There were two bald eagles soaring over the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky one Saturday this past October. My wife and I saw them while we were taking a walk on a brisk, fall day. They were wheeling far overhead in a perfect azure sky. It was October 12. The eagles were not soaring over some remote part of the Ohio River—they were on the river where it passes right between the downtowns of Louisville on one side, and Jeffersonville, Indiana on the other. Below the eagles were bridges, boats, cars, buildings, parks, and lots of people out enjoying the day.
The first time I ever saw a bald eagle in the wild was also on the Ohio River. This was in the early 2000s, when my family was exploring a remote area west of Leavenworth, Indiana. Then, a few years later, when my college’s observatory was located in Otter Creek Park, on the river well south-east of Louisville, everyone at the park was thrilled to discover a nesting pair of bald eagles on the river there. The eagles were a big deal. The location of the nest was not widely discussed, for fear that it would draw enough sightseers that the eagles would be disturbed and leave. A few years after that, there were bald eagles hanging around the Farnsley-Moremen Landing, a historic home and park on the river in the south-eastern outskirts of Louisville. My family had come to visit the park, and we noticed a crowd of people with telescopes, binoculars, and cameras. The eagles seemed not to care.
When I was a kid, if Kentuckians wanted to see bald eagles, they went to some place else—like Alaska. I remember hearing one of my relatives talk about seeing bald eagles in Alaska. If you wanted to see an eagle soaring overhead in Kentucky, your best bet was the constellation Aquila. Even hawks were not common in developed areas.
Today you can be right smack in the center of Kentucky’s largest urban area and look up to see a pair of bald eagles while taking a stroll in a park. And the parks of the city are full of hawks and owls. Peregrine falcons rest on bridges over the Ohio River.
When I was young, I read that the presence or absence of “apex predators” like the bald eagle—king of the sky, the biggest, baddest thing on wings—was an indication of the health of an ecosystem. The fact that there were no eagles was a sign of bad ecological health; toxins in the environment worked their way up the food chain, and apex predators, who ate things that ate the toxins, could not survive. I have seen the eagles return over my lifetime. And I have seen the return of hawks and falcons and owls (the park near my house is full of hooting at night). And of impressively antlered bucks, standing alongside roads and bike trails and paths (or along the river in central Louisville) and watching people and cars go by. And of flocks of wild turkey. And of elk and bear in Kentucky’s more mountainous regions. None of these were to be found when I was a kid.
So I understand those in my state who might take a skeptical view toward claims that the Earth is in environmental peril. They might hear a statement like this, which came from NPR’s Rachel Martin on “Morning Edition” one day in October—
The threat from climate change is so massive, so apocalyptic, it can be hard to wrap your head around. [October 16, 2019]
—and they might say, “Really? Tell that to the eagles.” Is it unreasonable for skeptics to react with disbelief to statements like this when it seems like the environment is rapidly regaining ground, right before their eyes? Or consider this statement:
The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.
That is from Pope Francis (Laudato Si, paragraph 21; also June 18, 2015 @Pontifex). Again, might not a skeptic from Kentucky legitimately scoff?—especially one who recalls that, not so long ago, what you saw when you looked up to the sky from downtown Louisville was likely to be a filthy, polluted, yellow sky, and not eagles soaring in an azure sky? ‘More and more like a pile of filth?’ Tell that to the eagles. Perhaps, our skeptic might say, the Vatican is making the same sort of mistake that it made when it opposed the Copernican theory: offering opinions on matters of science in which further information might yet come forth.
Moreover, our skeptic might say, Kentucky is not a wealthy state. Kentucky needs economic growth to improve the lives of Kentuckians—to provide jobs, education, and opportunities, and to have less people hopeless and addicted to opiates. Our skeptic might even think we have already given up too much for those soaring eagles.
But there is another story about October and soaring in Louisville, Kentucky. A week prior to that brisk fall day with the eagles soaring in the perfect sky, something else was soaring: the temperature. The first days of October saw temperatures in the upper 90s (°F) / mid-upper 30s (°C). Temperature records were shattered. Existing high temperature records were topped by 5°F / 3°C. This followed a September that itself shattered high-temperature records, and that was nearly devoid of rain. High 90s is hot in Louisville, even in July. But high 90s in late September and early October? When the days are shorter than the nights? With no rain, the grass brown, and plants wilting? Perhaps the word “apocalyptic” does come to mind. Happily, the rain came, and the temperatures fell, so that by October 12 we had a perfect, brisk fall day to see those eagles.
The theory behind human-caused climate change is not complex: the idea is that human activity is altering the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, and altering it in such a way as to cause it to retain heat more efficiently. The theory is not new. In 1866 Fr. Angelo Secchi, a pioneer in astrophysics who is considered a key figure in the development of the Vatican Observatory, wrote that,
Definitely we are facing a climate change, due to human activity such as deforestation and the introduction of artificial sources of heat [i.e. burning fuels].
Measurements indicate that indeed the composition of the atmosphere is changing in a manner consistent with what would be expected from deforestation and the burning of fuels, both of which release carbon into the air. And various measurements indicate that the Earth is warming, as would be expected from the measured changes in the atmosphere.
The theory makes sense, but I have discussed in previous posts how a resident of Kentucky (click here) or Wisconsin (click here) might have grounds for skepticism about any claimed warming. What is more, science can be a tricky business. When the Vatican rejected the Copernican theory, it could certainly cite powerful scientific arguments, and prominent scientific authority (i.e. Tycho Brahe) against any motion of the Earth. No doubt the Vatican folks from that time who were involved would be rather surprised to see how things turned out. The science of Earth’s motion changed. As Br. Guy often points out in talks, what is in science books changes: a biology textbook from a century ago will not serve you so well today.
And yet, our Kentucky skeptic has seen high 90s in October. Recall the post from last week on Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal, a man of solid faith, is considered a sort of founding figure of decision theory—the science of how to weigh risks and rewards in order to make rational choices. In Pascal’s case, the choice was whether or not to believe that God exists. Our Kentucky skeptic might consider a sort of Pascal’s Wager on whether or not to believe that climate change exists. Pascal argued that to decide to believe that God exists is a low-risk, high-reward proposition. To our skeptic, to choose to believe that climate change exists is probably not such an easy choice.
Suppose our Kentucky skeptic believes authority, believes the climate scientists, and accepts the existence of climate change. Thus, despite those eagles soaring in Kentucky’s own perfect October skies, our Kentucky skeptic accepts the idea of impending environmental apocalypse. Suppose furthermore that our skeptic endorses actions to mitigate climate change, actions that in fact do hurt Kentuckians economically. And suppose the authorities turn out to be wrong. Will the judgment of our skeptic’s children and grandchildren not be that our erstwhile skeptic was a fool for caving in to ‘the hype’ when our skeptic could see eagles soaring overhead in a perfect fall sky?
Now suppose our skeptic staunchly continues to reject the existence of climate change, despite authority, despite the scientists—and despite high 90s in October on our skeptic’s own home turf. Suppose our skeptic cites the economy and the soaring eagles, and dismisses the soaring temperatures as a fluke—another bit of crazy Kentucky weather (they say that if you don’t like the weather in Kentucky, wait five minutes, and it will be something different). But then, suppose that the next freak heat wave and drought hits, not in the fall, but in the heat of the summer. Suppose the mid-summer high temperature records are shattered as thoroughly as the October records were shattered, and the drought is as long, or longer, than it was this fall. If the temperature in the heat of the summer is continually breaking 110°F, and crops are failing, and animals dying, and water is severely rationed, and industry and the economy are severely curtailed, and the lush Kentucky landscape is brown and devastated, will the judgment of our skeptic’s children and grandchildren not be that our skeptic was a fool?—a fool who not only ignored authority, but who also ignored the personal experience of October 2019’s soaring temperatures?
I am not saying that these scenarios are realistic. I am not saying that the economy and the environment are in fact necessarily opposed. I am saying that, when I see those soaring eagles, I can see where a climate skeptic might be coming from. But when I see those soaring temperatures, I think that skeptical outlook involves a lot of risk. Blaise Pascal, where are you?
This pair of eagles is just upriver from downtown Louisville:
Check out Blaise Pascal’s Wager on the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science site (click here for it).
If you like math and science it is likely that you have encountered Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Perhaps you learned about Pascal’s Principle of hydraulics in a physical science class, or in an engineering technology class where you learned about machines that use hydraulics. Or maybe you read about his work with measuring atmospheric pressure, and how he found that as he ascended a mountain the pressure he measured grew less and less. You might have encountered Pascal’s Triangle in a math class.
Pascal’s Wager involves matters of faith—sort of. The Wager is an argument that it is reasonable to seek to believe in God. “Seek”, because the Wager is directed to the person who neither believes nor is inclined to believe. The Wager argues that a person risks little, and gains much, by choosing to seek belief in God. It is all about balancing risk and reward, and apparently Pascal is viewed by some as a sort of founding figure of decision theory—the science of balancing risks and rewards to arrive at good decisions. Surely gamblers beat Pascal to this idea by centuries, if not millennia—and Pascal says as much in the Wager. But apparently Pascal was the first to write about it.
The Wager is not about belief itself. Pascal uses the idea of a wager only to lead an intelligent non-believer, who has no inclination toward belief, to the point of seeing that belief is rational. But Pascal writes that tightly-reasoned proofs are not what leads people to God, and he does not urge the non-believer to pursue them. We know God only by Jesus Christ, Pascal says, and those who have claimed to know God, and to prove God without Jesus Christ, have offered little.
Click here to check out the full text of Pascal’s Wager, from the VO Faith and Science pages. I wager you will find it interesting!
This post is part of a series of posts on Pi, infinity, and other things mathematical. Click here for the series.
Tomorrow (January 5) is Perihelion Day! The Earth journeys around the sun in an orbit that is ever-so-slightly elliptical (the elliptical nature of the orbit is so mild that the orbit basically looks like a circle that is slightly off-center from the sun). This means that the distance between the sun and the Earth varies over the course of a year. Today is the day on which that distance is a minimum, and the technical term for the point of minimum distance between the Earth and sun is “perihelion.”
Today is also the day of the brightest sun of the year. Since the distance to the sun is a minimum then the apparent size of the sun in the sky is a maximum (of course, as with the much-ballyhooed “Super Moons” that we hear about all the time, this effect is not very great).
A thing I like to point out about perihelion is that it is a true Global Event. Regardless of creed, calendar, or hemisphere, everyone everywhere on Earth experiences perihelion tomorrow. So wish everyone you meet, and even all your social media friends from around the world, a “Pleasant Perihelion”! It is the globally inclusive greeting!
When the Earth is at perihelion, it moves the fastest in its orbit. Thus you could even wish everyone a “Pleasant Perihelion and a Happy Maximum Orbital Velocity Day”. Earth is moving fastest because an orbit is essentially a fall; the Earth is falling toward the sun on account of gravity. And this faster motion at perihelion turns out to have an effect on daylight.
We have daylight and darkness, day and night, because Earth rotates on its own axis. We think of that rotation as being one “day”—24 hours—but in fact the time of rotation is 23 hours and 56 minutes. That is, if you observe a star that is directly overhead one night, you will find the same star to be overhead again 23 hours and 56 minutes later.
So what about the 24 hour day, you ask? Imagine that the Earth journeyed around the sun in a perfectly circular orbit, always moving at the same speed along that orbit. Now imagine two people on opposite sides of the earth. Person A observes a certain star being directly overhead. At the same time, person B observes the sun being directly overhead (person B would be experiencing the “mid-day” point, halfway between sunrise and sunset).
Now we wait 23 hours and 56 minutes until the star is overhead again for A. But during that time the Earth moves along its orbit, from position 1 to position 2 as shown below. The star is so far away that this motion does not matter. But the motion does matter in the case of the sun. Therefore, as seen below, when the Earth is at position 2 and the star is overhead again for person A, the sun is not yet overhead for person B. The earth has to turn a little more—four minutes more, so that B is at B'—in order for the sun to be overhead for B. Thus a “day” measured by the sun is 24 hours while a “day” measured by the stars is 23 hours and 56 minutes.
Now remember that the Earth’s orbit is not a perfect circle; the Earth does not always move at the same speed along its orbit. When the Earth is moving faster (like when near perihelion) it will move farther along its orbit during a given period of time. The distance between 1 and 2 in the above diagram will be greater. Therefore, the Earth will have to turn still more to reach point B' so that the sun is overhead for B. And therefore mid-day will arrive a little late.
This is why in the northern hemisphere the darkest evening of the year of was in early December, even though the shortest day was at the solstice on December 21 (and in the southern hemisphere the brightest morning was in early December even though the longest day was at the solstice). As the Earth approached perihelion and moved faster in its orbit, mid-day began to arrive late at a rate that exceeded the rate at which the days were changing in length. Because of the perihelion’s effect on mid-day, the period of daylight was drifting backwards against the clock, making the evenings brighter (and the mornings darker) than they would be if Earth were in a perfectly circular orbit. The perihelion daylight drift occurs in both hemispheres.
So it is perihelion that is behind the strange business of daylight and the solstice that we encountered in the December 7 and December 21 posts! Of course we have one more point to cover in all this—the date of the northern hemisphere’s darkest morning and the southern hemisphere’s brightest evening. That is also about now. The table below shows sunrise times at Castel Gandolfo (home of the Vatican Observatory).
The sun rises today at 7:36 AM there, and this is basically the latest sunrise (give or take some seconds). Note how there exists a period, from roughly December 29 through January 10, in which the sun rise time is largely unchanging at 7:36, even though the day length is getting longer with each passing day. Between December 21 (when the solstice occurred) and now the perihelion drift had been winning out over the changing length of daylight itself, but that is now coming to an end. From now forward through early June, northern hemisphere dwellers will see the days growing longer, and both the mornings and evenings growing brighter; southern hemisphere dwellers will see just the reverse on all accounts—shortening days, darkening mornings, darkening evenings. (All the data here is from Date and Time.)
One final note: I learned about the solstice and the daylight not through a study of astronomy; rather I learned about it firsthand when my son started taking a bus to school. The bus came at a set time in the morning. At the start of the school year (in late August), my son caught that morning bus in broad daylight. As the semester progressed the mornings grew darker. By December it was dark and gloomy when my son caught that bus. I knew the days would grow longer after the December solstice, so I assumed that when Christmas break ended in January we would see brighter mornings. I was wrong! And disappointed. When school resumed after New Year’s, the mornings were darker than ever. Not until February did the mornings start to brighten appreciably, yet it was obvious well before then that the evenings had brightened a lot. Trying to understand why in January my son was standing in the dark when waiting for his morning bus is what led me to investigate and understand the solstice and the daylight.
The universe indeed holds surprises for those who are attentive to it. Many of these surprises require no advanced degrees or Advanced Technology Telescopes or other specialized knowledge or equipment. Sometimes, all they require is a regular bus ride.
There is something whose existence is known to many, but that is infinite, and thus ultimately unknowable. In the words of one person who has studied this thing extensively, exploring it is similar to exploring the universe. We can learn more and more about it, and yet, because it is infinite, what we learn amounts to nothing in comparison to what there is to learn.
The thing I am talking about here is pi (π): the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, as in C = πD. The mathematician David Chudnovsky, who developed algorithms for calculating pi to billions of digits, made the comparison between it and the universe.
Mathematics is a form of knowledge that is terribly undervalued today. Try saying something really favorable about mathematics to a group of people. See what reaction you get. Even highly-educated people feel free to talk about how they do not like math or are not good at math. They might be able to expound on Shakespeare or abstract art, but basic algebra is beyond them. Jimmy Buffett even wrote a song called “Math Suks!”, as you can see below (note that the lyrics are not entirely inoffensive, and, worse yet, may prompt nearby listeners, even highly educated ones over the age of 14, to start chanting “Math Suks!”). Buffett’s song even got coverage in the journal Science.
But math helps us to see things we might not otherwise see, and mathematics is true and universal. A line and a circle will intersect in at most two points, and that is true, period. It is true whether you are a man or a woman, whether you are a Russian or a Brazilian, whether you are an artist or an engineer. Indeed, it has generally been assumed that, were we ever to make contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species (that is, space aliens), mathematics would form the basis for a means of universal communication, because mathematics would be true, even for space aliens. Even space aliens who were unlike us in every conceivable way would understand what pi is. There is even a book about math called How Not to be Wrong (because you will not be wrong if you reason mathematically, because mathematics is true).
Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and scientist who lived from 1623 to 1662 (and whose hydraulic principle is studied by students in physical science classes everywhere), argued that understanding a bit about math helps us to see something about God. Pascal was a man of faith. He wrote,
The number 1, joined to infinity, adds nothing to it, no more than one foot to an infinite measure. The finite is annihilated in the presence of the infinite, and becomes a pure nothing. So our spirit before God, so our justice before divine justice. There is not so great a disproportion between our justice and that of God, as between 1 and infinity....
We know that there is an infinite, and are ignorant of its nature. As we know it to be false that numbers are finite, it is therefore true that there is an infinity in number. But we do not know what it is. It is false that it is even, it is false that it is odd; for the addition of 1 can make no change in its nature. Yet it is a number, and every number is odd or even (this is certainly true of every finite number). So we may well know that there is a God without knowing what He is.
Thus Pascal found that a few simple ideas from mathematics—the ideas of a finite number and of the infinity of all numbers, the ideas of odd and of even—were sufficient to point toward God. So, if you are like Buffett and think you don’t like math, well, this is Sacred Space Astronomy: take an interest in math from the standpoint of religion, then. This post is the first of a number of posts, both new and re-runs, that will feature mathematics, pi, infinity, and Blaise Pascal.
This post is part of a series of posts on Pi, infinity, and other things mathematical. Click here for the series.
Today is the day of the December solstice in Louisville, Kentucky, where I live! This is the day on which the sun reaches its southernmost point in its yearly journey through the stars (as seen from Earth), and the precise moment at which the sun reaches that point is 11:19 PM for people in Louisville. But this moment occurs at 5:19 AM at Castel Gandolfo, the Vatican Observatory's headquarters. So in Italy, the solstice is on the 22nd in the early morning, while in Louisville the solstice is on the 21st at 11:19 PM.
Since the sun is now at its southernmost point, then, in the northern hemisphere, where the Vatican Observatory's telescopes are all located, the maximum daily altitude that the sun reaches (when it is at the point halfway between rising and setting) is the lowest of the whole year. The length of the sun’s day-long arc above the horizon is therefore shortest. Consequently, the length of time that the sun is above the horizon is shortest, and the duration of daylight is shortest. A sun that is low in the sky and not up for very long will not warm things much. Thus in the northern hemisphere the December solstice is the “winter” solstice.
Of course the situation in the southern hemisphere is just the opposite: the sun’s maximum daily altitude, the length of the sun’s arc above the horizon, and the duration of daylight are all greatest. A sun that is high in the sky and up for a long time warms things quite well. Thus in the southern hemisphere this is the “summer” solstice.
Check out the table below, which is for Castel Gandolfo. Note the sunrise time, sunset time, and day length. You will see that the day length is indeed the shortest now, at 9 hr, 8 min, 38 sec, but the time of sunset is actually getting progressively later (as was discussed in the post from two weeks ago: click here for it).
From early December through now, the days have been getting shorter, but the sun has been setting later, meaning that the evenings have been getting brighter. Of course, the only way that could happen is if the mornings are losing daylight faster than the evenings are gaining daylight. Now the days will start getting longer, but the mornings are still going to get darker for a while. It is just that now the mornings will lose daylight slower than the evenings will gain daylight. We will find out why all this happens soon enough, but for now, just keep an eye on the sky, and watch how things change in the morning and the evening.
All data in these posts are based on sunrise and sunset times provided by Date and Time.
This post is a modified version of a post from December 21, 2016.
I am pleased to introduce another “Kentucky Science Conversations” guest blogger: Gerry Williger, an astronomer at the University of Louisville here in Kentucky. Gerry is the one whose efforts started the Kentucky Science Conversations with Louisville’s Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, that also involved Tim Dowling, Kate Bulinski, and me. Dowling, Bulinksi, and Archbishop Kurtz have all written guest blogs for The Catholic Astronomer-Sacred Space Astronomy, so Gerry’ s post here rounds out the group.
Gerry Williger got his Bachelor’s degree at Ohio State, then did a PhD at the University of Cambridge, England funded by a Marshall Scholarship. His thesis was on numerical simulations of intergalactic gas clouds, under Bob Carswell. He then worked as a post-doc at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, where he switched from doing theoretical work to observations, and followed that up with a post-doc at Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg. After eleven years abroad, he returned to the US to work on the Hubble Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph team at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and with the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer satellite team at Johns Hopkins University, both in Maryland. He took up a faculty job at the University of Louisville in 2005, where he teaches and continues to do research on observations of intergalactic gas and also protoplanetary disks (baby solar systems). During sabbaticals/leave, he worked for two years at the Université de Nice, France and most recently at Konkoly Observatory in Hungary on a Fulbright Fellowship.
Public outreach in science is important. We professional scientists usually rely on others for financial support to support our work to “push back the frontiers of knowledge”. Up to World War II, this was generally done with private funds. In the sixteenth century, Tycho Brahe had King Frederick II and Emperor Rudolph II as patrons. In the nineteenth century, William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse, self-funded his astronomical work and the construction of the largest telescope in the world at the time, the 1.8 m diameter "Leviathan of Parsonstown" in Ireland. Learned societies like the National Geographic Society (founded in 1888) also funded research using private funds. After World War II, many governments realized that it was in the public interest to fund scientific research, and consequently most of the scientific research done today is funded by taxes from the public via organizations including NASA, ESA, the National Science Foundation and the European Southern Observatory.
Public enthusiasm really can have influence on the support (or non-support) of publicly funded scientific research. One example is from 1970, when NASA cancelled three moon landings: Apollo 18, 19 and 20. The budget was probably a primary consideration. However, an additional factor may have played a role: declining public support. NASA planetary curation scientist David R. Williams was quoted as saying, “The whole world was glued to Apollo 11. But by the time they got to 16 and 17 the general public just wasn't that interested anymore.” On the plus side, in 2004 the final shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope was cancelled by the then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. Several members of Congress, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski, fought with much public support (including thousands of letters from American schoolchildren) to get the servicing mission restored. In 2005, Mike Griffin became the NASA Administrator, and approved a new servicing mission, which significantly extended the operational life of the telescope. From these examples, public support of science does indeed make a difference. However, it takes strong and continuous efforts, usually done by scientists and teachers, to educate the public to keep the enthusiasm level for science high in the face of other topics competing for attention and the media news cycle. This can be done by reaching large numbers of people through the media, as pioneered by Jacques Cousteau, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, and continued today by Sir David Attenborough, Brian Green and Neil Tyson. However, most public outreach is done by everyday scientists in small groups, whether in classrooms, planetariums, eclipse picnics—or even pubs.
I first became aware of the need for public outreach while in graduate school at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England, and felt it more and more as my career progressed. With the encouragement of my fellow graduate students, I started out public outreach by speaking in a school in Cambridge. At the request of my director, Bob Williams (a great believer in public outreach), I branched out to doing media interviews in La Serena, Chile. It motivated me to work on my Spanish! I made a small contribution to the annual open house at Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, which is a good tradition in many institutes and universities, and spoke to more school groups while working at NASA and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. I learned that many people, both students and adults, are interested in space exploration and our universe, and their enthusiasm gave me the energy to volunteer my time.
When I arrived as a faculty member at the University of Louisville and worked for two years as a faculty member at Université de Nice, France, my public outreach experience gave me a good springboard to teach astronomy as a basic science requirement. I continued with some public outreach, especially for events like the 2006/2012 Venus transits and the 2017 solar eclipse, and organized an annual public endowed astronomy lecture for a number of years. There are only a half dozen professional astronomers in Louisville (including Chris Graney and Tim Dowling), and I very much appreciate the work that local amateur societies do to help us professionals teach the public about scientific discoveries and engender their enthusiasm for learning.
However, I noticed that many outreach efforts were focused on schools, and wished that there would be something more for adults to continue their learning. At the same time as I was growing in my astronomy career, I was also growing in my faith. In particular, young adult groups in Heidelberg, Maryland, Louisville and Nice exposed me to non-traditional, community-centered learning experiences including Theology on Tap. I loved the idea of “taking theology to the people”, and thought of how it must have been two thousand years ago when Jesus and the early disciples would speak in public about theology. In Nice, I also saw “Science Café”, which looked like a powerful way to reach adults with continuing science education, and to encourage contacts with scientists on a human level. In Louisville, medical school researchers organize life sciences talks in a pub downtown with 80-100 people in attendance.
After seeing successful public science talks in cafés/pubs, hearing how public outreach helped build up the astronomy program at Ohio University, and noting the level of enthusiasm in Louisville with our annual endowed astronomy lecture, I suggested to my colleagues, Lutz Haberzettl and Jim Lauroesch, that we organize monthly public astronomy lectures starting in 2015. We held them on weekday evenings in our science building in a 200 seat lecture hall, advertised via community channels and to high school science teachers, and had variable success. We averaged perhaps twenty people, many of whom were students looking for extra credit in their astronomy classes. Sometimes our own campus parking service would ticket members of the local astronomy club for coming a few minutes before the parking restrictions were lifted. We were frustrated by the low attendance.
With the support of the local astronomical society and inspired by Theology on Tap, I looked for a pub to host our lectures. Luckily, I found one by tasting a beer called “Path of Totality Black Ale”. The owner loved astronomy and was looking forward to the 2017 eclipse! We moved there in September 2017 and had good success: our attendance increased to 30-40 per month, and we had many more townspeople in the audience.
Talks in pubs are wonderful. People are relaxed, our numbers are high enough for good atmosphere but not so high that discussion is limited, and we reach members of the public we otherwise would not find. People are happy to come because when they are not listening to a talk, they can eat, drink and enjoy themselves on their own. It’s a way of “inviting people to the table”, with no strings attached.
In the meantime, I heard about a movement called “Astronomy on Tap” (AoT), which started in New York around 2014. It is an umbrella organization which advertises public astronomy talks in non-academic venues, and gives tremendous freedom to local “branches” to tailor the format to local conditions. I checked them out, and after discovering their flexibility, began to consult with their organizers and advertise our talks on their website astronomyontap.org. Currently, AoT is held in a few dozen cities across North America and Europe, and has had trial runs in South America and Asia. In some cities, hundreds of people attend. Although it is difficult to know the exact numbers, it is clear that thousands of members of the public are engaging in lifelong learning by having science brought to them.
Two experiences arose because of our public talks in Louisville. First, I invited our local bishop to our endowed lecture series a couple of years ago, citing both the relationship between astronomy and theology and the contributions to science by the Vatican Observatory and from other religious. I even offered to discuss science and religion with him. I did not expect an answer, but got quite a surprise when Archbishop Joseph Kurtz wrote to me and said that although he could not make the public talk, he would love to have a discussion with me. At that point, I wondered whether I was up to the task alone, and called upon two other Catholic astronomers in town, Chris Graney and Tim Dowling, to round out our conversation. Our first meeting went swimmingly, and Archbishop Kurtz invited us back for quasi-monthly discussions about various topics of science and science education in Catholic schools, including an analysis of “Fides et Ratio” by Pope John Paul II. I had never read an encyclical before, but gained much appreciation for his scholarship after going through the work. There are indeed many points of common interest between science and religion, and it is well worth it for scientists, religious and the lay community in either sense to explore them.
I had a second enterprise spring from setting up AoT in Louisville. I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to do research in Budapest, Hungary in 2018-19. There is a wonderful research group on proto-planetary disks (baby solar systems) there, and I wanted to improve my knowledge of the language and culture in the country where my parents were born. Fulbright Fellows are expected to do public outreach in their host countries, so I proposed to found Astronomy on Tap in Budapest. A colleague, Jacob White, co-founded it with me in January 2019 and helped to recruit other organizers, and AoT-Budapest has been going well ever since. The story of my year by the Danube and the consequent professional and personal growth will be a good subject for my next blog.
Click here for all Kentucky Science Conversations posts.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
It is the darkest evening of the year! You probably know about the December 21 solstice—it is the “winter solstice” in the northern hemisphere, and the “summer solstice” in the southern hemisphere. In the northern hemisphere the December 21 solstice is the shortest day of the year; in the southern hemisphere it is the longest day. But you may not know about certain curious things that take place around the December solstice.
One of those things is that, while in the northern hemisphere the solstice is indeed the shortest day of the year, early December marks the “darkest evening” of the year. That’s right, the earliest sunset occurs more or less this evening. From here on the sun starts setting later each night. Check out the table below, which is for Castel Gandolfo (home of the Vatican Observatory). The sun sets tonight at 4:38 pm there. Note how the sun never sets any earlier, and starts setting later by the 14th of December. And yet the length of the day keeps getting shorter. (If we want to pick nits here, perhaps tonight is not the darkest evening of the year. That might be actually be in a couple of days. But the difference is mere seconds.)
Indeed, as the graph below shows, by the time of the solstice there will be several minutes more daylight in the evening than there are right now in early December. (All data in these posts are based on sunrise and sunset times provided by Date and Time.) That is despite the fact that the day length is actually getting shorter between now and the solstice. If there is more daylight in the evening, but less daylight overall, then what is happening? The answer is that between now and the solstice we lose daylight in the morning faster than we gain it in the evening.
Likewise, in the southern hemisphere the solstice is indeed the longest day of the year, but the brightest morning of the year is in early December. By the time the solstice arrives there will be several minutes less of morning daylight than there are right now.
We will get to the explanation for all this in a future post. For now, just observe it. See for yourself that it is true. Keep your eye on the sunset (if you dwell in the northern hemisphere) or on the sunrise (if you dwell in the southern hemisphere). Watch the evening brighten, northerners, even as the shortest day approaches. Watch the morning darken, southerners, even as the longest day approaches. The universe holds surprises for those who are attentive to it.
This post is a modified version of a post from December 3, 2016.
Have you used electrical technology today? Something with a battery? Something that sent information over wires? Or wirelessly? You surely used a smart phone, or the internet, or something plugged in to a wall outlet. Perhaps you just listened to the radio.
Where did this technology come from?
The electric battery, so important to so many devices, started it all. Alessandro Volta created the first one around the year 1800. Studying electric eels led him to the principles of battery construction. Volta’s battery (and yes, the term “voltage” comes from his name) was the first good way to generate a steady flow of electricity. With it, electrical technology took off. With batteries, people could communicate rapidly, by sending electrical signals over wires. The telegraph was the start of that; now we have the internet. We have electric cars, thanks to improvements both in batteries and in the electric motors that move those cars. Michael Faraday’s discovery that electricity and magnetism were interrelated led to those electric motors—and also to magnetic information storage, such as computer hard drives. James Clerk Maxwell realized that electromagnetic energy could travel not just along wires, but wirelessly, along waves through space. Faraday and Maxwell both worked in the middle of the nineteenth century. By that century’s end, Guglielmo Marconi, applying the principles they discovered, had developed the technology to transmit and receive signals wirelessly—a wireless telegraph. Thus, much of our technology came from the work of these scientists (and others, too) between the years 1800 and 1900. They would understand how your smart phone works!
All four of these scientists were people of faith. Volta and Marconi were both active Catholics. Volta once wrote out a statement of faith (reportedly as part of an effort to convert a fellow scientist, who felt that science and faith did not mix), noting that, while he was guilty of many sins, “through the special mercy of God I have never wavered in my faith.” Faraday was a Scottish Glasite Christian who spoke of the principles of nature as being a book, written by the finger of God, which a scientist studies. Maxwell, a member of the Church of Scotland, also saw science as the study of God’s work. He put this idea to verse:
Through the creatures Thou hast made
Show the brightness of Thy glory,
Be eternal Truth displayed
In their substance transitory,
Till green Earth and Ocean hoary,
Massy rock and tender blade
Tell the same unending story—
“We are Truth in Form arrayed.”
Teach me so Thy works to read
That my faith,—new strength accruing,—
May from world to world proceed,
Wisdom's fruitful search pursuing;
Till, thy truth my mind imbuing,
I proclaim the Eternal Creed,
Oft the glorious theme renewing
God our Lord is God indeed.
We have our modern technology thanks in significant part to scientists who believed in a God who created a natural world that ran on true principles. These truths could be known by reading God’s natural works, and then put to wise use. You put them to use whenever you use a piece of electrical technology.
Volta, Faraday, and Maxwell are all featured in the “Religious Scientists” section of the Vatican Observatory Faith & Science pages. Click here for it.
I am happy to re-introduce to readers of Sacred Space Astronomy to guest blogger Fernando Comerón. He is an astronomer with the European Southern Observatory. He previously wrote about using one of the world’s best telescopes at ESO (click here for that post). This new post is about discovering a star.
Here Fernando describes the process of making a discovery in astronomy. But he also describes something else. He describes the excitement of discovery—of being one of only two people to know something, even if maybe it is, as he says, something most people might not care much about.
Fernando Comerón, 9 Sept 2019
Please have a look at these two images, of two nebulae that may be well known to you.
The one on the left is the Orion Nebula, and the right one is the North America nebula. In astrophysical terms, both nebulae are what astronomers call “HII regions”. “HII” means that they are mainly composed of ionized hydrogen (H being Hydrogen). This is a plasma in which the electrons in the hydrogen atoms have been split from the protons of their nuclei and let free. Occasionally the electrons are recaptured by other protons, and in doing so they lose energy. This is radiated in the form of light at characteristic wavelengths or colors, producing the so-called spectral lines.
The ionization (that is, the split between the electron and the proton) happens when the electron absorbs a photon of ultraviolet light, which has enough energy to free the negatively charged electron from the electric attraction caused by the positively charged proton. Thus, to have a big HII region like the Orion or the North America nebulae we need to have lots of ultraviolet photons to keep a huge volume of hydrogen gas ionized. And those ultraviolet photons are produced by very hot stars, with temperatures of a few tens of thousands of degrees Celsius, whose light is mostly emitted in the ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Young, hot stars are also the most massive and most luminous stars, so they are generally easy to see.
Let us look back at the two images above. Things look all right for the Orion Nebula: we can see near its center a tightly packed cluster of bright stars, called the Trapezium, which is easily visible with amateur telescopes. All the bright stars composing the Trapezium are also very hot, emitting vast amounts of ultraviolet light. So the picture is clear about the Orion Nebula: it is a vast cloud of gas, composed mostly of ionized hydrogen, and the bright stars of the Trapezium are the ones that keep the hydrogen ionized. Everything fits!
But what about the North America nebula? Nothing like the Trapezium appears there. Where is the star, or the stars, that keeps the North America Nebula ionized? What keeps the North America Nebula glowing?
This was a mystery for many decades. One of the first astronomers to tackle it was Edwin Hubble, the astronomer after whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named. In 1922 he proposed that Deneb, the brightest star of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan, was the source of illumination of the nebula. Deneb is very bright, its white-blue color indicates a high temperature, and it appears very close to the North America Nebula in the sky, so it is an obvious suspect. However, further knowledge of stellar properties and of the spectrum of Deneb shows that its luminous output in the ultraviolet falls far below the intensity needed to ionize the North America Nebula. Now we also know that, although our line of sight toward the North America Nebula passes close to Deneb, they are not really physically related to each other.
The search for the star that causes the North America nebula glow went on in the decades following Hubble’s initial suggestion. A few hot and bright stars were found within its contours, but none of them producing enough ultraviolet light. Furthermore, other lines in the spectrum of the nebula indicated that the star responsible for the ionization had to produce “hard” ultraviolet radiation, this is, ultraviolet photons not only able to ionize hydrogen, but also to excite and ionize the electrons of other elements present in the nebula. This called for a star significantly hotter than those identified until then as possible candidates.
Let us look again at the image of the North America Nebula. Although it is the most obvious feature in the image, you can see that there is another large nebula to its right, which is called the Pelican Nebula, for obvious reasons when you look at its shape. It actually turns out that the North America and the Pelican nebulae are not two distinct nebulae, but a single one.
The reason why the two nebulae appear separated is that there is a dark lane of light-absorbing dust along our line of sight, which happens to be projected against the bright backdrop of the glowing nebulae. In fact, it is the silhouette of this dark cloud (which is known as L935) that gives the North America and the Pelican nebulae their characteristic shapes—and hence their names. If thick enough, clouds of interstellar dust can be very good at hiding the stars behind them in the wavelengths to which our eyes are sensitive, which is why so many fewer stars are seen projected on L935 than on the North America and Pelican nebulae.
Now, again to the image of the North America and Pelican nebulae. If you look closely at their contours, you will see that some areas near their edges appear brighter than the inside. Those brightness enhancements are caused by the illumination of the surface of dense, but otherwise dark interstellar clouds that define the boundaries of the nebulae. And those bright rims at the edge of the nebulae appear to be facing toward a particular direction, as if they were illuminated by a definite source of light—which is exactly what is happening! The ridges are pointing the way toward the star that ionizes the North America and the Pelican nebulae.
Alas, the region of the sky where those bright rims suggest that we should look for the ionizing star lies inside the contours of L935. In other words, the star to which we must thank the beauty of the North America and Pelican nebulae is hidden from view by a cloud of interstellar dust!
Fortunately, interstellar dust is not fully opaque, and it is less and less opaque to red and then infrared light. Thus, it is not surprising that as infrared detectors improved and were increasingly used in astronomical observations, the search for the ionizing star of the North America and Pelican nebulae shifted to the infrared. And indeed, in 1980 several bright stars were found in infrared observations of the area where the ionizing star was expected.
This did not solve the puzzle, though. The vast majority of stars that are intrinsically bright in the infrared are actually old and comparatively “cool” stars, emitting almost negligible amounts of ultraviolet light, which completely rules them out as possible ionizing sources. So finding the presence of bright stars in the infrared was far from meaning that the search for the ionizing star of the North America and the Pelican nebulae was over.
Now, let me take you to one of my favorite places as a professional astronomer: Calar Alto Observatory, in the mountain range of Los Filabres, in Southern Spain. I happened to be at Calar Alto in early 2004, together with my colleague and friend Anna Pasquali, carrying out a project with a 2.2 meter telescope for which we had got several nights allocated, using an infrared camera and spectrograph, appropriately called MAGIC (a rather contorted acronym for MAx-Planck General-purpose Infrared Camera, as it had been built at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany). After a first few cloudless nights with a flawless telescope and instrument, we came to the realization that everything was going so well that that we would probably have observing time left after finishing the program!
The observations that we were carrying out for our project consisted of obtaining infrared spectra of stars suspected to be hot from their infrared colors, in a region of the sky not far from the North America and Pelican nebulae. The infrared colors of “hot” and “cold” stars are very similar but have a subtle difference, which cannot be blurred by the effect of absorption by interstellar dust. By looking at three different colors of infrared light, it is possible to discriminate between the hot and cold stars. Although this method works remarkably well, it is not foolproof, and one needs to obtain spectroscopy in order to confirm that the stars suspected to be hot from their colors really have the spectrum expected from a hot star. This was what we had set out to do in our observing run.
So there we were, Anna and I, wondering what to do at the end of our observing run after having obtained all the spectra that we intended to obtain, when I remembered to have read somewhere some time ago that the ionizing star of the North America Nebula had not yet been identified with certainty. And we realized that we had the tools, then and there, to try to solve that problem. Indeed, if our method was good at selecting hot stars among infrared sources, how about using it to select possible hot stars among all the infrared sources that appear in that darkened zone behind the L935 cloud, and then using our MAGIC spectrograph to confirm that they were indeed hot?
And this is what we did. We obtained a list of 19 bright infrared stars in the area where the ionizing star was expected to be, and we started to obtain infrared spectra of them one after another, eagerly processing the observations in almost real time. We had been quite generous in defining the criteria of our search to make sure that the star we were after would not escape our selection, so it was no surprise to find that our spectra told us that we had selected mostly cold stars, clearly identified through their spectral features.
But not all the stars were cold: among the 19, three of them had spectra inconsistent with a cold temperature. One of them we could discard right away, as it was at most lightly obscured, so it could not lie behind L935. In the second one, which was number 11 in our list, we could see spectral lines typical of a star with a temperature of about 10,000 degrees C, which is hot but by far not as hot as needed to ionize a HII region, so it was not a very good candidate.
And then there was the third star, number 4 in our list, whose infrared spectrum was… featureless. This was a good thing, because very hot stars should appear featureless when observed with a spectrograph like MAGIC. But it was also tantalizing, because it is not possible to say just how hot a hot star is from a featureless spectrum. We were almost there. We had a single perfect candidate in star 4, but we needed the final piece of evidence. Ideally, we needed a spectrum of star number 4 in visible light.
Unfortunately, remember that star number 4 was behind a wall of obscuring dust. But looking at images of the area taken in visible light, we could see a faint star just at the location of our ideal candidate. As it turned out, the visible light of star number 4 was severely dimmed by the dust column along the line of sight, but not so much as to render it completely invisible. A visible-light spectrograph should be able to get its visible spectrum.
The next thing we did is something that astronomers can do only when they have been many times to a particular observatory and they have made good friends among the staff there. By that time in 2004 I had been observing at Calar Alto for the previous 15 years, so asked my friend Santos Pedraz, our support astronomer, if it would be possible to have MAGIC removed from the telescope the following morning, and to have the visible-light spectrograph CAFOS (an acronym for Calar Alto Faint Object Spectrograph) ready for the next night, which was also the last night of my observing run with Anna. Our request to carry out an unplanned change of instrument at the telescope was demanding in terms of observatory staff effort, but Calar Alto is lucky to have, then like now, a fabulous team of support astronomers and technical staff, and by the evening of the following night CAFOS was there ready to observe our star. The night was clear, and there we were ready to check how hot our star number 4 was.
We observed it, and also star number 11 (the latter only to be absolutely convinced that it had the visible spectrum of a star too cool to contribute to the ionization of the nebula in any meaningful quantity, as it indeed was). And then, once we obtained our set of spectra of star number 4, I went on anxiously to process it and see what it looked like.
Many of the features in the spectrum of star number 4 looked familiar, as in the past Anna and I had obtained many spectra of hot stars for other projects and knew their appearance almost by heart. But star number 4 had some features that we had not seen very often before: moderately strong lines of hydrogen, very weak lines of neutral helium… but comparatively strong lines of ionized helium! In other words, star number 4 was not only hot: it was very hot. It was just as hot as it needed to be in order to account for the spectrum of the North America and the Pelican nebulae, it was at the right location, and it was the only very hot star at that location. We had found it!
And so our observing run ended. That morning, after finishing all the observations, I went to bed knowing that the mystery of the ionizing star of the North America and the Pelican nebulae had been finally solved—and at that point only Anna and I knew. It was a very gratifying feeling for an astronomer, even if nobody else in the world would care!
If you wish to know all the technical details about the observations and the results, you can read the article where we reported the discovery in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics: Comerón, F., Pasquali, A.: 2005, “The ionizing star of the North America and Pelican nebulae”. But this is the first time that the story behind the discovery has been written, so only the readers of Sacred Space Astronomy know how the ionizing star of the North America Nebula was discovered.
An abundance of erroneous information can be found in books. Unfortunately, that includes science books for children. Recently I have been perusing children’s science books, looking for good material for the Vatican Observatory Faith & Science site, and I keep coming across things like the images below—a page from Scientists Who Made History: Isaac Newton (published 2001 by Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers: A Harcourt Company). This is from a section of the book that talks about Newton studying the motions of the planets.
Note the caption that reads “An early diagram from the 1600s showing the movements of the planets, all of which are travelling around the Sun in the center of the illustration”. But note that, in fact, the Sun is not in the center of the illustration. The Earth is in the center. It is not travelling around the Sun; the Sun is travelling around it.
The diagram is of the theory of Tycho Brahe. Brahe’s name can be seen in the Latin inscription at the top right of the diagram. When Newton worked to understand the motion of the moon and planets, it was the theory of Nicolaus Copernicus that he worked with (in which all of the planets indeed travelled around the Sun), not this. As we have seen before, this is not the first time this diagram of Brahe’s theory has shown up incorrectly in a children’s book. And this is such a bad error.
Another example of a pretty bad error can be found in Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, by Peter Sis, (published 1996 in the US by Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus, Giroux, and in Canada by HarperCollinsCanadaLtd—yes, that’s how it is spelled). This is a lovely book. It was a 1997 Caldecott Honor book. Unfortunately, it contains this:
In fact Galileo was not ordered to stop believing what he could see with his own two eyes. Everyone with a good telescope and a little skill could see what Galileo could see, and they did see it. When Christina of Lorraine questioned Galileo’s friend Fr. Benedetto Castelli about Galileo’s ideas—thus setting into motion all of what has come to be known as “The Galileo Affair”—the issue was not what Galileo could see. Even one of Christina’s allies reminded her that everything Galileo said he could see had indeed been verified to be real. The issue was how Galileo interpreted what everyone could see. The issue was what Galileo could prove, or even back up with solid argument (and as has been discussed here before, the “solid argument” thing was a problem for Galileo). Had it all been a matter of things Galileo could see with his own two eyes, “The Galileo Affair” would not exist.
But the book says Galileo was ordered to stop believing what he could see with his own two eyes. There is a story being told by Sis. The story is about Galileo and the Church. The book has a good bit of creepy imagery in it (below). The creepy stuff is for the Church. Fair enough. The Church treated Galileo badly, regardless of the quality of his arguments.
But what of Science? Science is quietly harmed by the errors in these books. When Galileo is said to have been ordered to stop believing what he could see, a true story is traded for a fictional one. The fictional story is about the Church. The true story that is lost is about Science. What these books say with their errors, is that Science does not really matter. Copernican system, Tychonic system—what’s the big deal, right? What matters is Newton studied the motions of planets, right? And the Church tried Galileo for something regarding astronomy, right? It must have had something to do with something he saw, right? Who really wants to bother with all those scientific details about ‘who thought what’ and ‘what was the scientific debate’? And so the whole true story is lost because the crucial scientific material is lost—the material that tells us how science worked during the battle over the Earth’s motion (the battle between the theory of Copernicus in which the Earth moved, and the theory of Tycho Brahe—the same one that is erroneously shown in that diagram above—in which Earth did not move). That lost material teaches us how science works overall.
I have found the sorts of errors discussed here in many different children’s books. No wonder we have problems with acceptance of even basic science like vaccinations (and then we have problems with measles outbreaks). If we publish error-filled books for children about science, and even honor those books, children will learn erroneous ideas about science. They then grow up to be adults with erroneous ideas about science.
Have you heard the news about the UFOs and the Navy pilots? It has been covered by a variety of media outlets. Years ago there existed a cheesy tabloid newspaper called the Weekly World News. You could find copies for sale in the check-out lanes of grocery stores. The front page of the WWN always featured some sort of bizarre story about half-human/half-bat creatures, or Bigfoot, or (of course) UFOs and Space Aliens. The WWN is gone from the checkout lanes, but today it is the major news outlets that are providing coverage of UFOs and Space Aliens.
The UFO coverage relates to U.S. Navy pilots who have reported encountering objects shaped like “Tic Tac” candies, but large (up to 40 feet long). The Tic Tacs reportedly fly about and perform all sorts of incredible aerial maneuvers. Just recently the Navy confirmed that certain video clips related to these reports (video clips that have been banging around the internet for a while now) are “real”.
The New York Times has published stories about the Tic Tacs over the past few years. The Times stories contain discussion of the Tic Tacs “accelerating to hypersonic speed [over five times the speed of sound—that is, over ~3800 mph/6200 kph], making sudden stops and instantaneous turns”. Sometimes the objects were visible to radar and infrared sensors, but not visible through a pilot’s helmet camera, while other times pilots report having seen the objects, and even having nearly collided with them. The Times stories also describe the objects as having “no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes”, and no “wings or rotors”. NPR reported that one of the objects “flew faster than [the Navy’s] F/A-18 fighter jets but left no detectable turbulence”. The Times and NPR have not been alone in reporting on the UFOs: Popular Mechanics, the Huffington Post, CNN, Time, the Washington Post , CBS, and NBC have covered them, too—and have covered the fact that the Navy takes these UFO reports seriously, and wants pilots to report these sorts of encounters (rather than keeping mum about them for fear of damaging their reputations).
But as thunder follows lightning, and as smoke follows fire, Space Aliens follow UFOs. And so it is here. The New York Times makes certain to state that “experts caution that earthly explanations often exist for such incidents, and that not knowing the explanation does not mean that the event has interstellar origins”. The Times cites Leon Golub, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as saying that “the possibility of an extraterrestrial cause ‘is so unlikely that it competes with many other low-probability but more mundane explanations’”. And they note that “no one in the Defense Department is saying that the objects were extraterrestrial, and experts emphasize that earthly explanations can generally be found for such incidents”. But the Times is still making plenty of mention of Space Aliens.
Others embrace the Space Alien connection without reserve. Luis Elizondo—who, according to the Times, was a military intelligence official who ran “the Pentagon's shadowy, little-known Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which analyzed the radar data, video footage and accounts” from the Navy until he resigned in 2017—told CNN that “my personal belief is that there is very compelling evidence that we may not be alone”. Scott Simon, writing for NPR in a piece called “We May Not Be Alone”, offers that the implications of the Tic Tacs “may be staggering”, and mentions movie Space Aliens: Gort, the Klingons, E.T. and Chewbacca. The Washington Post quotes one of the pilots who encountered the Tic Tacs as saying that they are “something not from the Earth”. And of course you can find plenty on the internet that goes much further, if you search a bit.
I recommend you abstain from that searching, for you will no doubt find stuff that makes the Weekly World News look tame. O Readers of Sacred Space Astronomy, we need a Reality Check here! There will be no Reality Check from the major media, apparently, so it looks like this is a job for your friendly neighborhood Vatican Observatory—Catholic Astronomer—Sacred Space Astronomy blogger. So consider this idea:
THE TIC TACS ARE MAGICAL!
Yes, those 40-foot long Tic Tacs that have no engines, no exhaust, no infrared plumes—that can travel hypersonically, stop suddenly, turn instantly, and that can accelerate, in the words of one pilot, “like nothing I've ever seen”—that even create no turbulence despite outrunning an F/A-18—those are magical aircraft. Things that are magical are not bound by the laws of physics. Harry Potter’s broom is an aircraft that is not bound by the laws of physics. It is magical.
But things that are not magical are bound by the laws of physics. To accelerate a non-magical aircraft forward requires a force on that craft: acceleration = force/mass. To make an instantaneous turn requires a particularly large force. In common experience, objects make instantaneous turns when they hit some massive object; for example, when a ball strikes a solid wall or the hard ground. A ball bouncing off a solid surface makes an instantaneous turn, and is subjected to a tremendous force in the process. But non-magical craft tend not to survive collisions with solid surfaces. Thus non-magical craft will not make instantaneous turns. Moreover, to have a force on the aircraft implies another equal force on a different body: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thus to push an aircraft forward or to turn it instantaneously requires that something receive an equal and opposite push—thus, exhaust, or rotor wash, or some similar disturbing of the environment near the craft. And, an aircraft passing through the air displaces the air, and an aircraft passing through the air at high speed generates turbulence. Non-magical aircraft cannot get around the laws of physics.
We cannot invoke some super technology to get around the laws of physics and explain the motions of the Tic Tac UFOs. Even super technology must obey the laws of physics. Even a UFO powered by super technology requires force to accelerate and turn, displaces air, and uses energy and thus generates heat.
Suppose that we argue that the UFOs must operate on some super-duper technology that involves principles of physics that our science has not yet discovered—principles that negate the principles of acceleration and force described above. Well, that is the same thing as arguing that the UFOs must operate on magic. Of course we cannot prove that there are no undiscovered principles of physics and super-duper technologies out there that render possible that which is impossible, and that explain the flight of the Tic Tacs. But that same argument can be applied to Harry Potter’s broom. We cannot prove that there is no magic. Once we leave what is scientifically known, we leave what is scientifically known. In either case, Harry Potter’s broom or super-duper technology, we are talking about magic.
So the Tic Tacs, if they are objects, are essentially magical. Given this, we have to then ask, who made them? Who flies them? Why, magical creatures, of course. Obviously Space Aliens with magical super-duper technology are the perennial “we are not alone” favorite for this sort of thing, but let us be logical here. These events involve the Navy, so would not magical sea creatures be a more logical conclusion than extraterrestrials? Why not conclude that the Tic Tacs are the craft of Mermaids, rather than of Space Aliens? Science and history have both shown us that the idea of a universe populated by Space Aliens, like we see in Star Wars, is an idea that just has not worked out (click here for a full discussion of this). Over the centuries we scientists have consistently supposed that extraterrestrials existed in various places (the sun, the moon, Mars); we have consistently supposed that other planets would be more or less like Earth; and we have consistently been wrong. Science has shown us that other planets tend not to be much like Earth, other planetary systems tend not to be much like our solar system. We are recognizing today that habitable planets might not be so common. But the Earth, and its oceans, are habitable. No doubt about it.
Thus Mermaids flying Tic Tacs are far more scientifically plausible than Space Aliens flying Tic Tacs: the ocean is habitable; Mermaids do not have to traverse the unimaginable vastness of interstellar space to get here. And there is still further logic to suggest that the UFOs are the products of Mermaids rather than Space Aliens: Why would Space Aliens traverse the interstellar vastness just to bug Navy pilots? By contrast, we can easily imagine why Mermaids would be harassing the Navy. They are sick of the sonar, sick of the trash in the ocean, sick of the over-fishing, sick of the ships going hither and yon. Unlike Ariel, they do not want to be part of our world. No doubt the Mermaids have decided that it is time to build some magical Tic Tacs and show the surface people’s military their Mer-power!
That is our Reality Check.
So why do you suppose the media never make mention of Mermaids? Perhaps because thinking of the UFOs in terms of Mermaids exposes the absurdity of magical thinking—our Reality Check shows how unReal the “Space Aliens” coverage of the Tic Tacs has been. Yet, it is culturally acceptable to think of magical UFOs if Space Aliens are involved—so acceptable that it is found widely in the media, and not just in the Weekly World News. But, speaking scientifically and logically, that magical thinking about Space Aliens is even more absurd in this case than is magical thinking about Mermaids.
The absurdity of the media’s mentioning of Space Aliens does not mean that the topic of the Tic Tac UFOs is itself absurd. The Navy pilots are detecting something. The Navy clearly wants pilots to report this stuff, and not to just keep quiet about it out of fear of having to hear “Men in Black” jokes for the rest of their lives. The Navy is encouraging pilots to report any “unidentified aerial phenomenon” (a far better term than “unidentified flying object” or “UFO”) they may see. There are plenty of non-magical explanations for these phenomena. Harvard’s Golub listed some for the Times: “bugs in the code for the imaging and display systems, atmospheric effects and reflections, neurological overload from multiple inputs during high-speed flight”. Perhaps more worrisome than bugs in the code is the possibility that some folks have figured out how to hack their way into the code so as to play games with the pilots. Any of these more mundane explanations might be of genuine concern to the Navy, sufficient to prompt it to encourage pilots to report any strange things they see.
And none of these require the existence of magical aircraft. Or Mermaids. Or Space Aliens. Or anything else that would have been right at home in the Weekly World News.
And to be clear for the record, I am not seriously advocating The Mermaid Magical UFO Hypothesis. (I would hate to see some headline that says we are advocating for the existence of Mermaids flying UFOs here at Sacred Space Astronomy.)
A month or so ago I was picking on the new “Lion King” movie for how unrealistic was its depiction of the night sky, despite everything else in the movie seeming so realistic in appearance. Well, I have discovered another interesting critique of the “Lion King” sky. It was on the WRAL (North Carolina) Weathercenter Blog. There Tony Rice writes that
While the animals and landscapes in [the 2019 “Lion King”] are photorealistic, the sunrise that opens this shot-for-shot remake is less realistic than the hand-drawn original.
Rice compares the 1994 and 2019 versions of the movie, providing images of the sunrise from both, and noting how the 2019 version does not show the pronounced rippling effect that is seen in the 1994 version. He writes:
In the 2019 [version] the sun is rounder, nearly white and emerges smoothly above the horizon. The 1994 version shows a deeper yellow, almost orange, more flattened sun rippling its way up. The undulating effect seen in the 1994 [version] is gone in the latest version. Those ripples are created by turbulent air rising upward. This would be expected as the rising sun disturbs [and] heats the nocturnal boundary layer, air near the ground which has cooled and become very stable overnight. Air turbulence is also what makes stars appear to twinkle at night.
So here we have another illustration of how the makers of the 2019 “Lion King” neglected the sky despite their other efforts at realism. But something readers of Sacred Space Astronomy/The Catholic Astronomer might find especially interesting is that the rippling effect that Rice discusses here was discussed by a Catholic priest of the Society of Jesus and his student, more than four hundred years ago. Fr. Christoph Scheiner and his student Johann Georg Locher wrote on just this effect in their 1614 astronomy book entitled Mathematical Disquisitions. In discussing visible distortions of the disk of the sun, they wrote:
|Caussa vna & Sola est, vapores inter nos & Solem interiecti. Qui cum tota nocte terris quiete satis incubent, mane radiis solaribus excitati, calore concepto in altum enituntur, suaque fluctuatione, quia perfecte diaphani non sunt, & varie insuper figurati, multumque aquositatis admixtum gestant; Solarem conum oculis illapsum, mire carpunt, lacerant, findunt, interturbant. At vero augescente die, & eleuantur altius, & excoquuntur purius, & magis rarefiunt, congregatis vi caloris homogeneis partibus, & stabliores redduntur; hinc fit, vti Sol vespertinus communiter integrior placidiorque arrideat matutino. Haec autem ita se habere, inde manifestum euadat, quod in ipso exortus puncto Sol plerumque pacatus & aequus secundum oram ad aliquantillum temporis perseueret; paulatim vero, praecedentibus praesertim nocturnis pluuiis, exasperatus dentes ostentet graduque vacillet: quandoque etiam, constanti maxime serenitate, semper sibi similis incedat. Vnde certum maneat, hanc eius seabritiem vnico inter Solem medio esse tribuendam.||The one and only cause of this is the vapors present between us and the sun. These lie quite still over the lands throughout the night, but in the morning they are aroused by the warming rays of the sun. When heated, they rise. And, because they fluctuate and change in shape, because they are not perfectly diaphanous, because they carry water vapor in varying amounts, they agitate, cleave, mangle, and despoil amazingly the solar light that is passing through them toward our eyes. But as the day passes, the heating lifts these vapors higher, drives the water from them, and rarifies and homogenizes them, rendering them more stable. Thus the evening sun generally is more placid than the early morning sun. The morning sun, especially after a nocturnal rain, emerges from behind the horizon, spreads along it, and then, as it advances, vacillates along its edge in and out so that its edge takes on the appearance of coarse teeth. But if the weather has been most fine for some time, the sun will rise without such unevenness. From this it is certain that the unevenness of the sun must be attributed solely to the medium between it and us.|
Like Rice, Scheiner and Locher also talk about how these same properties of the air cause the twinkling of the stars. Perhaps Scheiner and Locher would cut the 2019 “Lion King” a little more slack than Rice does; hakuna mattata, they might have said, supposing that the 2019 version’s sunrise is occurring after a long period of fine weather! (Indeed, given Locher and Scheiner's remarks about rain and fine weather, could it be that the 2019 version is actually the more correct for a drier climate.) Isn’t it interesting that these two astronomers had this all worked out four centuries ago?