Posted tagged ‘astronomy’


November 12, 2016

I’ve got some brewing thoughts about what comes next, in line with and in some cases following on from what others, made of stronger stuff and able to drag words out rage and despair more quickly than I, have already written.

But we do not live by politics alone, however much we may have to over the next months and years. So here’s advance warning of a little bit of wonder, ours for the having:

But this month’s Supermoon is special. The eccentricity above is calculated based upon the Earth-Moon system, but other celestial bodies also influence the Moon’s orbit through gravity. The Sun plays the largest role, but so too does Jupiter and even some of the smaller planets. When factoring in these other influences, the eccentricity of the Moon’s orbit can actually vary by as little as 0.026 and as much as 0.077.

A more eccentric lunar orbit brings the perigee [its closest approach] nearer the Earth, and when this perigee occurs during a full Moon, we get an extra-Supermoon. That is what will happen on Nov. 14, when the Moon will come to within just 356,509km of Earth, which is the Moon’s closest approach since Jan. 26, 1948. The Solar System won’t line up this well again for a lunar approach until Nov. 25, 2034.


That sucker is going to be big, really big –a “normal” Supermoon is 14 % larger and 30% brighter than a full moon at apogee — the point on an elliptical orbit farthest away the focal body.  It’s actually hard to perceive the effect as a casual observer, but it is naked-eye detectable.  The absolute peak of the phenomenon comes at 8:25 a.m. ET this coming Monday, but if you’re up early and/or catch the rising moon Monday evening, you’ll get a fine approximation.  As they say:  check local listings.

One of the consolations/delights I take from nature is the sense of connection to something larger than myself. That’s the same feeling I get from the acts we take to make the world better, from the kindness we show to one person at a time to the actions we’re stumbling to figure out right now, here on this blog and at every turn.

I’m going to stare at that moon Monday (sky permitting) and think of the world I want the next time this particular geometry rolls around, twenty eight years from now.  My son will be thirty four then.  If I’m fortunate enough to be here with him, I’ll be seventy six.  It will be a better world then, if we make it so.

And if it makes me a lunatic to think so, I’ll take that label gladly. Beats the alternative.

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, A view of Vesuvius from Posillipo, Naplesbetween 1788 and 1790.

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.


Not All Harvard Cocktail Parties Are A Waste of Time

October 7, 2013

We can’t just live on a diet of alternating snark and rage at the feral Republican children trying to burn down the House.  Rather, we could — but that’s like suffering the health effects of a day-after-day Super Size Me diet of political high fructose corn starch and a bucket of Krispy Kreme’s — and I, at least, need some happier stuff from time to time just to remind me that the world isn’t simply a playground for the worst of us.

Hence this delightful tale, via my science writing friend David Dobbs, who led to this gem from David Quigg, proprietor of the Two Many Daves blog. The link takes you to a post ostensibly about Quigg’s ongoing pursuit of Ernest Hemingway’s FBI file — in which he’s making progress, but still faces G-manned roadblocks between him and what he really wants to know.

Quigg (deliberately, I suspect) buried the lede.  Hemingway’s a side show.  The really sweet tale he’s managed to extract from the Great Redactor introduces a new character, Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley.  Shapley had a mixed record as an astronomer — he picked the wrong side in the famous Curtis-Shapley debate on whether or not the spiral nebula that had been observed by 1920 lay inside or outside our Milky Way galaxy, and he rather unfortunately thought Edwin Hubble had committed junk science.  But he had the right enemies.  A political liberal and friend of Henry Wallace, he was targeted by Joe McCarthy,* which is what landed him in the FBI files that Quigg received.

Seeing a now rather obscure name in the history of astronomy turn up in the file led Quigg to the magical Google machine — and that’s where this story goes from curious to great:

According to Dr. Shapley, he and Frost met at an annual faculty get-together during one of Frost’s stints as poet-in-residence at Harvard. Frost sought Shapley out, tugged at his sleeve–figuratively, if not literally–and said something like, “Now, Professor Shapley. You know all about astronomy. Tell me, how is the world going to end?” [1] Taken aback by this unconventional approach, Shapley assumed Frost was joking. The two of them chatted for a few moments, but not about the end of the world. Then they each became involved in conversations with other people and were soon in different parts of the room. But a while later, Frost sought out Shapley again and asked him the same question. “So,” said Shapley to his audience in 1960, “I told him that either the earth would be incinerated, or a permanent ice age would gradually annihilate all life on earth.” Shapley went on to explain, as he had earlier explained to Frost, why life on earth would eventually be destroyed by fire or ice.


“Imagine my surprise,” Shapley said, “when just a year or two later, I ran across this poem.” He then read “Fire and Ice” aloud. He saw “Some say” as a reference to himself–specifically to his meeting with Frost at that gathering of Harvard faculty.

I should add that the anecdote comes from Tom Hansen, who recalls hearing Shapley lecture about (inter alia) his conversation with Frost.  Hansen doesn’t dispute Shapley’s memory of the encounter, but he does point out that the poem itself is not a versification of cosmology, and hence, that Shapley’s puff of pride at his muse’s role is very likely (IMHO too) misplaced.

In any event one may — I do — kvell at the thought of those two mutual incomprehensibles sipping sherry whilst thinking such different thoughts fashioned out of the same words.

Beats trying to deal with the Repblican’s Boehner problem, that’s for sure.

*Shapley’s line on McCarthy’s accusations:  “the Senator succeeded in telling six lies in four sentences, which is probably the indoor record for mendacity.”  Not bad for an ivy covered professor, I’d say.

Image:  Francisco Goya, The Snowstorm (Winter), 178-1787. (This is a bit of Goya juvenalia, as far as I’m concerned — but even before Goya became GOYA, he still could paint a bit, wouldn’t you say?)

Why You Should Want To Be An Astronomer…

March 27, 2010

You get the chance to make images like this one:

This is the Owl Nebula — a planetary nebula* visible in the Northern Hemisphere in the constellation Ursa Major.  It gets its name from the two dark “eyes” visible more or less along the center line of the image, which to the poetic soul that lives in skywatchers, gives it the look of an owl’s face.  It was made at the Gemini North telescope, an eight-meter class monolith at what is perhaps the best single observing site for optical astronomy in the world, the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The image was produced for the observing program of an atypical user of a major telescope:  Émilie Storer, a student at Collège Charlemagne, Pierrefonds, Quebec.  Storer was this year’s winner of an annual competition sponsored by the Gemini Observatory, asking high schoolers to write an essay about their favorite object in the sky, and why one of  the Gemini telescopes should observe it.

In this case, Storer’s choice prompted Gemini’s scientists to create the best available large-telescope data set on this planetary nebula, and thus reveal significant structure within what had previously been thought to be a quite simple ball. Details in the Gemini Observatory press release.

I’ve long been a fan of planetary nebulae — you can see a couple in the opening sequence to a film I made, and, as of this writing, 204 more in the archives (search for “planetary nebula) of the invaluable Astronomy Picture of the Day archive.  They are beautiful to look at, and, the more you know about them, poignant too — a terribly short lived passage in the life of a star, an eruption of splendor, swiftly to be eclipsed by a dwindling of the light.

And I’ve long been a fan of big telescopes on big mountains, and anything that gets people to know and love them.  I’ve made a couple of films centering on large ‘scopes, and have spent a lot of time trying to remain sufficiently oxygenated to remember when to turn the camera on and when to call “cut.”  I have a particular affection for Gemini North, as it happens, because I had the enormous good fortune to go to the Corning factory in upstate New York as they were finishing and shipping the eight meter mirror blank off to France for polishing.

What I saw was twenty ton contact lens, slumped into the rudiments of its curved shape, and through the generosity of both Corning and the Gemini team, I and my collaborator Larry Klein were able to make one of the most spectacular purely visual scenes we’ve ever shot — images of the giant blank, lit blue from below, being gently swept by a pair of moon-bootied men, to be followed by the amazing slow dance of lifting the mirror up and into its crate.  Doesn’t sound like much on the page, and that film “Cathedrals of the Sky,” is almost unobtainable now, but trust me, it was great.

But I digress.  This is just a post for a weekend to give kudos to Ms. Storer and to the Gemini Observatory — and to enjoy a break from the craziness that has overtaken this blog and our country.  Here, after all, is a glimpse of genuinely beauty that could not be less implicated in any trouble and strife here on the mote of dust we call home.

*Planetary nebulae, despite the name, are the products of a late phase in the life cycle of certain stars.  Larger stars — above 8 times the mass of the sun — tend to blow up in spectacular events called supernovae.  Lighter stars at the end of their lives don’t undergo the cataclysmic collapse and explosion of their massive  cousins (as long as they are not part of a distinct class of stars below 1.38 solar masses that under very specific conditions produce what are known as type 1A supernovae).  Instead, as such stars begin run out of hydrogen as fuel for fusion reactions and begin to burn helium (while remaining hydrogen stocks continue to fuse).  As the stars core heats up as the more intense helium fusion reactions take over, it becomes less stable (the actual dynamics are ferociously more complicated than this cartoon) and the star begins to blow off its outer atmosphere in a series of concentric shells.  Those expanding spheres of gas form the beautiful shapes and colors we detect as planetary nebulae.

A Couple of Days Late, But…

April 3, 2009

It’s always good to acknowledge fine April Fool’s snark.

In the science division, let me nominate this dispatch from the cutting edge of optical astronomy.

Let me just add from personal experience (very lucky me…see chapter 6 for the scene in this film shot at the Keck Observatory) that the one statement contained therein that is truly true is that one’s brain does indeed slow atop Mauna Kea.  13,600 ft is no joke.  In the wee hours one does have trouble working out sequences like this:  left foot; right foot; left foot; right foot; le…ri…? But it is truly gorgeous up there, night and day.

Update: Should have added the h/t:  one of my favorite blogs/bloggers, A Darker View.

Image:  Antoine Caron,  “Astronomers Studying an Eclipse,” 1571.

Breaking News: Copernicus Unearthed

November 21, 2008

Forgive the headline; I could not resist.

Via the Nature group’s blog The Great Beyond comes notice that remains have been found of the man who can be seen as having fired the first shot of the scientific revolution (and to have put human beings in their place).  The blog reports:

A skull from Frombork cathedral in Poland has been identified as that of revolutionary astronomer Copernicus.

Marie Allen, of Uppsala University, says DNA from the skull is a match for DNA from hairs found in books owned by Copernicus, whose book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium started the movement to viewing the sun – rather than the Earth – as the centre of the solar system.

“The two strands of hair found in the book have the same genome sequence as the tooth from the skull and a bone from Frombork,” she says (AFP).

See this article from The Guardian for more details.

I love this story, not least for the connection of books to a kind of immortality:  we make and leave parts of ourselves in every book we read.

This is a big, big deal for anyone who likes to think about how the way we think now took form.  Tim F.of Balloon Juice sent notice of this story to me, and for him, it is the connection of Copernicus to Galileo that has the most resonance; Galileo’s defense of a sun – centered cosmos in the face of official Catholic rejection of Copernicus’s idea marks for many the birth of the modern sensibility, the assertion of the authority of experience over revelation.

I think that’s right — or at least, that seeing in and around Galileo one of the major steps towards the modern idea of science is certainly on target.  But Copernicus himself holds my attention here.  It is almost impossible to state how significant his combination of insight and rigor was in creating a Copernican “party” amongst the learned of Europe.

It was that impact that gave both license and direction to the ongoing and expanding European inquiry into nature, an effort that over the next 150 years became a scientific transformation so total that there was not going back.

There is one best place to trace how that which I am misleadingly calling a party took form. It comes courtesy of the near-legendary Harvard historian of science Owen Gingrich, who has carried on a decades long love affair with Copernicus and his book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).

I owe Owen thanks for help he gave me early in the process of writing my Newton book– and for a happy afternoon in his unbelievably book-crammed office, looking over facsimile editions of Copernicus to puzzle out the meaning of a diagram or two. (That is– he was puzzling them out and I was holding his coat.)

But I owe him a greater debt of gratitude for his The Book Nobody Read, his tale, part memoir, part brilliant intellectual history, of tracking down every extant example of the first and second editions of De revolutionibus… and analyzing who wrote what marginal notes in each copy.  In doing so, he reconstructs the path Copernicus’s ideas took through the learned of Europe.  It’s a great read, a great glimpse of what it means to have a revolution in ideas at the level of individual thinking, feeling human beings exhilarated by a new thought.

(My own encounter with Owen’s book led me to grab the opportunity that came when I visited the Newton scholar Scott Mandelbrote at Peterhouse College, Cambridge.  Scott is or was at the time the man in charge of Peterhouse’s library, which owns a first edition of De revolutionibus. At lunch the day we met the topic of Copernicus came up, so he incredibly kindly took me into the library and pulled that treasure off the shelf for me to pick up and turn the pages.

It may be an odd passion, but I can’t describe how thrilling it was to pick up an almost five hundred year old book — such a little thing — that set off so many fireworks.  It is, by the way, a beautiful book just from the point of view of the printer’s art.  In particular, the woodcut drawings are truly elegant:  they possess a sharp, precise line that still has the quality of an individual craftsman’s gesture; there are sweeps to the curves, and slight deepening or widening of the stroke that gives emphasis to the diagrams.  They literally don’t make ’em like that anymore.)

Images:  Teothor de Bry, copperplate portrait of Nicholas Copernicus, 1598.

Nicholas Copernicus, diagram of the heliocentric system from De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, 1543.

I needed a smile after today’s polls…(A Post in Honor of Neil de Grasse Tyson)

September 8, 2008

So my teaching’s kicking in, and two last nagging pieces of a book should have gone out last week, and I realize that ceti eels had been introduced into my brain through my ears and were carving the letters S.A.R.A.H. P.A.L.I.N in my cerebra cortex, so I decided to take a couple of days off of substantive blogging….

And then I saw this from xkcd, and it brought to mind fond memories of making some television with Neil Tyson, one of the leaders in the cause referenced below.  So tip of the hat Neil, and enjoy all:

Something with a bit more to it to come tomorrow…I promise (I promise I’ll try).

Good Science Writing (1) ….

February 11, 2008

…is where you find it.

I mostly know Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from The Little Prince – which I’ve tried a couple of times on my now-seven year old. He’s not ready for it yet, or perhaps I should just try again; the combination of melancholy and strangeness has been hard for him to deal with so far.
But just seeing the name reminded me that I’ve never read the stuff he was very famous for back in the day, his memoirs of flying. I was looking for Night Flight, probably the most famous of those works, but as it happened I picked up Wind, Sand and Stars.

I’m enjoying the book enormously, wondering what took me so long to get to it. Saint-Exupéry’s writing is a blend of the ecstatic/romantic and an incredibly sharp and unsentimental view of the interplay between a man and his machines. I’ll blog about that later – his chapter “The Tool” is a much needed slap in the face of every hysteric complaint about “dehumanizing” technology, but there was another passage that knocked me off my feet a couple of nights ago.

In this one, Saint-Exupéry writes about what he saw when he was forced down on a geological island in the middle of the Sahara. He had landed his airplane on the flat top of a bit of a collapsed plateau. He wrote:

Without question I was the first human being ever to wander over this…this iceberg; [ellipsis in the original] its sides were remarkably steep, no Arab could have climbed them, and no European had as yet ventured into this wild region.

I was thrilled by the virginity of a soil which no step of man or beast had sullied. I lingered t here, startled by this silence that never had been broken. The first star began to shine, and I said to myself that this pure surface had lain here thousands of years in sight only of the stars.

But suddenly my musing on this white sheet and these shining stars were endowed with a singular significance. I had kicked against a hard, black stone, the size of a man’s fist, a sort of moulded rock of lava incredibly present on the surface of a bed of shells a thousand feet deep. A sheet spread beneath an apple-tree can receive only apples; a sheet spread beneath the stars can receive only star-dust. Never had a stone fallen from the skies made known its origins so unmistakably

And very naturally, raising my eyes, I said to myself that from the height of t his celestial apple-tree there must have dropped other fruits, and that I should find them exactly where they fell, since never from the beginning of time had anything been present to displace them.

Excited by my adventure, I picked up one and then a second and then a third of these stones, finding them at about at he rate of one stone to the acre. And here is where my adventure became magical, for in a striking foreshortening of time that embraced thousands of years, I had become the witness of this miserly rain from the stars. The marvel of marvels was that there on the rounded back of the planet, between this magnetic sheet and those stars, a human consciousness was present in which as in a mirror that rain could be reflected.

Look at what Saint-Exupéry was able to do here: he caught “the grandeur of this view of life” – the poetry available to someone paying close attention to what actually lies before his eyes. He created one of the clearest images I can recall in science writing to explain his inference that the anomalous rock he found was actually a meteorite. He showed, rather than told, how he tested the hypothesis – or better, the process of inference – of an extra-planetary origin for the rock. He systematized his results. And then he tied it all back to what remains the central delight of science: the fact that order in the material world can be detected and explored by the human mind.

People don’t think of Saint-Exupéry as a science writer, and too many don’t credit the genre with the capacity to become art. The above is the single necessary counter-example.


Image: Postcard of the Blériot IX monoplane. Note: this is not Saint Exupéry’s plane. This a pre-World War I design; Saint Exupéry’s flying experience described in Wind Sand and Stars began in 1926. I just liked the image. Source: Wikimedia Commons.