Friday, October 31, 2008

BBC article on origins of WWII German rocket program

Anatoly Zak has an interesting and detailed article at the BBC on the origins of the German rocket program in the 1930's. This was a military program that ultimately lead to the V-1 and V-2 rockets used against Britain in the second world war, although the factories that made the weapons were staffed with slave labor. (For documentray lovers, The Reich Underground [Netflix] shows the underground Nazi rocket factories such as Mittelwerk -- ~20,000 concentration camp inmates were killed in forced labor at Mittelwork alone.)

Later the victorious Allies collected all the German rocket engineers they could get their hands on and put them back to work, so sadly the successes of the US and Russian space programs owe much to this tainted knowledge.

This is not to say that home grown efforts on rocket propulsion by people like Goddard in the US and Korolev in the USSR were not significant - merely that the Germans devoted significantly more state funding to developing practical military rocketry than the US and USSR of that period did.

[Both images are WWII-era photos of the underground V2 factories at Mittelwerk, Nordhausen, taken from Geoff Walden's fascinating "Third Reich in Ruins" site.]

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Arp 147: Hubble releases first post-fix images

The STScI has released images from the first set of data taken since the recent problems with Hubble were fixed: the pair of interacting galaxies known Arp 147, taken using WFPC2 as part of the Cycle 16 observing proposal 11902.

You can see Arp's full Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies at NED Level5. Arp's image of Arp 147 is here, and its really not as peculiar as many of the Arp galaxies.

My personal favorite is Arp 220, although its far from spectacular looking in Arp's atlas.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Aesthetics & Astronomy: A survey

The Hardvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is conducting a survey investigating the effects of the scientific and artistic choices made in processing astronomical images for public consumption.

Go help them out by completing the survey.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

XMM-Newton update, observations restart in November

The latest XMM-Newton News letter (#83) has a detailed description of problem XMM-Newton experienced on the 18th of October, and the steps taken to recover the satellite and restore operations.

XMM-Newton to Restart Observing Next Week

On Saturday 18 October ESA lost contact with the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory (see XMM-Newton uses different ground stations depending on which gives the strongest signal with one of the spacecraft's two antennas which point in different directions. On Saturday evening XMM-Newton was approaching perigee passage with the instruments in safe configurations and communicating normally with the Santiago ground station in Chile. After the spacecraft moved out of visibility from Santiago it was expected to be picked-up by ESA's Villafranca ground station in Spain about an hour later. The usual time-tagged command had been loaded on-board to change the operating antenna to the one pointing towards Villafranca. However, the telemetry signal from the spacecraft was not detected at the expected time and standard recovery procedures did not re-establish contact.

These activities were repeated the next day, but the problem was still present even when other ESA ground stations were used. This confirmed that the loss of contact was related to either an on-board problem or a catastrophic event in orbit. On Monday 20 October images of the track of XMM-Newton against the night sky taken by amateur astronomers in Germany's Starkenburg observatory showed that the satellite was still in one piece. Other ground based telescopes at Zimmerwald in Switzerland of the astronomy institute of the University of Bern and the ESA Space Debris telescope at Tenerife (Canary Islands, Spain), the German FGAN radar near Bonn and NASA and US Space Surveillance network also observed the satellite and it was possible to confirm that it was in its expected orbit.

The next step on Tuesday 21 October was to use the more powerful ESA 35 meter ground station at New Norcia (Western Australia) which was pointed in the direction of XMM-Newton using a special radio-science mode. A weak signal was detected from the spacecraft helping confirm suspicions that the antenna switch was stuck in an intermediate position. Engineers at ESOC, supported by European Industry and experts from other ESA sites, attempted to command the spacecraft, but the commanding threshold was still not reached by around 8 dB. Consequently ESOC declared a spacecraft emergency and requested support from NASA's Deep Space Network Goldstone antenna. Due to its location Goldstone provides visibility of the spacecraft when it is very close to the Earth so allowing a higher signal power at the spacecraft. ESOC sent commands that moved the antenna switch back to its last working position and then managed to obtain radio contact with the spacecraft with ESA's 15-metre ground station in Villafranca on Wednesday 22 October around 18:10 Central European Summer Time (CEST).

Since then XMM-Newton is safe and fully under control by the mission control team at ESOC. There were no unexpected events during the 4-days without normal communications. Currently there are no plans to move the antenna switch and investigations involving ESOC, ESTEC, and industry experts are continuing. Until the failure mode is better understood, we do not plan to use the available backup switch and instead are concentrating on operational modes that do not require the use of these switches:

  • XMM-Newton will re-start observations on Monday November 3 using only one antenna as a temporary measure. Due to the favourable celestial geometry this will allow coverage of nearly all the orbit, expect for around 6 hours near perigee. The coverage available on antenna will slowly decrease over the next months, such that in around 6 months nearly all the orbit will only be visible with the second antenna.

  • In parallel two operational concepts are being investigated which should allow nominal operations to resume by the end of November. The first concept envisages using both transponders simultaneously with each providing a signal to its own antenna. The second concept assumes that the transponders will be switched-on and -off to only power the antenna pointing towards the required ground station. Both concepts avoid having to use the antenna switch again and have advantages and disadvantages which will be evaluated in the next weeks before the deciding on the way forward.

A.N. Parmar
XMM-Newton Mission Manager

Yours sincerely,
XMM-Newton SOC

The satellite ground station engineers and scientists of ESA, ESOC and NASA deserve congratulations and thanks for their hard work.

[Schematic diagram of XMM-Newton showing the antenna, taken from the NASA HEASARC XMM-Newton Guest Observer Facility website.]

More planets found around Epsilon Eridani

Backman et al have deduced the presence of at least two more planets orbiting the K2V star Epsilon Eridani (a gas giant planet about 1.5 times the mass of Jupiter was detected in 2006 by McArthur et al).

Epsilon Eridani one of the closest stars to our Solar System at a distance of only 10.5 light years.

The paper is due to be published in the Astrophysical Journal in January 2009, but you can read the press release from Harvard/SAO, or a popular press article by Robert Boyd (McClatchy press) now.

Epsilon Eridani appears quite often in speculative fiction. A few examples: Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space novels feature the Epsilon Eridani system quite often. The eponymous space station in the Babylon 5 TV series orbited a planet of Epsilon Eridani. The back story for the Halo computer games feature a planet called Reach orbitting Epsilon Eridani.

[Image from the Harvard/SAO press release. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Monday, October 27, 2008

More good news: Hubble up and running.

Continuing the recent spell of good news regarding misbehaving satellites, on Saturday 25th October NASA announced that the Hubble Space Telescope is back in operation and is possibly back to taking data.

For some reason this news isn't on the Space Telescope Science Institute home page, so I only found out about it on Dynamics of Cats.

[The image is from the launch of the previous Hubble servicing mission, SM3b, back in 2002. See the NASA Hubble servicing missions page].

Thursday, October 23, 2008

XMM-Newton "now safe and under control"

There is now good news. XMM-Newton is alive and well - see this October 23rd ESA News item. Should be back to observing in a few revolutions.

XMM-Newton, ESA’s X-ray observatory, has re-established communication contact with Earth, showing that the spacecraft is safe and fully under control. The news was confirmed this morning by the mission control team at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.

Radio contact was re-established on Wednesday 22 October around 18:00 Central European Summer Time (CEST).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Contact lost with XMM-Newton

Radio contact with ESA's XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory was lost on Saturday 18th October. Ground-based optical observations have verified the observatory is still in one piece and in its expected orbit, and ESA's 35m radio antenna in Australia has detected a weak radio signal from the satellite. Workers at ESA's European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) are attempting to command the spacecraft to recover a working communication system.

Read the full news item at ESA's website.

I hope they manage to recover from this problem. There is a vast amount of science that (the astrophysical community) XMM-Newton is best suited for and that can not easily be done using the other existing X-ray observatories (Chandra and Suzaku).

Monday, October 20, 2008

Scientists need History and Philosophy of Science classes

I doubt I can remember the names of all the classes I took in my undergraduate Physics with Astrophysics BSc at Birmingham in the early 90's, but I know for sure which classes I always wanted to take but were never offered.

We didn't have any class that dealt with the Philosophy of Science, and we didn't have any class that covered the History of Science. If you had any interest in those topics you had to go find a books in the library yourself. The closest we had was Introduction to Astronomy, which briefly covered some historical ideas in Astronomy (Olber's Paradox, etc). (Later, as a PhD student in the UK we didn't have classes at all unlike the US PhD system.)

There are some people who say "Why bother telling students about all the wrong things people believed in the past? And even things that are right, e.g. electromagnetism, are much more easily taught from a modern standpoint using modern mathematical techniques, and not in the tortuous and overly complicated ways they were originally derived."

There is some truth to this. Certainly we wouldn't teach the laws of motion and dynamics in the way Newton presented them in Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. It uses geometrical proofs that most modern students lack the training to appreciate, and that can be done much more cleanly and simply with more modern math (to understand Newton's Principia as it was written you really need another genius, Chandrasekhar, to explain it to you).

But knowing what people once believed, why they believed it, and why they then moved on to believing what we now believe, is still valuable and is good scientific practice (its also intellectually interesting, which one would hope real scientists would appreciate for its own merit). Furthermore, understanding the method and philosophy of science is important to being a good scientist - you can go a long way just doing things they way you were trained to in grad school, but without being taught the Philosophy of Science you can easily get off in the wrong direction.

All of this becomes more important when scientists need to communicate clearly and accurately with the public, in particular in cases where science is struggling against anti-scientific social groups (e.g. creationist/ID, anti-vaccinationists, global-warming-denialists).

As evidence that even people trained as scientists often not understand the metaphysical foundations of science, James Williams of the University of Sussex has studied the perceived meaning of words such as fact, theory, hypothesis, etc, in graduate students with existing science degrees who plan on going on to become science educators.

• 76% equated a fact with 'truth' and 'proven'

• 23% defined a theory as 'unproven ideas' with less than half (47%) recognizing a theory as a well evidenced exposition of a natural phenomenon

• 34% defined a law as a rule not to be broken, and forty-one percent defined it as an idea that science fully supports.

• Definitions of 'hypothesis' were the most consistent, with 61% recognizing the predictive, testable nature of hypotheses.

The results show a lack of understanding of what scientific theories and laws are. And the nature of a 'fact' in science was not commonly understood, with only 11% defining a fact as evidence or data. Here are just a few of their definitions of a scientific theory: "An idea based on a little evidence, not fact"; "an idea about something, not necessarily true"; "unproven ideas."

From "Is Something Missing from Science Education" []. The io9 article continues
Although this survey is hardly proof of widespread epidemic of ignorance among recent science grads, it does suggest that many science programs educate students only in the technical aspects of their field, failing to provide them with the underlying context and purpose of scientific study.

Williams fears that failing to educate science graduates in the history and philosophy of science, these grads are ill-equipped to educate a public whose lives increasingly depend on a basic understanding of how scientists operate and what scientific findings really mean. Both he and Gallagher believe that introducing such courses to undergraduate science curricula could go a long way toward making science education more complete.
If people with science degrees have trouble using even the most basic and fundament words correctly then we have a problem - and there is little hope that the general public is going to learn if we can't explain it to them.

I don't teach, but I certainly support the argument that those majoring in the sciences need Philosophy of Science classes at the very least, and preferably some reasonably detailed class on the history of their particular science.

Friday, October 17, 2008

More interesting astrophysics, Oct 07-17

More interesting (to me) papers on astrophysics, collected between October 07 to 17th, 2008.

This is a mix of preprints (astro-ph) and fully peer-reviewed articles in the main astronomical journals. Your ability to access to the latter may be compromised if you are not at an institution with a subscription.


The Most Luminous Starbursts in the Universe
Daniel W. Weedman and James R. Houck
The Astrophysical Journal 2008 October 10, Vol. 686, No. 1: 127-137.

XMM-Newton observations of the diffuse X-ray emission in the starburst galaxy NGC 253
Bauer, M.; Pietsch, W.; Trinchieri, G.; Breitschwerdt, D.; Ehle, M.; Freyberg, M. J.; Read, A. M.
Astronomy and Astrophysics, Volume 489, Issue 3, 2008, pp.1029-1046

A Spectacular H-alpha Complex in Virgo: Evidence for a Collision Between M86 and NGC 4438 and Implications for Collisional ISM Heating of Ellipticals
Authors: J. D. P. Kenney, T. Tal, H. H. Crowl, J. Feldmeier, G. H. Jacoby, arXiv:0810.0711v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 6 pages, 2 figures

And the Rest: The Stellar Archeological Record of M82 Outside the Central Starburst
Authors: T. J. Davidge, arXiv:0810.0843v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 47 pages, including 17 postscript figures. Accepted for publication in AJ

The Identification of New Stellar Groupings in the M81 Debris Field
Authors: T. J. Davidge, arXiv:0810.0847v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 31 pages, including 10 postscript figures; accepted for publication in the PASP

Correlations between Mid-Infrared, Far-Infrared, Halpha, and FUV Luminosities for Spitzer SWIRE Field Galaxies
Yi-Nan Zhu, Hong Wu, Chen Cao, and Hai-Ning Li
The Astrophysical Journal 2008 October 10, Vol. 686, No. 1: 155-171.

An XMM-Newton study of hyper-luminous infrared galaxies
Ruiz, A.; Carrera, F. J.; Panessa, F., Astronomy and Astrophysics, Volume 471, Issue 3, September I 2007, pp.775-786

Multiwavelength study of X-ray selected star-forming galaxies within the Chandra Deep Field-South
Rosa-González, Daniel; Burgarella, Denis; Nandra, Kirpal; Kunth, Daniel; Terlevich, Elena; Terlevich, Roberto, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 379, Issue 1, pp. 357-369.

On the distance and reddening of the starburst galaxy IC10
Authors: N. Sanna, G. Bono, P. B. Stetson, M. Monelli, A. Pietrinferni, I. Drozdovsky, F. Caputo, S. Cassisi, M. Gennaro, P. G. Prada Moroni, R. Buonanno, C. E. Corsi, S. Degl'Innocenti, I. Ferraro, G. Iannicola, M. Nonino, L. Pulone, M. Romaniello, A. R. Walker, arXiv:0810.1210v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 4 pages, 4 figures, ApJ Letters accepted

Large scale galactic turbulence: can self-gravity drive the observed HI velocity dispersions?
Oscar Agertz, George Lake, Romain Teyssier, Ben Moore, Lucio Mayer, Alessandro B. Romeo, arXiv:0810.1741v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 18 pages, 23 figures, MNRAS accepted. A version with high-resolution
figures can be found at this http URL

Mass loss of galaxies due to an ultraviolet background
Takashi Okamoto, Liang Gao and Tom Theuns, 2008, MNRAS, Volume 390 Issue 3, Pages 920 - 928

Numerical Simulations and Hydrodynamics

The Turbulent Warm Ionized Medium: Emission Measure Distribution and MHD Simulations
Alex S. Hill, Robert A. Benjamin, Grzegorz Kowal, Ronald J. Reynolds, L. Matthew Haffner, and Alex Lazarian
The Astrophysical Journal 2008 October 10, Vol. 686, No. 1: 363-378.

A test suite for quantitative comparison of hydrodynamic codes in astrophysics
Elizabeth J. Tasker, Riccardo Brunino, Nigel L. Mitchell, Dolf Michielsen, Stephen Hopton, Frazer R. Pearce, Greg L. Bryan, Tom Theuns, 2008, MNRAS, Volume 390 Issue 3, Pages 1267 - 1281

X-ray instrumentation

A versatile facility for the calibration of X-ray polarimeters with polarized and unpolarized controlled beams
Authors: Fabio Muleri, Paolo Soffitta, Ronaldo Bellazzini, Alessandro Brez, Enrico Costa, Massimo Frutti, Marcello Mastropietro, Ennio Morelli, Michele Pinchera, Alda Rubini, Gloria Spandre, arXiv:0810.2684v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 12 pages, 11 figures
Journal-ref: Proceedings of SPIE Astronomical Instrumentation 2008 Conference,
23-28 June 2008 Marseille, France, vol. 7011-84

The Gas Pixel Detector as an X-ray photoelectric polarimeter with a large field of view
Authors: Fabio Muleri, Paolo Soffitta, Ronaldo Bellazzini, Alessandro Brez, Enrico Costa, Sergio Fabiani, Massimo Frutti, Massimo Minuti, Maria Barbara Negri, Michele Pinchera, Alda Rubini, Gloria Spandre, arXiv:0810.2693v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 11 pages, 8 figures
Journal-ref: Proceedings of SPIE Astronomical Instrumentation 2008 Conference, 23-28 June 2008 Marseille, France, vol. 7011-88

XPOL: a photoelectric polarimeter onboard XEUS
Authors: Enrico Costa, Ronaldo Bellazzini, Jean Bregeon, Alessandro Brez, Massimo Frutti, Sergio Di Cosimo, Luca Latronicio, Francesco Lazzarotto, Giorgio Matt, Massimo Minuti, Ennio Morelli, Fabio Muleri, Michele Pinchera, Massimiliano Razzano, Alda Rubini, Paolo Soffitta, Gloria Spandre, arXiv:0810.2700v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 10 pages, 6 figures
Journal-ref: Proceedings of SPIE Astronomical Instrumentation 2008 Conference, 23-28 June 2008 Marseille, France, vol. 7011-15

X-ray polarimetry on-board HXMT
Authors: Paolo Soffitta, Ronaldo Bellazzini, Gianpiero Tagliaferri, Enrico Costa, Giovanni Pareschi, Stefano Basso, Vincenzo Cotroneo, Massimo Frutti, Francesco Lazzarotto, Fabio Muleri, Alda Rubini, Gloria Spandre, Alessandro Brez, Luca Baldini, Jean Bregeon, Massimo Minuti, Giorgio Matt, Filippo Frontera, arXiv:0810.2708v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 10 pages, 7 figures
Journal-ref: Proceedings of SPIE Astronomical Instrumentation 2008 Conference, 23-28 June 2008 Marseille, France, vol. 7011-85


Late-Time Observations of SN 2006gy: Still Going Strong
Nathan Smith, Ryan J. Foley, Joshua S. Bloom, Weidong Li, Alexei
V. Filippenko, Raphaël Gavazzi, Andrea Ghez, Quinn Konopacky, Matthew
A. Malkan, Philip J. Marshall, David Pooley, Tommaso Treu, and
Jong-Hak Woo
The Astrophysical Journal 2008 October 10, Vol. 686, No. 1: 485-491.

Iron 60 Evidence for Early Injection and Efficient Mixing of Stellar Debris in the Protosolar Nebula
N. Dauphas, D. L. Cook, A. Sacarabany, C. Fröhlich, A. M. Davis, M. Wadhwa, A. Pourmand, T. Rauscher, and R. Gallino
The Astrophysical Journal 2008 October 10, Vol. 686, No. 1: 560-569.

Chemical evolution, yields and metal abundances:

Solar Forbidden Oxygen, Revisited
Thomas R. Ayres
The Astrophysical Journal 2008 October 10, Vol. 686, No. 1: 731-740.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Leading the world

In the final debate between the presidential candidates last night (10/15/2008) John McCain reiterated his ridiculous and factually-incorrect attack on Obama for being part of a bipartisan group that made appropriation requests for $3 million to upgrade the Adler Planetarium's 40-year old Zeiss mark VI projector.

Who has the best planetarium in the world? As Jotman notes, it looks like its the Chinese - the Beijing Planetarium has just installed a brand new Zeiss Mark IX optical projector with all the upgrades. Oh, and they'd like every middle or large city in China to have a planetarium too. China has many problems, but at least their politicians understand that scientific and technological literacy and progress is a vital part of improving their nation. Rather than dismissing knowledge and expertise as "elitism" they understand its value. Good for them.

The Adler planetarium has created a web page where you can donate to them for the purposes of upgrading their ancient projector. I'm not sure if the US is rich enough anymore to afford those fancy modern models that the Chinese get, but at least we should be able to afford something newer than the 40-year old version.

Hubble update

Email sent to all Cycle 17 Hubble Space Telescope principal investigators (PIs):

Subject: SM4 Delay impact on Cycle 17 HST Program
Date: 10/15/2008 10:33 PM

As Cycle 17 PIs, you are no doubt as disappointed in the delay of Hubble Servicing Mission 4 (SM4) as we at STScI are. We were eagerly anticipating the installation of two new instruments, the repair of two old instruments, and the exciting discoveries these actions will enable. The purpose of this note is to inform you, as best we can in this fluid situation, of our expectations and plans for SM4 and Cycle 17.

On September 27, all the HST instruments, except for the FGS, were placed into safemode. The problem arose in a unit, the Control Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF), that is a part of the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling (SI C&DH) system. As its name implies, the SI C&DH is central to the operation of the instruments on Hubble. All commands to the instruments and all engineering and science data from the instruments must pass through the SI C&DH. The specific problem is limited to the handling of data by the Side-A CU/SDF, but it has the consequence that we cannot operate the instruments or obtain science data with this SI C&DH configuration. FGS data are not processed by this system and science operations have continued with the FGS. At this
time, the HST Project plans to switch to the redundant Side-B of the CU/SDF and related equipment around October 15, after which the ACS/SBC and WFPC2 will be recovered from safemode and begin observations. The NICMOS Cooling System will be restarted and NICMOS activated some time after that.

This leaves HST in a situation where another failure in the SI C&DH could permanently disable the scientific instruments. SM4 was delayed in order to provide time to remedy this situation. The SI C&DH design allows it to be replaced by astronauts during an EVA. A spare unit was built, but never fully qualified for flight. The Hubble Project will be completing qualification of that unit as rapidly as possible.

The obvious first question is, when will SM4 take place? It looks like the earliest possible time is February 2009. However, NASA is just beginning to go through the entire process of planning the Hubble work for testing the replacement SI C&DH, planning the astronaut training for the new task, and fitting the Hubble mission in with the other Shuttle flights planned this Spring. As a result, you should expect uncertainty in this date for several more months. The next obvious question is, will anything have to be dropped from the planned mission in order to include the replacement SI C&DH? The answer to
this question will depend on testing, training, and detailed EVA planning which will take several months to complete. We are hopeful that no changes will be required to the planned scientific enhancements to Hubble, but the servicing workload is already quite high.

We do plan to carry out the Cycle 17 observing program, as it is, after SM4 takes place. Accepted Cycle 17 programs that use the FGS, ACS/SBC, and NICMOS will not need to be held until after SM4; they will be executed as their scheduling allows. Our Program Coordinators and Contact Scientists will be getting in touch with the designated contacts for programs that look feasible prior to SM4. Following our standard practice, Cycle 17 funding for observational programs will be released after the first observations are taken. Funding for Cycle 17 archival and theory programs will be unaffected. We will soon solicit additional contingency observing programs, using the current instrumentation, in order to
keep HST scientifically productive until servicing does take place. These programs will not displace or delay the implementation of the accepted Cycle 17 observing program after SM4.

We will do our best to keep you and the rest of the astronomy community informed as NASA’s SM4 plans and our science operations plans evolve over the next several months. Two places to look for updated information will be: and

Rodger Doxsey

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

No NASA Conference Travel in 2009 (?)

Steinn Sigurdsson over at Dynamics of Cats speculates on the meaning and effect of some odd wording in the 2008 NASA Authorization bill.

Normally I'd dismiss this as a misinterpretation of an ambiguously worded bit of legal text. But as I recently attended a meeting at a NASA center where the funding source for the coffee break had become an issue, I have come to realize that weird stuff like this can happen. Still, let us hope it is still a misinterpretation.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Seeing the numinous

Before modern light pollution became a problem the average person who went out on a dark night (no full Moon) could expect to see several thousand stars with the naked eye. These days, even in a suburb away from the center of a big city, you'd be lucky to see one hundred.

If you're lucky enough to live in or visit a place with low light pollution, for example the American South west or away from towns in Africa or Australia, you'll know just how spectacular and awe-inspiring a sky full of stars is. You're looking out at thousands of stars... half of the entire Universe, of everything, is hanging over your head, its an aesthetic experience equal or superior to the highest fruits of human art.

But most of the population of the US, or other western countries, live in urbanized areas where you're lucky to see Sirius or the brightest stars in Orion, let alone thousands of stars.

Which brings me back to this Planetarium thing. Yes, I'm still annoyed at McCain's idiotic comments about the Adler Planetarium. Thinking about it some more I see that its more than his faux populism and anti-intellectualism that bugs me about it, its his poverty of vision.

Where is an inner city kid going to see the sky full of stars? In a planetarium, spread over the entire dome of the sky, the stars are almost as spectacular and impressive as a real life dark sky view.

You simply can't get that full authentic feeling from even a great photo (such as the one shown above, from Dan & Cindy Duriscoe, FDSC, Lowell Obs., USNO, taken from the 2008 April 16 APOD), or even an excellent computer planetarium program such as Kstars. The real thing is better, of course, but a good planetarium show comes close. You still get that "wow" feeling, the hugeness and majesty of it all, a sense of the numinous that religions struggle to achieve but which is best, or only truly, transmitted in the face of nature.

Its McCain's rejection of that, that he'd so casually ignore it and wish to deny it to others, that disturbs me.


In case you're interested in the numbers, read about the Bortle light pollution scale.

Global cost of deforestation? $2 trillion to 5 trillion per year

From the BBC, a Deutsche Bank economist estimates that the annual cost to the World of deforestation is between $2,000,000,000,000 to $5,000,000,000,000.

The global economy is losing more money from the disappearance of forests than through the current banking crisis, according to an EU-commissioned study. It puts the annual cost of forest loss at between $2 trillion and $5 trillion. The figure comes from adding the value of the various services that forests perform, such as providing clean water and absorbing carbon dioxide.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

"Overhead Projectors" and McCain's Misology

In the October 7th Presidential debate John McCain complained that Obama had voted for (among other things) $3 million in pork barrel funding for "an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?"

I try to avoid overt party politics on this blog, largely because these days you can never be sure if some frothing-at-the-mouth political hack will try to punish you for it, but sometimes you have to stand up for the truth.

As has lately become typical of McCain, his attack on Obama was not exactly true.

The Adler Planetarium has issued a press release to clarify the situation. It is (a) not an overhead projector, it the device [see image] that projects the stars on the planetarium dome as part of an educational presentation to the public, (b) their existing Zeiss projector is over 40 years old and Zeiss doesn't makes parts for it anymore, (c) the requested federal assistance was supported by a bipartisan selection of Illinois congressional people and Senators, (d) it never received the money in any case.

I don't have to mention that McCain, supposed opposer of Pork Barrel spending, has a campaign staff chock full of lobbyists for foreign governments and the financial institutions whose greed and incompetence caused the ongoing financial meltdown. Or that he chose a running mate known for truly excessive pork barrel spending ($300 million for bridges to nowhere that she supported before the outcry, money she still hasn't all given back).

But apart from the rank hypocrisy there is a deeper point, as explained by University of Chicago astronomer Andrey Kravtsov in a post at TPM ("$3 Million Overhead Projector? McCain Lie Shows No Understanding of Science or Technology"):

I find it appalling that Sen. McCain would call a science education tool for public (largely children) for a historic planetarium with millions of visitors a year a wasteful earmark. The planetarium's focus, as stated on their website ( is "on inspiring young people, particularly women and minorities, to pursue careers in science." Is an investment in such public facility at the time when US competitiveness in math and sciences is a constant source of alarm a waste?

"American's ability to compete in a 21st Century economy rests on our continued investments in math and science education," said Rep. Brian Baird, Chairman of the Research and Science Education Subcommittee in Congress, after the passage of The 21st Century Competitiveness Act of 2007.

Considering such investments "wasteful earmarks" today, even in the face of the financial crisis, will severely cripple US economic competitiveness in the increasingly high-tech world down the road.
I saw a planetarium show at the Adler Planetarium in 1999, and even speaking as an astronomer I found it spectacular and awe-inspiring (familiarity breeds contempt: I normally find TV shows on astronomy to be dull).

$3 million dollars is not a lot of money for the federal government to invest for a long-term effective educational tool that reaches out to large numbers of the public.

Put it in perspective. An new interstate highway interchange costs about $150 million. The unnecessary and disastrous war in Iraq that McCain was a cheer leader for before he was briefly against it (but then he was for it again) has a current cost of $600 billion, and will cost vastly more when the long terms costs become apparent.

Yet Mr "Bomb Bomb Bomb Iran" has the nerve to attack Obama over an educational tool. I can't help but agree with Kravtsov that McCain has a serious case of misology. Worse than that, what happened to honor, John McCain?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The 2008 Nobel prize in Physics goes to Nambu, Kobayashi and Maskawa

Yoichiro Nambu, Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa share the 2008 Nobel prize in Physics for work on symmetry breaking and charge and parity (CP) violation (NYT article).

Scientific American has an interesting article on the top ten people who probably deserved a Nobel but didn't get one, including Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner and Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Recent astrophysics papers and preprints

A non-exhaustive list of recent papers and preprints I thought interesting.

Are Optically Selected Quasars Universally X-Ray Luminous? X-Ray–UV Relations in Sloan Digital Sky Survey Quasars
Robert R. Gibson, W. N. Brandt, and Donald P. Schneider, The Astrophysical Journal, 685:773–786, 2008.

Outliers from the Mass-Metallicity Relation. I. A Sample of Metal-Rich Dwarf Galaxies from SDSS
Molly S. Peeples, Richard W. Pogge, and K. Z. Stanek, The Astrophysical Journal, 685:904–914, 2008

Kinematical & Chemical Characteristics of the Thin and Thick Disks
Rosemary F.G. Wyse, arXiv:0809.4516v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 12 pages, 4 figures; review at IAU Symposium 254, `The Galaxy Disk in Cosmological Context', Copenhagen, June 2008, eds J. Andersen, J. Bland-Hawthorn & B. Nordstrom

A diatribe on expanding space
J.A. Peacock, arXiv:0809.4573v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 4 pages, plain TeX. Not submitted to any journal

Suzaku Observations of the Circinus galaxy
Y. Yang, A. S. Wilson, G. Matt, Y. Terashima, L. J. Greenhill, arXiv:0809.4656v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: ApJ accepted

X-ray Halo Around the Spiral Galaxy NGC 4631 Observed with Suzaku
Noriko Y. Yamasaki, Kosuke Sato, Ikuyuki Mitsuishi, Takaya Ohashi, arXiv:0809.0109v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 8 pages, 11 figures, will be published in PASJ

Suzaku Observations of M82 X-1 : Detection of a Curved Hard X-ray Spectrum
Ryohei Miyawaki, Kazuo Makishima, Shinya Yamada, Poshak Gandhi, Tsunefumi Mizuno, Aya Kubota, Takeshi Tsuru, Hironori Matsumoto, arXiv:0809.3339v2 [astro-ph]
Comments: 19 pages, 9 figures, accepted in Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan

Star cluster versus field star formation in the nucleus of the prototype starburst galaxy M82
S. Barker, R. de Grijs, M. Cervino, arXiv:0804.1913v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 10 pages, A&A, in press

Chandra Observation of the Edge-on Spiral NGC 5775: Probing the Hot Galactic Disk/Halo Connection
J. T. Li, Z. Y. Li, Q. D. Wang, J. A. Irwin, J. Rossa, arXiv:0807.3587v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: 25 pages, 10 figures, 4 tables, accepted for publication in MNRAS

A New Hubble Space Telescope Distance to NGC 1569: Starburst Properties and IC 342 Group Membership
Aaron J. Grocholski, Alessandra Aloisi, Roeland P. van der Marel, Jennifer Mack, Francesca Annibali, Luca Angeretti, Laura Greggio, Enrico V. Held, Donatella Romano, Marco Sirianni, Monica Tosi, arXiv:0808.0153v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: Submitted to ApJ Letters. 5 pages, including 4 reduced-resolution figures.

Towards an accurate model for the Antennae Galaxies
Simon J. Karl, Thorsten Naab, Peter H. Johansson, Christian Theis, Christian M. Boily, arXiv:0809.5020v1 [astro-ph]
Comments: To be published in the proceedings of the "Galactic and Stellar Dynamics 2008" conference. 4 pages, 5 figures, 1 table

Friday, October 03, 2008

Palin's "little starbursts"

I see this title on Sullivan and think "Finally a political candidate addresses the serious scientific issue of feedback in dwarf starbursts, and who better seeing as Palin is an expert on energy!"

This fantasy is brutally cut short when I follow up the RSS link and see what Sullivan is actually commenting on.