One of the things I love about the internet, and specifically Twitter, is how an offhand comment turns into awesome. And it happens within seconds.
For some reason, a super-hi-res picture of the Earth is making the rounds right now. It’s a gorgeous pic, and lots of people are sending me the link via email and Twitter. The thing is, I wrote about this picture back in April, on Earth Day. But such is the nature of the interwebz that stuff pops back up.
I appreciate that folks think enough of me to send me stuff, in case I hadn’t seen it. But in this case I figured I’d better stem the tide, so I tweeted about it, just basically saying thanks, but I already wrote about it.
Right after tweeting that, I realized how hipster it sounded. So I decided to go full hipster, tweeting:
It says, "I wrote about the Earth, it’s an obscure planet, you’ve probably never heard of it. #BadAstrohipster". I added the #BadAstrohipster hashtag as an afterthought; hashtags were originally meant to be used as a way to organize and categorize tweets, but now most folks use them as punchlines.
What happened next is internet magic. People picked up on this immediately, and within seconds I was getting brilliant replies using the hashtag. I retweeted some, but they started coming in so quickly I gave up. Instead, I’ve collected a few here for you to enjoy. This isn’t all of them, but these are the ones that made me LOL. You can search on the hashtag to see what all the others are.
This one was retweeted by Neil Gaiman himself!
The beauty of this next one is hard to overstate. It may take a little reading to get it, but I have to respect a joke about obscuration that is itself obscure. Wow.
And finally this one, which is hands down my favorite:
Thanks to all my brilliant tweeps, and don’t ever let anyone say Twitter is useless. It made me laugh, a lot, and that’s worth everything there is.
I’m happy to announce I’m rolling out a new feature: BAFacts, a short daily factoid about this strange and fun Universe we live in. Every day in the mid-afternoon GMT (in the morning for most of the US) I’ll tweet something I find interesting, cool, or gee-whizlike. They’ll all be about science, mostly space and astronomy, but really anything that catches my fancy is fair game.
Some will have links for more info (if the tweet itself is short enough to accommodate one). I’ll also post them in my Google+ stream, and I’ll include more info there when I can. I’ll use the hashtag #BAFacts to make them easy to find. I have also created a BAFact archive where I’ll list the previous BAFacts.
I started thinking about doing this months ago, and always found some reason to delay the launch. Maybe, I would think, it would be better to do it this way, or post it that way… but I decided that the best way to do something new in social media is to do it. Get it out there, and fiddle with it later if something comes up that can improve it.
So maybe I’ll figure out how to add more links, or pictures, or math, or whatever. I’m happy to take suggestions. But for now, BAFacts launches today…
… and the first one is now live!
And just why am I starting BAFacts today? As I wrote earlier, today is perihelion, when the Earth is closest to the Sun in its orbit. It’s something of a coincidence that it happens so close to New Year’s (according to the standard Gregorian calendar most of the planet uses these days). It’s funny: the first day of the year is pretty arbitrary when you think about it, but the point of perihelion is an actual, physical thing, not arbitrary at all. It would actually make a kind of sense to start our year on that day… except that the Earth’s orbit isn’t like a racetrack; it changes shape every year due to the influence of the other planets, so the precise time and day of perihelion changes by a day or so every year. Oh well.
Still, it’s something of a milestone in our orbit, and since it’s close to New Year’s day it’s an appropriate time to start something new. It was either today, or wait until the Vernal Equinox in March, and I didn’t want to wait that long!
I hope y’all enjoy it, and get as much of a kick reading them as I do writing them.
I used to dabble in writing fiction when I was younger, and really enjoyed it. I’ve had some interesting ideas filed away for years now, and then, in 2009, Wil Wheaton wrote about a site called Ficly, which inspired me to cold-start my fiction chops. Ficly only allows you to write micro-stories, with a total of 1024 characters (that is, letters, numbers, and punctuation; not story characters). That limit of only a few hundred words can really hone your skills! I had a lot of fun writing a couple of stories on Ficly called Deep, and Random Walk (the second of which is good for Halloween, though they’re both on the eerie side).
This morning, I was reading Twitter and suddenly wondered if it were possible to write even shorter stories. Twitter stories! They would have to be very short — duh — but still imply some story behind them. And this being Halloween, they had to be creepy. So I wrote one, gave it the hashtag #NanoWeenStories, and posted it:
I know, it’s a bit silly and tongue-in-cheek. But after posting it, I started thinking about this more, and realized it really could be fun. So I posted some more:
See? There’s an implied back story there, without any real set up or detail. I realized this was way too much fun, so I kept going:
The next thing I knew, a bunch of other folks started writing their own, too. A lot of those are really good, so if you have some time between doorbells, check them out.
I’m currently suffering from what I call "typewriter key jam", named for the condition when you hit too many typewriter keys at once and they all stick together: I have too many ideas to write, and they’re all stuck. I need to pick one and go. But in the meantime, these nanostories are a great way to keep the fingers busy.
Hmmm, busy fingers. I bet I can use that…
The European Space Agency is sponsoring a contest: if you think comets are cool, tweet about them! The winner gets a trip to Darmstadt, Germany — ESA’s operating HQ — to celebrate 25 years of exploring comets.
There are rules, but they boil down to posting on Twitter about comets, using the "#coolcomet" hashtag, and providing an optional link to a non-text page (YouTube video, picture, etc.) that follows up. You have to be from a member country of ESA or the US to participate.
They are collecting all the tweets using TwapperKeeper, and you can see what others have done. They’re getting lots of entries, so if you want to try, I suggest being clever. Think about different aspects of comets, something unusual, and why they’re so interesting. The posts linked below might help get your unsublimated gases thawed.
Have fun! And if you win, send me a postcard from Darmstadt.
Image credit: Comet McNaught in the daytime from Chris North/Wikipedia
- Ten Things You Don’t Know About Comets
- Followup: Deep Impact crater on Tempel 1
- A comet creates its own snowstorm!
- Amazing close ups of comet Hartley 2
- Actually, if you’re a comet, it *is* easy being green
Yesterday, as you are no doubt aware, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 17 others were shot by a gunman at a constituent meet-and-greet. As I write this (late Saturday night), 6 people have died — including a small child.
Like everyone, I was shocked when I heard. I happened to be reading Twitter, and saw a link about it. For quite some time it was being reported that Giffords had been killed, but this was later amended to her being in surgery. As I write this, she is out of surgery and the doctors are optimistic, which is a thin ray of hope in this otherwise terrible situation. My heart is heavy with all this, and my sincere and deepest condolences go to family and friends of those hurt and killed.
I’ll note that Mark Kelly, Representative Giffords’ husband, is a NASA astronaut and is scheduled to command the last flight of Endeavour — the last flight of the Shuttle program — to the space station. I have not heard anything from NASA yet on what this will mean for that flight, though a brief statement about the shooting itself was issued by NASA Admin Charles Bolden.
I want to take a minute and talk about what I saw on Twitter in the hour or two after the shooting was announced. Rep. Giffords is a Democrat, and one of the first comments I saw was about the Tea Party and how they must be a part of this. For those unaware, in the media the Tea Party members have been played as a fringe group of angry, mostly racist whackos. I’ve mentioned them a few times here on this blog, mostly to point out their overwhelmingly antiscience stance (or, in the case of one or two, gross misunderstanding of the Constitution). Obviously, I am no fan of that political party.
Also implicated was Sarah Palin. Last year, her political action committee (PAC) put together a graphical ad — still up on her Facebook page –that shows a map of the US with crosshair targets placed over 20 Congressional Democrats’ districts… one of which was Rep. Giffords. As I understand it, she also made a series of tweets, where one linked to that ad, and another one telling conservatives "don’t retreat – instead RELOAD".
No wonder a lot of folks on Twitter were so ready to point at Palin. And other cases of Tea Party and right-wing fomenting abound (including this unbelievable event held by Rep. Giffords’ 2010 opponent, "Get on Target for Victory in November Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly").
Let me be clear: I find that sort of rhetoric repulsively abhorrent. And with so much of it around, and so much of it targeting Giffords specifically, it’s natural to assume that it’s at least partly to blame for what happened in Arizona yesterday. But the thing is, even as I write this, many hours after the event, we don’t know what motivated the shooting (though what evidence we do have indicates the shooter was apparently mentally ill), and we certainly didn’t in the immediate hour after the news broke. There might be a connection, but there might not. We didn’t and still don’t have any good evidence either way… and what we do have is circumstantial.
At the time, I could see that the rumor mongering on Twitter was about to blast off (the misreported news of Giffords’ death was started in the mainstream media but burned rapidly through Twitter), so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to say something. Speculation on Twitter is a positive-feedback loop that works on a very short timescale, and can quickly escalate way beyond what the evidence supports. So I tweeted this:
Let me be clear: it is way too early to know motives here, and speculation is counterproductive.
I followed up with some specifics and a discussion with some other people; you can find the discussion on Twitter if you care to. I wasn’t too surprised to get some support for this, nor to get attacks. A lot of people were convinced Palin (and the others mentioned above) were setting up an atmosphere where violence was inevitable. That may be true, but we don’t know what led up to this specific event.
And I want to be clear: don’t confuse my not wanting to jump to conclusions with me saying Palin’s actions and statements don’t play into this at all. It’s entirely possible they do. It would be foolish to deny it. But without any evidence it’s equally as foolish to simply assume they do.
The shooting and the rhetoric are, for now, related but separate issues. Connections may come later, or they may not. Certainly, I would very much like to see the hateful speech gone from politics, and perhaps, if any good will come of this awful event, a spotlight will be focused on that issue. I just watched a short segment on CNN where they discussed this very topic, and I was surprised to see them being careful and saying the rhetoric may not be connected to the shooting, but also careful to say that it’s past time we do discuss the tone of politics these days. Perhaps there’s something to be hopeful for yet.
I suppose my point in all this is that it’s completely understandable that people want to vent and point fingers after a horrible event like this. The temptation for me is great as well, especially given my own predisposition against some of the people involved in the discussion. But we have to be very careful when evidence is scanty, because it’s all too easy to fill in the gaps with whatever our biases want.
And that is why we must be even more vigilant, even more ready to use critical thinking in the wake of tragedy. It’s OK to grieve, it’s OK to be horrified, and it’s OK to be angry. I’m angry, damn angry. But we cannot let that impair our judgment. It is times like these that we are most likely to rush in, to make snap judgments, and to make mistakes. And in a situation as serious as this, that is the thing we can least afford.
I see a lot of the same, tired, and totally wrong arguments about global warming over and over again whenever I write about it. "The other planets are warming!", "In the 70s scientists said the Earth was cooling!", "The climate scientists were caught faking their data!"
Wrong, wrong, and wrong. It’s almost as if the people making so much noise against the idea of global warming are robots, just repeating their arguments in the hope — sadly, probably correctly — that people will be swayed by repetition.
Software developer Nigel Leck feels the same way, so he created a ‘bot for Twitter that scans for key words used by climate change denialists and tweets automatic rebuttals to the most common "arguments". It’s pretty awesome: it posts a short, pithy debunking with a link to sites for more detail. The ‘bot is called AI_AGW and you can follow it on Twitter (note: it tweets a lot).
Pretty sweet idea! Now we just need one for homeopaths, anti-vaxxers, 2012ers, creationists, chiropractors, UFOers…
So my TV show "Phil Plait’s Bad Universe" premieres on the Discovery Channel this Sunday, August 29, at 10:00 p.m (did you see the sneak peek?). And I figure, what better way to promote it than another BA giveaway contest?
Yay! So I’m giving away a lot of swag related to the show, plus some other neat stuff. To wit [click the pix to embiggen]:
Specifically, the winner will receive:
- A signed copy of my book Death from the Skies! on which Bad Universe is based
- Actual shrapnel from the rocks we hit to test asteroid mitigation techniques (see pic on right)
- Shrapnel from the aluminum ball used in the kinetic impactor test (on the upper left of that pic)
- A (really funny) Bad Universe promotional postcard
- Hubble paper clips
- Stickers, including a CfI "Science Saves" bumper sticker
- A NASA 2010 calendar (I know, but the pictures are really pretty)
- Space images DVD
- Hubble Space Telescope documentary DVD
- An official NASA Hubble pin
- A Hubble cookie cutter. Seriously.
- Other miscellaneous stuff
I have lying around with an enormous coolness factor.
… and, oh, how about also
An actual honest-to-FSM meteorite, a piece of asteroid that fell to Earth!
Yeah, I thought that might get your attention. This is a chunk of Sikhote-Alin meteorite that fell in Russia in 1947. It weighs 129 grams (4.6 ounces) and is about 5 x 3 x 2.5 cm (2 x 1.2 x 1 inches) in size. It’s almost solid iron, very heavy and dense, and if you’ve never held a meteorite before, well, you’re in for a treat. It’s awesome. I’ll include a writeup I did of the meteorite as well.
So how do you win this great stuff? Here’s the deal:
[UPDATE: We have a winner! @Pryced got the winning retweet, picked at random. He sent me an acknowledging email, and the package is on its way to him. But don't fret! More fun giveaways are coming soon...]
I haven’t done a contest in a while, but this one was worth the wait: I have some very cool Mythbusters swag I’m giving away!
Here’s the loot:
So how do you win this fabulous prize? Here’s the deal: