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Posts Tagged ‘astronomy

“Doubt thou the stars are fire”*…




Solar storms are a relatively regular occurrence.  But in 1859, a massive solar storm occurred; solar flares created the one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record.  Telegraph service failed… but otherwise the event was largely a curiosity.

A new study calculates that our sun may produce another ‘superflare’ in the next 100 years… and suggests that the resulting damage to electronic systems on which we’ve come to depend could be devastating.

How much more disruptive would a superflare be? It’s hard to say because the damage would seem to be incalculable. A superflare even a hundred times more powerful than what we normally experience would almost certainly hit every unprotected electronic system on Earth in some fashion, disrupting or outright crippling powergrids around the world, disabling machinery and manufacturing, blowing out cell phones, satellites, and all the rest. Transportation systems depend on electronics, as do utility systems, communications systems, in short: everything could just stop working overnight, even though we probably wouldn’t feel a thing.

If the superflare was thousands of times more powerful than normal? For all we know, it could send humanity back to the Age of Sail practically overnight–at least until we can repair or replace the entire planet’s electronic infrastructure, a tall order when you have no power transmission to manufacture replacement electronic components and we’re all reduced to communicating using carrier pigeons and old fashioned letters…

The solar storm of 2012 was of similar magnitude to the 1859 flare, but it passed Earth’s orbit without striking the planet, missing by nine days.  For more on what we might expect of we’re not so lucky next time, see “Massive Superflare Eruption from Sun within 100 Years Possible, New Study Says.”

And for more background see: “Solar Flare: What If Biggest Known Sun Storm Hit Today?

* Shakespeare


As we slip on our shades, we might spare a thought for Giovanni Battista Riccioli; he died on this date in 1671.  He is known, among other things, for his experiments with pendulums and with falling bodies, for his discussion of 126 arguments concerning the motion of the Earth, and for discovering the first double star.  But he is perhaps most remembered for introducing (in in Almagestum Novum in1651) the current scheme of lunar nomenclature: he named the more prominent features after famous astronomers, scientists and philosophers, while the large dark and smooth areas he called “seas” or “maria”.  The lunar seas were named after moods (Seas of Tranquillity, Serenity) or terrestrial phenomena (Sea of Rains, Ocean or Storms).

440px-Giovanni_Battista_Riccioli source


Written by LW

June 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Few things are more enjoyable than lingering over the atlas and plotting a trip”*…


atlas of outer space


I’m excited to finally share a new design project this week! Over the past year and a half I’ve been working on a collection of ten maps on planets, moons, and outer space. To name a few, I’ve made an animated map of the seasons on Earth, a map of Mars geology, and a map of everything in the solar system bigger than 10km…

Data visualizer extraordinaire Eleanor Lutz has announced “An Atlas of Space.”

Follow her progress on her blog Tabletop Whale, or on Twitter or Tumblr.

[TotH to Kottke]

* J. Maarten Troost


As we see stars, we might spare a thought for Daniel Kirkwood; he died on this date in 1895. Kirkwood’s most significant contribution came from his study of asteroid orbits. When arranging the then-growing number of discovered asteroids by their distance from the Sun, he noted several gaps, now named Kirkwood gaps in his honor, and associated these gaps with orbital resonances with the orbit of Jupiter.  Further, Kirkwood also suggested a similar dynamic was responsible for Cassini Division in Saturn’s rings, as the result of a resonance with one of Saturn’s moons.  In the same paper, he was the first to correctly posit that the material in meteor showers is cometary debris.

Kirkwood also identified a pattern relating the distances of the planets to their rotation periods, which was called Kirkwood’s Law. This discovery earned Kirkwood an international reputation among astronomers; he was dubbed “the American Kepler” by Sears Cook Walker, who claimed that Kirkwood’s Law proved the widely held Solar Nebula Theory.  (In the event, the “Law” has since become discredited as new measurements of planetary rotation periods have shown that the pattern doesn’t hold.)

Daniel_Kirkwood source


“The years teach much the days never know”*…


Hoover Dam

On the western flank of the Hoover Dam stands a little-understood monument, commissioned by the US Bureau of Reclamation when construction of the dam began in 01931. The most noticeable parts of this corner of the dam, now known as Monument Plaza, are the massive winged bronze sculptures and central flagpole which are often photographed by visitors. The most amazing feature of this plaza, however, is under their feet as they take those pictures.

The plaza’s terrazzo floor is actually a celestial map that marks the time of the dam’s creation based on the 25,772-year axial precession of the earth…

Hoover diagram

Alexander Rose, Executive director of The Long Now Foundation, on the star map of “Safety Island,” a Hoover Dam feature that has baffled visitors for decades: “The 26,000-Year Astronomical Monument Hidden in Plain Sight.”

See also “Coventry Doom,” the story of a 15th-century “doom mural” (depiction of the Last Judgement) that remained hidden in plain sight for centuries.

* Ralph Waldo Emerson


As we watch our step, we might send unearthed birthday greetings to Mary Douglas Leakey; she was born on this date in 1913.  An archaeologist and  paleoanthropologist, she made several of the most important fossil finds subsequently interpreted and publicized by her husband, the noted anthropologist Louis Leakey. For every vivid claim made by Louis about the origins of man, the supporting evidence tended to come from Mary’s scrupulous scientific approach.

220px-Mary_Leakey source


Written by LW

February 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“It is not enough that I succeed, others must fail”*…



Who said “it is not enough that I succeed, others must fail”? According to Tiffany Watt Smith, in this spry book, it might have been Gore Vidal or Genghis Kahn. According to the internet it is either La Rochefoucauld or Somerset Maugham. Having thought about it a bit, it might actually have been me, or perhaps it was Watt Smith herself. The point is that it doesn’t really matter since taking pleasure in another’s misfortune turns out to be a pungent but free-floating feeling that pops up everywhere. The flavours might change – as an academic cultural historian Watt Smith is far from suggesting that emotions are universal across time and place – but there is something familiar to us all about the odd stab of pleasure we get when an enemy or even, God help us, a friend, stumbles.

So it is odd that the English language does not have a word for this grubby little pleasure – instead we have to borrow from the German and call it Schadenfreude (literally “damage-joy”)…

Kathryn Hughes considers that delicious feeling of satisfaction at the “epic fails” of somebody else in a review of Tiffany Watt Smith’s Schadenfreude- the Joy of Another’s Misfortune: “Damage-joy.”

* see above


As we try not to snicker, we might recall that it was on this date in 45 B.C.E. that the Julian Calendar came into effect.  It was the predominant calendar in the Roman world, most of Europe, and in European settlements in the Americas and elsewhere, until it was refined and gradually replaced by the Gregorian calendar, promulgated in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII.

(The Julian calendar remains useful for some scientific, especially astronomical, purposes, as it provides a linear count of days from a starting point. which was introduced by Joseph Scaliger in 1583.  Julian Day 0 is defined as noon on Monday, January 1, 4713 B.C.E. (in the Julian Calendar).  Regardless of leap years and calendar changes by the Romans or Pope Gregory, the Julian date number enables the easy calculation of the number of days between two dates by simply taking the difference in their Julian day number. This is useful, say, for astronomers’ calculations of the dates of eclipses.  Thus, the Julian day number of a day is defined as the number of days since noon GMT on 1 Jan 4713 B.C.E. in the Proleptic Julian Calendar, and each Julian day number runs from noon to noon.)

122918-03-History-Calendar-768x439 source


Written by LW

January 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I’m sure the universe is full of intelligent life. It’s just been too intelligent to come here.”*…



Artist’s impression of the first interstellar asteroid/comet, “Oumuamua”


Or not…

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka, ‘Oumuamua). In the months that followed, multiple follow-up observations were conducted that allowed astronomers to get a better idea of its size and shape, while also revealing that it had the characteristics of both a comet and an asteroid.

Interestingly enough, there has also been some speculation that based on its shape, ‘Oumuamua might actually be an interstellar spacecraft (Breakthrough Listen even monitored it for signs of radio signals!). A new study by a pair of astronomers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has taken it a step further, suggesting that ‘Oumuamua may actually be a light sail of extra-terrestrial origin…

As for what an extra-terrestrial light sail would be doing in our solar system, [Harvard astronomers Shmuel Bialy and Prof. Abraham Loeb] offer some possible explanations for that. First, they suggest that the probe may actually be a defunct sail floating under the influence of gravity and stellar radiation, similar to debris from ship wrecks floating in the ocean. This would help explain why Breakthrough Listen found no evidence of radio transmissions.

Loeb further illustrated this idea in a recent article he penned for Scientific American, where he suggested that ‘Oumuamua could be the first known case of an artificial relic which floated into our solar system from . What’s more, he notes that lightsails with similar dimensions have been designed and constructed by humans, including the Japanese-designed IKAROS project and the Starshot Initiative with which he is involved.

“This opportunity establishes a potential foundation for a new frontier of space archaeology, namely the study of relics from past civilizations in space,” Loeb wrote. “Finding evidence for space junk of artificial origin would provide an affirmative answer to the age-old question “Are we alone?”. This would have a dramatic impact on our culture and add a new cosmic perspective to the significance of human activity.”

On the other hand, as Loeb told Universe Today, ‘Oumuamua could be an active piece of alien technology that came to explore our solar system, the same way we hope to explore Alpha Centauri using Starshot and similar technologies”…

More provocative detail at “Could ‘Oumuamua be an extraterrestrial solar sail?

* Arthur C. Clarke


As we ask if we’re alone, we might recall that it was on this date in 1572 that Wolfgang Schüler first noted a supernova in the W-shaped constellation of Cassiopeia.  It was subsequently seen by other observers, including Tycho Brahe, who included an account of the sighting in his De nova stellaConsequently, the supernova– one of eight visible to the naked eye in historical records– is known as “Tycho’s Supernova.”


Star map of the constellation Cassiopeia showing the position (labelled I) of the supernova of 1572; from Tycho Brahe’s De nova stella




Written by LW

November 6, 2018 at 2:01 am

“What is common to many is least taken care of”*…



As an evolutionary biologist who received my PhD in 1975, I grew up with Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in Science magazine in 1968. His parable of villagers adding too many cows to their common pasture captured the essence of the problem that my thesis research was designed to solve. The farmer who added an extra cow gained an advantage over other farmers in his village but it also led to an overgrazed pasture. The biological world is full of similar examples in which individuals who behave for the good of their groups lose out in the struggle for existence with more self-serving individuals, resulting in overexploited resources and other tragedies of non-cooperation…

Unbeknownst to me, another heretic named Elinor Ostrom was also challenging the received wisdom in her field of political science. Starting with her thesis research on how a group of stakeholders in southern California cobbled together a system for managing their water table, and culminating in her worldwide study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups, the message of her work was that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met (Ostrom 1990, 2010). She summarized the conditions in the form of eight core design principles: 1) Clearly defined boundaries; 2) Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs; 3) Collective choice arrangements; 4) Monitoring; 5) Graduated sanctions; 6) Fast and fair conflict resolution; 7) Local autonomy; 8) Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance). This work was so groundbreaking that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009…

David Sloan Wilson on the design principles that can solve the tragedy of the commons: “The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas.”

For more on the tragedy of the commons, see here— also the source of the cartoon above.

* Aristotle


As we share and share alike, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that we– the entire population of the earth– narrowly avoided total obliteration, as the 500,000 ton asteroid/planetoid 69230 Hermes failed to collide with our planet.  It missed by twice the distance of the Moon… but that’s only three seconds.  (In 1989, the earth had an even closer approach, but by the smaller 4581 Asclepius.)

69230 Hermes




Written by LW

October 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go”*…




Harmonia Macrocosmica (1660), an atlas of the stars from the Dutch Golden Age of cartography, maps the structure of the heavens in twenty-nine extraordinary double-folio spreads. We are presented with the motions of the celestial bodies, the stellar constellations of the northern hemisphere, the old geocentric universe of Ptolemy, the newish heliocentric one of Copernicus [as above], and Tycho Brahe’s eccentric combination of the two — in which the Moon orbits the Earth, and the planets orbit the Sun, but the Sun still orbits the Earth. The marginal area of each brightly coloured map is a hive of activity: astronomers bent over charts debate their findings, eager youngsters direct their quadrants skywards, and cherubs fly about with pet birds in tow…

northern stars

The Northern Stellar Hemisphere of Antiquity

More marvelous maps of the heavens at “The Celestial Atlas of Andreas Cellarius (1660)

* Galileo (quoting a librarian at the Vatican)


As we look to the stars, we might recall that it was on this date in 1843 that Sir William Rowan Hamilton conceived the theory of quaternions.  A physicist, astronomer, and mathematician who made important contributions to classical mechanics, optics, and algebra, he had been working since the late 1830s on the basic principles of algebra, resulting in a theory of conjugate functions, or algebraic couples, in which complex numbers are expressed as ordered pairs of real numbers.  But he hadn’t succeeded in developing a theory of triplets that could be applied to three-dimensional geometric problems.  Walking with his wife along the Royal Canal in Dublin, Hamilton realized that the theory should involve quadruplets, not triplets– at which point he stopped to carve carve the underlying equations in a nearby bridge lest he forget them.



Written by LW

October 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

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