Oh, have I got a treat for you today. Behold the brain-busting beauty of Barnard 59!
[Click to ennicotianatabacumenate – and seriously, do it! – or stick the gargantuan 16,000 x 15,000 pixel version (!!) into your pipe and smoke it.]
This incredible picture was taken by the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. The chunk of sky shown in this image is pretty big for a deep sky photo – about 6 arcminutes on a side. For comparison, the Moon is about 30 arcminutes across, so we’re still talking just a teeny region. But look at all those stars!
Of course, it’s not the stars that draw your attention: it’s the not stars. This region of the sky, in the constellation Ophiuchus, is toward the center of the galaxy, and is lousy with gas and dust – the latter of which is actually composed of complex chains of molecules. These form grains astronomers call dust, though they’re not like the bunnies you find under your dresser: these are more like particles of smoke in size. Ethereally thin by earthly standards, they form clouds that are still so large, light years across, that they are effectively opaque. They block the light coming from stars behind them, so in rich star fields like this one the dust clouds are made visible by their silhouettes.
What you’re seeing here is one particular complex of dust in the much larger cloud called the Pipe Nebula. The picture inset here shows the whole thing, and the reason for the name is obvious. Barnard 59, seen in incredible detail above, is the mouthpiece of the pipe.
You really need to take a look at at least the medium resolution image. You can see tendrils, wisps, and many other features. One of the neat things that you might miss at first is how the dark clouds change the colors of stars behind them. Start in the center of the cloud, then look near the edge, where the cloud starts to thin out, and you can see stars once again. See how the stars along the edge are redder than the stars farther out? Dust scatters blue light – a blue photon sent straight at us by a star can hit a dust grain and be sent off in another direction, missing us. There’s enough dust at the edge of the cloud to do that.
But toward the center of the cloud we’re through a lot more of that floating junk, so much that it absorbs the light coming from behind it. This effect is called interstellar extinction, and it’s kind of a pain when you’re trying to look at stuff through a cloud. However, it does make for a very pretty effect in pictures like this.
One more thing. See those fuzzy stars in the center of the cloud? Those are stars being born right before your eyes! These clouds can have very dense, cold clumps of material which can collapse to form stars. Usually invisible to optical telescopes – these ones are on the near side of the dust cloud, which is why we can see them at all – they glow brightly in infrared, and telescopes that can see out past the visible part of the spectrum see these very clearly. And yeah, you really want to click that link. It’s eerie and beautiful and spectacular.
All of this is another reason I love astronomy. One person’s meat is another person’s poison. If you want to study stars, dark nebulae are a pain. But if you want to study how stars form, they’re the first place you want to look!
Image credit: ESO; ESO/Yuri Beletsky
My friend Dr. Rachael Dunlop is a tireless promoter of science and fighter of antivaccination propaganda. I somehow missed this when she wrote it last November, but she put together a fantastic article tearing apart a whole passel of antivax lies: "9 vaccination myths busted. With Science". It’s basically one-stop shopping for the truth about vaccines.
We need people talking about the need for vaccines more than ever right now. Measles cases have nearly doubled over last year in the UK. My hometown of Boulder is suffering through an outbreak of pertussis. California is on its way to having serious epidemics due to lower vaccination rates. In North Carolina just a few days ago, a two month old infant died from pertussis.
Let me repeat that: babies die because of diseases that can be prevented by a simple vaccination. Factually-bereft antivaxxers – cough cough Meryl Dorey cough – claim that no one dies from these diseases any more. They are wrong.
Antivaccination beliefs are bad science, pure and simple. Vaccines don’t cause autism. They don’t have toxins in them that can hurt you in the doses given. They don’t overtax the immune system. Read Rachie’s article to get the truth.
What vaccines do is save millions, hundreds of millions, of lives. They protect us from diseases that used to ravage entire populations. And they save babies’ lives.
We need to keep up our herd immunity if we are to keep ourselves healthy, and that includes adults. Talk to your board-certified doctor and see if you need a booster. Please.
I’ve been holding off writing about this until it was official, and now it is: the area of the arctic covered by sea ice has reached a record low.
[Click to embiggen.]
"Sea ice extent" is (more or less) a measure of the amount of ice covering the sea surface. It’s measured using satellite data; the area is divided into many bins, and sea ice extent is calculated by adding up all the bins with more than 15% ice in them. Every year the ice starts to grow in the autumn and melts in the summer, so you get a sine-wave curve of extent every year.
Satellite observations began in 1979. In the graph above, the dark line is the average summer extent for the period 1979 – 2000. The gray area around it is the measurement uncertainty (2σ if you want to be exact). The dashed green line is the extent for 2007 – the previous record low year – and the blue line is 2012. I added the red line so you can compare 2007 to now. The data numbers show the record is broken, though on the graph they look tied. [UPDATE: The new plot made by the NSIDC for August 26 clearly shows the extent is now lower than the lowest point in 2007.]
As you can see, we’re still on the way down, weeks ahead of the date of the lowest extent in 2007. The minimum extent in 2007 was reached on September 16. In 2011 – which had the second-lowest extent on record, essentially equaling that of 2007 – lowest extent happened on September 9. This year it was August 25.
Notice any trend there? I don’t want to make too much of the idea that it’s happening earlier every year because there aren’t enough data points, but it’s consistent with the Earth’s temperature increasing. The massive heat wave that melted so much ice in Greenland this summer may have something to do with this as well.
Here’s a map from the National Snow and Ice Data Center showing the extent for August 25, 2012. The orange line is again the average for August 25 taken over the years 1979 – 2000. White shows ice, blue is ocean, gray is land; you can see Greenland directly below the ice, with Canada and the US to the lower left. Obviously, the sea ice extent for August 25 is way, way below average compared to the past.
I’ll be honest: this map and graph are making me unhappy. The fantastic website Skeptical Science has more about this. The most worrisome aspect of this to me is how this accelerates. Ice is bright white, so it reflects sunlight. Sea water is much darker and absorbs that light. So the more ice you lose, the darker overall the arctic gets, and the faster it melts.
Of course; we’ll hear the usual excuses and cherry-picking from the denier set, but here are the facts:
The Earth is warming up. The rate of warming has increased in the past century or so. This corresponds to the time of the Industrial Revolution, when we started dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases warm the planet (hence the name) — if they didn’t we’d have an average temperature below the freezing point of water. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which is dumped into the atmosphere by humans to the tune of 30 billion tons per year, 100 times the amount from volcanoes. And finally, approximately 97% of climatologists who actually study climate agree that global warming is real, and caused by humans.
Far from being a fluctuation, these records getting broken are more likely a trend, and it’s more likely we’ll see more of them.
Graph and image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
[The article below was originally posted on the BBC Future blog, and was titled "Will we ever… find life elsewhere in the universe?" I’m reposting it here because, oddly, the BBC page is only readable for people outside the UK! It has to do with the BBC rights and all that. But they gave me permission to post it here, and since I thought it was fun and provocative, I figure y’all would like it. Enjoy.]
Will we ever… find life in space?
One of the reasons I love astronomy is that it doesn’t flinch from the big questions. And one of the biggest is: are we alone?
Another reason I love astronomy: it has a good shot at answering this question.
Even a few decades ago hard-headed realists pooh-poohed the idea of aliens. But times change, and so does science. We’ve accumulated enough data that makes the question less far-fetched than it once was, and I’m starting to think that the question isn’t "Will we find life?" but rather "Which method will find it first?"
There are three methods that, to me, are the front-runners for finding life on other worlds. And I have an idea as to which one may find it first.
Life on Mars?
The first method follows the principle that when you’re looking for something, it’s best to start close to home.
We know of one planet that has life: Earth. So it makes sense to look for other places with Earth-like conditions: that is, liquid water, oxygen in the air, nutrients for growth, and so on.
The most obvious place to look is Mars. At first glance it appears dry, cold and dead. But if you can see past that, things start to look up. The polar caps, for example, have lots of frozen water, and we’ve directly seen ice at lower latitudes on the Red Planet as well – meteorite impacts have left behind shiny craters, digging up fresh ice from below the surface.
Several Mars rovers and landers have uncovered tantalising evidence that liquid water might flow just beneath the surface, but we still lack any conclusive evidence. However, if you broaden your timescale a bit, there is excellent evidence that in the past – perhaps a billion years or so ago – our neighbouring planet had oceans of liquid water and thicker air. In fact, conditions were pretty good to develop life as we know it even before it popped up here on Earth.
It’s entirely possible that life got a toehold (or pseudopod hold) there long ago, and died out. If that’s the case, we may yet find fossils in the Martian rocks. Again, there’s no conclusive evidence yet, but we’ve literally barely scratched the surface there. Now that it has successfully landed on Mars, we have the exciting possibility that the plutonium-powered, car-sized Curiosity rover will soon use its on-board laser and other tools to crack open and examine rocks in the Gale Crater, which were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of liquid water.
And Mars isn’t the only possibility in our solar system. Liquid water exists inside Saturn’s moon Enceladus, where geysers of liquid water erupt from deep canyons at its south pole. Energised by the gravitational tug of the giant ringed planet itself, the interior of Enceladus may be a vast ocean of liquid water even while the surface is frozen over. That doesn’t guarantee we’ll ever find alien fish swimming that moon’s seas, of course. But it’s an interesting place to look.
Europa, a moon of Jupiter, almost certainly has an undersurface ocean as well. If you relax your constraints even more, Saturn’s moon Titan has lakes of liquid methane and ethane on its surface, too. The chemistry for life would be different there – it’s a rather chilly -180C on the surface – but it’s not impossible to suppose life might arise there too.
Finding out whether this is the case means getting up close and personal. We’re doing that for Mars; however, the likes of Europa and Enceladus may have to wait a decade or four.
But maybe we don’t have to go anywhere. Instead, we might be able to sit here and wait for alien beings (of whatever form) to message us.
Just a few minutes ago, engineers at JPL here on Earth commanded the Mars Curiosity rovers to make its first test drive! The rover rolled a few meters, stopped and took a picture of its progress:
[Click to enaresenate.]
Wow! This image was taken by the left NAVCAM (NAVigation CAMera) on Curiosity at 15:00:53 UTC (there’s a matching one by the right NAVCAM, too, and there’s already an anaglyph that’s been made). You can easily see where the wheels have disturbed the Martian surface, and where the rover made a bit of a turn as well.
I’m also fond of this picture, taken just a few minutes later at 15:03:56 UTC, also by the left NAVCAM:
Seeing the rover in the picture itself, ironically, brings home the idea that this machine is far, far away from home.
Actually, wait, scratch that. Curiosity was built to work on Mars.
It is home.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
– Curiosity spins its wheels
– Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
– Watch as Curiosity touches down gently *and* its heat shield slams into Mars
– Curiosity’s looking a little blue
What the heck is in the air this past week? First we see a simulated image of the sky from Mars go massively viral because people thought it actually showed Earth in the Martian sky, then a clearly Photoshopped pic of two "Suns" setting on Mars gets passed around.
And now a new slice of oddness enters the field: a picture of a planetary alignment over the Giza Pyramids, saying this only happens once every 2737 years. Because planetary alignments and the pyramids play such a large role in New Age/astrological beliefs, there is clearly some sort of spiritual message implied here.
Well, I hate to be a thricely-bursting-bubble person, but here we go again, again. Let me be clear: while there will be an event more-or-less like this in December, and it should be pretty and quite cool to see, the claims being made are somewhat exaggerated. The picture itself isn’t real, and the planets won’t really look like that from Giza. Also, alignments like this happen fairly often, though to be fair getting them spaced out to fit over the pyramids in this way probably is relatively rare.
Busting your Cheops
Here’s the picture making the rounds:
It clearly shows the three pyramids in Giza, Egypt, with three planets above them. There are various versions of this picture I’ve seen; most are like this with almost no explanation. Some say the planets are Mercury, Venus, and Saturn, and some mention this is what it will look like on December 3rd, 2012, just before sunrise.
First, this obviously cannot be an actual photo if the event hasn’t happened yet! This must be a Photoshop job. That’s fine if it’s only to show what things are supposed to look like, and no one is claiming this is an actual photo.
However, it hardly matters. There are lots of other problems with this planetary alignment claim.
What’s your angle?
The first thing I did when I saw this was ask: is there really going to be a close conjunction of three planets on December 3rd?
The answer is yes! Mercury, Venus, and Saturn will all be within a relatively small distance of each other in the sky on that date. This isn’t a particularly tight configuration like Venus and Jupiter were earlier this year – in this case, they’ll be 14 degrees apart, nearly 30 times the width of the full Moon on the sky – but it’s still pretty nifty.
The second thing I did, though, was ask myself: will they really look like that in the sky as seen from Giza?
The answer this time is no. I used the software planetarium program SkySafari to show what the three planets would look like in the sky before sunrise on December 3rd as seen from the location of the pyramids, and got this:
In this picture, the yellow line is the ecliptic, the path of the Sun in the sky through the year. The green horizontal line is the horizon, and the three planets are labeled.
Note the angle of the planets: in the picture going viral, the planets are much closer to horizontal, but in reality the line connecting the planets is at a much steeper angle. It’s nearly vertical, in fact. This may not seem like a big deal, but having the planets closer to horizontal like in the viral picture is more spectacular than what will really happen, exaggerating the claim.
Not only that, but in the pyramid picture the planets are almost exactly on a line, like beads on a string. But as you can see in the picture above, they’re not nearly that colinear. Again it’s looking like the pyramid picture is exaggerating the situation.
I noticed something else funny as well.
Here’s a satellite view of the three pyramids, courtesy Google maps:
[I wrote this article for my friend Amy Roth, aka SurlyAmy, who has asked leaders in the field of skepticism to write about the recent surge of anti-women rhetoric. She posted my article on the Skepchicks site, and you can find links to the whole series of articles at the bottom of that post. I’m posting my piece here on my blog as well because this is a very important topic, and I want as many people to see it as possible.]
What the hell is going on in the online community?
If you’ve been reading or paying attention at all to any of the online cultures like skepticism or general geekery (scifi, gaming, convention-going, and so on), you’ll have seen astonishing and depressing displays of sexism. That’s been true for a long time. But recently some sort of sea change has occurred, and what we’re seeing now is a marked increase in outright misogyny and thuggery.
The examples are so distressingly ubiquitous I hardly need point them out. A woman gamer wants to make a documentary showing misogyny in video games, and she gets rape and death threats. Rebecca Watson calmly and rationally tells men not to hit on women in enclosed spaces and reaps a supernova of hate and irrational vitriol. And now we’re seeing death threats, rape threats, all kinds of violent threats, against women who are simply trying to improve the way they are treated at meetings as well as online.
This. Must. Stop.
I am a skeptic and a scientist. I know what’s it like to feel anger and frustration toward implacable forces I think are threatening my way of existence. You may feel this way about many things as well. And while you and I may disagree on some of these topics, the way to work out our disagreements is through the exchange of ideas via honorable words and actions.
Threats, dickery, bullying, hate, insults, mob-baiting, and humiliation are not honorable actions and must not be used. You want to change my mind? You want to win my heart to your cause? Then argue your case logically and based on evidence. If you have to resort to the kind of crap we’re seeing now, then maybe your convictions aren’t as rationally based as you think they are.
Look, I know people are angry. Some of them have the right to be. As I have said many times, anger is natural, anger can be warranted, and anger can be a great motivator. But it must not lead to hatred. Unfocused anger, uncontrolled anger, cannot lead anywhere but away from a goal. Once hatred leaks in through those cracks, rational discussion is dead.
I have seen precious few discussions on this where sooner or later (and usually sooner) the comments don’t devolve into spittle-flecked rhetoric. Even if the original article is well-reasoned, thoughtful, calm, and rational, the comments quickly fall apart. That is what hate does.
That’s unfortunate, but that’s the internet. There’s not a whole lot that can be done about that in general, because you cannot control how others act. But here’s what can be done in particular: you can control how you act. Don’t let the anger, don’t let the hate, get the better of you.
Internet discussion devolves quickly, but discussions in person tend not to. We know when we are facing another living, breathing, feeling person, but that knowledge is easily overwhelmed by emotion online. But the two are not separate: raging emotions online have real life consequences. Threats and bullying online don’t just go out into the ether. They affect real people, and can cause a lifetime of damage.
Don’t let the hate get the better of you.
I’ve been quiet about this up until now for many reasons. Whenever I dip my toes into this miasma the overwhelming response is been vicious and hateful. Even many people who claim to be critical thinkers dive into the ichor and become part of it.
But I decided I can’t stand by and watch this anymore, and that’s why I’m writing this now. My friend, Surly Amy, has been posting a series of articles by men speaking out against this incredibly disturbing trend toward violent rhetoric, and the post by Dale McGowan, Executive Director of Foundation Beyond Belief, really struck home:
Silently shaking my head does nothing. The women under this kind of attack can’t hear my head rattling, so they can only assume I don’t care, when I actually care deeply. I think it’s the difficulty of putting this massive, deranged genie back in the bottle that keeps so many of us quiet. But that’s a poor excuse that only keeps the victims feeling isolated and besieged.
If you threaten violence against someone you disagree with, then you are not a critical thinker. You are not a skeptic. And you are most certainly not a decent human being.
If you disagree with someone, fine. You may be right, you may be wrong. But if, when expressing your disagreement, you bully, threaten, verbally or mentally abuse the person you’re arguing with, then you’re doing it wrong, and you need to stop.
Maybe you’ve heard me say this before, but it’s just as relevant now as it was in 2010, and it always will be: Don’t Be A Dick. If we can just start there, we’ll get a lot farther along the path of understanding and mutual benefit. And from there we can get on with the real work of making the world a better place. For everyone.
Let me be clear right off the top: global warming is real. There is vastly overwhelming evidence for it and scientific consensus about it, and the only people still sowing doubt about it appear to be motivated more by ideology and corporate interests than scientific evidence.
Having said that, one thing I’m careful about when I talk about it is linking specific weather events to the worsening climate. We humans like to connect events if they occur at the same time, whether they are actually connected or not. So when huge storms spawning tornadoes ravaged the midwest last year, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When a huge glacier calved off Greenland a few weeks ago, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When Greenland got a tremendous burst of warm air that caused unprecedented ice melting, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When wildfires erupted over the US and Russia this summer, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. I said these events are all consistent with global warming, but not necessarily caused by it.
Now, however, things have changed. New evidence has arisen that indicates the extreme heat waves that are cooking the US are in fact and in deed caused by global warming.
[UPDATE: Talk about timing: the NOAA just released their State of the Climate report, showing that July 2012 is the hottest month ever recorded in the history of the contiguous United States.]
Climate scientist James Hansen – who, in the 1980s, was the first to talk about the idea that the planet is heating up – has published research linking global warming and these extreme events. It’s explained in an article on the NASA site: Hansen and his team looked at northern hemisphere surface temperatures going back to the early 1950s. At any given time, some places are hotter than average, some cooler. So they plotted these temperature deviations from average and got a bell curve, just like the bell curve some teachers use to grade students. Most temperatures are near the average value, while very hot or very cold places are less common; the graph peaks in the middle and falls away to either side.
All well and good. But when they plotted these temperatures over time – looking at the average temperature for a given year as well as the extreme events – they saw three things, none of them good. One was that, over time, the average temperature moved to the right – that is, the the overall temperature got hotter. Second, there were fewer cooler temperatures – the graph on the left got weaker. Third, there were more extreme heating events – the graph got stronger on the right.
The green line shows the smoothed average curve for the time period of 1951 – 1980. The filled in part shows the curve for the decade of 2001 – 2011. Note that it’s skewed right, and there are more hot events as well.
It hasn’t been your imagination. We’re getting hotter, and we’re seeing more extremely hot summers. You can confirm this for yourself: walk outside.
Personal anecdotes aside, the data back that conclusion up. Statistically speaking, the temperature "anomalies" are highly significant, meaning they are almost certainly real. In the 1950s, extreme heat waves like we’re seeing now were rare to nonexistent. Today, 10% of the northern hemisphere experiences these heat waves. Dr. Hansen says that without global warming, these anomalies wouldn’t be happening. In other words, our warming planet is the culprit behind these extreme events.
This doesn’t mean every summer will be hotter than the last, or have worse heat waves. But as Dr. Hansen points out, it does mean that in general that’s what we’ll see. Climate Scientist Michael Mann describes it this way:
It is not simply a set of random events occurring in isolation, but part of a broader emerging pattern. We are seeing, in much of the extreme weather we are experiencing, the “loading of the weather dice.” Over the past decade, records for daily maximum high temperatures in the U.S. have been broken at twice the rate we would expect from chance alone. Think of this as rolling double sixes twice as often as you’d expect – something you would readily notice in a high stakes game of dice. Thus far this year, that ratio is close to 10 to 1. That’s double sixes coming up ten times as often as you expect.
What Dr. Hansen’s research shows is that again, while any specific event is hard to blame in its entirety on global warming, the overall trend we’re seeing – including these disastrous heat waves causing deaths, massive crop failures, drought, and wildfires – is linked to global warming. As he put it:
This summer people are seeing extreme heat and agricultural impacts. We’re asserting that this is causally connected to global warming, and in this paper we present the scientific evidence for that.
That’s a pretty firm commitment. And one that will, no doubt, make heads explode amongst climate change denialists. They will obfuscate, they will nitpick, they will distract, they will deny. But they are wrong. The media, and more importantly, politicians, need to understand that.
Again, as Dr. Mann says (emphasis mine):
The time for debate about the reality of human-caused climate change has now passed. We can have a good faith debate about how to deal with the problem – how to reduce future climate change and adapt to what is already upon us to reduce the risks that climate change poses to society. But we can no longer simply bury our heads in the sand.
As I’ve said before: when does weather become climate? It’s starting to feel like now.
Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
Well, that was fast! The MARDI – MARs Descent Imager – was designed to take images as the Curiosity rover dropped down to the surface of Mars. Those thumbnail images have been put together into a stop-motion video that’s just jaw-droppingly cool:
[It helps to set the resolution to HD and make the video as big as possible.]
The video starts when the heat shield drops away – that’s the flying saucer-like thing right at the beginning, which was also seen from space by the MRO spacecraft orbiting Mars. The parachute has already deployed by the time the video starts, so you see the image sway as the rover swings underneath the chute.
The resolution is low, but you can see the features getting bigger as the rover descends. The rockets start firing, though you can’t see that in this video… at least, not until the 45 second mark where suddenly you can see a big puff of dust as the rockets’ plumes hit the surface!
I’ll let you think on that for just a second.
As dust on Mars swirls underneath the hanging rover, you can see one of the rover wheels drop down, and then, finally, Curiosity lands on its new home.
This is where we are folks: it’s not enough that we can send our robotic proxies to other worlds using a Wile. E. Coyote series of maneuvers, but now we can also return pictures as the machines descend and see them within hours of the event itself!*
This stuff just keeps getting cooler. Science! It rocks.
Tip o’ the dust cover to the Mars Curiosity Rover on Twitter itself!
* We did this for the Huygens lander that was dropped onto Saturn’s moon Titan from Cassini as well, I’ll note, though it took longer to get them.