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Happy New Year(s)!

December 31, 2008 on 8:36 am | In Astronomy, Blog info | 14 Comments

It’s the morning of New Year’s Eve here in my city. The New Year means a lot of things to me, and probably to you, too. But what does it mean to an astronomer?

If you look at the Sun and Earth from outside, one year is when the Earth goes through one complete cycle of solstices and equinoxes. This means that the amount of sunlight the Earth gets goes through one complete cycle in a year. This is called a tropical year, and it’s how we build our calendar on Earth. This is also the amount of time it takes for the Sun’s path through the Earth’s sky to go through one complete cycle: rising to its maximum height (summer solstice), falling to its minimum height (winter solstice), and then beginning to rise again.

But there’s another way for scientists to measure a year, different than the way we do it on Earth. Since the Earth revolves around the Sun, we can measure the amount of time it takes the Earth to make one complete orbit, returning to the same position in the sky relative to the Sun. This is called a sidereal year, and this is more useful for measuring the positions of all the stars other than the Sun in the sky. Because the Earth revolves, rotates, and also precesses (below), a sidereal year and a tropical year are not exactly the same length.

What is precession? Gravity causes the Sun to pull on the Earth. But the “daylight” part of the Earth is always closer to the Sun than the “nighttime” part. Gravity is stronger when things are closer, so there’s more force on one side of the Earth than the other. This unbalanced force causes the Earth to “wobble” in its orbit, causing what’s known as the precession of the equinoxes. This also causes a sidereal year and a tropical year to be different. Not by a lot, mind you, but over the span of a little more than 20,000 years, we will have one “extra” tropical year for every sidereal year that we have, since Earth’s elliptical orbit around the Sun is precessing, too. What does that look like? Check it out:

If we wanted to report it in seconds, one tropical year (also known as “one year”) takes 31,556,925.2 seconds, while one sidereal year takes 31,558,149.8 seconds. This makes a sidereal year longer by 20 minutes and 24.6 seconds. This also means that in 25,769 sidereal years, we will experience 25,770 tropical years, and the equinoxes will have precessed a complete 360 degrees.

And finally, on a related note, I’d like to thank you for reading my website with me throughout the year. This was my very first year doing this, and I think it’s worked out well for me! I hope it has for you, too, and so I’m going to keep it up and keep writing for it next year, too. Since this started in January of 2008, we’ve gotten over 125,000 visits to the site, and seem to be getting a little over 20,000 per month at this point. I’ve screen-captured my visitors data and put it up below for you to see:

So thank you, and Happy New Year! Here’s wishing you good health, lots of happiness and overall, that you and your loved ones be physically, mentally, and intellectually well for 2009.

The Worst Scientist in History

December 29, 2008 on 5:14 pm | In Education, Life | 15 Comments

There are many great, elegant, and simple theories and ideas that attempt to make sense of this Universe. Above all, many of these ideas are beautiful, and often the people who come up with them are brilliant.

Almost all of these great, elegant, and simple theories are wrong. This is important to remember and difficult for many scientists to accept. Most theories, no matter how well-conceived or how brilliant they are, will eventually fail to an experimental test that does not yield what the theory predicts.

The key, and this is a really hard part for anyone with an ego (and I am just as guilty of this as any other scientist), is admitting when your brain-child, your theory, is wrong. There are plenty of examples of this: Halton Arp and Fred Hoyle refusing to let go of their incorrect theories when it was shown that their theories were invalid and the Big Bang was more correct, Howard Georgi going into a deep depression when the proton didn’t decay as predicted by his theory of Grand Unification, and even Einstein refusing to abandon his idea of a classical unification of E&M and Gravity, ignoring all of the evidence for quantum theory.

Normally, when this happens, you have no reason to care. One person cannot hold up the scientific endeavor, cannot stop the tide of research and evidence as we gather more and more data and refine our understandings of the Universe. Science, technology, health, and medicine march forward.


Umm… right?

That’s what you think. Meet Trofim Lysenko. Biologist, agronomist, with a specialized interest and knowledge set in the field of inherited traits. Also, in my opinion, he is the worst and most dangerous scientist of the 20th Century. With his expert knowledge and status, he was able to promise increased crop yields following the famines and drop in food production in the USSR in the 1930s. In 1940, he was appointed director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR’s Academy of Sciences, a position he held for 25 years.

What makes him the worst scientist in history? He was a denier of science. Despite overwhelming evidence in support of Gregor Mendel’s theory of genetics and inherited traits, Lysenko stuck to his own theories of hybridization instead. Lysenko’s theories became widely accepted in the USSR, and in 1948, scientific dissent from his theory of hybridization was outlawed.

It was not until about 15 years had passed, and crop productivity had failed to improve, that people in power realized that Lysenko was not fairly considering all of the evidence. Modern agricultural techniques were eventually adopted and Lysenkoism fell out of favor. But science in that field, especially in the USSR, was set back a good 20 years by Lysenko’s denial of the evidence.

Well, I must say, it’s a good thing that there’s nobody with any political influence who can make huge mistakes on issues of science policy. It’s a good thing that, in the USA, the scientific community is always consulted for their expert opinion on matters of national and international importance. And it’s a good thing that the opinion of one politician or one rogue scientist can’t dictate policy.


Umm… right?

A-ha! Three more weeks, America, just three more weeks. I have hope that this time, we’re getting it right.

Weekend Diversion: Thundercats The Movie!

December 27, 2008 on 2:05 am | In Random Stuff | 13 Comments

If only, like Transformers before it, they were making a movie out of one of my other favorite cartoons, Thundercats. They’re not. But after viewing this trailer (made by some guy on the internet), I’m convinced that it would make a fantastic movie.

Notice how this wasn’t filmed, this is done by taking actors from other roles and CGI-editing their faces and backgrounds. I can recognize that Lion-o was Brad Pitt from Troy, Panthro was Vin Diesel (I don’t know from what), the Eye of Thundera was the Eye of Sauron from LOTR, and Jaga was the old knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Could they have done this even 5 years ago? In any case, this is great work, and I would totally see this movie.

Q & A: How to Fight Global Warming

December 26, 2008 on 1:08 pm | In Evolution, Life | 54 Comments

People often write in wanting to know the answers to big questions. Earlier this week I got a message from kampfgestfj asking me about global warming. More to the point, he wanted to know the following:

Why are there still those that don’t believe global warming is affected by man’s input into the environment?

Now, I don’t have a good answer for this, because I don’t understand the reasoning behind denying mankind’s influence on global warming. For me, the scientific evidence is pretty straightforward: industrialization is at an all-time high, there are more pollutants in the atmosphere now than at any point in all of human history, and global average temperature has followed the trend of CO2 in the atmosphere over hundreds of thousands of years according to all reasonable tests of scientific rigor. (And yes, you have to include an appropriate time-lag of about 50-100 years for the full effects to be felt.)

But there is a new finding that I find absolutely delightful. Ever hear about the little ice age in Europe? A few hundred years ago, the temperature in Europe decreased by a little less than 1 degree Celcius, and remained that way for about 200 years. Have a look:

Well, we think we know why this happened. When the Europeans came over to America, the Aztec and Incan civilizations crumbled. This was due to many factors, including (and perhaps especially) disease. From when the Europeans came over in about 1500 to about 1600, the populations of the Incan and Aztec empires dropped by about 90%. This was about 9% of the world’s population, and it meant that about 500,000 km2 of land went from being used by humans to wilderness. At those latitudes, that means there was about 500,000 km2 of reforestation that occurred.

Now, as everyone knows, trees breathe in Carbon Dioxide and breathe out Oxygen. The researchers estimate that 10 billion tonnes of Carbon Dioxide was removed from the atmosphere by this reforestation, significantly contributing to the fall in global average temperature.

Even with accounting for volcanic activity and the Sun’s variation in intensity, the impact of humans, according to the study, was undeniably important. So if we want to fix our global warming problem now, what’s the answer?

Well, it’s simple. RE-forestation. This is a surefire way to remove significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. But this is a huge policy problem: how can we not only keep humans out of habitable areas, how can we get humans to leave areas where they’re already living? We know the problem. We know how to fight it. We even know how to fix it. The big question is how do we make it happen?

And that’s one I don’t have an answer for, just hope that we’ll get it right, and soon.

Dreaming of the Sun: A Holiday Story

December 24, 2008 on 2:05 am | In Astronomy | 28 Comments

We are going on day 12 of the Portland snowpocalypse now, and I haven’t seen the Sun in 12 days. Which means I missed the shortest day of the year on December 21st: the winter solstice. The winter solstice is a special day for the Sun in the Northern Hemisphere of Earth, because it’s the day where the Sun is in the sky for the shortest amount of time, and also remains the lowest above the horizon as compared to any point during the year.

As the days progress, that arc the Sun travels through the sky gets higher and wider, and the days get longer, and the Sun’s rays get warmer and more powerful. Anthropologically, this is why there are a lot of very old holidays that take place right after the Winter Solstice: as the Sun’s path stops descending in the sky and starts rising again, it’s clear that a new year of growth and prosperity will follow the winter, even as temperatures drop and lakes freeze and snow falls and Portlanders drive insanely. That’s something worth celebrating!

But what about astronomically? Is this really something people would notice? Heck, is the seasonal “rise and fall” of the Sun something that we could notice today? Let’s do an experiment. Throughout the year, at different times, what if you went outside and photographed the Sun at exactly the same time of day on different days? Would you be able to see any differences? Would it rise in the spring, peak in the summer, fall in the autumn and bottom out in the winter? Let’s take a look:

Wow. Not only does the Sun rise and fall, it makes a “figure-8″ pattern! Yes, that lowest point you see is the Winter Solstice, and yes, the highest point is at the Summer Solstice. This is the reason why your shadows appear longer in the winter and shorter in the summer. But why the figure-8 shape? There are three factors you need to consider to calculate this:

  1. The shape of the Earth’s Orbit around the Sun.
  2. The tilt of the Earth’s axis as it rotates.
  3. The difference in angle between the semimajor axis (the imaginary line between perihelion, which is closest approach to the Sun, and aphelion, a planet’s farthest point from the Sun) and the solstices.

The Earth’s orbit is nearly circular, but not quite. It’s 1.6% closer to the Sun during perihelion (which happens during early January) and 1.6% farther away from the Sun during aphelion (which happens in early July) than average. The Earth is also tilted on its axis at about 23 degrees as it orbits the Sun. The solstices are tilted, just by a couple of degrees in orbit, relative to the Earth’s perihelion and aphelion. Plug this data into a computer to simulate what the pattern of the Sun will look like, and here’s what you get:

Now, that’s a pretty figure 8!

But is this how it works for all planets? Let’s take a look at Mars. Mars is quite a bit more elliptical than Earth, as instead of 1.6% variations in proximity to the Sun, it’s 9% closer at perihelion and 9% farther away at aphelion. Mars is also tilted similarly to Earth, at about 25 degrees as it orbits the Sun. But the way Mars’ orbit lines up with the solstices is very different from Earth, so instead of a figure 8 shape, you’d get a teardrop shape:

For a fancier artist’s rendition (which is more accurate in this case), the analemma of Mars would more closely look like this:

In fact, the analemmas for the different planets can all be calculated based on those three pieces of information above. Here are the results:

  • Mercury: a single point (because a day on Mercury takes exactly two years!)
  • Venus: an ellipse
  • Earth: figure 8
  • Mars: teardrop
  • Jupiter: ellipse
  • Saturn: teardrop with a teeny-tiny loop at the end
  • Uranus: figure 8
  • Neptune: figure 8
  • Pluto: a very large figure 8

So that’s more information than you ever wanted to know about the Sun, but it was too cool not to talk about it. Hope you enjoyed it, and hope you’re enjoying whatever holidays you celebrate at this time of year! So, in an acknowledgment to my Southern Hemisphere readers who bear with me despite my Northern Hemisphere bias, here’s a season’s greetings especially for you!

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