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Friday, January 28, 2011


I'm going to be in the air or on the road for most of the next several days. This Android phone will be my only access to this blog until next Tuesday. Expect shorter posts without lots of photos and graphics, and probably more typos since I can't actually see all of the screen. If it works out, I'm going to start writing about SETI, and things like the Drake Equation, the Fermi Paradox and the Great Silence. The more we learn about abiogenesis and astronomy, the more ubiquitous life in the universe seems likely to be. But life, even intelligent life, does not equate to life which broadcasts radio signals. By this definition of "intelligence" there was no intelligent life on earth until Marconi, and Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh are more intelligent than Isaac Newton. And fireflies, by communicating with deliberately phased electromagnetic pulses, were intelligent millions of years before Marconi.

Arguably there are many intelligent species on earth, from primates and cetaceans to corvids and octopi. But of the millions of species on earth past and present, only humans have developed tools more sophisticated than the digging-stick. One less species on earth, and earth would not be broadcasting its intelligence into the cosmos, in the form of Knight Rider reruns.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

White and Rustling Sail

Last Friday NASA's NanoSail D unfurled her sails in low orbit, NASA's first serious foray into solar sailing. NanoSail D is small, only 10' on a side. But her mirrored sails make her easily visible from earth. NASA is also using this mission to enlist the help of citizen scientists from the HAM radio community and the space photography community for telemetry and tracking. This transition to a paradigm of backyard astronautics is crucial if we ever want space travel to be available to anyone other than governments.

The fastest rocket ever built was the New Horizons spacecraft, launched in January 2006 to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt at a velocity of 23 km/sec. At this speed it will arrive at Pluto in July 2015.

Solar sail technology, in addition to almost zero fuel consumption, allows a spacecraft to travel at around 140 km/sec (87 miles/sec). That's about from Seattle to Mount St. Helens in one second. Or earth to Jupiter in about 2 1/2 months. Which is faster than any object ever made by humankind. It would still take more than 2000 years to reach Alpha Centauri, but for interplanetary travel solar sailing is simple, fast and oh-so-efficient.

NanoSail D has two main predecessors, Japan's IKAROS (launched last year) and (Carl Sagan's widow) Ann Druyan's Cosmos-1, which was launched into low orbit using a navy-surplus Russian Delta III ballistic missile submarine. Which in my mind is one of the best swords-to-ploughshares conversions ever. Sadly, the Volna rockets all failed, and none of the Cosmos craft were ever successfully inserted into space. But the concepts were sound, and now we have NanoSail D.

Looking forward to seeing how far we go with this technology. For travel within our solar system, the potential is huge.

And if you hope to one day pilot ships to the other planets, you should probably be getting your Auxiliary Sail endorsement now.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


The latest astronomical furor clogging up the intertubes is that the star Betelgeuse is gonna explode, just like the Death Star did at the end of two of the Star Wars movies. And it's going to happen this year, and then we're going to have two suns just like on Tatooine! Then there will be a gamma ray POCKYCLIPS!!!!
Oh Nohs!!
Oh, and if you say "Betelgeuse" three times fast the star itself will materialize in your living room. Or at least, Michael Keaton will, which is almost as bad.

Deep. Cleansing. Breaths.

This is the problem that occurs when someone with a PhD in Astronomy talks to someone with a BA in Journalism without an interpreter.

Allow me to be C3P0.

Yes, Betelgeuse is going to go supernova, soon. "Soon", as an astronomer means it, meaning some time within the next million years or so. Actually in this case, likely within the next 10,000 years or so.

Yes, it is possible that this could, conceivably, occur some time within our own lifetimes. We simply don't know enough about stellar evolution to be able to predict that one way or another. It is even possible (more than 60 times more possible, in fact, than the possibility that it will occur in anyone's lifetime who is reading this) that Betelgeuse has already gone supernova, and we just don't know it yet because that information is creeping toward us at the speed of light. Betelgeuse is somewhere between 500 and 800 lightyears away, so if it happened to go supernova any time between the signing of the Magna Carta and the time I purchased my coffee this morning, we won't know about it for a while.

Yes, there is such a thing as a "Gamma-Ray Burster".  When an especially massive red giant star goes supernova, a directional stream of gamma rays is emitted which, if a nearby star and its planets happened to be in the stream, would basically irradiate all life on the planet's surface to death. This may have happened in earth's pre-history; some of earth's mass extinction events may have been due to GRBs. Yes, Betelgeuse may be massive enough to cause a Gamma Ray Burst. But its rotational axis is not pointed toward our solar system, and it is again between 500 and 800 light years away, so it simply isn't going to cause enough radiation to seriously impact life on earth. Our next mass-extinction event on earth will probably be boring old global warming.

Yes, when Betelgeuse goes supernova, it will be the second brightest object in our sky after the sun. We will be able to see it in broad daylight, at least for a couple of weeks. Which will be really cool. But we probably won't be around to see it.

If Michael Keaton happens to go supernova, well, then we're all toast.

Test post from Android Phone

If you can read this post, Strait of Magellan has just successfully entered the 21st century.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Future is Ours to See

This is a blog about science. Sometimes it focuses on practical applications of science, particularly in the maritime industry. Sometimes it focuses directly on new (or old but interesting) discoveries in astronomy, physics or meteorology, and sometimes I'll even branch out from these if I see something I find interesting. For the most part I try to stay away from the "soft sciences" (usually defined as any discipline other than your own, but with no judgment implied I specifically mean things like psychology and sociology which don't lend themselves as well to the methodological rigor of the physics lab).

And unequivocally I avoid discussion of pseudosciences, except occasionally in the negative. With one singular exception I have avoided anything even remotely metaphysical here. If someone reports seeing something unusual in the sky I may report that, but without much more solid evidence than I've seen to date I'm not going to report that as space aliens.

It isn't that I'm not occasionally interested in such things. It's not even that I refuse to accept the possibility of such things; Bigfoot may prove to be the 21st century's coelacanth (possible; there's no reason to assume that humans are the only primate species in North America), and UFOs may turn out to be alien space ships (rather less likely, I think). The Royal Society once dismissed reports of meteorites based on the understanding that "there are no rocks in the sky, therefore rocks do not fall out of the sky". I get that. But I don't blog here about things currently considered pseudoscience, first because this is a science blog, and second because there are quite enough really cool things within the realm of the hard sciences to fill a blog.

I have and will continue to discuss SETL,  SETI, and things like the Drake Equation, the Great Silence and the Fermi Paradox, because they are topical to my blog and relevant to most fields of astronomy. My next "series" will probably be about SETI. SETI is weird, but SETI is science. It belongs here.

What follows is also science. It belongs here, too.

Dr Daryl Bem, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, has done something for the realm of ESP research which is going to revolutionize nearly everything we thought we understood about the way the world works. Dr Bem is a psychologist, not a physicist, so he is perhaps to be forgiven for not immediately recognizing some of the more unsettling implications of his work. I had planned to wait and see how the mainstream media was covering his research before posting about it, but they don't seem to be covering it at all. So, maybe you're hearing about his research here first.    
Dr. Daryl Bem

So, here's what Dr Bem did. He recognized the fact that in the field of Psi research, even extraordinary evidence would not suffice to support an extraordinary claim. No amount of evidence for telepathy would matter, it is already established that information can be transmitted invisibly from one mind to another. Part of this very post was written and transmitted to my computer on an Android phone (thanks, Santa!). Similarly, for a mind to influence matter invisibly at a distance has no special merit, we use remote controls all the time. Similarly with remote viewing. All of the "talents" ascribed to Psi could be accomplished with simple radio waves.

Except for one. The one thing radio waves cannot do is relay information from the future to the present. To prove that one could receive information "psychically" from the future would prove that something extraordinary was indeed happening. To do so, in and of itself, would fundamentally change the way we understood the world around us, forever.

But Bem didn't stop there. He realized that for the new knowledge to become widely accepted, the experiments to prove the new knowledge had to be simple enough to be reproducible not just by a major research facility, but by any undergrad at any community college with access to no more resources than a laptop computer. It would not suffice for the knowledge to be demonstrable by scientists cloistered in a laboratory. It needed to be demonstrable by anyone who had a few minutes to demonstrate it.

And, the demonstration could not be ambiguous. Some hundredths of a percent deviation over statistical norms when performed by some rare talent would not do; the numbers had to be big and unambiguous and reproducible no matter who was being tested. Bem did this. In each of his experiments his subjects scored consistently 3% above random chance. This is not a statistical anomaly. This is solid evidence.

Bem's methods are going to be controversial. His main field of study is human sexuality, and he realized that humans would react much more strongly to sexual imagery than to deliberately neutral imagery such as the Zener cards pioneered at the Rhine Institute and other parapsychological research facilities.
Zener cards at the Rhine Institute

But his results are striking, and some of the implications of his results are mind-bending. Not only did he establish that the human mind can receive information from the future as well as from the past, but that the human mind can actually learn new information in the future and apply that information in the present. Meaning, you can study for a test after taking the test and still improve your test score.

Chew on that one for a bit.

Daryl Bem's research has been thoroughly peer reviewed and is already demonstrating its reproducibility. By any standard, this is huge. Much of the scientific community is pooping its collective diaper over it at the moment, up to and including attempting to dismiss all of statistical analysis for all fields of science rather than accept that Bem's research could be correct. Otherwise reputable scientists are actually going on record and stating that "Bem's analysis is wrong because it proves precognition and precognition isn't real". Which gets us back to the Royal Society. Rocks do occasionally fall out of the sky. And apparently we do occasionally get information from the future.

Here is Dr Bem's paper, in its entirety.
Feeling the Future

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Because the best backup for GPS isn't always another GPS

Starting today and running through to the 22nd of February, the US Department of Defense will be running tests on the GPS system which will render the signal unreliable or unavailable for portions of the southeast Atlantic seaboard. 

In unrelated  news, the Starpath School of Navigation Celestial Navigation series begins on February 22nd, course details and registration are available here.



(USCG Local Notice to Mariners 02/2011)

933 millibar Low in Gulf of Alaska

That's not a typo. And it was stacked up against a 1038 mb High just to the north of it.  A 105 mb differential in that short of distance generated winds equivalent to a category 4 hurricane, by any other name.
I have a class starting in five minutes so I don't have time to post more than this right now, but if you click on the Cliff Mass Weather Blog he has a very good post on it.

UPDATE: To clarify, this happened earlier this week, not right now. But it's an excellent demonstration of an extra-tropical low, and the write-up at Cliff Mass is superb.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

NASA Challenges Students To Train Like An Astronaut

WASHINGTON -- NASA and 14 international space agencies are challenging students to complete a nutrition and fitness program known as "Mission X: Train Like an Astronaut." Approximately 3,700 students from more than 25 different cities worldwide are participating in this six-week pilot project.

NASA's Human Research Program is sponsoring the U.S. component of the international challenge that began Tuesday. Teams of students between eight and 12 years old will learn principles of healthy eating, exercise and compete for points by finishing training modules. Students also will practice scientific reasoning and teamwork while participating in hands-on training that targets strength, endurance, coordination, balance and spatial awareness. The exercises will involve the same types of skills astronauts learn during training for spaceflights.

"A part of the human space exploration mission is to inspire our youth to stay in school and master professions in the sciences and engineering fields to carry on this important work well into the 21st century," said Charles Lloyd, NASA's Human Research Program Education and Outreach Project manager. "We believe this starts with our youth in elementary school. We hope this international fitness challenge will assist them with that lifelong endeavor."

Mission X challenges students to be more physically active; increases awareness of the importance of lifelong health and conditioning; teaches students how fitness plays a vital role in human performance for exploration; and inspires and motivates students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Full Press Release

Sunday, January 16, 2011

NASA Research Finds 2010 Tied for Warmest Year on Record

I could have posted about how this, combined with the previous post, debunks the Pastafarian notion that a decrease in global piracy is the cause of global warming. But the truth of global piracy isn't at all humorous, and the truth of global warming is downright ugly. That 2010, which was a La NiƱa for the last six months or so, tied the hottest year on record is just about as bad as the news could get. The worse news, that no-one really wants to talk about, is that the last time atmospheric CO2 levels spiked this high it took some 20,000 years before global temperatures came back down to normal. So, I'm just not able to make any funny comments about this one. Even gallows humor doesn't seem appropriate.

NASA -- Global surface temperatures in 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest on record, according to an analysis released Wednesday by researchers at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York.

The two years differed by less than 0.018 degrees Fahrenheit. The difference is smaller than the uncertainty in comparing the temperatures of recent years, putting them into a statistical tie. In the new analysis, the next warmest years are 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2009, which are statistically tied for third warmest year. The GISS records begin in 1880.

The analysis found 2010 approximately 1.34 F warmer than the average global surface temperature from 1951 to 1980. To measure climate change, scientists look at long-term trends. The temperature trend, including data from 2010, shows the climate has warmed by approximately 0.36 F per decade since the late 1970s.

"If the warming trend continues, as is expected, if greenhouse gases continue to increase, the 2010 record will not stand for long," said James Hansen, the director of GISS.

Full Article

Piracy Map for 2010

Here is the map of piracy attacks for 2010 from the International Maritime Bureau. Click on the link below for actual interactive Google Map.

From the west coast of the US to Hawaii, the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia had no reported attacks at all, which is good. Africa, the Malacca Strait and the Caribbean, not so great. No surprises.
IMB Piracy Map 2010

IMB Live Piracy Report

Global warming blamed for melting the horizon as sun comes up 48 hours too soon in Greenland

I'd like to take a quick moment to debunk the idea at the bottom of this article, which I've seen in other places, that what was seen was actually a "sun dog".  A sun dog is a refraction of sunlight in cirrostratus ice crystals; there are typically two of them, which are brighter spots in a ring around the sun at the same altitude as the sun. Here are the failures of the "sun dog" argument:

1) The sun rose two days early, not one. If there had been a sun dog on the first day which was somehow mistaken for the sun, it would have almost certainly not been seen in the same location the second day. If the sun had risen on the 11th but not on the 12th, then a lowered horizon would be less likely. But that isn't what happened.

2) Sun dogs are always at the same apparent altitude as the sun, so if the sun dogs were above the horizon the sun was as well.
3) It's Greenland, sun dogs are hardly a rare occurrence there. Neither the residents of Ilulissat or the dozens of scientists who are already there studying other effects of global warming are likely to mistake sun dogs for the actual sun.

4) It's already been reported that Ilulissat suffered massive deglaciation earlier in 2010.

5) One mile south of Ilulissat (the direction the sun would briefly rise) are rocky hills about 100 meters high, which would constitute the visible horizon. The hills would appear about 2° (or 2 cm by kamal) higher than the mathematical horizon, so in order for the previous year's ice to obscure the sun (at 30' arc diameter) the ice the previous years would have had to have been 25 meters thicker than this year. That's a big loss of ice in one year, but consistent with the deglaciation event this past summer, and given a typical annual snowfall of 5 meters which never usually melts it's actually surprisingly small.

Conclusion: Yes the sun really did rise two days early, and yes it is probably the result of global warming. And yes, global warming is the direct result of humans burning fossil fuels. There's no politics to this, it's just physics. If one's politics do not happen to agree with simple physics, then it's probably time to turn off Fox News and pick up a science text book.

Sun Dogs in Fargo North Dakota
FIRST POST ( -- Scientists claim to have discovered more evidence of global warming after the sun rose two days early in Greenland, apparently because melting glaciers have lowered the horizon.
The polar night usually ends on January 13, but this year residents of Ilulissat, the third largest settlement in Greenland, were surprised to see dawn arrive just before 1pm on January 11 after six weeks of perpetual darkness.
Astronomers have ruled out the possibility of the early dawn being a result of a shift of the earth's axis and Thomas Posch, of the Institute for Astronomy of the University of Vienna, says a change in the horizon is "by far the most obvious explanation".
According to to the National Climatic Data Centre in North Carolina, 2010 was the warmest year on record and a separate report from the World Meteorology Organisation found that temperatures in Greenland were 3C above average last year.
However, not everyone accepts the explanation that melting glaciers are to blame. Message-boards are full of posts from conspiracy theorists blaming everything from chemtrails to a build-up of methane in the atmosphere or a shift in the earth's axis.
That last idea has been pooh-poohed by Wolfgang Lenhardt, director of the department of geophysics at the Central Institute for Meteorology in Vienna, who explains: "The data of the earth's axis and rotation are monitored continuously and meticulously and we would know if that had happened... there would have been an outcry around the world."
However he does suggest one other possible explanation - that ice crystals in the air had refracted the sun's light creating a mirage, known as a sun-dog, which appeared above the horizon.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Thunderstorms Make Antimatter

NASA-- Scientists using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected beams of antimatter produced above thunderstorms on Earth, a phenomenon never seen before.
Scientists think the antimatter particles were formed inside thunderstorms in a terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF) associated with lightning. It is estimated that about 500 TGFs occur daily worldwide, but most go undetected.
"These signals are the first direct evidence that thunderstorms make antimatter particle beams," said Michael Briggs, a member of Fermi's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). He presented the findings Monday, during a news briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle. Full Article

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Next Series of Captain's Courses

We'll be starting a new Zenith Maritime Academy USCG Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV, or Six Pac) Captain class next Monday, 17 January 2011 at 9am, at Windworks Sailing Center in Seattle. This is also the first part of the series for the Master 100 and Master 200 ton Captain licenses immediately following.

For more information and registration, contact:

Windworks Sailing Center

7001 Seaview Ave NW
Suite 110
Seattle WA 98117

206-784-9386, fax 206-784-2995

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Drill Close to Reaching 14-Million-Year-Old Antarctic Lake

There are some significant differences between Lake Vostok and Europa; for example, we have no evidence of hydrothermal vents at the bottom of Vostok. That said, whatever is found at the bottom of the Vostok ice glacier will have very interesting implications for the search for life on Europa and Enceladus.

WIRED UK-- Lake Vostok, which has been sealed off from the world for 14 million years, is about to be penetrated by a Russian drill bit.
The lake, which lies 2.5 miles below the icy surface of Antarctica, is unique in that it’s been completely isolated from the other 150 subglacial lakes on the continent for such a long time. It’s also oligotropic, meaning that it’s supersaturated with oxygen: Levels of the element are 50 times higher than those found in most typical freshwater lakes.
Since 1990, the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg in Russia has been drilling through the ice to reach the lake, but fears of contamination of the ecosystem in the lake have stopped the process multiple times, most notably in 1998 when the drills were turned off for almost eight years.

Now, the team has satisfied the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, which safeguards the continent’s environment, that it’s come up with a technique to sample the lake without contaminating it. Valery Lukin told New Scientist: “Once the lake is reached, the water pressure will push the working body and the drilling fluid upwards in the borehole, and then freeze again.” The next season, the team will bore into that frozen water to recover a sample whose contents can then be analysed.
The drill bit currently sits less than 328 feet above the lake. Once it reaches 65 to 98 feet, the mechanical drill bit will be replaced with a thermal lance that’s equipped with a camera.
Time is short, however. It’s possible that the drillers won’t be able to reach the water before the end of the current Antarctic summer , and they’ll need to wait another year before the process can continue.
When the sample can be recovered, however, it’s hoped that it’ll shed light on extremophiles — lifeforms that survive in extreme environments. Life in Lake Vostok would need adaptions to the oxygen-rich environment, which could include high concentrations of protective enzymes. The conditions in Lake Vostok are very similar to the conditions on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, so the new data could also strengthen the case for extraterrestrial life.
Finally, anything living in the lake will have evolved in relative isolation for about 14 million years, so it could offer a snapshot of conditions on earth long before humans evolved.
Full Story

A star to steer her by ('cuz my compass is effed)

I had planned to write a fairly in-depth post about the motion of the magnetic poles this evening, because it's one of my favorite topics to teach in the classroom. But as it turns out, there's already a really good article on the topic from NASA, so I'm going to link to that instead. The NASA article is linked at the very bottom. The short of it is this:

Illustration from NASA, so I didn't have to render it in MS Paint!

The earth is not just one solid sphere spinning around its axis, but two concentric solid spheres spinning around different independent axes. It is the innermost solid sphere, which is mostly iron, which generates our magnetic field. In the same way that the outer (mostly silicon) sphere functions as a spinning gyroscope as it revolves around the sun, the inner sphere does as well. And in the same way that the outer sphere, like all gyroscopes, has a tendency to wobble (process), so does the inner sphere, independently of the outer sphere. The net result of this is, the magnetic poles move relative to the surface of the silicon sphere, which is the part we live on.

It happens that for most of the 20th century, the poles moved at a fairly constant rate of about 10 km per year. However, for the past decade this rate has been steadily increasing; right now it is traveling northward at more than 55 km per year, and still accelerating. At the same time, the overall strength of the earth's magnetic field has decreased some 13% since 1900. Does all of this mean that the earth's magnetic poles are about to "flip"? Possibly, but there are other explanations as well. If it is, then the process will take hundreds of years, and the worst outcome is that during the time of magnetic minimum we may experience significantly more solar and cosmic radiation than normal, which may not go well for people of European descent but will otherwise hardly be catastrophic. The last magnetic field reversal happened 780,000 years ago, geologically speaking in the very recent past, our homo erectus ancestors survived it just fine.

Regardless of whether or not this proves to be the beginning of a field reversal, from a navigation standpoint it means that the magnetic variation printed on our charts is basically useless if the chart happens to be more than a year or so old.

For example, in the illustration above the variation (hikers call it "declination", but it's the same thing) is listed as 12° 15'W in 2004, with an annual increase of 2'. It's 2011 now, so 7 years times 2' is 14' added to the 2004 variation, or 12° 29'. Once upon a time, we actually figured variation this way. Now we can't, because that 2' per year increase is just a wild guess. This isn't trivial. As an experiment I took some ten-year-old charts with me the last time I went up the Inside Passage, and had I relied on the printed annual variation corrections my variation would have been wrong by 3° - 5°, more than plenty to run aground in the fog.

Moral of the story is, before leaving on a major trip, buy new charts, and get Print-on-Demand so the variation is as up to date as possible.

Here's the full article from NASA .

On the same topic, here's a more recent article from Scientific American .

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Shift in magnetic north requires runway relabeling

Scientists say the Earth's magnetic north pole is moving, so officials at Tampa International Airport are relabeling its main runway to reflect the change.
Airport officials closed the runway until Jan. 13 to repaint numeric designators and change taxiway signs.
The runway has been labeled on aviation charts as 18R/36L, indicating its location along the 180-degree approach from the north and the 360-degree approach from the south. It will become 19R/1L.
The change was required by the Federal Aviation Administration to account for a gradual shift of the Earth's magnetic pole at nearly 40 miles a year toward Russia. It's being caused by magnetic changes in the planet's core.
(That's the whole article, at least as it appeared in the Miami Herald)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Free Electronic Charting Program (With Free Charts!)

Wednesday I posted a link to a pretty good freeware astronomy program. Today I'm posting links to a navigation charting program which is not only free and fully functional, but it's open-source, so it's constantly being improved upon. It's called OpenCPN, and unlike many of the free "demo" chart plotting programs available online, OpenCPN can be fully interfaced with GPS, AIS and anything else with NMEA outputs.
The link is here: OpenCPN

This combined with all of the fully updated and updatable NOAA Office of Coast Survey charts (raster and vector) available for free download directly from NOAA (NOAA/OCS), and it's going to be pretty difficult to justify plunking down $1200 on a new Nobeltech package that doesn't do the same job as well.

Much coolness.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Astronomy Freeware

Since continually upgrading (or downgrading) operating systems have left some of the early and excellent astronomy programs coughing in the dust, it is nice to occasionally stumble upon a good, simple and functional planetarium program which actually runs on Vista or Windows 7.

This is Night Vision 2.2 from NVastro. Night Vision runs entirely in Java, so it doesn't matter what operating system you use. It is very reminiscent of the old DOS SkyGlobe; very stripped down, very easy to use, very functional. No fancy pictures, no Vangelis music, no space-ship view zooming around in space, no 3-D views of the solar system, no soothing voice-overs explaining to me what a "Planetary Nebula" might be. Just a simple and clean map of the sky. The Java script makes the sky pan somewhat clunkily but allows it to run on any platform which can handle Java. My only other complaint is that, like every other planetarium program written by and for astronomers, you can't select Sidereal Hour Angle instead of Right Ascension. But I have yet to find a program which allows you to use both; astronomers live in one world and navigators live in a different one. Astronomers want to know when a certain object will be visible above their horizon, so RA makes sense for them. As a navigator I don't care which objects I'm able to see at a given time so long as I can see two or three bright ones, and can correlate them to the earth's latitude and longitude, so SHA makes sense for me. It would be really nice if someone would develop a program which could handle either, but I'm not holding my breath. But for a free download which doesn't completely gobble up your hard drive, Night Vision is a really nice tool.

Here's the link: Night Vision

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Girl, 10, becomes youngest to discover supernova

CNN -- A 10-year-old Canadian girl will head back to school this month with a good case for some extra credit in science: She became the youngest person to discover a supernova during the holiday break.
Kathryn Aurora Gray of Fredericton, New Brunswick, spotted the exploding star, dubbed supernova 2010lt, on Monday from an image taken on New Year’s Eve by a telescope belonging to amateur astronomer David Lane in Stillwater Lake, Nova Scotia. The exploding star is in the galaxy UGC 3378 in the constellation of Camelopardalis.
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) says Kathryn is the youngest person ever to discover a supernova.
"I was very excited to find one. Especially this quick," Kathryn said of her discovery, according to a report in the Vancouver Sun. Kathryn began her search for a supernova after she learned last year that a 14-year-old has discovered one of the exploding stars, her father, amateur astronomer Paul Gray, told the Toronto Star.
Full Story

Monday, January 3, 2011

How many dead blackbirds do you have to see before you believe, Scully?

Preliminary autopsies on 17 of the up to 5,000 blackbirds that fell on this town indicate they died of blunt trauma to their organs, the state's top veterinarian told NBC News on Monday.
Their stomachs were empty, which rules out poison, Dr. George Badley said, and they died in midair, not on impact with the ground.

That evidence, and the fact that the red-winged blackbirds fly in close flocks, suggests they suffered some massive midair collision, he added. That lends weight to theories that they were startled by something.
Earlier Monday, the estimated number of dead birds was raised to between 4,000 and 5,000, up sharply from the initial estimate of 1,000.

Keith Stephens, a spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, provided the new numbers.

Residents of the small town of Beebe awoke Saturday to find thousands of dead blackbirds littering a 1.5-square-mile area. The birds inexplicably dropped dead, landing on homes, cars and lawns.
Violent weather rumbled over much of the state Friday, including a tornado that killed three people in Cincinnati, Ark. Lightning could have killed the birds directly or startled them to the point that they became confused. Hail also has been known to knock birds from the sky.
The director of Cornell University's ornithology lab in Ithaca, N.Y., said the most likely suspect is violent weather. It's probable that thousands of birds were asleep, roosting in a single tree, when a "washing machine-type thunderstorm" sucked them up into the air, disoriented them, and even fatally soaked and chilled them.

Full Story

Starpath School of Navigation classes in Seattle

There is still space available in each of these classes, but they are filling up quickly. Radar Navigation begins tomorrow evening! 

Starpath School of Navigation
2011 General Navigation Series 

at Windworks Sailing Center

Starpath courses are tailored toward the recreational mariner as well as the professional. They are designed to teach the principles of navigation in a clear and concise manner. They are not intended as "license prep" courses, but rather as training for actual navigation. 

All Starpath classes are Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 1800-2100. Testing time is not built into
the schedule.

Radar Navigation Jan 4 – Jan 6                                                                                   $135
A practical guide to safe, versatile and efficient use of small-craft radar, radar principles and operation,
navigation by range and bearing, use of EBL and VRM in navigation and collision avoidance,
identifying radar targets and interpreting their motions, and how to apply the Rules of the Road. Also,
how to interpret land masses seen of the radar. This course is guaranteed to increase the safety and
efficiency of your radar watch many fold and greatly reduce the anxiety of those encounters with
converging radar targets that cannot be seen visually.

Electronic Navigation Jan 11 – Jan 13                                                                           $85
Covers the best guidelines to safe and efficient use of GPS both independently and directly interfaced
with electronic charting software as a primary navigation system. Also covers use of electronic depth
sounding for bathymetric navigation.

Navigation Rules and Collision Avoidance Jan 18 – Jan 20                                         $95
Covers all aspects of the Rules of the Road, starting with the basics and ending with all you need to
safely navigate in accordance with the Rules and avoid a collision with another vessel. It is for power
and sail vessels, large and small, professional and recreational. The Rules are the same for “...every
description of water craft used as a means of transportation on the water”. We will discuss collision
avoidance with vessels held visually, as well as by radar alone in conditions of reduced visibility.
Special emphasis will be placed on the obligations of sailing vessels and small power-driven vessels
interacting with each other, and interacting with larger vessels operating in the traffic lanes.
Prerequisite: No prerequisite, but Radar Navigation class is strongly recommended.

Marine Weather Feb 1 – Feb 17                                                                                  $275
A plain-language, practical course for inland and ocean sailing, guaranteed to make your sailing safer
and more efficient. Combine your own observations of wind, sea, clouds and barometer to better
interpret the official forecasts obtained from radio, satellite or facsimile as well as make your own
forecast if you lose the official sources. Develop practical rules of thumb which contribute to sound
decision making at the dock and underway.

Starpath School of Navigation
2011 Celestial Navigation Series 

at Windworks Sailing Center

Basic Celestial Navigation Feb 22 - Mar 3                                                                  $195
Confidently use a marine sextant and chronometer to derive latitude by Local Apparent Noon and
Polaris, and precompute, shoot, compute and plot a three-star fix using Pub 249 Vol 1. This is the very
barest-bones minimum celestial navigation and ocean dead reckoning needed as an adjunct to GPS to
safely navigate an offshore passage.

Intermediate Celestial Navigation Mar 8 – Mar 17                                                    $205
Obtain and plot a celestial line of position of the sun, moon, planets and stars, using a marine sextant,
chronometer, Nautical Almanac and Pub 249 volumes 2 and 3. Plot a running fix of the sun, and
precompute sights of sun, moon, stars and planets using the 2102D Starfinder. Student will be familiar
with routine sight-averaging techniques necessary to utilize a plastic marine sextant.
Completion of this class along with Basic Celestial Navigation will prepare the student for most
Celestial Navigation exams, including US Sailing.
Prerequisite: Basic Celestial Navigation or equivalent.

Advanced Celestial Navigation Mar 22 – Mar 31                                                       $185
Obtain and plot celestial sights using a marine sextant and chronometer along with Pub 229, NAO
tables, the Kolbe Long-Term Almanac or a programmable scientific calculator. Navigate safely using
the smallest amount of publications, and without access to regularly updated almanac information (as
may be necessary for circumnavigating the globe).
Prerequisite: Basic and Intermediate Celestial Navigation or equivalent.

Emergency Celestial Navigation Apr 5 – Apr 14                                                         $225
Use the sun, moon, planets and stars to successfully navigate across an ocean without benefit of a
chronometer, sextant, almanac or sight-reduction tables. Many of the techniques covered will be based
on Polynesian celestial navigation principles. Also covered will be lunar methods of determining Universal Time (Greenwich Mean Time) at sea without a chronometer.
Prerequisite: Basic and Intermediate Celestial Navigation or equivalent. Advanced Celestial Navigation
or the equivalent is not required but is strongly recommended.

Register for Starpath courses at:

Windworks Sailing Center
7001 Seaview Avenue NW, Suite 110 Seattle, WA 98117, USA
Toll-free 877-223-1993 Tel (206) 784-9386 Fax (206)784-2995

God, Science, the Universe and Everything

How's that for a modest title?
As promised, a short talk on the nature of God and the universe we live in.

First, let me state up front that I am not going to weigh in on the subject of whether or not God actually exists, because 1) I don't know and 2) it really doesn't matter to me one way or the other. Either God exists and that's the way the universe is, or God doesn't exists and that's the way the universe is. Either way, I have no great stake in the matter and no ability to do anything about it. What I am going to weigh in on is the question of, if God does exist, what must that be, and what must that mean for human (and other) life on earth and elsewhere?

I'm going to look at "God" in three distinct contexts; that which created and maintains the universe, that which is the creator and destroyer of all life on Earth, and that which guides our own moral compass with which we navigate our lives. Whether these three contexts have any relationship to each other or in any way are describing the same thing is a matter for the philosophers and theologians; perhaps the simple act of naming these things "God" makes it so. I do not know, and again I have no stake in the matter.

Oh God, thou art so big, we're all really impressed down here

So, let's start with God as the Supreme Architect of the Universe, that force which created all that is. Arguably, anything less than that cannot really be considered to be God. If the "universe" turns out to be much bigger than our observable universe, as Gurzadyan and Penrose seem to have proven, then God would have to be the creator and maintainer of the entire multiverse as well. However vast the universe ultimately turns out to be, God, in order to be God, would need to be bigger/older/whatever than that.

For perspective, our earth is about 8000 miles in diameter. It orbits the sun at about 93,000,000 miles, give or take 3,000,000 miles. The sun's diameter is about 865,000 miles, or about 110 times that of the earth. The distance from the sun to the earth is one astronomical unit (AU). The outermost planet of our solar system, Neptune, orbits 30 AU from our sun. The nearest star to our sun, Proxima Centauri, is 27,1000 AU from the sun, or 4.2 light years away. Our Milky Way galaxy contains some 400,000,000,000 stars many if not most with planets orbiting them, and it is some 100,000 light years across. There are more than 80,000,000,000 galaxies in the observable universe which is some 92,000,000,000 light years across; the whole universe is many times greater than this, even if it turns out to be only a single universe. It is more likely that there are as many universes in the multiverse as there are stars in the Milky Way. And there may be structures of an even greater magnitude which we cannot yet conceive.

For God to be God, God must be God of all of this.
This God, which happens to be the God of Einstein and Spinoza and Hawking and all of the other Pantheists, does not give a tinker's damn about the petty sectarian squabbles of some primate species crawling on a rock spinning around a tiny yellow star in a backwater neighborhood of some modestly sized barred-spiral galaxy in the middle of mother effing nowhere. The petty foibles and aspirations of one individual of one species living on one world orbiting one of some 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe really cannot be that big of a concern to any entity or intelligence worthy of the name God. By this definition, any God that gives a sliver of a damn about you, or your species, or your world, or your galaxy, is not really God.

And, that's okay. I'm happy to get along in my life without direct assistance from the Grand Architect of the Universe, whatever that might be. It's a big universe, and I don't want to be a bother.

There is only one God, and He is a Sun God, Ra, Ra, Ra!

No that's not me, but it's a great pic!
For so long as humans have existed as a species, and probably long before then, we have recognized or intuited that all life on earth depends directly on our sun. Our sun lives and we live, our sun dies and we die; the sun as the ultimate giver and taker of all life on earth is easily demonstrable and incontrovertible. It is no accident, then, that as organisms living upon the earth we have come to venerate the sun as God. How the sun is portrayed in a spiritual context varies from culture to culture, sometimes male, sometimes female, gentle and benign in colder climates and sometimes vengeful and wrathful in hotter climates. God as the sun has many names throughout the world; Ra, Shakuru, Osiris, Amaterasu, Apollo, Quetzalcoatl, Jesus Christ, Surya, Lugh, Tai Yang Gong, Mithras, Sunna and many others. It's hard to think of a rational argument against venerating the source of all life on earth, by whatever name or image one likes to think of that.

And yes, the Moon also played a critical role in the origin of life on earth, and continues to play a critical role in sustaining it. So long as our species lives on earth, we will hopefully always venerate these lights as Gods, by any other name.

Your Own Personal Flying Spaghetti Monster

From astronomy to neuroscience...God also is that "entity", for want of something better to call it, which guides our daily lives. The fact that so many people from so many different cultures and religions have experienced this God in so many different guises, and also the fact that so many people from so many cultures and religions have not experienced it, leads me to believe that whatever this God is, it is simply a natural part of the human condition.

For sake of disclosure, I myself have had a near-death experience, when I was a teenager, and during that experience I encountered that which I consider to be God, in the sense of that presence which both guides me and by which I attempt steer my life. Subjectively, for me, God in this sense is very profoundly real, at least to the extent that the sun and the moon and the earth are real, and that the universe is real. My own consciousness is the only window I have with which to perceive the world. Through that window, I have glimpsed God. Whether what I glimpsed was actually an entity outside of my existence, or my own "higher power", or simply a natural result of brain chemistry under extreme stress, I neither know nor care. If God as I experience that steers me to make the world a better place I tend to try to follow that, and if God as I experience that tried to goad me into bombing a building with a Ryder truck full of fertilizer I would politely decline, and seek psychiatric attention.

Religion which soothes a child during the loss of their pet goldfish is good, religion which inspires people to burn other people at the stake is bad. It really isn't more complicated than that.

Many Mansions

There is only one universe, or perhaps there is only one multiverse, but regardless the universe for one is the universe for all. The same is true for the sun and moon; the sun I see is relatively (and relativistically) the same sun you see. Whatever name I choose to call that, whatever myths I choose to ascribe to that, my sun is no more or less "true" than anyone else's sun. My own personal Deity is true for me, it may resemble someone else's Deity, or it may not.

All of the world's religions are based on one or more of these three basic concepts of God. As such, they are equally true and equally untrue. If God is infinite, and we are finite, and all finite things are equally distant from any infinite thing, then no one is "closer to God" than anyone else, or anything else. I am no more or less Godly than Mother Teresa or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or a jelly-fish or a carrot. Neither are you.

I tend to think of God as a single jewel with many thousands of facets. Which facet you see most clearly depends entirely upon where you are standing as you look at the jewel. The fact that one facet does not look exactly like another facet is of no relevance, no single facet is superior or inferior to any other. Each of the world's religions is simply viewing a single facet of God. 

Mythology and Science

Nuit at the Beginning of the World
Myths are powerful and beautiful things. To impart wisdom through storytelling and fable lies at the very core of the human experience. It does not matter if the story was created by stone-age hunters or bronze-age herdsmen or space-age film-makers, the power of myth is the thread which sustains and inspires the human spirit and lifts it above the daily drudgery of gutting a sheep or driving a passenger ferry. Even when a myth was created to explain an unexplainable which has since been explained, myth continues to hold power as metaphor. I do not need my metaphors to be literally true in order for them to be useful. I also do not expect a bronze-age philosopher to have had a space-age understanding of the history or cosmology of the universe, nor do I need their understanding of the universe to be synoptic with my own in order to grasp the meaning of their stories.

As we develop better methods of observing the world around us, inevitably some of our myths will be found to be factually erroneous. The earth does not rest on the shoulders of a giant standing on a turtle, the human species was not created by mixing sand and mucus in a seashell, and the universe was not created in six solar days. That's okay, myths are not science textbooks.

Strait of Magellan, however, is a science blog. And so now I depart from the topic of religion on this blog. Really, it has no place here.

Brightest blessings, to all and sundry.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Discovery External Tank Repairs Begin Monday as Engineers Analyze Data

Repairs continue on the space shuttle Discovery. Only two, or possibly three if Congress is so inclined, missions remain for the space shuttle program. I understand that some people are sad to see this era come to and end, but Discovery first flew in 1984. I wouldn't trust driving a 27 year old car to Spokane, much less go into space in something that old. It is well past time to retire the remaining shuttle fleet. It is true that we don't have any NASA-labeled replacement to get US astronauts into low orbit, but between the Soyuz-TMA missions and the heterogeneous fleet of commercial spacecraft which will be ready for service later this year, service to the ISS and other low orbit destinations will continue uninterrupted.

I admit that I will miss the space shuttles. I was stationed at Canaveral during the 1980s, and I loved watching the shuttle launches. But it is time for them to be retired. We don't need to lose another seven astronauts for sake of nostalgia. 

NASA--Technicians working on space shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida are off for the New Year holiday weekend. On Monday, they'll begin repairs on three support beams, called stringers, that recently were detected to have small cracks on their tops.

Engineers at various NASA centers continue to analyze data from testing and X-ray type image scans collected during the past week of all 108 stringers on the outside of the external tank's ‪intertank section. The image scans showed four small cracks on three stringers on the opposite side of the tank from Discovery. Managers decided Thursday to have those cracks repaired in a similar fashion to repairs made on cracks on two stringers found after Discovery's Nov. 5 launch attempt.

The repair work is estimated to take 2–3 days. Any further work will be evaluated thoroughly during the week after additional data and analysis are reviewed.

Managers also continue to evaluate an option to perform known and practiced modifications on some stringers. Before breaking for the holiday, technicians reconfigured scaffolding to provide access for the modification work, should it be required. A decision may be made on that work as early as Monday.

The next available launch date for Discovery's STS-133 mission to the International Space Station remains Feb. 3 at the opening of a window that extends through Feb. 10.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Starting the year with a cosmic wimp-out

Happy New Year!

Yesterday I said I'd post my one-time only thing on religion and science today. But I've just gotten off the water, and have to be back on the water at 5:30 in the morning again. So, I'm going to postpone that post for another day or so in favor of being awake and alert to drive a boat tomorrow, and also in order to devote the time to properly discuss a topic as broad as the nature of God and the universe. 
Also, because a lot of people seemed to enjoy the recent series of posts on the habitability of other places in our solar system, I think I'm going to start a new series, maybe even tomorrow, about the current state of science regarding the search for both extraterrestrial life and extraterrestrial intelligence. Stay tuned; our good friends over at the SETI institute will be staying tuned as well.

Meanwhile, Seattle did one hell of a job with the fireworks display at the Space Needle last night!

Oidhche mhath, y'all.