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 surround 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.

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 life 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.

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, like we will this year, 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.

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.

Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse

There’s been a lot of talk in the news lately about the star Betelgeuse, and whether it’s about to explode and go nova. The main reason this discussion is happening is because the star suddenly got very dim very quickly, and dimmer than we have ever observed it to be. The dimming itself isn’t unusual because Betelgeuse is a variable star, meaning that its apparent brightness changes. What’s unusual now is the magnitude of that change. In only two months, Betelgeuse dropped from 10th brightest star in the northern night sky to 21st.

Stars and the physics in them have always fascinated me because they are a perfect example of macro and micro coming together — the very large displaying the power of the very tiny at work.

Fusion without confusion

What is a star? Simply put, it’s a big ball of gas that is so massive that its own gravity makes it ignite in nuclear fusion, creating heat and light. As far as we know, the very first stars started out as cloud of the lightest, simplest element, hydrogen, which in its basic form is one proton with one electron bound to it. I say “bound to” rather than “orbiting” because that old model of discrete little electrons circling the nucleus like planets orbit the Sun is just wrong. It’s better to think of the electron or electrons as existing as a potential force spread out over a certain area statistically, with the shapes and volumes of those areas varying with the energy of the electron. It’s not in one place at any given time, but it’s likely to be in certain places and not in others, and this goes for every electron in the atom.

Yes, welcome to the weirdness of quantum physics. The layman’s takeaway here is that the electrons create what you can think of as a force field far “above” the nucleus that keeps other nuclei from getting too close. They’re like the walls of houses that keep the nosy neighbors from wandering in.

And that works just fine on most scales. The electrons are doing all of the work so that the atoms in your cells don’t fuse together and it even works right up to the level you can perceive. When you touch a table, for example, you aren’t really touching it. Rather, the electrons in your finger are bumping against the electrons in the table and are acting as mutual bouncers keeping each other out so that your hand and the table don’t merge.

Oh, sure, you will exchange some electrons with whatever you touch because they can just be finicky like that. But, for the most part, this is an impenetrable barrier that keeps things well-defined.

It doesn’t break down until enormous forces come into play. In the case of stars, that force is called gravity, and it’s not until that ball of hydrogen reaches a certain density that things begin to happen. Mainly, the force of gravity working on it becomes enough to overcome the force of the electrons maintaining boundaries. All of a sudden, those neat electron orbital shells go wonky, and the protons start to get to know each other. Now, normally, they would repel because they have the same charge, but their charges are so much weaker that by this point it doesn’t matter. Protons start to get forced together, and then the magic happens.

It’s elementary

I won’t get too heavy into the physics here — you can learn more if you’d like — but the key point is that this gravitational mushing turns hydrogen into helium, the next heaviest element, which has two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons, and in the process a lot of energy (relatively speaking) gets released.

This continues on for a long time until the hydrogen has almost but not quite run out, at which point the star starts to smoosh all of that helium into carbon, and the process cascades from there. Combining each new element with more helium runs down the chain to create oxygen, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulfur, argon, calcium, titanium, chromium, and then iron.

A star is basically a forge that creates the heavier elements that become the building blocks of planets, all subsequent new stars (which don’t start as pure hydrogen), and, eventually, life.

There’s one critical element to mention, though: while the force of gravity has been enough to make the fusion happen, at the same time the opposing force of the energy released by that fusion has been enough to push back and create a sort of equilibrium so that the star doesn’t collapse or expand. It pretty much maintains its size.

And then iron synthesis comes along, and it’s a game changer. Why? Because, unlike those other fusion reactions, this one doesn’t produce sufficient energy to fight gravity any longer. Boom, it’s like a light switch is turned off. All of a sudden, the floorboards give out, and all of that mass up above the ceiling is free to come crashing down into the basement, and that doesn’t go well when it hits bottom. Above a certain original mass, you get a black hole. Below it, you get an enormous explosion which scatters all of those elements outward and releases an incredible amount of energy.

It would be a super nova

If that happened to Betelgeuse during 14th or 15th centuries, we’d see it here soon, since the star is only about six hundred light years away. For a while, it would be brighter than the full Moon at night, and visible during the day. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer star. It’s one that you’ve probably seen since its constellation is so memorable.

Betelgeuse is the right shoulder of Orion, assuming that he’s facing us, and is visibly red from down here. In official terms, the star is known as Alpha Orionis, meaning the first, or brightest, star in the constellation Orion. The interesting part about this designation is that it’s only sometimes the brightest, again because of the variable thing. Rigel is often brighter, but when Sir John Herschel made his observations and his catalog, Betelgeuse was brighter, so it got the A rating.

If you’re wondering about the name of the star, it’s got nothing to do with the Tim Burton film. Rather, it comes from the Arabic name for it, إبط الجوزاء (‘iibt aljawaza’). If you pronounce it fast enough a few times, it kind of starts to sound like “Betelgeuse.”

Just don’t say it three times. Or, maybe, do — because seeing a supernova of this magnitude at this point in our history wouldn’t only be great for humanity in general, it would be a boon to many different sciences. The last visible supernova happened in 1987, but it was only visible from the Southern Hemisphere, and it was about 160,000 light years away, or just over 49,000 parsecs.

This one would be visible by everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, day and night, for a good period of time, and it would serve to make people aware of the universe out there, and maybe even ask questions and listen to scientists. It might even get them to realize that the ultimate survival route for the entire human race — and a lot of other species on this planet — is to get off of this planet and start colonizing, except to do it in a low-impact and benevolent way, rather than the slash-and-burn methods used by our ancestors who raped and pillaged their way out of Europe and into the “new” world. (Funny how none of it was new to the people who had been living there already.)

Anyway… here’s to hoping that one of the most violent events in the universe can grace our night and day skies soon, and pull us out of ourselves. Maybe we do need a cataclysmic event to unite the planet — but that doesn’t mean that the cataclysm needs to be anywhere near us. Just that we need to be aware of it.

What better screen than the sky above?

If you say the name three times, it appears. Betelgeuse.

Betelgeuse.

Betelgeuse!

Don’t make it rocket science when it’s not

So many tools

It never ceases to boggle my mind when people don’t jump on the chance to learn and fully take advantage of the amazing modern tools we’ve been handed and which are ubiquitous. If you work in any kind of office environment at all, whether it’s some stodgy traditional business or a bleeding-edge industry like tech or gaming, at the very least you’re dealing with either Microsoft’s Word, Excel, Outlook, etc., or the Apple equivalents.

If you’re using the Open Office or Chrome/Cloud versions, then this piece probably isn’t directed at you because you definitely get it. But, otherwise… really, people? These are literally the things that you use every day, and yet I constantly see very few people ever progressing beyond the merest basic ability to use any of the programs.

That is: Open document, type shit with defaults, save or send as-is.

If I open a spreadsheet you’ve worked on in an older version of Excel and see three tabs at the bottom named Sheets 1, 2, and 3, I will know that you’re an amateur. Likewise if the font is set to that hideous Calibri. Same thing in Word minus the tabs, but same crappy font, ragged aligned left, with auto-spacing before paragraphs or lines.

Word to the wise, people. The first thing you should do in Word is go in and set your default formatting so that the autospace before lines or paragraphs is 0, and line spacing is single.

Why is paper still a thing?

But this is just an intro to some recent heinous, and it’s this. I’ve managed to stumble into a situation where a lot of coworkers prefer to do things on paper, and it makes me nuts. Simple question: Why? Physical files can only be in one place, usually aren’t in the place where they’re supposed to be, and there isn’t a magic search function that can find them other than somebody maybe remembering that they worked on it recently, and where they put it. There’s also no standardization of fonts, so if someone scribbles a note in that file, there’s no guarantee that someone else will be able to read it six months later.

Not to mention that it’s just wasteful. Especially wasteful when there are so many ways to avoid it and so many resources to make that easier.

Case in point: One of the things I do regularly is enter and reconcile commission statements from various vendors, but I’ve had to do it by printing the things, manually entering the data into a spreadsheet, and then doing a careful audit to fix the inevitable errors, since some of these run to hundreds of entries.

But then I figured out how to pull the data directly from the statement, slap it into Excel, format it, and then use a few formulae to pull the new info into the old spreadsheet. The great advantages are that it uses the original data directly, so there are no entry errors to deal with. Also, the second pass just involves pulling out a copy of the original statement data and the target input by formula data, putting them side-by-side, using a few more formulae to spot errors due to differences in how names were spelled, making a few tweaks, and reconciling the thing a lot faster than before.

Pre-paperless innovation, a big statement could take me a few days (interspersed among all the other office duties) to finally balance it to zero. New method? I made it through four statements in one day, each one entered and balanced in two steps instead of about six.

The thing is, this isn’t really all that difficult, and anybody could learn to do it. One of the big helps in this process were the Excel functions INDEX and MATCH (which I’ll explain in a future post), and it took all of a two minute Google search and then reading the first good link to figure out how they worked in order to figure out how to do what I needed to do. What I needed to do: Compare the client’s first and last names and insurance plan type in one table in order to pull out a specific number from another. And this is literally all you need to do to learn how to make your office tools work for you.

Try it. Google “change the default font in Word,” or “turn off auto-correct in Word,” or “alternatives to VLOOKUP in Excel,” or any one of a number of other topics, and you’ll find the answers. It really isn’t any more complicated than reading a cookbook and making food from a recipe. Really, it’s not.

Using computers made easy

There is too much of an aura of mystery put around computers, but trust me, they are more simple than you think — and I’ve been working with them since… well, since most of my life, because I was just born at the right time. All that they ultimately understand are “Off” and “On.” “Zero” and “One.” Those are the only two states a switch can be in, that is what digital computing is, and it only gets two digits.

Maybe someday I’ll write a bit about how the electrons inside do what they do and turn it into intelligible information for humans, but for now suffice it to say that they pretty much only do a few things — input, store, and retrieve data through various devices; allow you to manipulate that data with various software programs; then allow you to re-store and output that data, again through various devices.

The nice thing about graphical user interfaces (GUIs) like Windows, OS, Android, Linux, etc., is that they tend to standardize across programs written in them, so that every program tends to use the same convention for the basics: Open, Close, Save, Save As, Print. Programs of the same type will also follow the same conventions — Format, Spellcheck, View, Layout, etc., for text editors; Image, Layer, Select, Filter, Effect, etc., for graphic design programs; Inset, Formulas, Calculate, Data, Sort, etc., for spreadsheets.

Finally, almost every program will have a Help function, whether it’s invoked via the F1 key, or by some combination of a control/alt/Apple/shift-click plus H move. Help menus, when well-done are great and, guess what? They were basically the hyperlinked documents we’ve all come to know and love via the internet, except that they’ve been around since long before the internet. Most of the time, they’ll answer the question but, if they don’t, you can always google it, as I mentioned above.

How to create job security

You may be wondering, “Okay, if my job is just doing data entry, or writing emails, or accounting, or… etc., why do I need to know so much about the software when no one else does?”

Simple. As the economy moves more and more toward service, knowledge becomes value. If you’re the one in the office who gets a reputation as the computer expert, you will get noticed, and you will save a higher-up’s cookies more than once. You’ll also earn the attention and gratitude of your co-workers if you become the one they come to when “I did something and something happened and I don’t know how to fix it,” and you know immediately upon looking that they accidentally, say, set Word to Web Layout instead of Print Layout. It’s called creating job security by taking that extra simple step that too many people refuse to. Try it!

Image Source: NASA, Apollo 11.

Why astrology is bunk

I know way too many otherwise intelligent adults who believe in astrology, and it really grinds my gears, especially right now, because I’m seeing 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

James Randi, fraud debunker extraordinaire, does 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.

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 what created the Moon. So probably ultimately not a bad thing… except for anything living here at the time.

5 things space exploration brought back down to Earth

Recently, I wrote about how a thing as terrible as World War I still gave us some actual benefits, like improvements in plastic surgery, along with influencing art in the 20th century. Now, I’d like to cover something much more positive: five of the tangible, down-to-earth benefits that NASA’s space programs, including the Apollo program to the Moon, have given us.

I’m doing so because I happened across another one of those ignorant comments on the internet along the lines of, “What did going to the Moon ever really get us except a couple of bags of rocks?” That’s kind of like asking, “What did Columbus sailing to America ever really get us?” The answer to that should be obvious, although NASA did it with a lot fewer deaths and exactly zero genocide.

All of those Apollo-era deaths came with the first manned attempt, Apollo 1, which was destroyed by a cabin fire a month before its actual launch date during a test on the pad on January 27, 1967, killing all three astronauts aboard. As a consequence, missions 2 through 6 were unmanned. Apollo 7 tested docking maneuvers for the Apollo Crew and Service Modules, to see if this crucial step would work, and Apollo 8 was the first to achieve lunar orbit, circling our satellite ten times before returning to Earth. Apollo 9 tested the crucial Lunar Module, responsible for getting the first humans onto and off of the Moon, and Apollo 10 was a “dress rehearsal,” which went through all of the steps except the actual landing.

Apollo 11, of course, was the famous “one small step” mission, and after that we only flew six more times to the Moon, all of them meant to do the same as 11, but only the other one that’s most people remember, Apollo 13, is famous for failing to make it there.

I think the most remarkable part is that we managed to land on the Moon only two-and-a-half years after that disastrous first effort, and then carried out five successful missions in the three-and-a-half-years after that. What’s probably less well-known is that three more missions were cancelled between Apollo 13 and 14, but still with the higher numbers 18 through 20 because their original launch dates were not until about two years later.

Yes, why they just didn’t skip from to 17 so that the numbering worked out to 20 is a mystery.

Anyway, the point is that getting to the Moon involved a lot of really intelligent people solving a lot of tricky problems in a very short time, and as a result of it, a ton of beneficial tech came out of it. Some of this fed into or came from Apollo directly, while other tech was created or refined in successive programs, like Skylab, and  the Space Shuttle.

Here are my five favorites out of the over 6,300 technologies that NASA made great advances in on our journeys off of our home planet.

CAT scanner: Not actually an invention of NASA’s per se — that credit goes to British physicists Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Cormack. However, the device did use NASA’s digital imaging technology in order to work, and this had been developed by JPL for NASA in order to enhance images taken on the moon. Since neither CAT scanners nor MRIs use visible light to capture images, the data they collect needs to be processed somehow and this is where digital imaging comes in.

A CAT scanner basically uses a revolving X-ray tube to repeatedly circle the patient and create a profile of data taken at various depths and angles, and this is what the computer puts together. The MRI is far safer (as long as you don’t get metal too close to it.)

This is because instead of X-rays an MRI machine works by using a magnetic field to cause the protons in every water molecule in your body to align, then pulsing a radio frequency through, which unbalances the proton alignment. When the radio frequency is then turned off, the protons realign. The detectors sense how long it takes protons in various places to do this, which tells them what kind of tissue they’re in. Once again, that old NASA technology takes all of this data and turns it into images that can be understood by looking at them. Pretty nifty, huh?

Invisible braces: You may remember this iconic moment from Star Trek IV: The One with the Whales, in which Scotty shares the secret of “transparent aluminum” with humans of 1986.

However, NASA actually developed transparent polycrystalline alumina long before that film came out and, although TPA is not a metal, but a ceramic, it contributed to advances in creating nearly invisible braces. (Note that modern invisible braces, like Invisalign, are not made of ceramic.)

But the important point to note is that NASA managed to take a normally opaque substance and allow it to transmit light while still maintaining its properties. And why did NASA need transparent ceramic? Easy. That stuff is really heat-resistant, and if you have sensors that need to see light while you’re dumping a spacecraft back into the atmosphere, well, there you go. Un-melting windows and antennae, and so on. This was also a spin-off of heat-seeking missile technology.

Joystick: You can be forgiven for thinking that computer joysticks were invented in the early 1980s by ATARI or (if you really know your gaming history) by ATARI in the early 1970s. The first home video game, Pong, was actually created in 1958, but the humble joystick itself goes back to as far as aviation does, since that’s been the term for the controller on airplanes since before World War I. Why is it called a “joystick?” We really don’t know, despite attempts at creating folk etymology after the fact.

However, those early joysticks were strictly analogue — they were connected mechanically to the flaps and rudders that they controlled. The first big innovation came thirty-two years before Pong, when joysticks went electric. Patented in 1926, it was dreamt up by C. B. Mirick at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Its purpose was also controlling airplanes.

So this is yet another incidence of something that NASA didn’t invent, but boy howdy did they improv upon it — an absolute necessity when you think about it. For NASA, joysticks were used to land craft on the Moon and dock them with each other in orbit, so precision was absolutely necessary, especially when trying to touch down on a rocky satellite after descending through no atmosphere at orbital speed, which can be in the vicinity of 2,300 mph (about 3,700 km/h) at around a hundred kilometers up. They aren’t much to look at by modern design standards, but one of them sold at auction a few years back for over half a million dollars.

It gets even trickier when you need to dock two craft moving at similar speed, and in the modern day, we’re doing it in Earth orbit. The International Space Station is zipping along at a brisk 17,150 mph, or 27,600 km/h. That’s fast.

The early NASA innovations involved adding rotational control in addition to the usual X and Y axes, and later on they went digital and all kinds of crazy in refining the devices to have lots of buttons and be more like the controllers we know and love today. So next time you’re shredding it your favorite PC or Xbox game with your $160 Razer Wolverine Ultimate Chroma Controller, thank the rocket scientists at NASA. Sure, it doesn’t have a joystick in the traditional sense, but this is the future that space built, so we don’t need one!

Smoke detector: This is another device that NASA didn’t invent, but which they certainly refined and improved. While their predecessors, automatic fire alarms, date back to the 19th century, the first model relied on heat detection only. The problem with this, though, is that you don’t get heat until the fire is already burning, and the main cause of death in house fires isn’t the flames. It’s smoke inhalation. The version patented by George Andrew Darby in England in the 1890s did account for some smoke, but it wasn’t until the 1930s the concept of using ionization to detect smoke happened. Still, these devices were incredibly expensive, so only really available to corporations and governments. But isn’t that how all technological progress goes?

It wasn’t until NASA teamed with Honeywell (a common partner) in the 1970s that they managed to bring down the size and cost of these devices, as well as make them battery-operated. More recent experiments on ISS have helped scientists to figure out how to refine the sensitivity of smoke detectors, so that it doesn’t go off when your teenage boy goes crazy with the AXE body spray or when there’s a little fat-splash back into the metal roaster from the meat you’re cooking in the oven. Both are annoying, but at least the latter does have a positive outcome.

Water filter: Although it turns out that water is common in space, with comets being lousy with the stuff in the form of ice, and water-ice confirmed on the Moon and subsurface liquid water on Mars, as well as countless other places, we don’t have easy access to it, so until we establish water mining operations off-Earth, we need to bring it with us. Here’s the trick, though: water is heavy. A liter weighs a kilogram and a gallon weighs a little over eight pounds. There’s really no valid recommendation on how much water a person should drink in a day, but if we allow for two liters per day per person, with a seven person crew on the ISS, that’s fourteen kilos, or 31 pounds of extra weight per day. At current SpaceX launch rates, that can range from $23,000 to $38,000 per daily supply of water, but given a realistic launch schedule of every six weeks, that works out to around $1 to $1.5 million per launch just for the water. That six-week supply is also eating up 588 kilos of payload.

And remember: This is just for a station that’s in Earth orbit. For longer missions, the cost of getting water to them is going to get ridiculously expensive fast — and remember, too, that SpaceX costs are relatively recent. In 1981, the cost per kilogram was $85,216, although the Space Shuttles cargo capacity was slightly more than the Falcon Light.

So what’s the solution? Originally, it was just making sure all of the water was purified, leading to the Microbial Check Valve, which eventually filtered out (pun intended) to municipal water systems and dental offices. But to really solve the water problem, NASA is moving to recycling everything. And why not? Our bodies tend to excrete a lot of the water we drink when we’re done with it. Although it’s a myth that urine is sterile, it is possible to purify it to reclaim the water in it, and NASA has done just that. However, they really shouldn’t use the method shown in the satirical WW II film Catch-22

So it’s absolutely not true that the space program has given us nothing, and this list of five items barely scratches the surface. Once what we learn up there comes back down to Earth, it can improve all of our lives, from people living in the poorest remote villages on the planet to those living in splendor in the richest cities.

If you don’t believe that, here’s a question. How many articles of clothing that are NASA spin-offs are you wearing now, or do you wear on a regular basis? You’d be surprised.