October 30, 2014

Review: From Here to Infinity by Martin Rees.

Out in June from Norton Books!

The early 20th century was a high time for science. As challenge after challenge was met head-on and the Age of Steam gave way to the vacuum tube and the unlocking of the energy of the atom, it seemed as if progress was unstoppable. Would we be living on Mars and commuting by pneumatic tube by 1999? [Read more...]

06.10.11: A Carl Sagan Day Marathon!

Carl with a Viking mock-up on the set of Cosmos. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

The recent passing of Apple CEO Steve Jobs reminded us of another luminary of our age who passed way too soon; planetary scientist and science visionary Carl Sagan died December 20, 1996 at the age of 62 after a long fight with the rare form of cancer known as myelodysplasia. Cancer sucks, and by all rights, Carl should be with us today. Hardly a day goes by as we explore the universe or get another postcard snapshot from some distant corner of our own solar system that we don’t stop and think; “I wonder what Carl would have thought about this?”

To this end, the Saturday nearest his birthday on November 9th has become the official sort of Carl Sagan Day as it will be this year on November 12th. To this end, we here at Astroguyz thought to ourselves; wouldn’t it be great to celebrate all things Carl with a Cosmos marathon? The entire series is up for viewing both on Hulu and YouTube:

In addition, we’ll be using the hashtags #CSDTweetup and #CarlSaganDay to provide running Twitter commentary throughout… the episodes run about an hour in length, and we’ll start an episode on the hour every hour starting 8:00 AM EST/1:00 PM UTC November 12th to get optimal time zone coverage. So join in, wear your best tweed jacket and turtle neck, take a drink every time Carl says “billions…” and/or celebrate the mind of a man that inspired so many in the wonder and skepticism of science!

11.05.11: Voyager: The Humanoids Where Here.

Decoding the disk; are you smarter than a humanoid? (Credit: NASA/JPL).

If we were to vanish from the cosmic scene tomorrow, what would be our most lasting impact? Would it be our monuments, our terrestrial relics, or our broadcasts of I Love Lucy and the Jerry Springer Show? Thankfully, researchers in the 1970’s designed a “message in a bottle” to be tossed out across the cosmic sea attached to the twin Voyager spacecraft. Launched in 1977, both spacecraft reconnoitered the outer planets before being flung on trajectories that will leave our solar system. [Read more...]

Sirius B and the Curious Case of the Dogon.

The ever-controversial star Sirius. (Photo by Author).

Every beginning astronomy student learns that Sirius is the brightest star in the sky. This brightness is apparent, as Sirius is a spectral type A1V star located relatively close to our solar system at about 8.6 light years away. Much myth and lore surrounds this star, but none is stranger that the mythology of the Dogon people. Incorporated into the mythos of these people that inhabit the plains of Mali is a bizarre tale of Sirius, which they call Sigi Tolo. They claim that the star has a small unseen companion in a 50 year orbit that they call Po Tolo. This companion star is tiny but dense, so dense that all the men in the world could not lift it. The mystery deepens as they also go on to claim that Jupiter has four large moons, and that Saturn has a ring “like that seen sometimes around the Moon, but different…” All of these claims are basically true. Sirius has a companion star, a white dwarf known as Sirius B discovered in 1862 by Alvan Graham Clark. This star is made up of degenerate matter, making it extremely dense, about 1×109 per kg/m^3. And the knowledge of Jupiter and Saturn has been around since Galileo first turned his crude telescope to the heavens…

The Dogon People…

(Credit: Martha de Jong Lantink’s Flickr photostream on a Creative Commons 2.0 License).

So, what’s going on here? Why would an isolated tribe have knowledge that technology only revealed to western eyes in the past few centuries? A quick search around the Internet of the Dogon and Sirius reveals no shortage of theories involving ancient alien contact. The modern pedigree of this tale can be traced back to a 1976 book by Robert Temple entitled The Sirius Mystery. Remember, the 1970’s was a time when Eric von Daniken and his Chariots of the Gods was in vogue, and archeologists were seeing space-helmeted aliens everywhere. Temple based much of his book on the writings of anthropologist Marcel Griaule, who spent time with the Dogon off and on from 1931 to 1956. And much of that particular legend comes from an interview with local Dogon wise man Ogotemmeli. You get the picture. Further research with the Dogon has revealed either no trace of the legend or discrepancies with the tale. For example, they also state that there is a third star in the Sirius system they call Emme ya Tolo, which is the opposite of Po Tolo in that it is both “big and light” but no other star has yet to have been found. Also, as with any sole source, it’s tough to say how much bias there may have been on the part of the recorder… it’s easy to lead a subject, even subconsciously, to the data that we might want to hear. In addition, some confusion exists on whether Ogotemmeli was referring to Sirius or the bright planet Venus in reciting the tale.

The orbit of Sirius B. (Adapted from Burnham’s Celestial Handbook).

In 1979, Carl Sagan proposed that the information might have been given to the Dogon by an external source, albeit a terrestrial one. Keep in mind, the legend coming to light in the 20th century wasn’t really giving us any new information about Sirius; psychics perform this feat all the time when they claim to have predicted events that have already happened. When we look at ancient myths and lore, we need to be mindful of the creativity of the human mind; after all, what would archaeologists thousands of years from now make of a Star Trek episode? That we somehow had warp drive and phaser technology? A true myth having some sort of predictive power would be far more compelling. Does this mean that the discovery of a red dwarf star around Sirius, as was spuriously reported in the 1990’s, would lend some credence to the tale? While interesting, I don’t necessarily believe so, as red/brown dwarf stars are quite common in the cosmos; for example, it’s not totally ruled out that our own sun may have a dim unseen companion!

Like white dwarfs, red dwarfs are common throughout the cosmos. (Credit: NASA/H. Bond).

What Sagan proposed is that the knowledge was passed on by a visiting explorer in the late 19th century, and incorporated into the Dogon mythos by the time Griaule did her interview. The image is compelling; an explorer eager to tell the “primitives” about the triumph of western science, imparting new information to the Dogon about their honored star. Keep in mind, another ancient African people, the Egyptians, based their calendar on the Sothic cycle and the helical rising of the star Sirius. Perhaps, said explorer had a telescope on hand to show them Jupiter and Saturn for good measure.

The original Dogon Sirius diagram. (Credit: Bad Archaeology).

But do any historical expeditions fit the bill? Well, there was in fact a total solar eclipse that passed over the region of modern day Mali on April 16th, 1893, and several expeditions were indeed in the area; these expeditions would have been well-equipped with astronomical gear and astronomy and curiosity about the heavens would have been on the forefront of everyone’s minds. And yes, Saturn had just passed opposition and Jupiter would have been an early evening target in the months leading up to that date.

Jupiter at dusk in April 1893. (Created by the Author in Starry Night).

And the diagram purported to be centuries old? Well, keep in mind that it only bears a passing resemblance to an elliptical orbit; it looks a lot like an egg, which symbolizes re-birth and is prevalent in the mythos of many cultures (witness the “Easter eggs” of western culture; a throwback to pure paganism!) The original diagram sketched out by Ogotemmeli shows several other curious objects within the egg; later commentators have edited them out making the case for Sirius B to seem more conclusive than it really is. And keep in mind that we see the orbit of a binary star system generally tipped to our line of sight between either edge-on and face on; it would relatively easy to find several “matches” to the Dogon diagram in the sky.

The total solar eclipse of 1893. (Credit: Fred Espenak, NASA/GSFC).

While I think the Dogon case is more interesting than most, I don’t find it compelling as a sign of ancient extra-terrestrial contact. Keep in mind, this is still giving us knowledge that we already knew; exacting knowledge, such as a chant that encoded how to build a functioning hyper-drive, for instance, would be much more inexplicable and compelling. The final fact often cited is that the Dogon believe in a heliocentric, or Sun-centered solar system, a fact that took us centuries of denial to realize. In this case, I believe that the Dogon should be recognized as astute observers of the sky; anyone can arrive at this conclusion as the Greeks initially did by merely studying the naked eye motions of the heavens and not allowing pre-conceived notions of how the world should be to cloud their judgment. All too often, we fail to give credit to the ingenuity of ancient cultures where credit is due. These people knew the sky far better than the average citizen does today and relied on it as a natural clock. Perhaps such intimate knowledge of peoples like the Dogon should be viewed for what it really is, rather than attributed as merely given to them from afar.

Review: Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.

Out from Basic Books!

Out from Basic Books!

  

   All too often these days, we’ve heard it said that America is in danger of losing its competitive edge in the world scientific arena. This is inevitably blamed on education, political agendas, or general apathy. A quick sound bite will usually then proceed that claims X percentage of Americans do not accept evolution, or the Big Bang, or some other scientific fact. [Read more...]

Review: Science Under Siege edited by Kendrick Frazier.

Out now from Prometheus Books!
Out now from Prometheus Books!
After centuries of progressive enlightenment, a sinister reversal is afoot. Ever since science has become an effective force for change, there have been those who either inadvertently or deliberately sought to reverse the benefits it has wrought to modern society. True, scientific development is not without its own set of problems as the paradigm shifts; such is our evolution into a more mindful, forward thinking species. But the detractors and exposures of “pseudo” or “anti” science seek to revert our hard won knowledge back to ignorance; at best, their failure represents a simple misinterpretation of the scientific method. But at its worst, their misguided ideology can cost lives… a look at the heavens’ gate mass suicide  or the current anti-vax  movement shows that. I sometimes wonder if our grandparents look down on us, woefully shaking their heads as we work to undo the hard won knowledge they accumulated for our own general well being… [Read more...]

Remembering Carl.

(Editor’s note: Some may think that this week’s big post and book review are redundant, because they both cover the same famed scientist. Faithful followers of this site will however recall that we’ve done the same for such similar greats in the past, most recently Robert Burnham Jr. We’d like to think that the book review out this Friday covers the life and accomplishments as told in the biography of the man, while this piece relates Carl’s influences, both universal and personal. Let Carl Sagan week at Astroguyz begin!)

Carl at the Very Large Array in New Mexico. (Credit: PBS/COSMOS).

Carl at the Very Large Array in New Mexico. (Credit: PBS/COSMOS).

Some of my greatest heroes are scientists. Frequently maligned by the public and the media, few before or since have been able to convey the awe and wonder in science as Carl Sagan. A planetary scientist by trade, he might also be properly remembered as the first true exo-biologist. Like so many others, I was first introduced to the true modus operandi of science not in school, but by his ground-breaking series Cosmos. Its still worth digging up, and free for viewing on Hulu.com! Over the years, I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed over and over again by countless scientists; Carl got me into science. I first learned what the idea of evolution by natural selection was from Cosmos; how easy it all seemed! In a time that the world was posed on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, Carl showed us another way; a future in a universe that could be just the beginning for mankind, if only we chose it to be so. [Read more...]

October 2009: Life in the AstroBlog-o-Sphere.

In Honor of Pumpkins Past...(Photo by Author).

In Honor of Pumpkins Past...(Photo by Author).

(Editor’s note: If case you haven’t noticed, we’re shaking things up here a bit at Astroguyz. Specifically, our news bits have gone to a daily affair, to allow for more nimble and timely coverage. It’s a swiftly changing world out there in the realm of space blogging, and Astroguyz is right there with you! Our monthly news round up will instead be a sneak peak at the month ahead, some bits old and some new. Read on…

Coming to an October Sky near you: This month, all telescopes will be turned on the south pole of the Moon on the 9th as the Delta Centaur upper stage known as LCROSS slams into the lunar surface. Will anything be visible? The only sure way to know is to look! The Harvest Full Moon, a rarity for October, arrives this month on the 4th. [Read more...]

A Martian Bigfoot? The Affinity for Illusions

Bigfoot?

Who is that amid the rocks? (All photos except noted credited to NASA/JPL).

Something strange is happening on the surface of Mars. The above image has circulated around the Internet the past few weeks. Taken from the Spirit rover, the panorama shows a vast, Martian landscape. The close up inset above appears to show a vague figure. What gives? Are there, perhaps, a tiny civilization of Bigfoots (Or is it Bigmen?) mocking our rovers? [Read more...]

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Demon Haunted World.

Carl Sagan stands as one of the great popularizers of modern science. Known best for the “Cosmos” PBS television series and companion book of the same name, “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” was perhaps his most vital work. [Read more...]