Wonders of the Universe with Brian Cox

I’ve never felt terribly comfortable with the display of passion from believers. It isn’t that it bothers me that people believe false things (though it does) or that someone is claiming to be so emotionally moved by their belief. It’s that it lacks something. It’s one of those intangible things that’s difficult to really identify. It’s like the body from Weekend at Bernie’s. Yeah, it was moving and it fooled a lot of people, but it was ultimately lifeless.

That isn’t to say I think believers are being insincere or that they aren’t really wrapped up in their belief. Of course they are. But when they try and convey that, they lose me. And it isn’t merely that I find what they believe to be silly. Hitler believed a lot of moronic things (including creationism), but when he conveyed them, he didn’t lose anyone in the room. He had a real passion, awful as it was.

And the same goes for a lot of figures, including one’s much more revered in history. Sticking with the WW2 theme, Churchill and FDR conveyed some real passion in their words. Moving further up in history, JFK and MLK both passed on their passion. You could feel it. You knew they meant what they were saying.

I think the same goes for a number of scientific figures, but probably for different reasons. With the political and social people I just mentioned, I’m not so sure what it is that really drove them. For Hitler, it was probably simple hate. For the others, they probably had convictions fundamental to who they were as humans, I would hazard to guess. But I’m not sure there was one underlying thing that made their passion so real. For people like Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, though, I think what makes their passion so special is that it is underlined by a deep understanding. When they speak their beliefs, they know they are as close to truth as anyone can get. Religious believers may think they’ve found truth, but since they have zero methods for determining as much, they can’t know it.

And that brings me to Brian Cox. He currently has a fantastic show on The Science Channel right now called Wonders of the Universe. Throughout every moment of the show, it’s obvious he has a passion. You can feel it. And along with the Dawkins’ and Sagan’s and Tyson’s of the scientific world, he conveys it in a way that is uniquely powerful, unavailable to mere believers.

I won’t be so bold as to call him the next Carl Sagan, but he has that same passion, that same fire. It’s really exciting stuff, under all of which lies an intensely deep understanding.

New Cosmos

A new Cosmos is in the works:

In partnership with Sagan’s colleagues Ann Druyan (who is also his widow) and Steven Soter, Seth MacFarlane — yes, that Seth MacFarlane — is going to produce a new 13-part series to serve as a sequel and modern update to Sagan’s masterpiece.

Taking over the hosting duties will be none other than well-known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has served as host of NOVA ScienceNOW on PBS for the past five years, so he has plenty of experience making science accessible to the general public. It would be difficult to think of anyone who would be better able to succeed the late, great Carl Sagan.

The folks working on it will take their time and do it right — it’s not scheduled to air until sometime in 2013.

It will unfortunately be airing on FOX, which means the commercials will be ridiculous, but I suppose it’s good that it will be given a broader audience than PBS gets. And it’s hard to go wrong with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Carina Nebula

Another great space photograph. From the site:

Several well known astronomical objects in and near the Carina Nebula can be seen in this wide field image: to the bottom left of the image is one of the most impressive binary stars in the Universe, Eta Carinae, with the famous Keyhole Nebula just adjacent to the star. The collection of very bright, young stars above and to the right of Eta Carinae is the open star cluster Trumpler 14. A second open star cluster, Collinder 228 is also seen in the image, just below Eta Carinae. North is up and East is to the left.

“Missing” mass discovered

There are at least two types of mass in the Universe: dark mass (matter) and every day mass. The former represents about 83% of the matter in the Universe, but it has never been directly observed. In that way, it is “missing”. (Or at least it was before Zwicky proposed it – and it will still be “missing” if that theory, though generally accepted, proves to be wrong.) The latter type of mass, the sort we encounter every day, makes up 17% of the matter of the Universe, but of that 17%, some is “missing”. Until now:

Undergraduate Amelia Fraser-McKelvie made the breakthrough during a holiday internship with a team at Monash University’s School of Physics, locating the mystery material within vast structures called “filaments of galaxies”.

Monash astrophysicist Dr Kevin Pimbblet explained that scientists had previously detected matter that was present in the early history of the universe but that could not now be located.

“There is missing mass, ordinary mass not dark mass … It’s missing to the present day,” Pimbblet told AFP.

“We don’t know where it went. Now we do know where it went because that’s what Amelia found.”

Part of the reason dark matter has not been directly observed is that it doesn’t interact (by and large) with the electromagnetic spectrum. That makes it rather invisible – even if we utilize different wavelengths (such as infrared light or microwaves). But this other matter does interact with lightwaves. It just happens that the correct lightwaves are X-rays:

Fraser-McKelvie, an aerospace engineering and science student, was able to confirm after a targeted X-ray search for the mystery mass that it had moved to the “filaments of galaxies”, which stretch across enormous expanses of space.

This is pretty interesting stuff, especially since it was an undergraduate who combed the data to show that they had detected these “filaments”. She even got published in a prestigious journal, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. So congratulations to Amelia Fraser-McKelvie, and good luck in the future. I just hope her future work comes with more in-depth news articles for those of us who aren’t physicists.

New 3-D map of the Universe

This is pretty awesome:

Astronomers have created the most complete 3-D map of our local universe, revealing new details about our place in the cosmos.

The map shows all visible structures out to about 380 million light-years, which includes about 45,000 of our neighboring galaxies (the diameter of the Milky Way is about 100,000 light-years across)…

The map was assembled using data from the Two-Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS) Redshift Survey (2MRS), which took 10 years to scan the complete night sky in near-infrared light. The survey used two ground-based telescopes, the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins, Ariz., and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

Near-infrared light, which is of a longer wavelength than visible light, can penetrate the opaque clouds of dust common in galaxies. This allowed the 2MRS survey to extend its “eyes” closer to the plane of the Milky Way galaxy than has been possible in previous studies, because that area is heavily obscured by dust.

“This covers 95 percent of the sky,” Masters said. “In the infrared, we’re less affected by the gunk in the milky way so we’re able to see down closer to the plane of the galaxy.”


(Click to enlarge.)

And yet people believe that our solar system is somehow special.

Six little planets, all in a row

Over the next few weeks all the planets except Saturn will be visible in the dawn sky along the path of the Sun through the sky:

For the last two months, almost all the planets have been hiding behind the sun, but this week they all emerge and are arrayed in a grand line above the rising sun. Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter are visible, and you can add Uranus and Neptune to your count if you have binoculars or a small telescope.

This sky map of the six planets shows how they should appear at dawn to observers with clear weather and an unobstructed view.

Counting this morning, the moon will also be lined up for four mornings (sorry my fellow EST people for the post-dawn post).

Conveying science

I’ve been placed in the fortunate position of working with teens who need help. They’ve all dealt with drug issues and are trying to rehab while maturing and learning. I help in both areas, but I especially enjoy helping in the second realm.

Many of these kids have been out of school for years, so as a result they’ve missed quite a bit in life and formal education. In fact, even if they were in school, they probably have missed out on a lot of what I want to tell them. For instance, while in front of a world map, I told one kid a few basic geography facts while conveying the historic and biological significance of the Galapagos Islands. He really enjoyed it, learning it for the first time. He even enthusiastically told his peers what I told him, emphasizing how big the tortoises are on the island. But what really struck me was how interested another kid was in some basic facts about the Universe. I started by showing him this picture I’ve posted before:

This is an image taken near Saturn. The little blurry dot outside the rings on the right is Earth. A zoom of Earth is seen in the top left. It’s a great picture that really puts things into perspective quite simply. Showing it to this other person, I was genuinely impressed with the fact that he was blown away by the obvious insignificance of Earth and human life. I didn’t need to lead him to my world view.

I followed up on the image by telling him about light waves and the fact that when he sees starlight, he is actually looking into the past. Soon another “client” (I hate that word) joined us before “lights out” (aka., bed time) and I told them both about some scale-related facts, i.e., big numbers about the Universe. Not only did they love it, but I felt fantastic about it all. I love conveying science. In fact, they and I are both pretty excited about continuing the talk next week. Here’s the video I plan on showing them:

I think this is all great, from the video and beyond. These are basic facts about the Universe – everything is 13.7 billion years old, Earth is 4.6 billion years old, life has been around for 3.9 billion years, Earth is relatively insignificant, especially when compared to stars. It is extremely important that people have this frame of reference; I was so glad that, without any input from me, one client said he couldn’t imagine that there wasn’t other intelligent life in the Universe. I was more than happy to add my two cents. I mean, of course there is other life. There are too many stars, too many planets, too many opportunities. Other life is there. And his mind is already there – which makes sense. Anyone who has any degree of honesty and is fortunate enough to come to any degree of understanding necessarily recognizes how insignificant this pale blue dot is in the wide scheme of things.

I plan on more science talk, but I think the best thing I can do for these kids is bring them outside at night. If it happens to be a clear enough night, staring at the stars and contemplating the very basics of the Universe might be more than any drug rehab program can ever do.