Momentous Monday: Weird random facts

Six random facts from science for you to enjoy, argue about, and share.

Here are a few interesting facts to ponder — things that might not seem possible, but which are true.

Which planet, on average, is closest to the Earth?

You’re probably inclined to say either Venus or Mars, going by the simple logic that in the order of orbits, Venus is #2, Earth is #3, and Mars is #4. You might also have remembered that the distance between each successive orbit follows a formula, meaning that, by definition, Venus has got to be closer to Earth than Mars.

This makes sense because each successive orbit is larger than the previous by an increasing ratio that is similar to the Fibonacci sequence,  although it’s hardly exact. It does mean, though, that Earth is closer to Venus than it is to Mars and it naturally follows that it’s closer to Venus than it is to Mercury.

But the question included “on average,” and if we take that into account, then the planet closest to the Earth is… Mercury. in fact, Mercury is the closest to every planet in the solar system, on average, period.

The simple reason for this is that Mercury’s orbital period is so short — a “year” on Mercury is only a smidgen under 88 days, meaning that it orbits the sun 4.15 times (on average) for every orbit that the Earth makes. Meanwhile, Venus only goes around 1.63 times for every Earth year.

This adds up, because Mercury is on the same side of the Sun as we are for a lot longer than Venus, and when Venus, or any planet, is on the far side, its distance from us is basically double the orbit plus the diameter of the Sun.

This is obvious if we really simplify the numbers. Let’s just randomly designate the distances by orbit: Mercury = 1, Venus = 2, Earth = 3, and Mars = 5.

When Mercury and Earth are in alignment on the same side of the Sun, the net distance is 2 (from 3-1). For Venus, it’s 1, and for Mars it’s 2. But put the planets on the other side, and the formula changes to 2O+Sol, or twice the orbital distance plus the diameter of the Sun, so the new figures are:

Mars: 2(5-3)+Sol = 4+Sol

Venus: 2(3-2)+Sol = 2+Sol

Mercury: 2(3-1)+Sol = 4+Sol

We can eliminate the +Sol from each equation since they all cancel out, and this might make it look like Venus is still the closest, but those orbital periods make a big difference, because Mercury spends a lot more time on the near side of the Sun to us than Venus does.

If we look at the averages, because Mercury gets more time in our neighborhood, in the long run it averages out to be the closest planet to Earth — but the formula holds true for every other planet in the Solar System.

Are there more stars in the universe or atoms in a human being?

Using 70 kilos as an average human weight, the answer to this one is rather simple, and the winner outnumbers the loser by a ration of 7 million to 1.

A human body has approximately 7 octillion atoms in it, and most of those are hydrogen, since we are mostly water, and there are two hydrogen atoms per oxygen atom in each molecule of water. The universe has approximately 1 sextillion stars in it and, not surprisingly, most of the universe is also made of hydrogen.

That’s kind of remarkable when you think about it, because hydrogen is the lightest of all of the elements and the simplest of atoms, made of one negatively charged electron and one positively charged proton. Yes, there are variations, or isotopes, with some neutrons slipped in there.

These neutrons are what make so-called “heavy water” so important in nuclear reactions, but chemically they make no difference, since those reactions only rely on the electron and proton.

Now, as to the answer on whether humans have more atoms or the universe has more stars, you may have already guessed it if you remember your STI and/or Greek counting prefixes. “Octillion” comes from the number 8, and refers to a number in the thousands with 8 groups of three zeroes after it. “sextillion” comes from six, and refers to a number in the thousands with 6 groups of zeroes after it.

Since the human body has about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in it while the universe only has 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, humans win, with 7 million atoms per person for every star.

What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly became a black hole?

Gravitationally, nothing, unless the Sun lost a little mass in the process, in which case we’d drift a bit farther out in our orbit.

Otherwise, though, Earth would get very cold and dark and, depending on the orientation of things, we might or might not get blasted by intense gamma radiation that would scrub the planet clean of all life and its atmosphere.

We wouldn’t be able to see the Moon or planets anymore, just the stars, and we’d freeze to death pretty quickly but don’t worry — the Sun is too small to ever become a black hole.

People have this impression that black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners that suck up everything that gets near them, but that’s not the case. They’re really just a matter of shoving ten pounds of gravity in a one-pound sack. Okay, maybe more like a hundred tons in a knee sock.

But the point is, the gravitational pull of that black hole is going to be no greater than the pull of the original object, and you have to get a lot closer, physically, before you hit the point where you can no longer escape.

Does my phone have more power than the Apollo 11 computer, and could it land me on the Moon?

Yes… and no. All of our phones have more computational power than a computer the size of a warehouse in 1969, and they can do amazing things. However, they would need very specialized apps in order to be able to do the kinds of calculations needed to adjust velocities and trajectories precisely on the way to the Moon, second to second.

Google Maps won’t do that because we don’t have GPS that works off-Earth. Your phone would have to be able to spot the Moon and either Earth or Sun, plus another star or two, all visually, calculate the angles between them, then keep track of them and use that to calculate velocity and direction.

At the same time, your phone would also have to interface simultaneously with 150 onboard devices and run five to seven programs at once. In case you hadn’t noticed, phones and computers don’t really multitask anymore. They stopped doing that when systems became fast enough to just pick up where it left off when you switched windows, so that it just looks like that other program was running in the background the whole time.

The onboard computer on Apollo 11 was still a lot bigger than computers today, at 70 lbs (32 kgs), but it did the job and, because of the elegant way in which the code was written, it only required a grand total of… 2 kilobytes of memory, which is about 2,000 characters.

Yes, the actual code written for it was a lot bigger, but that 2Kb was working memory, and that was what was so elegant about it. The software itself was stored in static memory, which was literally woven by hand.

No, really. It was even called “rope memory.” This essentially created an incredibly complicated addressing system where the intersection of a particular pair of wires indicates the location of a single bit of data.

Touchtone phones worked on this same principal for years, and your phone and computer keyboards still work this way to this day. In fact, this two-point address scheme is still what makes your touch screens work as well.

It’s still mind-boggling to realize that not only did this computer somehow manage to do all of its runtime stuff in only 2Kb of memory, but that they had conceived of the idea of virtual runtime environments even then, so that they were able to run those five to seven programs at once, in such a small space.

What makes water so special?

The very short version is this: if water didn’t expand when it froze, life on Earth would not be possible and we’d probably be an ice-ball planet.

Water molecules have an interesting property. Made up of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, the hydrogen atoms naturally attach to the oxygen at 120° angles. Well, basically, since the whole thing is ultimately defined by the electron field around it in which we can only determine the likelihood of an electron’s location.

But it does give water these properties: When it’s a gas, the molecules bump into and spin off of each other. When it’s a liquid, they flow around each other. However, as the temperature lowers, a funny thing happens. Those hydrogen atoms in the molecules start to line up — remember, a sphere has 360° around it — and so as the water molecules slow down (i.e. as the temperature drops) the molecules line up and lock together and begin to create a crystal lattice.

You can see it large scale in a snow-flake, with its six-sided symmetry, but down on the molecular level what’s really happening is that the molecules are actually forming rigid structures and pushing themselves apart as they align.

And so… as liquid water turns into ice, it expands, and this is good for us (but bad for the Titanic) for one very big reason. It reduces the density of ice, so that it floats in water. If it didn’t, we’d be screwed, because ice would sink, wind up on the bottom, and then tend to never thaw when winter ended.

Eventually, entire lakes, rivers, and seas would completely freeze over, removing liquid water at first from our aquifers and, eventually, from our atmosphere. The Earth would become one vast desert, and the reflection of sunlight because of all that ice would just add to the runaway freezing.

Is time travel possible?

The short answer is “probably not,” at least not to the past, although time travel to the future is technically possible through things like suspended animation — as in if you travel more slowly than everyone else, you’ll objectively get to the future faster.

But your real question is, “Can I jump into a time machine and visit another era?” And the answer is this: “Sure, if you figure out how to actually travel in time, go for it, but you’ll need to figure out how to travel in space as well. Or, at the very least, do complicated equations that would have blown the circuits out of those first NASA computers.

Example: Marty McFly abandons all common sense, and jumps into the crazy old man’s time machine even as he’s being gunned down by terrorists. Marty guns it, the car hits 88 miles an hour, and suddenly Hill Valley and the Twin Pines mall vanish…

And the car is drifting somewhere in interstellar space. Since it’s not pressurized, Marty very quickly dies, alone and billions of miles away from Earth. End of movie, and the trilogy never exists.

What?

That’s because everything in the universe constantly moves. You may think that all of those atoms in your body don’t move at all, but that’s not true at all. The ones that are part of organs or tissues or the like may seem to be stuck in place, but they are constantly vibrating as they react with neighboring atoms. This is why you’re not a frozen block of ice.

The universe has two speed limits — the fastest you can go and the slowest you can go. If you have any mass at all, no matter how small, you can never reach the speed of light, or C. If you have no mass, you can only ever travel at C — which isn’t all that weird when you think about it.

Meanwhile, the bottom speed limit of the universe is motionless, which is defined as Absolute 0, or 0ºKelvin (-273.15ºC or -459.67ºF). Nothing can reach this temperature, because it would mean that it would have absolutely no motion at all.

The problem is that if something is not moving at all, we know its precise location. And, if we know its location, we cannot know its exact momentum. This is the core of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and, obviously, if an object is completely motionless, then we know both its location and its momentum.

As it turns out, molecules have a very clever way of hiding themselves when they get close to 0ºK. they turn into a fifth state of matter called a Bose-Einstein Condensate. In this case, suspecting that we’re about to figure out where they are, all of the atoms being reduced in temperature suddenly give up their angular momentum gladly. At the same time, they all kind of smear into a indeterminate blob, so that we have no idea where any single atom in the group is.

And… problem solved. Okay, the atoms aren’t thinking at all while this is happening. It’s just a result of the change in velocity that dictates which property is going to be hidden. But just as you can’t accelerate mass past the universal speed limit, you can’t slam the brakes on mass and bring it to a complete stop.

Note that I have no idea whether the Bose-Einstein thing affects photons, since photons do have momentum and spin, but by virtue of having no mass probably also have no real location, especially because (just a guess) they still move at the same speed at 0ºK.

Photons are tricksey fuckerses.

But despite all of that, okay. Let’s assume that time travel is possible. Marty hops in that DeLorean, travels back 30 years and, assuming that time travel is legit, he’s still not going to be in the same place on Earth because gravity isn’t going to work that way either.

Gravity is a very long range force, and it’s very strong on cosmic scales, but it’s absolutely not on quantum scales, and this may actually be the reason that it’s been so hard to reconcile classical physics with the quantum.

Look at it this way. Why do “flat-earthers” exist? Because, from their very limited perspective living on the face of the planet, the place really does look flat.

Even if you march their sorry asses to the beach and make them watch as giant cargo ships rise above and vanish below the horizon, they still won’t buy it.

You need to take them up and beyond so that they can actually see the curve and experience the gravity and all of that. I mean, after all, even if you circumnavigate the globe by boat, plane, train, automobile, or whatever, it’s still going to seem flat to you without that heightened experience.

So… how does gravity affect space time? It bends it. Or, in other words, gravity takes “flat” space time and curves it. And on a human scale, this is really easy to experience. Toss a ball into the air and watch it fall. It’s not going to land in quite the same place.

But on the quantum scale? Nope. Everything there would appear “flat” as well, because any bend of space that gravity might create would be totally imperceptible to particles so small.

So the force that would normally hold Marty and the DeLorean onto the ground on Earth and keep him in Hill Valley become totally irrelevant when you start to fuck with the quantum shiz that would be necessary for time travel.

The DeLorean pops out from here but is no longer bound to Earth or anything else by gravity, since it’s skidding gleefully through time but not limited by velocity — as in it will never travel faster than light, but does so by following an alternate path through space that, nevertheless, will still land it at the target date and place on the particular world it departed from.

In the Universe at large, that time and date 30 years ago in Hill Valley is exactly where it was in the 30 years ago of the place Marty left, which means he’s at least 22 billion miles away from the solar system, with the Earth itself some smaller increment nearer or farther.

It definitely doe not include the about 19 billion kilometers that the entire Milky Way Galaxy has moved toward the Great Attractor between the constellations of Leo and Virgo. Without that DeLorean being able to do some very complicated math and some space travel as well, it’s going to be a very short trip to the past, and no coming back to the future

image source: Mrmw, (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

Why astrology is bunk

A lot of people believe in astrology — but not only is there no basis in fact for it, believing in it can be dangerous.

This piece, which I first posted in 2019, continues to get constant traffic and I haven’t had a week go by that someone hasn’t given it a read. So I felt that it was worth bringing to the top again.

I know way too many otherwise intelligent adults who believe in astrology, and it really grinds my gears, especially whenever I see a lot of “Mercury is going retrograde — SQUEEEE” posts, and they are annoying and wrong.

The effect that Mercury in retrograde will have on us: Zero.

Fact

Mercury doesn’t “go retrograde.” We catch up with and then pass it, so it only looks like it’s moving backwards. It’s an illusion, and entirely a function of how planets orbit the sun, and how things look from here. If Mars had (semi)intelligent life, they would note periods when the Earth was in retrograde, but it’d be for the exact same reason.

Science

What force, exactly, would affect us? Gravity is out, because the gravitational effect of anything else in our solar system or universe is dwarfed by the Earth’s. When it comes to astrology at birth, your OB/GYN has a stronger gravitational effect on you than the Sun.

On top of that, the Sun has 99.9% of the mass of our solar system, which is how gravity works, so the Sun has the greatest gravitational influence on all of the planets. We only get a slight exception because of the size of our Moon and how close it is, but that’s not a part of astrology, is it? (Not really. They do Moon signs, but it’s not in the day-to-day.)

Some other force? We haven’t found one yet.

History

If astrology were correct, then there are one of two possibilities. A) It would have predicted the existence of Uranus and Neptune, and possibly Pluto, long before they were discovered, since astrology goes back to ancient times, but those discoveries happened in the modern era, or B) It would not have allowed for the addition of those three planets (and then the removal of Pluto) once discovered, since all of the rules would have been set down. And it certainly would have accounted for the 13th sign, Ophiuchus, which, again, wasn’t found until very recently, by science.

So… stop believing in astrology, because it’s bunk. Mercury has no effect on us whatsoever, other than when astronomers look out with telescopes and watch it transit the Sun, and use its movements to learn more about real things, like gravity.

Experiment

The late, great James Randi, fraud debunker extraordinaire, did a classroom exercise that demolishes the accuracy of those newspaper horoscopes, and here it is — apologies for the low quality video.

Yep. Those daily horoscopes you read are general enough to be true for anyone, and confirmation bias means that you’ll latch onto the parts that fit you and ignore the parts that don’t although, again, they’re designed to fit anyone — and no one is going to remember the generic advice or predictions sprinkled in or, if they do, will again pull confirmation bias only when they think they came true.

“You are an intuitive person who likes to figure things out on your own, but doesn’t mind asking for help when necessary. This is a good week to start something new, but be careful on Wednesday. You also have a coworker who is plotting to sabotage you, but another who will come to your aid. Someone with an S in their name will become suddenly important, and they may be an air sign. When you’re not working on career, focus on home life, although right now your Jupiter is indicating that you need to do more organizing than cleaning. There’s some conflict with Mars, which says that you may have to deal with an issue you’ve been having with a neighbor. Saturn in your third house indicates stability, so a good time to keep on binge-watching  your favorite show, but Uranus retrograde indicates that you’ll have to take extra effort to protect yourself from spoilers.”

So… how much of that fit you? Or do you think will? Honestly, it is 100% pure, unadulterated bullshit that I just made up, without referencing any kind of astrological chart at all, and it could apply to any sign because it mentions none.

Plus I don’t think it’s even possible for Uranus to go retrograde from the Earth’s point of view.

Conclusion

If you’re an adult, you really shouldn’t buy into this whole astrology thing. The only way any of the planets would have any effect at all on us is if one of them suddenly slammed into the Earth. That probably only happened once, or not, but it’s probably what created the Moon. So ultimately not a bad thing… except for anything living here at the time.

Sunday Nibble #72: Keep it varied!

One of the big fails of modern science fiction films comes down to world-building — literally. It’s pretty much this: For whatever reason, most planets wind up with a one-world biome.

It’s a desert planet, or a snow planet, or a forest planet, or a volcano planet, and that’s it.

Now, I can see how our own solar system might have propagated this idea because, well, honestly, other than the Earth and Mars, look at Mercury, Venus, Neptune, and Uranus, and they really do seem to be mostly the same globally.

Mercury is a rock — but if you compare the temperature on the side that always faces the Sun and the side that does not, you’ll find a ridiculous extreme because it has both the hottest and coldest places in our solar system if you don’t count the atmosphere of the Sun itself.

So scratch Mercury off the list, because it has climate extremes as well. And if it had any kind of atmosphere (which it can’t), it would have incredibly violent storms along its terminator, which in this case would be a line circling its poles, with total sunshine on one side and total dark on the other.

Meanwhile… Venus is a hellhole with no variation, so it totally fits the science fiction planet stereotype. Way to go Venus!

Earth… I’ll get back to us in a minute.

Mars… it may look like it’s just a little off-orange dust-ball with easily revealed gray streaks, but that’s not really true. While it doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere to speak of, it does actually have seasons, and the climate, such as it is, in the polar zones and at the equator do vary.

Let’s jump over Jupiter and Saturn and take a look at Neptune and Uranus.

These last two are, in fact, the epitome of mono-biome worlds, as far as we can tell. They are just spinning globes of liquid methane and ammonia at really low temperatures, they lack surface features, and are pretty reminiscent of a planet like Giedi Prime from Dune, which was basically made of fossil fuels.

The only fail in those books was the idea that the planet could actually be habitable by any kind of hominid life-form. Nope. It would have been, at best, the equivalent of a distant oil field, exploited by pipeline or robot rigging crew, with the actual product shipped to a real home world to be exploited.

The real action on varied biomes this far out in our solar system probably comes among the many moons, of which Uranus and Neptune have a lot, and Saturn and Jupiter have many more — but let us get back to the king of planets, and the father of the king, by whom he was eaten.

Look it up, people.

While both places may look like they are just whirling balls of gas as well, one glance at them tells us that no, they are not. And while you have to go really far down in hopes of finding any kind of solid surface, a look at the top of their atmospheres says, “Wow. They have climates.”

And boy, do they.

Jupiter is famous for its storms, the most well-known of which is the Great Red Spot, which is pretty much a hurricane just south of the equator that has spun in roughly the same place for centuries. There are indications that it’s finally breaking up, but others are forming in a storm train that’s familiar to any Earthling who watches news of our own Atlantic hurricanes.

Jupiter’s storms are just bigger, nastier, and they last (figuratively) forever. Meanwhile, the dynamics of the rest of the atmosphere are incredible, with visible bands of clouds and gases violently interacting in a dance of fluid dynamics driven by the incredibly rapid revolution of the planet.

Jupiter’s circumference is roughly eleven times the Earth’s, but one revolution on Jupiter, aka one day, takes only 9 hours and 56 minutes. Meanwhile, one revolution on Earth takes 24 hours and 15 minutes.

The net result is that the velocity of any point on the Earth’s equator around its axis at around sea level is 1,307 mph (1,669 kph). At the top of Jupiter’s atmosphere, it’s 27,478 mph (44,222 kph), which is 26.5 times faster.

So storms are much more intense, winds are faster, and atmospheric friction makes it pretty hot along the Jovian equator.

It’s probably not that much different on Saturn, with the composition of gases in the atmosphere changing by latitude — and that’s exactly what happens on Earth, for different reasons.

Back to the biome. Earth in particular is defined by its climate zones, which were mapped and named by humans centuries ago.

The defining two lines are the equator, at 0° latitude, and the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5°N and the Tropic of Capricorn 23.44°S. What they basically define are the zones in which the Sun does its maximal and minimal height at noon thing as the seasons pass.

They’re named for the astrological signs that marked the passing of the solstice — traditionally, the Sun enters Cancer on June 21, which is more or less the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the Sun enters Capricorn around about December 22, which is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.

Swap results and seasons if you swap hemispheres.

Anything north or south of these Tropics (which basically means “cut-off”) up until the corresponding polar circle is considered a temperate zone. Well, was, until climate changed started to fuck it up.

As for the polar zones, these are the areas that either receive sunlight nearly 24/7 during summer or darkness nearly 24/7 during winter.

So this is why we have ice caps (sort of still) near the poles, pleasant weather for a zone between that and hot (until recently) and then a pretty warm climate spanning the equator in a pretty equal band.

Traditionally, that would give us snow, permafrost, deciduous forest, Mediterranean climate, rainforest, desert, then repeat in the other direction. Different climates depend upon where you are on the planet. So does the atmospheric composition, with some zones having more moisture and some less.

And yes, that’s all changing, but let’s get back to the point.

Where a lot of Science Fiction world-building has fallen down is in actually forgetting the lessons of our solar system, which are these. Which planets are naturally uninhabited and which ones aren’t?

Welp, Earth comes to mind as inhabited, with Mars a good candidate as former life host, along with various moons of Jupiter and Saturn as current hosts. The common thread, though, is that we’ve only found life on the planets with varied biomes — mainly, Earth.

And yet, science fiction planet designers insist on thinking that they can create planets that are all one thing — an ice world, a rain-forest planet, a volcanic world, a total desert, a salt flat with iron oxide deposits under it, a swamp world… whatever.

Here’s the problem: None of those mono-biome worlds are ever going to naturally support life. They might manage it with a lot of heavy infrastructure dropped onto them, but otherwise not. But for the ones that do happen to have varied biomes, seasons, maybe even a big moon to create tides, the sky is the limit.

And, to science fiction writers, if you want to create an inhabited planet, make damn sure that climate and terrain do change based on latitude, axial tilt, orbital period, and other realistic things. Otherwise, nobody is going to able to live on the “one terrain, one climate” space ball you’ve created.

To take just three examples, if you have a snowball world like Hoth, an ocean planet like Kamino, or a desert world like Tatooine, you’re going to have a damn hard time providing food and water for your inhabitants.

I’ll assume that, since most of the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe we see are humanoid, that we’d need to support an Earth-like atmosphere and agriculture, and other typically human needs.

The obvious workaround, of course, is that these single biome worlds are stand-ins for similar places on Earth.

For example, Hoth is not really inhabited by any kind of advanced civilization, just the local beasties — mainly tauntuans and whatever it was that lost an arm to Luke. It’s only an outpost, and is most like an analogue of the few bases that humans have in Antarctica.

Kamino, the ocean planet, likewise doesn’t really have any civilization, just the resident Kaminoans who are cloners, and who are involved in a very secret project most likely commissioned by a Sith Lord. Think of them like oil platforms in any distant place, like the North Sea, or very remote oceanic research stations.

And then we come to Tatooine, which seems to have a thriving culture despite being a desert planet of the sandy variety. But, again, this one has an analogue on Earth and in the Star Wars universe and Tatooine itself was actually filmed not all that far from its terrestrial counterpart.

See, Tatooine is the Middle East, which provided a gateway and marketplace between Asian traders from the East and European traders from the West.

All this is well and good if you’re being symbolic, but if you want to write real science fiction, then make your civilized planets as complicated and varied as Earth.

Oh yeah — the one other thing that seems to happen a lot in science fiction films: Every inhabitant of a particular planet apparently has the same language, belief system, culture, and general appearance. There are exceptions (that are not accounted for by aliens) but they are far and few between.

You could try to write that off to the idea that a planet’s cultures cannot migrate into space until they become one, but I’d argue that we seem to be doing just fine right now while sending up astronauts and missions from multiple nations, and we even seem to have just reached the Christopher Columbus phase 52 years to the day after the first humans walked on the Moon.

That would be the “letting rich assholes go up there” phase, by the way.

Also, if it seems like I’m picking on Star Wars in particular in this piece, I’m not. It’s just that I’m slightly more into that fandom (slightly) than the other two I’ll call out now: Star Trek and Dune.

They all tell fantastic stories. And when it comes to terms of defining them as hardest to softest in terms of the science in the fiction, then the order is this: Star Trek — they at least try to come up with physical rules for shit; Dune — they at least come up with biological, genetic, and psychological rules for shit, but really, really cheat it with what mélange can do; and Star Wars —100% fantasy, but that’s okay.

Or, in other words, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Star Wars makes the mono biome mistake constantly. It should be really annoying that Star Trek and, to a certain extent, Dune both do.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to the upcoming Dune movie, which will just be the first half of the book. I am. It looks very, very good, whether it takes place on a totally desert planet or not.

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.

Look, up in the sky!

Throughout history, humans have been fascinated with the sky, and a lot of our myths were attempts to explain what goes on up there. In many cultures, the five planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) were named after deities or attributes of the planets with surprising consistency.

Mercury was often named for its swiftness in orbiting the Sun; Venus was always associated with beauty because of its brightness; Mars’s red color led to it being named either for a violent deity or that color; Jupiter was always associated with the chief deity even though nobody in those times had any idea it was the largest planet; and Saturn, at least in the west, was named after Jupiter’s father.

This led to Uranus, which wasn’t discovered until the 18th century, being named after Saturn’s father, i.e. Jupiter’s grandfather. Neptune, discovered in the 19th century, and Pluto, discovered in the 20th century before being rightfully demoted from planetary status, were only named for Jupiter’s less cool brothers.

Since the planets were given attributes associated with deities, their relationship to each other must have meant something, and so the bogus art of astrology was invented, although it was obviously not complete prior to Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto being added, but then was clearly incorrect during the entire period of time that Pluto was a planet. (Hint: That was a joke. It was incorrect the entire time.)

Since humans are also hard-wired to see patterns, the stars above led to the definition of constellations, the night-time version of the “What is that cloud shaped like?” game.

It wasn’t really until the renaissance and the rise of science, including things like optics (one of Newton’s discoveries), which gave us telescopes, that we really started to take a look at the skies study them. But it is still astounding how so many laypeople know so little about what’s up there that we have had completely natural phenomena freaking us out since forever. Here are five examples of things in the sky that made people lose their stuff.

1. Total eclipse of the heart… er… Sun

Until science openly explained them, eclipses of any kind were scary. For one thing, nobody knew when they were coming until Royal Astronomer became a thing, but only the elite were privy to the information, so the Sun would go out or the Moon would turn blood red, or either one of them would appear to lose a piece at random and without warning. Generally, the belief was that the Moon or Sun (particularly the latter) was being consumed by some malevolent yet invisible beast that needed to be scared away.

But long after modern science explained that an eclipse was nothing more than the Moon passing in front of the Sun or the Earth passing in front of the Moon, shit went down in 1878, at least in low-information areas.

The thing about this eclipse was that it had been predicted close to a century before, had been well-publicized, and was going to put the path of totality across the entire U.S. for the first time since its founding. There’s even a book about it, American Eclipse. But there’s also a tragic part of the story. While the news had spread across most of the growing nation, it didn’t make it to Texas, and farm workers there, confronted with the sudden loss of the Sun, took it to mean all kinds of things. A lot of them thought that it was a portent of the return of Jesus, and in at least one case, a father killed his children and then himself in order to avoid the apocalypse.

2. Captain Comet!

Ah, comets. They are an incredibly rare sight in the sky and well worth traveling to see if that’s what you need to do. I remember a long trek into the darkness when I was pretty young to go see Comet Hyakutake, and yes it was worth it. It was a glorious blue-green fuzzball planted in space with a huge tail. Of course, I knew what it was. In the past, not so much.

In the ancient world, yet again, they were seen as bad omens because something in the heavens had gone wrong. The heavens, you see, were supposed to be perfect, but there was suddenly this weird… blot on them. Was it a star that grew fuzzy? Was it coming to eat the Earth? What could be done?

That may all sound silly, but as recently as 1910, people still flipped their shit over the return of one of the more predictable and periodic of “fuzzy stars.” That would be Comet Halley. And, by the way, it’s not pronounced “Hay-lee.” It’s “Hall-lee.”

And why did it happen? Simple. A French astronomer who should have known better, wrote that the tail of the comet was full of gases, including hydrogen and cyanide, and if the Earth passed through the tail, we would either be gassed to death or blown up. Unfortunately, another French astronomer at the time actually played “Got your back” with him, and that was all it took.

It was pseudoscience bullshit at its finest, propagated by the unquestioning and uninformed (when it comes to science) media, and it created a panic even though it was completely wrong.

The worst part about Halley’s 1910 appearance? It bore out Mark Twain’s statement, paraphrased probably: “I came into the world with it, I will go out with it.” And he did. Goddamit.

3. Meteoric rise is an oxymoron

And it definitely is, because a meteor only becomes one because it’s falling. And while we’re here, let’s look at three often confused words: Meteor, meteoroid, and meteorite.

The order is this: Before it gets here and is still out in space, it’s a meteoroid. Once it hits our atmosphere and starts to glow and burn up, it has become a meteor. Only the bits that actually survive to slam into the planet get to be called meteorites. Oid, or, ite. I suppose you could think of it as being in the vOID, coming fOR you, and then crash, goodnITE.

So the things that mostly cause panic are meteors, and quite recently, a meteor blowing up over Russia convinced people that they were under attack. It was a fireball that crashed into the atmosphere on February 15, 2013, and it actually did cause damage and injuries on the ground.

The numbers on the Chelyabinsk meteor are truly staggering, especially to think that they involved no high explosives, just friction and pure physics (Hello again, Sir Isaac!) The thing was about 66 feet in diameter, which is the length of a cricket pitch, or about four feet longer than a bowling lane. It compares to a lot of things, and you can find some fun examples here.

But there was nothing fun about this asteroid. It came screaming through our atmosphere at about 41,000 miles an hour at a steep angle. The heat from the friction of our atmosphere quickly turned it into a fireball of the superbolide variety, which is one that is brighter than the sun. It exploded about 18 miles up. That explosion created a fireball of hot gas and dust a little over four miles in diameter. The kinetic energy of the event was about 30 times the force of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Over 7,200 buildings were damaged and 1,500 people were injured enough to need medical attention, mostly due to flying glass and other effects of the shockwave. Unlike other items on this list, these events actually can be dangerous, although this was the first time in recorded history that people were known to have been injured by a meteor. The Tunguska event, in 1908, was a little bit bigger and also in Russia, but happened in a remote and sparsely populated area, with no reported human injuries. Local reindeer were not so lucky.

4. Conjunction junction, what’s your function?

A conjunction is defined as any two or more objects in space which appear to be close together or overlapping when viewed from the Earth. Every solar eclipse is a conjunction of the Sun and Moon as seen from the Earth. Oddly enough, a lunar eclipse is not a conjunction from our point of view, because it’s our planet that’s casting the shadow on the Moon.

Conjunctions shouldn’t be all that surprising for a few reasons.

First is that most of the planets pretty much orbit in the same plane, defined by the plane in which the Earth orbits because that makes the most sense from an observational standpoint.

The inclination of Earth’s orbit is zero degrees by definition and the plane we orbit in is called the ecliptic. You can probably figure out where that name came from. Out of the planets, the one with the greatest inclination is Mercury, at 7º. Counting objects in the solar system in general, the dwarf planet Pluto has an inclination of 17.2º — which is just another argument against it being a true planet. None of the planets not yet mentioned have an inclination of more than 4º, which really isn’t a whole lot.

The second reason conjunctions should not be all that surprising is because each planet has to move at a particular velocity relative to its distance from the Sun to maintain its orbit. The farther out you are, the faster you have to go. Although this is a function of gravity, the airplane analogy will show you why this makes sense.

As an airplane gains speed, the velocity of air over the wings increases, generating more lift, bringing the airplane higher. In space, there’s no air to deal with, but remember that any object in orbit is essentially falling around the body it orbits, but doing it fast enough to keep missing.

If it slows down too much, it will start to fall, but if it speeds up its orbit will get bigger. This is directly analogous to ballistics, which describes the arc of a flying projectile. The faster it launches the farther it goes and the bigger the arc it makes. An arc in orbit becomes an ellipse.

Since every planet is moving at the speed required to keep it at the distance it is, things are likely to sync up occasionally. Sometimes, it will only be one or two planets, but on certain instances, it will be most or all of them. This video is a perfect example. Each one of the balls is on a string of a different length, so its natural period is different. Sometimes, the pattern becomes quite chaotic, but every so often it syncs up perfectly. Note that all of them did start in sync, so it is mathematically inevitable that they will sync up again at the point that all of the different period multiply to the same number. Our solar system is no different since the planets all started as rings of gas and dust swirling around the Sun. There was a sync point somewhen.

So conjunctions are a completely normal phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean that people haven’t gone completely stupid with them. The first way is via astrology, which isn’t even worth debunking because it’s such a load. The Sun is 99.8% of the mass of the solar system, so it constantly has more influence in every possible way over everything else hands down. What influence did the planets have upon your personality at birth? Less than zero. The only relevant factor, really, is that people’s personalities are formed by their relative age when they started school, so that is influenced by the season they were born in, but that’s about it.

As for the modern version of people going completely stupid over conjunctions, it happened in the early 1980s, after the 1974 publication of the book The Jupiter Effect by John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann. In short, they predicted that a conjunction of the planets on March 10, 1982 would cause a series of earthquakes that would wipe out Los Angeles.

Since you’re reading this in at least the year 2020 and I’m quite safely in Los Angeles, you know how their prediction turned out. This didn’t stop them from backtracking a month later and releasing a follow-up book called The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered (aka We Want More Money from the Gullible) in which they claimed, “Oh… we miscalculated. The date was actually in 1980, and the conjunction (that hadn’t happened yet) caused Mount St. Helens to erupt.”

Still, just like with the whole end of the world 2012 predictions, at least some people bought into it.

5. The original star wars

The last item on our list is possibly a one-off, occurring on April 14, 1561 in Nuremberg, Germany. Whether it actually even happened is debatable since only a single account of it survives in the form of a broadsheet — basically the blog post of its day. If it had been as widespread as the story makes it seem, after all, there should have been reports from all across Europe unless, of course, the point of view from Nuremberg created the exceptional event in the first place.

It was described as an aerial battle that began between 4 and 5 a.m. when “a dreadful apparition occurred on the sun.” I’ll quote the rest of the paragraph in translation in full from the article linked above: “At first there appeared in the middle of the sun two blood-red semicircular arcs, just like the moon in its last quarter. And in the sun, above and below and on both sides, the color was blood, there stood a round ball of partly dull, partly black ferrous color. Likewise there stood on both sides and as a torus about the sun such blood-red ones and other balls in large numbers, about three in a line and four in a square, also some alone.”

The unknown author goes on to describe the objects — spheres, rods, and crosses — as battling with each other for about an hour, swirling back and forth. Eventually, the objects seemed to become fatigued and fell to the Earth, where they “wasted away… with immense smoke.

Now, what could have caused this phenomenon? The obvious answers are that it was a slow news day or that it was religious propaganda or some other wind-up. But if it were an actual phenomenon and really only remarked on in one village, then it’s quite possible that it was a meteor shower with an apparent radiant, or source, that happened to line up with the Sun.

It was a Monday, with a new Moon. The Sun rose in the east at 5:05 a.m., so the invisible Moon was somewhere around that part of the sky, too. But this also immediately calls the story into question, since the phenomenon seen coming from the Sun happened before sunrise according to the account. But if we consider that to just be human error, what we have is the Pearl Harbor effect. The attackers come in with the rising Sun behind them, making them hard to see or understand.

On top of that, if they’re coming in from that direction, they’re coming in at a very shallow angle. See the notes on the Russian meteor above. This can lead to some super-heated objects, which would glow red as reported, and anything not red hot against the Sun would appear black. If it happened to be a swarm of objects, like a bunch of small rocks and dust or a bigger piece that broke up, all flying in at once, the chaotic motion could certainly make it seem like a battle.

There is a meteor shower that happens around that time of year called the Lyrids, which is very short-lived, although I haven’t yet been able to find out whether its radiant was near the Sun in 1561. But a particularly heavy shower coming in at just the right angle could have an unusual effect in a limited area.

Or… the author just pulled it out of his ass for his own reasons. We can never know.


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Christopher Ruano, F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

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.

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.

Research everything, believe nothing

This will probably surprise no one who reads this blog regularly, but most of my fiction writing falls into one of two categories: stories based on real people or true events, and hard science fiction. I’m also a big fan of both historical and scientific accuracy, so I’ve developed the habit of fact-checking and researching the crap out of my fictional work.

It may not matter to a lot of people, of course, but if I see a glaring anachronism in a supposedly historically-based film or watch as they pull the magic element of Madeitupium out as a plot device in order to defy the laws of physics, then I will get pulled right out of the story.

A good case in point is the ridiculous dance scene in The Favourite. And it’s not just because the choreography on display would never have happened in the time period — the music is all wrong, too, in terms of instrumentation as well as certain chord progressions that wouldn’t have happened at the time, on top of not following the rigid rules of Baroque music of the era. But the even more egregious error in the film is that a central plot point is based on a bit of libel that was spread about Queen Anne to discredit her, but which is not true. If you want to learn more, it’s in this link, but spoilers, sweetie, as River Song would say. (By the way, apparently the costumes weren’t all that accurate, either.)

On the science fiction side, something like the finale of the 2009 Star Trek reboot just has me laughing my ass off  because almost everything about it is wrong for so many reasons in a franchise that otherwise at least tries to get the science right. Note: I’m also a huge Star Wars nerd, but I’m very forgiving of any science being ignored there because these were never anything other than fantasy films. It’s the same thing with Harry Potter. I’m not going to fault the science there, because no one ever claimed that any existed. Although some of the rules of magic seem to have become a bit… stretchy over the years.

But… where do I start with what that Star Trek film got wrong? The idea of “red matter” is a good place to begin. Sorry, but what does that even mean? There is only one element that is naturally red, and that’s bromine. Other elements might be mined from red-colored ore, like mercury is from cinnabar, but otherwise, nope. So far when it comes to matter, we have demonstrated five and postulated six forms: Bose-Einstein condensate, which is what happens when matter gets so cold that a bunch of atoms basically fuse into one super nucleus within an electron cloud; solid, which you’re probably pretty familiar with; liquid, see above; gas, ditto; and plasma, which is a gas that is so hot that it ionizes or basically becomes the opposite of the coldest form, with a cloud of super-electrons surrounding a very jittery bunch of spread-out nuclei. The one form we have postulated but haven’t found yet is dark matter, which is designed to explain certain observations we’ve made about gravitational effects within and between galaxies.

(There are actually a lot more forms of matter than these, but you can go read about them yourself if you’re interested.)

Which brings me to the other gigantic and egregious cock-up from the Star Trek film. This supposed “red matter” is able to turn anything into a black hole. It does it to a planet early in the film, and to a spaceship near the end. Okay, so that means that “red matter” is incredibly dense with a strong gravitational pull, but if that’s the case, then a neutron star could accomplish the same, sort of. It’s one step above a black hole — an object that is so compressed by gravity that it is basically a ball of solid neutrons with a cloud of electrons quivering all through and around it. Neutrons are one of two particles found in the nucleus of atoms, the other being protons. It’s just that the gravitational pressure at this point is so strong that it mushes all of the protons together enough to turn them into neutrons, too.

But the only way you’re going to turn a neutron star into a black hole is to slam it into another neutron star. Throw it against a planet or a spaceship, and all you’ll wind up with is a very flat and radioactive object that was not previously a neutron star.

That’s still not the most egregious error, though. The film subscribes to the “black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners” myth, and that’s just not true at all. Here’s a question for you: What would happen to all of the planets in our solar system if the sun suddenly turned into a black hole?

  1. They’d all get sucked in.
  2. They’d all stay where they were.

Bad science in movies tells us that “A” is the answer, but nope. If the sun turned into a black hole right this second, all of the planets would remain in orbit because the gravitational attraction of the sun wouldn’t change. Well, not quite true. If anything, it might lessen slightly because of the mass given up as energy in the creation of the black hole. So, if anything, the planets might start to creep into slightly more distant orbits.

The real negative effect wouldn’t be the black hole per se. Rather, it would be the sudden loss of thermal energy, which would turn all of the planets into balls of ice, along with the possible and likely blast of high-power radiation that would explode from the sun’s equator and generally cut a swath through most of the plane in which all of the planets orbit.

Or, in other words, we wouldn’t get sucked into the black hole. Rather, our planet and all the others would probably be scrubbed of most or all life by the burst of gamma and X-rays that would be the birthing burp of the new black hole at the center of the solar system. After that, within a few months or years, our planet would be as cold and desolate as Pluto and all the other dwarf planets way out in the sticks. Even Mercury would be too cold to host life. Give it a couple million years, and who knows how far out the planets and moons and asteroids and comets would have drifted.

Why is this? Because nature is big on conserving things, one of them being force. Now, not all forces are conservative — and, in science, that word just means “keeping things the same.” (Okay, in politics, too.) You might be familiar with the concept that energy cannot be created or destroyed, which is a sort of general start on the matter, but also an over-simplification because — surprise, energy is a non-conservative force.

Then there’s gravity and momentum, and both of those are incredibly conservative forces. And, oddly enough, one of the things that gravity creates is momentum. To put it in naïve terms, if you’re swinging a ball on a string, the path that ball follows is the momentum. The string is gravity. But the two are connected, and this is what we call a vector. Gravity pulls one way, momentum moves another, and the relationship between the two defines the path the ball follows.

Because gravity is an attractive force, increasing it shortens the string. But since the momentum remains the same, shortening the string reduces the circumference that the ball follows. And if the ball is covering a shorter path in the same time, this means that it’s moving more slowly.

A really dumbed-down version (so I can understand it too!) is this: if G is the force of gravity and p is the momentum of the ball, and G is a constant but p is conserved once given, then the only factor that makes any difference is distance, i.e. the length of the string.

Ooh. Guess what? This is exactly what Newton came up with when he postulated his universal law of gravitation — and he has not yet been proven wrong. So if your planet starts out one Astronomical Unit away from the Sun, which weighs one solar mass, and is moving in orbit at rate X counterclockwise around the Sun, when said star foops into a black hole its mass, and hence its gravitational attraction doesn’t change (beyond mass loss due to conversion to energy), and ergo… nope. You’re not getting sucked in.

Oh. Forgot that other often confused bit. Conservation of energy. Yes, that’s a thing, but the one big thing it does not mean is that we have some kind of eternal souls or life forces or whatever, because energy is not information. Sorry!

The other detail is that most forms of energy are non-conservative, even if energy itself is conserved, and that is because energy can be converted. Ever strike a match? Congrats. You’ve just turned friction into thermal energy. Ever hit the brakes on your car? You’ve just turned friction into kinetic energy — and converted momentum into thermal energy, but don’t tell gravity that!

In case you’re wondering: No, you really can’t turn gravity into energy, you can only use it to produce energy, since no gravity goes away in the process. For example, drop a rock on a seesaw, it’ll launch something into the air, but do nothing to the total gravitational power of Earth. Drop a rock on your foot, and you’ll probably curse up a blue streak. The air molecules launched out of your mouth by your tirade will actually propagate but still fall to ground eventually subject to Earth’s gravity. And, in either case, you had to counteract gravity in order to lift that rock to its starting point, so the net balance when it dropped from A to B was exactly zero.

And it’s rabbit holes and research like this piece that makes me keep doing it for everything, although sometimes I really wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. When it comes to history, there’s a story that an Oscar-winning playwright friend of likes to mine tell and that I like to share. He wrote a play about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a group of  Japanese-Americans in WWII who were given a choice: Go fight for America in Europe, or go to our concentration camps. (Funny, none of my German ancestors were ever faced with the decision, “Go fight for America in Asia, or go to your concentration camps. Grrrr. But I do digress.)

Anyway… after one of the developmental readings of this play, he told me about a conversation he’d overheard from a couple of college kids in the lobby during intermission (this being about a decade ago): “Why were there American soldiers in Italy in World War II?”

And this is exactly why it is as important as hell to keep the history (and science) accurate. And these are things we need to fight for. Care about your kids? Your grandkids? Then here you go. Language. Science. The Arts. History. Life Skills. Politics. Sex Ed. This is what we need to be teaching our kids, with a healthy dose of, “Yeah, we’re kind of trying, but if you see the cracks in our façades, then please jump on, because it’s the only way your eldies will ever learn either.”

So… free education here. Questions accepted. No tuition charged. And if you want the media you’re eating up corrected, just ask.

Image: Doubting Thomas by Guercino (1591 – 1666), public domain.

Across the multiverse

It can be daunting, sometimes, to think about the precarious pathways that led to each of our lives, and then led to the lives we have led. In my case, answering a want ad in Variety two years out of college led to an office job that changed everything — not because of the job, but because of the people I met, and connections that led directly to me pursuing a career as a playwright with some success and also to working in television and eventually doing improv.

But I never would have wound up there if my parents hadn’t met and married, and that only happened because my mother had one bad first marriage that led to her moving across the country and winding up working as a waitress in a restaurant across from the office where my father, who was also ending his bad first marriage, worked. He wound up there because he had taken advantage of the G.I. Bill to study architecture and so was a structural engineer for one of the more prestigious firms in Los Angeles. In another case of amazing coincidence, I wound up working about a block from where his office and her restaurant had been when I went into the TV biz twenty-ish years after he worked there.

So my father wound up doing the G.I. Bill thing because he was a veteran and that happened because there had been a war. But he was only in America to fight on our side because his grandfather had come here in the first place, and my father’s own father and mother wound up in California. That happened because my grandfather worked for the railroads. I also think it was because my grandmother got knocked up with my dad’s older brother at about eighteen and before they married, but that’s beside the point. Or maybe not.

If my mother had stayed where she’d been born, she never would have met my father. If my great grandfather had never left Germany, than one of my ancestors may have died on the wrong side of WW II. And if that had happened and my mother came to Los Angeles anyway, there’s no telling whom she might have met and married. It could have been a big power player in Hollywood. It could have been a dishwasher in the restaurant. The unanswered question, really, is whether who I am came only from her egg or from dad’s sperm, or whether I would have never existed had the two never met. Impossible to say.

What’s really fascinating are the long-term effects of random choices. I do improv now because of one particular actor I met about six years ago. I met him because he was involved with a play of mine that was produced in 2014. That play happened because an actor who had done a reading of it when I first wrote it, twenty years previously, remembered it when he was at a point to play the lead and bring it to a company. That reading happened because it was set up by a woman who produced my second full-length play — and who is still one of my best friends — and that happened because of all the attention received by my first produced full-length play, which happened because of a woman I met at that first office job out of college I mentioned before. She was in a writing group, heard I was interested in being a writer and invited me to join. Ta-da… a link in a damn long chain of consequence happened.

And that third play, about William S. Burroughs, only happened because I somehow heard about his works when I was probably in middle school, and only because the title “Naked Lunch” made a bunch of twelve-year-olds giggle. But reading that book when I was about fourteen, and realizing it was about so much more, and then discovering the rest of his works along with Vonnegut and Joyce and Robert Anton Wilson and so many others set my sails for being a writer, and out of all of them, Burroughs had the most fascinating life story, as well as the personal struggle I most related to, since he was a gay man, after all.

And, I suppose, I can attribute my interest in the salacious and interesting to the fact that my mother had such an aversion to them. She could watch people on cable TV get their heads blown off for days, but show one tit or one ass — or god forbid a dick — and she would lose it. It was good-old Catholic body shame, and I never understood it, mainly since I’ve been a naturist since, like, forever. Of course, the extent of my exposure to that church was to be baptized as a preemie “just in case,” and then not a lot else beyond the scary crucifix that always hung in my bedroom and the scarier icons and statues I’d see when we visited my mom’s mom.

Ironically, I’ve actually come to relate to Catholicism, although not so much as a religion, but more as a cultural touchstone and anchor for my Irish roots. Yeah, we bog-cutters love the ceremony, but piss on the bullshit, so that’s probably why it works. Give me the theater, spare me the crap. Sing all you want, you middle-aged men in dresses, but touch the kids, and we will end you.

But I do digress… because if we’re going to go down the Irish rabbit hole, that is an entirely different path by which I could have not wound up here today. At any point, one of my direct ancestors on my mother’s side could have taken vows, and then boom. No more descendants to lead to me.

Or any of my grandparents or parents or I could have walked in front of a speeding bus before their descendants were born or before I had my first play produced, and game over. History changed. I could have signed up with a temp agency on a different day and never wound up having met my best friend.

Then again… I have no idea who I would be if any of these different paths had been taken at any point in history all the way back to the beginning. It’s really daunting to consider how many ancestors actually had to come together to lead to the genetic knot that is you or me. But you and I exist as who we are. Rather than worry about how easily that could not have happened, I suppose, the better approach is to just revel in the miracle that it did. Here we are. It happened because other things happened. And thinking too hard about why those other things happened might actually be a bad thing to do.

New Horizons

I’ve always been a giant nerd for three things: History, language, and science. History fascinates me because it shows how humanity has progressed over the years and centuries. We were wandering tribes reliant on whatever we could kill or scavenge, but then we discovered the secrets of agriculture (oddly enough, hidden in the stars), so then we created cities, where we were much safer from the elements.

Freed from a wandering existence, we started to develop culture — arts and sciences — because we didn’t have to spend all of our time picking berries or hunting wild boar. Of course, at the same time, we also created things like war and slavery and monarchs, which are really the ultimate evil triumvir of all of humanity, and three things we really haven’t shaken off yet, even if we sometimes call them by different names. At the same time, humanity also strove for peace and freedom and equality.

It’s a back and forth struggle as old as man, sometimes forward and sometimes back. It’s referred to as the cyclical theory of history. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. developed the theory with specific reference to American history, although it can apply much farther back than that. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, explored it specifically in his earlier novel The Wanting Seed, although it could be argued that both books cover two different aspects of the cycle. The short version of the cycle: A) Society (i.e. government) sees people as good and things progress and laws become more liberal. B) Society (see above) sees people as evil and things regress as laws become harsher and draconian, C) Society (you know who) finally wakes up and realizes, “Oh. We’ve become evil…” Return to A. Repeat.

This is similar to Hegel’s Dialectic — thesis, antithesis, synthesis, which itself was parodied in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, which posited a five stage view of history instead of three, adding parenthesis and paralysis to the mix.

I’m not entirely sure that they were wrong.

But enough of history, although I could go on about it for days. Regular readers already know about my major nerdom for language, which is partly related to history as well, so let’s get to the science.

The two areas of science I’ve always been most interested in also happen to be at completely opposite ends of the scale. On the large end are astronomy and cosmology, which deal with things on scales way bigger than what we see in everyday life. I’m talking the size of solar systems, galaxies, local clusters, and the universe itself. Hey, when I was a kid, humans had already been in space for a while, so it seemed like a totally normal place to be. The first space disaster I remember was the Challenger shuttle, and that was clearly human error.

At the other end of the size scale: chemistry and quantum physics. Chemistry deals with interactions among elements and molecules which, while they’re too small for us to see individually, we can still see the results. Ever make a vinegar and baking soda volcano? Boom! Chemistry. And then there’s quantum physics, which deals with things so small that we can never actually see them, and we can’t even really be quite sure about our measurements of them, except that the models we have also seem to give an accurate view of how the universe works.

Without understanding quantum physics, we would not have any of our sophisticated computer devices, nor would we have GPS (which also relies on Einstein’s Relativity, which does not like quantum physics, nor vice versa.) We probably wouldn’t even have television or any of its successors, although we really didn’t know that at the time TV was invented, way before the atomic bomb. Not that TV relies on quantum mechanics, per se, but its very nature does depend on the understanding that light can behave as either a particle or a wave and figuring out how to force it to be a particle.

But, again, I’m nerding out and missing the real point. Right around the end of 2018, NASA did the amazing, and slung their New Horizons probe within photo op range of the most distant object we’ve yet visited in our solar system. Called Ultima Thule, it is a Kuiper Belt object about four billion miles away from earth, only about 19 miles long, and yet we still managed to get close enough to it to get some amazing photos.

And this really is the most amazing human exploration of all. New Horizons was launched a generation or two after both Viking probes, and yet got almost as far in under half the time — and then, after rendezvousing with disgraced dwarf planet Pluto went on to absolutely nail a meeting with a tiny rock so far from the sun that it probably isn’t even really all that bright. And all of this was done with plain old physics, based on rules worked out by some dude in the 17th century. I think they named some sort of cookie after him, but I could be wrong. Although those original rules, over such great distances, wouldn’t have really worked out without the tweaking that the quantum rules gave us.

Exploring distant space is really a matter of combining our knowledge of the very, very big with the very, very small — and this should really reflect back on our understanding of history. You cannot begin to comprehend the macro if you do not understand the micro.

Monarchs cannot do shit without understanding the people beneath them. This isn’t just a fact of history. For the scientifically inclined, the one great failing of Einstein’s theories — which have been proven experimentally multiple times — is that they fall entirely apart on the quantum level. This doesn’t mean that Einstein was wrong. Just that he couldn’t or didn’t account for the power of the very, very tiny.

And, call back to the beginning: Agriculture, as in the domestication of plants and animals, did not happen until humans understood the cycle of seasons and the concept of time. Before we built clocks, the only way to do that was to watch the sun, the moon, and the stars and find the patterns. In this case, we had to learn to pay attention to the very, very slow, and to keep very accurate records. Once we were able to predict things like changes in the weather, or reproductive cycles, or when to plant and when to harvest, all based on when the sun or moon rose or set, ta-da. We had used science to master nature and evolve.

And I’ve come full circle myself. I tried to separate history from science, but it’s impossible. You see, the truth that humanity learns by objectively pursuing science is the pathway to free us from the constant cycle of good to bad to oops and back to good. Repeat.

Hey, let’s not repeat. Let’s make a concerted effort to agree when humanity achieves something good, then not flip our shit and call it bad. Instead, let’s just keep going ever upward and onward. Change is the human condition. If you want to restore the world of your childhood, then there’s something wrong with you, not the rest of us. After all, if the negative side of humanity had won when we first learned how to domesticate plants and animals and create cities, we might all still be wandering, homeless and nearly naked, through an inhospitable world, with our greatest advancements in technology being the wheel and fire — and the former not used for transportation, only for grinding whatever plants we’d picked that day into grain. Or, in other words, moderately intelligent apes with no hope whatsoever of ever learning anything or advancing toward being human.

Not a good look, is it? To quote Stan Lee: “Excelsior!”

Onward. Adelante. Let’s keep seeking those new and broader horizons.