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.

Sunday nibble #29: There and back again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forces of nature

If you want to truly be amazed by the wonders of the universe, the quickest way to do so is to learn about the science behind it.

And pardon the split infinitive in that paragraph, but it’s really not wrong in English, since it became a “rule” only after a very pedantic 19th century grammarian, John Comly, declared that it was wrong to do so — although neither he nor his contemporaries ever called it that. Unfortunately, he based this on the grammar and structure of Latin, to which that of English bears little resemblance.

That may seem like a digression, but it brings us back to one of the most famous modern split infinitives that still resonates throughout pop culture today: “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” and this brings us gracefully back to science and space.

That’s where we find the answer to the question “Where did we come from?” But what would you say exactly is the ultimate force that wound up directly creating each one of us?

One quick and easy answer is the Big Bang. This is the idea, derived from the observation that everything in the universe seems to be moving away from everything else, so that at one time everything must have been in the same place. That is, what became the entire universe was concentrated into a single point that then somehow exploded outward into, well, everything.

But the Big Bang itself did not instantly create stars and planets and galaxies. It was way too energetic for that. So energetic, in fact, that matter couldn’t even form in the immediate aftermath. Instead, everything that existed was an incredibly hot quantum foam of unbound quarks. Don’t let the words daunt you. The simple version is that elements are made up of atoms, and an atom is the smallest unit of any particular element — an atom of hydrogen, helium, carbon, iron, etc. Once you move to the subatomic particles that make up the atom, you lose any of the properties that make the element unique, most of which have to do with its atomic weight and the number of free electrons wrapped around it.

Those atoms in turn are made up of electrons that are sort of smeared out in a statistical cloud around a nucleus made up of at least one proton (hydrogen), and then working their way up through larger collections of protons (positively charged), an often but not always equal number of neutrons (no charge), and a number of electrons (negatively charged) that may or may not equal the number of protons.

Note that despite what you might have learned in school, an atom does not resemble a mini solar system in any particular way at all, with the electron “planets” neatly orbiting the “star” that is the nucleus. Instead, the electrons live in what are called orbitals and shells, but they have a lot more to do with energy levels and probable locations than they do with literal placement of discrete dots of energy.

Things get weird on this level, but they get weirder if you go one step down and look inside of the protons and neutrons. These particles themselves are made up of smaller particles that were named quarks by Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Man as a direct homage to James Joyce. The word comes from a line from Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake, which itself is about as weird and wonderful as the world of subatomic science. “Three quarks for muster mark…”

The only difference between a proton and a neutron is the configuration of quarks inside. I won’t get into it here except to say that if we call the quarks arbitrarily U and D, a proton has two U’s and one D, while a neutron has two D’s and one U.

And for the first few milliseconds after the Big Bang, the universe was an incredibly hot soup of all these U’s and D’s flying around, unable to connect to each other because the other theoretical particles that could have tied them together, gluons, couldn’t get a grip. The universe was also incredibly dark because photons couldn’t move through it.

Eventually, as things started to cool down, the quarks and gluons started to come together, creating protons and neutrons. The protons, in turn, started to hook up with free electrons to create hydrogen. (The neutrons, not so much at first, since when unbound they tend to not last a long time.) Eventually, the protons and neutrons did start to hook up and lure in electrons, creating helium. This is also when the universe became transparent, because now the photons could move through it freely.

But we still haven’t quite gotten to the force that created all of us just yet. It’s not the attractive force that pulled quarks and gluons together, nor is it the forces that bound electrons and protons. That’s because, given just those forces, the subatomic particles and atoms really wouldn’t have done much else. But once they reached the stage of matter — once there were elements with some appreciable (though tiny) mass to toss around, things changed.

Vast clouds of gas slowly started to fall into an inexorable dance as atoms of hydrogen found themselves pulled together, closer and closer, and tighter and tighter. The bigger the cloud became, the stronger the attraction until, eventually, a big enough cloud of hydrogen would suddenly collapse into itself so rapidly that the hydrogen atoms in the middle would slam together with such force that it would overcome the natural repulsion of the like-charged electron shells and push hard enough to force the nuclei together. And then you’d get… more helium, along with a gigantic release of energy.

And so, a star is born. A bunch of stars. A ton of stars, everywhere, and in great abundance, and with great energy. This is the first generation of stars in the universe and, to quote Bladerunner, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” These early stars were so energetic that they didn’t make it long, anf they managed to really squish things together. You see, after you turn hydrogen into helium, the same process turns helium into heavier elements, like lithium, carbon, neon, oxygen, and silicon. And then, once it starts to fuse atoms into iron, a funny thing happens. Suddenly, the process stops producing energy, the star collapses into itself, and then it goes boom, scattering those elements aback out into the universe.

This process will happen to stars that don’t burn as brightly, either. It will just take longer. The first stars lasted a few hundred million years. A star like our sun is probably good for about ten billion, and we’re only half way along.

But… have you figured out yet which force made these stars create elements and then explode and then create us, because that was the question: “What would you say exactly is the ultimate force that wound up directly creating each one of us?”

It’s the same force that pulled those hydrogen atoms together in order to create heavier elements and then make stars explode in order to blast those elements back out into the universe to create new stars and planets and us. It’s the same reason that we have not yet mastered doing nuclear fusion because we cannot control this force and don’t really know yet what creates it. It’s the same force that is keeping your butt in your chair this very moment.

It’s called gravity. Once the universe cooled down enough for matter to form — and hence mass — this most basic of laws took over, and anything that did have mass started to attract everything else with mass. That’s just how it works. And once enough mass got pulled together, it came together tightly enough to overcome any other forces in the universe.  Remember: atoms fused because the repulsive force of the negative charge of electrons was nowhere near strong enough to resist gravity, and neither was the nuclear force between protons and neutrons.

Let gravity grow strong enough, in fact, and it can mash matter so hard that it turns every proton in a star into a neutron which is surrounded by a surface cloud of every electron sort of in the same place, and this is called a neutron star. Squash it even harder, and you get a black hole, a very misunderstood (by lay people) object that nonetheless seems to actually be the anchor (or one of many) that holds most galaxies together.

Fun fact, though. If our sun suddenly turned into a black hole (unlikely because it’s not massive enough) the only effect on the Earth would be… nothing for about eight minutes, and then it would get very dark and cold, although we might also be fried to death by a burst of gamma radiation. But the one thing that would not happen is any of the planets suddenly getting sucked into it.

Funny thing about black holes. When they collapse like that and become one, their radius may change drastically, like from sun-sized to New York-sized, but their gravity doesn’t change at all.

But I do digress. Or maybe not. Circle back to the point of this story: The universal force that we still understand the least also happens to be the same damn force that created every single atom in every one of our bodies. Whether it has its own particle or vector, or whether it’s just an emergent property of space and time, is still anybody’s guess. But whichever turns out to be true, if you know some science, then the power of gravity is actually quite impressive.

Why astrology is bunk

This piece, which I first posted a year ago, continues to get constant traffic and I haven’t had a week go by that someone hasn’t given it a read. So in an effort to have a little bit of a summer vacation — and because something big is in the works — 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 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

Previously, 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.

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 on this day 270 years ago, 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 him 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.

Wednesday Wonders: Now, Voyager

+Wednesday’s theme will be science, a subject that excites me as much as history on Monday and language on Tuesday. Here’s the first installment of Wednesday Wonders — all about science.

Now, Voyager

Last week, NASA managed something pretty incredible. They managed to bring the Voyager 2 probe back online after a system glitch forced it to shut down. Basically, the craft was supposed to do a 360° roll in order to test its magnetometer.

When the maneuver didn’t happen (or right before it was going to), two separate, energy-intensive systems wound up running at the same time and the probe went into emergency shut-down to conserve energy, turning off all of its scientific instruments, in effect causing data transmission back to home to go silent.

The twin Voyager probes are already amazing enough. They were launched in 1977, with Voyager 2 actually lifting off sixteen days earlier. The reason for the backwards order at the start of the mission is that Voyager 1 was actually going to “get there first” as it were.

It was an ambitious project, taking advantage of planetary placement to use various gravitational slingshot maneuvers to allow the probes to visit all of the outer planets — Jupiter and Saturn for both probes, and Uranus and Neptune as well for Voyager 2.

Not included: Pluto, which was still considered a planet at the time. It was in a totally different part of the solar system. Also, by the time the probes got there in 1989, Pluto’s eccentric orbit had actually brought it closer to the Sun than Neptune a decade earlier, a place where it would remain until February 11, 1999. While NASA could have maneuvered Voyager 2 to visit Pluto, there was one small hitch. The necessary trajectory would have slammed it right into Neptune.

Space and force

Navigating space is a tricky thing, as it’s a very big place, and things don’t work like they do down on a solid planet. On Earth, we’re able to maneuver, whether on foot, in a wheeled vehicle, or an aircraft, because of friction and gravity. Friction and gravity conspire to hold you or your car down to the Earth. In the air, they conspire to create a sort of tug of war with the force of lift to keep a plane up there.

When you take a step forward, friction keeps your back foot in place, and the friction allows you to use your newly planted front foot to move ahead. Note that this is why it’s so hard to walk on ice. It’s a low-friction surface.

The same principle works with cars (which also don’t do well on ice) with the treads on the tires gripping the road to pull you forward or stop you when you hit the brakes — which also work with friction.

Turning a car works the same way, but with one important trick that was discovered early on. If both wheels on opposite sides are on the same axle, turning the wheels does not result in a smooth turn of the vehicle. The axles need to be independent for one simple reason. The outside wheel has to travel farther to make the same turn, meaning that it has to spin faster.

Faster spin, lower friction, vehicle turns. While the idea of a differential gear doing the same thing in other mechanisms dates back to the 1st century BCE, the idea of doing it in wheeled vehicles wasn’t patented until 1827. I won’t explain it in full here because others have done a better job, but suffice it to say that a differential is designed to transfer power from the engine to the wheels at a relative rate dependent upon which way they’re aimed in a very simple and elegant way.

Above the Earth, think of the air as the surface of the road and an airplane’s wings as the wheels. The differential action is provided by flaps which block airflow and slow the wing. So… if you want to turn right, you slow down the right wing by lifting the flaps, essentially accelerating the left wing around the plane, and vice versa for a left turn.

In space, no one can feel you turn

When it comes to space, throw out everything in the last six paragraphs, because you don’t get any kind of friction to use, and gravity only comes into play in certain situations. Bookmark for later, though, that gravity did play a really big part in navigating the Voyager probes.

So, because no friction, sorry, but dog-fights in space are not possible. Hell, spacecraft don’t even need wings at all. The only reason that the Space Shuttle had them was because it had to land in an atmosphere, and even then they were stubby and weird, and even NASA engineers dubbed the thing a flying brick.

Without friction, constant acceleration is not necessary. One push starts you moving, and you’ll just keep going until you get a push in the opposite direction or you slam into something — which is just a really big push in the opposite direction with more disastrous results.

Hell, this is Newton’s first law of motion in action. “Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion — in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.” Push an object out in the vacuum of space, and it will keep on going straight until such point that another force is impressed upon it.

Want to turn right or left? Then you need to fire some sort of thruster in the direction opposite to the one you want to turn — booster on the right to turn left, or on the left to turn right. Want to slow down? Then you need to fire that thruster forward.

Fun fact: there’s no such thing as deceleration. There’s only acceleration in the other direction.

Also, if you keep that rear thruster going, your craft is going to keep on accelerating, and over time, this can really add up. For example, Voyager 2 is currently traveling at 15.4 kilometers (9.57 miles) per second — meaning that for it to take a trip from L.A. to New York would take five minutes.

Far and away

At the moment, though, this probe is 11.5 billion miles away, which is as long as four million trips between L.A. and New York. It’s also just over 17 light hours away, meaning that a message to and response from takes one day and ten hours.

And you thought your S.O. was blowing you off when it took them twenty minutes to reply to your text. Please!

But consider that challenge. Not only is the target so far away, but NASA is aiming at an antenna only 3.66 meters (12 feet) in diameter, and one that’s moving away so fast. Now, granted, we’re not talking “dead on target” here because radio waves can spread out and be much bigger than the target. Still… it is an impressive feat.

The more impressive part, though? We’re talking about technology that is over forty years old and still functioning and, in fact, providing valuable data and going beyond its design specs. Can you point to one piece of tech that you own and still use that’s anywhere near that old? Hell, you’re probably not anywhere near that old, but did your parents or grandparents leave you any tech from the late 70s that you still use? Probably not unless you’re one of those people still inexplicably into vinyl (why?)

But NASA has a track record of making its stuff last well beyond its shelf-life. None of the Mars rovers were supposed to keep on going like they have, for example, but Opportunity, intended to only last 90 days, kept on going for fifteen years, and the NASA Mars probes that actually made it all seem to last longer than intended.

In the case of Voyager, the big limit is its power supply, provided by plutonium-238 in the form of plutonium oxide. The natural decay of this highly radioactive element generates heat, which is then used to drive a bi-metallic thermoelectric generator. At the beginning, it provided 470 Watts of 30 volt DC power, but as of 1997 this had fallen to 335 Watts.

It’s interesting to note NASA’s estimates from over 20 years ago: “As power continues to decrease, power loads on the spacecraft must also decrease. Current estimates (1998) are that increasingly limited instrument operations can be carried out at least until 2020. [Emphasis added].”

Nerds get it done.

Never underestimate the ability of highly motivated engineers to find workarounds, though, and we’ve probably got at least another five years in Voyager 2, if not more. How do they do it? The same way that you conserve your phone’s battery when you forgot your charger and you hit 15%: power save mode. By selectively turning stuff off — exactly the same way your phone’s power-saver mode does it by shutting down apps, going into dark mode, turning off fingerprint and face-scan recognition, and so on. All of the essential features are still there. Only the bells and whistles are gone.

And still, the durability of NASA stuff astounds. Even when they’ve turned off the heaters for various detectors, plunging them into very sub-zero temperatures, they have often continued to function way beyond the conditions they were designed and tested for.

NASA keeps getting better. Nineteen years after the Voyagers, New Horizons was launched, and it managed to reach Pluto’s orbit and famously photograph that not-a-planet object only 9½ years after lift-off — and with Pluto farther out — as opposed to Voyager’s 12 years.

Upward and onward, and that isn’t even touching upon the utter value of every bit of information that every one of these probes sends us. We may leave this planet in such bad shape that space will be the only way to save the human race, and NASA is paving the way in figuring out how to do that.

Pretty cool, huh?

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.