Stargazing 2013

I’m particularly excited about the comet ISON. From a little I’ve read here and there, it should be visible to the whole world (at one point or another) and it will be brighter than the moon for a short period.

Star gazing events of 2013


There are more planets than stars

I have long wanted to put forth the point that there are more planets than stars in the Universe. This goes to my contention that it is reasonable, even necessary, to believe that there is copious life in the Cosmos. After all, from the time when Earth’s surface cooled to when life began to appear was relatively short. It appears that all it takes for self-replicating molecules to get going is the right conditions. With so many planets, the opportunities are so vast, it has surely happened over and over again.

But I couldn’t make this exact point. I still made the same effective point, but I had to rely on the trillions and trillions of stars. Of course, plenty of people have inferred over the years, especially the past decade, that there must therefore by billions, maybe trillions of planets. But we need something more concrete. We need observation. And now it looks like we’re there:

Three studies released Wednesday, in the journal Nature and at the American Astronomical Society’s conference in Austin, Texas, demonstrate an extrasolar real estate boom. One study shows that in our Milky Way, most stars have planets. And since there are a lot of stars in our galaxy — about 100 billion — that means a lot of planets.

It could be that the Milky Way is a weird outlier, a place where planets are easy to make. But there isn’t any reason to suspect that. The observations show that we are an average galaxy with an expected array of stars. What’s more, we are seeing what happens around stars. It isn’t just that these giant gas balls form in space and that’s that. No, it’s much more. Most of them come with their own planetary pals. An accurate average of the star-to-planet ratio remains to be seen (they say 1.6 planets per star, but that is probably extremely low), but it is clear that we’re talking about trillions and trillions out there.

None of this changes the thrust of my argument about exo-life, but it does allow me to be much more specific. This is very nerdexciting.

Final total lunar eclipse until 2014

The final total lunar eclipse for the next three years is set to take place this Saturday morning. It apparently will be pretty awesome for those on the west coast of the U.S., showing off some purdy deep reds, but I’m sure it won’t be disappointing on the east coast either.

It is scheduled to start at 1:45am EST and continue for a couple of hours. By 3:05am, the moon should be completely engulfed by Earth’s shadow.

Exciting expectations: NASA finds planet in habitable zone

The Universe is enormous. Just enormous. It isn’t possible to truly grasp the scope of space out in…space. There are literally more stars – far more stars, in fact – in the Universe than there are grains of sands on all the beaches and in all the oceans of Earth. It’s really mind-boggling. But that mind-bogglitude (yeah, “bogglitude”) does lead to a few things that are comprehensible and expected. Enter NASA’s recent discovery:

NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has confirmed the discovery of its first alien world in its host star’s habitable zone — that just-right range of distances that could allow liquid water to exist — and found more than 1,000 new explanet candidates, researchers announced today (Dec. 5)…

The potentially habitable alien world, a first for Kepler, orbits a star very much like our own sun. The discovery brings scientists one step closer to finding a planet like our own — one which could conceivably harbor life, scientists said.

“We’re getting closer and closer to discovering the so-called ‘Goldilocks planet,'” Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said during a press conference today.

This is certainly exciting, but it is also practically expected. With the billions and billions of galaxies out there, along with the trillions and trillions of stars and planets, there is bound to be more than a few balls of rock that are very, very similar to Earth. Moreover, not only is our galaxy quite common, but so is our solar system. We have an average star with an average array of planets. There isn’t anything special or privileged about our location. To believe otherwise is to be deluded or desperate or tremendously small-minded. We’re going to see many more Earth-like planets in the coming years.

I expect the future findings of NASA to be very exciting indeed.

The science you won’t hear

Apparently a few global warming denialists skeptics have released some more DAMNING! emails from climate scientists. It appears that they’re actually from the same crop of hacked emails that were released awhile ago, but is anyone going to care? I make it a point to avoid FOX “News”, but I have no doubt that that station along with the other Republican propaganda machines out there will have no problem taking more things out of context whilst simultaneously presenting this stuff as brand new. Of course, what they won’t mention is this:

Climate-change skeptics have pointed to the emails as evidence that researchers were manipulating data to make global warming look more serious than it is. Multiple investigations by UEA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, several independent panels and [climate scientist Michael] Mann’s home institution, Pennsylvania State University, found no evidence that these claims were true. The House of Commons did criticize the scientists and UEA for not releasing raw data and for handling freedom-of-information requests poorly. A 2011 parliamentary report concluded that it was time to “move on” from Climategate.

I have a conservative friend who made a big deal out of all this when it was new. (You won’t believe it, but there are conservatives out there who don’t understand a lick of science. Crazy, I know.) Then an early study came out exonerating the scientists of all the nasty claims being made by the anti-science right (sorry to be redundant). He dismissed that study, saying “this if far from over”. I followed up with him as more and more investigations concluded, asking which parts were still alive and kicking. Unfortunately, my follow-ups were all online, so he used the tactic common to many people who are wrong on the Internet – he ran away like a coward. It was really quite symbolic of much of the far right on this issue. And every other scientific issue once they get shown the facts.

I’m just glad this is at least academically pretty well settled.

Why this neutrino business is not worrying

It may have been noticed over the past couple of days that Christian and creationist blogs have been in a bit of a tizzy. Recent findings at CERN have shown something interesting about neutrinos and the cosmic speed limit:

Physicists on the team that measured particles traveling faster than light said Friday they were as surprised as their skeptics about the results, which appear to violate the laws of nature as we know them.

Hundreds of scientists packed an auditorium at one of the world’s foremost laboratories on the Swiss-French border to hear how a subatomic particle, the neutrino, was found to have outrun light and confounded the theories of Albert Einstein.

“To our great surprise we found an anomaly,” said Antonio Ereditato, who participated in the experiment and speaks on behalf of the team.

An anomaly is a mild way of putting it.

Going faster than light is something that is just not supposed to happen, according to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity. The speed of light — 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second) — has long been considered a cosmic speed limit.

This is exciting to the anti-science crowd because of a religious and/or ignorance mentality. That is, with religion we have doctrine and dogma and ingrained beliefs which are not to be challenged. If they are, it’s going to take some big steps to reconfigure things. Take the Catholic Church’s insistence that Earth was at the center of everything. It was embarrassing to find out just how wrong they were and they had to re-think a lot of their baseless declarations. But science isn’t so stubborn. And even with more secular ‘skeptics’ ignorance can be a problem. ‘What? Science has changed? But if it was right, it wouldn’t have changed!’

Of course, none of this is actually worrying in the least. Let’s assume something can go faster than light. That does bring about some significant changes, may have big research implications, and could lead to better insights into how the Universe works. But that doesn’t mean Einstein was wrong, no more than Einstein showed Newton was wrong. Yes, there are corrections, tweaks, re-writes, but that does not dismiss all the other stuff that is right. When Einstein and 1905 rolled around, apples didn’t stop falling from trees. Now that we have these CERN researchers in 2011, that doesn’t mean our GPS systems will stop working.

What I find so heartening about all this is that the majority of the articles I have seen have been done responsibly. For instance, from the article linked above:

If the experiment is independently repeated — most likely by teams in the United States or Japan — then it would require a fundamental rethink of modern physics…

“We will continue our studies and we will wait patiently for the confirmation,” [Antonio Ereditato] told the AP. “Everybody is free to do what they want: to think, to claim, to dream.”

And from an AP article:

Q. How likely is it that this finding is correct?

A. Experts are skeptical. Einstein’s relativity theory has withstood a lot of experimental tests over the years. The scientists who reported the finding say they’re still looking for flaws in their experimental procedures, and they’ve asked other labs to try to duplicate the results.

And another AP article:

The elegance of Einstein’s theory and its proven track record are why nearly every one of the more than a dozen physicists contacted by The Associated Press about the new findings has been cautious, skeptical or downright disbelieving.

Whether we’re talking about something as fundamental as Einstein’s theory or something as side-view as DEET, scientists again and again will say we must wait for confirmation, for scientific scrutiny. Physics isn’t going to get overturned based upon a single experiment. Yes, one experiment may lead to a turnover (and all the textbooks will be sure to note the original finding, not all the confirmations), but it takes repetition for something to be scientifically valid.

As one of my favorite bio professors once said, “Science is all about reproducibility. If you can’t reproduce your data, it’s all a load of horseshit.”