“It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” ―Galadriel, LOTR, J.R.R. Tolkien
The scientific stories we’ve covered this week have been out-of-this-world here at Starts With A Bang! But the greatest show is still to come. Right now, I’m on my way down to the path of totality in Oregon, along with millions of others hoping to catch a glimpse and enjoy the experience of a sight unlike any others on Earth. When the sunlight goes completely out, some truly wonderful things will be revealed, and I hope to see them all! For everyone who’s joining me, across the path of totality, I wish you clear and cloud-free skies, and a fabulous viewing experience!
And now, onto the scientific stories we covered this past week:
- Where does quantum uncertainty come from? (for Ask Ethan),
- Five things you must not do during totality at the solar eclipse (my most-read article ever, for Mostly Mute Monday),
- Will scientists ever discover life without a home planet?,
- Why you can’t see the Moon during a total solar eclipse,
- Voyager’s ‘cosmic map’ of Earth’s location is hopelessly wrong, and
- Earth’s final total solar eclipse will happen in less than a billion years.
As the release date of Treknology approaches (less than two months now!), there will be a slew of talks and events occurring in Oregon and Washington to promote it and meet me, with more to come around the country as time goes on. Look for it! And now, onto the main event: our comments of the week!
From Steve Blackband on X-rays at the airport: “On the banana thing and airport x-ray scanners, an issue is not the total dose but the distribution. TSA seems to divide by the whole body, but the dose is concentrated at the skin so the dose there is many times higher.”
This is actually not true of X-rays in general. Yes, they hit the skin first, but X-rays are of an energy such that the overwhelming majority penetrates the skin and goes into your body. There are a portion of the X-rays, however, that hit the skin and reflect, and that’s how the backscattering X-ray imaging works. It’s kind of the opposite of traditional X-rays, which measure what goes through your body. But as with all things, we’ve got to be quantitative. For the airport scanner, you’d need to go through it 200,000 times to equal the radiation of one CT scan.
By the way, there is radiation that primarily affects your skin: radioactive alpha-decay sources. They are the most harmless of all radiation, since the outer layer of your skin stops it. Only if you ingest or inhale an alpha-emitter are you in trouble.
From Denier on what his true beef was with my response to Heartland’s climate article: “The boiled down core of what I’m driving at is I felt you wanted a win so bad that you decided hitting below the belt was justified. It wasn’t just Spencer making that observation about 2013. Schmidt(2014) noted it, and it is even reflected in the Climate Lab Book alteration of the IPCC AR5 graph you posted in the article. Heartland made a cherry-picked but accurate statement, and rather than calling it out for what it was, you straw-manned them and made your own counter-factual statement that was not supported by the best science we have on the subject.
A little lower in the article, Heartland did the same thing with a statistical decline in the strength of hurricanes making landfall in the US. 100% Accurate –and- 100% cherry picked. There again you failed to call it out for what it was and went with the cheap Ad Hominem about how the scientist citing the true statistic was biologically related to someone at Heartland.
There is so much good science to support your viewpoint that you don’t need to stoop to these tactics. You don’t need to Straw-man. You don’t need to deny good science. You don’t need to resort to Ad Hominem attacks. I was disappointed in your tactics and felt they were beneath you. That uncharacteristic behavior combined with your talk of de-platforming certain ideas made me think we were losing you to tribalism.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about tribalism and appearances lately as well, and maybe I need to go easier on people who are politically much farther to one side than I am. I think reviewing Alex’s latest book brought that to my attention as well, and after some reflection (and some investigation), I think I understand why it hits so many of us so hard. We aren’t impartial or objective, no matter how hard we try to be. We view our work and our opinions on issues in terms of what we value as important in this world.
Imagine that politics is a left-right spectrum (I know that doesn’t encapsulate it all, but we’re oversimplifying for clarity), and you’re somewhere on it. Let’s assume you’re near the center, but slightly to the left. Now there’s someone you see who’s also near the center, but slightly to the right. To the right of center, but also (and moreso) to the right of you. You both accept the same science facts about issues, but how you feel about and react to those issues are very different. How do you see the person to the right of you? Even if they write things that are both “anti-left” and “anti-right”, you’ll see the “anti-right” things they write as no-brainers, but then the “anti-left” things will appear biased to you. If you were instead far-right instead of left-of-center, you might see the converse: the “anti-left” things the author writes appear as no-brainers, but the “anti-right” things appear biased.
You and I are always going to disagree about what’s “good science” in this realm. I think if you’re using the UAH data as it was before the calibration flaw found in 2014 was corrected, you’re intentionally spreading falsehoods. That was my beef with what Heartland was doing on that particular issue. You and I may disagree about the egregiousness of cherry-picking data; we had an argument a year ago where you admitted that Newt Gingrich had done that with crime statistics, but you argued that his point was still valid based on the data he had selected. I think cherry-picking — or “not looking at the full suite of evidence” as I often call it — is just lying, usually with the intent to mislead.
In any case, you haven’t lost me to tribalism, but on certain issues, you and I view one another’s positions as inherently flawed. More on that when we get to the comments about Alex’s book.
From Steve Blackband on speaking against Nazism: “I understand your frustration and feeling of powerlessness in the face of hatred and bigotry.
But this is not the forum. Keep this a science blog, please, so i don’t have to troll through all these folks e-shouting at each other.
Sorry, Steve, this is the only forum. This is the platform I have online where I get to go beyond my own science writing and get to talk about larger issues; I literally use ScienceBlogs as a Starts With A Bang forum. If I could write about science without people sending me death threats related to ovens, destroying my life, slurs against my ethnicity/religion/whatever-you-perceive-Jewishness-as, it might be a different story, but I hope not.
Some people will always e-shout about what their opinions are, and my options are to either ban them or not. I’ve chosen not for the people who are still around. You can scroll past the parts you don’t like, but there will still be plenty of science, so long as people are still commenting about it.
From eric on neutron stars and magnetism: “if for atomic number you’re only going to count the core and not the surface, then when it comes to charge and magnetic field you should only count the core and not the surface too, right? Otherwise you’re arriving at your conclusion that a neutron star has a magnetic field but Z=0 only by flipping back and forth between two different definitions of “neutron star” – one that only counts the core, and one that includes the surface.”
So I will say that this poses an interesting question. If you have a neutral object like a neutron, and you spin it, do you get a magnetic field? Your intuition would say “no,” but now consider that a neutron is made up of charged particles itself. If there’s a charge separation in there at all, and those charges move around, you could get a magnetic field, couldn’t you? Here’s the thing: we can take a single neutron and measure its magnetic moment. For electric charges, a proton is +1, a neutron is 0, and an electron is -1. For magnetic moments? Electrons are -1, protons are +2.79, and neutrons are -1.91. You would have a magnetic field, after all.
But it wouldn’t be nearly as strong as the magnetic field if you include the neutron star’s surface, which is no longer made up of neutrons, and which can no longer be treated as a single nucleus. How much stronger? We’re not sure, but suffice it to say it’s many orders of magnitude. Still, there’s a big difference between a factor of 10,000 and a factor of 1,000,000,000, and I’m not sure where the core of the neutron star lies in this. An interesting consideration!
From Alex Berezow, who dropped by to comment on a comment about the content of his book: “You wrote: “Ive been telling everyone that this book taught me that hexavalent chromium isn’t cancerous”
I explained in my book: “If inhaled, chromium-6 can cause lung cancer, but there is no reason it causes cancer when ingested.””
When you’ve got a point to make, you’re always going to appear biased to people who don’t feel the same point is worth making when it comes to that particular issue. I think this is true for everyone; I get accused of my political bias in exactly that way every time I write about a science issue that’s political also. And there are some issues with the Little Black Book of Junk Science that I have, but whether you think it’s Alex’s political bias or my political bias will depend on your politics. For example:
- Natural gas is better than coal and oil for sure from a pollutant standpoint, but it still adds the same amount of CO2 for the energy you get out to the atmosphere.
- Oil pipelines are much safer and cleaner than any other method of transporting crude, but it also represents a commitment to burning 100% of what’s buried in the ground, and represents a commitment to doing it faster, regardless of how dirty it is.
- Organic food is neither healthier nor does it deliver superior crop yields to conventional foods, but there are many problems inherent to our modern agricultural system that organic practices represent one small, incremental step towards improving, even though they’ve been co-opted by industrial agriculture.
When one writes about a topic and doesn’t address what you believe the core, or most important, issue on that topic is, their writing is going to appear severely biased (or missing-the-point) to you. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it may mean it’s misleading, depending on how you feel. I don’t know that there’s a solution to this, other than to acknowledge that most of these issues — yes, even climate science — are multi-faceted. Someone who disagrees with you may not be wrong as much as they possess different values and focus on different conclusions that the facts may also support.
From Elle H.C. on what particle/antiparticle pairs look like: “Cool to see the QCD animation of how particle/antiparticle pairs pop up, how connected ‘holes’ show up and how the Vacuum starts to be shake up. Curious if these tremblings differ very much from Gravity waves?!”
It’s vital to remember, when you see either the animation above (representing quantum fields) or the one from the original article (representing individual pairs), that this is a visualization only. This is not what’s actually, physically happening. Quantum field theory is a calculational tool, an extremely useful calculational tool, but it is not literally what’s going on with the Universe. You can’t grab these particles that “pop into existence” and scatter off of them. You can’t bend through empty space because of their electric or magnetic fields. They would need to be “real” particles (like the valence quarks, gluons, or sea quarks inside a proton) for that to happen.
But gravity waves are very different, and are produced by accelerating masses in a non-uniform spacetime. They’re real. They do affect everything they pass through. They interact. They are more than just a calculational tool. That’s the major difference.
From D.C. Sessions on quantum uncertainty: “Voltage and charge have a different product from the others?
This is news to me.”
There are all sorts of quantum commutation relations that go beyond “position and momentum” or “energy and time”. I talked about the angular momentum one (for the Stern-Gerlach experiment) but there are others. Voltage and free electric charge, magnetic vector potential and electric current, and so on. If you obey the canonical commutation relation, i.e., your commutator is non-zero, you’re in for a world of uncertainty.
From eric on eclipse safety during totality: “You can take your glasses off and look at the sun at totality only if you’re in the narrow region of the country where the eclipse is total.”
Of course! If you’re not in that region, you don’t get totality. But this is worth saying: do not take off your eye protection and look at the Sun if any part of the solar disk is visible.
From Brian Bassett on the 5 things you mustn’t do during totality: “Vague, regurgitated hash off other sites. Yawn!”
I know, right? It’s almost like there’s this vast body of knowledge that some group of people have been gathering and developing for centuries, distilling it down to its most important rules and essences, and then disseminating that knowledge and those conclusions worldwide. So boring, right? 😉
From Anonymous Coward on eclipse science since Eddington: “The bending of light experiment has been repeated many times since Eddington’s day. Astronomers from Lick Observatory went to Australia for the 1922 eclipse and repeated the observations. It was done again during an eclipse in 1952 by Yerkes Observatory astronomers who travelled all the way to Khartoum, Sudan to see it. In 1973, astronomers from the University of Texas went to the Chinguetti Oasis in Mauritania to do the same thing. Each time they found results reasonably consistent with General Relativity. It seems people are going to try to do the same thing with this upcoming eclipse. NASA has even given instructions on how to do it:
All of this is true, but I’ll do you one better. Do you see the image above? That’s a radio source that exists far beyond the Solar System. And the x-and-y-axes? That’s how much its position deviates over the course of a year. The cause of that deviation? That’s the gravitational influence of the Sun! If we could see stars during the day, we never would have needed solar eclipse’s or Eddington’s work to do the confirmation. As it stands, radio astronomy gives us that ability (not with every star, but with some bright-enough radio sources), and it agrees tremendously with General Relativity.
You no longer need an eclipse to confirm relativity, even in the exact same fashion that it was first confirmed!
From John on life coming to Earth from space: “Drs. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe were serious proponents of Panspermia.”
Before I go any further, panspermia, you must realize, can take many different forms. See that graph, above? At what stage do you think this life came to Earth? According to Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, it was “the advanced prokaryotes that gave rise to modern cell, like diatoms, were what came to Earth.” Also, they argued, that life couldn’t have begun on Earth at all, that the conditions were all wrong.
Neither of these statements is likely to be correct. That they are part of a larger “panspermia” story, some of which may be true, does not translate into anything they said having any validity. Wickramasinghe continues to make the same claims he made in the 1970s… no matter what the modern evidence shows.
From PJ on eclipse wishes that we all share: “May good viewing fall upon those who venture out for Monday’s grand view.”
May the entire path of totality be cloud-free. If you do have clouds, may they not lessen the spectacular nature of the show for you. May there be no hazes or wildfires affecting the attendees. May traffic move smoothly. May everyone be safe, and bring enough food, water, blankets, and comfort.
Good luck out there; these wishes apply to me, too!
From Candice H. Brown Elliott on whether we should announce our presence to aliens: “Not that thought that creating even a perfect map was a good idea… frankly a truly sapient species would have understood that using Bayesian logic, that even if only a tiny handful of other species were dangerous, the risks aren’t worth taking and it would be better to keep one’s head down and NOT announce one’s presence to other sentients in the universe. (This is my favorite solutions to the Fermi Paradox.) But we are too foolish and too disunited to follow such a course.”
A lot of people feel the way you do, Candice. Sometimes, Stephen Hawking expresses similar fears. So does Elon Musk, for example. In any great endeavor into the unknown, there are naysayers. There is the sentiment, “Beware! Here be dragons!”
But the alternative goes against everything it means to be human. To remain here, alone, isolated, and “safe.” Yes, sometimes curiosity kills the cat, but you cannot stop us from being curious. We want to know, we want to explore, and we want to find out. If that is how we’ll meet our demise — no matter how unlikely that possibility is — we’ll meet it exactly the way we should: by aiming for the best possible options humanity could ever aspire to. To shoot for the planets, the stars, and the Universe beyond.
In short, I do not agree with your recommendation.
And finally, from Omega Centauri on the possibility of solar eclipses going away entirely: “The sun is also swelling due to evolution. As I understand it at this epoch, the surface temperature stays nearly constant, but the radius must increase to accommodate the increasing luminosity. Both the sun growing fatter, as well as the moon looking smaller push towards annular eclipse. Maybe it will happen faster than your calculation has it (assuming you only used one factor)?”
The swelling is only a few percent, however. Do keep this in mind; as the Moon spirals outward, the Sun grows, but only by about 1% every 250 million years. I thought this was taken into account in the 600-700 Myr calculation I did, but then Michael Richmond showed me that I was in error. As you can see from his graph, below, that tiny rate-of-growth makes a big difference!
As Michael Richmond noted: “The increase of the Sun’s radius due to solar evolution has a significant effect, too. Using the evolutionary models of from the Dartmouth Stellar Evolution website, one can show that the last total eclipse will occur around 450 million years in the future.”
However, if, as Denier says, the Earth-Moon system spirals away from the Sun during the red giant phase, then perhaps billions of years into the future, when the Sun quiets down to a white dwarf, the Moon’s shadow will once again fall on the Earth. If it does, it will be approximately the size of the Moon, instead of just tens-to-hundreds of kilometers across, and solar eclipses will be truly spectacular once again on the charred remnant of our world.
And on that note, have a great rest-of-your-weekend and enjoy tomorrow’s eclipse!