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Posts Tagged ‘astronomy


January 2, 1961: 100,000 spectators filled Pasadena’s Rose Bowl stadium to watch the Minnesota Golden Gophers take on the Washington Huskies in the New Year’s Day game (played that year on January 2 because the 1st fell on a Sunday). Millions more watched around the nation, crowded in front of tv sets in living rooms, restaurants, and bars.

NBC was providing live coverage of the game. At the end of the first half the Huskies led 17 to 0, and the audience settled in to watch the half-time show for which the Washington marching band had prepared an elaborate flip-card routine.

Sets of variously colored flip cards and an instruction sheet had been left on seats in the section of the stadium where the Washington students were located. When the students heard the signal from the cheerleaders, they were each supposed to hold up the appropriate flip card (as designated by the instruction sheet) over their head. In this way different gigantic images would be formed that would be visible to the rest of the stadium, as well as to those viewing at home. The Washington band planned on displaying a series of fifteen flip-card images in total.

The flip-card show got off to a well-coordinated start. Everything went smoothly, and the crowd marvelled at the colorful images forming, as if by magic, at the command of the cheerleaders. It wasn’t until the 12th image that things began to go a little wrong. This image was supposed to depict a husky, Washington’s mascot. But instead a creature appeared that had buck teeth and round ears. It looked almost like a beaver.

The next image was even worse. The word ‘HUSKIES’ was supposed to unfurl from left to right. But for some reason the word was reversed, so that it now read ‘SEIKSUH’.

These strange glitches rattled the Washington cheerleaders. They wondered if they might have made some careless mistakes when designing the complex stunt. But there was nothing for them to do about it now except continue on, and so they gave the signal for the next image.

What happened next has lived on in popular memory long after the rest of the 1961 Rose Bowl has been forgotten. It was one of those classic moments when a prank comes together instantly, perfectly, and dramatically.

The word ‘CALTECH’ appeared, held aloft by hundreds of Washington students. The name towered above the field in bold, black letters and was broadcast to millions of viewers nationwide.

For a few seconds the stadium was plunged into a baffled silence. Everyone knew what Caltech was. It was that little Pasadena technical college down the road from the Rose Bowl stadium. What no one could figure out was what its name was doing in the middle of Washington’s flip-card show. Throughout the United States, a million minds simultaneously struggled to comprehend this enigma.

In fact, only a handful of people watching the game understood the full significance of what had just happened, and these were the Caltech students who had labored for the past month to secretly alter Washington’s flip-card show…

More on one of the great pranks of all time: “The Great Rose Bowl Hoax,” via The Museum of Hoaxes.

See also this explication of one of the more successful imitators.

* Tom Hiddleston


As we treasure tricksters, we might recall that on this date in 2006 the City Councils of Reykjavik and its neighboring municipalities agreed to turn off all the city lights in the capital area for half an hour, while a renowned astronomer talked about the stars and the constellations on national radio.

(Ten years later they dimmed again to allow unpolluted viewing of the Northern Lights.)


Written by LW

September 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I’m envious of people who can sleep as long as they want. I have the circadian rhythm of a farmer.”*…

After World War II, scientists began studying the internal clocks of animals in earnest. They discovered that mammals and other creatures are ruled by their own, internal body clock, what is commonly referred to today as a biological clock. The German physician and biologist Jürgen Aschoff wondered if this might also be true of humans. In the early 1960s, as head of a new department for biological timing at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology, Aschoff and his research partner Rütger Wever designed an experiment to find out.

To study the inner workings of human biological clocks, Aschoff built a soundproof underground bunker in the foothills of a mountain deep in the Bavarian countryside, just up the road from the well-known beer-brewing monastery Kloster Andechs. Through a series of investigations that included 200 subjects and spanned two decades, Aschoff’s bunker experiments would become a pioneering study in the field of chronobiology, changing the way we think about time today…

What Is Chronobiology? Does it explain why we’re having so much trouble sleeping? Find out here.

* Moby


As we hit the hay, we might spare a thought for Urbain Le Verrier; he died on this date in 1877. An astronomer and mathematician who specialized in celestial mechanics, he’s best remembered for predicting the existence and position of the planet Neptune using only mathematics. Le Verrier sent the coordinates to Johann Gottfried Galle at the New Berlin Observatory, asking him to verify. Galle found Neptune in the same night he received Le Verrier’s letter– this date in 1846. The planet was within 1° of the predicted position.

Urbain Le Verrier


Written by LW

September 23, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Doomsday is quite within our reach, if we will only stretch for it”*…




Ah, to have planned for a comet apocalypse in the Belle Epoque! Looks like a wild time, according to all the 19th and 20th century postcards with folks soaring through the skies, bum over noggin, towards a starry death. Out of all the (ultimately) anti-climactic close comet calls, the 1910 approach of Halley’s Comet takes the cake. Not only did it lead to the first ever photograph of a comet, and the actual gathering of “spectroscopic ” data, but because the anticipation of its arrival caused a media frenzy. Stores started selling “anti-comet pills.” Papers put out ads for escape submarine rentals. One cult considered sacrificing a virgin…

It’s hard for us science laypeople to fathom the workings of space, let alone its errant pebbles. Although, Halley’s never been just a random fly bye event; by 1705, its orbital period of 75 or so years was confirmed by the English astronomer, Edmond Halley, bringing us both the comet’s eponymous name and a new tradition: once, maybe even twice in a lifetime, the comet’s 24-million-mile long tail would become visible to the naked eye. Fun fact: he might not have had his breakthrough, if he hadn’t consulted a friend and fellow scholar named Isaac Newton.

But people started to wonder – were there consequences of such seemingly close contact? One account of its 1835 passing describes a “vapour trail” in the sky…

When Halley was next slated to return, it was at the beginning of a new century in 1910, when advancements in media and technology had radically accelerated the circulation of people and ideas, and major breakthroughs were being made in the automobile and radio industries; the world had seen the first airplanes and photographs – including the photographs of astronomical objects. That meant it was finally, hopefully, the moment to capture an image of the comet when it neared earth in one of its shortest return cycles yet, a mere 74 years. It had one man in particular, a French scientist named Camille Flammarion, feeling rather worried. Flammarion was a prominent, and above all colourful presence in the astronomy scene. He ran the journal L’Astronomie, as well as his own private, castle-like observatory in Juvisy-sur-Org, France, which you can still visit today…

As an author, he penned both scientific essays and science fiction with a talent for poetic turns of a phrase. Readers loved it; critics tended to roll their eyes at his tendency for sensationalism. “This end of the world will occur without noise, without revolution, without cataclysm,” he wrote in L’atmosphère : météorologie populaire in 1888, “Just as a tree loses leaves in the autumn wind, so the earth will see in succession the falling and perishing of all its children, and in this eternal winter, which will envelop it from then on, she can no longer hope for either a new sun or a new spring. She will purge herself of the history of the worlds.” Yikes.

The incoming of Halley’s comet, he said, contained a poisonous cyanogen gas that “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” When The New York Times ran a story on his assertion, the fear amplified on a global scale in the tabloids. One science writer, Matt Simon, said folks were so frightened, they began sealing up the keyholes of their houses to “keep the poison out of their homes.”… Comet pills, comet shelters, comet soap, and even submarine rentals became the norm for doomsday preppers… Even fashion took a turn. It wasn’t uncommon to find both amateur and professional-grade comet buttons, broaches and jewellery…

“I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835,” Mark Twain famously wrote in 1909, decreeing that he fully expected “to go out with it in 1910,” which, to his credit, he did. Was Twain’s death a feat of willpower, coincidence, or fate? Who knows. But it was one in a series of events that used the comet as a launching pad for a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some cited the event as the cause of death of King Edward VII. The civil unrest surrounding the comet even helped spark China’s Xinhai Revolution in 1911, which effectively ended the last dynasty…


Halley in April 1910, from Harvard’s Southern Hemisphere Station, taken with an 8-inch Bache Doublet


It’s the end of the world as they knew it: “Doomsday Prepping in the Belle Epoque.”

* Loudon Wainwright III


As we eye the sky, we might send far-seeing birthday greetings to James Ferguson; he was born on this date in 1797.  Working at the U.S. Naval Observatory with a 9.6 inch refractor telescope, made the first discovery of an asteroid from North America (31 Euphrosyne).

150px-James_Ferguson_(astronomer) source


“Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it… Geniuses remove it.”*…




World War II bomber planes returned from their missions riddled with bullet holes. The first response was, not surprisingly, to add armor to those areas most heavily damaged. However, the statistician Abraham Wald made what seemed like the counterintuitive recommendation to add armor to those parts with no damage. Wald had uniquely understood that the planes that had been shot where no bullet holes were seen were the planes that never made it back. That’s, of course, where the real problem was. Armor was added to the seemingly undamaged places, and losses decreased dramatically.

The visible bullet holes of this pandemic are the virus and its transmission. Understandably, a near-universal response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to double down on those disciplines where we already possess deep and powerful knowledge: immunology and epidemiology. Massive resources have been directed at combating the virus by providing fast grants for disciplinary work on vaccines. Federal agencies have called for even more rapid response from the scientific community. This is a natural reaction to the immediate short-term crisis.

The damage we are not attending to is the deeper nature of the crisis—the collapse of multiple coupled complex systems.

Societies the world over are experiencing what might be called the first complexity crisis in history. We should not have been surprised that a random mutation of a virus in a far-off city in China could lead in just a few short months to the crash of financial markets worldwide, the end of football in Spain, a shortage of flour in the United Kingdom, the bankruptcy of Hertz and Niemann-Marcus in the United States, the collapse of travel, and to so much more.

As scientists who study complex systems, we conceive of a complexity crisis as a twofold event. First, it is the failure of multiple coupled systems—our physical bodies, cities, societies, economies, and ecosystems. Second, it involves solutions, such as social distancing, that involve unavoidable tradeoffs, some of which amplify the primary failures. In other words, the way we respond to failing systems can accelerate their decline.

We and our colleagues in the Santa Fe Institute Transmission Project believe there are some non-obvious insights and solutions to this crisis that can be gleaned from studying complex systems and their universal properties…

The more complicated and efficient a system gets, the more likely it is to collapse altogether.  Scientists who study complex systems offer solutions to the pandemic: “The Damage We’re Not Attending To.”

See also: “Complex Systems Theory Explains Why Covid Crushed the World.”

* Alan Perlis


As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1835 that the New York Sun began a series of six articles detailing the discovery of civilized life on the moon.  Now known as “The Great Moon Hoax,” the articles attributed the “discovery” to Sir John Herschel, the greatest living astronmer of the day.  Herschel was initially amused, wryly noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting.  But ultimately he tired of having to answer questioners who believed the story.  The series was not discovered to be a hoax for several weeks after its publication and, even then, the newspaper did not issue a retraction.

The “ruby amphitheater” on the Moon, per the New York Sun (source)


“Everything we know and love about the universe and all the laws of physics as they apply, apply to four percent of the universe”*…


dark matter


In 1969, the American astronomer Vera Rubin puzzled over her observations of the sprawling Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way’s biggest neighbour. As she mapped out the rotating spiral arms of stars through spectra carefully measured at the Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Lowell Observatory, both in Arizona, she noticed something strange: the stars in the galaxy’s outskirts seemed to be orbiting far too fast. So fast that she’d expect them to escape Andromeda and fling out into the heavens beyond. Yet the whirling stars stayed in place.

Rubin’s research, which she expanded to dozens of other spiral galaxies, led to a dramatic dilemma: either there was much more matter out there, dark and hidden from sight but holding the galaxies together with its gravitational pull, or gravity somehow works very differently on the vast scale of a galaxy than scientists previously thought.

Her influential discovery never earned Rubin a Nobel Prize, but scientists began looking for signs of dark matter everywhere, around stars and gas clouds and among the largest structures in the galaxies in the Universe. By the 1970s, the astrophysicist Simon White at the University of Cambridge argued that he could explain the conglomerations of galaxies with a model in which most of the Universe’s matter is dark, far outnumbering all the atoms in all the stars in the sky. In the following decade, White and others built on that research by simulating the dynamics of hypothetical dark matter particles on the not-so-userfriendly computers of the day.

But despite those advances, over the past half century, no one has ever directly detected a single particle of dark matter. Over and over again, dark matter has resisted being pinned down, like a fleeting shadow in the woods. Every time physicists have searched for dark matter particles with powerful and sensitive experiments in abandoned mines and in Antarctica, and whenever they’ve tried to produce them in particle accelerators, they’ve come back empty-handed. For a while, physicists hoped to find a theoretical type of matter called weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), but searches for them have repeatedly turned up nothing…

Dark matter is the most ubiquitous thing physicists have never found. Is it time to consider alternative explanations? “Does dark matter exist?

[image above: source]

* Neil deGrasse Tyson


As we interrogate the invisible, we might recall that it was on this date in 1944 that one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history occurred; the blaze broke out during an afternoon performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that was attended by an estimated 7,000 people.  It killed 167 people; more than 700 were injured.


Because of the paraffin wax waterproofing of the tent, the flames spread rapidly


Emmett Kelly holding a water bucket on what became known as “the day the clowns cried


Written by LW

July 6, 2020 at 1:01 am

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