Thursday, December 21, 2017
Four months ago, Americans watched in wonder as a total solar eclipse traversed the nation, and, as many described, “turned day into night.” To many who experienced it, the eclipse was a sublime, even spiritual experience beyond anything words can describe.
Every year during the autumn, day, at least in some sense, turns to night, as the Sun sets earlier and earlier, to the point where, as I often note in frustration, “It gets dark in the middle of the day.” We know this is natural, that it is part of an annual cycle, yet it inspires a range and depth of emotions, from sadness to fear and for some, even fascination.
Those who spend time outdoors during this period can sense the Earth going to sleep and see what is left of life being pulled back into her.
The Winter Solstice, at its core, is about hope. What looks like death is just a period of dormancy. Nature needs the power to restart, and the great generator we call the Sun begins recharging on this day, slowly growing in strength until it opens the slumbering seeds underground and warms the Earth’s frozen surface, drawing the baby plants out into the light.
In an email message today, Sarah Rasmussen of Greenpeace wrote, “There is so much darkness in our world right now, from environmental disasters to climate change…But light is coming to push out the darkness, and we are fighting as hard as we can to ensure that it shines where it will do the most good…The darkest hour is just before the dawn.”
In the natural world, all the major action at the Winter Solstice is beneath the surface, unseen. It isn’t obvious. It can only be felt. Yet this invisible miracle, which from our perspective happens solely because we live on a planet with a 23.5 degree axial tilt, is as real, as profound, as intense as anything can be.
These words, put as a voiceover to a Gaelic version of “Silent Night” by Enya, capture the awe and wonder of this day.
“Yule—the Winter Solstice
Cold and bleak—
The longest night of the year
Though we are in darkness,
We know the Winter Solstice is near.
We light up the long nights with candlelight and evergreens.
We deck the halls with beautiful things.
The Earth is in a deep slumber…
The light is growing dimmer…
But, almost unnoticed,
The Solstice brings its miracle.
There is stillness,
Beautiful and serene…
Peacefully, quietly, the Sun is reborn.
In this small, still moment, the light returns again,
The promise kept
That death is not the end.
From this day, forward, the light and the warmth grow stronger.
But we remember this moment that brings the greatest gift of all.
The light brings with it not only the promise of rebirth,
But (the knowledge that) even in our darkest hour,
The light will always return.
It is the spirit of goodwill,
The warmth of our hearts.
It is peace and joy
That bring us out of the dark.
Give freely of yourself;
Help someone in need;
Bring light to the darkness.
Give hope, and offer peace.
Sending you warm tidings this Yule season.
May your biggest wishes come true!
Eat, drink, and be merry!
A blessed and happy Solstice to you!”
Enya, “Yule, The Winter Solstice,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDQXSLRRAEs
It isn’t over. Darkness hasn’t won.
Keep hope alive!
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Saturday, November 18, 2017
NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is looking for your ideas on what to informally name its next flyby destination, a billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) past Pluto.
On New Year's Day 2019, the New Horizons spacecraft will fly past a small, frozen world in the Kuiper Belt, at the outer edge of our solar system. The target Kuiper Belt object (KBO) currently goes by the official designation "(486958) 2014 MU69." NASA and the New Horizons team are asking the public for help in giving "MU69" a nickname to use for this exploration target.
"New Horizons made history two years ago with the first close-up look at Pluto, and is now on course for the farthest planetary encounter in the history of spaceflight," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "We're pleased to bring the public along on this exciting mission of discovery."
After the flyby, NASA and the New Horizons project plan to choose a formal name to submit to the International Astronomical Union, based in part on whether MU69 is found to be a single body, a binary pair, or perhaps a system of multiple objects. The chosen nickname will be used in the interim.
"New Horizons has always been about pure exploration, shedding light on new worlds like we've never seen before," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
"Our close encounter with MU69 adds another chapter to this mission's remarkable story. We're excited for the public to help us pick a nickname for our target that captures the excitement of the flyby and awe and inspiration of exploring this new and record-distant body in space."
The naming campaign is hosted by the SETI Institute of Mountain View, California, and led by Mark Showalter, an institute fellow and member of the New Horizons science team. The website includes names currently under consideration; site visitors can vote for their favorites or nominate names they think should be added to the ballot. "The campaign is open to everyone," Showalter said. "We are hoping that somebody out there proposes the perfect, inspiring name for MU69."
The campaign will close at 3 p.m. EST/noon PST on Dec. 1. NASA and the New Horizons team will review the top vote-getters and announce their selection in early January.
Telescopic observations of MU69, which is more than 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth, hint at the Kuiper Belt object being either a binary orbiting pair or a contact (stuck together) pair of nearly like-sized bodies – meaning the team might actually need two or more temporary tags for its target.
"Many Kuiper Belt Objects have had informal names at first, before a formal name was proposed. After the flyby, once we know a lot more about this intriguing world, we and NASA will work with the International Astronomical Union to assign a formal name to MU69," Showalter said. "Until then, we're excited to bring people into the mission and share in what will be an amazing flyby on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, 2019!"
To submit your suggested names and to vote for your favorites, go to: http://frontierworlds.seti.org
Rebecca McDonald, SETI Institute
(650) 960 4526, firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Buckley, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
(240) 228-7536, email@example.com
Laurie Cantillo, NASA Headquarters
(202) 358-1077, firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, September 30, 2017
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Thursday, August 24, 2017
This year, the anniversary of the disastrous IAU planet definition vote that continues to cause confusion and misconceptions among the public has gone largely unnoticed—probably because three days ago, a total solar eclipse mesmerized thousands if not millions across the North American continent, and both pictures and accounts of that event are still being actively shared online.
The fact that so many people viewed the solar eclipse, whether in person or online, illustrates that the general public can, under the right circumstances, become excited about astronomy. Though not to the same extent, space missions such as Cassini at Saturn and Juno at Jupiter or the various rovers on Mars generate similar enthusiasm and attention if they are given appropriate media attention.
Two years ago, the New Horizons flyby generated the same kind of fascination with Pluto. People are naturally inspired by the solar system and exploration of its many worlds.
Astronomers, both amateur and professional, should be encouraging this kind of excitement, should want to share the wonders of the sky with the public.
In 2006, four percent of the IAU did the exact opposite. They decreed that they and only they can determine the identity of celestial objects, as if they somehow own these objects. Reaction to their decision was justifiably negative because that decision amounted to rejection of any cultural or popular conception of the solar system. Inherent in the message of the vote was the statement, the solar system is not yours. An object that looks and acts like a planet isn’t really a planet for some obscure reason no one really understands.
Keep things simple; keep the number of planets small. That was the real motivation behind the decision of August 24, 2006. And its message to the public was, when it comes to science, your views and understanding of the solar system mean nothing.
In his book Century’s End, author Hillel Schwartz discusses a controversy that has reared its head at the end of every century for 500-1,000 years. Does the new century start in the year 00 or 01?
There can actually be no correct answer to this question because the dating system we use is based on a mathematical error. It is a number line with numbers going from negative to positive but without the zero such a number line requires. The concept of the zero was unknown to the sixth-century monk who created the system.
Ordinarily, the first century would be the years 0-99, the second century the years 100-199, etc. But because the system has no zero, the first century, to have a total of 100 years, is actually the years 1-100, the second 101-200, etc. That is counterintuitive, as it tells us that the year 2000 is actually part of the old rather than the new century.
An interesting pattern developed over the last few hundred years. “Elites” such as scholars and intellectuals, advocated the counterintuitive method, the one viewed as requiring complex thinking rather than the popular conception. These people always insisted on centuries starting in the 01 year. In Boston, they refused to celebrate the beginning of the 20th century in 1900, then threw a grand public celebration in 1901.
In contrast, the general public went with the view that inherently sounded correct. They considered 1900 the beginning of the 20th century and 2000 the beginning of the 21st century.
The point here is a cultural one. The real issue at hand was the division between the “elites” and the common people. Anyone who wanted to sound educated or intellectual usually went with the counterintuitive 01 option, which supposedly showed they understood the complexity of the situation.
In reality, there can be no answer to this dilemma because the dating system is based on a mathematical error. Neither view is correct. This is why NASA, in its pages listing 5,000 years of solar and lunar eclipses, adds a zero to the count, assigning zero to the year 1 BCE, 1 to the year 2 BCE, etc. Predicting eclipses could not be done using an incorrect number line.
A similar phenomenon has happened regarding Pluto. Most members of the public grew up with Pluto being classed as a planet, and in the absence of a logical reason to change that, continue to consider it one. In contrast, those who want to seem intellectual or professional often adopt the other view, supposedly counterintuitive one. To them, “simple” people view Pluto as a planet while those who are more educated and intellectual understand the complexity of the issue and agree with the “experts” after understanding their line of thinking.
In other words, rejecting the “common” view supporting Pluto’s planethood has for some become a status symbol, a way of supposedly distinguishing themselves from the masses and showing they know more than the average person.
This is a psychological and cultural issue. It is not science, and it is bunk.
Eleven years after the vote on what the IAU has turned into a dogma they refuse to ever reconsider, the reality is many top planetary scientists in the world view Pluto as a planet. New Horizons sent back data showing Pluto to be a world that looks and acts like a planet. “Science” does not in any way support designating Pluto as anything else.
The August 21 solar eclipse showed the public enjoys engaging in astronomy and can be motivated to do so with appropriate outreach and education that brings people in rather than keeps them out.
In terms of media coverage and public attention, the eclipse also eclipsed the anniversary of the IAU vote.
One event involved embracing the public while the other centered on excluding them. We can only hope that renewed public engagement with astronomy continues to eclipse a bad decision by 424 non-experts 11 years ago.