Hopscotching with Aliens?
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There is a new initiative in the area of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Although the SETI program has history of listening for deliberate (or accidental) messages from any potential advanced civilizations dating back more than 50 years now, we knowingly transmit messages less than 1% of that time. Indeed some long wavelength transmissions such as TV programs do manage to leak into space, but they are too faint to decipher across interstellar distances. In all that time we have never received a message from aliens. There is also no evidence at all that aliens have ever visited us. Space appears to be empty. Does this mean other intelligent creatures do not exist at all? The struggle to answer that question has motivated a new initiative called the Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (METI). The aim is to take action to send messages in the direction of known planetary systems. Most people at this point ask, “Is this exciting?, or … Continue reading

The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI)
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This week there is a large gathering of extragalactic astronomers here at at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) to attend a conference on the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), a new experiment that will be commissioned on a large telescope on Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Arizona. With a team now 500 people strong, the focussed goal is to measure the relative positions and orientations of millions of galaxies in order to study properties of the early universe. One can get at a straightforward understanding of this project by considering galaxy shapes. Galaxies are complicated objects with billions of stars. Even so, from a distance galaxies mostly take on oval shapes. These oval-shaped galaxies that we see on a typical pictures can face any which way. This turns out to be the case when one views galaxies within regions of space in which one can see only hundreds of examples at a time, but not millions. On such scales … Continue reading

Bursting Bubbles: Understanding Solar Eclipses and the Bible (Part One)
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On December 21, 2012, some people held their breath thinking that the world was coming to an end. As you recall, an ancient Mayan calendar was running out of days, prompting some to presume that the calendar was predicting the end of the world. Since you are reading this post, the world obviously did not end. In fact, there was no credible reason for people to have presumed such a thing. There was no Mayan prophecy that predicted this date and the calendar itself contained no foreshadowing of a cataclysmic end. In “the end,” it turned out that the calendar simply needed to be updated after the collapse of Mayan civilization. Sometimes answers are far simpler than we want them to be. I share this reflection because the conspiracy theorists are at it again. With the solar eclipse around the corner on August 21st, an event I look forward to with much excitement, the end of the world is once … Continue reading

Confronting Our Geocentric Tendencies
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Just how geocentric is the human race? In a quick Google search of the term “Geocentric,” one finds a fascinating collection of hits. Many are simply online definitions of Geocentrism while others gravitate, both charitably and uncharitably, to the “hyper biblical literalism” that is falsely presumed to be the sole source of an Earth-centered view of the universe. The reason I say “falsely presumed” is because a geocentric view of the world is a natural part of our intuition regardless of religious or cultural belief. If you disagree with me, go outside, stand still, and ask yourself, “Do you feel the Earth rotating?” I think it is safe to presume that your answer would be “no.” Now look to the horizon in any direction and ask yourself, “Is the Earth flat or spherical based on what I see?” Based on what you see, it is flat. Lastly, look up at a clear night sky and ask, “What is moving, me … Continue reading

How Galaxies Are Like Apricots
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The common lore has it that in addition to hosting 10-100 billion stars, all galaxies are also covered in a massive invisible layer of dark matter. One cannot see this dark matter, nor is its composition known. Nevertheless, one can see the effects of the dark matter indirectly by the way they alter the motions of those myriad stars. If one imagines each galaxy to be an apricot pit, then the dark matter is the orange fruit surrounding the pit. The stars in this analogy would all be situated inside the pit. If one find a way to separate the pit from the fruit by just a little bit then one could get important information concerning the properties of this mysterious dark matter. There are no giant humans in space to bite into the fruit. Second best, if we could ram together two massive galaxies then we just might be able to see some of the fruit separated away from … Continue reading

Attentiveness: The Meeting Point Between Patience, Astronomy, And Spirituality.
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If you have a friend who is into astronomy and want to see how much of a purist they are when approaching their craft, just ask the following question, “What is your opinion on self-aligning telescopes?”  A self-aligning telescope is one that uses either GPS or digital images to orient itself, allowing the observer to simply use a hand controller to tell the telescope what you would like to observe in the night sky. The purist will scoff, quickly pointing out that using such a telescope skips the necessary and at time frustrating process of learning how to navigate the night sky with the naked eye to the point of seeing the stars as a type of “road map.” For some of my friends, using such a tool would be considered grounds for “hobby astronomy excommunication.” You may be wondering, “Fr. James, what is your opinion on self-aligning telescopes?” Well, at the risk of being ousted from the hobby astronomy … Continue reading

Discovery of Ice Crystals on Earth
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When we send astronomical satellites out to explore the solar system, we also take the opportunity to set them to look back on Earth. This tradition dates back to the time of the late 1970s when astronomer Carl Sagan requested a view of Earth from the Voyager 1 satellite from vantage point of Saturn. In that famous photo, the entire Earth occupies a scant couple of pixels on the image. Since that time, many pictures of Earth have ben taken at still higher spatial resolution. As the level of our ability to see fine details grew, we started noticed something curious about the images. In addition to seeing the beauty of our tiny marble-colored planet, we also saw brief surges of light appear on the surface. The source of such “twinkles” went undiscovered from their first occurrence in 1993 until 2016. At first planetary scientists attributed these mysterious twinkles to reflections off of the water, except that the twinkling took … Continue reading

Astronomy in Art & Architecture: Newark, New Jersey USA
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I always keep an eye out for instances of math and science (and astronomy in particular) appearing in public art and architecture, because that stuff seems like great subject matter for this blog.  Readers may recall previous “Astronomy in Art & Architecture” posts for Milwaukee (Wisconsin), Minneapolis (Minnesota), and Covington (Kentucky).  Generally speaking, instances of public math and science (meaning something more than generic stars on the ceiling of a building) have turned out to be rarer than I would have expected before I started looking for them. But this past March I found an instance of public math and science in a place I hardly expected—the airport in Newark, New Jersey.  There, amid the fluorescent-light-illuminated steel gray and beige surroundings of the airport, were large, colorful paintings featuring air-and-space themes.  These were a most welcome sight!  They also included some material that was pure astronomy, and even some that was history of astronomy. Two of these wall paintings are … Continue reading

Digging up Astronomical Fossils
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Imagine looking up at the night sky. With our own eyes we can see at most a few thousand of the nearest stars to us. Now consider looking through a large telescope with a very large field of view. Through such an instrument millions of objects come into view, with most of these objects being galaxies, not stars. Interestingly, galaxies are not scattered randomly about the sky, as one might expect. Rather, they trace out a structure that looks a bit like a 3D spider web, called by astronomers the “cosmic web.” Fair enough. The story gets more interesting though when we find out that the mean separation between galaxies, equating roughly to the mean separation between the threads of a spider web, was set early on in the universe’s history. When the universe was only about 370,000 years old, various sound waves that traversed its extent were frozen into place by changing physical conditions. Astronomers maintain that events that … Continue reading

The Disappearing Star
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And now for the next trick, we will make a star disappear! Astronomers have just discovered a star in the Galaxy that is losing brightness fast. Although generally stable, a star can and does vary in brightness every so slightly during the adult phase of its lifetime. A star can slowly increase in brightness as it builds up more nuclear fusion products in its stellar center. This happens to all stars. For the Sun this amounts to a 30 percent increase in brightness since it formed 4.5 billion years ago. Eventually, in another 1 billion years, the Sun will be so hot that it will boil away the oceans (but let us not digress). Secondly, many stars brighten and fade on regular timescales of hours to years. These are wee brightness changes amounting to about 0.1 – 1 percent of the total flux on average, with some more extreme cases known especially for the smallest stars. There is one attribute … Continue reading

A Slice of Solar Drawing in h-alpha
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On my 50th birthday my better half gave me a present of a PST 40 (Personal Solar Telescope) with a 40 mm objective. This gift was literally a piece of visual heaven. Since I acquired this fabulous instrument my work with it has always been drawing. Drawing the sun or even drawing features on the sun is without a doubt the biggest challenge in astronomical drawing. Here is the thing, the telescope objective is just 40 mm, the sun as I see it is only about 30 mm of that 40mm to the eye. Using an 8 mm eyepiece gives about a 50X magnification and therefore the best view of the features and action on the disc and on the limb. There is no point whatsoever in drawing something at a diameter of 30 mm unless you provide your viewers with magnifying glasses or the object is a daisy. Therefore I work mostly at dinner plate size, sometimes at side … Continue reading

Environmental Ethics and Ethos. The RSE Symposia on the Adriatic and Baltic Seas.
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One of the newest fields of theology and philosophy is Environmental Ethics. In addition to being new, this field is also one of the more challenging subjects to keep current. The reason for this difficulty is that the rapid growth of technology often outpaces our ability to reflect on a given technology’s moral implications. This lag between the advancement of technology and the moral implications of technology have, at times, allowed for great damage to be done to our environment. This tension between technological advancement and environmental crisis led the members of the Religion, Science, and Environment Symposia (RSE) to organize two events to accomplish two main goals: The development of ethical principles to address ecological issues and the development of an environmental ethos to inspire people to put those ethics into action. Once again, the spiritual leader of these symposia was Patriarch Bartholomew and the locations of the symposia were the Adriatic Sea and the Baltic Sea. The RSE … Continue reading