Dark Sark and the Starry Skies

January 31, 2011 at 13:05 pm | 1 Comment

Another Island of Starry Darkness

In a world increasingly and wastefully lit by lights that shine upward illuminating nothing, the Island of Sark in the English Channel has become the first dark sky island.  It was so-designated by the International Dark Sky Association, which noted that the island’s non-use of public street lighting — in fact, it has no paved roads or cars — makes it an ideal palce form which to see the dark sky.

Sark is one of only a few places in the world that are designated dark-sky sites.  The others are Hortobágy Starry Sky Park in Hungary, Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah (USA), Galloway Forest Park in Scotland, Zselic National Landscape Protection area in Hungary, Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania (USA), Geauga Park District Observatory Park in Ohio (USA), Clayton Lake State Park in New Mexico (USA), and Goldendale Observatory Park in Washington (USA).

This designation is made to identify and honor protected public places that make a commitment to warding off light pollution and pre serving access to the dark sky.  It’s not just about stargazing, but also about committing to wise energy usage (that is, not wasting money lighting up the sky), and wise lighting practice. This is something that affects life on our planet — not just humans, but all life that is tuned to the circadian rhythms of night and day, light and dark.

I’ve never been able to understand why it is that politicians in the U.S. do NOT work toward the energy savings that could result from wiser use of lighting.  Is it because they don’t care? Are they pressured NOT to care by those who make money from our energy use?  Or, is the difference between night and day just not morally apparent to them anymore?  It may come as a shock to those who think that with lighting we are safer and without it we are heathens or something, but you know what?  We need that cycle of night and day. Our economy, our environment, our health depends on it.  Even lighting companies are hopping on the bandwagon of wise use, as represented by the many who are involved in IDA’s outreach. They (and all of us who advocate for wise lighting use) know that lighting up the sky to sell a few more cars or illuminate a religious statue (an ironic use of light, really), or blind oncoming drivers with fancy, actinic-glowboards advertising the latest monster truck rally at the coliseum, is simply showing that we have money to burn.  When, in fact, we don’t.  A world in recession doesn’t need to splash its graphics to space. The universe doesn’t care about our light usage.  But, we should.  The wiser our use of lighting, the less we spend on burning the fuels that are harming our environment.

And, yes, the more stars we will be able to see at night. We came from the stars. We should be able at least glimpse them once in a while.

Stars and Remembrance

January 27, 2011 at 10:20 am | 1 Comment

A Time to Pause

Remembering NASA's lost astronauts

The last week in January and the first week of February marks three tragedies that befell NASA since its formation: the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967, the breakup of 51L — space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, and the loss of the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. Each event marked a fatal steppingstone for NASA, and for all those who favor the exploration of space. Each event also marked a turning point and a lesson learned for those who design and build the vehicles that get our astronauts to space.

Just as the U.S. and most other countries salute their fallen military heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice for what they believe in, and as we all honor those who risk their lives to save others (firefighters, law enforcement, and many others), today we take a moment and pause to remember those who gave their lives for the peaceful pursuit of space exploration.

Today is NASA’s Day of Remembrance for the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. Take a moment today to pause and think about these people and their families.


January 26, 2011 at 11:35 am | Leave a Comment

Why Are They Always Acting Like Bad Humans?

I was browsing around the vast pool of Web knowledge about aliens the other day and I was struck by how awful we humans think aliens are.  Judging by how they’re portrayed in the popular media, it would seem that they are everything we’d like to think we as human beings are NOT. Yet, look at some recent alien descriptions:  mean-spirited, interested in empire building, rapacious, godlike, superintelligent but with the moral development of a flea, overly interested in probing people’s rear ends with strange devices, and occasionally (VERY occasionally, almost to the point of rarity) benevolent. I mean, this all sounds remarkably like some familiar human behavior. In fact, I’ve read similar descriptions of deities, too. Just look at all the portrayals of Mars, the God of War, to see how we also program the gods we worship with some similar, not always pleasant, human traits.

So, why are these “other than human” beings so nasty?  What is it about aliens that have led humans to ascribe the worst of the very human traits to them?  I think it’s psychological, really.  We are hard-wired to ascribe nasty traits to things that we fear, and that includes any possible aliens that might come sailing our way from the planet Promixus Prime or wherever. It probably is wired into that reptilian part of our brains that helps us remain alert to the unusual and sudden events in our lives.

Of course, there’s no proof yet that aliens exist — except in our imaginations. Not one has landed on Earth to give us a friendly “Howdy, neighbor” greeting; at least, none that we know of. And, there’s little to no proof that any have come here. Sure, there’s lots of speculation, but hard scientific proof of alien life just doesn’t exist yet.

There’s certainly plenty of evidence that other planets MAY be able to support life, and in the case of Mars, it may have supported life in the past. But that life was (if it existed), largely the size and complexity of bacteria. Not tentacled life forms or little green men or greys or Pleiadians or whatever else it is that imaginative humans have dreamed up for Mars.  It was likely bacteria. And the same may well be true of other planets with conditions right for life.

It’s tough to imagine a single-celled life form raising up on its tentacles and proclaiming its dominion over the Earth, but you know what? There is one — called bacteriophages. They ARE the most abundant forms of life on our planet. Most of them are not harmful to us, but of course a subset are. If you catch a sinus infection or get an infected cut, you are being overcome by another life form. However, bacteriophages aren’t alien either. And, your gut (and many other animals’ guts) are filled with bacteria that help you digest food.   Those are the “good guy” bacteria. They evolved here on Earth, too, and as far as we know, didn’t come from somewhere else.

The building blocks of life did come from somewhere else — but not other alien worlds. The chemical elements that make up life came from stars that exploded and died and sent their elements out to space. Over time, those elements combined to make molecules, which were incorporated into new generations of stars and planets.  And,  those elements eventually became available for the chemical formation of life on our planet.

They weren’t scattered here by roving alien life forms — that explanation requires too many “what ifs” and concocted scenarios to work; especially when stardeath and starbirth are very much more ubiquitous throughout the galaxy.  Those are much more commonly occurring processes that we can detect and measure. And, we can trace the elements from stars to the elements that help our blood carry oxygen to our brains, and so forth.  There’s a whole science of astrobiology that helps us understand and trace the process of life creation from the elements available in each neighborhood of the galaxy.  That science will help us understand life elsewhere when it is discovered, and most  likely, it will be simple life forms, not the complex monsters we’ve brought up straight from the realm of our worst nightmares (as I wrote in a fulldome planetarium show called MarsQuest ).

No, I’m pretty sure that the aliens we fear the most — the ones we see in movies like “Alien” and on “Star Trek” and in countless science fiction novels featuring flesh-eating monsters and three-legged green dudes who carry off our women and furry creatures that have inspired a whole subset of fans and many others — all those likely exist in our own brains, created by our fertile imaginations and inspired from below by that reptile brain.  We are an imaginative bunch of alien creators!

How to Use Hubble Space Telescope

January 21, 2011 at 13:21 pm | 2 Comments

Schoolin’ Scalia

This past week the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that allows the government to nose farther into the private backgrounds of people who want to work for NASA. Mind you, this isn’t the nosing that people with security clearances need to endure. That’s an entirely different set of investigations for people with a Need to Know certain things.

No, this one applies just to scientists and other technical folk who work at NASA, specifically JPL. I don’t have the legal background to comment on ALL the merits of the case and this entry is not about those merits, although it does seem troubling that you must give up privacy rights to be a scientist (according to a read of the decision, which you can see here, if you wish: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-530.pdf). I did study law for a couple of semesters when I was in grad school, and part of that was an examination of such issues as right to privacy (particularly as it pertains to media), so I do know that privacy is not precisely enshrined in the Constitution of the United States, as such. So, there’s a little ambiguity there. And, the exploitation of that hole in our rights could result in some chilling practices.

What caught my eye in the decision is on page 31, wherein Justice Scalia (writing notes concurring in judgment) notes “Respondents do not even attempt to argue that the claim at issue in this case passes that test, perhaps recognizing the farcical nature of a contention that a right deeply rooted in our history and tradition bars the Government from ensuring that the Hubble Telescope is not used by recovering drug addicts.”

And this gave me pause for thought. The first thing that entered my mind is what’s the issue with a recovering drug addict? If they’re recovering, that means they’re not using drugs anymore. And if they’re not using drugs and are a good scientist, the drugs are in the past and the brilliant science part is NOW.  Does the Justice (in his mean-spirited-looking way) mean to imply that people lose their right to a job or privacy or a chance because they’re recovering from a drug dependency?  If so, and using the logic implied in the Justice’s sarcastic flippancy, can we please also see the drug dependency backgrounds of ALL federal employees, including the Justices and their clerks?  I mean, fair’s fair. If this is what the Justice is hinting at, then we wouldn’t want a recovering drug addict (including alcoholics) to be writing legal opinions or affecting the monetary policy of this country, for example.  And, by drugs and drug addicts to which the Justice infers, then I would infer we should include alcohol and other addictive substances and activities, since, by implication, those are also bad, right?

And, this brings up other questions, like what drugs is Mr. Justice Scalia thinking of? I mean, what if you ARE a recovering alcoholic? Or used to be addicted to sleeping pills? Or uppers?  Are those socially more acceptable to the Justice than some drug like meth that a person may be recovering from? How long before the Justice decides that the government needs to know who you sleep with before you can be allowed to work at JPL? Or what religion you belong to? Or who you associate with socially? Shades of McCarthyism here, and apparently Mr. Justice Scalia doesn’t recognize the camel’s nose sneaking inside the tent.

The other big question that popped into my mind is this: since when did ignorant sarcasm become a staple in Supreme Court decisions? Mr. Justice Scalia employs it  in an effort to get a point across, and fails because he uses an example he clearly hasn’t researched. Which looks somewhat unprofessional in someone who was touted by his appointing president as a “fine legal mind”.

It’s pretty clear that the Justice doesn’t know how HST gets used or what the process is for using it. Given his “fine legal mind,” I’m quite surprised that neither he nor his clerks bothered to look up the process (or heck, call STScI in Baltimore, and ask what the process is for getting to use HST) before throwing out a sarcastic comment in an otherwise staid-looking opinion. I’m no fan of Justice Scalia, but even if I was, I’d be raising my eyebrows at an opinion comment that is so clearly ignorant. You’d think “fine legal minds” would be sticklers for accuracy, particularly in cases where people’s rights and dignity are at stake. But, I’m guessing that he used sarcasm because he didn’t have anything else to fall back on (like knowledge).  I don’t know about you, but if the Supreme Court justices in this country are going to rule on things like this, it behooves them to at least find out what’s involved in science before commenting scathingly about it. Otherwise, to use a word that Mr. Justice Scalia loves to use, the SC Justices show an absurdly low level of knowledge of professions outside of their own.

So, Mr. Justice Scalia, since you’re clearly not in the know about how science gets done (particularly with HST)  this one’s for you. May you and your low-level clerks get it right the next time before you spout off using ignorant sarcasm in a judgment.

How Astronomers Get to Use HST

If you’re an astronomer with an idea about a cosmic object to study, first of all, you’re probably part of a big team of astronomers.  You’ve probably studied for years to get to the point where you can even think about putting in a proposal. Or, you may be a graduate student who has spent more hours in front of a computer analyzing data than you care to think about, and using that experience to move up to the next step in research (usually with permission and guidance from your much older advisor).  You’re not usually a drug abuser because you wouldn’t have gotten to where you are if you were.  You’re also not a lone wolf strolling up to the control center and ‘jacking the scope when nobody’s looking.

No, you are a professional researcher and you have to put in a proposal, outlining the scientific justification for using the Hubble Space Telescope. Generally, you are writing it up with the members of your team. You have to be precise and persuasive about just why — scientifically — you should have your object looked at with HST.

That proposal goes through a LOT of review before it gets sent to a time allocation committee that reviews the merits of the work and decides whether or not to allow use of the telescope.

Once a proposal is accepted for time on HST, it goes into a pipeline of activity that includes dozens of people who work on scheduling the time and getting the observation programmed into the telescope’s computer systems. (I’m paraphrasing here — there’s a lot of technical work that has to be done to get a winning proposal into the pipeline, more details than I have room to go into here — but you can find out by simply asking somebody at STScI or one of the science teams about it — it’s not a secret, so far as I know.)   No ONE person gets to run the telescope. It is done as part of a team of scientists who then rely on a team of controllers and technical staff to get the observation done for them. Just like any other NASA mission, like most other science projects.  It’s just NOT like a Supreme Court justice (who should be dealing in facts as they relate to law) imagines.

How do I know this? Back when I was in graduate school, one of my jobs was to work on team requests to use the telescope.  At no point did anybody’s personal life come into play. It just wasn’t relevant to the SCIENCE being done.  If anybody was a recovering drug addict — an irrelevant personal problem and we didn’t ask a scientist wanting time “Hey did you used to use drugs?” as a prerequisite to be answered before we could talk science — we didn’t know it.   Nor did we care who they were sleeping with. Or what church they went to.  In a team situation, we were focused on the science to be done. That’s what we were paid to do –  not sniff into people’s personal lives.  I also know about how it works because (with co-author Jack Brandt) I wrote a book about HST science and how it gets done. That means I asked questions about how it gets done — something Mr. Justice Scalia (or his minions) could also have done.

So, if you’re had the same idea Mr. Justice Scalia did and think that anybody can just walk up and use the HST, I hope I’ve shown you that it doesn’t work that way.  Teams of human beings work together to program HST and bring back the amazing data and images each day.  I’m glad it works this way: I just wish Mr. Justice Scalia had bothered to ask before employing the witlessness of sarcasm in his concurring opinion.  It leaves me questioning his “fine legal mind” even more. If he doesn’t bother to get THIS right, what else isn’t he getting right?  And I’d ask that question of anybody of any political persuasion who showed so little regard for getting the facts straight about how science works. Double that for anybody in a science job who did NO research and made witless comments based on what they “thought” it might be. Science has no place for such ignorance. I used to think law didn’t either… but now I wonder.

OMG, My Life is Ruined! My Astrological Sign is Wrong!

January 16, 2011 at 11:15 am | 2 Comments

Astrology is Bunk

Oh wow.  Can we get a life for all those folks who are COMPLETELY up in arms because they just NOW found out something that astronomers and all other sensible people have known for centuries: that astrological signs do not line up with the constellations they purportedly represent. This story hit the news a few days ago, and you would think that the world was ending judging by the panicked reactions of those whose lives are measured by little boxes of BS that appear as “astrological advice” in newspapers and magazines.

Folks, astrology is bunk.  I said it up there.  And I’ll say it again. Astrology is bunk.  It doesn’t work. It is a parlor game, a shell game, a way for people who otherwise don’t have any visible means of support to take your money and pretend to tell your future, etc.  It has NO basis in science, in reality, and shouldn’t have any meaning for you other than as fascinating historical oddity dating back to the time when people were superstitious, ignorant of reality, and willing to believe anything… not like now, right?

oh…. wait…

Logic cleanup in aisle three, please!

If you want to know why astrology doesn’t work, let’s start with the fact that, yes, the astrological signs (made up by ancient shamans who had very little understanding of physical processes but who, even in prehistory, had found a way to make mystical BS pay) don’t line up with the constellations they’re supposedly named for.  That’s explained by an entirely measurable and predictable process called precession, which you can read about here (and the first paragraph explains it pretty well, along with the moving graphic).

Then, let’s move on to the often-ignored FACT that a planet moving through the solar system has NO effect on you at your birth or at any time during your life. Its gravity isn’t strong enough to do anything to you (and I have to wonder just how a planet’s gravitational pull would affect your ability to make love or money or win the lottery, but I digress).  A distant planet has NO mysterious powers to predict who you will marry, what your life’s work will be, how much money you’ll win in a game of chance, or any of the other stuff that astrologers claim it can do.  Ask an astrologer how they actually physically measure the powers of the planets in astrology. Then, laugh at the answer, because it won’t make any sense.

Fact is folks, astrology had a useful lifetime of a few centuries many centuries ago when folks didn’t understand the sky and believed in magical beings and fluffy unicorns and other things that we now know don’t exist now.  Astrologers’ study of the sky helped them create star charts, which are the only remaining link between the old outmoded magical beliefs and today’s modern scientific study of the universe called astronomy.

Astrology is a fantasy.  And fantasies have their place. But, in a useful, modern life, the fantasy of astrology should be just no more than a make-believe game. If you use it to predict your love life, your next raise, the stock market, or anything else, you’re living in a fantasy world of your own choosing, not reality.

If you want to know more about why astrology is not a serious science, please read the excellent article at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s website called Horoscopes Versus Telesscopes: A Focus on Astrology.

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