Tag: astronomy

Day 1000: How It Ends

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Inside this cubicle the air is thick as honey, with asphyxiating flecks of the mundane bracing against the irrefutable promise of a golden weekend. Outside these pin-cushion partitions – and indeed inside as well – every tiny molecule in the universe is saying its goodbyes to its neighbors and preparing to splash into the unknown permutations of a distant someday. My fingers hammer at these tiny plastic letters, fully ignorant of what’s to come.

Or are they? The hallowed fingers of esteemed science – no doubt similar in size and shape to my own, only tasked with a far more specific purpose – have combed back the hair of the observable now and picked at the scalp-nits of projection. The fields of astronomy, physics, mathematics, and a cabinet full of –ologies have given us a map of what’s to come. A timeline of time’s last hurrah.

And the best part? If any of these predictions are wrong, every record of them will likely be destroyed before anyone finds out. That’s my kind of science.

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Within 10,000 years, human genetic variation will no longer be regionalized. This won’t mean we’ll all look the same – the blonde gene will still speckle crowds and set up offensive jokes, but it will be distributed equally worldwide. This forecasted panmixia is far more optimistic than astrophysicist Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument, which places our present at roughly the halfway point of humankind’s civilized journey, and projects a 95% likelihood that we’ll be wholly extinct in 10,000 years.

If global warming hasn’t already soaked us into a Kevin Costner-esque hellscape by then, we may also be facing the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which will raise the sea levels by 3 or 4 meters above wherever it will be once we lose the rest of the polar ice caps, which should happen long before then.

Long term forecast: buy a big-ass boat. Read more…

Day 941: Welcoming Our Alien Friends. Or Perhaps Overlords.

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Presently, our only tangible research into the cultural and societal impacts of extra-terrestrial life arriving on Earth seems limited to the fanciful concoctions from the Hollywood daydream machine. Will aliens greet us with a peaceful hand-gesture like they did to that pig-owner guy in the Star Trek movie? Will they fire up the blasters and devastate our cities like that movie where the Fresh Prince teams up with that jazz singer?

Actually, people – and I’m talking about educated people who probably wear business attire to work – have put time and effort into calculating precisely how our society would react to a party of interstellar visitors. Given the unlikelihood of this ever occurring, one could make the argument that the dude who stacks salad plates at your local Sizzler is contributing more to the smooth functioning of society than these educated folks, but I’m not here to make that argument. I’m just the messenger.

When it comes to the purported existence of our little green friends, I find it unfathomably selfish to believe we’re the only slabs of meat who have put together a society in this vast universe. I also believe it likely that someone else has fashioned some sort of tin can (or whatever they have in place of tin) and blasted into space. But to believe they’ll stumble upon us, or even care to say hi if they do? That’s where my credulity glides off the track. Still, it’s fun to daydream.

And always smart to keep some just-in-case signage lying around.

And always smart to keep some just-in-case signage lying around.

For thirty years, the SETI Institute (that’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence for you acronym-lovers) has been using science, research and speculation to look into the likelihood and nature of possible ETs who might drop by unannounced. The first part of the discussion centers around how they contact us. Do they send us a coded message like the ones we’ve launched into deep space? Do they take over our computer systems and implant a digital hello on Google’s front page? Or will they do a pop-in, no prior call, completely oblivious to the fact that we already made plans to watch the game with some old friends from college? Read more…

Day 917: That Big Ol’ Salad Plate Known As Earth

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There are certain scientific truths which appear to be inarguable. Light travels faster than sound, an explosion is exponentially more bad-ass when someone is walking slowly away from it, and the consumption of alcohol makes me a scientifically better dancer. But we have come a long way since our ancestors cracked two rocks together and created a spark which they attributed to the Mistress of Dark Magic.

We no longer give props to the gods for changing the seasons, and rather than attribute those weird sores on our bodies to an infestation of demons, we get a shot of penicillin and stop sleeping with skeevy people we meet at the bus station. Also, we can hop aboard a boat and cruise into the sequined azure horizon without fearing that we’ll drop off the edge of the planet-disc and tumble into the intangible ether.

Well, most of us can. There still exists – and I have no idea just how deeply into their cheeks their tongues may be pressed – a Flat Earth Society. In theory, there are still dozens of dubious doubters who suspect that the so-called globe theory is little more than a ruse being perpetrated by the scientific community for the purposes of… well, I’m not sure why scientists would want us to believe the planet to be a sphere. Globe sales? Communism? Probably communism.

FlatEarth-1

In defense of the ancients, there was really no way for them to know the earth was round. Homer and Hesiod both depicted a flat disc, with the water surrounding the land and stretching to some mysterious edge. Anaximander, a pre-Socratic philosopher whom Carl Sagan has credited with having performed the first ever recorded scientific experiment, saw us as living on the round top of a short, stumpy cylinder. Anywhere you went: India, the Norse lands, China… the earth was flat as a crepe. In fact the Chinese held on to their belief that the earth was flat and square (though the heavens were spherical) until they caught wind of European astronomy in the 17th century. Read more…

Day 850: When Society Slaps Back At The Intelligentsia

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The dumbing-down mentality within our popular culture is so pervasive, even those at the bottom of the intellectual food chain are aware it’s happening. Lest you worry that this will turn into a kvetch-laden rant about the Grand Media Conspiracy, let me assure you that we are doing this to ourselves. We are collectively opting to pour more of our time into formulaic singing competitions like The Voice and American Idol than into listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson explain the mysteries of the universe on Cosmos.

And that’s fine – I’m not here to place myself on a pedestal of intellectual lucidity and preach to the unwashed masses who while away their hours watching the lowbrow hijinks on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Hell, I’m one of those people; that show is deviously hilarious. And while I don’t believe it’s an obligation to devote one’s recreational boob-tubery solely to educational pursuits and high art, I think overall we can do a little better.

To be honest, I’m more concerned about dumbing-down as it applies to the greater threat of anti-intellectualism – a form of outright discrimination against those who over-emphasize their think-muscles. It’s frustrating to consider that Avril Lavigne’s insipid Kitty song is going to earn her more money than Sharon Jones will make off her brilliant new album, but when anti-intellectualism is allowed to become policy, we are in serious trouble.

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So why the hate for intellectuals? Is it jealousy? Hypocrisy? A deep-seeded loathing for free-form jazz and prog-rock? The most sensible answer I could find was a disdain for the abject disconnect between the intellectual’s calculated ideal and the world of realistic application. To put it bluntly, unless the intellectual has gotten their hands dirty at some point, they don’t really know the whole story. It’s one thing to design an elaborate factory, tweaked to the last dusty micron to produce at maximum efficiency for an unheralded profit, but quite another to actually toil in that factory, and to experience how soul-sucking and physically exhausting that “brilliant design” can be. Read more…

Day 845: The Red Side Of The Moon

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Stargazers with a curious mind, a tolerance for late night wakefulness and who weren’t locked beneath the astronomical cock-block of an overcast sky got to witness a spectacular lunar eclipse last week. It was a crimson marvel, a humbling reminder of a universe beyond petulant cat videos and the frustrating television antics of Jon Cryer, Ashton Kutcher and the Halfling they keep chained up in their basement (I’ve never actually seen the show). But was it simply a glorious spectacle, or did it *mean* something?

If you’ve spent any time among the amply-zealotted nutjob crowd then you know that someone must have ascribed some catastrophic significance to the eclipse, in particular because it was the first in a tetrad – a quartet of full-on lunar eclipses that will take place between now and September 2015.

Four full eclipses in two years? Surely that must be an occurrence so fantastically rare that even the most jaded and skeptical among us should pull ourselves up from our hearty breakfast of Sugar-Frosted Reason-O’s and smoked logic-sausage and take note, right?

Actually, there will be eight tetrads occurring throughout the 21st century. But once you slap the obsidian tarp of unflinching dogma overtop these eclipses, it’s easy to spot the deeper meaning.

Also, it's a good excuse to get funky with Photoshop.

Also, it’s a good excuse to get funky with Photoshop.

If you’re the type who believes our species should be beyond ascribing prophecies to the fact that shorter light wavelengths get dispersed while longer ones refract through the earth’s atmosphere to cast a red glow on an eclipsed moon, then congratulations! You have a firmer grasp on logic than pastors John Hagee and Mark Biltz. Read more…

Day 822: Pitying The Fools

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My wife hates April Fools’ Day.

She has a legitimate reason, stemming from the scar-worthy childhood trauma of watching one of her friends get April-Fooled into a lengthy scavenger hunt for a brand new puppy by his parents, only to discover the final prize was nothing but a prank. Were she not the empathetic soul I know her to be, I might assume this to be an elaborate act of transference on her memory’s part, that this may have happened to her; thankfully my in-laws aren’t quite so cruel.

I have always maintained an appreciation for a meticulously blueprinted ruse, provided the only perpetrated harm is the gloppy egg of embarrassment upon the face of one’s target. Every few years some news outlet or public pulpit successfully melds a crafty sense of humor with their automatic public earpiece and delivers a delicious morsel of weirdness to justify April Fools’ Day’s presence on our calendars.

A quality media prank is a rickety bridge above the chasm of banality and/or outright stupidity. One needs to find the threshold of credulity and glide one’s words upon it without causing a rupture in believability. We see this every so often when an article from The Onion or The Daily Currant makes its way as gospel into people’s Facebook feeds. When executed poorly, it’s a bad joke. When done right, it’s art.

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That Swiss lady plucking fresh pasta from her spaghetti tree was the talk of the British water coolers on the morning of April 2, 1957, after the BBC had run a story about the popular agricultural phenomenon the night before. The show was Panorama, a current-affairs, 60 Minutes-style show that’s still on the air today, and the gag was delivered without punchline. The segment focussed on a family in Ticino, northern Switzerland, as they reaped the bounty of a hearty winter spaghetti harvest, having defeated the nasty spaghetti weevil. Read more…

Day 820: The Mind Behind The Map

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Were we to kick aside the boulders of our base knowledge – the works of Newton, Galileo, Edison, Tesla, Shakespeare and the mighty triumvirate of Bell, Biv and Devoe – we would eventually reach the fortified foundation of our species’ early great minds. These are the men (unfortunately, the great female minds were generally thwacked into silence back then) whose cerebral gushings topped the intellectual charts back before the era of empirical science. Hell, we’re even going back before humankind had figured out how to build a decent pair of pants.

Ancient Greece was the time of Plato, of Aristotle, of Socrates – not to mention a number of titan thinkers who haven’t had numerous pizza joints named in their honor. Today I’m talking about the grand-pappy of geography, one of the first great mathematicians, a poet, an astronomer and a music theorist. He voiced an unpopular criticism of Homer’s Odyssey and developed a series of complex calculations that – well, had Chris Columbus read through them a few centuries later they could have really saved him some headaches.

This guy held the most prominent intellectual job posting of his era, and singlehandedly influenced the entire course of science, of map-making, and of how we keep track of history. His name was Eratosthenes. Don’t fret if you haven’t heard of him – I hadn’t until his name flittered across my computer screen this morning.

He was also known as 'Big Ol' Bulbous Chrome-Dome' to his friends.

He was also known as ‘Big Ol’ Bulbous Chrome-Dome’ to his friends.

Eratosthenes was born in Cyrene, a town in modern-day Libya that had been founded by the Greeks back in 630 BC. Thanks to the economic policies of the local head honcho, Ptolemy I Soter (one of Alexander the Great’s generals), Cyrene was a happening burg in which intellectualism and prosperity flourished. Eratosthenes had a standout mind, which led him up to Athens to complete his studies. He was taught Stoicism by the movement’s founder, Zeno of Citium. He became known for his meticulous poetry and a scholarly treatise on the mathematical foundations of Plato’s philosophies, none of which I will repeat here because I’d rather skip ahead to the juicy stuff. Read more…

Day 705: Legends Of Urbania

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The beauty of the Internet Age is how information – or more entertainingly, misinformation – oozes like honey-sludge, coating the globe in a glossy sheen of non-truths and insidious punks. Mischievous urban legends have been inspiring tizzies for as long as there have been folks around to lend their ears, but email and social media are like kerosene-swamped kindling, spreading the flames of tall tales from send-click to send-click in triple-time.

Those who have been burned by generous Nigerian princes or some such costly buffoonery are no doubt tuned in to the deceptive nature of online ‘info’. But I am still baffled on a regular basis how many people are unaware of snopes.com or the Museum of Hoaxes, two sites that are invaluable for cramming that valuable hiccup of pause between reading and believing.

Below I’ve included a half-dozen urban legends, often relayed in hushed tones around a high school cafeteria table or an office email circle. You probably know them, and if you’ve done your homework you probably know how much fiction has been shoveled atop any grain of actual fact that might be contained therein. But in case you haven’t tried to debunk ‘em, now’s your chance to learn the truth.

Which is taken from the internet, so… well surely you can trust me, right?

BigMac

McDonald’s Operates A Shadow Company To Fool Us

McDonald’s is an easy target. We know it’s bad for us, but eventually the tales of unsaturated fats and unfathomable calories get a little stale, which is why the company has had to deny using eyeballs in their burgers and chicken feathers in their shakes. The phrase “100% Pure Beef” has been slapped on McDonald’s containers since they were made out of crunchy McStyrofoam. So if we know faulty advertising is an easy crime for the FDA to snag, what if the phrase wasn’t bogus but simply misleading? What if they simply purchased their filler-infused beef from a company called “100% Pure Beef”? Read more…

Day 696: Here is Ceres

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If you haven’t read the article or seen the t-shirt, you’re probably nevertheless aware that our ninth planet, Pluto, was demoted in 2006 to the meager status of dwarf planet, a lower classification that for whatever reason enraged pockets of the populace. I suspect a chunk of that outrage had to do with one of our ingrained snippets of knowledge – the names of our solar system’s planets – that we remember from elementary school being altered. It’s fundamental, like the names of our Canadian provinces (which has changed) or the five senses (though actually there are several others).

But amid all this weird hype over a remote ice-rock and whether it still gets invited to the same imaginary shindigs as Saturn or Venus, we forgot to celebrate little Ceres. Ceres was also tossed into the dwarf planet class along with Pluto and three others, but for Ceres it was a promotion. Where once she was just a passenger amid the rush-hour gridlock of the asteroid belt, now she reigned supreme.

And as much as we all have Pluto’s name etched in our brains as the last fuelling post before the great black expanse of deep space, we know almost nothing about Ceres. And her secrets might be among the most interesting in our little corner of the cosmos.

Ceres

Much like the grainy footage of Bigfoot, this is all we’ve got of Ceres: a blur, courtesy of the Hubble Telescope. We know surprisingly little about this chunk of rock, though NASA is aiming to change that when the Dawn spacecraft pays Ceres a visit early in 2015. Ceres was discovered due to math, which means that I’ll be covering this portion of the story using the most vague and non-researched terms possible. Read more…