Archive for the ‘Science’ category

Afraid Of Global Warming? Don’t Be.

September 3, 2009

Be Afraid of the Sun. Be Very Afraid

150 years ago this week something very interesting happened, up there, in the sky. Except for telegraph operators on the east coast, most people in the US did not know, or care, until the sky lit up in the evening.  It was very pretty.

On Sept. 2, 1859, at the telegraph office at No. 31 State Street in Boston at 9:30 a.m., the operators’ lines were overflowing with current, so they unplugged the batteries connected to their machines, and kept working using just the electricity coursing through the air.

In the wee hours of that night, the most brilliant auroras ever recorded had broken out across the skies of the Earth. People in Havana and Florida reported seeing them. The New York Times ran a 3,000 word feature recording the colorful event in purple prose.

“With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this color were most abundant to the northeast and northwest of the zenith,” the Times wrote. “There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid. There was no figure the imagination could not find portrayed by these instantaneous flashes.”

It must have been cool.

If it happened today, most all of the world’s – all certainly this country’s – communications would shut down. The vast majority of the hardware we use to run civilizations today would be fried. Permanently. You may expect your TV, PC and even phone to not work. But your stove, if it is less that say, 10 years old, has a chip in it. Fried. Your car, if it’s not an antique, has one also.  Several of them, in fact.  So don’t expect it to start.  And your alarm system at work?  As Tony Soprano would say, fugeddaboudit.  That’s okay.  Tony’s much more interested in the bank.  Oh yes, the back-up battery there will work, but not the alarm that’s wired to the communications grid.

Civilization would come back alright, should such an event occur tomorrow.  None of this is stuff that we can’t rebuild or replace (or do without, mind you).  But the effort would be slow, costly and probably uncomfortable. Some who otherwise might live, will die.

Late last year, the National Academies of Science put out a report on severe space weather events. If a storm even approaching 1859 levels were to happen again, they concluded the damage could range upwards of a $1 trillion, largely because of disruptions to the electrical grid.

What’s interesting to contemplate is that the solar storm that triggered the events of Sept 2, 1859 was not a singular event.  Solar storms – solar flares that strike the earth – happen several times a year.  Only the magnitude of this particular storm was unusual, and that’s only because mankind has not known how to – or even to – look for such things for very long.  Solar storms are not conjecture based on models and derived hypotheses based on scant data.  Indeed, they are a fact of nature.

So Is It A Planet?

August 24, 2009

And Why Not???

Pluto From New Horizons

Pluto From New Horizons

From CNN on-line:

It was three years ago Monday that the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet, a decision that made jaws drop around the world.

An outcry followed, textbooks had to be rewritten, long-held beliefs were shattered, and many people felt our cosmic neighborhood just didn’t seem the same with eight — instead of nine –planets in the solar system.

Well, even though I was working on the New Horizons Mission to Pluto at the time, my jaw didn’t exactly drop. The debate had been going on for awhile. Besides. It’s just nomenclature. As it was, ever since Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that Europa was every bit as interesting as Jupiter, astronomically speaking, many of us had sort of realized early on that there was more to the Solar System than just planets, comets and asteroids.

Not that planets were downgraded, mind you. It was more like everything else was upgraded in importance. The icing on that particular cake was that astronomers began to realize that even the planets were more varied than originally supposed. There weren’t just two kinds; rocky like the Earth and gaseous-giants like Jupiter. It seems better now to recognize that Uranus and Neptune might be yet a third class – with interiors that are much different than the others, and with unique formation-histories to boot. The discovery of large ice-balls in the outer solar system, of which Pluto is  the earliest known (and probably best) example, is merely the last step in that march.

So, planet or no, Pluto is going to be a great place to visit.  Too long a commute to live there, however.

In The Dictionary Under “Complete Waste”

July 14, 2009

The International Space Station

Although it may happen that they keep it up until 2020, NASA wants to decommission the ISS earlier, in 2016.  Oddly, this is not news.  The ISS has been pretty much a useless endeavour ever since it was downsized to approximate a large tin can in the late ’80s, and has cost the U.S. taxpayers something like $100 billon (yes, billion with a b).

Perhaps I should not hold back so much and say how I really feel.  From

Despite nearing completion after more than a decade of construction, and recently announcing some upcoming improvements to accompany its full crew of six astronauts, NASA plans to de-orbit the International Space Station in 2016. Meaning the station will have spent more time under construction than completed.

With the space shuttle being decommissioned and the Ares is doubt, it was inevitable.  This is what happens when the goal is politics, instead of exploration and science.


June 25, 2009

Cap and Trade

Al Gore

Al Gore

If you Google Waxman-Markey, the ‘Climate Change Bill’ coming up in Congress this week, you’ll see that opinions on it are all over the map. Waxman-Markey Will Mandate Greener Building, Drive Green Renovation, Waxman’s Economy Killer, Waxman-Markey bill to address indirect land use change, Global warming bill still contains some smoke and mirrors, – no two giving the same opinion.

It’s a difficult topic, because it touches on economics, science and yes, politics. From an economic point of view, Megan McCardle notes that the bill seems to be low-cost.

But the real question, I think, is whether the low cost is a feature or a bug. The only way a bill is going to have an impact is if it causes real financial pain to American households–enough to get them to change their behavior. Waxman-Markey obviously is not going to do that. And indeed, the projections of its effect on global warming are entirely negligible.

Why should that be? Does this economist have the science to back up that statement?  No, and she doesn’t need it.  She explains that the reason is political, not scientific.  The reason is  – China.

China is not going to let its citizens languish in subsistence farming because 30 years from now, some computer models say there will be some not-well-specified bad effects from high temperatures. Nor is India. Global warming isn’t even high on the list of environmental concerns they’ll want to attack as they get rich; local air pollution is far more pressing. Thinking that we’re somehow going to lead them by example is like thinking that poor rural teens are going to buy electric cars because Ed Begley jr. has one.

In other words, if you believe that climate change is anthropological in nature, you must believe that nothing is going to change until and unless China and India come on-board.

Well, what about the rest of the world? From RealClearPolitics, Robert Tracinski and Tom Minchin point out that it’s not happening in other countries either.

As the US Congress considers the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, the Australian Senate is on the verge of rejecting its own version of cap-and-trade. The story of this legislation’s collapse offers advance notice for what might happen to similar legislation in the US—and to the whole global warming hysteria.

So what do the scientists say? Dr. James Hansen, the director of the Goddard Institute of Space Science (GISS) said this, as he was being arrested:

I am not a politician; I am a scientist and a citizen. Politicians may have to advocate for halfway measures if they choose. But it is our responsibility to make sure our representatives feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not what is politically expedient. Mountaintop removal, providing only a small fraction of our energy, should be abolished.

I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I think he’s saying that the science doesn’t matter; it’s what people feel is right that matters. That sort of works, because the science is apparently being ignored. But contra Hansen, it’s being ignored for the politics. The scientists are playing politics.

A source inside the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed many of the claims made by analyst Alan Carlin, the economist/physicist who yesterday went public with accusations that science was being ignored in evaluating the danger of CO2.

The source, who chooses not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said that Carlin was rebuffed in his attempt to introduce scientific evidence that does not accord with the EPA’s view of global warming, which largely relies on IPCC reports.

Kevin Mooney at the Washington Examiner publishes on the story:

Scientific findings at odds with the Obama Administration’s views on carbon dioxide and climate change are being suppressed as a result of political pressure, officials at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) charge.
“This suppression of valid science for political reasons is beyond belief,” said CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman. “EPA’s conduct is even more outlandish because it flies in the face of the president’s widely-touted claim that ‘the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.’”

If this story was about anthrax, possible political manipulation in Congress and scientific intrigue, the story would not sell.  It is a mess, too convoluted, too unbelievable.  And there it is.  We buy it, we believe it’s plausible – why exactly?

Enceladus Is All Wet

June 25, 2009

…And Is A Moon of Saturn

Geysers on Enceladus

Geysers on Enceladus

Arrggg! So much news today! But the most interesting (unless you’re a real Michael Jackson fan) is from a paper published in the British journal Nature, by Frank Postberg of the University of Heidelberg.

The Cassini spacecraft has found what may be the strongest evidence yet that Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus has an ocean beneath its icy surface. If the liquid water finding is confirmed, it would suggest that the moon may be one of the most promising places in the solar system to search for signs of past or present extraterrestrial life.

This is significant.

Tiger Stripes Indicate Organics

Saturns Moon Enceladus

You see, there are three ingredients necessary for life; an energy source, a good mix of organic chemicals (both of which Cassini has found on Enceladus already), and water.  Liquid water.

Researchers in Europe detected salt particles in the volcanic vapour-and-ice jets that shoot hundreds of kilometres (miles) into space, the strongest evidence to date of a liquid ocean under the moon’s icy crust.

If Jupiter’s moon Europa also has oceans below its frozen surface, the number of places in the solar system with the potential to harbor life is starting to look distinctly greater than 1.

Cassini has been circling Saturn since 2004.

Staring At The Sun

June 23, 2009
Not a Flower

Not a Flower

But Not For Too Long

What you see in the picture is not a flower, but a sunspot, close up.  Very close up.  The scale shown on the full size image indicates a bar that spans 10 million meters, or about 6,100 miles.  For comparison, the Earth’s diameter is about 8,000 miles.  What’s causing those flares, filiments and tongues of fire?  Why, magnetic fields, of course.

But you knew that.  You see, at the temperature of the Sun’s surface it’s hot enough (about 5,000 deg. K.) that electrons don’t stay tied to the nucleus of hydrogen (and some helium) very long, and go flying off.  That leaves a lot of naked, electrically charged stuff floating around for magnetic fields to play with, and boy, do they have a good time wallowing in all that plazma.

But that’s not the best part of that photogragh.  From Anne Minard at Universe Today:

In the just-released image above, the interface between a sunspot’s umbra (dark center) and penumbra (lighter outer region) shows a complex structure with narrow, almost horizontal (lighter to white) filaments embedded in a background having a more vertical (darker to black) magnetic field. Farther out, extended patches of horizontal field dominate. For the first time, scientists have modeled this complex structure in a comprehensive 3D computer simulation, giving scientists their first glimpse below the visible surface.

It’s good to know about the inner workings of the Sun, and sunspots are the portal through which we can study the sun’s interior.  Why should we bother?  There are two very good reasons.

Sunspots are the most striking surface manifestations of solar magnetism, and they are associated with massive ejections of charged plasma that can cause geomagnetic storms and disrupt communications and navigational systems. They also contribute to variations in overall solar output, which can affect weather on Earth and exert a subtle (and as-yet deciphered) influence on climate patterns.

A quote from Matthias Rempel, a scientist at NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory:

“If you want to understand all the drivers of Earth’s atmospheric system, you have to understand how sunspots emerge and evolve. Our simulations will advance research into the inner workings of the Sun as well as connections between solar output and Earth’s atmosphere.”

That’s the best reason.

The 0.1 Second Brushoff

June 19, 2009

Ohhhh – This Hurts!

From, another reason to be so glad I’m married to the AstroWife…

Our brains get a first impression of people’s overriding social signals after seeing their faces for only 100 milliseconds (0.1 seconds). Whether this impression is correct, however, is another question. Now an international group of experts has carried out an in-depth study into how we process emotional expressions, looking at the pattern of cerebral asymmetry in the perception of positive and negative facial signals.

Hummm… Back in my bachelor days I noted with some chagrin that most women I saw in the grocery store spent much more time considering loaves of bread on the shelves than I ever saw them considering men in the local bar.  Well, me, anyway.

That’s when I stopped going to bars.   So glad those days are over.