Category Archives: Science

One Last Thing For Today

Wow,

That’s more blogging in one morning than I’ve done in almost a decade.

Anyway, heading out with the family for a brief staycation. Till then feast your eyes on this:

Dark side of the moon crosses the Pacific in DSCOVER image from NASA

That’s the dark side of the moon passing in front of the Earth, taken last month by NASA’s newest solar probe, DSCOVER, located a million miles out from Earth. It is really amazing to see how dark the moon is when compared to the brilliant blue white jewel behind it. Also, check out the hurricane churning off the coast of Mexico, that’s pretty cool too.

The Star

The Star
by Arthur C. Clarke

It is three thousand light years to the Vatican. Once, I believed that space could have no power over faith, just as I believed that the heavens declared the glory of God’s handiwork. Now I have seen that handiwork, and my faith is sorely troubled. I stare at the crucifix that hangs on the cabin wall above the Mark VI Computer, and for the first time in my life I wonder if it is no more than an empty symbol.

I have told no one yet, but the truth cannot be concealed. The facts are there for all to read, recorded on the countless miles of magnetic tape and the thousands of photographs we are carrying back to Earth. Other scientists can interpret them as easily as I can, and I am not one who would condone that tampering with the truth which often gave my order a bad name in the olden days.

The crew are already sufficiently depressed: I wonder how they will take this ultimate irony. Few of them have any religious faith, yet they will not relish using this final weapon in their campaign against me–that private, good-natured, but fundamentally serious, war which lasted all the way from Earth. It amused them to have a Jesuit as chief astrophysicist: Dr. Chandler, for instance, could never get over it. (Why are medical men such notorious atheists?). Sometimes he would meet me on the observation deck, where the lights are always low so that the stars shine with undiminished glory. He would come up to me in the gloom and stand staring out of the great oval port, while the heavens crawled slowly around us as the ship turned end over end with the residual spin we had never bothered to correct.

“Well, Father,” he would say at last, “it goes on forever and forever, and perhaps Something made it. But how you can believe that Something has a special interest in us and our miserable little world–that just beats me.” Then the argument would start, while the stars and nebulae would swing around us in silent, endless arcs beyond the flawlessly clear plastic of the observation port.

It was, I think, the apparent incongruity of my position that caused most amusement to the crew. In vain I would point to my three papers in the Astrophysical Journal, my five in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. I would remind them that my order has long been famous for its scientific works. We may be few now, but ever since the eighteenth century we have made contributions to astronomy and geophysics out of all proportion to our numbers. Will my report on the Phoenix Nebula end our thousand years of history? It will end, I fear, much more than that.

I do not know who gave the nebula its name, which seems to me a very bad one. If it contains a prophecy, it is one that cannot be verified for several billion years. Even the word nebula is misleading: this is a far smaller object than those stupendous clouds of mist–the stuff of unborn stars–that are scattered throughout the length of the Milky Way. On the cosmic scale, indeed, the Phoenix Nebula is a tiny thing–a tenuous shell of gas surrounding a single star.

Or what is left of a star . . .

The Rubens engraving of Loyola seems to mock me as it hangs there above the spectrophotometer tracings. What would you, Father, have made of this knowledge that has come into my keeping, so far from the little world that was all the universe you knew? Would your faith have risen to the challenge, as mine has failed to do?

You gaze into the distance, Father, but I have traveled a distance beyond any that you could have imagined when you founded our order a thousand years ago. No other survey ship has been so far from Earth: we are at the very frontiers of the explored universe. We set out to reach the Phoenix Nebula, we succeeded, and we are homeward bound with our burden of knowledge. I wish I could lift that burden from my shoulders, but I call to you in vain across the centuries and the light years that lie between us.

On the book you are holding the words are plain to read. AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM, the message runs, but it is a message I can no longer believe. Would you still believe it, if you could see what we have found?

We knew, of course, what the Phoenix Nebula was. Every year, in our galaxy alone, more than a hundred stars explode, blazing for a few hours or days with thousands of times their normal brilliance before they sink back into death and obscurity. Such are the ordinary novae–the commonplace disasters of the universe. I have recorded the spectrograms and light curves of dozens since I started working at the Lunar Observatory.

But three or four times in every thousand years occurs something beside which even a nova pales into total insignificance.

When a star becomes a supernova, it may for a little while outshine all the massed suns of the galaxy. The Chinese astronomers watched this happen in A.D. 1054, not knowing what it was they saw. Five centuries later, in 1572, a supernova blazed in Cassiopeia so brilliantly that it was visible in the daylight sky. There have been three more in the thousand years that have passed since then.

Our mission was to visit the remnants of such a catastrophe, to reconstruct the events that led up to it, and, if possible, to learn its cause. We came slowly in through the concentric shells of gas that had been blasted out six thousand years before, yet were expanding still. They were immensely hot, radiating even now with a fierce violet light, but were far too tenuous to do us any damage. When the star had exploded, its outer layers had been driven upward with such speed that they had escaped completely from its gravitational field. Now they formed a hollow shell large enough to engulf a thousand solar systems, and at its center burned the tiny, fantastic object which the star had now become–a White Dwarf, smaller than the Earth, yet weighing a million times as much.

The glowing gas shells were all around us, banishing the normal night of interstellar space. We were flying into the center of a cosmic bomb that had detonated millennia ago and whose incandescent fragments were still hurtling apart. The immense scale of the explosion, and the fact that the debris already covered a volume of space many billions of miles across, robbed the scene of any visible movement. It would take decades before the unaided eye could detect any motion in these tortured wisps and eddies of gas, yet the sense of turbulent expansion was overwhelming.

We had checked our primary drive hours before, and were drifting slowly toward the fierce little star ahead. Once it had been a sun like our own, but it had squandered in a few hours the energy that should have kept it shining for a million years. Now it was a shrunken miser, hoarding its resources as if trying to make amends for its prodigal youth.

No one seriously expected to find planets. If there had been any before the explosion, they would have been boiled into puffs of vapor, and their substance lost in the greater wreckage of the star itself. But we made the automatic search, as we always do when approaching an unknown sun, and presently we found a single small world circling the star at an immense distance. It must have been the Pluto of this vanished solar system, orbiting on the frontiers of the night. Too far from the central sun ever to have known life, its remoteness had saved it from the fate of all its lost companions.

The passing fires had seared its rocks and burned away the mantle of frozen gas that must have covered it in the days before the disaster. We landed, and we found the Vault.

Its builders had made sure that we would. The monolithic marker that stood above the entrance was now a fused stump, but even the first long-range photographs told us that here was the work of intelligence. A little later we detected the continent-wide pattern of radioactivity that had been buried in the rock. Even if the pylon above the Vault had been destroyed, this would have remained, an immovable and all but eternal beacon calling to the stars. Our ship fell toward this gigantic bull’s-eye like an arrow into its target.

The pylon must have been a mile high when it was built, but now it looked like a candle that had melted down into a puddle of wax. It took us a week to drill through the fused rock, since we did not have the proper tools for a task like this. We were astronomers, not archaeologists, but we could improvise. Our original purpose was forgotten: this lonely monument, reared with such labor at the greatest possible distance from the doomed sun, could have only one meaning. A civilization that knew it was about to die had made its last bid for immortality.

It will take us generations to examine all the treasures that were placed in the Vault. They had plenty of time to prepare, for their sun must have given its first warnings many years before the final detonation. Everything that they wished to preserve, all the fruit of their genius, they brought here to this distant world in the days before the end, hoping that some other race would find it and that they would not be utterly forgotten. Would we have done as well, or would we have been too lost in our own misery to give thought to a future we could never see or share?

If only they had had a little more time! They could travel freely enough between the planets of their own sun, but they had not yet learned to cross the interstellar gulfs, and the nearest solar system was a hundred light-years away. Yet even had they possessed the secret of the Transfinite Drive, no more than a few millions could have been saved. Perhaps it was better thus.

Even if they had not been so disturbingly human as their sculpture shows, we could not have helped admiring them and grieving for their fate. They left thousands of visual records and the machines for projecting them, together with elaborate pictorial instructions from which it will not be difficult to learn their written language. We have examined many of these records, and brought to life for the first time in six thousand years the warmth and beauty of a civilization that in many ways must have been superior to our own. Perhaps they only showed us the best, and one can hardly blame them. But their words were very lovely, and their cities were built with a grace that matches anything of man’s. We have watched them at work and play, and listened to their musical speech sounding across the centuries. One scene is still before my eyes–a group of children on a beach of strange blue sand, playing in the waves as children play on Earth. Curious whiplike trees line the shore, and some very large animal is wading in the shadows yet attracting no attention at all.

And sinking into the sea, still warm and friendly and life-giving, is the sun that will soon turn traitor and obliterate all this innocent happiness.

Perhaps if we had not been so far from home and so vulnerable to loneliness, we should not have been so deeply moved. Many of us had seen the ruins of ancient civilizations on other worlds, but they had never affected us so profoundly. This tragedy was unique. It is one thing for a race to fail and die, as nations and cultures have done on Earth. But to be destroyed so completely in the full flower of its achievement, leaving no survivors–how could that be reconciled with the mercy of God?

My colleagues have asked me that, and I have given what answers I can. Perhaps you could have done better, Father Loyola, but I have found nothing in the Exercitia Spiritualia that helps me here. They were not an evil people: I do not know what gods they worshiped, if indeed they worshiped any. But I have looked back at them across the centuries, and have watched while the loveliness they used their last strength to preserve was brought forth again into the light of their shrunken sun. They could have taught us much: why were they destroyed?

I know the answers that my colleagues will give when they get back to Earth. They will say that the universe has no purpose and no plan, that since a hundred suns explode every year in our galaxy, at this very moment some race is dying in the depths of space. Whether that race has done good or evil during its lifetime will make no difference in the end: there is no divine justice, for there is no God.

Yet, of course, what we have seen proves nothing of the sort. Anyone who argues thus is being swayed by emotion, not logic. God has no need to justify His actions to man. He who built the universe can destroy it when He chooses. It is arrogance–it is perilously near blasphemy–for us to say what He may or may not do.

This I could have accepted, hard though it is to look upon whole worlds and peoples thrown into the furnace. But there comes a point when even the deepest faith must falter, and now, as I look at the calculations lying before me, I know I have reached that point at last.

We could not tell, before we reached the nebula, how long ago the explosion took place. Now, from the astronomical evidence and the record in the rocks of that one surviving planet, I have been able to date it very exactly. I know in what year the light of this colossal conflagration reached our Earth. I know how brilliantly the supernova whose corpse now dwindles behind our speeding ship once shone in terrestrial skies. I know how it must have blazed low in the east before sunrise, like a beacon in that oriental dawn.

There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?

Incredible Visions

Take a look at this press release from NASA; it includes two time-lapse video clips taken by the EPOXI, nee Deep Impact, spacecraft. They show the earth rotating in space over the course of one day, and the highlight of the series is when the moon slides across the face of our lush blue world. That is extremely cool.

Palauan Hobbits

This one is just too cool to pass up. After evidence of small bodied humans appeared in Indonesia a few years ago, I got a series of comments regarding duendes, the mythical little people on Guam. I discounted them at first, but now little people just got a whole lot closer.
Anthropologists uncovered two caves in the Rock Islands of Palau with the remains of up to up to 25 people, all of which are of a comparable size with homo floresiensis from Indonesia. Yes, that’s right, little people in Micronesia. Holy taotaomona batman. Palau is sure a lot closer to Guam than Indonesia, which raises the probability that Guam had it’s own population of little people at some point in the past. Freaky deaky dude.

Lunar Eclipse Tonight

Here’s the story from the Marianas Variety. I especially like the bit about superstitions.

Red moon over Guam tomorrow

By Trina A San Agustin
Variety News Staff

IF THE weather allows, residents will be able to see a red or orange moon tomorrow night during a full lunar eclipse between 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. The moon will be in the shadow of the earth at around 8:30 p.m.
University of Guam’s “star lady,” Pam Eastlick, told Variety that the reason for the change in the moon’s color is that the moon will be in the earth’s shadow, which will cause sunset colors in the earth’s air to reflect onto the moon.
“The sun is shining on half of the Earth, through Earth’s air; on the sunrise and sunset ring, the light that is passing through the Earth’s air will be shining on the moon,” Eastlick said.
Eastlick said watching a lunar eclipse is about as much fun as watching paint dry.
“What I recommend is this — while watching television and when commercials come on, go out and look at the moon, then go back into your home. Then when commercials again come on, go back out and take another look at it. A person should be able to notice some changes in the eclipse,” she added.
Eastlick could not guarantee that the color of the moon would be sunset colors as it would all depend on how clean the air is.
She said in 1991, a red moon was scheduled to appear but did not, because of the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines earlier that year.
Although most island residents are eager to view the red moon and the eclipse, Eastlick said the event may have an effect on some people based on their culture and/or religion.
Among the Chamorro beliefs about an eclipse is that if a pregnant woman wanders out of a shelter during an eclipse, the child may develop birth defects, be stillborn, or suffer mental disabilities.
“There are many people on the island who do not want to see it or be a part of it because of their beliefs,” Eastlick said. “This is another reason why I want to publicize this lunar event.”

Lunar Eclipse Tonight

Here’s the story from the Marianas Variety. I especially like the bit about superstitions.

Red moon over Guam tomorrow

By Trina A San Agustin
Variety News Staff

IF THE weather allows, residents will be able to see a red or orange moon tomorrow night during a full lunar eclipse between 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. The moon will be in the shadow of the earth at around 8:30 p.m.
University of Guam’s “star lady,” Pam Eastlick, told Variety that the reason for the change in the moon’s color is that the moon will be in the earth’s shadow, which will cause sunset colors in the earth’s air to reflect onto the moon.
“The sun is shining on half of the Earth, through Earth’s air; on the sunrise and sunset ring, the light that is passing through the Earth’s air will be shining on the moon,” Eastlick said.
Eastlick said watching a lunar eclipse is about as much fun as watching paint dry.
“What I recommend is this — while watching television and when commercials come on, go out and look at the moon, then go back into your home. Then when commercials again come on, go back out and take another look at it. A person should be able to notice some changes in the eclipse,” she added.
Eastlick could not guarantee that the color of the moon would be sunset colors as it would all depend on how clean the air is.
She said in 1991, a red moon was scheduled to appear but did not, because of the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines earlier that year.
Although most island residents are eager to view the red moon and the eclipse, Eastlick said the event may have an effect on some people based on their culture and/or religion.
Among the Chamorro beliefs about an eclipse is that if a pregnant woman wanders out of a shelter during an eclipse, the child may develop birth defects, be stillborn, or suffer mental disabilities.
“There are many people on the island who do not want to see it or be a part of it because of their beliefs,” Eastlick said. “This is another reason why I want to publicize this lunar event.”

Food For My Head

If you listen to radio, or download podcasts, dash on over to Radiolab, an amazing and endlessly fascinating show from WNYC, New York Public Radio. I got turned on to this podcast thanks to a recent episode of This American Life, yet another incredible and worthwhile listen on public radio. The topics are engrossing and presented in an incredibly entertaining manner. Good stuff – like crack cocaine for my brain. Give it a listen and you’ll be hooked too.

Chilling Out Is The Secret To Long Life?

I linked to a story yesterday about Inuit hunters in Alaska who caught a bowhead whale last month and began to carve up the carcass when they came across a harpoon tip inside the whale that was only used between 1885 and 1895, making that particular whale at least 115 years old, if not older. Indeed scientists in 1999 examined another bowhead whale and placed its age at 211 years.

So what is the secret of their longevity? Carl Zimmer explores this idea in an essay in the New York Times, and it boils down to reproductive strategies. Species that are under threat, either from carnivores or their punishing environment, tend to live quickly and reproduce like well, rabbits. Rapid reproduction leads to accelerated metabolisms and shortened life spans, but their prolific fecundity ensures the survival of the species. However, bowhead whales evolved with little competition in their environment and minimal pressure from carnivores, so they could devote their metabolic resources to individual growth and health. They take two decades to mature and produce a single offspring every seven years, a stately pace for reproduction that served the whales well for millenia.

Zimmer makes the point that this long lived lifestyle ran into a crisis a century ago. Large scale whaling brought the bowhead population to the brink of extinction and now, a century after commercial whaling ceased on bowheads, their numbers are still scant. They are still considered a threatened species because they reproduce so slowly. He mentions studies done on fruit fly populations where scientists killed off vast amounts of the flies, the population reached sexual maturity faster and consequently shorten the flies’ lifespans. I wonder if we have done the same thing to bowhead whales?

Who Would Miss Us?

If humanity were to disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow, what would happen? That’s the interesting conceit explored by science writer Alan Weisman in his new book, The World Without Us (to be release next month). Scientific American interviewed Weisman and features his book on their website this week.

It is a fascinating idea that I’ve read about before. How long would it take our artifacts to disappear? In the case of the more obvious stuff like buildings, bridges and roads, only a few decades are required before nature reclaims the landscape. More insidious things last longer. Plastics could take thousands of years to degrade, while carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would take a hundred thousand years to return to levels prior to the industrial revolution. Pollution in the soil could well take a million years to dissipate, and the uranium 235 found in nuclear reactors would take only 700 million years to decay into lead.

So who would miss us? Definitely head lice; they couldn’t survive without us. And domesticated livestock and crops wouldn’t fair too well either. Interestingly, the ubiquitous cockroach would suffer in our absence as well. Without warm homes to inhabit with ready food supplies, the cockroach would disappear from temperate climates during the frigid winters.

On a related note, check out these images of a ruined Tokyo, destitute of humanity and crumbling back into the earth. Cool stuff.

Chickens Offer Up Telltale Clues

So archaeologists have found evidence of Polynesian chickens at a site along the Chilean coast, proving that Polynesians made their way to South America in Pre-Columbian times. Sort of a reverse Kon Tiki, and a testament to the skill and power of Pacific navigators.

I’ve known about this Polynesian/Asian chicken thing for a while; I remember reading about it back in my undergrad days at Beloit. The hard evidence was lacking, but all the pointers were there, specifically Magellan’s logs that mention bartering for chickens along the Patagonia coast in 1521. Considering that Columbus touched ground in Trinidad in 1498, so it is highly unlikely that chickens made it across so many thousands of miles of jungle and became a common food source among the Patagonians in less than 23 years.

Piggies Across The Pacific

Scientists are tracking the dispersal of humans across the scattered islands of the Pacific Ocean by following the genetic markers of feral pigs. While pigs can swim, the distances between the islands are too great, meaning their porcine subjects could only have arrived via human effort. And what they have found is a clear link between pigs in Vietnam and Indonesia with pigs in Oceania. This goes against the traditional view that the Pacific Islands were peopled by humans from Taiwan and the Philippines.

One Last Thing On This Pluto Business

Skimming through the internet, I’ve seen all sorts of complaints about Pluto’s demotion, and last week there were all these complaints about the addition of more planets. I don’t get the problem here. People didn’t complain when chemists isolated the periodic table of the elements did they? Or where there protests about how all we really needed was the original four?

A Life Told In Bone And Stone

Dr. Gary Heathcote sent me a link to his report on the Taotao Tagga’, the remains of a Chamorro male on display at the CNMI Museum of History and Culture. He lived on Tinian in the 16th century, during the end of the latte stone period and the beginning of the Spanish conquest of the islands.

Dr. Heathcote examined the skeletal remains are draws some conclusions about his life and occupation. In a word, Taotao Tagga’ was very robust, showing telltale signs of a lifetime spent quarrying and transporting heavy stone. He was gravely wounded earlier in his youth, but survived and lived a relatively long and healthy life.

It is a very interesting report, and Dr. Heathcote concludes with some remarks on Guam’s failure to create a museum of similar caliber with the CNMI’s. He has a valid point, which could be extended to the library and schools. It seems as though the civic will to create and fund these bastions of community does not exist on Guam. The museum is in cardboard boxes in a warehouse, the library is in a state of disrepair and the school system is just a complete mess. The cohesive bonds that create a polity are frayed on this island, but this is vital stuff, the very lifeblood of a society. I know it is hard to see the value in these things when the power grid is fragile, villages go without water and there aren’t enough cops on the street, but things like museums, libraries and schools represent an investment in the future. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul to neglect them during these tough times.

Pluto May Yet Be Knocked Off The Planetary Roll Call

Wait a minute astronomy buffs! I reported just the other day about the proposed new planets in the solar system, but on Friday a competing definition of what makes a planet was put forth by a Uruguayan astronomer. Under this new proposal, a planet is an object that is “by far larger than the local population.” So Pluto is out, since it is so much smaller than the other planets and similar to the Kuiper Belt objects that are popping up in astronomer’s telescopes.

Seems some scientists are turned off by the possibility of hundreds of planets in our solar system some day, most of them being tiny snowballs at the extreme edge of the sun’s demesne. And Pluto is the prototypical snowball at the chilly edge of the solar system, with it’s cockeyed orbit and icy consistency.

And for what it’s worth, check out Stephen Colbert dogging the new planets with Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium.