 7000th milestone. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but it’s the journey itself that’s so much fun!
Image credits: César Cantú; NASA/JPL-Caltech/L. Rebull (SSC/Caltech)/D. De Martin
Last month I was in Portland, Oregon to give my Death from the Skies! talk for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry as part of their Science Pub series. It was, quite seriously, one of the best audiences ever. They were totally into it – having beer served at the theater probably helped – and almost everyone stayed for the 45 minute Q&A session, and the line to sign books was pretty long as well. I felt like a rock star.
One person in the audience was Taylor Hatmaker, who writes for tecca.com. She wrote a wonderful article about the talk called 9 Terrifying But Mostly Awesome Facts About Asteroids We learned from Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait (which was also picked up on Mashable! W00t!), and it makes my cockles warm because she added more info about the facts that weren’t in my talk. That means she liked this enough to go out and do more research, which is the coolest thing ever. That’s pretty much the best thing a speechifier and science outreacher can ask for.
To give you an idea of how much fun I had, photographer D. Scott Frey took a ton of pictures, including this one which is now one of my favorites:
See? I told you I had a great time! And clearly the end of the world can be fun.
My thanks to Amanda Thomas, Andrea Middleton, and Scott Frey for all their help and hospitality. If you ever get a chance to visit OMSI, do so!
<shameless plug> And if you represent a museum, University, or some other place that hosts talks, and you think I might be a good fit for your audience, then please contact my reps, Samara Lectures. They’ll be happy to chat with you about it. </shameless plug>