Category: Science

Amateur planet hunters find a world with a four star rating

By Phil Plait | October 15, 2012 9:30 am

A new exoplanet – a planet outside our own solar system – has been found, and it’s pretty cool for two reasons: it was found by amateur planet hunters, and it’s in a four-star system!

OK, first, the planet: called PH-1, it’s bigger than Earth, about six times our radius, or about half the diameter of Jupiter. The mass isn’t well known, but may be as high as 170 times our own mass, though far more likely it’s closer to 20 – 50 times our mass. That makes it closer physically to Uranus and Saturn than Earth, so it’s likely a gas giant. It’s also hot, with a probable cloud-top temperature of 400+ Celsius (800+° F). Even if it has Earth-sized moons they’re likely to be too hot to be hospitable. And since it’s 5000 light years away, we’re not headed there any time soon, anyway.

But the more interesting thing about this planet is its host stars: PJK-1 orbits a binary star, two stars that orbit each other (like Tatooine, if you like). Six other planets are known to orbit binary stars, but PH-1 is even cooler: the binary star is itself orbited by another binary pair much farther out, making it the first planet found in a four-star system.

So we have two stars orbiting each other, orbited by a planet, and also orbited by two other stars which orbit each other. Yegads.

But it gets better yet. This planet was not found by professional astronomers! It was discovered by two amateurs who participate in the Planet Hunters program. This project was started by astronomers using the orbiting Kepler Observatory, designed to stare at 100,000 stars and look for dips in light from them as any potential planets orbiting them block their light. These transits show up in graphs of the stars’ brightnesses, and actually our human eyes and brain are pretty good at picking them out. Planet Hunters puts Kepler data online for anyone to go in and poke around.

The two citizen scientists, Kian Jek and Robert Gagliano, are listed as authors on the scientific paper recently published. I love this: the digital nature of these data make it far, far easier to analyze the science than it was in the past, and also easier to get the data out to people. Because of this, we have an explosive growth in these kinds of projects. Planet Hunters is great, but then so is Galaxy Zoo, Moon Mappers, Ice Hunters, and so many others. You can find several of these collected at the CosmoQuest website.

And a word about this new planet; this isn’t the first planet found by Planet Hunters, but it’s the first ever found in a quaternary star system. In the image here, the central binary is the big blob in the middle, and the second pair the elongated double-blob to the lower left. The planet is far too close to the middle stars to be seen here – its orbit is smaller than Earth’s around the Sun, far smaller than a pixel in this image at that distance.

The central binary is made up of a bluish star hotter and brighter than the Sun, and one that’s cooler, fainter, and redder. The second binary is made of one star much like the Sun, and another dinky red one. Their distance from the planet – about 150 billion kilometers – means they’d both still be very bright, with the brighter of the two almost as bright as the full Moon as seen from Earth. What a sight that would be! The second star would be hard to pick out in the glare of the other, but with binoculars you could spot it.

Not that anyone could, since the planet is hot enough to melt tin and assuming it had a solid surface to start with. Still though, it’s not hard to imagine a smaller planet orbiting that binary farther out, in a cooler, more life-friendly position. And we know such a planet exists; Kepler recently revealed a planet orbiting a binary star at the right spot to have liquid water as well. Like PH-1, that planet is probably a gas giant, but it might have big moons…

And this shows us once again that nature just loves to make planets, even ones in really weird places that at first may seem inhospitable for planet formation. But there it is.

Every time we find a strange planet like this, it fills me with hope that the ultimate goal of this work is close: finding an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of another star. We’re getting closer every day to that announcement, I think. In fact, I strongly suspect that planet is already sitting in the Kepler data, faint and hard to tease out, but just waiting to be found.

Go sign up for Planet Hunters. Maybe you’ll be the one to find it.

Image credits: Haven Giguere/Yale; Keck Observatory/Megan E. Schwamb et al.


Related Posts:

Two exoplanets discovered by "citizen scientists"
YOU can find extrasolar planets
Astronomers discover a wretched hive of scum and villainy (and the followup, Exoplanet news Part 4: More wretched hives of scum and villany)
Kepler finds a planet in a binary star’s habitable zone

The funny thing about science

By Phil Plait | October 12, 2012 10:00 am

Science is cool. I know that, and you probably know that, but a lot of people still don’t.

That’s why I love love love this series of ads by the Vancouver Science World Centre, a science museum in Canada:

That’s just one of several posted on Buzzfeed. They’re all funny, and some are gross, which is also funny.

This is the same museum that ran really funny TV ads earlier this year, too. In my opinion they’ve set the standard on how to reach out to folks and get them interested in the natural world. The ads are funny, which gets your attention; makes an odd, seemingly out-of-place statement, which keeps your attention a bit longer; then uses the phrase "We can explain", which brings the message home. Awesomeness.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, Science

Science Ranch 2012

By Phil Plait | October 11, 2012 11:01 am

Science Ranch 2012 has wrapped up, and it was way, way too much fun.

Quick background: my wife Marcella and I started up Science Getaways, where we create vacation packages and add science to them. We figured we love learning about the places we visit; their natural wonders, the geography, biology, and more, so why not make it official and put something like this together for other science lovers? At Science Getaways we take vacation packages and add exploration hikes, talks by scientists, star parties… y’know, SCIENCE. The point was to get like-minded science afficiandos together and have them get even more out of their time off; that’s why we call it a "vacation with your brain".

Our first venture was to the C Lazy U Guest Ranch in Granby, Colorado. Nestled in a valley in the Rockies, it’s a stunning setting with lots of natural beauty. We invited geologist Holly Brunkal and biologist/ecologist Dave Armstrong to come, with me pulling astronomy duty. In September, a group of science lovers descended upon the ranch for four days of fun, relaxation, and… SCIENCE.

I know I may be a wee bit biased, but I think everyone had a lot of fun. The ranch itself boasts a lot of outdoor activities: horseback riding, a ropes course, biking, and more. Marcella and I had to laugh; when we first organized this Getaway, we asked folks if they’d like to ride horses, and only a few said yes. But once everyone got there, nearly every single person went for at least one ride! It was a great way to get out into the hills without a lot of effort – helpful in the rarefied air at 2500 meters (8000+ feet) elevation!

The science was, of course, amazing. We learned a lot about the local flora, fauna, and geology of the region. Did you know the Rockies we see today are actually the second Rockies? There used to be a range here in Colorado hundreds of millions of years ago, and they eroded away. Eventually, a new mountain range pushed up, forming today’s Rockies.

Driving the lessons home, we went on several hikes to explore the natural world ourselves. At different times during the week we saw moose, bear, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, foxes, and chipmunks. At one point we had a handsome young fox poking around nearby too, probably looking for lunch.

Probably the highlight of the hikes was when we all went to a stream bed near the ranch. Over the years it’s wandered a bit, exposing rock washed down from the hills. Within a few minutes, one of our guests found a fossilized leaf imprint dating back to the Creataceous Era, more than 65 million years ago! Not five minutes later another guest found a lovely specimen of petrified wood. We all started poking around in earnest after that; I found some fascinating samples including anorthositic rock, and a lovely layered sedimentary rock that got baked by a lava intrusion, turning it black as coal.

Of course, there was astronomy. Oh my, was there. The first night we walked outside from the main lounge room, and even before our eyes had properly adjusted to the dark we could see the Milky Way blazing overhead. I had my new Celestron 20 cm (8") telescope, generously donated for the occasion by Celestron, Inc., and we took it a few hundred meters out from the lights of the ranch to observe. We saw a dizzying variety of celestial favorites: globular clusters, planetary nebulae, binary stars, open clusters, galaxies (M 31, the Andromeda Galaxy, was amazing and easily visible to the naked eye), and more. It was chilly, but we still had a lot of folks stick around for hours while we observed. I usually observe from my home where the skies are decent, but being out where it’s truly dark makes a world – ah, a Universe – of difference.

One of the most fun times, I think, was just everyone asking questions while I answered them. We did that combined with a naked eye tour of the night sky; me with my green laser pointer showing folks how the stars rise and set, how the planets move, and even our location halfway to the edge of the galaxy. With a little ingenuity and a laser pointer, it’s actually pretty cool what you can learn under the stars.

The last night at the ranch was wonderful. It had clouded up just before sunset, so we all gathered in the main area where the ranch set up a campfire. We talked, laughed, and generally had a great time socializing. It was truly lovely.

Thus endeth Science Ranch 2012. But that’s most certainly not the end of Science Getaways! Marcella’s been hard at work getting the next one set up, and we’ll have an announcement about it very soon. Stay Tuned!

Image credits: leaf fossil by me; horseback pic by Jon Sager; campfire shot and Milky Way by Jason Bechtel.


Related Posts:

Science Getaways: Dark skies
Coathook to the stars
Science Getaways: T-4 months
Science Getaways

Big Picture Science: Doomsday live show

By Phil Plait | October 11, 2012 9:00 am

My friends at SETI’s Big Picture Science podcast – what used to be called the Are We Alone radio show – want to put together a live show for the October 27 Bay Area Science Festival, a huge public gathering of folks where they can learn about science. They plan on holding a lively panel of astronomers, climate scientists, and other experts about the facts behind doomsday theories (such as they are).

But they need help to raise the funds to do this. They need $4000, so they started a Kickstarter fund to help. They’re almost there – as I write this they’re only $600 away, with a couple of days left to go – though of course with more funds they can do more.

This is being done by my good friends SETI astronomer Seth Shostak and science journalist Molly Bentley, and I support them. In fact, I’ve done many a segment of the Big Picture Science podcast: Seth and I do a roughly once per month interview called Brains on Vacation (see Related Posts below). So I know this show does good work, and the live show will be really fun, entertaining, and of course educational. In a good way!

Go check out their Kickstarter and beam them some cash if you can. Thanks!


Related Posts:

Big Picture Science: Antivaxxers (and updates)
Faster than light Brains on Vacation
Beast of Skeptic Check
Big Picture Science: climate change denial on Fox News

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.


Related Posts:

Astronomy Veronica Anemone
Armpitageddon
“Armageddon” had bad science. Shocker, I know.
Armageddon, Deep Impact: decadent
Armageddon sick of Shuttle hoaxes

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.


Related Posts:

Stop antivaxxers. Now.
Debunking vaccine myths
Antivax kills
BREAKING: BMJ calls Andrew Wakefield a fraud

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
Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA): on climate change, makes wrong even wronger
Next up for Congress: repeal the law of gravity

To see little, build big

By Phil Plait | October 3, 2012 7:00 am

One of the greatest ironies of physics is that to see the smallest things in the Universe we need huge machines. The Compact Muon Solenoid detector (or just CMS for short) is one of two extremely complex – and very, very large – pieces of equipment used by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva to sift through the bits of shrapnel created when packets of protons smash into each at very nearly the speed of light.

Just how big is the CMS? BABloggee Thomas Radke sent me this picture of it.

Click it to see the original 6000 pixel picture hosted at CERN. Then pick your jaw up from the floor. This monstrosity is 15 meters high – nearly 50 feet! To give you a sense of the scale here, look to the bottom of the green scaffolding on the sides, and you’ll see handrails where people can stand.

Julian interviews Brian and me at LHCI visited the LHC a few years back, thanks to Brian Cox who brought me there for a tour and interview. This was shortly before the gigantic machine was switched on, so we went down 100 meters below the Earth’s surface to take a look. I stood off to one side of the CMS, and the scale of it was hard to grasp. It’s over 20 meters long, and weighs over 12,000 tons – 24 million pounds! A lot of that weight is from the huge slabs of iron you can see painted red.

I made a video during my LHC visit, and the CMS part is about five minutes into it.

Yeah. That’s the kind of stuff we do when we want to pry open the seams of the Universe and peek inside.

Image credit: CERN


Related Posts:

Higgs!
My excellent CERN adventure: the video
CERN podcast with Brian Cox and me
LHC update: it’s now all-powerful

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Science

Q&BA: How do we know some meteorites come from Mars?

By Phil Plait | October 2, 2012 10:34 am

This Q&BA video’s a bit longer than usual, but what the heck. It’s a fun topic!

First: every now again when I have time I do an interactive live video chat on Google+ where people can ask me questions about space and astronomy. I call it Q&BA, and it’s always fun to hear what questions are on people’s minds.

In this episode of Q&BA, I was asked about Mars meteorites: how do they get to Earth? I talk about their transport mechanism, as well as how they get blasted of the surface of Mars, and how we know they come from the Red Planet at all. It’s a pretty common question, and a pretty cool little slice of science.

[Note: I was having software issues when I recorded this on a Google+ Hangout in January 2012, and the aspect ratio is a bit wonky.]

So there you go. I’ve seen a few Mars meteorites, and they’re pretty nifty. One of these days I’ll have to see about getting one to add to my collection of iron and stony meteorites, too. It’s be nice to have a chunk of actual planet that’s not Earth sitting on my display shelf.

I have an archive of Q&BA links and videos. Take a look and see if there are other ones that tickle your imagination.


Related Posts:

Q&BA: Can we build a space habitat?
Q&BA: The Science of Science Fiction
Q&BA: Which moon has the best chance for life?
Q&BA: Why spend money on NASA?
Q&BA: What happens if you are exposed to the vacuum of space?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Q & BA, Science

The song of killer electrons

By Phil Plait | October 1, 2012 12:15 pm

Light and sound are two fairly different things. They’re both waves, but their similarity ends there. Sound is a compression wave: something happens (like a tree falling in a forest) that compresses air a little bit, and that wave travels outward at – shockingly – the speed of sound. Your ears detect it, and your brain translates it into sound.

Light is an electromagnetic wave. The whole story is fairly complicated, but it’s an oscillation of electric and magnetic fields, and doesn’t need a medium (like air or water) through which to travel.

But because they’re both waves, light and sound have a frequency and an amplitude. If you’re clever – and we humans are – you can convert one to the other… well, more like translate one to the other. It’s not like it’s a real conversion, with physical meaning (like converting feet to meters). But it can make for an interesting, and lovely, experience.

In August 2012, NASA launched a pair of satellites called Radiation Belt Storm Probes. They are designed to detect the electromagnetic radiation (also called EM for short) emitted as charged particles bip and bop around Earth’s magnetic field, high above the surface. Various phenomena in the geomagnetic field produce radio waves – which are a form of light, but too low energy for our eyes to detect. These waves can have the same frequency as sound waves we can hear – a few Hertz, or oscillations per second – so they can be directly translated into sound. Scientists did that using RBSP data, and it sounds eerie and beautiful.

Here’s the sound file of these waves. It’s… odd. Like birdsong, but unearthly. You can understand why scientists call these waves "chorus".

And they’re handy, too. Translating light to sound in this way can be helpful in understanding it, much like creating color pictures helps astronomers understand data better. The folks at NASA put together this video to explain all this:

This is actually pretty important stuff. Electrons blown from the Sun in the solar wind get trapped in Earth’s magnetic field, like bugs in a net. Usually these are low energy particles, which eventually follow the magnetic field lines to the Earths poles, where they are deposited safely into our atmosphere. But sometimes, something caffeinates these electrons, pumping them up to very high energies. They travel so quickly that if they hit one of our satellites, they can damage the electronics! The reasons benign particles can turn into "killer electrons" isn’t well understood, but it may have to do with these chorus waves. Understanding them better means we can protect our satellites better, and since we spend trillions of dollars on satellites, there’s some decent motivation to make sure they work well.

Also? It’s just cool. If you like the killer electron song, then you’ll get a kick out of other sounds created the same way, from the aurora to meteors burning up in our atmosphere! You’ll find links to those listed in Related Posts below.

Image of my good friend Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, aka Noisy Astronomer, used totally without her permission. Won’t she be surprised?


Related Posts:

Hear the Sun’s roar
Listen in on the Perseid meteor shower
Saturn, the Forbidden Planet
Phoenix sings
Laying down the pulsar beat

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