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Posts Tagged ‘astronomy

“Human DNA spreading out from gravity’s steep well like an oilslick”*…




Could the Earth be a life-exporting planet? That’s the curious question examined in a recent paper written by Harvard University astronomers Amir Siraj and Abraham Loeb.

The researchers take a novel twist on the controversial notion of panspermia – the idea, propelled into the mainstream in the early 1970s by astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, that life might have started on Earth through microbes arriving from space.

The theory is generally discounted, although eminent astrophysicists such as Stephen Hawking conceded it was at least possible, and a major paper published in 2018 revived the topic big-time.

In their [late December, 2019] paper, Siraj and Loeb reverse the standard assumption about the direction of the microbial journey and ask whether it is possible to that at some point Earth-evolved bacteria could have been propelled away from the planet, possibly to be deposited somewhere else in the Milky Way…

Astronomers suggest microbes might hitch lifts on interstellar asteroids.  More on the hypothesis and the evidence that supports it at “Earth bacteria may have colonised other solar systems.”  Read the underlying paper at arXiv.

* William Gibson, Neuromancer


As we ponder the polarity of proliferation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1921 that Albert Einstein startled his audience at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin by suggesting the possibility that the universe could be measured.  His talk, “Geometry and Experience” (text here), applied some results of the relativity theory to conclude that if the real velocities of the stars (as could be actually measured) were less than the calculated velocities, then it would prove that real gravitations’ great distances were smaller than the gravitational distances demanded by the law of Newton.  From that divergence, the finiteness of the universe could be proved indirectly, and could even permit the estimation of its size.

Later that year, Einstein was announced as the 1921 Nobel Laureate in Physics, an award he accepted the following year.

Bildnis Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Einstein in 1921


Happy Birthday, Dante, Mozart, and Lewis Carroll!


“Nothing happens until something moves”*…




What determines our fate? To the Stoic Greek philosophers, fate is the external product of divine will, ‘the thread of your destiny’. To transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, it is an inward matter of self-determination, of ‘what a man thinks of himself’. To modern cosmologists, fate is something else entirely: a sweeping, impersonal physical process that can be boiled down into a single, momentous number known as the Hubble Constant.

The Hubble Constant can be defined simply as the rate at which the Universe is expanding, a measure of how quickly the space between galaxies is stretching apart. The slightest interpretation exposes a web of complexity encased within that seeming simplicity, however. Extrapolating the expansion process backward implies that all the galaxies we can observe originated together at some point in the past – emerging from a Big Bang – and that the Universe has a finite age. Extrapolating forward presents two starkly opposed futures, either an endless era of expansion and dissipation or an eventual turnabout that will wipe out the current order and begin the process anew.

That’s a lot of emotional and intellectual weight resting on one small number…

How scientists pinned a single number on all of existence: “Fate of the Universe.”

[Readers might remember that the Big Bang wasn’t always an accepted paradigm— and that on-going research continues to surface challenges.]

* Albert Einstein


As we center ourselves, we might spare a thought for Kurt Friedrich Gödel; he died on this date in 1978.  A  logician, mathematician, and philosopher, he is considered (along with Aristotle, Alfred Tarski— whose birthday this also is– and Gottlob Frege) to be one of the most important logicians in history.  Gödel had an immense impact upon scientific and philosophical thinking in the 20th century.  He is, perhaps, best remembered for his Incompleteness Theorems, which led to (among other important results) Alan Turing’s insights into computational theory.

Kurt Gödel’s achievement in modern logic is singular and monumental – indeed it is more than a monument, it is a landmark which will remain visible far in space and time. … The subject of logic has certainly completely changed its nature and possibilities with Gödel’s achievement.                  — John von Neumann

kurt_gödel source


“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth”*…



A map from 1893 portrays Earth as square and stationary and warns of Biblical interdiction against the notion of a round Earth flying through space


If you are only just waking up to the twenty-first century, you should know that, according to a growing number of people, much of what you’ve been taught about our planet is a lie: Earth really is flat. We know this because dozens, if not hundreds, of YouTube videos describe the coverup. We’ve listened to podcasts—Flat Earth Conspiracy, The Flat Earth Podcast—that parse the minutiae of various flat-Earth models, and the very wonkiness of the discussion indicates that the over-all theory is as sound and valid as any other scientific theory. We know because on a clear, cool day it is sometimes possible, from southwestern Michigan, to see the Chicago skyline, more than fifty miles away—an impossibility were Earth actually curved. We know because, last February, Kyrie Irving, the Boston Celtics point guard, told us so. “The Earth is flat,” he said. “It’s right in front of our faces. I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces. They lie to us.” We know because, last November, a year and a day after Donald Trump was elected President, more than five hundred people from across this flat Earth paid as much as two hundred and forty-nine dollars each to attend the first-ever Flat Earth Conference, in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina…

The unsettling thing about spending two days at a convention of people who believe that Earth is flat isn’t the possibility that you, too, might come to accept their world view, although I did worry a little about that. Rather, it’s the very real likelihood that, after sitting through hours of presentations on “scientism,” lightning angels, and NASA’s many conspiracies—the moon-landing hoax, the International Fake Station, so-called satellites—and in chatting with I.T. specialists, cops, college students, and fashionably dressed families with young children, all of them unfailingly earnest and lovely, you will come to actually understand why a growing number of people are dead certain that Earth is flat. Because that truth is unnerving…

Alan Burdick explains what the burgeoning movement says about science, solace, and how a theory becomes truth; “Looking for Life on a Flat Earth.”

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49


As we contemplate curvature, we might recall that it was on this date in 1850 that Harvard Observatory director William Cranch Bond and Boston photographer John Adams Whipple took a daguerreotype of Vega– the first photograph of a star ever made.



“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

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