Category: Miscellaneous

Hurricane Sandy intensifies as it grows

By Phil Plait | October 28, 2012 10:51 am

The NASA/NOAA weather satellite GOES-13 is capturing images of Hurricane Sandy, and the animation below shows the growth of this massive storm over the time period of October 26 to today, Sunday the 28th, ending just after 16:00 UTC (10:00 a.m. Eastern US time):

[You may need to refresh this page to see the video.]

Wow. You can see it forming a clear eye again toward the end. If you live in the northeast US, you’ve probably already been hearing the news and been given advice on what to do to prepare. My take on it? Heed it. This sucker is a big one, and the current forecast looks like it will come ashore in the Delaware/New Jersey region, but will affect the coast for hundreds of kilometers north and south of there, as well as pretty far inland.

For updates and such, try the National Weather Service Hurricane Center. The sidebar on that page has lots more info, including advisories.

Image credit: NASA GOES Project. Tip o’ the poncho hood to NASAGoddard on Twitter.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Pretty pictures

The scars of a Colorado fire

By Phil Plait | July 29, 2012 7:15 am

A few weeks ago, Colorado fires raged. They are still there, but mostly out and contained – the Boulder fire is completely contained, but pockets of fire will probably burn at a low level for weeks and be put out as they’re found.

South of us, in Colorado Springs, the wildfire was apocalyptic. It destroyed over 18,000 acres (72 square kilometers, 28 square miles) and many buildings and houses. The scar it left behind is visible even from space, especially in the infrared, as in this image from the Earth-observing Terra satellite:

[Click to conflagrate.]

The way this image is color-coded, ironically vegetation looks red while fire-ravaged areas are greenish. The scale bar at the lower left should give you a sense of how big this fire was. Most of the houses destroyed were in the Mountain Shadows subdivision, which is labeled. A vast amount of effort by firefighters went in to making sure the fire didn’t progress farther down the slope of the foothills.

Images like this one can help people assess the extent of fire damage. And they serve as a reminder that our environment can be tragically fragile. To some extent it’s a natural process – this fire, along with the one in Boulder and the huge one west of Fort Collins were all started by lightning during thunderstorms. But our presence changes some of these processes, and we make some things better and others worse. The more we understand how fires start, how they spread, and how to stop them, the better. Watching all three fires both from the ground (in the case of the Boulder fire, in person as well) and from space is something I’d prefer not to have to do again.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using data from the NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.

Related Posts:

Boulder wildfire
Pyrocumulus cloud
Did a telescope start a house fire in Arizona?
Boulder fire from space

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Pretty pictures

The 50th anniversary of Starfish Prime: the nuke that shook the world

By Phil Plait | July 9, 2012 6:05 am

On July 9, 1962 — 50 years ago today — the United States detonated a nuclear weapon high above the Pacific Ocean. Designated Starfish Prime, it was part of a dangerous series of high-altitude nuclear bomb tests at the height of the Cold War. Its immediate effects were felt for thousands of kilometers, but it would also have a far-reaching aftermath that still touches us today.

In 1958, the Soviet Union called for a ban on atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, and went so far as to unilaterally stop such testing. Under external political pressure, the US acquiesced. However, in late 1961 political pressures internal to the USSR forced Khrushchev to break the moratorium, and the Soviets began testing once again. So, again under pressure, the US responded with tests of their own.

It was a scary time to live in.

The US, worried that a Soviet nuclear bomb detonated in space could damage or destroy US intercontinental missiles, set up a series of high-altitude weapons tests called Project Fishbowl (itself part of the larger Operation Dominic) to find out for themselves what happens when nuclear weapons are detonated in space. High-altitude tests had been done before, but they were hastily set up and the results inconclusive. Fishbowl was created to take a more rigorous scientific approach.

Boom! Goes the dynamite

On July 9, 1962, the US launched a Thor missile from Johnston island, an atoll about 1500 kilometers (900 miles) southwest of Hawaii. The missile arced up to a height of over 1100 km (660 miles), then came back down. At the preprogrammed height of 400 km (240 miles), just seconds after 09:00 UTC, the 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead detonated.

And all hell broke loose.

1.4 megatons is the equivalent of 1.4 million tons of TNT exploding. However, nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from simple chemical explosives. TNT releases its energy in the form of heat and light. Nukes also generate heat and light, plus vast amounts of X-rays and gamma rays – high-energy forms of light – as well as subatomic particles like electrons and heavy ions.

When Starfish prime exploded, the effects were devastating. Here’s a video showing actual footage from the test, 50 years ago today:

As you can see, the explosion was roughly spherical; the shock wave expanding in all directions roughly equally since there is essentially no atmosphere at that height. Another video has many more views of the test; I’ve linked it directly to those sequences, but if you start at the beginning it’s actually an hour-long documentary on the test.

Nuke ’em ’til they glow

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

Pyrocumulus cloud

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

As I write this, the High Park fire is the second largest wildfire in Colorado history, currently at 75,000 acres (over 300 square kilometers, or 115 square miles). It’s been burning more than a week, and fighting it has been difficult due to dry conditions, wind, and oppressive heat in the area.

I can see the fire from Boulder, but yesterday I got a really good, if terrifying, view of it driving home from the airport. There was nothing but farmland and one low range of hills between me and it. I stopped and took some pictures with my phone:

I was about 55 km (35 miles) south of the fire when I took this. Note how the plume is whitish and looks like a storm cloud. I discovered there’s a word for this: pyrocumulus; "pyro" means fire, and "cumulus" is Latin for heap or piled up. Cumulus clouds are the ones that are the big puffy cauliflower-shaped ones. The puffiness is from convection, which is when hot air rises and cold air sinks. Usually, warmer moisture-laden air punches upward into the cooler air above it. The water condenses, and all the little convection cells give the cloud that lumpy appearance.

In this case, the fire is hot, and the air is thick with smoke as well as water from the efforts to put it out [UPDATE: As Dan D points out in the comments below, water from the vegetation contributes to this as well]. It rises rapidly, forming the pyrocumulus cloud. They’re usually grey, but I suspect the towering cloud I saw is white due to the water vapor. The smoke plume from the fire is blowing to the east (right), and stretches for a long, long way:

It actually extends well off to the right, outside the frame of this picture. The smoke plume is noticeably reddish to the eye. I was cycling up that way last week, just the day after the fire started, and the smoke plume was reddish-brown with a blue tinge to it around the upper edges. I suspect this is due to scattering. Incoming light of all colors from the Sun hits the cloud. Longer wavelength red light penetrates deeply into the cloud, but blue light only gets a short way in before scattering off the smoke and ash particles. Think of them like blue photon ricochets, hitting the cloud and bouncing off in all directions.

The upshot is that we see blue light coming from the edges of the cloud where it gets scattered, but the lower part of the cloud looks redder because of the intrinsic color of the smoke, and also because only the red light form the Sun gets through it (similar to why sunsets look red). The overall effect is eerie, and unpleasant.

Which fits. This fire is pretty bad, and it’s joined by many other fires in Utah and New Mexico, not to mention in other countries like Russia. I’ll note that it’s difficult to pin this down to global warming, but as the planet does warm, different weather patterns will make some places wetter, others drier. One commonly predicted outcome is more and bigger fires, and it does seem we’re approaching or breaking a lot of records lately.

Related Posts:

Boulder fire from space
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Pretty pictures

The secret of nym

By Phil Plait | June 23, 2012 7:00 am

I’m a writer, and writers love words.

We like playing with them. Writing them, rearranging then, substituting for them, playing around with rhyme and cadence and structure. It’s why I love doing crossword puzzles, and especially why I love puns — layering double meanings into just a few words is an intellectual challenge as well as an exercise in humor.

So I was thinking about words recently, looking for a synonym of a word, when I realized something:

The antonym of "synonym" is "antonym", and the antonym of "antonym" is "synonym"… but "synonym" has no synonym.

And by that, I mean a word that specifically is a synonym for "synonym"., for example, listed the word "equivalent", but that’s more generic; "synonym" refers specifically to words. Even came up short:

This strikes me as not just odd but also hilariously ironic. It’s like abbreviation being such a long word, or onomatopoeia sounding nothing like its meaning.

How can we not have another word for "synonym"? Are we that impoverished for words?

And that got me thinking. I rolled the word synonym around on my tongue, thinking of similar words. Then I started thing about words that sounded like "synonym". Of course I thought about homophones — two words that sound alike but have different meanings, like blue and blew (if they are spelled the same then they are also homonyms) — and heteronyms — two words that are spelled the same but mean different things when pronounced differently, like the metal lead or being in front to lead a parade.

Clearly, though, "synonym" has neither a homophone or a heteronym. But there are words that sound similar to it, like "cinnamon".

But then I wondered, is there a word for those? Two words that sound similar, but not exactly alike? I searched and couldn’t find one, though I did find this highly amusing page listing all sorts of terms for related words. These are so-called nym words, like antonym, homonym, exonym, and several others I had never heard of but will delight in using in the future.

Well! This situation cannot stand. We need a word for this. Thinking about it, I came up with one: contaphonym.

The prefix conta is for "near" or "close". Phon means "sound", and the good ol’ nym means "word". My reasoning should be obvious (although I’ll note that the "phon" part is in there only for clarity; "contanym" sounds too much like "contranym", ironically*).

So then: "cinnamon" is a contaphonym of "synonym".

Making up a word is called a neologism. I claim this one! A search on the word comes up completely empty on Google, so it seems like a legitimate claim on my part.

Now you may argue: Given that there is no word for this, might that not be indicative of a lack of a need for this word? My answer would be Socratic: When has that ever stopped language? It’s fluid, and has many rules we don’t need (one day I will write about ending quotation marks and the chaos they cause, I swear).

As for my motivation, why, it’s in my very name! That’s just how Phil wants to play it.

[Note: By a funny coincidence, after I wrote this post but before I actually posted it, Rifftrax/MST3K /All-Around-Nice-Guy Bill Corbett tweeted a similar joke. Great minds etc. etc.]

* A contranym is a single word that has two opposite meanings, like cleave.

MORE ABOUT: contaphonym, neologism

Science Getaways: Dark skies

By Phil Plait | June 21, 2012 10:38 am

I got an email recently from BABloggee Mark Sunderland, pointing out this photo to me. It shows the Toronto skyline with the Milky Way and thousands of stars blazing behind it.

I had to chuckle: the picture is obviously fake (and now the caption at Flickr says as much, though it didn’t when I first saw it). There’s no way you could see the Milky Way from a city like Toronto. The city lights flood the air with illumination, lighting up the sky and drowning out faint stars. A long exposure photo of the sky over Toronto would make it worse; the sky would be washed out, with only a handful of stars visible. This is called light pollution, and it’s a serious problem for astronomers. That’s why we build our telescopes far from civilization centers.

To really see the stars, you have to get away from cities, to a place with few lights to to compete with the sky. That’s a big reason my wife and I chose the C Lazy U Ranch for our premier Science Getaways vacation. This is a dude ranch nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where the nearest large town is Estes Park, 50 km to the northwest, and even that’s blocked by the mountains. The skies there are dark.

Science Getaways is a company my wife and I started to add science to otherwise non-sciencey vacations. For this first one we have a geologist, biologist, and me at the dude ranch. Every day there will be science talks followed by short and long field trips (to accommodate different physical abilities) where we’ll check out the local nature, and at night there will be stargazing sessions. I’m really exited about that last bit (duh). It’s been a while since I’ve used a ‘scope under really clear, dark skies — I have an 8" Celestron and just seeing Saturn (which we’ll do [NOTE ADDED JULY 21 – actually, by this time Saturn may be to low in the west to see – it’ll be behind the mountains. There might be a location on the ranch where we can get a shot at it, though.]) is cool enough… but unlike that composite Toronto picture, the Milky Way over the mountains will be quite real, and quite spectacular. We’ll be looking at nebulae, clusters, and other objects, too, and there will be plenty visible just to the unaided eye. I’ll have binoculars people can use as well, which to be honest is one of my favorite ways to soak up dark skies. It’s amazing what you can see with a decent pair of binocs.

This Getaway is from September 16 – 20, 2012 — just three months from now. We have about 20 spots left open, so if you’re on the fence about this, now’s the time to decide. The skies are calling.

Related Posts:

Science Getaways: T- 4 months
Science Getaways: Update
Science Getaways

Robbin' Robin

By Phil Plait | June 9, 2012 7:00 am

One of the pleasures of working from home is taking a break whenever I need one so I can putter around the house. I do the dishes, clean up a bit, whatever’s necessary to clear my mind a bit or work out some bodily kinks.

Sometimes I’ll just stand in my kitchen and look out the window, watching nature do whatever it is it does. I was doing that today, a little while ago in fact. As I stood looking over the lawn, a common Robin swooped in and landed in our eaves. To my delight, it hopped into an old abandoned House Finch nest and started redecorating:

How wonderful! Who cares about a housing bubble when you can simply assume the mortgage of a slightly used fixer-upper? Unless the previous owners don’t even know, in which case this is robin from them.

By the way, I took this picture by holding my phone up to my binoculars. It was surprisingly difficult, and this was the best out of about two dozen I took. If and when the eggs hatch, I’ll try to take more.

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MORE ABOUT: finch, nest, robin

Did a telescope start a house fire in Arizona?

By Phil Plait | June 7, 2012 6:30 am

Well now, here’s a story you don’t hear every day: a telescope in Carefree, AZ may have caused a fire that burned part of a house. KNXV TV in Phoenix carried the story. I have comments below.

There’s are also articles at AZCentral and at Firegeezer with some more details.

My first reaction was, "No way." Then I looked into this more, and now I think the ‘scope may have indeed been the culprit.

The telescope is a design called a Schmidt-Cassegrain, or just SCT. I have one myself! It’s a tube with a big mirror (called the primary) in the back that’s curved. It reflects light back up the tube. At the top of the tube is a flat piece of glass (called a corrector plate) with a smaller mirror embedded in the middle. This reflects the light again down toward the bottom of tube, where it passes through the hole in the big mirror and into an eyepiece (and from there into your eye or camera). The inset diagram here shows how this works; click to newtonianate.

I called the Carefree fire department, and talked to Colin Williams, their Press Information Officer. He was very helpful, and told me more of what happened. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Miscellaneous


By Phil Plait | April 22, 2012 12:00 pm

[Oh my. I wrote this back in February, and could’ve sworn I posted it! But I just found it in my drafts list, and sure enough it never went live. My apologies to Geo and everyone else from the concert! But my feelings expressed here have not dimmed one iota since that weekend in February.]

Last weekend I was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to be a part of my friend George Hrab‘s concert he called 21812: A Gneiss Night Out. The number was an homage to the date (February 18, 2012) and the name, well, he does the Geologic Podcast, so you figure it out.

Geo is a dear friend, but he’s more than that. He’s one of the smartest, cleverest, nicest, and most generous guys I know. We’ve been friends for a while now, but I see him all too rarely. So when he invited mt to not just attend his concert but also be a part of it… well. That was an easy decision.

The concert was awesome. Geo wrote all the songs, and most came from his latest album, Trebuchet (which I’ve written about many times before). One of the tracks on that album is "Death from the Skies", based on a brilliant book by the same name. The song is way cool; while Geo plays the music, I do a voiceover reciting the odds of getting killed by various astronomical events. We’ve performed the song a few times live, too.

While I was there, we got together at Geo’s place. Now you have to realize, the cover art for Trebuchet was a picture of a wall in Geo’s apartment, which he covered in the song titles and lyrics. It was an amzing effort (you can watch a time lapse of him constructing it) and the results are amazing. I was so chuffed to be there that I got a picture of the two of us posing in front of it:

It was so great to see so many old friends, if only for a short time. My deepest and most honored thanks to Geo, Donna, and especially to all the fans who came to the concert. It as so great to meet so many of you and get a chance to chat.

And one last thing: the concert was recorded, and Geo will be making a DVD from it. That’ll be a while, no doubt, but also have no doubt I will be shilling it here. And after being there live when it was filmed, I also have no doubt you’ll want one.


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