Archive for the 'Astronomy' Category

Feb 02 2015

Gravity Waves and Science Self-Correction

Published by under Astronomy

In 2011 scientists tentatively reported that they may have detected neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light in apparent contradiction to the theory of relativity. By early 2012 the technical error that led to the apparent discovery was revealed.

Also in 2012 scientists reported that, using the Large Hadron Collider, they probably found the Higgs boson, the particle responsible for mass. However they were still not completely sure so they kept testing, and then last year they announced that indeed they did identify the Higgs as predicted by the standard model of particle physics.

In March of 2014, in what was definitely the biggest science news story of the year scientists reported detected gravity waves from the Big Bang, confirming the theory called the “inflationary universe.” The discovery was hailed as a “smoking gun.” Space.com at the time wrote:

If it holds up, the landmark discovery — which also confirms the existence of hypothesized ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves — would give researchers a much better understanding of the Big Bang and its immediate aftermath.

In those four little words, “if it holds up,” lies the essence of science. This is just a sample of recent big science news stories that reveal the process of science – skeptical questioning of all claims and testing those claims against objective evidence.

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Jan 16 2015

Trans-Neptunian Objects

Published by under Astronomy

My mental map of our solar system has evolved over the years, as I have learned more about astronomy and as astronomers have learned more about our solar system. When I was younger that mental map ended with Pluto, the ninth and outermost planet of our system. I then learned that Pluto’s orbit takes it within the orbit of Neptune, and from 1979 to 1999 Neptune was actually the furthest planet.

My mental map expanded greatly when I learned about the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud (I can’t remember now which one I learned about first). The Kuiper belt is a doughnut shaped region of space beyond Neptune that contains many small icy worlds. The Oort cloud is a spherical shell farther out still that contains small chunks of dirty ice and is likely the source of many long period comets that sometimes fall into the inner solar system. Short period comets likely come from the Kuiper belt.

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Jul 22 2014

Aliens are Sinners

To paraphrase Carl Sagan: in one unremarkable galaxy among hundreds of billions, there is an unremarkable star among hundreds of billions of stars in that one galaxy. Around that star revolves a world with life. Some people who live on that world believe they are the center of the universe.

Sagan nicely puts into perspective how absurd it is to believe, given our current knowledge of the cosmos, that we are the center of all things, either physically at the literal center, or metaphorically as in, we are the most important things in the universe. This is a childish view, held by our ancestors because they couldn’t know any better. Science, as Stephen Gould noted, is partly a process of smashing pillars of human narcissism. Neither the earth, nor our sun, nor our galaxy are at the center of the universe. The universe, it turns out, has no center. Neither are humans at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree – we are just one twig, and every other twig has just as much evolutionary history behind it as we do.

Humans are certainly the most encephalized species on the planet, with by far the most advanced culture and technology, so we are special in that sense. Every time, however, scientists believe they have nailed down something that is unique about humans, some researcher finds that chimps (our closest cousins), or even other species, can do it too. We are part of the animal kingdom, part of this physical world, the result of natural processes that seem ubiquitous throughout the universe.

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Jun 20 2014

Inflation Evidence Questioned

Published by under Astronomy

A critical part of skeptical outreach is teaching the public about how science works. Surveys of scientific literacy generally have dismal outcomes, but they also generally focus on knowledge about the findings of science, and not so much on the process of science. My personal experience from engaging with the public in multiple venues over decades is that those who are critical or suspicious of science generally are laboring under a gross misunderstanding of how science operates.

Actually it’s not quite accurate to talk about “science,” and that is not how I think about or evaluate scientific claims. Rather, the global scientific community has a certain culture and norms of acceptable behavior. Each country, however, has their own subculture and may have problems or failings specific to them. China, for example, apparently can only publish positive studies about acupuncture, betraying a national bias that calls into question any acupuncture study originating from that country.

Each scientific discipline also has its own subculture. Some professions and specialties are more rigorous than others. Further, each institution, lab, and researcher has their own culture and behavior.

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Jun 09 2014

Origins of the Moon

Published by under Astronomy

What do Theia, Vulcan, Nibiru, Phaëton, and Antichthon have in common? They are all hypothetical planets that do not currently exist. Antichthon is the “counter-Earth” – a planet claimed to be in the same orbit as the Earth but always on the opposite side of the sun, so we can’t see it.  We know Antichthon does not exist because its gravity would be apparent.

Phaëton was the hypothetical planet between Mars and Jupiter that broke apart to form the asteroid belt. Phaëton likely never existed, and the asteroid belt simply failed to ever form a single planet. Nibiru is the planet, not taken seriously by any scientists, that some believe will collide with the Earth sometime this century (predictions have already failed multiple times). Vulcan was hypothesized to orbit within the orbit of Mercury, invented to explain anomalies in the orbit of Mercury that were later explained by general relativity.

Theia is unique among this list of hypothetical planets in that it probably actually existed. It was the Mars-sized planet that struck the proto-Earth 4.5 billion years ago, creating the current Earth-Moon system. This is, at least, the currently most accepted theory of the origin of the moon. It is supported by computer models, and explains many observations about the moon.

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Mar 21 2014

A Scientific Black Hole

Published by under Astronomy

I only have time for a quick post today, so I am going to pig pile on what is likely the most scientifically illiterate thing uttered on television this week.

CNN’s Don Lemon asked his panel of experts if it is preposterous to speculate that a black hole might have sucked in Malaysian flight 370. Let that sink in for a moment.

He actually started out OK, saying it is preposterous, but then felt it was necessary to ask his panel for confirmation. Many will point out that this kind of mindless banter is a symptom of 24 hour news shows that have to fill air time with talking heads.

Shockingly, this was not the most scientifically illiterate thing uttered on CNN this week. The response from Mary Schiavo, I think, wins the award. She is a former Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Her response was that even a small black hole would suck in the entire universe, so we know it wasn’t that.

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Feb 21 2014

Pareidolia Watch – Mercury Edition

I only have time for a quick entry today, so here is any easy one - another example of pareidolia unrestrained by reality testing. Pareidolia is the tendency for our brains to match known patterns to random sensory noise, most commonly applied to images. The most familiar image to the human brain is the human face, and so perhaps the most common experience of pareidolia is the seeing of a face in the clouds, in a rust stain, tree bark, tortilla shell, a hillside, or on NASA photos of other worlds.

The Face on Mars is a famous example. Low resolution images of the Cydonia region of Mars showed an apparent face, although the image was lit from the side so half the “face” was missing, and the nostril (which added to the overall illusion) was just data loss from the image. Later higher resolution images showed the face for what it was, just another natural formation.

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Nov 18 2013

MAVEN

Published by under Astronomy

I am away this week, visiting the Kennedy Space Center and hoping to see the launch of MAVEN. I was kindly invited, along with my family, by Elliot Goldman, an SGU listener who works for Lockheed Martin, the company who built the MAVEN craft. At the mission briefing yesterday they said there is a 60% chance of launch – scattered lightening storms are predicted which may interfere with the launch. The skies look pretty good this morning, so I am keeping positive.

MAVEN stands for Mars Atmosphere Volatiles EvolutioN. The probe will insert into Mars orbit (no lander) in a highly eccentric orbit in order to study the atmosphere of Mars. The craft will also do double duty as a communications relay to the current rovers on Mars, Opportunity and Curiosity.

The atmosphere on Mars is 0.6% that of Earth, barely a wisp.  We know, however, that Mars once had a much thicker atmosphere. There are clear signs of rivers and bodies of water on the surface of Mars. This would require not only that the temperature was above freezing, but that there was enough atmospheric pressure to keep the water from just bubbling away.

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Jul 31 2012

Still Flying

Just a quick post today as I am busy covering the inpatient service. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has taken another stunning picture of an Apollo landing site, this one from Apollo 16. The photo shows a clear shadow from the American flag that was planting during that mission. The LRO has taken the highest resolution photos of the lunar surface from moon orbit, showing great detail of the Apollo missions. You can see the foot trails of the astronauts and all the equipment they left behind.

Because there is only extremely slow erosion of the moon’s surface, from micrometeorites, the lunar surface is essentially frozen in time, recording the activities of the astronauts who visited.

The flags have apparently lasted well. The only Apollo flag that is not visible is from Apollo 11, because that flag was knocked over by the exhaust when the lander blasted off the moon’s surface.

Of course I have to point out that these LRO photos are the nail in the coffin of absurd moon landing conspiracy theories (as if that were needed). For years conspiracy theorists asked why telescopes have not pictured the Apollo landing sites. That is a common strategy of conspiracy theorists – throw out questions about evidence that appears to be missing in order to make it seem curious or sinister, and without putting it into proper context or truly searching for an answer to their question. In this case telescopes are not suited to close up images of the moon. We needed to get a probe close to the moon’s surface. Now that we have, the asked for pictures are coming back.

Of course, no evidence will convince a die-hard conspiracy theorists. The evidence just becomes part of the conspiracy.

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Mar 05 2012

Oxygen Around Dione

Published by under Astronomy

NASA has recently announced that their Cassini mission to Saturn has detected a thin layer of oxygen around the small moon Dione. The layer is so thin they are not calling it an atmosphere, but an exosphere. This is an interesting new piece to a picture that has been developing over the past few years – the chemistry of the Saturn system and how the moons influence the planet and each other.

One reason this is interesting is because oxygen is often thought of as a chemical signature for life. Free gaseous oxygen is highly chemically reactive, which means it won’t hang around for very long. It will react with other substances and be chemically bound. If there is gaseous oxygen in the atmosphere of a planet, therefore, there must be a source of new oxygen being made. On earth the source of oxygen is plant life – plankton and other plants make energy from the sun, take CO2 from the air as a source of carbon, combine it with water and release O2.

This further means that if we find oxygen in the atmosphere of a planet, either in our own solar system or an exoplanet in another solar system, this would be a clue that the planet might harbor life. The other possibility is that there is some chemical reaction going on that is producing the oxygen. That is likely the case with Dione.

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