Starts With A Bang

Comments of the Week #180: From the planets Kepler missed to the NASA photos that changed the world

Two merging neutron stars, as illustrated here, do spiral in and emit gravitational waves, but are much more difficult to detect than black holes. Hence, they can only be seen if they're close by. However, unlike black holes, they should eject a fraction of their mass back into the Universe, where it composes most of the heaviest elements we know of, and emits an electromagnetic counterpart. Image credit: Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital, Inc..

“We do not realize what we have on Earth until we leave it.” -Jim Lovell

Well, the Scienceblogs comments are still on the fritz, requiring me to manually un-spam them one-at-a-time, but Starts With A Bang! is still going strong with some fabulous stories based on the best knowledge we have! This next week is poised to be a doozy of a fantastic one, as Treknology is out at last (Amazon is having a sale on it today, and my copies arrive on Wednesday), so next weekend I’ll have special instructions for you on how to order autographed copies from me. Also, check out Starts With A Bang on Forbes at 10:01 AM Eastern Time on Monday for the scoop on what promises to be the astronomical story of the year, I promise! Now, let’s take a look back at our stories from the past week:

For those of you who like radio, get up very, very early tomorrow (Monday) morning, and tune into Coast-to-Coast AM at 3 AM EDT / 12 AM PDT, where I’ll be their special guest to talk about science, astrophysics, and of course about the science of Star Trek! With all that on our plate, what more could you ask for? How about our comments of the week!

Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne are your 2017 Nobel Laureates in physics. Image credit: © Nobel Media AB 2017.

From Sinisa Lazarek on the spirit of the Nobel Prize: “I’m actually extremely happy that the Nobel prizes in science are still being given to actual people who are doing something worthwhile and still keeps the spirit of Nobel.”

I think they made a slam-dunk good decision this year as far as the physics prize goes. The whole idea of the Nobel Prize is for the person, people, or discovery that did the most to advance a particular discipline of science/humanities for the good of all people on Earth. It’s very, very hard to argue that the advances made in physics from being able to detect gravitational waves won’t be the greatest advance in astronomy since, perhaps, the launch of Hubble, the first use of multiwavelength astronomy, or even the invention of the telescope. This is truly a game-changer.

And if you’re still a doubter, I very much encourage you to pay extremely close attention to Monday’s news. Seriously.

Graham’s hierarchy of how to argue. (Pyramid format.) Image credit: Paul Graham.

From Michael Mooney on what I find offensive: “Well at least I know now that you rank criticism of your science, as I do, as more offensive than Elle H.C.’s straight out nasty personal insults.”

So we are all free to decide what we find more offensive. On the one hand, we have name-calling. You know, the kind of stuff we were all subject to when we were prepubescent kids and teenagers; the lowest ranks on the pyramid. Sure, it’s the lowest form of argument and the least able to refute an actual argument.

But then there’s what you do. You waltz into a science blog, written by a bona fide scientist, one who is legitimately and independently regarded as one of the best in the world at science communication when it comes to physics, astrophysics, cosmology, and astronomy. And you babble on nonsensically about how it’s all wrong, how we’re all believing in this house-of-cards hoax, and that we don’t know what science is. How we’ve got everything from relativity to quantum physics to astrophysics wrong, and how you know better. With no substance to anything you say, just confident, uneducated, loud ignorance. And when your folly is explained to you, it never occurs to you that the time for you to talk is over, and the time to listen is at hand.

Yes, I get it, physics doesn’t jibe with your way of making sense with the world. Therefore, you think physics is wrong. But it’s not wrong. You are. And although I quite gracefully allow you to shout into the void, you continue to say nothing that contributes productively in any manner, here or anywhere, as far as I can tell. So keep shouting into the void. But every time you threaten to leave, all I do is hope. Because the ship has sailed on me believing you’ll ever be humble enough to question your own ideas and actually learn something.

But every day is a new chance to get it right. Maybe today will be your lucky day. It’s up to you. Good luck. We’re headed into the science thicket now; maybe you’ll enjoy the journey.

Candidate planets from Kepler as of early 2011. Image credit: NASA / Kepler Science Team.

From Another Commenter on the number of planets Kepler missed: “It was a very good start.”

And this is a point that cannot be overstated. Take a look at the image above. Prior to Kepler, those purple points you see the ones up by the “Jupiter” line, were the only types of points we had, for the most part. Thanks to Kepler, we’ve discovered:

The majority of planets appear to be peaked at sizes just a bit larger than Earth (but smaller than Neptune), but that’s also where Kepler was most sensitive. We basically know more about the inner solar systems of all star-types in the Universe than ever before, and Kepler was that tremendous first step in that regard. There is more to find, like medium-sized planets around large stars, the middle-to-outer solar systems, and the smallest, Mercury-sized planets and smaller around everyone. But that takes nothing away from the spectacular science that Kepler actually undertook!

Captain Gabriel Lorca aboard the bridge of the Discovery, during a simulated combat mission with the Klingons. Image credit: Jan Thijs/CBS © 2017 CBS Interactive.

From eric on the reviews of the new Star Trek: ““Black Alert” sounds like something the Wayans Brothers would put on a Star Trek send up.”

I would watch the hell out of that.

In an action-packed first two episodes, Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) have the fight of their lives in the debut of Star Trek: Discovery. Image credit: Jan Thijs/CBS © 2017 CBS Interactive.

From Steve Blackband on his level of Star Trek fandom: “I am the physicist/astronomy nutcase that pushed Neil Armstrong out of the way to get to Nichelle Nichols after all. Very embarrassing.”

This is a story I would actually love to hear. The self-flagellation you must feel you deserve ought to be tremendous… and yet you’re secure enough to own up to it. That’s incredible to come to terms with that. Good on you!

A scanning electron microscope image of a Milnesium tardigradum (Tardigrade, or ‘water bear’) in its active state. Tardigrades have been exposed to the vacuum of space for prolonged periods of time, and have returned to normal biological operation after being returned to liquid water environments. Image credit: Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012).

From Adam on why the spore technology never shows up in Star Trek: “The more I think about the spore drive and the lack of spore drive in any other Star Trek show, the more it feels like a huge plot hole for the series. I’m guessing that the tech is going to be lost at some point, because it’s never seen again, and since all the info for it is self contained on the star ship Discovery. However, we’ve seen countless other civilizations over the various shows, and none of them have this tech either.”

So I’ve got two theories on that: the Orson Scott Card theory and the Wesley Crusher theory. The OSC theory is based on the descolada/recolada storyline from his Ender’s Quartet series. That these spores exist throughout the galaxy, but they are biologically dangerous and need to be modified. We use genetic modification to silence the dangerous part of their genetic makeup, but it renders the “spore drive” unusable.

The Wesley Crusher theory is that the “spore drive” is what the Traveler uses to go throughout space and even time, and when Wesley goes to apprentice for him, that’s what he learns to connect with as well. But it’s a lost art (and science) that only a select few can still connect with.

More likely, it’s just a giant plot hole that they’re digging, and they’re going to need a deus ex machina to get out of it.

Executive producers and actors from’Star Trek: Discovery’ speak onstage during the CBS portion of the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour. Image credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

From Denier on the end of Commander Landry: “In all seriousness, there was a moment in ST:D when the chief of security was working with Michael to drop the force field to the tardigrade pen, and I thought for half a second: “No big deal. The Chief of Security is far and away the strongest person on board”.”

And after half a second, you realized that you misspelled “dumbest,” which is a pretty high bar considering the level of crazy aboard that ship in general. Clearly nobody cared; she didn’t even get a funeral. You always hate to see a character that you’re told is smart, capable, competent, and so on, act in a way that’s antithetical to that. I personally cringe even more when it’s an underrepresented character, as I feel that’s just supporting the stereotype that, in this case, “women are no good at X.” It’s like the old xkcd comic:

‘How it works’ by Randall Munroe at xkcd.

And that’s just too bad. It wouldn’t have been hard to substitute some dumb, disposable redshirt, and keep one of the three major women characters alive, considering another one (Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou) was killed just two episodes ago. So we’ve got Lilly and Burnham, and they’re roommates, and that’s it for major women aboard the show now.

The worst part? I didn’t even notice that, until a woman I was watching with pointed it out to me.

The warp drive system on the Star Trek starships was what made travel from star to star possible. Image credit: Alistair McMillan / c.c.-by-2.0.

From Dunc on whether Star Trek is scientific nonsense or not: “So, exactly like every other Star Trek then? ST has never really been hard sci-fi – it’s always been filled with sciency-sounding bafflegab and magical technology that has exactly whatever capabilities and limits the writers require at that moment in time (and change wildly from episode to episode).

I mean, I love Star Trek, and I’ve been (re)watching its different incarnations on a more-or-less continuous loop for almost my entire life, but let’s not pretend that this is a radical departure.”

There’s something different about Discovery, though. I’m still struggling to put my finger on it, but the best I’ve got goes something like this:

With Discovery, though, they’re trying to use actual, recent science news as the basis or justification for ideas that only follow if you misinterpret that science. I may not be explaining myself well, but that’s a big difference: from the edge of science with wiggle-room that then imagines new applications, to recent-but-well-understood science that gets twisted to mean something it never meant, and then taken to an extreme that pushes it into the realm of, “hey this is ruled out already given what we know but we’re plowing ahead anyway.” It may be only me who’s having trouble suspending my disbelief for it, but that’s what I’m seeing.

The predictions of Big Bang nucleosynthesis (curves) for the abundances of the light elements, based on the baryon-to-photon ratio (x-axis). The grey bar is that ratio, as observed by WMAP, and the horizontal lines are the observed element abundances. This picture pretty strongly constrains the normal matter density of the Universe in a way that most people here don’t appreciate.

From Sean T on the missing normal matter in the Universe: “The “missing matter” discussed in this post is normal matter. We know from real, actual observations of how things gravitate that we were not seeing all of the normal matter that exists. This WHIM is at least some of that missing normal matter.”

We know how much normal matter is in the Universe, folks. There really isn’t an argument on it: it’s ~5% of the critical density. It can’t be 10%, or 20% or 30%. It definitely can’t be 100%. And if you really want to know, it can’t even be 6%. Why not? The above measurements, from Big Bang Nucleosynthesis. If you want to make the light elements in the Universe, the elements we start off with after the Big Bang but before the first stars, you need to run the equations, and they’re dependent on the baryon-to-photon ratio. We count the CMB photons and know how many there are, so that means the only free parameter is the baryon density (i.e., normal matter density) of the Universe.

We observe the Helium-4, Helium-3, Deuterium, and Lithium-7 abundances in the Universe, and they are consistent with a baryon-to-photon ratio that gives the same Universe that WMAP and Planck gave: one with 5% of the Universe’s critical density being baryons. The new “missing matter” found is a part of that 5%. That’s what this discovery is; that’s what it says; that’s what it shows. That’s the story here. Anything else you’ve read into it to the contrary is wrong.

The Standard Model particles and their supersymmetric counterparts. This attempt to solve the hierarchy problem for particle masses predicts a whole new spectrum of particles, none of which have been detected. Image credit: Claire David.

From Frank on the state of the world of physics: “The world of physics may seem bleak now to some but I think we maybe really close to TOE.”

I think the opposite on both counts: I think the world of physics is incredibly bright, and there are so many interesting avenues to investigate. But I think there are many building their way to the dream of a theory-of-everything, and that path is proving quite fruitless. But we all have our own opinions, and you are entitled to yours!

On the other hand, we have three interesting comments about how to be wrong.

When the last puzzle piece doesn’t even fit into the puzzle, you know something is wrong.

From Michael Mooney: ““How To Be Wrong” is very simple. Don’t assume you “know it all” already. Imagine being an unbiased scientist.”

As a scientist, I very clearly and openly don’t assume I know it all, and am very open to challenging every assumption, result, and conclusion out there. But only when the evidence warrants it. In other words, I am biased in the direction that the evidence points.

On the other hand, I can encourage you to look inward and ask yourself those same questions. Has it ever occurred to you that you, as a non-physicist, non-scientist, and non-expert in this arena, don’t know very much about it? That you don’t have anything of value to offer to this discussion? That you should be in the position of closing your mouth and opening your mind, and listening to what those who’ve spent a lifetime studying this have to say about it? And that your vision of an “unbiased scientist” may be an utter abuse of science in and of itself?

From eric: “I’m in the process of teaching my kid lots of games. Like many small children, he doesn’t like to lose. But the more games he plays, the thicker the skin he gets. And the more he does it, the more he thinks about the overall activity rather than the outcome of any specific game. “Daddy won, I’m upset” becomes “Daddy won 6 of the last 10 and I won 4…pretty good” hopefully will become in the future “I have no idea who’s won more games this week. Play on!”

I think that’s a lot like science. People who do a little of it, or who have one single idea they focus on, tend to worry about whether it’s going to ‘win.’ Professional scientists, OTOH, tend more towards the attitude of “hey, 2 of my 50 papers have stood the test of time. Cool!” Or even “what, that paper of mine is still kicking around? I lost track. Who knew?” The activity becomes the focus, rather than the success or failure of any individual effort’s outcome.”

I like this interpretation. It’s not so much “how to be wrong” as it is “how to lose,” where being wrong is a specific form/special case of losing. Don’t be sad for the times you lose; all of us must come to terms with it, as you cannot win all the time. This is a valuable lesson, and should make you appreciate the times you were right (or won) all the more.

From GregH: “1. Thanks Ethan, for STEALING MY IDEA and writing it up better than I could.

2. Interesting that none of the comments here address being wrong. (Including this one.) Sure, it’s epistemology, but….?

3. Paging Dr. Dunning & possibly Dr. Kruger. Dr. Dunning, white courtesy telephone please.”

Hey, if I could invade people’s heads and steal their ideas, I would be a lot more successful than I am. 😉

An illustration of multiple, independent Universes, causally disconnected from one another in an ever-expanding cosmic ocean, is one depiction of the Multiverse idea. Image credit: Ozytive / Public Domain.

From Anonymous Coward, summarizing what is and isn’t scientific about the multiverse: “It’s not a scientific theory because it can’t be tested as the other known laws of physics seem to preclude any possibility of testing it. But it does fall out as an intriguing consequence of the other bits of theory that do have observational consequences that can and have been successfully tested.”

Boom. You nailed it. I’m glad to see that I have successfully communicated the science of this to at least one person out there.

And I know it’s more than one, because some people seem to actually understand what I’m getting at, and what the purpose (and value) of what I do is. They’re just mostly silent here.

The expanding Universe, full of galaxies and the complex structure we observe today, arose from a smaller, hotter, denser, more uniform state. Alternatives to the Big Bang, like the Steady-State theory, fell out of favor due to the overwhelming observational evidence, but the Steady-State adherents never changed their mind, not until the day they died. Image credit: C. Faucher-Giguère, A. Lidz, and L. Hernquist, Science 319, 5859 (47).

Which is why I appreciate Sean T‘s comment: “…this blog is NOT a scientific journal. It is an attempt to communicate the current scientific consensus, along with other speculative ideas that may prove fruitful, to an audience that is composed of non-experts in the relevant scientific fields. The audience includes fellow physicists, other scientists who are not physicists (I fall into this category), and non-scientists. This type of communication can be very difficult due to the variety of the audience, and I personally think it’s well done, which is why I continue to read Ethan’s blog.

However, much like all science, the topics covered here ALL come with the same caveats — that this is our current best understanding of things and that this understanding might well change as new observations come to light.”

Everything is subject to revision. I have no doubt that if we continue to do science at the rate that we’ve done it over the past few hundred years, then by time the year 3,000 rolls around, we’ll look at much of our modern understanding of things the way we look at Copernicus’ or even Ptolemy’s “Universe” today: as quaint, as the beginnings of science, but full of bad ideas and assumptions that we didn’t even recognize. But we may look at it only as we look at Newton’s: as incredibly good, and fundamentally flawed and limited in a few ways, but super successful for its time and what it did nonetheless.

We are always learning and growing.

The first view with human eyes of the Earth rising over the limb of the Moon. Note how bright the Earth appears in comparison to the Moon. Image credit: NASA / Apollo 8.

And finally, from bone-picker Art Glick on the Apollo 8 ‘Earthrise’ photo: “I have a bone to pick with the person that named Bill Anders Apollo 8 photo “Earthrise”. They clearly did not understand the mechanics of the Earth-Moon system.

The Earth does not “rise” on the Moon. I wonder how many people realize that if you lived on the Moon the Earth would hang in the same spot in the sky eternally. It would go through phases like the Moon does, but it would never change its position.

The only reason that Anders saw the Earth “rise” is because his craft was orbiting the Moon at the time.

To refer to the Earth “rising” from the Moon is just wrong.”

I presume you have the same bone to pick with the person who called it “sunrise” or “moonrise” since the Earth was rotating, not that any of these celestial objects were rising? I assume as well that you object to ISS astronauts claiming to see 16 “sunsets” in a day, since they’re only seeing the same effect over and over again as they go around the Earth?

I can’t tell you who first called it “Earthrise” (I don’t know), but I can give you Bill Anders’ recount of the photo itself. After they came around the Moon for their third orbit, they saw Earth appear over the limb of the Moon.

“I don’t know who said it, maybe all of us said, ‘Oh my God. Look at that! And up came the Earth. We had had no discussion on the ground, no briefing, no instructions on what to do. I jokingly said, ‘well it’s not on the flight plan,’ and the other two guys were yelling at me to give them cameras. I had the only color camera with a long lens. So I floated a black and white over to Borman. I can’t remember what Lovell got. There were all yelling for cameras, and we started snapping away.”

It’s incredible to imagine what that sight must be like. For those three men in 1968, there is no better word than “Earthrise” to describe what they saw. Let them have it; they experienced it and we didn’t. Maybe, someday, it won’t be such an uncommon experience, after all.

Go get your copy of Treknology now, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow for more incredible science and stories here on Starts With A Bang!