Category: DeathfromtheSkies!

In which I SEE the light

By Phil Plait | May 25, 2012 1:00 pm

The Science and Entertainment Exchange is a program run by the National Academy of Sciences (!) to hook up entertainment professionals and scientists. The idea is to get better science in movies, and a better portrayal of scientists themselves. The win for science is obvious, but it also means better movies – a lot of folks in Hollywood want the science in their movies to be better – and better stories. Everyone wins!

Marty Perreault, the SEE Director, asked me to write an article for SEE’s blog, and not being a fool I agreed. I figured I’d write about how I used to be kindof a nitpicky science accuracy Nazi when it came to movies, but then figured out (with some help) that maybe there’s more to movie-making than educating people about science.

The article — "How I Stopped Worrying (About Science) and Learned to Love the Story" — is now online. It’s relatively short, but I think you’ll like it. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Movie after movie came and went, and I watched each in the darkened theater, off to the side, hunched over my notepad with my pen clicked and ready, and – literally – a flexible red-filtered flashlight wrapped around my neck like a scarf to illuminate my writing in case the scene I was destroying was too dark for me to see my own words.

Then, one day, I had an epiphany. Well, actually, the epiphany was forced on me…

Head on over there and see the rest!

I’ll add that I was on a panel sponsored by SEE recently called A Night of Total Destruction, where several scientists talked about apocalyptic scenerios to a room packed with writers and directors. That was fun — apparently, they were very impressed with gamma-ray bursts — and I had a great time chatting with them afterwards.

I’m enjoying working with SEE, and the folks in Hollywood. It’s something I’ve always wanted to be involved in, so this really is a dream come true.


Related Posts:

- Science and Entertainment Exchange… from their mouths
- In which I SEE and agree with Dustin Hoffman
- Comic Con 1: Abusing the Sci of SciFi panel

Small asteroid to buzz Earth on May 28

By Phil Plait | May 25, 2012 11:33 am

Asteroid 2012 KP 24, a smallish rock about 25 meters (80 feet) across, will pass pretty close to the Earth on May 28, buzzing us at a distance of about 30,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) 51,000 kilometers (32,000 miles) [Note: the numbers at JPL have updated, making the pass a bit farther out than the numbers I originally used]. That’s close as passes go, but still a clean miss.

Closest approach is at about 15:00 UTC (11:00 a.m. Eastern US time) on May 28. It’ll actually pass Earth closer than our geosynchronous satellites! At closest approach, it’ll whiz by at about 13 km/sec (30,000 mph). I’ll note I calculated most of these numbers based on the JPL site linked above, and they may be refined over the next day or two [see?]. It was discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey (as so many near-Earth asteroids are) on the evening of May 23/24.

Let me stress, as always, that there is essentially zero chance of impact here. A miss like this is still miss, so don’t fret over what will no doubt be a slew of panicky doomsday sites and videos that will pop up about this rock — that happens every single time we get a near-Earth pass of an asteroid, and yet we’re still here! If we see one really and truly on its way to an impact, trust me, I’ll let you know.

And actually, things like this make me feel safer: we’re looking and finding these asteroids! The fact is there are a lot of eyes on the skies right now, scanning the heavens and looking for potential impactors. And note that the JPL page for this rock has all the relevant info there.

Tip o’ the Whipple shield to BABloggee Terry Hash. Image credit: ESA/Rosetta, NASA/NEAR – I photoshopped asteroid Mathilde onto an image of the Earth, so this is not KP24!


Related Posts:

- A brief bit about asteroid 2012 DA14
- No, asteroid 2012 DA14 will not hit us next year
- Asteroid 2011 AG5: a football-stadium-sized rock to watch carefully
- Updated movie of asteroid YU55, plus bonus SCIENCE
- Asteroid 2007 TU24: No Danger to Earth

MORE ABOUT: Asteroid 2012 KP24

The closest supernova candidate?

By Phil Plait | May 18, 2012 7:00 am

[NOTE: Whenever I write about actual cosmic events that might possibly affect us on Earth, I get scared emails from some folks. So let me be up front: there are no stars close enough to Earth to hurt us should they explode. Nothing I write in this post changes that; I'm talking about a star that can go supernova that's closer than I thought any was, but still much too far away to do much to us. So don't panic. But do please enjoy the over-the-topness of what happens when a star explodes. Because it's cool.]

Back in January I started writing what I call BAFacts; daily snippets of astronomy factoids. I post them on Twitter and Google+, and I keep an archive of them on the blog, too.

On May 13 I tweeted this one: BAFact: A supernova has to be less than about 75 light years away to hurt us. No star that close can explode, so we’re OK. The distance may actually be somewhere between 50 – 100 light years, and it depends on the kind of exploding star, but I have to keep these factoids to about 110 characters to tweet them. Nuance is at a premium.

I got so many replies about that one that I decided to do a theme week, and stick with supernovae. The next day I tweeted this: BAFact: The nearest star that can go supernova is Spica – it’s 260 light years away, so we’re safe, and I linked to a video I did a few years back this.

A few minutes later I got a tweet from Nyrath, saying that he thought the nearest star that could explode was IK Pegasi, 150 light years away.

I looked this up, and here’s the thing: he’s right! I had never heard of IK Peg, so I didn’t even know it existed. And it turns out it is the nearest star that can explode, though technically it probably isn’t.

And you know when I say something weirdly oxymoronic like that there must be a good story here, right? Mwuhahahaha. Yes. yes, there is. Stick with me; this is long, but also awesome.


The story

It’s been known for a while that IK Peg is a weird star (you can read quite a bit about it on the ESO website, though the formatting is a bit messed up). It looks like an A-type star — that is, more massive, hotter, and bigger than the Sun. It’s not nearly enough to explode — stars need to be at least 8 times the Sun’s mass to do that, and this star is only about 1.7 times heftier than the Sun.

It pulsates, getting brighter and dimmer on a pretty rapid timescale: each cycle only takes about an hour. A lot of stars do this, but typically when one does it means it’s nearing the end of its life. In a few dozen million years it’ll swell up into a red giant, blow out a strong wind that’ll strip its outer layers away (creating a gorgeous planetary nebula), and eventually retire as a white dwarf; small, dense, and hot, cooling slowly over billions of years.

Except… there’s a monkey in the wrench. The star isn’t alone.

It has a companion. And this is where things get interesting.

Read More

If the Mayans were right, it was probably about Internet comments

By Phil Plait | May 15, 2012 6:55 am

A little while back, I was at Utah State University to give a public talk about the threat from asteroid impacts and what we can do to stop them (PLUG ALERT: if you want me to come talk at your venue, my agent would love to hear from you).

While I was there I was interviewed by Utah Public Radio, and that interview is online.

I was also chatted up by the local TV station, KSL. I think it went OK, and they put it online as well:

[You may have to refresh this page to get the video to load.]

While I rather wish I had stated succinctly that even the basis of the "Mayan 2012 doomsday" nonsense is itself a gross misinterpretation of Mayan history, culture, and calendar, I think I was pretty clear. I have to walk a fine line sometimes: debunking crap doomsday scenarios like 2012 while also warning of real dangers like asteroid impacts… while neither over- or understating that danger. It’s a delicate balance.

A balance, I’ll note, which is apparently completely lost on some of the commenters on the KSL website who are saying I’m totally wrong and that the doomsday is coming in December [Note: I checked just before posting this, and most of the really over-the-top comments have been deleted, and I thank the forum moderators for that]. The sheer blind eye some have toward reality is stunning.

I know some people have deep beliefs they hold true, and are willing to deny what’s right in front of their face if they have to. I also know it’s the Internet out there, where people don’t read past the first line or watch a video past the first few seconds. Still, the denial and — to be blunt — dickery is breathtaking. One person actually said they hoped the Universe kills me so they don’t have to listen to my "drivel" [that was one of the comments deleted, BTW].

Of course this isn’t the first time I’ve had someone wish me dead, or that I’d shut up. Duh. But what I find fascinating is the irony. One complaint I hear about critical thinking is that it takes away hope, takes away beauty, and replaces them with despair and the ugly nature of reality. And yet here we see people shredding their critical thinking to hold fast to a doomsday scenario that is as ugly as it is hopeless.

If they actually applied a bit of skepticism, they’d see the 2012 doomsday garbage for what it is. But they cleave unto it as fervently as a drowning man to a life preserver.

I don’t think I have anything particularly profound to add to this; I’m just shining a light on it for you to see. Be aware of this, and always remember people’s ability to be paradoxical and completely embrace a nonsensical danger while denying the real one.


Related Posts:

- Re-cycled Mayan calendar nonsense
- My asteroid impact talk is now on TED!
- MSNBC interview: 2012, the year the Earth doesn’t end. Again.
- Betelgeuse and 2012
- Giant spaceships to attack December 2012?
- No, a pole shift won’t cause global superstorms

A land not too far away… I don't know. Maybe it was Utah.

By Phil Plait | April 26, 2012 10:03 am

Do you live in Utah? Near Logan?

Then come see me destroy the world Friday night! I’m giving my "Death from the Skies!" talk at Utah State University at 7:00 p.m. on April 27 (tomorrow). I’ll be in Room 130 of the Emmert Auditorium. It’s open to the public and admission is free.

Yes, free. It costs nothing to wipe out life on Earth via asteroid impact.

This is part of USU’s Science Unwrapped lecture series, a pretty cool idea where they have themed talks during the year. They’ve been doing apocalypses, which is great! I’m sorry I missed the ones on zombies and supervolcanoes, actually. Those are two of my favorites. Someone should combine them. "Super Zombie Volcanoes from Planet X!" I would totally watch that movie.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, DeathfromtheSkies!

Desktop Project Part 23: What are the odds of a satellite re-entering over water?

By Phil Plait | April 17, 2012 2:00 pm

[I'm approaching the Desktop Project endgame here; I'm almost out of pictures to post. I've done this every day for weeks, and my computer desktop is almost clean! Of course, more stuff keeps coming in, so I could do this forever. But that would be cheating. Sweet, sweet cheating.]

I’ve got something different for you today. Over the past few weeks I’ve posted an illustration, and a couple of dozen pictures, but no graphs! That’ll change now, and I think this particular set of plots is nifty.

Whenever a big satellite is about to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere — like UARS, or ROSAT, or Phobos-Grunt — the media freak out. You start seeing numbers being thrown about of the odds of getting hit by a chunk of flaming debris, and I get lots of panicked email and tweets. Then I have to point out to people that the Earth has a lot of real estate for a satellite to come down on, and of that, 3/4 is water. And most of that is Pacific Ocean. So really, the most likely scenario is a re-entry into the Pacific, or some other ocean, and that’s that.

But is that really true? After all, satellites can have different orbits, inclined with respect to the Earth’s equator. So the odds of getting dumped in the ocean might be different for a satellite that’s over the equator versus one in a polar orbit (that is, orbits almost completely in a north/south direction).

Happily, orbital debris specialist Mark Matney did the math! In a paper published in the Orbital Debris Quarterly Newsletter (bet you didn’t know that existed!) he calculated those odds. He created two graphs for the paper, and both are really cool if you’re a graph nerd like I am.
Here’s the first one:

That plot shows the fraction of the total area of the Earth covered by land versus latitude. It’s easy to read: at 0° latitude — the equator — the amount of land is 23%. In other words, if you flew a plane around the world at the equator, you’d be over land 23% of the time.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, DeathfromtheSkies!, Space
MORE ABOUT: orbit, re-entry, satellite

Science Channel airing TED talks (including mine!) on April 15

By Phil Plait | April 14, 2012 7:00 am

Last month, the folks at TED announced that the talks given at their meetings — talks which run the gamut of psychology, science, engineering, human nature, and more — were available on Netflix. A talk I gave at TEDxBoulder in September 2011 is on that list, and I’ve been getting great feedback on it.

If you don’t get Netflix, never fear: the Science Channel is running some of the talks as well! They’ve put together and have been airing a five-part series of talks covering various topics… including mine! My talk, "How to Defend the Earth from Asteroids", will air on Sunday April 15*.

Here’s a preview of the talks:

[You may have to refresh the screen to see the video.]

TED’s slogan is Ideas Worth Spreading, and that’s a wonderful thought. If you watch these videos, you’ll see why. They’re full of Big Ideas, and having watched quite a few myself, I can guarantee they’ll make you think, make you wonder, and maybe even spark your imagination. That’s what ideas do, and it’s one of the best things we humans do.


* So no, you can’t use the threat of a giant asteroid impact as an excuse to not do your taxes.

MORE ABOUT: Science Channel, TED

Charlie debunks 2012 nonsense

By Phil Plait | April 2, 2012 1:00 pm

Charlie McDonnell — who is still adorable — does a bang-up job debunking the big claims of the 2012 doomsday predictions.

I know, he posted this back at New Year’s, but I’m a bit behind on watching videos. Sue me. I’m free on December 22.

Tip o’ the bomb shelter door to Tommy V.

The cloudy impact of Sikhote Alin

By Phil Plait | March 24, 2012 7:00 am

As soon as I read the caption of this lovely, if frigid, picture I knew I was going to like it: it’s an Envisat image of clouds forming east of the Russian Sikhote Alin mountains:

Sure, it’s pretty and all, but what’s so special about it?

In 1947, a rain of iron fell on this mountain range. A metallic asteroid the size of a school bus came in from space and exploded over Russia, showering the area with iron fragments. Named for the region, Sikhote Alin meteorites are highly valued: they are from a witnessed event, and are quite lovely. I own several, because I love them. My favorite is shaped like Darth Vader’s head!

A documentary was made about the Sikhote Alin fall, and it’s very cool; I wrote about it a few years back.

Isn’t that awesome? The meteorites those guys pick up so casually are worth thousands of dollars each today.

And in 1947, would those Russians poking through that forest have thought that sometime in the not-too-distant future, we’d routinely get an asteroid’s-eye-view of that very same region?

Image credit: ESA

TED talks now on Netflix… including mine

By Phil Plait | March 15, 2012 1:54 pm

I just got a press release that the folks behind the TED conference have partnered with Netflix, and many of the TED talks will now be available through the online video server. That’s pretty cool!

Even cooler: my own TED talk, "How to Defend Earth from Asteroids" is one of their initial offerings! They packaged a few space talks, including mine, along with talks by Brian Cox, Carolyn Porco (that one is a must-see), Jill Tarter, and many others. There are also packages about health, biology, computers, and more.

If you are a Netflix subscriber these talks are free. I’ll note they’re all online at the TED site as well, but this may open up the talks to a bigger audience, which I think is just fine. I have Netflix, and found them easily by searching on "TED" (duh).

Not only that, but TED has a new initiative for education called TED-Ed: Lessons Worth Sharing. These are short, great educational lessons that fit well inside established classroom curricula. There are lots of such things available, of course, but these are hand-picked and will augment a teacher’s lessons. I think this is a cool idea, since TED already has a trusted brand and a wide audience. Just to be clear, there lessons are online, not on Netflix like the big talks.

If you don’t have Netflix, well, like I said you can find these talks on the TED website. And because why not, here’s mine. Enjoy:

[You may need to refresh the page to get the video to load.]


Related Posts:

- My asteroid impact talk is now on TED!
- TED x ME
- Asteroid 2011 AG5: a football-stadium-sized rock to watch carefully
- Repeat after me: Apophis is not a danger!

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