March 25, 2017

Welcome to the Anthropocene

The humans were here. (Photo by author)

Are we actually living in a new geological era?

Last month, the Anthropocene Working Group met in Oslo, Norway and made the tentative recommendation that we are now living in the Anthropocene Era, an age where humans are the predominant drivers of change on the planet. [Read more...]

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...]

2011: The Year in Science.

No matter what your field or discipline was, 2011 stands as an amazing year for the history books. Change and transition seems to be the watch-word as regimes have been overthrown, the US space program sits at a crossroads, and cultural and social change has taken place worldwide.
[Read more...]

Review: The Sun’s Heartbeat by Bob Berman.

Out from Little-Brown!

Think you know our nearest star? Think again… no other astronomical object influences our often mundane daily lives like our Sun. Think about it; the fuel in our cars, the energy in that Twinkie you had for “breakfast” (admit it) and the very power in the electrons that propel this blog can all be traced back the fusion force coming from our nearest star. As Bob Berman points out in his latest book, The Sun’s Heartbeat, and Other Stories from the Life of the Star that Powers out Planet, all Earthbound energy with the exception of nuclear fission can be traced back to our Sun. Fans of Astronomy magazine (which JUST finally joined the ranks of the digital, winning back at least one more subscriber!) will be familiar with Mr. Berman’s Dave Barry-meets-Carl Sagan style of writing from his monthly column. [Read more...]

21.04.11: Of Alien Flora and Maunder Minimums.

Sol picking up in activity… (Photo by Author).

Some fairly thought provoking science has been coming out of the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting being held this week in Llandudno, Wales. One of the most interesting talks was by Dr. Robert Forsyth of Imperial College concerning a comparison of the current solar lull and the famous Maunder minimum of 1645-1715. [Read more...]

21.01.11: Earth Observations set for Glory.

Simulation of Glory on station in Low Earth Orbit. (Credit: NASA).

Yesterday, NASA gave a sneak peek look at its latest tool in its arsenal in the quest for the understanding of global climate change. Glory arrived at Vandenberg Air force Base last week and is set for a pre-dawn launch atop a Taurus XL 3110 four-stage rocket on February 23rd. [Read more...]

AstroEvent: The Autumnal Equinox.

An African Sunset. (Credit: Art Explosion).
An African Sunset. (Credit: Art Explosion).

 

   The Balance between the forces of darkness and light are restored on Thursday in the form of the autumnal equinox. This is the point that the position of the Sun along the ecliptic intersects the equator, causing the length of daylight and darkness to be approximately equal from pole to pole. This can vary slightly in reality, owing to respective positions across time zones, the sun fast, and the equation of time. Keep in mind; like the Full or New Moon, the equinox is also a precise moment in time. From here on in until the December solstice, nights will get shorter in the northern hemisphere and days will get longer in the southern. Catch that sunrise or sunset today, and you are looking exactly at the point which is due east or due west of your locale, respectively. [Read more...]

Review: The Sun Kings by Stuart Clark

 

We here at Astroguyz love a good read about the “secret history” of astronomy… sure, everybody knows the exploits of Galileo and Copernicus, but how many have heard of the trials of 18th century British astronomer Richard Carrington? The Sun KingsThe Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began, by Stuart Clark  and out now by Princeton University Press is the fascinating tale of how the science of astrophysics and space weather truly began, and of how astronomers went from passively observing to truly analyzing data gleened from the universe around us. A truly rare and engaging breed of science history book, we were almost sad to finish it. It stands probably as the best read we’ve had since The Search for Planet Vulcan, and tells how these old-time astronomers operated.

The tale opens with the now infamous Halloween flares of 2003, some of the most powerful of the previous solar cycle. This represented the first time that some of our most cherished solar watch dogs, such as SOHO and the GONG  network were on hand to witness the full fury of the Sun. The shock was even felt by our vanguards elsewhere is the solar system, such as the Ulysses, Voyager 2, and Mars Odyssey spacecraft, even burning out the radiation detectors on the latter!

But as with much in science, our interpretation and understanding took a long and torturous road. The book then whisks the reader back to late 18th century England, a time when William Herschel proposed an astonishing idea; that the observed 11 year sunspot cycle was linked to Earthly agriculture and commerce. Specifically, he noted that the price of wheat tended to fluctuate in a corresponding period, with prices at their highest and supplies at their scarcest during the solar minimum and the opposite occurring at the solar max. Of course, this was seen as the delusion of an aging astronomer and roundly dismissed by his peers. Herschel had discovered Uranus and the infrared part of the spectrum, but this third contribution was largely overlooked.

Enter Richard Carrington. He stands as the kind of guy you’d always root for, an astronomer of ambition and insight whose personal life was marred by tragedy. He’s is now remembered mostly for being on hand and having the prescience to accurately record what he saw, but also made the right connections to what was going on around the environs of the Earth in late 1859.  It was interesting to note that during the height of the electromagnetic turbulence, a telegraph operator in Portland, Maine noted that his transmission system worked better utilizing solely the charge on the line, with the batteries disconnected!

Carrington’s prime ambition was to observe the Sun through the span of one complete solar cycle, but like many of us, his plan to pursue astronomy was continuously be-deviled by the pursuit of funding and that whole “personal life” thing.  Perhaps he needed a blog…

First, the death of his father left him running the family brewery. Not that the title of “Gentleman/ Brewer/ Astronomer” is a bad byline… but his romantic exploits turned sour as well, when his marriage to an under class woman turned into a love triangle that pulls him into trial and scandal. The whole affair reads like a bad Jane Austin novel… unfortunately,  the innocent Carrington took his life by overdose of chloral of hydrate mixed with alcohol shortly after the death of his wife Rosa.

As sad a fate as Carrington’s life was, his insight sparked a vigilant monitoring of the Sun. In fact, in the late 19th century, the riddle of the Sun was the topic in astronomy, as scientists turned a battery of new toys on our nearest star, such as the spectroheliograph and that new fangled device, the camera.

Hereto unknown elements such as helium  were first discovered in the atmosphere of the Sun. But the source of its enormous energy output had to remain and mystery until Einstein revealed the miracle of fusion in the early 20th century.

Enter Edward Walter Maunder, in many ways the intellectual predecessor to Carrington. From his early childhood, Maunder had been transfixed by the Sun, spying a naked eye sunspot as a boy through a low heavy fog. It must have been an astonishing sight to the young Carrington, who went on to lead an expedition to India in 1898 to photograph the elusive solar corona.

Images taken by his wife Annie, an expert astronomer in her own right,  later confirmed the connection between the tenuous streamers seen and sunspot activity. Here finally lay the mechanism by which the Sun could reach out and touch the Earth.

But its for another fascinating theory that Maunder is now known. He noted during his historical research that large spans of spotless periods corresponded with eras of dramatic global climatic cooling; a famous stretch from 1645 to 1715 now bears his name as the Maunder Minimum. During this period, the Thames river froze annually, harvests were meager, and several “years without a summer” were recorded. At first, even Maunder himself was skeptical; he believed the apparent lack of sunspots could easily be explained away by the gaps in the chronological record. However, Maunder’s research was revived by Dr. Jack Eddy in the 1970′s, who also combed through Chinese records of naked eye sunspot observations. Today, the existence of the Maunder Minimum remains hotly contested, as does the Sun’s role and measure of effect in climate change.

Of course, today it is tempting and sometimes even fashionable to link the solar cycle to everything from fluctuations in the stock market to  the cycle of global conflict over resources to the prevalence of bikinis on your local beach, and the list of dubious links could provide headlines for your favorite search engine for years to come. But Hershel was in fact finally vindicated; in 2003, Israeli scientists proved that the link between wheat prices and the solar cycle in the 17th century was real. Similar assertions for top vintage wine years beg for a similar study. Wherever you stand on the global warming issue, few can deny that the shenanigans of our Sun  are tied up in the cosmic riddle.

The author ends on an interesting coda; in 2004, large gamma-ray burst tore through our solar system two days after Christmas.  This was powerful enough to effect our upper atmosphere for several hours, and was even recorded reflecting off of our own Moon! The source; a magnetar, a bizarre sort of pulsar just recently identified, about 50,000 light years distant. This event shows the emerging realization that not only are we at the mercy of our local Sun’s whim, but that there are much meaner beasties out there that can and do reach out and touch us. We owe the beginnings of this understanding to Carrington and his ilk, who proved, often amid controversy, that we are not immune or aloof from our cosmic environs. Read The Sun Kings and marvel at this largely unknown but fascinating chapter in astronomical history!

 

Review: Heaven’s Touch by James B. Kaler

k8991

Out now from Princeton University Press!

Everyone seems to be in a “Death from Above” mood this year. At the happier end of the cosmic spectrum, I give you Heavens Touch, by professor James B. Kaler and out recently courtesy of Princeton Press. Ever wonder were the elemental boron in your laundry cleaner came from? This book will reveal this and other remarkable cosmic secrets. But it’s also a much broader tale, of how the cosmos around us is intertwined with our existence, from the creation of the tides to the precipitation of the elements to the role of cosmic radiation. [Read more...]