Steven Hawking is Wrong

Steven Hawking is quoted as saying we now only have 100 years to leave Earth and find another habitable planet because those in charge of Earth are going to make it unlivable

I think he is absolutely wrong. The amount of fuel and other resources to get to ANY other known exoplanet for even 1,000 humans is a very large fraction of our present total annual energy and materials output of the entire planet — and would impoverish all the remaining 99.9999% of the population of the planet, even the 1% who currently have way too much.

For a very tiny fraction of those financial and material resources, we could devote some time, thought, planning and resources to make it so that wilderness areas are preserved, we stop filling the atmosphere with CO2 and methane, and we stop causing extinctions and fouling our own nest. In other words, we need to stop screwing up the air, the oceans, the lakes, the rivers, and the land itself. We certainly have all the money to give every living human soul a decent life, and we can preserve wild places so that there still will be wild animals running free on every single continent.

To my knowledge as a fairly avid amateur astronomer, we have yet to find even a single exoplanet that humans could actually exist on. While a number of of exoplanets are calculated to be in the ‘warm-enough’ zones, we don’t yet have any way of telling whether life has arisen on any of them. While at some point, spectroscopes will be able to discern what elements make up their atmosphere, it would be a stretch to say we could tell whether there is in fact life of any sort. If some do have living cells, we would not know what sort of overall chemistry they would have. There is no magic law that we know of that says that every ‘habitable-zone’ planet has lots of liquid water, an atmosphere that we would find breathable, and living cells based on RNA, DNA, and chlorophyll.

If we were so lucky as to find such a ‘pink unicorn’ planet around Proxima Centauri, the closest known star –‘only’ about 4 light years away — It would still take about 40 years to get there, at best (if we can get the speed up to  10% of c, the speed of light). Once they arive, the colonists would have to build, pretty much from scratch, all of the resources of NASA, European Space Agency, and those of Russia, China and India — combined. Which might take 50 – 100 years if they work really fast, so it could easily take one or two centuries for the first voyagers to return from Proxima Centauri – the very closest possible known exoplanet system.

No thanks.

No thank you to the idea of leaving this beautiful blue Planet Earth en masse. It’s the only place in the entire universe that we KNOW you can find a place that is reminiscent of Heaven. Yes, life is Hell for many of its residents, but with the proper amount of good will, we could fix that. Sure, let’s keep exploring with robotic drones and orbiting and Earth-based telescopes. It’s fine to send some expeditions to Mars and other places in our Solar System that have human crews, after we’ve made it a bit safer and affordable. But don’t believe for a minute that there is any other place in our Solar System where people can safely and affordably settle and raise families!

Let’s clean up our own nest instead of fouling it up some more for some crack-pot idea of massively escaping the ONE. AND. ONLY. KNOWN. HABITABLE. PLANET. IN. THE. ENTIRE. UNIVERSE.

Yes, it’s true that the owners of the large corporations and those who run governments and even small farmers, fishermen and the rest of us all over the planet are in fact screwing up Planet Earth almost as fast as we can. Our continued use of fossil fuels and generation of smog and water pollution goes on apace. However, we know how to fix all of that. It’s not hard, and many places have instituted protections (regulations) that will slow it down and eventually turn it all around.

Let’s fix Earth, not dream of leaving it.

Sorry, Dr Hawking, you are wrong.

L.A.Times Reporter Might Have Messed up the Math — Will the Ancient Astronomers Come to the Rescue?

WOW!

You won’t believe the revolutionary discoveries that modern astronomers have found, by carefully decoding old astronomical tablets written on tablets, in cuneiform, as long ago as 700 BC in modern-day Iraq!

You might not be surprised that a science reporter and various commentators reporting on the story – including myself – may have got the math wrong.

This is not just clickbait – the historical research was very dedicated and quite clever, and it shows that all the  years I’ve tried to to study and learn Arabic, astronomy, Babylonian, calculus, Chinese, French, geometry, Hebrew, Latin, mathematics, Russian, Spanish and Turkish might actually pay off one day, when I grow up! (*)

What’s the scoop?

In a nutshell: Researchers read and translated a bunch of ancient and more recent records of eclipses of the Sun and Moon, from cultures all over the world, over a period of 27 centuries. They compared those results  with what modern software and computers calculate they should be if you simply went backwards in time at a rate of precisely 24 hours per day. That meant studying lots of obscure records written in Chinese, Babylonian, Arabic, and Latin, as well as in modern languages.

The researchers were quite impressed at how accurate the Arab and Chinese records were, even though their instruments were much cruder than what we have today. (Obviously, no telescopes, no electric clocks, etc, etc…) The records from the Roman empire and early Mediaeval Europe, however, are apparently not nearly as good (200 BC – 600 AD) as the Chinese and Arab ones were.

cuneiform-astronomy

After the invention of the telescope a bit over 400 years ago, records became much richer. For example, observers could record the time, to the second (or even better), when a star would get blocked out by the Moon and then eventually re-appear on the other side.

(David Dunham , though retired, is an expert on this.)

Bottom line, according to the newspaper reporter: If it’s noon right now, and you could somehow go back in time precisely twenty-five centuries ago to exactly where you are standing or sitting, then everybody else back then (about 500 BC) would see the time as the equivalent of 7 PM, because the earth is turning on its axis ever so slightly slower today.

Revolutionary, I told you! Not joking, not exaggerating either!

But wait a second – how much would that be slowing down per year? The article doesn’t spell it out, but 7 hours is 420 minutes, or 60*420 = 25200 seconds,. If we divide that by about 2500 years, you get 10 seconds per year!

Wait a second, that doesn’t sound right at all! These days, if the earth really got slower at a uniform rate of 10 seconds per year, many of our cheap quartz watches and clocks are so accurate that we would actually notice the difference!

Let’s go back. The LATimes reporter, Deborah Netburn, wrote:  “the amount of time it takes for Earth to complete a single rotation on its axis has slowed by 1.8 milliseconds per day over the course of a century” – which is not very clear.

A commenter on LATimes website, named “It is me Here” wrote:

The time discrepancy described as “It may not sound significant, but over the course of 2½ millenniums, that time discrepancy adds up to about 7 hours” is not 7 hours. Over 2500 years it amounts to: 1.8 (milliseconds) x 365 (days per year) x 2,500 (years) = 1,642,500 milliseconds, that equals 1,642 seconds that equals 27.38 minutes, not 7 hours.

 

Did you get that, and do you agree? If not, let’s go back a little further, to the  abstract of the original study report which says:

New compilations of records of ancient and medieval eclipses in the period 720 BC to AD 1600, and of lunar occultations of stars in AD 1600–2015, are analysed to investigate variations in the Earth’s rate of rotation. It is found that the rate of rotation departs from uniformity, such that the change in the length of the mean solar day (lod) increases at an average rate of +1.8 ms per century. This is significantly less than the rate predicted on the basis of tidal friction, which is +2.3 ms per century.

(my emphasis – gfb)

 

So, would we really be 7 hours slow if we went back?

Maybe, maybe not.

Let’s think about it differently:

Since 500 BC, it has been about 25 centuries. According to the study, every century the earth slows down by about 1.8 milliseconds, which isn’t very much. 25 * 18 milliseconds is 450 milliseconds, which is a bit less than half a second. So does that mean we have to add up all of those 1.8 milliseconds by 365 days

That’s not much at all.

(BTW, why does the earth get slower? One source of the slowing down is simply the friction of the ocean tides. If you’ve ever been to the ocean and paid attention, you know that the gravitational pull among the Sun, Earth and Moon raise and lower a WHOLE lot of water all over the world, twice a day. That takes a HUGE amount of energy and a lot of it is dissipated in friction, which slows things down. But there are others.)

But here is a different way of looking at it still, as a trapezoid: the left-hand parallel side is about one-half second shorter than 24 hours – the length of a day in during ancient Babylonian days. The right hand parallel side is exactly 24 hours long. In between, there are 2,500 elapsed years.

Let’s pretend that each of those years contains 365 days (let’s agree to ignore the effect of leap years for right now). If the shape were a rectangle, then that would mean that the earth had not slowed down at all, and if you went backwards in time from now by 2500 years it would be exactly the same date, same time.

slowing-of-length-of-day

Apparently, it’s not. The lost or extra time is the part I show in this next diagram:

slowing-of-length-of-day-2

 

That little pink section is a a long skinny triangle with its right hand end 1/2 second per day long, and the base is 2500 years long, or 912,500 days. The area of a triangle is 1/2 * base * height, and so we use 1/2 * 1/2 * 912,500 and get 228,125 seconds lost (the ‘days’ units cancel out), or about 3802 minutes, or 63 hours, 22 minutes, which is 2 days, 15 hours, and 22 minutes off.

Not sure if I’m right or not, but would appreciate comments.

Here is one of the figures from the paper:

intercalation-revolution-of-earth

(*) Note that I don’t claim to be fluent in all of them. Far from it! Guess in which of the languages ones I can reed perdy guud and which ones I can at least stumble a conversation in?

 

Published in: on December 8, 2016 at 4:39 pm  Comments (4)  

Marion Brady on How to Fix American Eduction

This is insanely brilliant. Brady explains quite clearly  how people like Bill Gates have really perverted everything about education in America by turning the entire motivation schemata upside down — and he also explains how to fix it in a very humane manner. Here is an excerpt:

Read the whole thing. and don’t let the title convince you it’s just a rant, because it’s not.

A part of this essay that I would like to highlight is how Brady thinks we educators (and other citizens) should be approaching the entire question of school:

There’s a now-familiar ancient Chinese proverb which, loosely translated, says, “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

When I made that radical switch, I began a search that continues, a search for experience-creating activities

   (a) so interesting, the teacher can leave the room and nobody notices,

   (b) so useful, the activity’s relevance is self-evident,

   (c) so complex, the smartest kid in the class is intellectually challenged,

    (d) so real-world, perceptions of who’s smartest constantly shift,

   (e) so theoretically sound, the systemically integrated nature of all knowledge is obvious,

    (f) so wide-ranging, the activities cover the core curriculum (and much more),

   (g) so varied, every critical thinking skill is exercised,

   (h) so scalable, concepts developed on a micro level adequately model macro phenomena

  , (j) so effective, when the activities themselves are forgotten, their benefits are fixed permanently in memory.

The raw material for creating a near-infinite number of activities that meet those nine criteria isn’t hard to find. It lies within the property boundaries of every school or randomly chosen slice of real life. Finding it is mostly a matter of looking at the too-familiar and the taken-for-granted until it becomes “strange enough” to see.

Entire URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/08/01/what-do-standardized-tests-actually-test/

which means this was published in the column of Valerie Strauss, at the Washington Post, who continues to be a great resource for all the rest of teachers and parents (not corporate executives). The only greater publicist for our cause that I know of is Diane Ravitch. I am glad that Valerie continues to be gainfully employed at WaPo even as her editorial writers consistently had a set of policies that were either at cross-purposes or diametrically opposed. I don’t know how she does it.

 

Unfortunately, Answer Sheet very seldom actually reaches the printed edition. It’s almost strictly online.

Then again, maybe that matters less, given publishing trends.

While obviously nothing is perfect I think that all of us members of the public who are concerned about schools* owe Valerie, whom’s I’ve never met in person, and the Washington Post itself, a debt for VS being able to continue being such a resource for so long!

 

 

A telescope old and new

004
No, it’s not a home-made pumpkin cannon.

Instead it’s a trap for photons.

Or more conventionally, it’s a fine astronomical telescope** made by a teenager named Stewart S about 50 years ago.

That’s the part inside the white metal tube.

The plywood box that looks a bit like a Civil War cannon is actually a fairly conventional Dobsonian-style plywood alt-az mount that I made over the past few gloriously clear days in the driveway of my house in Brookland (Northeast DC). #

Yes, that tube is LONG – over seven feet long. It’s finely welded aluminum plate, bent into a cylinder and formed by one of my predecessors in leading telescope-making classes in the DC area, Hoy Walls (whom I never met).

The plywood mount used almost all of a full four-feet-by-eight-feet sheet of 3/4″ hardwood plywood.

I was pleased to see that my calculations were all correct, so that the scope just barely fit inside the plywood pieces and that the mount as a whole behaves well. No filing or last-minute sanding was needed. And the balance is pretty good – all I needed to do was add an old three-pound Barbell-type weight to the front end – it’s the dangly thing near the flange in the front. Having that weight imbalance is actually a good thing, because it gives us leeway to add a small finder scope to help aim the scope at objects of interest.

The flange is actually a plywood ring that I cut with a router and a decent commercial template for circles. The plywood ring fit perfectly, which was gratifying. No sanding or filing was needed — a first! I added it because the front end of the tube had been banged up or pressed hard at some point and was no longer circular.

I made an adjustable clamp inside the scope that seems to be working quite well. One can loosen the clamp and then rotate the tube to make it easier for shorter people can reach the eyepiece. Or one can move the tube forward or backwards to fix any future balance changes. And then clamp the tube back into its new position.

The optics were in very good shape – very clean, not a bit of dust or insect debris, on a beautifully smooth and fully-polished out mirror. I checked the optics briefly with a Ronchi test, and found that it had no turned down edge (which is a good thing) on its surface. I did not have time to use the Couder-Foucault Zonal Knife Edge test to calculate how well-corrected the optics are. Correction is a technical term involving changing a near-sphere to a near-paraboloid by carefully removing less than 2 cubic millimeters of glass — all together — in just the right spots, over a period of weeks or months to try to reach perfection.&&

Since the scope is done, the normal final test is to try it out on Polaris or some other fairly bright star with a short-focal-length eyepiece, looking at the diffraction rings when you roll the eyepiece into and out of focus.

Which brings me to why I had to build or modify the mount that it came with.

The mount that Stewart and Hoy made and that Stewart donated to NCA was very, very heavy, being a classical example of a heavy-duty – modified – plumbing – and – automotive – parts style of telescope making that many amateurs used around 30 to 60 years ago, before John Dobson revolutionized amateur telescope making with his eponymous telescope mounts and his unusual mirror-making methods using cast-off naval portholes as substrates for mirrors.

IMG_0693

That’s me above on the right, wearing an Escher tessellation Y-shirt, at Almost Heaven Star Party near Spruce Knob, WVa, next to a green telescope I made with Nagesh K. It’s called a Lurie-Houghton telescope design because of the geometry of the lenses and the mirror. Bob B did most of the lathe work for the aluminum finder scope that Jan appears to be touching with his left hand. Unfortunately, this telescope is so far a complete and utter failure although all of the individual pieces seem OK or great. Until we figure out what went wrong, we are stuck in limbo. The mount, but not the scope design, is a Dobsonian.

 

 

IM000274.JPG

The late John Dobson visited our telescope-workshop once, perhaps 10 years ago. He is the oldest person in this picture, facing us, with a bright blue jaket and white hear. It looks like I am doing some sort of incantation over the mysterious batch of molten pitch, but it’s all scientific — no magic spells. *

Unfortunately, the mount on the long aluminum telescope as it came to us was impossible even to roll through doors and was incredibly heavy. We (Mike L, Bob B and I) tried to fix the wheels on the platform that held the mount (sorry, I can’t find any of the photos I took of it), but we then found that the scope literally would not hold still. As a result there was so much backlash that you could not aim it anything and actually look at the object for any length of time at all. I considered putting three jack-screws so that the platform could be jacked up (much the way cranes and RVs will jack themselves up off their wheels) to be stable, but I couldn’t think of any way that wouldn’t require an enormous amount of time or money.

I also wanted to see if I could make a Dob mount in about three days.

I did.

And it worked.

Right now, you can aim the 10-inch f/long scope at an object and the object will stay there in the finder except for the Earth’s rotation. The tube is reasonably well-balanced. With some muscle and the clamp I made, you can change the balance point. Unfortunately, the mount really could use a little bit of beefing up as far as the base is concerned, and I’m contemplating how to do that without adding too much weight.

Alan T helped me take out the guts of the telescope, wrestle the tube into the plywood mount, and then re-assemble the optics. We looked through it at Hopewell Observatory last night. The Moon, Mars, and Saturn were well placed and looked pretty good, and it seemed like the air was pretty stable. We did not crank up the magnification very far, and the Moon was so bright we all cast shadows on the grass, so very few stars and no Milky Way were visible. A formal star test will need to come later.

On behalf of National Capital Astronomers, I would again like to thank Stewart S for donating this fine telescope.

 

================================================================

# I hope my neighbors will forgive me. I didn’t work on it at night.

* Some of us amateur telescope mirrors will admit to uttering curses from time to time, but unlike what happens at Hogwarts, they never work. Guess we are just Muggles, condemned to obeying the laws of physics and the other sciences.***

** This scope is not my personal property, nor does it belong to the Hopewell Observatory in northern VA where this photo was taken and of which I’m a member and current president. The telescope tube and a different mount were donated by Stewart S to National Capital Astronomers and is currently housed at Hopewell as a service to NCA. Stewart is obviously no longer a teenager!

*** Actually, I’m rather glad that the laws of physics and other sciences don’t seem to be under the personal command of any individual, and that they seem to be exactly the same for all people and – as far as we can tell so far — everywhere else in the universe. (Yeah, I know that some astrophysicists and cosmologists make claims that certain basic constants of nature change in certain ways over time, but I’m reserving judgment on that. OTOH I hope I live long enough for someone to figure out what ‘dark matter’ is. It remains spooky and awesomely mysterious that with all of our current state of ever-expanding scientific knowledge, most astrophysicists still believe that the vast majority of the matter and energy in the universe is still completely unknown. We don’t know what it is. I find that the idea that the universe has immutable rules, many of which have not been discovered, much more comforting than having a universe where somebody else could get mad at you or me and change the laws of physics in your immediate vicinity with the purpose of doing us harm — and that all those powers are accessible by certain individuals who claim that they have been in personal communication with a personal deity, who uttered cryptic messages and incantations and rules that must never be questioned. How could powers like that NOT corrupt somebody?

 

&& like a small sand grain.

Published in: on June 8, 2014 at 9:17 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , ,

Suggestions for Improving the Remake of Cosmos – A Different View of Giordano Bruno

If you haven’t looked at any news about the intersection of science and popular culture recently, you may have missed the fact that astronomer and popularizer of science Neal Degrasse Tyson  is starring as the replacement for the late astronomer and popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, in an updated remake of the series COSMOS, about, uh, the cosmos we live in.

(I got to see a preview of the film a week or so ago at the National Geographic HQ in DC; email notices were sent to probably every single amateur astronomy group in the US.)

I thought it was pretty good, and particularly liked the way that Tyson explained what the scientific method really is — using not a single word in the various definitions of “scientific method” that students are often expected to memorize in their middle-school science courses.

Unfortunately, even though I have a full set of the original Cosmos VHS tapes, I’ve only watched bits and pieces of the original. So I’m not one to compare them. Again, I liked it, and am looking forward to the rest of them.

But I do have some criticisms or comments about this remake:

1. Looking back, I think there were probably too many special effects, but I’m probably in the minority on this one.

2. I think that Rupert Murdoch and Fox “News” are despicable, and that they actively promote anti-scientific hogwash of all sorts. I was really surprised that the Fox network co-sponsored these shows. (I realize that fox ‘news’ and network are 2 different groups, but they have mostly common ownership, right?

3. I was surprised that they spent so much time on Giordano Bruno. I thought I remembered he was a minor, dissident priest burned at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition for believing that there were other solar systems with people in them, among (most likely) other heresies. In the first episode, Tyson points out that Bruno wasn’t a scientist and that his theories about other solar systems, while recently proved to be correct,  was merely a lucky guess.

So if Bruno wasn’t an astronomer or a scientist, then why spend so much time on him?

A Jesuit friend gave me additional background on Bruno; apparently he was very fond of making enemies. If you read the Wikipedia entry, you’ll probably find out that he had a famously prodigious memory, and that he made money teaching important and wealthy people how to memorize things.

My attention has also been drawn to another article, making suggestions about how they could have improved the episode, by putting in the person from whom Bruno may have originally learned about infinite space:  Thomas Digges.

Here’s why Digges’ ideas were important: if the earth is the center of the solar system, as it is in the Ptolemaic system, and everything rotates around the earth exactly once a day, then the stars simply can’t be spread out into infinite space, because their rotation would be faster and faster the farther away from the earth that they happened to be located, which didn’t make sense. So Ptolemy and Aristotle and the Roman Catholic Church believed the stars were all located on more or less of a sphere — one that was larger than the rest of the solar system, but not too far away, on a cosmic scale. So there couldn’t also be solar systems around those stars.

digges_universe-259x300

(zame source)

However, when Copernicus worked out the details of a sun-centered solar system, then it was just the earth that was spinning on its own axis once a day, and revolving aroudn the sun once a year, just as the other planets did in their turn. And with this new system, there was no need for the stars to be located along an invisible black sphere – they could certainly be other suns, and the universe could well be infinite, just like the mind of God .

The second article makes it clear that Digges, about whom I knew nothing at all, could have profitably been the cartoon hero of the first Cosmos episode.

The relationship between science religion gets interesting. While the Catholic church continues to condemn basic things like birth control or divorce, it has abandoned the idea that you can calculate the exact beginning of the universe by adding up all the phrases like this:”And Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth” — a method that is a lot less reliable than going out, taking cross-sections from old and young trees, comparing them and lining them up by comparing relative sizes to known climate events, and cross-referencing that with sediments in ponds and lakes, and to layers of ice in Greenland and other places. You know, doing it scientifically. Unfortunately for us, there still are some people who claim that the ONLY evidence they believe comes from certain sections of the Bible (but in fact they discount the rest).  Some of these people hold their hands over the ears of their children when they visit the Grand Canyon if an actual geologist is giving a talk explaining how the various layers of rock were laid down over the past few billion years. Fortunately, the Catholic Church has actual scientists and astronomers on staff. Even Galileo thought he was a good Roman Catholic Christian until his dying day…

universe-and-man-larger-300x253(apparently this drawing was made in the 19th century, hundreds of years after Diggs, Bruno, Galileo or Copernicus)

In any case, I’m skeptical of all accounts of the beginning of time — we just don’t have a tremendous amount of evidence. Yet. A case can certainly be made that there was a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, and it seems to me quite clear that the Earth was formed over 4 billion years ago (we even have zircons and other rocks and minerals that seem to prove it), but what on earth caused that Big Bang? Are there other universes, as was illustrated in the movie? We can make a case for dark matter, but there might be other explanations for the effects that lead astronomers to believe that there is some sort of unknown, invisible substance in and around our galaxy that causes things to rotate in ways that they shouldn’t, otherwise.

(If you didn’t know, celebrated astronomer Vera Rubin, who lives in the DC area, was one of those who discovered those strange rotational speed anomalies back when I was a kid by taking very careful measurements of redshifts and blueshifts of stars orbiting in spiral galaxies. Last time I asked her, a couple of years ago, she said she thought it was entirely up in the air whether the best explanation for this phenomenon was dark matter or that we simply don’t understand the laws of gravitation fully in the first place.)

When certain cosmologists tell us precisely what happened “Between 10–43 second and 10–36 second after the Big Bang”,  we should keep in mind that we weren’t there to witness it. Sure, those accounts are in accord with a very complex physical model that right now is the most=accepted standard model. I won’t do a John Dobson and accuse those cosmologists of dishonesty; this is the best model we have right now, according to people who have studied his stuff very hard and very carefully. Is there actually ‘dark energy’? I am more skeptical about that. Perhaps; but the evidence is built on such a long string of extrapolations from very difficult observations and calculations that we should keep in mind that it very well may be that future observations with better instruments of some sort will change that model. In fact, every single time scientists have devised and used new instruments to look at and examine the universe (under our fingernails or up in the sky or in the center of the earth), all of humanityy learns new things that we never imagined could possibly be.

Who could have dreamed of paramecia, amoebas, viruses, or the genetic code of DNA before the microscope — at first very crude ones, but now of the electron or x-ray diffraction or scanning tunneling varieties? Each improved microscope showed us much more than the previous ones and are responsible for the fact that we no longer have a third of our newborn children dying of diseases before they reach their fifth birthday.

Galileo’s first, crude telescope showed us the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus,  the rings of Saturn, craters on the Moon, and clouds of stars in the Milky Way — all complete and utter surprises. The 60-inch and 100-inch and 200-inch telescopes at Mt. Wilson and Palomar first showed us that many of those mysterious ‘nebulae’ in the night sky were actually other galaxies, millions or billions of light-years away.

I’m sure all of this will be illustrated quite well in this series. I need to figure out how to record it — just changed to a cable service bundle after getting rid of separate DSL, telephone, and satellite dish services…

Read the articles and let me know what you think.

A Cold View of Jupiter

I helped out at a Think Tank at Maury Elementary School in DC by setting up a telescope I built and letting kids and parents and staff look at Jupiter.

me freezing at Maury Elementary

I am glad I was prepared with warm clothing, otherwise I would have had to give up, because it was not only cold (what, 15 degrees or so?) but also windy. That white stuff on the ground is snow. But it was quite clear, and Jupiter and its moons put on a nice, symmetrical show. It was a lot of fun for me, and it seemed to be a hit among kids and adults whose expressions of pleasure and amazement I should have recorded.

Jupiter was putting on a nice show as usual, with two moons on one side and two moons on the other.

This is a picture I stole from the ‘Hill Rag’ which shows a couple of female staff members checking out the view of Jupiter before the lines of kids and adults got going. I’m the bearded guy with the brown overalls in the back. The scope is a Dobsonian truss-tube alt-az-mounted Newtonian scope that I built, with a 12.5″-diameter f/5 mirror that I traded some glass for. I did NOT grind and polish this one, for a change. I did a good bit of the work at the amateur telescope-making workshop of the National Capital Astronomers, which I was representing.

Turns out that Maury ES is a bit over 3 miles directly south of my house in NE DC. (Appears to be a gentrifying public school.)

Towards the end of the evening, a kid informed me that I had frozen snot on my mustache!

Published in: on January 26, 2014 at 9:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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An Astronomer Looks at the Zodiac

Or, has your “sun sign” changed after 2000 years?

And did you know that the Zodiac has at least 15 constellations?

This is a little presentation I did last week on the Zodiac for something called the “Encyclopedia Show“. Out of eight ‘acts’ in this cabaret show on “The ZODIACalypse!!!”at a place called The Dunes in Columbia Heights in DC, there were two musical selections, a few poems, a stand-up comic, an interview with a professional astrologer, and some rants and skits.

Most of the presenters (but not all) seemed to be quite skeptical about the many claims made by proponents of, shall I say, ‘traditional’ astrology. At some point the organizers will post a video of the night’s affair, as they have for other ones. Past shows seem pretty good and I may come back to watch more of them, in the future.

My role was as straight man, I guess, narrating a little powerpoint presentation using slides I gathered from many places, including a bunch of beautiful images from NASA’s wonderful  Astronomy Picture of the Day and other places. I actually got a lot of laughs and applause, and a bunch of folks came up and told me they really enjoyed my part. Some of my fellow-astronomer friends came and didn’t regret it either.  It was actually a lot of fun.

Here is the link to the PPT itself on Google Drive. Feel free to use or modify it as you like, and enjoy. And here is a link to a YouTube video of my talk.

NOTE: I see that I got the terms “equatorial plane” and “ecliptic” confused in my talk. “Ecliptic” is the apparent path of the sun through the heavens, i.e. along the Zodiac. The equatorial plane of the Earth is just that, a projection of the Earth’s equator into space. (These two planes are different, as I correctly noted; they form an angle of about 23.4 degrees to each other.) My bad.

image

Here is a slide so you can cut to the chase: what is your sign, really?

traditional and modern zodiacJust for fun, I did a search of the sun-signs of the 44 US presidents. You would think they would all be rather similar, right? Nope. Look for yourself:

presidents and sun signsHowever, that had to be cut from my presentation because it was already too long.

I also wanted to show a short video by magician James Randi where he debunks astrology 100%, but it, too, had to be cut. Here is the link:

Published in: on January 21, 2014 at 6:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Remember the book “Godel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid?” and Douglas Hofstadter and Artificial Intelligence? What they are doing now:

GEBcoverThis book was a sensation back in 1980.

It was an absolutely, amazingly brilliant work from a totally unknown first-time professor/author.

So much so that Scientific American’s Martin Gardner praised it to the skies, rightly so, pushing it to the best-seller book lists, and not because was yet another detective novel or a political rant or a ghostwritten memoir by someone rich and famous.

No, it was an well-written, highly entertaining book about the connections among mathematics, computer languages,  English and other ancient and modern human languages, DNA code, artificial intelligence, science, history, music,  what it means to be human and to think and do stuff. Brilliant, original ideas and clear, sparkling language on every beautifully-written page — with lots of illustrations and diagrams, too!!

The fact that the author’s father (Robert) shared the Nobel Prize in nuclear Physics in 1961 considerably upped the odds that Hofstadter would grow up in intellectual atmosphere that valued independent thinking rather than mindless obedience. According to this Atlantic review, his parents more than tolerated young Douglas’ tendency to go off on various tangents and delve into them deeply and thoroughly and even obsessively for some period of time, until he felt he had another hunch or tangent, which he would again jump into with both feet and all his weight. And all of it carefully and brilliantly documented.

Those documents, I discovered in reading this essay, became the book GEB.

He and the rest of the Artificial Intelligence community agree that they have gone in different directions since then.

AI today no longer tries to imitate the actions of the human brain, but they are doing some pretty amazing stuff with sheer computational speed and power.

Hofstadter thinks that may all be very nice, but that approach does not really help understand how humans think — how we make all those connections in our head in which we strip off 99% of the details about one thing and find one or two ways in which it relates to another thing, constantly and unexpectedly

[I gave some copies to some of my students; I wish I could have afforded to give away more. Instead, I developed lists of books on math and science and math field trips and tessellations and had kids read some of the books and do various projects that I though would illustrate some topic and develop pride and character and a belief that math of whatever sort I was teaching to them was actually worth something and useful in real life as well as pretty cool as an abstract creation of humanity…]

Douglas Hofsadter, the author of GEB is not working for Google or Apple or any other such company helping to develop complex computer  programs that do complex things either very well at least some of the time — because DH thinks they won’t lead to more understanding of human or animal intelligence. According to this review, DH has the greatest job in the world — he doesn’t have to teach classes. or  attend any meetings at all, or perform experiments. or write grant applications. For a number of years,. he took over the Mathematical Games that Martin Gardner used to write for SciAm, and renamed it “Metamagical Themas” – an anagram of the original name.

A few interesting quotes from the article: (The man who would teach machines to think…)

“Correct speech isn’t very interesting; it’s like a well-executed magic trick—effective because it obscures how it works. What Hofstadter is looking for is “a tip of the rabbit’s ear … a hint of a trap door.”

N ow, some quotes from Hofstadter himself, which I got from a collection of his quotes, and which remind me why I thopught his work was so brilliant in the first place:

Meaning lies as much

in the mind of the reader

as in the Haiku.

 “How gullible are you? Is your gullibility located in some “gullibility center” in your brain? Could a neurosurgeon reach in and perform some delicate operation to lower your gullibility, otherwise leaving you alone? If you believe this, you are pretty gullible, and should perhaps consider such an operation.”

 “Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law”

“Sometimes it seems as though each new step towards AI, rather than producing something which everyone agrees is real intelligence, merely reveals what real intelligence is not. ”

“In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference.”

“I would like to understand things better, but I don’t want to understand them perfectly.”

“This idea that there is generality in the specific is of far-reaching importance.” 

Alien Civilizations on Mars Worshiped Piglets and Empanadas — Proof!

The Pig, Seahorse, and Jamaican Patty on Mars

Remember the ‘Face on Mars’ that was proof to some people (including at least one brilliant astronomer, believe it or not) that aliens who looked a lot like us made statues and monuments on mars that you could only see from above?

I HAVE PROOF NOW THAT THEY WERE WRONG. THE ALIENS DIDN’T NECESSARILY LOOK LIKE US. INSTEAD,they were probably  WERE MORE SIMILAR TO ONE OF THESE SACRED SYMBOLS:

(1) JAMAICAN BEEF OR GOAT PATTY (bottom left corner; probably not, is most likely a hoof of the following item.)

(2) Piglet from Winnie-The-Pooh or

(3) STRAIGHTENED-OUT SEA-HORSES.

EXPERTS ARE DEBATING WHICH FORCE THE ALIENS WORSHIPPED or were more similar to.

Debate will follow.

annotated images on mars

(I hope you realize that was all said with tongue firmly implanted in cheek?

(But some folks took the ‘Face on Mars’ thing seriously. That includes a DC-area astronomer who used to work for the US Naval Observatory by the name of  Tom Van Flandern. He wrote a book affirming that and many other stranger things.)

face on marsThe image above is the one that drove some people to make all the fuss. However, closer images from various orbiting cameras show the hill differently. Here is a page with lots of detail.

Piglet:

piglet

Wanton Waste and Pollution of the Air and Light and Soil

Can you figure out why is the northwestern corner of North Dakota lit up almost as bright as Manhattan?

I’m pretty sure I know.

And if you would like to see, in detail, what massive light pollution, air pollution, and increasing the CO2 content of the atmosphere looks like, you’ve come to the right place.

The map here is unique. I found it on  http://www.blue-marble.de/nightlights/2012 which allows you to see what the world looks like at night. As you might expect, big cities and their suburbs are all lit up, and remote, unpopulated places are mostly dark.

But there are some places way out in the boonies that are entirely toooo bright. Like northwestern North Dakota, as I hope you can see below.

waste and light pollution in north dakota

Part of that enormous blob of yellow in the center of the image is the super-bright lights on the oil rigs of the current North Dakota oil boom. The lighting, while probably rather cheaply and wastefully done, I at least understand. Drilling for oil in general, and fracking in particular, are dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs, and the work often goes on around the clock. Workers need to be able to see in order to be safe. However, I am sure that there are better lighting systems than ones that light up everything within 5 miles.

But that’s not the majority of that light.

Most of it is pure and simple waste.

Instead of bottling or piping out the natural gas (aka methane) that comes up along with the black,  oozing petroleum, they simply BURN OFF the gas.

It’s called “flaring”.

It’s a cold-blooded calculation by the corporate leadership: it is more profitable to them to burn up much of the gas than saving and selling it and using it later. So they light up enormous plumes that  light up the sky, literally 24/7, adding humongous amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and warming up the planet both directly and indirectly. And turning that part of the Great Plains into something resembling Dante’s Inferno.

Oil companies say they are selflessly pursuing “energy independence” for the US.

Don’t you believe it. They are selfishly pursuing profits. If they were really interested in simply producing more energy for the good citizens of the USA or wherever, then all of that gas would be bottled up or saved to be used later in our stoves, heating systems, factories, or vehicles, where people need it.

Instead of burning it off for nothing.

What a waste.

That’s capitalism in a nutshell.

=======

Quoting from the NYT: (2011)

NEW TOWN, N.D. — Across western North Dakota, hundreds of fires rise above fields of wheat and sunflowers and bales of hay. At night, they illuminate the prairie skies like giant fireflies.

They are not wildfires caused by lightning strikes or other acts of nature, but the deliberate burning ofnatural gas by oil companies rushing to extract oil from the Bakken shale field and take advantage of the high price of crude. The gas bubbles up alongside the far more valuable oil, and with less economic incentive to capture it, the drillers treat the gas as waste and simply burn it.

Every day, more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas is flared this way — enough energy to heat half a million homes for a day.

The flared gas also spews at least two million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, as much as 384,000 cars or a medium-size coal-fired power plant would emit, […]

All told, 30 percent of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is burned as waste. No other major domestic oil field currently flares close to that much, though the practice is still common in countries like Russia, Nigeria and Iran.

With few government regulations that limit the flaring, more burning is also taking place in the Eagle Ford shale field in Texas, and some environmentalists and industry executives say that it could happen in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Ohio, too, as drilling expands in new fields there unlocked by techniques like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

“North Dakota is not as bad as Kazakhstan, but this is not what you would expect a civilized, efficient society to do: to flare off a perfectly good product just because it’s expensive to bring to market,” said Michael E. Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

If you’d like to see close up photos of flaring, look at NYT here.

Published in: on January 28, 2013 at 2:53 pm  Comments (3)  
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