Category: Piece of mind

Endeavour’s final voyage

By Phil Plait | October 20, 2012 7:00 am

The Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour made its way from LAX to the California Science Center a few days ago. A huge throng of people showed up to watch and take pictures. Among them was Matthew Givot and his team, who took many thousands of pictures, and then created a stunning and moving time lapse tribute to NASA’s youngest and now-retired Orbiter.

That was wonderful. As I’ve written several times, my feelings about the Shuttle program are mixed. But even as this amazing machine is put on display, Earthbound forever more, I’m hopeful about American space flight. We stand on the cusp of the future, and it won’t be long before we make that next giant leap.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Piece of mind, Space

Frigid, beautiful swirls

By Phil Plait | October 19, 2012 9:03 am

In my last post I talked about how knowing the science behind a picture makes it better. I still say that’s true, but also, sometimes, the beauty and awe of a picture can speak for itself.

Behold, swirls of sea ice off the coast of Greenland:

Breathtaking, isn’t it? [Click to phasechangenate.]

This was taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite on October 16, 2012. Aqua is designed to observe Earth’s water cycle: the oceans, evaporation, clouds, precipitation, snow cover, and, obviously, sea ice. It takes a vast amount of energy to move water from the ocean into the atmosphere and then move it around the planet, energy which comes from sunlight and steered by the Earth’s spin. Observations like those of Aqua show us how the constituents of the atmosphere change how that transport occurs, how that energy is stored, and how we humans affect that with our grand experiment of adding carbon dioxide to the air. That also affects our environment, how plants and animals eat, drink, live, and die.

We are animals, too, and we live in this environment created by sunlight, air, water, ice, and our own actions.

I am awed and moved when I see images like the one above. Its beauty is transcendent, and was made possible by our curiosity, our desire to learn more about the world we live in – an urge so strong we invented science, and engineering, and then built satellites that can look back at us from space and show us how surpassingly beautiful our world is, and how we need to take care of it.

Hmmm. I suppose I was wrong at the beginning of this post. Sometimes the picture doesn’t always speak for itself. It still helps to know the how and why of it. When you do, the picture speaks with far more authority, import, and wide-ranging impact.

Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team


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MORE ABOUT: Aqua, Greenland, sea ice

Space Leap of Faith

By Phil Plait | October 16, 2012 11:44 am

On Sunday, skydiver Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a high-altitude balloon and plummeted 40 kilometers back to Earth. I wanted to watch it live but missed it due to an appointment I had to keep. I heard it was heart-pounding, and Twitter went nuts over it. I wish I had seen it!

Still, my feelings on it are mixed. While I really am glad it got people excited, I couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t more than a stunt. A cool stunt, but a stunt. It was plugged as a way to learn more about spacesuits and all that, but I had my doubts. Having it sponsored by a sugary caffeinated energy drink marketed to teens also made me a bit wary.

I was thinking of writing something up about it, but then my friend and space historian Amy Shira Teitel wrote an excellent piece crystallizing my thoughts, so go read her article for more in that vein (which is also mirrored on Discover Magazine’s blog The Crux).

But what I really wanted to write about was this image I saw around Twitter and Facebook:

Why do I want to write about this? Because, in a nutshell, it’s everything wrong about attitudes on our space program. If I sound a little peeved, I am. Here’s why.

This meme was started in a tweet by revulv. I suspect it was just a joke, and to be honest it’s funny enough; I smirked when I read it. But someone took that joke and added the picture, and then it got spread around. And I can tell by the comments I’m seeing people really think it’s true – this idea has been around since the Shuttle retired, and it’s unfair. It’s simply not true.

First, as Amy points out in her post, Baumgartner’s jump was a record breaker, but he wasn’t in space. Our atmosphere thins out with height, and doesn’t really have an edge where air ends and vacuum begins. Because of this, there’s an arbitrarily agreed-upon height where we say space "starts" – it’s called the Kármán line, and it’s 100 km (62 miles) above sea level. Baumgartner was less than half that high. When I talked about his jump I used the phrase "edge of space", which is probably fair. He was in a pretty good vacuum by ground standards, but in space itself he was not.

Second, he wasn’t in orbit. A lot of folks confuse being in orbit and being in space, which is understandable. When we say something is in space that means it’s just higher than that arbitrary limit. You can get there via rocket by going straight up 100 km and then back down, for example. That’s a suborbital flight.

But being in orbit is different. An orbit is where you are free-falling around the Earth. Think of it this way: in orbit the Earth is pulling you down to the surface, but you’re going fast enough sideways that you never actually hit (to paraphrase Douglas Adams: orbiting is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss). Your velocity down and your velocity to the side add together to give you a circular (or elliptical) path.

Baumgartner used a balloon to go straight up. He wasn’t in orbit.

And that’s two of the three things that bother me about that meme picture: he wasn’t in space, and he wasn’t in orbit, two things the US has rockets that can do.

Now, some people will point out that in fact the US cannot do that, at least not with people. We don’t have any rockets rated for human flight into space.

That’s true, but brings up my third point, the most important, what a lot of people don’t seem to get: you need to add the words "right now" to the end of that sentence.

We can’t launch humans into space right now. But in just a few years we’ll have that ability. In spades.

SpaceX is working on making sure their Falcon 9 rocket is human-rated for flight – even as I write these words they have a Dragon capsule berthed to the International Space Station. ATK is another. There’s also Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin (which just had a successful engine firing test), XCORR, and others. Let’s not forget Virgin Galactic, too. [Update: D’oh! Shame on me, and ironic too: I forgot to add Boeing and ULA’s work on this as well.]

Both SpaceX and ATK think they’ll be ready to take people into orbit in 2015. Virgin Galactic and XCORR may be ready to do commercial suborbital flights before that date. [Note added after posting: I want to be clear; these are not NASA programs, but some have contracts with NASA, and I’m talking about the US as a nation, not necessarily as a government space program.]

The Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. We’re in the middle of what’s planned to be a five year gap where the US can’t take humans into space. Mind you, when the Apollo program shut down there was a nine year gap before we had a program to take humans to space again (with the exception of a few Saturn flights to orbit for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz mission; even then there was a six year gap until the Shuttle launches began).

My point? Things aren’t nearly as bad as people think. Yes, the Shuttle is retired, but to be brutally honest, while it’s an amazing machine, it could not nor would it ever be capable of taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit. It also cost way more than promised, and couldn’t launch as often as promised. I’ve made this point before, and it’s one we need to remember. Getting to space is not easy, and if we want to do it we have to do it right.

And let’s not forget we are still throwing rovers at Mars, probes at Jupiter, and one satellite after another into Earth orbit. We’re still going into space, if by proxy. Humans won’t have to wait much longer.

We need to learn from the past and keep our eyes on the future. By looking at the past we can see by comparison things are not so bad right now; we’re just in a lull before the storm. We’ll soon have not just the capability to put humans in space, but many capabilities to do it! Space travel will be easier and cheaper than it ever has been since the dawn of the Space Age.

My goal is to see nothing less than the permanent colonization of space by human beings, and I strongly suspect we are not that far from achieving it.

Image credits: Baumgartner pic via Red Bull; orbit diagram via Wikimedia Commons.


Related Posts:

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Veronicarmageddon

By Phil Plait | October 10, 2012 2:01 pm

My pal Veronica Belmont hosts a show on TechFeed called Fact or Fictional, where she investigates the science of a movie based on viewer suggestions. She recently took on the wonderful fantastic gawd-awful piece of festering offal "Armageddon", talking to scientist Joe Hanson, who writes the terrific It’s OK to Be Smart blog.

Let’s just say they agree with me about the movie:

Yay! That was fun. This pretty much follows my own recent thoughts on the movie, as well as my original review of it when it came out in 1998.

If you want to learn how we’d really prevent an asteroid impact, and why we need to take this seriously, I gave a TEDxBoulder talk about it. It’s a real threat, but one we can prevent if we choose to do so.


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Vaccines: opinions are not facts

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2012 10:07 am

There’s an old phrase among critical thinkers: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts*. The idea is that these are two different things: opinions are matters of taste or subjective conclusions, while facts stand outside that, independent of what you think or how you may be biased.

You can have an opinion that Quisp cereal is, to you, the best breakfast food of all time. But you can’t have the opinion that evolution isn’t real. That latter is not an opinion; it’s objectively wrong. You can have the opinion that the evidence for evolution doesn’t satisfy you, or that evolution feels wrong to you. But disbelieving evolution is not an opinion.

The same can be said for many other topics of critical thinking.

Deakin University Philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes makes just this case in a well-written piece called No, You’re Not Entitled to Your Opinion. For his basic example of this he uses the modern antivaccination movement, specifically Meryl Dorey and the Orwellain-named Australian Vaccination Network, or AVN.

Dorey’s name is familiar to regular readers: she spews antivax nonsense at nearly relativistic velocities, able to say more provably wrong and blatantly dangerous things than any given antiscience advocate after eight cups of coffee (just how dangerous the antivax movement is has been written about ably by my friend Seth Mnookin in Parade magazine). She never comes within a glancing blow of reality, and has been shown to her face that whatshe says is wrong, but stubbornly refuses to back down. She claims vaccines are connected to autism, that vaccines contain dangerous levels of toxins, that vaccines hurt human immune systems. None of these things is true. Reasonable Hank, who is outspoken about Dorey, has an exhaustive list of the awful things she’s said and done.

But some media pay attention to her, and in Australia the rate of pertussis is skyrocketing. Babies have died from this illness – not that Dorey actually believes that. Despite this, some media let Dorey rant on with her medical health conspiracy theories, citing "balance" when doing their stories. This is, simply, crap. Talking to doctors and researchers with years of experience in public health, and then Dorey (who has zero qualifications to discuss this topic) gives her de facto equal footing with reality. It would be like having astronauts interviewed about the space station, then talking to a UFO hunter.

Specifically, the article by Stokes I linked above takes the station WIN-TV to task for interviewing Dorey, and lays out just why this was a boneheaded thing to do (the ABC program Media Watch did an outstanding job destroying WIN-TV and Dorey, too). His bottom line: sure, you get to have an opinion, but don’t confuse it with fact, and don’t think you have a right to state your opinion in the media.

Predictably, and with predictable results, Dorey herself has jumped into the fray on the comments to the article. She has an uncanny ability to completely miss the point of what’s being said, and as usual is tone-deaf to what’s being said. It’s fascinating, in its own way.

I don’t think Dorey will ever change. I’ll note too that there are groups out there looking for the real causes of autism; the Autism Science Foundation is one. They even have a page up showing no connection between autism and vaccines. It’s wonderful and refreshing, and we should praise them for it. I have, like here and here. They’re good folks.

And remember another stock phrase in the critical thinking community: Keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out.

Image credit: Shutterstock (jimmi)


* The phrase is generally attributed to NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.


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The US Congress Anti-Science Committee

By Phil Plait | October 6, 2012 7:00 am

[NB: As always with posts like this, I strongly urge you to read my note about posts covering politics and religion as well as my commenting policy before leaving a comment.]

Not too long ago, I (and pretty much the whole internet) wrote about the ridiculous and honestly offensive statements made by Representative Todd Akin (R-MO). His knowledge – or really, the profound lack thereof – of female anatomy made him the laughing stock of the planet. But I wasn’t laughing. I was, and still am, furious. And not just because of what he said, but also because he is a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

That anyone could spew such obvious and awful nonsense about biology and anatomy and yet sit on the US Congress’s science committee is, simply put, an outrage.

I also pointed out he’s not alone. In that article I devoted just one line to Representative Paul Broun (R-GA), saying how he was a creationist and also sits on that same science committee… but I think it’s time we take a second look at Congressman Broun.

Why?

In late September, Rep. Broun made a speech at the Liberty Baptist Church’s Sportsman’s banquet in Hartwell, Georgia. In this speech he said many, many things, including this:

All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.

[The whole talk is online at YouTube.]

Sadly, that kind of antiscientific nonsense is de rigueur for a lot of folks these days, even ones who sit in Congress. But then, to close the deal, he goes on:

And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason as your congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.

Two points: one is that all Congresscritters, upon entering office, have to swear to uphold the Constitution, and the second is that this document is pretty clear about legislating religion. In fact, Supreme Court judge Hugo Black said about this topic, "Government must be neutral among religions and nonreligion: it cannot promote, endorse, or fund religion or religious institutions."

Rep. Broun’s words don’t sound terribly neutral to me.

You may disagree with me about the shaky ground (like Richter 10 shaky) Broun stands on Constitutionally, but there is no doubt – none – that he is 100% completely off the rails with his science. The Big Bang is "straight from the pit of hell"? It’s bad enough that anyone would actually believe something like that, let alone a Congressman, but I will remind you he sits on the House science committee!

And he sits there with Akin. And Brooks. And Hall. And Rohrabacher.

These are the men whom the Republican majority placed on that committee. Men who think global warming is a fantasy. Men who think women have magic vaginas. Men who think the Earth is thousands, not billions, of years old.

I have my issues with Obama right now, which in truth are dwarfed by my issues with Romney. But remember that come November 6 of this year in the US we’ll be voting for members of Congress as well. And the majority party decides who sits on what committee, and those people will in turn decide what to legislate: reality, or fantasy.

The choice, quite literally, is yours. Choose well.

Tip o’ the gavel to TPM via CCounterman.


Related Posts:

Akin breakin’ science
Followup: Rep. Ralph Hall’s unbelievable statement on science funding bill
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Next up for Congress: repeal the law of gravity

The Church of Who?

By Phil Plait | October 5, 2012 10:09 am

I have been remiss about keeping up with the new season of Doctor Who – I have the episodes recorded but haven’t had a chance to watch yet, so no spoilers, sweeties! – but this has not in any way tarnished my love for the show.

But love has different levels, different strengths. While I do very much enjoy the show and think about it a lot as any geek does, I don’t think I would say I worship it. Still, I had to smile as I watched this video by Mike Rugnetta at the PBS Idea Channel, where he asks: is Doctor Who a religion?

It’s a funny idea, and he certainly brings a lot of evidence to the table! If I were taking the question seriously, I’d say it’s not a religion unless people actually believe the show is real. Otherwise, it’s more of a philosophy.

But then, of course, there’s this. Hmmm:

Thinking on this more, though, I suspect that if I had to start a church of Who, it wouldn’t have the Doctor as the central figure. Clearly, if you watch this, you’ll see it’s Karen Gillan who possesses supernatural powers.

Of course, my choice of Ms. Gillan here has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that when I attended the Doctor Who panel at Comic Con this year and went up to take this photo, she looked right at me:

Sigh. My heart may belong to River Song, but what can I say? Unlike the Doctor, I’m only human.

Tip o’ the sonic to Nerdist.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Geekery, Humor, Piece of mind, Religion

The Helix has pink eye

By Phil Plait | October 4, 2012 7:00 am

One of the most amazing objects in the sky is the Helix Nebula, an expanding cloud of gas and dust surrounding a dying star. This type of object is called a planetary nebula, and it’s formed when a star a bit more massive than the Sun turns into a red giant and blows off its outer layers. These expand away, and eventually the hot core of the star is exposed. This floods the gas with ultraviolet light, causing it to glow pretty much like a neon sign*.

The Spitzer Space Telescope and GALEX combined their forces to observe the Helix Nebula, and what they see is simply stunning:

Oh my. [Click to ennebulenate, or grab a 6000 x 6000 pixel version.]

GALEX sees in the ultraviolet, so it’s sensitive to the light coming from the central star and the hot gas reacting to it (colored blue in the picture). Spitzer sees in the infrared, so it detects warm gas and dust (red, yellow, and green). Where you see pink is where the nebula is emitting both IR and UV. [Note: some of the outskirts of the nebula were beyond Spitzer’s field of view, so images from the infrared observatory WISE were used there to match the GALEX field.]

One of the most interesting features of this nebula is the collection of long, comet-like "fingers" you can see throughout the structure. These are where denser clumps of material are boiling away under the intense UV radiation of the central star, blowing out long tails away from the center like spokes in a wheel. Some of those tails are trillions of kilometers long!

Despite being one of the closest planetary nebulae in the sky – a mere 700 light years away – I’ve never seen the Helix through a telescope. Why not? Because it’s so big! The light from the gas is spread out over an area in the sky the size of the full Moon, dimming it considerably. Maybe someday I’ll be at a dark site with a big ‘scope, and I’ll see this fantastic bauble with my own eyes… but it won’t look like this picture. Our eyes see only a small slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. They serve us well in our daily lives, but the Universe itself sends out information in every direction to which we’re blind.

That is, until we used our limited brains to build devices like Spitzer and GALEX that expanded our viewpoint. And that’s what science does: removes the scales from our eyes, allowing us to see what the cosmos itself is showing us.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


* I’m simplifying here a bit. If you want more in-depth info on what happens as a star like this dies and glows like some great gaudy celestial Christmas ornament, read this post about the Helix I wrote a while back.


Related Posts:

Down the throat of a dying star
The Helix screams in the infrared
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The Helix’s dusty heart

SpaceFest IV interview

By Phil Plait | September 29, 2012 7:00 am

In May I attended SpaceFest IV, a gathering of space enthusiasts, astronauts (who, I suppose, are legit space enthusiasts), astronomers, and more. It’s a lot of fun, and great to see old friends and meet new science geeks. I missed last year’s, unfortunately, but was happy to be able to go this year again.

While I was there I was interviewed about the Mayan apocalypse, Symphony of Science, and building a real Enterprise. It was an eclectic series of questions.

There are also video interviews of my friends Dan Durda and Meteorite Man Geoff Notkin, too.

I hope there’ll be another SpaceFest next year! I had a lot of fun, and I bet a lot of you reading this would too.


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Water bomb

By Phil Plait | September 26, 2012 10:30 am

Via Jenny Winder, I saw this video showing footage from underwater nuclear bomb tests in 1958. It’s astonishing.

The awesome power and energy released is difficult to wrap your head around. Think on this: a cubic meter of water weighs a ton. Now imagine taking a single cubic meter of water and lifting it, say, 100 meters in the air, accelerating it to several hundred kilometers per hour.

Now look again at that plume. How many cubic meters of water were are in it? Even being conservative I’d say it was in the millions, meaning millions of tons of water blasted upward and outward by the force of the explosion. It’s terrifying. And mind you, the test shown was for a relatively small blast: about an 8 or 9 kiloton yield (the equivalent of 8-9 thousand tons of TNT), whereas big nukes are capable of 20 megatons, over a thousand times the explosive yield shown.

I’m fascinated by big bangs – from the first one, to supernovae, and all the way down to bombs we humans make in our clever and plodding attempts to kill one another. Every now and again it’s good to get a solid reminder of just what these explosions are capable of.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Science
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