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Tag Archives: astronomy

Artists impression of Gliese 581 C

50% bigger and about 5 times as massive as our own earth, a new planet has been discovered within the “Goldilocks” zone of the star Gliese 581. The planet is a little over 20 light years away from our own solar system and given its “prime” orbital distance from the parent star, this new planet (Gliese 581 C) may have liquid water. Since liquid water is believed to be a key ingredient in life, Gliese 581 C has quickly become the latest and greatest candidate for harboring life off of the earth.

Should this planet have the ability to support life, scientists, free thinkers, and otherwise sane individuals will begin the trans-solar migration immediately. Old earth will be left behind to the religious fundamentalists, war mongers, politicians and bureaucrats. Scientists believe old earth will die out quickly once all rational life leaves its shores though some of the migrating scientists may experience a brief yet painful period of severe withdrawal due to the lack of red tape which previously restricted their scientific research back on old earth.

Also, the new earth will most likely have a much stronger gravitational pull than that of old earth so humans will need to adapt to weighing nearly five times as much as they currently do. However, it is believed the oppressive weight of extremism and religion is far greater than any gravitational force on Gliese 581 C so everyone should get over it pretty quickly.

Money, it's a crime ...

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are interested in science and you want to learn more about it. Maybe you’re tired of creation vs evolution debates and you want to do the research yourself, or maybe you just want to become a more informed citizen. Whatever your reasons, you have a few options but none of them are all that appealing.

First, you can obtain most of your information online (as most people do). This includes subscribing to the various RSS feeds such as National Geographic, Scientific American, Space.com, and the PLoS journals. Now, aside from PLoS, what you can expect from these services is a wide assortment of scientific news written for the average lay person by a professional writer or journalist. Many of the topics will be media friendly because each site makes money off of online ad revenue and will not be very in depth. You will get a decent overview of the topic at hand but often you will notice that further reading is required.

The PLoS Journals are unique in that they are professional, peer reviewed journals that scientists pay to publish in. They are really no different than other professional journals and are often quite good. PLoS, hopefully, is the wave of the future, but we’ll get back to them a little later.

Your next option would be to subscribe to a print magazine. Again, much of what you can find online will also be found in the magazine, but sometimes the articles are slightly more in depth. Over the years I have subscribed to National Geographic, Scientific American, Astronomy and others. Lugging around boxes of 10 year old magazines (heavy, I might add), can be allot of trouble but at least you can hold them in your hand. Once more, the magazines make money from the advertising contained within so the articles are usually written for the lay person, though on occasion you might come across something with some meat in it (though not often). The real difference is that you have to pay $20-$40 a year for 12 issues of a popular print magazine.

The final option is to go right for the jugular and subscribe to a real peer review scientific journal. These are not called magazines because they are not condensed news and are written by the scientists who actually did the research (well, usually some poor grad student typed it up, but you get the idea). The language can range from well written (a scientist with some liberal arts influence) to downright cryptic (a scientist who expects to only write for other scientists in their field). In other words, very often you will need a degree in the subject you are reading about. The largest hurdle to a peer-reviewed journal is the price. A subscription to Science or Nature is double that of Scientific American, but you do get 52 issues per year. Other journals are much more expensive – in some cases costing thousands of dollars annually. I’ve compiled a list below of some of the more popular and well regarded journals:

General Science : Science : $99.00 (weekly, online only)

Astronomy : The Astrophysical Journal : $1525.00 (weekly, online only)

Chemistry : Journal of the American Chemical Society : $3589.00 (weekly)

Physics : Physical Review : $40.00 (monthly)

Biology : Cell : $179.00 (bi-monthly, 26 issues)

Medicine : New England Journal of Medicine : $99.00 (weekly, online only)

Total Annual Subscription Rates : $5531.00 (does not include shipping rates or ISP fees)

For a real, in depth journey into the bowels of scientific research, you can expect to pay nearly $6000 annually to stay up to date on the latest, greatest discoveries (a few of which may even remain relevant in the face of newer research for a year or two).

Ouch!

So, what is the concerned, scientifically minded citizen to do? Personally, I get allot of my information off of the web and through books at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. Trouble is, that even though I have a good mind for science and I can usually weed out the bollocks from the real stuff, it’s hard to really know if what I’m getting is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the unfettered, un-hyped, un-sensationalized truth.

About 100 years ago (or more), it would have been possible for one person to stay atop and even contribute somewhat to the scientific process. One person working alone in his basement could perform experiments, make observations and create new technology that might better the world in some way. Back then, science was seen as a new frontier and a ways with which humanity could finally pull itself from the medieval ooze of religious darkness into the great enlightenment of a bright and useful future. Everyone, from old ladies to young people were excited about the possibilities of progress and science because it seemed that finally the mysteries of the universe were at our fingertips and all we had to do was muster the courage and imagination to forge ahead with our grand ideas.

Today, however, that is simply not the case. While it may be possible for the lay person to make a breakthrough (such as an asteroid hunter making an astronomical discovery), the chances of you or I contributing in any significant (or even insignificant way) to the scientific process is pretty much nil. The cost is simply too high. Even a decent telescope such as a 10″ Meade reflector (though I prefer a good refractor because I’m old-school and I appreciate quality optics) will set you back thousands of dollars.

This high cost of science is a major contributing factor to the decline of the popular scientific process and it’s no wonder that science and scientists are not held in any high regard by a major portion of the American population. People are skeptical of science because it’s practically impossible for the average Joe or Jane to independently verify the results or even comprehend the findings in print format. What we are left with is relying on paid professional journalists to “dumb down” the science in such a way that it’s readable but also very often misleading. These journalists may only focus on one aspect of a discovery and totally disregard the other research solely because it is “boring” and won’t sell magazine subscriptions. To compound the frustration, when these journalists “get it wrong” people become even more skeptical. I’m sure most of you can easily count how many times you’ve read a retraction or addendum to a major discovery.

Science, then, has become such a foreign culture to our lives (even though we so heavily rely on it), that we just don’t think about it anymore. Many people not only don’t think about, they outright don’t trust or believe it. Think about how many people believe global warming is a hoax, or that the moon landing was faked, or that evolution is a lie. Now imagine if the scientific process was more accessible to the average person. Do you think we would still have this mistrust of science in general?

PLoS Online Scientific JournalsI spoke earlier about the PLoS journals and I want to point to them as a reason for hope. PLoS is freely available to the general public, and though the language can be very daunting in each article, it is not impossible for a fairly intelligent person to make sense of what they are reading about, even if some of the details are a bit fuzzy. My hope is that in the future, we will see more of this type of publication so that more people can gain access to a very important part of the personal education.

However, scientists themselves must also be responsible for what they publish. Though it would be impossible to write a full paper dealing with the quantum fluctuations of the atomic structure of the nitrogen atom in a superheated state without relying on some “thick” language, it should not be written in such a way that someone with a good mind can’t read it either. The other main reason why science is not trusted anymore is because nobody knows what the hell scientists are talking about. Yet scientists are really just teachers, right? They explore the unknowns of the universe and report their findings, yet when they (or their grad students) type up the paper, they too often forget that they need to be writing in a style that is assessable to more than just the 5 other people in their field.

Science has a responsibility to the people who will ultimately benefit from the process – you and I. Though I would never require scientists to “dumb down” their findings for the average citizen because it is also our responsibility to raise our own intelligence as well, it should never the less be a requirement that scientists never forget why they are doing the research in the first place. Science must be held accountable to not only present their findings in a clearer and more concise manner, but they should also explore every possible alternative to publish those findings so that the majority of people have reasonable access to them. $6000 a year for journal subscriptions just is not going to cut it anymore.

Scientific journals need to stop stealing the science away from the average citizen because they have been a major reason why people have wandered off to study Intelligent Design and Young Earth theories. I mean, think about it, do you see this fake research being sold to Christians for $1000 annual subscription rates? Of course not because if that were the case, nobody would read that crap either. Yet the people who wish to dabble in falsehoods and fake science, understand economics much better than the real scientists do. They know that if they keep the cost down, they can reach the brains of millions more people and influence their thinking.

I’m not saying science should be free, but science can no longer be practiced for such a high cost because if it does, we will only see even more people put their faith in the cheaper sciences (psychics, faith healers, creationists and the rest of the bull). I do understand that science is an expensive field (particle accelerators don’t exactly grow on trees, you know), but if more average people were excited about science, they would be more willing to allow their tax dollars to go fund such expensive programs.

It is high time we put the scientific process back in the public eye because the days of white lab coated, goggle wearing, funding greedy, secretive scientists will only lead to another demise in enlightened civilization. Do we really want to live in a future where prayer replaces medicine, where astrology predicts when to plant the crops and where alchemists attempt to create the next alloy for a space craft?

August 15, 1977. Jerry Ehman is analyzing computer printouts from the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University. He is not being paid for his work because he is a volunteer but he believes strongly that the work is important and he dutifully pours over each transcript. He taps his pencil against the table, sips his coffee and adjusts his glasses as he flips through each page. Masking the mechanical hum of the instruments in the lab a small transistor radio picks up the Cleveland Indians game against Oakland; the Indians are up 7-1 in the top of the 5th. Outside his window a grounds keeper is mowing the commons and the smell of warm, freshly cut grass filters in through the air conditioning unit.

No runs score in the fifth. The radio plays an ad for the Star Wars movie. Jerry separates each page into two piles – one for further investigation and another, much larger pile for trash. Most of the signals are just background noise, the signals of distant stars and interference printed off as 1’s and 2’s in vertical columns. The more interesting signals usually turn out to be pulsars, dying stars emitting massive amounts of electromagnetic radiation like a lighthouse with a lamp that can rotate as quickly as once every 33 milliseconds and be seen halfway across the universe. Sometimes the telescope picks up terrestrial noise or a weather satellite as it passes overhead. To an untrained eye this could seem like an extra-terrestrial signal but Jerry has analyzed thousands of signals and is not easily fooled.

The Indians leave the bottom of the 6th inning still up 7-1. A couple of research scientists outside his office door wave at Jerry as they pass by. He thinks about getting lunch soon, maybe grab a beer too. Then near then bottom of the stack amidst all the 1’s and 2’s he spots a 6 and circles it with his pencil. Further down is another 6 followed by the vertical series “AEQUJ5″ with a 6 and 7 off to the right. On the radio Oakland scores a run at the top of the 7th but Jerry is no longer listening to the game. He checks the printout again. He’s stopped tapping his pencil against the desk and has forgotten about that beer. He quickly looks up to see if the scientists are still outside his door but he’s alone and even the grounds keeper is just a distant shadow at the far end of the commons. Without thinking he writes the word “Wow!” in the margin.

 

Hard copy of the 'Wow!' signal

30 years later this signal has never been heard again. Was it a fluke, a glitch, a terrestrial signal being bounced off space debris or was it contact? Dr. Jerry Ehman did state the possibility of the signal coming from Earth “We should have seen it again when we looked for it 50 times. Something (?) suggests it was an Earth-bound signal that simply got reflected off a piece of space debris.” Countering his own skepticism he has stated that since the signal was transmitted at the protected frequency of 1420MHz and due to the unlikely nature of such a signal being bounced off of debris at that declination he still can’t rule out the nature of the signal being extra-terrestrial in nature. “It was the most significant thing we had seen.” he has been quoted as saying.

 

The Arecibo message

In 1974 we humans sent our own signal to the stars. Using the powerful Arecibo Radio Telescope the message “was sent only once, over a period of about three minutes, on a narrow beam directed toward a group of about 300,000 stars called the Great Cluster in Hercules, Messier 13. The globular cluster is 25,000 light-years away in our galaxy, the Milky Way. So far, moving at the speed of light, the message has traveled only one thousandth of the distance, or about 147 trillion miles. There are stars closer to our solar system than that, but none of them is in the path of the message.” The chances of an alien civilization “tuning” into this broadcast are pretty slim since the globular cluster it was aimed at will have moved out of the way by the time the signal reaches it.

This signal was created by Frank Drake who is also famous for the Drake Equation. The Drake equation states that : (from Wikipedia)

 

The Drake Equation

where:

N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which we might expect to be able to communicate at any given time

and

R* is the rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of the above that are willing and able to communicate
L is the expected lifetime of such a civilization for the period that it can communicate across interstellar space.

In other words it predicts that there is an excellent chance that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.

Recently the “fp” in the equation has undergone serious scientific study based on observations made by a new generation of ground based techniques. When the Aricebo Signal was sent back in 1974 there was no evidence that there were planets orbiting around stars other than our sun and astronomers could only theorize their existence based, in part, on the Drake equation. Yet in 1995 Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the University of Geneva discovered a planet orbiting the main sequence star 51 Pegasi. They used a method called high-resolution spectroscopy and this technique opened the floodgates for other researches to discover 202 extrasolar planets in 172 planetary systems (as of March 10, 2007). The technique works by detecting subtle gravitational shifts in the host star. As a planet makes an orbit it’s gravity “tugs” on the star and scientists can detect the small, regular movements.

 

Pioneer image

 

Other methods have been employed to contact our possible neighbors. The spacecraft Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 both carried a plaque which is expected to outlive both the Earth and the Sun. The later Voyager probes contained even more information, this time on a golden record. Since the earlier Pioneer plaque had what some considered “smut” on it (a naked man and naked pregnant woman) these drawings were included only as silhouette. Hopefully if these time capsules are ever found our social mores will have advanced somewhat.

The best chance we have of detecting our neighbors is by just listening to the sky. This is what Jerry Ehman was doing back in 1977 when he detected his now famous “Wow! signal”. Jerry was working for SETI whose main mission is to “explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.

SETI is what you could call a “faith-based initiative”. Faith not in the sense of God or religion, but faith in the true sense of hoping for something to be true. The work SETI does is serious but rarely is it perceived as serious by the general public or even by other scientists. Spending money on scanning the heavens for a distant signal from alien civilizations seems like a waste of resources to the cynical eye. All that money could be spent on finding a cure for HIV or housing the homeless or rebuilding bridges and interstates but SETI is an endeavor that fulfills an equally important aspect of our lives.

Just as public schools cut funding for the arts because the government mandates that children meet a minimum educational criteria that same attitude has spread into the world of academia. Many scientists focus on the “here and now” problems that face our species but dare not to dream about the greater discoveries for fear of being ostracized by their peers. Imagine if Ferdinand Magellan had not attempted to circumnavigate the globe or Sir Edmund Hillary had not ascended Mt. Everest. What sort of world would we be living in? Should our lives be spent only focusing on the negative aspects of our species or is it acceptable to dream?

Ask a child if it is good to daydream and they will gladly say it is but ask that child’s guidance counselor and they will disagree. Good science maintains that childlike view of the world and always asks “why?”. Humans need to understand the world around us because we thrive when we benefit from new discoveries. Too be sure we also thrive when science is applied to concrete and practical issues such as medicine and many good scientists have devoted their careers to these fields. Yet science is so much more than just problem solving. Science dares to go inside a black hole or to the very edge of the universe not because it may offer a practical benefit to our lives this coming fiscal quarter but because it gives our lives meaning.

Franz Schubert did not compose Death and the Maiden because it would feed the poor but because the music was inside him and since he knew he was dying he needed to get it out. Imagine a world without this piece of music and now imagine a world where all things deemed “impractical” are discarded. Failing to dream kills the human spirit and does not give us much reason to live.

So why is the search for life off the earth important? Because it fulfills within us a basic need all humans have and that is to know that we are not alone in the universe.

 

The Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy is a fairly typical spiral galaxy. Located some 2.5 million light years from Earth, it is part of the Local Group of which our own Milky Way Galaxy and the Triangulum Galaxy (located 3.2 million light years away) are also a part of. Since we are unable to take a nice profile image of our own galaxy (imagine taking a picture of the outside of your house while you and your camera were in the bathroom), Andromeda is often used as a stand in for the Milky Way. In the far distant future, Andromeda may merge with our galaxy because it appears to be moving towards us at nearly 200 miles per second. Anyone still alive in 3 billion years will be witness to one hell of a show!

Hey, Dan, how does science really know how far away the Andromeda Galaxy is?

There are a few methods which can be used to determine distances between galaxies – The Standard Candle method, Type Ia Supernovae observations and Brightest Cluster Galaxy observations are a few examples. For the sake of brevity and simplicity I will talk about the simplest method, the Standard Candle.

The Standard Candle method works when you know exactly how bright something is (like a street lamp or candle). Once you know how bright something is you can use the Inverse Square Law to determine how far away it is.

Sound complicated? Actually, you can do this experiment at home with the following items:

  1. small maglite flashlight or LED light source
  2. piece of cardboard
  3. file card
  4. scissors
  5. graph paper

Cut a 1/2 inch square hole in the file card. Next mount the light source behind the file card. Now position your graph paper so that the light shining through the hole in the file card is being reflected on the squares of the graph paper. Move the graph paper towards the light source until only 1 square is being lit up and measure that distance. Now move the graph paper away from the light source so that it is twice as far away as in your first measurement. Count how many squares are being lit up. Move the graph paper again equal to the same distance you moved it the first time and once more count the squares being lit up. Notice anything interesting?

What you just observed was that (for example) when the card was 1 inch away only 1 square was lit up and when it was 2 inches away 4 squares were lit up and when it was three inches away 9 squares were lit up. If you moved the paper 1 more inch away then 16 squares will be lit up. What this means is that the area being illuminated is equal to the square root of the distance being measured (the square root of 4 is 2, the square root of 9 is 3, etc…)

Astronomers can use this method to determine how far away something is. For example let’s say we observe a star similar to our sun in the Andromeda Galaxy. Since we know about how bright that star is (just like we knew how bright our maglite was) we can observe the intensity of that light to determine how far away it is. Simple!

I must warn you that this method only works with objects up to a certain distance away because at really great distances the data becomes unreliable. I’m not going to go into how those methods work since what I am wanting to prove can be done with the above method.

Alright, Dan, you’ve proven to me how we know how far away something is but you also said Andromeda was speeding towards us. How do you know that?

Simple. Ever hear a police siren speeding past you? What do you notice about the sound the siren makes? As it is coming towards you the siren is high pitched and as it moves away from you it is lower pitched. The reason for this is because since the police car is speeding towards you it is, in effect, compressing the sound waves blaring out of the siren. When the police passes you the sound waves get stretched out. What is true for sound is also true for light. When a galaxy moves away from us at a high speed the light from that galaxy appears red because red has a long wavelength. When the galaxy speeds towards us at high speed it’s light gets shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum because blue has a shorter wavelength.

Fine, Dan, you’ve proven how far away Andromeda is and that it is speeding towards us. Who cares?

Since we know how far away the Andromeda galaxy is we can deduce a very important fact. You see light always travels at 186,282.397 miles per second. Always. It’s a constant – meaning it never changes. Ever!

Since my post today is already getting to be epic in length I’ll leave it up to you to understand why the speed of light never changes.

With the speed of light as a constant and the distance known about how far away Andromeda is (taking into account its motion towards us) we know that it is roughly 2.5 million light years from Earth. That means that even if the Andromeda galaxy popped into existence because God said “Let there be light” about 10,000 years ago then we would not even be able to see the Andromeda galaxy for another 2.49 million years. Basically we would not even see it coming until it was already nearing our doorstep but not a moment before.