Galaxy Zoo

galaxyI want to let you know about a website that just launched.  It’s called Galaxy Zoo.

After you sign up, you go through a little training before you are presented with questions regarding the classification of galaxies.  No, computers are not yet at the point where they can reliably distinguish elliptical and spiral galaxies, viewed from any possible angle and with any number of irregularities.

It’s all good fun, and it helps advance galactic research.  “So, what did you do yesterday when it was raining outside?”  “I became a member of a research team taking images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to classify galaxy shapes so research can be done using the data.”  Wouldn’t you like that on your resumé?

What’s the matter?

We all learned that matter is anything that has mass and takes up space. Our teachers told us there are three states or phases of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. Some of us with cool high school teachers or college teaching assistants learned about another state: plasma. Then there were those of us who wanted a degree in physics who learned there were many more. Extremely low temperatures yield superfluids, supersolids, Fermionic condensates, and Bose-Einstein condensates. Particle accelerators give us quark-gluon plasmas. Stars hold degenerate matter, neutronium, and strange matter. And then there are a few states of matter associated with the instant after the Big Bang.

I found this article about a newly discovered form of matter.

MIT physicists create new form of matter. CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — MIT scientists have brought a supercool end to a heated race among physicists: They have become the first to create a new type of matter, a gas of atoms that shows high-temperature superfluidity.

It’s always mind-boggling, the things that happen at the extremes of temperature, size, time, speed, or distance. If one day we are able to harness these phenomena, our civilization will undergo a paradigm shift. Our lives will be forever changed in a qualitative way, rather than the incremental way that normal technological advancements tend to do.

For now, though, we can only watch these things from the window of the hovel we’re confined to. Taunting us, prodding us, these extreme behaviors educate us that our day to day experience on Earth is only a tiny subset of the complexity of the universe.

Discovery

Albert Einstein. “The process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder. “

An interesting quote.  Sure, discovery removes the shroud of the magical unknown and gives us the tools to understand and tame these processes. For me, though, reading about discoveries inspires me to wonder even more.  Wondering is exciting.  It’s what humans were made to do.  The dance of discovery between the mind and nature casts light on things that had been dark.  But with new illumination, comes new shadows.

Here are some recent discoveries that have given me a “wonder-rush.”

Scientists Scan Data From Saturn’s Moon (AP). AP – Saturn’s largest moon contains all the ingredients for life, but senior scientists studying data from a European probe ruled out the possibility Titan’s abundant methane stems from living organisms.

Those who follow this weblog know I’ve been eagerly anticipating this one. I can’t stop looking at the pictures and imagining what it’s like there. Yes, I’m quite clear on the fact that it’s deadly to life as we know it, but I’ve been imagining things like that ever since I read a book in grade school, Mission to Mercury (at least I think that was the title, I can’t find it on Amazon to make sure). With lakebed coastlines, flowing liquid methane rivers, soft “soil”, rains, winds, storms…yes, I know we have much less toxic versions of those things here. Why am I entranced by a sunset over the lake when I’ve seen hundreds of them before?   Continue reading Discovery

Keeping an open mind

The courts are hearing another complaint brought by parents.

Judge to Rule on Georgia Evolution Disclaimers (Reuters). Reuters – A public school board in Georgia violated the U.S. Constitution when it placed stickers that challenge the theory of evolution on biology textbooks two years ago, a lawyer for a group of parents said on Friday. [Yahoo! News: Science]

If you’re curious about what the stickers that “promote religious dogma” say, this is the text of the stickers: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

Evolution is the epitome of a scientific theory.  Why would anyone be up in arms about that?  Has evolution become the “new religion?”

On a completely unrelated note, don’t forget to watch the Leonids next week. This year should be a good one for this annual meteor shower!

The Leonid Meteor Shower 2004: Modest Peak Expected Nov. 16-19 (SPACE.com). SPACE.com – Next week brings us the return of the famous Leonid Meteor Shower, a meteor display that over the past several years has brought great anticipation and excitement to sky watchers around the world. [Yahoo! News: Science]

Followups & updates

Things are still very busy here. With first quarter winding down, I’m pleased by what I’ve been able to accomplish with my students this year. Time away from school has been divided between my software project, a couple of computer hobbies, and a narrow social life. As the holidays approach, I expect the latter to ramp up.

I’m also trying to work on exactly what I need to get my dad’s notebook computer to wirelessly connect to his dialup Internet service. He needs to not be tethered to a cord, and broadband is not available where he lives. All I’ve come across on the web have been vague references to certain wireless routers with COM ports to hook up with certain external modems. All theory, no concrete brands and models. If you know something about this, please drop me a line.

Cassini continues to make fascinating observations of Saturn. Here’s one of many such stories.

Saturn’s Perfect Storms (Astrobiology Magazine) – Saturn is the windiest planet in the solar system, which is one mystery of the ringed giant. Imagine not what qualifies as a terrestrial hurricane with category five status assigned beyond one hundred miles-per-hour. On Saturn the superstorms can produce a thousand mph wind.

I wrote my Rathergate entry immediately after Dan Rather “apologized” for running his political attack piece. Since then, CBS seems to want to proceed as if nothing happened. I’ve chosen a couple of slightly different viewpoints that have appeared since my first story.

All eyes are on Rather’s future (Variety). Variety – NEW YORK — The morning after Dan Rather admitted the biggest mistake of his career, he agreed to go on Larry King’s primetime show and talk about the worst crisis ever to strike a network news anchor.   Continue reading Followups & updates

Cassini and Huygens

Spacecraft Cassini Enters Saturn’s Orbit (AP). AP – The international Cassini spacecraft threaded a gap between two of Saturn’s dazzling rings late Wednesday and entered orbit around the giant planet, completing one of the mission’s most critical maneuvers more than 900 million miles from Earth. [Yahoo! News – Reader Ratings]

Over the next four years I’m looking forward to many exciting discoveries from the Cassini probe.  Cassini has already made observations that indicate to scientists that Saturn’s moon Phoebe is an ancient object formed at the beginning of the solar system like the Kuiper Belt objects, but, unlike them, Phoebe was captured by Saturn’s gravity rather than being swept out past the orbit of Pluto. Latest findings also reveal that the rotation of Saturn may be highly variable. Of course, I’ve always wondered how scientists could pin down the rotation period of a tiny ball of liquid hydrogen nested deep within a gigantic ball of gas.

Saturn’s moon Titan will get some special attention as Cassini will release the Huygens lander to take data from the surface. Scientists believe that the conditions on Titan represent those of the Earth of four and a half billion years ago.saturn

Aspirations

NASA Lags in Shuttle Patch Development (AP). AP – When space shuttle flights resume, the astronauts will have putty and other filler to repair cracks and small gashes in the wings, but they will not be able to patch a hole as big as the one that doomed Columbia, NASA said. [Yahoo! News – Reader Ratings]

I’m glad NASA is working on some ideas to reestablish our presence in space.  As I read the above, I thought again of those daring astronauts of STS-107 who were only 16 minutes from home.  What great aspirations they had to tackle such a dangerous job!

Here’s something only a very few of you know about me:  after the Columbia’s final flight, I was so inspired by those heroes as to obtain application materials for the Educator Astronaut program.  It seemed to make sense.  I’m an educator.  I have a degree in physics.  I have a background in astronomy.  I know could execute the assigned tasks aboard the space shuttle and be a good ambassador for NASA’s programs.  I could make a difference in the wake of the Columbia mission.

As I waited for the application materials to come in, I continued to consider the pros and cons of the career shift.  I came the the conclusion that it wouldn’t necessarily be a promotion.   Continue reading Aspirations

What is a planet?

Old news, but I’ve been following the debate. In astronomy circles, the discussion about what can and can not be called a planet has flared up again with the discovery of Sedna last fall. Pluto, discovered in 1930, has always been an oddity. When it was discovered, it was thought to be about the size of Mercury and followed Bode’s Law, so it deserved “planet status.”

It wasn’t until about 70 years later that some other solid objects like Pluto were discovered beyond the orbit of Neptune. Quaoar, with an orbit that is much like that of the other planets, and most recently Sedna are not as big as Pluto (which itself is much smaller than was thought at its discovery), but they are thought to have more in common with Pluto than Pluto does with the other planets in our solar system.   Continue reading What is a planet?