Big news: Bad Astronomy is moving to Slate magazine

By Phil Plait | November 2, 2012 12:32 pm

I have a rather big announcement to make: the Bad Astronomy Blog is moving to Slate magazine on November 12!

I’ve been writing at Discover Magazine for over four years, and it’s been a great ride. From the moment the phone first rang early in 2008 – then-CEO Henry Donahue calling me asking if I’d be interested in joining their nascent blog collective – to this very day, I’ve had so much fun working for this grand science magazine. I’ve posted something like 4600 blog articles since then – can I get a Holy Haleakala from the choir? – which is a whole lot of science, astronomy, Doctor Who, and antiscience smashery. I’m proud of my work here, and grateful for the support I’ve received from Discover.

But, as Q said to Picard, all good things must come to an end. Slate is already a major voice in politics, economics, and social issues, and they cover science as well. Since I do tend to speak my mind on every topic in which I’m interested – and that includes politics, religion, what-have-you – it’s a natural fit.

This is bittersweet, to be sure, as any big change can be. I’m excited about this new chapter in my blogging life as well as sad about leaving Discover. I’ve made many friends here, and I have great hopes for their future. All the Discover blogs are and will remain in my feed reader, and I will always check them every day.

Science covers the whole Universe – that’s rather the point – so there’s room for lots of science coverage. You could do a lot worse than read 80 Beats, Cosmic Variance, The Crux, Discoblog, Gene Expression, The Loom, and Not Exactly Rocket Science.

But I also hope y’all will follow me to Slate as well. I’ll have more info on the move (like the URL, RSS feed address, and all that) closer to when the time comes.

And seriously – thanks to all of you who have been reading my writing, whether you’re a new BABloggee or one who’s been hanging around since I first started writing it on my Bad Astronomy site back in 2005. I appreciate all the comments, emails, tweets, and general feedback I’ve gotten, and I’m sincerely happy to be able to bring you a slice of the cosmos, no matter where my words sit.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog

Drama bike ride

By Phil Plait | November 2, 2012 11:03 am

Because I can.

If you don’t get it, this might help.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Geekery, Humor

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

Reminder: Donors Choose

By Phil Plait | November 1, 2012 12:45 pm

[UPDATE (Nov. 2): I’ve just been informed the Challenge has been extended to November 9th due to the chaos on the east coast.]

A quick reminder: I am participating in the Donors Choose Science Blog Challenge to raise money for teachers in need. The funds go to educators in at-risk schools so they can get the tools they need to teach kids math, science, and other topics. I have more background on this in my first announcement post.

If you were thinking of donating, I have some nice news: Donors Choose has set up a matching fund! Every dollar you donate (up to $100 per donation) will be matched by Donors Choose themselves. This is a $50,000 pool of money they have promised, which will buy a whole lot of science for kids who are curious and excited about the world, but lack the resources to fill that desire.

When you fill out the donation page, a text box will come up asking for a code. Just enter SCIENCE, and your donation will double. It’s just that simple. This offer will go through the end of the campaign (on November 5) or when the money runs out, whichever occurs first. As I write this, 18 people have donated a total of $2000 which is going to over 400 students. That warms my heart immensely.

As always, thank you for helping out. If you’ve ever seen a kid’s face when they get that "AHA!" moment in a science class, then you’ll know why I love this funding drive. We’re literally bringing the world to these students, and it means the world to them.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, Cool stuff
MORE ABOUT: Donors Choose

Purple shag Sun

By Phil Plait | November 1, 2012 10:05 am

The great astrophotographer Andre van der Hoeven sent me a shot he took of the Sun a few days ago. Looks like either Barney or the Grape Nehi folks paid it a visit:

[Click to envioletenate.]

Pretty cool. First, of course, the purple color is not real. It’s just the color Andre chose for this picture when he processed it. Second, he used an Hα filter, which lets through a very narrow slice of light (actually in the red part of the spectrum). This color is emitted by warm hydrogen, and is preferentially under the influence of the Sun’s magnetism. You can see arching prominences – huge towers of gas – off the edge of the Sun. The long stringy bits on the face of the Sun are called filaments, and are actually the exact same thing as prominences! Prominences are filaments we see from the side, instead of looking down on them. The terminology is a holdover from when astronomers first started observing the Sun, and we’re kinda stuck with it.

Also, Andre inverted the picture, so what looks black is actually very bright, and what looks bright is very dark. Those bright white blotches? Sunspots. For some reason, our brains can pick out detail better that way, and it also gives an eerie 3D sense to the image. He made a close-up mosaic of his pictures, too, which is actually a bit creepy. It’ll keep the Halloween spirit going for another day, at least!

Image credit: Andre van der Hoeven, used by permission.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Look! Up in the sky! It’s…it’s… it’s an amazing optics display

By Phil Plait | November 1, 2012 7:00 am

It’s funny what tiny little ice crystals can do. Floating high in the air, suspended by air currents, they hang there… and then a ray of sunshine enters them. The light gets bent due to complicated physics, the interplay of that beam of light passing from air to a solid crystal and out again. But once that beam leaves, the sky can light up with a wizard’s pattern of colors and shapes. And if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll see something that you’ll remember the rest of your life.

Something like this:

Holy diffractionation! [Click to heliocanesenate.]

Mind you, this picture is real. David Hathaway – appropriately enough, a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama – took it using a wide-angle lens to get the whole thing. It’s a High Dynamic Range shot, meaning he combined pictures with 3 different exposure times to see both faint and bright things simultaneously. He took the shot on October 30, 2012.

Everything you’re seeing here is pretty well understood: they all have a name and a specific set of circumstances under which you can see them.

The Sun is the bright blob near the horizon. It’s circled by the 22° halo, a fairly common optical effect in the winter; I see dozens every season. On either side of the Sun are parhelia, nicknamed sundogs. Those are the teardrop-shaped rainbows. Sometimes, as seen here, these stretch out into long streamers called parhelic circles. They are parallel to the horizon but in this wide-angle shot the shape is distorted, bending them up.

Directly above the Sun, dipping down to touch the halo (the math term for this is osculating, which means kissing) is a gull-wing curve called the tangent arc. Above it, connecting the "wings", is the Parry arc.

As an aside, I’ve seen tangent arcs only twice in my entire life. One was at a University of Virginia football game in the winter when the Sun was setting. It was so bright and looked so much like a V that I joked that it was a sign we’d win the game. Georgia Tech trounced us. So much for divination using signs in the sky.

Above the tangent and Parry arcs is a faint rainbow (well, it’s not caused by raindrops, but it’s broken up into colors and has the familiar rainbow-shape) called the Parry supralateral. Faint and off to the right, nicking the supralateral, is a tightly-curved rainbow called the Parry infralateral.

Amazingly, there are still two more to go! The upside-down rainbow at the top is called a circumzenithal arc, because it’s centered on the zenith, the point directly above your head.

Finally, the last thing I can see is a very faint white vertical oval on either side of the the 22° halo and going off the top of the frame, past the circumzenithal arc. That’s the heliac arc, something I’d never even heard of before looking it up here. That’s a new one for me.

Amazing, aren’t they? And get this: there are lots more kinds of phenomena like this, and they’re all caused by ice crystals in the air! The crystals have different shapes – some are flat, some barrel-shaped, so they bend light differently, and their orientation to us causes all these fantastic displays.

By coincidence, just a few days ago BABloggee Joe DePasquale (who works at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) also saw an aamazing display. Here’s one of the shots he sent me:

Wow. You can see a lot of the same features as in David Hathaway’s picture, too (in fact, Joe made a diagram so you can see what’s what). BABloggee Alan French let me know that there’s a fine gallery of them on Flickr, too.

It’s possible some of this was due to ex-Hurricane Sandy getting moisture high in the atmosphere where it could freeze into crystals. But I’ll note again that I have seen many of these same haloes myself. Most are not rare at all, and all you need to do is keep your eye on the sky. Seriously, one of the first things I do on any day where there are high clouds is look near (not at!) the Sun and see if there’s anything to be seen.

Usually there isn’t. But sometimes, just sometimes, you get that amazing display that makes all the fruitless searching totally worth it.

Look up! There’s a whole Universe out there. And some of the coolest stuff is really close to home, literally just over your head.

Image credits: David Hathaway; Joe dePasquale, used by permission. Tip o’ the Snell’s Law to SpaceWeather.com and to Elwood Herring for pointing it out to me.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Top Post

They Came From Outer Space

By Phil Plait | October 31, 2012 6:00 am

Space is scary.

Supernovae explode, flooding their neighborhood with deadly high-energy light and blasting superheated matter outward at a large fraction of the speed of light. Black holes gobble down everything around them, and they’re sloppy eaters, spewing out deadly radiation and belching vast winds of gas. Galaxies collide, asteroids impact, entire worlds are chewed to dust by their violent stars.

And since ’tis the season, here’s a gallery of spooky pictures of nature: moaning nebulae, screaming stars, ghastly volcanoes, and more. Y’know, we humans love to make up stories about vampires and goblins to scare ourselves, knowing they’re just stories… but the Universe is real, and really, really terrifying. Mwuhahahahahaha!

Happy Halloween from the BA Blog!

chandra_tarantula
adamblock_vdb1_scream
bloodyaspeneye
chandra_perseuscluster
eyjafjallajokull_radar_2
ngc2467_2
runningghost_2
sgraw1ly_2
sh2-136blocks_2
skullflower
spitzer_dr6_2
vista_heartandskull_2
witchheadnebula_2

MORE ABOUT: Halloween

A wind is rising

By Phil Plait | October 30, 2012 9:49 am

What is now the post-tropical cyclone Sandy, as seen by the NASA/NOAA weather satellite GOES-13 at 06:02 Eastern US time, on October 30, 2012:

[Click for a much larger version, or get the 3600 x 3000 pixel image.]

Like anyone not on the east coast, I have been watching this event unfold from the sidelines. Twitter has been an amazing source of information (and misinformation, in general quickly debunked). I saw links to a video of transformer exploding on 14th street, ubiquitous flooding, cars floating in water, and so much more. There were so many pictures, real and fake, that Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic wrote a great article on how to distinguish between them.

The pictures have been powerful, but the stories have been amazing. I’ve seen messages from friends who are safe offering – publicly – their apartments and houses for strangers who need a place to stay. People rescuing others from the flooding. Calls for watching out for neighbors, relatives, even pets, with responses. The most moving, perhaps, is of nurses at the NYC hospital carrying infants down nine flights of stairs in the dark after a generator went out.

That one will haunt me for a long, long time.

A question I’ve seen a lot is: what was the role of global warming in all this? Christopher Mims wrote a short, measured analysis of this that matches my thinking almost exactly. Basically, it’s hard to know the precise role of global warming in the formation, movement, power, and damage caused by Sandy, but what we do know is that the Atlantic had warmer temperatures for longer than usual – conditions consistent with global warming – and that is a source of both energy and water for the hurricane. There is some thought that the huge arctic sea ice melt this year may have contributed to the abrupt westward turn of the hurricane into the coast. Correlation isn’t necessarily causation; the details are difficult to calculate and we may never know.

But we do know that something looking very much like this has been predicted by climate scientists. This may be an unusual event – after all, the nor’easter timing was important, and the spring tides from the full Moon contributed as well – but it’s hard to say just how unusual it will be in the future. Warmer waters lead to an extended hurricane season which can stretch into the time when nor’easters are more likely to occur. These circumstances loaded the dice. And as Mims so aptly phrased it, the reality of global warming means "climate change, by definition, is present in every single weather event on the planet."

There has been some political opportunism with this storm as well. I am not a fan of such parasitism; latching on to an opportunity under the thinnest of pretense to trump a partisan view. However, let me be clear: we just had the world’s biggest metaphor come ashore in the United States. Years of outright climate change denial and faux skepticism will hopefully be shaken by this event. Sea ice melting happens far away; droughts, fires, shifting weather is unpredictable and difficult to grasp; statistical graphs are easily manipulated by special-interest groups and generally difficult to interpret anyway. But a hurricane a thousand miles across doing tens of billions of dollars of damage and causing untold chaos is more than a wake up call.

It should be a shot of adrenaline into the heart.

My own heart goes out to everyone who has had to deal with this storm, and I am uplifted by the stories of heroism, self-sacrifice, and selflessness. I am a skeptic and a realist, but there is also a streak of optimism in me. When faced with extraordinary challenge, I will always hope that humans will rise to match it.

Image credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project

Looking up to Saturn

By Phil Plait | October 30, 2012 7:00 am

Just in case you’ve forgotten how brain-destroyingly big Saturn is:

[Click to encronosenate.]

This shot of the ringed wonder was taken by the Cassini spacecraft when it was well over 2 million kilometers from the planet. The spacecraft was south of the rings, looking "up" toward the north. The Sun is shining down on the rings from this perspective, so they look darker than you might expect, and the use of a near-infrared filter accentuates storms in the southern hemisphere cloudtops.

So why does this picture grind my mind to dust? Look at the the very top, near the center. Can you see that dot of light? You might need to click the picture to get the hi-res version to see it better; that’s how small it is.

Except it isn’t. That dot of light is Mimas, a moon of Saturn, and it’s 400 km – 250 miles – across! That’s roughly the size of the state of Missouri, and compared to Saturn it’s reduced to a mere pixel of light. And even then, Saturn’s rings are still too big to fit in this picture!

The scale of the solar system crushes me. And yet there we are, poking around and sticking our noses into it. We humans are pretty awesome.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Cassini, Mimas, Saturn

Time lapse: Close to the Heavens

By Phil Plait | October 29, 2012 12:15 pm

[Personal note: With a hurricane bearing down on the US, I dithered over posting this now… but maybe some of you good folks could use more Moments of Calm.]

Astronomy PhD student Péter Pápics sent me a note about a time lapse video he made at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma in the Canary Islands. I’ve been to this observatory, attending a meeting there many years ago. It’s a place of incredible beauty, so I was eager to see his video, and when I watched it I was thrilled to see it was even better than I hoped. Here is Mercator: Close to the Heavens. Make sure you set it to hi-def and full screen.

Many time lapse videos now use a small motor-driven rig to move the camera very slowly as it takes the pictures, but that limits how long a sequence you can shoot. Péter made two choices here: to use a steady tripod which allows longer shots, and to pick a frame rate that accentuates the magnificent grace of the motion depicted. The clouds flow like oceans, and the stars move serenely. His choice of Moonlight Sonata works well here, especially since the sequences are shown in time order, with the setting Sun leading to a night of observations at this important and heavily-used astronomical site.

I’ll have to bookmark this video; when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed with the need to save the world, this will help me remember what it is we’re trying to save.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
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