Category: Science

A step in the right direction… but there are many more steps to go

By Phil Plait | November 6, 2012 11:44 pm

Well, it was quite a night.

I’m trying to parse it all, and there’s a whole lot to parse. The big news, duh, is that President Obama won, and yes, I’m happy about that. Despite a lot of smoke and mirrors from pundits and campaign managers during this unending election cycle, the President has done a lot of good for this country, and has been a net positive in many ways. I think a lot more can improve in the next four years, and I’ll be curious to see just how he rolls up his sleeves and gets to it.

Having said that, I’m not all rainbows and unicorns with him, which I’ll get to in a sec.

I’m thrilled Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost. I have to think that their, ah, extremely poorly thought-out comments about rape had something to do with that. I saw a lot of tweets along the lines of "Hey Republicans, if you want to win next time you’d better not talk about rape!", which I think is wrongheaded. I think politicians should be talking about it, but they should be getting it right. It’s one thing to score a political zinger, but another to actually change the hearts and minds of those same politicians. I want real change, not change in rhetoric.

I’ll note that it looks like in January there will be 18 women Senators, an all-time high. That’s a bit short of the 50 or 52 needed to reflect the true composition of our population, but it’s better than it ever has been. This seems to me to be pretty good evidence that women listen, and they vote. As do men who are concerned over women’s issues. That’s a fine thing, and a really good sign.

Tammy Baldwin is one of those women. She’s the first openly gay Senator in our nation’s history. And four states – Maine, Washington, Minnesota, and Maryland – approved marriage equality acts. I’m OK with that. I’m more than OK with that. For why, see here and here and here and here and here.

But the news isn’t all good. I poked around a bit, and saw that a lot of the antiscience Congresscritters were re-elected. Climate change deniers Ralph Hall (head of the House Science Committee) and John Sensenbrenner, and many others will still retain their seats (but not Akin, yay!). [UPDATE: Turns out Hall is term-limited as chairman and will give up the gavel. That link also discusses the changes in the Committee]. Relatively moderate Republican Roscoe Bartlett lost, and he acknowledged the reality of climate change. He’ll have to be replaced by the Republican majority, and sadly, there’s a long list of global warming deniers to choose from. Don’t forget Paul Broun ran unopposed, and he’s a full-blooded antiscience Big-Bang-denying antievolution creationist.

On a better note, I’ll add that Bill Foster, a moderate Illinois Republican Democrat, won a seat. He’s a high-energy physicist! Man oh man, I’d love to see him get on the Science Committee. Boulder’s own Jared Polis retained his seat in Congress, too, and he’s pro-science as well.

Now, having said all that…

I am still unhappy about President Obama gutting NASA’s space exploration funding, and I am unhappy he still hasn’t talked much about climate change… and those are just science topics. And it’s important to note that it’s still a Republican house, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic White House, just as it’s been for two years now. These same two years where almost no legislation has been passed, and a whole lot of science has been ridiculed or simply ignored.

The takeaway here? Overall, I’m pleased. Some things got better, and not much got worse. A lot is still the same, so we have to be ready for more of what we’ve already been through. And while this is a time of celebration for many of us, we must acknowledge that the forces against reality and science are still out there and still have a lot of power. We must not flag, not give up, and never tire.

Ever onward!

MORE ABOUT: Election 2012

Vote.

By Phil Plait | November 6, 2012 6:00 am

Listen. I want you to vote.

I won’t make that pandering "It doesn’t matter who you vote for" speech, because, geez, c’mon. It does matter.

But not voting at all is not an option. You need to vote.

I know a lot of folks are undecided, and getting mocked in the media for it. But from what I see, a lot of people have honest problems with both candidates.

I can relate. I do too. But in my opinion, voting is still critical, for a few reasons. But there’s one big one: if you don’t vote, how does that help?

Seriously, staying home and not voting doesn’t help at all, and in fact hurts. Why? Because, for one thing, I bet you don’t hate everything about both candidates. A lot of people frame it as the lesser of two evils, but I think it’s more positive to consider it as the better of the two choices.

Looking over the choices, there must be one who edges out the other, for whatever issues matter to you. That matters. It truly does.

And not voting hurts you, directly. If you don’t vote, you have no say in what the government can do for or with or to you. You’re letting other people make that decision for you. And I think you probably know better what you want than other people do.

Don’t vote, and you are freely allowing others to declare how much tax you should pay, where that money goes, whether or not you have access to health care, how women are treated (whether through pay, health benefits, or a myriad of other ways), and even whether science or nonsense gets taught in schools.

Another argument I hear is that one vote doesn’t count. Lets be honest: in many places, that’s probably true. But not everywhere, and it can be hard to tell just where. Remember, in 2000, the entire national election boiled down to a few hundred votes in Florida. A few hundred.

I look at the swing states, places that can swing the election and where it’s hard to tell who’s ahead, and I wonder. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida… all these states have big universities, with student populations in the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. A single freshman class at one of those schools could swing this entire election.

Still think your vote doesn’t count?

I know a lot of younger folks read my blog. You have way more riding on this election than I do. Maybe you’re looking for a job, or have one already. How much tax do you think is fair to pay? What rights will you have with your employer? What kind of health insurance will you get? It’s not sexy to think about health insurance, but it’s going to suck mightily when you break your leg or you need to get your wisdom teeth out, and you find out it’s going to be a cash only out-of-pocket transaction.

Also, you’ll have to live in the future longer than I will. What’s that future going to be like? One where global warming slams us every summer with stronger hurricanes because the government ignored the scientists? One where your kids are taught the Earth is 6000 years old? One where you can’t get contraception?

That’s what your vote means.

On these issues – and a whole passel more – the two major candidates are worlds apart. These issues impact you, now, today. Health care, taxes, women’s rights, corporate law, international policy, gay marriage, climate change… do even a modicum of research and you’ll see the differences shining like a beacon. And we may have a Supreme Court justice retire in the next four years; think about how the two candidates differ on whom they would nominate for that.

And if you like a third party candidate, then great! Go vote for him or her! But don’t complain that it’s a waste of time because they can’t win. It’s a certainty they can’t if you don’t vote for them, and if enough people vote for them they may start to get noticed.

For me, a lot of the decisions I make when I vote boil down to how the candidate faces science, faces reality – which are in many ways the same thing. Maybe you agree. And that brings up a final major point: this election is not just to decide who will be President. We’re voting for Congress as well, and these are the people who make the laws. Congress has the lowest public approval rating they’ve had in decades, and for good reason. But you know what can be done? You can throw out the ones who won’t face reality!

Look up who’s who in your state and district and see what your Congresscritters think. I’ll guarantee there are huge differences between candidates for Congress. And the majority party picks who runs the committees – for example, the House Science Committee, where several of the sitting members are as blatantly antiscience as anyone I’ve ever seen.

Do you love science as much as I do? You can vote them out!

I’ll also note that in local elections there will be people running for school board. Think that’s not important? Think again.

This election is about far more than electing a President. It could mean four more years of science obstructionism, four years we cannot afford to lose.

I’m not a single issue voter, and I hope you aren’t either. But then, reality isn’t a single issue. Antiscience affects global warming legislation, textbooks and class curricula, women’s rights, technology development, medical research, energy production, religious incursions on the First Amendment, and much more. Our very economy is largely based on science and engineering. It’s not too much to ask for people in power to understand that.

In fact, it’s a rock bottom requirement.

So speaking of bottoms, get off yours. The only way you can waste your vote is by not casting one.

MORE ABOUT: Election 2012

The Neroes of global warming

By Phil Plait | November 2, 2012 7:00 am

Nero was an emperor of Rome, and not looked upon kindly by history. A great fire swept through Rome, rumored to have been started by Nero himself to clear more land for his own estate. Nero supposedly did little to stop it, which is why we have the phrase "Nero fiddled while Rome burned".

The analogy to climate change is glaringly obvious. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil has dumped vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air – far more than the total from all volcanoes combined, for example. This greenhouse gas essentially traps heat*, preventing natural physical processes from letting the Earth maintain its temperature. The end result: the Earth is heating up.

The vast, overwhelming majority of real climate scientists agree with this assessment. Oddly, the fossil fuel industry doesn’t. They sponsor a lot of very loud and very wrong "think tanks" who deny the very existence of the problem the industry itself created. So the Earth heats up, and they fiddle with the truth.

As I wrote recently, global warming is in the news because it’s very likely that the hurricane Sandy was influenced by our changing climate. I’m not the only one to think so. Climate scientist Randy Horton says, for example, that melting sea ice and a declining jet stream may have been in part responsible for steering Sandy into the east coast, instead of over the open ocean as late-season hurricanes usually do.

The deniers, of course, are spinning this faster than the hurricane itself.

Those of us on the side of reality in this issue want it to be about science, but we must see that it’s about politics. When a large number of sitting members of the US House of Representatives science committee are avid and avowed global warming deniers, this is about politics. When we see the fossil fuel industry funding those very people, it’s about politics.

Perhaps that stranglehold of political denial is loosening up a tiny bit. Business Week, not usually known for leftist leanings, just published a story called "It’s Global Warming, Stupid" and put it on their front page. The two presidential candidates have hardly talked about it, and not at all in the debates, despite this being the biggest medium-term crisis the world is facing. President Obama did finally speak out, on MTV of all places (which is actually pretty good; hopefully a younger audience will listen), but could’ve put in a lot more details of what he actually plans to do.

Of course, Governor Romney is wearing his past statements like an albatross around his neck. He has mocked global warming, and said many times he would dismantle FEMA. He flip-flopped on that just this week, kindof, saying FEMA does an important job. However, given that he said it was "immoral" – his word – to fund FEMA, I have a difficult time believing he’s being entirely honest now.

Because the issue was ignored in the debates, Science Debate put on a mock 4th Presidential debate dealing with global warming, with candidate stand-ins talking about the issue. If only that had been real. If only.

So we still have a long way to go. Things in the Senate aren’t much better, with people like James Inhofe (R-OK) still sticking by his claim that the very idea of global warming is a hoax. Happily, some people are willing to hang that one around his neck, too. But it’s not enough. Not nearly.

And there’s more bad news. One of the biggest weapons we have against hurricanes like Sandy is our fleet of weather satellites, tracking the storms and allowing scientists to predict the path and ferocity of storms, sometimes days in advance. Sandy’s track was predicted amazingly well due to this. But our very ability to do this is in jeopardy: the New York Times is reporting that we may be facing a weather satellite crisis, with an aging fleet of satellites breaking down and no replacements ready for launch for quite some time. There may be a years-long gap in our coverage of storms from space because of this.

And during all of this, the deniers fiddle. They argue and spin about statistics, misleadingly plotting data. They talk about sunspots, they talk about cycles, they talk about other planets, and all the while they are desperately trying to distract you from the real issue. The Earth is warming up, the change is real, it’s dangerous, it’s already affecting us noticeably, and we’re not doing anything to stop it.

The public is catching on to this. Recent polls show that Americans are more accepting that global warming is real. That’s good news, and an excellent start.

But it must be translated into action. We have an election coming up in a few days. Many of these climate change deniers are up for re-election, while others are seeking office. If you are an American, I urge you to do your research and vote accordingly. Literally, our future is in our hands.

<em<Image credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project


* Technically, CO2 is transparent to visible light, but opaque to far infrared. Sunlight gets through, warms up the ground, which then radiates that heat as infrared. The CO2 won’t let that radiate away into space, so the heat stays on Earth, warming the ground (and oceans!) further. But saying "it traps heat" is close enough.


Related Posts:

A wind is rising
Is it hot in here, or is it just global warming?
When does weather become climate
New study clinches it: the Earth is warming up

The return of Sauron’s planet

By Phil Plait | October 27, 2012 7:00 am

First it was there, then it wasn’t, and now it just may be back again: the first exoplanet directly observed orbiting a normal star, Fomalhaut b, has had quite a ride.

[This post has a bit of detail to it, so here’s the tl;dr version: new analysis shows an object orbiting the star Fomalhaut may actually be a planet, enveloped in a cloud of dust. We can’t for sure it exists, but we can’t say it doesn’t, either! Earlier claims of it not existing may have been premature. Also, at the bottom of this post is a gallery of direct images of exoplanets.]

First a brief history. In 2008, astronomers revealed huge news: they had successfully taken images of planets orbiting other stars. Up until then, the only evidence we had of exoplanets was indirect, either by their tugging on their stars which affects the starlight, or by having them pass between their stars and us, dimming the starlight.

But, along with Gemini telescope pictures of a family of planets orbiting HR 8799, Fomalhaut b was the first planet ever seen directly, as a spark of light in a picture. Here is that historic shot:

It’s Sauron’s eye! [Click to embiggen.]

The object is labeled. It doesn’t look like much, but the important thing to note is that it moved between 2004 and 2006 (see picture below), and it was definitely in both images taken two years apart. That means it wasn’t some bit of noise or detector error. Moreover, the movement was consistent with what you’d expect from a planet. Not only that but the star Fomalhaut is surrounded by a vast ring of dust – Sauron’s eye – and the inner edge of the ring is sharp. That’s what you would expect if a planet was orbiting inside the ring; its gravity sweeps up the dust on the inside of the ring. Given the brightness, we were looking at an object with a few times Jupiter’s mass, much smaller than a star, so definitely a planet.

All in all, it looked good, and it looked real.

Then, in early 2012, some astronomers threw a Pluto-esque wet blanket on the news. A planet that big should be bright in the infrared. Fomalhaut is a youngish star, only a few hundred million years old. Any planet more massive than Jupiter should still be hot, radiating away the heat of its formation. They looked for it in the infrared, and it wasn’t there.

Uh oh.

To make things worse, they found that if you extrapolate the orbit of the supposed planet using its movement, it should cross the ring. That’s bad, because its gravity would disrupt the ring after a few million years tops. The ring is there, so that planet means the planet must not be.

Their conclusion: this object is a clump of dust, a cloud, orbiting the star. That fits the data, and a planet doesn’t. Cue the sad trombone.

But wait! We’re not done!
Read More

Awkwardly Embraceable interview

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2012 12:57 pm

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.

She’s also just cool and funny and smart and talented, and you could do a lot worse than follow her on Tumblr and Twitter. Hey. She was a Geek-A-Week, so you know she’s cool.

MORE ABOUT: Jessica Mills

Pew! Pew! Take *that*, Mars!

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

Hey, remember that one ton nuclear rover we sent to Mars? Yeah, that. On October 20, it aimed its megaWatt laser at the sand on Mars and blasted it 30 times in rapid succession, carving out a hole about 3 mm across. NASA kindly has provided a before-and-after animation of the damage inflicted on the Red Planet:

Cool, eh? [Click to coherentlightenate.]

Curiosity’s laser is designed not as a weapon against a hapless Marvin, but instead to do actual science. It very rapidly heats the rock (or sand or whatever) to the point where it vaporizes. Material heated like that glows, and in fact glows at very specific colors. By identifying those colors, scientists can determine precisely what the material is composed of. I gave the details in an earlier post when Curiosity zapped its first rock. You should read it, because spectroscopy is cool, and I spent many years doing it.

This sand was chosen to get lasered because it’s made of fine grains that are blown by the wind. Some Martian sand is bigger, some smaller, but it’s all pretty much formed from eroded rocks. But different grains may have different compositions, and be blown around differently. The only way to know is to find out. So Curiosity will be blasting various things as it roves around Gale crater, its home for the next two years.

Curiosity’s real name is Mars Science Laboratory, and it’s useful to keep that in mind. It’s not just some golf cart tooling around the planet; it’s a fully functional science lab, with cameras, spectroscopes, sampling devices, and more. Everything it does is so we can learn more about Mars. What’s the the history of the planet? Why is its geology the way it is? What’s the deal with it used to having water? Where’d it all go?

I think these are questions worth exploring, even if it means blasting tiny holes in the planet to find out.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGN/CNRS. Tip o’ the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator to Keri Bean, including the idea for the title.


Related Posts:

Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
Wheels on Mars
One small tread for Curiosity, one giant leap for roverkind
Curiosity looks Sharp
Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Science
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, laser, Mars

NuSTAR catches a black hole’s hot belch

By Phil Plait | October 23, 2012 1:33 pm

Our Milky Way galaxy is a sprawling collection of gas, dust, and hundreds of billions of stars, arrayed in a more-or-less flat disk. In the very center of the galaxy – just as in countless other large galaxies like ours – lies a hidden monster: a black hole. And not just any black hole, but one with four million times the Sun’s mass.

It’s called a supermassive black hole for a reason.

Usually, it’s not doing a whole lot except sitting there being black and holey. But sometimes it gets a little snack, and when it does it can let out a cosmic-sized belch. A very, very, very hot belch. Like it did in July 2012:

[Click to schwarzschildenate.]

These images were taken with NASA’s newest X-ray satellite, NuSTAR (more on that in a sec). NuSTAR can detect high-energy X-rays coming from space, and happened to be pointed toward the black hole when it erupted. On the left is an overview of the region near the center of our galaxy. The whitish area is the stuff immediately surrounding the black hole (the pink glow is most likely from a supernova, a star that exploded in centuries past). On the right is a series of three images showing that region getting very bright in X-rays, then fading away: a flare.

OK, so I know what you’re thinking. How can a black hole – famous for gobbling down everything nearby, even light – get bright and emit so much energy?

Basically, it doesn’t. The stuff around it does.

A black hole by itself is dark. But if a gas cloud gets near, very interesting things happen. The gravity from the black hole stretches out the cloud, because the part of the cloud nearer the hole gets pulled by the gravity harder than the part of the cloud farther away. Also, the cloud probably doesn’t just fall straight it; like an orbiting planet around the Sun it has some sideways motion. This means the hole whips it around, pulling out a long tendril which then spirals ever closer to the Point Of No Return.

This video may help. It shows a star getting torn apart by a black hole, but the principle is the same.

So some of the stuff may get flung away, but a lot of it falls toward the black hole. As it nears the hole, it forms a flat disk, called an accretion disk. The material in this disk is tortured by unbelievable forces: the inner part of the disk is whirling madly around the black hole, while the outer part is moving more slowly. The gas is literally heated up by friction as the different parts of the disk rub against each other (other forces like magnetism play a role too). The heating can be HUGE: the gas can reach temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees!

Gas that hot emits X-rays, which is how this flare was seen by NuSTAR. Probably, a smallish cloud found itself too close to the black hole, got torn apart, and flew down into it. As it did it got extremely hot and blasted out X-rays. But when the whole thing was gobbled down, the X-rays stopped… because there was nothing left to emit them.

So maybe saying this was a belch is a bit misleading, since you do that after you eat something. This is more like your food screaming loudly and incoherently and flailing around while you’re actually eating it. Is that better?

This is a pretty cool observation. For one thing, our local big black hole is usually pretty quiet, so even getting a chance to see something like this is pretty nifty. Second, it can tell us what the environment is like near the black hole. And also, it helps us understand what happens right before some unfortunate object takes The Final Plunge. As I mentioned, every big galaxy has a supermassive black hole – ours is actually rather paltry compared to others; the one in the center of the Andromeda Galaxy is probably ten times more massive than ours – so anytime we can observe something going on with ours, we learn more about how they behave in other galaxies, too.

Also, I’m proud of NuSTAR. I worked on the project for a while, as part of the Education and Public Outreach team. I wrote quite a bit about the mission at the time, and was very pleased when it launched in June. It almost never got off the ground; the mission was actually canceled at one point, but was eventually reinstated.

I’m very glad it was! Now we can watch black holes in our galaxy (and others) as they eat and act rudely. Maybe it’s impolite to stare, but c’mon. When one puts on a fun show like this, it would be wrong not to.


Related Posts:

Astronomers see ANOTHER star ripped apart by a black hole! (including this original post and this followup)
NuSTAR opens its X-ray eye
The long reach of the Centaur’s dark heart
Desktop Project Part 22: A black hole belches out a hurricane

From Here To Infinity

By Phil Plait | October 22, 2012 7:00 am

Looking up into the night sky, it seems like you can see forever. If you use binoculars or a telescope that feeling is, literally, magnified – you can see thousands, millions of stars.

But what you’re seeing is barely scratching the depths of the Universe. You’re looking out a few thousand light years into a galaxy a hundred thousand light years across, in a Universe where we can see distant galaxies over 10 billion light years away.

We build bigger telescopes so we can see those far-flung objects, and we even put them in space so our bothersome atmosphere doesn’t interfere with the view. The most famous is of course the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s hard to describe just how much of an impact this Grande Dame of astronomy has had on our perception of the Universe… though looking into the Hubble Deep Fields, you get a glimmer of it. In 1995, Hubble stared at one spot in space for over 140 hours, creating the first Deep Field. It revealed thousands of galaxies at tremendous distance, showing us that the sky is filled with galaxies.

The region of the sky for the first Deep Field was chosen because it was nearly devoid of stars and known galaxies, objects that would interfere with their more distant brethren. But what does that field look like from the ground? Astronomer Detlef Hartmann decided to tackle this question, and has done us all a favor by showing us. Using a 44 cm (17") telescope he built himself, he took an incredible 247 five-minute images to create this extraordinary picture with a total of 20 hours of exposure… and then lets it morph into the actual Hubble Deep Field to compare them:

[The image is an animated GIF that weighs in at nearly 6 Mb, so it may take a while to load. I urge patience; it’s worth it. Click to edwinenate.]

Holy. Wow.

Let me be clear: Detlef’s image is amazing. It’s a tremendous effort by an "amateur"*, and shows dozens of the galaxies (and the same scattered handful of stars) in the Hubble image. It’s an amazing achievement. A bigger telescope would show more galaxies, of course, and resolve them more clearly, but even the biggest telescope located on the surface of our planet needs to peer through the soup of air above it, which dims the faintest galaxies into obscurity. You need to get above our atmosphere to see the cosmos as clearly as possible.

And when you do, look at what Hubble shows us. That tiny region of the sky – easily blocked by a grain of sand held at arm’s length – contains thousands of galaxies, each a sprawling city of billions of stars. It represents a relatively random part of the sky, so you can expect to see something like it no matter where you point a telescope… and that picture shows just one 24-millionth of the entire sky.

The implication is clear: there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our Universe. That in turn means there are sextillions of stars, each a Sun, and many, if not most, circled by a retinue of planets.

It’s the most ironic aspect of any science I know: it crushes my sense of scale and ego into dust, but also fills me with wonder and amazement that we can know such things, and be a part of it.

As is so often the case in science, you don’t know what you’ll get when you build a new instrument. You build it for one reason or for many, but later on new applications arise, new ways to use it. And sometimes, years down the road, it’s utilized in a just such a new way which profoundly changes how you see the Universe, how you see yourself and your place in it, and in a way you had may have only had an inkling of when you started out. The Hubble Deep Fields are perfect examples of this.

We knew intellectually the Universe was deep, and our place in it infinitesimal yet rare and beautiful. But Hubble showed that to us.

Image credits: R. Williams (STScI), the Hubble Deep Field Team and NASA; Detlef Hartmann. My deep thanks to Salvatore Iovene (who hosts AstroBin where Detlef’s image is displayed) for letting me know about this amazing work.


* Oh, that word. Detlef built his own ‘scope, took hundreds of these images, then combined them in a painstaking and difficult process that probably took him many, many hours. The word "amateur" has many connotations, but as usual here when I use it, I simply mean someone who is not a career astronomer. Detlef clearly has it going on.


Related Posts:

Revealing the Universe: the Hubble Extreme Deep Field
BAFact Math: The Sun is mind-crushingly brighter than the faintest object ever seen. Seriously.
Another record breaker: ultra-deep image reveals ultra-distant galaxy
What does a half million galaxies look like?
Hubble digs deep to see baby galaxies

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


Related Posts:

The pressure of living on a spinning planet
Attack of the Cyclones
Desktop Project Part 14: The cloud streets of southern Greenland
Phytoplankton bloom

MORE ABOUT: Aqua, Greenland, sea ice

Donors Choose 2012

By Phil Plait | October 18, 2012 7:01 am

Science education is important to me. Science is the study of reality, of how the Universe works, and math is the language the Universe speaks. To understand them is, literally, to know the Universe.

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, Science
MORE ABOUT: Donors Choose
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