Category: About this blog

Blasts of high-energy radiation from Earth win a spot on a satellite

By Phil Plait | August 15, 2012 12:30 pm

A few weeks ago, the small company NanoSatisfi announced a Kickstarter campaign to launch a small satellite called ArduSat into Earth orbit. This satellite would have contributions from the public both for funding and for experiments they could do on the diminutive device. Discover Magazine partnered with NanoSatisfi to run a contest where people could submit their own ideas for the satellite, and asked me to judge.

And judge I did, along with several other folks. And now we have a winner: Enrique Gomez, who wants to observe gamma rays emitted by lightning flashes on Earth! Through processes still not completely understood, the tremendous energy of lightning bolts, coupled with their incredibly focused magnetic fields, can generated bursts of high-energy light called gamma rays – it’s like the light we see, but every photon has millions of times the energy of visible light. These Terrestrial Gamma ray Flashes (or TGFs) are difficult to detect, and not a lot is known about them. Are they sent out in all directions, like light from a light bulb, or are they beamed, like light from a light house? If they’re beamed, do they go straight up, or at an angle?

Using a clever combination of instruments on the ArduSat, Gomez proposed detecting these TGFs to narrow down possible solutions to these questions. His idea was well thought-out and had solid physics backing it up, so we think it has a good chance of working on the ArduSat.

For his part, the idea that ArduSat is open source, and that the science will be made available to everyone, appealed to Gomez:

I believe all science is a "social science" in that we advance questions about nature as a community. Space science should be no exception. When I read in KickStarter about ArduSat, I knew I had to support it because it speaks to me about this belief. ArduSat is a prime example of two ideas that are worth sharing widely. The first is community supported science. People care about scientific and technological problems and thus they can gather their resources to answer them. The second is citizen science. People can not only ask scientific questions but can also work together as a community to answer them irrespective of their scientific or technical background. This is also where the open source spirit of Arduino technology comes into play by making even the technical dimension of a scientific project as accessible as possible. The project that I proposed came from my fascination with sky phenomena. There are so many mysteries in the Earth’s atmosphere between the troposphere and the ionosphere, which beg for inquisitive minds.

For his experiment, Gomez will receive a $1500 Development Kit for hardware and a week of uptime on the ArduSat to perform his tasks.

But he’s not the only one with time on the satellite: well over 100 people backed the KickStarter at a level that will give them access to the satellite in one way or another, from aiming it to take pictures up to getting a week of time on the bird.

I have to say, this is amazing to me. We live in an era where someone can take the kind of money they would spend on a decent set of clothes or a bicycle, and use it to help build and command a satellite! Between things like this, and launch costs about to drop due to private companies getting into the launch biz, I wonder what we’ll be seeing just a few years down the line?

My thanks to the folks at NanoSatisfi and Discover (and you too, Darlene!) for asking me to be a part of this.

Image credits: NanoSatisfi; NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, Cool stuff, Space

Comic Con 2012

By Phil Plait | July 17, 2012 6:43 am

Oh, Comic Con.

The San Diego Comic Con is the largest pop–culture (scif, fantasy, and so on) convention in America, and one of the largest in the world; over 130,000 people attend. It’s actually a madhouse (A MAAADHOUSE!), with a packed exhibit hall and hundreds of amazing panels and talks.

[At the bottom of this post is a gallery of pictures I took while I was there.]

This year, I moderated a panel called "The Science of Science Fiction: Canon Fodder" – we talked about keeping the science straight in a pre-existing universe when you’re writing a prequel or sequel. I asked top-notch A-listers to be on the panel, and man, they came through. I had Jane Espenson ("Buffy", "Firefly", "Battlestar Galactica", "Torchwood: Miracle Day"), Dr. Kevin Grazier (science advisor for "Battlestar", "Eureka", and the upcoming show "Defiance"), Ashley Miller (who cowrote "X Men: First Class" and "Thor" with panelist Zack Stentz), Jaime Paglia (co-creator and producer of "Eureka"), Jon Spaihts (who wrote the original screenplay for "Prometheus", and Zack Stentz (cowriter with Ash Miller).

The room was packed, and the panel itself was a lot of fun (if you don’t believe me, read this io9 review and another on Physics Central). I cannot praise the panelists highly enough, and I really hope someone got video. It was amazing. And I must thank The Science and Entertainment Exchange for sponsoring the panel. Without them it literally wouldn’t have happened, and Marty Perrault did the vast majority of work making sure this event happened without a hitch. She’s amazing too.

I also sat on a panel myself for io9′s Science Fiction That Will Change Your Life, where I plugged my friends John Scalzi’s and Rob Reid’s books. That was fun, and I clearly need to do a lot more reading given the other panelist’s recommendations.

So much else happened it’s hard to list it all. I did a video interview with Neil Tyson for his Star Talk radio show, I went to fabulous parties, I went to w00tstock and The Nerdist shows. And Holy Gallifrey, I got into the Doctor Who panel (thanks Lee!) and sat in the eighth row, close enough to feel the wind when Karen Gillan flipped her long, silky, red hair. Sigh. See the gallery below for some great pictures from that panel!

But the best part, really, was meeting up with old friends and catching up. If I thanked them all individually this post would be twice as long, but they know who they are.

Comic Con is insanity, it’s a mob, it’s a non-stop sprint of nerdnitude for four days, and I loved every second of it. And you bet your lump of glowing green kryptonite I’ll be there next year – I have even bigger ideas for panels and guests. If I can pull off even half of this, it’ll shake the pillars of heaven. Stay Tuned.


Here are some of the pictures I took from my time at Comic Con. Click the thumbnail to go to a slide, or use the arrows to navigate.

zachweiner
brentspiner_marinasirtis
carasantamaria
dragonpatch
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dwpanel1
dwpanel2
dwpanel3
dwpanel4
dwpanel_dalek
neiltyson
scifipanel
sigler
tyson_nerdist

BAFacts: Halfway there!

By Phil Plait | July 16, 2012 10:30 am

On January 4, 2012, I posted my first BAFact: a short astronomy fact that was brief enough to put on Twitter but informative enough to be interesting. I posted the first one on perihelion – the point in Earth’s orbit when it’s closest to the Sun – and the last one will be a year later.

Because 2012 is a leap year with 366 days, July 5th was the 184th day: the first day of the second half of the year. That means I’m more than halfway done!* Appropriately enough, here’s the July 5 BAFact:

I post the BAFacts on Twitter, Google+ (where I can flesh them out a bit more – and add pictures – since there’s no character limit), and have a complete archive of them on the blog as well. With 180+ already in the bag, reading those should keep you busy for a while!

I generally link them to previous blog posts dealing with the topic in question, but not always. I’ve actually been surprised at how difficult it can be to reduce a topic to 100 or so characters (leaving room for the leading "#BAFact: " and shortened link, plus room for retweets), and how that limits some topics. I have also been surprised to find out I haven’t written about some topics! For example, I was thinking recently of making a BAFact about the nearest known black hole, Cygnus X-1, and discovered I had literally never even mentioned it in a blog post! That’s weird… but by coincidence that got fixed just this last weekend.

So this exercise in brevity has given me new things to write about. I’ll note that there have been arguments over the accuracy of some of the BAFacts, too. Sometimes that’s just due to having to be so brief that the description might be misleading if you don’t click the link; I struggle with those but usually make them as clear as possible, and hope people actually read the post to clarify. And once I really did just make a mistake; as I recently mentioned I didn’t know that recent research had found that zodiacal light is mostly from comet dust and not asteroid collisions, and had to post an immediate correction! But that’s OK; I love learning new things, too.

So as we enter the second half of these, I hope you keep up with them and enjoy them. And if you have a beef with them, find a mistake, have something to add, or know of a good picture or story relating to them, follow it up with a tweet of your own! The whole point here is to have fun and learn things. Which, when it comes to science, are exactly the same.


* Well, kinda. Perihelion is actually on January 2, 2013, roughly a day earlier than usual because we have an extra calendar day this year. The Earth orbits the Sun not caring at all for our calendrical contrivances, so when the time comes I’ll decide whether to post the last BAFact based on the Earth’s orbit our roughly-hewn measurement of it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, Astronomy, BAFacts

New research points toward "no" on arsenic life

By Phil Plait | July 9, 2012 11:56 am

In December 2010 a team of researchers, with NASA’s blessing, announced a truly remarkable result: bacteria that lived in California’s Mono Lake not only thrive in the arsenic laced water, but have incorporated arsenic into their biophysical processes. This was a big deal, since it wasn’t thought that this was possible (while arsenic has similar properties to the biologically-necessary element phosphorous, replacing one for the other had never been seen before in nature).

However, the team found their findings immediately under fire by other biologists. Here is my initial report on the press conference announcement, and here’s my followup after severe doubt had been cast on the findings, and a third article from a few months later. Basically, the team’s methods, analysis, and results were found to be lacking, and two other groups of biologists started up their own investigation to replicate the research.

Today, Science magazine published the results. Arsenic? Nope. One team found that while the bacteria thrive in arsenic-rich water, there must be some phosphorus present for it to live (indicating the cells had not replaced As with P). The second team found no evidence that arsenic had been incorporated into the cells’ biochemistry.

This is disappointing but not unexpected news.

When NASA held the press conference, a lot of media – including me – were very excited. We trusted NASA that the work had been vetted by other scientists and was legit. While I think the work was done honestly – that is, the research team didn’t cheat or anything like that – it’s looking like they jumped to their conclusion, and the initial peer review process didn’t work as it should have.

But there’s more to it than this. The members of the original team are sticking by their results, saying that not finding something may not indicate it’s not there – in other words, the followup research may have missed the arsenic. While that’s possible, it comes across as stubbornness in the face of contradictory results. That is simply an interpretive opinion by me, but it does seem odd that they claim the new results actually don’t refute their original findings. It looks to me (though I’m no biologist) that they certainly do.

[UPDATE: Here's a good article by my pal Dan Vergano at USA Today about this, and he also got great quotes from both the original researchers and the other teams.]

Discover Magazine’s The Loom blogger Carl Zimmer – who has always been very skeptical of the results – live-blogged this new announcement, which makes for fascinating reading. There are some great quotes in there, and it’s worth your time to read through. DM’s 80 Beats blog also has relevant links about all this.

There are several lessons I think we can pull from all this:

1) The scientific process works, but there’s friction with the journalistic process. Of course, we’ve known that for a while!

2) Just because there’s a press conference, and just because it’s backed by NASA, doesn’t mean the results are true. That’s a hard-won thought for me, but one I take seriously.

3) The thing we shouldn’t forget: all the biological research teams do agree that the bacteria in Mono Lake actually do thrive in those arsenic-heavy waters!That itself is an important scientific result. While those bacteria may not incorporate the poison into their own biochemistry, it shows again that life can adapt to extremely difficult and even previously-thought toxic circumstances. The ramifications for astrobiology (finding life on other planets) are still important, and this gives us strong and critical insight into the very chemistry of nature itself.


Related Posts:

- NASA’s real news: Bacterium on Earth that lives off arsenic!
- Independent researchers find no evidence for arsenic life in Mono Lake
- Arsenic and old posts
- Arsenic and old Universe

Wait just a second! No really, wait JUST A SECOND

By Phil Plait | June 30, 2012 6:27 am

Today is the great Leap Second Day, when an extra second is added to our clocks at midnight. For one odd moment, the official time will actually go from June 30 at 23:59:59 to 23:59:60 instead of directly to July 1 at 00:00:00.

The reason this is done is because the atomic clock standard we use has a very slightly different rate than the rotation-of-the-Earth based Coordinated Universal Time system. To be clear: it’s not that the Earth is slowing down so much we have to add a second every couple of years! It’s that they run at different rates, so we have to compensate by throwing in the odd leap second now and again.

This has been planned for some time, and in fact I wrote about this in excruciating detail in January. Because there is simply no way I can top the brilliance of that post, I’ll simply repost it here. It’s a bit long, but that’s OK: you have an extra second today to read it.


[Reposted from "Wait just a (leap) second" from January 23, 2012.]

Clock at midnightThis summer will be a little bit longer than usual. A tiny little bit: one second, to be precise. The world’s official time keepers are adding a single second to the clocks at the end of June. This "leap second" is needed to keep various time scales in synch. It’s a bit of a pain and won’t really affect people much, but if it weren’t done things would get messy eventually.

This gets a bit detailed — which is where the fun is! — but in short it goes like this. We have two systems to measure time: our everyday one which is based on the rotation of the Earth, and a fancy-schmancy scientific and precise one based on vibrations of atoms. The two systems aren’t quite in synch, though, since the Earth counts a day as a tiny bit longer than the atomic clocks say it is. So every now and again, to get them back together, we add a leap second on to the atomic clocks. That holds them back for one second, and then things are lined up once again.

There. Nice and simple. But that’s spackling over all the really cool details! If you want a little more info, you can read the US Naval Observatory’s press release on this (PDF).

If you want the gory details, then sit back, and let me borrow a second of your time.


Time after time

There are lots of ways of keeping time. The basic unit day is based on the physical rotation of the Earth, and year is how long it takes to go around the Sun. But we need finer units than those! So we decided long ago to divide the day into 24 hours, and those into 60 minutes each, and those into 60 seconds each. In that case, there are 86,400 seconds in a day. OK, easy enough.

For most of us, that is enough. But scientists are picky (or "anal" if you want to be technical) and like to be more precise than that. And the thing is, the Earth is a bit of a sloppy time keeper. Tidal effects from the Sun and Moon, for example, slow it a bit. Other effects come in as well, changing the rate of the Earth’s rotation.

To account for this, in 1956 the International Committee for Weights and Measures made a decision: we’ll base the length of the second on the year, not the day. In fact, we’ll take the year as it was in the year 1900 (a nice round number, so why not) and say that the length of the second is exactly 1/31,556,925.9747 of the year as measured at the beginning of January 1900*.

OK, fine. Now scientists have their anal precise definition, normal people have calendars, and we’re all happy, right?

Right?


Sunrise, sunset

Yeah. Not so much. Read More

Boulder wildfire

By Phil Plait | June 29, 2012 12:52 pm

I’ve been keeping a wary eye on the fires in Colorado, including one north of me, one south, and one way too close for comfort: the Flagstaff fire. This one crept over the foothills just southwest of Boulder and was pretty threatening there for a day or so, but it looks to be under much better control now, and firefighters think they’ll have it fully contained very soon. It was started by lightning, which is ironic since a few rain showers helped keep the fire under control as well.

Boulderite Dustin Henderlong took some amazing time lapse footage of the fire showing how much smoke was pouring out. The shots at night are, well, lovely, as much as I hate to say it.

The footage runs from 3:00 p.m. local time on Tuesday June 26 to 10:00 a.m. on Thursday. We’ve had some "spot" fires caused by more lightning strikes since then, but they’ve been taken care of quickly and efficiently by the amazing firefighting force deployed.

Not long after the fires started I was able to see the plume of smoke and water vapor from my house, nearly 10 km away:

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the thick parts of the smoke are red and the outer parts blue. A lot of that is due to the way light interacts with the particles in the smoke; blue light gets easily scattered away near the edges, but red light penetrates more deeply.

Just hours after the fire started, the plume had two pieces: a darker smoky part blowing east, and a lighter, bluer one that went up higher and got caught in more northerly winds. That blew it over my house, and I took this shot facing north, away from the fire – indicating just how far-reaching this was:

Read More

MORE ABOUT: Boulder, Flagstaff fire

Virtual Star Party featured at big Google+ meeting

By Phil Plait | June 27, 2012 2:41 pm

This morning was the Google I/O 2012 meeting, celebrating the first anniversary of Google unveiling Google+. At the meeting, keynote speaker Vic Gondotra talked about Google+ Hangouts — live video chats that can have several people broadcasting, and an unlimited audience. And look what they featured for the talk: the Virtual Star Party, held every week by my friend and Universe Today founder Fraser Cain!

Wow. You can see several regulars there too, including astronomers Pamela Gay, Gary Gonella and Mike Phillips. I didn’t happen to be in that star party that night, but I participate when I can.

The star party was Fraser’s idea a while back, and when he came to me with it I was initially skeptical — I’ve never been much of an early adopter — but Fraser and I have a rule: "Trust Fraser". And of course he was right. We did one of these for the Venus Transit and 7000 people joined us to watch live. Fraser has wrangled astronomers from across the globe to hook up webcams to their telescopes and participate in this. We’ve had sessions featuring the Moon, Saturn, nebulae, galaxies, clusters… all live, and piped right into your computer. And it’s not all one way, either, since we encourage our audience to ask questions and suggest targets. And of course there’s also the Weekly Space Roundup, too, where space and astronomy journalists do a live hangout and talk about recent stories. That was all Fraser’s idea, too.

I am incredibly proud of Fraser for doing this, and for Pamela and all the others who made this happen.

If you want to join in, just circle Fraser Cain on Google+. If you’re not signed up, it’s quick and easy. And don’t listen to the naysayers; G+ is way better than Facebook. I find the conversations there to be stimulating and fun, and of course the Hangouts are a blast. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve done a Q&BA Hangout. Maybe I’ll fix that this weekend.

Man. It’s really true: We live in the future.


Related Posts:

- Venus Transit LIVE
- Q&BA Archive
- LIVE Q&BA Hangout for the eclipse
- Weekly Space Roundup for January 19, 2012

In which I become… SPACE JUDGE

By Phil Plait | June 25, 2012 12:24 pm

Oh, I do love good news. A few days ago I wrote about a small group of aerospace experts who put up a Kickstarter project to launch a small satellite. The news? It’s fully funded! That means this satellite will get built and launched into space.

Be aware that, as with most Kickstarter projects, reaching their goal doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t pitch in. More money pledged even after the goal is achieved means more and cooler stuff the project people can do with it!

And in this case, kicking in some cash gives you a chance to quite literally be a part of this mission: Discover Magazine is holding a contest where you can enter to get your experiment performed on this wee satellite. The details can be found here. Here’s the basic stuff:

(1) Fund the ArduSat project, for however much or little as you desire. You’ll receive a personal code that identifies you as a donor.

(2) Read the contest guidelines here to learn about how you should design and submit your idea.

(3) Enter with this entry form, making sure to include your personal code.

(4) Wait for winners to be announced on July 20th, after judging by Discover blogger Phil Plait, Discover Editor-in-Chief Corey Powell, and an expert panel of judges.

(5) Rejoice!

Note #4 there: I’m a judge! I’m pleased and honored to be asked to participate in this, and I’m very excited to see what folks come up with. I think this is an excellent project for a high school class or similar groups, and given it only costs a dollar minimum it’s well worth the effort.

Very important: the contest ends on July 6, 2012! So get moving. And maybe get your very own idea off the ground, and literally into space.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, contest, Cool stuff, Space

Bad what now?

By Phil Plait | June 8, 2012 11:50 am

I suppose this comic will make more sense if, at first, you go here.

Then here.

And then here and here and here and finally here.

I’m not saying it will make sense at that point. I’m just saying there you go.

And I think in that comic panel here I look like Mr. Burns after his weekly medical treatment.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, Astronomy, Geekery, Humor
MORE ABOUT: Sci-ence

Zen Pencils: Welcome to Science

By Phil Plait | June 7, 2012 11:58 am

Science inspires me. It’s a body of knowledge, a method of understanding, a way of seeing the Universe around you. It shows us what’s true versus what isn’t, and constantly reveals wonders and awe surrounding us that we might have otherwise entirely missed.

I’m not alone; science inspires a lot of people. One of them is Gavin Aung Than, a talented web comic artist. He created the site Zen Pencils, where he takes inspirational speeches — many by scientists — and draws comics that fit them. While these are web comics, he is able to putting images to the words that add a dimension and depth to them that is simply wonderful. He’s done this for people like Carl Sagan, Neil Tyson, and Neil Gaiman.

And now he’s added me to his list. He took my speech called Science Fare and created an amazing, amazing, piece of art to go with it. Here’s a small part of it:

Click to see the whole thing. The way he’s drawn the last bit actually chokes me up a little bit. Wow.

If you like it, he’s selling prints of the comic, and generously donating 50% of the profit to Every Child By Two, a charity that helps vaccinate kids and provides science-based information to parents about vaccinations.

I am simultaneously proud and humbled by this — a Schrödinger’s Box of emotions. My thanks to Gavin, and to everyone who finds a small bit of inspiration themselves from it.


Related Posts:

- Science Fare
- Zen Pencils does Tyson
- Zen Pencils and words of wisdom

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