Archive for the ‘astronomy’ category

For a Good Time In Radioland (Short Notice Self Aggrandizement)

October 6, 2016

ETA: So, we lost the connection to Blog Talk radio.  Jay and I continued the conversation to tape; he’s editing it now and will post the audio as a podcast tomorrow.  I’ll let y’all know when it’s up.  Sorry…


Don’t know if anyone reading this has had their fill of The Hunt For Vulcan, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll be talking soon about that book, missing planets, error in science (and life, perhaps) and more with Jay Ackroyd on his internet radio program, Virtually Speaking.

Time: 9 p.m. Eastern, 6 Pacific (one hour from now!)

Here’s the link.

Tune in, if you’re not absorbed in more down-to-earth matters. (I.e….Go Sox!)

Image:  Gerrit Dou, Astronomer by candlelight1665

Brave New Worlds

May 2, 2016

You may have caught this news, but today Nature published a report on the discovery of three earth-scale planets in orbit around just about the least impressive star it’s possible to be.


What’s most intriguing is that the dimness of that parent star — now known as TRAPPIST-1, after the instrument at the heart of this discovery — makes it just possible (if you squint just right) to glimpse a possible opening for life on its planets.

It’s tricky, because the two better-characterized planets are terribly close to their sun, with orbits of 1.5 and 2.4 days.  But TRAPPIST-1 is what’s called an “ultracool dwarf” — and even at that distances, the two planets would have equilibrium temperatures that are pretty damn hot.  But — if everything broke just right, there would be some locations that could be cool enough to support liquid water on the surface.

That’s one of the big pre-conditions exobiology researchers/dreamers imagine would be valuable/necessary for the emergence of life beyond earth.  Given how many ways we can imagine (and all the ways we can’t) that those circumstances might not pan out, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a signal from our new friends on a distant world.

But the real juice behind this finding comes from the fact that these planets are decent candidates for transmission spectroscopic analysis of their atmospheres (if they have them) during their transits across the face of their star.  All it will take is the next generation of large, infrared-capable telescopes:  the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018, and instruments like the Giant Magellan Telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope, both now starting construction in Chile, and the Thirty-Meter-Telescope, now stalled in Hawaii.

I write more about this over at The Atlantic. It’s a fun tale — a small team pursuing a hunch that has led to a significant (or at least enticing and delicious) advance in our grasp of the possible out there.

So — if you’re tired of terrestrial politics, have some fun contemplating possible home worlds for the Lectroid going by the name of Cruz.

Image:  Edvard Munch, Starry Night, 1922-24

A Big Effing Einstein Deal

February 11, 2016

Just a quick note here as I’m on deadline for a piece on this stuff, but today we got the official announcement of the worst kept recent secret in physics.  Here, via the Guardian, is the TL:DR version of what was said:

On 14 September 2015 at 9:50 GMT, the two detectors of the newly upgraded Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected a signal.

It was unambiguously a gravitational wave signal because it matched the predictions from Einstein’s general theory of relativity almost precisely.


This is huge news, as it is, among other things, the latest and most elusive (so far) direct confirmation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, a theory of gravity that describes what we feel as a force holding our feet to the floor is in fact the local warping of spacetime by matterenergy. (In the case of our feet and our floor — that warping is the dent in spacetime created by the mass of the earth.)

It is as well a triumph of virtuosity in observation and measurement.  The detection of a gravity wave is a simply wondrous an act of human hands and mind.  It is a joy to witness, at least for me.

More after I get the paying work done….

Image:  J. W. M. Turner Storm at Sea 1851 or before.

Programming Note/Self Aggrandizement — Vulcan/Planet Nine Edition

January 29, 2016

Hey, all:  if you’ve got a moment this afternoon, I’ll be talking with Ira Flatow on Science Friday about The Hunt for Vulcan in the context of last week’s announcement about Planet Nine.


I’ll be on in the second hour, starting at around 3:20 ET, maybe a couple of ticks before, and rabbiting on with Ira until about 3:38.  Some NPR stations fecklessly omit the second hour of Science Friday, so check local listings.  You can always catch it live or later at the Science Friday site.

While there may be better ways to spend 18 minutes of your life…there are surely worse ones too.  Come on down if you’ve time and the inclination.

Image: Poster for the film, The Radio King, 1922.

It Came From Planet Nine

January 26, 2016

There be dragons out there, waaaaay out there, in the dark, off the edge of the map.

Or rather, a virtuoso combination of observation and mathematical modeling has led to an exciting, in some ways joyously old-school prediction. Orbital oddities identified in a handful of distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) were subjected to the same kind of inquiry that allowed 19th century astronomers to infer Neptune from Uranus’s behavior, in what was widely understood to be a triumph of Isaac Newton’s “System of the World.”


The new analysis, by two Caltech astronomers, theoretician Konstantin Batygin and the observer and Slayer-of-Pluto Michael Brown, has led to a broad outline of what to expect — a ~10 Earth mass planet travelling a very eccentric orbit that never comes closer to the sun than ~250 Earth-Sun distances, a unit of measure known as the Astronomical Unit.

I’m sure many of you saw the news about this last week.  Alexandra Witze in Nature had a  good write-up, as did Alan Burdick in The New Yorker.  (For those (quite a few) on the blog with the urge to read the original Batygin-Brown paper — go here.)

I couldn’t be more excited by the news.  I sometimes forget what an extraordinary run of solar system exploration I’ve been privileged to witness.  The variety we’ve found exists in our near-environment has leapt unbelievably, just in the last two or  three decades, and the richness and complexity of our own solar system is allowing us to make more sense of the process of planet and planetary system formation as more and more data emerges about exo-systems.

But for all that excitement, there’s something special about a new major planet.  As I write in The Hunt for Vulcan [Shameless Plug Here], the idea of a whole new world joining the neighborhood had enormous romantic power in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  Arguably, given our present immersion in the imagined reality of multiple worlds, that romance cuts deeper still today.

But. ButButButButBut….it’s important to remember that a prediction, no matter how well supported, how seemingly necessary, isn’t the same thing as proof, as the discovery itself.  That’s what I tried to say in this essay on the subject.  A sample:

In 1846, the discovery of Neptune turned Le Verrier into a celebrity; for a time, he was the most famous man of science in the world. He went on an international tour and seized the moment to rise to the top of power in the highly contentious and hierarchical world of French astronomy. Batygin and Brown are taking a much more measured tack with Planet Nineand for good reason.  “We felt quite cautious about making the statement we made,” Batygin says.  Why such concern? Because, he says, “immediately after the detection of Neptune spurious claims of planets in outer solar system began to surface. We didn’t want to be another red herring.”

It wasn’t just the distant reaches of the solar system that tripped people up: 


The only problem being, of course, that Vulcan was never there.

I’m much more hopeful for Batygin and Brown’s Planet Nine, but hopeful don’t pay the rent — or, as Batygin told me:

“If Newton is right, then I think we’re in pretty good shape,” says Batyagin. “We’re after a real physical effect that needs explanation. The dynamics of our model are persuasive.” And yet, he adds, that’s not enough. “Until Planet Nine is caught on camera it does not count as being real. All we have now is an echo.”

There’s a surfeit of terrestrial crazy to weigh us down.  It’s a relief, I find, to look up and out, and contemplate the ordered mysteries that so thoroughly dwarf Comrade Trump’s Yuuuuuggggge self conceit.

Images:  William Blake, Isaac Newton1795

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomerc. 1668

For A Good Time In Cambridge…Tonight!c

November 3, 2015

So it’s here — Publication Day! The Hunt for Vulcan is now live.

There’s a bit of backstory on how the book came to be over at Gizmodo. Spoiler alert: Ta-Nehisi Coates bears part of the blame.

More backstory on Einstein’s role in all this here.

And last, tonight (in an hour and a half actually) this:


If that doesn’t read too well: I’ll be talking about the book with my colleague, the wonderful physicist and historian of science David Kaiser at 6 p.m. We’ll be at the MIT Museum — free and open to the public.

If you can’t make it, there will be alternatives.

And with that: shameless self promotion at least temporarily brought to a halt.

Mountains, Stars, Conflict

May 31, 2015

You’ll forgive, I hope, the self promotion here, but I want to draw attention to an essay I have in The Boston Globe today.

It’s about the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) that is beginning to be constructed at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Mauna Kea is one of the world’s most significant sites for optical and near infrared astronomy — it’s already home to thirteen telescopes, including the two largest now in operation in the twin Keck instruments.


The TMT is designed to have a primary mirror three times the diameter of the Keck ten meter light buckets, with nine times the light gathering area.  Over the last century — which covers the era of large, mountaintop optical observatorys, each similar leap in telescope size has produced startling, powerful discoveries, and there’s every reason to expect the same of the TMT and its planned southern hemisphere counterparts.

But there’s a catch — or something more fundamental than a mere glitch.  Mauna Kea is a sacred site within the Hawaiian tradition, and an environmentally sensitive one, and opposition to TMT has grown from a point of tension to one of direct confrontation.  Construction of the TMT has been suspended, and the governor of Hawaii has called for the removal of a quarter of the existing observatories before the TMT itself begins operating.

In the midst of this confrontation, plenty of people have framed the two sides as another battle in the old war between science and religious belief.  I say in the Globe today that’s a mistake.  A taste:

….the TMT dispute shows where the science versus religion trope goes wrong. The Hawaiian protesters haven’t said that Mauna Kea’s telescopes are inherently impious, or that the data they collect is somehow wrong, or that Hawaiian mythology is a better account of the cosmos. Rather, the value, the joy, the need the observatories satisfy may indeed satisfy many, but not those continuing a Hawaiian tradition that allows its heirs to find connection with memory, with history, with nature — to achieve the same transcendence sought by those who find beauty in the measure of the universe.

That is: The TMT defenders and their opponents seek analogous rewards from their presence on Mauna Kea. Their conflict isn’t between the competing worldviews of science and religion, but between desires that are kin to each other — and that require the same physical space.

Check it out, if your Sunday afternoon tends that way.  Let me know what you think.

Image:  Johannes Vermeer,  The Astronomerc. 1668.