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Not so fast! July 27, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Cosmology.
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Ok, now I usually don’t use this blog to talk about my beliefs (I subscribe to no religious doctrine and am not an atheist), but there are some things I need to say.

I follow Phil Plait’s very informative blog, Bad Astronomy. Recently he linked to this post in Jennifer Ouellette’s blog, Twisted Physics.

In her post In Praise of Insignificance, Jennifer Ouellette says: “If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one’s insignificance. It’s a tall order, I know, when one is accustomed to being the center of attention.”

Centre of whose attention, may I ask? Are we not still the centre of attention? If we’re not, what is?

It’s a mistake to assume that with atheism comes insignificance. How insignificant are we if everything is “just this,” where the “this” is infinitely amazing? We are the beholders, the consciousnesses. We define our own existences (at least more than free-falling balls of dirty ice do, ie perceive that we define our own existences), make decisions and answer to no one. That’s exactly as significant as you think it is.

The word “significance” loses its meaning when used to describe atheist cosmology. In the atheist universe, nothing signifies anything; at least not in the way that human existence signifies God’s love for creation in Christian belief, or that committing a sin signifies a rejecting of God’s freely-given love.

I find it frustrating when people ooh and aah to great length, sermonizing about our tiny existences. Come on! Are we seriously still having this conversation? The idea itself is old-fashioned. Scale goes on and on in both directions, leaving us somewhere in the middle, just like everything else. On the earth a grain of sand is small, in the universe a galaxy is small. There may be an infinite number of full-sized universes. Let’s stop patting each other on the back for reminding each other that the cosmos is huge.

That being said, I still love a good night sky!

Some atheists argue that they don’t believe in a God because there is no evidence to back up this belief.

This is problematic in two ways. First of all, both atheists and religious believers like to choose their own field of engagement. The atheists say that there is no scientific evidence for God, and the religious say that the evidence is right there in their own canon. Both systems are essentially self-referential.

Second, the claim that there is no evidence for intelligent design (and I do not mean the “Christian” version of Intelligent Design that they say should be taught in science classes; that’s a whole other argument) only really works if God is a separate entity from the universe. St Augustine tackled this question in his Confessions, when he contested the dualism of the tangible and spiritual levels of existence. If we say that God is not separate from the universe but instead that the universe is a facet of God and that the ongoing process of creation is the unfolding will of God, then I’d say that in all the richness of the universe(s), through all dimensions, in all space, all time, and on every scale, there is certainly still plenty of room for believing that we are part of something infinitely greater than ourselves that is intrinsically good, supremely intelligent, and of which our own bodies and minds are simple derivatives.

It’s the same old Socratic chestnut: We don’t know, and those who say they know, know less. I say we try for less self-justification and self-congratulation, and more reasonable, tolerant discussion.

Inteview with Professor Mike Thompson on Kepler and astroseismology March 23, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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There has been a lot of talk about the Kepler space telescope and its mission to find Earth-like planets outside the solar system. Its lesser-known but perhaps more important mission, however, is to collect information about the internal sonic vibrations of stars (expressed as small, periodic variations in emitted light) in order to learn about their evolution and structure.
I interviewed Professor Mike Thompson of the University of Sheffield, who will be analysing the information sent back by Kepler for this purpose.
Mike Thompson is a professor of applied mathematics and solar physics, and head of the school of mathematics and statistics at Sheffield University. He studies astroseismology and helioseismology, in other words the vibrations of a star. He also studies solar physics, stellar structure and evolution, and astrophysical fluid dynamics.

Can you tell me about what you are doing for this mission?

My own scientific interest actually is in terms of the stars themselves rather than the planets that are going around them. I use a technique called astroseismology. Many stars oscillate because of the presence of sound waves that are travelling inside them. These sound waves, if they have the right frequency and wavelength, will actually set up certain resonant oscillations of the star. We measure these frequencies at which stars vibrate by making careful observations of the variations of their light. We can use those frequencies, combining many of them, to measure how temperature varies inside the star, what its composition is, even how fast it’s rotating inside.

A good analogy would be of an organ pipe. And organ pipe of a given length will only sound certain notes. If you measured the frequency of those notes or listened to them you would be able to tell something about the structure of that organ pipe. How long it is or what it’s made of, combined with something about the composition of the gas inside it or the composition of the gas. We’re doing similar things with stars.

What sort of practical applications could we see coming from the information that you’re going to analyze?

I think the main practical benefit of learning about stars is what it tells us about our own sun. One of the things we want to understand better is how the magnetic activity cycles work. So in the case of the sun the magnetic activity cycle manifests itself as a sunspot cycle and that’s connected with highly energetic and potentially damaging explosive events (such as flares and coronal mass ejections). These things come out in ways we don’t fully understand and can’t yet predict at the earth and can have serious impacts on our technological society, on communications satellites, on our power grids and so on.

Are there health implications for these coronal mass ejections?

Yes, there certainly are. If an astronaut is in space when one of these things goes off then they could get seriously fried. People have looked at the occurrence of these against the times when the manned Apollo missions were up in space. The Apollo astronauts were quite fortunate. There were some big explosive events that went on and very fortunately there were no Apollo missions up there at the time. But if we want to send manned missions to Mars which of course is now being talked about, then those astronauts are going to be in space for a considerable period of time.

At the moment one of the very big concerns for those of us who study solar variability is the high likelihood that there would be events that would happen during that time which would actually be fatal to the astronauts involved. So how do you develop technologies, perhaps using magnetic fields around the spacecraft, to protect humans in space?

An artificial magnetosphere would actually deflect these particles away. The alternative would be to have large amounts of lead around you, but of course the expense of getting that mass into space is absolutely prohibitive.

How often do these coronal mass ejections occur?

They happen quite frequently. At the height of the solar cycle there could be one a day of these going off, but most of them aren’t coming towards us. But occasionally you get one of these guys and it comes in full face on at the earth, and then it shakes the Earth’s magnetosphere and causes interesting and very exciting aurora displays. They can knock out power lines.

These coronal mass ejections will take a few days to get from the sun to the Earth, whereas light takes eight minutes. Nonetheless, you don’t get much warning. So, better understanding of the sun, better understanding of what the precursors are for predicting these things would be very valuable.

That’s all for today. He gave me some interesting info about Kepler which I will save for a later post.
Purely by coincidence, New Scientist had an alarming article about the disastrous potential consequences of coronal mass ejections in this week’s issue. Read about it here, with an interesting comment here.

Also, take a look at these amazing robot fish!

Surprise meteor, Hubble service mission update and China’s lunar probe March 2, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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Woah! What the hell was that? A totally unexpected asteroid sped by on Monday between the Earth and the Moon. It’s travelling at twenty kilometres per second and is between 60 and 100 metres wide. Apparently that’s nothing new, and a lot of asteroids zip by unnoticed. I find that a little unnerving.
The difference between an asteroid and a comet (like the comet Lulin that passed by last week) is in their appearance. Comets have a visible tail (or coma) and asteroids do not. A comet’s tail is water vapour and dust particles that have blown off the body of the comet as it gets close to the sun.
A meteoroid is smaller than an asteroid (and according to the official definition, bigger than an atom). It becomes a meteor when it enters a planet’s atmosphere and becomes visible as a bright streak. Any material from a meteor that makes it to the ground becomes a meteorite.

In other news it looks like the upcoming service mission to the Hubble space telescope will get the go-ahead after all. After the recent satellite collision there had to be some weighing of the risks. If the mission succeeds it would make the Hubble much more powerful and extend its life considerably.

Finally, China’s Chang 1 lunar satellite concluded its mission of mapping the surface of the moon by slamming into the moon in a “controlled collision.” Although it only became the third country to send a person into space recently, it looks like China is pursuing its space program ambitiously, with plans for a space station and manned lunar mission in the works as well.

Slow day for science… February 23, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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Not much in the news today, except a couple of obviously fake photos of a giant snake. Why is this news?

A shuttle mission to the International Space Station has been postponed not due to the risks posed by whirling shards of space debris, but instead because of worries over some of Discovery’s gas valves.

Thankfully, the Kepler mission is still on track!

I spoke with a gentleman from the Sheffield Astronomical Association who said I might be able to tag along for a viewing of Comet Lulin this weekend. Woohoo!

Oh, and Scientific American has more from Alan Boss of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the likelihood of Earth-like planets existing outside the solar system. He’s got some encouraging (and a mind-boggling) numbers.

That is all.

Now you see it… February 22, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, The Future, The Internet.
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There are still some things that humans can do better than computers. According to Vernor Vinge of San Diego State University, we should enjoy it while it lasts. I dug up this very interesting if somewhat bleak paper about technological singularity, and I recommend you give it a read.

Anyway, about what we do better. If you’ve got some time on your hands and feel like helping out, go on over to the Galaxy Zoo and classify some galaxies. Humans are still way better than computers at processing images according to their content, which is why search engines can only sort images based on tags (ie strings of characters) attached to them. Wait, maybe not.

So, after The Sloan Digital Sky Survey photographed a quarter million galaxies, it needs your help to classify them all. Galaxy Zoo will show you a picture of a galaxy and ask you some basic questions about it. Most of the pics are blurry smudges but some of them are startlingly beautiful.

If you’re in the mood for something a little more social, head down to gwap.com. Gwap stands for Games With A Purpose, and the idea is that by playing these (addictive) games you’re helping search engines clarify their results by classifying music and identifying the contents of images. I don’t know if I subscribe to their emphatic statement that “By playing our games, you’re training computers to solve problems for humans all over the world,” but the games are fun and you get to feel like you’re working when you’re actually playing.

While we’re on the topic of helpful websites, if you haven’t checked out FreeRice, you should.

One more thing… February 20, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Space.
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I forgot to remind you that the comet Lulin will be closest to the Earth on the 24th. That’s Tuesday pre-dawn, I think.
I found this far superior blog by an actual scientist that carries a good picture of what we might see with binoculars or a telescope. Apparently we’ll be able to see it with our naked eyes as well.