Category Archives: Astronomy

Because the World Needs Nightmares

You know what the Scientifick Blogohedron needs more of? Well, besides introductions to basic subjects, so that we can be more than chatterbots reacting to whatever news story incenses us the most?

Gosh, you people are demanding.

No, I’m talking about nightmare fuel!

And as only children’s television can deliver. You remember Square One TV, right? It came on PBS in the afternoons, after Reading Rainbow and before Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?. Like every other aspect of my generation’s formative years, it can be relived via the video tubes. Our lives have already been uploaded: the Singularity came and went, and we were all too busy arguing to notice.

Looking back, Reimy the Estimator Girl was fairly cute, and the “Angle Dance” is somewhat frightening in that in-1983-this-was-the-future way, but one bit of sheer irrational terror stands out. I refer, of course, to the mask which Reg E. Cathey wears in the title role of “Archimedes”:


A mathematician and scientist
Born in 287 BC
He lived in the city of Syracuse
On the island of Sicily

He said he could move the world
If he only had a place to stand
A fulcrum and a lever long
And the strength of an average man

He solved the problems of his days
Using math in amazing ways
His great work lives on today
Continue reading Because the World Needs Nightmares

The Necessity of Mathematics

Today, everything from international finance to teenage sexuality flows on a global computer network which depends upon semiconductor technology which, in turn, could not have been developed without knowledge of the quantum principles of solid-state physics. Today, we are damaging our environment in ways which require all our fortitude and ingenuity just to comprehend, let alone resolve. More and more people are becoming convinced that our civilization requires wisdom in order to survive, the sort of wisdom which can only come from scientific literacy; thus, an increasing number of observers are trying to figure out why science has been taught so poorly and how to fix that state of affairs. Charles Simonyi draws a distinction between those who merely “popularize” a science and those who promote the public understanding of it. We might more generously speak of bad popularizers and good ones, but the distinction between superficiality and depth is a real one, and we would do well to consider what criteria separate the two.

Opinions on how to communicate science are as diverse as the communicators. In this Network age, anyone with a Web browser and a little free time can join the conversation and become part of the problem — or part of the solution, if you take an optimistic view of these newfangled media. Certain themes recur, and tend to drive people into one or another loose camp of like-minded fellows: what do you do when scientific discoveries clash with someone’s religious beliefs? Why do news stories sensationalize or distort scientific findings, and what can we do about it? What can we do when the truth, as best we can discern it, is simply not politic?

Rather than trying to find a new and juicy angle on these oft-repeated questions, this essay will attempt to explore another direction, one which I believe has received insufficient attention. We might grandiosely call this a foray into the philosophy of science popularization. The topic I wish to explore is the role mathematics plays in understanding and doing science, and how we disable ourselves if our “explanations” of science do not include mathematics. The fact that too many people don’t know statistics has already been mourned, but the problem runs deeper than that. To make my point clear, I’d like to focus on a specific example, one drawn from classical physics. Once we’ve explored the idea in question, extensions to other fields of inquiry will be easier to make. To make life as easy as possible, we’re going to step back a few centuries and look at a development which occurred when the modern approach to natural science was in its infancy.

Our thesis will be the following: that if one does not understand or refuses to deal with mathematics, one has fatally impaired one’s ability to follow the physics, because not only are the ideas of the physics expressed in mathematical form, but also the relationships among those ideas are established with mathematical reasoning.

This is a strong assertion, and a rather pessimistic one, so we turn to a concrete example to investigate what it means. Our example comes from the study of planetary motion and begins with Kepler’s Three Laws.


Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) discovered three rules which described the motions of the planets. He distilled them from the years’ worth of data collected by his contemporary, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601). The story of their professional relationship is one of clashing personalities, set against a backdrop of aristocracy, ruin and war. From that drama, we boil away the biography and extract some items of geometry:
Continue reading The Necessity of Mathematics

The Dark Universe

Digging through my drafts pile to find something to post that doesn’t require too much extra writing, I found that I hadn’t yet released this item into the tubes. After The Halting Oracle and The Leech Lattice comes the third volume in our saga of good fantasy-novel titles, Lambda and The Dark Universe.

A few weeks back, Edward Kolb gave a series of talks at CERN on dark matter and dark energy, and how they fit into the standard “ΛCDM” model of the Universe. The abstract is as follows:

According to the standard cosmological model, 95% of the present mass density of the universe is dark: roughly 70% of the total in the form of dark energy and 25% in the form of dark matter. In a series of four lectures, I will begin by presenting a brief review of cosmology, and then I will review the observational evidence for dark matter and dark energy. I will discuss some of the proposals for dark matter and dark energy, and connect them to high-energy physics. I will also present an overview of an observational program to quantify the properties of dark energy.

Kolb’s presentations are, I found, entertaining and informative. At least, I laughed at his jokes — take that as you will. Much of the technical content can also be found in written form in, e.g., Cliff Burgess’ “Lectures on Cosmic Inflation and its Potential Stringy Realizations” (2007).

(Tip o’ the fedora to Jester.)

UPDATE (5 March): the newest figures, from the five-year WMAP results, are that the Universe is 72.1% dark energy, 23.3% dark matter, and 4.62% — everything else.

Hillary, Kepler and Tycho

Mrs. Bad Astronomer has a guest post on her husband’s weblog, pondering why the press typically refers to Hillary Clinton by her first name. This called to my mind a related question in astronomy, appropriately enough, which I’d like to toss out as thought-food:

Two of the greatest figures in the Scientific Revolution are Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe. The former was among the greatest mathematicians of his day, and the latter had comparable prowess with astronomical observations. And, for some reason, everybody calls the first one “Kepler,” while the second is known as “Tycho.” Look on a map of the moon: there’s a crater called Tycho, where a monolith was found nine years ago, and one called Kepler (the names for these and other craters were doled out by an Italian astronomer, Giambattista Riccioli, in 1651, who was a big fan of Tycho and attached his name to the most prominent crater). Both men invented models for how the solar system worked; nowadays, historians of science speak of the “Tychonic universe,” which had the Sun going round the Earth but other stuff going around the Sun, and everybody still talks about Kepler’s Three Laws.

Is it just that “Johannes” is too generic, while “Brahe” sits roughly on the tongue?

Given their tempestuous working relationship — Kepler and Tycho were not the sort of personalities which could get along — I’m sure the celebrity magazines of their day would have blessed them with a joined name, something like “Jo-cho” (sounds like Yoko), if those magazines had only existed.

2007 TU24: Essay Questions

Now that asteroid 2007 TU24 has safely passed us by, without a single one of the apocalyptic consequences foretold by doomsayers, a few questions linger in the mind:

1. How long will the aforesaid doomsayers keep their act going? “The asteroid isn’t outside of Earth’s magnetosphere yet! Just you wait! The worst is yet to come, because I can still feel its astrological influence perturbing the quantum vibrational levels of my chakras!”

2. How many trivial events, the likes of which happen every day, will be claimed as effects of the asteroid’s passage?

3. Who wants to play Asteroids on my projector TV?

Phil Plait on 2007 TU24

I haven’t posted a video in a while. So, in honor of today being Friday, here goes:

This is the formidable Phil Plait, explaining why the doomsayers are wrong about asteroid 2007 TU24. Four days from now, when we’re still here, I wonder how those people will react: will they just slink back into the shadows of the Net, or will we be treated to absurd stories about, say, website hit counters acting like prayer wheels and saving us from the Terrible Rock of Doom?

Physics from Open Yale Courses

Yale has started putting course material online in a systematic way, following in the grand tradition of MIT’s OpenCourseWare. Among the handful they’ve uploaded so far, the two which catch my eye the most strongly are Fundamentals of Physics and Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics. These classes come with Quicktime video of the lectures, and all material is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Hat tip: Peter Suber.

Cosmic Tentacular Goodness

With Phil and PZ together in the same place, it’s only fitting that today’s Astronomy Picture has placed cephalopods in the heavens:

A beautiful blue ion tail has become visible in deep telescopic images of Comet Holmes. Pointing generally away from the Sun and also planet Earth, the comet’s ion tail is seriously foreshortened by our extreme viewing angle. Still, enthusiastic comet watchers have remarked that on the whole, the compact but tentacled appearance suggests a jellyfish or even a cosmic calamari.

Go here for pix.

Rob Knop on Supernovae

Rob Knop, having decided to leave, has discovered that the SB Overlords will remove the archives of his blog sometime during the next couple months. Rather than let them vanish entirely into the memory hole like a factual comment on a creationist blog post, I thought I’d mirror a few here at Sunclipse. (In no way will Dr. Knop be responsible for answering comments on these mirrors, or anything like that; I’d just like to preserve the information.) First up is an essay from 10 October 2007, “Supernovae: the source of cosmic rays.” I have something of an interest in big stars going boom — check the SNEWS link over in the sidebar and say hello to my old colleagues — so I don’t want to see good explanations of this stuff slip away into the aether.
Continue reading Rob Knop on Supernovae

Dawkins in The Sunday Times

Peter Millar writes for the Times Online about Richard Dawkins and his latest antics.

Even modern global oil corporations have used dowsers to search for deposits. But now Richard Dawkins, the man who told you that God was not only dead but had all along been a bogeyman invented by bogeymen, has levelled his sights at the whole new age caravanserai, including astrologers, spirit mediums, faith healers and homeopathic medicine. Is it high noon for the Age of Aquarius? It is the believers in Aquarius (and Leo and Taurus and Pisces) who attract the first body blow in Dawkins’s new Channel 4 series The Enemies of Reason, which begins next week.

Dawkins is horrified that 25% of the British public has some belief in astrology — more than in any one established religion — and that more newspaper column inches are devoted to horoscopes than to science. Leaning back on a sofa in the faded gothic splendour of Oxford’s 14th century New College he sighs with something approaching despair: “It belittles our universe. To have astrologers demeaning astronomy by tapping into the spine-tingling wonder of the universe is . . .” he struggles briefly for a word, then finds one and pronounces it with a keen awareness of the irony: “Sacrilegious!”

Channel 4 commissioned The Enemies of Reason as a follow-up to The Root of All Evil? (2006). The first broadcast is scheduled for 13 August 2007, with the second installment broadcast one week later.

(Via Peter Mc at the Beagle Project.)

Behe on The Colbert Report

Last night, Michael Behe was Stephen Colbert’s guest on The Colbert Report. It was, shall we say, educational.

BEHE: Nobody was searching for the limits of Newton’s theory when Newton first proposed it. He thought that he had solved all of physics. But then when —

COLBERT: You mean about how — how apples fall?

BEHE: Apples fall, cannonballs go. But then —

COLBERT: Mm-hmmm.

BEHE: But then when —

COLBERT: He invented the cannonball? He invented the dive — the cannonball?

[audience laughs]

BEHE: Cannonballs fly.

Oh, yes. It’s nice to know that nobody checked to see if Newton was right, or if “universal gravitation” was really universal.

Wait. You say that it was Edmund Halley who used Newton’s laws to predict that comets travel in elliptical orbits, and that the comet seen in 1456, 1531, 1607 and 1682 would return in 1758? How could Halley say such a thing, after Newton had made his view clear that all comets travel in parabolic paths? It’s in the Principia, for Heaven’s sake! And you say that Halley was the one who realized that the stars are not fixed to a “celestial firmament” but instead move through space? How dare you imply that the views of one person are not the entirety of science! Sir, how dare you have the temerity to insist that people did not take Newton at his word but instead used his theories to make predictions about the world which they could then compare to observations to — I can hardly even articulate such a heretical notion — see if Newton was wrong.

What! Are you telling me it was the French, those wine-swilling, toad-munching surrender monkeys, who had the audacity to test Newton’s prediction that the Earth is an oblate spheroid? Sir, you could tell me all you want about the 1735 expeditions to Peru and Lapland under Charles-Marie de La Condamine and Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis respectively — the former of which incidentally brought back the first rubber and curare Europe had ever seen — but the mere suggestion that Newton’s word was not good enough is so repugnant I refuse to consider the matter further.

It gets better:
Continue reading Behe on The Colbert Report