Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The true dangers of December 21, 2012

December 21, 2012.  The end of the world.  Mayan calendars.  Rogue planets.  Asteroids.  Pole shifts.  Magnetic madness.  Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling. Forty years of darkness.    Earthquakes, volcanoes.  The dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!  (Venkmann et al, 1984)

As a scientist, it is very tempting to dismiss these ideas out of hand and without a word (or with a few humorous statements before moving on to real science).  There is absolutely no scientific basis to any of the over-the-top scenarios being touted as certain to happen this Friday.  Granted, a few of the scenarios (like asteroid impacts or solar flares) have a needle or two of science deep in the hyperbolic haystack, but that science has been distorted and twisted to serve utterly non-scientific ends.  The sun will rise on December 22, and no creature on this planet besides a few humans will be surprised by that development.

No, the true dangers of this Friday lie with us humans.  NASA scientists have been getting emails and calls from genuinely worried children and teachers of those children.  Many of us adults are comfortable joking about doomsday theories because we've seen many doomsdays come and go, a trend that dates back to Assyrian and Sumerian civilizations

But children don't have that perspective. I remember when I was in kindergarten and I heard that Skylab was going to fall back to Earth.  Despite my parents' assurances that it would most likely hit Jaws, I still nervously watched the skies.  Why would the news talk about it if it wasn't a big danger?   And the 2012 date has been in movies, on the news, discussed by "documentaries" on supposedly serious cable channels, and splashed all over the Internet.  If I were that kindergartner today, I'd be freaked out. So if you know a child who expresses any concern about the end of the world, reassure them that the world is not ending, and that they and their friends will be safe.  Schoolchildren have enough real news to worry and frighten them without the need for fictitious dangers.

Doomsayers are also preying on other vulnerable people.  Millions of dollars of books, videos, survival kits and doom bunkers have been sold. (Which begs the question - if these charlatans truly know the world is ending, what's the point of collecting money for goods and services?  Money won't be useful in their post-apocalypse scenarios).   These snake-oil salesmen target many different groups of people: those who are already nervous about the economy, those who are deeply religious, those who are paranoid, those who are not well-educated.  And on December 22, these swindlers will be laughing all the way to the bank with no legal repercussions, while their victims will have spent their life savings or even gone into bankruptcy over worthless fears.

Many people with mental health issues also suffer from well-publicized end-of-the-world scenarios.  Many of these people are not capable enough of rational scientific thought to be assured that this 2012 hooey is just that. 

"Popular" doomsday scenarios like 2012 are much more insidious than simply the deranged ravings of a few kooks.  Some polls suggest 10% of Americans think the world will end this Friday.  I suspect that is high, but even if it is just one out of a thousand people who is truly worried, that still ads up to over 7 million people worldwide.  (And what number of them are stocking up on guns and ammunition with the sole aim of protecting themselves in a post-apocalyptic world?  I shudder at the thought).

There are real threats to humanity, and the phantom threats about this Friday are not among them.  Hoaxes like 2012 distract us from these very real concerns.  To name just a few: violence, disease, nuclear proliferation, global warming, hunger, poverty, hatred -- all of these are very real threats.  We must better educate ourselves and our children to be able to discern clear and present dangers from monsters that hide in our closets at night.  Alas, my personal doomsday scenario is that we will fail in that crucial mission.

Here are some trustworthy and sound sources on the 2012 Doomsday Hoax:
  • NASA - Beyond 2012 - NASA scientists lay out some of the commonly cited agents of doom and the science disproving each.
  • 2012hoax.org - Scientists and rational citizens have created a massive repository of the hoax, its roots, its proponents, its lies, and the scientific truth.
  • Resources for Responding to Doomsday 2012 - Scientist and educator Andrew Fraknoi has created a compendium of links with honest discussions and facts about 2012, especially useful for educators needing to address students' concerns

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Even white dwarfs must obey Einstein

The white dwarfs are 1/3 the Earth-Moon distance apart
The Earth-Moon system (top) and binary white dwarf system (bottom) to scale.  Click to enlargify.  Earth (right) and Moon (little brown spec on left) images from NASA/JPL/Galileo; artwork by yours truly.
3,100 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Gemini lurks one of the most extreme pair of stars that we know about.  Two white dwarfs, the remains of ordinary stars similar to the sun, whirl around each other every 12 minutes and 45 seconds.  As they orbit, Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts that their gravity distorts space and time itself, and these distortions (called gravitational waves) carry away some energy from the system, forcing the two white dwarfs to draw ever nearer.  Locked by gravity in a slow death spiral, these white dwarfs are destined to collide and merge in two million years. At least that was the prediction, and today it was confirmed by an international team of astronomers (including many friends and colleagues of mine, though I wasn't involved).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What professional astronomers know about telescopes (often, not much!)

Professor Astronomy and the Kitt Peak telescopes.
Yours truly at Kitt Peak in 2002 (I think).
Most people assume that we astronomers know everything there is to know about telescopes.  After all, we use giant ones for much of our work!  So it shouldn't be surprising that one of the most common questions we get asked (after the black holes and aliens have been addressed) is something like: "I've been thinking about getting a telescope.  What should I get?"

Many of these people are then quite disappointed to find out that I cannot help them much.  Sure, I give them the standard (and excellent, IMHO) advice that they should avoid $49 specials at Walmart, start with binoculars and then, if still interested, progress to something like an Astroscan. (Full disclosure - I own an Astroscan and love it, but I don't get any compensation whatsoever to talk them up).

But if you ask me which is better: a Celestron NexStar or an Orion StarMax, and I will give you a blank star.  I have no clue.  Or if you ask me why your iOptron SmartStar Maksutov has this weird coma when you put a certain filter in but not with a different filter by the same manufacturer, and I'll only be able to blurt out the obvious "maybe there is something wrong with the filter?"

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Pictures of the Venus Transit and Festivities

Sun setting behind Kitt Peak with transiting Venus
Venus transiting the sun as it sets behind the telescopes of Kitt Peak.  Image (c) 2012 David A Harvey, used with permission.
Tuesday afternoon, the planet Venus passed in front of the Sun as seen by the Earth.  (If you've been reading this blog, you already know that).  The next transit of Venus will happen on December 10-11, 2117 (my birthday, though I don't expect to see it).

Here at Texas A&M University - Commerce, we had an open house at our observatory.  Roughly 150 people came, which is absolutely amazing.  We had to fight some clouds - the transit started behind a thunderstorm, and the last hour that the sun was still up it was hidden behind clouds, and there were enough clouds we closed down early and didn't stay up to view the night sky.  But those who braved the heat and waited out the clouds were treated to quite the spectacle.

In case you missed the transit because of clouds, work, school, sleep or indifference, here are some pictures, both from us and from others.  Picture sources are indicated in the caption.  You may feel free to use any images labeled as being from NASA (here are their terms of use), and you may use any images labeled as from me as long as you attribute them and don't use them for commercial purposes (my terms of use).

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Venus neareth

Venus as seen by the sun-observing satellite SOHO.  In this picture, the sun is blocked by a disk, and the white circle indicates the location of the Sun.  The trails on either side of Venus are artifacts - the planet is so bright, it dazzles the camera.  Image Credit: ESA/NASA
The planet Venus is only four hours away from its date crossing the face of the Sun.  Here are some last minute links and reminders:

Monday, June 04, 2012

Modern transit science

How the Kepler Mission detects planets around other stars.  Image Credit: NASA
The last transit of Venus across the sun for 105.5 years begins in less than 24 hours.  As I wrote last time, past transits were a scientific bonanza, allowing astronomers to determine the size of the solar system and, eventually, distances to other stars.  But in a time when we have spacecraft orbiting Venus, can a transit still provide a scientific return?

The short answer is yes.  We don't expect to learn any groundbreaking new facts about Venus, the Sun, or the Solar System.  But we can use the fact that we already know so much about these objects to make use of this transit by testing our techniques to study planets around other stars.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The past importance of transits of Venus

A French cartoon showing a view of the 1761 transit of Venus.  Note the devil in the background, which I assume is meant to remind the reader that viewing the transit through a telescope without proper eye protection is a deadly sin (at least for your retina)
Image Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Sun-Earth Day
Next week's transit of the planet Venus across the sun gives us the chance to learn a little history of transits and their scientific importance.  In a couple days, I'll discuss the current scientific interest of transits.

The importance of Venus transits starts with the famed astronomer Johannes Kepler, who, in the early 1600s, was the first person to figure out the shape and properties of planetary orbits.  His three laws of planetary motion allowed Kepler to figure out the relative size of the solar system.  If we call the average distance between the Earth and the Sun as 1 Astronomical Unit, then Kepler knew the distances to other planets in terms of this unit.  For example, he knew that Venus was about 0.7 Astronomical Units.    The problem was, Kepler didn't know what an astronomical unit was in terms of familiar units like miles or kilometers. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Live in northeast Texas? Come see the transit of Venus with us!

A photograph of the 2004 transit of Venus
2004 transit of Venus, photograph (c) Scott Thompson
If you live in northeast Texas, you are invited to come watch the Transit of Venus at the Texas A&M University - Commerce Observatory in Commerce, TX.  We will get underway at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 5 at the observatory, which is about 5 miles north of Interstate 30 exit 101 or 5 miles south of Commerce.  Details and driving directions are here.  The transit will last until sunset (awesome photo opportunity!).  We will have all the safety equipment you will need to get great up-close (and safe) views of the transit.

After sunset, the party doesn't end!  As it gets dark, we will turn the telescopes on the wonders of the spring and summer skies.
The 16-inch telescope dome at Commerce Observatory
The 16" telescope dome
In case of poor weather, the observing will be cancelled.  Check the observatory webpage for updates or watch my Twitter feed.

Coming June 5/6: The Last Transit of Venus You'll See

Venus crossing the sun in 2004
(c) 2004 Fred Espenak
It is rare that you can see something and know you will never see it again.  A week from today (June 5 or 6, depending on where you live: June 5 in the western hemisphere including the U.S., June 6 in the eastern hemisphere) you have that chance when the planet Venus crosses in front of the sun as seen from the Earth.  The next time this happens will be in December 2117.  That's not a typo - you have to wait 105.5 years for another crossing.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sunday's "Ring of Fire" Solar Eclipse

This Sunday, May 20 (in the U.S.; Monday morning on the 21st for Asia) there will be a spectacular eclipse of the sun.  Residents of the western U.S. get a great show; those on the Eastern seaboard get to see nothing.  Details on how to see the eclipse can be found here from Sky & Telescope and on many other websites.  Rather than reproduce others' details on how/where/when to look, I thought I'd put a personal spin on the story and mention a few things I haven't seen on many other websites.

Solar eclipses are caused when the moon comes between the Sun and the Earth; basically we see the moon's shadow.  The moon's orbit is tilted with respect to the Earth, so most months the moon passes well north or south of the sun in the sky, but every 6 months it has a chance of passing over part or all of the sun.

The moon and the sun are almost exactly the same size, as seen from the Earth.  But the moon's orbit is not a circle, it is elliptical (oval), so sometimes it is a little closer to the Earth and sometimes a little further away.  Remember a few weeks ago when the "Supermoon" was big news?  I was in an ice cream shop when one of the other patrons saw the full moon rising and shouted "It's the supermoon!  Look how big it is!  Let's all go look!  Supermoon!".  You can see some pictures of the Supermoon here.   The reason for the "supermoon" was that the full moon was almost exactly coincident with the moon's closest approach to Earth, so it was fully lit at the same time it appeared largest in the sky.