Friday, July 31, 2009

Funny Youtube Video

I came across this from Bad Astronomy and thought I would share it. Ridicule can be the best medicine.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

2012 Pt. 2 - Death from Supernova

Here is the second part of what will probably be a several post expose on the 2012 "theory". I will focus on one or two events and go into some depth in each of them. Hopefully some interesting knowledge will be picked up instead of just debunking silly claims. Try googling 2012. You will find information about the movie that is coming out shortly as well as some remarkably irrational and intellectually lazy websites such as Survive 2012 among the thousands of hits that get returned. Herein lies a problem. If you accept ideas you read from a search engine query without skepticism it is easy to get drawn into a clusterfuck of poorly researched websites that belong in the fiction section of the internet.

On the front page of the aforementioned website it states "There is zero scientific evidence that anything will happen in 2012...", OK good start. Then the devolve into hypothesizing about random armageddon events that lack any causal relationship whatsoever with the Mayan calendar date of I will go over the space based events in this post and show that there is no evidence that any of them pose a threat on December 21st, 2012.

I will try to make this informative not just relating to 2012 but also in ways that the universe just may kill us in the future. The Cosmos can be a rather nasty place. Stellar events, radiation, explosions that make Hiroshima look like a firecracker, comets and asteroids hurdling by at many kilometers per second among many others have the potential to wipe out life as we know it on the planet earth. This will be very brief and I would recommend checking out Phil Plait's book Death from the Skies if you want more information on the topic. I haven't read it yet but I hear it is excellent.

The one I hear often is "Galactic Alignment". They postulate that the Earth, the Sun, and the Centre of the Milky Way will all be aligned on this winter solstice. The theories are rather convoluted and i encourage you to read more about it if you are curious but the end result is that nothing will happen. The Milky Way is around 7000 light years thick. The orbit of our solar system does slowly shift "up and down" as we happily orbit the center. This process takes millions of years. It is all a continuous process there is no dates where we can say that we are exactly in the middle because it is all rather fuzzy. Most of the other arguments that are made are taken from astrology. As soon as you see that you may as well stop reading. The most compelling, cogent argument needs to be tossed out if the premise in which it was based on is blatantly false such as astrology. If you want to read your horoscope for entertainment fine, not my business, but predicting the "End of Days" on it is just ridiculous.

The next one I will look at is the supernova. These are real and have the potential to kill us if we were within a specific radius. Luckily for us we know how supernovae happen and we are far enough away from potential candidate stars to be safe. These events happen at the end of a star's life. There are two main types of supernovae, they are designated type 1A and type 2. Type 2 supernovae occur when a massive star, several times the mass of our sun to around a hundred times the mass, to run out of fuel and explode.

Stars are a delicate balance of gravity and radiation pressure which I will get to in a moment. If you have ever dove into a pool or river deeper than 8 feet you will notice that as you descend you begin to notice the pressure on your ear drums. Now imagine a star it is REALLY big. It has tremendous gravity and therefore a great deal of pressure and 'pull' towards the centre. This pressure causes the star to heat up, increasing the speed that the atoms are banging into one and other until eventually they hit each other hard enough that they stick together. It is called nuclear fusion, which generates more energy than it consumes. You can picture it as climbing a roller-coaster where the drop at the end is longer than the hill approaching it. You need energy to climb the hill but once you get to the top you will exit with more speed than you started with. This energy is given off in the form of light. This light actually exerts a force, just like pushing against a wall in your home. Gravity however hasn't disappeared. Gravity wants the star to collapse into a single point since it is always attractive. Therefore this radiation pressure and gravity are locked in a delicate balance for the duration of the star's life.

The fun begins when it runs out of fuel, like a gambler sitting at a blackjack table who eventually runs out of chips (or my friends who bet stupidly large amounts of money on single hands of war). Gravity begins to win out. The radiation pressure simply isn't enough and it begins to collapse. During this collapse the gravitational potential energy heats of the material in the star and causes it to explode in a spectacular fashion. This explosions created all of the elements heavier than iron that we see today on the planet Earth. If a planet is within approximately 100 light years the energy released can be enough to do serious harm to a planet such as earth. Fortunately there are no nearby stars that are in danger of going supernova in the near future. The most likely candidate is Eta Carinae. It is a massive star approximately 9000 light years away. It could explode tomorrow or in 100,000 years. Astronomers do not know. Luckily we will just be treated to a spectacular light show in the sky, not armageddon.

The second type of supernova is called type 1A. This can occur in binary systems with stars similar to the mass of our sun. Smaller stars don't have this violent end. They slow enlarge as they age. Our sun will have a radius extending out past the orbit of Venus and possibly past Earth. Regardless we will be nicely toasted. It then sheds off its outer atmosphere and becomes a planetary nebula leaving behind a corpse, a white dwarf star. It no longer produces energy and will be approximately the size of the Earth slowly radiating away its heat and eventually cooling into a dead cinder. The density of this star will be mind boggling, approximately 1 metric tonne per cubic centimeter. That is similar to a freight train cargo container in a teaspoon. It is made out of electron-degenerate matter, I will leave it up to you to read up on that if you are interested.

If the white dwarf has a partner, which many do, matter can begin falling onto the corpse of the star. It happily builds up in an accretion disk around the star from matter being sucked in from its companion. It will continue to do this until it reaches a limit where gravity again becomes the enemy. At 1.38 stellar masses the pull of gravity is able to overcome the degeneracy pressure and cause a supernova. The star collapses and rebounds expelling tremendous amounts of energy and disappears in a cloud of energy and heavy elements.

So there you have it, galactic alignment is a hoax, and supernovae while real and amazingly cool are not close enough to hurt us. We can see the stars in our immediate neighbourhood and we don't have white dwarf binary systems accumulating matter or supergiants ready to collapse. Next time I'll look at 'rouge' planets, asteroids and gamma ray bursts.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Just a little bit small

I found this link a few weeks ago via StumbleUpon and thought I would share it. It amazes me every time. Just a mote of dust suspended in the cosmos.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Quick the World is Ending! Give Me All your Money

If you haven't been living in a cave for the past few years you have probably heard rumblings about the supposed 2012 doomsday predictions. I have been asked this question quite a few times, so I figured it would be a good idea to write it out rather than try to explain how ridiculous the idea is after a few too many drinks at a campfire.

The first thing about the 2012 predictions that I found questionable, to the point of being ludicrous, was the complete lack of a succinct argument. They quote Mayan prophecy, talk about their calendar then jump to the conclusion that the world is going to end. What comes next is a frantic uninformed brainstorm of ideas. Maybe it will be a supernovae, maybe a planet will come barreling through the solar system and knock the Earth off axis, maybe our magnetic field will switch and cosmic rays will fry all life on earth. There is no clear theory whatsoever, it depends on what particular delusional website you feel like reading. I will get to the specifics of the scenarios in separate posts, I just wanted to highlight the background behind it and deal specifically with the Mayan aspect in this one.

The Mayan's were an incredible society. Their knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, art and agriculture was unprecedented in the Americas at this time. They were the first American culture to have a full written language, which is why we know so much about their lifestyle and also why ideas such as Mayan doomsday "theories" exist.

The Mayan's also had an advanced calendar system. They used a combination of a 260 day calendar coupled to a 365 day calendar. This created a cycle that would last for approximately 52 years, which was fine for most people considering they rarely lived that long. This was used for everyday activities such as planning the harvest and religious observances. They also devised a method to measure longer periods of time it was called the Long Count calendar. The same way as we have a 365 day calendar and then measure our years such as July 19, 2009. The 2009 is our equivalent of a Long Count.

It was written in a base 20 format instead of our commonly used system which is base 10. You can think of it like looking at your odometer in your car. Just as you drive your tenth kilometer it rolls over and instead of being 0009 it becomes 0010. The Mayans went up to 20 so 19 would be represented as, 20 as and 400 as (they weren't perfectly base 20, apparently this number actually means 360 but it will be fine for our purposes).

It has been argued although still not understood completely that will mark the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar which corresponds to, you guessed it, December 21st, 2012. Some experts believe that it may go all the way to but there is no conclusive evidence either way. However anyone who studies the Mayan have the same conclusion that regardless of whether it restarts on 13 or 20 it does in fact restart. It goes all the way back to and this ancient calendar will happily start counting again. That my friends is it. No predicted catastrophe, no "spiritual awakening", nothing. There is no evidence that anything out of the ordinary will occur. Lets apply Occam's razor here, is it more likely they hid the knowledge from us and the world is in fact going to go 'poof' or is it more likely that they wouldn't think a bunch of humans with 21st century science and technology would actually give a shit about some archaic (yet historically interesting) calendar.

That is a brief summary of the basis for the entire 2012 argument. A calendar restarting. When December 31st rolls around every year do you enter a state of extreme panic that the world is going to end or do you pop off some champagne and celebrate. That is the exact same thing we are dealing with here.

Doomsday events have been predicted constantly throughout history. Literally thousands upon thousands of times. James Randi on Penn & Teller's Bullshit! has a segment where he lists dozens of doomsday predictions that have not come true. You need to start with the null hypothesis, nothing out of the ordinary will happen on December 21st, 2012 and then build evidence against that idea if you want to be considered credible. You can't make up your mind and scour the internet for dubious sources to support your position. It is intellectually dishonest and shows your true colours of pushing an agenda instead of searching for the facts.

Now that we have established the underling premise behind this idea I will look in my next posts at the potential outcomes that are "predicted".

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Falcon 1 Launches

This is cool, and I would bet money we are going to see a lot more of this in the future. A Malaysian satellite was launched by Space X, a private company. It was the fifth attempt to launch a payload into low earth orbit (LEO) by this company. The first three ended in failure with the launch vehicle breaking up at some point during liftoff, the fourth one was a success launching a dummy payload into LEO.

The satellite called RazakSAT weighs 400lb and can take pictures at resolutions of 8.2 feet in black and white and 16.4 feet in colour. RazakSAT imagery will be used by researchers, commercial customers and government agencies.

Space X is working on two other booster systems, the Falcon 9 which has a much larger payload and the Falcon 1e which has double the payload of the Falcon 1.

I find this interesting not because of the performance of these rockets, which is impressive but due to the doorways it can open up. If commercial spaceflight becomes viable, and investors are able to create a market for initially low earth orbit and eventually beyond the concept of space flight will change forever. No longer will we be bound to government bureaucracy, budget cuts and limited vision. I am just quoting this off wikipedia so don't take this at face value but they are quoting a launch cost for the Falcon 1 at around $7 million dollars. The larger Falcon 9 with the extended lift option is looking at a cost of around $78 million with the ability to launch a geostationary(stays over the same place on the earth at all times, it what your satellite TV uses) satellite. Wow that is really cheap. It might sound like a lot it but consider space tourists. They pay up to $20 million to go up on Soyuz capsules. Imagine them being able to subsidize initial space flights to the ISS by private companies.

I am not saying this is the answer to accessible space flight but it is certainly a step in the right direction. I'm sure there are many obstacles I am missing but compared to the billion dollar shuttle launches I think these private companies have something going for them.

Thanks to Spaceflight Now where I got most of my info considering it only happened a few hours ago and they seemed to have an exclusive info deal with the company.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Hubble Stuff

The first link that came up after I wrote my last post was a youtube video from Hubble Cast. I thought I would share it. Pretty cool pictures.

Endeavour Launch Tonight

I was wondering what I should write about as I was sitting on my porch yesterday night at around 11:40PM. I looked up and fairly low in the horizon I saw a bright star like object that was moving quickly across the sky. I sort of laughed and said, “If God actually existed this sure as shit must be a sign from him”. Sure enough I checked out NASA’s website and at 11:39PM for 2 minutes the International Space Station was visible from Ottawa.

It is hard to believe that 1 700 000 kg of high explosives being detonated over the course of eight minutes to lift seven people into space has become routine. I thought I would briefly delve into the current shuttle mission that is attempting to launch and take a look into what it is trying to accomplish. The previous launch was the final servicing mission to the fabled Hubble Space Telescope. Arguable the most successful satellite ever launched it has revolutionized our view of the universe and brought astonishing pictures back that truly belong to every human being on the planet.I would highly recommend sometime when you are bored to check out some pictures that Hubble has sent back, they are truly breathtaking.

Endeavour will be attempting its launch for the fifth time this evening after a fuel leak and bad weather have caused the previous four attempts to be scrubbed. Currently there is only a 40% chance of launch tonight due to the weather but lets see what happens.

This launch will be part of the ongoing construction efforts of the International Space Station. It will be delivering the final piece of the Japanese experiment “Kibo”. It is being called the “Space Porch” because the experiments will be fully exposed to the vacuum of space. It is also bringing spare parts, food and other necessities for the station with the shuttle is due to retire in 2010. It will take five space walks or EVA’s to install the new module as well as replace some batteries on the older solar panels.

Thirteen people will be onboard the space station during the shuttle docking, the highest number of people ever in a single spacecraft. These people will be living in a volume roughly equivalent to a 1500ft2 house. Compared to the original Mercury or even Apollo modules it is rather roomy. I have stayed on a living room floor with that many people.

I hope everything goes well tonight and look forward to seeing Endeavour safely make it to orbit.


Friday, July 10, 2009


Hello and Welcome,

As I enter the rapidly expanding field of blogging I wanted to outline my goals and ambitions for starting one myself.

First of all I have always enjoyed writing about something I was passionate about. Science, particularly space and physics, has been an interest of mine for years. I feel this is an opportunity to share some of the really interesting stuff that I have learned from external sources as well as academically with whoever wants to listen.

Furthermore we are at a rather interesting place in the field of journalism. Mainstream media, namely print is being replaced by the internet as the medium of choice. Getting up to the minute news for free seems more appealing than paying for day old news for obvious reasons.

As I got more savvy on technical subjects I began to notice a surprising lack of quality mainstream science journalism. While it is understandable that they are looking for catchy headlines with exaggerated or misconstrued meanings I personally do not find this agreeable or acceptable. When I read news I want to hear evidence and the best conclusion as of yet by experts, if I wanted fiction I would be content with picking up a good book.
Over the past year as I began to read more science blogs and was astounded by the quality and detail they were able to produce while being entertaining and readable to the lay audience. Authors such as Phil Plait, P.Z. Meyers and Steven Novella have a style that I have been trying to learn from so I can contribute to the blogging scene.

The final reason is the lack of understanding of science and basic skepticism that permeates our society. All too often people will hear some sort of conspiracy theory, alternative medicine, or other pseudoscience and begin to research it on the internet. Unfortunately information supporting your belief is there just about all the time. It doesn't mean that the evidence is of good quality or from a credible source. There are websites supporting the flat earth theory or the geocentric model. Granted those are extreme cases but it illustrates my point. Information to support your theory regardless of its validity is available online. The key to making your conclusion is parsing through the information and determining if its quality evidence or complete BS.

That just about sums up my goals, I hope you enjoy this new endeavor of mine. Please feel free to leave comments or email me with questions/hate mail. If you see an error please let me know and I will correct it as soon as possible.


Scott Shannon