Momentous Monday: Tricky Questions

Here are five tricky questions to test how much you know about what you think you know.

  1. When did the United States become its own country?

If you’re an American, you probably wanted to say July 4, 1776, didn’t you? You could, but you’d be wrong. We had to win the war that was started when we declared independence, and that took a while.

The U.S.A. wasn’t officially that until March 4, 1789, when the Constitution went into effect — and George Washington became the first President. Why we don’t celebrate this as the birth of our nation is beyond me, but March 4 was the date of the presidential inauguration right up until 1933, when it was moved to its current January 20 date by Constitutional Amendment — number 20, to be exact, or XX if you prefer.

  1. How much gravity, in g, do astronauts on the ISS experience?

You’re probably thinking Zero, aren’t you? Nope. The gravity up there is a net downward force — as in toward the center of the Earth — of 0.89g, or almost what you’d experience on the surface of the Earth itself.

“But they’re floating around up there!” you may say.

Yes, they are, sort of, but they’re not really floating. They’re falling in the same way that you fall when you’re in a rollercoaster or other thrill ride that makes a sudden and very steep drop. It feels like you’re floating, but that’s because your downward acceleration (which makes you feel like you’re pushing up into the rollercoaster seat) counteracts the downward pull of gravity.

Drop faster than 1g, and you’ll rise out of your seat — but you’re still in Earth’s gravity.

  1. When there’s a Full Moon in the sky, how much of the Moon can we actually see?

Did you say “All of it?” Nice answer, but wrong. We’re only seeing half of it, of course, and that’s the near side. We never see the far side, but we actually do see more than just half of the Moon over time.

In fact, over time we can see up to 60% of the Moon’s surface thanks to libration, which is a tilt and wobble in the Moon itself. It wobbles along its East-West axis stopping during perigee and apogee,

The former is when the Moon is closest to Earth during its orbit, and the latter is when its at its farthest. Between each of these points, the Moon turns a bit farther, about 8 degrees  in either direction, showing a bit of its backside. Cheeky!

Likewise, the Moon “nods” north and south. This happens for the same reason that the Earth has season — the Moon’s orbital plane is tilted about 5 degrees relative to Earth’s. Also, the Moon’s equator is tilted 1.5 degrees relative to the plane of the ecliptic, which was set as the plane which contains both the Sun and the Earth’s orbit, meaning that the Earth is inclined zero degrees to the plane.

These lunar tilts add up to 6.5 degrees, though, which is exactly how much of its far side we can see to the north and south depending on where the Moon is in its orbital period.

So add it all up — 2 x 8 degrees plus 2 x 6.5 degrees, or 16 plus 13 degrees, and we get 29 degrees, more or less. Add that to the 180 we already see to get 209, divide by 360, and that’s about 58% of the surface we can see over time, give or take.

  1. So how much of the Moon do we see when the phase is a Half Moon?

You’re probably thinking “Half of the half we see, so one quarter.” Well, that’s the part we can see that’s lit — but have you ever realized that you can still see the whole near side of the Moon no matter what the phase, even if it’s a New Moon?

This is because the Earth itself has an albedo of 30 to 35%, varying due to cloud cover. This number indicates how much of the Sun’s light it reflects.

Under most circumstances, there’s enough light coming off of the Earth to illuminate the dark parts of the Moon at least enough so that they appear as a dark shadow against the night sky, and it’s much more obvious with a very starry background because there will be a “hole” in the stars where the rest of the Moon is.

If you live anywhere near the eastern shore of the Pacific, this effect is particularly pronounced, since there will be a good amount of sunlight reflecting off of the water whether it’s under cloud cover or not.

The Moon’s albedo is 12%, but it’s getting hit by a lot of light by the Sun — and this is why you can see the entire near side of a New Moon during the day. Sure, it’s fairly pale, but it’s there. Just look up in the sky away from the Sun and ta-da!

  1. One last question for the Americans: What is the official language of the United States?

Yep. Contrary to what way too many people think, the official language of the United States is not English. In fact, it’s… nothing. We as a country do not have an official language. Some states have tried to have official languages, while a number do not.

Not counting territories, we have 19 states with no official language, although some languages do have special status, like Spanish in New Mexico and French in Louisiana. the District of Columbia provides for equal access to all whether they speak English or not.

Twenty states have declared for English only, with two states (Arizona and Massachusetts) subsequently passing new English-only laws after previous laws were declared unconstitutional. My home state, California, passed an English-only initiative in 1986, when the state was much more conservative. However, for all practical purposes this isn’t really enforced, at least not in any government agency.

There are three states that have English as an official language in addition to others: Hawaii, with Hawaiian; Alaska, with over 20 indigenous languages recognized; and South Dakota, with English and Sioux. Okay, I’ll include Puerto Rico, with English and Spanish.

By the way, when the Colonies declared their independence from England, they also considered a full linguistic split as well, and there were many proponents of making Hebrew the official language of the United States.

How did you do, and how many tricky questions or errors in “common knowledge” do you know? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday Wonders: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth MC

Just over 141 years ago, an Irish astronomer, economist, and all-around jack of all trades you’ve never heard of known as Kenneth Essex Edgeworth was born.

You probably have heard of Gerard Kuiper, though, or at least the belt named after him. Since Kuiper was of Dutch descent, that first syllable is pronounced with a long I, so it’s not “Kooper.” The first syllable rhymes with kite. (If you’re an L.A. local, it’s exactly the same as Van Nuys, and for the same reasons that I won’t get into here, because they’re complicated.)

Anyway… Kuiper was about 25 years younger than Edgeworth, died just over a year after him in 1973, and wound up with his name on something that Edgeworth originally predicted and described.

Okay, sometimes it’s referred to as the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, attributing the discoverers slash theorists in the right order, but that’s generally mostly not the case, so that Kuiper really is kind of the Edison to Edgeworth’s Tesla.

But Edgeworth was ahead of his time in other ways. Only eight years after Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and declared the eighth planet, Edgeworth was expressing his doubts, saying that it was too small to be a planet, and was probably a remnant of the bits and pieces that came together to create the solar system.

He was certainly vindicated on that one, and it was part of the same ideas which gave birth to what should be called the Edgeworth Belt, but which didn’t catch on until Kuiper got in on the act in the 1950s.

Maybe a big part of the problem was that Edgeworth was more of an armchair astronomer. While he published papers, he was a theorists and not an experimenter. Then again, Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist, not a practical one, and his theories changed the way we view the universe.

Edgeworth’s could have changed the way we view our solar system, and he also hypothesized what later became known as the Oort Cloud — named for another damn Dutch astronomer, Jan Oort, who once again came to the party long after Edgeworth proposed the idea.

When Edgeworth was a child, his family moved to the estate of his maternal uncle, who was an astronomer, and had an influence on young Kenneth. Later, the family would move to the estate of Edgeworth’s paternal grandfather, where he would develop engineering skills in his father’s workshop.

He went into the military, joining the Corps of Royal Engineers, and was posted to South Africa, where he served in the Second Boer War. His military career continued through World War I and beyond, and he retired in 1926.

However, between the Boer War and WW I, his uncle submitted his name for membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, and he was accepted for in 1903. By this point, he had already written papers on astronomy, since one of them was read at the meeting during which he was elected. He studied international economics during the Great Depression and wrote five books on the subject in the 1930s and 40s. He also published various papers on astronomy, covering subjects like the solar system, red dwarves, star formation, and redshift.

It was also at this time that he published his thoughts on Pluto, as well as the existence of both the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.

After he “retired,” he published a series of letters and papers, leading to his book The Earth, the Planets and the Stars: Their Birth and Evolution, which was published in 1961. He published his autobiography, Jack of all Trades: The Story of My Life, when he was 85, in 1965, and died in Dublin in 1972, at the age of 92.

His contributions to the Kuiper Belt and Oort cloud weren’t acknowledged until 1995, although he did have an asteroid named after him in 1978, 3487 Edgeworth. Yes, a comet would have been more appropriate, but those are only named after their discoverers, and after October 10, 1972, Kenneth Edgeworth wasn’t in a position to discover anything new.

But while he was around, damn what a life. And what an unsung hero. Proof yet again that, sometimes, the ideas that sound utterly crazy at the time turn out to be the truth.

I wonder which unsung geniuses we aren’t listening to now, but whose visions will be obvious in a generation or two.

Image: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth, year unknown. Public domain.

Sunday Nibble #66: Putting the Sun on pause

Happy summer solstice! This is the day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere with the longest period of continuous sunlight, which increases with latitude.

On the equator, at 0 degrees latitude, day time and nighttime are pretty much equal all year long. The farther north you go, the longer the period of sunlight. At my latitude, which is about 34 degrees north, we’ll get 14 hours and 26 minutes of sunlight on that day.

When you get to Reykjavik, Iceland, you’ll experience 21 hours and 8 minutes of sunlight plus 2 hours and 52 minutes of twilight, which adds up to 24 hours during which the sun never really sets, and if you make it to the North Pole, you’ll experience a full 24 hours of sunlight.

It’s exactly the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, where this is the winter solstice for them, and the period of the longest nighttime, which works in a similar fashion to the north but in the opposite direction, with the night getting longer the farther south you go.

Don’t worry, though. In December, the tables are turned, and then it’s the summer solstice in the south and the winter solstice in the north.

The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin word for stopped or stationary, and this comes from what the Sun apparently does. From the time of the winter solstice, the Sun appears to climb higher and higher into the sky and it continues to do so for six months.

Then, on the summer solstice, it reaches its highest point and then appears to pause for about three days before turning around and heading back down toward the equator.

The mid points are the equinoxes, which is when the Sun’s apparent position is crossing the equator, and this is when all points on the planet have day and night time of equal length regardless of hemisphere.

We have two equinoxes, vernal and autumnal, more commonly known as the spring and fall equinox, which mark the beginning of these seasons.

Put all four together in order, and there you have humankind’s original and most basic calendar. Once the pattern had been recorded and recognized, annual events became much more predictable — the change of seasons, the likelihood of seasonal flooding, and so on.

The Moon became a secondary counter and, in fact, we landed on the idea of a lunar calendar long before the solar one. The word “month” is derived from “moon,” and one month is approximately the length of one complete cycle of the Moon’s phases, from one full Moon to another — or one new Moon to another, depending on your culture’s preference.

So why do equinoxes and solstices and seasons happen in the first place? By the very fortunate circumstance that the Earth’s axis is tilted at about 23 degrees relative to the Sun when it’s at either solstice, and the tilt remains constant relative to the Earth.

It’s probably best demonstrated with an animation to make the concept clear, so here you go, courtesy of YouTuber Brad Freese:

From the Sun’s point of view, the Earth keeps tilting back and forth as it goes around. Meanwhile, to the Earth, it looks like the Sun is bobbing up and down. The end result is the same either way: changing period of daylight that are more extreme the closer you get to the poles, seasons, and the origin of the first human calendar.

Now, a year generally has 12 full moons in it but the number of days in a lunar year, 354, is a bit short of the solar year of 365.25 days, so about every two and a half years, we get that elusive (or not so much) Blue Moon, which is just the 13th full moon of a calendar year.

But when you take 12 and divide it by 4 — the number of solstices and equinoxes — you get a nice even number, 3. So divide each solstice or equinox into three “moons,” or months, and all you have to do then is watch the phases of the Moon to know when the seasons will change.

You might have noticed that neither the lunar days nor the solar days quite add up to the number of degrees in a circle, which is 360. But add them together, rounded — 354 + 365 — and you get 719. Divide that by 2 and round it again, and you get 360.

This is actually a really interesting number, because it has so many factors, which are numbers it can be evenly divided by. If we include 1 and 360, there are 24 of them (24 being a factor of 360), and in fact every single digit number except 7 is a factor, which is very useful.

Beyond that, a lot of the numbers relate to units of time we still use now, particularly 12, 15, 24 and 60, and it’s divisible by 10, which makes it very compatible with our common base 10 system.

By the way, the Babylonians, who were big astronomers themselves, used a Base 60 system, in which the number 360 would have been expressed as their equivalent of 60.

It’s interesting to think that the larger parts of our timekeeping system are not as arbitrary as they might seem and have a strong basis in reality. As for how we chose to count weeks and the hours in a day, that’s part is totally arbitrary.

We could have just as easily divided each day into 36 hours of 40 minutes each or 18 hours of 80 minutes each, but we didn’t. Why? Who knows, but the most likely explanation is that 12 hours of “day” and 12 hours of “night” just echoed the annual pattern nicely.

Hours, by the way, were the very last thing to be measured and determined, since if you just divided amount of daylight by 12, the length of the hour itself would change throughout the year The more important markers were sunrise and sunset.

By the way, a word about the image up top. This image is what’s called an “analemma,” and it represents the position of the Sun in the sky over the course of the year, in this case, in the Northern Hemisphere. The points where they cross represent the equinoxes.

Also note that the top half forms a smaller loop than the bottom half. That’s because of a nice quirk of orbital mechanics. The Earth is at its farthest point from the Sun around the beginning of July, right after the northern summer solstice, and at its closest around the beginning of January, right after the northern winter solstice.

So… in July, the planet is actually moving at its slowest because it basically reaching the “top” of the orbit. That is, the Sun’s gravity has flung it as far away as it’s going to get, so it’s now going to slow down and come plunging back. Think of it like throwing a baseball in the air.

Once the Earth has passed through the equinox again, it’s now being pulled in by the Sun, so moves a lot faster in the same period of time.

But what I really wanted to point out was this. Although astronomers insist that “Uranus” is actually pronounced “oo-ra-NOOS” in order to avoid immature jokes, what did they name this image?

Analemma.

Anal Emma. Yeah, those mofos knew exactly what they were doing.

Image source: Giuseppe Donatiello, (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday Nibble #60: Patreonage

Because I was finally fortunate enough to be able to, I signed on as a Patreon monthly supporter for three YouTube creators I’ve followed for a long time. It’s a tiny amount, but it helps them to do what they do and, thanks to the behind-the-scenes info and perqs, it’s pretty easy to see that yes, they really do appreciate the support.

Also, because it’s been a long and very busy week, I’m having a lazy Sunday, so consider this installment a clip show, if you will.

Name Explain

Run by a low-key and deadpan funny British man named Patrick, this channel is all about language, including word origins, place names, and so on, so you can see why I’m a big fan.

He does all of the illustration, layout, writing, and editing for his pieces, with the occasional live-action installment, and he’s a pretty constant poster. Sometimes, it seems like he has new content daily.

Here is one of his latest pieces, in which he discusses what is apparently the most-hated of English words: Moist.

He’s also currently got a Patreon pledge drive going on with the goal being to hit $1,000 in supporters before June 1, IIRC. If he meets that goal, he’ll shave off his beard — which has been his trademark look since forever. And he’s close, having crept past $900 last month.

Just visit the Name Explain YouTube channel and check it out.

Morn1415

This channel is all about science, particularly space and physics, so a natural attraction for me. For the longest time, there was no narration in the videos which we later learned was because the creator is not a native English speaker.

However, he finally started narrating, and while he has an accent, it actually adds to the experience. I can’t remember whether he’s mentioned where he’s from, but his accents puts him somewhere in the Swiss/German/Austrian zone

The piece of his that first attracted my intention involved a comparison of star sizes, beginning with our own Sun, and then spiraling upwards and onwards until reaching the ridiculousness of a star that’s about the size of our entire solar system.

But the one that really impressed me was when he combined two different works — one which went from the scale of quantum foam up to human size, and the other which started on human scale and went all the way up to the entire universe.

Then, he put them together to start at the quantum scale, wind our way up by powers of 10 to the whole universe itself, and then plummet back down to where we started.

He calls it Vortex. Set your video to the maximum resolution you can, switch it to full screen, put on your headphones, turn off the lights and hang on for an amazing ride.

And don’t forget to check out everything else on the Morn1415 YouTube channel.

Matt Baume

Finally, this channel is named for its host, who is a connoisseur of LGBT history, particularly through its portrayals in modern pop culture. Particularly illuminating is his walk through the evolution of the depiction of LGBT characters in television from the 1970s to the present — well, he’s up to the late 90s by now.

There are some real surprises, some pleasant, and some… not. It’s probably no surprise that The Golden Girls dealt with gay themes and presented homosexual characters in a positive light, and Baume has covered that idea several times.

He also covers current events, hosts live hangouts, and has a long-running series, The Sewers of Paris that is also available as a podcast, in which he takes an hour or so to deep dive on LGBT history, as well as interview significant people from that history.

Check out the Matt Baume YouTube channel.

Disclaimer: Other than supporting them through Patreon, I am not affiliated with any of these creators or sites, and am receiving nothing in exchange for this article outside of what all of their other Patrons are getting. I just believe in what they do, didn’t feel like writing too complicated of an article today, and wanted to help them out.

Babylonian math and modern addition

Babylonians, who were very early astronomers, inherited a rather interesting counting system from the Sumerians, one that worked in Base 60, if you can believe it. It was basically derived from counting each of the segments of the fingers on one hand, not including the thumb (3 x 4) and then using all five fingers on the other hand to count each set of 12. Five times 12, of course, equals 60.

60 is a very useful number because it has so many factors: 1 through 6, then 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60. It also has common factors with 8 (2 and 4) and 9 (3), and can easily create integer fractions with multiples of 5 and 10. For example, 45/60 reduces very easily. First, divide both by 5 to get 9/12, then divide both by 3 to get 3/4. It works just as easily in reverse — 60/45, 12/9, 4/3 which equals 1 1/3.

If you’re ahead of me, then you’ve already realized a very important place where we use 60 a lot.

Now, I would argue that the system is actually Base 12 counted in groups of 5, but the outcome is rather interesting, because to this day it forms the basis for some pretty basic things: Euclidean geometry and telling time.

A minute has 60 seconds and an hour has 60 minutes, of course. A circle has 360 degrees, which is 60 times 6. It’s a fortunate coincidence that an Earth year worked out to be so close to that in number of days — 365.25. And in case you’ve ever wondered why we add one day every four years, that’s the reason why. Our 365 day calendar loses a full day in that time, and we put it back by tacking it onto the end of February.

I still think that it was more Base 12 times 5, because there are some significant dozens that pop up, again thanks to the Babylonians. There are a dozen constellations in the zodiac, each one taking up 30 degrees of sky, giving us 12 months.

Of course, you can’t write “12” in Base 12 — those digits actually denote what would be 14 in Base 10. So how do you get around there only being 10 digits if you want to write in bigger bases?

If you’ve done any kind of coding or even HTML, you’re probably familiar with the hexadecimal system, which is Base 16. There, the convention was established that once a digit hit nine, the rest would be filled out with letters until you incremented the next digit up. So, once we get to 9 in Base 16, the following digits are A (10), B (11), C (12), D (13), E (14), and F (15). F is followed by 10 (16), and the whole process repeats following the rules I’ve described previously.

Now you might wonder, how did they do single digits in Base 60, and the answer is that the Babylonians didn’t. In fact, they sort of cheated, and if you look at their numbering system, it’s actually done in Base 10. They just stop at 59 before rolling over. They also didn’t have a zero or a concept of it, which made the power of any particular digit a bit ambiguous.

And yet… Babylonians developed a lot of the complex mathematics we know to this day, including algebra, a pretty accurate calculation of the square root of 2, how to figure out compound interest, an apparent early version of the Pythagorean theorem, an approximation of π accurate to about four digits, measuring angular distances, and Fourier analysis.

Yeah, not too bad for an ancient civilization that didn’t have internet or smart phones and who wrote all their stuff in clay using sticks, huh? But that is the beauty of the ingenuity of the human mind. We figured out this stuff thousands of years ago and have built upon it ever since. The tricks the Babylonians learned from the Sumerians led in a straight line right to the device you’re reading this on, the method it’s being piped to your eye-holes, the system of satellites or tunnels of fiber optics that more likely than not takes the data from source to destination, and even the way all that data is encoded.

Yay, humans! We do manage to advance, sometimes. The real challenge is continuing to move forward instead of backward, but here’s a clue. Every great advance we have made has been backed up by science. Within our own living memory — that of ourselves, or the still living generations who remember what their parents and grandparents remembered — we went from not being able to fly at all to landing humans on the Moon to launching probes out of our solar system, all of it in under one century.

We have eradicated or mitigated diseases that used to kill ridiculous numbers of people, are reducing fatality rates for other diseases, and are increasing life expectancy, at least when the voice of reason holds sway. For a while, we even made great advances in cleaning up the environment and quite possibly turning the tide back in favor of reversing the damage.

But… the real risk is that we do start moving backward, and that always happens when the powers that be ignore science and replace it with ignorance and superstition, or ignore the advances of one group because they’re part of “them,” not “us.”

To quote Hamilton, “Oceans rise, empires fall.” And when an empire falls, it isn’t always possible for it to spread its knowledge. What Babylon discovered was lost and found many times, to the point that aspects of it weren’t found again until the time of the ancient Greeks or the Muslims, or the Renaissance.

In order, and only in terms of math, those cultures gave us geometry; algebra and the concept of zero; and optics and physics — an incomplete list in every case. European culture didn’t give us much in the way of science between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, while the Muslim world was flourishing in all of the parts of Northern Africa and Southern Europe that it had conquered, along with preserving and advancing all of that science and math from fallen old-world civilizations.

Yeah, for some funny reason back then, their religion supported science. Meanwhile, in other places a certain religion didn’t, and the era was called the Dark Ages. That eventually flipped and the tide turned in Europe beginning in the 16th century. In case you’ve ever wondered, that’s exactly why every college course in “modern” history begins at 1500 C.E.

Sadly, the prologue to this is the Italian war criminal Cristobal Colón convincing the Spanish religious fanatics Fernando y Isabel to finance his genocidal expedition originally intended to sail west to India but unfortunately finding some islands next to a continent in the way, on which he raped, pillaged, and slaughtered people for his own amusement. Or, in other words, the Dark Ages didn’t end until Colón and those Spanish rulers were dead and buried, meaning January 23, 1516, when they fed the last of them, Fernando, to the worms.

Oh, except that humans continued to be shitty as they sailed west even as science back home advanced. Dammit. And that’s been the back and forth since forever. What we really need are more people committed to the “Forth!” while determined to stop the “Back!”

Or, at the very least, push the science forward, push the bullshit back.

Shoot the Moon

Previously, I covered a couple of big conspiracy theories, and why they are generally such an impossible idea. As noted there, it’s really hard for people to keep secrets, and the bigger a conspiracy, the faster it falls, which is why we happen to know about the real ones.

But people will see and believe what they want to, and so conspiracy theories exist. Here’s another famous one that just isn’t true.

We never landed on the Moon

While this one might seem like a modern conspiracy theory, it’s actually almost as old as the lunar landings, and was first promulgated by a man named Bill Kaysing, in his self-published 1976 book called We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.

Of course, the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever featured its own “Moon landing was fake” gag in 1971, and the whole thing probably caught on because it was an era when trust in government was at its lowest, what with Vietnam, Kent State and, by mid-decade, Watergate all crashing down at once. Ironically, the last one was a true conspiracy that fell apart quickly.

More fuel was added to the fire by the 1976 film Capricorn One, which postulated a manned mission to Mars that was faked by the government to avoid losing face with the USSR because the mission just wasn’t ready. Of course, the same film also hung a lantern on the biggest problem with huge government conspiracies. In order to cover it up, the plan was to kill the “astronauts” before they left the soundstage, then announce that they had died in a tragic accident upon re-entry.

Despite it being a 70s film — an era when the hero did not always win — this one did pull victory over villainy as the plot is discovered and the astronauts eventually saved, popping up at the announcement of their own deaths Tom Sawyer style to reveal the whole plot. Hell, there were even three “dead” people entering their own funeral in both.

The film definitely used the main motive that Moon Hoaxers give for the landing being faked: We weren’t ready for it, but we had to make the Soviets think that we were, and it all began when President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to a joint session of Congress on the 146th day of the new decade of the 1960s, May 25, 1961. His goal was simple: To put a (hu)man on the Moon before the last day of the decade. His motives were obvious. The Russians were already ahead of us in the “space race,” having launched the first satellite, Sputnik, and putting the first man into space. They also put the first woman in space, beating us by exactly twenty years and two days.

If you’d like to see an incredible film that documents the prequel to this speech in the days from the first attempts to break the sound barrier to finally getting our own astronauts into orbit, check out the book and/or film versions of The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, which documents both the amazing and absurd involved in this process.

It also illuminates the true dilemma for the American space program. For a time, it looked like the USSR was getting ahead, and especially as Kennedy was assassinated and things got worse in Vietnam (which was a proxy hot war between the two sides in the Cold War) the idea of getting to the Moon first became a sort of goal for a moral victory.

Did you ever wonder why NASA’s command center for all lunar operations wound up in Houston? Look no further than Vice-President, then President, Lyndon Baines Johnson who, like JFK before him, preferred to be known by the initials LBJ… among other things. Johnson?

Did I mention that LBJ was from Texas, so that it was almost a slam-dunk that the Space Center would wind up there? As for why the launch center wound up in Cape Canaveral, Florida, there are two good reasons for it. One is that it allows for launches over a lot of open water, meaning that crashes or aborted take-offs won’t happen over land or populated areas. Second, it was (at the time) the part of the U.S. closest to the equator, and the equator is much friendlier to getting us into space.

And for everyone rightly pointing out that Hawaii is surrounded by a lot more water and is closer to the equator because it’s our southernmost state, you are absolutely correct, except that Hawaii hadn’t quite become a state yet at the time that Cape Canaveral begun operations. Note that Puerto Rico is also farther south than Florida and slightly farther south than Hawaii, but we didn’t put our launch site there either.

I’m guessing that “really freaking heavy equipment” and “transportation by ship over substantial distances” aren’t a great combo when doing a budget for a governmental program. That, and helping elected officials in territories — you know, the ones who don’t get to vote in Congress — really doesn’t bring back any benefit to Wasghington D.C.

Which really brings up another way to question the Moon Hoax conspiracy. If it was a fake, why go to all of the trouble of making sure the sites are in locations with political and scientific advantages? If it were just for show, they could have put the control center anywhere and put the launch site near D.C. or New York City or somewhere else flashy that would draw huge crowds to watch the rockets go up.

As for why people believe this theory, it’s simple. They don’t understand science or physics. There are a lot of misconceptions in everything the Hoaxers claim; way too many for this piece, so I’ll refer you to the brilliant 2001 takedown of a Fox documentary claiming that it was all true by the amazing “bad” Astronomer Phil Plait. (In fact, this particular article is the one that launched him into internet fame and success in the first place.)

But perhaps the most bizarre take on the whole Moon Landing Hoax is this: the shots on the Moon were created by none other than… Stanley Kubrick. This was another idea to fall out of the sadly challenged brain of Kaysing, but others ran with it. Someone even went so far in 2015 to fake a video they claimed was Kubrick confessing to it. Hey, easy to do after the person you ‘re besmirching has died, right?

Still, it gets even weirder, as some true believers claim that Kubrick stuffed The Shining with clues basically saying, “Hey… I confess. I faked the Moon Landing.” And yes, some people do believe it.

This theory at least achieved one good thing. It let a septuagenarian who’d actually been to the Moon (Buzz Aldrin) punch a Moon Landing denying asshole in the face and get away with it. To quote the linked article, “The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has declined to file charges.”

That’s the best possible outcome, really. If only Buzz had said, right before the punch, “Bang! Zoom! Straight to the Moon.”

Momentous Monday: Backwards and in high heels

The famous astronomer Herschel was responsible for a lot of accomplishments, including expanding and organizing the catalog of nebulae and star clusters, discovering eight comets, polishing and mounting mirrors and telescopes to optimize their light-gathering powers, and keeping meticulous notes on everything.

By being awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and being named an honorary member thereof, holding a government position and receiving a salary as a scientist, Herschel became the first woman to do so.

What? Did you I think I was talking about the other one? You know — the only one most of you had heard of previously because he discovered Uranus. Oh, and he had that whole penis thing going on.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel, who was William’s younger sister by eleven years and was born in 1850, did not have a penis, and so was ignored by history. Despite the honors she received, one of her great works, the aforementioned expansion of the New General Catalogue (NGC), was published with her brother’s name on it.

If you’re into astronomy at all, you know that the NGC is a big deal and has been constantly updated ever since.

While she lacked William’s junk, she shared his intellectual curiosity, especially when it came to space and studying the skies. It must have been genetic — William’s son John Herschel was also an astronomer of some repute — and it was his Aunt Caroline, not Dad, who gave him a huge boost.

She arranged all of the objects then in the NGC so they were grouped by similar polar coordinates — that is, at around the same number of degrees away from the celestial poles. This enabled her nephew to systematically resurvey them, add more data about them, and discover new objects.

Caroline was not the first woman in science to be swept under history’s rug by the men. The neverending story of the erasure of women told in Hidden Figures was ancient by the time the movie came out, never mind the time that it actually happened. Caroline was in good company.

Maria Winckelmann Kirch, for example, was also an astronomer, born 80 years before Caroline and most likely the first woman to actually discover a comet. But of course history gave that honor to her husband, Gottfried Kirch, who was thirty years her senior. However, Herr Kirch himself confirms in his own notes that she was the one who found it:

“Early in the morning (about 2:00 AM) the sky was clear and starry. Some nights before, I had observed a variable star and my wife (as I slept) wanted to find and see it for herself. In so doing, she found a comet in the sky. At which time she woke me, and I found that it was indeed a comet… I was surprised that I had not seen it the night before”. [Source]

Maria’s interest and abilities in science came from a person we might think of as unlikely nowadays: a Lutheran minister, who happened to be her father. Why did he teach her? Because he believed that his daughter deserved the same education any boy at the time did, so he home-schooled her. This ended when Maria lost both of her parents when she was 13, but a neighbor and self-taught astronomer, Christoph Arnold, took her on as an apprentice and took her in as part of the family.

Getting back to Hidden Figures, though, one of the earliest “computers,” as these women of astronomy were known, was Henrietta Leavitt. Given what was considered the boring and onerous task of studying a class of stars known as Cepheid variables, she actually discovered something very important.

The length of time it takes a Cepheid to go through its brightest to darkest sequence is directly proportional to its luminosity. This means that if know the timing of that sequence, you know how bright the star is. Once you know that, you can look at how bright it appears to be from Earth and, ta-da! Using very basic laws of optics, you can then determine how far away the star is.

It’s for this reason that Cepheids are known as a “standard candle.” They are the yardsticks of the universe that allow us to measure the unmeasurable. And her boss at the time took all the credit, so I’m not even going to mention his name.

And this is why we have The Leavitt Constant and the Leavitt Telescope today.

No, just kidding. Her (male) boss, who shall still remain nameless here because, “Shame, shame,” took all of the credit for work he didn’t do, and then some dude named Edwin Hubble took that work and used to to figure out how far away various stars actually were, and so determined that the universe was A) oh so very big,  and B) expanding. He got a constant and telescope named after him. Ms. Leavitt… not so much.

There are way too many examples of women as scientific discovers being erased, with the credit being given to men, and in every scientific field. You probably wouldn’t be on the internet reading this now if no one had ever come up with the founding concepts of computer programming, aka “how to teach machines to calculate stuff for us.”

For that, you’d have to look to a woman who was basically the daughter of the David Bowie of her era, although he wasn’t a very dutiful dad. He would be Lord Byron. She would be Ada Lovelace, who was pretty much the first coder ever — and this was back in the days when computers were strictly analog, in the form of Charles Babbage’s difference and analytical engines.

The former was pretty much just an adding machine, and literally one that could only do that. So, for example, if you gave it the problem “What is two times 27,” it would find the solution by just starting with two, and then adding two to it 26 times.

The latter analytical engine was much more like a computer, with complex programming. Based on the French Jacquard loom concept, which used punched cards to control weaving, it truly mimicked all of the common parts of a modern computer as well as programming logic.

Basically, a computer does what it does by working with data in various places. There’s the slot through which you enter the data; the spot that holds the working data; the one that will pull bits out of that info, do operations on it, and put it back in other slots with the working data; and the place where it winds up, which is the user-readable output.

The analytical engine could also do all four math operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

An analog version of this would be a clerk in a hotel lobby with a bunch of pigeonhole mail boxes behind, some with mail, some not. Guests come to the desk and ask (input), “Any mail for me?” The clerk goes to the boxes, finds the right one based on input (guest room number, most likely), then looks at the box (quaintly called PEEK in programming terms).

If the box is empty (IF(MAIL)=FALSE), the Clerk returns the answer “No.” But if it’s not empty (IF(MAIL)=TRUE), the clerk retrieves that data and gives it to the guest. Of course, the guest is picky, so tells the Clerk, “No junk mail and no bills.”

So, before handing it over, the Clerk goes through every piece, rejecting that above (IF(OR(“Junk”,”Bill”),FALSE,TRUE), while everything else is kept by the same formula. The rejected data is tossed in the recycle bin, while the rest is given to the guest — output..

Repeat the process for every guest who comes to ask.

Now, Babbage was great at creating the hardware and figuring out all of that stuff. But when it came to the software, he couldn’t quite get it, and this is where Ada Lovelace came in. She created the algorithms that made the magic happen — and then was forgotten.

By the way, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson have a wonderfully steampunk alternate history novel that revolves around the idea that Babbage and Lovelace basically launched the home computer revolution a couple of centuries early, and with the British computer industry basically becoming the PC to France’s Mac. It’s worth a read.

Three final quick examples: Nettie Maria Stevens discovered the concept of biological sex being passed through chromosomes long before anyone else; it was Lise Meitner, not Otto Hahn, who discovered nuclear fission; and, in the ultimate erasure, it was Rosalind Franklin, and neither Watson nor Crick, who determined the double helix structure of DNA.

This erasure is so pronounced and obvious throughout history that it even has a name: The Matilda Effect, named by the historian Margaret Rossiter for the suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Finally, a note on the title of this piece. It comes from a 1982 comic strip called Frank and Ernest, and it pretty much sums up the plight of women trying to compete in any male-dominated field. They have to work harder at it and are constantly getting pushed away from advancement anyway.

So to all of the women in this article, and all women who are shattering glass ceilings, I salute you. I can’t help but think that the planet would be a better place with a matriarchy.

For all of the above histories and more, it’s plain to see why finally having a female Vice President of the United States (and a person of color at that) is a truly momentous and significant moment in the history of the country and the world.

Sunday nibble #29: There and back again

Since a lot of us around the world are still stuck inside for the most part, I thought I’d invite you to go on a little virtual journey with me, courtesy of YouTube creator morn1415, whom I’ve followed for a long time. He creates amazing videos on scientific subjects — generally dealing with astrophysics and cosmology.

He shot to internet fame almost immediately for his first video post over a decade ago, called Star Size Comparison, and it’s worth a watch. But this is nothing compared to his work on display in the two videos below, because the scale from top to bottom is so much more enormous.

In the star size video, the scale doesn’t go beyond more than maybe ten orders of magnitude, if that. In the video shared here, he covers 61 orders of magnitude, from the Planck scale of 10^-35 meters all the way up to 20^26 meters, the size of the visible universe.

It’s an amazing work, and best to keep in mind that each new cube showing scale has sides ten times longer than the previous, faces a hundred times bigger, and one thousand times the volume.

In the original, we take a leisurely trip to the top and then come flying back down. Put it in the highest res you can, and buckle in for an amazing journey.

If you’d prefer to savor the journey in two different trips, morn 1415 has also created two versions that are slowed to half speed, one which starts at one meter and travels downward, and the other that starts at one meter and journeys up.

No matter how you take the trip, it’s a great visualization of the scale of things and our place among them. If you like these, you won’t be disappointed if you subscribe to his channel.

Note: I am not affiliated with the morn1415 website in any way, other than being a long-time fan and subscriber.

Friday Free-for-all #24

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?

Wow. This is an interesting question because, honestly, there are so many possibilities. My strong points are musical theory, film history, English language and grammar, history in general, and astronomy. I could also include theatre history, playwriting, character development, improv, and dog training.

Hell, I could probably also talk my way through forty minutes on Medicare, but I also know enough about the industry to know that I shouldn’t. Well, technically, can’t. So we’ll leave that one off of the list.

The strongest and easiest one for me? Musical theory, I suppose, because as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I really consider music to be my second language after English. So I could easily go on for forty minutes or more on the 12-tone system, the Circle of Fifths, how chords are related to each other and so on, and how everything is really based on a series of combinations of duotones that are just either Major or minor intervals.

And if I happen to rip through that before the forty minutes are over, don’t worry. You’ll get an entire course in musical history from the Baroque Era right up to the modern day

Or, if you prefer, a history of film, decade by decade, from the late 19th century to the early 21st, with plenty of juicy details about scandals galore. Gasp!

Then there’s my quick course in “How not to Make Common Mistakes in English,” which will walk you through how to remember differences between similar words, e.g. “To connects two things, so it isn’t too long,” or dealing with using pronouns properly, which is an exercise in omission. That is, Rule Number One, you always come last. Rule Number Two, get rid of all of the other pronouns and see if it makes sense.”

Ergo, if you write, “Myself and him went to the store,” step one is to put yourself last: “Him and myself went to the store.” Now, get rid of the other pronouns in turn and see what you get.

“Him went to the store.” Wrong.

“Myself went to the store.” Also wrong.

So the sentence you’re looking for is, “He and I went to the store.” Simple and straight forward. I don’t know why so many people make this mistake. It’s just lazy speaking, period.

And my five dollar lesson on who and whom: Rephrase what you’re saying as a statement with the singular masculine pronoun, and see what happens. That is, do this:

Original: To (who/whom) did you give the book?

Rephrased: I gave the book to (he/him).

Correct: I gave the book to him/To whom did you give the book?

Original: (Who/whom) lives here?

Rephrased: (He/him) lives here.

Correct: He lives here/Who lives here?

And when the pronoun is “he,” then the other one is who; when it’s “him,” it’s “who.” The big tell on this is that “m” ending, which is the only reason I don’t teach it with “she” and “her,” because it’s just easier to remember that letter.

Generally, “whom” will be the indirect object of a sentence; the person who received something. “Who” will be the subject; the person who does something.

Regarding history, I can give a good amateur spiel on all things Roman through about Constantine, but especially during the era of the so-called Twelve Caesars, and cover American history and politics from the Civil War on.

When it comes to astronomy, I am a total cosmology geek, and I could nerd out on your asses with anything form the history of the universe to how stars work, how planets form, what black holes and neutron stars are, how astronomy relates to chemistry, why time travel or faster than light speeds are not possible, and even a bit of quantum physics.

If that’s too much, then strap in for some theatre history, from its origins which probably pre-dated the Greeks, but that’s where we start dating it in the West, and just stay prepared for a really wild ride.

Playwriting and character development? Yeah that comes right after music for my personal fluency, but it’s also harder for me to teach only because it’s become so intuitive.

I can ultimately pull apart my musical talents and explain to you why, for example, a C Major chord followed by an E7 chord is so satisfying, even though the latter contains the augmented fifth and major seventh of the former, but that’s all because it leads back into the relative minor, which shares a key signature with your starting place.

But, when it comes to me trying to explain how to structure a story, the only thing I can say is that Aristotle’s “beginning, middle, and end” thing was sort of right, except that each of those also have their own beginning, middle, and end (we’re up to nine), which would leave us with how to structure each of three acts.

But, oops… Each act, with its own beginning and end, has one of each for, well, each beginning, middle, and end. So now, we multiple nine by three, get twenty-seven, and boom.

Those are the blocks you build any dramatic story with.

Funny story: Music tends to work in blocks of four, put two blocks together, you get eight, repeat over and over, you get a song. Three and four only play together well in units of twelve, and one of the most ubiquitous forms of American music is the song based on the twelve-bar blues pattern.

Basically, it involves three “acts.” The first is four bars of the dominant chord, generally referred to as I. The next four shift up for the first two, then come back down. The first two are built on the fourth note of the I chord, so are referred to as IV.

In the key of C, the IV is F, which is straightforward: C, D, E, F. Boom.

So the pattern, in the key of C, so far is:

     C Maj | C Maj | C Maj | C Maj |

     F Maj | F Maj | C Maj | C Maj |

Finally, the last four bars follow the pattern V, IV, I, V. That’s because the V is a natural bridge between the I and IV for various complicated reasons.

This gives us, BTW, the landing pattern of:

     G7    | F Maj | C Maj | G7    |

Oh yeah… jumping back a bit… the V is the fifth note based on the one or tonic, which gives us C, D, E, F, G. And why does G work so hard in leading back to C?

Because reasons. But here are two big easy ones, even though this might sail over heads for the moment. F and C get along because the only accidental in F’s key — Bb — also happens to turn C’s dominant, i.e. V, aka G, into a minor chord. Long story, don’t ask.

Meanwhile… in a major scale, G hates F, because her seventh is an F#. However, drop that to a regular F, she suddenly becomes a G7, and 7th chords are just hardwired in our brains to lead right back into the dominant chords.

And that’s the funny thing hiding in the progression above. Yeah, sure. It starts out I, IV, V, but that final V chord happens to have both the IV and V in it, without any of those messy annoying sharps and flats, and, yeah…

We wind up landing so damn hard back home that it should be obvious.

This is also the secret of doing musical improv. Follow the rules, and you  can make anyone seem like a genius, because they have nowhere else to go.

And then… where was I?

Wednesday Wonders: A busy day in space

Happy New Year! And happy first day of spring!

Wait, what… you say those things aren’t today, March 25th? That the latter was six days ago and the former was almost four months ago?

Well… you’d be right in 2020, but jump back in history to when the Julian calendar was still around, and things were dated differently. This led to the adoption of the new Gregorian calendar, but since it was sponsored by the Pope, not everyone switched over right away. Long story short, Catholic countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy adopted it immediately in 1582. Protestant countries held out, so that places like England (and the colonies) didn’t switch until 1752.

That was also when England moved New Year’s day back to January 1, which is itself ironic, since it was the Catholic Church that moved the day from then to March 25 at the Council of Tours in 567, considering the prior date pagan, which was probably accurate, since the Romans had moved New Year’s from March to January 1st when they deified Julius Caesar after his assassination.

The practical reason for switching calendars was that the Julian calendar lost 11 hours a year, which added up fast, meaning that entire extra months had to be added between years to set things right again. The Gregorian calendar is much more accurate, although about 2,800 years from now it will have lost a day.

By the way, the religious reasoning for picking March 25th is that it was the Feast of the Annunciation, meaning the day that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary to let her know that she was going to get knocked up by god — although it doesn’t get mentioned canonically until a century after the ol’ calendar switch-a-roo.

Anyway, the math isn’t hard to do. March 25th is exactly nine months before Christmas. And in strictly astronomical terms, the former is the first day of spring and the latter is the first day of winter. Just psychologically, the Vernal Equinox, which is now closer to the 19th or 20th, is the better New Year’s Day option because it’s when days start to get longer than nights, vegetation starts to grow anew, and nature awakes from its slumber.

Note: Your mileage in 2020 may vary.

It’s kind of ironic, then, that today marks the birth of a German astronomer and mathematician, Christopher Clavius, who was instrumental in doing the calculations necessary to figure out how much in error the Julian calendar had become, and then to come up with a calendar to fix it and a method to transition.

This is where the Catholic Church came into it, because Easter, being a moveable feast based on the Julian lunar calendar, had been slipping later and later into the year, threatening to move from the spring to summer. Clavius’s job was to bring it back toward the vernal equinox.

He succeeded to the degree of accuracy noted above — only a day off in 3,236 years. Not bad. This was also when New Year’s Day went back to January 1st, per the old Roman style, and while this is attributed to Pope Gregory XIII, I can’t help but think that Clavius had a hand in implementing the change.

I mean, come on. You’re handed a chance by the most powerful person in the western world at the time to move a major holiday off of your birthday so that your day is finally special on its own? Who wouldn’t do that given the power?

Good ol’ Chris did make other discoveries and get some nice presents, like a crater on the moon named after him, as well as the moon base in the movie 2001.

Still, even if the equinox did move away from March 25, the date still keeps bringing special things for astronomers. It was on this day in 1655 that the Dutch physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered Saturn’s largest moon, Titan,

Huygens also has another time connection, though. Where Clavius gave us a calendar accurate to over 3,000 years, Huygens gave us a clock that was the most accurate for the next 300 years. His innovation? Put a pendulum on that thing and let it swing. He literally put the “tick tock” in clock.

Why was this possible? Because the swing of a pendulum followed the rules of physics and was absolutely periodic. Even as friction and drag slowed it down, it would cover a shorter distance but at a slower pace, so that the time between tick and tock would remain the same.

The pendulum itself would advance a gear via a ratchet that would turn the hands of the clock, and adding kinetic energy back into that pendulum was achieved through a spring, which is where that whole “winding the clock” thing came in. Tighten the spring and, as it unwinds, it drives that gear every time the pendulum briefly releases it, but thanks to physics, that pendulum will always take the exact same time to swing from A to B, whether it’s going really fast or really slow.

Back to Huygens’s discovery, though… Titan is quite a marvel itself. It is the second largest natural satellite in our solar system, taking a back seat (ironic if you know your mythology) only to Jupiter’s Ganymede. It is half again as big as our own Moon and 80% more massive. It’s even bigger than the planet Mercury, but only 40% as massive, mainly because Mercury is made of rock while Titan may have a rocky core but is mostly composed of layers of different forms of water-ice combined with ammonia, and a possible sub-surface ocean,

Titan also has a thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, the only other atmosphere in the solar system besides Earth’s to have so much nitrogen in it. In case you’re wondering, Earth’s atmosphere is almost 80% nitrogen — OMG, you’re breathing it right now! But this also makes the aliens’ Achilles heel in the movie Mars Attacks! kind of ridiculous, since the whole deal was that they could only survive in a nitrogen atmosphere. We have that, Mars doesn’t. Mars is mostly carbon dioxide, but not even much of that. But don’t get me started.

Despite all that, it’s still a fun film.

And Titan, next to Jupiter’s moon Europa, is one of the more likely places we might find life in our solar system.

One final bit of March 25th news in space for this day: In 1979, OV-102, aka Space Shuttle Columbia, was delivered to NASA. It was the first shuttle completed, and its delivery date, after a flight that had begun on March 24th, came four years to the day after fabrication of the fuselage began. Sadly, it was also the last shuttle to not survive its mission, so there was a strange sort of symmetry in that.

While I warned you about the Ides of March, the 25th should be full of nothing but anticipation, even in a plague year. It’s a date for exploration and discovery, whether out into the cosmos, or within the confines of whatever space you’re in right now. Make good with what you have, create all you can, and take advantage of our wonderful technology to share and connect.

After all, that’s what worked for Clavius and Huygens. They worked with the tech they had, then networked once they had an idea, and look how well that worked out.

Hint: It worked out very well, for them and for us.

Image Source: Titan, by NASA.