All posts for the month December, 2003

The starbirth region NGC 604 in the galaxy M33, courtesy Space Telescope Science Institute.

The starbirth region NGC 604 in the galaxy M33, courtesy Space Telescope Science Institute.

I thought I’d end the year with a nice bang-up picture of starbirth fireworks in another galaxy, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. 2003 has been a lovely year for astronomy — lots of cool pictures to look at, and plenty of objects to observe from our backyards. Even the end of the year has cooperated, giving us here in our neck of the woods some uncommonly clear night-time skies at a time when there’s more likely to be snow and rain. So, let’s have a little New Years’ Eve Star Party. If you’re outdoors around midnight, the moon will be low in the west, and Saturn will be low in the east. Saturn will be nearly overhead in the constellation Gemini. While you’re there, drop your gaze down to the feet of the twins and look for a little globular cluster called M35. Also, don’t miss the Pleiades, over by the horns of Taurus. Have a safe New Year’s Eve celebration! Click here for a larger version (dialup warning: it may take a few minutes to open).

star map!

star map!

This time of year, when the Sun is (for us in the northern hemisphere) appearing quite low in the sky during its daily journey, can be chilly and raw. Imagine going through a 70-year-long period where the Sun wasn’t very active (i.e. very, very few sunspots, less intense radiation) and as a result, we experienced colder weather throughout the year, no matter where the Sun was in the sky. You’d wonder if we weren’t slipping into an Ice Age or something. Or these days, you might think to yourself “Global warming caused this? Huh?”
Well, the Sun did do go a little wonky back in the mid-1600s and if a couple of scientists have their theories right, one of the unexpected results was an advance in the art of violin-making. To get the whole story, you have to bring together solar physics, earth science, climatology, and violin makers. From these seemingly disparate elements, you get beautiful music!
Between the years 1645 and 1715 the Sun only rarely showed any sunspots (a period of solar history called the Maunder Minimum). The effect on the weather was obvious: long winters and cool summers (particularly in western Europe), that in turn changed growing seasons, food supplies, people’s health and, interestingly enough, on tree rings. Researchers found what looks like a “Maunder Minimum effect” reflected in the tree-ring records from high-elevation forest stands in the European Alps. The frigid winters and cool summers of this 70-year period produced wood that has slow, even growth, which is reflected in the narrow, evenly-spaced tree rings of some European trees of the time. It turns out that these are very desirable properties if you are a producer of quality sounding boards for musical instruments.

Where did I find out about this? I was reading a press release from Columbia University detailing a joint research project between scientists at the Lamont Earth Observatory and the Laboratory of Tree Ring Science at the University of Tennessee. They noticed a correlation between the tree ring sizes, the Maunder Minimum-induced Little Ice Age, and the fact that some of the most beautiful-sounding musical instruments (particularly violins) were created during this time. They wrote in their press release:

“Antonio Stradivari of Cremona, Italy, perhaps the most famous of violin makers, was born one year before the beginning of the Maunder Minimum. He and other violinmakers of the area used the only wood available to them — from the trees that grew during the Maunder Minimum. [Scientists Lloyd Burckle and Henri Grissino-Mayer] suggest that the narrow tree rings that identify the Maunder Minimum in Europe played a role in the enhanced sound quality of instruments produced by the violinmakers of this time. Narrow tree rings would not only strengthen the violin but would increase the wood’s density.

The onset of the Maunder Minimum at a time when the skills of the Cremonese violinmakers reached their zenith perhaps made the difference in the violin’s tone and brilliance. Climate conditions with temperatures such as those that occurred during this time simply can not and do not occur today in areas where the Cremonese makers likely obtained their wood.”

Now this is kind of cool because it’s another example of the what I like to think of as the “interrelatedness” of sciences. Chances are you’d never think that solar physics, earth science, climatology, dendrochronology (the study of tree rings), and music technology would all have anything in common with each other. But, in the grand harmony of the universe, it appears that a star, a planet, climate changes, human hands, and a tree can all act together to produce something that itself produces more beauty and harmony.

So, the plucky little Beagle 2 lander isn’t phoning home. It’s a painful time for the British scientists who poured so much time and effort into their machine — with each passing day it seems that they will be the newest members of a very exclusive club of people who risked big for big returns. The Mars Orbserver team knows the pain of that loss. So do the folks on the Mars Polar Lander teams. And others who have had problems and failures with spacecraft. There’s a real sense of loss and grief among these people. I remember when the Mars Observer was lost. Some of the people at the lab where I worked were part of the science team for that probe and they were numb and silent, a few in tears, over the disappearance of the mission.

It’s easy to say, “Well, these things happen” and it’s true that they do. But it doesn’t make it any easier. There’s not much you can say to make it better for the teams, but there’s a lot you can say that makes it worse. I think the “Beagle was the icing on the cake” and the “cherry on the cake” comments from the German and French science team members were about as thoughtless as it comes. Of course, I don’t know the complete quote, nor the context in which they made those statements, but if I were one of the anxious and worried British astronomers whose spacecraft was apparently lost, I would be livid at such comments. They look taunting and boorish. And make me wonder if scientific courtesy is lost on those who achieve success but cannot spare a few moments’ thought before they speak ill of their partners’ misfortune.

Well, I hope that the Beagle 2 does phone home. If it doesn’t we can use its disappearance to give us MORE data points on how to target robotic probes to Mars. Eventually though, it’s going to take a closer human touch at the controls of a Mars-bound spacecraft. When that will happen is anybody’s guess. But for now — with the approach of the next Mars probes (the Mars Exploration Rover missions, scheduled to land on January 3 and January 24, 2004), we’ve got more robots to attend to on the red planet.