Friday, January 23, 2009

But where's the Monolith?

Grab a set of 3d glasses (those red and blue ones) and take a look at this video from the Japanese Space Agency's Kaguya (Selene for those gaijin among us) lunar probe.

So, what are you looking's a stereo image of the Tycho crater on the moon. If that name sounds familiar, it's named after 17th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. It was also the spot where, in Arthur C. Clark's 2001 where the TMA-1 monolith was uncovered. It's the white spot in the lower center of the picture on the left.

Tycho Crater is the result of a large impact that's fairly young as lunar craters go, a mere 108 million years. Take a moment to think about that, the impact that created the crater happened when the dinosaurs were strolling through the park. Imaging the view they had of a huge flash of light on the surface of the moon. They could probably see the huge ejecta splash that formed that white ray system that makes Tycho so easy to see.

One of the very cool things about looking at Tycho is the central mountain peak. It was formed when the crater was made. When the impactor hit the lunar surface, the incredible pressure and energy imparted liquefied the lunar crust and so it behaved in the same way dropping a pebble into a pond does, by sending out ripples and making a splash. That splash of molten rock is what has formed the central mountain peak.

Our closest neighbor is a still a pretty cool place.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Good, Bad and simply AWESOME!

Yesterday was a sad day for those of us who remember the 1960s, both Ricardo Montalban and Patrick McGoohan passed away. The first time I remember seeing Ricardo Montalban was in the Star Trek episode Space Seed and was struck by not only his phenomenal voice but the the power he brought to the part. Khan (Ricardo's character in the episode) went on to become one of the greatest characters ever to come out of the original series.

For more on Ricardo Montalban, here's his entry in IMDB.

Patrick first caught my attention when the local PBS station was rebroadcasting the The Prisoner along with it's Saturday Night SciFi block (my first Doctor was John Pertwee btw :-) ). After devorering him as Number 6, I discovered Danger Man or as it was broadcast here in the United States, Secret Agent. Like Ricardo, Patrick's voice and presence on screen made the series stand out.

For Patrick's bio, I refer you to Wikipedia.

My thoughts are with the families and friends that both these great actors left behind and a heartfelt thanks to the them for all the fond memoies they've given us.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Rant Alert

Sorry, but it's "That" time again. Time when the level of stupid reaches the flood gates of tolerance and it spills over all over my shoes...

I've been reading multiple blogs on the spate of anti science legislation that is popping up a couple of states. Both The Bad Astronomer and P.Z.'s Pharyngula blogs have the details but the basic gist of these bills is this; Evolution as described by Darwin is a theory and not fact. Because it's a theory, alternative "theories" should also be taught.

Sounds reasonable enough on the surface except that the people who are backing these are religious fundamentalists who want creationism taught as a science. It comes down to a misunderstanding of what science is. To a fundamentalist, science seems to mean a philosophy akin to their religion. To everybody else, science is a tool or method for of exploring and defining the natural world . The supernatural has no place in science as, by definition, it is beyond the natural world. In science, a theory is a collection of observations, evidence and ideas that model something in nature. Because it's a model, it can be held up and tested to see if it holds true. A good example of this is Einstein's Theory of Relativity. It's been tested and retested over and over again and still holds to be an accurate model of the universe while Aristotle's theory that the Earth was the center of the universe and the Sun, Planets and stars all revolved around in perfect spheres failed to accurately model what later scientist (particularly one, Galileo) where observing.

This brings up another quality of a theory, it can make logical predictions. Einstein's theory predicted that time would slow (in respect to an outside observer) the closer one approached the speed of light. This prediction was proved correct several times since the 1950s and CERN runs an ongoing Time Dilation experiment currently. Poor Aristotle's theory fell apart because it couldn't explain or predict the retrograde motion observed in the motion of several planets.

So, what does this have to do with original rant? Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a good scientific theory as it cites observations and make predictions that can be tested. The creationist's intelligent design theory makes no testable or observable predictions. Nor does it doesn't cite observations but only hearsay and rumor. It's data source is, in their own words, supernatural and that alone removes it from realm of science.

Beyond the "Teach the controversy" stupidity, these people are trying to stifle the teaching of basic scientific methodology and that can have devastating effects on society. Our society is one based upon science and rational thought. Imagine this, the computer you are using to read this suddenly stops working. Unless you are one of the small percentage of the population that repairs computers, you're out of luck and your machine is going to stay broken. Sure, you could wave a stick over it and maybe say a few words in the hope that it will sudden fix itself but really, you need somebody trained to solve your problem. Now take that example to an extreme and say, oh a nuclear power station suddenly starts to see where this can go.

Not knowing how to fix a computer is not something to be ashamed of (hell I open the hood on my car and immediately curl up into a fetal position) and socially its ok. The problem is that so many fundimetalists don't understand (or worse refuse to try to understand) scientific concepts like evolution and then decide that because they can't understand it, it's beyond understanding. They call scientists snobs or elitist because they use a vocabulary that is not in the everyday lexicon of the general public. They fail to understand that every profession has it's own linguistic shorthand and not everybody is trained enough in that area to understand it. It comes down to a very old saying, "If it was easy then anybody could do it".

Anyway, I'd like to close with a request....Fundamentalist, please stop relishing the ignorance and stop trying to send us back to the Dark Ages....they were called that for a reason folks.

She worked WHERE?!

Just caught up with reading Nicole's One Astronomer's Noise blog and discovered that she did her under grad work on the VLBA. She's got a lot of info on the hows and whys of the VLBA (plus just being a fun read).

So, go over and pay her a visit and tell her that Greg95111 says hi!

Monday, January 5, 2009

But Officer, My speedo said 500,000mph...honest

Do you ever get the feeling that the galaxy is spinning out of control and the best thing to do is just hang on for the ride? Well guess what, that feeling may be more accurate than you might think.

Scientist using the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) have discovered that our Milky Way galaxy is spinning about 100,000mph faster than previously thought. According to the findings, our solar system is moving through space at a respectable 600,000mph. To give that some sort of perspective, the average distance between the Earth and the Moon is 250,000 miles and it took the Chandrayaan-1 probe took 2 weeks to travel to the moon and the Apollo Astronauts did it in about 3 days.

They also found that our galaxy is about 50% more massive that what was previously estimated. This puts the Milky Way about even with Andromeda in terms of mass. This also means that our chances of colliding with another galaxy has increased as well. Why is that you might ask? Well, remember that gravity is the result of mass. The higher the mass, the more gravity there is and the farther away it's influence is felt (thanks to the Inverse Square Law).

So, where does this extra mass come from? Good question and one that's at the forefront of Astrophysics at the moment. We think it has to do with something called Dark Matter. Dark Matter eh?, sounds like some sort of Star Wars baddie doesn't it? Well, the truth is, it's a place holder. A way of describing something that we can't directly observe. Dark Matter may be something as simple as dust particles that don't emit or reflect very much light. It might also be something exotic and brand new to physics. Scientist can see what Dark Matter does (speeding up the expansion of the universe is one of the results that are being studied) but so far they haven't seen the stuff and until they do, the placeholder name will remain.

As amazing as these discoveries are, the tool that was used is just about as mind boggling. The VLBA is one incredible machine. You may have heard it said that in astronomy, aperture is king. Aperture is simply a measurement of how much information (in terms of the electro-magnetic spectrum) a telescope can collect. The larger the aperture, the more data can be collected and the farther the scope can look. Most research telescopes have apertures described in terms of metres or feet but the VLBA might be described in terms of miles! VLBA is made up of 10 radio telescope dishes spread from Hawaii to St. Croix Virgin Islands. Each telescope dish is 25 metres across and because all ten are linked together and work as a single unit, the aperture of the VLBA is about the same as the diameter of the Earth. It can resolve objects in space about 50 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Pretty cool isn't it?!

Here's the original report!
And to the VLBA