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Across the Universe: Reaching out
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2015

Eighty years ago, on September 29, 1935, Pope Pius XI dedicated new quarters and telescopes of the Vatican Observatory in his summer palace in Castel Gandolfo. To celebrate the anniversary,in September 2015 we held a symposium in Castel Gandolfo, including a visit to the old domes that Pius XI had dedicated. The party ended in a private audience in Rome with Pope Francis (less than 24 hours before he left for Cuba and the US).

After giving us a short address, the Pope looked up and caught my eye. He smiled, and said, “Ah! The New Director!”

It’s true. As of that day, I became the new director of the Vatican Observatory. (I actually didn’t completely believe it until I heard him say it.)

Lunch with the Cardinal Secretary of State in the hall of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, celebrating my new appointment as director, in September, 2015. Ignore the goofy guy with the beard telling a joke; check out that ceiling!

Would I continue to write articles like these (for the Tablet)? Yes, as long as there’s a place for me. It’s not only because I love being a part of this journal. When Pope Leo XIII founded the Vatican Observatory in 1891 it was so that “the world could clearly see” the Church supporting good science. Doing good science is, obviously, essential; otherwise we have nothing to show. But the “showing” is also essential.

We’ve done that in an ad-hoc way for the past 20 years. Now I am trying to organize a more systematic approach to our education and public outreach. We’re developing programs from a Faith and Astronomy Workshop for parish educators [the next one will be held in a year's time, January 2019], to a range of high school collaborations, to our Catholic Astronomer blog page. My columns are part that work.

A lot of my outreach has always been through public talks at churches, schools, and science fiction conventions. For example, the summer of 2015 summer I was a Guest of Honor at a convention in Chicago for folks who like to tinker and invent; then, at the Sasquan World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane that August, I gave the keynote science lecture, part my duties as this year’s Carl Sagan medalist. [In 2017 I was guest of honor at two science fiction conventions!] Alas, once I learned of my new job I had to cancel three weeks of talks in the UK; I needed to be here to sign all the paperwork and learn where the gears and levers of the new job are to be found.

Such events as science fiction conventions are an ideal place to talk about science. Here you find bright and curious folks who love to hear about astronomy and place it in the human context. That context, after all, is what science fiction is all about. The human context includes religion, in all its forms, organized and personal and everything in between.

Just another gratuitous pretty astropicture, in this case, the Horsehead Nebula as imaged at the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope.

That context figured strongly in our symposium as well. Historians and philosophers spoke eloquently of how doing science shapes the scientists (and their culture). But even the astronomers pointed out, time and again, that human decisions are required at critical points in our work, from choosing our experiments to reducing our data. The active involvements of each Pope in our work during all those years reminds us of the importance that they attached to our work. After all, this Observatory was a Pope’s idea, not ours!

But we do this work not just because a Pope wants us to do it. All the outreach we do, from science fiction conventions to think-pieces in intellectual journals, reflects another quality that motivates everything we do in astronomy: a sense of joy. The stars are glorious, and it’s a treat to be engaged in their study… because, their glory proclaims the Glory of their Creator.

Astronomy is a joyful profession, and I intend to have fun at this job. To quote the poet e.e. cummings: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go! 

Also in Across the Universe

  1. Across the Universe: What’s in a Name?
  2. Across the Universe: Fools from the East
  3. Across the Universe: Hunches
  4. Across the Universe: Desert or a dessert?
  5. Across the Universe: Stardust messages
  6. Across the Universe: The best way to travel
  7. Across the Universe: Original Proof
  8. Across the Universe: Pearls among Swine
  9. Across the Universe: One Fix Leads to Another
  10. Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding
  11. Across the Universe: The Glory of a Giant
  12. Across the Universe: Fire and Ice
  13. Across the Universe: Science as Story
  14. Across the Universe: Recognition
  15. Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
  16. Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
  17. Across the Universe: Orbiting a New Sun
  18. Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
  19. Across the Universe: DIY Religion
  20. Across the Universe: Truth, Beauty, and a Good Lawyer
  21. Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
  22. Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
  23. Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
  24. Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
  25. Across the Universe: Deep Impact
  26. Across the Universe: New Worlds
  27. Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
  28. Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
  29. Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?
  30. Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
  31. Across the Universe: Off The Beach
  32. Across the Universe: All of the Above
  33. From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
  34. Across the Universe: Heavenly peace?
  35. Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
  36. Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
  37. Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
  38. Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
  39. Across the Universe: New Heavens, New Earth
  40. Across the Universe: Souvenirs from Space
  41. Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
  42. Across the Universe: Spicy planet stories
  43. Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
  44. Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
  45. Across the Universe: Errata
  46. Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
  47. Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
  48. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  49. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  50. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  51. Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
  52. Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
  53. Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
  54. Across the Universe: Obedience
  55. Across the Universe: Traveling Light
  56. Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
  57. Across the Universe: Europa
  58. Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
  59. Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
  60. Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
  61. Across the Universe: False Economies
  62. Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
  63. Across the Universe: Japan
  64. From the Tablet: Why is Easter So Early This Year?
  65. Across the Universe: Oops!
  66. Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
  67. Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
  68. Across the Universe: Touch the Sky
  69. Across the Universe: The Eye of the Lynx
  70. Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
  71. Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues
  72. Across the Universe: Maverick Genius
  73. Across the Universe: Awareness
  74. Across the Universe: Friends in high places
  75. Across the Universe: A Moving Experience
  76. Across the Universe: Grain of truth
  77. Across the Universe: Clerical Work
  78. Across the Universe: Teaching new stars
  79. Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
  80. Across the Universe: Changelings
  81. Across the Universe: Three Lunatic Answers
  82. Across the Universe: Dawn of My Belief
  83. Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
  84. Across the Universe: Under the Southern Cross
  85. Across the Universe: Clouds from Both Sides
  86. Across the Universe: The Year (2011) in Astronomy
  87. Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat
  88. Across the Universe: Waiting for the Call
  89. From the Tablet: God is dead; long live the eternal God
  90. Across the Universe: Taking the Heat
  91. Across the Universe: Stellar Round Up
  92. Across the Universe: A Damp Kaboom
  93. Across the Universe: Featureless Features
  94. Across the Universe: Confronting Fear and Terror
  95. Across the Universe: Eye Candy
  96. Across the Universe: The New Paganism
  97. Across the Universe: Immigrant Stars
  98. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  99. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  100. Across the Universe: When reason itself becomes flesh
  101. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  102. Across the Universe: Awaiting the stars
  103. Across the Universe: Tides in our affairs
  104. Across the Universe: A Piece of the Action
  105. Across the Universe: Forced Perspective
  106. Across the Universe: Touched by Heaven
  107. Across the Universe: View from afar
  108. Across the Universe: What good is God?
  109. Across the Universe: Global warning
  110. From The Tablet: Precisely Strange
  111. Across the Universe: Faith and Expectations
  112. Across the Universe: The Boundaries of the Unknown
  113. Across the Universe: Happy Birthday to Us
  114. Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds
  115. Across the Universe: Rocket Science
  116. Across the Universe: Maybe
  117. Across the Universe: Perturbing the Universe
  118. Across the Universe: Edge of the World
  119. Across the Universe: A Thousand Stars are Born
  120. Across the Universe: Expect Surprises
  121. Across the Universe: Song of Praise
  122. Across the Universe: Jesuit Science
  123. Across the Universe: Of stars and sheep
  124. Across the Universe: Ephemeral science
  125. Across the Universe: Fast changes
  126. Across the Universe: The Hows of Science
  127. From The Tablet: Big Science, Hurrah!
  128. Across the Universe: Hidden inclusions
  129. Across the Universe: Where’s the olivine?
  130. Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
  131. Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
  132. Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
  133. Across the Universe: Ice dreams
  134. Across the Universe: Super Earths
  135. Across the Universe: Myriad planets
  136. Across the Universe: Leaving the neighborhood
  137. Across the Universe: The Church of UFO
  138. Across the Universe: Reaching out

View the entire series

Is Our Galaxy a Rebel?
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We are particularly fond of the Milky Way because it is the home of the Sun and the Earth (as well as another 100 billion other stars and still more planets).

The Milky Way forms the cornerstone against which we base our understanding of how other galaxies might work in detail. The question is: can the Milky Way be described as a typical spiral galaxy?

There are a few signs that the Milky Way may be a bit different from its neighbors. One clue comes from looking at the galaxy centers. All massive spiral galaxies like the Milky Way are found to harbor giant black holes, except that for the Milky Way this central supermassive black hole is smaller.

Another clue comes from an investigation of the surroundings of spiral galaxies. The Milky Way has dozens of very small galaxies in its immediate vicinity which we call satellites. Many of these satellites have been discovered only very recently as they are very faint owing to there being very few new stars being formed in them. At the same time, other nearby spiral galaxies have satellites that sustain much higher rates of star formation.

A new investigation is underway to increase our understanding of these differences, called the Satellites Around Galactic Analogs (SAGA) Survey led by a team at Yale University.

Learning about the differences between the Milky Way and other galaxies, if any, may help us to better understand our place in the universe.

Kurzynski Country’s Response To The Graney Data.
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I was delighted when fellow blogger, Chris Graney, floated the idea of the two of us doing a "blog and response" for The Catholic Astronomer. Given our common interest in matters of ecology and care for creation, this challenge seemed to be a perfect fit. When reading Chris's piece about the climate history of Prairie du Chien over the past 115 years, my first thought was of the fittingness of Chris's choice of cities. Prairie du Chien is the city where the first parish in our diocese was established with a ministerial pre-history that goes back to the early Jesuit missionaries, Marquette and Joliet, in 1673.

My second thought took me back to my grade school science days, recalling the confident prediction from one of my teachers that, by the time I was in my 40's, Wisconsin's winters would be like Florida's winters because of global warming. A few years ago, while shoveling the sidewalk at Roncalli Newman Parish on a chilling -10 morning, I had the thought, "Where is my promised global warming?" This moment also reminds me of a joke often shared about Wisconsin weather that simply states, "I hope summer falls on the weekend this year!"

All kidding aside, it is true that one of the challenges of climate science is that some of the presumptions of the past have not come about. However, just because some presumptions ended up in the intellectual boneyard doesn't mean that climate change and global warming aren't happening. Though I am not a scientist, I do believe that our climate is changing and that we need to better care for our common home. In that spirit, I want to dig into the data Chris provided to see how we can understand the climate of Prairie du Chien in relation to the debate on global climate change and global warming.

Instinctively, Chris's piece reminded me of our family's favorite "environmental periodical:" The Gurney Seed Catalog. Every February, my mother would leave the catalog on the kitchen table and ask my brothers and I to pick out the seeds we wanted to order for our garden in the spring. This yearly ritual often led to disappointment, since I always wanted to buy seeds for fruit that didn't grow in our growing zone. My mother would turn to the growing zone map from the USDA to remind me, "We can only buy seeds for this zone!" Though the experimental gardener in me wanted to try to prove the map wrong, I always relented, feeling a little disappointment that we couldn't have a banana tree in our backyard.

Current growing zone map for the state of Wisconsin. Image Credit: USDA

When consulting the current growing zone map, Prairie du Chien is in zone 5a. What this means is that the annual average extreme minimum temperature for Prairie du Chien from 1976-2005 was between 15 degrees below zero and 20 degrees below zero. However, when we look back to 1990, Prairie du Chien is in zone 4a. This means that from 1961-1990, the average extreme minimums fell between 25 degrees below zero and 30 degrees below zero. The importance of this science is that plants are quite sensitive to temperature, making knowledge of the extreme minimums crucial to grow plants that can withstand the cold weather.  Not surprisingly, the USDA growing zone map confirms Chris's observation that seasonal low temperatures have slightly increased in Wisconsin.

Now, some may see little significance to this increase, possibly gravitating toward the joke I would share with brother priests who serve in warmer climates, equating Wisconsin's cold winters to Dante's levels of hell in the Inferno: Once you're in hell, does it really matter whether you are on level one or seven - or, in the case of Wisconsin, 5a or 4a? Further, this reality of slightly warmer lows in Wisconsin combined with cooler highs would be seen by many as a good thing, giving hope to those of us who would love to see banana trees in the badger state someday.

Again, all weather humor aside, what growing zone maps do show us is how small changes to our environment can make big differences on what type of plants can survive in particular climates. One of my students from UW-Stout with a deep passion for the environment shared an analogy on the relationship between temperature and illness in the human body. If our body temperature rises or drops a degree or two from 98.6, this indicates illness. Raise or lower the temperature a degree or two more and there is legitimate concern for a body that is approaching crisis.

For another take on seasonal lows, a good friend of mine shared an article with me about how rising low temperatures can impact the spread of different species that can pose a threat to the environment. In a piece from August 28th of this year, deep concern was raised over the potential broadening of one of the most destructive insects in the world, the southern pine beetle. The geographic range of this beetle is limited to a great extent by temperature lows. The higher the lows, the further range the beetle has, posing a greater threat to the health of woodlands. The research done by Corey Lesk and Co-author Radley Horton point to a challenging future ahead for woodlands in the northern United States if the trend of rising lows continues not only in Wisconsin, but throughout the northern United States.

Lesk and Horton project that by 2020, the beetles will establish themselves along the Atlantic coast up to Nova Scotia. They say that by 2050, 78 percent of the 48,000 square miles now occupied by pitch pine forests from southern Maine to eastern Ohio will have climates newly suitable to the beetles. By 2060, they expect the beetle will further establish itself from southern New England through Wisconsin, and by 2080, climates suitable for the beetle should reach 71 percent of red pines and 48 percent of jack pines, which extend across more than 270,000 square miles of the northeastern United States and southern Canada. (Climate may quickly drive forest-eating beetles north, says study. physics.org - Nature Climate Change, Columbia University)

What these examples show us is that looking at global temperature change is not only about high temperatures, but also low temperatures. Therefore, Chris's observation about seasonal lows is critical when trying to understand how weather impacts Wisconsin's ecosystem whether it be plant heartiness or pest infestations.

My next thought on Chris's piece was how one set of date from a specific location cannot prove or disprove global warming. What needs to be examined is the climate picture created when we collect weather data globally. When looking at the current tracking of temperature by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) we do find that 2017 is, to this point, cooler than 2016. Though this information may be music to the ears of those who deny climate change, this decrease of temperature still puts 2017 as the second warmest year on record. Time will tell if 2018 continues the downward trend of global temperature, which would be good news! Nevertheless, one of the challenging aspects of climate science in an American culture that yearns for immediacy is that climate science is based on measuring small changes over long periods of time. As a non-scientist, I am always struck with how climate science emerges as a fascinating balance between very small changes in our environment that can have major impacts upon our common home.

Image Credit: NOAA

One of the environmental concerns I have reflected on with you in the past is the major changes we see occurring in the poles. When we look at the Arctic north and Antarctica to the south, one finds a rapidly changing environment for sea ice. Six months ago, NASA reported that as of March of this year, sea ice levels in the poles have reached their lowest levels since sea ice has been tracked. This trend shows us that, despite the global decrease in temperature for 2017, the impact of those temperatures is not uniform. One of the key benefits of sea ice at the poles is its ability to reflect sunlight, allowing for cooler temperatures. The less reflective ice there is, the more heat is absorbed by water, causing an increase in water temperature. This increase in water temperature can become fuel for larger, and more frequent hurricanes and typhoons.

There are many other things that came to mind when reading Chris' piece, such as the rise of Carbon Dioxide levels in the Earth's atmosphere. However, the data Chris presented was limited to temperature and precipitation, therefore I will refrain from drifting too far off topic. In short, even though we can learn fascinating things about a particular city in Wisconsin through studying particular climate data, the larger question of global warming can't be confirmed or denied in light of such data. That being said, the 1901 summer from Gehenna and the 1960 winter from Dante's Inferno in Wisconsin remind us of the complicated tapestry that is climate science. Given the complexities of this science, it is understandable that a sea of climate data can lead to very different conclusions.

This exercise also reminds me of a lesson learned from studying Sacred Scripture. One of our Scripture professors told us to be careful not to construct an entire biblical theology based on one passage of the Bible. Rather, we need to understand the rich tapestry of Scripture in its entirety along with its history, genre, type, morality, and spirituality. In a similar way, climate science requires patience to wade through multiple layers of climate data to give a clear picture of overall climate change globally. The beauty is that to do this well means we also need the particular data from Wisconsin and Kentucky. Therefore, Chris is right to grieve the loss of the United States Historical Climatology Network (USHCN) since it will remove essential data that helps us understand our common home regardless of one's thoughts on global climate change. To borrow from the great Catholic "both and," we need data on the micro level from the USHCN in order to understand the macro reality of global climate change.

Personally, I enjoyed this invitation to respond to Chris's post. Every time I explore information on our common home, I come away feeling a deep sense of appreciation of the beauty, fragility, and intricacy of our good Earth. In a real way, these types of investigations, regardless of their outcome, helps inspire me to embrace the call to care for our common home regardless of the outcome of that exploration.

Goodbye – Cassini’s Last Splendiferous Hurrah
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Cassini shouts HELP as it plunges into Saturn a drawing produced by a young child at Deirdre's Spectacular Cassini workshop. The drawing is in pastel, in the drawing the Cassini Spacecraft is shouting for help as it falls toward the planet on September 15th

Cassini shouts HELP as it plunges into Saturn - A drawing produced by a young child at Deirdre's Spectacular Cassini workshop.

 

 

 

 

The English language is lacking in positive affirmations glowing enough to encompass the significance of the Cassini Mission to Saturn. Side winding its way into my mind in the effort to find the right words came a memory of an old TV variety show. In the show, the host announces the artists to perform by pronouncing very large words in rapid precision. Each word is preceded by a judgemental gavel blow. The hyperbolic introductions primed the audience to welcome the splendiferous offerings of the forthcoming show. The pulchritudinous (excellent) nature of the mission has produced an abundance of most noteworthy images. The collection can spectacularly stimulate our senses to levitate our minds and souls. Cassini therefore invites us to relish the beauty of Saturn and its many moons. NASA has magnanimously offered the images videos and gifs to all who wish to enjoy the resplendent wonder of this epic mission.

If the same host was to announce the exploits of the Cassini Mission to Saturn it might well go like this. ........ Laydeeeeez and GENTlemeeeeeen ! . I bring you at no expense spared "The Greatest Show in Space". The global audience would exclaim oooooooooh and aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah collectively in an excited upward amplified accent.

Indeed a global audience has been touched by this mission.  Many touched for the first time by the media coverage of the last hurrah . If you are behind in your knowledge you can find a humongous treasure trove of information here to update yourself.

The Grand Finale has ended, 22 gigantic orbits between the planet and it's inner ring, the final drama over now. The brave enduring spacecraft melted in the atmosphere of the planet.  Cassini and Huygens  have  explored in ground breaking fashion.  Several video clips are available online , this one tells the story in a very concise  2.31seconds.  NOVA PBS Saying Goodbye to Cassini.

The Cassini Mission to Saturn  is the perfect plug-in for today's curriculum. Everything about the mission bookends Science Technology Engineering Art and Maths. I was inspired by this mission from my first engagements with it in 2004 via JPL NASA's Saturn Observation Campaign.

Recently  I spent a lot of time making  models of Saturn and Cassini. The models are  to enhance my forthcoming series of drawing workshops. On September 9th I had an opportunity to present the new workshop for the first time. It was just prior to the end of the mission , an ideal opportunity to request parting messages from my audiences via drawings.  The venue was Castletown House and Parklands, the audience were family groups numbering 40 in total.  Mams , Dads, boys and girls all listening , all drawing images by Cassini. The drawing above is my favourite as this child was using her drawing to convey empathy for the spacecraft . The drawing also shows she understood what was about to happen.

Why make a model of Cassini ?

In my experience having a model of a planet or spacecraft  in the room brings immediate interest and attention to the subject.  Children like to touch the models , tactile learning.  They also like to ask questions about how the models are made. Answering the questions allows me to add to their knowledge and make them smile. Therefore I will continue to work on  my models to bring what I teach alive as much as possible.  Saturn is made from a large polystyrene ball , its painted in acrylic using the latest images from Cassini. The rings are made from corryboard, over the next few weeks I hope to make them more realistic. Cassini is made from a soft drinks can , heating insulation material and other bits and bobs that suit the shapes of the instruments.  Am in the middle of building Titan and Enceladus , nothing is to scale but then everything has to fit in my car. 🙂 The title of my workshop is Spectacular Cassini at Saturn. Working with family groups is very enjoyable, learning occurs , fun is had , adults find the child within themselves.

On September 15th I was glued to the JPL NASA You Tube broadcast of the last moments of Cassini while also watching in the real-time virtual world of NASA Eyes . It was a cathartic, an end to a wonderful sojourn in space. A body of work  by a very positive group of people who are an example to us all of how to work together to achieve something extraordinary.

Deirdre Kelleghan holding her model of Cassini . In the background is her model of the planet Saturn . The venue is Castletown House and Parklands in Ireland . The event was Spectacular Cassini at Saturn a new drawing workshop by Deirdre

Deirdre with her models of Cassini , Huygens and Saturn .

The mission has ended, the spacecraft was guided into the body of the planet Saturn and is no more. However the legacy of the mission will take many decades to filter down and settle its status of The Greatest Show in space exploration history. ( so far)

The quality of the images and science returned bears witness to this robotic ship. An imamate object sending us some of the most beautiful natural art. We are enriched by the glorious images and knowledge gleaned. I have been enriched by being connected to this mission since 2004. Its depth and breadth have been more than I ever imagined. RIP Cassini :-(. Hugs to every single person who worked on the mission and created something very special indeed.

In the Sky this Week- September 19, 2017
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A veritable riot of conjunctions is happening all week in the eastern predawn skies; Venus is VERY close to the star Regulus, and Mercury and Mars continue to be low in the sky before sunrise.

Eastern predawn sky, Sept. 19, 2017

Eastern predawn sky, Sept. 19, 2017. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.

These conjunctions can also be seen from the southern hemisphere; note how the position of the planets differs from the northern hemisphere.

Eastern predawn sky seen from Perth

Eastern predawn sky seen from Perth, Sept. 19, 2017. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.

Saturn continues to be a good observing target in the southern skies after sunset.

Southwestern sky after sunset, Sept. 19, 2017

Southwestern sky after sunset, Sept. 19, 2017. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.

The southern skies seen from Perth after sunset are something I'd REALLY like to see; visible are the two Magellanic Clouds, the Carina Nebula

Southern sky after sunset, Sept. 19, 2017

Southern sky after sunset seen from Perth, Sept. 19, 2017. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.

In the eastern sky seen from Perth at 1:00 AM on Sept. 18th we see a good example of the different orientation of constellations seen from the southern hemisphere.

Eastern sky seen from Perth at 1 AM Sept. 18, 201

Eastern sky seen from Perth at 1 AM Sept. 18, 2017. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.

The Pleiades star cluster can be seen high in the eastern sky at 2:00 AM.

Eastern sky at 2 AM on Sept. 19, 2017

Eastern sky at 2 AM on Sept. 19, 2017. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.

The Pleiades open star cluster consists of approximately 3,000 stars, and is among the nearest star clusters to Earth; the cluster is easily visible to the naked eye.

The Pleiades open star cluster. Credit: NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory The science team consists of: D. Soderblom and E. Nelan (STScI), F. Benedict and B. Arthur (U. Texas), and B. Jones (Lick Obs.)

This video shows a faster-than-light trip through space to the Pleiades star cluster:

SpaceWeather.com says that "Lonely sunspot AR2680 poses no threat for strong solar flares."

The Sun's photosphere with a sunspot

The Sun - Sept. 18, 2017 - Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI). Image courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams. / Bob Trembley.

There is a large coronal hole that can be seen in 211 nanometers.

The Sun's Corona shown in violet

The Sun's Corona - Sept. 12, 2017 - Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) 211 nanometers. Image courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams.

The Solar System:

Inner Solar System, Sept. 18, 2017

Inner Solar System, Sept. 18, 2017. Credit: NASA Eyes on the Solar System / Bob Trembley.

Full Solar System, Sept. 18, 2017

Full Solar System, Sept. 18, 2017. Credit: NASA Eyes on the Solar System / Bob Trembley.

Apps used for this post:

Stellarium: a free open source planetarium app for PC/MAC/Linux.
NASA Eyes on the Solar System: an immersive 3D solar system and space mission app - free for the PC /MAC.

Climate in Kurzynski Country
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A July 2017 update on the fate of the USHCN. Click on the image to enlarge.

A July 2017 update on the fate of the USHCN. Click on the image to enlarge.

I’m sorry to report that a terrific scientific and educational resource, the United States Historical Climatology Network (USHCN), is fading away.  A couple of years back the USHCN stopped updating its database—the last data available are from December 31, 2014.  Moreover, the USHCN recently reported that it was going out of business, so to speak, as of the end of this month.  Nothing lasts in the digital world.

In honor of the USHCN’s fine run, and in hopes that it will stick around under some other guise, I present an analysis, based on USHCN data, of the climate in the southern Wisconsin stomping grounds of Fr. James Kurzynski, priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin and fellow blogger on The Catholic Astronomer.  Fr. Jim’s posts reflect an ongoing interest in ecology, and in ministering to and communicating with people who may have diverse views on the subject of climate science.  Fr. Jim and I are “team-posting” here.  I did this analysis and wrote up this post, and sent it to Fr. Jim.  He then wrote a post of his own in response.  His post will appear shortly.

The USHCN data that we will look at here are simple temperature and precipitation data.  The USHCN “is a high-quality data set of daily and monthly records of basic meteorological variables from 1218 observing stations across the 48 contiguous United States. Daily data include observations of maximum and minimum temperature, precipitation amount.... Most of these stations are U.S. Cooperative Observing Network stations located generally in rural locations, while some are National Weather Service First-Order stations that are often located in more urbanized environments. The USHCN has been developed over the years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) to assist in the detection of regional climate change. Furthermore, it has been widely used in analyzing U.S. climate.”  The data from the stations are (or were) available through a web interface from Oak Ridge National Lab.

Below are plots of USHCN data of daily Highs, Lows, and precipitation from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.  The Prairie du Chien station is located a bit south of La Crosse, but it has a nearly complete daily record going back into the late nineteenth century.  The plots run from the start of the year 1900 through the end of the year 2014.

Plots of daily precipitation, daily High (maximum temperature), and daily Low (minimum temperature) vs. date for Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin (USHCN station WI476827).  Click on the plots to enlarge (they can be enlarged considerably).

Plots of daily precipitation, daily High (maximum temperature), and daily Low (minimum temperature) vs. date for Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin (USHCN station WI476827).  Click on the plots to enlarge (they can be enlarged considerably).

What do you notice about these plots?  As in the plots from my previous USHCN post on Kentucky, you probably do not notice much.  You can see the yearly seasonal temperature variations—the temperature plots rise and fall with winter and summer.  You can see some standout temperatures and some days of heavy rain.  But in none of the three plots does a clear trend of long-term change meet the eye.

Now let us highlight the extremes—the hottest Highs, the coldest Lows, the wettest rains.  For example, the hottest day in the 115 years shown on the plots was July 22, 1901.  On that day the USHCN data show that the temperature in Prairie du Chien reached 110°F!  I did not think it could get so hot in Wisconsin.  That July featured a heat wave that was truly awesome: 109°F on the 25th, 108°F on the 24th, 107°F on the 21st, 105°F on the 10th and the 17th both, 104°F on the 27th.

Some awesome cold appeared in the 1960’s.  The coldest days in the 115 years shown on the Prairie du Chien plots were January 30 of 1961 and January 15 of 1963: the USHCN data show −37°F both of those days.  The wettest day in Prairie du Chien was by far July 31, 1902.  On that day nearly nine inches of rain fell.  The plots below show these and more—the top 25 hottest Highs, coldest Lows, and wettest rains are all highlighted.

Prairie du Chien, Wisconsion (USHCN station WI476827) plots with top 25 extremes indicated with triangular points.  Note some points are very tightly clustered together.  Click on the plots to enlarge.

Prairie du Chien, Wisconsion (USHCN station WI476827) plots with top 25 extremes indicated with triangular points.  Note some points are very tightly clustered together.  Click on the plots to enlarge.

Speaking of wet, what about flood data?  La Crosse and Prairie du Chien are both located on the Mississippi River.  River data are available on-line from the National Weather Service.  Below is a plot of flood crest and low-water data from La Crosse.  The data goes back well into the nineteenth century, and does seem to show worse flooding since roughly 1950.

Plot of Mississippi River flood crests and low-water over time at La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Both flood and low-water data are from the National Weather Service.

Plot of Mississippi River flood crests and low-water over time at La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Both flood and low-water data are from the National Weather Service.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the USHCN plots is just how crazy things were in Wisconsin in the first third of the twentieth century.  This was true in Kentucky, too, but things were almost apocalyptic in Wisconsin: imagine living at the turn of the century there, and seeing that incredibly hot summer of 1901, followed by that nine-inch deluge in the summer of 1902; and then the winter of 1904 saw −30°F!

Indeed, the plots of temperature extremes show that Wisconsin has seen less extreme heat as time has passed since 1900.  The extreme cold seems a little less common recently, too, although there was that impressive run of cold in the 1960’s.  In fact, the data makes for the perfect storm of pointless “scientific” arguments between people in Fr. Jim’s stomping grounds who want to argue about climate science.  One side can say, “if the Earth is warming, how come all the record high temperatures were set back before 1950?”, while the other side can say (especially if they are of that large demographic group that remembers the 1960’s well), “I know the Earth is warming, because I remember the freezing cold winters back in the 60’s—we don’t get winters like that now—I’ve seen the change in my lifetime!”  Both sides would be absolutely right in that both points of view are supported by the data.

But there are more subtle effects to be found in the data.  It is a simple spreadsheet exercise to mathematically determine a “trend-line” for the data in these plots.  A trend-line analysis reveals some interesting things not clearly seen by just looking at the plots.  First, the precipitation plot reveals no significant trend: roughly a half-inch increase in annual precipitation in Prairie du Chien over the 115 years covered in the plot.  Second, the maximum daily temperature plot reveals about a 1.2°F decrease in daily Highs over that 115 year period.  Lastly, the minimum daily temperature plot reveals about a 0.9°F increase in daily Lows.  All of these trends—essentially no change in precipitation, a degree drop in Highs, and a degree rise in Lows—hold up even if the extreme temperatures highlighted in the graphs are discarded, so these trends are not just driven by a few outliers.

In short, the data featured here show that southern Wisconsin’s climate changed a bit from 1900 through 2014.  Whereas Kentucky clearly warmed during that time span, in southern Wisconsin the trend has been less toward warming than toward things getting less extreme.  The Highs got lower; the Lows got higher.  Since Highs occur during the day, and Lows during the night, we could say that over the past 115 years the days cooled and the nights warmed in southern Wisconsin (as contrasted with Kentucky, where the days did not change but the nights warmed).  Indeed, the Diocese of La Crosse might be a bit nicer place to live in 2014 versus in 1900; some folks might see this data and end up cheering the climate change.  They might then dismiss efforts to address global climate change if they feel those efforts will cost jobs and hurt living standards in southern Wisconsin; it is hard for us human beings to give up things that affect children, home, and hearth for the benefit of others somewhere else, especially when we probably can’t know exactly who and where those beneficiaries will be, and exactly how much benefit they will receive.  The picture is, in my opinion, complicated, and remarkable.  I am eager to hear Fr. Jim’s comments on all this.

Left—La Crosse, Wisconsin and surrounding areas. Right—the Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman in La Crosse.

Left—La Crosse, Wisconsin and surrounding areas. Right—the Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman in La Crosse.

I am sorry to see the USHCN fading away.  This analysis of climate in the Diocese of La Crosse is not particularly sophisticated—anyone who is good with a spreadsheet can download the data and replicate and check my results.  But if there are reporters and science writers who have used the USHCN to provide pictures of how climate has changed in various locales, and to look at how people’s personal experience might color their views of climate science, I have missed that.  (For more on how experience might color views on climate science, see the Kentucky post).  Data is great, but you have to use it.  And, you have to store it in such a manner that it doesn’t go away when the server is turned off or the format becomes obsolete.

 

Dusted by stars
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I have had Jon Larsen's  In Search of Stardust on my stack of books to read because last spring the upper division research methods course I taught did an experiment to measure the heat capacities of meteorites, using the method developed by the Vatican Observatory's Guy Consolmagno, SJ and Bob Macke, SJ and colleagues. The students were curious about the astrochemistry context (where do the samples come from, how can you distinguish regular rocks from these stony aliens) and I've been collecting resources for this coming spring when a new batch of students will make these measurements.

I tend to think of meteor strikes as spectacular and rare events, fireballs roaring through the sky that finally come crashing to earth.  Still they aren't as rare was you might think — tens of thousands of meteorites weighing as much or more than a euro coin hit the earth's surface each year, most of them landing in the water.  It gives me a visceral sense of how big the earth is! But what takes my breath away are the hundreds of trillions of micrometeorites that come to rest on earth each year, adding as much as 100,000 metric tons to the earth's mass.  Invisible, unremarked.  Perhaps as many as one a day hits the roof of my house, there are surely some of these ancient bits of dust in the water I drink, still others stuck to my hands after weeding the garden.

Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician and visual artist, discovered that you could find and identify these micrometeorites by looking at the dust on urban roofs.  Previously it had been thought it wouldn't be possible to find or identify these microscopic objects from outer space amidst the general detritus of a city. But Larsen's careful eye is rewarded, as these cosmic intruders have a characteristic morphology. Their unique appearance means you can sort them out under a microscope, much like Pasteur manually sorted the crystals of tartaric acid. And they are astonishingly beautiful.

From Jon Larsen, In Search of Stardust, p. 51

Larsen offers a brief and readable glimpse into the science of micrometeorites, but I also enjoyed simply browsing the images, reading them as I might clouds.  There is a golden glass meteorite with deep blue inclusions (p 51) that looks like some alien aquatic creature's shell, while the burnished cryptocrystalline specimen on page 45 looks like a bronzed wasp's nest — until one remembers it is only a few tenths of a millimeter across.

As much as I learned about the dust from outer space, Larsen's compendium of the terrestrial imposters (it's important to know what you aren't looking for!) gave me an entirely different view of road dust, containing polished spheres of glass from the reflective markings on the roads and crystals, microgemstones.

In one of the most beautiful passages in Isaiah (Is 54:11-12) we hear, "I lay your pavements in carnelians..." Who knew it was literally true.  The world is a beautiful place, if only we know where and how to look.


In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micrometeorites and Their Terrestrial Imposters by Jon Larsen (Voyageur Press, 2017)

Guy J. Consolmagno, Martha W. Schaefer, Bradley E. Schaefer, Daniel T. Britt, Robert J. Macke, Michael C. Nolan, Ellen S. Howell, "The measurement of meteorite heat capacity at low temperatures using liquid nitrogen vaporization" Planetary and Space Science, 87 (2013) 146-156

 

A Heartfelt Farewell to NASA’s Cassini Mission to Saturn
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Cassini End of Mission

Cassini's final moments, September 15, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Cassini mission to Saturn ranks right at the top of my list of favorite space missions; this morning, on NASA TV, I watched Cassini's final moments as it plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn... and I had a good cry. It's an odd juxtaposition of feelings: being overjoyed and incredibly sad at the same time.

When Cassini launched in 1997, my daughters were aged 12 and 9; my wife likes to recall the story of my phoning my eldest in 2004, then in college, to tell her that Cassini was making its orbital insertion burn! She also claims that I can be "such a geek."

Cassini Orbital Insertion Burn

Cassini Orbital Insertion Burn simulated in NASA Eyes on the Solar System.

Yesterday, I heard a story on NPR with a NASA engineer that was at the very first Cassini planning meeting - 30 years ago! For several people, this mission has been their entire career! In an interview I heard this morning, one mission specialist said that most of what's in recent science textbooks about Saturn, came from Cassini.

Cassini was a spectacular mission - start to finish; Cassini has taught us SO MUCH about Saturn and it's moons, and the data it has returned will be studied for years to come.

Cassini By the Numbers - 2016

This infographic offers a snapshot of just a few of the Cassini mission's big numbers as it heads into a final year of science at Saturn. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech

Cassini has also taught us that the worlds of the outer solar system have a lot to teach us, and extended orbiter missions are the right way to do it. In interview after interview this morning, a theme I kept hearing was that "we need to go back." There's serious talk about returning to Saturn's moon Enceledus, which may have conditions in its deep sub-surface ocean suitable for life.

I'm hoping that the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey will include orbiters for Uranus and Neptune; who knows what wonders the ice giant worlds and their moons have to teach us? If the results from Saturn are any guide, the answer is: quite a lot!


Resources:

Cassini Main Site: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/main/index.html
Cassini Grand Finale Overview: https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/grand-finale/overview/
Interactive Cassini Timeline: https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/the-journey/timeline/
NASA Eyes on the Solar System Cassini Feature: https://eyes.nasa.gov/eyes-on-cassini.html
Cassini Image Gallery: https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/galleries/images/
The Saturn System Through the Eyes of Cassini Ebook: https://www.nasa.gov/connect/ebooks/the-saturn-system.html

Across the Universe: The Church of UFO
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2014

“Preparing for Discovery,” a two day symposium at the US Library of Congress to discuss the possible impact on society of finding life in space, was my destination [September 2014]. Discovering life outside Earth would be a major advance in understanding biology; finding intelligent life would colour how we understand being human. But it’s a magnet for our hopes and fears.

The proceedings of the symposium came out in January, 2016. This image links to the amazon.com site; for a direct link to the Cambridge Press site, link here 

The field of astrobiology still has a hard time escaping the taint of “little green men.” Thus nearly all the speakers went out of their way to emphasize that they were Serious Scientists, viewing life and intelligence from a purely secular and, indeed, materialistic viewpoint. Constant reference was made to the “N=1” problem: how can you define life, much less intelligence, when the number of planets known to harbour life only equals one? Still, the laws of physics do provide some guideposts. And understanding the origin of that one example we do have of life, here on Earth, would certainly help us place how life might be found elsewhere.

That’s not to say that there weren’t any number of exotic ideas being promoted. Indeed, the talks were often an infuriating mixture of the profound and the absurd.

One speaker asked, why do we limit our search to either microbes or intelligence? Why do we discount other “non-human animals”? It’s a legitimate question (with a simple answer — microbes and intelligence will probably be easier to find) but it was immediately upended by the speaker’s insistence that it’s unscientific to value humans over other animals.

Is the search for life the same as the search for intelligence? By equating intelligence with calculational complexity, another speaker concluded that advanced beings would upload themselves into superintelligent computers – only to become obsolete 18 months later, I suppose.

Why do we assume that civilizations with advanced technology will also have advanced ethical systems? This certainly hasn’t been the case in human history. From that, another speaker questioned the very reality of ethics, altruism, and love. (Like extraterrestrial ponies, they're hard to observe with a telescope.)

In teaching undergraduate physics, I would always remind my students that when they come to the end of a calculation they need to take a deep breath, look at their answer, and ask themselves: does this really make sense? Or have I made a blunder somewhere along the way? It’s a step that too many of my fellow panelists seem not to have taken. Seeing the absurdities that can result from their strict application of materialism gave me a new appreciation of my own Christian faith.

Meanwhile, the audience’s questions and comments suggested that many of them were UFO true believers. Several insisted in telling me about UFO sitings that they had experienced, complete with sketchy artists’ renditions of the events. (Odd how the spread of cell phone cameras has not supplanted such drawings.)

The online comic xkcd pointed out the interesting lack of correlation between UFO reports and cellphone cameras...

Several reporters were more interested in the literal question of my talk’s title (“Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?”) than my more mundane musings on the reactions of both believers and atheists to possible ET sightings. Both believers and atheists insist that finding ET would vindicate their beliefs; it hasn’t shaken either side that we haven’t found them yet!

Linda Billings of the National Institute of Aerospace closed the seminar by suggesting that SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, had all the trappings of a fundamentalist religion. Blockbuster movies and overheated cable TV shows are the revival tents that fan a desperate passion for finding our nemesis, or saviour, among the extraterrestrials. Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute, took exception; if SETI were a religion, he muttered, it would be better funded!

Given my position as fundraiser for the Vatican Observatory, I only wish that were true.

Also in Across the Universe

  1. Across the Universe: What’s in a Name?
  2. Across the Universe: Fools from the East
  3. Across the Universe: Hunches
  4. Across the Universe: Desert or a dessert?
  5. Across the Universe: Stardust messages
  6. Across the Universe: The best way to travel
  7. Across the Universe: Original Proof
  8. Across the Universe: Pearls among Swine
  9. Across the Universe: One Fix Leads to Another
  10. Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding
  11. Across the Universe: The Glory of a Giant
  12. Across the Universe: Fire and Ice
  13. Across the Universe: Science as Story
  14. Across the Universe: Recognition
  15. Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
  16. Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
  17. Across the Universe: Orbiting a New Sun
  18. Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
  19. Across the Universe: DIY Religion
  20. Across the Universe: Truth, Beauty, and a Good Lawyer
  21. Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
  22. Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
  23. Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
  24. Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
  25. Across the Universe: Deep Impact
  26. Across the Universe: New Worlds
  27. Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
  28. Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
  29. Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?
  30. Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
  31. Across the Universe: Off The Beach
  32. Across the Universe: All of the Above
  33. From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
  34. Across the Universe: Heavenly peace?
  35. Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
  36. Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
  37. Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
  38. Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
  39. Across the Universe: New Heavens, New Earth
  40. Across the Universe: Souvenirs from Space
  41. Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
  42. Across the Universe: Spicy planet stories
  43. Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
  44. Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
  45. Across the Universe: Errata
  46. Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
  47. Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
  48. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  49. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  50. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  51. Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
  52. Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
  53. Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
  54. Across the Universe: Obedience
  55. Across the Universe: Traveling Light
  56. Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
  57. Across the Universe: Europa
  58. Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
  59. Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
  60. Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
  61. Across the Universe: False Economies
  62. Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
  63. Across the Universe: Japan
  64. From the Tablet: Why is Easter So Early This Year?
  65. Across the Universe: Oops!
  66. Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
  67. Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
  68. Across the Universe: Touch the Sky
  69. Across the Universe: The Eye of the Lynx
  70. Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
  71. Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues
  72. Across the Universe: Maverick Genius
  73. Across the Universe: Awareness
  74. Across the Universe: Friends in high places
  75. Across the Universe: A Moving Experience
  76. Across the Universe: Grain of truth
  77. Across the Universe: Clerical Work
  78. Across the Universe: Teaching new stars
  79. Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
  80. Across the Universe: Changelings
  81. Across the Universe: Three Lunatic Answers
  82. Across the Universe: Dawn of My Belief
  83. Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
  84. Across the Universe: Under the Southern Cross
  85. Across the Universe: Clouds from Both Sides
  86. Across the Universe: The Year (2011) in Astronomy
  87. Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat
  88. Across the Universe: Waiting for the Call
  89. From the Tablet: God is dead; long live the eternal God
  90. Across the Universe: Taking the Heat
  91. Across the Universe: Stellar Round Up
  92. Across the Universe: A Damp Kaboom
  93. Across the Universe: Featureless Features
  94. Across the Universe: Confronting Fear and Terror
  95. Across the Universe: Eye Candy
  96. Across the Universe: The New Paganism
  97. Across the Universe: Immigrant Stars
  98. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  99. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  100. Across the Universe: When reason itself becomes flesh
  101. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  102. Across the Universe: Awaiting the stars
  103. Across the Universe: Tides in our affairs
  104. Across the Universe: A Piece of the Action
  105. Across the Universe: Forced Perspective
  106. Across the Universe: Touched by Heaven
  107. Across the Universe: View from afar
  108. Across the Universe: What good is God?
  109. Across the Universe: Global warning
  110. From The Tablet: Precisely Strange
  111. Across the Universe: Faith and Expectations
  112. Across the Universe: The Boundaries of the Unknown
  113. Across the Universe: Happy Birthday to Us
  114. Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds
  115. Across the Universe: Rocket Science
  116. Across the Universe: Maybe
  117. Across the Universe: Perturbing the Universe
  118. Across the Universe: Edge of the World
  119. Across the Universe: A Thousand Stars are Born
  120. Across the Universe: Expect Surprises
  121. Across the Universe: Song of Praise
  122. Across the Universe: Jesuit Science
  123. Across the Universe: Of stars and sheep
  124. Across the Universe: Ephemeral science
  125. Across the Universe: Fast changes
  126. Across the Universe: The Hows of Science
  127. From The Tablet: Big Science, Hurrah!
  128. Across the Universe: Hidden inclusions
  129. Across the Universe: Where’s the olivine?
  130. Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
  131. Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
  132. Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
  133. Across the Universe: Ice dreams
  134. Across the Universe: Super Earths
  135. Across the Universe: Myriad planets
  136. Across the Universe: Leaving the neighborhood
  137. Across the Universe: The Church of UFO
  138. Across the Universe: Reaching out

View the entire series

The Footprints of Reionization
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The emergence of the first stars in the universe must have been quite a spectacular sight. The standard lore is that the first stars were probably massive, bright, and short lived.

As remarkable as these stars must have been, as well as the second generation of stars to follow them, they would all have died very young, exploding only a scant million years after they formed. Fortunately for us, they left behind traceable signatures of their existence.

You see, the bright light from these stars shone to vast distances in all directions. Wherever the light encountered a hydrogen atom, which was very nearly everywhere, it would remove the electron from that atom. It would ionize that hydrogen atom. The ionized hydrogen would surround the star out to large distances.

As an analogy, imagine unknowingly walking across a a sidewalk filled with wet cement. Your footprint would be embedded in the drying concrete. Long after you left the scene to buy new shoes, the sidewalk would still bear the footprint long after the cement had dried. This would leave behind evidence that you were there.

Likewise, the first generations of stars ionized the hydrogen gas in its surroundings. As the time it takes for the electron to be reunited with its proton is very long, the hydrogen persists in this ionized state.

Thus even after the star had died and disappeared from view, that tell-tale "footprint" in the form of ionized hydrogen would remain as evidence that a hot star was once there. Eventually such stars would come to ionize _all_ the spare hydrogen in between stars in the whole universe, a process that we call “reionization.”

Astronomers can work out the epoch during which most of the hydrogen was ionized, which, in turn, tells them when those tell-tale first stars first walked the path in the sky.

A Kentucky Perspective on the 2017 Great American Eclipse
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I am pleased to have a guest blogger this week: Timothy Dowling, who is giving us his perspective on the August 21, 2017 eclipse as seen from Hopkinsville, Kentucky.  He is a professor at the University of Louisville in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. His area of research is planetary atmospheric dynamics.  He and his students analyze Voyager, Galileo, Cassini and Hubble Space Telescope data of the gas giants. Dowling is the lead author of the EPIC atmospheric model, which is used by NASA and researchers around the world to model the weather on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  He has appeared in science documentaries about planetary weather on the National Geographic, Discovery and History Channels.  He is married to Prof. Beth Bradley of the UofL Mathematics Department.  They have two daughters, and are parishioners of St. Michael Catholic Church in Louisville.  Prof. Dowling and Vatican Observatory Director Br. Guy Consolmagno have a poster presentation at the American Astronomical Society Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Provo, Utah this October.  The title of their presentation is: “2017 Solar Eclipse in Hopkinsville, KY: E/PO Feedback from Two Venues”.

Tim Dowling, 4 Sept 2017

Today is Labor Day in the U.S., two weeks after the 21 August 2017 total solar eclipse, and a couple days after tropical rainstorm Harvey paid Louisville, KY a visit.  I am jotting down a few memories from the Great American Eclipse of 2017, given my perspective as the only professional planetary scientist in Kentucky.

My worthy professional galactic and extra-galactic astronomy colleagues and amateur astronomers in Kentucky outdid themselves with eclipse educational and alumni outreach, school visits and interviews, and fanned out between Paducah, KY and Nashville, TN for the eclipse itself.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and to a person they all made sure not to venture anywhere near Hopkinsville, KY, and all had Plan-B sites lined up in case clouds started to roll in, a distinct possibility in late August in southwestern Kentucky.

Meanwhile, for this adopted son of Kentucky, it was Hopkinsville-or-Bust, a fool’s errand!  But I survived to tell the tale, which starts a few months before the eclipse.

As is well known, rural southwestern Kentucky was ground zero, with Hopkinsville identified a decade ago as the largest town in the region of global maximum totality.  Consequently, the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management (KYEM) took the lead in organizing behind-the-scenes support.  A few months before the eclipse, the KYEM Director, Michael Dossett, contacted Joe Sullivan, his liaison at the National Weather Service (NWS) Louisville office, for a suggestion for a subject matter expert (SME). Joe gave him my name—I started the atmospheric science program at the University of Louisville back in 2008—and I jumped at the opportunity.   The NWS Louisville office, led by John Gordon, has been a tremendous help to our program, which is now entering its 10th year.

Partnering with the KYEM was a great deal of fun.  Director Dossett and I made two short videos for the KYEM Eclipse 2017 webpage, highlighting the science and proper viewing strategies, and Dossett and Sullivan made a third video that discusses the tools the NWS uses to forecast cloud cover.  The 100,000-student Louisville public school system also worked with us to alter their day, since school dismissal was 4 minutes before the center of the 96% eclipse in Louisville (they extended the day by 21 minutes and had eclipse glasses for everyone).

A sampling of the several dozen TV-satellite trucks at the Hopkinsville VIP/Media area.

A sampling of the several dozen TV-satellite trucks at the Hopkinsville VIP/Media area.

Turning Hopkinsville into “Eclipseville” was a major effort that spanned several years, and Brooke Jung spearheaded this work.  She organized several major viewing areas, complete with guaranteed parking, unobstructed viewing, shelter, and food and drink vendors, and she organized promotions, websites, and a VIP/Media area.

Hotels were sold out months in advance in the Hopkinsville area, and at a premium, but fortunately, KYEM put me up the night before the eclipse in a National Guard training facility 45 minutes north of Hopkinsville, which is also where they staged some of their behind-the-scenes logistics.  In the parking lot at the training facility were a great number of trucks from KYEM, the state transportation agency, and the American Red Cross.

The eclipse in Hopkinsville, and across Kentucky, turned out to be an extremely positive experience. Public morale was widely reported to be high before, during and after the event.  I would assign roughly 50% of that much-desired outcome to the splendid weather we got—it was touch-and-go until about 2 days before the eclipse, and it did rain the day afterwards, but on Monday the 21st we had clear, blue skies, with a wisp of cirrus here and there, i.e. perfect viewing conditions.

I would assign the other 50% of the uniformly high morale to the advanced planning at all levels across Kentucky, from the civic planners to the emergency managers.  KYEM had eclipse-planning meetings spanning 13 months, culminating in a Tabletop Exercise (TTX) that drew over 250 participants from State, Local and Federal agencies for a face-to-face workshop.

Left—Working session during the July 2017 Tabletop Exercise (TTX) at the Kentucky Dam Village State Park, run by FEMA.  Right—A major component of emergency-management planning is identifying gaps in coverage, which are then addressed.  Shown is an example Gap Analysis outline from the Kentucky 2017 Solar Eclipse Playbook, which includes the detailed plans for all 21 affected counties and the state-wide and federal coordination.

(Chris Graney added this figure and caption to Prof. Dowling’s post) Kentucky’s Lieutenant Governor, Jenean Hampton, skipped a meeting with the US VP to be at the eclipse. This is a screen shot from her official Lt. Governor web page.  Is that a Star Trek pin she is wearing?  It just might be!

(Chris Graney added this figure and caption to Prof. Dowling’s post) Kentucky’s Lieutenant Governor, Jenean Hampton, was at the TTX and at the eclipse in Hopskinsville. This is a screen shot from her official Lt. Governor web page.  Is that a Star Trek pin she is wearing?  It just might be!

During the TTX, FEMA led everyone from 8 am through 3 pm through one emergency scenario after another.  When I say everyone, in addition to FEMA officials, in attendance were: the Kentucky Lt. Governor, Jenean Hampton (she skipped a meeting with the U.S. Vice President to be there), mayors from all the affected towns, convention-bureau officials, Director Dossett and officers from KYEM, emergency managers from the 21 affected counties, the Kentucky State Police, the KY National Guard, the KY Transportation and Health offices, the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Transportation, the U.S. Coast Guard (for riverboat traffic), the U.S. Forestry Service, the NWS, the American Red Cross, representatives from ATT, Verizon and Sprint, and representatives from local universities, including myself.  It was the biggest TTX in Kentucky’s history.

Once all 21 counties in Kentucky affected by the eclipse had submitted their final plans, they were incorporated into the Kentucky 2017 Solar Eclipse Playbook (for official use only), which is 416 pages long. One outcome of the TTX is that every agency was on the same page in terms of communication tools; in fact redundant communications hardware was five layers deep, from web-based tools down to battery-operated satellite phones and ham radios.  Over 110,000 emergency bottles of water were staged near the path of totality—the public never saw these—and there were over 150 ambulances on standby, with additional clusters of 5 ambulances spread throughout the area.  The public did see the many air-conditioned tents set up to help people with the heat and humidity, the first-aid centers, the many food and drink vendors, the portable toilets and hand sanitation facilities, the 40 large traffic road signs put up on the main highways and parkways between Paducah and Hopkinsville to help guide eclipse traffic, and the traffic officers that directed traffic at rural intersections after the event.

The Kentucky Division of Emergency Management (KYEM) set up a Regional Response Coordination Center (RRCC) in Hopkinsville. Shown is the RRCC just before the 9am briefing on “game day”.  One of the lighter moments came when the chief 911 operator reported emergency calls were down from the previous year, but they were getting requests for help with WiFi.

The Kentucky Division of Emergency Management (KYEM) set up a Regional Response Coordination Center (RRCC) in Hopkinsville. Shown is the RRCC just before the 9am briefing on “game day”.  One of the lighter moments came when the chief 911 operator reported emergency calls were down from the previous year, but they were getting requests for help with WiFi.

The author opened the 9 am briefing of the RRCC with a description of totality.

The author opened the 9 am briefing of the RRCC with a description of totality.

The only major problem that emerged was the after-event traffic, which of course was anticipated.  For example, it took me 9 hours to get home to Louisville from Hopkinsville, which is normally a 2.5-hour drive.  But, I can report first-hand that morale at rest stops along the way was remarkably high—everyone was talking about the corona and how bright and beautiful the eclipse was, many hours after the event. Patience reigned supreme; everyone seemed to have budgeted for the traffic.

This was my first totality, and it was a delight to be able to gaze across the inner ecliptic plane for the first time, and see all the planets in a row.  The corona was much brighter than I was expecting—I hear this is the impression many people took away—and totality lasted what seemed like 30 seconds, although my wristwatch does not back me up on this; certainly it was the fastest 2:40 I have ever experienced.  The corona is an almost biblical sight: an immense white flame that brings darkness and cooler temperatures—hard to find an analogy.   And, we only have to wait 6 years for the next nearby one!

Seconds after totality ended, reporter Nicole Erwin of WKMS snapped this picture of the author watching Venus fade away, and daughter Nicole reacting to the corona. 

Seconds after totality ended, reporter Nicole Erwin of WKMS snapped this picture of the author watching Venus fade away, and daughter Nicole reacting to the corona.

 

 

An Introduction to the Universe: The Big Ideas of Astronomy
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Image credit: Space Engine / Bob Trembley

Now You Know Media presents a new lecture series with Br. Guy

An Introduction to the Universe: The Big Ideas of Astronomy

In these 12 lectures, Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., Ph.D. leads you on a journey through the Cosmos; you’ll learn how the stars and planets reveal the beauty of Creation, and explore Scripture, the great astronomers, and the most profound questions about the universe.

Topics include:

  1. Naked Astronomy: How can we to learn the sky, to recognize its regularities and its changes, and find God in the rhythm of the stars?
  2. Dark skies: For most of human history, nightfall meant the absence of light, a daily shift of what we could and could not do. How has the ubiquitous presence of artificial light changed the way we the spirituality of preserving our view of the heavens
  3. Astronomy in the Bible: How does scripture talk about the stars? What can we learn today about the best way to appreciate the stars?
  4. Astronomy and Astrology: Why was astrology forbidden in the Old Testament? Why is it scorned by astronomers today? What are the temptations of “gnosticism” — a belief in “hidden knowledge”? And how do the Magi fit into all this?
  5. A Bestiary of Professional Telescopes: What’s out there, why they are designed the way they are, and what they’re looking for? Is it fair to compare modern observatories to medieval cathedrals?
  6. A Night at the Telescope: What do professional astronomers actually do when they observe? What is the experience like, staying up on a mountaintop studying the sky? What do we learn, both about our science and about ourselves?
  7. My Favorite Planets (and not-planets): Pluto is not a planet — it’s something better. I will describe my own personal adventures with three relatively obscure but, to me, fascinating worlds: the dwarf planet Pluto, the active moon of Jupiter, Io, and everyone’s favorite, Mars.
  8. Exploring Other Solar Systems: In the last twenty years we’ve discovered not only that other stars have planets, but in fact such planets are quite common in the universe. What do we know, how do we know it, and what does it mean about our own planet Earth and our place in the universe?
  9. Walking on Other Words: Planets are places where people can have adventures. The day is not too far off when people will be able to visit the sights on Mars with the same ease that they visit the Grand Canyon. What are some of the great things to be seen some day in our solar system?
  10. The Known Unknown – Dark Energy and Dark Matter: We’ll look into the the reasons why we think there is matter in the universe that we cannot directly detect, what current ideas exist about what might explain this, and what all of this means to the question of how well we can trust science.
  11. The Big Bang: We’ll look into the history of the people who first speculated about how the universe might have started, and then look deeper into the evidence that both convinces us we’re on the right track, and challenges us to find more detail about how it actually might have happened… including speculation about what it does, and does not, say about God’s action in Creation.
  12. The Big Questions: What are we hoping to learn in our study of astronomy? This final lesson will provide just a sampling of the fascinating things that astronomers hope to discover over the next hundred years. They are age-old questions including, how did the planets form? What is life, where do we look for it, how do we look for it, how do we know it when we see it, and what do we do then? Are there new laws of physics to be found in the extreme environments of astrophysics?

When ordering use coupon code: Guy2017 for a special VOF 10% discount - valid until the end of September!
To order from the NowYouKnow Media website, click HERE.
Available in: CD/MP3/DVD