Category Archives: Astronomy

Astrology Spam

I was just going through the ol’ Akismet spam bucket, and I noticed that my blag has recently started receiving astrology spam. First came the “Free Youtube Astrology Videos,” and then the “Free Daily Horoscopes.” Anybody else been seeing these?

It’s quite a combination: spam, an affront to basic courtesy, conjoined with astrology, an insult both to science and to human dignity. I mean, where’s the morality in judging a person by their star sign instead of who they are? Or, worse yet, in saying that those chance alignments of distant planets set limits on who we are, how our personalities can develop and what we can do. If you take it at all seriously, a claim like “Leos are dominant and aggressive but not verbally subtle” is less than a hair’s breadth from saying, “Well, he’s awfully articulate for a Leo, isn’t he?”

The only difference between the questions “What’s your sign?” and “Got any Negro blood in you, boy?” is the history of hatred attached to the latter, and the long timespan astrology has had to distance itself from the days when it was the propaganda tool of tyrants.

Incidentally, you gotta wonder what life would be like if entrail-reading had survived, and astrology had instead been the fortune-telling scam to fade away. Might we be having barroom conversations with lines like, “Why, I’m a pancreas too!” and reading daily newspaper columns about how gallbladders should look to spleens for love?

Vegetarian and vegan pagans might be having themselves a hard time, too. Or would the ceaseless efforts of human inventiveness yield a way to scry the future in a block of tofu?

The Physics of Bronze Age Mythology

Normally, when one sees a book title of the form The Physics of Imaginary Thing X, the implication is that X (Star Trek, superheroes, the Buffyverse, etc.) is being compared to the real world in order to illuminate how the real world works in a fun and memorable way. What would it take for warp drive to work, and how much energy is required to o’erleap a tall building in a single bound? If, as they often are, the movies are horribly wrong, can we use that wrongness to explain what is right?

Plenty of possible titles exist for future works in the same genre, but it looks like Frank Tipler has taken the matzo with his latest:

The Physics of Christianity.
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The third Carnival of Space is up at Universe Today. This is a new carnival, and it looks like it might be a weekly affair.

The deadline for the eighth Carnival of Mathematics is also fast approaching. And let’s not forget the 61st Skeptic’s Circle, targeted for 24 May and hosted by the inimitable Skepchicks. In a stunning display of synchronicity, the physical-science carnival Philosophia Naturalis #10 will appear on the same day!

Eta Carinae

I remember a time when it seemed like I was the only person in the world who knew that stars we could see in the night sky might one day go foom, letting us read at night or, possibly, destroying the habitability of our planet. Of course, I couldn’t have been alone in knowing this, since I found out about it by reading books by other people, but in the dark times of Web 0.1, before writers and scientists were people who listened to music and got in spats with one another, it was easy to feel alone while exploring the heavens.

And now, look, everybody who reads the Washington Post knows about Eta Carinae, thanks to Joel Achenbach:

I dropped by NASA headquarters last Monday to hear about the relatively nearby and extremely massive star that might explode at any moment. Remember the name: Eta Carinae. Sounds like an Italian opera singer, or maybe a snazzy little sports car. It’s a monster of a star — something like 120 times the mass of the sun, and roiling, heaving, spewing out gobs of star stuff in what may be the prelude to a cataclysmic bang, a supernova unlike any seen before.

If it blows, you might be able to read a book by its radiance at night — unless it fires a narrow beam of gamma rays right at us, in which case all bets are off. One astrophysicist on hand said, “It would probably destroy all the ozone in the atmosphere.” Similar to what we tried to do ourselves, before we banned those nasty chlorofluorocarbons. Eta Carinae would be like a giant can of 1950s hairspray. Not a pleasant picture.

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A Quarter of Everything

I have just two quibbles with this New Yorker article on the Large Hadron Collider to which Scott Aaronson directed my attention. First, throughout her informative story, Elizabeth Kolbert consistently abbreviates “Large Hadron Collider” as “L.H.C.” I’ve yet to see anybody in the physics community use the periods when they write “LHC.” Is this some official policy which we, the project’s website and the rest of the Internet just are too lazy to follow? Or are these strange little dots the product of a New Yorker in-house style guide demanding their presence based on some holier-than-Sinai rule about tiny ink specks? If the latter is the case, the foolish prescriptivist responsible needs an introduction to my friend the clue-by-four.

My second and marginally more serious complaint involves the following passage from page five:
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Wired: Low Voltage

Wow, the hunt for extrasolar planets is really looking up:

NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder, or TPF, is already underway. The artist’s rendering shows a traditional telescope on the left — a visible-light chronograph — that will launch in 2016 and pick out likely candidates. An array of infrared telescopes (right) will launch four years later and look for life signatures.

So says a short in today’s Wired magazine by Bruce Gain and Kristen Philipkoski. Unfortunately, it looks like Wired is not fully plugged in. Keith Cowing of NASA Watch wrote well over a year ago,

According to NASA’s FY 2007 budget documentation “The Terrestrial Planet Finding project (TPF) has been deferred indefinitely.” In other words, it is dead. NASA is just afraid to say so.

As of 18 April 2007, the lack of funding means that TPF has no launch date. So, Wired notwithstanding, TPF is grounded. It just couldn’t get past the budgetary resistance.

Every once in a while I get the feeling that reporters can be real dim bulbs, you know?

(Via Steinn Sigurðsson.)

A Wet World Far Away?

I was just hopping over to Bad Astronomy to check out Phil Plait’s site layout. Focusing on the margin widths, I didn’t see the text for several heartbeats. When I did, my heart stopped.

The European Southern Observatory has let forth a yawp over the rooftops of the world, announcing the most Earthlike extrasolar planet yet discovered. It’s about five times the Earth’s mass, it orbits the red dwarf Gliese 581 once every thirteen days. . . and it just might have liquid water on its surface.
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Roseanne: Your Guide to the World of Facts

Via a bloke (or blokette?) named Technogeek, I present for your delectation Roseanne Barr on black holes:

Quantumarai Eve is a black hole in time/space… mythologically she is the declawed clone of Lilith. Lilith is the actual hidden female face of the once removed from male Eve. Lilith is like Kali, and other goddesses before her, a powerful destroyer. She has the last word while men sleep. She, like all goddesses was a focal point to keep the women in line, as they feared she would kidnap and kill their newborn male babies. Much of women’s time in matriarchal tribes was spent in pacifying her(fear of the female’s hatred of the children of other women). There was a Priestess to intercede on behalf of women.

All of this female (denser energy) myth even now is a way to explain cosmic black holes. The female end of the gender pole is about receiving and the male end is about transmitting. The black hole cannot transmit, only receive…its explosion creates light and belches matter out…it becomes male upon its “birth”. Everything comes from black holes, not their effect..that is the error in calculation that is being corrected by science right now, and makes all other myths obsolete…thank you for understanding my poetry! The snake is a wormhole!

General relativity never made so much sense!

Gamma-Ray Burst of Damocles

Back in 1979, Isaac Asimov let loose a book called A Choice of Catastrophes. It covered a whole spectrum of Very Bad Things, from the end of humanity (a relatively mild outcome) to the extinction of the Universe itself. Being Asimov, he voiced his concerns about overpopulation and the degrading environment, but the publisher nixed his take on another threat: terrorism. (If I ever make a third visit to Boston University’s Asimov Archive, I’ll have to try hunting down the original draft.)

Our understanding of catastrophes has advanced since 1979. We’ve learned more about the potential disasters lurking in human nature, and we also know a few more things about what the sky might have in store for us. So, give a big cheer for the one, the only, the inimitable Phil Plait, who is unleashing upon an unwitting world Death from the Skies!

Continue reading Gamma-Ray Burst of Damocles