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Posts Tagged ‘space’

Astrologers and Kuiper belt objects

Posted by c. wagner on November 18, 2009

Astrology is a “discipline” notoriously immune to change. So, what are astronomers to do as more and more good-sized objects, some of them bigger than that formerly-known-as-a-planet … thingie, Pluto, are discovered at the fringes of the solar system?

The article ends with Vanity Fair astrologer Michael Lutin saying that he will consider the newcomers, but remains skeptical of their influence on our daily affairs due to their location at the outer reaches of the solar system: “UB313 is never going to tell you whether Wednesday is good for romance.” [page 149]

Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson declares the discussion over Kuiper belt objects moot, saying

Actually, neither will anything else in the sky, unless it’s an asteroid headed toward Earth, scheduled to hit on Wednesday. [page 149]

That is one forecast I wouldn’t like to find in the newspaper. Sheesh.

(Quotes from The Pluto Files.)

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Studying the solar system in grade school

Posted by c. wagner on November 18, 2009

Everybody reading this remember memorizing the names of the planets (nine for me, probably eight now)? Maybe building a model solar system out of painted styrofoam balls and straightened coat hangers? Maybe some mentions of asteroids and comets, yeah? Neil deGrasse Tyson has some words for you and your teachers.

Because of exercises such as this, elementary school curricula have unwittingly stunted an entire generation of children by teaching them that a memorized sequence of planet names is the path to understand the solar system. … But today, the rote exercise of planet counting rings hollow and impedes the inquiry of a vastly richer landscape of science drawn from all that populates our cosmic environment. [page 153]

As I wander through more reading on life, the universe, and everything (in this case, mostly the stuff about the universe), I’m coming to agree with him. There’s a lot of stuff out there a lot cooler than what was covered in that chapter in my grade school science book. Weirder, too.

And encouraging kids to explore that, rather than teaching them fill-in-the-blank answers, can only make their worlds–and ours–a little bit brighter.

(Quote from The Pluto Files.)

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Do they need us or do we need them?

Posted by c. wagner on November 9, 2009

I’m working my way through an interesting little book called Captured by Aliens by Joel Achenbach which covers how the idea of life on another planet has captivated the imaginations of both scientists and folks on the street. Running through the book is the idea that aliens (or at least the idea of aliens) fills a deep psychological need in people.

We don’t want to be alone, particularly in a place that’s one hundred thousand light years in diameter. [page 66]

Humans are wired to find patterns, meaning, in what they experience. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  The more bigger things the better. But Achenbach has a fascinating point about this need to belong.

This is what might be called the Central Irony of the UFO world. The belief in aliens is, at first glance, a firm embrace of the Copernican Principle. Humans are not the center of the universe. There are other intelligences. They are, indeed, smarter and more advanced. And yet these other intelligences are obsessed with us. They come across mind-boggling reaches of space to meet us, experiment with us, mate with us. We have such enchanting DNA, they just can’t stay away. Ufology, for all its generosity in filling the universe with life, nonetheless has a distinctly anthropocentric flavor. [page 35]

The same could apply to many of those bigger things we like to believe it, couldn’t it? Everything out there needs us. To influence, to protect, to observe, to explore, and for us to praise it.

It’s all about us.

And, in a lot of ways, these bigger things are often used as an excuse not to take responsibility for ourselves.

That’s why people are so desperate for contact–what we really want is for the aliens to save us from the trouble we’ve manufactured for ourselves. [page 267]

It’s scary to contemplate a universe where nothing is there looking out for us. It’s scary to think that we are responsible for ourselves.  It’s scary to say that we’re powerful enough to take care of ourselves.

And, somehow, this is still exciting. Yeah, it’s all about us, but not in the way that a lot of us seem to think.

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I like colorful swirls.

Posted by c. wagner on November 5, 2009

More beautiful stuff from the Hubble Space Telescope. This is part of the M83 galaxy. Baby stars and all kinds of beautiful, drifting stuff.

Read more about what’s going on here at Bad Astronomy.

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More computing power than Hubble?

Posted by c. wagner on November 5, 2009

It surprises most people to learn that the typical computer in space is as much as a decade behind the technology you can buy in a local store. That’s because of the lengthy process involved in radiation-hardening equipment. Your home computer may be faster than the one on board the Hubble Space Telescope, but it would last perhaps 15 seconds in space before turning into a heap of useless metal. [page 161]

It certainly surprised me.

If Hubble can do amazing things with as much power as an internet-enabled toaster, I should be able to do something wicked cool with my little laptop. Nothing like a little perspective.

Quote from Phil Plait’s book Bad Astronomy.

Read more from the entertaining and informative Dr. Plait at his Bad Astronomy blog.

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Think they’ve got enough imaginative ways to die?

Posted by c. wagner on November 5, 2009

So, the latest set of “it’s the end of the world as we know it” theories is making the rounds. The prophets of doom have come up with a nice long list of ways we might all bite the dust come December 21, 2012. There’s even a major movie about it.

Apparently, questions about the various scenarios have been driving the good folks at NASA and other astronomy-related places nuts. Rebuttals to all of the methods of doom are all over the internet, but the Discovery Channel has done a great job of summarizing them.

I’ll cut it down even further. Solar flares won’t fry us, the Earth’s magnetic field won’t reverse, Earth’s axis won’t tip, a planetary alignment won’t screw with us, a black hole won’t eat us, an asteroid won’t hit us, there’s no Nibiru, a supernova won’t cook us, and a cloud of negative energy won’t dissolve us.

Read the full list at the Discovery Channel.

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I’d never heard of this moon before.

Posted by c. wagner on November 3, 2009

This is a picture of Saturn’s moon Enceladus taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. See those cracks near the white crescent? Scientist’s current best guess is that those mark the edges of ice floes. And the fuzzy plume at the top? A geyser of water. Yes, liquid water. Way out there in orbit around Saturn.

And the folks steering Cassini are hoping to get closer to the geyser to see if there are any complex molecules that may be indicative of life spewing out into space.

Isn’t the solar system great?

Read more about the photo and the Cassini mission at Bad Astronomy.

Read more about the search for complex molecules at New Scientist.

Read more about Cassini at NASA.

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See the way Galileo saw the universe.

Posted by c. wagner on October 30, 2009

This replica of Galileo’s telescope is on display at London’s Space Museum.

With a device like this, Galileo saw things that have changed the way we viewed the universe and our place in it.

He studied the moon, discovered the four major satellites of Jupiter, observed a supernova, verified the phases of Venus, and discovered sunspots.

He also helped prove the Copernican system, which states that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun.

Before Copernicus’ and Galileo’s work, it was held that the sun revolved around the Earth.

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